No sign of life but silence

Police Sergeant Thomas Richards and Constable David Thomas walked the valley road beat umpteen times that evening.

The Amman Valley derby, played out that afternoon, was usually an occasion of boisterous high spirits and drunken brawling as post-match debate raged, but for once there was little to report.

Both officers noted that the lights remained on in the Star each time they passed, but saw no reason to investigate.

The two officers were still unconcerned when they strolled past the shop on final time at 11pm, although they did attempt to peer in through the window as they made their way back to the station, near Raven Colliery to the east of Commerce Place.

Dr George Evan Jones, of Brynteg, also passed the Star a little after 11pm, summoned on a late night call. He too spotted the gas lights burning inside, but thought nothing of it. Besides he had a more pressing engagement.

At 3am the weary doctor passed along the valley road again as he made for home. He also stopped outside the Star and tried to see in around the blinds. With no signs of life and nothing but a peaceful silence emanating from inside, he shrugged off any doubts he may have had and made, exhausted, for his bed.

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Obligations and outsiders

Glanyrafon Villas was a row of semi-detached properties at the top of Horney Road on the opposite side of the valley to the Star.

Separated from the throng by the GWR train lines, the tinplate works, River Amman herself and then the recreation ground and rugby pitches, the nine-house development was set apart from the village. From its elevated position, Glanyrafon Villas looked down on the bustle of the valley road with an aloof, foreigner’s eye. It was at the fringes of the community. So too were its residents.

At Number Two, Thomas Charles Hooper Mountstephens lived with wife Lily, sons Arthur and William, and lodgers Thomas Thomas, the manager of Star Stores, and Arthur Impey, a chess-loving cockney whose childhood read like a Dickens novel.

Impey was born within earshot of Bow bells in West Ham in 1888, the middle of three children. Life was a struggle for the Impeys: David, Arthur’s father, brought home only a labourer’s wage. Life was hard for the Impey children, but it was about to get worse. On November 25, 1892, David Impey died aged 45.

Less than seven months later, he was followed into the ground by his wife, Ellen. She was just 42. On June 18, 1893, the Impey children were made orphans. David was five, sister Ellen 12 and Albert two.

Despite the hardships, Ellen had some money. When she died she left £82 and nine shillings. Where she came by it is unknown. It was not a fortune, but certainly it was a sum of money. Ellen’s Will left everything to a woman named Charlotte Elizabeth Housdon. The nature of Housdon’s relationship to Ellen Impey remains uncertain, as does the question of whether the money came with an obligation to care for the Impey children.

Whatever the logic behind Ellen’s bequest, the children did not spend any length of time with the Housdons and the Impey family dissolved.

By 1901, Arthur, now 13, was an inmate at Muller’s Orphan House, Bristol. How long he had been there is unknown, but he would not stay at Muller’s much beyond his 14th birthday. At some point he made his way west – presumably in search of work. He settled in the Amman valley.

By 1921, the workhouse orphan was working at Gellyceidrim colliery. He was 33 years old and in love: Arthur would marry fiancée Blodwen Jones in Garnant before the year was out. In the meantime however, he remained in lodgings. Renting a room at Number Two, Glanyrafon Villas, meant renting a bed, or rather a share of a bed – a necessity in rural Wales where the number of paying lodgers far outweighed the available sleeping quarters. Arthur shared with Thomas Thomas, the frail, Bible-quoting little shopkeeper. Prior to Thomas’ arrival in Garnant, Impey had shared with Mr Lewis, his current bed-mate’s predecessor at the Star.

Thomas Charles Hooper Mountstephens was born in St Pancras, central London, in the summer of 1886; the son of a piano tuner. By 1910 he, Lily and baby Arthur were already living in Garnant. William arrived in 1911.

Mountstephens was a pumpman below ground, but remained aloof from the majority at the colliery. Perhaps it was at Cwmaman Chess Club, where Mountstephens was chairman, that he and club member Impey first discussed accommodation.

At 11pm on Saturday, February 12, 1921, Thomas Mountstephens and his wife ate supper. Their two sons were already asleep and neither of the lodgers had yet returned. Arthur Impey would soon be trudging his way up the hill out of the mist at the end of his shift. Thomas Thomas had warned of his intention to work late when Mountstephens and Lily called in at the Star earlier in the day.

At 11.45pm Lily Mountstephens kissed her husband good-night and went to bed. Thomas stepped outside to take in the night air. From his doorstep he could look down across the valley basin and a lake of mist to the rear of Commerce House where the lights of Star Stores still burned.

Arthur Impey arrived home before midnight. Seeing the lights on at the Star, Arthur suggested that he and Mountstephens walk back across the valley to ensure all was well. Mountstephens told him of his visit to the store earlier and his conversation with Mr Thomas.

The two men went inside and Mountstephens pointed Impey to the hot supper Lily had left simmering for him. He reminded Impey to be sure to leave enough for the returning Mr Thomas.

At 1am, the shopkeeper had still not returned and Arthur Impey began to fret. The lights at the rear of the Star were still burning, but a man of Mr Thomas’ beliefs was unlikely to be working into the Sabbath. He again asked Mountstephens to accompany him across the valley. Again, Mountstephens brushed off his concerns and reminded him of Mr Thomas’ warning.

A most unusual course

Phoebe Jones attended a concert at Stepney Hall.

Phoebe Jones attended a concert at Stepney Hall.

Phoebe Jones, the first assistant at Garnant’s Star Stores, had been keen to finish work as quickly as possible on Saturday, February 12. She had somewhere else to be.

Phoebe planned to spend what was left of the evening attending a concert in Stepney Hall with a friend and had had her best dress mended and laundered by Mrs Jeffreys that afternoon.

A night out at Stepney Hall may well have been a birthday treat for Phoebe, who turned 30 in February, 1921.

A tall, thin woman with angular features, Phoebe, like Thomas Thomas, was born in the village of Llangendeirne, though took up employment at the Star Stores in Garnant in 1917 – two years before Mr Thomas took over as manager.

She had got on very well with the previous manager and by the time Thomas Thomas arrived in 1919 she was already the highest-ranked member of staff other than the manager.

She raced through her end-of-day duties as fast as she was able and at 9.45pm left the Star by the side door, used only by staff. She closed the door behind her leaving Mr Thomas alone in the shop balancing his accounting books at the grocery counter.

The concert finished at 11pm and Phoebe made her way back along the valley road to Commerce House and her lodgings with the Jeffreys family.

As she passed Commerce Place she could not help but notice that the lights were still burning behind the blinds at Star Stores.

When she arrived home, she remarked how strange it was that the manager was stilling working so late on a Saturday night.

“Fancy Mr Thomas in the shop now,” she told Morgan Jeffreys.

“Whatever is the matter with the man? He must be shop mad.”

However, Phoebe felt a growing sense of unease and at 11.25pm went back outdoors, through the arcade and out to the front of Star Stores.

The lights in the shop were still burning as they had been when she had passed previously.

She, like the youngest Bowen girl a little over an hour earlier, peered through the window, trying to glimpse around the lowered blinds to look inside.

She could see no movement in the shop.

As she moved around to get a better view into the building she spotted Mr Thomas’ white shop jacket and apron hanging next to some sides of back at a rack at the rear of the shop.

She saw no sign of Thomas Thomas.

Initially she imagined he might be in the back room or in the upstairs warehouse, but when she heard no sound she decided he must have gone home without switching off the lights.

“Though this would have been a most unusual course.”

Nothing but that the door was closed

Thomas Walter Jeffreys clocked off work at Cawdor Colliery at 10pm after another gruelling eight-hour shift and made his way home.

By the time he reached Commerce House, passing to the rear of Fanny Smith’s fruit shop, Harries and Williams drapers and the cellar door of Star Stores, it was almost 10.30pm.

Thomas, at 26, was the youngest – and more sensible – son of Morgan and Anne Jeffreys, landlords of Commerce Place.

When interviewed by the Chronicle in the days after the incident, Thomas claimed he had noticed nothing out of the ordinary on his way home that night.

Perhaps he was too tired or too hungry; perhaps it was because of the heavy mist that had settled in the valley that evening, but for whatever reason he claimed he had not spotted the lights still burning at Star Stores.

“I noticed nothing then but that the back door was closed,” he told the paper.

However, when interviewed by police in the days that followed, his recollection of the evening proved somewhat different.

“I noticed a light on in the Star Stores as passing through the back,” he claimed, telling Sergeant Thomas Richards that he had commented on the shopkeeper’s long hours on his arrival home.

Once inside Commerce House, Thomas settled down in the kitchen to eat the supper prepared for him by his mother. There he remained until Miss Phoebe Jones, the first assistant at Star Stores who lodged with the Jeffreys, arrived home from a concert at Stepney Hall. Phoebe too had noticed the lights and praised the dedication of her manager, who was clearly still tallying his accounts inside the store.

At around 11.30pm, Thomas and his father set out across the fields to the stables which they kept nearby to “bed the ponies for the night”.

As they made their way back to Commerce House they noted that the lights were still burning throughout the store, but saw no reason for alarm.

By the time father and son had arrived back home, Phoebe Jones was nowhere to be seen. Mrs Jeffreys told them she had gone to check on Mr Thomas at Star Stores. Morgan Jeffreys went to bed while Thomas settled back into his seat alongside his mother.

When Phoebe returned she told them that Mr Thomas must have left the lights burning and gone home for the night. She praised his conscientiousness, but admitted that he could, on occasion, be rather forgetful.

Phoebe went to bed a short time after, as did Mrs Jeffreys, but Thomas remained at the kitchen hearth, alone with his thoughts.

He later claimed that he wondered whether such a careful man as Mr Thomas might deliberately have left the gas lights burning in a bid to deter any would-be burglars. A window in the store had been broken earlier in the day and was only loosely boarded up with wood.

Thomas told himself that burglars might well view the broken window as an open invitation and to leave the lights burning was a prudent decision, yet he kept such thoughts to himself until questioned at the coroner’s court some three weeks later.

At 12.45pm Morgan Powell Jeffreys, Thomas’ elder brother arrived “the worse for drink”. He had been oblivious to the goings-on around him as he stumbled home and had completely failed to notice that the lights at Star Stores were still burning. He certainly had no clue as to whether the rear cellar door was open.

“I waited up for my brother then locked the door and put the key underneath,” Thomas later said.

“I am quite sure my brother did not say anything about the lights being on.”

Thomas served his brother supper and then both men retired for the night.

With the day’s work done

At precisely 10.30pm, Fanny Smith and Alice Stammers locked the front door of the fruit shop at Number Three, Commerce Place, and pulled down the shutters.

With business over for the day the two women went upstairs to their living quarters and settled down to supper – they would return to the shop later to clear up.

Like so many of the residents of Garnant, neither Fanny nor Alice were natives.

Fanny Mansfield had been born in Bath in 1869 and at the age of 25 was swept of her feet by a smooth-talking travelling fruit salesman from Wolverhampton by the name of William Henry Smith.

They married in the summer of 1894 and in little over a year, a son – Raymond – was born.

All was not well with their new-born however and Raymond was classed as “paralysed at birth” – quite possibly a Victorian diagnosis for cerebral palsy.

For a time at least – and quite possibly because of Raymond’s condition – the Smith family settled in Bristol. William continued his life as a commercial travelling salesman while Fanny remained at home with Raymond and Phillip, the family’s latest addition. Phillip arrived in the early months of 1901 and would be Smith’s only other child.

The family had also gained another – albeit unofficial – member by the time Phillip had been born. The couple had taken on a general maid to help relieve the pressure on Fanny while William was “on the road”.

Alice Stammers was a Londoner, born in 1878, and by 1901 was already a fixture in the Smith household. She would remain at Fanny’s side until the death of her employer in 1950, but would receive not a penny of her mistress’.£2,400 bequests.

By 1911, William too had tired of the life of a travelling salesman and, with Fanny, Phillip and Alice joining him, had set up in business running a fruit shop in Sale, Cheshire. Raymond meanwhile had been placed in the care of a residential school for epileptic children close by at Nether Alderley.

Life in the north of England did not go especially well for the Smiths however and by the middle of the decade they had returned to Bristol. Raymond died in the city aged 23 in 1918.

Soon after the death of their eldest son, the Smith family moved again, taking up the tenancy of a vacant shop in the village of Garnant, Carmarthenshire. Alice would help out in the shop as well as with the household’s domestic chores.

Once the two women had locked up the shop and gone upstairs, they settled down to eat in a room at the rear of the first floor of Number Three, Commerce Place.

The room overlooked the rear of the row and down towards Arcade Terrace. Further still the lights were still burning at the Amman Tin Works.

As they sat and ate their meal they heard not a sound nor saw any movement at the rear of Commerce Place.

They heard no barking dogs, no shouts, no awful screams, nor did they see a killer running from the rear of  the building next door.

At 12.45am, Fanny Smith and Alice Stammers could put off their final chores no more. The two women returned downstairs to the fruit shop and cleared up the detritus of the day’s trading.

Both women noticed however that despite the hour, the gas lights within Star Stores were still burning.

The curious incident of the dog in the night

A little after 10pm, but certainly before 10.30pm, Anne Jeffreys opened the back door of Commerce House and let out Spot the family dog.

The rear of Commerce Place was quiet and Mrs Jeffreys noted nothing untoward. She went back inside and left Spot to his business.

Within minutes however, the peace was shattered.

“Spot barked furiously,” Mrs Jeffreys said in her statement.

“As everything was so quiet outside I shouted to the dog: ‘What’s the matter boy?’”

The 61-year-old was alone in the house, but was not one to be shaken easily.

It was Anne who, on July 13, 1895, had reached agreement with land-owner Lord Dynevor and finally signed the lease for the vacant plot that would one day house the shops of Commerce Place.

The lease remained in Anne’s name until she signed it over to her husband Morgan on August 29, 1903, but it was Anne who would remain the named defendant in the 20-year-old legal dispute with the Dynevor Estate. The wrangle – over financial responsibility for costs incurred by necessary road improvements – saw the Jeffreys family refuse to pay a penny in a ground-rent until ordered to do so after a bitter High Court battle with Walter FitzUryan Rice, the seventh Baron Dynevor, in July 1915. The legal costs all but bankrupted the Jeffreys.

Anne was not a woman afraid of the dark.

She went to the door to see what had so riled the dog, but saw nothing obviously out of the ordinary.

“I could see nothing so I called the dog to come in,” she said.

“Spot then came in, so I forgot everything about it.”

A figure in the shadows

As Diana Bowen was telling her tale of awful screams and bacon slicers to Mrs Michael and Mrs Walters, another Garnant resident was heading home at the rear of Commerce Place.

William Charles Brooks, one of the many incomers who had arrived in the valley seeking a regular pay packet a decade earlier, was dreaming of his own hot supper as his shift as a beater came to a close at the Amman Tinplate Works and he made his way to 4 Arcade Terrace, a row of houses in the valley’s dip behind the shops.

Brooks, a 32-year-old Londoner, had settled in Garnant around 1910 and married Mary Ann Harries – quite likely with a shotgun at his head. Baby Henrietta had died before she reached six months – and long before her parents celebrated their first anniversary – but Nelly had soon followed and William junior too.

As Brooks made his way past his mother-in-law’s house at 2 Arcade Terrace, he glanced up at the rear of the shops and the dim glow of the valley road which he could see through Coronation Arcade. The arcade, which had given his own terraced row its name, ran at ground floor level between Numbers Four and Five, Commerce Place. Number Four was the second of the two Williams and Harries drapers shops in the row  – the partnership between two former valley rivals had benefitted both and their booming business had seen them occupy Numbers One and Four, sandwiching Star Stores and Fanny Smith’s fruit shop.

As Brooks looked on he saw a figure lurking in the Arcade’s shadows.

The figure made no move towards the street, but stayed hidden deep within the folds of darkness as if watching and listening. He appeared to be waiting for any sound or movement that might be made out on the main highway beyond William Brooks’ sight or hearing.

The figure turned and made his way down to the end of the Arcade before turning out and heading off  behind the fruit shop and the Star.

The man, Brooks knew, was Morgan William Jeffreys, the landlord of Commerce Place who lived nearby at Commerce House

Before renting the empty plot of land on which he would one day build Commerce Place from Lord Dynevor, the Jeffreys house was known more simply as Glanyrnant, but with property came grandeur and a more suitable title had been required for the family home.