April Meeting - a rather dismal topic.
A Night in the Graveyard
St Catwg'sThis month’s guest speaker was Mr Martin Griffiths, who has spoken to the Society on several occasions in the past. His topic however remained rather a tease, and Mr Griffiths explained that he changed the title depending on which time of day the talk was being given. This rather lessened the potentially macabre nature of the talk. Mr Griffiths then proceeded to state that his focus was the churchyard of St Catwg’s church in Cadoxton and its many interesting internees.
The origin of the church is vague, it may have been a cell of Catwg (Cadog) a 6th century Celtic saint, who along with Illtyd, lend their names to the main parishes of the Vale of Neath. There are clues, in that Leiros an Irish immigrant (who appears in local names), is said to have been raised from the dead by Catwg after being murdered by the local inhabitants. His headless corpse allegedly carried a stone to lay the first foundation of the church. The second clue is the oval shape of the churchyard which indicates a Celtic site and thirdly a yew tree is associated with religious sites which may be pre Christian in origin. The yew at Saint Catwg’s was evidently used for various purposes owing to an ancient nail found embedded which may have held targets for archery practice or a fox’s brush as this was where the hunt started.
The modern church building is Norman, and was built in 1289, though only the tower remains of the original construction. Above the tower’s door are three depictions of heads, one is Catwg because of his Celtic tonsure and another is Edward the First, since 1289 is also associated with the death of Llewelyn ap Gruffudd (ein llyw olaf). Mr Griffiths then looked at sketches of the church from various periods of which the earliest was 1736 where no graves are evident in the picture. This may be down to the Welsh tradition of not placing headstones but instead placing flowers on the graves (Mr Griffiths had alluded to this in his previous talk on tourism). Later sketches show some graves, though he pointed out that graves had by law to be cleared after a certain amount of time ( the bones were placed in a charnel house and later burned giving the derivation of bonfire i.e. bone fire Ed.)
Mr Griffiths then began a tour of some of the more interesting graves that had been found by a survey of the graveyard. The detail of Mr Griffiths’s talk would take too long to produce in full therefore a synopsis appears below.
Thomas Guest – a relative of the Guests, the famous ironmasters of Merthyr Tydfil. He probably, came to the area to work in the local metal works – possibly Melincwrt. Ironically, the victims of 17 men and boys killed at Wernffraith colliery 24th May 1758 are not commemorated by any type of memorial.
James Coke (d.1835) – known locally as “Lord Coke”, a Scotsman who had started a distillery, but came to Neath where he acted as agent to Capel- Hanbury who had married the last of the Mackworths of the Gnoll. Coke became very well known in the town and was Portreeve four times and leader of the Corporation. This entitled him to the fees of the animal market and shipping. His wealth was the equivalent of the whole of the rest of the borough. He also dabbled in the copper trade and had two very colourful sons.
Griffiths Family grave – this family lived at the Ynysgerwn estate and appointed the churchwarden at St. Catwg’s. Mr Griffiths stated that anyone could become a churchwarden as the incumbent did not have to be an Anglican. The Griffiths’ owned the Yniscollen Arms which housed a nonconformist Sunday school, the teacher of which was forced to become the churchwarden. William Llewelyn lived at one of the three houses known locally as “Dulais Fach” and another relative built the Gored public house in Melincwrt.
The Bullin Grave – Mr Griffiths described John Bullin as “the find of the graveyard”, since it was he that literally started the Rebecca Riots of the 1830s. The tradition of giving six days of free labour to work on the maintenance of roads had become unpopular and therefore numerous Turnpike Acts from the 17th century onwards had been introduced. Turnpike trusts, of which Glamorgan had five were established to levy tolls on carriage in order to maintain the roads. Bullin came from Surrey and he quickly cornered the market by buying out many of the trusts in Wales, including Efail Wen in Pembrokeshire where “Rebecca” first appeared. Like many monopolies Bullin exploited his position and this resulted in mayhem in the countryside between 1837-43. He gave evidence to the Commission in 1843, which subsequently put him out of business. He is buried in his father’s grave, who was also the gate keeper at the profitable Cadoxton tollgate.
The Kirkhouse family grave – originally engineers from Gateshead who arrived in the Neath area in 1750, the family was reponsible for much of the industrial develoment in south Wales. Thomas Kirkhouse married the original “Maid of Sker”, George Kirkhouse assisted in the building of the Dowlais and Cyfarthfa ironworks and William Kirkhouse sank the first deep mine in south Wales at Bryncoch and also built the Tennant canal to Swansea and the aqueduct at Aberdulais basin.
William Gronow ( d.1830) – of Court Herbert. His first wife was one of 36 children. He had been Portreeve of Neath twice and owned much of the present town centre, collieries and dabbled in banking. He sold much of his property to William Gwyn father of Howel Gwyn. In 1816, he bought Court Herbert mansion and eventually died there. He also had two very colourful sons one of whom fought at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, and the other was a rather erratic Vicar of Cadoxton.
The Jevons Family of Liverpool – this is a very tragic grave and a reminder of the frequent cholera epidemics which did not respect wealth or position. The family lived at Glyn Leiros and three sisters are noted from having died within days of each other probably from the polluted Leiros stream. William Jevon was a friend of Alfred Russell Wallace (who himself has a noted association with Neath) the collaborator of Charles Darwin.
The Thomas family of Court Herbert – a coal magnate family who were instrumental in the development of Swansea Docks and the export of anthracite coal. Sir Griffiths Thomas was Mayor of Swansea in 1902.
John Henry Rowlands – (d.1999) – the husband of Mary Jevons, and four times mayor of Neath . He was a noted bibliophile and collected thousands of books in his lifetime. His daughter bequeathed the books to the original Neath Library which was situated in the Mechanics Institute, tragically this burned down in 1902 destroying the collection.
Pendrill Charles – this was the same family of Pendrills that had hidden King Charles the Second in 1651 following the battle of Worcester ( giving rise to a rash of pubs called the Royal Oak Ed.) They were later given a pension after the Restoration. Thomas Pendrill worked for the ironmaster Roland Pitt and probably came to the area to work at Aberdulais ironworks. He also lived at one of the versions of Dulais Fach in 1786.
The Leyshon Family – this family had links with the ancient princes of Glamorgan and were noted freemasons. One of its members Dr Robert Leyshon, battled hard against the cholera epidemics before falling victim to the disease himself in the 1840s. The churchyard also contains a memorial to Robert William Leyshon who died on the Titanic on April 12th 1912.
The Murder Stone – probably the best known headstone in the graveyard . It tells the tale of the gruesome murder of Margaret Williams in 1829. Williams was a highly attractive girl and worked on one of the local farms. The son of the farm owner was accused of murdering her on a Saturday evening as she returned from Neath with a sheep’s head on the marshes near Cadoxton. The subsequent inquiry found the son innocent, and the killer was never caught. In 1879, a book was written in the USA which indicated that the murderer was a man called Parry, though there are so many anomalies in this account that it is far from clear that he was the actual killer.
Mr Griffiths finished his magnificent talk by stating that there were some 2-3,000 other stories buried in the churchyard.
Mr Phylip Jones thanked Mr Griffiths for his talk and said that the large audience would be looking forward to hearing more.