30 June 2019MARIO RAGGI

Who was Mario Raggi?

Keith Tucker

Asking this question would probably bring few positive replies from the inhabitants of Neath, yet many of us, both past and present, will have passed his name and some of us on a daily basis.

Mario Raggi (1821-1907) was born at Carrara, a city on the south western coast of Italy, famous for its white and blue grey high quality marble. Here he studied Art at the Academia della Belle Arti, firstly under Pietro Marchetti and later under Ferdinando Pellicia.  Having won all available prizes he went to Rome to further his studies. He further established himself as a sculptor of note leading to his busts being exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1878.  Following this he moved to England in 1880 setting up his North London workshop in Cumberland Market.

His work gained in popularity leading to him being awarded some major commissions for public commemorative memorials.  There are very many pieces of his work in existence, among the most well-known are;


Benjamin Disraeli sited at Parliament Square, London, W Ewart Gladstone at Albert Square, Manchester, Queen Victoria in Hong Kong, Sir Thomas Jackson in Hong Kong (the third Chief Manager of HSBC) and locally Henry Hussey Vivian, 1st Baron Swansea, now sited at St. Mary's Square, Swansea. With such prestigious commissions Mario Raggi became 'the' man to go to for a statue of quality.


Maybe it was the Vivian statue that influenced Neath's civic fathers to choose Raggi to immortalise Howel Gwyn. An appeal was launched by JTD Llewellyn to cover the £1.100 cost and contributions were received from the landed gentry, businessmen, clergy and the general public.  The appeal raised £655 (a shortage of £445) and a further appeal was made to the more affluent subscribers to make a further contribution. [D/D SB 4/1029].  The sculptors' finished work was cast by H Young & Co. who were described as 'England’s first major art-bronze founder of modern times', at their Pimlico foundry (the firm that although diversified, still exists).


The memorial complete with its plinth of polished grey granite was unveiled with due pomp and ceremony on the 26th September 1889.  Whether by design, or by a quirk of fate, in its original location, the pose struck by the bronze has Gwyn’s outstretched finger pointing towards his birthplace, which at that time, stood opposite.  The position of the statue caused controversy right from the start, since it was thought it would interfere with the passage of horse-drawn carriages. In 1960 when plans were well underway to build a Civic Centre at the Fairfield the executors of the Dyffryn Estate agreed that it would be unreasonable to hold the Council to covenants made over 70 years earlier considering that the Gwyn Hall would no longer serve its original purpose as the Municipal Buildings.  Although not a condition, the family suggested that the statue to Howel Gwyn be resited within the precincts of the Civic Centre with a plaque stating that the new building had taken the place of the Gwyn Hall as the Municipal Headquarters. [B/N L 1/3].  Yet it would stay at the Gwyn Hall forecourt until 1967 when the statue was moved to Victoria Gardens due to a proposed road-widening scheme that never happened.  The method of removal was unrefined by today’s standards, but it survived without breakage which is a testament to the quality of Young's casting.

Ironically, but not unusually for sculptors, Mario Raggi's own memorial is a plain slab at West Norwwod Cemetery in London.

So, in answer to the question - Mario Raggi is the sculptor who produced Neath's only commemorative public memorial of a civic leader.

05 June 2019Visit to CADW Repair Works at Neath Abbey

Visit to CADW Repair Works at Neath Abbey

On a sunny May morning at the invitation of Laurence Toole of Cadw, members and friends gathered at Neath Abbey.  Over the past many months the area surrounding the Tudor mansion has been fenced off from the public while the Cadw team worked on the flat roof above the undercroft making it weatherproof once more.   The alignment of the roof was has been altered slightly so that the rainwater now runs off towards the Southern end, with the exterior  walls repointed with special lime mortar, similar to what would have been used in Mediaeval times.  

The interior of the undercroft had suffered considerably from water ingress resulting in the walls and ceiling becoming covered in green algae from the dampness.  The walls at roof height were treated and repointed before stone slabs were placed on top to prevent future water penetration.  Although this is a somewhat controversial method for 'purists' it is deemed to be the most effective method and has been used in other areas of the monument with success.

The team was busy on scaffolding inside the undercroft and all visitors were required to don hard hats before entering to view the transformation.  The walls and ceiling vaults were dry and clean once more and a lime wash was being applied between the vaulting ribs making the whole room much lighter once more.

The remaining tiles from the floor of the abbey church are still on display, though they need cleaning up and the pieces stone tracery and stone bosses are stored on pallets.  The stone effigy of Abbott Adam of Carmarthen lies amongst it all ....well his 'body' was to be seen, though his 'head' couldn't be found at that moment!

All areas of the ruins have been surveyed and declared structurally sound following the insertion of bronze supports into the walls, where necessary.

Laurence took us to the abbey church, where scaffolding covers the wall of the North aisle.  Here men were busy repointing the stonework and placing stone slabs on the top of the walls (again to help alleviate damage from water penetration) and removing the foliage which has grown. They anticipate that nothing will need to be done on these areas for at least another ten years.

At last the abbey looks cared for once more. We are most grateful to Laurence for his continued contact with the Society and to be invited by him to meet the team, who are ensuring that the Abbey will open to welcome visitors for years to come.

Janet Watkins - May 2019



Martyn J Griffiths

The grave of the man who created the world’s first passenger railway has been found in Cadoxton churchyard.

In 1807 the world’s first passenger railway started operations between Swansea town and Oystermouth.  It was the vision of one man, Benjamin French, who was a director of the company that had originally set up a tram road to carry quarried stone to the town.  So who was Benjamin French?  Well, very little has been written about him. He is mentioned only vaguely in documents associated with the railway and until today has remained something of a mystery man.

Now a grave has been discovered in the churchyard at St. Catwg’s, Cadoxton, in the name of Benjamin Thomas French, gent (1771-1843) who would appear to be the railway man himself.


In 1804 an Act of Parliament allowed the creation of a railway for the transportation of quarried material from Oystermouth to the harbour at the mouth of the River Tawe.  That railroad began operations two years later and one of the directors is named as Benjamin French of Morriston.


Within a year Benjamin French had a vision.  He believed that the picturesque scenery of Mumbles Head would be an attraction to travellers.

French’s proposal was to convert the iron carriage used to carry limestone into a wagon suitable for passengers.  In order to go ahead with his plans he agreed to pay the quarry company £20 a year in lieu of tolls, for the privilege.  He supervised the engineering of the work and set up a suitable time-table and on the 25th March 1807 the first passenger train ran.  It was an immediate success; so much so that the quarry company increased its rental terms to £25 per annum.   Partners in the enterprise were Simon Llewellyn and Benjamin Rose; the sister of the latter married French's brother, James.

People’s Collection NLW

Mumbles Railway c.1865 - (this was a larger version of the original carriage)

The track itself was five miles long and passengers paid one shilling each way for the pleasure of a ride in a twelve-seater, horse-drawn carriage.  Steam power was already in use but an experiment with a steam engine found that the track buckled under the extra weight and the idea was abandoned.  Horses were not replaced until 1877 (on sturdier rails).

The Scottish author Elizabeth Isabella Spence wrote a letter dated 3rd August 1808 in which she extolls her delight at this new mode of travel:

'I never spent an afternoon with more delight than the former one in exploring the romantic scenery of Oystermouth.  I was conveyed there in a carriage of a singular construction, built for the convenience of parties, who go hence to Oystermouth to spend the day.  The car contains 12 persons and is constructed chiefly of iron, its four wheels run on an old iron railway by the aid of one horse, and is an easy and light vehicle.'

However, just five years later Richard Ayrton travelling around the British Isles wrote:

'It travels over an iron railroad at the rate of five miles an hour, and with the noise of twenty sledge-hammers in full play.  The passage is only four miles but it is quite sufficient to make one reel from the car at the journey’s end, in a state of dizziness and confusion of the senses that t is well if he recovers in a week.'

We know that French hailed from Morriston but his family origins were probably in Gower as his brother, James, who was a witness to Benjamin’s marriage and a named life on Rhyddings estate deeds, farmed at Kilvrough between 1801 and 1817 and another brother, John farmed at Limpit near Southgate.  However, the French family were not from Gower.  The earliest information about Benjamin is that on 2nd September 1801 he purchased the lease of the Rhyddings Estate near Neath from Lord Vernon.    This included ‘Rheedings’ Farm and grist mill and two public houses named in later deeds; the Travellers’ Rest and the Coopers Arms.  Unfortunately this purchase again begs the question, why?  What was his connection with Neath?  Where did his wealth come from?  At the time of this agreement he was living in Llansamlet.

The 1801 deed contains the names of several people including John French of [Great] Yarmouth and it is here that we find the family roots. Benjamin was baptized at St. Nicholas' church, the eldest son of Benjamin and Mary French.  All of the French brothers (Benjamin, John, James and Samuel) moved to the Swansea area in the nineteenth century.  Samuel died in Llansamlet in 1801.  Benjamin senior was a mariner at the time of his marriage to Mary, so there is no clue as to the origins of the family fortune.         

Another mystery is his marriage on 24th November 1804 to Anne Evans of Danyrallt, near Llangadog, Carmarthenshire.  Llangadog is a long way from Swansea and even further from Neath.  What were his links to that place?  Certainly his wife was well off as Danyrallt was a substantial dwelling and her father Thomas Evans probably regarded himself more of a gentleman farmer.  All of their ten children, with the exception of the eldest, were baptised in Llangadog and the records show Benjamin variously named as ‘gent’ or farmer at nearby Ynysmoch.  (Surprisingly none of his children produced a grandchild).

Sometime between 1832 and 1835 Benjamin French moved to The Parade in Neath where he died on 8th November 1843 and was buried in Cadoxton churchyard.  Why did he move to Neath?  His second eldest son, James, had qualified as a surgeon at St. Guy’s in London.  In June 1835 he applied for a position at the Swansea Infirmary and on failing to obtain that position he too settled in Neath, but he probably arrived after his father.

James was active on the Neath Council being twice mayor in 1851 and 1852 when fears of cholera encouraged voters to seek a solution from a man qualified to help them.  He retired to Cheltenham in the 1860s and was buried at Bath Abbey in September 1890.

Two other sons were active in Neath.  Paul Evans French had a shop in New Street and advertised as a ‘druggist, chemist, bookseller and stationer.’  He died at the age of 28 in 1847 and left the business to his youngest brother, Benjamin.  The latter did not stay in Neath long and by 1851 was a surgeon at Cardiff goal.  However, he was not the prison surgeon but rather a prisoner! One wonders what the reason was for his incarceration. Benjamin died at Bourn, Lincolnshire in 1861 when his profession is recorded at surgeon. 

Although this article throws a light on the man who created the world’s first passenger railway, it also raises many more questions.  Benjamin French obviously was a wealthy man with sufficient money to buy a small estate, run a farm, invest in railways and to educate his sons.  His eldest son, Thomas, went to Oxford before being ordained (probably as a Baptist mMinister).  Benjamin’s brother, James, farmed for a short while at Park Farm in Kilvrough before turning to a career as a flour merchant in Swansea and lastly becoming Guardian of the Poor in Swansea.  Whilst a respected person he did not have his brother’s means; perhaps as the younger son he inherited less.  Regrettably historical records never supply all the answers!





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