With ancient castle ramparts remaining to this day, the riverside town of Carmarthen lays claim to being the oldest in Wales. According to legend, Merlin, wizard to King Arthur, was born there, writes Clare Ramsey.
It is associated notably with The Black Book of Carmarthen: a manuscript dating from the 13th century containing triadic accounts of the horses of Welsh heroes and poetry in part relating to Arthur and Myrddin (Merlin’s name in Welsh). The book’s name derives from the colour of its binding.
More recently, modern-day magician Nick Brunger has been composing a chronicle of his own about this community on the River Towy, near the sea, in south-west Wales. His work concerns not the population of some 14,000 souls who inhabit the town now (to many an attractive and characterful place in which to amble and shop). Mr Brunger’s new black book of Carmarthen has its focus firmly on the dark side of the town’s past. Hangings, burnings, insurrection, prostitution and general licentiousness are the subjects that have sent ink coursing through his keen pen.
His introduction to his small but lucid volume – Creepy Carmarthen – sets the tone for an account of life in an era (mainly the 19th century) when the town won a reputation as the ‘Wild West’ of Wales:
‘Bull-baiting and cock-fighting drew the crowds on streets that were infamous for drunkenness and brawling. Festivals and holidays were marked by rowdiness and mischief with gun-shots, fireworks and burning barrels of tar rolled through the streets.
‘One hundred and fifty pubs served drink at all hours of the day and well into the night, supplying a thirsty populous swelled by the sailors who plied their trade in the town’s busy port. Gambling thrived and prostitutes did a roaring trade.
‘Election times were often catalysts for rioting and voter intimidation… Woe betide anyone who inflamed the mob, who could retaliate by demolishing your house, beating you senseless or offering to put out year eyes if you showed support for their opponents.
‘The law struggled to keep control despite a host of cruel sanctions… Deportation, flogging, execution and imprisonment were the tools employed, and some two hundred offences carried the death penalty. Hangings were a popular entertainment…’
Brunger conjures a place that churches, chapels and a priory notwithstanding seems at times to have been positively Hellish.
Among those who met their Maker at the end of a rope were two teenagers hanged for the petty theft of cider from an inn. Meanwhile John Morris, aged 66, felt the noose for horse-stealing. When David Evans – convicted of killing his girlfriend – survived one attempt to hang him he was sent to the gallows to swing again.
Another grim episode concerned notorious local criminal Wil Mani, who beat out an old woman’s brains with a milking stool. After his execution his corpse was tarred and welded in an iron gibbet. There it swung as an example to others. Over time, Mani’s bones fell away, including a thigh. This, according to legend, one of his victims claimed and whittled to a pipe which he kept behind the bar of a Carmarthen alehouse, smoking it while supping his beer, in quiet contentment at Mani’s downfall.
Women were not immune to ghastly ends. In 1665 a woman described only as ‘the wife of Wil Goch’ was burnt to death in Carmarthen’s Market Place for killing her husband. Years later, Martha Davies received relative clemency when her death sentence – for the theft of three blankets – was commuted to transportation to Australia.
Martial figures connected with Carmarthen included Rhys ap Thomas, said to have killed King Richard III at Bosworth Field, and General Sir Thomas Picton, a controversial governor of Trinidad, who died of wounds at Waterloo. Another figure, Robert Ferrar, Bishop of the diocese of St David’s, was immolated at the stake in the market square on the orders of Mary Tudor.
Political violence and corruption were rife. During his (failed) election campaign in 1802 Whig politician Sir William Paxton sought to woo supporters, reports Mr Brunger, with 11,070 breakfasts, 36,901 dinners, 684 suppers, 25,275 gallons of beer, 11,068 bottles of whisky, 8,879 bottles of strong ale, 460 bottles of sherry, and 509 bottles of cider. Mind-boggling figures when it is considered that electors for the seat numbered fewer than 500.
Brothels and sexual indulgence flourished. In 1884 Thomas Thomas was fined for having intercourse ‘with a woman of low character’ among the gravestones of St Peter’s parish church. A serving policeman was found to be the owner of one of the town’s many bawdy houses. The sinning didn’t stop there. A national newspaper declared that Carmarthen ‘possessed the most drunken inhabitants in Wales’.
Brunger’s compact volume fair seethes with stories of the cruel and the grisly – the recovery (for a bounty) by coracle fishermen of the corpses of those who fell carelessly to their deaths in the River Towy being one. Particularly awful is the account of the eight year-old girl who murdered her siblings in the belief that she was saving them from hateful Spanish sailors.
It is grimly fitting that Carmarthen forged a connection with perhaps the most notorious killer: Jack the Ripper. Mary Jane Kelly arrived in the town in the late 1860s, daughter of an Irishman from Limerick who found a job in an iron foundry. She left for London, and entered prostitution. Initially regarded as a beauty, she ended up working on the capital’s streets. Last seen alive in the company of ‘a prosperous-looking gentleman’, her corpse was found mutilated on the blood-soaked bed of her lodgings.
As well as practising magic, author Mr Brunger, a former producer and presenter for the BBC, leads walking tours of Carmarthen’s ‘black spots’. He moved to Wales from the city of Nottingham in the English Midlands six years ago.
‘History has always held a fascination for me and I started to explore,’ he says. ‘I soon discovered that our town has the most incredible past – I started collecting these stories.’
He certainly seems – in terms of knowledge – to have got under Carmarthen’s skin… of the town as it was, that is. Looked at another way, it might be said that the horrors (harmlessly, of course, in the case of Mr Brunger) have got under his.
Creepy Carmarthen by Nick Brunger is priced at £4.99 and is published in paperback by Gomer. It is a chapbook of 92 pages. It is available online at gwales.com