02 July 2022Murder in the Market?

Arthur Lewis, Market Manager, complained in May 1936 that some stall owners were not using their tables on Wednesdays and Saturdays as they alleged that trade was bad.  Arthur Lewis tended to watch costings closely and objected to proposals for such innovations as neon signs, but did support the installation of glass doors on the side entrances in Green Street.  It seems that Arthur Lewis had gained the nickname of 'Daddy Loo Loo' as when he emptied the penny slots in the ladies’ toilets, he would often drop the coins and local lads would scramble to pick them up. Loo Loo might have come from a shortening of his surname coupled with loo being a euphemism for toilet.

However, his story is not a happy one; he was attacked in the market in the early hours of Sunday 23rd May 1937 by an intruder who also stole his keys.  In spite of tying Mr Lewis up and beating him about the head with an enamel jug the attacker was unable to learn which were the keys to the office and safe which contained the takings.  Thus frustrated, after taking two books of postage stamps from Mr Lewis' pockets, the intruder left the building.  Miss Emily Madden, housekeeper to Mr Lewis concerned that her employer had not returned home, went to the market and found him in a seriously injured state.1  A few days after receiving medical treatment he returned home. 

Just over a week later the bunch of keys were discovered by Thomas Owen of Penydre whilst he was cutting the grass of St. Thomas' churchyard.  Whilst a number of keys were missing, those to the office and the safe were still attached.2  Although he had made an initial recovery, Mr Lewis' health deteriorated and two months later he died.  He had been Market Manager for 36 years.  Suspecting that this had resulted from the injuries he had suffered in the assault an inquest was ordered.  Dr Trevor Walters stated the cause of death to be from Myocarditis and arteriole sclerosis [the condition had probably been exacerbated by the attack].  Because there was no evidence to prove that the intruder had a felonious intent, the Coroner directed a verdict of manslaughter by person or persons unknown.3

Despite the outcome of the inquest, the story was elaborated in the memories of later managers and persisted to be referred to as a 'murder'.


Although the actual perpetrator was never apprehended, bizarrely the police were sent a diary by a 23 year old seaman, Leonard Ward Davies in which he confessed to the crime.  Sometime later he further sent the police a letter in which he admitted that the statements he made were false.  Being a resident of Limehouse, London he was tried and sentenced at the Old Bailey to six months imprisonment for 'effecting a public mischief' on 7th September 1937.4

This was adapted from a longer piece on Neath Market by the late Caroline Wheeler which will be published in The Neath Antiquarian Vol.4 in 2023.


1. Western Mail - 24th May 1937

2.Neath Guardian - 4th June 1937

3. Western Mail - 26th July 1937

4. Neath Guardian - 10th September 1937



03 June 2022Travellers Tales - Briton Ferry



Martyn J Griffiths

Briton Ferry was regarded as one of the most beautiful spots in South Wales.  Tourists, artists and writers came there to breathe in the serenity, the green exuberance of the countryside and the picturesque scene set by the River Neath and its little boats.  This was all to disappear with the development of an iron works, docks, and many other industrial concerns, but in the early years of the nineteenth century it was indeed a place that would fit onto most visitors’ itinerary for a touring destination.


All the travellers commented on the luxurious countryside.  They may not have been enamoured with the house of Lord Vernon, but the beauty of his estate was undisputed.  Even nearby Warren Hill where once stood an ancient Celtic fort, was wooded in oak and beech trees at this time.

The artist, John Thomas Barber, visited in 1803 and commented:

'The extensive plantations spread over several bold hills westward of the Neath river, whose broad translucid stream here emerges in a fine sweep between high woody banks, partly broken into naked cliffs, and soon unites with the sea.

From a delightful shady walk independent over the stream, we branched off into an 'alley green' that led us up a steep hill covered with large trees and tangled underwood:  the ascent was judiciously traced where several bare craigs projecting from the soil formed an apposite contrast to the luxuriant verdure that prevailed around.  On gaining the summit the charms of Briton Ferry disclosed themselves in an ample theatre of Sylvan grace of more than common beauty…………'

There were numerous walks and drives set out in the grounds and Sir Thomas Gery Cullum, travelling through in 1811, said:

'The tide was at its height and the scenery about this spot is quite delightful, the walks being most judiciously planned through the rocks which are well wooded, with every now and then an opening to the sea, or the busy scenes of the wharfs where the greatest activity prevails at full tide.' 

Whilst the majority of tourists were walkers, Sir Thomas would have travelled by coach with a minimal amount of foot travel, especially so as he was about 70 years of age at the time of his tour.

Cullum wrote that the climate was almost sub-tropical with sweet Bays and Portugal Laurel growing to prodigious size.

Sir Thomas Gery Cullum (1741-1831) 7th Baronet of Hardwick House, Suffolk

Writing about the area many years later, Henry Butterworth said that Briton Ferry

'….has been called a fairy region, a delightful place, 'where nature and art seem to act as rivals, but where in truth are cooperating to spread before the eyes of the observe, scenes of the most- bewitching enchantment.' In this favoured spot, the myrtle, magnolia, strawberry-tree, and other tender exotics 'will grow luxuriantly in the open air,” as they do in the mild and beneficent climate of South Devon.'


Very few travellers commented on the ferry itself.  One of those was Mary Ann Coare from Kent who wrote in about 1830:

 'The river at the passage is 3 miles over. They charged 2/6 for taking the ferry down to the boat which is a great imposition; 12 shillings for taking the carriage and 9d. each for Passengers.'

Colonel Greville at Briton Ferry by Julius Caesar Ibbetson


All visitors, whether tourists, writers, artists or workmen, needed a place to slake their thirst and Briton Ferry had its own small inn.

Sir TG Cullum briefly mentions having a 'frugal repast' there in 1811.  Ten years later the Reverend Robert Hassell Newell also made a brief referral:

'Here is a good inn, much improved of later years and kept up, probably, by summer parties from Neath and Swansea.'

Newell scoured the area looking for the best places from which sketches of the picturesque could be drawn.  For the best view of Briton Ferry, he advocated crossing to the other side of the river and picked a spot near Earl’s Wood.

References to this hostelry are always shown as, ‘the inn’ and a name is never revealed.  However, D Rhys Phillips comments that this was later the Vernon Tavern and later still the Vernon Hotel, which was situated at the bottom of Warren Hill.  He adds that about 1726-1734 it was kept by Catherine Lloyd, the leader of the notorious women smugglers of Briton Ferry.


The highway from Aberavon to Neath passed through the estate so there were a few derogatory comments made about both that irregularity and the structure of the house. All seem to be in agreement with Dr. Roberston, an early visitor who, in 1799, said, 'neither the structure of the house, nor its situation, correspond perfectly with the beauty of the grounds.'  Barber commented that the house was 'a very ordinary building.'

Whilst most agreed on the stunning beauty of the area, Millicent Bant, a Lady’s companion, (1808), was singularly not impressed by the mansion, commenting that it was, 'not worth notice, grounds in very bad order, but picturesque and pretty on the banks of the river.'

Sir Thomas Gery Cullum (1811) was particularly put out:

'The grounds about Lord Vernon’s are by no means extensive, and small as they are, they are intersected by the High Road, being obliged to cross over the road before we had completed the circuit of the grounds.'

The botanist, Thomas Martyn (1801), was one of the few tourists who lauded the nature of the road, but then he was not a landowner like Sir Thomas who was probably averse to the peasants wandering over his property:

'A beautiful and picturesque spot.  Lord Vernon has a seat here delightfully situated.  The road taking a serpentine direction gives a different aspect at every turn, this constant variation of the scene increases the beauty of it, and which I think must have been much heightened had it been high water at the time and the day not so far advanced.'


We hear precious little about the people who lived in the small village and who worked the estate but Charles Shephard junior, writing in the Gentleman’s Magazine  gives this account in 1796 of one festivity:

'Several of the Welsh peasantry had assembled at the ferry house, and they passed the whole night in singing and dancing. I found that the occasion of this merry and sociable wake was, the reapers having cleared away the whole of his lordship’s wheat were now regaling themselves with the fruit of their labors. It was, indeed, curious to see the dancing of these honest rustics, with their rural musician playing on the flute.'


The Neath canal reached Giants’ Grave in 1799 but was not extended into Briton Ferry until 1825 (Coflein), the extension being built by Lord Jersey without an Act of Parliament.   This date varies according to which authority you read.  There were a number of extensions from Giants’ Grave, starting about 1815 and it did not reach its final terminus until 1842.

As early as 1798 the Reverend Richard Warner of Bath could see the end of the picturesque Ferry and the coming industrialisation:

'…..much of the enchantment that depends upon the rural quiet and sequestered appearance of Briton Ferry, was likely soon to be destroyed, by the introduction of a canal to the village.'

The Sandys brothers, William and Sampson, who were members of a London legal family, walked through Glamorgan in October 1819 and commented:

'The landscape at the Ferry is very rich and picturesque but the effect is certainly lessened by the canal which forms too regular a line to associate with the rest of the picture.'

The only lengthy ‘straight section’ of the canal in the vicinity of Britton Ferry would appear to be the section between Metal Box and the ‘Landfill Site Bridge’ approaching Giant’s Grave – which incorporated part of the line of the former Penrhiwtyn Canal (constructed sometime between 1790 & 1795).


The Village Church by Thomas Horner    (National Museum of Wales)

At the heart of the whole picturesque scene that was Briton Ferry was the church of St. Mary’s, which lay close to the mansion of Lord Vernon.  The church was described in Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Wales (1833) as 'a neat structure sixty feet long and twenty wide.'  Thomas Stringer wrote:

'The church yard is in a situation wholly secluded from the town; possessing all that sacred quietude which ought to distinguish the sanctuaries of the dead. It is shaded and overhung by the pensile branches of tall lime trees.'

The poet Mason was a frequent visitor to Baglan House and he noted:

'One peculiarity remains in some of the inscriptions in this church-yard which I have not found elsewhere; that of recording not only the years and months, but the days the deceased have lived. It was usual amongst the Romans, but has in general been dropped in modern times.'

It was believed, wrongly, for many years to be the inspiration for Grey’s Elegy in a Churchyard, but it was certainly the topic in ‘Elegy in a Churchyard in South Wales’ by the Rev. W Mason (1787).

Two whiten’d flint stones mark the feet and head.
While these between full many a simple flow’r,
Pansy, and Pink, with languid beauty smile;
The Primrose opening at the twilight hour,

And velvet tufts of fragrant Chamomile.

The poet William Mason (1724-1797)

Dressing the graves with flowers was said to be a purely Welsh custom though ‘Eliza’ writing in 1800 was not impressed with the general scene:

'….adorning the graves of their deceased friends with various kinds of shrubs & flowers, most of the green sods were thus decorated & they have a pleasing appearance, but otherwise the place was not worthy of much attention.'

The artist and writer, John George Wood (1813) commented on the prevalence of this practice:

'The custom prevails throughout south Wales, to a certain extent; but perhaps is nowhere practiced as in this neighbourhood'

William Daniell, a landscape and marine artist, wrote in 1814:

'None but sweet-scented flowers are planted on the graves; and no others are considered as emblematical of goodness: but the turnsole, African marigold, or some other memorials of iniquity, are sometimes insidiously introduced among the pinks and roses, by a piqued neighbour, in expression of contempt for the deceased or his surviving relations.'

He also added that the custom was dying out, partly because the horses of the clergy were eating the flowers!

The graves were whitened with lime every holiday. There are many descriptions of the plants on the graves and other floral tributes.  Amongst the plants spoken of were:

The turnsole, African marigold, pinks and roses (white rose on the grave of a virgin and red rose on graves of persons distinguished for kindness, benevolence and other social virtues… Black’s Picturesque Guide 1858), tulip, carnation, peony and various shrubs, blue veronica, lavender, sweet marjoram, southernwood and rosemary (most common) and London Pride

The church was demolished and rebuilt 1891-2 although the ancient tower was retained.  The population had grown enormously over the previous fifty years, hence the need for more seating capacity, but a commentator said that the new building looked disproportionate with the small tower looking as though it was being devoured whole by the enormous nave.

The beautiful picturesque nature of Briton Ferry had long gone by that time and The Handbook of Neath, written in 1852, tells of its passing:

'The grand old wood on the lordly hill has been felled and given place to a modern plantation.  The churchyard is stripped of its trees; the quiet old inn in whose large upper room, with windows at each end, it was so pleasant to refresh ourselves after a long ramble, is now lost in a mass of buildings connected with the Works of the Briton Ferry Iron Company, and the scattered village, with its sweet gardens, is converted into a closely built irregular, and singularly ugly but industrious Township, abounding in shops, and supporting three Dissenting meeting houses.'


1787       Elegy in a Churchyard in South Wales, Rev. William Mason

1796       A Tour Through Wales – Gentleman’s Magazine, Charles Shephard junior

1799       Journal (NLW MS 11790A), Dr. Robertson

1800       Private collection, Eliza

1801       Diary (NLW MS 1340C), Thomas Martyn

1803       A Tour throughout South Wales and Monmouthshire, John Thomas Barber

1808       Diary of South Wales (Essex R. O. Ref D/D Fr F4), Millicent Bant and Lady Wilson

1811       Journals (NLW), Sir Thomas Gery Cullum

1813       The Principal Rivers of Wales illustrated, J. G. Wood

1814       Picturesque Voyage round Great Britain, William Daniell

1819       A Tour Through Wales (NLW File 393C), William and Sampson Sandys

1819       Welsh Excursions, Thomas Stringer

1821       Letters on the Scenery of Wales, Rev. Robert Hassell Newell

1830       Diary of a Tour in the West Country and Wales, Mary Ann Coare

1833       Topographical Dictionary of Wales, Samuel Lewis

1858       Picturesque Guide Through North and South Wales and Monmouthshire, Black

1887       Glamorgan Antiquities - Old Welsh Graveyard Customs, Henry Butterworth

1898       Reminiscences of Briton Ferry and Baglan, E. Humphreys

1929       The History of the Vale of Neath, D. Rhys Phillips

With thanks to Dr. Gareth W Hughes of the Neath & Tennant Canals Trust.














01 May 2022What was Martha's Gift?

Martha's Gift


This is the story of a family that today we would say lived under the radar.  No family announcements and no news articles relating to family members are to be found in local newspapers.  But one family member is acknowledged for a good deed with a brief account in the parish magazine and by a simple plaque erected inside the Church.  The parish magazine informs us that 'Martha James was all her life a parishioner and one of the oldest Communicants in Cadoxton Church.  She was one of the most kind hearted persons and ready to help her neighbours in all troubles.  She was very quiet, unassuming and devoted to her Church.  Her interests were entirely local and her two deceased daughters were members of the Cadoxton Branch of the Girls Friendly Society.'

Her memorial reads:

In Memory of MARTHA JAMES wife of Evan James, Collier of Penywern Road in this Parish who died Feb 3rd 1917 aged 73 Years.  She Bequeathed the First Gift £100 towards the Re-Endowment of this Benefice after the Passing of the Welsh Church Act 1914.  “Will a Man Rob God! Yet Ye Have Robbed Me But Ye Say Wherein Have We Robbed Thee?  In Tithes and Offerings”.  God Loveth a Cheerful Giver.

The Welsh Church Act of 1914 was an Act under which the Church of England was separated and disestablished in Wales leading to the creation of the Church in Wales.  However, due to the outbreak of World War One the Welsh Church Act of 1914 was passed together with the Suspensory Act of 1914, meaning that the Welsh Church Act would not be implemented for the duration of the war; disestablishment finally came into effect in 1920.  The Bill was politically and historically significant as one of the first pieces of legislation to apply solely to Wales.

Disestablishment meant the end of the church's special legal status, and Welsh bishops were no longer entitled to sit in the House of Lords as Lords Spiritual.  As the Church in Wales became independent of the state; tithes were no longer available, leaving it without a major source of income to maintain all its churches, properties and glebes.1 

Disendowment, which was even more controversial than disestablishment, meant that the endowments of the Church in Wales were partially confiscated and redistributed to the University of Wales and local authorities. Endowments before 1662 were to be confiscated while those of a later date were to remain. This was justified by the theory that the pre-1662 endowments had been granted to the national church of the whole population and hence belonged to the people as a whole rather than to the Church in Wales.  Understandably, this reasoning was hotly contested, but to no avail. 

Martha Lewis, as she was known before she married Evan James, was born in Cimla in 1843, one of eight children born to William Lewis and his wife Margaret James; five of Martha’s siblings had been born in Pembrokeshire before the Lewis family moved to 'Crunallt' in Cimla.  Martha’s father initially worked as a labourer before the family moved to Mount Pleasant, Cimla where he found employment as a gardener.  By 1861 and still employed as a gardener, William and his wife Margaret had moved to Cadoxton Village and living with them were their son John and daughter Mary.  At this time, along with two other young ladies from the Neath area, Martha was employed as a domestic servant in the Cardiff suburb of Roath.  A burial record in 1864 of one William Lewis of Glyncorrwg, may refer to Martha’s father as her brother Levi was living in Glyncorrwg and Martha’s mother was recorded as being a widow at the time of the 1871 census.  Whether Martha returned to Neath before or after her father’s death is not known.

Martha married Evan James in 1867.  The couple lived at Cwmbach with their daughters Margaret and Elizabeth but moved to Traws Dir (a location somewhere between Cadoxton and Neath) where Evan may have found employment in the mine at this location.  Martha’s daughters died in the April and May of 1889 and were buried in St Catwg's Church; (newspapers of this period were reporting an outbreak of Scarlet Fever in the Neath and Swansea localities).    

By 1901 Martha and her husband had moved to Penywern Road and the census return records Evan as being a Colliery Fireman, a role which usually carried some responsibility with extra pay and a guaranteed week’s work.  The couple remained in Penywern where Evan died in 1915 aged 70; Evan’s effects were valued at £737.8s with Martha the sole executrix of his Will.  Just over a year later Martha died and following her funeral the Vicar for Cadoxton-Juxta-Neath was asked to attend the reading of Martha’s Will.

Martha appointed William Bowen, a provisions merchant in Queen Street, Neath as the sole executor of her Will.  Among the beneficiaries of her Will was the Vicar of the parish of Cadoxton-Juxta-Neath who was to receive £100 'to be applied by him in such a manner as he may think best for the purpose of Church Work in the Parish'.  The parish magazine published after Martha’s death informs us that the legacy was so very unexpected but very welcome as the anticipated reduction in endowments would leave the Church with an annual income of just £8.  The writer of the article also informs us that Mrs James had intended that a gift of £50 was to be made to the Cadoxton Branch of the Girls Friendly Society.  However, we are told the Parent Society in London intended to claim the sum.

Martha’s effects were valued at £938.18s.4d, which was a substantial sum for the majority of households in 1917. 

1 Hence the quote at the end of the memorial from Malachi 3:8 King James Version (KJV).


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