by Keith Johnson
Being a recognised landmark on the Grand Tour of Wales, the town of Pembroke had its share of distinguished visitors in the late 18th and early 19th centuries whose stay in the walled town has been well documented. This is the previously untold story of three characters who, if rather less distinguished, were each notable in their own way and brought a little colour to Pembroke at various times.
The first of these men was known in Pembroke as Henry Guislar, although originally his name could well have been Heinrich Eisler. A native of Germany, he was born about 1744 at Frankfurt am Main where his father practised as a doctor. It was intended that Henry would follow the same profession as his father, but his love of music being stronger than his love of medicine he apparently ran away from home and became the servant of a French gentleman.
Subsequently he was engaged as a fiddler by a celebrated conjurer of the day named Catter Felto, and it was as a member of Felto’s travelling show that he first came to Britain. A couple of years later, having apparently left the service of the conjuror, Henry Guislar turned up in Pembroke where he settled for a time, eking out a living by fiddle-playing.
According to his obituary writer: ‘About the time of the breaking out of the first American war , Pembroke was visited by a press gang who, being in want of a fiddler, Guislar presented too tempting an object to be passed over. Consequently his abilities were forthwith called into requisition and he served as their musician for the space of seven years.’
Following his enforced stint as a fiddler aboard the Navy’s ships, Guislar returned to Pembrokeshire. However the records indicate that his Naval servitude was much shorter than seven years, because on December 13th, 1777 Henry Geisler – listed as ‘Goosler’ – married Lettice Handy at Hubberston Church, both being ‘of this parish’. (The writer is grateful to Pat Barker for this information).
For the rest of his long life, Henry Guislar earned a living as an itinerant fiddler, busking on street corners and playing at Pembrokeshire country fairs and weddings. According to one account ‘he was rather under the middle stature and possessed a constitution of remarkable toughness’.
Lettice Gisler (sic) died of dropsy in 1802 and is buried in Hubberston Churchyard. However ‘Old Guislar’, as he became known, lived long enough to be recorded in the 1841 census when he was living at Conduit, Hakin. He died the following April at the age of 99, having only given up fiddling for pennies in the Hakin alehouses a couple of years earlier.
John Clark was lodging at one of Pembroke’s coaching inns in early 1807 when he was taken ill and died. He was interred in St Mary’s churchyard with little fuss or ceremony.
Clark was fairly well known in the town, having visited the area several times over the past decade in his role as surveyor and steward for George Devereux, Viscount Hereford, whose property in Wales included the Monkton Priory estate.
What the people of Pembroke perhaps didn’t realise was that before becoming a land surveyor, Clark had gained national notoriety for his part in two suspected literary frauds that still resonate to this day.
Born in the Scottish Highlands, Clark was a Gaelic speaker who became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and a respected Gaelic scholar. He was associated with the poet James Macpherson who had gained celebrity status for his discovery and translation of the works of a blind Scottish bard called Ossian who apparently lived in the third century.
The epic poetry that Macpherson translated from Gaelic and published in the 1760s was hailed by many notable literary figures to be the work of a genius, and Ossian was dubbed ‘the Homer of the North’. Schubert set some of the verses to music and they were translated into numerous languages. And among those championing Ossian’s work and giving it academic credibility was the acknowledged Gaelic expert, John Clark,
Some years later, in 1778, Clark himself published Works of the Caledonian Bards which were described as his own translations from the Gaelic of early Highland poems. Well received by the critics, the book proved so popular that a second edition soon followed.
It seemed that the two men had tapped into a spring of hitherto unknown early Scottish literary greatness. However a few people began to smell a rat, notably Samuel Johnson who called Macpherson ‘a mountebank and a fraud’. While many continued to believe in the existence of the blind bard Ossian, a growing number were of the opinion that Macpherson had made it all up himself, loosely based on Irish legends.
Clark continued to support Macpherson in the face of this rising tide of scepticism, which eventually spread to include his own Works of the Caledonian Bards, dismissed by many as another literary hoax.
Either disillusioned by this response to his great contribution to Gaelic literature, or worried that his hoax was about to be exposed, John Clark left Scotland in the 1780s and relocated to the Welsh borders.
As well as acting as a land agent for Viscount Hereford, Clark worked as a surveyor and spent two decades surveying and helping to develop the road system in south Wales. He also compiled detailed county surveys on Breconshire, Radnorshire and Herefordshire for the Board of Agriculture.
Works of the Caledonian Bards remained in print well after his death in 1807, and there is still a debate about whether Clark’s book and the Ossian verses were genuine or – as most people now believe – elaborate literary hoaxes.
One difference between Macpherson and Clark was their final resting places. While Macpherson – evidently an accomplished poet, whether or not he fabricated the character of Ossian – was buried in Westminster Abbey, Clark was laid to rest in the rather humbler setting of St Mary’s churchyard in Pembroke.
Most people have heard of Harry Houdini, the great escapologist, but not everyone realises that he was following in a long line of similar daredevil showmen, starting with Sam Patch ‘The Yankee Leaper’ whose most famous stunt was a death-defying dive at Niagara Falls in 1829 watched by 10,000 people.
Britain’s answer to Sam Patch was Sam Scott who claimed to be American but was probably born in Deptford. He rose to prominence in the 1830s by copying many of the reckless diving exploits made famous by Sam Patch, plunging into the sea and rivers from bridges, tall buildings and the topmasts of ships.
Huge crowds gathered to watch his performances; on one occasion over 25,000 people gathered around the Prince’s Pier in Liverpool to watch him dive head first from the masthead of a barque, the Ellen Marr, moored in the river.
As an encore he climbed the rigging again, ran along one of the yard-arms and dived off the end. ‘His running on the naked top-gallant yard to the end without any hold, at a height of fifty feet above the deck, was not the act of a sober and sane man,’ commented one local newspaper.
In the summer of 1838, Sam Scott turned up in Pembroke on what seems to have been a tour of Wales and the West Country. He was accompanied by a small entourage who went round with tin boxes to collect money from spectators and also sold pamphlets describing ‘the life and adventures of that astonishing leaper, Sam Scott, written by himself, with a true and particular account of his peculiar sensations when he is in mid air’.
With no ships of any great size in the Pembroke River, Scott’s eye was drawn to the corn mill on the Mill Bridge, four storeys tall and 80 feet above the water at the eaves.
Posters soon began to appear around town stating that Scott ‘The American Leaper’ would be diving head first from the roof of the mill into the Pembroke River at high tide on the following Thursday and Saturday. No poster exists for the Pembroke performance, but it was probably similar to this announcement a couple of years later.
He will DIVE with his Head Foremost with his Face striking the water first, and will go through many Feats of Agility aloft, and in the water. He will LEAP with TWO CATS, one on each side of the body, upon the above-mentioned days.
S. S. having gone through the same Performances at Liverpool, Brighton, and many other parts in Great Britain, feels confident, from the patronage he has been honoured with by the Nobility, Gentry, and Inhabitants who witnessed him, that he will be found deserving of the kind support of the Public upon these occasions.
Whether any unfortunate felines featured in the Pembroke performances isn’t recorded. The only report of the event noted that Scott completed his leaps ‘to the admiration and astonishment of hundreds’ and that ‘the nerve which he appeared to possess was the surprise of everyone’.
To someone used to appearing before thousands, the turnout in Pembroke must have been disappointing for Scott, and he seems to have abandoned the provinces soon afterwards and concentrated on London, where his increasingly dangerous stunts along the Thames attracted thousands of onlookers.
One Houdini-like exploit involved him hanging from a bridge by a rope looped around his neck before freeing himself and plunging into the river. In 1841 he was performing this stunt at Waterloo Bridge when he failed to loosen the rope and hanged himself in front of 10,000 spectators.