Archives for June 2012

The lakes of Wales

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 14:52 UK time, Friday, 29 June 2012

When we consider the geography of Wales we invariably think of hills and mountains. Yet Wales is also a country of lakes. They may not be huge or extensive, like those in Cumbria, but they are significant and they make up an important part of our topography.

In total, the lakes of Wales occupy a surface area only of about 130 square km, less than 1% of the country's total area. The Welsh for lake is llyn and many of our lakes are known by this epithet. Others, like Bosherston in Pembrokeshire or Keepers Pond at Blaenavon, are known as ponds or, as in the case of Kenfig outside Bridgend, as pools.

Snowdonia National Park


Snowdon (photo: Kris Williams)

In Snowdonia National Park alone there are about 250 of these lakes but they are small in size and relatively shallow in depth. Several lakes are to be found in the corries below mountainous summits like Snowdon and Glyder Fawr, the very nature of the landscape keeping them small in size.

This is not the place to discuss the reason for the formation of the Welsh lakes. Suffice to say that in the hills and mountains of places like Snowdonia glacial erosion thousands of years ago caused the creation of the lakes while, nearer the coast, the sand bars and dunes created by the tides helped to create the lake systems.

Lake Bala

Lake Bala (Photo: Susie Corwen)

The largest Welsh lake is Lake Bala. It is just 6km in length, shorter than many of the reservoirs that dot the Welsh landscape. The largest lake in the south of the country is Llangorse. It is a shallow stretch of water, ideal for recreational use - like many Welsh lakes.

Welsh mythology is as fascinated by the lakes of the country as by the mountains and there are dozens of tales about these lonely but atmospheric stretches of water.

The legend of Llyn y Fan Fach

Llyn y Fan Bach

Llyn y Fan Bach (photo: Bracenb)

The legend of Llyn y Fan Fach is perhaps the best known. The lake sits on the side of the Black Mountain and, according to the legend, one of the sons from a nearby farm fell in love with and married a beautiful woman who appeared out of the lake.

The farmer had pledged never to strike her but, by accident, he struck her on three separate occasions. As she had vowed, the woman went back to the lake , leaving her husband devastated. She later appeared to one of her sons, giving him the secrets of herbal medicine. The sons became doctors, the first of the famous physicians of Myddfai.

Drowned cities


Llangorse (Photo: Ian Dyer)

Both Bala and Llangorse lakes are said to cover "drowned cities", the bells of their churches audible to the human ear whenever conditions are right. That may be mere legend but the waters of Kenfig Pool do cover the long-lost town of Kenfig, a habitation covered first by the sand, then by the water of the area.

Bosherton Ponds

Lily at Bosherton ponds

Lily at Bosherton ponds (photo: Anna)

Bosherston Ponds on the south coast of Pembrokeshire are thought by many to have Arthurian connections. Although the modern lake was created by the Cawdor family from nearby Stackpole in the 18th century, there has always been an extensive stretch of water here and, according to legend, this was the lake where Bedwyr threw Excalibur after the death of his beloved king.

Industry, conservation and tourism

These days the lakes of Wales are used for many purposes. Whereas, previously, they were used to transport industrial produce, most of them are now used as reservoirs, either for domestic purposes or for powering hydro-electric schemes. The Dinorwic Scheme in north Wales is a classic example of this.

Tourism is another major user of the lakes these days. Bala and Llangorse are both well-used for boating, water skiing, canoeing and the like - where once, many years ago, human settlement began around the shores and flat areas bordering the lakes, now there are holiday sites, tents and caravan parks.

For those interested in flora and fauna there is plenty to look at in and around the Welsh lakes. At Bosherston you will find glorious water lilies and most of the lakes contain at least some brown trout. Visiting birds are also well represented.

The lakes of Wales are rich and varied in history and nature - well worth remembering the next time you decide to head off into the hills.

Pembrokeshire Tudor trader's house to open at St Fagans Museum

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 13:40 UK time, Thursday, 28 June 2012

A small, late-medieval house from Haverfordwest is the latest building to be re-erected at St Fagans: National History Museum.

Pembrokeshire late-medieval house

The house will be officially opened to the public on Monday 2 July at 2pm. Visitors will be welcomed into the house, as re-enactors use traditional skills to cook the first meal on the hearth.

Replica items have been used to show how it may have looked in around 1580, when goods were being traded to and from Bristol and the west country as well as along the Welsh coast, Brittany, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal and North America.

The late-medieval house was originally built against a steep wooded bank behind Quay Street in Haverfordwest. Its proximity to the old quayside suggests that it may have been the home of a trader.

The owner probably bought and sold goods which were traded in the busy port town of Haverfordwest. The occupants lived upstairs where there was a single room, with an open fireplace at one end.

A small croglofft (half-loft) provided sleeping accommodation and next to the fireplace was a garderobe (toilet). The vaulted ground floor was used a store, where valuable goods such as corn, wool, hides, salt, fish, soap, cheese or casks of wine were kept before being sold.

Medieval house interior

During the Elizabethan period, Haverfordwest was a bustling cosmopolitan settlement which historian George Owen said in 1603 was the second most important trading centre in Wales.

This is only the second building from Pembrokeshire to have been rebuilt at the museum. In 2011 the clogmaker's workshop from Ysgeifiog near Solva was opened.

Gerallt Nash, senior curator at St Fagans: National History Museum, said:

"The mysterious medieval building near the quayside at Haverfordwest was dismantled 30 years ago by a team of young apprentices and those same men have reconstructed the house here at St Fagans.

"It is a wonderful addition to the original buildings from different historical periods which have been re-erected here at the museum. Visitors can learn more about the historical context of this wonderful building and see how the Tudors managed to navigate the oceans and bring new goods and ideas into Wales from Europe and beyond."

Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales operates seven national museums across Wales.

Details of exhibitions and visitor events taking place at each of location can be found here:

Admission to Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales buildings is free.

The story of Corona pop

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:00 UK time, Tuesday, 26 June 2012

From the 1920s through to the end of the 1980s the sight and sound of the Corona pop man meant delight for thousands of children across the whole of Britain. It was a Welsh success story that has gone down in legend and remains an important part of the country's social history.

Corona Man

Corona pop man (photo: Alan George,

Corona drinks were for so many years, delivered to the doors of houses across the land, first by horse and cart and then by lorry. And it all began with a small factory in Porth at the foot of the Rhondda valleys.

The pop - carbonated beverage to give it the correct name - was produced by the Corona Soft Drinks Company, a firm that had been created by two Rhondda grocers, William Evans and William Thomas. The original factory opened in the 1890s under the name of Welsh Hills Mineral Waters, the name Corona only being adopted in the 1920s as the company expanded its range of activities to include all of Wales and many parts of England.

Temperance movement

The firm had its origins in the temperance movement that was so strong in Britain during the final years of the 19th century. The Rhondda Valleys at this time were in the grip of the "coal rush." They were full of coal mines and the pubs of the region did a thriving business as men, after a day down the pit, were desperate to quench their thirst. As a result drunkenness was rife.

Grocers Evans and Thomas from Porth were determined to find an alternative drink for the miners. They had already been introduced to soft drinks by a peddler from west Wales - artificial carbonated mineral water had been first produced by Joseph Schweppe in Switzerland in the 18th century and so it was not a new invention. The problem had always been how to keep the fizz in the bottle.

To begin with manufacturers simply hammered in a cork and wired it tight - a solution that was only partially successful. But then American Hiram Codd invented a revolutionary new system. It involved fitting each bottle with a glass marble, a rubber washer and a swing top that forced the marble into the neck of the bottle, so forming a tight seal. The rest, as they say, is history.

After visiting several manufacturers of carbonated mineral waters - in order to see how it was done - Evans and Thomas were ready for business. Their Porth factory was equipped with state of the art machinery in order to bottle the liquids and to clean empty bottles. But although the factory soon became a local landmark, sale of the fizzy drinks had little effect on drunkenness. And so it was decided that the product should be sold, door to door.

Corona Pop Works Horse Dave Trailor

Corona pop horse and driver (Photo: Alan George

Over 200 salesmen, each driving a horse and cart, were soon operating across south Wales. They sold a wide range of drinks, starting with the original orangeade and then moving on to others such as limeade and cherryade. More exotic flavours such as American cream soda and dandelion and burdock were soon added to the list.

The fizzy drinks may not have stopped drunkenness but they were hugely popular with all sections of society. And they had an immediate appeal for children who were soon drinking large quantities of the product. Parents soon learned that it was best to ration the distribution of the gassy liquid.

Money back on the bottle

The glass bottles in which the pop was sold were a valuable commodity and, from the beginning, the company operated a system of 'money back on the bottle', thus ensuring that generations of school children would augment their pocket money by collecting discarded bottles and turning them in to shop and door to door sellers.

The door to door deliveries proved so successful - though they did little to reduce drunkenness - that further factories were opened in places such as Pengam, Maesteg and Bridgend. By 1934 the Porth depot alone was operating 74 motor vehicles - three years later there were over 200 vehicles.

The outbreak of World War Two caused the company some disruption with lorries - and drivers - being commandeered for war service but soon after 1945 things were back to normal and the Corona pop man was back on his rounds.

William Evans, the guiding force behind the company, died in 1934 but the company continued to expand with his brother Frank assuming control. By the end of the 1930s over 170 million bottles of Corona pop were being produced each year - and most of it was sold by the delivery man who came each week to people's doors.

The Pop Factory

The Corona company was bought out by the Beecham Group in 1958 and was transferred to Britvic in 1987. The Porth plant closed the same year and the old factory was converted into a music and recording studio. The link with Corona was maintained when, in 2000, the studio was christened The Pop Factory.

The fizzy drink continued to sell, and its advertising slogan "Every bubble's passed its FIZZICAL" was seen on television and chanted by children for many more years.

With the advent of supermarkets, however, the need for door to door delivery gradually dropped away. By the end of the 1980s they were a luxury and like the milk, bread and fish vans that had plied their trade around the streets for years, the Corona delivery man was soon a thing of the past. It didn't stop the sale of the product, it just meant that the personal door to door touch had gone.

The Corona pop man remains a part of Welsh social history. Thousands of men and women remember with affection the clinking of those glass bottles on the backs of the lorries and, above all, the expectation as they hurried home from school, of the delivery of yet another bottle of dandelion and burdock. It was an essential part of childhood.

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Tracing your Welsh ancestors

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 16:44 UK time, Friday, 22 June 2012

After every appearance as a family history expert on BBC Radio Wales I get deluged with enquiries from listeners. Last week's programme was no different, other than our focus on paternal family history queries because of the proximity to Father's Day.

Seeking Mr Savage

Judith Savage was one of the first to admit she had simply given up with her dad's side of the tree years ago. Her grandfather's name was Caradoc Savage and he was born in 1903 in Rhosllanerchrugog near Wrexham.

I think perhaps the records may have been indexed more efficiently since Judith last looked because a quick look at the 1911 census shows an eight-year-old Caradog Savage living with his widowed father Peter at 56 Jones Street in Rhos and several siblings.

1911 Wales Census for Caradog Savage

1911 Wales Census for Caradog Savage

A quick scan of the family trees posted on websites such as Ancestry and Genes Reunited revealed that there are several other people interested in the Savage family history. I think perhaps it would be wise for Judith to subscribe to one so that she can contact those people and share information and photographs, rather than struggling on alone.

One of the things that Judith really wanted to know though was whether the family took or gave its surname to Savage Street in Rhosllanerchrugog. This might be possible to verify but not without a trip to the local archives or local studies library probably. If you are uncertain where to find the correct location of relevant county archives the best place to look is, which covers the whole of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

From the research I completed for Cilla Black's Coming Home family history story in Wrexham I recalled that the Savage surname was also prominent in Cilla's tree so it is certainly a popular local name. If anyone else has an answer or has any better suggestions please post a comment below and I will make sure Judith gets the details.

Searching for John Jones

One of the queries that made me shudder came in from Terry Jones. His great great grandfather was John Jones, who was born in Wales in 1836. It was an incredibly common surname in Wales at that time just before civil registration began. Terry knows John Jones died in 1872, aged 36, and is buried in Ystalyfera but that is it.

All I can think of to help Terry is to make sure that he has the marriage certificate for John Jones. This should give John's father's name and occupation, as well as John's age and address. These details could then help identify the right family on the 1841 and 1851 census returns or at least help eliminate the wrong families.

Tracing Mr and Mrs Stocking

Eighty-five-year old Marie Evans also wanted help with her father's family history. Her parents were William Stocking and Maria LC Delponte who married in 1920 in Knighton, Radnorshire. After her father's death in the 1950s her mother remarried and went on to have more children.

She believed that her parents met in hospital when he was wounded as a soldier but wasn't sure how she can go about verifying any of this, especially when she cannot access the internet. I asked Marie to confirm the details of her father's death by visiting his grave and once she sends these through I should be able to make some progress, but as usual, if this is your family or you have any better suggestions then please send them to me.

Workhouse admission registers

One of the nice things that happens quite often on the radio is that people go out of their way to help others. This happened last week when Maureen Boyardi admitted she was struggling with her father's family history. He was born William John Howard and brought up in the local workhouse in Pentre.

I had a quick look at the birth indexes when we were on air to see if I could provide an easy solution (which is never that easy with just a few minutes spare between all the music, weather, travel and advice being broadcast). Anyway I could see that there were at least six possible matches for people with those combinations of name and so I suggested that Maureen pay a visit to the West Glamorgan Archives in Swansea who may be able to help with baptism details or better still the admission registers for the workhouse.

Just as the programme ended we had a call from Jeff Howard. He's researched the Howard family history in south Wales back to 1695 and he very kindly offered to help Maureen with her Howard research.

I'm not sure whether you can have a family history angel or what the equivalent of an MBE for service to those in family history need might be, but whatever it is Jeff and other's like him are angels and the world is a better place with kind and generous people like them.

Earthquakes in Wales

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 16:55 UK time, Thursday, 21 June 2012

We are used to hearing news of earthquakes in the developing countries or places such as New Zealand. Most of the time we might empathise briefly with the victims before then get on with our daily lives. Thank God such things don't happen here, we say to ourselves. But they do.

Several hundred earthquakes are detected by the British Geological Society every single year and while most of these, measuring less than 2.5 on the Richter Scale, are too small to even be felt by people, they can also sometimes be quite significant events.

Although the majority of the earthquakes that take place in Britain every year occur in Scotland, Wales has certainly had more than its fair share.

In 1986 the British Geological Survey reported that between 1727 and 1984 there were 70 earthquakes measuring more than 3.5 on the Richter scale recorded in Wales and on the borders of the Welsh Marches. No fewer than 15 of these measured over 4.5 on the scale.

1247 Pembrokeshire earthquake

The earliest reference to an earthquake in Wales came on 20 February 1247. The tremors from that event were so severe that structural damage was caused to the huge edifice of St Davids Cathedral in Pembrokeshire.

St Davids Cathedral

St Davids Cathedral (photo: PetesPix 2008)

North Wales, and Caernarfon in particular, seem to have always been prone to earthquake problems. Records show that the north Wales coast was hit as early as 1534 but the first recorded instance in the town of Caernarfon was on 7 October 1690. It seems to have been a year of earthquakes as, just two months before, the small community of Carmarthen in south west Wales was also hit. The 1690 earthquake in Caernarfon caused tremors that were felt as far south as London and across the Irish Sea in Dublin.

It seems that certain areas of Wales have always been more prone to earthquakes than others. What are known as clusters of seismic activity have long been recorded in places such as Pembroke, Caernarfon and Neath. No fewer than five instances have been reported in the Swansea-Neath area since records began, the most recent being in 1906, and there is no telling how many smaller shocks have also occurred.

1852 Caernarfon and 1906 Swansea earthquakes

The earthquake that took place on 9 November 1852 - again in the north Wales town of Caernarfon - set off tremors that were felt in both London and Glasgow. However, the 27 June 1906 earthquake in Swansea measured 5.2 on the Richter scale and is still regarded as one of the most significant of all British earthquakes. Certainly it caused major damage to property.


Caernarfon (photo: peteratarenig)

Thankfully, the damage from Welsh earthquakes has been mainly confined to property, although not totally. On 12 December 1940, with World War Two raging, there was yet another earthquake in north Wales. And this time there was a fatality when an old lady lost her balance and fell down the stairs of her house.

1607 Severn Tsunami

Many geologists and historians believe that the great floods of 1607, a raging wall of water that came charging up the Severn Estuary, killing no fewer than 2,000 people on both banks of the river, was actually caused by an earthquake. An underwater landslide, they think, led to the tsunami that created a wave over eight metres high and reached several miles inland. Other experts discount the theory, believing the wall of water to be caused by a storm of major proportions.

llyn-peninsula photo tjohnston9

Llyn Peninsula (photo: rtjohnston9)

The largest recorded earthquake in Britain took place at 6.56am on the morning of 19 July 1984 on the Llyn Peninsula of north Wales. It measured 5.4 on the Richter scale and was centred on Llanaelhaearn. Damage was caused right across north Wales, chimneys and roofs being particularly badly hit. The shock waves were felt across many parts of western Britain and Liverpool, some 60 miles away from the epicentre, received considerable damage. There were rock slides and falls in several parts of north Wales.

What made the 1984 earthquake so unusual was the fact that it began at a depth of over 20 km and created a shock wave that could easily have caused major structural damage. On that occasion, luckily, it did not.

The most recent earthquakes in Wales took place on 13 February 2002 (in the south Wales valleys) and the following day in Conwy. We can be sure that they will continue to happen. They should not cause us undue alarm and can be regarded as just one more facet of the amazing world in which we live.

Bee's search for her father's military past

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 14:44 UK time, Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Back at the end of last summer I received a plea for help from Bee Richards. It was accompanied by two such lovely old black and white photographs that it was impossible not to want to help.

Bee's father was Thomas Edward Richards, born in 1895 in Llantrisant. He served in the army during World War One and World War Two, as well as in the Territorial Army and the Home Guard. But as with so many proud and humble men from that time he never talked about his time in service.

Thomas Edward Richards in his uniform with his first wife Catherine Morgan taken sometime during WW1

Thomas Edward Richards with his first wife Catherine Morgan

So Bee turned to me for help finding out what her old man did in the war. The two photographs were crucial since she knew nothing at all; no details of a regiment or a service number or any sign of any medals.

World War One war records

Many people had waited patiently for the World War One military records to become available online, but a large proportion was disappointed to learn that there was only roughly a one in seven chance that an ancestor's military record survived the Blitz. The basement in which all the World War One records were stored was bombed, badly burned and then subsequently so water damaged that those records that survived are known as the "burnt series" in their permanent home at the National Archives.

But Bee had other obstacles to overcome before she could even determine whether her father's records were part of the burnt series. How could she work out exactly which of the vast number of men called Thomas E Richards was her father?

The Eureka moment

I couldn't see a way forward to start with and so I turned to my brother Tim for help. He is interested in military history, especially World War One, and he scrutinised the photographs. While there was little to be gleaned from the first image of the young Thomas something caught Tim's eye in the second photo.

Sgt Thomas Edward Richards in Belfast 1940

Sgt Richards in Belfast 1940

We viewed the photo on the computer and zoomed in on the cap badge he was wearing. Comparing it to ones listed on various World War Two military history websites it looked as though it could be from the Royal Army Service Corps but Tim couldn't be certain. He then noticed that Thomas was proudly displaying three medal ribbons.

This was one of those Eureka moments, since only men who served in France after entering the army in a specific time period were awarded all three medals. Therefore it was then possible to narrow down the vast number of possible Thomas E Richards to just a handful, and since one of these was a Thomas E Richards serving with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers he seemed like the most likely candidate.

MOD Historical disclosures section

We knew that Bee's father had served continuously from World War One into World War Two but we did not know that the World War One service records of those soldiers who saw continuous service would not have been released with the others. Instead they were retained with their main service records and still held by the historical disclosures section of the MOD.

Permission from his next of kin was required, so I quickly asked Bee, and she agreed to me submitting a request on her behalf. Depending upon what you want there are various types of service record available, and providing you send the £30 fee and proof that the person has died then the records will be sent out.

It took a few months of waiting patiently, but it was worth it. Pages and pages of A3 sized paper thumped onto my door mat and I learned that Private Thomas Edward Richards 15617 enlisted into the RWF on 20 September 1914, and entered France a year later on 27 September 1915.

Further investigation revealed that this was the day the 10th Battalion arrived in France. Using another website Tim discovered that the majority of RWF soldiers who died with a 156** number were from the 10th Battalion.

Rather more poignantly I learned that Thomas was just 5'7" tall with a 38" chest, a fresh complexion, brown eyes and he was Roman Catholic with his attributes listed as "clean, smart, honest, sober and works well."

Among the many military facts and figures, one detail that caught my eye was this one:

on 26 December 1939 in Llanelli Sgt Thomas Richards... "conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline in that he did, whilst escorting prisoners, enter a licensed building with his prisoners" for which he was severely reprimanded.

And to think that all this valuable and personal information about Thomas Edward Richards could have been lost forever were it not for my eagle eyed brother.

A summer of family history fairs

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 15:45 UK time, Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Over the lovely long Diamond Jubilee weekend I spent a lot of time watching the Queen and celebrating by eating strawberries and far too many cakes.

Among all the pomp and pageantry I scanned the bright red tunics to see if I could recognise one of the heralds. Needless to say I didn't see him but it did get me thinking about all of the fabulous and special experiences that I notched up during my time working on BBC Radio Wales' family history series Look Up Your Genes.

We started Look Up Your Genes in 2002, way before Who Do you Think You Are? was created or any of those other popular family history programmes. One of the best things was the roadshow that travelled around Wales from county to county, supported by local history groups and the relevant county archives and Family History Societies. All of us adequately fortified by the ladies from the local WI serving up carrot jam, tea, scones and cakes.

At the roadshows many people would appear with strong memories but with vague evidence. We brought cybercafes with us and vouchers for the newly released 1901 census and set about helping as many people as possible get started on their family history. It obviously worked as the series ran very successfully for 10 years.

Look Up Your Genes Roadshow
Look Up Your Genes Roadshow
Look Up Your Genes Roadshow

Look Up Your Genes Roadshow

Part of my job after the roadshows was to spend time researching further into some of the more interesting stories. This inevitably led me to some incredible places and with the magic 'BBC' prefix it seemed that we were allowed access to some very precious and private collections.

I wonder how many people have had the chance (never mind being paid to do it as well) to visit Powis Castle, Caernarfon Castle, Cyfarthfa Castle and Cardiff Castle and be escorted behind the public exhibitions to examine personal records and incredibly private documents with their own hands.

Not to mention visiting every county record office and most of the main libraries throughout Wales, including obviously many trips to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.

I also visited the National Archives in Kew (where we were allowed to look at the original passenger list from the Titanic), the Guildhall in London (where the exterior of this stunning building is matched by the depth and details of the documents held within it) and the British Library (where I examined the diary of a lady who decided to follow her husband fighting in the Boer War).

Also, and quite uniquely I think, we had access to the College of Arms, where I learned how Harry Secombe's coat of arms was created. The man who showed me all this was the Herald of Windsor, the one I couldn't spot at the jubilee celebrations.

If you are looking for new ways and ideas to explore your family history over the summer months, there are numerous family history fairs and other events taking place. To find one in your area take a look at which provides an online calendar of genealogical events and activities.

Llantwit Major: seat of learning

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 13:50 UK time, Wednesday, 6 June 2012

These days visitors to the tiny community of Llantwit Major (Llanilltud Fawr in Welsh) will know it as a sleepy little town, the third largest in the Vale of Glamorgan - smaller than Barry and Penarth, but larger than nearby Cowbridge.

view of Llanwit Major

View of Llanwit Major (photo: Kati Elizabeth)

Yet this small community, nestling quietly and almost invisibly into the coast, was once a seat of learning that was unrivalled anywhere in the western world. It was where St Illtyd came in about 500 AD - the exact date is unclear - travelling from Brittany to found a monastery and a college where monks, religious men, even the sons of nobles and princes, could study and learn.

The college was called Cor Tedws and at its height had more than 2,000 students. Apparently the place was graced with at least six separate halls and was able to boast around 400 teaching houses and places of accommodation. Naturally, an infrastructure to cope with such an influx of people began to develop and the beginnings of the modern town were created as businessmen and women quickly realised there was an opportunity to make a living.

St Illtyd was not the first person to settle in the area. The remains of an Iron Age fort have been found at the nearby beach, just a stone's throw from the present town. There was also possibly a Neolithic settlement here and the Romans certainly knew the area well - a Roman villa, excavated at Caer Mead, had been occupied for over 300 years before the Romans pulled out of Britain in the early fifth century.

It was with the early Christian scholars and holy men, however, that Llantwit Major began to assume significant status and importance. From approximately 500/550 AD people came from all over Britain to study here, many even travelling from places such as France and Brittany on the continent. For anyone who was interested in academic and religious study, this was clearly the place to be.

According to legend, or at least to local folk lore, men as learned and famous as St Patrick, St David, the poet Taliesin and the historian Gildas all studied here. And, of course, there were countless others whose names are now long forgotten.

Situated in a small hollow, just a mile from the beach, St Illtyd had founded his first establishment on the banks of the Ogney Brook, more or less in the area where the present-day St Illtyd's Church now stands.

The advantages of the location of the monastery and college, close to a sheltered and accessible beach, would not have been lost on the holy men. From there they could travel off across Europe - and, of course, newcomers could arrive directly on the college doorstep.

The other advantage of siting the establishment inland, down in a hollow, was for protection. You would have to know the college was there as it was certainly not visible from the sea, and in times when Norse raiders prowled the western oceans this was a significant factor. It was not always a successful ploy - the college was destroyed by Vikings in 987 AD.

The place was rebuilt and by 1111 it was up and running again. It suffered at the hands of the invading Normans - themselves of Viking descent - but managed to continue running as an independent church and college, governed or overseen by Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucestershire, until Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries finally finished it off in 1539.

The church that visitors see today at Llantwit Major lies close to the old college but it is a 13th century building - in itself a significant fact. It holds a fascinating collection of ninth century inscribed stones and there are also some late medieval wall paintings.

The ruins of one of the original teaching houses lie in the church yard and the town itself is a curious amalgam of 15th century buildings and old narrow streets. There are modern developments and the advent of the RAF base at nearby St Athan, particularly in the years immediately after World War Two, gave the town a vibrant feel that lasted until the RAF mostly pulled out in the early 21st century.

Llantwit Major, for most visitors, is a town that belies its historic past but it is well worth a visit, just to stand there and remember that this was once a major seat of Christian learning.

Tracking Alfred Cottam

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 17:25 UK time, Friday, 1 June 2012

A couple of weeks ago my blog was devoted to two images I found on my computer while spring cleaning.

By way of an update, I have good news and bad news.

The bad news is that I haven't even managed to narrow down the Lil Wilson who lived at 10 Mountjoy Street in Newport in 1918. However, I have a cunning plan which involves visiting the Gwent archives in Ebbw Vale to examine the electoral registers, although this plan might be a disaster since women under the aged of 30 did not get the vote until 1928.

But I have good news about to the gentleman in the image below.

Ironically, for someone who writes a blog on the world wide web, if only I had tried searching Google rather than searching my memory I would have found him.

Arthur Cottam

Alfred Cottam was not from Barry or Aberystwyth as I thought. Nor was he a fisherman as I brazenly announced on my blog. He was the mechanic of the Tenby lifeboat from 1933 to 1948 and was awarded the RNLI Bronze medal for his part in the rescue of eight men from the streamer Fermanagh in 1938.

There has also been a book published about Alfred Cottam. 'A Tenby Lifeboat Family' by Avis Nixon.

Avis is the sixth of seven children born to parents Alfred Cottam and Annie Ethel Webb who met and married in London in 1922.

"At about 4.30 in the morning of January 15 1938 the coastguard at Tenby, Pembrokeshire, reported that a small steamer was in distress. She was the Fermanagh, of Belfast, bound light for Llanelly. A gale was blowing from the south west, with frequent gusts at hurricane force. At 5.15 the motor lifeboat John R. Webb was launched and found the Fermanagh had come off the rocks and was drifting before the gale, her stern sinking, her bows in the air. The lifeboat crew could see men aboard her. The second coxswain at once took the lifeboat alongside, handling her with great skill in the heavy seas. She was there only a few seconds. In that time the eight men of the Fermanagh's crew had jumped aboard her. The lifeboat made at once for Tenby, arriving at 8.30am. After landing the rescued men, she put out again to search for the master, but could find no trace of him. The weather was so bad that the lifeboat could not be rehoused until 4.15 in the afternoon" (Ref. Minutes of the Committee Meeting).

For their gallant services Second Coxswain John Rees was awarded the RNLI silver Medal, and mechanic Alfred Cottam was awarded the bronze. The remaining seven members of the crew of the Tenby Lifeboat were awarded the Thanks of the Institution inscribed on vellum.

It turns out that at the launch of her book Avis was reunited with the son of the ship's mate John Macarthur and has also been in touch with John Shanks, both of whose fathers were members of the Fermanagh's crew. There is no doubt that without the Tenby Lifeboat they simply would not exist.

It seemed there was not much I could add to Alfred Cottam's story that his family did not already know. However, Avis Nixon mentioned that the family had had broken up during World War Two and Avis had no idea where her father was buried, or when he had died, or what had become of his RNLI bravery medal.

She also told me that she did not have access to the internet and had not been able to clarify some of the Cottam family history details.

So, these newer details below are especially for you Avis.

Alfred Cottam was born in 1897 in Middlesbrough. He was the only child of Harry Cottam and Catherine D. Johnson who married in the December quarter of 1894, also in Middlesbrough. On the 1901 census the family lived at 151 Stockton Street in the parish of St Hilda's, along with the Johnson family (Nixon's paternal grandmother's family).

By the 1911 census the family moved to 39 Tennyson Street. Their entry confirms that Alfred was the only child born to Catherine Cottam, and that she was from Middlesbrough. It seems that Harry was born in 1871 in Llanrwst in Denbighshire.

A quick look at the 1891 census shows Harry living with his parents George (a furnaceman, born 1825) and Mary (born 1822 in Llanrwst) at 94 Lime Street in Middlesbrough. Also with them are Harry's brother George and sister Emily.

The old electoral registers available online for London via reveal that in the 1920s Alfred Cottam had moved to London and was living at 29 Mellish Street in Poplar. In the same house lived Albert Victor Webb and Ellen Webb - these could well be Avis Nixon's maternal grandparents.

The passenger lists provide a further revelation into the life of Alfred Cottam. In 1925 he is listed as a passenger embarking in Calcutta on board the Manora travelling home to Mellish Street, with the occupation of marine engineer. In 1927 he travelled home from Kingston on board the Carare aged 30.

A little bit more Googling resulted in finding an entry for a medal awarded to Alfred Cottam.

Lot number 112 on 25 September 2008 sold at auction in London.

DNW  - RNLI medal

Lot 112, 25 Sep 08 RNLI medal (Image provided by Dix Noonan Webb)

An email quickly confirmed that this was Alfred's medal. The RNLI medal was sold at auction, still in its original case, for the sum of £720.

Although the auction house, Dix Noonan Webb, cannot divulge the name of any buyer they suggested that if Avis or other Cottam family members would like to write a letter or email to the purchaser, then send it to them with a covering note (stating sale date and lot number), they would be happy to pass it on and hopefully the person concerned would reply to them directly.

Which just leaves his death and burial as unknown facts for Avis and her family.

I've found a few people on GenesReunited who have Alfred Cottam and his father Harry in their family trees, but so far nobody has been able to help. Can you?

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