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The Original Maid of Sker

The original Maid of Sker, wooed by a penniless harpist

I am sure many students of literature will be familiar with the romantic novel by RD Blackmore called ‘The Maid of Sker’. You may or may not also be aware that the author grew up in the village of Nottage near Porthcawl. It is Sker house at the end of the dunes in Kenfig that was his inspiration for the story. The name of his novel, however, was borrowed from a much older Welsh legend from a book called Y Ferch o’r Scer, which was translated into English by William Davies of Neath in 1806.

It is claimed that the story originated from an air composed by a local harpist by the name of Thomas Evans. As is the usual way, the story has been further embellished by subsequent retellings and whether it is entirely true is disputed, not least by the family it is about. The characters themselves however are indisputably real.

Isaac Williams of Sker had two daughters. The youngest, Elizabeth, was tall, beautiful, and elegant, and she loved to dance. She lived for the annual Mabsant (festival of the saint). One of the traditions of the Mabsant was that a harpist would be brought in to play throughout the night for the younger members of the community to dance until dawn.

One especially popular harpist was Thomas Evans of the parish of Newton and Nottage, the man credited with writing the song that this legend is based on. The sight of the beautiful Elizabeth Williams, dancing so elegantly through the night, caught his eye and quickened his pulse. He was utterly transfixed with her, and to his joy she made it obvious that his attraction was reciprocated. By the time the sun rose in the morning they were lovers.

When Isaac Williams got wind of this courtship, he was furious. After all, he was a gentleman farmer and lord of the manor, and Thomas Evans was a mere carpenter. He could not possibly be considered a worthy suitor for his daughter, no matter how good a harpist he was. Undeterred, Evans hired a horse and carriage and rode out to Sker House at night, in the hope that he could persuade Elizabeth to elope with him. But his plan was scuppered when he woke the dogs, who started barking and gave the game away. In response Isaac refused to let Elizabeth leave the house, and she was kept a prisoner in her room under lock and key until she was married off to Mr Kirkhouse of Neath.

She never got on with the husband that had been forced on her, and always begrudged him and her father for breaking her heart. She never forgot about her first true love and sought him out wherever there was a Mabsant in the area. She would always find a way to contrive to meet him in secret. On one occasion they were even caught together by her husband.

Eventually she could not take the pain of being without her true love anymore and died of a broken heart. She was buried 6th January 1776 in Llansamlet. Thomas Evans pined for her for so long that he did not take a wife until he had turned fifty. He died in 1819 and is buried in Newton churchyard.

There are obvious parallels between this story and the far more famous one about ‘The Maid of Cefn Ydfa’. May be the Welsh bards liked telling stories about the beautiful daughters of wealthy families falling head over heals in love with penniless bards.

This item is an exert from my book Legends and Folklore of Bridgend and the Vale. Available to buy here.

You may be interested to know that my blogs are published in The Glamorgan Star newspaper.

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Vale of murder – A killer blog

A Tudor killing spree – The Glamorgan Plea Rolls

With characters like the notorious mass murderer, Cap Coch lurking in our local history, it comes as no surprise that many dark deeds were committed in the Vale of Glamorgan. Many we know about are bathed in the murky waters of hear-say, legend and folklore. Like the story that the white lady who haunts ‘The Old Place’ in Llantwit Major is the ghost of a woman whose husband starved her to death there. Great murder story, but nothing much in the way of evidence.

So, for today’s blog I have strayed into the world of the ‘Glamorgan Plea Rolls’ which were the official records kept by the Court of Great Sessions from 1542. I am delighted to say that many crimes we have actual records for are every bit as dark and weird as the accounts we hear through the ramblings of the bards. And some of the details which were captured in these records are if anything, even more weird. Let me give you an example to illustrate.

The court heard how Lawrence Wick; a labourer from Somerset murdered Katherine David of St Nicholas on the stroke of midnight on the night of 30th March 1566. He killed her by beating her about the head “with a hook of the value of two pence”. He inflicted “a mortal wound of which she incontinently died”. Then, he and an accomplice by the name of David Jevan Dyo set fire to her body and her house to try and cover it all up.

The conclusion of the court was that Dyo should be hung, but there is no record of any punishment being put the way of Wick, so the murderer appears to have got away Scott free. Which seems strange to say the least, but for me, that is not the weirdest thing about this record. Firstly, why do we need to know that the hook he used to murder poor Katherine was only worth 2 pence? Would the crime have been taken more seriously if he had used something more expensive? Secondly the word “incontinently” used to describe how she died – the word means ‘without reasonable restraint’. So, is the judge here saying that she should have made more of an effort to stay alive?

My first quandary is a little easier to answer than the second. Putting a monetary value on a murder weapon dates to early Anglo-Saxon times when it was traditional after a murder trial to sell the murder weapon (referred to as a deodand) so that it might raise some money to be put to a good cause. That way, at least some good might come of the act. As for Katherine’s frankly unconvincing attempts to stay alive on being beaten across the head with a billhook – we will never know.

Often, the punishment meted out by the establishment of the day was every bit as grisly as the crime itself. Traditionally men were hung for murder and women were drowned. Both methods are gruesome, but some justices felt a little more was required of executing someone than simply ending their lives.

For example, the court heard how on the 5th of February 1574, David ap Hopkyn strangled his wife, Matilda, at their Cardiff home with a towel. A heinous crime I am sure you will agree. But what really wound up the judge hearing the trial was not so much what he stood accused of, but that he refused to speak a word throughout his trial. It pushed him to such a peak that in passing sentence he said (and I quote):

“David ap Hopkyn is to be put naked on the ground except his breeches and a hole made under his head and his head put into it and as much stone and iron put upon his body as it will carry and more and he is to be fed on bread and water of the worst kind, bread one day and water another, so kept alive until he dies”.

Harsh.

Given his name, there is every possibility he didn’t say anything as he only spoke Welsh. In the 16th century the Vale was very divided in the language of common people. For example, the townsfolk of Cowbridge all spoke English but the traders in the market stalls who came from surrounding villages like St Hilary, Bonvilston or Colwinston all spoke Welsh. Henry VIII decreed that the only languages permissible in Welsh courts were Latin and English. If ap Hopkyn spoke neither then he probably did not know what was going on. To make matters worse he may even have been innocent but as he was unable to offer an alibi or make a case we will never know. All of which makes the sentence doled out to him even more abhorrent. But that is easy to say looking back with eyes clouded by modern day liberalism.

In the Tudor period, the crime that had all the male judges and magistrates quivering in their boots the most was when a wife rid herself of an unwanted husband by poisoning him. That was considered so serious that it was not classified simply as a murder but as petty treason. In 1564, Gwenllian Morgan of Cowbridge and Johanna Thomas of Eglwysbrewis were found guilty of killing Gwenllian’s husband; Maurice Dee, by feeding him ‘Ratsbane’ concealed in a pudding. In passing sentence, the judge instructed that that they “shall be burned to ashes”.

Graham Loveluck-Edwards.

If you are interested in the history of the Bridgend and Vale of Glamorgan area, why not give my book a go? It’s all about the history, the many legends, and the abundance of folklore of the area and is called ‘Legends and folklore of Bridgend and the Vale’. Available from all good independent book shops, Amazon, or direct from the author at http://grahamloveluckedwards.co.uk

The Gallows – Public hangings were common sights
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From alms to ales – A potted history of the oldest pub in Swansea.

Thanks to the combined efforts of the Victorians and the Luftwaffe, most of the old inns in Swansea city centre are gone for ever, but the Cross Keys (pictured above in 1880, 1926 and now) has survived them all and has antiquity by the spade full.

The name is a nod to the legend that St Peter held the keys to the gates of heaven. A clue to its godly past. The building it self was built by Bishop Henry de Gower (Bishop of St Davids) in 1330, not as an inn but an almshouse and early hospital annexed to a monastic cell. The charter of 1332 says that it was established for ‘the support of other poor chaplains and laymen deprived of bodily health.’ It was not only there to look after people taken ill or injured, but to support the destitute, poor and starving.

The institution must have had some significant patronage, as it survived right up until the Reformation and the dissolution of monasteries in 1536. It was then confiscated by the Crown and sold to Sir George Herbert, who was a very powerful and rather unscrupulous man, descended from a family of ‘Marcher’ lords. And to make matters worse, he was from Cardiff.

He was a man of very different moral fibre to Henry de Gower, and as there was no money to be made from feeding the starving or tending to the sick, he closed down the hospital and almshouse and broke the estate up, turning the old buildings into shops and an inn. Later all the other buildings were demolished, but the inn thrived.

By the beginning of the twentieth century the pub was very dilapidated and run down. and its origins had largely been forgotten, so it was a very brave undertaking to get it all restored and renovated. But when the rendering got stripped away, to the delight of the owner who oversaw the work, a lot of the original features, like the stone arched windows and medieval timber, were re-discovered. The two bays on the St Mary Street side were added onto the original building in the seventeenth century, and it is believed that when they were built, they contained two narrow shops separated by a passageway which ran to the back of the building.

Inside there are some lovely features. The massive ceiling beams tell a story of all the walls and partitions that have been added and taken away in the last 700 years, and there are fragments of medieval roof trusses on either side of a small seating area in the lounge.

The layout of the pub today suggests that this part of the original building had two uses. The old hall would have been located on the first floor, which would have been a cleric’s living accommodation. Meanwhile below would have been part of the old hospital, possibly a ward.

This exert is taken from a new book, out now, called “Historic Pubs of Wales” by welsh author and historian; Graham Loveluck-Edwards and published by Candy Jar Books. It charts the history, folklore and incredible stories that are tied up in 89 historic pubs from all over Wales. Everything from royal patronage and assassination attempts to ghosts and priest holes. Even one which claims to have an elephant buried under the beer garden. It is available from good, independent book shops, WH Smiths, Amazon or direct from the author at a discounted price at http://grahamloveluckedwards.co.uk.

A crowd of regulars outside the Cross Keys in Swansea in 1880. Historic pubs of Wales.

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New book full of parables and pints.

Today in Rhoose, local author: Graham Loveluck-Edwards announced the release of his new book “Historic Pubs of Wales” to follow up the regional best seller Legends and Folklore of Bridgend and the Vale which came out last year. “I was overwhelmed by the demand for my first book” said Graham. “Over 2,000 copies sold in the first three months of release alone and I was inundated with messages asking when the next one would be out”.

Graham is best known for writing historical non-fiction but with a tongue-in-cheek view of some of the more ridiculous aspects of it. As such he has earned himself the nickname of “the Bill Bryson of history books”. He relishes in some of the more colourful myths, legends and stories from Wales’ ancient past, and this latest book, about Wales’ oldest pubs, is crammed with fascinating, historically based stories and facts.

“I have always loved old pubs, and we are blessed to have so many belters here in Wales. There are many amazing stories associated with them. For example, the pub which claims to have an elephant buried under its beer garden, or the pub where funeral parties take a short cut to the cemetery through the bar to keep an ancient right of access alive, or the pub that claims to have invented pancake day and so many more. In all, I’ve compiled over 100 incredible stories based around 89 amazing old pubs. Is there any truth in them? Some for sure, but this book captures them and puts them in the context of history so you can be the judge. And what about the age-old question of which is the oldest pub in Wales? We have eight different establishments all claiming it’s them, so which one is right?”

The book also contains a travel guide so readers can go on a tour around Wales and visit all the pubs in the book. They will then be able to check out all the secret passage ways, smugglers’ hides, priest holes and ghosts for themselves.

As you can imagine for such a book, the research was relentless and thorough… And a lot of fun.

Pubs have had such a tough time in the last year with us going in and out of lock downs and with the introduction of social distancing measures. Sixteenth century inns are usually a warren of tiny rooms so being two metres apart has made opening and trading near impossible for many. So, a book which celebrates all that is great about our old pubs, which tells people their history, where to find them and what to expect when you get there (with full colour pictures) has been welcomed by all the landlords Graham spoke to when doing his research.

Historic Pubs of Wales is published by Candy Jar Books (Cardiff) on ISBN 978-1-913637-75 and is available to buy direct from the author today on his website for the discounted price of £12 plus P&P. Just type www.talesfromhistoricpubsofwales.co.uk into your web browser. It will also be available on Amazon and in most good, independent bookshops from Friday 17th September 2021 but at the cover price of £15 (plus P&P if bought online).

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Hanging upon your every word

As some of you may know, I am currently working on my third book called “Why Santa might kill you”. It’s about all the things we accept in modern day life as innocent enough but which in reality have pretty dark origins. You only have to scratch the surface of innocuous characters like Santa Clause or some of our best loved fairy tales and nursery rhymes to discover that under the modern day veneer are some pretty hair raising earlier incarnations.

One of the chapters deals with all those expressions we use in common, every day language which are derived from unsavoury episodes in our history. To give you a taster I thought I would share with you some colloquialisms we still use that have their origins in the practise of public hangings. Gallows humour is one thing. This is gallows linguistics.

This particular segment follows a contemporary account of what happened at a public hanging in London in 1726 by a visiting French cleric called De Saussure.

It was a tradition, especially in York and London that the wagon (carrying the condemned man, the executioner and his entourage) would stop at every pub between the jail and the gallows and this has given us a host of language, mainly associated with excess consumption of alcohol. 

Whenever the wagon pulled up outside another pub, the condemned man and all the guards would dismount, go in the pub, have a few drinks and then stumble back out to move on to the next one. The only people who could not join them in this binge drinking extravaganza were the two men who had to stay sober as they still had a job to do. Namely; the executioner and the chaplain. So, if ever you offer to buy someone a drink and they reply “not for me thanks. I’m on the wagon” they are referencing exactly that phenomenon. Staying “on the wagon” meant that you were unable to join in the drinking on the way to the gallows. Because you were the executioner or chaplain. 

There are other references to these two abstaining souls elsewhere in commonly used expressions. Because the wagon transporting the condemned man used to start and stop so often on its journey, it earned itself the nickname “the lurch”. Describing the lunging motion experienced by all on board when the horses initially pull the wheels into motion, and again when the breaks were applied. So, when the executioner and chaplain stayed on the cart, while everyone else went into a pub, they were “left in the lurch”, an expression often used even today to describe someone who has been abandoned or excluded.

There are other expressions associated with excess alcohol consumption derived from this wagon ride. When recovered alcoholics revert back to drink they are sometimes refered to as having “fallen off the wagon” and there are even suggestions that the term “pub crawl” refers to the pace of the cart moving along the west-ward road out of London to Tyeburne. Conversely, having “one for the road” is also a direct reference to having a drink in a pub before being carted down the road to the gallows.

Du Saussure also refers to the fact that friends and relatives would grab hold of the condemned man’s legs and hang from them with all their weight to make the rope pull tighter and help them to die quicker. So, they did not suffer so much. Sometimes however, the condemned man might not have friends and family in the place where he is due to be executed. If that was the case but he had access to money, he could pay a guard at the prison to do that job instead. So, if you’ve ever wondered why a celebrity surrounded by freeloaders might describe his entourage as “hangers-on” – that’s where the expression comes from. Its people who were not your true friends, who you could pay to hang from your legs to help you die quicker in an execution.

You might get unlucky trying to find a “hanger on” and choose an unscrupulous guard who would take your money and agree he will hang on to your legs, but in reality, all he will do is go through the motions. That means that rather than hang on to you, he will just “pull your leg”. And that is where we get the expression of “he’s just pulling your leg” meaning “he’s just messing around – he’s not being serious”.

Du Saussure also mentions that the condemned man would be wearing a black covering over his head. This was partly to spare the crowds the sight of his contorted face when his eyes started to pop out of their sockets and partly to save the condemned man himself seeing what was coming. It meant that when the cart pulled the floor away from under their feet, that they were taking “a leap into the dark”. Again, a common expression used for venturing into the unknown.

It is true that any property of the condemned man (such as his clothes) if not claimed by a relative, became the property of the hangman. It was one of many ways the executioner got to cash in on his grizzly profession. Another was to take advantage of the regulation that dictated that a hang man’s rope could only be used once, to guarantee it had the integrity not to break during the execution. This meant that after an execution the hang man could retrieve the ropes he had used and sell them on the market. Given that he had not had to outlay any money, it meant that any money he made on the sale was pure profit. Leading to the expression “money for old rope” used to describe any scheme to make easy money or disproportionately high profit margins.

I am sure at some point or another you have heard a man who is well blessed in the trouser department, be referred to by an onlooker as “well-hung”? Apparently, the act of strangulation has the incongruous side effect of making the male organ engorged. Something that was very apparent to crowds who turned out to watch public hangings. It led to us getting this quaint compliment.

You may also have heard someone describe a project which failed or a plan that never came to anything described as having “gone west”. This refers to the route taken from the jails of London to Tyeburn, which was located on the other side of the city’s west gate.

Of course, executions did not always run as smoothly as the one De Saussure witnessed. There were times when they went spectacularly wrong. One of the most famous of all time was the execution of a man called Goodale. When he was hung, due to a freak set of circumstances that were not obvious at the time, when the rope tightened around his neck it jerked his head clean off his shoulders. Like a champagne cork popping from the bottle, sending showers of blood and gore spouting all over the gathered crowd. This turned so many stomachs that questions were asked in parliament and a full enquiry was launched by hangmen and other government officials concerned. The whole nation was transfixed with the story as it appeared in newspapers everywhere for a number of weeks. The incident was nicknamed “The Goodale Mess” – undoubtedly the origins of the expression “God awful mess” used to this day to describe any seen of destructive carnage.

So what do you think? It is intended to entertain as much as educate but this is pretty much the level of the whole book. Give me your thoughts:

Cover mock up of “Why Santa might kill you” by Graham Loveluck-Edwards
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Get an analyst’s report of your first draft

Here’s a service I never even knew existed until recently but cannot recommend enough. I had written the manuscript for my second book; Monica but something about it just didn’t gel. Something I could not put my finger on. I was happy with the obvious stuff like the characters and the narrative but somehow it just didn’t feel complete to me. I also felt I was having to ask myself too many questions about the flow of it while I was writing it.

So I enlisted the help of Cressida Downing; the book analyst. For a small fee she (and other people who offer a similar service) promise a “warts and all” appraisal of what you have written so far. In other words feedback ranging from “this is good” to “you’re wasting your time here”.

The feedback I had was like an epiphany for me. She had totally nailed where the divergence was and the effect it was having on the work over all. In addition to a written report picking out strengths and weaknesses of your draft she also gives a consultation to help you find the right route forward with the rest of it. Coaching for want of a better word and a great sounding board. We have one such call scheduled for next week.

If you find your self floundering with getting a new idea down on paper. Or even if you just want what you have written sanity checked by someone who knows what they are talking about, this could be the answer for you.

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First Edit – First Book

I recently found a publisher for my first book. It is a compendium of fascinating old, Welsh legends and stories of folklore. Everything from ancient wars and kings, to dragons, ghosts and ship wreckers. Here’s a link to the full synopsis if that is your kind of thing. My middle child (who self identifies as non binary) is a great artist and photographer so I got them to do all the illustrations and photos to bring it all to life. As we are both currently unemployed it seemed a handy alliance to forge.

I have found that publishers are a lot more likely to take a punt on an unknown writer if they have produced a work of non-fiction rather than a novel and this one is now in quite advanced stages of pre-publication. Over the weekend I had the post edit version of my manuscript land in my inbox and today I read it through. I was a bit apprehensive that they might have changed pretty much everything as I am still lacking confidence in my own abilities. I guess that’s what comes of waiting 52 years before even trying to write my first book. However I was worrying unnecessarily. Most of what has changed is just my appalling spelling. The content, feel and flow is exactly the same as my first draft which is reassuring. May be I’m not completely rubbish at this after all 🙂

It occurs to me that at this rate it will be ready for publication in a few weeks so I thought I would have a look at setting up a website so I can sell my own copies direct. Especially as I expect to publish another two books hot on the heals of this one. One already finished, the other half way through. If you click on the book cover below you can check it out. And constructive feedback from someone who knows what they are talking about is always welcome, although to manage expectations I am not about to pay anyone to do it for me because I am skint.

Legends and folklore of Bridgend and the Vale