The WAAF Balloon Squadron casualties

A couple of months ago I published a blog post on the Pen-y-lan Road blitz victims.  Shortly after that I was put in touch with someone who remembered the night clearly and told me about another group who lost their lives that night.  They were members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) who were living in the newly built Lady Margaret’s school caretaker’s house on Colchester Avenue and managing a barrage balloon tethered nearby.  They were killed when the house took a direct hit from a German bomb.

Training session

Much Googling later and I had failed to turn up any details. The internet seemed to be devoid of any information about the incident.  The casualties don’t seem to be on any Cardiff memorials and neither could I find them mentioned in the newspapers, which isn’t too surprising given the censorship in place at the time.  The civilian casualties of the Cardiff blitz bombings are listed but of course these were military victims and don’t appear on that list.  I tried looking at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records but again drew a blank.  Then, last weekend I happened upon a folder on the Cardiff blitz in Cathays library and in there was a copy of a letter to the South Wales Echo in 1997 recalling the same incident.

Newspaper Article on Colchester Avenue WAAF Victims

The letter provided a lot of leads.  It pretty much mirrored what I had been told a few months earlier but not only did it list the names of the casualties and the injured but also information about a book written by a WAAF officer, Muriel Pusham, who was stationed at Cardiff Castle and one of the first on the scene afterwards.

WAAF Training

Training session for the WAAF balloon operators.

Now armed with names I could do a lot more research.  Three of the four women named in the letter  I found listed on the CWGC website.  It soon became clear why I hadn’t found them earlier.   There was no mention of Cardiff on their records.  I discovered that their bodies, rather than being buried at Cathays cemetery, were transported back to their home towns and buried there. Also, having found their names I could find their squadrons and more information about what happened on the night.  This is what I discovered:

  • 18/5  02.31
    The barrage was flying at 500′ when a “stand-by” followed by a “shine” at 02.34 was received from the Balloon Officer, 10 Fighter Group.
  • 18/5  02.41 to 03.35
    E/A attacked at varying heights from 1000′ to 10,000′ dropping flares, IB and HE.  At approximately 03.10 hours site 53/18 received a direct hit from an HE bomb which killed three WAAF balloon operators. Mary Askell (sic), Betty Stannard and Paddy (sic) Brand and wounded four others, Terry David, Cpl Lilian Ellis, Marjorie Oates and Betty Reynolds.  These were the first war casualties sustained by the Squadron.
  • 20TH MAY 1943
    The remains of three casualties, left for their respective homes. Each coffin accompanied by a W.A.A.F. Officer and N.C.O.

WAAF Balloon Squadron inspection

 

This is what I have been able to find out about the victims:

HELEN ROSS BRAND

Aircraftwoman 1st Class, 953 Balloon Squadron, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (Service Number 2116411)

Helen Ross Brand was born in 1922 in Keith, Scotland to John Brand and Jessie Ross Brand nee Lobban. She died aged 20. She is buried in Keith (Broomhill) cemetery in Scotland (section B, grave 28). She is also remembered on the Keith War Memorial.  The newspaper article  reporting her death wrote she was due to be married in three weeks to a RAF Cadet.

Keith War Memorial Helen Ross Brand

MARY MACASKILL

Leading Aircraftwoman, 953 Balloon Squadron, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (Service No: 2045888)

Mary MacAskill grave headstone

Mary MacAskill was born in c1921 to Norman and Joan MacAskill of Culrain, Scotland. Prior to enlising in 1942 she was training to be a nurse. She died aged 22.  She is buried at Kincardine Cemetery, Ross and Cromarty (grave 166) in Scotland. She is also remembered on the Ardgay War Memorial.

 

 

 

 

BETTY MARY STANNARD

Leading Aircraftwoman, 953 Balloon Squadron, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (Service Number 2068971)

Betty Stannard Grave

Betty Mary Stannard was born in Kent in 1922 to Albert James Stannard, an Estate worker from Monkton, Kent,  and Mary Eleanor Stannard nee Williams. (Her father Albert worked on the estate belonging  to Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingram, ornithologist and plant collector and son of Sir William Ingram, owner of London Illustrated News).   She died aged 21. She is buried at St George’s in Benenden, Kent (grave reference : Row 13. Grave 59).  Betty Mary Stannard is commemorated on the Benenden War Memorial in Kent.

 

I have added their names to the Roath ‘Virtual’ War Memorial which now has almost 100 names on it, but a lot more to add.

 

Location

I examined old maps to see if I could work out exactly where the incident occurred.  I recall the caretaker’s house in Lady Margaret’s / Howardian school but it wasn’t necessarily rebuilt in the same place as the one that had been bombed.  On one of the old maps there are ‘ruins’ mentioned.  I wonder if this was the site.  If that’s the case then it would be on what is now Hammond Way, not far from the Colchester Avenue junction.  I am guessing this barrage balloon site was chosen to try and protect Roath Power Station from being bombed.

Ruin mentioned

 

Cardiff had quite a lot of barrage balloon sites across the city. They were also flown from Splott park, Cathays park and Roath park recreation ground.  I have read recently that the balloons were made and maintained at a base in Ely.

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Barrage balloon flying over Roath Park Recreation Ground – 1939

 

We All Wore Blue: Experiences in the WAAF by Muriel Gane Pushman

We all wore blue

This book adds some interesting memories to the incident described above though also contains some mysteries and be warned some gory bits.  The author was stationed in various parts of the country during her WAAF career so not all the book is about her time in Cardiff.

She describes there being eight balloon sites in Cardiff, ‘one being in the centre of the docks, the famous Tiger Bay area.’

‘….our headquarters were in the stables at Cardiff Castle’   ‘….. a solitary balloon was flying stoically from the keep.’

‘…..the men were responsible for the maintenance of the balloons and winches, and we were in charge of the girl operators.’

She describes the night of a raid and writes:

  • ‘It was not until daybreak that the full horror became known. One of our balloon sites up on a bill on the far side of the city had received a direct hit, blowing the Nissen hut to smithereens and instantly killing several of the girls.  The pretty young corporal in charge had her arm and shoulder blown off and suffered dreadful damage to one side of her face.  in this appalling condition, she had managed to crawl to the Pioneer Corps position – nearly a quarter of a mile away – to raise the alarm.  She had only been married the previous week, …..’
  • ‘Now, as I stood with the other officers while the parts of the bodies were collected, I found myself shivering despite the warm sunshine.’

She also describes attending the funerals:

  • ‘The next week was a blur. Nothing seemed quite real.  We were called upon to accompany the bodies to their respective home town and attend the funerals alongside the families.’
  • ‘I had never been to a funeral before and having to attend so many was physically and emotionally draining.’
  • ‘……. when the other WAAF officers returned from the funerals in Scotland’.

There were a couple of odd things that stuck me about the information in these quotes.  I don’t think I would describe the Colchester Avenue site as being ‘on a bill’.  Also she describes never having been to so many funerals before and the other WAAF officers returning from the funerals in Scotland. The three WAAF casualties I have identified, two were in Scotland and one in Kent.  So does that mean there are some not yet identified?  There is one more name in the letter that appeared in the Echo that I have not been able to trace but there may sadly have been more than that.

 

Barrage Balloons

A barrage balloon was three times the size of a cricket pitch. The balloons consisted of several panels of very tight fabric, at the back were three fins. The top of the balloon was filled with hydrogen, the bottom half was left empty, so when it was put up at a certain height it filled with natural air. If there wasn’t enough wind, the tail fins looked floppy but in time they filled with air. Balloons lost a certain amount of hydrogen when flying so they had to be topped up every day at the sites.

Crown Gardens 1939

The barrage balloon at Crown Gardens (Cathays Park) in 1939.

Balloons were held by cables which were fixed to winches on lorries. Cables were more important than the balloons as an aircraft had only to touch a cable and it would be destroyed straight away. If the balloon was shot it exploded, taking the aircraft with it.
The bombers had to fly over the balloons, so they couldn’t get any accuracy with their bombing, and they couldn’t dive bomb. It was dangerous to be near a cable if a balloon was shot down as the falling cable could kill a person. The winch has an altimeter which told you how high to fly the balloon, as they were flown at different heights. It was a hazardous job when you were winching up in a confined space, in wind and rain. If there was a strong wind the balloon would take itself off. It had to be handled with care because of the hydrogen.
The rope attachments consisted of metal rings which secured the balloon when it was down. Because of wear and tear the ropes were becoming dangerous so they were replaced with wire, and the metal rings were put on the wire.

There were over 15,000 WAAF barrage balloon operators throughout the country, operating 1400 balloons.

 

National Memorial Arboretum

Memorial to the Barrage Balloon Squadrons at the National Memorial Arboretum

(The photographs used in this article are not from the Colchester Avenue location.)

 

It would be interesting to hear from anyone who recalls this tragic incident. 

 

The Globe

It’s another one of those Roath buildings that tends to evoke lots of memories for people of a certain age.  Get into a conversation with another Roatharian about the Globe and soon you’ll be comparing what films you saw there and who with, whether you were a circle or a stalls person and what you bought from the usherette in the interval.    I think seeing The Graduate stands out for me.  Ahh, here’s to you Mrs Robinson.

Globe Cinema Albany Road with globe on top.

Back in around 1913 someone had the foresight to look at the burgeoning population of Roath and the enthusiasm for silent movies and commission local architects Willmott and Smith too design a cinema building.

The Globe stood on the corner of Albany Road and Wellfield Road, where the Pear Tree pub now is.  It used to be called the Penylan Cinema, had a seating capacity of 542 and dated back to 1914.  In fact there is a reference to there being a cinema there as early as 1910 and called the Albany Cinema. The name the Globe derives from the fact the building used to have a globe sculpture on the roof. Look carefully at the old picture of the Penylan Cinema and not only will you spot the globe on the roof but also the two caryatids; Greek-like female sculpted figures acting as columns supporting the first floor.  These figures were later hidden behind boards advertising the programmes. It probably had a Wurlitzer organ too to accompany the silent movies.

The interior was attractively decorated in classical style with eagles and the initials ‘PC’ (Penylan Cinema) near the domed roof.  Windows in the roof could be opened for ventilation to allow out the billowing cigarette smoke

Globe Cinema interior

Globe Cinema interior – taken after the cinema had closed down (photo credit: Steve Allison)

The cinema was renamed the Globe around the time it was rewired so that talkies could be shown in 1931. It was then owned by Rex Willis and operated with the Coliseum on Cowbridge Road and the Rialto in Whitchurch, often showing the same programme as one of these.

Globe cinema, Roath, Cardiff stalls and circle

Globe cinema, Roath, Cardiff stalls and circle (photo credit: Steve Allison)

In the 1950s the Globe specialised in showing foreign language films, usually subtitled, the only cinema in Wales specialising in such films.  The cinema was even called La Continentale at one stage. The papers of the time throw up some interesting stories. In Feb 1953 there was a private showing of the film Les Jeux Interdits for the Lord Mayor and the French and Spanish consuls.  In 1955 there was another private showing to the Watch Committee, this time of the film ‘The Stain in the Snow’. Only two members of the Watch Committee turned up, the Lord Mayor being one of them, and awarded it an X Certificate.

1955 Oct 26 western Mail X certificate

 

The Globe - La Continental

The Globe. Note how it appears to have been re-branded as La Continental at this time

In the early 1960s the cinema became a bingo hall for a short while but when that didn’t succeed it reverted to being a cinema sowing more mainstream films, often as double bills at reasonable prices.  In its final decades, the time many of us remember going there, it was a well-managed cinema owned by Mr & Mrs Wardle. Too much noise or sniggering and a torch light would highlight the offenders and order soon restored.

The curtains closed for a final time and the last choc-ice sold in the Globe cinema in 1985.  Sometime after it closed Steve Allison gained permission to take photographs of the interior of the building which he published in a nicely presented book ‘The Globe Cinema, Cardiff’ (ISBN-13: 978-0992989804), (available in Cardiff Libraries).

The Globe in later years

The Globe in later years

The building was demolished in 1987 even though it had had Grade 2 listed building status at some stage, subsequently revoked.  It was replaced by the Globe Centre, a collection of shops, a pub on the corner, originally called 42nd Street, then the Billabong and now the Pear Tree. The complex also would you believe contained a cinema, called the Monroe, which was later run by the Chapter Arts Centre and then became a Bollywood venture for a while before closing in 2001.  Today it is a successful music venue called, yes, The Globe.

Monroe

The Monroe – the last cinema on the site

So I’ll leave you reminiscing about your visit to the Globe, whether it be to see Blazing Saddles or something more refined like the Sound of Music.



A few extra pictures to bring back memories:

The Globe - the waiting area (photo credit: Steve Allison)

The couch in the waiting area where you would meet your fiends before the film began.

 

The Globe entrance prices

The Globe entrance prices (photo credit: Steve Allison)

David Hurn – The man who shot James Bond

David Hurn Photo - Buzz Feed

I first came across the work of David Hurn when reading the book ‘Cardiff – Rebirth of a Capital’.  The book contains many wonderful black and white photographs taken by Hurn but the one that caught my eye was one of a man on a tricycle and with a child in hand taken from outside Pen-y-lan library taken probably in the 1960s.  The church in the background is St Andrew’s URC church, where we hold our monthly meetings.

I was keen to see if we could use that photograph on our website and luckily in doing so managed to meet up with David.  He is both charming and forthright at the same time; there are few wasted words.

Penylan Road David Hurn 1973

 

I saw David Hurn again recently when he opened an exhibition of his photographs at the Workers Gallery in Ynyshir.  There’s just time to catch it if you hurry.

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Hurn wasn’t born in Roath but he did grow up here.  He was born in Surrey on 21st July 1934 but shortly afterwards the family relocated to Cardiff.  In the 1939 Register he was at school and living at 3 Newminster Road but the house David remembers most vividly is 104 Marlborough Road.   He attended De la Salle School but his dyslexia made education challenging.  His father was in the military and David himself joined the military and attended Sandhurst where he first discovered a love of  photography.

Choosing photography over a military career he headed for London to doggedly pursue a photographic career.  It took time, he initially got other jobs to make ends meet but his big break came when he hitchhiked over to Hungary in 1956 to take photos of the uprising against the Communist regime.

David Hurn Hungary

 

Having got his photographs widely published he was much in demand, though not necessarily as a war photographer.  In the 1960 much time was spent snapping what we would now call celebrities; film stars, pop musicians and alike including the Beatles and Jane Fonda. He quickly worked out that when sent on an assignment there were four important shots to get that may end up differentiating you from your competition, a portrait, a close-up, a wide-angle and a shot in context.

 

Beatles - BBC Doc

 

One day when Sean Connery arrived at the studio for a shoot the publicist forgot to bring one important prop – a gun.  Fortunately David Hurn was keen on air pistol target-shooting and so they were able to use David’s pistols in the photographs.  The plan was to edit the photos afterwards to make it look more like a real gun before they were used on the bill-boards but that somehow got forgotten.

James Bond 1963

 

David Hurn is also known for his photographs of the Aberfan disaster in 1966.  He was one of the first photographers on the scene, and of course not necessarily that welcome.  Local miners were busy digging the bodies of the village children out of the suffocating coal slurry.  The photographs however acted as evidence of the tragedy and were shown in Parliament and played a small part in helping bring about change and preventing another similar disaster.

Aberfan

 

In 1967 he joined the prestigious Magnum photographic cooperative, a top accolade for a photojournalist.

Later in life however he left the world of photography journalism behind he returned to live in Wales where he set about recording the landscape and people of Wales. His collection must be the largest on record totalling over 50,000 shots of the nation and its people. Many of these have now been donated to the National Museum of Wales together with others that he swapped with fellow professional photographers over the years.

Walkers in Roath Area of Cardiff 1973

‘Walkers in Roath Area of Cardiff’ 1973 – (but which street is it?   )

Also on return to Wales he ended up in 1972 setting up a course on documentary photography at Gwent College in Newport which was to become highly regarded.

He is a self-taught photographer. He very much believes in talking photographs of the world as he sees it rather than posed shots. He takes candid shots of life as it happens. His subjects are not asked if they want to be photographed.  He tends to concentrate on scenes he knows will not be there in another 20 years, capturing history as it happens as it were, always attempting to get the definitive picture of the time and place. He is however much more interested in tomorrow than he is in the past and his thirst for life is evident when he talks.

Snowdon

On top of Snowdon

Asked what are the secrets of being a good photographer David will talk about hard work, lots of time spent doing research, tenacity and a good pair of shoes.  The photographer needs to be driven by curiosity and have a lot of patience. A lot is about positioning, working out when you arrive at a place the perfect place to stand and then waiting.   Very rarely would he spend less than 30 minutes at a place just waiting for that perfect shot.  His work ethic is ruthless.  He’s of the belief that anyone who spends less than 7.5 hours a day at it is just playing, but that time is not all about shooting; there is the researching and looking at the work of other skilled photographers.

So what makes a good shot of the community? Well, having a dog somewhere in the picture can add a lot of context he explains.  People making gestures too are very important.

Roath Park 1973 - Magnum Photos

Roath Park 1973

His shots are never edited, they are just life as it happened to be at the time.  Even today in his eighties, David Hurn is taking 4000 photographs a year.  That gets followed by some ruthless selection procedure after which he would end up with just twenty or so to display at an exhibition.

He still has good things to say about his hometown of Cardiff, about its sense of community and the place itself though maybe like many feels there have been wasted opportunities in the architecture chosen for the centrepiece buildings along the waterfront in Cardiff Bay.

Playtime in Mount Stuart School

Playtime in Mount Stuart School 2005

In 2001 he was diagnosed with colon cancer but has made a full recovery.  He now sees radiographers as a most important branch of photography and encourages youngsters with an enthusiasm in photography to consider this as a profession.

Today, David lives in Tintern and still spends time photographing the community in which he lives.  He often works closely with poets and his next project is to ask ten poets to write something about one of his pictures expecting it to demonstrate that we all see different things in the same picture.


Cardiff - Rebirth of a Capital

Cardiff – Rebirth of a Capital

PS.  With the help of the members of the Cardiff Days Gone By Facebook group, the scene of the ‘Walkers in Roath’ photo has actually been identified as Atlas Road in Canton at the junction with Denton Street.  The house which could be seen as bricked up in the photo has been demolished.

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas

Success! I’ve been searching for Christmas for over 20 years and have recently found him.

Evan Christmas Thomas

Evan Christmas Thomas (1866-1936)

My great-grandfather, Evan Christmas Thomas, was what we call in family history research something of a ‘brick wall’.  I could trace him back to around 1900 but any further back was presenting a problem.

This year that brick wall came tumbling down and some interesting stories came to light.  How did the story of him possibly being Wales’s first hit and run victim not get passed down through the family?  There’s even an intriguing Roath connection – perhaps you can help solve that mystery.

The starting point to my research was information that had got passed down through the family.  I knew he was originally from West Wales and had lived in the village of Cwrt Newydd on the Carmarthenshire/Cardiganshire border. After coming to Cardiff I knew he and the family lived in Birchgrove and he worked as a commercial traveller for a paint company.

Evan Christmas Thomas and his wife

Evan Christmas Thomas with his wife Margaret

Twenty years ago the family historian tended to have to leave the house and visit places like libraries to further their research.  I was fortunate enough at the time to have a job which involved regular meetings in London onto which I could tag a visit to the old Family History Centre at Clerkenwell.  There droves of genealogists would move around silently examining the large weighty volumes of birth, deaths and marriages. There would be tutting, sighing and occasionally whoop of excitement to signify success but the sound was mainly the clatter of the metal reinforced volumes being re-shelved.

Obtaining the marriage certificate for Evan Christmas Thomas was straightforward enough. From that I could see he was a woollen manufacturer and did indeed live at Cwrt Newydd.  The wedding certificate gave his father’s name as James, a labourer. I also had a death certificate and the ages on both the death and the marriage certificates gave me a supposed year of birth.

Brick wall

Next job then to get the birth certificate.  With a year of birth and an unusual middle name of Christmas what could be difficult about that.  I searched and I searched but just couldn’t find him.  Letters were written to registry offices in West Wales and family history societies in the area but all came back negative.  There was no birth of an Evan Christmas Thomas registered.

When the 1901 census was released and up came Evan Christmas Thomas, owning his woollen mill in Cwrt Newydd giving his place of birth as Llandysiliogogo, Cardiganshire and speaking both Welsh and English.

I put the search for Christmas aside for a long time, concentrated on other strands of the family tree and then gave family history a rest all together for quite a few years.

When I picked it up again everything had changed.  It had all gone computerised.  I joined Glamorgan Family History Society and attended one of their ‘brick wall’ sessions at Cardiff Central Library – 10am to 2pm on the first Saturday of the month, non-members welcome, and free of charge! I went along armed with all I knew about Evan Christmas Thomas.

The wonderful Nick taught me so much and solved one mystery.  After also failing to find a birth of an Evan Christmas Thomas he pointed out of the library window at Tabernacle Church opposite and said my answer may well lie over there.  He explained that Christmas may well not have been my great-grandfather’s name at birth but one taken on later in life in adoration of Christmas Evans.

Christmas Evans

Christmas Evans (1766-1838) was a famous Welsh Baptist preacher, born near Llandysul, where my great grandfather also came from.  He was a giant of a man, blind in one eye and  much admired.  He worked around Wales and at one time was minister of Tabernacle Baptist in the Hayes Cardiff.

Christmas Evans at Tabernacle chapel, Cardiff

Christmas Evans from Llandyssil, minister at Tabernacle 1828-1832 (Portrait by William Roos, 1835. National Museum Cardiff )

That all sounded very plausible but now left the challenge me with the challenge of finding a birth for an Evan Thomas rather than an Evan Christmas Thomas.  Anyone with ancestry in the West Wales area will be familiar with such a challenge. There seemed to be a shortage of names, both first names and surnames, to go around.  You look at some census records and families living next door to each other all have virtually identical names.  Talk about keeping up with the Jones’s.

1911 Census

The other thing that had appeared in the intervening years was the 1911 Census.  Bizarrely this only served to confuse things rather than add clarity.  Evan Christmas Thomas was now calling himself something else!  Now he was Evan Ceridfryn Thomas. Yes, I’d never heard of the name Ceridfryn either.  In fact there’s only about three people ever been called Ceridfryn and one of them James Ceridfryn Thomas (1856-1932) lived in Roath and was also originated Cardiganshire with a mention in a book on the history of Llandyssil.

In 1911 James Ceridfryn Thomas BSc lived at 93 Ninian Road, opposite Roath Park Pleasure Gardens.  He was a retired headmaster having previously worked at Kingsholm School in Weston-Super-Mare.  He had a degree in science,  was also a minister and also an author, publishing books under a pen-name Keridon. He wrote in an erudite fashion on a wide range of matters much of it beyond my understanding.

Ceridfryn Thomas writting

Man – The Prodigy and Freak of Nature by ‘Keridon’  – James Ceridfryn Thomas

So why did my great grand-father suddenly take on the middle name of Ceridfryn? I think he probably would have known James Ceridfryn Thomas.  There was an active Cardiganshire Society meeting in the Cardiff at the time and maybe they knew each other through though Welsh chapel.  Was it an admiration of his preaching or his writing or did James Ceridfryn Thomas maybe help secure Evan Thomas a job when he came to Cardiff. I’ll probably never know.

Another thing I found this year was my great-grandfather’s grave.  It is in Pantmawr Cemetery in Whitchurch and on the headstone his middle name had reverted to Christmas once again.  It will be interesting to see what he entered his name as on the 1921 census which is released in a couple of years time.

Breaking the rules

This year it dawned on me that I had broken one of the first rules of conducing family history.  Whenever anyone starts looking at their family tree there are a few things to do prior to jumping online and immersing oneself in all the records.  The first is to talk to all living relatives (talking to the dead ones is a bit of a waste of time as they don’t have a lot to say for themselves).  Note down everything they say (apart from the bit where the offer you a cup of tea) .  It won’t all be true.  Some stories will have changed over time but there is usually an element of truth in each one.  The second thing to do is to go through all old photographs and documents and make sure as much information is recorded about them as possible; names, dates, plates etc.

F2 Evan Thomas 1894 bible inscription

Do I keep to the above rules?  No of course I don’t.  This year I re-discovered an old bible belonging to Evan Christmas Thomas hidden away on our bookshelves.  This wasn’t one of those large family bibles with the family history all neatly written out on the inside front cover.  This was a small Welsh bible with Evan’s addresses inside and dated 1894.  It wasn’t from his childhood either.  Evan would have been 28 at this time. I realised that it was telling me his ‘present address’ of Penybont, Velindre and what was probably his ‘home address’ of Bwlchyfadfa, Talgarreg.

We happened to be holidaying in Cardiganshire this year so one day visited Bwlchyfadfa and the chapel and well-maintained graveyard.  I was particularly looking for a James Thomas that may have been Evan’s father.  There were lots of Thomas’s.  One James Thomas looked very promising though somewhat older than I expected.

Breakthrough

The next stage involved many hours pouring over census records, old maps and other various genealogy sources until yes, I eventually found Evan.  I could trace him back from 1901 as a woollen mill owner, to 1891 working as a woollen spinner to 1881 being a woollen spinner’s apprentice and in 1871 being in Bwlchyfadfa as a five year old grandson to James Thomas, aged 64, an agricultural labourer.   Also present in the house was an unmarried daughter Mary and an unmarried son David.  It was all beginning to make sense.

The next stage involved a leap of faith.  Spending the money and ordering what I thought was the correct birth certificate for Evan Thomas among all the Evan Thomas’s listed.  A tense week followed whilst I waited for the certificate to arrive.  Then bingo!   There he was, Evan Thomas, born to Mary Thomas, Bwlchyfadfa, an illegitimate birth, no father mentioned.  He was born on January 2nd 1866 so it was sort of a Christmas birth.

It was satisfying to find him eventually.  A number of things had obviously thrown me.  Christmas was not a name given from birth but one adopted later.  The James mentioned on his wedding certificate as his father was no doubt his grandfather that had helped bring him up in the absence of a father.  In fact Evan’s mother Mary dies when he was just nine after  long illness.  And the different birthplaces that kept being mentioned on census records i.e. Llandyssil and Llandysiliogogo, is explained by the fact that the parish boundary goes straight through the middle of the village of Bwlchyfadfa.

The old chapel at Bwlchyfadfa

The old chapel at Bwlchyfadfa, before the new one was built nearby in the 1890s.

Having pieced it all together I got in contact with Wyn Thomas, the minister at  Bwlchyfadfa Chapel to see if I could access any baptismal records etc.  I wasn’t necessarily expecting a positive response as such records are often missing or been transferred to record offices or the minister is just too busy.  Wyn however couldn’t have been more helpful and I paid another visit to the chapel to meet him.

Bwlchyfadfa is a Unitarian chapel.  Christening in such chapels weren’t as common as in other denominations or necessarily recorded and preserved.  Unitarianism was however big in the area with quite a lot of chapels and a magazine that went back to the 1800s.  One possibility was that there would be a mention in the magazine of the Thomas family.  The copies of the magazine stored at Bwlchyfadfa chapel didn’t go back far enough but Wyn had an idea, another chapel nearby may have the older copies of the magazine.

GelliAur Mill

Gelliaur Mill where Evan Thomas worked as a wool spinner

As we travelled though the lanes of rural Cardiganshire he pointed out the mill, Gelliaur, where Evan had been a woollen spinner in 1891, now converted into a house.  We arrived at the chapel and climbed up onto the balcony and there, sat in dusty piles, were copies of Ymofynydd magazines dating back 150 years.  A quick search and we found the obituary to my great-great-great-grandfather James Thomas.  It tells of a man strong in his faith but one so hard of hearing that he used to sit on the steps of the pulpit so he could hear the sermon.  So that’s where I get my hearing deficiency from!

James Thomas headstone and obit

Grave and obituary of James Thomas mentioning his respected grandson. Loose Google translation: February 28, Mr. James Thomas, Waunfach, Bwlch-y-Fadfa, aged 84 years. Our old brother was very zealous in Bwlch; and because of the hardness of his hearing he always sat in the pulpit. The old brother had the privilege of bringing his children up to a full age, and we understand that they, along with a respected Grandson, did their part for him. The following Monday his fatal death was buried at the Bwlch cemetery, when the Rev was preached in the chapel. W. J. Davies, the minister, to a large congregation. May all the relationships be comforted by the promises of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Elizabeth, Mary and David Thomas headstone.

The obituary of Evan’s mother Mary was also in the magazine and makes harrowing reading.  Wyn later found her grave, her brother David and mother Elizabeth at Pantydefaid Unitarian Chapel, Prengwyn.  The inscription on the tombstone was also incredibly sad and roughly translates to ‘We suffered very long with illness, looking for help but failing, until God the one who knew when released us from our suffering.’

We should never forget what a wonderful invention pain relief drugs are.

 

 

 

 

A slight mishap

There was another shock to come.  Back home I continued to search for any mention in the newspapers of Evan Christmas Thomas and I stumbled upon a story of him I’d never heard.  In 1907 it is reported he was cycling on the road from Merthyr to Brecon when he was knocked off his bike by a car travelling at 9mph on the wrong side of the road and he was rendered unconscious.  The chauffer-driven car didn’t stop.  After regaining consciousness it took him six hours to wheel his damaged bike to Brecon where he caught a train back to Cardiff.

F2 E C Thomas 19 Jun 1907 Evening Express and Evening Mail

19th June 1907 – Evening Express and Evening Mail

There are so many questions I have over these reports.  What was he doing there.  He was a commercial traveller for a paint and varnish company. Was he working or a just very keen early cyclist?  I can’t imagine the roads were very good back in 1907.  And the big question – was he Wales’s first cycling hit and run victim?

And so there we have it.  Some of the life of Evan Christmas Thomas has slowly revealed itself together with his sick mother Mary and hard of hearing grandfather James.  A lot more stays hidden away waiting to be discovered.



 

Postscript: some additional information-

James Ceridfryn Thomas from Ninian Road, Roath:

1930 June 12th Western Mail

South Wales Daily News Sept 1902

Man

Carmarthen Weekly Reporter 1913

Evan Christmas Thomas – more reports of his mishap with a chauffeured driven car:

F2 Evan Christmas Thomas 22 Jun 1907 Weekly Mail - Cycling accident

 

 

A470 just past Storey Arms near milestone

I was walking down off Pen-y-fan last week when I realised I was approaching the very spot where Evan got bowled over – the A470 just past Storey Arms near where a milestone used to be till recently.

Norman Biggs – Welsh rugby international killed by a poisoned arrow.

Headlines

Norman Biggs portrait

There are so many headlines I could have used for this article such as ‘Wales’s youngest rugby international‘ or ‘The fastest man in the world?‘ or ‘Where’s his missing memorial?‘.  I was spoilt for choice.

I’ve been researching Norman Biggs now for a couple of years – a fascinating character.  It’s not just him – there’s a story to tell about the whole of the Biggs family, but let’s concentrate on Norman for now.

Norman’s early life

Norman Witchell Biggs was his full name.  Yes, I thought it was a misprint too and it should have been Mitchell, but no, it really was Witchell.   He was born in 1870 in St Andrew’s Place in the middle of Cardiff, to John Biggs, owner of the South Wales Brewery and Emily Sophia Biggs née Clark.  Norman was baptised a few months later in St Mary the Virgin church on Bute Street.  This confused me for a while as it’s not the nearest Anglican church to St Andrew’s Place until I found out that the Biggs family had strong associations with the church; there is a plaque in the church to Norman’s grandparents John and Eliza Biggs.  Perhaps they were benefactors when the church was being built.

In the 1881 census we find Norman Biggs in Lewinsdale School, Weston-Super-Mare.  I’m always amazed by how much travel there seemed to be between Cardiff and Somerset 150 years ago.   There is no sign of the school there nowadays, just Lewinsdale Lodge, now a B&B.

When Norman Biggs returns to live in Cardiff he attends Cardiff Proprietary School, also confusingly known as Cardiff College.   I say confusingly because the building was on Dumfries Place, and later went on the become part of the University and later still the Student’s Union.

Cardiff College

Cardiff College building on Dumfries Place, later became part of the University and later still the Student’s union (Pic credit: Cardiff Libraries)

Norman’s sporting prowess started to show though at a young age.  In 1884, aged just 13, he is playing for Cardiff College (Cardiff Preparatory School) against the University 2nd team and scores two tries. A year later the paper reports Norman, aged 14, playing cricket for Cardiff College versus Llwynypia 2nd XI.

International debut

In 1887 Norman Biggs plays first match for Cardiff on March 9th 1887, aged just 16 years 4 months and scores a try.  His speed makes him a natural winger.  He had a meteoric rise and a year later, he is picked to play for Wales against New Zealand. He becomes the youngest player to play for Wales aged 18 years 1 month 19 days. He held that record for 120 years until Tom Prydie made his Wales debut in 2010 at age of 18 years and 25 days.

Norman Biggs in Wales jersey

Norman Biggs in Wales jersey (pic credit: Wikipedia)

Norman’s first game for Wales didn’t go well. Although Wales won Biggs was ‘palpably nervous’.  The game was held in Swansea where the crowd was hostile towards Wales players from Cardiff and the east of Wales. Newspaper quotes include: ‘The crowd positively pooh-poohed Biggs’, ‘Biggs I am bound to admit disappointed me’, ‘He is a rattling good man, next to George Morgan, the best in Wales’.

A week later, on 29th December  1888, Norman Biggs faced the same tourists, this time as part of the Cardiff team. Biggs had been disappointing in his international debut, but regained his form on the pitch at the Cardiff Arms Park. Within 90 seconds of the start of the match, Biggs scored a ‘sparkling try’.  Biggs should have scored again, but dropped the ball after crossing the line in the slippery conditions.  Cardiff won by a goal and a try to one try.

1888-89New Zealand Native team

1888-89 New Zealand Native team

In January 1889 Norman is picked again to play for Wales, this time against Scotland, but pulls out as part of the ongoing dispute between east and west Wales clubs.

In March 1889 the papers report on Norman taking part in a debate at Cardiff University on smoking, speaking on the side that smoking causes harm and winning.  That’s pretty insightful considering it was 60 years before the link between smoking and ill health was proven scientifically.

On March 2nd 1889 he plays again for Wales in Swansea, this time against Ireland. Wales lost with Ireland scoring two unconverted tries.  Biggs had a bad game being at fault for at least one of the Ireland tries when an overhead pass of his was intercepted. Wales finished bottom of the table that year; bottom of three – England didn’t participate that season.

Let’s take another break from the rugby now for this story that demonstrates the athletic ability of Norman Biggs.  It is reporting on the Cardiff University sports day on May 11th 1889: ‘The lion of the day was Norman Biggs, well-known Cardiff Football player who pulled off the 100 yds, 220 yds, the quarter, the hurdles, the high jump, the prize for throwing the cricket ball, and then crowned a phenomenally successful day by bringing himself and partner in first at the three-legged race’. How many modern day rugby internationals would take part in a three-legged race!

Reports of him partaking in a fun three-legged race are somewhat contradicted by his appearance in team photos.  He always seems somewhat grumpy and surly.

Cardiff 1888-89 team Norman Biggs middle row 2nd from left

Cardiff 1888-89 team Norman Biggs, middle row 2nd from left. perching on a backwards facing chair (pic credit: Cardiff Rugby Museum)

Fastest man in the world?

Watching Norman Biggs sprint down the wing with ball in hand must have been an exhilarating experience given his outstanding pace. There’s even an argument for saying he could have been the fastest man in the world.   In 1889 Norman Biggs goes Cambridge University.  It is not clear what he studied or whether he ever graduated. Here’s an extract from an obituary of Norman Biggs:

“Leaving the Cardiff College he graduated at Cardiff and took up his residence at Trinity Hall.  Here one of his first accidents occurred.  In playing football he had a couple of ribs broken and the necessary rest robbed him of his blue. He however made a name in sprinting and it is on the record that he did the 100 yds in even time.  He had against him such fine flyers as Monypenny.  It was a remarkable thing that in the 100 yds Norman could beat Monypenny but in the 120 yds the latter could always reach the line first, the explanation being that Norman was the better starter.”

The Monypenny in the quote above was Charlton Monypenny.  Here’s what it says about him in Wikipedia: “While at Cambridge he achieved two running records, the World Record for the 150-yard dash (14.8 secs) and the Cambridge quarter of a mile track record (49.5 secs) which stood until 1931.  In 1891 Monypenny was recognised as the seconded fastest man in the world behind American Luther Cary, recording a time of 10.8 seconds in the 100-metre sprint on 22 July. The next year, although recording an identical time of 10.8 seconds, he was judged the joint fastest men in the world that year, along with American athlete Cecil Lee”

Put those two articles together, the fact that Biggs could beat Monypenny over 100 yds and the fact that Monypenny was judged one of the fastest men in the world, and it could be argued that Norman Biggs was possibly the world’s fastest.  An obituary and Wikipedia are hardly ‘primary sources’ for history researchers I admit but it makes you wonder. Add to it that he was only doing athletics because an injury prevented him playing rugby and those sprint times would have been made from a standing start rather than using blocks or spiked shoes and it is all pretty remarkable stuff.

International Success

Biggs plays again for Wales in 1892 against Ireland but again ends up on the losing side.  In 1893 however his fortunes change and he finds himself part of the first Wales team to win a Triple Crown. On January 7th at the Arms Park, Wales beat England 12-11 in what has become known as the ‘Devil’s match’ because fires were lit around the ground the previous night to keep the pitch frost-free and enable the game to go ahead. Biggs scored.  ‘After each of the three quarters had handled the ball, Norman Biggs having cleverly been given the ball by Conway Rees, sprinting away from Lockwood, got the better of Field, and scored a really fine try’.

Triple Crown medal belonging to Frank Hill in Cardiff Rugby Museum

Medal awarded to players of Wales’s first triple crown winning side. This one belonged to Frank Hill and is on display at Cardiff Rugby club Museum.

The following month Wales travel to Scotland and win 9-0 and again Norman Biggs scores a try. The 1893 away game against Scotland is described as Biggs’ best international match and ‘his speed and general play were the main factors in securing the first victory of the Principality over Scotland at Scotland’.

In March Wales play Ireland at Stradey Park, Llanelli.  Wales win 2-0 though a try from Gould.  Ireland fielded one more forward than Wales (it was a choice how many forwards and backs were playing at the time).  Quotes from the papers included: ‘Gould and Norman Biggs time after time stopped rushes, the later player saving his front rank by screw punting’, ‘the most uninteresting international contest for years past’.

Cricketing Skills

In the summer of 1893 Norman plays cricket for Glamorgan against a Cardiff team that includes his brother Selwyn, thereby becoming one of a select band of players to play both cricket for Glamorgan and rugby for Wales.  Selwyn in fact later goes on to play for Glamorgan and become their opening bowler for a number of years.

Club Loyalty

Club rugby was somewhat different in the 1890s. Players weren’t contractually bound to a club as they are now and sometimes turned out for other clubs if they found themselves in different parts of the country.  Norman Biggs played for London Welsh in matches against both Cardiff and Swansea in 1890.  He also plays a fair bit for Richmond over the years. At one time in 1893 he gets collared by a reporter on his return to Cardiff.  Norman explained ‘he was in London for a fortnight seeing a doctor every day, after he had an operation.  Playing for Richmond there was no need to exert himself and nobody cared who won’.

Conclusion of International Career

Norman Biggs plays two more matches for Wales.  In January 1894 against England at Birkenhead Park in front of a crown of 7,000 Wales suffered a heavy defeat, losing 24-3.  In a post-match interview Biggs was asked why he had failed to tackle Harry Bradshaw, who scored the first try; Biggs responded “Tackle him? It was as much as I could do to get out of his way!”

In March 1894 Wales beat Ireland 3-0 in a game where all the backs were from Cardiff.  The very next international saw Norman’s younger brother Selwyn selected for the first time, the brothers missing each other by just one match. Selwyn also goes on to have a very successful international career.

Norman Biggs George North comparison

Norman Biggs compared to today’s Wales winger George North – note the difference in weight!

Cardiff Captain

In the 1893-94 season Norman Biggs captains Cardiff.   During the season Biggs scored 58 conversions, 25 tries and two dropped goals bringing his points tally to 199 points, a record that remained till 1972–73 when it was surpassed by John Davies.

1893-4 Cardiff Rugby Club.  Norman Biggs captain with ball and Selwyn Biggs top right (picture credit: Cardiff Rugby Club Museum)

Biggs played for Cardiff from the 1886–87 season through to 1898–99.  He played in 166 matches for Cardiff, was one of the highest scoring players the club has produced. Biggs ended his Cardiff career with 107 tries, four less than another of his brothers Cecil. He scored five or more try conversions in a single match on seven occasions, six in the same season (1893-94), against Gloucester, Bristol, London Welsh, Penygraig, Exeter and Cardiff & D.R.U.

The last notable club Biggs represented was Bath.  He turned out in the 1886-89 seasons sometimes.  His decision to go to Bath was probably guided by the fact that his father’s brewery may have had an interest in the area. Some match reports also mention him and Selwyn promising to turn up but not and instead playing for Richmond.  Norman was said to be captaining the Bath senior team during the 1899–1900 season but did not appear in the match reports, instead diverted by the next stage in his life.

 

The Boer War

On 5th January 1900 he joined the Glamorgan Imperial Yeomanry, a volunteer force. In the British army at the time the officers were from the gentry and the professional middle classes and the recruits from the poorest sections of society. You wonder how much horse riding experience Norman Biggs had before joining the yeomanry.  It is true that the Biggs house Oldwell, Penylan, Cardiff did have stables so he had probably built up some experience.

Norman Biggs signs up

Norman Biggs signs up

His exploits in the Boer War are relatively well reported in the papers.  People were naturally keen to hear how one of their rugby stars was fairing.  In May 1900 he had arrived in South Africa and sends a drawing home to his brothers which was published in the Western Mail.  The letter included a picture of the cook and wood gatherers.  At this time his unit was still undergoing training near Cape Town.  The papers also report Biggs was keen for a photograph he’d sent to be forwarded to the Conservative Club in St Mary’s Street, so we learn of his political affiliation.

 

 

By December 1900 his unit is on the front line.  A letter from R S Jenkin the old Swansea football forward describes how Norman Biggs the ex-international three quarter was wounded.  He says “Six miles from Vrede, our left rear flankers were fired on by almost a dozen Boers.  We on the right flank heard the firing and saw the state of affairs and opened fire.  Shortly the rearguard came back and things got interesting.  Norman Biggs, G F Williams (late of Llandovery) and Sergeant Thomas were in the centre and as soon as they heard the firing on the right they concluded that the right flank was in trouble.  They came across and Norman, mad like, went galloping towards the Boer fire, in spite of orders to the contrary being shouted to him. He having got the idea into his head that I and the others were concerned, and he meant to find out.  Anyhow, he got within a hundred yards and found things getting hot, when he was wounded in the uppermost part of his thigh.  He turned about but had only got a few yards when his horse was shot dead.  He lay down behind it, and was about to aim, when he saw the Boers mounting and getting into position to cut off his retreat, so he picked himself up and ran off.  He was shortly picked up by one of our officers, who put him on a horse and caught hold of the stirrup himself.  The horse shield (sic), and Norman once more embraced mother earth.  Then Major Wyndham-Quin put him on a horse, and this time he was taken in safety to the hospital.  He is now much better as it is only a flesh wound.”

Biggs injured in 1900

map credit: Google

Norman was sent initially to the military hospital in Harrismith.   On December 19th 1900 he returns to UK on board the hospital ship Simla with 284 other men. It seems he was not home long.

Hospital ship Simla

Hospital ship Simla

In February it is announced he is to join ‘Paget’s Horse’, an elite horseback unit, as a Captain.  He returns to South Africa but in May we read he is in hospital in Winberg with fever.  In September he is discharged from hospital and in November fighting again. We don’t read much about him in the following year.  He arrives home in late 1902.

Paget's Horse Yeomenary

Paget’s Horse (picture credit: Look and Learn)

Extended military career

On returning home Norman appears to have made a decision to extend his military career rather than return to the family brewing business which by now was in its twilight years.  He joins the regular army.  He is initially stationed in Cardiff Barracks training recruits, then Aldershot, then Hythe where he takes a course in the School of Musketry.

He serves as the District Superintendent of the Northern Nigerian Constabulary. The papers say he returned to Nigeria in October 1907 having been on leave in England that summer, so must have been there previously at some stage.

Poisoned Arrow

He was killed 27 Feb 1908 at Chinuku, Northern Nigeria, after being hit by a poisoned arrow in a brush with natives whilst on patrol duty. Newspaper reports say he was trying to arrest some ‘Pagans’ who had been pillaging and were hiding in a village.  On approaching the village they were attacked.

Biggs did not reload but instead rode onto the next village to allay fears of the natives who would have seen the neighbouring village burning.  His intention was to warn them that their force had no quarrel with them and that they had nothing to fear.

The papers report that unfortunately his mission was misunderstood and before he could get close enough to explain his mission he was shot in the thigh by a poisoned arrow. Biggs pulled out the arrow and a fellow officer cauterised it with a red hot knife. Biggs was removed by horse to Sakaba, some 50 miles away but he died four days later. He was buried at Fort Sakaba with full military honours attended by 30 officers. It is theorised that his heart may have been weakened having had a couple of bouts of malaria.  The arrow was sent home for analysis, but I can’t find any record of the outcome of the analysis.

Nigeria and Norman Biggs place of death marked by red pin

Chinuku, Northern Nigeria (map credit: Google)

The poison used in poison darts varies throughout the world.  In South America it is often taken from a venomous frog, in southern Africa from a poisonous beetle and in Northern Nigeria from the plant Strophanthus.  Cardiac poisons tend to be fast-acting.  The fact that Biggs died four days after being hit by the arrow would seem to indicate to me he probably died of a resulting hemorrhage rather than the poison itself – but why spoil a good story.

Norman Biggs’s Grave

The grave of Norman Biggs is marked with a simple metal cross that is talked about in a YouTube video.  It looks in remarkable condition even after all this time.  The cross appears to read:  In loving memory of Norman W Biggs of Cardiff, Great Britain. Cpt 3rd Welch Rgt. DSG N Nigeria  Killed in action. Died 27 Feb 1908.

The cross on grave of Norman Biggs

The cross on grave of Norman Biggs

There is a fascinating YouTube video interviewing a local man who seems to be saying that it is thought they were missionaries but the locals thought they were cannibals. Click the CC button at the foot of the YouTube video to get the subtitles.

YouTube video stills

Cardiff honours Biggs

The news of the death of Norman Biggs was widely reported in the papers.  A large service was held in his honour on March 16th 1908 at St John’s church, Cardiff.  Mr W T Morgan and a large number of Cardiff Rugby Club assembled at the Drill Hall in Dumfries Place and marched along Queen Street to St John’s along with members of the Glamorgan Yeomanry and the Welch Regiment.  The members of the Wales rugby team were unfortunately delayed on the train on their return from Ireland so arrived 90 minutes after the service.

Norman Biggs Memorial Service

I always think it’s best to treat obituaries with a note of caution but they do make interesting reading.   One obituary says that at the age of 16 Norman Biggs was chosen to play for Wales but that his headmaster, Mr Birbeck Terry,  vetoed it on the grounds that he was not sufficiently well set to stand the gruelling game of twenty years ago. The obit says that he worked for his father initially at the Salisbury Road brewery and then at the Canton Cross Brewery.

Another obituary says Biggs had ‘a fund of humour yet could be caustic in his criticism of colleagues, but he was a good judge of character and seldom mistook his man, realising that an exaggerated compliment was the best way to bring out the best in some men and a whip of sarcasm the best for others’.

The Missing Memorial

A year later on March 27th 1909 the Weekly Mail reports of a meeting held at the Angel Hotel to discuss the idea of a memorial tablet to Norman Biggs and that St John’s or St Andrew’s church commended itself.  The meeting was attended by members of Cardiff Rugby and Cricket clubs, the Glamorgan Yeomanry and the Welch Regiment.  The vicar of St John’s was even on the committee.

I have visited both churches and never found a memorial tablet or memorial window.

Two years later another interesting snippet appears in The Clifton Society of May 16th  1912.  The idea now seems to be the idea is for a stained glass window at St John’s and it has been placed in the hands of Cardiff Football Club.

The Clifton Society May 16th 1912

I am still baffled that this remarkable athlete is remembered by a simple metal cross in Nigeria but not in any way in his home city of Cardiff and am left wondering the reason for that.


 

Many thanks to rugby and military historian Gwyn Prescott for his assistance, especially in the early days of my research into Norman Biggs.

I have a talk prepared on Norman Biggs and the Biggs family.  If you are a member of a group that may be interested in hearing the talk please don’t hesitate to get in contact.

Norman Biggs poster cropped

Remembering Frank Gaccon

The only public war memorial in our ‘area of interest’, the ancient parish of Roath, is the one outside St Saviour’s church in Splott.  That leaves a lot of the people who lost their lives in WWI, WWII and other conflicts not remembered.  One way to rectify that would be to have a ‘virtual’ memorial, in some ways following the good example of Grangetown Local History Society in their work.  I have started to assemble a Roath virtual war memorial but it is early days yet.

One way to derive a list of the war casualties is to visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.  There you can search for specific casualties or search by keyword.  We are lucky in that the suburbs we are interested in have fairly unique names; Splott, Adamsdown, Roath, Penylan, Cathays, Cyncoed etc. I looked at the first name on the Cyncoed list and found Francis Wilberforce Gaccon.  As I began to research the person behind the name more deeply I began to uncover his interesting life story.

Francis ‘Frank’ Wilberforce Gaccon was born on 6th April 1888.  His father was Watkin Gaccon, originally from Aberdare and a marine engine engineer.  His mother was Alice Charlotte Morgan originally from Overton, Gloucestershire on the banks of the River Severn. Frank grows up in 96 Habershon Street, Splott where he attended Splottlands School and Cardiff University College (1904-11).

Evening Express 25th Jan 1908

An early picture of Frank Gaccon

He followed his father into engineering receiving his training with Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds.   After holding various positions with this firm he joined the staff of Nash’s Autocars, Cardiff, and after two years started his own business as a garage and engineering works company.  During WWI he worked for Bute Docks Engineers and Shipping Company under the Admiralty fitting engines to lifeboats of hospital ships.

After WWI he worked for a year for the Royal insurance Company before again starting up his own successful company Frank Gaccon & Co Consulting Engineer and Damage Assessors serving all the leading insurance companies for South Wales. In 1926 he was elected as a full member of the Institute of Automobile Engineers  His head office offices were based in Charles Street, Cardiff.

Frank had a very successful sporting career.  He started his career playing football then converted to rugby playing initially for Penylan and in January 1908 is talked about as a promising forward playing for Cardiff Reserves.  By December that year he is already in the Cardiff first team playing against Australia.

Frank Gaccon rugby player

Frank Gaccon in Cardiff Rugby Club shirt (photo credit: Cardiff Fire & Rescue, Gaccon family)

He played 105 times for Cardiff Rugby Club including against Australia in 1908 (Cardiff won 24-8)  and against South Africa in 1912 (Cardiff lost 6-7).  One later newspaper report indicates he may have played for Wales but that appears erroneous.  Frank was elected captain of Cardiff for the first official post-war season 1919-20 but he had to resign after a few games owing to injury.  He was captain Cardiff Rugby (Wartime Charities) XV against the New Zealand Army team in 1919.  The game was played in front of a crowd of 10,000 in Cardiff and ended up scoreless.  He was also Honorary Secretary of the Cardiff Rugby (Wartime Charities) XV charity that raised almost £2000 during the season, £100,000 in today’s money.

 

 

Cardiff Rugby (war charity) Football Team 1919

Frank Gaccon (with rugby ball) captaining Cardiff Rugby (war charity) Football Team 1919 (Photo Credit: Cardiff Rugby Museum)

After finishing his rugby playing career he went onto enjoy yachting and became commodore of Barry Yacht Club.

He married three times.  In 1917 he married Gertrude Alice Hamlin but sadly their marriage was short lived as she passed away a year later. At that time he was living in 8 Agincourt Road, Roath.   In 1920 he marries Lily Rodwell in Leicester and they have a daughter together. Lily passes away in 1939 and in 1940 Frank marries Lilian Plowman.

Daughter of Frank Gaccon visiting Cardiff Fire Brigade HQ 2017

Daughter of Frank Gaccon visiting Cardiff Fire Brigade HQ 2017 (Photo credit: Cardiff Fire and Rescue)

When WWII was declared Frank sacrificed his business and joined Cardiff Auxiliary Fire Service (A.F.S.) and became Divisional Commander of the Cardiff A.F.S.  He was killed in Newport Road whilst on duty on 3rd March, 1941.   That was a heavy night of fire bombing in Cardiff.  It was the night Roath Road Wesleyan church on Newport Road, at the junction of City Road, was destroyed.  There was also damage on Newport Road to the nurse’s hostel and further east along Newport Road  at the junction of Albany Road.  I had assumed he was killed in one of these events so it came as a shock when I later discovered he was killed when the car he was driving whilst on duty was damaged by a bomb. It is reported that after fighting five fires he was motoring to get more hose when the high explosive bomb killed him. He was 53 years of age at the time and living at 153 Cyncoed Road.  He is buried at Cathays Cemetery, Plot: M 948a.

Gravestone at Cathays Cemetery

Frank Gaccon Headstone (photo credit: Friends of Cathays Cemetery)

As a slight aside, he may also have been killed if he had still been living in Agincourt Road as it was on that night that residents of numbers 10 and 12 Agincourt Road were killed and the night that neighbouring Marborough Road School was damaged beyond repair.

 

Thayer’s Ice Cream – the scoop.

There can’t be many more evocative old shop names in the Roath area than Thayer’s.  Drop the name Thayer’s into any conversation you are having with a mature Cardiffian and soon they will be reminiscing about their favourite flavour ice cream or their preferred form whether it be cone or tub.

Thayers - photo from John Thayer

Thayer’s at 13 Wellfield Road (Photo courtesy of the Thayer family)

I was fortunate enough lately to meet John Thayer who kindly shared with me some of the history of the family business that centred around the shop in 13 Wellfield Road.

Thayer’s  dairy ice cream business was started by John’s father Albert Cyril Thayer. The Thayer family originated from Cwm in the Ebbw valley where Cyril’s father Joseph Thayer had owned a grocery business.  Joseph Thayer was born in Llanhilleth in 1888.  He originally worked at the colliery but following a serious flood, forcing him to leave his tools behind, he changed career, moved to Cwm and opened a grocery shop.

The Wellfield Road premises were purchased by the Thayer family just prior to WWII.  For ten years before that it had been a dairy shop owned by F.I. Day.  Cyril Thayer served in WWII and after coming out of the army, married Irene Jackson and opened Cardiff’s first self-service grocery store at 13 Wellfield Road.  What great foresight.  Who would have ever thought that self-serve grocery shopping would ever catch on!

October 1955 Western Mail

October 1955 Western Mail

 

The business went on to be very successful.  Strong contacts were built up with local suppliers.  Eggs from Mrs Johnson’s farm in Usk and turkeys from another source, milk from a nearby dairy, being some prime examples.

Another example of Cyril Thayer’s foresight came later when he witnessed a nearby business struggling to make ice cream of high enough quality to sell and instead having to throw it away.  Cyril thought he could do better than that and the rest as they say is history.  Via their grocery business Cyril Thayer already had good access to the materials needed to make ice cream.

As the years passed competition in the self-service grocery sector increased but by now Thayer’s dairy ice cream was so popular that the shop business could be sustained on ice cream alone.  The back of the shop morphed into an ice cream parlour serving knickerbockerglories and sundaes and the front into an area to sell ice cream and cream to walk-in customers.  Queues could often be seen snaking back out of the shop and along Wellfield Road.

Thayers newer shop, Wellfield Road, Cardiff  - photo from John Thayer

A later view of Thayer’s in Wellfield Road (photo courtesy of Thayer family)

So what was the secret of Thayer’s dairy ice cream?  Quite simply it was good quality, honest, natural ingredients.  As well as milk and cream, ice cream is made from milk powder.  Whereas many other producers would cut costs, Thayer’s always used full cream milk powder in their formulation.  So here’s a scoop.  Here’s the recipe for Thayer’s ice cream which John can still remember to this day:

280 milk, 30 dairy cream, 125 butter, 125 full cream milk powder, 250 sugar, 25 glucose, 12 eggs, a bit of emulsifier and stabiliser thrown in but never any preservative.  I know what you are going to say.  There are no units quoted.  Well the units were kilograms but I thought if I put that in someone would try and copy it and end up eating ice cream for three years.  And no vanilla flavouring in there either, this was pure dairy ice cream.

1965 Cyril Thayer (MD of Thayer's Ice Cream) stirs the ice cream

Cyril Thayer mixing his dairy ice cream at 13 Wellfield Road

There were of course the various other flavours, over twenty in all.  Thayer’s strawberry ice cream was infamous.  The business used to use 14 tonnes of strawberries each year.  That’s an awful lot of strawberries.   Then there were the other favourites, chocolate, coffee.  And I’m sure I remember orange, or is my memory playing tricks there.

Wellfield Road, Roath, Cardiff  in 1972

Thayer’s ice cream shop in Wellfield Road in 1972

The very early ice cream making equipment in 13 Wellfield Road made no more than 2 gallons at a time.  More machinery was purchased to make larger quantities but eventually the time came when the company got so successful that other premises were needed.  In 1966 Thayer’s ice cream started to be made at a site in Wentloog Road, Rumney.

David Thayer at the Wentloog ROad factory in 1975

David Thayer at the Wentloog Road factory in 1975

By now Thayer’s were employing over 100 people, supplying their ice-cream throughout a sizable geographical area, mainly to the small traders such as corner shops.  A small fleet of 14 vans was used to supply the distribution network all efficiently choreographed using early Rediffusion computers.   There was even a small factory in North Wales in Llandudno that John used to visit weekly to supervise the ice cream making.

Thayer’s was very much a family business.  John recalls helping out in the Wellfield Road shop from a young age serving people such as Mr A G Meek who ran the shoe shop around the corner in Albany Road.  Over the years John and his brother and sister took an increasing role in the business and eventually took over from their father Cyril. John used his knowledge gained from studying  engineering at university to make the process more efficient whilst maintaining their superior quality.

Bob Davies in Thayers Wellfield ROad in 1988

Bob Davies retired in 1987 from Thayer’s in Wellfielld Road after 27 years service. Bob, originally from Ruthin in North Wales, would often be heard speaking Welsh to customers.

However, all good things must come to an end as they say.  People’s shopping habits were changing and the corner shop outlets fast disappearing.  Margins were shrinking and the sad decision was eventually taken to sell the business together with the name.  It was purchased by Express Foods in the 1980s.  David Thayer, John’s brother,  does still have an ice cream shop in Bath trading under subtly different trading name of David Thayer’s Ice Cream Shop.

Thayers in Bath - photo Michael Haines

David Thayer’s Ice Cream Shop, Bath (photo credit – Michael Haines)

Cyril Thayer, the entrepreneur and perfectionist and man whose name is synonymous with one of Cardiff’s most famous brands, passed away in 2006. He was also a dedicated family man and devoted his later years of his life caring for his late wife Irene, who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, as well as raising awareness of the condition.

 

Photos: Cyril Thayer and his wife Irene.  John Thayer

 

For me the name Thayer’s takes me back to my childhood.  For a special treat some weeks my grandfather would be sent down Pen-y-lan Hill to buy a block of Thayer’s ice cream whilst my grandmother was busy making dinner.  It would arrive back, carefully wrapped in newspaper to insulate it.  By the time dinner had been consumed the ice cream was in perfect condition, nicely soft around the sides and full of flavour.  Raspberry ripple was my favourite.  There were no freezers in those days so naturally the whole block had to be consumed in one sitting – such a hardship.

So I’ll leave you to reminisce, trying to recall if you were a tub or a cone person and what was your favourite flavour.

 

Pen-y-lan Road blitz victims

I have a confession to make.  I enjoy researching the names on war memorials.  I enjoy unravelling the facts behind the life …. and death, of the named person, where they lived, their professions  and  their family.  At the same time I find it incredibly sad.   I periodically have to take a break when my eyes get a little watery, when I discover their fate; on the battlefield, being shot down from the air or lost at sea.  As a parent of boys myself I start to imagine what it must have been like for those parents to receive the harrowing news of the loss a son or in some cases two or three.  Then after a minutes reflection, its back to it.  Back to the immersive hobby of being a keyboard detective.

Penylan Road bomb damage

Where the Pen-y-lan Road victims died, 8, 10 and 12 Pen-y-lan Road.

 

My old school Marlborough Road Primary have embarked on a year-long project looking at WWII.  Not an easy topic to tackle though.  To teach children about the history and horrors of war whilst at the same time not in any way glorifying it or sending them home with nightmares.  I admire the way they are going about, travelling that delicate route.  The pictures I’ve seen so far look great.

CBS23 Marlbourough Road board school

The original Marlborough Road Board School opened in 1900, on the corner of Blenheim Road and Marlborough Road, damaged in an air raid and subsequently demolished.

I couldn’t help them personally when they put out a plea for people who had lived through the war to be interviewed by the children.  I’m too young for that category.  All I remember is ‘playing soldiers’ in the playground at playtime and the old air raid shelters used in my time for storing the pungent remains of school dinners.  Were they air raid shelters or just outbuildings?  Who knows.  Memories often play tricks

I thought however  I may be able to assist in looking at a local example of how the neighbourhood was impacted by WWII.  The school itself was bombed and badly damaged necessitating the main building to be demolished.  Fortunately the bombs fell at night and no lives were lost.  The same can’t be said however for the adjoining Agincourt Road.  There lives were lost.  Maybe that is too close to the school to pick as an example, plus I haven’t seen any pictures of that post-bombing damage or for that fact the school itself after the bombs fell.  Instead I have looked at nearby Pen-y-lan Road.

The Pen-y-lan Road bombs don’t always get a mention in articles about the Cardiff blitz.  Yes, the loss of life wasn’t as great as the horrific Hollyman’s Bakery in Grangetown where 32 people died  in January 1941.  But the Pen-y-lan Road bomb did kill eight people, five of them from the same family.

So where in Pen-y-lan Road are we talking about?  The lives were lost in numbers 8, 10 and 12 Pen-y-lan Road which is near where if joins Albany Road, near the Bottle Shop (no.4) and da Mara (no.2).  The bombs fell on 18th May 1943 in what has been described as the Final Blitz on Cardiff.

Widespread destruction was caused during the night raid involving no more than 50 German bombers which lasted only 83 minutes from 2.36am, dropping high explosives and parachute bombs and incendiary bombs.  Over 40 people were killed that night in total with 52 seriously wounded.

Following the railway line from Llanishen Reservoir through Whichurch, Rhiwbina and the Heath to Queen’s Street Station and the Docks.  Cathys Cemetery itself was hit.  Houses were damaged in Pantbach Road, Llwynfedw Gardens and Mynachdy estate.  A direct hit on houses in St Agnes Road killed six people.

The greatest loss of life in Pen-y-lan Road was in number 12.  Here five members of the same family were killed; Elizabeth Wing (aged 82), her daughters Lilian Wing (aged 49) and Olive Margrett (aged 47) and granddaughters Mavis Rees (aged 9) and Patricia Margrett (aged 19).  I first came across this family last year when researching the war memorial plaque in Albany Road Baptist church where Elizabeth and Lilian are remembered.

Register 12 Penylan Road - Copy

Occupants of 12 Pen-y-lan Road in 1939.  The victims of the bombing marked in red.  Patricia Margarett record likely to be the ‘closed’ record.

Elizabeth Wing was born in Leicester.  She married painter and decorator John Wing from Pembrokshire in 1887 and had eight children, three of whom it appears died young.  At the time of the 1911 census the family were living in nearby Moy Road and Elizabeth working as a dressmaker.  John, her husband, had died in 1916 aged 63.

Lilian Wing was a shop assistant in a confectionery shop, presumably downstairs from where they were living and which appears to have been owned by her sister Dora, described in the 1939 register as a confectioner and tobacconist.

Olive Margrett was married to Archibald Margrett, a steam raiser on the Great Western Railway who died in 1953. They had just the one daughter Patricia Margrett.  Archibald later remarried in 1945.

Mavis Rees, then aged 9, was the daughter of Dora and William J Rees who were married in 1925. Mavis also had a brother Colin J Rees aged 12, but I don’t know if he or the father William were in the house at the time it was bombed.   The following extract from the Roath Girl’s school log (presumably Roath Park?).  It seems to indicate Mavis as a pupil at Marlborough Road school.

The Head of Roath Girls’ reports Miss Hughes was unable to remain in school for she was suffering from shock after the early morning Raid, when her home was blitzed. Mavis Rees of 12 Penylan Road [a Marlborough girl and an evacuee] was seriously injured and taken to hospital. Later she died as the result of burns and shock. The pupils of her class sent a wreath and a letter of condolence was sent to the nearest relative, an aunt’.

Albany Road Baptist Church war memorial

Elizabeth Wing and Mavis Rees remembered on the memorial in nearby Albany Road Baptist Church

In number 10 Pen-y-lan Road Ivy Witts lost her life aged 45.  She was wife of Sidney Rowland Witts.  Ivy Dwynwen Morgan was born in 1896 in Cardiff and grew up on Broadway, Roath.  She married Sidney Witts at St Margaret’s church Roath in 1919 and had three children.   In 1939 Sidney is working as an official in the British Legion for ex-servicemen.

Ivy Witts

An early picture of Ivy Witts

Next door in number 8 Pen-y-lan Road husband and wife Edith Maud Davey and William Charles Davey were killed.  William Davey was a hairdresser had been a hairdresser all his life.  In the 1911 census we find him living in Harpur Street aged 17 and employed as a hairdresser.

Ivy Witts register - Copy

The occupants of 8 and 10 Pen-y-lan Road that died in the bombing of 18th May 1943.

Also living at 8 Pen-y-lan Road at the time of the raid was their son, 22 year old Trevor W C Davey, an apprentice electrical engineer.  Two months after the loss of his parents Trevor gets engaged to Sylvia Perkins from Ely.

Trevor Davey engagement 7 Jun 1943

In the book Cardiff – A City at War, Dennis Morgan recounts how another family in Pen-y-lan Road had a lucky escape:

Just across the road it was once again a Morrison shelter, which was under the stairs and protected with sandbags, that saved Mrs. Webber and her family.  The house had collapsed on them and, “the next thing we knew was that things were cascading down on to the shelter’’.  At first the rescue party saw little hope of finding them alive.  Eventually their shouts were heard and their morale was uplifted when their dog, Kim, scrambled into the shelter with them.  A flask of coffee was handed through a tiny hole but it was more than 6 hours before they were rescued.  Like many, who experienced the terror of the blitz and lived to tell the tale, Mrs. Webber commented, “None of us would ever grumble about anything again”.

1 Penylan Road bomb damage

All that remained where 1 Pen-y-lan Road where Mr & Mrs Webber and their dog  survived (photo: Cardiff Libraries)

I must admit I didn’t know what a Morrison shelter was.  It is not something purchased from your local supermarket.  It is a steel cage with a flat surface on top that often used to double up as a table.

Morrison shelter

Morrison shelter (photo Wiki)

The Webbers lived at 1 Pen-y-lan Road, almost opposite where the lives were lost at No’s 8, 10 & 12.  There is one blitz picture sometimes described as Albany Road and sometimes as Pen-y-lan Road that looks like it could well be No 1 Pen-y-lan Road, given the angle of the houses behind which would be Albany Road.  Amazing to think that anyone survived that damage.

The Webber’s had two children, William Webber and Anne Webber who would have been 11 and 9 at the time of the raid.  There is no mention of whether they too were also sheltering under the stairs at the time.

Looking at Pen-y-lan Road today it is easy to see where the houses involved in the raid were.  All have since been demolished and replaced with new housing, though judging by the architecture I would guess that the sites remained vacant for some time after the war before rebuilding took place, but I admit I am no architect.

Penylan Road today

The post-war houses that have replaced 8, 10 and 12 Pen-y-lan Road

1 Pen-y-lan Road today

The new building built on the site of 1 Pen-y-lan Road that was destroyed in the WWII blitz.

The other source of information available to researchers in addition to the traditional census records and birth, deaths and marriages is the Trade Directories.  These weren’t necessarily  issued every year so there are gaps.  The Cardiff Trade Directories can be viewed in Cathays Library.

 

 

 

The Friends of Cathays Cemetery have issued a booklet listing the casualties of the Cardiff Blitz.  As well as detailing their names and addresses it also lists where the casualties are buried in the cemetery.  Armed with this information I paid a visit to Cathays Cemetery to see if I could find the graves of the Pen-y-lan Road casualties.

plan oof new cemetery at Cathays Cemetery

Plan of the new cemetery at Cathays Cemetery

Finding the plots at Cathays Cemetery, even with a plot number isn’t easy.  Plot maps are available on FOCC website but even then trying to work out on the ground which row and column is which is confusing.  What I found helped a lot was the fact that Commonwealth War Graves are marked on the plot maps with a diamond shape.  Then referring to another list of the Commonwealth war graves at Cathays it is possible to calculate where in relation to those graves is the plot you are looking for.

War graves marked with diamond

A section of a plot map at Cathays Cemetery with Commonwealth War graves marked with a diamond

Unfortunately the plots I found of the people who died in the Pen-y-lan Road bombing, all except one,  had unmarked graves i.e. no headstone present.  The exception was the grave of Elizabeth Wing and her daughter Lilian.  Here there was a headstone but it had become too weathered to read. I don’t suppose the absence of headstones should come as a surprise considering the burials took place in wartime, but a sad discovery nevertheless.

Grave of Elizabeth and Lilian Wing

grave of Elizabeth and Lilian Wing  at Cathays Cemetery

So next time you are in the vicinity of Pen-y-lan Road, spare a thought for those killed by one of the last bombs to fall on Cardiff; Elizabeth the dressmaker, Lilian the shop assistant, Ivy Witts and William the hairdresser and their families, just like the man in the photograph is probably doing.   Then spare another thought for all those killed in WWII and indeed all other victims of war before and since.

Penylan Road bomb damage

Postscript

After publishing this blog I received quite a bit of feedback, including this very moving recollection from Pat Laing who has given me permission to include it here:

Mr and Mrs Rees and their son Colin and daughter Mavis came back from South Africa in 1938 and rented 116 Marlborough Rd. I lived at 120 and being only one year younger than Mavis we quickly became close friends. We went to different schools but took ballet lessons together every Saturday in Charles St and played together in the afternoons and in school holidays.  When the war started Mr Rees joined up and Mrs Rees and Colin and Mavis went to live at 12 Penylan Rd.  I was there playing the piano and doing block designs with Mavis on the evening of May 18th.  She was playing White Christmas as she had just got the sheet music.  I said goodbye at about 7pm and added “See you Saturday at the bus stop”, but of course I never saw her again.  By 1946 her father and mother were running a sweet shop in City Rd.  I met up with Colin about 1948 and we played tennis together for a few years in Roath Park. He went to Bristol University.  He a always bore burn marks on his legs.

The Cardiff High School Headmaster who never was.

I thought I would start to take a look at the names on the Cardiff High WWI memorial plaque.  I’ve made a slow start.  The first name on the memorial is “J L Davies.  Essex Regt (Headmaster 1915)”.  It’s a sad story, as are all that lie behind war memorial names.

John Llewelyn Davies - Headmaster Cardiff High

Major John Llewelyn Davies (Photo credit: IWM)

 

The war memorial plaque was originally displayed at the old Cardiff High School on Newport Road but now sited at Cardiff High School on  Llandennis Road. It was dedicated in its original position on 22nd Nov 1922, relocated to the new Cardiff High School building in 1970 and rededicated on 30th June 2006 after being restored and remounted.

Cardiff High School War Memorial

J L Davies Cardiff High War Memorial

J L Davies was Major John Llewelyn Davies. He was born in the picturesque village of St Ishmael, near Ferryside in Carmarthenshire in 1879.  His father, David Davies, was a schoolmaster.  Sometime in the next ten years David Davies moved to Neath where he became headmaster of what is now called the Alderman Davies school, more famous these days for being where Katherine Jenkins started he education.

St Ishmael, Carmarthenshire

St Ishmael, Carmarthenshire, birthplace of John Llewelyn Davies

John Llewelyn Davies attended his father’s school in Neath as did probably his five siblings.  After school he then went on to study at Aberystwyth University and then Emmanuel College, Cambridge.  He graduated with First Class honours in Natural Science and went on to gain an M.A.

Emmanual College Cambridge

Emmanuel College, Cambridge (Photo credit – Wiki)

 

On leaving Cambridge, John went as lecturer to Carmarthen Training College (Trinity College) for a short period, and subsequently became science master at the Perse School, Cambridge.  As a  schoolmaster,  Major  Davies  was  thorough  and  successful, enjoying great popularity among his boys and colleagues.  His pupils gained  many open  scholarships at universities.

Carmarthen Training College

Trinity College Carmarthen

As well as having a passion for science, John Llewelyn Davies was dedicated to the military.  Whilst teaching in Cambridge he spent seven years as a Lieutenant in the Officers Training Corps.  When the war broke out he gave up his post at Perse School and joined the 11th Essex Regiment as Captain of A Company.

Perse School, Cambridge

Perse School, Cambridge in the late 1800s

In April 1915 he was promoted to the rank of Major.  In May he was appointed as Headmaster of Cardiff High School.  It was agreed that he would take up his post when the war was over.  On 17th August 1915 he was married to Isabel Christina Jessie Fraser B.A. in Wrexham.  Christina, a teacher,  worked at the Training College in Bingley, Yorkshire.  On 30 August 1915, just thirteen days after he was married,  John Llewelyn Davies and his battalion landed at Boulogne, and proceeded to positions at Loos.

On 25th September 1915, Major John Llewelyn Davies is killed on the first day of the battle of Loos in France, one of the bloodiest battles of WWI where 60,000 British soldiers perished.  He was aged 35. He has no known burial site.

Battle of Loos

photograph (Q 28986) Battle of Loos, 25th September, 1915. Ruined buildings in a street in Loos, 30th September, 1915. The famous Tower Bridge can be seen. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205092033

One of his fellow officers wrote “He was very much a fine soldier and all had such implicit confidence in him.  He was so capable and absolutely to be relied upon. The regiment feels very much his loss for he was one of the ablest officers”.

John Llewelyn Davies is remembered on a number of War Memorials.  As well as the Cardiff High School memorial his name also appears on memorials at Aberystwyth University, Trinity College Carmarthen and Perse School Cambridge as well as the Loos Memorial at Dud Corner Cemetery, France.

Aberystwyth University

Aberystwyth University – one of the places Major J L Davies is remembered

His wife of just one month, Christina, continued her teaching career and never did remarry, and lived into her eighties.  She passed away in Chirk, Denbighshire in 1964.

The probate of Major John Llewelyn Davies details that the executor was his bother  Richard Jones Davies.    The probate also states that  he died as Wesel in Germany.

John Llewellyn Davies probate announcment 2nd May 2016 Cambrian Leader

John Llewellyn Davies probate announcement 2nd May 2016 Cambrian Leader

One newspaper report states that the brother, Richard Jones Davies lived in Llanishen, so maybe there was a connection to Cardiff after all.  I tried to find Richard Davies in Cardiff in the 1911 Census but failed.  It turns out he was at the time in hospital in Pinewood, Wokingham, Berkshire.  Pinewood hospital was a place for those recovering from tuberculosis, a not uncommon disease at the time.

So Major John Llewelyn Davies never got to take up his post as Headmaster of Cardiff High School. Judging by his prior achievements I’m sure he would have been very successful in that role.  A sad loss to his family and to Cardiff High School.

Trinity College War Memorial

Loos War Memorial, France (Photo Credit: Gwyn Prescott)

Subsequent Information

After publishing this blog post Gwyn Prescott (rugby and military historian) was kind enough to share with me his bio on Major J L Davies.  It contained some interesting additional information:

  • The Red Cross reported that Major John Llewelyn Davies had died of wounds in German hands at Wesel, Germany. A fellow officer wrote: “He was such a fine soldier, and [all his men] had such implicit confidence in him. He was so capable and absolutely to be relied on. The regiment feels very much his loss, for he was one of the ablest officers.”  His official date of death is given as 25th September 1915, the day on which the Battle of Loos opened. However, it appears that he may have been mortally wounded on the 26th and, as he died in Germany as a prisoner of war, his death must have occurred later. He was 36. His grave was subsequently lost so he is commemorated on the Loos Memorial to the Missing, Dud Corner, France. He is also commemorated on war memorials in Aberystwyth University; Emmanuel College Cambridge; Perse School Cambridge; and the Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, London.

 

RSC War Memorial Burlington HOuse

Royal Society of Chemistry memorial at Burlington House, London

Gwyn Prescott also made me aware that J L Davies was a Chemist.  When I had read that he graduated with degrees in natural science I had assumed he was a biologist or alike, forgetting that Cambridge University natural science degrees cover a breadth of scientific topics.  Being a chemist myself I realised when I read his name is remembered on the memorial at Royal Society of Chemistry offices in Burlington House that I would have walked past his name on a number of occasions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Extra bits

I’m a great believer in not only sharing the findings from research but also the methods of how to go about conducting that research.  I’m by no means an expert and there are others far more expert than me out there in Cardiff.

Researching names on war memorials isn’t always straightforward.  In Wales there are a lot of common surnames making things tricky.  On war memorials it is often only the initials and surname quoted.  And beware, sometimes errors are made even in spelling a name etc.

At least in the case of the Cardiff High war memorial plaque the regiment names are quoted which can help.  In the case therefore of ‘J L Davies.  Essex Regt’, the first thing I did was to see if he was listed on the Commonwealth War Graves.  There were a number of matches J L Davies’s but only one in WWI in the Essex Regiment and he was Major John Llewelyn Davies.  I’m still not convinced however at this stage that I have the right person.

I then spent quite a long time looking for a John Llewelyn Davies in Cardiff on the census records.  A census is carried out once ever ten years in England and Wales but the information kept secret for a hundred years.  The last census therefore available for us to study is the 1911 census. A sort of census was carried out in September 1939 but detailing a lot less information but is also available and called the 1939 Register.  Let me clarify by what I mean when I say ‘available’.  Census records are most easily searched and accessed using the two main family history websites Ancestry and Find my Past.  Unfortunately, both these are subscription websites.  Don’t get despondent, there’s good news.  Both can be accessed free of charge in Cardiff libraries.

John Llewelyn Davies

So I search for John Llewelyn Davies in Cardiff in the census information and find nothing.  This is where I made a mistake.  I should have probably just done and internet search for ‘John Llewelyn Davies’ and ‘Cardiff High School’ where I would probably have discovered that others had carried out similar research.  Instead I just kept looking for a John Llewelyn Davies on census records but without a date of birth things were proving tricky.  Eventually I found one born in Ferryside and had a father who was a schoolmaster. Then I found him in the 1911 census as a schoolmaster in Cambridge which would explain him being a member of the Essex Regiment.  Things were beginning to fit together.  A couple more bits were obtained from Wales Newspapers Online and then back to some more general searching using Google (other internet search engines are available!).

John Llewelyn Davies obit

Mid Glam Herald and Neath Gazette Dec 4th 1915 Obit

I won’t bore you with every avenue I took during my search but I did enjoy doing it.  If you are interested in starting off or honing your skills I can recommend the Glamorgan Family History Society.  They periodically run courses for beginners and have a session on the first Saturday of the month at Cardiff Central Library for more experienced researchers who may have hit a brick wall in their particular project.  A number of Cardiff libraries also run sessions for beginners such as Cathays and Rhydypennau and maybe some others.

My final recommendation is a train trip to Ferryside and St Ishmael, the birthplace of Major John Llewelyn Davies.  I went there earlier this year and the views across the estuary to Llansteffan and Laugharne were something else.  Don’t forget to tell the train conductor you want to get off however as Ferryside is a request stop.  More about that trip on my own blog Cardiff Capers.

 

 

The Secrets of a Cardiff House slowly revealed.

A few weeks ago I spotted a postcard of Cardiff for sale on eBay.  It wasn’t your traditional postcard with a picture of Cardiff Castle, the City Hall or Roath Park lake.  This was a picture of a house, a seemingly ordinary house with nobody posing in front of it. The postmark was 1908.

Cardiff postcard

Mystery Cardiff postcard

I tried to think about where in Cardiff the house could be but quickly realised it looked like so many houses in Cardiff suburbs built in the late Victorian period.  Let’s enlist some help I thought and posted it on the ‘Cardiff Now & Then’ Facebook page – it’s just the sort of thing they may like doing.  Suggestions of where the house could be flooded in.  Some of the streets mentioned are no longer in existence making checking problematic.   With the help of Google Street View however it was possible for me and others in the Facebook group to check most of them and discount many of the suggestions.

Cardiff postcard Miss Grant 26 Bonnington Square Lambeth

My eye was caught by one particular suggestion proposed by David Meek.  David was suggesting it could be 66 Albany Road, opposite his family-owned shoe business, itself of historical significance being one of the oldest businesses in Albany Road.  I examined the image closer.  It certainly looked a good match.  The ornate roof ridge tiles however didn’t match but that didn’t discourage me too much – ridge tiles are often replaced over time.

66 Albany Road, Roath, Cardiff 2019

66 Albany Road today, occupied by CPS Homes

The fact that Albany Road is very much in the heart of our area of interest in Roath Local History Society led me to led me to entering a bid on eBay for the postcard.  In the meantime I set about examining the writing on the back. The card was addressed to Miss Grant of 26 Bonnington Square, South Lambeth, London.  I managed to find the Grant family at that address in the 1911 census.  Miss Grant was probably Edith Alice Grant, a blouse maker.  A bit more research revealed that Edith also had a sister, Bertha Grant, who in 1911 was living with her aunt and uncle in Monmouth.  Bertha is another possibility for the postcard recipient.

Grant family 1911

The Grant family at 26 Bonnington Square, Lambeth in 1911. Miss Edith Grant, a blouse maker, was 27. In 1908, the date of the postcard, she would have been 24.

The final day of the eBay auction arrived and the minutes ticked down.  Lo and behold I won the bidding with my bid of £5.  To be honest I was the only bidder.  A picture of an anonymous house in Cardiff evidently didn’t pique people’s interest.

Whist waiting for the postcard to be delivered I looked again at the photo of the writing on the back of the card.  Working on David Meek’s suggestion that this was 66 Albany Road, I attempted to link it to the family living there in 1911.  In 1911 the house was occupied by the Phillips family headed up by Frederick Phillips, a dental mechanic, whatever one of those is!  Tantalisingly the family originated from London, though the three younger children had all been born in Cardiff.  Eliza, the mother-in-law, had even been born in Lambeth.  Try as I might though I couldn’t find any link between the Grant family and the Phillips family.

66 Albany Road 1911

The Phillips family in 66 Albany Road in 1911.  Was one of these the postcard author?  I had my doubts.

The postcard arrived.  I immediately rushed upstairs and found my magnifying glass.  Bingo!  The house was number 66.  The image posted on eBay hadn’t been good enough quality to see this but now having the original in front of me I could examine it much better and see the number 66 etched on the front door window.

66 Albany Road, Roath, Cardiff, front door

An enlarged view of the front door on the postcard

I still wanted further proof that I was looking at 66 Albany Road and not 66 in another street.  I set about examining the brickwork under the magnifying glass and comparing it to the enlarged Google Streetview image.  I discovered that in a few rows thicker bricks were used than in other rows.  And yes, those layers did match in both the postcard and the modern day.

Stonework comparison

A brick-by-brick comparison of today’s 66 Albany Road with the postcard picture.

That still left an obvious question.  Why make a postcard picture of a seemingly mundane house.  Almost out of desperation I conducted a newspaper search on “66 Albany Road” (Hint – if you haven’t used it yet, Welsh Newspapers Online is a great resource).  I struck gold and all was explained.  In 1908, 66 Albany Road was home to the St Alban’s School of Music run by Abraham N James.

Cymro a'r Celt Llundain 9th Mar 1907

Newspaper cutting from Cymro a’r Celt Llundain 9th Mar 1907

Abraham N James was not shy in his advertising.  He advertised in London newspapers targeted at the Welsh ex-pat community living there. I’m guessing the postcard was just part of his advertising material.  I’m left wondering whether his pupils from far away also boarded in the house.

I started researching the James family.  Abraham Nehemiah James was born in Neath and married Mary Ann Price from Merthyr in 1887 and moved to Aberdare.  They had two daughters, Vida Annie Patti James (b.1889) and Florence Novello James (b.1891) both born in Aberdare.  The name Patti seems to be a nod to Dame Adelina Patti, one of the world’s great opera singers of the time who made her home in Craig y Nos in the Swansea valley.  Florence’s middle name Novello was a nod not to Ivor Novello but his grandmother Clara Novello, an acclaimed soprano singer.

Patti and Novello

Dame Adelina Patti and Clara Novello (photos: Wiki), who the James girls were named after.

 

So let’s have a look at the message on the postcard again.  The handwriting isn’t easy to read but my best guess is:

Dear Miss Grant,

So sorry to hear that you have been laid up.  Dadda and Mamma are away now & Auntie is here with us.  V and I are busy in Coll now.  I will write again when Dadda and Mamma come home. Hoping your better. With love be (?).

Frustratingly there aren’t many clues there.  The V could be one of the daughters Vida.  Of course the writer of the postcard may have nothing to do with the James family.  The writer could be a pupil at the St Alban’s School of Music.  I even thought that Miss Grant could have been a former music teacher of the postcard writer.  Lots of possibilities there.

Plaques on 66 Albany Road

The house in the postcard has two plaques, frustratingly too unclear to read.

So what happened to the Abraham James and family?  In 1911 they had moved from 66 Albany Road to Waterloo Road in Penylan.  Abraham died later that year aged 62 leaving just £72 in his will suggesting that his music school may not have been a great money spinner.

Abraham family in 1911 in Waterloo Road, Cardiff

Abraham James and family living in Waterloo Road, Penylan, Cardiff in 1911

In 1939, Vida James the daughter, is living at Roath Court Road and described as incapacitated but lives until 1969 when she was living in Langland on the Gower peninsular.   Florence James, possibly the postcard writer, married Albert Lukey in 1915 and lived in Winchester Avenue, Penylan, Cardiff.  She unfortunately dies ten years later in 1925 aged just 35.  Albert Lukey remarries in 1938 and dies in 1960 in Winchester Avenue.  The world can seem quite a small place still sometimes.  My grandparents lived in Winchester Avenue and my mother was born there.  They would have no doubt have known Albert Lukey and his second wife Dorothy.

So finally, lets return to the picture postcard.  This is probably one of the best pictures that exists of an Albany Road house before it was converted into a shop and therefore of historical significance itself.  66 Albany Road has had many occupants over time.  From 1937-1958 it was Glynne Jones a ladies hairdressers.  In the 1980s it was the jewellers Gold, Gold, Gold.  Nowadays it is occupied by CPS Estate and Letting agents.  The stonework looks lot cleaner than it did in 1908.

66 Albany Road probably in the 1980s

66 Albany Road, far left, occupied by Gold, Gold, Gold, in the 1980s (Photo credit: Alec Kier, Roath Local History Society)

I wonder if you listen very very carefully when passing 66 Albany Road whether you can still hear the voices of budding operatic stars being put through their paces by Abraham Nehemiah James?



Appendix:

Too many bits and pieces were collected in researching Abraham James to include in the body of the article so I offer them here if you still have the staying power to read them.

John Thomas harpist Pencerdd Gwalia

The patron to Abraham James’s St Alban’s School of Music is advertised as being the Royal harpist John Thomas (Pencedd Gwalia)

 

Jan 3rd 1879

An early advertisement from Abraham James in 1879

Aberdare Times 1896

Aberdare Times 1896 – before the James family moved to Cardiff

 

Patent application

A patent application for educational dominoes filed by Abraham James in 1895

Aberdare Leader 23rd Dec 1905

Aberdare Leader, 23rd Dec 1905

Tarian Y Gweithiwr 5th Sep 1907

Tarian Y Gweithiwr 5th Sep 1907

Aberdare Leader 26th Dec 1908

Aberdare Leader 26th Dec 1908