Nov 24, 2016

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‘…famous for the Cure of all Diseases…’ : St Govan’s Well over 350 years


By Janet Bord

Although there are around 700 holy wells in Wales, the majority of them are poorly documented.  Most had only local fame, with very few being known outside their parish, and usually no one thought to record them while still in use.  Consequently many were eventually forgotten and lost, sometimes only surviving in an old field name.  I am currently researching all the saints’ wells in Wales:  saints’ wells rather than all the named wells, of which there must be several thousand.  Not all named wells or spas are holy wells, which need to be named for a saint or have some specific religious connection;  many wells were purely local water supplies, perhaps with a personal name (usually that of the owner or user) but often with no traditions.  Very few holy wells were on the 18th and 19th century tourist trail, except for those that had become famous for some significant reason, such as Wales’s best-known and most impressive well, St Winefride’s at Holywell in Flintshire, still visited today by the sick seeking cures, as well as by many devout Catholic pilgrims and non-religious tourists.

In South Wales one small and visually insignificant saint’s well did find its way on to tourist itineraries, largely because of its dramatic location, and as a result, the descriptions of what travellers found there have provided us with an insight into how a holy well’s history can develop and change over the years.   I discovered this when I set out chronologically all the descriptions I could find relating to what is now known as St Govan’s Well, in Bosherston parish not far from Tenby in south Pembrokeshire.

Who was St Govan?
The first mystery, as is so often the case with saints’ wells, is the identity of St Govan. ‘Govan’ is the spelling most often seen today, but alternative spellings of his name include, as the earliest form I have found, ‘Sct. Gouen’ on Saxton’s 1578 map of Pembrokeshire;  also Gowan (as for example on the 1868 Ordnance Survey map),

Gowen, Goven, Gofan and Gobin.  He may have been born around 500 and was possibly a disciple of Eilfyw, the Pembrokeshire saint who baptised St David, and who is usually, but incorrectly, said to have been Irish, and the same person as St Ailbe of Emly, a famous Irish bishop.  Govan may also have been St David’s nephew, since one source identifies his mother as St David’s sister.   He has also been confused with Gobhan, an Irish saint known from the life of St Ailbe, because of the similarity of names and also because of the confusion between Ailbe and Eilfyw.  This confusion dates back as far as the late 11th century, in Rhigyfarch’s Life of St David.  A 17th-century spelling of the Pembrokeshire saint’s name as Gobin in an account by John Ray might suggest that he was a native Pembrokeshire saint who had become confused with St Ailbe’s disciple because of their very similar names.  The Irish Gobhan is stated in a life of Ailbe to have been St Ailbe’s cook and to have travelled with two of his disciples to Rome to get a copy of the correct way to say Mass.  Gobhan was sick on the boat, dying and then coming back to life, an event that appears to have been depicted on one of the misericords inside St David’s Cathedral.  However, the balance of probability suggests that Govan/Gobin and Gobhan were two entirely separate people who were later assumed to be one person because of name similarities and a conflation of the sources. 1

To complicate matters further, it has also been suggested that Govan was in fact Gawain, famous in Arthurian legend as one of the knights of the Round Table.   This connection has been centuries in the making, if a 19th-century summary by Cosmo Innes is accurate.  But his account of the legend only deals with the burial of Gawain once dead, and does not allow for him to have been a saint living in an isolated cell on the Pembrokeshire coast.

Sir Gawain, the renowned knight of the Round Table, was slain by Sir Launcelot, and many places claimed the honour of preserving his remains:  Langtoft says that he was buried at Wybre in Wales;  Caxton and Leland place his interment at Dover;  whilst, according to the Brut, he was conveyed to his country of Scotland.  The occurrence of a name so similar as
that of Govan, associated with a remarkable site, was sufficient, it would appear, to justify a claim on behalf of Pembrokeshire.  The assertion, singular as it may be, is not modern, since William of Malmesbury relates the discovery on the coast of the province of Ross in Wales, in the times of the Conqueror, of the tomb of Gawain, 14 feet in length;  and also that the wounded knight was wrecked on the coast, and slain by the natives.  Leland rejects the tale, but records the existence of a ruined castle near the shore, called by the name of Gawain;  and Sir F. Madden [an antiquary, 1801-73] observes that the tradition of the locality assigns St. Govan’s Head as the burial-place of King Arthur’s nephew. 2

Gawain has also been claimed to be Gwalchmai, a legendary figure from Welsh tradition, whose name appears in Pembrokeshire.  Castell Gwalchmai (Walwyn’s Castle) is about 16 miles to the north-west of St Govan’s Head, and there are other local links:   the 18th-century antiquary Lewis Morris said that Gwalchmai’s grave was between the islands of Skomer and Skokholm, not far away off the coast to the north-west.   It seems feasible that since the Gwalchmai/Gawain and Govan locations are only a few miles apart, the similarity of the names caused the tradition of Sir Gawain to drift south to St Govan’s territory, as shown by Sir Frederic Madden’s comment noted above.  He appears to be the first person to mislocate Gawain’s tomb from Walwyn’s Castle to St Govan’s Head, and so the identification of Govan as Gawain dates from no earlier than the first half of the 19th century. 3

It seems that everyone has had a stab at identifying ‘St Govan’, and also criticising other people’s identifications, as typified in the following footnote from a late 19th-century book about Tenby and its environs:

“The valiant knight – the Sir Gawain, of good King Arthur’s round table – has been transformed, by popular error, into a saint.  The superstitious stories to which this singular position of a consecrated building has given rise are without end.” – Malkin. [Benjamin Heath Malkin (1769-1843) in his own writings always refers to ‘Sir Gawaine’s Chapel’ rather tha St Govan’s Chapel.]   Malkin here, as well as in many other of his assumptions, is not to be relied on;  the name, no doubt, is a corruption of St.Giovanni, to whom the chapel was dedicated.” 4

There is no chance whatsoever that St Govan was the same as an Italian St Giovanni, who is probably St John the Evangelist or St John the Baptist, not a separate Italian St John.  An equally unlikely identification makes Govan a woman, St Cofen, the wife of a 6th-century Welsh king:  ‘St Cofen, Govein, or Goven, was an early Welsh saint, wife of Tewdrig and mother of Mewrig, kings of South Wales.’  5  Malkin also refers to a British St Goven, and goes on to say, ‘Both St. Goven, and St. Golwen are sometimes mistaken for Godwin’ and then he mentions ‘a saint Golwin’ 6:  it seems that every permutation of spelling has cropped up somewhere to try and explain the identity of this mysterious saint.  Today the consensus seems to be that Govan was the Irish St Gobhan – but as noted above, this is probably incorrect and he was most likely a native Pembrokeshire saint of whom nothing is known.

There is some little-known evidence that St Govan was not associated solely with the well-known cliff chapel that now bears his name:  it is possible that he was also active at Narberth around 12 miles to the north-east of St Govan’s Chapel, an area in the same rural deanery as Bosherston.   The Narberth Tithe Apportionment includes the historic field names Upper Saint Gowens and Lower Saint Gowens, Gowen being one of the alternative name-forms for Govan.  Three-quarters of a mile to the north-north-west of these two fields is St Owen’s Well in Stoneditch Lane opposite the house now named The Valley.

‘Owen’ is unlikely to be the obscure St Owen who appears in the life of St Milburga (he has a well at Much Wenlock in Shropshire) or St Ouen, bishop of Rouen, who had a substantial cult in northern France or the Jesuit martyr St Nicholas Owen;  instead the name would seem to be a version of ‘Gowen’ probably derived from the Welsh system of mutation where some names following ffynnon or llan lose their initial letter, so that St Gowen’s Well would in Welsh be Ffynnon Owen – just as St Gallgo had his church at Llanallgo on Anglesey, his well being Ffynnon Allgo.

The Valley was formerly the old Rectory and is named as such on the 1888 OS map.   A former rector of Narberth was told by ‘a very old parishioner’ around 1884 that his parents had told him that there was an ancient building where weddings took place in the field adjoining the house.  Parts of this ruined building were included in the Rectory which was built in 1827.  The rector also stated that close to the ruins ‘is now a bee-hive-shaped well of splendid water’:  this would be St Owen’s Well, a name recorded around 1700 by Edward Lhwyd.  The name ‘Henllan’ (old church) was recorded at Stoneditch in 1688;  and a 6th-century inscribed gravestone was also found here.  These are all suggestive of there having been a church dedicated to St Govan at Narberth, all memory of which has now been lost except for these few clues. 7

The location of St Govan’s Well
St Govan’s Well is to be found close to St Govan’s Chapel, a mile south of Bosherston in Pembrokeshire (Grid Reference SR96709295).   There is open access to chapel and well; however, the road from Bosherston is sometimes closed because of the adjacent army firing range.  It is necessary to follow the road towards the       coast until the parking area is reached, then walk towards the cliffs and down the long flight of rough stone steps (said to be uncountable) to the chapel and well.

The chapel fills the space between the cliffs, and it is necessary to go through it to reach the well.  Nothing appears to be known about the history of the chapel, though it is believed to be of 13th-14th century date, and its origins probably older.  It was restored in the 1980s.  It is a small stone building, comprising a single chamber 18 feet by 12 feet, with three doorways.  One, in the north-east wall, leads into a natural chamber in the rock adjoining the chapel, the so-called saint’s cell which is mentioned again later.


Inside the chapel can be seen a stone altar, a piscina, stone benches and a well.  There are in fact two wells at this location, though only one is named for the saint; the other appears to have no name, and is inside the chapel, at floor level to the left of the doorway in the north wall.  The saint’s well can be found by leaving the chapel on the southern side and going down rough steps towards the shore;  the entrance to the well faces the chapel.  It is covered by a stone well house with a corbelled roof and a stone lintel. 8

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Earliest recorded visits
The chapel and wells have been famed for centuries, and have long been on the tourist itinerary, especially in the 19th century, so that we now have numerous descriptions of them over the last 350 years.  The earliest I have found in print so far is the account by John Ray, following his visit in 1662:

Thence the same Day to St. Gobin’s Well, by the Sea Side, where, under the Cliff, stands a little Chapel, sacred to that Saint, and a little below it a Well, famous for the Cure of all Diseases.  There is, from the Top of the Cliff to the Chapel, a Descent of 52 Steps. 9

Ray does not mention the well inside the chapel, but both are included in the entry for ‘Bosherstone’ in Edward Lhwyd’s Parochialia, dating from around 1700.

An ancient Chappell called St Goveans near the sea side between 2 great rocks.  Within the Chappell ther’s a spring & another below the Chappell toward the sea.  The watter of these springs is found to be good for many distempers. 10

Sir Thomas Gery Cullum’s diary for 1775 included a description of his visit on 27 July to St Gobin’s well, which is especially interesting as he was able to see sick people using the well water.  He also refers to ‘the Priestess of the Chapel’, who actively collected donations from visitors, a practice to be found at some other especially popular holy wells where visitors might be pressured into offering money to a female guardian, although in this instance it is not stated whether she actually provided any services to the sick who came seeking cures.  She may have been the owner or tenant of the land, or may simply have been someone living close by who found that if she was on hand at the well to guide pilgrims through the rituals, she could earn a little money from them.

[The well] is very near the sea, covered over with some rough stone work.  The water is temperate with no particular taste.  It still maintains some credit.  A poor woman was at it with her husband from Caermarthen, near 40 miles;  he had a Pain in his Hip;  he bathed the Part and drank the Water.  You descend to this [well] through a little Chapel of no great antiquity, 18 by 12.  At one end is something like an Altar Mon.[ument?], perhaps the old Altar.  On this Altar is laid the money of Visitants, if the Priestess of the Chapel happens to be absent.  This was the case when I was there, and the Information I had was from the poor Woman and her Husband;  upon my return [i.e. on his way out] I saw her, and she asked me how much I had left for her in the Chapel.  The building has a stone seat all round it.  In it is a little Puddle which they call a spring, good for the Eyes.  The water is taken out with the shell of a Limpet….  The number of the steps to the Chapel is about 70, from thence to the Well, 30….

There is a little Cavity in the rocks close to the Chapel, in which you are told Our Saviour took refuge for fear of the Jews;  you may still see the impression of his Person.
By the bye, it may not be very difficult for this Well to support its Reputation, if visited by People who can walk near 40 miles and back again! 11

The saint’s cell, the bell stone, and other traditions
Sir Thomas’s reference  to ‘a little Cavity’ refers to the rock chamber mentioned above – a tiny ‘cell’ which can be squeezed into, and which may in fact be the forgotten focal point of the whole chapel and well complex.  It is probable that this was the saint’s cave, cell, or penitential bed, and that the chapel may have been built as an adjunct to it.  It is telling that the chapel altar is beside the entrance to the cell.   A number of traditions have grown up, for example that St Govan, or Jesus, hid there from pirates;  and the cavity is so tight that the impression of the saint’s ribs are still visible on the rock.  It was believed that a person squeezing into the cavity and making a wish, will have that wish granted if he or she can turn around while making it.  There are numerous variations on this theme;  clearly the cell was very popular with visitors as it is described, often at length, in most of the accounts.

Another popular feature of the site’s folklore is the so-called bell stone, although as with the cell, the story has many variations.  The most familiar version is that pirates came ashore and stole the chapel bell.  As they returned to their boat, they rested the bell on certain stones, and ever afterwards those stones would make a bell-like sound when struck.  Alternatively, the bell was miraculously returned and became encased inside a rock, which rings like a bell when struck.  Like the tradition of the saint’s cell inside the chapel, the bell legend has appeared in various forms over the years.

Some other traditions which may have been active at the chapel and well, though rarely mentioned in the literature, include the so-called ‘sprinkling earth’ referred to in her 1909 book by Marie Trevelyan, obtained from fissures close to the chapel. 12   Presumably the earth was believed to carry the saint’s blessing and was used to sprinkle sick pilgrims hoping for a cure;  it may have been the same earth that was mixed with water and applied to the bodies of the sick.  A century earlier, B.H. Malkin mentioned in passing that sometimes couples would get married at the chapel. 13   One wonders who would have been marrying them:  is it possible that this refers to the clandestine use of the chapel by recusants?   In the 1830s Sir Roderick Murchison referred to ‘the rude steps chiselled by the holy man’, but if this was a firm part of the tradition, it is strange that no one else mentions it. 14  Most commentators concentrated on recounting the traditions relating to the saint’s cell and the bell stone, with other snippets tossed in if recalled – there may have been more that were current but never written down.

Two early 19th-century visits by Richard Fenton
Richard Fenton (1746-1821), Welsh historian, topographer and genealogist, wrote two accounts of the chapel and well, both published in 1811 although one of his visits is datable to 1807 and, judging from a remark in the other account, the 1807 visit was his first.  On this occasion he came ashore from a boat and so saw the saint’s well before coming to the chapel.  He wrote first of the bell stones and the pirate legend, and then about the well:

…in the cavity of a stone skirting the ascent about midway, [is] a little water, believed by the superstitious to be unfailing, but shrewdly suspected, by such as judge of things through an unprejudiced medium, to be adventitious.  Many cures are supposed to be performed, by bathing the limbs here;  and the place is frequented much in summer by the poorer sort of people from the interior, who leaving their votive crutches behind, to line the walls of the chapel, return restored to their limbs, which perhaps may be ascribed, with more justice, to change of air and the sea-breeze, than to any virtues inherent in this equivocal moisture, found in the stone basin and in the floor of the chapel:  and I am of opinion that this may hold good with respect to all watering-places, as I firmly believe that half the cures attributed to them may be oftener placed to the account of a difference in air, diet, exercise, vacancy of mind, and regulations productive of greater temperance, than to any salutary properties in the waters themselves.  [In other words, people who believe in the efficacy of holy wells are ill-fed, lazy, ignorant and drunk!  Fenton clearly believed that any cures were not the result of the intervention of the saint;  but the fact that crutches were left in the chapel does indicate that cures were claimed, however caused.  Also, genuine cripples would have found it very difficult to negotiate the steps up to the cliff-top without the aid of their crutches.]

The sailors told me, that, a few years back, such was the veneration the St. Govan’s fluid was held in, it was a common thing for people of the better sort, inhabiting the English parts of this county, to bring their infants there to undergo unction (for bathing it cannot be called), on a supposition, to use their own phrase, that the water made them more cute, and subtle;  but if they at all partook of the appearance of the fluid, I am sure it must make them muddy and dull. 15

This description tells us that in 1807 the well had not yet been covered by the stone arched well-house now to be seen:  the water is ‘in the cavity of a stone’.   It is difficult to determine exactly when the present well-house was erected, but there was probably an antiquarian tidying up of the site during the later 19th century, similar to what had happened at St Non’s Well outside St Davids not too far away, which is also covered by a rounded arched structure.   However, there was apparently some kind of cover in the late 18th century, judging by Sir Thomas Gery Cullum’s account quoted earlier, since he said that the well was ‘covered over with some rough stone work’.  This had presumably disappeared by the time of Fenton’s 1807 visit.   Fenton’s account also suggests that there wasn’t much water in the uncovered well:  he talks of  ‘a little water’ and how it would make anyone partaking of it ‘muddy and dull’, suggesting more like a muddy puddle than a flowing spring.  Another report from later in the 19th century refers to ‘the not very clear stream’. 16   However, in the mid-19th century Thomas Roscoe said that the well was ‘a spring of clear bubbling water, encircled with brick-work’ which disagrees with the other reports of muddy water – and it is not clear what Roscoe meant by ‘encircled with brick-work’. 17   It does not sound as though the well was covered over.  Maybe the amount of water was dependent on the weather, how much rain there had been, whether the spring was running fast and clear.

Fenton ended his 1807 account with a description of the cell in the chapel, mentioning only the custom of making wishes while squeezed into it.  In his next account, written very soon afterwards, he clearly approached the chapel from the landward side, since this time he began with a long description of the ‘miraculous cell’ which was able to hide ‘a saint closely pursued by his pagan persecutors’ before moving to the well within the chapel, and then to St Govan’s Well itself.
At the north side of the chapel on the floor there is a little cavity, shewing some appearance of moisture as of an oozing from some spring at the top of the cliff, and filtering through there forms a muddy deposit, used and held to be of sovereign efficacy in complaints of the eyes, though it is shrewdly suspected that the venerable Sibyl [i.e. his humorous way of referring to the well ‘guardian’ whom he suspects may be overdoing her claims for the well] who superintends the supposed miraculous waters, by an alchymy peculiarly her own, has the merit of contributing the principal part of their virtues.  Leaving the chapel, I continue to descend several stone steps till I arrive at the sainted well, where crippled       patients bathe their limbs, many of whom come from the remotest inland parts of the principality to seek relief here, and leave their crutches behind a votive offering on the altar, such as I perceived placed there when I last paid a visit to this hermitage. 18


Colt Hoare’s illustration
in Fenton’s
A Historical Tour
of Pembrokeshire.

Sick pilgrims hope to be cured
Two men (Richard Ayton and William Daniell) on a voyage round Great Britain in 1813 paid a visit to the chapel, describing the building, the cell and the well in great detail.   Their guide took them inside the chapel to show them the display of crutches:

Our guide, anxious to witness the full confirmation of our faith, accompanied us into the interior, where we beheld, suspended from the walls, several crutches, which had supported the crippled and credulous to the well, and which were hung up here in testimony of their cure, and as offerings of gratitude to their gracious deliverer.

They then continued through the chapel and met two children who had come to the well in search of cures.  Ayton’s account is worth quoting in full since it portrays with sincerity the desperate straits in which the sick found themselves 200 years ago when there was no reliable medical care.

A few more steps lead from the chapel down to the well, and as we were descending, we met a miserable, emaciated girl, who was toiling up with the utmost difficulty and pain, and bending under the load of a large pitcher of water, which she told us she was going to drink.  She had been in ill health for many years, and had formerly drunk the water with strict regularity during twelve months, but growing worse, had applied to the doctor, who declared, after a long trial, that he could give her no relief, and she had now returned again, as her last refuge, to Saint Gowan.  The failure of the doctor had awakened all her confidence in the saint, and she was only fearful that he might be offended at her former impatience.  As we were ascending from the well, we perceived another votary who had hitherto escaped our observation, a poor lad   perched upon a rock, with paper and pencil in his hands, and his eyes devoutly fixed upon the chapel.  He too was suffering from disease, and had been long drinking the charmed water with no benefit to  his health, and with no injury to his faith:  he was too feeble to work, and spent much of his time among these solitary rocks, amusing himself with his pencil, which he had never been instructed to use, but which he hoped would one day enable him to take a faithful likeness of the steps, the chapel, and the well.  These poor people seemed to be utterly ignorant of all particulars relating to the birth and history of Saint Gowan, and delivered themselves up to his keeping without troubling themselves about his credentials.  My own enquiries on this subject (and my wishes in the wall [he refers to making a wish while squeezed into the rock fissure] may be supposed to have made me enquire with some earnestness,) have not led to any satisfactory conclusions.  There seems to be a doubt whether he was a thorough-bred saint imported from Ireland in the early ages of christianity, or Sir Gawaine, the nephew of king Arthur, and a model of valour and courtesy, canonized after his death by an error of the vulgar.  In either case nothing is known of his adventures in connexion with this rude spot, and whether he lived or died here it may never be permitted us to know. 19

Ayton’s observations show that a personal cult of the saint was still flourishing even as late as the early 19th century.  The sick girl and boy did not know who the saint was, but still had total faith in his power to cure them.

All the early 19th-century reports demonstrate the popularity of the well with people seeking cures;  a Tenby guidebook of 1818 tells us that ‘near twenty patients may be seen at once bathing their limbs and applying to their swollen and crippled joints plaisters of the red clay saturated with the water of the well.’ 20   (I will refer again later to the importance of the red clay.)  From the early 19th century onwards, many accounts of the well were published, often taking their information from earlier sources.  For example, C. F. Cliffe’s Book of South Wales repeats Fenton’s account almost verbatim, although whereas Fenton uses ‘Govan’, Cliffe prefers ‘Gowan’. 21   Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary, however, settles for ‘Gawen’.  It is clear there was no consensus as to the spelling of the saint’s name at that time, but that there does appear to be some change of emphasis developing towards a name similar to Gawain.

Tradition of Christ visiting St Govan’s
An account dating from around 1830 shows how much revered a place St Govan’s Chapel was in the local religious psyche at that time.  The vicar of St Florence outside Tenby some 10 miles away asked his Sunday School pupils where the Saviour was first seen after His resurrection from the dead, and they told him ‘At St Govan’s.’

Inquiring from others what gave rise to this strange reply, he was informed:  “Once a husbandman was sowing barley on the down-land above St. Govan’s, when his attention was attracted by the dignified and striking appearance of a man who was watching the operation.  On seeing that he was observed the stranger beckoned to the husbandman, who approaching him, and in reply to his question of ‘what are you doing?’ answered, ‘sowing barley.’  ‘But,’ said the stranger, ‘this seed you are burying in the ground will decay.’  ‘Yes,’ said the farmer, ‘it will rot, but it will spring again, and at harvest-time I shall come and gather it into my bosom.’  ‘Do you believe that which is dead can come to life?’  ‘I do,’ said the husbandman.  ‘Then,’ answered the stranger with an air of majesty, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life;  go home, fetch thy sickle and cut thy corn.’  The good man did as he was bidden, and on his return the stranger had disappeared, but the barley was ripe for harvest on the same day it had been sown.” 22

This tale is not unique to St Govan’s but appears elsewhere in Britain, for example at St Milburga’s Well at Stoke St Milborough in Shropshire.  When the saint was being chased by her enemies, she fell off her horse and some workmen rushed to help her.  She commanded their barley to grow quickly, and told the men that if anyone came asking for her, they were to say that she had passed by when they were sowing their barley.  That evening the barley, planted the same morning, was ready to harvest, and St Milburga was thus able to outwit her pursuers. 23   The theme is also found in other countries, and is a localised commentary on the biblical Flight into Egypt when the Holy Family were escaping King Herod who was planning to kill children.  The Pembrokeshire version of the tale has been adapted as a preaching tool, and lacks the pursuit and avoidance themes.

At St Govan’s Chapel, Jesus was sometimes substituted for St Govan as the person who hid in the rock cell to avoid his pursuers.  The mechanism of the concealment was that Jesus (or Govan) was escaping his enemies and the rocks opened up;  he squeezed into the cleft which then closed around him, hiding him until the danger had passed, whereupon they opened again – and thereafter remained open, leaving the aperture we see today, complete with the saint’s rib marks to prove he was there.  Most visitors did seem to know the story that the cell was used as a refuge against pursuers, but an unnamed tourist in 1836 apparently had little knowledge of the tradition, since he identified the rock ‘cell’ as a fireplace:  ‘the fire-place seems to have been in one corner, as there is a recess in the rock with an aperture through it, probably to allow the escape of the smoke’.  This visitor also noted that ‘there is also a tablet of stone fixed against the wall, which may be the remains of an altar, and on the opposite wall is a slab bearing date 1176’ – a detail which I have seen nowhere else.  He also described the well, although he wasn’t convinced by the claims made for its water:

Passing through the chapel, the wonderful well is gained by a descent of sixteen steps to the water, which is said to be a cure for all complaints and hurts!  It is of an oily nature, but not of inviting appearance;  the faith reposed in its efficacy is, however, truly astonish[ing];  and doubtless, if cures are effected, such proceed as much from the operation of that particular feeling, as from any healing property of the fluid:  all the peasantry of the neighbourhood are firmly rooted in the belief of its efficacy. 24

Later in the 19th century, a Tenby tourist was told in 1863 that Jesus actually visited the well:  ‘Some of the old inhabitants told my landlady that our Saviour came there to the well.’  He also recounted a brief and garbled version of the rapid harvest tale, showing that these traditions were being handed down through the generations.25

Still popular in Victorian times
Moving into the second half of the 19th century, an account from 1859 tells us that the well water was at that time still in demand for its healing properties.

Here is the hermitage (or chapel) of St Gawen, or Goven, in which there is a well, the water of which, and the clay near, is used for sore eyes.  Besides this, a little below the chapel, is another well, with steps leading down to it, which is visited by persons from distant parts of the principality, for the cure of scrofula, paralysis, dropsy, and other complaints.  Nor is it the poor alone who make this pilgrimage:  a case came more immediately under my notice, where a lady, a person of some fortune, having been for some time a sufferer from a severe attack of paralysis, which prevented her putting her hand in her pocket [meaning that her arm was paralysed, not the current meaning of the phrase!], took up her quarters at a farm-house near the well, and after visiting it for some weeks daily, returned home perfectly cured. 26

It was also the custom at other wells for the sick pilgrims to stay locally and pay many visits to the well;  there is even a cottage adjoining Ffynnon Gybi at Llangybi (Caernarfonshire).

This account continues with a description of the legend of the stolen bell, and a long description of the ‘Wishing Corner’, the rock fissure in the chapel where Jesus hid from the Jews who were persecuting him, or St Gawen daily squeezed himself ‘as a penance for his transgressions, until at length the print of the ribs became impressed on the rock’.  Pilgrims would turn round nine times and make a wish, which would be fulfilled if the saint approved.  This is a form of circumambulation, the ritual circling of a sacred site, usually nine times.  Often recorded in Ireland, it also occurs elsewhere in Wales:  Edward Lhwyd described in 1693 how he had seen a man ‘march nine times about Gorphwysfa Peris [the resting place of St Peris at Llanberis]… repeating ye Lords Prayer, and casting in a stone at every turn’. 27

It is interesting how the later accounts tend to place more emphasis on the ‘corner’, ‘bed’ or ‘coffin’ than on the wells, as, for example, in an account from the late 1850s by a Scottish visitor, Cosmo Innes.  He describes the well:  ‘A few yards farther down the ravine, [from the chapel] is a well still covered with a roof of rude architecture, and which the natives still hold in great respect, and visit for the cure of various diseases.’  He then goes on to describe St Govan’s ‘bed’ which was clearly pointed out to him by someone else present:  ‘The rock is polished by the number of visitors fitting themselves into the Saint’s bed of penance, and the natives make you feel in the inner surface the indentures caused by the ribs of the Saint!’ 28   Imprints of parts of saints’ bodies are found in many other locations,  but they are usually footprints or knee-prints:  many more examples can be found in my book Footprints in Stone. 29

Innes writes that people are still visiting the well seeking cures;  but there is some uncertainty as to how popular the well was in the mid-19th century, since in her book of 1843 Mary Anne Bourne stated that ‘the holy well is regarded with less veneration than of yore’, 30 but it may have been her personal attitude that caused her to say this, rather than being the reality.   It is probable that increasing numbers of tourists would have deterred sick people from exposing their ailments to sight-seers.   By the end of the century other writers were reporting that the healing tradition appeared to have died out.  In his book published in 1895, H. Thornhill Timmins wrote:

From the chapel we next scramble down to the ‘holy well,’ a neglected spot of no interest save such as tradition can lend.  Yet in olden times folk were wont to gather here from far and wide, in anticipation of an instant cure… 31


A sketch by Timmins

However, a report in the Welshman in 1905 would appear to contradict Timmins’ claim that the well was no longer visited for cures, although it does suggest that the well’s reputation was indeed dying.

Tenby ‘County News’ says…  ‘…At St. Govan’s was a holy well to which the diseased and infirm were brought to be cured within the last forty years.’…At St. Govan’s – not was, but is a holy well at which several natives of Pembrokeshire have sought cures, to our own certain knowledge less than ten years ago.  We doubt very much if some people do not at this day use the water or apply the ‘clay’ near the well to their eyes.32

By 1922 the well was dry, as it is today, and was clearly no longer in use, as reported in the Royal Commission Inventory.

The Well, which lies between the chapel and the sea, is protected by a plain hood of masonry;  the entrance is to the north.  The spring has been dry for some years past…  Visited, 14th June, 1922. 33

It is possible that the act of covering the well with a stone structure at some unknown date in the 19th century (although it was clearly covered to some degree before 1860, as shown by Cosmo Innes’ account) interfered with the water supply.  There appears never to have been an abundant supply, judging by a comment in Fenton’s 1807 account, to the effect that the ‘little water’ was believed ‘by the superstitious’ to be unfailing, but ‘shrewdly suspected… [by someone unprejudiced] to be adventitious’, and it is possible that a natural spring was augmented by rainwater, which would not have been the case once the well was covered.   However the 1818 account has ‘near twenty patients…seen at once bathing their limbs’, which suggests a copious supply of water.   However, by 1870 the well was ‘now almost dry’, and since this was written soon after the well was covered, it may confirm that that act did play some part in reducing the water supply.  It also seems likely that the increasing volume of visitors may have had a deleterious effect.  C.F. Cliffe, in his Book of South Wales written in the first half of the 19th century, states cryptically: ‘The well has been injured by a class of visitors who everywhere disgrace the British name.’ 34   Unfortunately he does not elaborate, but it sounds as though even then, tourists were thoughtlessly damaging the places they had taken the trouble to visit.

Increasing references to healing clay
These accounts trace the history of the well(s) over 350 years, over much of which period cures have been sought for a wide variety of   ailments.  The chapel well seems always to have been used only to cure eye problems, but the saint’s well water was used for ‘all diseases’, ‘many distempers’,  ‘crippled patients bathe their limbs’,   and ‘scrofula, paralysis, dropsy, and other complaints’.  Few of the earlier accounts include any reference to the healing clay to be found by the well.  Fenton refers to a ‘muddy deposit’ but this was found in the chapel well.  The 1859 account also has the healing ‘clay’ associated with the chapel well. 35  In the 1905 report reference is made to ‘clay’ from near the well being used to treat the eyes but not the whole body. 36
Geologist Sir Roderick Impey Murchison referred to the healing clay of St Govan in a footnote in his book on the geology of Wales dating from 1839.

Saint Goven (or St. Gawin) inhabited a cell cut in the face of this steep and picturesque cliff.  Among his good deeds there is one which seems to connect his name with the geologist.  His blessing conferred a healing virtue on the red clay or shale, derived from the decomposition of the limestone, which forms a talus in a retiring angle of the cliff.  The lame and blind pilgrims are still conveyed by their friends down the rude steps chiselled by the holy man, and after being anointed with a poultice, formed of the moist clay, are left there for several hours to bask under the summer’s sun.  The method of cure is similar to that effected by the mud baths of Acqui and Abano in the north of Italy.
The sanctum of St. Goven, a cleft in the rock just large enough to contain one person, is also much frequented as a “wishing place.”  The wisher is certain, before the end of a year, of obtaining his request, if he repeats it thrice, each time turning himself round in the narrow nook;  but these and other miraculous stories, connected with this wild spot, do not come within my province. 37

Being a geologist, Murchison was clearly interested in the source and composition of the clay and therefore his description of it can be assumed to be the most accurate.  One assumes he visited the site to see the source for himself, and at that time picked up a few snippets of tradition, but it is not clear whether he actually saw the clay being used by sick pilgrims.

Since there are varying descriptions of mud or clay being used from two sources, the well in the chapel and the red clay from the cliff, it may be that confusion has arisen over the years.   The earliest account I have found that refers to the use of red clay dates from 1818:  ‘applying to their swollen and crippled joints plaisters of the red clay saturated with the water of the well’. 38  But it does not say where the red clay came from, only that it was mixed with water from the well, a detail not mentioned by Murchison in his account of the custom 20 years later.   Perhaps, as the well began to dry up, more emphasis was placed on the use of clay for healing, but people forgot that the healing mud or clay was supposed to come from the chapel well and began to use any clay they could find.   It is also not clear from the Murchison quotation exactly which parts of the body the clay poultice was being applied to, although he does refer to ‘blind pilgrims’.  Fenton’s early 19th century account has the mud from the chapel well being used around the eyes 39 and a hundred years later the 1905 account also has clay being applied only to the eyes.40   However, it is also likely that people desperately seeking cures would have applied it to other parts of the body.
Modern elaborations

St Govan’s Chapel has long been a popular tourist destination, understandably in view of its dramatic location, and over the years the details of the tales and legends have changed and become more elaborate.  This is particularly noticeable when comparing the early brief accounts with the extended versions published today.  Before the 18th century there was no mention of the saint’s grave, the saint’s cell, the bell stone, etc., all of which are now firmly established components of the legend of St Govan.   It is difficult to know when these traditions first came into existence.  The saint’s grave being located beneath the altar inside the chapel is an interesting example.  This belief is now widely stated in descriptions of the chapel, but strangely does not feature in many accounts before the present century.  The earliest reference I have found dates from 1811 when Fenton commented in passing that the altar was ‘where some will have it the hermit Saint is buried.’ 41  The only other 19th century reference to it I have found so far dates from 1852 when Ernest Silvanus Appleyard stated that the chapel ‘contains a raised altar, under which the body of the saint is believed to repose’. 42    20th-century references are also rare;  however, in the 21st century the majority of descriptions of the chapel do include the information that the saint is buried beneath the altar.  The legend of the bell stolen by pirates has always been widely reported, though an element of  tweeness has recently been added:  it is now said to have been ‘rescued by sea nymphs who placed it inside a rock near the chapel’  or ‘It was stolen by the pirates but it was reclaimed by angels who encased it in a rock at the sea’s edge.’  Another recent addition is that ‘the saint’s hand prints were imprinted upon the chapel floor.’   One source refers to ‘marks in the boulder that were made by the saint’s fingers when he hid here’ – but the tradition has always been that the marks are of the saint’s ribs not his fingers, so maybe this is another change in the making, or maybe it is a confusion with the other new tradition, that of the saint’s hand-prints on the floor. 43    A modern tendency is to see holy wells as ‘wishing wells’, and a recent description of St Govan’s Well says that it is both ‘a wishing well and a healing well’ – though it would be difficult to use it for either purpose now, since it is dry. 44   In the present century there is also a tendency developing to ‘welshify’ the English names of certain holy wells in Wales.  Some wells, mainly those in the more English parts of Wales, have always been named in English and never in Welsh, and St Govan’s is one of these.


Courtesy of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments Wales.

On the basis that it is always preferable to retain the traditional usage, this well should be called St Govan’s Well and never Ffynnon Govan.   That version is anyway incorrect:  because of the rule of mutation in Welsh, the saint’s name would be Covan if his well was Ffynnon Govan.  If his name was Govan, the well name would be Ffynnon Ovan.

A decaying medieval tradition
The story of St Govan, his possible identity, his chapel and well, have changed in accordance with the preoccupations and fashions of the day, and this study of 350 years’ worth of accounts, amply laced with antiquarian speculation, shows how narratives slowly change and     develop over time.  In this instance, it is probable that we are in fact witnessing the decay of a medieval tradition.   The cult landscape of the saint still survives but the majority of visitors do not see it for what it once was.  The focal point of the site is the saint’s ‘cell’ which was probably used by the saint as his penitential bed.  Later a chapel, focusing on the cell, was erected where pilgrims could honour the saint;  and the water sources (the springs or wells inside and below the chapel) were taken into the saint’s legend as places where pilgrims could partake of the saint’s healing powers.  There is also a long flight of stone steps down to the chapel which act as a place of transition between our 21st-century world and that of St Govan.  The
supposed impossibility of counting the steps adds an aura of uncertainty to the journey from the everyday world into the sacred space, which is entered through a doorway into the chapel.  It is also necessary to go through the chapel to get to the saint’s well, another symbol of passing through a doorway from one state of being to the next.

The earliest accounts of 1662 and c. 1700 are brief, mentioning only the saint’s chapel and healing well.  But doubtless some of the other traditions were already very much alive, and the pilgrims would have been aware of the rituals that should be performed in order to gain spiritually from entering into the sacred landscape.  Over time the traditions were being enhanced, specifically by the tales relating to St Govan’s cell and the benefit that could be gained from squeezing into the place where the saint himself was said to have hidden, and thus making personal contact with the saint.  Other traditions grew up, such as the stolen bell and the ringing bell stone, the visitation by Jesus, the burial of the saint inside the chapel, the marks of his ribs inside the cell, his hand-prints on the chapel floor…  But as we enter the 20th century, the emphasis has changed.  The sea-shore well has already been preserved and enhanced by the addition of a stone cover in the 19th century;  but by the 20th century it has become simply a redundant memorial to past beliefs, its water supply dried up and its healing function ceased.  Indeed, it may be the lack of water which led to an increased emphasis on the use of clay as a healing medium, at first from the well inside the chapel, but later from anywhere around.

As travel became easier, and more people were able to visit more remote places, the little stone chapel reached by steep steps in a dramatic cliff location became the main draw, with many visitors knowing nothing of the saint or his wells.  Slowly, down the centuries, devout pilgrims have turned into secular tourists but their continuing enthusiasm for visiting St Govan’s Chapel, together with the vibrancy of the traditions, shows that the place still captures people’s imaginations, even if they do not realise that they have entered a 1,500-year-old sacred landscape.


  1. Discussion  of St Govan’s identity can be found in S. Baring-Gould and John Fisher, The Lives of the British Saints (London, 1907, 1908, 1911, 1913), III, 143-5;  Elissa R. Henken, Traditions of the Welsh Saints (Cambridge, 1987), 258-9;  Pádraig Ó Riain, A Dictionary of Irish Saints (Dublin, 2011), 58-60, 367
  2. Cosmo Innes, quoted in The Cambrian Journal (Tenby, 1860), 76;  William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum: General Introduction and Commentary (Oxford, 1999), II, 26
  3. Peter C. Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000 (Aberystwyth, 1993), 303-5
  4. Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall, Tenby: Its History, Antiquities, Scenery, Traditions, and Customs (Tenby, 2nd ed., 1873), 45
  5. Rev. James B. Johnston, The Place-Names of England and Wales (London, 1915), 428
  6. Benjamin Heath Malkin, The Scenery, Antiquities, and Biography, of South Wales (London, 2nd ed., 1807), II, 381
  7. Dyfed Archaeological Trust records of St Owen’s Well:  PRN 3756 & PRN 3622.  See also The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments and Constructions in Wales and Monmouthshire, An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire, VII County of Pembroke (London, 1925), 249-50
  8. Further descriptions of the wells can be found in Francis Jones, The Holy Wells of Wales (Cardiff, 1954), 208;  Baring-Gould and Fisher, op.cit., III, 144-5;  National Monuments Record of Wales online database Coflein – chapel NPRN 95059, well NPRN 32502;  Dyfed Archaeological Trust – chapel PRN 630, chapel well PRN 102724, St Govan’s Well PRN 1268
  9. William Derham, D.D., Select Remains of the Learned John Ray, M.A. and F.R.S. with his Life (London, 1760), 242
  10. Edward Lhwyd, Parochialia – Being a Summary of Answers to “Parochial Queries in Order to a Geographical Dictionary, etc., of Wales”, Part III – North Wales and South Wales (continued) (London, 1911), 74
  11. Herbert M. Vaughan, ‘A Synopsis of Two Tours made in Wales in 1775 and in 1811’, in Y Cymmrodor, XXXVIII (1927), 46-7
  12. Marie Trevelyan, Folk-Lore and Folk-Stories of Wales (London, 1909; Wakefield, 1973), 45
  13. Benjamin Heath Malkin, The Scenery, Antiquities, and Biography, of South Wales (London, 1804), 529
  14. Roderick Impey Murchison, The Silurian System (London, 1839), 382-3 footnote
  15. A Barrister: Richard Fenton, Eq., A Tour in Quest of Genealogy, Through Several Parts of Wales, Somersetshire, and Wiltshire (London, 1811), 88-90
  16. No author named, A Handbook for Travellers in South Wales and its Borders, including the River Wye (London, new ed., 1870), 161
  17. Thomas Roscoe, Wanderings and Excursions in South Wales (London, 1854), 185
  18. Richard Fenton, A Historical Tour Through Pembrokeshire (London, 1811), 414-16
  19. Richard Ayton, A Voyage Round Great Britain (London, 1814), 91-2
  20. No author named, An Account of Tenby (Pembroke and Tenby, 1818), 138-9
  21. Charles Frederick Cliffe, The Book of South Wales, the Bristol Channel, Monmouthshire and the Wye (London, 2nd ed., 1848), 296-8
  22. Edward Laws, The History of Little England Beyond Wales (1888;  Haverfordwest, 1995), 411
  23. Janet Bord, Holy Wells in Britain: A Guide (Wymeswold, 2008), 109
  24. ‘Extract from the Notes of a Tourist – Coast of Pembrokeshire, 1836’, in The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle, for 1837 (London, 1837), 613-15
  25. No Author Named, My Summer Holiday; being a Tourist’s Jottings about Tenby (London, 1863), 81-2
  26. Robert J. Allen in ‘Choice Notes from Notes and Queries’, in Folklore (1859), 204
  27. Baring-Gould and Fisher, op.cit., IV, 93
  28. Cosmo Innes, ‘Notice of St Govane’s Hermitage, near Pembroke, South Wales’, in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1862) III, 184-5;  accounts of his visit were also published in The Cambrian Journal (Tenby, 1860), 76-7, and in The Archaeological Journal (London, 1859), 198-9, 361
  29. Janet Bord, Footprints in Stone (Wymeswold, 2004)
  30. Mary Anne Bourne, A Guide to Tenby and its Neighbourhood (Carmarthen, 1843), 54
  31. H. Thornhill Timmins, Nooks and Corners of Pembrokeshire (London, 1895), 69-70
  32. ‘Holy Wells in Wales’, in Welshman, 7 April 1905
  33. Royal Commission Inventory: Pembroke, op.cit., no.50 p.22
  34. Cliffe, op.cit., 298
  35. Allen, op.cit., 204
  36. ‘Holy Wells in Wales’, op.cit.
  37. Murchison, op.cit., 382-3 footnote
  38. An Account of Tenby, op.cit., 139
  39. Fenton, A Historical Tour…, op.cit., 415
  40. ‘Holy Wells in Wales’, op.cit.
  41. Fenton, A Historical Tour…, op.cit., 414
  42. ‘By the author of “Proposals for Christian Union” [later given as E.S.A., i.e. Ernest Silvanus Appleyard], Welsh Sketches, Chiefly Ecclesiastical, to the Close of the Twelfth Century (London, 2nd ed., 1852), 129
  43. Examples of modern folklore can be found in:  ‘St Govan’s Chapel, Bosherston, Pembrokeshire, Wales’, The Journal of Antiquities, 18 August 2013 – this has references to the grave, the bell, the saint’s finger-marks, and Ffynnon Govan (;  Pixyledpublications, ‘St Govan’s Well and Chapel’, has references to the bell and the hand-prints (https://insearchofholywells
  44. Monkton Rectorial Benefice has a detailed description of the well and its folklore, and includes mention of the well as a wishing well (



Eagerly awaited this year is Pembrokeshire County History.
Volume I


Covering the period from the beginning of occupation in prehistoric times up to early medieval Pembrokeshire, this book is essentially the work of archaeologists, based largely on documentary research and their reports from excavations at numerous local sites.

More than forty years ago the Pembrokeshire Local History Society decided to publish a four volume work on the history of the county. A trust was set up under the chairmanship of Dr. Elwyn Davies and funding made available from the Welsh Church Fund.

Volume III, (Early Modern Pembrokeshire 1536-1815, edited by Brian Howells) was the first to appear, in 1987. Subsequent volumes were also edited by eminent historians: Volume IV, (Modern Pembrokeshire 1815-1974, edited by David Howell, 1993) and Volume II, (Medieval Pembrokeshire, edited by R. F.Walker, 2002).

country-history-11 country-history-111country-history-1V

Early chapters of Volume I take us through the nature of life and the evidence of hunter-gatherers in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, Pembrokeshire. The Neolithic and Bronze Age past is discussed at some length.  Later prehistoric settlement and what we know of the Iron Age in the county is considered in detail. Evidence of Roman Pembrokeshire, which up to recently has been considered relatively sparse, begins to come to life now, especially with the reports of the Wiston excavations. The final chapter details the character of early medieval Pembrokeshire, its culture, trade and society, the influence of the Irish together with the impact of the Christian church on the Celtic community.

We may have waited a while for this volume but it is worth considering how the contributors have benefited from major scientific advances over recent years. No doubt Fenton, Laws, Grimes, Owen  etc. would have much appreciated the assistance of radiocarbon dating, isotopic analysis, even aerial photography, as they tramped with their hammers around the fields and hills of Pembrokeshire.

Mary John.

An Eighteenth-Century Salt Refinery at Neyland


By Simon Hancock

‘This is the place where sugars from Ireland are discharged, and pay the English duty at Pembroke; and here woolen yarn from Ireland is imported; Milford Haven being one of the open ports allowed by Act of Parliament. At this place there is also a salt refinery, which supplies the whole country.’ 1

Such was the description of Neyland by Lewis Morris (1701-65) in the narrative accompanying his Harbours, Bays and Roads in St George’s Channel (1748) which also suggested improvements and development possibilities for Milford Haven. At Neyland, he ventured, a dock might be constructed where vessels might lie at the dock head in four, six or eight fathoms. Some 60 years later Richard Fenton (1811) repeated Morris’s description almost verbatim except for an important change of tense when referring to the salt refinery. 2 Clearly by the first decade of the nineteenth century the refinery had closed.

Information on this facility is conspicuous by its paucity although the salt refinery must have gone far in meeting the domestic and commercial needs of Pembrokeshire inhabitants and provides an interesting example of an early eighteenth-century industrial enterprise. Salt is absolutely essential for human existence and from time immemorial has been used in the preservation and preparation of food and with numerous applications in agriculture, fishing and industrial processes. In 1785 it was estimated how every person in Britain consumed around 25 lb. of salt each year. 3

Although there had been continental imports of salt into Pembrokeshire those obtained from Cheshire soon dominated local supplies. In the seventeenth century the main salt-producing areas were the baronial borough of Nantwich, the manorial borough of Northwich and the royal borough of Middlewich. 4  Salt could also be obtained from sea water around the coast and from brine springs. The salt industry was scattered throughout the British Isles although the location of salt refineries depended upon cheap water transport.5  The industry was transformed when in 1670 rock salt was found at Marbury near Great Budworth. Unrefined rock salt could easily be transported for refinement at Bristol and other locations (including Neyland) and the discovery led to the establishment of salt refineries in the North West like those at Frodsham (1694) and Dungeon on the Mersey.

The river Weaver was seen as the cheapest and most effective means of transporting rock salt from the salt field to the Mersey for export. Making the river navigable as far as Winsford was a measure which received the support of the City Corporation of Liverpool and an Act was secured in 1721. This eventually opened to traffic in 1732. 6  The legislation was also supported by the common council of Haverfordwest. On 27 February 1719 a petition signed by the mayor, justices of the peace, aldermen, common councilmen and tradesmen of the town and county was presented to the House of Commons. Their petition described how there was a salt refinery near the town (Neyland was around eight miles distant) which supplied salt for curing fish, making butter, cheese and other uses. The salt came from rock salt sourced from the county of Cheshire which was carried by land from the rock pits to Frodsham Bridge before being exported to Milford Haven. The petitioners pointed out how making the river Weaver navigable would reduce the price of carriage of rock salt and give greater dispatch in shipping. Ultimately it would reduce the price to consumers. The petition was ordered to lie on the table until the House proceeded to further consider the Bill.7  The petition is the first oblique reference to the Neyland salt refinery and it was probably established during the early years of the eighteenth century.

The importation of salt to Milford Haven was clearly demonstrated by one local entrepreneur, Abel Hicks who managed the Industrious Bee and also the Priscilla. One entry which he recorded in his log read:

‘Oct. ye 22, 1761. Liverpool. Loaded 49 tone of salt for Milford.’ 8

Barbara George has demonstrated the long history of salt importation to Pembrokeshire with various references in 1387, 1478, 1479, and 1480 and between four to fourteen shipments annually (1500-64) in Spanish, Portuguese and French ships. Much salt came coastwise perhaps having originated from the continent before being re-shipped. Six cargoes of rock salt came from Liverpool in 1713. 9 This must have come from Cheshire and destined for the Neyland refinery. Considerable amounts of continental salt were landed at Neyland quay, the location often rendered as ‘Nayland.’ On 17 December 1753 the Fox brought 2,000 bushels of French salt for the important herring industry.10  The latter was perhaps established on account of the salt refinery. On 25 February 1755 the Friendly Thomas landed 2,055 bushels of Spanish salt from Cadiz. This attracted a duty of £13 3s. 9d.  Neyland possessed an important herring industry as Matheson describes in his analysis of Welsh fisheries. In 1751 some 13,950 red herrings and 32 barrels and 16 gallons of white herrings were landed.  The peak was reached in 1766 when 185,074 of the former were landed at Neyland. Each ‘one’ of the thousands in fact equated to 1,320 individual fish while there were 32 gallons to the barrel. 13

Considerable investment was devoted to fishing enterprises during mid-century. It was announced how twelve ‘busses’ were being built locally by the Society of the Free British Fishery requiring 200 men and costing £12,000.  Around this time a merchant named William Whittaker of Gloucester erected at Barn Lake, opposite Neyland, and at vast expense, a very commodious quay. There were also large warehouses where sugar, rice and other American goods could be imported and then re-shipped.  The middle years of the eighteenth century witnessed considerable activity due to the presence of quays at Neyland and Barn Lake, the salt refinery and a private dockyard at the former location from which was launched a 28-gun frigate HMS Milford in 1759. A 74-gun Ship of the Line HMS Prince of Wales was launched from the same yard on 4 June 1765. The location of the warehouses and granaries in far-flung west Wales made them a convenient port of call to trans-Atlantic shipping of which there was a great deal. The facilities included the services of a crane for loading and unloading.  While Cheshire and Continental salt supplied the Neyland refinery a vast array of other goods from across the Atlantic were landed at the local quay. These included barrels of fish oil from Rhode Island, soap and staves from Dublin, brown sugar from the Caribbean, whale fins and blubber from the Greenland seas, pine boards and other items from Boston and Newfoundland.
The perils of such commerce should never be underestimated. Alan Crosby reminds us of the losses suffered by the Mersey salt vessels during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. He notes the cases of 21 vessels carrying salt which were either victim to the perils of the weather or from piracy (1695-1708) beginning with the ship Supply laden with salt which was captured by a French privateer in 1695.  We can only speculate how much of this salt was destined for Neyland. The late Dr B.G. Charles noted highly revealing place names in this eastern part of the parish of Llanstadwell. He lists ‘The Officer’s Close’ and ‘Salt House’ on the Lucas map c.1745, a survey of the lands of Little Honeyborough which belonged to William Scourfield, James Child, Mr. Cornock and Mr. Tasker.  The detailed map of eastern Llanstadwell parish drawn by Henry John, surveying the property of John Lort and others (1759), shows a cluster of buildings at Neyland point, lying at the entrance to Westfield Pill. One of the longer buildings must be the construction shed for the building of ships.  The salt house may well be one of the larger buildings fronting the Haven. Alternatively it might be one of the buildings facing the Pill facing Barn Lake. Despite the little we know about the Neyland salt refinery we can be reasonably certain it was in operation for around a century. Taxation on salt was an important element of Government excise income and is the most productive source of the information we have on the refinery. The Nine Years War (1688-97) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) witnessed the introduction of greatly expanded customs and excise duties placed upon salt, glass, paper, tobacco, pipes, malt, stone bottles, hackney carriages and windows. This brought excise officers into contact with all sections of the manufacturing community.

Aeriel view of Neyland showing possible position of salt house. (Courtesy of RCAHMW.)

Aeriel view of Neyland showing possible position of salt house. (Courtesy of RCAHMW.)

The political narrative concerning the salt tax was a highly charged one which Lord Carteret derided as most wretched which disproportionately taxed the poor.  Effective taxation on salt began with the introduction of excise in 1643 although the specific tax was introduced in 1694 and a Salt Office was created in 1702.  This was absorbed back into the excise at the end of the eighteenth century. Presumably the industrial processes at Neyland involved the usual technique of dissolving rock salt in cisterns of water, pumping into a boiling cistern where the water was evaporated. The salt was left as a residue. The owner of the salt works had to specify the number of baskets, barrows or troughs of salt taken out of each pan or boiler. Duty was paid by the producer. Stiff fines were levied if salt was removed before it had been accounted for by the Government excise officers.  The Government needed to maximize national income from the yield of land tax, customs and excise duties. The country was at war for 89 of the 150 years between 1700-1850.  The financial bureaucracy of the Salt Office employed some 298 staff in 1708, rising to a peak of 484 officials in 1748 before declining to 364 in 1783 when there was a period of financial retrenchment.

An analysis of early eighteenth-century customs records fails to make specific reference to Neyland. Those officers stationed at Milford Haven were at various locations including Dale, Hubberston, Angle, Pembroke Ferry, Pembroke town and Tenby.  Thanks to the salt refinery excise officers were in evidence locally, their presence sometimes reflected in the Llanstadwell parish registers. They record the baptism of William, son of John James, ‘officer’, on 20 October 1726 and Benjamin, son of John Davies, ‘salt officer’, on 23 January 1743.  Richard Edwards, excise officer, married Margaret Lewis of Jeffreyston, widow, on 21 March 1738.  A number of salt officers died whilst on service in the parish. Patrick Goolde, salt officer, was buried on 28 January 1724, Thomas Barzey on 18 May 1744 and John Phillips on 29 June 1748.  One of the national Salt Commissioners, a Mr. Talbot, undertook a survey of the coast of Wales in 1740. At Neyland he encountered local officer Thomas “Burzey’, aged 70,  ‘a widower but bin employ’d here about 8 years. He complains of the smallness of his salary having but 10£ a year, every thing here being very Dear, being obliged to go 7 miles for all manner of necessarys.’

This is a clear reference to Haverfordwest. Barzey (or Burzey) was described as ‘a carefull old man’ and his Collector gave him a good character.  Perhaps his circumstances were not as bad as some of his colleagues. One boatman, aged 45 from Cardigan with a wife and six children to support received a mere £7 10s. per annum and ‘a very deformed weak man not at all able to manage a boat in so open a bay.’

The comparative meagreness of salt officer salaries was demonstrated by the Ninth Report from the Select Committee on Finance when they examined the salt officer salaries. There were sixteen salt officers based in Wales while the national establishment cost a total of £26, 942 12s. 11 ½ d.  The gross amount of duty collected was considerable, some £2, 262, 795 8s. 10½ d. (1795-96).  The Neyland Collection in 1797 consisted of a principal collector, Thomas Tucker, who earned £100 a year, plus a number of officers on annual salaries ranging from £10-£30. One official report noted the increase of three officers at Neyland between 1782-97 with increased expenditure on salaries between £5-£10.  It is small wonder that given their modest remuneration the officers in 40 of the 54 excise collections into which England and Wales were divided presented ‘monster’ petitions to the Treasury pleading for salary increases. They were signed by around 2,000 officers. By their minimum calculations they needed £86 3s. 6d. in order to meet basic household outgoings.  The tax yield from the land tax, window tax (1696-1798), plus other assessed impositions on carriages, stagecoaches, carts, servants, shops, inhabited houses and communications were not sufficient to meet unprecedented national expenditure on the Napoleonic Wars. Consequently the first national income tax was introduced in 1799.

It is not known when the salt refinery at Neyland closed, probably the opening years of the nineteenth century. The importance of Neyland and Barn Lake by virtue of the salt refinery, naval dockyard, quays, warehouses and stores during the 1750s was short lived. Soon they became a faint memory. In 1852 an Act of Parliament authorizing the extension of the South Wales Railway to the shores of Milford Haven at Neyland, the personal location selected by I.K. Brunel, was passed. The physical destruction of the original village of old Neyland including the former salt house, the shipyard run by the Scurlock family, humble dwellings, a lime kiln and public houses meant fundamental local change. As a reminder of lost glory the walls of the warehouses at Barn Lake remarkably survived into the twentieth century.


NLW Morgan Richardson 1 139/7/4. The ‘townred’ of Honeyborough also showing Neyland point in 1759 as drawn by Henry John. The cluster of buildings at the point with the quay might help to locate the salt refinery which was dependent on imports of rock salt from Cheshire.


  1. Lewis Morris was a noted Welsh hydrographer, antiquarian, poet and lexicographer.
  2. Richard Fenton, A Historical Tour Through Pembrokeshire (London, 1811).
  3. Joyce Ellis, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Tyneside Salt Industry, 1660-1790: A Re-examination,’ Economic History Review, 33:1 (1980), 45.
  4. William Henry Chaloner, ‘Salt in Cheshire 1600-1870,’ Transactions of the Lancashire & Cheshire Antiquarian Society, 71 (1963), 61.
  5. Joan Beck, ‘Salt in Cheshire,’ Cheshire Historian, 8 (1958), 3.
  6. K.L. Wallwork, ‘The Mid-Cheshire Salt Industry,’ Geography, 44:205 (1959), 172.
  7. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers. Fifth Parliament of Great Britain; fourth session (11 November 1718-18 April 1719), 27 February 1719.
  8. Francis Green, ‘Dewisland Coasters in 1751,’ West Wales Historical Records, VIII (1919-20), 170.
  9. Barbara George, Pembrokeshire Sea Trading Before 1900 (Field Studies, 2:1 (1964), 25.
  10. The National Archives (Henceforth TNA) T/1365/7. Treasury Board papers and In-Letters. Papers relating to the harbour of Milford Haven, Co. Pembroke. Account of foreign goods landed at Barn Lake and Neyland quays, 1753-55.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Colin Matheson, Wales and the Sea Fisheries (Cardiff, 1929), 100.
  13. Ibid.
  14. The Old England’s Journal, 7 April 1753.
  15. Public Advertiser, 29 December 1753.
  16. Ibid., 21 January 1757.
  17. TNA T/1365/7 Treasury Board Papers and In-Letters, Milford Haven, 1753-55.
  18. Alan G. Crosby, ‘By Tempest and Piracy: The Loss of Mersey Salt vessels off Pembrokeshire, 1695-1715,’ Journal of the Pembrokeshire Historical Society, 12 (2003), 59-66.
  19. B. G. Charles, The Place Names of Pembrokeshire, II (Aberystwyth, 1992), 610.
  20. National Library of Wales. Morgan Richardson 1 139/7/4  Henry John, ‘An exact map of the townred of Honeyboro in the parish of Llanstadwell, in the county of Pembroke.’
  21. William J. Ashworth, Trade, Production and Consumption in England, 1640-1845 (Oxford, 2003), 40.
  22. Ibid., 65.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., 237.
  25. Robert M. Kozub, ‘Evolution of Taxation in England, 1700-1850: A Period of War and Industrialisation,’ Journal of European Economic History 32:3 (2003), 363.
  26. Ibid., 366.
  27. TNA CUST/18/51; CUST/18/55; CUST/18/59; CUST/18/62; CUST/18/66; CUST/18/69; CUST/18/73; CUST/18/77 Board of Customs Establishments.
  28. Pembrokeshire Archives (Hereafter PA) HPR/13/97.  Llanstadwell Parish Registers, Baptisms 1714-1812.
  29. Ibid., Marriages 1714-93.
  30. Ibid., Burials, 1714-1812.
  31. ‘Extracts from a Report of a Survey on the Coast of Wales by a member of the Salt Board. Mr. Talbot’s Survey in the Year 1740,’ Choice Chips of revenue Lore being Papers relating to the Establishment of the Excise, Excise Duties, Salaries, Superannuation & c. also cuttings from Excise general Letters of the Last Century and from other documents relating principally to the Excise Revenue in England from 1660 to 1876 (1877), 128.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ninth Report from the Select Committee on Finance. Collection of the Public Revenue. Salt Office (1797), 242.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid., 256.
  36. Edward Hughes, ‘The Salaries of the Excise officers and a Cost of Living Index (1795-1800),’ Economic History, 3:11 (1936), 263.




By Peter Ellis Jones

Limestone quarries at the junction of the Carew and Cresswell Rivers. Surveyed by Ordnance Survey in 1862. Rev. 1906.

Limestone quarries at the junction of the Carew and Cresswell Rivers. Surveyed by Ordnance Survey in 1862. Rev. 1906.

The west to east aligned rocks of the Carboniferous series in south Pembrokeshire yielded raw materials which were in great demand during the industrial awakening of the nineteenth century. The history of coal mining on the northernmost strata has been well researched and presented by Martin Cannop-Price.1 This article focuses on the quarrying of limestone along the
shores of Carew parish in the nineteenth century.


Limestone underlies the greater part of the parish; it is, however, covered by glacial drift which forms the basis for its agricultural economy. Where the limestone meets the Carew and Cresswell rivers it forms a low escarpment rising to about 20 meters (50 feet). Between the escarpment and high water mark of the tides is a low apron of fluvial deposits of varying width.

The earliest documentary evidence for quarrying in Carew is in the form of leases and letters exchanged between landowners and their tenants which highlight some of the obstacles to the exploitation of the rock for commercial purposes. With reference to a lease of the Williamston quarries in 1816 the tenant reminded the landowner that from Michaelmas to Christmas his men were employed in “digging and wheeling earth off the beds of limestone”, an activity he deemed to be “dead work”, i.e. there was no immediate return for the labour expended. 2 Since the only means of conveying the limestone to other than local markets was by water it was necessary to dig channels across the apron of fluvial deposits to link the quarry faces and the navigable rivers. Leases stipulated that the tenant was required to keep “the drains and canals and water channels … properly open (and) navigable” and also to “clean … the banks and towing paths
thereof.”3 At or near the quarry face docks had to be cut to accommodate loading vessels which were evidently towed to deep water at high tide.

At the time of the leases it is apparent that the activity was at an early stage in its development. A lease of 1790 stipulated that not more than four men were to work Williamston quarry; another of 1810 refers to the employment of 10 men and those of 1817 and 1823, 6 men. Each man earned £32 a year in 1810 and the limestone fetched 18 pence a ton “delivered to the boats.” 4 Rent for Williamston quarry was fixed at £80 a year in 1817.

Quarrying had developed significantly by 1838, the year the Tithe Survey of the parish was undertaken. Discrete quarries now extended along a one and a quarter mile arc fringing the Carew and Cresswell rivers. Apart from two owner-occupiers, the quarries were worked by the tenants of the local gentry who owned the land. 5

Quarries are shown in greater detail on the first Ordnance Survey map of the area, published in 1868 (Fig.1) The quarries have been numbered and the land and owners and tenants are listed below. (Table 1)

Quarries are shown in greater detail on the first Ordnance Survey map of the area, published in 1868 (Fig.1)
The quarries have been numbered and the land and owners and tenants are listed below. (Table 1)























Table 1. Landowner & tenant of quarry based on Tithe Survey, 1838

1 Prinkley Bush estate James Stratton
2 New Dock Lettice Llewhellin
3 Tithing Barn John Harcourt Powell of Hook Thomas Adams
4 Croft George Llewhellin
5 Barley Hay Old Quarry John Harcourt Powell Anne Ormond
6 Williamston Park George Henry Carew
of Freestone Hall
James Rogers
7 West Williamston John Harcourt Powell Anne Ormond
8 Barley Hay John Hensley Allen
of Cressely
Thomas Ormond
9 ? John Hensley Allen Thomas Ormond

An insight into the working of one of the quarries listed may be drawn from an analysis of data recorded in a ledger kept at New Dock quarry over the period 1856-77, when the quarry was owned by Pearce Llewhellin.6 Although an incomplete record of the quarry’s activities, e.g. there are no entries for the years 1859 to 1865 and there is little standardization in the manner in which the information is recorded, there is sufficient data to present an albeit opaque picture of quarrying in the district during the period.

The ‘plant’ at the quarry on 30 December 1856 comprised: 3 dyricks (sic-cranes), 6 earth barrows (for removing the overlying soil), 9 stone barrows, some deal boards and planks and unspecified tools. There was a sloop, Ann Bowen, of 60 tons burthen and three lighters/barges of 18 tons. (In 1866, another sloop, the Emily, joined the fleet). From the accounts for later years money had been spent on powder (explosives) carried in carts from Saundersfoot and Pembroke Dock; items of timber and iron for repairing the boats and wheelbarrows and tar for preserving the timbers of the boats. Interestingly, 9 gallons of ale and ½ gallon of gin were bought for the men who cleared out the dock in November 1856; similar entries appeared from time to time. There is no evidence that mechanical drills, crushing and sorting machinery etc. were in use. The activity was clearly labour intensive and undercapitalized which is not surprising given the fragmented nature of land ownership. This resulted in small quarries worked by tenant farmers (apart from the Llewhellin’s) whose main interests were in their farms as their principal source of income.


Names and pay of individual workmen are recorded in the ledger for the year 1856 only. Forty five workmen were on the pay roll but only seven worked for a continuous period of six months or more. Many were employed for just one or  two weeks. Men probably moved freely between the quarries responding to the local demand for labour. Significantly, the highest number, between 13 and 20 men, were employed from Michaelmas to the year’s end when removing the overlying soil dominated work at the quarry. Workmen were paid fortnightly (a common practice at that time) for either a 12, 11½ or 11 day stint. From March 1856 rates of pay were increased by two pence a day to two shillings and one shilling and eight pence. Boys received six to ten pence a day. Rates reflected the range of skills employed, e.g. masons received four shillings and sixpence a day. Those manning the boats were paid separately: Thomas Davies, for working the sloop Ann Bowen, was paid £79.10.11 for the year 1858.


Destination of the limestone

Boats sailing from the quarry are recorded in the ledger for the years 1858, 1866 and 1876. Two broad areas were served:
(a)    The coast of Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire north of the entrance to Milford Haven (incl. Aberdyfi)
These boats carried limestone destined for the lime kilns situated along this stretch of coast. Farmers depended on lime to counteract the acidity of the soils in west Wales. Cargoes were unloaded, often on open beaches, and conveyed by cart to the nearby kiln where they were burned by the heat generated by the burning of culm. Lime was applied to both arable and pasture land in the summer months. (Table 2)


Table 2. Number of cargoes carried to named ports, 1858, 1866 & 1876

Home port No. of Cargoes
(from North to South) 1858 1866 1876
Aberdyfi 1 3
Aberystwyth 1 1
Llansanffraid (Llanon) 4 7
Aberaeron 11 10 5
New Quay 9 12 6
Llangranog 9 1
Tresaith 1
Aberporth 11
Cardigan 13 22
St. Dogmels 9 4
Newport 10 11
Dinas 5 3 8
Fishguard 1 9 21
Abercastle 2
St. Davids 20 16 14
Solva 3
Port not specified 6 3
Total 61 115 96

Fifty one sloops were employed in the trade in 1866 three quarters of which carried less than 40 tons of limestone (Table 3).

Table 3. Tonnage carried in boats, 1866

Tonnage of boats No.
10-19 3
20-29 12
30-39 23
40-49 9
50-59 2
Over 60 2

The season for carrying limestone to the coastal kilns ran from March 28th to September 10th in 1866. Nearly 70% of cargoes left in the summer months June, July and August. These were the most benign months for the hazardous journey up the coast and also the most appropriate ones for spreading lime upon the fields. (Table 4)

Table 4. Cargoes shipped in 1866

 Month of shipment No. of cargoes
March 1
April 4
May 13
June 24
July 33
August 26
September 15

(b)    The Milford Haven-Cleddau waterway system

This water system provided calm water and a large number of locations, both man-made and natural, for boats to discharge their cargoes. The trade was entirely in the hands of the quarry operator; his sloops the Ann Bowen and Emily tended to sail to the deeper waters beyond Neyland, e.g. Dale, Sandyhaven and Hazelbeach while the shallow draft lighters/barges plied the upper reaches of the water system. Sheltered waters too enabled boats to operate from mid-January to mid-October, (Table 5) allowing time in the intervening months for clearing the overlying soil and servicing the canal system.

Table 5. Cargoes shipped in 1866

Month No. of cargoes
January 12
February 22
March 23
April 21
May 10
June 16
July 23
August 25
September 8
October 2
Total 162

Although limestone, destined for the many kilns which fringed the waterway, was the principal composition of the cargo, the trade was more varied in character than that which was conveyed by sea. Prominent among the kilns supplied was Tock kiln near Blackpool on the Slebech estate of Baron de Rutzen. Lying at the head of navigation on the Eastern Cleddau and being only three miles from Narberth Tock kiln was well placed to serve the interior of the county. Others included the suite of kilns at Sandyhaven in the west and in Haverfordwest at the head of navigation on the Western Cleddau. There was a demand by the construction industry for stones fashioned by masons at the quarry e.g. quoins, blocks, coping and kerb stones, scapples, pitchings and backings.7 Among the clients supplied were H.M. Dockyard in Pembroke Dock, and the Milford Docks Company which between 1864 and 1888 enlarged the docks in Milford Haven. Others included the Bridge Commissioners and the Governor of the gaol in Haverfordwest. Twenty tons of quoins were shipped for the rebuilding of Marloes church in 1874. Undressed blocks of limestone were supplied to masons in Pembroke, Milford Haven and Haverfordwest to be fashioned into, among other things, head- and tombstones. (A block of stone from the nearby Williamston Park quarry was shipped to a mason in Haverfordwest to be fashioned into the font which was installed in St. Mary’s church, Carew in 1844.) 8 Smaller stones, called shoddies, were used for road metalling and for bedding railway sleepers. There was always a ready market too for rubble, the waste product of the quarry.

The last entry in the New Dock quarry ledger is dated 5 September 1877 the day a notice of sale of Carew Newton farm appeared in the local press.9 Pearce

Llewhellin had failed to repay a loan he had borrowed from the London and Provincial Bank and was forced to sell his house, 74 acres of land and “the
valuable and extensive well known limestone quarries now in full work … The quarries have four lifting cranes and command an extensive trade, the demand for building and limestone being great and the facilities for shipment very convenient.” 10

The above description of the quarry might contain an element of estate agents’ ‘hype’ since it is clear that the peak in the Carew coastal lime industry had now passed. Decline was particularly apparent in the supply of limestone for the kilns which had been the principal component of the trade. A number of factors contributed to this decline. Prominent among them was the growing availability of artificial fertilizers. Advertisements for superphosphate of lime and Peruvian guano appeared regularly in the local press in the mid-sixties. By the 1880s superphosphates, the product of the chemical industry, basic slag, a by-product of the steel industry and lime processed by modern crushing machinery had become readily available and, supplied in bags, could be transported with greater facility along the expanding rail network. “For farmers whose land was near a railway station the price of lime fell to a quarter of what it had been.”11 By 1887 artificial manures had “… very largely increased and superseded liming” in South Pembrokeshire.12 The later arrival of the railway to the coastal areas of north Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire only delayed their introduction there too.

Contemporary with the availability of artificial fertilizers came years of depression in crop farming as cheap grains from the Prairies of North America impacted directly on areas of marginal suitability for growing corn such as south west Wales. On a broader canvas dock developments at Milford Haven came to
an end in 1888 and the naval dockyard in Pembroke Dock entered a period of long decline.

Evidence for the decline in the limestone trade in the last two decades of the century may be gleaned from a number of sources. Prominent among them is a ledger covering the period 1889 to 1923 which relates to Tithing Barn, Barley Hay and Croft quarries operated by the Ormond family of Williamston . 13 Unfortunately there is little consistency in the form in which data are presented in the ledger, though a comprehensive list of the home ports of the vessels leaving the quarries is recorded for 1889.

Table 6. Cargoes shipped from Tithing Barn, Barley Hay & Croft quarries, 1889

Home port No. of Cargoes
Aberaeron 5
New Quay 1
Llangranog 3
Tresaith 1
Aperporth 3
Cardigan 2
Newport 1
Fishguard 4
Abercastle 1
St. Davids 2
Solva 2
Dale 1
Milford 1

Although the name of the home ports has a familiar ring, the number of cargoes shipped from the three quarries is fewer than from New Dock quarry alone between 1858 and 1876 (Table 2). The Ormond family owned a sloop, Sarah, and lighters Betsy, Farmer and Sisters. Between 1889 and 1895 the Sarah carried 33 cargoes, each of 34 tons to the kilns at Solva and the lighters supplied the kilns at Dale, Sandyhaven, Gellyswick, Hazelbeach, Castle Pill (Burton) and
Haverfordwest into the following century. In 1894 stones from the quarries sold for £291.10.9. At Census 1881 George Ormond, who gave his occupation as
‘farmer and quarry master’ was employing 16 quarrymen and 8 bargemen; at Census 1901 his son, Thomas, gave his occupation as ‘farmer’ only. The revised edition of the Ordnance Survey six inches to one mile map, surveyed in 1906, has the description ‘disused’ applied to the following quarries: New Dock, Tithing Barn, Williamston Park and Williamston. The term ‘limekiln (disused)’ peppers the shores of the Cleddau waterway system.

By the early twentieth century it is evident that the sea and river borne limestone trade was virtually over. Croft was the last of the waterside quarries to be worked; the last recorded cargoes in the Ormond ledger were to the kilns in Haverfordwest in 1907 and to Dale and Maryborough in 1911. Thereafter there are scattered references to ‘broken stone’ for named parishes, for use as road metalling, interspersed with receipts and payments connected with the farm. The final entry in the ledger is dated November 26, 1923 and records a payment from “Thomas Scourfield, of Cheriton, Carew, for horse grazing and royalty of stone from Croft quarry.”


The lease of Croft quarry to Thomas Scourfield in 1922 opens a new chapter in the history of the Carew limestone industry. With the advent of motor transport in the new century it became possible for heavy goods to be transported direct from source to consumer markets. Expansion in motor transport in the inter-war years stimulated the demand for improved roads and road metalling while activity at the quarry was boosted during the Second World War by the construction of military facilities in the district, e.g. the airfield at Milton, and army camps at Skrinkle, Manorbier and Merrion, Warren parish. Since the war industrial developments, such as the power station and oil refineries around Milford Haven, have led to a demand for aggregate for mixing concrete and for concrete blocks for the building construction industry.

Under successive generations of the Scourfield family the quarrying of limestone in Carew parish has undergone significant development and growth. Croft quarry was abandoned in the 1950s when a quarry was opened up near Carew Newton (Grid ref. SN 048042). Over the years modern crushing and grading machinery have been installed and a manufactory built to produce, by mass production methods, concrete blocks of varying consistency for the construction industry. The firm is a major supplier of concrete blocks for markets throughout south west Wales.



1.    M.R. Connop-Price, ‘Coal, Culm and Cresswell Quay’, Journal of the Pembrokeshire Historical Society, Vol. 6 (1994/95). M.R. Connop-Price, Pembrokeshire, the Forgotten Coalfield, Landmark Publishing, 2004.
2.    P(embrokeshire) R(ecord) O(ffice), D/CAR/123, letter dated 14 September 1816. See also D/CAR/126, letter dated 23 December 1823.
3.    PRO D/CAR/63, letter dated September 9 1829.
4.    PRO D/CAR/123.

5.    (a) Richard Llewhellin bought the freehold of Carew Newton farm in 1813 (PRO D/BUSH/10/99). At his death in 1829 the property passed to his widow Lettice (N(ational) L(ibrary) of W(ales), Wills, SD 1830/39).
(b) George William Llewhellin (1803-78), eldest son of Richard and Lettice Llewhellin bought the freehold of West Williamston on his marriage to Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of Hugh and Eliza Wilson of Cresswell Quay.
6.    PRO HDX/1800/2.
On Lettice Llewhellin’s death in 1856 Carew Newton farm including the quarry, was divided equally between her children Eliza Griffiths, Pearce and Richard in accordance with the will of Richard Llewhellin (see 5 (a) above). The property was valued at £3,600. After they had drawn lots, Pearce bought his siblings out of their shares.
7.    scapples: Blocks of stone whose surfaces are reduced to a plane surface without being worked smooth
pitchings: stones in paving or set on edge, close together along a face or slope as protection against waves or currents.
backings: rough stones to form or line the back of a wall or bank.
The price per ton of stone shipped in 1874 was: blocks, quoins 6/-, coping 3/6, kerb 6/-, pitchings 4/-, backings 2/6, rubble 1/8-2/6, limestone for kilns 1/6.
8.    W.G. Spurrell, The History of Carew, Carmarthen, 1921.
9.    Pembroke Herald and Advertiser, 5 September 1877.
10.    Pearce Llewhellin, who had to borrow money to buy out his sister and brother in order to inherit Carew Newton farm (see note 6 above), was unable to repay his creditors. Among them, the London and Provincial Bank, called in a loan of £611 on 27 August 1877 (PRO D/BUSH/10/99).
For Pearce Llewhellin, a colourful character within the South Pembrokeshire farming community, see Peter Ellis Jones, A history of my maternal grandmother’s family… PRO HDX 1595.
11.    John Davies, A History of Wales (Penguin Books, 1993), 410.
12.    David W. Howell, Farming in Pembrokeshire, 1815-1974, Chapter 3, Pembrokeshire County History, Vol. 4 (1993), 90.
13.    The Ormond Ledger, NLW, MSS 18120E.




By Ken Murphy

During 2010 the Dyfed Archaeological Trust carried out several excavations and surveys in and around Pembrokeshire. Some of the highlights are described here.

A possible Roman villa was investigated at Upper Newton, near Wolfscastle. Mark Merrony had carried out geophysical survey on this site in 2003 (reported on in  Journal No. 13), and subsequently followed it up with trial excavation. In 2010 the Trust expanded the area of geophysical survey and excavated further trial trenches with the aim of trying to better characterise the site. Unfortunately the presumed site of the villa lies directly beneath large hedge-banks and trenches positioned as close to the hedge-banks as possible failed to reveal any evidence of a villa. Results from the geophysical survey were more informative, not because the villa was revealed, but because a previous unknown Iron Age defended settlement was discovered.

Just over the county boundary at Pant y Butler, near Cardigan in Ceredigion, cremation burials beneath Bronze Age round barrows were excavated in September 2009 and September 2010. In both the excavated barrows it would seem that the original Bronze Age cremation burials had been deliberately removed and replaced by later burials, still of Bronze Age date, approximately 1800 BC. In the larger of the two barrows a jet bead necklace accompanied the replacement cremation. This is a very rare find in Wales, with only four others known. The jet probably originates from Whitby on the east coast of England and would have been valued for its seemingly magical properties.


Other rare Bronze Age artefacts were found during trial excavations at Fan round barrow, near Talsarn, also in Ceredigion. Here Pygmy Cups, small pottery vessels, had been placed in shallow pits with cremation burials. Fragments of melted bronze with one the cremations suggests that a spearhead or sword had been placed on the funerary pyre along with the body.

In the northeast of Pembrokeshire, on the border with Carmarthenshire, a group of enigmatic earthwork monuments has been surveyed and a very small-scale excavation undertaken. These seem to be pond barrows, a type of monument associated with round barrows. If they are pond barrows it would be unusual to find them in west Wales as they are a rare monument type and currently only known in Dorset and Wiltshire. Unfortunately the work undertaken so far has not been sufficient to characterise the earthworks.

The Trust has been recording the coastal heritage of southwest Wales with help from members of local communities, through a project called Arfordir. Pembrokeshire has a rich coastal heritage, emphatically demonstrated in the spring of 2010 when Sarah Carlsen, a local resident of Lydstep Haven, contacted the Trust to report discoveries on the beach. She had noted human (adults and children) and animal (mostly red deer) footprints in peat – a common deposit on the beaches of west Wales and know as the submerged forest – uncovered by a storm during exceptionally high tides. Lydstep is unique in Wales as in the early 20th century the skeleton of a pig with a flint arrowhead embedded in it was found beneath a fallen tree trunk in the submerged forest. The skeleton of this pig is now in the Natural History Museum in London and has been radiocarbon dated to c. 4200 BC. The footprints may be the result of hunters standing in the shallow waters of a freshwater lagoon. More analysis on the samples taken will be needed to confirm this.

During 2011 the Trust in conjunction with other organisation such as the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park will be investigating several sites in and around Pembrokeshire, including excavations at Fan round barrow, Henry VIII’s gun fort at Angle, and a medieval village at St Ishmael in Carmarthenshire. Volunteers are always welcome, so if you would like to join in please contact Alice Pyper at 01558 823121 Further details will be posted closer to the date of the excavations on the Trust’s website at More information on all the projects described above can be found on the Trust’s website.

NEWS FROM PETE CRANE – Archaeologist Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

Excavation is continuing this summer at Nevern Castle, between 19 June and 8 July, undertaken as a partnership between Nevern Community Council, which owns the site, Dr Chris Caple of Durham University and the National Park Authority. Students and local volunteers will be helping with the excavation.

Free guided tours of the excavations and the castle at Nevern will take place at 2.45pm every day except Thursdays. Visitors are welcome at any time during the dig and the site is open all year round.

Topographical and geophysical surveys are planned this year at Gribin Fort Solva and a ‘new fort’ further along the ridge. The dates of this work have not been fixed. More details will become available from PCNP or Dyfed Archaeological Trust.



By Susan Potts

Pembrokeshire is a special place for many of us, residents and visitors alike, and those of us not born here may consider as lucky those whose childhood was spent here. Such a one was Thomas Tomkins, one of the six most famous composers of Tudor music. Born and raised here, he is perhaps not as celebrated as he might be in his childhood county. There are, however, some possible reasons for Thomas Tomkins’s relatively unsung status.

When I first came across the madrigal ‘Too much I once lamented’, living at the time in Gloucestershire, I knew nothing of its source but the music spoke to me. I was intrigued, therefore, when my fellow contralto madrigalist in our Pembrokeshire group pointed out that Tomkins was born in St Davids. My initial interest has led me to research in Oxford, Paris and New York as well as in Wales. As other researchers will know, the enjoyment of such study is tempered by frustration over missing documentation and instances of misinformation. This article is an outline of what has come to light so far for me, based originally on Anthony Boden’s biography, Thomas Tomkins: The Last Elizabethan, which was an initial main source for me and gave me ideas for further study.

Thomas Tomkins spent his first fourteen years in and around St Davids. He was the son of Thomas Farington Tomkins, organist and Vicar Choral of the Cathedral. Traces of buildings which included the Tomkins household may still be seen in the field opposite Cloister Hall through which a path runs up to Quickwell. Although the Cathedral of St Davids was subject to direction and influence from the Tudor court in London, outside the Close the Welsh cultural traditions were strong and Welsh was the people’s first language.

Within the Cathedral, services were held in both Welsh and English, Latin having been recently ousted from the, post-Reformation church in favour of the vernacular. It had taken a little time for the Welsh dynasty in London to catch on to the idea that in Wales, English was not the language of the people and it was thanks to Elizabeth I, herself a noted linguist, that the language of heaven was incorporated into the religious life of Wales. Later in her reign, the year 1588 was made famous by the Armada but for Wales the year is as famous for the William Morgan Bible. The prayer book and the psalms were translated into Welsh around that time too.

Confusingly, Thomas had an older brother also called Thomas who was made a young Vicar Choral in order to bring some extra pay into the Tomkins household. This happened in 1577 when that older brother was 10 and the younger Thomas was 5 years old. There is a theory, which I first saw in Anthony Boden’s book which gives a plausible reason for more than one Thomas in the Tomkins household. In the past when infant and child mortality was very common in Britain, as elsewhere, it was often the case that a new-born child would be named after its dead older sibling. Many records show this feature. It is comparatively very rare, however, that a younger child would be given the same name as its living sibling. In 1571 the father, Thomas Farington Tomkins, was recorded in the Cathedral Chapter Acts Book A as being required to desist from his wrongful relationship with his Welsh maidservant and to bring home his wedded wife, Margaret. The younger Thomas was born in 1572 and was brought up in the household as the son of Margaret. Boden’s conjecture is that he may have been the illegitimate son of the 1571 liaison with the Welsh maidservant and that she, the maidservant, may have given up her son for raising within the family but made the condition that he was named after his father. The possibility therefore is that the father had two sons named after him, one being his oldest child perhaps named by his wife for him and this later one named for him by his maidservant.

Unfortunately there is much misinformation in the public domain about Tomkins. For instance, a book written by Henry Gee, Dean of Gloucester Cathedral, in 1921 exists without erratum referring to Thomas Tomkins as a Gloucester boy. Tomkins himself, however, in his dedication of  Songs of 3, 4, 5 and 6 parts to the Earl of Pembroke in 1622 includes the words ‘… I first breathed, and beheld the sun in that County, to which your Lordship gives the greatest lustre, taking the Title of your Earldom from it … ‘ but even without this piece of flattery to a potential sponsor The St Davids Chapter Acts Book A allows any researcher to feel secure with respect to Tomkins’s Pembrokeshire credentials.

While considering theories for which supporting evidence is not robust, there is the pleasing idea that Thomas as a young boy travelled with his father all round Dewisland, noting its geographical and historical features. Boden (pp 27-32) suggests this because a manuscript was found describing the area in the years around or after the Armada. The authorship of the document is in doubt but there are indications that it might have been written by the composer’s father, Thomas Farington Tomkins. It contains the now well-known comment that the rocks called The Bishop and his Clerks would be a good defence against the Spanish navy at no cost to the Queen: a somewhat barbed remark, it seems!

What seems reasonably safe to assert is that while the young Thomas was growing up in St Davids he would have witnessed the lively Welsh culture which included much music. Nowadays when we think of wassailing, it is in connection with the Christmas and New Year season but for Thomas, wassailers could be heard, at every festive occasion including Easter, Calan Mai (MayDay), mid-summer’s day and Calan Gaeaf (the official beginning of winter, November 1st) among others. The traditions of Hunting the Wren and Mari Lwyd are well-known as having been regular events but others, such as Singing the Doorstep, are less widely recognised: this was a custom in which a group of people would gather at the door of a bride-to-be and engage in poetic repartee which it is thought was often sung.

Singing and dancing outside the church was also part of the cultural scene on the many feast days throughout the year. The content of these after-service revelries was not always as decorous as one might imagine. A verse that slipped into Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid shows a punning wit in a naughty little Welsh rhyme, for knowledge of which I am indebted to Meredydd Evans; there was a well-known consequence of such gatherings especially associated with the feast days in May which was a yearly crop of babies born in February who were known as ‘The Flowers of May’.

Music was part of everyday life too, for instance in taverns and after work on farms. For these informal gatherings there would be a small, cheap and portable harp ready to unhook from the wall and pass round the company as an impromptu accompaniment to the singing. Some of the songs were favourites passed on by word of mouth in the area or brought into St Davids by traders and travellers; others were made up as the singers went along, sometimes using rhyming couplets as a form of verse structure. This inventiveness has been a social asset in this area for centuries, continuing forward in time 400 years to when we moved to North Pembrokeshire when we were told by Jimmy ‘Bettws’, our next-door neighbour, of similar rhyming contests which he remembered as happening spontaneously in a Newport inn, then known as The Com [The Commercial, now the Castle Hotel]. The skill of the feat-songs was there carried on as spoken rather than sung couplets, conjured up on the spot, and was a regular feature of pub life just a few decades ago.

There are no available records to show what happened to Margaret Tomkins, whom the young Thomas regarded as his mother, but by 1586 when he was 14, his father had remarried. Thomas’s stepmother was Anne Hargest of Pen Arthur Farm then owned by her relative Richard Hargest and where the young Thomas probably spent time. The Singing the Doorstep would have marked his stepmother’s entry to the family. Pen Arthur farm today covers about 130 acres and records indicate that it would have been much the same size in Tudor time, producing grain as well as raising animals, principally sheep. It lies just a few minutes’ walk up a lane from the Cathedral Close and includes a large farmyard surrounded by stone buildings. In Tomkins’s time there would have been a sizable permanent pool of workers, inside as well as outside, in addition to temporary extra hands at busy times such as harvesting.

In 1586 financial problems, which had beset the family for a decade or more, became acute. The older brother Thomas, whose pay for the preceding nine years as a Vicar Choral had been boosting the family income, disgraced himself in such a serious way (the details of which are not entered in the records) that he was expelled from his Cathedral post. He ran away to sea and was subsequently killed on board The Revenge, Grenville’s ship, in 1591 in the sea battle with the Spanish off  Flores. Tennyson’s poem The Revenge recalls those events.

For those interested in the younger Thomas Tomkins there is a frustrating gap in the records which concern the years 1586 to 1594 but it is clear that his family moved to Gloucester sometime during those years. The last entry referring to any of the members of the family appears in the St Davids Cathedral Chapter Acts Book for the spring of 1586 and the first entry so far found in any Gloucester records refers to 1594. Whereas the St Davids records of that time continue with details of payments to those on the Cathedral staff (which, up till then had named members of the Tomkins family), the records in Gloucester for that time are incomplete. The shame of the older son’s behaviour and subsequent expulsion from St Davids and the complaints relating to his employment conditions that the organist father had made over the years there may have combined to make continued living in St Davids uncomfortable.

By 1594 Thomas Farington Tomkins was installed as a minor canon of Gloucester Cathedral and had been given the livings of three parishes in that diocese. Clearly he regarded the young Thomas as exceptionally musical and he apprenticed him to the famous William Byrd who, though living and working in London, owned property not far from Gloucester Cathedral. It is clear that the young Thomas Tomkins appreciated his stroke of fortune, learning much from his famous tutor to whom he later dedicated Too much I once lamented in these terms ‘To my ancient, and much reverenced Master, William Byrd’.

Thomas secured the job of Cathedral organist in Worcester in 1596, aged 24, a position which he held all his working life. The next year on 24th May 1597 in Tewkesbury Abbey Thomas married Alice, widow of the former Worcester Cathedral organist Nathaniel Patrick. In 1621 he was appointed to the Chapel Royal which was based mainly in Windsor but which required its members to travel with their royal patrons around the country. Tomkins is recorded as having been included in some of this travelling though, as far as we know, he never returned to Wales. Thus started decades of combining his commitments to Worcester Cathedral with his prestigious and somewhat onerous position as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Throughout his life he composed both sacred and secular works, many of which were settings of words, English for the most part but with some of his sacred compositions using Latin. No settings of Welsh words have been found to date. His instrumental works included many organ voluntaries but also a ground-breaking keyboard duet A Fancy for two to play which was composed some time before 1630. This piece, along with his friend Nicholas Carlton’s A Verse for two to play on one virginal or organ, is the earliest keyboard duet known to be composed in England; it has four strands of melody which interweave in madrigal-fashion, a feature that comes across clearly when played on the differing pipe-stops of an organ and it prefigures the fugal form.
The mid 1600s brought profound and severe changes to many in England and Tomkins life became harder and sadder, too. His wife Alice had died in 1642 and, as the Civil War came to Worcester, his house was badly damaged and the miseries of severe food shortages and violence were all round him. He was unable to continue at Worcester Cathedral when his role of organist was abolished by the Commonwealth Authorities. When the Puritan Army took over, the organ was broken up and church music was not wanted. During this time he was looking after two young orphaned nephews and had just married a young widow with sons of her own. This phase of his life crumbled further when his second wife died around 1653.  Thomas Tomkins had spent the best part of sixty years producing music for regular Cathedral services in Worcester alongside more than thirty years of music at the Chapel Royal for state occasions such as the funeral of James I in 1625 and the coronation of King Charles I in1626. Now he was without work, without pay and without a home.

He was to be rescued from the ruins of his life in 1654. Thomas and Alice had had two children, Nathaniel and Ursula. Of Ursula we know nothing but Nathaniel is thought to have spied for personal gain on people whose houses had offered him hospitality and it is said he had a number of feuds with people in Worcester where he was consequently not liked. He was, however, a survivor. His first wife having died around 1650, he married in 1654 Isabel Lady Folliott  who owned a small estate six miles outside Worcester in the village of Martin Hussingtree. It was here that Thomas lived out the rest of his life. Thanks to Isabel, we know he was still composing at the age of 82 because we have a Pavane and Galliard written by Tomkins for her. The manuscript Réserve MS 1122 now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, contains not only existing music he copied out but also some new works of those last years. His increasingly shaky and larger handwriting, with crossings-out and jumped pages, signifies his increasing frailty but the fact that at 82 he was still composing music and that he reached the age of 84 secure in Martin Hussingtree is remarkable for the times in which he lived, spanning the Tudor and Stuart dynasties.

That Tomkins is thought of as an English rather than a Welsh composer stems from the understanding that all his known compositions are understood to have been written in England during his adulthood. His works are included in anthologies of English music since he is regarded as a significant composer in England by compilers such as Hulay and Wulstan, themselves respected authorities. Dr Peter James, an authority on Tudor music, considers that Tomkins belongs in the top four of Tudor madrigalists in Britain, the other three being Thomas Morley, Thomas Weelkes and John Wilby whose names are almost certainly more familiar to the general public. (The works of William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons are considered by experts to fall outside this more closely-defined category.)

Madrigals by Tomkins familiar to readers may include Too much I once lamented, Oyez, has any found a lad and See, see the shepherds’ queen. He also wrote a great deal of sacred music, including When David heard that Absalom was dead, Out of the Deep and Great and marvellous are thy works. His also wrote instrumental music, both for ensembles of viols and for the keyboard, the organ in particular.

At Martin Hussingtree in his old age, with his efforts and energy no longer taken up by official requirements, Thomas Tomkins may perhaps have revisited memories of his childhood in Pembrokeshire, with Welsh tunes and stress patterns coming to mind, ready to influence his writing. Whether or not such Welsh memories can be found, I hope that this local boy’s compositions, whose works are performed across the world, may become more fêted in his native land.

The research work on which this paper is based was originally developed in connection with my MA in Music through The Open University, Milton Keynes in two parts: the project and the dissertation.
Anthony Boden’s book has played a key part in my researches and I am immensely grateful to him for his work and his encouragement, as I am also to Phyllis Kinney and Meredydd Evans.


1.   A. Boden. Thomas Tomkins: The Last Elizabethan. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005).
2.   David W. James. St. Davids and Dewisland A Social History. (Cardiff: University of              Wales Press, 1981) 159.
3. D. Parry Jones. Welsh Children’s Games and Pastimes: Nursery Rhymes and Games. (1964).
4. Thomas Morley. A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke. (London: Peter Short. (specifically the copy owned by Thomas Tomkins with all his writings therein, from the archive of Magdalen College, Oxford), 1597.
5. National Library of Wales (NLW). Collectaenea Menvensia. undated: Aberystwyth.
6. NLW St Davids Chapter Acts Books A and B. Aberystwyth.
7. George Owen. The Description of Pembrokeshire. (Archive material in the Pembrokeshire County Records Office, Haverfordwest, Pembs, 1603. Ed. Henry Owen (Cymmrodorion Record Series: London 1893-1936).
8. Trefor M Owen. Welsh Folk Customs. (Cardiff: National Museum of Wales, 1968).
9. Iorwerth C. Peate. Tradition and Folk Life: a Welsh View. (London: Faber and Faber, 1972).
10.Tradition and Folk Life: Folk Lore. (London: Faber and Faber, 1972).
11.Welsh Children’s Games and Pastimes: Posis – Puzzles and Riddles.( London: Faber and Faber, 1964).
12. 1964. Welsh Children’s Games and Pastimes: Nursery Games and Rhymes. (London: Faber and Faber, 1964).
13. Pembrokeshire Library. Francis Green manuscripts volumes 9, 10, 13, 14, 15, 17, 20, 23, 24, 25 and 27. n. pub.
14. All documents in the files relating to Thomas Tomkins in St Davids Cathedral Library, Pembrokeshire.
15. Stanley Sadie, (ed.). 1988. The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. (Repr. London: MacMillan, 1994).
16. Denis Stevens. Thomas Tomkins 1572-1656. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1967).
17. G. J. Williams & E. L. Jones. Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid. (Caerdydd: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1934).

1. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris: Réserve 1122 & 1186,
2. Bodleian Library Oxford MSS: Mus. f.20-24, Mus. Sch. C 64-9, Mus. Sch. 93, Mus. Sch. D 212-16, Mus. Sch. D 245-7, Tenbury MS 791, Tenbury 1004, Tenbury 1021, Tenbury 1303, Tenbury 1382 & Rawl. poet.23 (texts).
3. Christ Church, Oxford: Mus.MSS numbers 6, 61-6, 88, 437, 698-707, 1001, 1002, 1018-20, 1113, 1220-24, 1227 (all on film sent to The Bodleian Library during Christ Church Library repair work).
4. Public Library, New York: Drexel MSS 4180-85, 5469, 5611 & 5612.
5. St John’s College, Oxford: MSS 180 & 181.

(N.B. Following the sad demise of the author only limited editing of Susan’s text and notes has been possible. Editor.)



By Mark Muller

History has never been more popular.  Each year reveals a deeper fascination with past events, a desire to know how people used to live or perhaps a craving for deeper knowledge of family trees and their individual histories.  Television feeds this need and modern technology has introduced research resources which make tantalizing confusions all at once clear.

Here in Pembrokeshire, the 900th anniversary of the founding of Haverfordwest gave a reason for inhabitants to examine causes and explanations for the unique position that this town has held in Wales.  It still comes as a surprise to newcomers either to the area or to history, that the town was founded by Flemings following the flooding of their homeland very early in the twelfth century.  The consequences of this incursion remain extremely obvious, account for so much and mean that a county, already clove in two by the river Cleddau, is divided further and irreconcilably on language, culture and social characteristics. Is the anniversary of such an event a cause for celebration?  If the town founded as a result, is your hometown then the answer has to be yes.

During 2009, groups, organisations and councils examined the potential for a celebratory year and a calendar of prospective events was created and placed on-line by the Town Council.  In addition the 900 Committee was formed and chaired by Malcolm Green to co-ordinate and promote events during 2010.  Well in time for the anniversary year, a book was published by the Haverfordwest Civic Society, written by the author of this article, entitled People Who Shaped Haverfordwest, comprising a brief examination of people, not necessarily from the town but whose fame in one cause or another combined with their achievements or actions, coloured either the fabric of the town or its mythology in the minds of the inhabitants.  Both Queen Eleanor and Oliver Cromwell spent little time in Haverfordwest but their position, and for a brief time their overwhelming interest, for opposite reasons in the Castle, altered the appearance of the dominant feature of the town.

Parallel but unconnected with the book, the Civic Society undertook a major long term addition to the town by originating and seeing through the extremely complex undertaking of the placement in the Castle grounds, of a large stone inset with a plaque. On the plaque are inscribed the names of persons who for one reason or another deserve recognition. The idea  of the plaque was that of Geoffrey Foster, member at the time of the Executive Committee, who with the help of Robin Sheldrake and others navigated a path through the rigorous formulae that accompanies any desire to dig up as much as one blade of grass within the curtilage of a scheduled monument.

The names that appear on the plaque begin with the town’s founder, Tancred, and end with the famous singer Helen Watts. A poignant fact is that Helen Watts was initially not to be included for the simple reason that she was still alive. But she qualified with her death two days before the launch of People Who Shaped Haverfordwest in October 2009, to which she had contributed the foreword. The plaque was unveiled on the 18th July 2010 by a detachment of the Dyfed Army Cadets in front of a large audience. Speeches were made by the Lord Lieutenant, the Honourable Robin Lewis, Sir John Roch and Derek Rees (President and Chairman of Haverfordwest Civic Society), and Malcolm Green.

The job ends; the plaque is unveiled by cadets in front of the Lord Lieutenant, the Honourable Robin Lewis and Sir John Roch.

The job ends; the plaque is unveiled by cadets in front of the Lord Lieutenant, the Honourable Robin Lewis and Sir John Roch.

A host of events filled the year, with a medieval banquet organised by the Inner Wheel, held in May, and a Medieval Family Day with knights, archers and craft stalls organised by the Round Table in June.  The inhabitants of the town prove to be extremely selective in their choice of what they want and will support; guided walks of prominent landmarks (Castle and Priory). These are always popular, as are talks on social aspects (Edwardian period, Workhouse) but Walking Treasure hunts, even with an attractive prize (£100) do not draw large numbers. Period plays relevant to the town with casts in stunning costumes (performed in July) will always bring large audiences if staged outdoors, but the numbers fall significantly if weather dictates an indoor performance.  Both the Beer and Cider Festival and The Ghost Walks proved extremely popular.  The landmark event organised by the 900 Committee was a Gala Barbecue held in late July at the Withybush County Showground.  It was well attended.  In September, a Pageant arranged by Cleddau Community Arts involved primary schools with a large number of children in costumes representing different periods from the 900 years of the town’s existence.  The year, having started with a service in St Martin’s Church organised by the Town Council in January 2010 and attended by the Bishop of St Davids, ended in late December with a walking Carol Concert around the town with many singers in Dickensian costume and a service in the Priory ruins.

A group of Georgians await the arrival of Nelson outside Foley House during the ghost walks.

A group of Georgians await the arrival of Nelson outside Foley House during the ghost walks.

The year has been a difficult one for the town, suffering further losses to that ever smaller reserve of buildings carrying its identity.  Prendergast School was demolished in the first half of the year.

Prendergast School

Prendergast School

Built in 1882, the original school was a magnificent Victorian gem but had lost much of its architectural beauty (and listed status) as a result of ‘renovations’ during the 1970s.  Nevertheless the contractors employed to demolish the building suggested that it remained strong enough to put them behind schedule and commented on the fine timber beams they were tearing from within it.

The initial plan, according to the Local Authority, is to use the area as a car park with a long term possibility being to relocate the Record Office, currently in the castle, to purpose built premises at this site.

schoolA further loss then becomes evident, the plan being to sell the old prison building that currently houses the Record Office.

During the year a further controversy arose with Foley House being offered for sale by the Local Authority.  Ideas promoted by the Civic Society and others to use the building efficiently by relocating the Registry Office to it and thus removing the chaos that happens all too frequently at the current site next to the library, have been resisted and in an effort to make it attractive to would-be purchasers, the building next to it has been included in the sale.  Following a recent tour of the building the Haverfordwest Civic Society expressed disappointment at its state after fifty or so years of use by the County Council.

The eviction of the twice annual fair from its position on St Thomas Green, following the demolition of yet another longstanding Victorian building, the County Offices, remains a blow too savage for many townsfolk to bear and a move continues to have the eviction reversed.

There is, however, cause for some optimism.  After years of being viewed as an eyesore, the town’s High Street has seen major sympathetic renovations and the Shire Hall has a pleasing facade although the future of the court room remains unclear.

Perhaps all that remains now is to establish how many of the town’s inhabitants have an actual link to the town’s founders, the Flemings.  Such an investigation, using DNA is extremely possible and attracts many long established townsfolk.  It is perhaps, the next project.