Infirmary Plaque – Thomas Williams – a colourful story involving bigamy and a brothel

I was asked recently by a friend if I knew anything about Thomas Williams whose name appears on a plaque at the Cardiff Royal Infirmary.  I didn’t, but offered to take a look.

I first had a look to see if there was any information readily available regarding the plaque. There is reference to it in a 2010 Wales Online article describing the future refurbishment of the Infirmary and how the plaque will be saved, but that was all I found.

Thomas Williams - Cardiff Royal Infirmary Plaque

To understand the background of the plaque you have to realise that hospitals in those days were built and maintained with a lot of public donations.  The newspapers are littered with fundraising events and lists of people who donated sizable sums of money for its construction.  This was way before PFIs and long before the NHS.

This plaque is different from others in the Infirmary that name famous Cardiff dignitaries.  This plaque names Thomas A Williams, of 72 Alfred Street, who donated his estate of £404-6-4 to the hospital that was then called King Edward VII Hospital.  It seems Thomas wasn’t like the others. He wasn’t a wealthy Cardiff ship owner or industrialist. He was simply a generous working man.

To be honest at that stage I was expecting one of two things; either that I couldn’t find anything given that Thomas Williams is a fairly common name or to find that Thomas was simply what was evident on the plaque, a generous working man, with no family to pass his money onto.  I certainly wasn’t expecting to uncover the interesting story I did.

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I’ll take you through it in the order I discovered things just so I can share the surprises.  It’s also fair to state that although I am fairly confident of my discoveries I am by no means certain and am open to being disproved.

From a genealogical investigation point of view things initially looked like they should be easy.  I had a name, date of death and an address.  I used FreeBMD to see if I could find his age when he died.  Given he died on Jul 30th 1919 his death should have been registered in Quarter 3 of 1919.  Ahh, no Thomas A Williams death in Q3 in Cardiff or anywhere in the country nor in Q4 for that matter – strange.  There is just one Thomas Williams whose death was registered in Cardiff in Q3 and he was 78 years old.

Another approach needed.  He wasn’t living at 72 Alfred Street in the 1911 Census nor did he appear there in the 1914 Cardiff Directory.  My first breakthrough came when I found a probate record.  Thomas Williams (note the lack of middle initial) of 72 Alfred Street died on 30 Jul 1919 at King Edward VII leaving £545-7-11 in his estate with Robert Evan Salmon, Congregational Minister appointed as Executor of the Will.

Thomas Williams, 72 Alfred Street, 1919 probate record

Probate record for Thomas Williams

Robert Salmon lived on Morlais Street and was the minister at Roath Park Congregational Church (now Tabernacle) on Pen-y-wain Road.  We don’t know if Thomas left instructions with Rev Salmon on how his estate should be split or whether Rev Salmon made the decisions himself (a copy of the Will has now been ordered).

I took a punt at this stage and ordered the death certificate of Thomas Williams who died in Cardiff aged 78 in Q3 1919.  In the meantime I continued my research.

My next breakthrough came when I found a newspaper article from Sep 1919 detailing the death in Cardiff of Thomas Williams.  It was full of interesting facts for a family historian.  It stated his parent’s names, his place of birth (Laleston, near Bridgend), his occupation – he used to work for Taff Vale railway, his places of residence – Cowbridge, Sunnyside – Bridgend and then Cardiff, the fact he was a widower etc.  It describes a lovely man:-  “Mr Williams was one of the old school, affectionately remembered as one whose social qualities and kindly disposition seemed to make life sweeter, and to brighten the lives of men”.

Thomas Williams Laleston

Armed with the leads in the newspaper article I returned to searching the census records.

I quickly found him in the 1911 Census, living in Sunnyside, Bridgend with his niece Sarah James.  He is described as 70, a widower, a ‘retired engine driver loco’, and born in Laleston.

His entry in the 1901 Census was also easy to find.  He was living in East Village, Cowbridge, aged 59, a railway engine driver, born in Laleston, and spoke both English and Welsh.  He lived there with his wife Sarah, aged 40, born in Barnstaple, Devon.

In the 1891 Census he and Sarah were living in Taff Street, Cowbridge.  Thomas, aged 49, is described again as an engine driver and Sarah, aged 30, has her place of birth as Langtree, Devon.

The first surprise came when I went back another ten years and searched the 1881 Census.  Here I found Thomas Williams, aged 39, railway engine driver, born Laleston, living in Guilford Street, Cardiff. He is married not to Sarah but to Mary Williams, aged 42, born Guilford, Pembs.  Also living in the house is a daughter Mary A Williams, aged 18, born Aberdare.

So it seems our Thomas Williams had been married twice and had a daughter and possibly other decedents. Now I’m beginning to ask questions like why he didn’t leave his estate to the family.

Searching the 1871 Census for Thomas Williams, born in Laleston around 1841, yielded nothing.  I think I have found him on the 1861 Census, living in Alice Street, Canton, a 19 years old, working as a railway brakeman, born Laleston, boarding with some engine firemen. In 1851 I have found him at home, aged 9, in Laleston living with his parents, William Williams, a collier from Newton and Elizabeth Williams from Laleston.  I found his baptism record, on 27th Feb 1842 in Laleston with his father William then described as a labourer.

The missing 1871 census is still troubling me so I tried a few other angles.  I now know he is an engine driver and was married to Mary so I go back to searching the newspapers and found something I certainly wasn’t expecting.

On 23 Dec 1891 Mary Williams had summoned Thomas Williams, an engine driver from Cowbridge, to court to make a case that he should pay her maintenance. The defence however seems to be preparing to make the case that her marriage to Thomas Williams we bigamous but we never quite get to hearing all the evidence as Mary Williams is the worse for wear.

Thomas Williams - Cardiff Infirmary plaque - bigamy case - Dec 23 1893

The newspaper description of Mary Williams:

…… The Complainant, a person who might fittingly be described as fair, fat and forty, then entered the box.  She wore a bibulous look, and proceeded to give her evidence with incoherency of speech which betokened  an association with the contents of certain glass ware. She had only reached the preliminary stage of her testimony, stating that she lived at 29 Stoughton Street, Saltmead, when the Stipendiary interposed, and suggested that the woman had been drinking.

Complainant: (with an air of injured innocence), I beg your pardon Sir, I beg your pardon,  I was put in prison for three weeks under false imprisonment, so I dare say gentlemen you will allow me to speak, and if you don’t I shall report you. I’ll offer you up what ……..

Given the state of Mary Williams the case was adjourned.  In another newspaper report she claimed to have been suffering from influenza.  The Western Mail also reported the case.

Cardiff Infirmary Plaque - Thomas Williams - story of bigamy and a brothel

A week later, Mary Williams is back in court, this time perfectly sober.  In the course of the proceeding we hear how Mary Williams had earlier been convicted of owning a brothel.  The representatives of Thomas Williams argued that her third marriage to him is unlawful as her first husband Daniel Phillips is still alive.  She claims he is dead and even when Daniel Phillips is called she denies knowing him, “I should never know him if I was to meet him in the street”.  Daniel Phillips is sworn in and testifies that Mary Williams and he were indeed married.  Case dismissed.

Thomas Williams - Cardiff Infirmary - Bigamy case -South Wales Daily News 30 Dec

The newspaper reports of the case give some further clues as to the life of Thomas Williams as well as more questions.  There are a surprising number of cases involving a Mary Williams in Cardiff being convicted of keeping a brothel. The one referred to in the court case was quite possibly from Aug 1893 and involved 54 Diamond Street.

Mary Williams - 1893 - Brothel keeping

Given the case was in Dec 1893 and we found Thomas Williams married in Cowbridge in 1891 we are also left wondering whether his own marriage was bigamous.  Did his wife even know of the court cases in 1893 I wonder.

We know from the newspaper reports that Mary’s second husband was Robert Skyrme (at last – a less common surname to make searching easier!). He died in 1875 and his probate states he was living at 3 Guilford Street. This confirms that we seem to have the correct Thomas Williams from Laleston who was living there in 1881.  It also helps us find the marriage of Thomas Williams to Mary Skyrme in Cardiff in 1876.  So we know they were together for at least five years as evidenced by the 1881 Census.  We now also know that Mary A Williams, the daughter of Mary Williams is not the daughter of Thomas Williams but the daughter of her first husband Daniel Phillips.

There is another newspaper report of Thomas Williams, an engine driver for Taff Vale Railway, who lived in Cowbridge, helping break a strike in 1902.  Was this the same man I wonder?  The paper states that this Thomas Williams was commonly called ‘Robin’, could be Robbie, short for Anthony, that middle initial incorrectly included on the plaque – I wonder.

When the death certificate did arrive it substantiated the assumptions I had made.  Thomas Williams of 72 Alfred Street had died of bladder cancer aged 78 and was a retired railway worker.  I have now ordered his Will.  It will be interesting to see what that reveals.

Thomas Williams Death Certificate - Cardiff - 30 July 1919 - King Edward VII Hospital

Thomas Williams Death Certificate – Cardiff – 30 July 1919 – King Edward VII Hospital

It looks like we have found out quite a bit about the life of Thomas Williams, but by no means all I suspect.

January 2022 update: I have now received a copy of the Will of Thomas Williams.  It is interesting in that it seems he was renting a room at 72 Alfred Street whilst at the same time owning 19 Llantwit Street, Cathays.  That information nicely ties the story together for in the 1993 court case featuring the bigamous Mary Williams, she claimed to have been living at 19 Llantwit Street.

In the details of the Will it specified his Estate should be divided as follows:

  • £20 to his landlady Miss Gray
  • £20 to the Roath Park Congregational Church, Penywain Road
  • £20 to the Brecon Congregational Memorial College, Brecon
  • His Gold Chronometer Lever Watch to Reverend Robert Evan Salmon
  • All the rest to the Cardiff Infirmary

I have also now also visited Laleston and attempted to find his grave in the churchyard there but without any luck.

8 thoughts on “Infirmary Plaque – Thomas Williams – a colourful story involving bigamy and a brothel

  1. I can confirm the story of the Roath war memorial being moved as it was my brother as an apprentice to Swatridge Builders who helped in the removal and he told me story of borrowing the porters trolley I am sure that he would be happy to confirm

  2. Great detective work here and it made such interesting reading for me also. I have been doing our family tree and found your descriptions of how you went about finding out about the life of Thomas Williams so enthralling. Marie

  3. Ted as the person who asked you to find out information about the plaque at the CRI. I am amazed how much information your research has found, really interesting. Thank you so much. John

  4. ps You have accidentally typed Alfred Thomas just a few lines above the probate record instead of Thomas Williams (very easily done!) 😉

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