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.
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.
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.
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.
A 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.