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Review: Grave Tales from Wales – More ‘Stories in Welsh Stone’ by Geoff Brookes

02 Jul 2022 6 minute read
Grave Tales from Wales is published by Cambria Books

Jon Gower

The term for people who are interested in cemeteries is Taphophiles and Geoff Brookes is certainly one of their number.

Over the course of three books devoted to the subject he has visited graveyards and churchyards all over Wales, searching for the often extraordinary stories behind the stones, some of the headlines behind the headstones if you like.

One of the most famous – in part because of the major motion picture – is that of Harold Lowe in Rhos near Conwy, the ‘real hero of the Titanic.’

Lowe was the officer with responsibility for Lifeboat 14, which he used to ensure that women and children were rescued first and, realising he still had some room to spare, went back into the wreckage and wrack of floating bodies to pick up survivors.

In the film he is played by Ioan Gruffudd, who releases the fictional lead, Rose from the clutches of an icy sea that left hundreds dead from hypothermia.

In truth Lowe saved a Chinese man called Fang Lang, who was clinging on for dear life to a floating door.

Some of the other graves have equally adventurous, if less famous stories to tell.

In Cathays cemetery, Cardiff there’s the marble monument to Louisa Maud Evans, a.k.a. Albertina, a 14 year old parachutist who died during a performance as part of the Grand Exhibition of Industry and Fine Art in July 1896.

The evening ascent went well but during her slow descent the wind caught hold of the ‘chute and blew her out to sea.

Her body was later found at the mouth of the river Usk, where a local newspaper described her ‘tossed in the eddying shoals of the Severn Estuary, the bruised cork-belted Albertina cast up on wave-washed shingle, within sound of the harsh death-song of the clanging bell buoy.’

Supernatural world

The book is briskly written and exhaustively researched, with Geoff Brookes travelling to each and every site, often with his wife and sometimes with his grandsons.

They find so much, such as the ‘horrible register of anguish’ on a single stone which lists the 11 children of Richard and Hannah Rees who died in childhood, suggesting that ‘the emotions this ageing memorial represents are unimaginable.’

Then there are the victims of murder, such as Sara Hughes, whose dismembered body was found in Dolgellau in 1877, Mary Evans and her son Samuel, shot in Cribyn, Ceredigion or Charles and Mary Thomas, butchered in their sleep in Bassaleg in 1903.

But there are less troubling and bloody stories.

One of the most detailed, expands on the familiar story of Mary Jones, who famously walked barefoot over 25 miles of rocky terrain to Bala to get a copy of the Bible.

Then there is the colourful tale of John Harries, one of the so-called ‘cunning men’ of Cwrtycadno in Carmarthenshire, a sort of fortune teller, charmer and healer who could call down solutions from the supernatural world.

One man came to see him believing himself to be bewitched, only to be told by Harries that his problem was he had swallowed an evil spirit in the form of a tadpole which had grown into a frog.

When he made the man vomit up came the amphibian, reminding Brookes of some Saturday nights in Cardiff!

Eccentric figures

Some of the interred are famous folk, such as Charles Rolls of Rolls Royce fame who is buried in Hendre, Gwent.

His success in motoring competitions helped consolidate the reputation of the cars they built, including the 1907 Scottish Reliability Trial which won their Silver Ghost the accolade of ‘the best car in the world.’

It was ironic that Rolls met his end whilst indulging a new enthusiasm, that of flying, when he crashed in a tournament in, or rather, over Bournemouth, the twelfth victim of ‘The Science of Aviation’ as the press at the time described it.

If you travel up the Great Orme you can see the grave of one of the more eccentric figures in the book, namely Walter Beaumont, the so-called ‘Man Fish’ who could sit at the bottom of a glass tank and smoke a cigar.

He could also drink a bottle of milk underwater, escape from a weighted sack or pick up forty coins from the bottom and store them in his mouth.

You feel he’d have given Netflix a run for their money.

After one record-breaking, attempt when he stayed underwater for close on five minutes, a doctor said that the circulation had stopped in his head above the ears but even that didn’t stop him later diving into the sea bound with handcuffs.

Vivid vignettes

A rival in the eccentricity stakes is Dic Aberdaron, vagabond and multi linguist extraordinaire, while Brooke’s long graveyard shift also brings us encounters with more conventional talents such as navigator Sarah Jane Rees, or Cranogwen in Llangrannog, suffragette Frances Power Cobbe in Dolgellau and the highly skilled robber John Davies in Montgomery, where the grass over his stubbornly refuses to grow.

There are so many more vivid vignettes in the volume, bringing life back to the dead and there’s even a dead cat called Mrs Chippy who went with Shackleton on an expedition but didn’t make it back.

Grave Tales from Wales is an oblique, entertaining and witty take on Welsh history, from Sir Pryce Pryce-Jones in Newtown, being “The Man Who Taught the World to Shop” through heroic mine manager Daniel Thomas in the Rhondda to Elihu Yale, after whom the U.S. university is named.

As its author suggests this is history that is unfiltered and overlooked and Brookes proves himself to be a diligent detective, finding exciting and unexpected tales in epitaphs, cenotaphs, monuments and ivy-bedecked graves all over the country.

As books go it’s the very opposite of a dead loss.

Grave Tales from Wales is published by Cambria Books.  You can buy a copy here or from good bookshops

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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
2 years ago

Harold Lowe lived and learnt his trade in Barmouth/Abermaw, there is a plaque on the harbour in memory of Abermaw’s most famous seafarer…Ioan Gruffudd’s other connection to Barmouth is the film, in which he played the male lead, Happy Now. The film was shot in and around Barmouth…A thought for the late seaman/ boatman George Berridge RIP. His image is available thanks to Hugh Griffith Roberts and Flicker… Another Mawddach resident was the author, climber and sailor Major Bill Tilman for whom the far South Atlantic serves as a grave. His local legacy is the Three Peaks Yacht Race which… Read more »

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
2 years ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

ps I shall add this to my library…the culture page of N.C is a most appreciated…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
2 years ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

I don’t believe it, my cleverer half has just been to the library for a preview of this book and there are none in North Wales (plenty in South Wales) as our Library Service cannot afford a single copy! I suggest that those in the north who would like to read it make a point of requesting it…

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