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01 December 2019Murder on the N&B

Murder on the Neath & Brecon Railway

PHILIP JOHN

During my time working as part of a team in St. Catwg’s churchyard recording memorial inscriptions, the 'Murder Stone'erected over the body of Margaret Williams, was probably the most visited grave in the churchyard.  Some sghtseers would often ask where it could be found, whilst others seemed to know where to find it.  As they had come specifically to view the monument most of them had heard or read the stories associated with the inscription.  Standing in front of the memorial before taking their photographs, many of these visitors would ask if the murderer was ever caught.  No one ever asked the awkward question if there were any more murder victims buried in the churchyard.  Sadly, there are more murder victims buried in St. Catwg’s churchyard.  This is an account of one such victim whose grave I suspect gets no visitors.

On the morning of Friday, 24th April 1868, the mail train left Neath at 4.15 am on its routine run to Brecon.  That morning the train was made up of one engine and tender, four goods vans, one third-class carriage, one composite carriage [multi-class compartments in one carriage] and one brake van.  John Dixon was the engine driver with William Brenton the stoker and George New the passenger guard.  The goods vans were loaded and the mail was in the brake van with George New.  There were no passengers on board.

Travelling on the mainline the stoker, Brenton, was standing on the sand box sanding the rails when he noticed that the points at March Hywel Colliery sidings were 'turned' into the colliery siding.  Parked in the siding were some colliery coal trucks.  William Brenton alerted John Dixon who immediately put the engine into reverse.  The passenger guard, George New, on hearing the engine going into reverse applied his hand brake.  The train slowed but it was too late to stop it turning into the sidings.  As the train reached the points John Dixon jumped off the foot plate on to the main line.  The train continued over the points towards the coal trucks standing in the siding. With the engine working in back gear, and braking through two locked chock blocks, it collided with the coal trucks throwing William Brenton off the footplate.  When he got to his feet he could see that two of the goods vans had been derailed falling onto their sides; the remainder of the train’s goods vans and carriages were still on the main line.   

William Brenton could hear someone groaning so called out “Where are you mate” and made his way towards the cries of agony.  John Dixon was pinned under the first goods van with his leg doubled up to his shoulder; his arms were free of the toppled goods van; he had been dragged about 12 yards under the van.  Meanwhile, George New had left his compartment in the brake van and run forward to the overturned vans.  He and William Brenton tried in vain to free John Dixon and realised that they were not going to free him on their own.  George New set off back down the main line to Neath Station to get help.  John Dixon was eventually freed and transported back to Neath and a doctor summoned to attend to him at the Foresters' Arms in Bridge Street.  Dr. Robert Wrentmore Thomas, a practising surgeon, arrived to find Dixon’s right leg completely smashed from a few inches below the hip joint, and the flesh was lacerated badly. The left leg below the knee was also completely smashed; there were no other injuries except to the legs.  Dixon succumbed to his injuries and died shortly before eight o’clock.

Back at the crash site Mr George Caulfield, an engineer of the Neath and Brecon Railway, was examining the scene.  He arrived about six o’clock and his focus soon became the points which were self-acting to be always in position for main line operation.  When trucks were to be moved from the siding the guard of the train turned the points so as to take them on to the main line.  Caulfield found a stud-pin, used to lock the points as an additional security, had been broken and its locking chain missing; the fact it was broken would not materially affect the operation of the points.  Superintendent Phillips, of the Borough Police, produced a stone he believed had been used to keep the points open; there were no similar stones found on that part of the line.  Caulfield also found a mile-post, about one-eighth of a mile from the crash site, had been taken up and thrown into a field. 

The coroner, Howell Cuthbertson, opened the inquest into the death of John Dixon at the Railway Inn, Neath, on the same day as the fatality.  In addition to the obvious witnesses, Benjamin Pitcher, another goods guard on the Neath and Brecon line, was called to give a statement.  He confirmed that he found the stud-pin broken and the locking chain missing on the Wednesday previous, but that the points were in good working order and that the mile post was up.  Pitcher had reported the damage to the platelayer in charge of that section of line [the plate layer was subsequently dismissed for not securing the points].  William Brenton, when questioned, confirmed the engine left the main line and went into the 'six-foot way'[1] followed by the tender which was pulled off the rails by the rest of the train.  He also confirmed that on the evening previous to the collision he had been on the last train to pass the points before the mail train that left Neath.  Caulfield deposed “Some person must have meddled with the points, or the engine would not have left the main line.”   The last witness called was Superintendent Phillips who was of the opinion that one man could not have done the mischief as the points would not remain open unless held.  The Coroner having summed up the evidence drew the attention of the jury to the principal facts as stated by the witnesses.  A verdict of 'Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown' was returned by the jury.[2]

John Dixon’s epitaph:

THIS STONE / IS ERECTED / BY HIS FELLOW SERVANTS / TO MARK THE SPOT / WHERE LIE THE REMAINS / OF JOHN DIXON / ENGINE DRIVER / WHO MET WITH HIS DEATH / ON THE NEATH AND BRECON / RAILWAY APRIL 24, 1868 / AGED 52 YEARS.

 

[1] 'six-foot way' - the distance between the siding and the main line.

[2] The Brecon County Times Neath Gazette and General Advertiser: 25th April 1868 & 2nd May 1868.

 The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian: 2nd May 1868 and The Railway Times: Vol. 3I - 19th September 1868.

 

01 October 2019The 'Hole in the Wall'

The 'Hole in the Wall' - Café/Restaurant & Steak Bar

Keith Tucker

The Hole in the Wall in its closing years

One of Neath's most popular café/restaurants, The Hole in the Wall was situated in Navvies' Square at the corner of Old Market Street and Wind Street.  

Why Hole in the Wall?

Hole in the Wall is a popular phrase with a number of meanings.  Commonly denoting an obscure out of the way place and sometimes used to give an establishment an air of mystery, exclusivity or even notoriety.  However, it can also imply the exact opposite as a contemptuous description of a small and dingy lodging house or abode.

From at least 1690 it was used in England as a public house name, of which there are still many examples.

It further describes an aperture made in the wall of a debtors or other prison through which the inmates received money, broken meat or other donations of the charitable kind.

In Dublin, a pub which has been run by the McCaffery family for generations is so named after a tradition that existed for over a hundred years which was the practice of serving drinks to British soldiers through a hole on the wall, since they were prohibited from leaving Phoenix Park.

Add to this it is a riverside settlement on the east bank of the River Wye, the title of a television game show and the name of a gang of infamous criminals of the American Wild West that operated out of Johnson County, Wyoming and included amongst its members, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The Hole in the Wall, Neath was run by Beryl and Tony Phillips of Briton Ferry and offered a range of traditional dishes popular at the time.  

 

circa. 1960s

Modelled on what they had seen in America, brothers Frank and Aldo Berni had introduced the post War British public to a home grown restaurant chain which came with its own pre-stylised restaurants, with Tudor-looking false oak beams and white walls.  The first Berni Inn opened on 27th July 1956 at The Rummer, a historic pub in central Bristol.  Locally, the chain acquired The Cambrian Hotel which became a great success.  It is probably because of this popularising of casual regular dining out that the Hole in the Wall evolved into a restaurant, obtained a table licence and established itself as a Steak Bar in order to tap into this lucrative emerging market.

  

Demolition c.1970s

What's there now?

The dining habits of the public evolved to encompass other cuisines, particularly of the Italian, Chinese and Indian variety.  Consequently, Berni Inns fell out of popularity and were considered 'dated'.  The Cambrian Hotel reverted to its former layout.  As for the Hole in the Wall, it too eventually closed.  It was demolished and replaced by a new building.  This opened as the Medicare Drugstore, later becoming BeWise and latterly Store Twenty One, both economy clothing stores. The premises is currently vacant (2019).

      

Regarding the Berni Inns chain, this was sold to Whitbread in 1995, who converted some of the outlets into their own Beefeater and Brewers Fayre restaurants.

A typical Berni Inn menu:

Starter: melon boat with maraschino cherry, or prawn cocktail*

Main course: steak, gammon steak or plaice with chips and peas

Dessert: Black Forest gateau* or a choice from the cheese board (Danish Blue, Stilton or Cheddar)

Irish coffee and After Eight mints

* These would become the signature dishes that today define the period.

If ever you go to Kilkenny

Remember the Hole in the Wall

You may there get blind drunk for a penny

Or tipsy for nothing at all.

 

The images in this article are courtesy of the internet/public domain, NAS and Google.

 

                         

 

27 September 2019NAS Excursion 2019

Insole Court and Llandaff Cathedral

The society enjoyed a very successful visit to Insole Court in Llandaff on Saturday 21st of September.  We were greeted by Diane, a volunteer with the Insole Trust, who took us on a tour of the house and gave a comprehensive account of the history both of the development of the house and its occupants.

The house started life around 1806 and continued to be developed by succeeding members of the Insole family until 1970's when it was sold to Cardiff Council.  It was then run as a community centre and housing for education staff.  When the council deemed it unsafe for occupation, The Insole Trust was formed to save the house and grounds.

Some of the Society members may remember about two years ago a member of the Insole Court Trust came to talk to us about the history and the work of the Trust, appearing as and acting out the part of George 'Fred' Insole who lived there in the early part of the twentieth century.   The house has now been re-opened to the public for tours and it is well worth a visit. 

We were delighted to be unexpectedly welcomed by Mrs Gaynor Howard who is the daughter of Mr Stanley Thomas one of our founding members and who played a leading role in the excavation of Neath Abbey.

After a lunch break we were taken across to nearby Llandaff Cathedral where a pleasant hour or so was spent exploring and appreciating the architecture and artefacts to be found there.

 

More information on Insole Court can be found on their website - https://www.insolecourt.org

 

 

 

Gloria Rowles

Excursion Secretary

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