30 November 2020Roll up to the Big Attraction!



Whilst working the Gnoll Estate collieries at Kymle an interesting fossil was found among the coal measures on 17th January 1851.  At the time it was believed to be that of a gigantic serpent that must have slithered over the surface of the primeval swamp at the dawn of time.

Such was the excitement created by this find that it was placed on public display at the Neath Town Hall.  The three day exhibition heralded it as 'One of the Wonders of Nature' and it was endorsed by 'Gentlemen of great Geological Acquirements' who agreed that from the perfect scales and twist of the body that the specimen measuring eight feet and three inches long by seven inches wide must be without question a FOSSIL SERPENT!

Interestingly the prices charged for admission to this spectacle are a snapshot of how the different levels of society were regarded and was doubtless contrived to encourage the maximum number of visitors from the educated elite to the plain curious by levying prices to suit all pockets. At the top end Ladies and Gentlemen [upper class] were charged one shilling; Tradesmen [middle class] had to pay six pence, whilst the remaining [lower class] Working Class had to part with, no doubt, a hard earned three pence.

The poster produced to advertise the event is a further reflection of the craft of the printer and compositor, being a perfect example of the effective use of typefaces of varying size and style for maximum impact in conveying information.

Quite what happened to the specimen after the exhibition closed has never been established. What is known is that the serpent myth would be short lived and shattered by the truth of the matter when it was declared that the 'serpent' was, in fact, a fossilised tree called a Lepidodendron   and were commonly found in the coal measures of south Wales.[1]

Was this just the case of a few wide boys seizing the opportunity to put on a 'sideshow' and generally conning the public?

What is surprising is that evidence of fossilised trees is recorded two years earlier in 1849 by Frederick Moses, a Neath mining engineer, in his Treatise of the coalfield of South Wales.

The most perfect specimen of a fossil tree the author has ever seen, was discovered by his father, the late Mr. Moses Moses, mining and civil engineer. It was met with in the under plane of a bed of shale, reposing on a seam of coal. Though great precaution was observed in its removal, it nevertheless received considerable injury, but it was afterwards refitted and a drawing made of it. There appeared a difficulty in identifying its species, but it seemed to have a stronger resemblance to a young poplar than any other known tree or plant, fossilized or otherwise. The lepidodendron is met with in great abundance in some localities, but we never saw them in such profusion as in an open cutting on the South Wales Railway, near the town of Neath, one of which (the lepidodendron Sternbergii) when measured with a tape line, was found to reach the enormous length of one hundred feet. This is, we believe, the largest that has ever been discovered in this country, or probably in any other and those who may wish to see this gigantic specimen, may be gratified with a view of about thirty feet of it, imbedded in a rock on the north side of a railway cutting to the back of Court Herbert, at a distance of about one hundred yards from the entrance and within one mile of the town of Neath. The interior of this fossil is a hard compact sandstone, somewhat finer in its granulation than the rock in which it is imbedded and the bark or cuticle slightly tinged with a dark glistening bituminous matter. The calamites and sigillaria are also very prevalent, some of which have come under our notice in a state of good preservation.

The section of fossilised tree trunk referred to in the above report

Another local example is cited in the 1868 edition of the National Gazetteer of Great Britain & Ireland,

'Ystradgynlais ……………… and other antiquities including erect fossil trees of the class Siggilaria discovered by Sir W Logan in the river bed.'

Fossils have been found in coal measures globally; those in the Neath area include Glynneath and Ynysarwed.

Some seventy five years after the Gnoll discovery, the Neath example is mentioned in an article published in the Western  Mail in February 1926 written by Dr FJ North, who was keeper of Geology at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. In the article he mentions that he was keen to locate the Neath specimen [he may have considered it superior to the one that was already held at Cardiff].

Dr F J North (Keeper of Geology at the National Museum of Wales (third from left)

 was the chief guest at the 3rd Annual Dinner of the Neath Antiquarian Society.

Scientific facts about Neath’s Mistaken Fossil Serpent

The name Lepidodendron comes from the Greek lepido, scale, and dendron, tree.

Now known as scale trees, they were a now extinct genus of primitive, vascular, arborescent (tree-like) plant related to the lycopsids (club mosses). They were part of the coal forest flora, sometimes reaching heights of over 30 metres (100 ft) and with trunks often over 1 m (3.3 ft) in diameter.  They thrived during the Carboniferous Period (about 360 to 286 million years ago).


Fossilised examples

The closely packed diamond-shaped leaf scars left on the trunk and stems as the plant grew provide some of the most interesting and common fossils in Carboniferous shales and accompanying coal deposits. These fossils look much like tire tracks or alligator skin.

Lepidodendron has been likened to a giant herb. The trunks produced little wood, being mostly soft tissues. Most structural support came from a thick, bark-like region. This region remained around the trunk as a rigid layer that grew thicker, but did not flake off like that of most modern trees. As the tree grew, the leaf cushions expanded to accommodate the increasing width of the trunk.  They likely lived in the wettest parts of the coal swamps that existed during the Carboniferous period. They grew in dense stands, likely having as many as 1000 to 2000 giant clubmosses per hectare. This would have been possible because they did not branch until fully grown and would have spent much of their lives as unbranched poles.

In popular culture of the nineteenth century, due to the reptilian look of the diamond-shaped leaf scar pattern, the petrified trunks of Lepidodendron were frequently exhibited at fairgrounds by amateurs as giant fossil lizards or snakes.


NAS/Ph/61/4/023 & 49/7/001

Poster - NAS Z 9/5

Glen Taylor Notebooks - NAS/GAT

National Gazetteer of Great Britain & Ireland - (1868)

Treatise of the coalfield of South Wales - Frederick Moses, Neath - (18490

Life Before Man - Zdenek V Spinar, illustrated by Zdenek Burian  - (1972)

The American Cyclopaedia Vol.3 - George Ripley And Charles A Dana - (1873)





[1] Lepidodendrons  are now known as Scale Trees - The Independent Feb 2007

08 November 2020Gnoll Links with Dyffryn House






The Hearth Tax records of 1670 show ownership of properties in the Neath town centre.  The Hearth Tax was a money-making scheme introduced in 1662 and eventually done away with in 1689.  The tax was based on occupiers, not landlords.  Two shillings per hearth was paid by the occupier in two installments at Lady Day (25th March) and Michaelmas (29th September).  Small dwellings were exempt and these included those occupied by people on poor relief and houses worth less than £1 per annum and not paying parish rates.

A rough guide to social groups indicates that eight or more hearths suggested gentry; four to seven hearths wealthy craftsmen and tradesmen, merchants and yeomen; two to three hearths craftsmen, tradesmen and yeomen; one hearth the labouring poor, husbandmen and poor craftsmen. 

Two properties in the town centre had ten hearths.  One of those was occupied by a merchant’s widow, Margaret Love, and was sited in High Street.  The other was the Great House in what was then Wind Street (today Green Street), occupied by Sir Herbert Evans and with its garden and outbuildings, filling the square today surrounded by New Street, Green Street and The Parade.  Another house of nine hearths in Water Street was owned by Thomas Evans esquire, also of the Gnoll. 

There are a couple of houses with seven hearths and one of those was owned by Frances Button in Wind Street.  It was described a few years earlier as a mansion house together with garden, barn, cow-house, brew house, crafts and other appurtenances.  Who was Frances Button?  The family name was not native to Neath and in fact came from the Vale of Glamorgan near St. Nicholas.  There the Button family held the manor of Worlton or, as it is better known today, Dyffryn House.


The manor of Worlton near St. Nicholas, Cardiff, had been in existence since the seventh century.  It was not until the eighteenth century that the name was changed to Dyffryn.  The Button family acquired the manor in the mid-sixteenth century and built the first mansion there.  This was later replaced by a Georgian building that itself was replaced by the Dyffryn House that we know today.

Image by Ben Salter - https://www.flickr.com/photos/ben_salter https://commons.wikimedia.org

Dyffryn House from the Great Lawn

One of the earliest family members to live there was Miles Button (1545-1597) and it was his daughter Ann who started the Neath connection when she married David Evans of the Gnoll.  She was his second wife and they had two sons, one of whom was the Thomas Evans already mentioned having a large house in Water Street. 

David Evans’ son from his first marriage, Edward, married Frances Button, daughter of Sir William Button of Worlton (1566-1625) and grand-daughter of Miles Button mentioned above.

Edward died about 1644 leaving one son and heir, the last of the Evans family at the Gnoll, Sir Herbert Evans (died 1679). 

Thomas Evans of Water Street, leased the Gnoll from his young nephew in 1658 and a condition of the lease was that he built a new house there; hence the 1666 house which can be seen in a painting, standing in front  of the Mackworth mansion.

Miles Button’s eldest son, Sir Thomas, married Elizabeth daughter of Sir Walter Rice of Newton and Dynevor, and she was sister to David Evans of the Gnoll’s first wife, Eleanor (or Ellen).

Sir Thomas Button

Explored the Hudson Bay area in Canada and searched for the North-west passage.

 One piece of land he claimed was given the name New Wales.

The convolution of dynastic relationships gets worse!  Frances Button’s husband, Edward Evans, died about 1644 and she was remarried to Miles Button.  According to the Neath Lay Register this Miles Button died in 1667 but no trace has been found of his birth, marriage or burial apart from this lay account.  He was most certainly a relative of his wife prior to their marriage but the details of that relationship are not known.  Frances therefore started life as a Button and ended her life as a Button.  There were no children from her marriage to the almost anonymous Miles Button and so the name Button died out in Neath.




02 October 2020The Diary of Llewelyn Williams of Dyffryn


Martyn J Griffiths

It was the Brecon & County Times, who in 1867-8 serialised a diary written by Llewelyn Williams of Duffryn.  The original was owned by a bookshop in London and was purchased by Joseph Joseph Esq., a Breconshire alderman and antiquarian, who then presented it to Howel Gwyn, the new owner of the Duffryn Estate.

The diary is mainly a litany of the names of people that Llewelyn Williams met and dined and socialised with.  Deciphering who these people were, is a huge task that is currently being tackled, since in spite of Tony Hopkins’ excellent publication 'Neath: The Town and its People' of the social life in Neath in the eighteenth century, there is very little information about the town’s inhabitants available elsewhere.

The diary covers only one year, although the newspaper heading gives the impression that it is for 1745 and 1746. At the time when it was written, as far as the law was concerned, the New Year started on Lady Day which was the 25th March. Up to that day, entries are dated 1745 with the subsequent entries dated 1746.

Llewelyn Williams was the son of Phillip Williams, the genealogist.  His father had produced a monstrous family tree that took his family back to the age of the Welsh princes and linked them with kings of Dublin and North Wales, John of Gaunt, the Emperor Constantine and even Coelus, King of Britain, better known as Old King Cole.  It is a fantastic and probably imaginary family lineage but one which most of the Neath gentry could relate to as their own families claimed similar princely heritage.


Phillip died in 1717 and Llewelyn took over the running of the estate.  He was twice married.  By his first wife he had two children, Phillip and Mansel, and by his second wife he had a further two children, Elizabeth (Betty) and Horton.  In the autumn he notes the children setting out for their respective schools, Phillip for Westminster and Mansel for Cowbridge.  He spends a lot of time with his youngest son, Horton.  On several occasions he takes Horton to clubs with him and they also went hunting together.  We are told that Horton attends school at Wells in Somerset.  On the 9th December Will. Evans [presumably an estate servant] sets out to fetch Horton and Mansel home from their schools.  They did not arrive back until the 17th!

Horton was buried in Cadoxton on 15th May 1747 and this may very well have had a fatal effect on his father as 18 months later he too was dead.

His only daughter, Betty, did not attend school.  However, a Mr Eaton, dancing master, visited the house every week and stayed overnight.

                                                 Cowbridge Free Scholl - NLW


Throughout the narrative Llewelyn Williams refers to his many cousins who visit Duffryn and who he meets up with on his travels.  The term ‘cousin’ when used in the eighteenth century could mean any cousin, i.e. first, second, third or even a more distant relationship.  Sometimes the individual might not be what we deem to be a cousin at all, but some other type of relative, even an in-law.  Therefore, trying to identify the individuals mentioned and their relationship is difficult in the extreme.

Here then is a list of his 'cousins' which the genealogists amongst you can endeavour to untangle:

Jenny (Jane) and Molly (Mary) Broadbear,   Will Bowen of Gellymarch,  Jenny and Keziah Powell, Betty Powell, Dan and Rah Jones, Billy Jones, Henry Llewelin, Traherne (Cardiff), Griff Price (Cardiff), Seys (Boverton), James Powell of Swansea, Will Jones of Swansea, Peggy Jenkins, William Evans of Eaglesbush, Roderick Evans who was also a godson and Jack Llewelin of Ynyisgerwn.


The Williams family regularly attended Sunday services at both Cadoxton and Neath churches, often dividing themselves up to cover both parishes.

Francis Pinkney, the vicar of Neath, was a very frequent visitor to Duffryn mansion.

If the diary had extended another year, we might have been privy to the first visit of John Wesley who came to the town on at least a further ten occasions.

Pinkney died in 1768 which was fortuitous for the Methodist cause.  In that year John Wesley paid a visit to the town and was invited by the curate William Davies to preach inside the church.  This would never have been allowed had Pinkney still been in office but Davies was a Methodist sympathiser. 

On one occasion in December Llewelyn Williams met up with Herbert Mackworth at the Ship and Castle to hear complaints by Parson Thomas of Cadoxton against his parishioners for 'subtraction of tithes'.  Nonconformity arrived in Neath in force in the nineteenth century; first putting down roots in the rural areas and then the Baptists, Methodists, Independents, Unitarians and Quakers all establishing themselves in Neath town itself.  No doubt many of the supporters of these new religious groups were resentful of the fact that a tenth of their produce still had to be given to the church.  This was the start of a battle which continued to be fought until well into the twentieth century.


As noted by Tony Hopkins, the Williams family of Duffryn were on a different level of gentry to the Mansells of Briton Ferry and the Mackworths of the Gnoll, so to be invited to the Gnoll must have been a highlight on their social calendar.

On the 4th June, Williams, his wife and his younger children, Mansel, Horton and Betty, dined at the Gnoll with the Mackworths and other guests and danced the evening away, arriving back home at 10 o’clock at night.  It was a rare opportunity for Betty to put into practice the skills she would have learned at her weekly dancing sessions with Mr Eaton.

Llewelyn Williams often travelled and dined at different houses in the area but it is noticeable that, on the occasions when he dined at the Gnoll, he inserted the comment in brackets, (by invitation).  Similarly, when he dined at Briton Ferry House on 1st January it was (by invitation).  Other houses where the invitation was evident were Cilybebyll and Eaglesbush.

He takes opportunity when it arises to drop in on friends and relatives.  For example, on his trips to and from Cardiff to carry out his judicial duties, he dropped in on a number of people, included among whom were his relations from some of the oldest families in the county: the Turbervilles of Ewenny, the Seys family of Boverton, the Carne family at Cowbridge and cousin Traherne of Cardiff.


Several times there are mentions in the diary of visits to clubs. On 21st March he visits Richard Moses’ club in Cadoxton with Horton; en-route they join up with other members of the minor gentry who accompanied them – Robert Morris of Ynysarwed, Parson Francis Pinkney of Neath, George Hutton, the coast waiter, and Dr Pralph junior.  At the club they dined before returning about eight in the evening. 

Also mentioned are Rees Goch’s club in Cadoxton, Thomas Price’s club at Melincourt, Mr. Portrey’s club at Ystradgynlais [he stayed all night on this jaunt] and a club at Newbridge, Melincourt which may well be identical to Thomas Price’s club.  These seem to have been gentlemen’s clubs; somewhere they could dine and discuss the affairs of the day.

His main dining den was the Angel in Neath.  He appears to have owned this public house as he states on several occasions that he dined with ‘my landlord’. It is a pity that the diary does not start a few  years earlier as then we might have had an account of the visit of the Methodist preacher George Whitfield who allegedly preached to a crowd of over 3,000 from the Angel (the population of Neath at this time was just over 2,000).


Hunting seems to have been his favourite pastime.  The Drummau Mountain was immediately behind his home and much time was spent there.  On only one occasion does the writer tell us what he was hunting 'for hares'.

In October and November, he went further afield to 'Keven-y-coed' [Cefn coed, Crynant]; Kenvas [Cefnfaes in Cadoxton]; Tyn yr Heol [probably the farm now enveloped by Bryncoch] and Wernvraith [Wernffraith - behind Court Herbert].  He also went by invitation to hunt on the Gnoll and the Eaglesbush estates.

His favourite hunting partner was a Mr Walter Powell.  Indeed, this gentleman visited Duffryn House several times a week and regularly dined there staying overnight.


There are frequent mentions of the diarist taking ‘physick’ (medicine).  He seems to have been unwell in February when he took physick twice, and was particularly ill in the autumn taking his tonic twice in September and three times the following month.  Despite this he does not appear to have slowed down his social commitments.

On several occasions Dr Pralph junior was called to the house to conduct bloodletting.  His wife was bled twice in the year and Llewelyn himself was bled for ‘sore eyes’ which particularly afflicted him for a week in June. On Dr Pralph’s third visit something was applied to his eyes which seemed to have had the desired effect and the inflammation went away.

A patient being bled by his doctor - Wikimendia Commons - Wellcome Library


Several deaths during the year are noted.  The first, in January, was a Mrs Rees of Neath who must have been a notable person as the bearers were Llewelyn Williams, William Evans of Eaglesbush, Dr Pralph senior of Neath, Dr Jenkins also of Neath, Lewis Thomas of Margam and David Griffiths of Briton Ferry who seems to have had a strong connection with Briton Ferry House as the party retired there after the body was buried in Briton Ferry, at his invitation.

An eighteenth century funeral procession - ephemera-society.org.uk

Towards the end of April, he set out for Llwynbrain, near Llandridnod Wells for the funeral of Mrs Hughes. He travelled with his brother-in-law Richard Turberville and the Herberts of Cilybebyll with other parties joining them en-route.  It took them all day to get there, arriving at 7 pm at night and the house must have been crowded with the throng of mourners.  The body was taken to Llandingat church the following evening with Llewelyn Williams once again being one of the twelve bearers.  Normally there would be six men acting as bearers, but carrying a coffin for any distance would need a change of personnel on the way.

In May he attended with George Hutton senior the funeral at Cilybebyll of Mrs Williams, late of Trevithel, after which they dined at Cilybebyll House with the Herbert family and other mourners.


A large part of Llewellyn Williams’ year was taken up with judicial duties.  He was a Justice of the Peace although It was not necessary to have legal qualifications in order to participate in court activities, you merely had to be a gentleman of high standing in the county.  He was called upon to sit at the Quarter Sessions and the Court of Great Sessions, probably as part of what was called the Grand Jury, although the diary is not clear on his actual duties.  The sheriff of the county would produce a list of 24 men of the county 'to inquire into, present, do and execute all those things which, on the part of our Lord the King, shall then be commanded them.'

Once the court was opened by the crier the names constituting the Grand Jury would be called and they were duly sworn in.  They would number between 14 and 23 persons.  The jury would hear the evidence of the prosecution witnesses only and examine them in order to decide whether or not there was a 'true bill' and the case could go to trial. At the trial it would be the duty of the 'Petit Jury' to find a defendant guilty or innocent.

The Court of Great Sessions in Wales lasted until 1830 when it was replaced by the Assize court.  Wales was divided up into circuits and the local one comprised of Brecon, Radnorshire and Glamorgan.  The Sessions were held twice a year at Brecon, Cardiff and Presteigne and dealt with the more serious cases, lesser crimes being assigned to the Quarter Sessions.  The ultimate penalty was of course execution and these took place in Glamorgan at Little Heath, Cardiff or at Stalling Down, Cowbridge.  It is reckoned that less than ten percent of the judges throughout the long history of the Welsh Great Sessions, were actually Welsh and of them only a small percentage actually spoke the language.  Justice was elusive in the eighteenth century.

Regrettably the writer tells us nothing about the court or its criminal cases and concentrates solely on his dining and social involvement.

On 29th March he set off for Cardiff, dining on the way at the Bear in Cowbridge.  In Cardiff he visits the 'White Lyon' and afterwards the Red House in Broad Street which was at the west end of Angel Street, meeting up with various attorneys and gentry.  The following day, a Sunday, started with church in the morning before dining at 'the Judges' [judges lodgings?] with fellow Justices.  During his tour Llewellyn Williams stayed in lodgings, often with a colleague from the court.

On the Monday he again attended church together with the Town Corporation in attendance with the Judges.  This event signalled the start of the Sessions.

On the 4th April the entourage set out for Brecon and the diarist dined at Pontsticill with one of the Judges and some of what he calls 'the brethren' who would have been fellow justices.  They then visited the Golden Lion in Brecon before a late arrival at his new lodgings.

They set out again on the 10th April for Presteigne and dined there at the Royal Oak.  Another watering hole whilst staying in the town is named as the White Hart.

On 16th April, he set out once more for Brecon and stayed the night there before making his way home to Neath.  Even then he did not reach home that day, staying the night at Ynisarwed.

In August this grand tour would be repeated although on this occasion he went first to Presteigne, then to Brecon and finally Cardiff; the whole tour lasting from 18th August and at Cardiff seems to have merged into the town’s Quarter Sessions, before finally setting out for home on 4th September.

The Quarter Sessions dealt with both criminal and administrative matters.  In the latter category would have been the upkeep of bridges and the county goal, provision for the care of lunatics and the registration of electors, and it acted as an appeal court for the Poor Law which was administered by the parishes. As a member of the Grand Jury he may not have been involved in this aspect of court work.

His duties at the Quarter Sessions started with a two-day stint at Cardiff 15-16th January.  He must have found this and his subsequent elongated journey back home particularly exhausting as his diary has one of his rare personal comments when late on the 17th he wrote, 'I got home (thank God) before 7, in good health.'

On 12th February John Gwyn of Neath met up with him in order to go 'to Neath to hold a quarter session in order to qualify Mr. Llewelin of Ynisgerwn to act as Justice of Peace, pursuant to an Act passed the 18th of his present Majesty.'  The actual Neath Quarter Session was held on 15-16th July at the Ship and Castle.  As aforementioned, the Cardiff Sessions were in September.

He has one further reference to the Quarter Sessions when, on 13th November, he met with ‘Her. Macharan Esq, Jno. Price Esq., and Dr. Phillips of Sketty', for an adjournment of Quarter Sessions [presumably a case held over from an earlier meeting].

Other Quarter Sessions were held at Swansea and Cowbridge but Llewelyn Williams was not called on those occasions.

More Miseries - British Museum Images


A description of the town of Neath was never going to be included and the only mentions we have are of the Angel, the Ship and Castle, the Hare and Hounds and the Red House.  The latter may not have been a public house; he merely speaks of Catherine, the wife of John Morgan of the Redhouse at Neath visiting them at Duffryn.

He does mention one incident in the town on the 19th March when he and Horton went into town to 'throw the benches the Corporation erected between my two houses in High Street.'  Evidently there was some sort of dispute between him and Mackworth but the latter was out of town and Williams persuaded the Corporation representatives - Spicket the Portreeve, Benbow the Commons attorney and Leyton Hopkins, one of the burgesses - to put matters on hold until Mackworth should return.

The name 'Penyrheol wernvraith' crops up several times on his way home to Duffryn and one wonders if this was the name of the lane that became Dwr-y-felin Road.

On another occasion he dines in company with two Chief Constables.  This was at a time when seven or eight parish constables would have carried out various duties for the magistrates in the borough.  The Chief Constables would have represented a hundred, a hundred being an administrative unit for the county.  There were ten such hundreds in Glamorgan and the Neath hundred would have extended well beyond the boundaries of the town. The meeting was in relation to Land Tax and Llewelyn Williams was acting as a commissioner along with Herbert Mackworth and Parson Pinkney. 

The diary lasts for just one year and offers a look through a chink in the curtains of history surrounding Neath in the eighteenth century.  Regrettably, there is no mention of Duffryn House, the staff, its grounds or even the wider estate.  So much is missing, but at least we have a glimpse of one year in the life of Llewelyn Williams.

My thanks are due to our Chairman David Michael for the interpretation of several facets of eighteenth century life.

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