Archives for March 2012

Genealogist Cat Whiteaway offers some grave advice

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 10:20 UK time, Thursday, 29 March 2012

There can be fewer more tranquil places to visit on a warm spring day than a graveyard. Too much of my time researching is spent indoors hunched in front of a computer and so whenever the opportunity arises I escape and head for the peace and quiet of a local churchyard where I can get lost in time among the bees and butterflies.

Memorials made from stone are of particular interest to geologists and environmental scientists but obviously also to family historians.

By starting with the inscription on the gravestone there are a vast number of resources that can be accessed for further information about the person who lies beneath the memorial.

Death certificates

The date of death on the gravestone can be confirmed by purchasing the death certificate at a cost of £9.25 from the local register office or via This document will confirm cause of death and age, but more importantly it will also provide the last address of the deceased, an informant (usually a close blood relative) and occupation.

Once date of death has been established the burial registers can be checked to see whether there are other persons buried in the same grave (who may not be mentioned on the gravestone).

Local newspaper archives

Archives of the local newspapers can be also be searched in the library to obtain copies of obituaries and these often provide a whole outline of the person's life, or at the very least a funeral notice will have been posted which lists family members.

Probate indexes

By searching the probate indexes held at the respective probate registry it is simple to determine whether the deceased left a will, which can be ordered at a cost of £6. Wills provide a wealth of information relating to the deceased's family, sometimes including illegitimate children and details of any property owned. Once the basic details of the deceased are gathered then the family tree can be built using the census returns, indexes of birth, death and marriages and electoral registers.

Gallantry awards and honours

It is also possible to check for gallantry awards and honours received following military or civilian acts. Other military records can be researched at The National Archives in Kew ( and if located these can provide further details of their next-of-kin and add extra details, such as vaccinations, tattoos, and information about their experiences during training.

Criminal records

If the deceased was linked to a crime in any way then an examination of the coroners' records, court assizes and websites such as will provide all the intimate details that will help to ensure that the story is complete and the programme a success.

All this from one just headstone!

When I was researching for the BBC One Wales programme 'Dead Interesting People' several years ago, I spent some time in churchyards all over Wales and there are several which stick in my mind even though eventually their stories were rejected for being too sad.

Louisa Maud Evans

In Cathays cemetery in Cardiff there is a memorial to Louisa Maud Evans, which forms part of their heritage trail (another clever idea to attract more people).

Louisa Maude Evans

Louisa Maude Evans

Louisa was a young domestic servant with Hancock's circus who fell to her death during a freak ballooning accident during the Cardiff Exhibition of 1896. The inscription on the memorial describes the accident and offers a fitting epitaph for a young life tragically lost.

Eye-catching inscriptions

When I was at St Mary's Church in Mold there is an inscription which caught my eye, stopping me in my tracks and made me think about about this young man's incredible journey through life.

"In memory of Isaac Hughes formerly of Pwllmelyn. He was an adventurer at the gold mines in California where by an accident he lost both his eyes. He then returned home and resided at 22 New Street Mold. He died July 15th aged 39 years"

And in the same part of the churchyard is the headstone for John Corbett.

"Here lieth the body of John Corbett who was led by his pretended friends in Stockport near Manchester to a strange and dangerous place and thrown into the deep to be no more but in his life was honest and sincere. God's word was his guide and rule who departed this life Feb 22nd 1822 aged 25 years"

Gravestone of John Corbett

The inscription above tells just part of an incredible story and one which deserves to be fully researched. I really hope that anyone researching John Corbett's family history takes time to locate his grave and his headstone and doesn't simply rely on the indexes of deaths available on the internet which cannot possibly tell his sad story.

Edward Thomas: Welsh poet, English traditions

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:15 UK time, Wednesday, 28 March 2012

When you think of Welsh poets, English language Welsh poets that is, your mind invariably turns to Dylan Thomas and RS Thomas. Possibly you might consider Alun Lewis, W H Davies or even Dannie Abse. But rarely do people think of Edward Thomas, a man who was born in London but who was, all his life, inordinately proud of his Welsh heritage.

War graves in Belgium

Edward Thomas was killed in the Battle of Arras

Despite identifying so closely to Wales - he was, he said, five eighths Welsh, along with a small percentage that was Spanish and a tiny smattering of Wiltshire - Edward Thomas celebrated the English countryside so successfully that he is seen by many as the quintessential English nature poet.

More importantly he was also perhaps the most powerful of all the Great War poets - powerful not because he wrote about the war and the battles, but because his technique of consigning the momentous happenings in France to the fringes of his poems enables the reader to relate to the tragedy of the war as seen through the eyes and the emotions of the ordinary people left behind.

In the same way that Philip Larkin in his poem 1914 writes about gardens left tidy before the men enlist, Thomas' subject is the nettles covering the corner of the farm yard, the farm work left undone, the rusty plough and the men bemoaning their comrades lost in France. It is a hugely evocative and dramatic way to look at the effects of the war.

Edward Thomas was born on 3 March 1878 in the southern suburbs of London. His father, Philip Henry Thomas, was a Welsh speaker from Tredegar, a man with family connections right across south Wales. He had done well and risen in the ranks of the civil service but remained in close touch with his Welsh roots. The young Edward consequently spent many of his childhood holidays with family in various parts of Glamorganshire and the western counties.

The scenery of Wales and the legends of the country affected Thomas deeply. He wrote about them in various letters and in prose books such as Beautiful Wales and in his sole attempt at fiction, The Happy Go-Lucky Morgans. He would often sing to his children and to writer friends such as Eleanor Farjeon, old Welsh folk songs and was deeply conscious of the cadences of Welsh words. As he wrote:

"Make me content
With some sweetness
From Wales
Whose nightingales
Have no wings."

After marrying Helen Noble and settling down to a difficult and often parlous life as a reviewer and hack writer, Thomas took the Welsh connection a stage further by naming his children Mervyn, Myfanwy and Bronwen.

Edward Thomas was a troubled and difficult man, a depressive who hated the thought of producing books to suit the whims of publishers and yet could really think of nothing else he would rather do. His wife and children suffered dreadfully, not knowing when Edward's moods would life him up into the emotional heights or plunge him deep into the depths of despair. Their life together was marked by rows, suicide attempts and long absences, yet they loved each other.

He came to poetry late, under the combined influences of American poet Robert Frost, the looming threat of war and a desire to achieve something in the world of literature before it was too late.

Nearly all of his poems were written in the three years between 1914 and his death in 1917. Sixteen of the 60-odd poems that later made up his collected works were produced in an incredible burst of creativity in just 20 days in January 1915.

Under the influence of war, of the threat of all he had ever loved and known being smashed away by the conflict, Edward Thomas became increasingly conscious of his Englishness. It was the word he used - perhaps, these days, we would say Britishness but then English and England were used to represent the whole of the British Isles. He never lost his affinity with Wales but he suddenly felt as if England was under threat and, despite being considerably older than many of his peers, felt that he had to enlist in the army.

Commissioned into the Royal Artillery and posted to France, Thomas was killed by the blast of a shell on the opening morning of the Battle of Arras in April 1917. The poems that had finally given him creative fulfillment were just beginning to appear in literary journals - under the pen name Edward Eastaway.

Edward Thomas is, perhaps, the poet's poet. Both RS Thomas and Alun Lewis were influenced by his work and even Dylan Thomas chose to read some of his poems whenever he gave a public reading. He remains a passionate Welshman but one who was able to look beyond the confines of his nationality and see life as it truly was.

Lottery fund helps Cardiff war veteran to revisit Sri Lanka

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 14:20 UK time, Tuesday, 27 March 2012

A national television advertisement for the National Lottery's Good Causes holds special significance for Cardiff war veteran Leslie Godwin.

Leslie Godwin

Leslie is one of over 50,000 people who have made commemorative trips through the BIG Lottery Fund's Heroes Return scheme.

Leslie in his RAF uniform

Leslie, 87, was just a teenager when he left Cardiff for the Far East to serve in the RAF during World War Two.

He joined the Home Guard at just 15, and at 18 left his job in Cardiff's East Moors steel works to become a rear gunner and wireless operator in the Royal Air Force.

Leslie was sent on gunnery and telegraphy training course, eventually ending up in Koggala, Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) towards the end of the war in 1945.

He remained station in Asia as part of the Coastal Command whose duties included air sea rescues.

Leslie was demobbed in 1947 and had only been home in Splott for three days when he met the woman who would become his wife. They remained married for 54 years.

Koggala lake

Koggala was badly hit by the Asian Tsunami in December 2004

Speaking about the return journey to Koggala, Leslie said: "My wife died nine years ago and I hadn't been well for a while, then I saw this opportunity and thought "Why not?"

Last year Leslie took his grandson Gareth Keene to see where he'd served. His Koggala base had been hit badly by the 2004 tsunami, so Leslie and his grandson toured the region.

"Gareth came as my carer, and it was great to be able to show him some of the places I'd told him about. It did me a power of good, and I'm glad we were given that chance.

"Going back, my main memory of the war is working so closely with that crew of men.

"I was one of the lucky fellows - many of those in Bomber Command didn't come back."

Life Changing campaign

The National Lottery - Life Changing campaign is running on national television throughout March. Adverts in national newspapers will also promote the impact of National Lottery funding.

Since 2004, £88 million has been awarded to veterans and projects that involve learning about and commemorating their experiences. This has allowed over 51,000 World War Two veterans, spouses, carers and widows to visit the places where they saw active service.

You can find information and details of how to apply for a Heroes Return 2 grant by calling 0845 00 00 121 or visiting

James 'Big Jim' Callaghan

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James Roberts James Roberts | 14:23 UK time, Monday, 26 March 2012

James Callaghan - the only 20th century prime minister to hold the offices of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary - was born a century ago today.

Callaghan became the Labour MP of Cardiff South in 1945. After serving as a junior minister in the Attlee government, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer when Labour returned to power in 1964, overseeing the controversial devaluation of the pound. Following his resignation, Callaghan, or 'Big Jim' took the post of Home Secretary between 1967 and the summer of 1970.

Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party Jim Callaghan in Abingdon electioneering for the 1979 General Election.

Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party Jim Callaghan in Abingdon electioneering for the 1979 General Election.

As Home Secretary, Callaghan took over from Roy Jenkins' role and witnessed the ratcheting up of violence in Northern Ireland. During this period, British troops were deployed to protect the minority community.

The Portsmouth-born south Wales MP's stint as Foreign Secretary was cut short as Callaghan went for the leadership of the Labour Party following the surprise resignation of Prime Minster Harold Wilson on 16 March 1976. Callaghan, with wide support from his party, defeated Michael Foot.

In this BBC News clip from July 1976, Callaghan is on his second day of a visit to south Wales. Here the Prime Minister is searched for contraband as he prepares to enter the west Wales colliery at Betws New Drift Mine that was planned to open in 1978.

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Throughout his premiership, Callaghan was hampered by a lack of a clear majority. Very early on in his role as Prime Minister he was forced to rely upon the support of the Liberal Party and with the British economy in strife, amid high inflation and rising unemployment, a controversial decision to seek an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund caused tensions within the party. Between 1976 and 1979, Callaghan's government introduced the Police Act, the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act in 1977 and the Education Act of 1976.

The economic turmoil that raged throughout the 1970s culminated in a number of strikes during the winter of 1978-1979. Infamously dubbed The Winter of Discontent the industrial and social strife proved too detrimental for the Labour Government under Callaghan and a motion of no confidence was called by opposition MPs in March 1979.

As Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government famously won the 1979 election, Callaghan remained Labour leader for another year before handing over to the man he once defeated in the leadership election, Michael Foot.

In 1987, Callaghan was made a life peer and Knight of the Garter. He died on 26 March 2005, on the eve of his 93rd birthday, becoming the longest living former Prime Minister.

Oystermouth Castle calendar competition

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 12:10 UK time, Monday, 26 March 2012

The City and County of Swansea together with the Friends of Oystermouth Castle are looking to produce a 2013 calendar for Oystermouth Castle, that features photographs of the castle taken by the public.

Oystermouth Castle

Oystermouth Castle

They are looking for recent, as well as past photographs of the Oystermouth Castle to create a calendar that will be sold at the castle when it reopens in June, and a few outlets in the Mumbles area through the summer.

Andrea Clenton, project manager for Oystermouth Castle said:

"We've seen lots of stunning photos of the castle, and we're sure that visitors over the last few years will have their own memories and photographs of this magnificent structure. If you have any that you'd like to submit for possible inclusion, then we'd love to see them."

Photos sent in will be added to a slideshow of images on the Oystermouth Castle website, with the very best being appearing in the calendar.

If you would like your photograph of Oystermouth Castle to be considered for the calendar, email the picture to If your photo is chosen for inclusion in the calendar, you will receive a credit your photograph and as well as a printed version of the calendar.

The competition closes at the end of April 2012.

Oystermouth Castle was founded by William de Londres of Ogmore Castle early in the 12th century. The well-preserved castle stands on a small hill with a magnificent view over Swansea Bay in the resort town of Mumbles.

Work began on Oystermouth Castle in the autumn of 2010 to undertake essential works to conserve the castle structure.

Oystermouth Castle interior

The castle interior has a 30-foot high glass viewing platform

The castle temporarily re-opened last summer complete with new visitor facilities, an educational space and a 30 foot high glass viewing platform and bridge that leads to Alina's Chapel.

The completion of ongoing conservation works at the attraction will soon allow people to explore parts of the castle that have been inaccessible for generations.

The majority of work was originally scheduled to be complete in 2014 but funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Visit Wales mean contractors are aiming for an end of May finish. The castle is due to re-open on the Saturday 16 June 2012 with a medieval tournament.

Find our more about the competiton and events taking place at Oystermouth Castle on the City and County of Swansea website.

Johnny Onions

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:58 UK time, Monday, 26 March 2012

The name Johnny Onions - Sioni Wynwns in Welsh - was a term of endearment, a nickname, given to any and all of the onion sellers from the Roscoff area of Brittany who came to Wales and most parts of Britain in great numbers during the 20th century.

In particular, Johnny Onions was a familiar sight in most Welsh towns during the 1920s and 30s, a small man in a dark blue beret, pushing along a bicycle heavily laden with strings of onions. The bicycle was rarely ridden, but acted simply as a carrier for the onions, the long strings being laid easily across the handlebars.

With Breton as his first language, the onion seller invariably managed to pick up at least a modicum of Welsh and this usually made his trip to Wales quite successful - particularly in the valleys and in north Wales.

Although the 1920s and 30s marked the high point of the Roscoff onion trade with Britain, some Johnny Onions do still make the trip across the channel each autumn. These days they no longer walk the streets and knock on people's doors; they tend to stand at one spot or pitch and allow the purchasers to come to them.

The first Johnny Onions arrived in Britain in the 1820s. He was Henri Olivier, a peasant farmer and sailor who had travelled the length and breadth of Brittany selling his vegetables. Always having an eye for adventure - and seeing the distinct possibility of a good business deal - in 1828 he and four friends hired a boat, loaded it with onions and set sail for Plymouth.

Within a week Olivier and his comrades were back in France, their ship empty and their pockets stuffed full with English gold! It was a new market, one that was a godsend for a region that had suffered more than its fair share of poverty and social distress over the years. Although Olivier did not return to Britain - he married a wealthy heiress and simply did not need to continue in business - hundreds of onion sellers were soon making the annual journey.

The procedure rarely altered. Investors would come together in a bar or tavern, pool their resources to buy the onions and put together companies of men, usually between 15 and 30 in number. Johnny Onions would be hired for the season, a wage being agreed and a place to sleep - even if it was only the warehouse or room where the onions were stored - decided upon. Food was to be included in the wage.

The onion sellers tended to leave Roscoff on the day after the Fete of Sainte Barbe, towards the end of July. They sailed in a variety of boats, travelling with their precious cargoes. In the days of sailing boats it sometimes took a week to journey from Roscoff to a place like Swansea.

Each company would be headed by a master - 'the boss' as he was usually known - and it was his duty to find a place to store the onions and for the sellers to sleep. Very often this was a rundown or derelict shop or warehouse that was considered unfit for normal use, the owners quickly deciding that Johnny Onions was a sure way of making a few extra pennies before their buildings were pulled down.

The boss was also responsible for ordering fresh supplies of onions to be sent from Brittany and for fixing the product price. The onions themselves were brought from France in sacks and were then strung at the base in whichever town the Johnny Onions men were using. Making the onions appear attractive was an essential part of the selling process.

In the early days onions were carried on sticks, deep notches being cut into the wood so that the strings would not slide off. The more familiar bicycle appeared after World War One. Occasionally a van was used to transport the Johnnies around but the actual selling was always done on foot, on a personal contact basis.

Being a Johnny Onions was never an easy life. The rewards were relatively small and it meant several months away from home and family each year. But it was work and, over the years, the onion sellers became an accepted part of the Welsh social scene.

The trade was not without its disasters, however. In 1905 the steam ship Hilda ploughed up onto the rocks outside St Malo on the French coast. There were only six survivors and five of these were Johnnies. Seventy-four onion sellers lost their lives in the shipwreck, and 125 people in all drowned.

The outbreak of World War Two put a stop to the onion trade, at least for a short while. But even when peace returned things remained difficult for Johnny Onions. The British government, in the post-war days of austerity, was keen to promote homegrown produce and to keep imports to a minimum. Legislation imposed higher prices on imported goods like onions from Brittany while British farmers were encouraged (and paid) to put all of their land under cultivation.

It meant, of course, a drastic reduction in the number of Johnny Onions operating in Britain. There were good years and there were bad years but by the end of the 1960s the writing was clearly on the wall.

"By 1970 their numbers had dwindled to 144 working out of 80 different centres... the work was hard and the hours were long. There was little comfort living in old condemned shops and crumbling warehouses in a climate that was colder and wetter than Roscoff."

The Last of the Onion Men by Gwyn Griffiths, 2002

British farmers increasingly grew their own onions. And with the greater availability of imported goods there was no longer the demand for Roscoff onions - despite the fact that they lasted far longer than most other varieties. The advent of the supermarkets effectively killed off the trade and the role of Johnny Onions.

It is not all gloom for the onion men, however. Johnny Onions does still exist, even if it is, in many cases, more as a novelty than as an essential provider of food. You can see him on street corners in places as diverse as Llantwit Major and Cardiff every autumn, a living reminder - even if a much reduced one - of a way of life and a culture that were once vibrant and alive in Wales.

People's Collection Wales has a great photograph by Geoff Charles of a Johnny Onions tying strings of onions at Porthmadog in 1958..

Phil Carradice will be joining Roy Noble after 2pm on Tuesday 27 March on BBC Radio Wales to chat about Johnny Onions.

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The history of journalism and broadcasting in Wales

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 10:46 UK time, Friday, 23 March 2012

Aberystwyth professor Aled Gruffydd Jones looks at the history of journalism in Wales as part of the Histories of Wales series. You can listen to him present the next episode in the series on Sunday, 4.30pm on BBC Radio Wales.

Journalism has been very much in the spotlight this past year. The sudden closure of the News of the World, part of the furniture of British newspapers since 1843, and the Leveson Inquiry that followed, have drawn public attention to the way in which the press operates. And much of that has been seriously bad news. But it has highlighted the strengths of our news media as well as its all too evident weaknesses. It was, after all, other journalists, hot on the trail of a good news story, that brought the phone-hacking scandal to public attention in the first place. All this has prompted us as a society to ask ourselves these questions: what is journalism for, and where is it going?

Studio One, BBC Wales Swansea, 1952

Studio One at BBC Wales Swansea, 1952

This programme tries to answer those questions by looking back at our past. In many ways, Wales has for centuries been very open to external influences, and to flows of information from our powerful neighbour to the east. But in a number of important respects, the history of the press in Wales has followed its own highly distinctive course. For one thing it was always in two languages. For another, it was fragmented not only by political allegiance, but by powerful religious and social forces as well. Over a period of some two hundred years, Wales developed a culture of communication that diverged in some very significant respects from the rest of Britain. That, I think, can tell us a lot about how Wales itself has grown as a nation and how its identity has evolved into the young nation-in-the-making we have today.

What is so striking about that history is how hugely prolific our presses were. Around 500 titles were produced and circulated in the 19th century alone, some admittedly tiny in the numbers that were read, but others reached far larger populations, including those like the Western Mail that formed the basis of our current news diet. The coming of radio and television from the 1920s and the 1950s further intensified and popularised a peculiarly Welsh take on its own internal condition, its relationship with the rest of the UK and, increasingly, reached out beyond our island to the European continent and the rest of the world.

In that respect, the Welsh press, of both languages, gives us insights into not only the events that took place here over time, but also the extent of the network of Welsh interests and involvement across the globe. It was, in effect, a kind of nerve-centre for a world-wide system of communication that linked Welsh people and migrant communities in the Americas, Australasia and the old British Empire.

If there is an irony in all this, it is that as Wales has become more self confident, more sure of itself as a polity, and more effective in the political expression of its collective ambitions, the press that was for so long both its virtual anchor and its public presence has become weaker and less effective.

We have a problem here. Newspaper circulations are collapsing, advertising revenue is migrating to other platforms, and digital forms of communication have yet to demonstrate their financial sustainability. At the same time, as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger alluded in his interview for this programme, this is the most exciting time for a generation to be a journalist. We are on the cusp of a major global transformation in the way in which news and information is produced and disseminated. Will we in Wales also ride that wave in a way that allows the communications media of the future to continue to serve our interests and strengthen our democratic institutions? That is the scale of the challenge we now face.

Are you a Lymla? Get in touch with Cat Whiteaway

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 10:15 UK time, Friday, 23 March 2012

The days immediately after my live appearances on BBC Radio Wales' Jamie and Louise programme are always filled with answering queries. I seem to be addicted to helping people and can't wait to contact the listeners and try to help resolve their research issues.

Family Tree image (

Given that I have now have the privilege of my very own BBC blog to share my research and pass on some research techniques this week I thought perhaps I might extend the concept to share some of the queries and see whether you can help.

For example, Myra in Caldicott wants to know whether her husband's grandmother Annie Amott was a traveller. She can't find her on any census return even though she has her birth certificate from 1874 in Bromsgrove. I've dug out the details of the Romany & Traveller Family History Society's annual fair on 21 July in Smethwick near Birmingham, and enjoyed learning that typical gypsy names included Noah, Sampson, Shadrack, Cinderella & Elijah; obviously that's where Emmerdale's Dingle family take their inspiration.

But so far Maureen from Pembrokeshire has had no such luck finding the marriage or death of her great grandmother Maria England who was born in 1864.

And Gloria from Tonypandy cannot find the marriage or even the maiden name for her great grandmother Elizabeth Martha Devereaux, even though she appears aged as Thomas' wife on the 1891 census aged 33 just after the birth of their son William in 1890.

There can't be many people with a name like Ivy Delphine Lloyd in their tree. If you have please let me know because she was the mother of Des from Newport and he's keen to find out more about his maternal family history. Ivy was born around 1910 near Abergavenny.

While I haven't yet started to look for any answers for Myra, Maureen, Gloria and Des, I couldn't help myself have a quick peek for Gareth from Treorchy. His great grandmother's name was Mary Lymla. But I cannot find a single Lymla entry on Ancestry, Genes Reunited, FreeBMD or even in the Guild of One Name Studies. I might try Findmypast next since their collection of overseas events is vast. If I still have no luck then perhaps Cyndi's List or posting a message on a blog - very handy if you happen to have your own blog!

If you are a Lymla or related to a Lymla or know what the name means or where it comes from then please get in touch.

Thanks to magnificent ever-evolving technology during the radio programmes people from all around the world can now send in queries via Facebook, email, telephone, text and Twitter (or should that be tweet... I never am sure quite how one is supposed to conjugate such new verbs).

The texts are good fun trying to decipher - "we r looking 4 our gr8 granda's family history can u help thanx Linda Jones - but the queries are obviously quite hard to solve without further communication!

And finally I have some very exciting news to share. This week I've been filming a reunion story for The One Show which should broadcast around Easter. Watch this space for more details.

Feel free to comment! If you want to have your say, on this or any other BBC blog, you will need to sign in to your BBC iD account. If you don't have a BBC iD account, you can register here - it'll allow you to contribute to a range of BBC sites and services using a single login.

Need some assistance? Read about BBC iD, or get some help with registering.

The legend of Cantre'r Gwaelod

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 14:20 UK time, Thursday, 22 March 2012

There are many people from Wales - and visitors, too, come to that - who will swear that, standing on the cliffs of Cardigan Bay on a bright sunlit day, they have seen buildings shimmering under the waves. Or, walking the coast at dusk, to have heard bells ringing from far out under the sea.

cardigan bay photo by adrian davies

Cardigan Bay (photo by Adrian Davies)

What they are doing is unconsciously tapping into one of the greatest of all Welsh legends, that of the lost kingdom of Cantre'r Gwaelod. The name means 'cantref of the low land' and if the story is even remotely true then the area was well named.

According to legend there was once a kingdom situated where Cardigan Bay now laps against the mainland. It was rich and well populated, boasting no fewer than 16 wonderful cities, communities full of merchants and princes.

But the kingdom was low lying and in order to protect the land a number of steep embankments or dykes had been built. These were regularly opened to allow water - for agricultural purposes and so on - to flood in. Only when the gates in the embankment, the sluices as they were known, were closed was Cantre'r Gwaelod fully protected.

The kingdom was ruled by Gwyddno Garanhir and he had delegated the working of the sluices to the control of a man called Seithennin. Normally fastidious in his duties, one tragic night of revelry saw Seithennin drink too much. Head reeling with the effects of the ale and wine, the unfortunate lock keeper stumbled to his bed and forgot to close the sluices.

With high tide the water poured into Cantre'r Gwaelod and, before anyone could come to the rescue or even give the alarm, the kingdom was lost forever under the waters of Cardigan Bay. So much for the legend.

Both Gwyddno Garanhir and Seithennin are referred to in The Black Book of Carmarthen, the earliest written collection of Welsh verse, dating from the middle years of the 13th century. Several of the poems come from a much earlier time.

That does not necessarily mean the legend is true, simply that, by the 13th century, it was common knowledge and that the tale seems to have fairly ancient roots. Similarly, one of the stories in the Mabinogion refers to the drowning of the kingdom that once lay between Wales and Ireland.

Like all legends, trying to separate fact from fiction is devilishly difficult. On one level the story may simply be a parable or tale invented by the bards, one that has a moral to pass on to ordinary folk - always be prepared, do not over indulge and so on.

On the other hand, the story of Cantre'r Gwaelod may well be the remnants of a folk memory concerning the inundation of land around Cardigan Bay.

There is evidence, in the form of ancient drowned forests at places such as Newgale and Ynyslas, that when the ice sheets from the most recent Ice Age finally retreated much land was lost to the sea. This was about 8,000 years ago and was a time that saw the oceans reach their present level.

There is no record of cities and cantrefs being swept away but land did disappear under the waves during this period. It is only a step away from such historical fact to the concoction of legends such as that of Cantre'r Gwaelod.

The early travel writer and author Giraldus Cambrensis wrote about the drowned forest at Newgale. His writings and the famous Welsh folk song The Bells Of Aberdovey, which supposedly refers to the story of Cantre'r Gwaelod, have helped keep the legend alive.

So the next time you are standing on the cliffs above Cardigan Bay narrow your eyes and peer out towards Ireland. Or, on a calm and still night, listen for the pealing of bells from somewhere deep below the sea. It may be your imagination at work but, then again, it might just be the lost kingdom of Cantre'r Gwaelod calling out to you.

Mothering Sunday prompts flurry of family history searches

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 09:00 UK time, Saturday, 17 March 2012

You could be forgiven for thinking that being a family history researcher is not a seasonal job. But each year as Mothering Sunday approaches my inbox swells with queries relating specifically to mothers, and then as June approaches the same thing happens with Father's Day.

So far this year is no different. This week I've appeared as an expert on BBC Radio Wales' Jamie and Louise programme, which means I get to chat live on air about my research, offering advice and even get the chance to surprise some listeners with information that has remained elusive.

Just before Christmas I received an email during another appearance on Jamie and Louise from Jean Cook in Wrexham who wanted help tracing her husband's ancestors.

Tony Cooke's mother had died in childbirth in 1928 when he was just three years old. Unable to ask his father too many questions Tony grew up without knowing much about his mother other than her date of death and her name, Gertrude Fisher.

A simple search of the marriage indexes using both his parents' surnames around the time of Tony's year of birth uncovered a possible marriage in Wrexham in 1924. After ordering a copy via for £9.25, five days later it arrived and the first piece of the jigsaw was complete.

As you can see below the certified copy confirms Gertrude's age and her father's name.

Marriage certificate

Knowing that she was born around 1905 meant the next logical step was to check the 1911 census to see if I could find a match for Gertrude Fisher aged around six living with a father called Joseph in the vicinity of Wrexham.

Bingo. The 1911 revealed not just Gertrude and her father but also a mother called Mary Jane and two siblings, Ronald and Ethel, aged four and eight respectively. The 1911 census is also the first one to confirm the length of time the head of the house has been married and how many children have been born, as well as how many children have died. It is also lovely to see the full address of the family, "37 Westminster Road, Broughton", written in hand by the occupier rather than the enumerator.

Quickly scanning the marriage indexes I located Joseph Fisher's marriage to Mary Jane George in 1902. The best website for this, since you can enter first names rather than the unknown maiden name of a woman, is

(Focusing on the maternal line means that the surname changes every generation and for this reason alone it seems that people often shy away from researching their maternal bloodlines - or at least they leave it until they have succeeded with the male lines. I'll never forget when once at a BBC family history roadshow someone asked me why I had bothered researching both sides of the family as the women's line didn't count! Perhaps Stephen Fry could invent a word for this type of person.)

Back to the 1911 census. Mary Jane's age was given as 31 and her place of birth as Wrexham. She was easy to spot on the 1881 as a one-year-old living with her parents Edward and Constance and numerous siblings in Broughton.

At this stage it always pay to check to see whether other people have already completed similar research into the same family. On Genes Reunited and Ancestry I found people who had helpfully posted a tree which declared that Constance was the daughter of Crompton and Margaret Hulme. There is even a photograph of Constance's sister Sarah dressed like Queen Victoria.

Yesterday Tony Cooke did not know the year of his parents' marriage and today he knows that Margaret Hulme was his great great grandmother. Another satisfied customer.

William Williams, Pantycelyn

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 14:00 UK time, Friday, 16 March 2012

William Williams remains one of the great religious figures of Wales. Along with Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris, he dominated Welsh religious thinking and attitudes for much of the 18th century.

Born in 1717, Williams is often known simply as Pantycelyn, the name of the farm on which he lived most of his adult life.

A leading figure in the Welsh Methodist Revival of the 18th century, these days he is perhaps best remembered as the man who wrote the favourite hymn of all Welsh rugby supporters, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah. Most know it as Bread Of Heaven.

Williams was the son of John Williams, a farmer who worked the land around Pantycelyn farm outside Llandovery in Carmarthenshire. The family worshipped as Calvinists and their doctrine of pre-destination was something to stay with Williams all his life.

He intended to become a doctor but, having heard Howell Harris preach at Talgarth in 1737, underwent an immediate conversion and became fired with religious conviction. In 1740 he was appointed curate to Theophilus Evans, in charge of several rural Welsh parishes, but was refused ordination as a priest because of his Methodist leanings.

Methodism was originally a movement within the Church of England, which included, in those days, all churches in Wales. Methodists never intended to break away from the Church of England, the purpose of the movement being to revive Christianity and worship within the church and to give it new impetus. However, the Methodists aroused much animosity and hostility from church authorities and some members.

Unable to make a living as a priest, William Williams became an itinerant preacher, travelling hundreds of miles around Wales, usually giving his sermons in the open air - something else that was frowned upon by church authorities. Wherever he went he created dozens of local Methodist fellowships, right across the country, so that his supporters could continue to meet and worship together after he had moved on.

Despite being a great preacher and organiser, it is as a hymn writer and poet that William Williams, Pantycelyn, is best remembered. In all he produced nearly 1,000 hymns, most of them in his native Welsh but some in English. His first hymn book was published in 1744, and the people of Wales quickly took it to their hearts. They loved the wonderful cadences of his verses, and many of the hymns are still sung today.

Y Per Ganiedydd or sweet singer

Williams is sometimes known as Y Per Ganiedydd, which in English translates as "sweet singer". He was also an accomplished prose writer, producing numerous theological treatises and elegies on people such as Griffith Jones of Llandowror, a clergyman who was not a Methodist but who had definite sympathies with the movement - and whose circulating schools helped to create a literate Welsh people.

William Williams, with his wonderful poetry and lyrical verses, also helped the Welsh language to remain strong, develop and grow. But it is as a religious figure of considerable substance and power that he really made his mark.

At the end of the 18th century, with the deaths of the three great Methodist leaders in Wales, the intense fervour of the Methodist Revival began to slowly slip away. However, it was not before the Calvinistic Methodists had become a clearly defined group. In many cases the small fellowship groups that had been created by people like Williams had already left the established churches to build their own places of worship.

In 1811 came secession from the Church of England and, 12 years later, the Calvinistic Methodist Presbyterian Church of Wales was established. Williams would perhaps not have wanted such a move but it was perhaps inevitable given the mood of church authorities and worshippers.

William Williams, Pantycelyn, died on 11 January 1791 and was buried in the churchyard at Llanfair-ar-y-bryn, just outside Llandovery. He remains one of the great figures of Welsh religion - indeed, one of the great figures of Welsh social history. Every year, when the Welsh rugby fans bawl out Bread Of Heaven, they are paying tribute to a remarkable and fascinating man.

Histories of Wales: Rhodri Morgan on making Rebecca and the radical tradition

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 12:31 UK time, Friday, 16 March 2012

Rhodri Morgan spoke to BBC Wales History about researching the next episode of Histories of Wales, Rebecca and the Radical Tradition. Rhodri's family were connected to the Rebecca Riots. Sunday 18th March, 1.30pm, Radio Wales.

If ever there was an example of 'living history', making my half hour slot on the radio series on Welsh history was it. I don't just mean that it was alive for me, or even for me and my brother Prys combined (and after all, he is a retired history professor).

What I mean is that when the two of us met Dinah Jones, the producer, for lunch at the Mason's Arms Rhydypandy, an elderly gentleman, a local, left his seat and approached us.

He knew who I was from my time as First Minister but he guessed correctly that we were in that pub because of our interest in the smashing of the nearby Rhydypandy tollgate back in 1843, at time of the Rebecca Riots.

He was a bit of an expert and was able to direct us to the exact spot where the tollgate had stood. As a result of his guidance, when lunch was finished, there were two men over the age of seventy ducking under low branches followed by an intrepid producer with microphone, scrambling over rough ground to reach the actual place where this particular bit of Welsh history had happened.

Fair enough - there's no blue plaque there. But it has got an aura alright. Neither my brother nor I had ever actually stood there before and without the man in the pub's local knowledge and interest, we would never have found it.

In a way it's not a key place for telling the story of Welsh history - it's also a key part of the telling of the story of transport history in Britain. Perhaps after all, being just a stone's throw from the M4 and the headquarters offices of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre is pretty appropriate!

The hardest thing in making the programme is trying to get inside the heads of my ancestors in 1843. The Chief Constable of Glamorgan comes to your house to arrest two or three of you on a Sunday morning. He's armed. He has reinforcements with him, also armed. What do you do? Well you put your hands up and go quietly, don't you?

Well, no! Instead, young and old, male and female throw everything they've got at the posse! What were they thinking of? What was going on inside their heads? Being scandalised by the breaking of the Sabbath is indeed the likeliest explanation. But what if they had no idea what a Chief Constable or a policeman was? The Peelers were a new concept. If the family had lived ten miles further west in Carmarthenshire, there would have been no police force there to arrest them. Did the Welsh language prove an insuperable barrier between Captain Napier and the Morgans? Who really knows.

You can listen to Rebecca and the Radical Tradition, Sunday 18th March, 1.30pm, Radio Wales.

Newport City: 10 years on

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James Roberts James Roberts | 14:06 UK time, Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Ten years ago, in the year of Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee, Newport was awarded city status. The 2002 accolade proved third time lucky for the Gwent town after two unsuccessful bids in the 1990s.

By becoming a city Newport joined Bangor, Cardiff, Swansea and St Davids as Wales' cities; ticking the boxes marked 'regional or national significance', 'historical, including royal features' and a 'forward-looking attitude'. Outside of Wales, Preston, Stirling, Lisburn and Newry were also allocated city status that year.

Transporter Bridge in Newport (photograph by Jonathan Crookes)

Transporter Bridge in Newport. Photograph by Jonathan Crookes, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

Newport's bid officially got under way on 25 July 2001 with Newport Council's head Sir Harry Jones kicking off a pitch which underlined the town as the gateway to Wales and drew upon a history that stretches back to pre-Roman times.

This BBC Wales News clip from the day Newport received the award looks at the reactions from people and politicians across Wales, and hints at the divisive issue of city status in Wales.

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The granting of city status came at a time when Newport had suffered a series of economic and industrial problems, including a number of major factory closures and redundancies, capped off by steel makers Corus' decision to close the massive Llanwern steelworks in 2001.

Newport City Centre

Newport City Centre. Photograph by Paul Dyer, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

Newport's Royal appointment caused some heated inter-Wales rivalry with a bid from Wrexham also being proposed that year. The decision not to award the north Wales town city status reinforced what many felt was a 'north-south divide. The fourth city in Wales, Bangor, remained the only one in the north of the country until today, when St Asaph in Denbighshire was also granted the title.

Speaking a decade ago, Wrexham MP Ian Lucas said: "I am angry about this. We now have three cities in Wales on the south coast and the opportunity to recognise the conurbation in the north east in an important part of Wales has been lost."

Paul Murphy, the Welsh Secretary at the time, defended the decision, drawing upon the economic strife encountered at the time. "The past 12 months have been truly traumatic for Newport and its people," he said. "First there was the agony of widespread steel job losses as Corus closed the heavy end at Llanwern; then there was the joy that the town's Celtic Resort had won the competition to host the 2010 Ryder Cup."

In the midst of the ongoing global economic strife, the cost and validity of gaining city status is increasingly brought under the microscope. Since 2002 Newport has experienced considerable regeneration, but has it proved a change for the better since being lofted to city status?

Is there a 'north-south divide' with Swansea, Cardiff, and now Newport in such close proximity, and Bangor, the sole city of the north until today's St Asaph announcement? Does it really matter? The beautiful city of St David's in Pembrokeshire has a population of around 2,000 whereas over the border in England, Milton Keynes as a population of around 200,000 and remains a town.

The great storm of 1859

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 11:50 UK time, Monday, 12 March 2012

Thousands of storms have pounded the Welsh coast over the years, but none of them was wilder, more magnificent or more deadly than the great storm of 1859.

holyhead breakwater

Holyhead Breakwater (Photo: Al Preston)

In late October that year the weather had been unsettled, the skies grey and brooding. Old men working at their lobster pots or fishing nets would look up at the heavens and declare that there was bad weather on the way. Then, at around midday on 25 October it began to rain, first in Pembrokeshire and Ceridigion on the west coast of Wales.

In the middle of the afternoon there was a sudden increase in wind speed and structural damage began to be reported in the western counties of England.

By tea time the wind had gathered even more strength and soon wild waves were lashing at the beaches and cliffs of the Welsh coast. Out at sea, sailors quickly realised what was to come and began to run for shelter or, wherever possible, get into port. Even the pilot cutters of the Bristol Channel, well used to bad weather, headed for shelter.

Throughout the night of 25/26 October waves and wind battered with unrelenting fury against the coast. By midnight the storm had assumed near-hurricane proportions, wind speeds of well over 100 mph being reported.

Wales, along with Cornwall and Devon, took the brunt of the storm but few parts of Britain escaped unscathed. Nearly 150 ships were wrecked that night, most of them caught against an unforgiving coast, while dozens more were so severely damaged that their owners had little option other than to scrap them.

Well over 800 people died in the storm, 465 of them on the steamer Royal Charter which was driven onto the rocks at Point Lynas near Moelfre on the west coast of Ynys Môn. The ship was returning from Australia, many of the passengers being prospectors from the recently discovered gold fields in Australia.

Tragically, the Royal Charter was lost within sight and sound of rescuers on land. The villagers of Moelfre could do little more than watch as 60 foot waves pounded the ship to pieces before their eyes. There are stories of passengers leaping into the sea, their pockets full of gold and coins and, as a consequence, being dragged down by the weight of the wealth they had earned. Whether or not that is true, divers are still recovering artifacts from the wreck of the ship.

The enormity of the Royal Charter disaster has never gone away. Charles Dickens came to report on the incident and write about it in his book The Uncommercial Traveller while Stephen Hughes, the Rector of St Gallgo Church, wrote over 1,000 letters of sympathy and condolence to relatives of the drowned. In many circles, particularly in Wales, the storm is still known as the Royal Charter gale.

There were dozens of other shipwrecks that night. Included amongst them were the Bideford brig Susan, lost with all hands at Cardiff, and the schooner John St Baube, bound for Gloucester docks. The tiny trading ship went ashore at Lavernock Point, again with the loss of all hands.

At Pembroke Dockyard, the only Royal Naval yard to exist in Wales, the 50-gun Immortalite had been launched only that day and there were very real fears for the safety of what was, at that stage, little more than the shell of a ship. Extra lines were fixed and, to the relief of everyone, the ship swung easily at her moorings all night long. The town of Pembroke Dock was not so lucky, however, as three of the residents lost their lives in the gale.

Clearly, then, it was not just ships that suffered. There were dozens of casualties, injuries and deaths right across Wales. Many of these were caused by falling rocks and masonry as the wind surged inland. Houses were damaged, slates ripped off roofs as if they were just pieces of paper and nobody ventured outside unless it was vital.

Trees were uprooted and, in the minds and opinions of many, the topography of the coastal area drastically changed. It is alleged - although unproven - that the huge pebble bank at the back of Newgale beach in Pembrokeshire was created by the storm, when the pebbles and rocks were thrown up there during the course of the long and dreadful night.

As dawn broke on the morning of 26 October the storm began to abate and people were able to begin counting the cost - but only in some parts of the country. The wind did not reach maximum force on the River Mersey until midday on 26 October and by then many, if not most, of the deaths had already occurred.

In the wake of the storm Captain Robert Fitzroy of the Meteorological Office knew that something had to be done to prevent such a disaster happening again. In 1860 he duly brought in a gale warning service. It would not prevent storms and gales battering the Welsh coast but it did at least warn people to take shelter and, as sailors say, "batten down the hatches".

Family history: DNA test results don't always provide happy endings

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 09:45 UK time, Friday, 9 March 2012

Sometimes it's better to be emotionally detached from the work that I do and the impact that the results of my research can have on people.

This has certainly been true over the past few weeks while I've been helping a young woman try to find her father. It's one of those stories you couldn't possibly make up, since the truth is far more powerful than fiction.


DNA test results don't always provide a happy outcome

Michelle was a child of the 70s, her birth registered without a father's name. She was raised by her grandmother after her mother struggled with epilepsy and various mental health issues. At the age of 16 Michelle asked her mother about the identity of her father and was told the name of a man with whom her mother had had a relationship.

Several years later Michelle married and now has children of her own. Finding her father was growing increasingly more important to her and so using family history tracing skills Michelle thought she found him.

Plucking up courage she never knew she had she made contact. They quickly formed a bond and felt comfortable enough in each other's company to be able to commit to a DNA test, only to discover to their joint disappointment that they weren't father and daughter after all.

Understandably Michelle gave up, wounded and grown fragile by the impact of the search for her father and that disastrous DNA test.

I don't know what made her start again, but she emailed me last year asking for help and I could not say no.

After what I imagine must have been a very difficult conversation with her mother she was eventually given the name of another man, John. Luckily her aunt could remember where he had lived and some other brief details.

So I sent Michelle off to her local archives to hunt through the electoral registers for the address she had, to see if she could trace the family around the time of her conception. The registers are not alphabetical by surname or even street, but usually comprise apparently random streets which are laid out geographically according to polling districts.

However, once found in a single register it is easy to go sideways to see when the family might have moved to that address and when new voters are added to the list, indicating that a person recently reached voting age (not forgetting that this was reduced from 21 years to 18 in 1969).

These details can then be cross-referenced against the birth indexes to learn the actual age and middle names of a person. This makes it easier to look for them in marriage and death indexes and to trace their children.

And so Michelle acquired the birth and marriage certificates for John and the address matched. The next step was to try to find him, which is not that simple when you don't know where they live and they have a common name.

After some very careful consideration and much deliberation and debate it was decided that an ambiguously worded letter from me about researching a family history for that surname would be enough to establish whether the letter had been sent to the right man. This system is not without its flaws but, after toying with the idea of a personal visit or a phone call or making contact on Facebook by either Michelle or myself, it seemed the best way.

Several letters and some weeks later my phone rang. It was him. My mouth felt dry and my mind emptied of the facts. I told myself to breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

He had been waiting for this day. He knew about the pregnancy. He wanted to provide support. He wanted to do the right thing. But he was told that the baby was not his and since she did not share any physical similarities he felt it best to take a step back.

Neither could bear the thought of forming a relationship without being certain and so, incredibly, for the second time in her life Michelle completed another DNA test.

I'll let Michelle tell you the end of her story...

"After weeks of waiting for the whole process to be completed, I opened up an email that told me I still had not found my dad. The probability of paternity was 0% and the alleged father [John] was excluded as the biological father of the tested child.

"But what I now know is that without contacting Cat I would not have got to the end of this journey. Cat pointed me in the right direction with electoral registers and getting copies of birth and marriage certificates but, most importantly, she was able to speak to John and explain why I was looking for him without putting myself through extra anguish and anxiety.

"With Cat's help I managed to trace someone halfway around the world and even though it turns out that John is not my dad I think that my family and I will have a friendship with him for the rest of our lives.

"I have wanted a dad all my life and I still do not know where the other half of me has come from. It all could have ended up so perfect. As for my future, I do not have any more leads and have no contact with my mother, so I will lay the search for my dad to rest and resign myself to never knowing."

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The drovers of Wales

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 12:20 UK time, Thursday, 8 March 2012

The story of the American west and of the huge cattle drives that took place in the 1870s and 1880s are well known. And yet the concept of cattle driving, of taking cows and other beasts to market or sales centres, began not in the USA but in Wales. The Welsh cattle drovers were a hardy and famous breed of men and their story has already gone down in legend.

Flock of sheep in London

Flock of sheep in London

The drovers were, quite simply, men who drove herds of cattle from one place to another, perhaps to market, perhaps to summer pastures. They drove cows, geese, turkeys, anything that needed to be moved, and sometimes their herds were 300 or even 400 strong.

The term "drover" was used for anyone taking cattle long distances; men who took cattle on short journeys were simply cattle drivers. It was a nice but serious distinction - certainly for the men involved - as the drovers revelled in their standing as an important, charismatic and tough bunch of individuals.

There is evidence of early drovers' roads in Wales, some of them dating back to Roman times. Many of the roads have since been incorporated into our modern road structures, although some have not. They are often characterised by sudden dog-leg turns to right or left, depending on things like the prevailing wind. A sudden turn gave protection from driving rain and sleet, something that was vital for men who would spend all day in the open air.

Drovers in the Middle Ages

By the Middle Ages the drovers' roads, usually wider than other ancient tracks to allow for the passing of large herds of animals, snaked right across the country. Drovers' roads usually traced a line through wild and windswept countryside, particularly once the Turnpike Trust system was introduced and when passing through a toll gate involved paying a significant fee. It was harder but much more economically viable to take the mountain route!

Drovers tended to travel on foot, usually four or five to a herd. Perhaps the better off men might ride on horseback, but on foot was more normal. They were assisted by well trained dogs that were sometimes sent home alone once the drive was over. The dogs, their homing instincts well developed, followed the same route back and often "lodged" in the same inns that the drovers had stayed at on the outward leg.

The drovers would, of course, have already paid for the dogs' food and accommodation. The drovers themselves probably spent three or four days in the pubs and inns of London or wherever they found themselves, spending their hard-earned money before returning for another trip and another herd.

Livestock markets

By the end of the 18th century the practice of driving Welsh livestock to markets in England was well established. Smithfield Market in London had become the largest and greatest cattle market in the world but Welsh beef was also sent to places as wide-ranging as Kent, Birmingham and Manchester. The demand for Welsh (and Irish) cattle in fast-growing urban centres like London was constant. At times it seemed as if the English market traders could never get enough.

In 1794 over 10,000 cattle were exported from Ynys Mon - by 1810 that figure had risen to over 14,000 - and there are wonderful descriptions of the cows swimming in one dark mass across the Menai Straits. Castlemartin Blacks, the almost mythical South Pembrokeshire cows, were particularly sought after and it is on record that, in 1804, at one fair or market in Cilgerran over 20,000 cattle were seen, waiting to be driven away to England.

The drovers were rough, tough men who were more than capable of holding their own in any confrontation with the locals they encountered on their journeys. Indeed, such was their reputation that they were regarded with fear and awe in most of the towns or villages they passed. They would drive their herds wherever they pleased and if crops or fences got in the way, that was just too bad.

On occasions the drovers put up for the night in a wayside inn or tavern, where the attentions of the local girls would have been most welcome. Often, though, nightfall found the cattle herd high up on the mountain and then the drovers would have had no option other than to sleep beside their charges on the cold ground. It was a hard, spartan life so it was no wonder that when the opportunity for a little leisure and comfort presented itself, the drovers grabbed it with both hands.

And yet, there was more to these cattle drives than mere bullying tactics. The drovers acted as messengers, as the carriers of news and, in an age where geographical mobility was severely limited, they were often responsible for carrying money and important documents for people.

Civil War

In the years leading up to the Civil War in the 1640s it was the drovers who carried the Ship Money (one of the main grievances against Charles I and, ultimately, one of the immediate causes of the war) from the local collectors to the Treasury.

It is well known that, by moving money and deeds around the country, the droving trade helped promote banking in Wales. The Black Ox Bank at Llandovery, for example, was founded by drovers in 1799 and survived until 1909 when it was finally amalgamated into Lloyds Bank.


Geese sometimes wore leather boots

Carrying out financial transactions for people on their route to London or home soon became an essential part of the drovers' trade. They kept account books and spoke English - an essential skill for anyone trading in England. So they were educated men to whom the droving trade was a vocation. They did not make huge sums of money; the dealers were the men who made themselves fortunes, not the cattle drovers.

At the turn of the 18th century Haverfordwest drovers, on a drive to Ashford in Kent, earned just three shillings a day, plus a bonus of six shillings when all the cattle had been sold. Hardly the stuff of which millionaires are made. And those sums could increase or decrease according to the economic climate and the laws of supply and demand.

It was not just cows that were transported by the drovers but, whatever was being herded, all the livestock was always well prepared for the trip. Cows were fitted with iron shoes in order to protect their hooves and geese were given leather boots. Turkeys had their feet tarred.

The railways

The coming of the railways in the 1840s and 1850s spelled the end of the droving trade. With the advent of fast steam locomotives a journey that had previously taken five or six drovers many days or weeks to complete could now be done in a matter of hours. The last recorded large scale cattle drive across Wales took place in 1870, and the last sheep drive was in 1900.

The Welsh drovers were a unique band of men, tight knit and proud of their heritage. But even they could not stand in the way of progress and now their story has passed into legend.

Strikes and riots at the National Wool Museum

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 15:10 UK time, Monday, 5 March 2012

A new exhibition at the National Wool Museum called Strikes and Riots, offers an in-depth look into troubled times throughout Wales' industrial history.

The free exhibition, which runs from Tuesday 6 March until 29 June, highlights five strikes and riots relating to work and employment in Wales over a 200-year period.

Troops camped near Llanelli during the Railway Strike, 1911

Troops camped near Llanelli during the Railway Strike, 1911 (Image from Cardiff Central Library)

Ann Whittall, manager of the National Wool Museum in Dre-fach Felindre in the Teifi Valley, said: "This important exhibition is thought provoking and reminds us of the social aspect of our industrial heritage. It adds another dimension to the museum's permanent social history corner."

The exhibition is set up to provoke debate among visitors by asking some uncomfortable questions: What drives workers to down tools and strike? Are bosses always wrong and unions always right, or does the mob always cause trouble?

The events featured in the exhibition include the Merthyr Rising (19th century), Rebecca Riots (19th century), Tonypandy strikes and riots (early 20th century), Llanelli Railway strikes and riots (early 20th century), and Caia Parc Wrexham riots (early 21st century).

The exhibition also coincides with the anniversary of the burning of the toll gate in Dre-fach Felindre which took place on 14 June 1843.

Find out more about the exhibition and opening times on the National Wool Museum website.

The Kinmel Camp riots of 1919

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 15:00 UK time, Sunday, 4 March 2012

Some of the most serious riots in British military history took place between 4 and 5 March 1919 in the Canadian Army Camp at Kinmel Park in North Wales.

Postcard of Kinmel Camp

Postcard of Kinmel Camp (provided by George Owen)

Kinmel Park, just outside Abergele, was a transit camp for Canadians waiting to be repatriated to their homeland after their service to the British Empire during World War One and at the time of the riots held almost 15,000 soldiers.

Originally it had been intended to send the Canadians home directly from France but many of these men had relatives in the United Kingdom that they wanted to visit. This was understandable and, as it was unlikely that most of these men would ever be in a position to visit them again, transit camps were established across Britain in order to facilitate this desire.

Kinmel Park was a huge staging camp where troops of all regiments and military specialities were housed, the soldiers being accommodated according to the military districts of Canada from where they came rather than in the long-bonded regimental units that had seen them through the war years. The men did not know the officers and there was a clear mood or feeling of alienation in the air.

This, in itself, was enough to create problems but when, in late February 1919, it was learned that troop ships originally allocated to the Canadians had been re-allocated to the American forces - who had certainly not served in France for half as long as the Canadians - it caused understandable and huge resentment.

Then came the news that the Canadian 3rd Division - know to the military authorities as the Fighting Division - was to be given priority over other Canadian troops. The men at Kinmel were outraged, both at the implied slander on their reputations and on being once again pushed down the list for repatriation.

Basic conditions

Conditions at Kinmel Park were very basic. The place was a sea of mud and strikes had held up the delivery of both fuel and food supplies. As a result the men were on half rations and as many had received no pay for over a month, even the delights of the canteens in Tin Town - a large, privately run establishment set outside the military camp - were beyond their means.

They were sleeping 42 to a hut in accommodation that had been designed for no more than 30. Men were taking it in turns to sleep on the floor and most of them had only one blanket to keep them from the cold of a north Wales winter. Several delegations were sent to the senior officers in the camp, protesting about conditions and the way the men felt they were being treated. Nothing was done.

Then, on 1 March 1919 there were rumours that tempers had boiled over and that one of the canteens in Tin Town had been looted. That same day some of the soldiers refused to go on a route march and Colonel Colquhoun, the camp commander, became very concerned. It did not stop him going off to Rhyl for a social evening on 4 March and in his absence large numbers of muttering soldiers began to gather together in groups to sound off about the conditions they had to endure.

In the early hours of the morning, with tempers growing more and more frayed by the second, discontent finally spilled over into direct action.

Several leaders were appointed by the men, one of them being Sapper William Tsarevitch, and when some of the groups moved off to raid and loot the camp Quartermaster's Stores the call "Come on the Bolsheviks" was heard. Fires were soon started in Tin Town and the officers' and sergeants' messes were looted.

Officers quickly established a defensive perimeter and ammunition was issued to those soldiers considered to be trustworthy and loyal. The rioters had a few rifles but, in the main, they had to improvise weapons, strapping razors to broom handles or sticks.

Full scale mutiny

When 20 of the mutineers - because it was by now considered a full scale mutiny - were seized the rest simply charged the guardroom and set them free. Rifle shots were exchanged and, when casualty figures were later added up, it transpired that three rioters and two guards had been killed in the affair. Many others had been wounded or injured.

The rioting continued until 4.30 in the morning of 5 March when things seemed to fizzle out and the officers regained control of the camp.

In the aftermath of the mutiny - although the term riot is probably more accurate - 78 of the Canadians were arrested. Twenty-five were convicted of mutiny and sentences of between 90 days detention and 10 years' penal servitude were handed out by the military courts.

There was no great conspiracy to mutiny at Kinmel Camp, rather it was something that just happened due to a variety of different causes. Yet the military and those in command needed to fix or apportion blame, at the same time absolving themselves from fault.

As far as many in authority were concerned, despite the appalling conditions at the camp, one of the root causes was the growth of socialism. Set in the context of the time, with recent communist revolutions and uprisings in Russia and Germany, it is relatively easy to see how they reached this conclusion. The fact that the officers did not ensure that the men knew their concerns were being heard and understood was conveniently forgotten.

Following the riots priority was given to repatriating the Canadian troops. The affair was, as far as possible, "hushed up" and by 25 March over 15,000 Canadians had been transported home. The tragedy is that it could not have been done earlier.

The death of Alun Lewis

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 13:00 UK time, Sunday, 4 March 2012

Many people consider the young Welsh poet and short story writer Alun Lewis, a man who died on active service in Burma in 1944, a far better writer than the more famous Dylan Thomas.

His body of work - two small poetry collections, two short books of prose - was not great and it is difficult to make judgements about lasting quality. And literature should never be about competition, about one writer being better or worse than another.

But Lewis' story is certainly one of tragedy - it was a life cut short by a terrible and brutal war, a war that he hated and despised. Who knows what he might have achieved had the man been allowed a few more years of life and creativity.

Alun Lewis was born in Cwmaman on 1 July 1915 and died on the Arakan Front in Burma on 5 March 1940. In between he was educated at Cowbridge Grammar School, the Universities of Aberystwyth and Manchester and spent some time as a teacher at Pengam. In the years immediately before the war he fell in love with a fellow teacher, Gweno Ellis, and wrote stories and poems.

Lewis was beginning to get published when war broke out in 1939. An incredibly sensitive young man, he was not ideally suited to life as a soldier. He had no desire to kill and for a while considered registering as a conscientious objector.

His disgust and horror at what Hitler and the Nazi regime were doing in Europe eventually led him to understand that he could not stand aside while others fought, and so, in March 1940 - his mind still full of doubt and confusion - he enlisted in the army.

Serving first as a sapper, by the middle of July he had been promoted to lance corporal and in October he wrote one of his most memorable poems, All Day it has Rained, on the Shoulder o'Mutton near Petersfield in Hampshire. It was a paean of praise to the countryside and to World War One poet Edward Thomas. It was also, perhaps inevitably, a melancholy lament for the "landless soldier locked in war."

The poem, published in Horizon, earned Alun Lewis immediate recognition and a number of further publications soon came his way.

He married Gweno shortly before being given a commission in the South Wales Borderers. Although his first book, Raiders Dawn And Other Poems, was soon published by Allen and Unwin, he was miserable and lonely, clearly at sea in a world and an army that had little time for sensitivities and esoteric things like poems and stories.

He would soon be lonelier still as in October 1942 he and his unit set sail for India, a country that, to Alun and Gweno, was a whole world away. From the beginning the sub-continent fascinated and appalled him. As intelligence officer for his unit he made several reconnaissance trips into the jungle, the hills and native villages. What he saw and experienced inevitably found its way into his poems and stories.

Whatever his emotions, in prose pieces like The Orange Grove and in poems such as The Peasants he had clearly found his voice:

"Across scorched hills and trampled crops
The soldiers straggle by,
History staggers in their wake.
The peasants watch them die."

It was the enormity of India that frightened and confused him, the wildness and the untamed, untouchable nature of a country that nobody could really understand. There were unknown forces present in the land that made him, at the very least, uncomfortable.

Lewis's world was shattered when, during a period of leave in the middle of 1943, he met and fell in love with Freda Ackroyd. He did not love Gweno any less but he had been apart from her for nine months. He was lonely and adrift, desperately in need of comfort.

While the relationship with Freda certainly brought him comfort, it also brought torture. He knew he was betraying a trust and, as a consequence, he was more lost and alone than ever.

Alun's unit travelled to Burma in February 1944 and quickly moved up to oppose the Japanese. On the night of 4 March he joined B Company in what was a forward position in the Goppe Pass. Just after 5am the following day, on his way to the officers' latrine, he either slipped or fell down a steep bank. His revolver was in his hand and there was a single gunshot wound to the right temple. He died a few hours later.

There has always been debate about the death. Was it an accident or did Alun Lewis shoot himself? The records of the South Wales Borderers and the formal court of inquiry say it was an accident but, given his sensibilities and the emotional turmoil of his last few months, it is hard not to believe that Alun Lewis shot himself in the head.

Whatever the circumstances, that death on the Arakan Front of Burma robbed Wales of one of its most fascinating and skilled writers. He remains an enigma, a man whose finest work was sharpened and honed by a war he hated - a war that eventually destroyed him.

The tragedy of Tom Pryce, Wales' Formula One hero

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James Roberts James Roberts | 09:00 UK time, Sunday, 4 March 2012

Monday 5 March is the 35th anniversary of the death of Welsh Formula One driver Tom Pryce. The man from Nantglyn near Ruthin was tipped for F1 championship glory by many of his contemporaries, but at the age of just 27 his life and career were cut short in one of the most bizarre, tragic accidents in the sport's history.

Here's a report from BBC News on the day of the accident:

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The dashing but unassuming Pryce was a popular figure in the paddock, but it was his speed and car control that had everyone talking.

At the 1975 British Grand Prix he became the first and only Welshman ever to take an F1 pole, driving the little-fancied Shadow. An accident brought his race to a premature end, but earlier that year he had shown what he was really capable of.

At the annual non-championship Race of Champions, in his black Shadow emblazoned with the Welsh flag, he started from pole position. He slithered on the damp and cold Brands Hatch circuit, the famous, undulating stripe of Kentish tarmac, and beat some of the greatest names in the history of motor racing, including the likes of Emerson Fittipaldi, Jacky Ickx and Ronnie Peterson.

This BBC Wales News video from 1975 catches a rare interview with Pryce as his star burned brightest. Here he reflects in a typically understated way about his victory at Brands Hatch. The clip also includes some high praise from none other than three-time champion Jackie Stewart:

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Rival, friend and five-time Grand Prix winner John Watson confirms Pryce's reticence towards the jet-setting world of Formula One. "Tom was possessed of a huge talent," remembered Watson. "We spent a bit of time together because we both did Formula Two in 1974 and traveled around a bit together.

"I remember one time having dinner in Italy, and what Tom wanted was chicken and chips. And there in Italy you had the choice of the most incredible food - but that was all he wanted."

Pryce was killed aged just 27 in baffling circumstances in the 1977 South African Grand Prix. He fell victim to the decade's lackadaisical approach to safety in one of the most horribly bizarre accidents ever to befall motor racing. Cresting a rise at Kyalami, he was unable to dodge a teenage marshall running across the track to attend a small fire on his team-mate Renzo Zorzi's Shadow.

Jansen van Vuuren, the 19 year old marshall, was killed instantly. Pryce was struck on the head by the heavy fire extinguisher van Vuuren was carrying, also killing him instantly. His car carried on down to the next corner, collecting Jacques Laffites' Ligier and knocking him out of the race, before coming to a halt.

As Grand Prix racing is now a safer and more affluent world, it will forever be poorer for the absence of one of Wales' greatest and most unassuming sportsmen many tipped as a future world champion.

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Sixty years of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 12:00 UK time, Friday, 2 March 2012

This week the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park - the only coastal national park in the United Kingdom - will be 60 years old. National Geographic Magazine recently voted the park second best coastal destination anywhere in the world and there is no doubt that the area thoroughly deserves the accolade.

Stack Rock, Pembrokshire

Stack Rock, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park (Photo from ynysforgan_jack)

The coastal park covers approximately 240 square miles and consists of soaring cliffs, long stretches of glorious sandy beach and, slightly inland, rolling hills and deep, mysterious woodlands. It has scenery, history and legend enough to capture the imagination of even the most discerning visitor or local.

The Pembrokeshire Coast Park was originally designated at the end of February 1952, one of three national parks in Wales. The others are the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia.

In order to be best appreciated the park should be viewed as a whole, as a complete entity. However, for those wishing to visit the area for a short time, it can be broken down into a number of sections or stretches which can offer an effective way of looking at one of the world's most spectacular stretches of coastline.

Firstly there is the southern coast, running from Amroth on the Pembrokeshire/Carmarthenshire border to the tip of the Angle Peninsula. This section obviously includes tourist destinations like Tenby and Caldey Island.

Next comes the Milford Haven Estuary, running from St Ann's Head up river towards Haverfordwest and including quiet backwaters that have probably not changed very much since the early twentieth century.

St Bride's Bay

St Brides Bay (Photo from janjo 195)

Thirdly there is St Brides Bay, the broad sweep of coast that faces the roaring west winds of winter and includes beaches such as Newgale and Broadhaven (north). Then comes the rugged northern coast, from Strumble Head to Poppit Sands. And finally - but certainly not least - is the inland splendour of the Preseli Hills.

Each of the sections is different, offering different experiences and a range of sights that vary from isolated rock stacks to echoing caves and natural arches. The sea cliffs are magnificent, particularly on the southern coast and on St David's Head to the north. In winter, when the full force of the sea and wind can be felt, the cliffs of Pembrokeshire are particularly atmospheric.

The park includes the islands of Pembrokeshire, some of which can be visited. These include places like Caldey, Ramsey and Skomer. In contrast, the area around Castlemartin on the south coast is often closed as it incorporates military firing ranges but when open it offers even more magnificent scenery and wild life. Sea birds such as razorbills and guillemots abound, even rare red-legged choughs.

Pentre Ifan

Pentre Ifan

However impressive the coast might be, there is very little that can compare to the mysterious sense of ancient history that you find at places such as Cromlech Pentre Ifan in the foothills of the Preseli Mountains.

Stand here at dusk, as the sun sets over the western sea, and only the most insensitive of visitors can fail to feel the hairs rise up on the backs of their necks - a sure way of getting in touch with our ancient ancestors. Remember, the famous Blue Stones of Stonehenge came from nearby Carn Menyn and the whole of the Gwaun Valley, east of Fishguard, was once reputed to be full of witches. In some parts of the valley New Year's Day is still celebrated on 13th January, a tradition dating back to 1752 when the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian one.

History is everywhere in the Pembrokeshire Coast Park. From the old dockyard at Pembroke Dock, a place that once built royal yachts for Queen Victoria, to the site of the last invasion of Britain outside Fishguard, there is something here for everyone, no matter what their interest. Over a dozen ancient castles, palaces for Bishops and beaches where smugglers once reigned supreme - the area is suffused with points of fascinating history.

Lying almost totally within the National Park is the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Now designated as a National Trail, it runs for over 180 miles around the coast from Amroth to St Dogmaels before linking up with the Ceredigion Path to the north. It will be an essential part of the Welsh Coast Path, due to open fully this year. Most of the Pembrokeshire Path runs at cliff top level, the highest point being 574 feet above the sea, the lowest (at Sandy Haven) just a few feet.

The Coast Path was originally conceived back in 1953 when the Pembrokeshire-based writer and naturalist Ronald Lockley surveyed a route around the coast and reported his findings to the Countryside Commission.

It took some years and many delicate negotiations with land owners before the path could be made fully operational and it was only formally opened, by Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, on 16 May 1970. No visit to the Pembrokeshire area would ever be complete without walking at least a few hundred yards along the Coast Path.

The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park remains a jewel in the crown of Wales, something that every visitor to the country should experience at least once.

When it comes to family history, assume nothing!

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 09:00 UK time, Friday, 2 March 2012

It's been one of those strange weeks when people and life don't seem to be doing what I expect them to do.

As a specialist in tracing people part of my daily routine is spent tracking down beneficiaries to the estates of people who have died without leaving a will. I thought that over the past 15 years I'd encountered just about every facet of human life and society, but I am always being amazed, and that alone keeps me motivated.


The research is sometimes relatively easy compared to the actual contact with the beneficiaries. Tracking long lost Joneses in Wales is far easier than telling someone that their mother has died, which I've had to do twice this year and it's still only the start of March. It's easy for me to be judgemental and to ask how did they not know that their own mother had died. Not knowing often equates with not caring but this isn't necessarily the case and people always have a reason.

Recently I've also had to tell a son that his father has died. I learned that the father had been a long-term patient living for 50 years in an institution for people with mental health issues, never once visited by his son because his mother was trying to protect him from something.

Some of the people take the news badly. Sometimes there are tears but more often the news is met with a simple "I wondered what happened to them," or worse, "We weren't allowed to mention their name or ask any questions".

In the past I've offered to help locate graves or offered to have a headstone or memorial erected but I've stopped offering now since it is a presumption on my behalf that they care. Judging by the uncomfortable pauses I've endured, some of them neither want nor need this information and have no desire to learn any more about their long lost relative.

This doesn't necessarily mean that they are greedy or only interested in the money. In fact, a lot of my time is spent trying to persuade people that they should take the money rather than let the Crown keep it, alongside the other millions of pounds they already make from intestate estates. After a while the guilt subsides and people can be encouraged to nominate a charity or to think of others in their family who may need the money more.

But inheriting money from someone you didn't know doesn't sit well with a lot of people. Naturally it makes them reflect upon their own mortality and their own sense of family. I imagine that they wonder what would happen were they to die without leaving a will.

In the past I've also assumed that to die without a will means that that you die alone and that their funeral was an empty sad affair. I couldn't have been more wrong. Often the person who dies has a great many friends who cared greatly for that person, including a number of very close friends, carers and/or partners.

Some of these people may have been told that they were going to benefit. Yet when the time comes and a will cannot be found, or it is not dated or signed by two witnesses, or any number of other legalities, it may be invalid and the people who cared, and who were there at the end, simply cannot inherit.

Of course the TV and radio work that I do for the BBC helps enormously, as has the BBC One series Heir Hunters series, since now people know that this is a bona fide (if rather unusual) situation and that the reason for me approaching them is genuine.

I can't see that my line of work will ever dry up but if I am honest it would nice to think that fewer people suffered simply by ensuring that a will is written, which is why when I send out cheques to the beneficiaries I always finish my letters with these words:

"Ensure that you leave a will so that the people you care about benefit from your estate and that the same situation does not arise again."

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