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Loitering in Guildhall Square, Carmarthen

by T.J. Evans, M.B.E.

This revered spot in the centre of the ancient borough of Carmarthen is alive with historic associations. Not far off is Nott Square, and the castle gateway, linked directly with the martyrdom of Dr. Robert Ferrar, Lord Bishop of St. Davids, on the 30th day of March, 1555. Close at hand is St. Mary Street-connected with the ancient church of St. Mary, and tradition has it that near this site stood Oliver Cromwell as he watched the burning of the Castle of Carmarthen. He was at that time on his way to Pembrokeshire around 1648-1649.

Yes, Guildhall Square itself 'lives' with history. It was here on the day before the official opening of the Assize Court that the ordinary people of the county gathered in great numbers to ventilate their views on grave national issues. The custom had grown with a regular practice spread over many generations. Here it was that David Peter of Heol Awst Meeting House and Principal of the Presbyterian College, and Rees Gibbon of the Tabernacle, who was the Principal of the Titus Lewis Academy, and Joshua Watkins of Penuel, led in a great crusade which substantially influenced the people of West Wales to agitate in favour of the Reform Act of 1832. It was here, too, that Rees Gibbon launched a campaign which spread throughout Wales like a prairie fire, in support of the Act of Parliament which sanctioned the solemnisation of marriages in Dissenting Meeting Houses. Great meetings were held in Guildhall Square, Carmarthen, agitating for the passing of the Ballot Act. Processions of enthusiastic supporters reached the town from many outstanding districts and there was a deep religious fervour in the demand that voters should exercise their choice within the privacy of the Ballot.

There was a well known Eating House in Guildhall Square, kept by a familiar John Lewis, whose daughter was the mother of Eliza Carmarthen-the well-known poetess-and it was known as the Old Bull, and here the leaders of the Whigs met in secret for Committee Meetings and here they initiated and organised their election campaigns.

The Cavaliers, as the Tories were known during the early Restoration Period, met in the Red Lion Tavern, just off Guildhall Square in Red Lion Yard.

When Election Day arrived (before the operation of the Ballot Act), those entitled to vote, by open voting, journeyed to Carmarthen by early morning by gambo and on foot, and the gentry came on horseback, and in turn each of the voters presented themselves in Guildhall Square to record their choice. Great care was taken to prevent any riot, although political feeling was very high and the workmen and tenants were carefully watched by their masters, who inspired them according to their own particular political persuasion. The Cavaliers and the Whigs were kept under ordered discipline. The Cavaliers wore "Red" Rosettes, and the Whigs wore "Blue" Rosettes and these colours have still persisted up to modern times relating to the Tories who wear Red, and the Liberals who wear Blue. For general convenience and to prevent any risk of disorder, the Cavaliers assembled in the road now known as Red Street and the Whigs similarly assembled in Blue Street. In turn, each stepped out into Guildhall Square to record their votes as their names were called.

Guildhall Square had a well-known tavern, known by that name. A Mr. Joseph Reid, a radical and a Nonconformist, was the proprietor, and this was the meeting centre of Morgan John Rhys, the great reformer around 1794. He left for America to gain adequate freedom to extend his crusade for liberty and fraternity. He was the author of the well-known hymn "Heded yr Efengyl hyfryd". Morgan John Rhys became a prominent figure in the United States. One of his chief supporters in Carmarthen was Joshua Watkins, who later kept a Printers' Shop in Priory Street, where many telling pamphlets were published and he became an evangelist of wide repute throughout the whole of West Wales.

Where Barclays Bank now stands was the establishment, of "Lewis Commerce House"-and his shop extended into Red Street. Here, around 1827, Henry Richard of Tregaron, was an apprentice. He was none other than the famous Member of' Parliament for Merthyr Tylfil, and the "Apostle of Peace", whose reputation was honoured in many lands. It may be of interest to note that Caradoc Evans was also a shop assistant at Commerce House.

Just around the corner, in Red Street, is the present "Juvenile Employment Centre". This was the actual building where the Calvinistic Baptists met from 1782 to 1812 under the leadership of the great Titus Lewis, and when his congregation left for the Tabernacle Chapel in 1812, the building became the centre of worship by the Unitarians and later by the Quakers-and this building stood within the civic borough of Carmarthen-a splendid token of the tolerance and sense of religious freedom of the City Fathers.

At the upper end of Guildhall Square is Hall Street-the old home of "Seren Cymru", and nearby were the first offices of the Carmarthen Rural District Council, and just across the roadway was the house where Brinley Richards, the great Welsh musician who composed "God Bless the Prince of Wales", was born in 1817.

Many changes have come with the passing years-the old shops of Guildhall Square, each dominated by men of differing personality, are stories that belong to a period that is fast disappearing, and their tale must be recorded in a later chapter. What romantic happenings the balcony of the Shire Hall could relate; Mayors, one after the other, have appeared in Guildhall Square in their scarlet robes and chains of office on their way to their annual Civic Services. Judges of the High Court in the course of the changing years have been trumpeted on their arrival in Guildhall Square, Carmarthen. Yes! And so many other events leap to the mind, but space now forbids further elaboration.

This beloved old town, honoured by centuries of noble tradition may yet see many changes, but beware that "ye remove not the ancient landmarks which your fathers have set before you."
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