Archives for May 2012

The mystery of MC Jones' need for speed

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James Roberts James Roberts | 10:45 UK time, Monday, 28 May 2012

For just over a century a 2.5 mile oval of tarmac, bricks and metal has provided one of the world's paramount sporting spectacles. Many a British driver has encountered speed, danger, death and riches at the Indianapolis 500, and 80 years ago a driver from north Wales met his end there.

Or did he?

A cursory glance of the illustrious history of the Indy 500 shows that in 1932 a certain Welsh-born Milton Jones was killed practising for the race when his machine got away from him at high speed on the dangerous southeast turn, ripped through the concrete outer retaining wall and dropped 19 feet to the ground.

Milton Jones' Stutz Model M (photo: Blackhawk Collection, Inc.)

It's been reported that Jones was born in Conwy in August 1894 and after turning to motor racing took part in the 1925 event, retiring with a broken gearbox before meeting his maker in 1932. However, we are looking at two different men, and by digging a bit deeper can discover two Joneses for the price of one.

The story of MC Jones, the man from Conwy, has been morphed with Milton Jones who died 80 years ago. They share the common Welsh surname, but as resident historian Donald Davidson at the Indianapolis Speedway points out, it's a case of history not keeping up with the Joneses.

"MC Jones and Milton Jones, it has often been assumed, is the same person. MC Jones drove in the 1925 race, and his name was Melville. They are two different people," affirms Davidson from his office at the track. "There are those who have assumed it is one and the same and it isn't.

"In 1925 there was a fellow named Harold Skelly. He qualified a 'Skelly Special', which was a Fronty Ford, which means it was basically a dirt track car with a special head developed by Louis Chevrolet and Frontenac, nicknamed a 'Fronty'. As Skelly was deemed not up to the job, MC Jones stepped in, and I think most of his experience was in boat racing."

Digging deeper into the history of the Indy 500 sheds light on a Cardiff-born racer's appearance a century ago.

John Jenkins, a former lightweight boxer, born in 1875, qualified his 'White' car 11th, on the third row of the field for the 1912 race. He finished a fantastic seventh, averaging 80-odd mph and winning over $1,000. It seems Jenkins excelled at hillclimbing and impressed in the extremely deadly world of pre-war auto racing.

According to the authority on all things Indy the Welsh connection doesn't end there.

"There's a mystery bloke by the name of Hughie Hughes. He drove in the 500 in 1911 and 1912. He lost his life in 1915, but back in those days everybody lost their lives," confirms Davidson.

"But Hughes was a Brit, and the mystery about him is that he came over, spoke with an English accent, was very outgoing. In those days we didn't have media guides and PR reps, but apparently he was quite extroverted and they called him Lord Hughie."

The Indy 500 nearly a century ago was quite different from today's. Modern cars run on methanol, powered by 3.5 litre, 650hp, V8 engines bearing a close resemblance to Formula One cars, but accelerating to in excess of 215mph. The dangers of this type of racing were tragically brought home through last year's tragic death of British star and former Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon. In 2012, a thrilling race was won a Brit won by Scottish Indy master Dario Franchitti - his third victory at Indianapolis.

Often forgotten with the domination of rugby and football in the nation's column and web inches is the fact that Wales has produced a number of motorsport's high flyers. Wales' only F1 victor Tom Pryce, regarded by many as a potential champion, paid the ultimate price in 1977 in a freak accident. Pryce's boss Alan Rees from Monmouthshire excelled as a team boss of F1 team Shadow and was integral to the March Engineering outfit alongside Max Mosley.

Similarly, north Wales-born racer, co-driver and entrepreneur David Richards attended Brynhyfryd School in Ruthin, Denbighshire. He has been a pillar of international motor racing and a major figure in the worlds of sportscar racing, F1 and rallying.

Speaking of rallying, Wales' abundance of forestry roads makes it a natural home for sideways racing thrills. The British leg of the World Rally Championship, Wales Rally GB has been hosted there since 2000. Notable rally stars have included world champion co-driver Nicky Grist, and with up and coming stars such as Hywel Lloyd and Alex Jones on the track, the future of Welsh motorsport is ticking over nicely.

After Z: forgotten foundlings

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 14:00 UK time, Thursday, 24 May 2012

Last week's article involved the creation of an A-Z of family history resources and it got me thinking about what comes after Z.

In the General Register Office (GRO) birth indexes once you get to the end of each quarter you can often find a small separate list of individuals, all alone and unable to be processed in the same manner as the other births because their names are unknown.

These are foundlings. The people who come after Z.

Foundlings listed in 1881

Foundlings listed in December 1881

Input a name like William Young into Ancestry or another website where you can view the original image of the birth index. Keep scrolling through until you get to the last page, where the surnames beginning with Z are indexed.

At the very end you should find a small group of forlorn babies whose parents felt the best option would be for their child to have a better life without them.

They were known as foundlings because they were found most often on the doorsteps of a parish church or somewhere else where they were certain to be found quickly. They were usually named after the place where they were baptised, the street where they were found or sometimes after the person who found them.

Naming foundlings

So children baptised in the parish church of St John were named John, but as shown below others such as Elizabeth Saturday take the name of the day of the week, and I guess that Julia Fawkes was found on 5 November 1881.

Over the past few years I've been asked on several occasions to help with research into foundlings, twice on behalf of foundlings who are desperate to find some biological connection or simply some answers to the daily question of "who am I and where do I come from?"

Each time I find myself hoping that this will be the time where I can actually use my research skills to help. But so far I haven't been able to help at all. Maybe by publishing their stories in this blog I can help in a small way.

Foundling Hospital

Ioma Jones contacted me from her home in Ireland to ask for help tracing further information relating to her great grandmother. Family legend was that she was left on a doorstep in Cwmbach in Glamorgan but unfortunately Ioma has such few details it's hard to even pin down the correct birth entry for her grandmother Eleanor Evans, later the wife of Harry Russell. Ioma knows they were buried in Brithdir so perhaps someone in that area might know more. Do get in touch.

For once it might well have been easier to find Ioma's great-grandmother if she had been born in London as she may well have been one of the 27,000 children who passed through the doors of the Foundling Hospital between 1739 and 1954. Yes, that's not a typo - it does say 1954!

The archives relating to the Foundling Hospital can be searched in the London Metropolitan Archives, although I fear that that is where the family history trail will end for those who have a foundling ancestor.

But what if you were a modern day foundling?

Meet the modern-day foundlings

In 1960 David was found wrapped in a rainbow coloured blanket on the doorstep of a second floor flat in Golders Green. To read more about David's story visit his blog

David and his partner Julie have searched long and hard into every possible lead including testing his DNA. The results pointed to Scottish borders ancestry on the male side, but with no close matches (his DNA analysis is 90% Western European, 10% SE Asian). With time it is possible that someone who knows something about his story will decide to come forward or the DNA database throws up a match.

I was asked to get involved because there was a potential Welsh link, albeit a very tenuous one. A Welsh man, Richard Hamer who was born in Rhayder in 1899, lived in a neighbouring flat to where David was abandoned. The aim was (or is) to trace the descendants of Richard Hamer and ask them to provide a DNA sample. Even if this only results in that family being eliminated from the list of possibles it would mean a great deal to David.

Searching for biological heritage

In April 2011, BBC Three broadcast a documentary about a baby boy found in 1986 at Gatwick airport. Steve Hydes, now 25, was found as a 10-day-old baby on the floor of a ladies toilet in Gatwick airport. I was asked to try and help find his mother. I like a challenge but this task needed a magic wand!

Steve's DNA was compared to a global genetic databank of millions of individuals and from this, a number of individuals who are Steve's seventh or sixth or even, in one case, fifth cousin were identified. For most of us this would be too distant to be of any real interest but if you have no knowledge of your biological heritage then I imagine that a fifth cousin might feel like finding a twin.

In 2000 Germany introduced 'baby-drops' where mothers could anonymously leave babies they were unable to look after themselves in the knowledge that they would be properly cared for. Now a network of some 80 'hatches' exist across Germany and similar schemes exist in Japan, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Clearly having a foundling in your family is not only a thing of the past and is certainly much more that the famous fictional foundling, Oliver Twist.

Joe Bach: A Polish artist in Wales

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 14:48 UK time, Wednesday, 23 May 2012

His name was Josef Herman and he came from Poland. But to the people of Ystradgynlais in the Swansea Valley he was known simply as Joe Bach and accepted as one of them.

Josef Herman

Josef Herman (Photo © Bernard Mitchell)

Herman was an artist and regularly used the miners of the village as his subjects. The people of Ystradgynlais understood that he was different from them, that he was a renowned painter who made his living from his brush. It was as if they understood that, through his skill and talent, he was giving them a degree of immortality that was priceless.

Josef Herman was born in Warsaw in January 1911. He came from a Jewish family, the eldest of three children, and like so many others endured the anti-Semitism that was rife in Poland in the years after World War One. The family was poor and Herman had to leave school at the age of 12. He became, at first, an apprentice printer but even at this early age he was displaying a remarkable talent in drawing and painting.

Between 1930 and 1932 he studied at the Warsaw School of Art and achieved his first exhibition in Warsaw in 1932. He worked for a time as a graphic artist, his bold and naive style lending itself to the medium. Even in these early years his reputation was beginning to grow and develop.

In 1938, Herman felt obliged to leave Poland, due to the rabid anti-Semitism he was encountering, and moved to Brussels where he continued to paint and draw. His family remained behind and in due course, once the Germans invaded, were swallowed up by the horrors of the Holocaust. Herman lost his entire family in the genocide of the 1940s.

When World War Two broke out in 1939, Herman saw the likely turn of events and quickly moved, first, to France and then to Britain. Once established in Britain he lived in Glasgow and London for a while, meeting and collaborating with other European artists in exile such as Michael Peto. Then, in 1944, he came to Ystradgynlais.

As Herman himself later said, he went to Ystradgynlais for a two week holiday and ended up staying there for 11 years. His work during this time had a clear political edge, Herman being fascinated by the coal miners and the harsh social conditions he encountered.

In his distinctive, almost one-dimensional style, with detail kept to a minimum and the emphasis focused clearly on shape rather than precision, his paintings gave the men of the valley a dignity that has endured.

All his life Herman was fascinated by workers, by grape pickers and fishermen but by miners in particular. He became friendly with the artist Will Roberts who lived nearby, in Neath, and in 1951 his reputation had grown sufficiently for him to be commissioned to paint a mural for the Festival of Britain. His subject, naturally enough, was coal miners.

Herman always regarded this painting highly. It remains a hugely powerful piece of art and has now found a home in Wales, at the Glyn Vivian Gallery in Swansea.

Unfortunately, Herman's connections with Wales were ended soon after he completed the Festival of Britain mural. His health had become badly affected by the damp conditions in the Swansea valleys and in 1955 he left Ystradgynlais. He lived something of a peripatetic life in places like London and Spain before settling in Suffolk.

In 1961 Herman married his long-time partner Nini Ettinger but tragedy struck the family when their young daughter died. Fame and celebrity continued to follow him with Herman winning the Gold Medal for Fine Art at the 1962 National Eisteddfod. Other honours also came. He was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1990 and nine years previously he had been awarded an OBE for his services to art.

Herman died on 19 February 2000, a venerable and much-respected figure in the world of art. His life had been full and active but, in the minds of many, he produced his best work during the 11 years he lived in Ystradgynlais.

Josef Herman was an artist who produced powerful and dramatic canvasses. His subjects, often labourers and manual workers, are presented honestly with a degree of compassion that appeals to everyone, children and adults alike. As someone once said, there are no frills in Herman's work but his paintings remain hugely powerful.

You can view Herman's works between 1938 and 1944 at the RWA in Bristol. The exhibition is on until 8 July 2012.

Lady Charlotte Guest: translator of the Mabinogion tales

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 13:00 UK time, Friday, 18 May 2012

Pioneering translator, industrialist, linguist, collector, and mother of nine, Saturday 19 May marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Lady Charlotte Guest.

Lady Charlotte Guest

Born on 19 May 1812, she was christened Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Bertie and grew up in Lincolnshire. Her father Albemarle Bertie, the ninth Earl of Lindsey, died when Charlotte was just six years old, and three years later her mother married a man whom Charlotte disliked.

Although Charlotte had two brothers she had quite a lonely childhood. She was passionate about literature and language, and taught herself Arabic, Hebrew and Persian. From a very early age Charlotte was also fascinated by medieval history and legends.

A lifelong diarist

When Charlotte was 10 years old she began to keep a diary, a practice which she doggedly continued until she was 79, even though she was nearly blind by that time.

Her journals were published after her death in two large, illustrated volumes by her third son, Montague Guest.

Marriage and Merthyr Tydfil

Charlotte left Lincolnshire for London when she was 21. Here she met widower and wealthy ironmaster John Josiah Guest (later Sir John Guest).

The pair were married within three months of their first meeting and settled in Dowlais, Merthyr Tydfil. John Guest was 48 years old, and they seemed to belong to two very different worlds.

She was the daughter of an earl and he was a "man with a trade" - even though his enterprise would become one of the largest ironworks in the world.

The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales captures the global importance of John Guest stating that: "His 5,000-strong workforce probably meant that he had more employees than any other individual on earth."

Powerless women

Charlotte lived in a time when women were expected solely to devote their life to the role of wife and mother. Women had no vote, and no right to own their possessions. Generally powerless, they were not expected to hold any aspirations outside of the home.

Charlotte, however, immersed herself in the business of the iron works, as well as practically pursuing methods to improve the education and living standards of the workers and their families.

Although London society remained dismayed that Charlotte would leave the cultured life of the capital for industrialised south Wales, Charlotte embraced living in Merthyr. She had a happy life with John Guest and the couple had nine children - not unusual for the time.

In 1838 Charlotte became a baroness, and in 1846 the Guests bought the Canford estate in Dorset, where they built Canford Manor, a grand, gothic mansion. It was designed by the famous architect Sir Charles Barry, who is probably best known for his role in the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster.

Cymreigyddion y Fenni

Charlotte lived in a time of Romantic revival, when there was a renewed interest in medieval life and Celtic history, and the Guests were founder members of the Society of Welsh Scholars of Abergavenny (Cymreigyddion y Fenni).

She naturally combined her life-long interest in medieval literature with her passion for Wales.

Charlotte had learned Welsh, and combined her love of language with Celtic legends by translating the Mabinogion tales.

The first volume was published in 1838, and by 1845 the tales had appeared in seven parts. She also wrote a Boys' Mabinogion which comprised the earliest Welsh tales of King Arthur, and translated (and often censored) a number of medieval songs and poems.

Charlotte's translations of the Mabinogion tales remained the standard for nearly a century. They were influential enough for Tennyson to base his Geraint and Enid, in The Idylls of the King - the most popular poetic work of the era - on her writings.

Sir John Guest died in 1852, and Charlotte took over the running of the business. She had a clear understanding of the operation of the iron works but it was deeply unconventional for a Victorian woman to hold such power. Ultimately it led to clashes with workers and other foundry owners.

Collector and campaigner

In 1855 Charlotte fell in love with and married her son Ivor's tutor, Cambridge academic and MP Charles Schreiber. She stopped running the iron works, and instead travelled widely and focused her efforts on amassing a world-class ceramics collection.

When she died the collection was bequeathed to the Victoria and Albert Museum. She also donated fans, board games and playing cards that she had collected to the British Museum.

Charles Schreiber died in 1884, when Charlotte was 72 years old. She dedicated her remaining time to cataloguing her collections and putting them on public view.

In 1891 the London Fan Makers awarded Charlotte the freedom of their company. She was, along with Baroness Coutts, one of only two freewomen of Victorian England.

Charlotte remained active and campaigned for diverse causes including Turkish refugees and shelters for London hansom cab drivers. She died on 15 January 1895 aged 83.

During the regeneration of Dowlais in the 1980s, a public house was named the Lady Charlotte in her honour. The Guest Scholarship fund started by Lady Charlotte Guest for the education of the steelworkers, and boosted by money saved by workers, at the Guest Keen Ironwork only closed in spring 2012.

Find out more about the Mabinogion.

Cat Whiteaway's A-Z of family history

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 15:55 UK time, Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Yesterday I returned a book to the library, The End Of The Alphabet by CS Richardson. It's a short book, an adult fable, which I didn't realise had also been made into a play for BBC Radio 4. Try it, it's a lovely book.

I was reading it while visiting my mum recently. One day, while having coffee in the garden, we tried to make our own A-Z of family history. Isn't that what all normal families do on bank holidays?


We quickly started with A for ancestry, adoption and archives. B for births, burials and baptisms. C for cousins, census, cemetery, coroner's records, civil registration, criminal registers, and how about Crockfords? It's a clerical directory, so you can identify churches and contact the current incumbent.

Cat Whiteaway in a graveyard

Churchyards and cemeteries can often get quite overgrown!

Getting a little carried away we imagined publishing a checklist for people who have just started their family history, to help them ensure that they are aware of the vast variety of types of resources available.


D for deaths, deeds, diaries. E for electoral registers, emigration, employment records and enumerators (don't forget most were English speaking and wrote down anglicised versions of Welsh names).


F for family history societies and family history, fairs (of which there are plenty over the summer months) and foundlings and; the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a vast collection of genealogical records that includes the names of more than three billion deceased people.


G for Genes Reunited, General Registrer Office (GRO), Guild of One Name Studies obviously, but perhaps not so obvious is Gathering the Jewels, a site containing 30,000 images of objects, books, letters, aerial photographs and other items from museums, archives and libraries throughout Wales.


H for heraldry, hearth tax and human error! I is for inquest, immigration, indexes and specifically the International Genealogical Index (IGI) which can be searched free via


And then we started to struggle. J is for..? Any suggestions welcome.


K was only for kilts and knights until kith and kin popped into my mind. L is for Latin, land taxes and libraries. If you have time this summer why not take the long and windy road and pay a visit to the stunning National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Even if you don't find an ancestor you can enjoy the exhibitions, the café and the views.


M was easier: murderers, mariners, military, marriages, monumental inscriptions, maps, memorials and don't forget your magnifying glass! N has to be newspapers but don't underestimate the power of a note pinned to a notice board.

Janet Street-Porter on Coming Home

Janet Street-Porter trying her hand at her great grandfather's occupation of sett maker


O for obituaries, occupations, orphanages, but you must never forget oral history. We were overwhelmed with options for P - parish, probate, photographs, ports, pensions, passports, patronymics (the system in Wales whereby individuals were identified by the name of their father, deserving of its own blog post to fully explain it) and don't forget your pencil (always preferred when working in archives).


For Q we quickly quashed quaker, quirky, questions, quotes, quills, and even the Queen and settled on quarters (civil registration events are recorded in quarters and so a birth in November 1912 might not show up until the March quarter of 1913).


R for royalty (why is it that people would rather have a murderer than a royal in their family tree?) and for religion, crucial if you are searching parish registers before 1837.


S for second cousins (the issue of your grandparents' siblings), schools, street directories, surnames and the Society of Genealogists. T for tithe maps, transcriptions and the National Archives at Kew if you fancy a trip to London (best left until after the Olympics perhaps).


And then we really, really struggled. U is for urchins, university alumni and uniforms (there are people who specialise in identifying military and other uniforms). V for vicar, verger and votes (from 1918 women aged over 30 could vote, this was lowered to 21 in 1928 for both sexes and again in 1969 from 21 to 18).

Donny Osmond gets to wear the white gloves at Cyfartha Castle


W for workhouse, wills, window taxes and Archives Wales, an online catalogue of over 7,000 collections of historical records in the holdings of 21 archives in Wales. And those white gloves you get asked to wear when looking at old precious documents to help preserve them, which make you feel privileged and have the magical power of turning the moment into slow motion (or is that just me?).


X marks the spot where your illiterate ancestor signed their name. Y is for year of birth; always to be taken with a pinch of salt and Z, well Z is the end of the alphabet.

But unlike coming to the end of the alphabet it isn't possible to get to the end of your ancestry. No matter how hard you try there will always be an elusive person or record that is just beyond your reach. However, never give up on because new records go online every week and errors are constantly being corrected so you never know.

Aberystywth v Cardiff - the battle for the National Library of Wales

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 15:10 UK time, Monday, 14 May 2012

The National Library of Wales is one of the country's great institutions. It sits high on Penglais Hill in Aberystwyth, overlooking both the town and Cardigan Bay.

National Library of Wales

The library sits high on Penglais Hill (Photo: National Library of Wales)

The library holds over four million printed volumes as well as paintings, magazines and newspapers but the vast majority of people who use the facility remain blithely unaware of the furore surrounding its establishment.

The National Library (Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru in Welsh) is a relatively modern creation but as early as 1873 Welsh material of value and interest - objects as well as books - was being collected together and stored in the University College, Aberystwyth.

Unfortunately there was a similar process already taking place in the Cardiff area.

Choosing a home

A single permanent home was obviously needed to store both artefacts and manuscripts. When a government committee was set up in 1905 to decide on the location for such a a depositary there began a bitter and often virulent battle between the two university towns.

There were debates and discussions, heated letters in the press. Articles and cartoons appeared in the Western Mail claiming that Aberystwyth was too far away from the centre of educational and social life in Wales.

It was a poor argument, however, as in those days - unlike today - there were excellent railway links between Aberystwyth and most parts of Britain. And with a seat of learning already existing on the doorstep, the town could hardly be considered as the back of beyond - although many people claimed that it was!

Heated arguments

"It was all pretty heated," says Sion Jobbins of the National Library. "Both sides had their supporters and both sides fought to get their own way. Inevitably, I suppose, what was eventually agreed on was a good old fashioned compromise.

"University education in the country was already working on a 'federated' concept and, following in the footsteps of this idea, it was decided to split the collections."

Cardiff would become the home of the National Museum of Wales, while Aberystwyth would house the National Library, effectively the legal deposit library for the country.

Obviously there were, and would continue to be, overlaps with both institutions holding material that could easily have been located elsewhere but the National Library was established by royal charter on 19 March 1907.

The influence of Sir John Williams

There had been all sorts of intrigue going on while the decision was being made. One of the factors influencing that decision was the promised gift from Sir John Williams, private physician to Queen Victoria.

An avid book collector, he indicated that he would be prepared to present his collection to the library, on the condition that it was located in Aberystwyth. He also donated money, somewhere in the region of £20,000, to the enterprise.

When land just off Penglais Hill was given by Lord Rendle, the MP for Montgomeryshire, the Library had found a formal site. A competition was held to find the best design and the winner, Sidney Greenslade, was ordered to set things in motion.

The foundation stone was laid on 25 July 1911, and slowly but surely the building took shape. The first librarian was John Ballinger, a man who held his post from 1909 until 1930. The library itself did not formally open until 1916.

Priceless collection of manuscripts

"The library holds some precious and priceless books," says Sion Jobbins. "For example, we have a copy of the first translation of the Bible into Welsh and of the Black Book of Carmarthen, the earliest surviving manuscript written entirely in Welsh.

"We have copies of magazines and newspapers from all over Britain, diaries, letters, everything you would expect a national library to hold".

The National Library is charged with offering services in English as well as Welsh and, therefore, holds thousands of English language publication, both old and modern. It even has a manuscript copy of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. And it also has thousands of paintings, many of which can be seen on the library website.

Despite being granted a new royal charter in 2006, debate still sometimes erupts about the location of the National Library and there are many who would like to see it moved to Cardiff.

Yet there is something rather special about the idea of 'federated' institutions - and, after all, it would not do to have every Welsh cultural establishment set in the southern part of the country.

If you are thinking of visiting the National Library of Wales, take a look at their website which has the opening times, visiting details and information on becoming a reader as well information on the collections and exhibitions that can be found at the library.

The National Library for Wales is also on Twitter.

The secret life of the Elvis rock

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James McLaren James McLaren | 09:00 UK time, Monday, 14 May 2012

Just beside the A44 near Eisteddfa Gurig, about 10 miles outside Aberystwyth in mid Wales, you'll see it. In a dip in the road, there's a scruffy-looking rock. On it, stark white letters are painted: ELVIS.

Elvis Rock. Photo: Jeremy Bolwell

Elvis Rock. Photo: Jeremy Bolwell

The Elvis Rock has been there for 50 years. Since May 1962 it has been a landmark known throughout the country.

It changes; sometimes it even changes to say something entirely different, but it always reverts, within a couple of days, to the name of The King. But why? Why is it there in the first place? And who ensures it stays there?

The Elvis Rock in about 1994. Photo: Gwenllian Ashley

The Elvis Rock in about 1994. Photo: Gwenllian Ashley

In the run-up to the Montgomeryshire by-election held on 15 May 1962, two men in balaclavas decided to demonstrate their support for the Plaid Cymru candidate, Islwyn Ffowc Elis, by painting his surname on a rock beside the road.

John Hefin, from Borth, and his friend David Meredith, from Llanuwchllyn, near Bala, were the culprits.

"It was the 1962 by-election for the Montgomeryshire seat after the death of the Liberal Party's Clement Davies," said Mr Hefin. "We borrowed David's father's car, which was highly recognisable as he was the most respected minister in Aberystwyth, and we took off.

The Elvis Rock in about 1989. Photo: Gwenllian Ashley

The Elvis Rock in about 1989. Photo: Gwenllian Ashley

"In balaclavas we set about our task - we wore balaclavas because writing graffiti in those days was very frowned upon.

"We wrote Elis in red and surrounded it in green - the colours of Plaid Cymru and Wales. You could see the sign for at least a mile away in the daylight."

Mr Meredith said of the pair's antics: "We saw this wonderful rock. It's not often that a rock presents itself in such a way and we decided to paint Elis on it.

"We went back some days later to admire our work and damnation, someone had changed Elis into Elvis.

"We never mentioned it to Islwyn Ffowc Elis, but I'm sure he would have been pleased to have been associated with Elvis."

Elis, a politician and novelist, died in 2004 at the age of 79.

Elvis Rock. Photo: Penny Mayes

Elvis Rock. Photo: Penny Mayes

After the rock had been painted, then amended, it took on a life of its own. It became a recognisable marker for anyone making their way through mid Wales, not least the thousands of Aberystwyth University students over the years.

In 1992, the word was changed to read LUFC in recognition of Leeds United's First Division title, while according to one-time Aberystwyth University student Raquel, commentating on the BBC Mid Wales site: "One year, some devout soul replaced 'Elvis' with 'Jesus', but I am afraid 'Elvis' was quickly reinstated! When returning to Aber, I have always loved seeing the Elvis Rock as it is a signal that it is not much farther to get home."

Also in 1992, following his death, the name of Benny Hill appeared on the rock, but again it was short-lived. Another comment on the BBC Mid Wales site said: "I knew the rock as a child in the 70s and it was a sign of homecoming. I've loved its ever-changing style over the years and the devotion given to it by its fans."

It's this affection for something inanimate and superficially unimportant that marks out the Elvis Rock. There was public outcry when in the mid-2000s it partially disintegrated, and another version appeared on another rock. But thankfully, for its thousands of fans, it's back in its rightful place.

But, aside from who actually takes it upon themselves to keep reapplying the whitewash, there's one more mystery... at least according to Bristol's Terry Filby, writing on the BBC Mid Wales website:

"I wonder if there is more to the legend of the Elvis Rock, as during the week of 2 September 1968 I was on honeymoon in and around Aberystwyth when out around the isolated dam area I came up behind a stationary, new American car with two men in it.

"I was driving a Ford Anglia 105e. As I drew close the guy on the left looked over his shoulder and I immediately said to my wife 'That's Elvis!'. She did not disagree. The car suddenly sped off and lost my Ford."

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Marconi's Welsh wireless revolution

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Joe Goodden Joe Goodden | 16:28 UK time, Friday, 11 May 2012

On 13 May 1897 radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi made telecommunications history, transmitting a radio signal across open sea for the first time. He chose Lavernock Point in the Vale of Glamorgan as the location for the event.

Lavernock Point is a headland situated on the southern coast of the Vale of Glamorgan, overlooking the Bristol Channel with views across to Somerset. A few kilometres away, in the channel, are two islands, Flat Holm and Steep Holm, so-called because of their physical appearance. It was from Lavernock Point to Flat Holm in 1897 that Marconi's historic experiment took place.

Marconi was born on 25 April 1874 in Bologna, Italy. As a boy he became fascinated with science and electricity, and eventually began conducting experiments in radio waves at the family home.

Guglielmo Marconi

Guglielmo Marconi

Marconi's goal was to create a system of long range wireless telecommunication, an idea which had been around for over 50 years but which nobody had managed to successfully bring to fruition. Soon he was able to transmit signals for more than a mile, and realised that his innovations may have commercial and military value.

Finding scant interest from the Italian authorities in his discoveries, Marconi moved to Britain in 1896 at the age of 21. In London he found a supporter in William Preece, engineer-in-chief at the British Post Office, then an important government department. Preece had himself transmitted Morse code signals using radio telegraph across Coniston Water in Cumbria.

Marconi began transmitting messages from the roof of the post office in London to other government buildings. In early 1897 he sent Morse code signals over a six kilometre distance across Salisbury Plain. Having established that overland wireless communication was viable, he decided to attempt another breakthrough: the first ever transmission over open sea.

Marconi was assisted by George Kemp, a Cardiff-based Post Office engineer who suggested the south Wales coast as the ideal location for the experiment. Following several days of testing, Marconi took up position in a field on Lavernock Point while Kemp and his nephew Herbert were positioned three miles away on Flat Holm. Both locations had a 100ft mast erected, each with an aerial at the top.

Guglielmo Marconi and George Kemp

Guglielmo Marconi and George Kemp

Kemp kept a detailed diary of the events, describing Marconi's tests and setbacks before his experiments finally succeeded.

Mr Marconi's apparatus was set up on the cliff at Lavernock Point, which is about twenty yards above sea-level. Here we erected a pole, 30 yards (27 m) high, on the top of which was a cylindrical cap of zinc, 2 yards (1.8 m) long and 1-yard (0.91 m) diameter.

Connected with this cap was an insulated copper wire leading to one side of the detector, the other side of which was connected to a wire led down the cliff and dipping into the sea. At Flat Holm Mr Preece's apparatus was arranged, the Ruhmkorff coil also giving 20-inch (510 mm) sparks from an eight-cell battery.

On the 10th May experiments on Mr Preece's electro-magnetic transmission method were repeated, and with perfect success.

The next few days were eventful ones in the history of Mr Marconi. On the 11th and 12th his experiments were unsatisfactory - worse still, they were failures - and the fate of his new system trembled in the balance.

An inspiration saved it. On the 13th May the apparatus was carried down to the beach at the foot of the cliff, and connected by another 20 yards (18 m) of wire to the pole above, thus making an aerial height of 50 yards (46 m) in all. Result, The instruments which for two days failed to record anything intelligible, now rang out the signals clear and unmistakable, and all by the addition of a few yards of wire!"

Marconi sent an initial message in Morse code. It read: "CAN YOU HEAR ME". Shortly after, Marconi received a reply from Kemp: "YES LOUD AND CLEAR". The recording slip for the first message is now kept at the National Museum of Wales.

There then followed a further series of technical messages in both directions, to test settings and sound levels. The tests continued for several days, in different weather conditions and with various adjustments to the telegraph equipment.

The experiment was so successful that Marconi's men chose to relocate the Flat Holm equipment across the Bristol Channel, to Brean Down Fort near Weston Super Mare. They managed to transmit messages for a distance of nearly 10 miles, proving that the technology was viable and useful.

Marconi's involvement with the Post Office ended after he registered patent rights in his Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company. He was, however, joined by George Kemp who resigned from the Post Office to become Marconi's head of engineering development.

In 1901 Marconi established the first radio link across the Atlantic Ocean, and in 1909 shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with fellow pioneer Karl Ferdinand Braun, in recognition of their "contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy."

In 1948, 50 years after the open sea experiments, a bronze plaque commemorating the historic achievements of Marconi and Kemp was unveiled by the Cardiff Rotary Club in the churchyard of St Lawrence in Lavernock. The small hut in which he kept his early telegraph equipment still stands near the cliff edge near Lower Cosmeston farmhouse.

Plaque commemorating the achievements of Guglielmo Marconi and George Kemp, St Lawrence churchyard, Lavernock

Plaque commemorating the achievements of Guglielmo Marconi and George Kemp, St Lawrence churchyard, Lavernock

Spring cleaning turns up mystery keepsakes?

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 10:05 UK time, Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Like every responsible computer owner I try to perform regular software updates and ensure that my computer is clean, virus free and as unclogged as possible. So while it has been raining this week (and last week and probably next week too) I have spent some time filing, backing up, deleting and emptying my trash.

But it appears that I am not as thorough as I should be, and I am clearly failing to practise what I preach.

I hereby solemnly confess to having found some images on my computer. I'm talking about photographs of someone's ancestors and other valuable family documents, which I should have put into the correct folder immediately after scanning. Obviously I forgot and now I can't remember. Worse still it seems that neither can my computer!

Arthur Ridley Cottam

Is there an Arthur Ridley Cottam in your family tree? Would you like to have him back (since I know for sure that he doesn't belong in my family tree)?

Arthur Ridley Cottam

I know Arthur comes from Wales. He was part of a family tree that I have researched for BBC Radio Wales' Look Up Your Genes during the first series in 2002. I know this only because very cleverly the computer has saved the date that I scanned the image 21/11/2002 within a folder marked "BBC LUYG Roadshow".

I can tell that he was a fisherman (maybe I should have been a police officer!). He might belong to a family who lived near the sea and since we had fantastic Look Up Your Genes roadshow events in both Barry and Aberystwyth that year maybe he comes from one of those towns.

Start naming the people in your photographs

If like me you are frustrated whilst it's raining why not sit down one afternoon with a pencil, surrounded by your old photographs and the people you love, and go through each picture. Make sure you write clearly who it is in the photograph, where and when it was taken, and whether it might have been of special importance.

It doesn't matter whether it is a recent glossy digital photo or an old dog-eared sepia image retrieved from the attic. What matters is that the individuals are identified before the details are lost forever.

Which brings me onto my second confession.

In the summer of 2005 myself and Charlotte Evans went to the flea market in Abergavenny for Look Up Your Genes. The idea was that we purchased a few choice items with familial historical interest and reunited them with someone from the original family.

It was a great idea in theory, but in practice it proved a lot harder, especially since the items we chose surrendered few clues.

While spring-cleaning my computer I also found this misfiled postcard. It cost just a few pence and we chose it because the words seemed to bring alive the spirit of the time.

Postcard to Lil

Front of post card

9th August 1918, Portsmouth

Dearest Lil,

Just a line to say I am having ripping good time. Trusting you enjoyed yourself, which I have no doubt. I went to a dance last night. I can tell you Dear there were plenty of sailors and midies. I should very much like you to be here with me as times are jolly......ta ta for now, with love Gladys xxxx

It's addressed to Miss L Wilson, No 10 Montjoy Street, Newport, Mon.

The postcard was obviously designed to promote daylight saving and even the short poem and drawing on the front seems to evoke a sense of making the most of any precious time available during the last few months of World War One.

I wanted to reunite the postcard with Lil Wilson's family. To return it to them, and for them to have the chance to cherish it and remember Lil fondly. To think of her racing down to Portsmouth to join her friend Gladys and dance the night away on the arm of a sailor. Perhaps they even have a photo of Lil. Maybe she married a sailor or that could just be my imagination running away with me.

So, come rain or shine I know what I must do over the next couple of weeks. It's not so much of a punishment for losing them on my computer, more of a homework-type challenge really.

I must find Arthur Ridley Cottam and Lil Wilson's families and return their items.
I must find Arthur Ridley Cottam and Lil Wilson's families and return their items.
I must find Arthur Ridley Cottam and Lil Wilson's families and return their items.

The 1959 aircraft disaster in North Road, Cardiff

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 15:00 UK time, Friday, 4 May 2012

On 6 May 1959, when civil aviation in Britain was still in the early stages of development, a small De Havilland Dove aircraft crashed on North Road, one of the main routes into and out of the city of Cardiff.

Aircraft wreckage

Four men died in the aircraft crash but there could have been many more fatalities (photo: Wales Media Ltd)

The incident took place shortly after 2pm. With a sports day for the boys of Cathays High School being held in the adjacent Maindy Stadium it was a miracle that a much larger disaster was averted.

The aeroplane, a twin engined monoplane numbered G-Alec, had taken off from the airfield at Pengam Moors, to the east of the city and was supposed to fly over Cardiff to mark the opening of the Ideal Homes Exhibition. It had been hired by Lec Refrigerators and was intended to be something of a publicity stunt for the company.

In charge of the aircraft that day was 24-year-old Paul Chambers, a man who had some experience as a pilot but almost none flying a Dove - some reports say 28 hours, others as little as four.

Flying with one engine

He had recently failed a test that involved flying with one engine out of use and, according to eye witness reports, it seems that flying on only one engine was exactly what the Dove was doing that afternoon. Whether that was by accident or design is not totally clear.

It is unlikely, however, that Chambers would have continued to circle and fly over the city if he had an emergency on board; it would have been logical to expect him to get his aircraft down on the ground as soon as possible. And so we are left with the assumption that the pilot had deliberately stopped one engine.

With Chambers in the Dove were Reginald Burchell, Kenneth Woodfield and Ronald Aston. For them the trip was meant to be the experience of a lifetime. In the event they were on the last journey they would ever undertake.

Poor behaviour

The aeroplane was seen flying low over the city, some eye witnesses estimating its height at no more than 300 feet. A local policeman was so concerned that he actually took the Dove's number in order to report the pilot for such behaviour. Tragically, with one engine out of use, the pilot had little control of the aircraft and it would seem that he began to panic.

Paul Chambers was now flying so low that he was in danger of hitting a row of tree. Still with only one engine running, he attempted to pull up the nose of the aircraft. This caused the plane to stall and nosedive into the ground where it hit an empty van and exploded in a ball of flame.

The Dove came down in the middle of North Road, close to a new petrol station. Although all four occupants of the aircraft were killed in the crash, luck played a major part in the disaster. The petrol station was new and had not yet opened so there were no large quantities of fuel in the tanks. If there had been, the explosion would have destroyed buildings for miles around.

As it was, a river of fuel from the Dove's ruptured tanks was soon running down the road, blazing its passage and raising a gigantic column of smoke above the city. One passer-by tried to get into the aircraft to help those inside but he was beaten back by the flames, being severely burned for his efforts.

Luckier still were the pupils of Cathays High. About 500 of them were at Maindy Stadium that afternoon but the aircraft crashed 50 or 60 yards away from the packed athletics track and surrounding terraces.

Not far away, in the main building of the school, several hundred more were sitting in rows, taking matriculation exams. Once again, luck had played a part.

Just before the crash pupils had seen people inside the plane waving at them. Even now, many believe that they occupants were trying to warn people on the ground to get out of the way. It seems unlikely and it is more probable that the men on the Dove, not realising how close they were to disaster, were simply waving for fun.

Death by Misadventure

The inquest returned a verdict of death by misadventure. When the Ministry of Aviation conducted its report the pilot, Paul Chambers, was blamed for the accident. Certainly flying so low over a built-up area like Cardiff was both foolish and reckless.

If Chambers did stop one engine, possibly for practice as this was an area of flying where he needed to take further instruction and a test, then it was an act of terrible irresponsibility. Ultimately, it was an act that killed him, along with his passengers. Only by the grace of God were hundreds more spared.

Historic Cardiff pub to move to St Fagans National History Museum

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 12:21 UK time, Friday, 4 May 2012

A historic Cardiff pub, the Vulcan Hotel, has served its last pint and is set to be dismantled and moved, brick by brick, to St Fagans National History Museum.

Vulcan Hotel

The Vulcan Hotel opened in 1853

Brewers SA Brain said it was no longer commercially viable for either Brains or licensees Gwyn and Sandra Lewis to keep the pub open.

The exterior of the two-storey Vulcan Hotel, which first opened in 1853, has remained virtually unchanged.

The pub became a "cause célèbre" with supporters such as James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers and Hollywood actor Rhys Ifans supporting the petitions to keep the pub open.

It was also the location where Welsh band Future of the Left recorded their video The Hope That House Built.

Speaking about the closure and move to St Fagans, Scott Waddington, chief executive at Brains said:

"It is with regret that we confirm that the Vulcan pub has closed as of today. As we have previously stated, and despite attempts to attract more customers, the pub is no longer commercially viable for either Brains or the tenant who operated the pub.

"The Vulcan is an important part of our history, which is why we have been working with its owner, Marcol, and the National History Museum, to relocate the building to St Fagans and preserve the history of the pub for the future."

The property's owners Marcol Asset Management Limited have agreed to donate the building, which is rich in original features, to St Fagans National History Museum.

Mark Richards, deputy director general of Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales said:

"The Vulcan hotel will be a welcome addition to the collection of historical buildings at St Fagans. We are grateful to Marcol for donating the building and giving us the opportunity to save and preserve this important part of Cardiff's heritage for the nation and to tell some of the area's rich history."
Vulcan Hotel

The pub retains many of its original features

However, there is no firm date as to when the work on rebuilding the Vulcan will begin. Due to current commitments, work is not expected to start for several years. In the meantime, museum curators will work on an interpretation strategy to decide on how and which period to display the building.

An appeal will be made for photographs, objects and stories relating to the Vulcan and its history.

Ghosts and legends along the Welsh coast

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 11:05 UK time, Friday, 4 May 2012

On 5 May the Wales Coast Path is due to be fully open. It stretches for the complete length of the Welsh coastline, a distance of over 850 miles, and has been several years in the making.

Cemlyn Bay, Anglesey - Christofer Williams

Cemlyn Bay, Anglesey Coast Path (photo: Christofer Williams)

Walkers will be able to enjoy some of the most spectacular scenery in Britain. But spare a thought for some of the myths and legends that proliferate along the Welsh coastline - even the most basic understanding of these will make the journey so much more enjoyable.

There are hundreds of great stories about the coast and the people who lived there, a subtle blending of fact and fiction that has helped mould and create the Welsh society that is enjoyed today. The tales from The Mabinogion are a classic example.

These wonderful stories, passed down by word of mouth, were first translated into English and put down on paper by Lady Charlotte Guest in the 19th century. Many of them are located firmly on the Welsh coast.

The story of Twrch Trwyth

The story of Twrch Trwyth, the king who was transformed into a wild boar with fearsome razors and combs on his head, is just one example. He came ashore, after journeying from Ireland, at Porth Clais, a tiny port that is one of many stops on the path. His warriors - in the shape of warlike pigs - fought with King Arthur and his followers along the length of Milford Haven. There are many other fantasy tales from The Mabinogion about other stretches of the coast.

Ghostly visions at Queensferry

A little known ghost story from the 19th century begins at Queensferry in the north. A new captain had just been appointed to the survey vessel HMS Asp and one evening, hearing raised voices coming from his cabin, he rushed to investigate. There was no-one there. A few days later the figure of a woman was seen standing on one of the ship's paddle boxes, pointing to the heavens. The apparition made several other appearances and many crew members refused to be alone on deck or even stand watch at night.

Finally, having put into the Royal Naval yard at Pembroke Dock for repairs, a sentry on the quayside saw the same woman come down the gangplank and walk towards him. He challenged her and even levelled his rifle and bayonet at her. The woman simply walked right through him and disappeared into the night. The apparition was never seen again.

cardigan bay photo by adrian davies

Cardigan Bay (Photo: Adrian Davies)

Cantre'r Gwaelod

The legend of Cantre'r Gwaelod is well known in Wales. It was a great tract of low lying but rich farmland reaching from north Pembrokeshire to the Llyn Peninsula, nearly 50 miles in length and boasting 16 fine towns. Defended from the sea by sluice gates, the area was inundated when Seithennin, the keeper of the gates, became drunk and forgot to close them.

If you are walking the coastal path around Cardigan Bay on a quiet evening they say that you can still hear the church bells of the towns and, possibly, even catch a glimpse of the drowned houses lying quietly beneath the waves. It is one of the great stories of Wales - narrow your eyes, squint into the setting sun and look out for Cantre'r Gwaelod as you walk the path.

The legend of the Tolaeth

In many coastal areas the legend of the Tolaeth was prevalent for many years. It was, simply, a knocking, rapping or shuffling sound that was heard by country people and fishermen just before a death occurred.

Raven at St Brides

Raven at St Brides (Photo: Duncan Darbishire)

One well-known Tolaeth story concerns a fisherman living on the coast at St Bride's. One night he was woken by noises - shuffling, the moving of chairs and the grunting of men carrying something heavy - coming from downstairs in his house. For three consecutive nights he and his wife heard the sounds but were too frightened to investigate.

After three nights the noises stopped and did not return. Then, three weeks later, their son - also a fisherman - was drowned at sea. That night the sounds came again, exactly as they were first heard, along with the sound of men putting down a great burden like a body. The Tolaeth had come back.

The legend of Gelert the dog

Stories such as the crowning of Prince Edward - the first English-given Prince of Wales - at Caernarfon and the legend of the hound Gelert who defended his master's son against a wolf and was then mistakenly killed by the prince, are well known, even if they are not historically correct. But both are located in positions on or just off the Coast Path and are, anyway, well worth deviating from your route to investigate.

The wreckers' tale

One legend that has survived although its exact location varies - it has been told about places as diverse as Cardigan Bay, Amroth and Ogmore in the Vale of Glamorgan - is the story of an old man and his wife who worked as wreckers on the coast. They would set false lights, lure ships onto the rocks and then plunder the remains.

One night of heavy weather, hearing that a sailing ship was beating in from the west, they set their lights and retired to bed. The ship and most of her crew died on the rocks that night.

The following morning they went down to the beach to pick over the spoils. At the waters edge lay a man, half dead, his body rolling in the waves. There could be no survivors and the old man took a rock and smashed the sailor over the head. When he turned over the body to search his pockets he found his much-loved and only son, a boy who had gone to sea several years before.

The legends of the Welsh coast are many and varied. Books have been written about them and there is no doubt that, if you are aware of just some of the stories, your walk on the new Wales Coast Path will be so much more rewarding and enjoyable.

Get a taste of Roman gastronomy this bank holiday Monday

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 15:15 UK time, Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The National Roman Legion Museum in Caerleon is offering the chance to sample some Roman-style food this bank holiday (Monday 7 May).

Roman feast Carleon

Just a few of the dished to be enjoyed at the Roman feast

The museum will be hosting a 'Come Dine With Me' competition, where four hosts will set out to impress each other with their Roman cooking and entertaining skills, and visitors will get to sample food made from ancient recipes.

Roman Feast Carleon

Come dine with them on bank holiday Monday

Victoria Le Poidevin, events officer at National Roman Legion Museum in Carleon said: "This is a fantastic opportunity to step back into the Roman time and see how the Romans used to cook and what they eat. The day will provide a fascinating insight into Roman cookery.

"They ate a lot of what we eat today but they didn't have food like chocolate, potatoes or tomatoes - so there won't be any chips and tomato sauce for our soldiers!"

Food in Roman Britain was not too different from some of the food eaten today. Meat, bread and fruit were on the menu and all the food was freshly made and eaten when in season.

Many familiar fruits and vegetables that we grow today were introduced by the Romans coming to Britain. They cultivated vegetables like cabbages, leeks and cucumbers and also grew fruits such as apples, plums and cherries.

The foodie fun begins at 11am and runs until 4pm on Monday 7 May, 2012. Entry to the National Roman Legion Museum is free.

Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales operates seven museums across Wales. FInd out about bank holiday events and visitor information on each of their websites:

Follow in the footsteps of pirates and smugglers on the Wales Coast Path

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 13:00 UK time, Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Anyone walking the new Wales Coast Path - due to be opened in its entirety on Saturday 5 May 2012 - cannot fail to be impressed, even inspired, by the rugged grandeur of the coastline. Towering cliffs, long stretches of golden sand, isolated coves and hidden inlets or bays mark the area as something very special indeed.

However, these very attributes once inspired a somewhat different breed of men from the ramblers and walkers who inhabit the region today. For once, and not too long ago either, these tiny bays and beaches were the haunt of pirates and smugglers.

South Stack lighthouse, Anglesey

South Stack lighthouse, Anglesey (Photo: CJ Roberts)

North Wales has always been a smugglers paradise, particularly the remote beaches and landing places on Ynys Mon and on the Llyn Peninsula.

The reason is very simple. In the 18th and 19th centuries, and for many years before, the Isle of Man was not officially part of Britain and was therefore the ideal place to store contraband goods such as brandy, sugar and salt, store them with impunity and without any fear of seizure by the Crown. They could stockpiled and then be brought over to Britain, and to the coast of north Wales in particular, at leisure - and when the price was right!

Anyone walking the coastal path will be within touching distance of these smugglers who brought in the brandy and tobacco that government taxes had put beyond the reach of most ordinary people. They were, however, not the romantic figures of fiction and poetry but, rather, hard, vicious and cruel men who would rob, steal and kill whenever they felt necessary.

Smugglers' caves

William Owen, who came from the Ceredigion area, was perhaps the most noted of all the Welsh smugglers in the early 18th century. A vicious cut throat and rogue who, by his own admission, killed at least six men, he regularly used the beaches of the Llyn to land his illicit goods - until justice finally caught up with him and he was hanged in 1747.

Traeth Morfa Bychan

Traeth Morfa Bychan (Photo: Keith Evans59)

The beach of Morfa Bychan lies between Criccieth and Porthmadog. Here, at the northern end of the sand, walkers will find several low lying caves - regularly used by smugglers for the storing of imported goods before they were sold on by the distributors.

Go carefully inside one of these caves and it does not take much imagination to conjure up visions of midnight landings and muttered oaths, the catch the smell of brandy and rum, and to sense the lingering fear of sudden capture - smuggling, of course, being a capital crime.

Culver Hole

In the south of the country, illicit goods came, not from the Isle of Man but from the continent of Europe. John Lucas of Port Eynon was, for many years, the organiser of the smuggling gangs on the Gower. Along with George Eynon and Robert Scurlage he became rich on the proceeds and built himself an impregnable fortress to protect himself from the Excise men.

Culver Hole

Culver Hole (Photo: Jo Evans1)

This was Culver Hole, an inlet that reached like a long pointed finger into the land. Lucas simply walled in the back part of the inlet, creating a castle 60 feet high, complete with windows from which he and his men were able to both look and fire. Culver Hole is there to this day and can be seen by anyone walking the Coast Path.

Visitors to the capital city of Wales will probably be unaware that Cardiff was once a centre of smuggling activity. At the end of the 17th century there was something of a clampdown on piracy around the coast of Britain and the people of Cardiff, then little more than a small port and village which, according to government records, had regularly protected Bristol Channel pirates, turned instead to smuggling.

Lundy, Flat Holm and Sully Island

All sorts of goods were smuggled in, either being landed along the muddy banks of the River Taff or carried, with seeming impunity, across the town quays. Much of the smugglers' produce was initially stored on islands in the Bristol Channel, places such as Lundy, Flat Holm or even nearby Sully Island, before being taken ashore at Cardiff.

Flat Holm Island (Photo: Gale's photos)

Amazingly, during Queen Elizabeth's days, guns and ammunition were regularly sold by smuggling gangs to countries such as Spain - despite the fact that Britain and Spain were actually at war!

Smugglers v pirates

The differentiation between smugglers and pirates has always been blurred - they were both pragmatic trades and the men involved would happily turn their hands to whichever was most profitable at that moment in time.

The great Welsh pirates, men like Black Bart Roberts, Howell Davis and Henry Morgan, operated out of the Caribbean and Africa and rarely ventured into Welsh waters. But there were many others who plied their trade around the coast of Wales and locations connected to these villains can still be seen by people on the coast path.

View of beach at Llanwit Major, Wales

Llanwit Major (Image: welshlady)

John Knight of Lundy Island terrorised the Bristol Channel in a 10 year reign of brutality that lasted from 1780 to 1790. He operated out of several ports on the south Wales coast, most notably Llantwit Major, where he based himself in the Old Swan Inn, and Barry Island - which, in those days, really was an island, just off the coast.

The sudden appearance of Knight's armed brig, the John Combe, was a sight feared by all honest seamen until, finally, he was driven from Barry Island by customs men who fought a pitched battle with the pirate and recovered a huge cache of brandy and port. Knight retired to Lundy, however, and died a wealthy and, so it is said, a happy man.


Tenby attracted pirates from as far away as Turkey (Photo: tony francisrees)

The sea around Tenby was, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, infested by pirates. Amazingly, these ruffians were not just Welsh - there are records to say that pirates in the area came from places as diverse as Turkey, France and Ireland. Chief amongst these, however, was a Welshman, one John Callice who made the Point House Inn at nearby Angle his headquarters. The Inn is still open for business and is well worth a visit from anyone walking the Wales Coast Path.

The ghost of John Paul Jones

Tenby continued to be a popular spot for pirates right up until the 19th century. The American pirate John Paul Jones - although Americans prefer to call him the founder of the US Navy - was active in these waters at the end of the 18th century. He even landed on Caldey Island where there is a beach named after him. His ghost is said to haunt the island.

One of Jones' officers came from the Tenby area, the quaintly named Leekie Porridge - a genuine name, believe it or not - and would certainly have told the American of isolated bays where they could rest and lay up.

Almost any deserted spot on the Welsh coast was liable to be used by pirates and smugglers and there are dozens of fascinating, intriguing stories about these characters. Some knowledge of their activities will make a walk on the new Wales Coast Path so much more interesting.

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