A Devil Who Cared for His Own.
The Dolaucothi Murder Viewed Anew
By Susan Beckley,
More than a century ago, John Johnes of Dolaucothi in north Carmarthenshire was murdered by his butler, Henry Tremble. The gruesome story is well-known, but less familiar is the documentary evidence, written by Tremble himself some days before the murder, which is now preserved in the Carmarthenshire Record Office. Before quoting this letter, it is worth recalling the story of the murder, in reference to which "The Daily Telegraph" commented:
"There is a horrible completeness, compactness and thoroughness in the history of the destestable deed of assassination, followed by the suicide of the assassin, which has just been accomplished in Carmarthenshire . . . A harrowing simpliciy from first to last pervades this tale of blood, and the motives of the murderer are as palpable as the means which he adopted to perpetrate his crime, and subsequently, by self-slaughter, to elude the grasp of justice".
(Wednesday, August 23rd, 1876)
Thus, during the summer of 1876, Carmarthenshire made headline news in the local and national press, with the assassination of the respected country gentleman, barrister, Deputy Lieutenant and magistrate, John Johnes of Dolaucothi aged 76. On the morning of Saturday 19th August, Mr. Johnes was in his study at Dolaucothi when Henry Tremble, his butler, entered the room and shot him in the stomach. The butler then proceeded to the kitchen where Mr. Johnes's daughter Charlotte, then the widowed Mrs. Cookman, was giving instructions to the servants, and shot her at point-blank range. While Mrs. Cookman was seriously injured — she did eventually recover — her father had received fatal injuries and died shortly afterwards.
Threatening any servants who crossed his path, Tremble then left Dolaucothi and went to the village of Caio where he threatened a local police constable, and visited the Caio Inn with the intention of murdering John Davies, the inn-keeper. Fortunately, Mr. Davies had gone to Carmarthen that day. Tremble then went into his own house, Myrtle Cottage, Caio and shot himself.
Henry Tremble, aged 36 at this time, had been employed by the Dolaucothi household for 17 years prior to 1876. Mrs. Cookman, formerly Charlotte Johnes, was the widow of Captain Cookman who came from Ennisworthy, County Wexford, bringing Tremble with him as his valet. Shortly afterwards, Captain Cookman died, and Tremble remained at Dolaucothi, working as stable boy before becoming coachman, and finally butler. He appears to have always possessed a somewhat violent disposition and on several occasions John Johnes would have dismissed him, but was dissuaded from doing so by his daughter, who felt that this would betray the memory of her late husband who had commended the care of his favourite servant to her. Latterly, Tremble had applied to John Johnes for the tenancy of the Dolaucothi Arms which was soon to become vacant, but this had been refused him, it seems, on the grounds that his wife drank heavily. John Davies of the Caio Inn was expected to be the next landlord of the Dolaucothi Arms. In addition to this, Tremble had finally tried the patience of the Dolaucothi household too much, and he had received his notice to leave. This was due to expire on Saturday, 19th August, 1876.
These factors, together with a suggestion of domestic unhappiness and jealousy with regard to his wife, had according to one newspaper report "soured and darkened his disposition" and "provoked his already irritable nature beyond all bounds".
Strange events surrounded the burial of Tremble. In accordance with the coroner's warrant, the body of the murderer and suicide was buried in Caio churchyard in silence at about eleven o'clock at night. Shortly before this the vicar had held a service at Tremble's home in order to intercede for mercy for his widow and children. John Johnes too, was buried in Caio churchyard, and there was widespread concern that his murderer had been interred in the same burial ground. Arrangements were made to exhume Tremble's body, and it was taken at night to Llandulas churchyard in Breconshire. However, when the inhabitants of Llandulas discovered this, they took exception to having a murderer's body forced upon them by another parish and decided to send it back to Caio. In the words of one chronicler:
" ... they planned a night descent, but lost their way, and arrived with the dawn at Caio Churchyard, so they hurriedly left the coffin on the pathway leading through the Churchyard, placing a sheet of paper containing the reasons for their action upon the lid. They then journeyed homewards, throwing out the straw which had covered the coffin . . . into the ditch near Aberbowlan where it remained for years a "Bwgan" to frighten timid persons and children".1
The coffin was discovered in the morning and was again buried in Caio churchyard.
John Johnes was buried in the family vault in Caio and messages of sympathy poured in to his daughters from people of all social ranks and from near and far. He had not only been an eminent figure in local govermnent, having been chairman of the Carmarthenshire Quarter Sessions, the County Roads Board and Caio School Board, but, as a Welsh-speaker, he had supported and promoted cultural activities too. At the 1876 National Eisteddfod in Wrexham the Reverend John Griffiths, Rector of Neath, expressed sympathy with Mr. Johnes' family, and the president asked the audience to stand in silence for a short time, as a gesture of respect. The Dolaucothi correspondence deposited at the National Library of Wales includes letters of condolence from sources as varied as the Bishop of St. Davids, the Town Clerk of Carmarthen, the Cambrian Archaeological Association, and Siloh C.M. Chapel Llandovery; and from as far afield as London, Hampshire, Manchester, and Italy. But perhaps the letter appreciated most by the bereaved sisters would be the one they received signed by 32 tenants of the Dolaucothi estate:
"We the undersigned being Tenants on the Dolau Cothy Estate in our great sorrow occasioned by the untimely decease of our good and kind Master, beg to offer our most sincere sympathy with Mrs. Cookman and Miss Johnes in their unexpected trial"2
The evidence that the murder of John Johnes was premeditated and the result of a deliberate plan by Tremble is worthy of consideration. Firstly, of course, the events took place on the day that Tremble's employment at Dolaucothi was due to be terminated. This date must have been known to him for some days, if not weeks, beforehand.
Secondly, Charlotte Johnes (she assumed her maiden name in accordance with her father's will) recorded in her diary how she and
her sister Betha had previously been threatened by Tremble:
". . . I should say that one morning before she (Betha) had left home, about the time that Henry Tremble was making application for the Inn, he said to her and me at the diningroom door, 'Now yous are both together I tell yous that as sure as God's in Heaven yous shall repent
the unjustice you have done me'."3
Further, when giving evidence at the inquest on Tremble, Arthur Sturday, footman at Dolaucothi, stated that Tremble had spoken to him at supper on the evening before the murder took place. He had told him that after he left, the house would be all broken down and that all the servants would soon have to leave. Another witness at the inquest stated that, by his own admission, Tremble had planned the murder. William Morgan of Albert-mount, Caio, had pleaded with Tremble, when he went into his house prior to shooting himself, to give himself up to the police, as a jury might only bring a verdict of manslaughter, Tremble replied that he planned it, and intended it, and that he knew it was not manslaughter.
Perhaps the most notable piece of evidence as to the calculating manner in which the murderer acted is the letter, already referred to, which Tremble wrote to the Reverend Charles Chidlow, at that time vicar of Caio. It is dated 15th August 1876, four days before the murder took place, and in it Tremble makes provision for his six children after his death. It appears that he was concerned to murder Mrs. Cookman as well, as he was afraid that she might influence the Reverend Chidlow against caring for the well-being of his children. The letter reads as follows:
"I Henry Tremble Butler at Dolecothy in the County of Carmarthen do hear authorise the Rev. Charles Chidlow Cayo Vicerage To take up my Money that is now in the Nationel Provential Bank Carmarthen and to pay the said Money quarterly at the reat of from £30 to £40 per year to my Dauter Elizebeth Susan Tremble for the mintanins of hur selfe and hur Sisters and Brothers Namely, Susan Louisa Tremble, Charles Henry Tremble, Alice Jane Tremble, John Tremble, Frances Sarah Tremble.
I will leave all the Mony that I can in a little Box, and the Bank Recipt also, the key of which I will inclose to you that you will be able to judge how long that Money will last before you draw on the Bank.
Sir I hope you will excuse me taking this liberty as I have no Friends in this Country or do I know any one that would be likeley to take any interest in thy child except you as a Christan Clergey Man. Hopeing at some future time that you will be found amongst the Good Shepards is the ernest wish of your obedient servent.
To the Revd. Charles Chidlow
There will be about £8 in My pocket.
I am grateful for the advice and assistance of Major H. J. Lloyd-Johnes, Cirencester, and Mr. Tudor Barnes of the National Library of Wales, in the preparation of this article.