Review: Grave Tales from Wales – Volume Two by Geoff Brookes
This latest sojourn around the gravestones by Geoff Brookes is chock full of fascinating lives and deaths.
He visits wildly evocative spots such as the windswept cholera cemetery at Cefn Golau between Tredegar and Rhymney, a now crumbling testament to unsalutary living conditions in nineteenth century Wales, when epidemics raced through the huddled terraces of the valleys with deadly effect.
In Tredegar itself a man called Price was the first cholera victim in the town but within a month every street in the place was affected. Families were forced to bury their own dead. They tried all manner of cures from camphor to ‘copper smoke’ but to no avail, so many simply went to chapel to pray for their lives.
Industry connects many of the grave tales in Brookes’ latest collection. There is the terrible Gresford Mining Disaster of 1934, when grim working conditions and a careless management – more concerned with money than safety – led to 261 men losing their lives.
Visiting Landshipping in Pembrokeshire, Brookes finds out that some of the victims of the Garden Pit explosion of 1844 included one, Joseph Harries, who was just four years of age.
Then there are the two schoolboys killed in the Abermule train disaster of 1921, when two trains collided at speed, leading to a tangled mass of metal and 17 people losing their lives.
Including the Onslow brothers who were on their way to school. Another railway tale commemorates two men, “working class martyrs” Leonard Worsell and John H. John, who were killed in the Llanelli riot of 1911, the last time the riot act was read in Britain.
A striking and suitably monumental grave is that of iron master Robert Crawshay at Vaynor near Merthyr Tydfil which has the words “God Forgive Me” on the eleven ton slab of granite which was hauled into place by a team of 13 horses.
No expense was spared, for here was man whose home at Cyfarthfa had a window for every day of the year.
He didn’t spread his wealth around, though: Crawshay failed to invest in his business, impacting on wages and leading to strikes. As Brookes puts it, this ‘provided the perfect conditions for the growth of valleys socialism.
It was not only the physical landscape that the Crawshays changed. It was also the political landscape.’ Crawshay now rests within the former, the huge slab on his grave put there, according to some, to prevent his soul from rising up at the Resurrection.
One of the stories contained in the collection is the reason Geoff Brookes got interested in what some might find a slightly macabre subject in the first place.
It concerns the so-called “Murder Stone” in Cadoxton near Neath, a headstone which contains the opening words: ‘1823. To record MURDER. The stone was erected over the body of MARGARET WILLIAMS. Aged 26…’ and then goes on to unroll the mystery of who had killed the young woman from Carmarthenshire.
She was working in service in the area where she was attacked one night. Like many of the grave tales contained herein, the full story involves a good deal of detective work on Brookes’ part, as he trawls newspaper accounts to follow a trail to the likely suspect and eventually to another possible murderer.
As with the previous volume of Grave Tales Brookes manages to unearth some intriguing historical characters, if you pardon the weak pun. One of them is Thomas Phaer, one time the Commissioner for Piracy and author of the first ever book in English about childcare.
This gives us interesting glimpses of social history such as when he notes that ‘Stifnes of limes which thing procedeth many tymes of cold, as when a chylde is found in the frost, or in the street, cast away by a wyked mother’ or the fact that a major cause of ulceration of the head came from sides of bacon or salt beef falling from hooks in the ceiling.
A very much forgotten figure, Phaer was also the man who first penned the sentence ‘The eyes are the window of the soul.’
Another little known historical figure is a very lucky fighter ace, Ira Jones from St. Clears who crashed his plane no fewer than 28 times when landing. He survived apparently because he had very short legs which allowed him to escape injury in a collapsing cockpit.
His colourful life included a period dropping empty beer bottles as improvised weapons in Northern Russia and going on drinking sprees with Dylan Thomas. A man whose story is well worth resurrecting.
There is much you can learn in this oblique history, such as details of the Dolgarrog Dam Disaster, when an estimated 70 billion gallons of water flooded homes between Conway and Llanrwst and about the Clio, a sort of floating orphanage cum training ship moored in the Menai Strait where many young boys lost their lives, either at sea or or on board ship.
You can also acquire some new words courtesy of the inventor of the equals sign, Robert Recorde who coined “cinkangle” for pentagon and “siseangle” for hexagon, although you don’t need telling that they both failed to find their way into common usage.
He also wrote a book called the Urinal of Physick which explored how to diagnose illness from the state of a person’s pee, which didn’t trouble the bestseller list.
Perhaps the technique for discovering the name of a thief – contained in the account of the life of the diarist Francis Kilvert – is not one that will be embraced by, say Dyfed-Powys Police.
Kilvert informs us that one family ‘confidently believed they should wrap a toad, together with a piece of paper, inside a ball of clay which should then be boiled or roasted. The toad would then obligingly scratch the name of the thief on the paper.’
You will have gathered that this assemblage of articles is a trove of fascinating facts and potted lives, all shot through with a sense of place and powered by the author’s very active sense of curiosity.
It’s a great way to learn about the past – wandering around churchyards and deciphering the messages on headstones: of that you can, forgive me, be dead certain.
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