NEWS & MEMBERS ARTICLES
01 September 2021Another VC with Neath connections
NEATH’S OTHER VICTORIA CROSS WINNER
Martyn J Griffiths
Allan Leonard Lewis (1895-1918) is generally regarded as the only person connected with Neath to win this country’s premier military honour. Born in Hereford, he came to Neath seeking work, shortly before the outbreak of war. He joined up and paid the ultimate sacrifice. He is remembered in Neath by the public house (formerly the Conservative Club) which bears his name.
Very few people are aware that Neath has its own Victoria Cross winner and this was nearly half a century earlier.
The awarding of the Victoria Cross was established in February 1856, the medals being backdated to the start of the Crimean War. On 26th June 1857 at Hyde Park, sixty two VCs were presented by Queen Victoria at the first such ceremony which was witnessed by a crowd of over 100,000 people. One of those recipients was Gronow Davis.
Presentation Ceremony at Hyde Park 1857
Gronow Davis was the grandson of William Gronow of Court Herbert. His grandfather married twice and by his first wife, Mary Howells [who was one of 36 children – but that is another story!] had just one child, a daughter, Mary. On 9th October 1826 Mary Morgan Gronow married John Davis of Bristol at Cadoxton church.
John Davis was also born in Neath. He joined the Royal Navy, seeing active service during the wears against France serving as a surgeon. Being listed as unfit for service in August 1812, he consequently settled into civilian life at St. Paul’s in Bristol where he died in 1864. He and Mary had only one child, Gronow who was born in Bristol on 16th May 1828 but was christened in Cadoxton church on 9th February 1829.
Gronow joined the Royal Artillery and was stationed at Woolwich for the early part of his career. By 1848 he had risen to the rank of captain which saw him on active service in Crimea. He served at most of the major battles, including the siege and fall of Sebastopol.
On the 8th September 1855 during the major battle of the Great Redan, he commanded the spiking party. In the midst of the attack, Captain Davis saved the life of Lieutenant Sanders of the 39th Regiment of Foot by jumping over the parapet of a sap [a tunnel or trench to conceal an assailant's approach to a fortified place] and proceeding some distance across open ground under a horrific fire to assist in conveying Sanders (whose leg was broken and otherwise severely wounded) under cover. He repeated this act in the conveyance of other wounded soldiers from the same exposed position.
Gronow Davis also received the brevet of Major and the 5th Order of the Medjidie for his actions in the Crimea. His Victoria Cross was gazetted on 23rd June 1857 – just three days before the awards ceremony at Hyde Park. He became Major shortly afterwards in August 1857 and rose further through the ranks eventually reaching the rank of Major General on 29th October 1881. He retired from the Army later that year.
Major General Davis died suddenly at his home being 5 Royal Park, Clifton, Bristol aged 63 on Sunday 18th October 1891 and was buried in Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol. His medals are held at the Royal Artillery Museum, Woolwich. Gronow Davis’ son, Gronow John Davis, also served in the Royal Artillery and became a Lieutenant Colonel in the First World War, receiving the DSO for his actions.
The grave of Gronow Davis VC
Images by the VC & GC Association
The London Gazette of 23rd June 1857, Numb. 22014, p. 2165 reported the actions of Gronow Davis thus;
'For great coolness and gallantry in the attack on the Redan, 8th September, 1855, on which occasion he commanded the spiking party, and after which he saved the life of Lieutenant Sanders, 30th Regiment, by jumping over the parapet of a sap, and proceeding twice some distance across the open, under a “murderous” fire, to assist in conveying that officer, whose leg was broken, and who was otherwise severely wounded, under cover; and repeated this act in the conveyance of other wounded soldiers from the same exposed position.'
11 August 2021Tonna Hospital
25 years in the planning!
Martyn J Griffiths
In April 2021 a new mother and baby unit was opened at Tonna Hospital. It is the only unit of its kind in Wales and offers multidisciplinary mental health care for women. This is the latest incarnation of the hospital which has seen lots of changes over the past one hundred years.
Thoughts turned to the provision of an Isolation Hospital for Neath as early as August 1912 when a committee was formed to provide such a facility for three council areas, Briton Ferry, Neath and Neath Rural. It was not a problem that was easily solved. Originally a site was found in Cimla but the outbreak of war and price rises scuppered those plans. It was also argued that Cimla was not central to the whole area and difficult to reach by public transport. A hospital was built in the Cimla which opened in March 1914, but that was purely for patients suffering from tuberculosis.
In all twenty sites were discussed and discarded. It took another fourteen years for the Neath Town Council, working with the Neath Rural District Council and the Welsh Board of Health, to narrow the list down to a few possibilities. Sites were visited in April 1928 and the one which rose to the top of the list was a 43-acre plot at Tonna. The plans were then for the two councils to formally suggest the site to the Ministry for approval, after which the land would be acquired.
Two years later, in April 1930, three sets of plans (at a cost of £800) were being discussed but there was very little progress. Patients had to be sent to Swansea and this was costing eight guineas a week. Things were getting fractious. A councillor for the Rural District pointed out that “The hospital was first discussed before the War”, to which the sharp retort was, “What war? The Crimea!”
A Neath Guardian headline a month later announced ‘New Isolation Hospital’, but it was only ‘contemplated’. The estimated cost of the new building would be £27,400 and it was believed that there would be 52 beds for patients. A number of plans had been drawn up and scrapped but now things were looking promising. Delays caused by purchasing the land had been overcome and the report stated that plans would be forwarded to the Wales Board of Health and tenders advertised for as soon as the plans were approved.
One would have thought that matters would proceed with some alacrity thereafter, given the lack of such facilities in the area, but that was not to be. Glamorgan County Council wished to erect hospitals at central points to cater for several districts. One such proposal was that Neath should join with Ystradgynlais and Pontardawe with a hospital in that area. This was declined by the Neath councils.
Seven years later, in June 1937, the joint councils advertised for a clerk of works to supervise the erection of the hospital “comprising Administration Block, Observation Block, Enteric Fever Block, Diphtheria Block, Scarlet Fever Block, Theatre Block, Laundry and Mortuary Block, Porters Lodge, Roads and Drainage Works etc..”
The Chairman of the Neath Joint Hospital Committee was J. Cook Rees OBE and the laying of the foundation stone on 22nd July 1937 was his last act of public service. He was presented with a silver trowel by the builder, Lawford Gower of Briton Ferry.
The hospital cost had risen to £35,000 and was anticipated to be complete within 18 months. The architect for the new building was Mr. H. Alex Clarke. (He was the architect of Briton Ferry Library). The number of beds had risen to 64. The hospital was finally opened in March 1939.
Tonna Uchaf in 1914 – before the building of a hospital, when the site was referred to as being ‘above Tonna Uchaf’.
Tonna Isolation Hospital - 1948
In 1948 the use of the hospital changed to become a children’s hospital and a generation of Neath children went there to have their tonsils removed. The final change to a psychiatric unit took place about thirty years ago.
05 July 2021John Nash and his Neath Connection
Martyn J Griffiths
There is little doubt that the construction of a mansion at Rheola for the London engineer John Edwards sometime between 1811 and 1814 was based on designs drawn up by John Nash. Later, Nash would go on to earn fame and fortune by redesigning central London. However, the links between the Nash family, the town of Neath and in particular the Edwards family, go much deeper than that.
The origins of the Edwards family of Neath are unclear as John Edwards Vaughan of Rheola commented that his grandfather had come from Staffordshire, though other claims were to a Welsh heritage. The family at Neath was well-known to Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826) who commented that they had for several generations been ‘greatly distinguished for their genius and skill’ in constructing machines. Certainly, their skills would have been very welcome in an area which was rapidly becoming an industrial powerhouse.
Humphrey Edwards senior, presumably the man who moved to Neath from Staffordshire, lived in Water Street in 1750 - 1751 as shown on lists of resiants [an ancient form of residents] where his name appears as ‘Umphrey Edwards’. Water Street had been one of the more prestigious parts of the town in the mid seventeenth century but by the time that these lists were being drawn up it had been downgraded somewhat in status. The influx of English coal miners and metal industry workers to the Mera meant it was rapidly becoming a less desirable part of town. The more affluent residents had mostly moved to High Street, New Street and Water Street. Nevertheless, some of the better-off still lived there. Humphrey, like all three of his sons, was a millwright and engineer; skills much in demand on the Gnoll estate.
Living next door to the family in Water Street was an Edward Nash. Like Humphrey Edwards, Nash’s father, Thomas, had moved to Neath to work for the Mackworth (Gnoll) Estate. The Nash family hailed from Brosley in Shropshire which also happened to be the home of the Guest family of Dowlais. Brosley was one of the primary centres for the industrial revolution and where the world’s first iron bridge would be built in 1779. Thomas Nash acted as mines’ agent or surveyor for the Mackworth Estate.
Nothing much is known about Edward Nash other than his occupation as ship’s carpenter, but it is obvious that the two families were already closely tied as his brother John and John Edwards senior travelled to London together in about 1762 to seek their fortunes. Both were millwrights and both were successful entrepreneurs in the metropolis, particularly John Edwards. John Nash was the father of the architect of the same name.
John Nash the architect of Regent’s Street,
Regent’s Park, Brighton Pavilion, Marble Arch and
Buckingham Palace – as well as Rheola!
It is not known where John Nash junior was born. Some say London, others Cardigan and there is one reference from the portrait painter John Deffett Francis that refers to a note he had seen saying, ‘his sister who was the very image of him, told me that they were both born in Neath.’
The budding architect married in 1775, shortly after finishing his apprenticeship, but it was not a happy union. Just three years later he sent his wife, Jane, back to Wales ‘in order to work a reformation on her.’ There were two allegations. Firstly, she was allegedly something of a spendthrift having millinery bills alone of nearly £300. Living with his relatives in Aberavon there was less likelihood of that sort of temptation. The second allegation was that the two children they had baptised were not fathered by Nash! In fact, he alleged that she had never had any child by him but had faked the pregnancies and imposed two children as theirs! Nash asked a friend, Charles Charles, who was a clerk in Mackworth’s Neath coal-yard, to keep an eye on her in Aberavon. That was another mistake. Charles’ eye was too close for comfort.
Jane returned to London in June 1779 but continued her spending sprees and in October she was again sent to Wales, this time under supervision of either Humphrey Edwards, named as Nash’s cousin, or his brother Thomas (references vary). She probably stayed in Water Street where the Edwards family was living in the 1750s and where Thomas Edwards still occupied several houses at the time of the 1811 Gnoll Rent Roll. One can imagine the comments of the Mera miners when Jane Nash was parading round in her London finery.
The final disaster was that Jane became pregnant and had a baby, born in December, which was later acknowledged to be fathered by Charles. That, unsurprisingly, was the end of the marriage.
Divorce proceedings were started at the Bishop of London’s Consistory Court in 1782 and an action brought against Charles Charles seeking damages for ‘criminal conversation’. This resulted in Nash’s favour and Charles went to prison being unable or unwilling to pay the damages and costs awarded. Divorce proceedings were lengthy and tortuous. In 1787 Nash obtained a definitive sentence of divorce but this did not allow for re-marriage. He, therefore, sought a full divorce by Act of Parliament. Witnesses, including Humphrey Edwards, his brother Thomas, and the Morgan cousins from Aberavon, all travelled to London to give evidence. The evidence they gave was a repeat of the earlier proceedings in the Bishop’s Court but it was all to no avail; the divorce bill was rejected.
Thomas and Humphrey Edwards were brothers to the John Edwards that had travelled to London. Thomas was six times portreeve of Neath and was surveyor for the new bridge built across the River Neath. He was the go-between for Capel Hanbury Leigh and John Edwards over the purchase of Rheola.
The younger brother, Humphrey, was another millwright and engineer. Like his brother he was also involved in the running of the town being a common councillor at the time of his death. He married Mary, an aunt of John Nash the architect, but no trace has been found of the actual marriage. Given the ages of both Humphrey Edwards and John Nash, it seems more likely that Mary was a cousin rather than an aunt, and she may be the Mary born to his neighbour Edward Nash in about 1757.
Humphrey is named taking out a 21-year lease dated 1791 for the mill at Neath River Bridge. This mill has been constructed just fifty years earlier to replace an older one nearer Neath Abbey. In 1815 the same mill passed to Joseph Tregellis Price; c1817 to Elijah Waring; to the banker John Rowland in 1837; to William Weston Young in 1855 and through his extended family until it burnt down in 1872.
John Nash’s link with the Edwards family continued in London as the architect worked closely with John Edwards’ son, another John Edwards, later known (from 1829) as John Edwards Vaughan. The latter was a solicitor. Their closeness is perhaps reflected in the will of Nash who left almost his entire estate to the solicitor’s son, Nash Vaughan Edwards Vaughan. George IV regarded Nash Edwards as Nash’s nephew ‘or just a relation’.
- Pages from an Architect's Notebook - Nigel Temple (1987)
- The Early Life of John Nash : Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (2009)
- by Elis Jenkins, NAS Transactions (1978)
- The Diaries of John Nash, architect 1832-1835 - Malcolm Pinhorn (2002)