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Agitator and Champion

A political agitator and champion of the under-dog whose activities in Carmarthenshire and elsewhere prompted the Home Office to have him kept under surveillance died a hundred years ago at Ferryside on 19 October 1874. He was Hugh Williams, a lawyer who practised at Carmarthen, Kidwelly and St Clears for many years.

Hugh Williams was born on 18 February 1796 at Gelli-goch, about a mile and a half from Machynlleth off the road to Aberystwyth, being the son of Hugh Williams and Elinor Evans. He probably received his earliest education from Azariah Shadrach, a Pembrokeshire man who spent most of his life in north Cardiganshire as a teacher, pastor and author. Shadrach, who has been described as the Bunyan of Wales, lived for a while with the family early in the nineteenth century and filled the role of schoolmaster to the children of the household.

In 1822 Williams was admitted in the King's Bench and in the same year settled in Carmarthen, where a distant relative, William Jones, was town clerk. There he practised as a solicitor until 1842, continuing at Kidwelly for a few years and later at St Clears and Laugharne from 1846 until he left for Ferryside.

His move to Kidwelly was brought about by his marriage to a lady of that town, Anne Jones of Plwmp-coch, who was twenty-five years his senior. As she must already have been seventy years of age or more, it is likely that Williams was encouraged to make the alliance by the prospect of an early inheritance of the bride's possessions. If this was indeed his ulterior object, then the lady caused him more than he bargained for by surviving until she was ninety years old. Even so, Williams soon set about trying to break the lease which encumbered her estate at Gardde, St Clears, an action which was much against his wife's wishes. After initial failure at Carmarthen assizes in 1842, he ultimately succeeded in gaining possession and this enabled them to take up residence at Gardde,1 a house which still stands in the High Street on the road to Laugharne.

Within a few years he became portreeve of the little town and the same year, 1851, he and his wife built a market hall2 in an unsuccessful attempt to establish a market there. In 1853 he was made recorder of St Clears, which still survived as an archaic borough, and retained the appointment until his death despite complaints about his absence in later years.

Gardde.thumb.jpg Two months after his wife's death Williams married on 9th October 1861 Elizabeth Anthony of Llansaint. This time the spouse was thirty-nine years his junior. They lived at Ferryside and produced four children, two of whom died in infancy. The youngest child, William Arthur Glanmor Williams, educated at Clifton and Sandhurst, earned the DSO in West Africa and was killed in the Boer War in November 1900.

Hugh Williams died at Cobden Villa, Ferryside and was buried in St Ishmael's churchyard. The name of the house in which he died is a reminder that he was brother-in-law to Richard Cobden, who married Hugh's sister Catherine Anne in May 1840, she having met the statesman through being at school with his sisters. The house, now known as Belle Vue, still stands on the front south of Brigstocke Terrace in Ferryside.

Hugh Williams, who was a leading Chartist in Carmarthenshire, is famous in the county for his connection with the activities of 'Rebecca' during the riots of 1843 and 1844, but it is unlikely that he was the real 'Rebecca' as some have claimed, and certainly he denounced the violent methods of 'Rebecca's Daughters'. But he championed the cause of the labouring class and organised, at Carmarthen in 1836, the first radical meeting in South Wales. He had already become the friend of Henry Hetherington, a London printer and publisher, who was later to lead the agitation against the tax on newspapers. In 1836 Hetherington, later to become one of the authors of the People's Charter, was a leading founder of the London Working Men's Association, which fathered the Chartist movement, and soon a branch of the association was formed at Carmarthen, Hugh Williams being the first secretary. The inaugural convention at Carmarthen was held by torchlight around Picton's monument and four thousand people are said to have been present.

Williams gave his services gratis as a lawyer in the defence of those brought before the courts for riotous behaviour in their fight to rid themselves of the yoke of oppression and figured in the trials of Llanidloes rioters in 1839 and the Talog and Pontardulais Rebecca rioters in 1843. Following the trial of the Llanidloes men he was moved to write a poem called 'The Horn of Liberty', which along with others of his own is included in a collection of radical poems he arranged under the title National Songs and Poetical Pieces, dedicated to the Queen and her Countrywomen, an anthology printed by Hetherington in 1839. During the Rebecca disturbances he addressed many mass meetings and took a leading part in the great gathering on Mynydd Sylen on 25th August 1843, when he was acclaimed with rousing cheers. It was during this period that the Home Office became concerned about his activities and a warrant was issued authorising the opening of his letters.

Through his association with Cobden Hugh Williams visited America in 1859. Cobden had invested in the Illinois Central Railway and felt obliged to investigate its affairs on the spot. Williams joined him in New York and during their travels they saw Abraham Lincoln. Although he exerted himself greatly on behalf of the under-dog, Williams had a less attractive side to his character. Cobden's daughters knew him as 'our bad uncle' on account of his marital infidelity and his reputation in private life, and it is known that he fathered an illegitimate daughter in 1847; it is apparent, too, that he had acquisitive propensities. Even so, he deserves to be honoured for his solicitude on behalf of the under-privileged at a time when such courage incurred the disapproval, even the wrath, of authority. Therein lies the paradox: although he could marry for property rather than love, he could and did risk much in the service of those to whom he owed no allegiance save through the bond of common humanity.

Among other Carmarthenshire anniversaries is that of John Howell, who was born at Abergwili two hundred years ago in 1774. Ioan ap Hywel, as he styled himself, was a weaver, schoolmaster, poet, editor and musician, but probably it was as the last of these that he excelled. Howell, who competed at the Carmarthen National Eisteddfod in 1819, died in 1830 and was buried at Llandingat Church, Llandovery.


In the extracts from the diary of Thomas Jenkins published in Volume X of The Carmarthenshire Historian the entry for 25th September 1836 at pages 10 and 11 refers to Cunlleth, which house was identified as Cefnllaith off the Pentre-hydd road about half a mile beyond Pentremeurig, Carmarthen. I am grateful to Mr Rhys Jones, Carmarthen, who has since informed me that there is a 'Cunlleth' much further west. This appears to be the place shown on the Ordnance Survey map as Cenllaith, about a mile and a half north-east of Meidrim. Evidently, the surmise involving Cefnllaith was incorrect.

Publication of the extracts seems to have aroused much interest, and among a number of appreciative readers is the Rev. Gomer Roberts, Llandybie, who writes : "Thank you for printing Thomas Jenkins's Diary in your last issue, which was most interesting." Of additional interest is a Thomas Jenkins memento shown to me by Mr D. Mervyn Williams, Marble Villa, Llandeilo. This is a wooden teapot-stand, made to come apart so that it can be dressed with new fabric from time to time. Inside is a holograph inscription: "Thomas Jenkins, Cabinet-maker, Llandilo. 1843." E.V.J.
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