Archives for January 2012

Cardiff Coal Exchange - from economic centre to entertainment venue

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:05 UK time, Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Coal Exchange is now one of the largest entertainment venues in Cardiff. But in past times this elegant and distinctive building operated as one of the economic centres of world trade.

This was where the leading businessmen of the south Wales area - ship owners, shipping agents, mine owners - met to fix deals, to buy and sell coal and, of course, to make themselves fortunes.

The Coal Exchange was also the place where, in 1901, the first ever £1 million deal was struck. In the closing years of the 19th century it was where every businessman with pretensions of grandeur and success needed to be seen.

Coal Exchange Cardiff

Cardiff Coal Exchange

The story of Cardiff's development from small fishing village to the largest and busiest coal exporting dock in the country is well known. Such developments reached their heights in the closing decades of the 19th century when the 'black gold' of the Rhondda became one of the most prized and valuable commodities in the world.

Train loads of coal poured in a never-ceasing stream, down the valleys into Cardiff. And that was where most of the deals were carried out, a shipment bought here, tons of coal ordered there. Fortunes were made and lost every single day.

Unfortunately, in the early years of the town's prosperity there was no central point where all of the various negotiations could take place. Merchants simply chalked up the price they were offering or willing to pay on boards outside their offices and businessmen met in the quiet corners of public houses and taverns to fix prices and buy and sell the coal that was rapidly making Cardiff the greatest trading port ever seen. It was a situation that could not last.

In an attempt to provide a formal centre for the coal trade, Cardiff Coal Exchange was designed and built between 1883 and 1886. It was situated in Mount Stuart Square, within walking distance of Bute Docks, in what had previously been a quiet residential square, complete with a central garden. The design was by the architects James, Seward and Thomas and the building was formally opened on 1 February 1886.

Now, at last, Cardiff businessmen had a place to go each day. It was estimated that as many as eight or nine thousand people passed through the Coal Exchange each day with the hour between noon and 1pm being the busiest trading period.

Coal Exchange building in Cardiff

The building was formally opened on 1 February 1886

With over 20,000 square feet available for use, this was a palatial and magnificent building. Pride of the place went to the wide oak balcony that stood like a sentinel above the main trading floor while rich wood panelling and twin Corinthian columns gave the whole building an imposing sense of grandeur.

Cardiff Coal Exchange quickly became the economic capital of Cardiff and, with the price of the world's coal being decided within its looming portals, it could truly be said that this was as important an economic centre as the Stock Exchange or the Bank of England.

The tragedy of any port or town depending on just one commodity for its wealth, however, was cruelly displayed in the years after World War One when the price of coal plummeted. In the 1920s and 1930s Cardiff Docks went into terminal decline and although there moments when it seemed as if the port had been granted a reprieve, it was not to be.

The Coal Exchange finally closed in 1958 and coal exports from Cardiff ended just six years later, in 1964. For a while the building lay unused. There was talk of using the place as a base for the Welsh Assembly but when devolution plans were defeated in the referendum of 1979 the matter was dropped. When devolution did eventually become a reality a new Senedd building was already being planned and created.

The Coal Exchange was refurbished in 1988 and opened as an entertainment venue a few years later. It was closed once again for more work at the beginning of the 21st century but now the building has re-opened.

With a capacity of 1,000, the Coal Exchange now hosts events such as pop concerts, antique fairs and poetry readings, operating alongside the various other entertainment centres in the Cardiff Bay area - a fitting use of a building that has always been central to the vibrant and dynamic city of Cardiff.

Menaces, tripe dressers and the missing Fonza link

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 16:30 UK time, Friday, 27 January 2012

Although daylight hours have been in short supply I have spent many happy hours sitting at my kitchen table answering family history queries that are sent to me from people all around the world.

In preparation for this week's appearance on BBC Radio Wales' Jamie and Louise programme I've been busy using a magnifying glass and a dictionary, deciphering old-fashioned writing on various census returns and pre-typewriter civil registration indexes to see whether I can find answers specifically for BBC Radio Wales listeners.

Occupation: Menace

One listener, Jill, wanted to know whether her ancestor Emma Gunning could really have been a "menace", as her occupation states on the 1861 census.

A quick glance at the 1861 census makes me think that Jill was right, her 33-year-old ancestor Emma Gunning's occupation does indeed look like "menace"! But after a while your eyes come into focus and notice that her husband's occupation is absent and that in other census returns he is clearly listed as a Marine, whilst Emma is a Laundress.

While I'd love for Jill to be able to lay claim to having an ancestor who was a menace, it seems that perhaps it was a simple case of the enumerator being a little tired and not concentrating on which lines to follow.

Loop dresser or hoop dresser?

Obviously computers and especially the internet have been invaluable when it comes to family history but when Diana's PC was restored she lost all of her files. All she could remember was being intrigued by the occupation of her great,great, grandfather Joseph Davies. Aged 50 and living in Birkenhead at the time of the 1891 census it looks as if he was a loop or hoop dresser.

Images of pretty ladies in their crinoline hooped dresses strolling in the park with parasols sprung straight into my mind. This could not have been further from the truth though since the word is not hoop but tripe! He was a tripe dresser, preparing the lining of a cow's stomach for human consumption!

The missing Fonza link

The prize for this week's ancestor with the most unusual name surely must go to Ellen Fonza Sudna Maddy born in 1853 in Abergavenny. Angharad had a simple request: where do the middle names of her great grandmother's name came from? My first hunch was that Fonza sounded Spanish and so my mind leapt to the possibility that I'd uncovered a previously unknown Welsh-Patagonian link in Angharad's family history. That was short lived though once I discovered that the Welsh only set foot in Patagonia in 1862.

maddy ellen cencus

Birth entry for Ellen Fonza Sudna Maddy

But on Genes Reunited I came across Sue, whose aunt was Mary Phonzer Maddy born 1882 in Pontypridd. Mary's father was William Maddy born in Llyswen, Breconshire in 1812. On the 1861 census Ellen's father Herbert is aged 47 and his place of birth is also given as Breconshire, so it looks possible that further back they might share a common ancestor. Hopefully, reunited by their love of family history between them Angharad and Sue can find the missing "Fonza" link.


But one query has eluded me and my Mum and my sister and the archivists at Gwent Archives (in their impressive new home in the old steelworks office in Ebbw Vale, where I spent several happy warm hours this week) who have all helped me with the deciphering. On the 1891 census Kate Knowlson is aged 23 and living in Bristol. Her relationship to head of the household looks like "Ownnpsta". What is this?

Missed Cat Whiteaway on the Jamie and Louise programme on Wednesday 25 January? Catch up on the BBC iPlayer. Listen to Cat from 1 hour and 9 minutes into the programme.

RD Blackmore and the Maid of Sker

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 12:30 UK time, Friday, 27 January 2012

Mention the name RD Blackmore and most literally-minded individuals will probably reply "Lorna Doone". Set in the Devon countryside, Lorna Doone was the Victorian novelist's most famous and most popular book.

sker house photo by gill jones

Sker House (Photo by Gill Jones)

However, what many people do not know was that this gentle, unassuming lawyer, teacher and author had strong connections with Wales and that he even set one of his romantic novels, The Maid Of Sker, in and around the Porthcawl area.

Richard Doddridge Blackmore was born at Longworth in Berkshire in 1825, the son of the Rev John Blackmore and Anne Barnett Knight.

It was a distinguished ecclesiastical family, John Blackmore's wife Harriet being descended from the famous Nonconformist hymn writer Philip Doddridge - the reason RD Blackmore carried his name. Another ancestor, William Wake, was Bishop of Lincoln and, later, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Blackmore's mother Anne had strong Welsh connections. She came from Nottage, outside Porthcawl, the family living in some style at Nottage Court. The house had originally been part of a wheat farm for nearby Margam Abbey but after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 16th century the house and its lands passed into private ownership.

Unfortunately for the young Richard, his mother Anne died from typhus just three months after he was born. His father was unable to look after him and the baby, along with his elder brother Henry, were sent to Nottage Court where they could be brought up by his mother's sister Mary.

Blackmore enjoyed the first six years of his life at Nottage, roaming the sand dunes around Kenfig and developing a love of nature and the countryside that never left him - and which is a major factor in nearly all his books. He was later to say that his aunt Mary taught him to read, write and spell and made sure that he was familiar with the history, folklore and dialect of this part of Wales.

The family also had connections with Devon, just across the Bristol Channel, and several holiday periods were spent there. Between the coastal scenery of Glamorgan and the rolling hills of the English county, the young boy could not have had a happier early childhood - even thought he concept of orphans and the thought of being left without family often haunted him. It surfaces many times in his writing.

One of the places that Blackmore saw during his time at Nottage was nearby Sker House. This large and imposing building was a Tudor-built house, originally part of five farms that supported and serviced nearby Neath Abbey. It was a lonely and imposing building with a mysterious legend attached to it.

According to folklore the house eventually passed into the ownership of Isaac Watkins whose daughter supposedly fell in love with a young harpist from Nottage. The young musician had few prospects and Watkins forbade the match, forcing his daughter to marry another man. It was no use and the girl duly died of a broken heart. It is a legend that is quite similar to the more famous Maid of Cefn Ydfa, a story soon to be made into an early silent movie by William Haggar.

Other versions of the legend have the maid of Sker locked up in the house, imprisoned in a room with no windows and no way out. And, of course, like all such legends, her ghost was said to walk the corridors and staircases of Sker House.

Blackmore would have heard the stories about Sker during his childhood but his novel, when he came to write it in 1872, had nothing to do with them. His book, a novel that he thought much better than Lorna Doone - though literary critics and posterity have clearly thought otherwise - was an improbable tale of mysterious orphans, shipwreck and true love that does, eventually, turn out right in the end.

Like the rest of his literary efforts, the book sold well and was popular with the reading public. It was just one of 15 novels Blackmore published during his lifetime. He died in 1900, one of the most popular and widely read authors of his generation, a man who could count Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy among his friends.

His books are not so widely read these days, apart from the perennially popular Lorna Doone, but they remain well-researched and written, showing a clear love of nature and the countryside. Blackmore left Nottage at the age of six when his aunt married and settled at Elsfield Rectory near Oxford. After University he became, first, a lawyer, then a teacher. He wrote, almost as a part-time hobby, during his holidays and at weekends.

He developed a strong love for the county of Devon but, a quiet and retiring man who was fortunate enough to receive a large and valuable legacy when his uncle died, he rarely left his home at Teddington - apart from annual holidays to the Devon coast.

Although Blackmore always considered himself a Devon man, his one work of fiction with a Welsh setting is an interesting book to read. It shows that he had an affinity with the land and people of south Wales - a clear case of what might have been if his interests had not steered him in another direction.

Cat Whiteaway on the Jamie and Louise Show

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 15:47 UK time, Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Genealogist Cat Whiteaway joins Jamie and Louise on Wednesday 25 January to help Radio Wales listeners with their family history problems and queries.

Cat will help Angharad Matthews from Gilwern who wants to know where her great grandmother's name came from. Her great grandmother was born in Abergavenny in 1853 with the fantastic name of Ellen Fonza Sudna Maddy.

Jill Thomas wanted to know whether her ancestor Emma Gunning could really have been a "menace" as her occupation states on the 1861 census.

Cat is back on the Jamie and Louise Show on Wednesday 14 March for a Mother's Day special and is looking for people to get in touch if they need help with a search which relates specifically to their mother. You can email questions to

Cat Whiteaway answers Radio Wales listeners' questions on the Jamie and Louise Show, Wednesday 25 January, from 9pm on Radio Wales.

Harry Houdini in south Wales

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Martha Owen Martha Owen | 11:32 UK time, Monday, 23 January 2012

When legendary magician and escape artiste Harry Houdini visited Newport in 1905, he was already a star on both sides of the Atlantic.

Welsh audiences in 1905, 1913 and 1914 were treated to his usual programme of well-known feats, including the water torture cell, jail-breaking and an array of miraculous escapes.

He even accepted challenges from the locals, most notably a group of Newport joiners who built a series of wooden casks from which he would escape. According to contemporary newspaper reports, he complained on only one occasion, during a performance at the Newport Lyceum on 18 April 1905: "They had omitted to provide air holes, and as Houdini, who has his share of humour, quietly remarked that he needed air sometimes, there was little delay while the holes were made."

Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini

His programme would also include a company of popular vaudeville acts. Newspaper advertisements list performers including Vandinoff, "the lightening painter in oils"; Nelson "with and without a piano" Jackson; and, perhaps most impressively, Mr Bowmeester who "plays a pathetic sketch which includes a dozen parts, eight or nine of which are sustained by himself." Whether Bowmeester's performance surpassed the giddy heights of Billy French and his "wooden shoe dancing" can only be left to speculation.

Houdini amazed audiences in towns and cities across the country, but the magician's appearances in Newport were notable for his clashes with the authorities.

In 1905, during a run at the Newport Lyceum, he instigated court proceedings claiming to be the victim of an assault. By all accounts his courtroom audience was less receptive than the music hall crowds he was accustomed to.

The story follows that in April 1905 Houdini went to a nearby Cardiff theatre, the Empire, to see Hilbert, a local escape artist and music hall performer. The stunts Hilbert performed were so similar to those of Houdini that they shared a nickname in the Welsh press: "The Handcuff King".

Houdini, accompanied by his wife and mother-in-law, went to the theatre disguised as an old man, with talced hair, a moustache glued to his upper lip and carrying a walking stick. With the show about to begin, Houdini called out "fraud" and, brandishing a pair of handcuffs, yelled "I have a pair of handcuffs you can't get out of!"

Mr Lea, the theatre manager, had Houdini forcibly removed from the auditorium. He was grabbed by the throat and thrown into an alleyway outside. While Houdini alleged Lea personally assaulted him, Lea coolly denied involvement in the altercation. When asked by the alderman "if you had been there, would [Houdini], you think, have suffered even more than he did?", a smiling Lea replied: "Well, he would have run the chance."

The magician's case against Mr Lea was swiftly dismissed.

Newspaper advertisement showing challenege to Harry Houdini from a member of the public

Challenge to Harry Houdini from member of the public in Newport

Houdini's second run in with the authorities occurred in 1905, when Chief Constable Sinclair allowed him "to try his luck" in escaping a cell in Newport Police Station, naked and handcuffed. The Weekly Argus newspaper, dated 22 April 1905, reported how an "astonished" Sinclair witnessed a fully-clothed Houdini emerge from the cell after merely four minutes. A throng of 1,000 people met Houdini on the Town Hall steps, where he received an ovation from the crowd.

When Houdini next returned to Newport in 1913, his relationship with the authorities was of a less amicable nature.

On Monday 3 March, while performing at the Newport Empire, he announced his intention to leap into the River Usk from the Newport Bridge pending the permission of the authorities. When permission was not granted, he devised a plan to bypass the authorities and perform the stunt regardless.

The following day police and crowds of onlookers flooded the bridge. Houdini had anticipated the clamour and so placed a lookalike, along with the theatre manager and press representatives, in an open top car to act as a diversion.

The crowd, after an initial commotion, realised the magician was not in the car and began to disperse. The lookalike continued to engage the attention of the police while Houdini made his way to the opposite side of the bridge and, already stripped and handcuffed, lowered himself in.

Upon miraculously freeing himself from his bonds and swimming ashore, he returned to the Empire that evening and, according to the South Wales Argus, was greeted by a "magnificent reception" from his audience.

The press hailed the jump as a "triumphant vindication of Houdini's pluck and resource," praising him for outsmarting the police force in order "to keep faith with the public".

Indeed, the stories which have emerged from Houdini's appearances in south Wales are an enduring testament to the faith between a legendary performer and his mystified yet adoring audience.

Welsh courting customs

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:55 UK time, Monday, 23 January 2012

Welsh romantics certainly seem to be well catered for in the first few months of 2012. On Wendesday 25 January it is St Dwynwen's Day, a far more significant day for the Welsh than St Valentine's Day. The Welsh patron saint of lovers lived in the fifth century and, at her convent on Llanddwyn off the coast of Anglesey, it was said that the eels in her fish ponds could foretell whether or not lovers would live long, happy and mutually rewarding lives.

As if that was not enough, 2012 is a leap year and that, of course, means that there is an extra day in our calendar - 29 February. A centuries-old tradition says that, for the course of that extra day, many of society's norms and traditions could be happily ignored. Chief amongst these changes was the belief that, for one day at least, women could ask men to marry them.

Love spoons

Such a belief was not a uniquely Welsh custom but there are many more old traditions relating to the courting and marriage process that clearly do have their origins in rural Wales. They come from times long before the relentless industrialisation of the country, with its huge social and geographical mobilisation, destroyed much of the ancient Welsh culture and belief systems.

In pre-industrial Wales courting was an important and, often, lengthy process. The tradition of a man carving love spoons for his beloved is well known but its origins remain unclear.

Possibly it might have begun with sailors, far away from loved ones on long sea voyages. Such an activity, like the art of carving and decorating whale bones, would at the very least have helped to pass the time. An alternative explanation might be young men, sitting - fully chaperoned - in front of the farm house fire with their future wife and her family, passing the long evenings by carving and whittling at pieces of wood.

The intricate spoons, decorated with keys (symbolising the key to the man's heart), wheels (I'll work hard for you) and beads (showing the number of children he would like) have become famous and are now synonymous with Welsh courting customs.


The Welsh tradition of rhamanta was a way of trying to see into the future - in particular the romantic future. Rhamanta took many different forms.

In Glamorgan a young couple would place a shovel on top of the fire and put on it two grains of wheat. As the shovel grew hotter the grains would edge towards each other, swell and grow. Eventually they would pop off the shovel - if they jumped off together the boy and girl could expect to jump into matrimony. Jump separately and they would go off in different directions to lead different lives.


In Pembrokeshire a shoulder of mutton, pierced by nine bore holes, would be placed under a girl's pillow - not the most romantic or hygienic arrangement and certainly not very comfortable. With her shoes arranged in a T shape at the foot of her bed - but only after an incantation had been said above them - the girl would duly expect to see her future lover in her dreams.


Pembrokeshire girls would place a shoulder of mutton under their pillow to dream of her future lover

The Maid's Trick

The Maid's Trick was performed on Christmas Eve or on one of three designated Fairy Nights. The fire was made up and a feast of food was left on the table while the girl washed her undergarments in fresh spring water. The underwear would then be left to dry on the back of a chair in front of the fire and, with the door unlocked, the girl would retire to bed.

Her future husband would then supposedly come and eat the feast. It is tempting to ask how many cats, dogs and even tramps from the neighbourhood availed themselves of the warm fire and the food - not to mention the illicit pleasure of being in the same room as the young girls' clean underclothes!

Women's underwear on a washing line

Undergarments were washed in fresh spring water as part of the Maid's Trick to attract a husband

Everything in these pre-industrial days was geared towards marriage and, eventually, to the procreation of children. They were, after all, the future of the farm and the village. For a long time it was customary to plant rue, with its bad scent, or even nettles and thistles on the graves of old, confirmed bachelors as a way of discouraging celibacy. The practice was also extended to unmarried women - hardly the most caring of things to do.

Jumping the broomstick

The custom of jumping the broomstick - now taken to mean eloping or running away to get married - originated with newly wed Romany couples in Wales leaping over flowering broom, again as a fertility rite. The custom gradually spread beyond the gypsy families, developing into the Welsh tradition known as priodas coes ysgub. Here the couple used an actual broomstick that was wedged into an angle of the doorway.


Some of the more simple traditions on the wedding day included the throwing of confetti as the happy couple left the church. This developed from a pagan ritual where grain was tossed at a newly married couple in order to ensure a fruitful union. All Welsh brides believed that it was lucky to be woken by birdsong on the morning of their wedding while no Welsh bride wanted to receive first congratulations from another woman - wishes of good fortune from a man were much luckier.

Welsh brides also believed that if, by some chance, their wedding dress was torn on the wedding day then it denoted a bright and happy future. The wedding dress, incidentally, was not white. Brides traditionally wore their "best" dress for the wedding and it was not until Anne of Burgundy was married to Louis XII of France in 1499, clad in a white dress, that the colour became popular.

One peculiarly Welsh tradition was that of kidnapping the bride on her wedding day. This was done by the bride's family, just before the ceremony took place. The groom and his family would set off in hot pursuit and, obviously, rescue the bride. One version of this custom declared that whoever actually freed the bride would themselves be married within the year.

The bridal bouquet usually contained a cutting of myrtle, a traditional symbol of love. This bouquet would be given to the bridesmaid to carry and if she then planted the myrtle (and if it bloomed) it indicated that she would soon marry. Welsh brides also carried a pin in their wedding gown. At some stage the pin would be thrown over her shoulder. Whoever found it would soon marry - at best a dangerous practice, at worst a deadly one.

In times of economic distress or hardship the Welsh custom of marriage by contribution was often practised, although it was frowned on by the higher echelons of society.

Every guest was expected to bring food to the wedding breakfast or, occasionally, a gift of money. It was also customary for the poorer members of the community to visit the homes of rich or better off farmers prior to their weddings in order to ask for a donation of cheese which was then added to the meal after the wedding.

Many of the Welsh courting and marriage customs disappeared once the Industrial Revolution changed the look and nature of the country. Some, however, have evolved and are still in use today. They remain a fascinating glimpse of a way of life that has gone forever and on 29 February they are at least worthy of being remembered.

Mady Gerrard: holocaust survivor

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 15:20 UK time, Friday, 20 January 2012

As National Holocaust Memorial Day approaches on Friday 27 January 2012, BBC Wales continues One Of Hitler's Mistakes, its compelling two-part documentary on the incredible life of Mady Gerrard.

An award-winning fashion designer to the rich and famous, including stars such as Shirley Bassey and Susan Hampshire, Mady Gerrard is also a survivor of the infamous concentration camps of Auschwitz and Belsen.

Now 81-years-old and living just outside of Chepstow, Mady recounts her experiences as a teenage Jew in Hungary during World War Two, and of the horrors she witnessed in the concentration camps.

WalesOnline has an in-depth interview with Mady in which she describes in detail her experiences in Auschwitz and Belsen. Children under 14 were gassed but Mady's age - 14 when she arrived - meant that she was not sent to the gas chamber. Instead she was "selected" by Dr Josef Mengele.

Mady witnessed acts of sheer barbarism and cruelty and was unfortunate to cross paths with infamous German officer Irma Gress at both camps.

You can listen to Mady's incredible tale of survival as she describes how she eventually met her liberator, former SAS officer John Randall in the second part of the Radio Wales documentary which goes out this Sunday (22 January 2012 ).

One Of Hitler's Mistakes can be heard of BBC Radio Wales on Sunday 22 January at 5.30pm on BBC Radio Wales.

There are just four days left to listen to the first episode of the documentary on the BBC iPlayer.

Charles Dickens and the limited Welsh connection

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:00 UK time, Friday, 20 January 2012

Charles Dickens is probably the most famous and best-loved British novelist ever to have lived. In a relatively short life - he was born on 7 February 1812 and died on 9 June 1870 - he produced a series of novels and stories that have remained popular to this day. And while many of them are rooted in places he visited and people he knew, he made little reference to Wales in his writing.

Jeremy Nicholas, Nigel Stock, Alan Parnaby and Clive Swift in the BBC's 1985 adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel The Pickwick Papers

Jeremy Nicholas, Nigel Stock, Alan Parnaby and Clive Swift in the BBC's 1985 adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel The Pickwick Papers

Even in traditional novels such as Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby there are no mentions of Welsh places or Welsh people. Even accepting that Dickens's real stamping grounds were London and the northern part of Kent, such an omission remains mystifying.

His one really powerful piece of writing about Wales was a journalistic account of the worst shipwreck ever to take place in the British Isles. It is so dramatic and heart-rending that the reader is left wondering what Dickens could have achieved had he really delved into Welsh society and the Welsh soul.

Despite this omission, however, there are still connections to be made between Dickens and Wales. As a young journalist he travelled all over Britain, reporting on parliamentary elections, and it is unlikely that he would have missed out on many Welsh hustings and meetings that took place during this early stage of his career. This does remain mere speculation, but an interesting one, nonetheless.

The first recorded instance of Dickens visiting the land beyond Offa's Dyke came in the autumn of 1839, after he had completed the serialisation of Oliver Twist in the magazine Bentley's Miscellany. Leaving his young wife Catherine behind, he set off in the company of his illustrator, Hablot Browne (better known as Phiz), for a tour of the area around Warwick and parts of north Wales.

It was not an auspicious visit. Dickens, after a period of heavy and intense writing - he was working on Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby at the same time - became ill and was forced to return to Liverpool without seeing very much of the country.

The story of the shipwreck and loss of the Royal Charter are too well known to recount again here. Dickens wrote about the event in an article in The Uncommercial Traveller. However, contrary to what most people believe, he did not actually travel to Wales in time to witness the disaster.

The Royal Charter was thrown up on the rocks outside Moelfre in the great gales of October 1859. Dickens did not come to Ynys Mon until December and by then the wreck had already settled onto the seabed. He came to interview and report on the activities of the rector of St Gallgo Church at Moelfre, a man by the name of Stephen Hughes.

Hughes not only gathered up and buried so many of the bodies from the wreck - over 450 men, women and children perished in the waves - he also wrote to the grieving relatives and friends of the deceased. With selfless dedication he actually wrote over 1,000 letters of condolence and was thoroughly deserving of Dickens' attention.

Dickens journeyed down Thomas Telford's trunk road from London and duly arrived on Ynys Mon in the middle of December 1859. He remained on the island for several days, staying at the Bull Hotel in Beaumaris, before returning home to write one of his most moving pieces of journalism, an article that even now manages to catch at the heartstrings of any reader.

Towards the end of his life Charles Dickens toured Britain and America giving hugely popular readings of his work. His depiction of the death of Nancy at the hands of Bill Sikes, from Oliver Twist, reputedly had the power to frighten ladies into fits of hysteria. And there are certainly those who claim that the physical and emotional stress required for the performance hastened Dickens into an early grave.

Scott Funnell as the young Oliver Twist in the 1985 BBC adaptation

Scott Funnell as the young Oliver Twist in the 1985 BBC adaptation

Dickens came twice to Wales to give readings, firstly at Swansea on 4 April 1867 and then at Newport on 21 January 1869, the latter just over 12 months before he died.

As with all of Dickens' readings there were huge crowds on both occasions; those who could not obtain tickets for the performances peered in through the windows and doors. As always, there was a healthy black market, with tickets changing hands at rates well above the normal purchase price - a practice that Dickens certainly hated.

It is more than likely that Dickens also visited Wales as a tourist during the final years of his life. His tour manager, George Dolby, lived in Rhos on Wye and Dickens came to stay on several occasions, both for rest and to discuss future reading tours.

With Rhos being so close to the Welsh border it is unlikely - unthinkable, almost - that such an avid and ardent traveller as Dickens would not have ventured into Wales, at least once or twice. Once again it remains a matter of conjecture - clearly there is more research to be done.

The execution of Timothy Evans

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 12:00 UK time, Monday, 16 January 2012

There have undoubtedly been many miscarriages of justice in our legal system over the years. But none of them is quite as tragic and haunting as the conviction of Welshman Timothy Evans and his subsequent execution in March 1950 for a crime he did not commit.

Timothy Evans was born in Merthyr Tydfil on 20 November 1924. It was not an easy childhood; shortly before Timothy was born his father ran off and left the family to cope by themselves. His mother remarried in 1929 and the family soon consisted of Timothy, his elder sister Eileen and a younger half sister called Maureen.

The young boy was slow in nearly all his developmental milestones and, as the victim of a tubercular sore on his right foot - something that never totally healed - he was often away from school for long periods. As a consequence, when he left school Timothy Evans was virtually illiterate and could barely read and write his own name.

The family moved to London and Evans began work as a painter and decorator for a while. He tried moving back to Merthyr Tydfil in 1937, working in the coal mines around the town, but found the job too difficult because of his foot.

By 1946 he was again living in London, in the Notting Hill area, and on 20 September 1947 he married Beryl Thorley. Within months she was pregnant, and Geraldine Evans was born on 10 October 1948.

Soon after their marriage the young couple moved into a top floor flat at 10 Rillington Place, close to Ladbroke Grove. Living in the ground floor flat of the house were John Christie and his wife Ethel.

The relationship between Timothy and Beryl was not easy: angry quarrels and occasional physical violence were part of their life together. When, late in 1949, Beryl announced that she was pregnant again, their financial situation was so fraught that an abortion - illegal in those days - was considered the only option.

On 30 November Evans turned up at Merthyr Tydfil police station, stating that his wife had died after he had given her some mixture to abort the baby. He had disposed of the body, he claimed, in a drain outside the house.

No body was ever found and Timothy Evans changed his story. John Christie, he said, had agreed to perform the abortion and Beryl had died during the procedure. The Evanses' daughter Geraldine had been given to someone to look after but Christie, Evans claimed, would not let him see her.

A police search of 10 Rillington Place found Beryl's body wrapped in a cloth in the wash house at the back, and alongside her was the body of Geraldine. Both had been strangled.

Clearly under stress, Timothy Evans was asked if he had killed his wife and child. He replied "Yes". It was later revealed that much of his confession was actually dictated to Evans by police investigators and there was an almost total lack of forensic evidence.

The trial - according to the legal procedure of the day, for the murder of Geraldine, not his wife - began on 11 January, with Timothy Evans now claiming that Christie had committed the murders. It lasted three days and the jury took only 40 minutes to return a guilty verdict. Evans was hanged on 9 March 1950, and the execution was carried out by Albert Pierrepoint.

Three years later police uncovered a number of bodies at 10 Rillington Place, all of them women and all the victims of John Christie. At least six of the bodies were hidden under floorboards and in the wash house - Christie even used the thigh bone of one woman to prop up his garden fence. And yet the police, in their searches three years earlier, had totally missed this vital piece of evidence, just as they had missed the bodies lying almost casually around the house. It was evidence that might have saved Timothy Evans.

The motive behind the killings was certainly sexually driven, with Christie abusing the bodies after death. He admitted to the crimes and was hanged on 15 July 1953.

Amazingly, in the wake of Christie's conviction, an inquiry into what was termed a "possible miscarriage of justice" upheld the guilt of Timothy Evans. Intense debate and a long-standing campaign by Evans' sister - not to mention a hugely powerful exposé by journalist and writer Ludovic Kennedy - forced another inquiry in 1965.

The findings this time were clear that Evans had not killed his daughter - the death of Beryl remained a mystery and, since by now both Evans and Christie had already gone to the gallows, it was impossible to come to a firm conclusion.

As a result of the second inquiry Timothy Evans was given a royal pardon in October 1966. His conviction and execution were tragic, a man of limited intelligence being brow beaten into a series of confessions that could, ultimately, lead only to the death cell.

The case of Timothy Evans was one of several that eventually contributed to the abolition of capital punishment in Britain but that bald statement cannot even begin to catch the human tragedy of the affair. The case remains one of the most dreadful miscarriages of justice ever to blight the British legal system.

BBC Cymru Wales invites you to try some hands-on history

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 10:44 UK time, Friday, 13 January 2012

BBC Cymru Wales is launching one of its most ambitious series ever - The Story of Wales - in the new year, and you can be part of a special preview showing.

The Story of Wales, which is presented by one of the BBC's most prominent broadcasters Huw Edwards, will be tracing the history of the Welsh nation from 30,000 years ago to the present day.

And as part of the story, St Fagans: National History Museum just outside Cardiff is throwing open its doors for a day of exclusive preview screenings and special workshops relating to the new series.

The BBC has been working closely with The Open University in Wales, who have helped fund the programme, and a number of other partners, to put together a day out to remember at St Fagans Museum on Thursday, January 19.

Everyone is welcome to come along to view a sneak preview of the six-part series, which will be on BBC One Wales in the new year, and step into The Story of Wales photo booth for a special memento.

As the series features many of the well known Welsh names which have passed into iconic status, such as Owain Glyndŵr and Hywel Dda, The Open University in Wales will be inviting people to nominate their own Welsh icons. You can have a chat about who you think deserves that status and write a short piece about why you think your favourite should be included in the list.

The National Museum Wales team will be based at the Hendre'r Ywydd Uchaf Longhouse and the Celtic Village giving visitors an insight into daily life in Iron Age and Tudor Wales. Visitors can also explore how the Museum experts find out about life in the past.

Welsh heritage conservers Cadw will give visitors the chance to tackle history hands on by trying their skills as an archaeologist.

Community archaeologists from Cadw and the Glamorgan Gwent Archaeological Trust will be on hand with authentic tools to help you excavate a mystery site and show how to record your findings. There's also an opportunity to see how master masons worked, building the great medieval castles and abbeys of Wales which have survived for centuries.

And the People's Collection Wales - a website where anyone in Wales can share their own fascinating photographs and stories - will be looking for additional materials and memories to add to the site and showing visitors how to upload them.

The activities are just one part of a drive to get everyone in Wales thinking about their history - be it national or personal - as part of The Story of Wales. St Fagans Museum will be open to visitors from 10am on January 19, with The Story of Wales activities taking place between 10.30am-3pm.

Besides the launch day, the partners, including the National Library of Wales, will be running other activities tied to The Story of Wales programme early next year, while BBC Cymru Wales has additional programming on the same theme.

The Story of Wales will start with a reconstruction of the earliest known human burial in Western Europe - the "Red Lady" of Paviland, almost 30,000 years ago. Its epic story runs through Hywel Dda's uniting Wales under one law, the Welsh at the heart of the Tudor court, through the immense pace of change in the country as coal mines and iron works flourished - with technological and educational innovations putting Wales ahead of the world in the Industrial Revolution - and right up to present day devolution.

The programme is made by Green Bay Media for BBC Cymru Wales in partnership with The Open University in Wales and is set to be screened early in 2012.

Hen Galan day - happy old New Year!

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 10:16 UK time, Friday, 13 January 2012

People living in the Gwaun Valley near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire will spend today welcoming in the new year.

They are not late celebrating the arrival of the new year, instead they are celebrating Han Galan, or old new year, according to the Julian calendar, which was followed by everyone in the UK until it was replaced by the Gregorian calendar in the 18th century.

However, the people of the Gwaun Valley near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire ignored this change and continued to welcome in the new year by the old Julian date.

Children continue to uphold the centuries-old tradition of walking from house to house to visit neighbours and sing them traditional songs in Welsh.

Teacher Ruth Morgan, in a BBC Wales News article, describes a typical Hen Galan day:

"You'd get up, have breakfast and go out to sing in the local houses, wishing them a happy New Year. They gave us sweets and money as 'calennig'.

"Nobody organises anything - parents just take their children around and this is passed on from one generation to another."

Read more about the Hen Galan day celebrations on the BBC Wales News website.

Buffalo Bill in Wales

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:14 UK time, Thursday, 12 January 2012

Imagine the scene. It's 1903 and the streets of Ebbw Vale or Aberdare or Bangor are filled, not with steel workers, coal miners or farmers wives out to do their weekly shopping, but with whooping cowboys and shrieking Indians, gaily but terrifyingly daubed in their war paint.

There is a smell of gunsmoke in the air, the thunder of horses hooves echo down the roadway. Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show have come to town.

At this distance it's hard to know what Welsh men and women would have made of the spectacle. It was not just outside their experience, it was light years away. They may have read about cowboys, perhaps even seen pictures in the popular papers, but to meet them face to face? It must have been a mind-blowing experience.

William Cody came three times to Britain, firstly in 1887 to help celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. His visit was so successful that returned four years later in 1891 and then again in 1902. The British, and the Welsh in particular, could not get enough of Buffalo Bill.

Cody was undoubtedly a man of action. By the age of 15 he was riding for the fabled Pony Express. By 1864 he was a scout for General Phil Sheridan and three years later had become a buffalo hunter for the Kansas Pacific railroad. It was said that he shot over 4,000 buffaloes in a two year period, which was how he got his name.

International fame came with a written report telling how he acted as a guide for the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia on his tour of the west. This was soon backed up by a lurid "penny dreadful" novel, written by Ned Buntline, called Buffalo Bill, King Of The Border Men.

In 1883 Cody decided it was time to make a little money out of his experiences. He would, he thought, show people what the American West was really like and formed his famous Wild West show. He was not the first to form such a band, the original Wild West shows having begun in the 1840s. But he was certainly the best.

When Cody was asked to come to Britain in 1887 he brought with him over 500 people - cowboys and Indians, back stage workers, grooms and so on. He also had 180 horses, 18 buffalo and numerous other animals including elks and Texas longhorn cattle.

Despite what many people believe, Sitting Bull - one of the victors over General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in June 1876 - did not accompany him on this first trip to Britain. Sitting Bull did appear in the show in the USA in 1885 but did not travel across the Atlantic and by 1890 he was dead.

The famous Annie Oakley, sharpshooter and trick shot specialist was in the company, however, and, it was reported, she even shot a cigar out of the mouth of the German Kaiser who had come to help his grandmother celebrate her jubilee.

When Cody returned to Britain in 1891 he stayed for over 12 months and visited many different cities. Amongst them was Cardiff. He was clearly fond of the place as he made a six-day stopover, netting a cool £10,000 in the process. He set up camp in Sophia Gardens, creating an arena 175 yards long and 70 yards wide.

Here the people of Cardiff and the surrounding valleys could see Indian braves and their families resting outside their tepees and stare in wonder at the huge buffaloes that wandered peacefully around the park. A parade through the centre of Cardiff saw huge crowds thronging the roads and as a publicity exercise it was a dramatic success.

On the first day of the show over 20,000 spectators packed into Sophia Gardens. The next three days were just as popular and it was estimated that, overall, nearly 130,000 people came to watch Buffalo Bill and his showmen.

Cody returned to Wales, the trip lasting from 1902 to 1904. They stopped in Wales for several months and visitied places as diverse as Aberdare, Abegavenny, Cardiff (of course), Porthmadoc, Rhyl, Carmarthen and Pembroke Dock.

In all Cody gave 333 performances during this visit. One of the highlights was an attack on the Deadwood Stage, Cody himself holding the reins and with local dignitaries - even, if he could persuade them, members of the royal family - on the inside of the stagecoach.

This was Buffalo Bill's last visit, however. Ill health and a series of financial misfortunes prevented him returning. He may have made considerable sums of money from his shows but the vast retinue of animals and performers cost an awful lot to maintain.

When he died in 1917, William Cody was virtually bankrupt but his position as one of the most renowned showmen of the age - second only to the great Barnum - was assured.

He had many imitators, such as Texas Bill Shufflebottom and Bronco Billy, but, as the people of Cardiff and all of Wales would certainly have acknowledged, there was only ever one Buffalo Bill Cody and only one real Wild West show.

Welsh locations that hosted the Wild West shows:

Aberdare - 4 July 1903
Aberystwyth - 7 May 1904
Bangor - 29 May 1903
Barry Dock - 19 May 1904
Bridgend - 18 May 1904
Builth Wells - 12 May 1904
Cardiff - 20-26 September 1891, 6-11 July 1903 and 20-21 May 1904
Carmarthen - 13 May 1904
Caernarfon - 4 May 1904
Dolgellau - 6 May 1904
Ebbw Vale - 1903
Holyhead - 3 May 1904
Llandudno - 2 May 1904
Llanelli - 13 July 1903 and 16 May 1904
Neath - 17 May 1904
Oswestry - 11 May 1904
Pembroke Dock - 14 May 1904
Porthmadoc - 5 May 1904
Rhyl - 27 May 1903
Ruabon - 29 May 1903
Swansea - 14-15 July 1903

Welsh Victoria Cross winners

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 12:25 UK time, Monday, 9 January 2012

The Victoria Cross is the highest decoration available for men and women who have performed acts of great valour in the face of the enemy. Since it was introduced during the Crimean War, the medal has been awarded to just under 1,400 people but, surprisingly perhaps, only 39 of those individuals have been Welsh or have had Welsh connections.

Victoria Cross

Victoria Cross medal

Robert Shields from Cardiff was the first Welsh recipient, six months after the medal was introduced, for an act of valour during the Crimean War. However, the one action that everyone considers to be a uniquely "Welsh affair" - the defence of Rorkes Drift during the Zulu War of 1879 - saw only three Welsh VCs.

In total, 11 VCs were won during that battle, the most ever awarded for a single action, but with the South Wales Borderers recruiting in all parts of the country most of the soldiers actually came from England and Ireland, not Wales - as is popularly supposed. Purely on the basis of numbers it was inevitable that Welsh VC winners from the defence of Rorkes Drift, men like Robert Jones and John Williams, were always going to be in the minority.

World War One saw 14 Welshmen win the coveted award. The first of these was William Charles Fuller who came from the tiny village of Laugharne in Carmarthenshire. He had joined the army in 1901 and served in South Africa during the final days of the Boer War.

Leaving the service when the campaign in South Africa finished, William Charles Fuller was still classified as a Reservist when war with Germany broke out in 1914. Like many other Reservists at that time he was duly recalled to the colours.

Serving as a Lance Corporal with the Welsh Regiment, on 14 September that year he went out from the relative safety of his own lines in an attempt to save the life of a wounded officer. Despite being subjected to heavy fire, Fuller managed to bring the officer to safety but the man - Mark Haggard, the nephew of the novelist Rider Haggard - later died of his wounds.

After the war Charles Fuller left the army again and retired back to Laugharne. He had served with great courage throughout the war and been wounded but he had managed to survive. And during the World War Two this man of amazing energy and verve still continued to "do his bit" when he promptly enlisted and served in the town's Home Guard Unit.

William Williams of Amlwch on Ynys Mon sailed as a seaman on the Q Ship HMS Pargust. Q Ships were old merchant vessels, heavily armed with hidden guns and other weapons. The aim was to trap German U Boats into thinking the old vessels were too defenceless and dilapidated to warrant a torpedo.

The lengths that the crews went to in order to disguise the true intent of the Q Ships were amazing. Sometimes sailors even dressed up as women passengers - usually only from the waist up - in order to bamboozle German submariners as they watched through their periscopes.

If the subterfuge was successful the German commander would order his vessel to surface. However, when the U Boats rose to the surface to sink the merchant ships by gun fire, the hidden guns would open fire and, with the tables now well and truly turned, destroy the submarine.

It was a remarkably dangerous job as there was no guarantee that U Boats would actually attempt to destroy the Q Ships by gun fire. And that is exactly what happened to the Pargust. The first the crew knew about the presence of the German submarine was when a torpedo smashed into her side. The ship heeled over, badly damaged, but did not sink.

However, the metal covers that hid the Q Ship's guns were loosened by the explosion and threatened to fall to the deck - thus inviting another torpedo from the watching U Boat. But William Williams and several other sailors, quickly seeing the danger and using all their strength, managed to hold them in place.

When the submarine duly surfaced to finish off its victim, the covers were dropped and the British guns promptly sank the U Boat. It was a courageous action by all concerned but, having been told that only one medal was available, the crew drew lots to see who would take the award. The lucky man was William Williams.

World War Two saw several more Welshmen awarded the Victoria Cross. Perhaps the best known is Tasker Watkins who later became a renowned QC. He was the man who took charge of the Abervan Enquiry in the 1960s and was also, for several years, President of the Welsh Rugby Union.

Born in Nelson, Tasker Watkins enlisted as soon as he was able and was given a commission in the Welsh regiment. He won his VC when, in the days following the D Day landings in 1944, with many of his platoon killed or injured, he led a bayonet charge against 50 enemy troops and then, single handedly, charged a German machine gun post.

Someone who is often forgotten - not because his deed was minor or ineffectual - but simply because he is not considered Welsh, is Captain Warburton Lee of the Royal Navy.

Lee was 44 years old and in command of the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla when during the Norway campaign of 1940, he led his ships into Narvik Fjord. Faced by a superior squadron of German destroyers Lee forced home his attack and destroyed five enemy vessels and supply ships before a shell burst on the bridge of his destroyer, HMS Hardy, killing him instantly. For his bravery Warburton Lee was awarded the VC, the first Victoria Cross of the war.

There are many other stories of bravery and courage during times of conflict. Not every soldier or civilian can be awarded the Victoria Cross but that should not, in any way, diminish the enormity of their actions.

1889 tragedy on Pembroke River

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 13:34 UK time, Friday, 6 January 2012

The wind that afternoon was cutting, slicing like a teachers cane through the air and down the grey length of Pembroke River.

Small waves slapped in against the mud and shingle on the Bentlass side of the stream but out in the centre of the river the tide was fierce and strong. With the tide flooding fast, the waves were several feet high and the current, always dangerous and unpredictable on this stretch of water, was running strongly.

Pembroke Dock (Photo: Maciej Martyka from BBC Wales Nature Flickr group)

Pembroke Dock (Photo: Maciej Martyka)

It was Friday 8 February 1889. For over 30 years John Jones had operated a ferry - no more than a large rowing boat with a sail - between Bentlass on the southern flank of the river and Lower Pennar on the north. The ferry carried men from places like Castlemartin and Angle to work in the Royal Naval Dockyard at Pembroke Dock and then, when their days work was done, took them home again.

Operating out of the Salt House in Bentlass, Jones also carried women on their way to do their weekly shopping in Pembroke Dock. And 8 February, being a Friday, was market day in the Pembrokeshire town. So, despite the weather, 14 women had made the journey and now, as evening began to close in, they had trooped together up the hill from the town, their arms full of purchases and shopping bags. Now they stood waiting patiently for Jones the Boatman on the Ridge at Lower Pennar.

John Jones found it a hard pull across Pembroke River but he was an old hand at the game. He knew the river well, knew it in all its guises, and despite the conditions out in the centre of the stream he was not unduly worried. Besides, as he was getting older, these days he had a young boy to help him on the oars.

The ferry grounded on the Ridge and all 14 women crowded impatiently onto the boat. Quickly Jones pushed off, eager to be back on his own side of the river.

By the time they had reached mid stream the ferry boat was pitching wildly in the waves, spray and spume thundering off her sides. Sometimes breakers smashed into her side, sending water pouring over the gunwales and soaking the heavy dresses of the women passengers. Still John Jones was not unduly worried.

What happened next is more guesswork that hard historical fact. It is thought that one of the women panicked and leapt to her feet to avoid one of the breakers. The ferry boat, unbalanced by the sudden movement, dipped her side into the water and almost immediately another breaker hit her. Gallons of water poured into the vessel and she began to settle swiftly by the stern.

Within seconds the river was a mass of struggling bodies as passengers were pitched into the waves. Jones' young helper jumped desperately over the bow and began to strike out for the shore, now no more than 20 or 30 yards away. Before he had gone a few feet the frantic figure of a terrified woman heaved out of the water and clutched at his shoulders for help.

There was a brief struggle, then both boy and woman disappeared beneath the waves. By now would-be rescuers had appeared on the river bank, summoned from their houses by the screams of the passengers. Some of them waded into the river, desperately trying to reach the terrified passengers drowning before their eyes, but it was no use. The current was too strong.

By nightfall the full extent of the tragedy had become clear. Fourteen female passengers, Jones the Boatman and his young helper had all perished, drowned in the muddy waters of Pembroke River, just a few yards away from safety.

For the men and women who gathered on both sides of the river there was little they could do to help. All hopes of rescue and survival had gone; now all they could do was gather in the bodies.

As night fell, the debris from the disaster began to float ashore on the incoming tide - parcels and packages so recently bought from the market stalls in Pembroke Dock, shopping bags and pieces of the heavy, saturated clothing that had undoubtedly helped to pull the women down.

The disaster of the Bentlass Ferry has, now, been largely forgotten. In the grander scheme of things it was a fairly minor event. But it was a devastating blow for those small communities around the Pembroke River. Men had lost wives, children had lost their mothers, all part of the human tragedy that so often makes up the history of Wales.

Red herrings and lucky breaks: researching your family history

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 15:00 UK time, Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Sometimes when researching family history a little piece of luck lands at your feet which can prove to be an enormous help over an obstinate historical hurdle.

When I was asked to research Cilla Black's family history for Coming Home the first thing I did was read her autobiography and learned to my dismay that she was born Priscilla White.

Cilla Black

My heart filled with dread at the thought of working my way laboriously through millions of people with the White surname, trying to work out which branches were red herrings.

But very quickly I realised that it was her first name Priscilla and not her surname that was going to be the key. Following a hunch I ignored her English father's side of the family and focused on maternal research. As luck would have it Cilla Black (AKA Priscilla White) was the not first person with that name but the fourth! Her mother, great grandmother and great x 3 grandmother were all called Priscilla

So breathing a sigh of relief I was able to start filling in the family tree with the vital details which create the depth of information required, not just for a celebrity participating in a TV programme but for anyone interested in their ancestors' real lives beyond the flat 2D tree created on a computer.

I spent may happy hours in the Flintshire archives in Hawarden meticulously working my way through the records searching for evidence. By this stage I had gone beyond the normal birth, death and marriage indexes and needed something to put the flesh onto the bones of Cilla's ancestors.

Imagine the feeling when I stumbled across the admission and discharge records for the local workhouse and learned to my amazement that Cilla's great grandmother Priscilla Simon was born a Tuesday in 1842 and that by the Friday her mother, Sophia Simon, was back earning her keep by earthing potatoes!

It seems as if the whole family was stricken with poverty. On the 1851 census, Priscilla Simon is aged nine living in Mold with her grandmother Priscilla Simon, a 63-year-old former charwoman and now pauper. Incidentally, on the 1841 she is aged 50, yet when she died in 1865 her age is given as 82, which is great example of how not to trust the ages on census records or perhaps simply confirmation that people truly did not know how old they were.

I was able to trace a living first cousin of Cilla's mother and she told us that it was Priscilla Simon's first-born son Joseph who broke the poverty cycle by walking from Wrexham to Liverpool in search of work and a better life for himself and his family - and Cilla is living evidence that his decision was the right one.

Read Cat's earlier blog posts about researching your family tree.

Museum celebrates 100th anniversary of Captain Scott's arrival at South Pole

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 14:15 UK time, Wednesday, 4 January 2012

A new exhibition at National Museum in Cardiff is set to open this month to mark the centenary of the arrival of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's expedition party at the South Pole on 17 January 1912.

Scott's hut, Cape Evans, Ross Island, Antarctica Photo Tom Sharpe.JPG

Inside Scott's hut, Cape Evans, Ross Island, Antarctica (Photo:Tom Sharpe)

Scott's hut, Cape Evans, Ross Island, Antarctica Photo Tom Sharpe

Scott's hut, Cape Evans, Ross Island, Antarctica (Photo:Tom Sharpe)

Scott's expedition is best remembered for the tragedy which befell Scott and his four companions on the return journey but this new exhibition shows that there was much more to Captain Scott's 1910-13 British Antarctic Expedition than an attempt on the South Pole.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott 1905

Captain Robert Falcon Scott 1905 (National Museum Wales)

In this exhibition called 'Scott: South for Science', visitors can see a selection of specimens collected during the expedition as well as some of the iconic images of Antarctic exploration through the watercolours of Edward Wilson (1872-1912) and the photographs of Herbert Ponting (1870-1935).

Some of the specimens on display from the museum's own collections include a Welsh flag flown on Scott's expedition ship, the Terra Nova, as well as displaying the ship's figurehead.

The Scott Polar Research Institute, the British Antarctic Survey, and the Natural History Museum have also lent specimens to form part of the exhibition. Poignantly, these exhibits include some of the rock samples collected by Scott on his way back from the South Pole and discovered with their frozen bodies in November 1912.

Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales geology curator Tom Sharpe, who has himself just returned from a visit to Captain Scott's expedition base hut in Antarctica, said about the forthcoming exhibition:

"In 2010 we put on a successful exhibition here to mark the centenary of the departure of Scott's expedition from Cardiff. In 2012 we return to Scott's expedition, commemorating its achievements by focusing on its scientific work.

"The expedition really laid the foundations of modern Antarctic science and we're delighted to be able to show some wonderful specimens and images from this famous expedition".

Scott's ship Terra Nova leaves Cardiff for Antarctica 15 June 1910 National Museum of Wales.JPG

Scott's ship Terra Nova leaves Cardiff for Antarctica 15 June 1910 (National Museum Wales)

Captain Scott: South For Science opens on Saturday 14 January 2012 and runs until Sunday 13 May 2012 at the National Museum Cardiff. It is supported by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust. Find out more about the exhibition on the National Museum Cardiff website.

The museum's geology curator, Tom Sharpe has written an Antarctica diary about his visit to the continent and to Scott's hut. You can read Tom's diary on the museum's website.

Phil Carradice has written a blog 'Captain Scott and the Cardiff connection'. Read his blog on the Wales History website.

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