A day like any other.

Saturday, February 12, seemed a day like any other.

Saturday, February 12, seemed a day like any other.

Sergeant Richards had been far from idle as he awaited the arrival of the men from Scotland Yard.

After carrying out the search of the field to the rear of the Star Stores, he set about – as best he was able – cataloguing the day’s events leading up to the murder of the frail little shopkeeper.

His task had been made somewhat easier by the fact that two of his children – 17-year-old Nellie and 14-year-old Emlyn – made up almost half of the Star’s five surviving members of staff.

From the information he could ascertain, the day had proceeded without any major incident save for a minor accident and the appearance of a number of customers late in the afternoon who appeared to have been slightly intoxicated.

Thomas Thomas had opened the shop at 9am as usual and the morning’s trade had progressed without any event of note. Also present from opening time onwards was the first hand Phoebe Jones, grocery assistant Nellie Richards and the two boy assistants Henry Morris, aged 15, and Emlyn Richards. The errand boy Trevor Morgan spent the day in and out of the shop, delivering orders on his bicycle before returning to collect his next load.

The shop had been no more and no less busy than was usual on a Saturday morning with numerous customers appearing to buy provisions, place orders or pay outstanding debts for goods already delivered. No one out of the ordinary had appeared and no member of the staff could recall serving anyone they considered a stranger.

Sometime between 10am and 11am the minor incident occurred when Mr Thomas knocked over a window display of tin cans, breaking the street window behind the provisions counter. Trevor Morgan, who was waiting for Nellie Richards to put together his next delivery, was sent down to the cellar for a piece of wood to cover the broken pane.

Mr Thomas himself had fastened the wood over the hole and cleared up the broken glass.

At 1pm the shop was closed for a lunch break, re-opening again on schedule at 2pm.

Late in the afternoon, Nellie also left the store to make a number of deliveries of her own, returning at around 5.45pm.

During her absence, various individuals entered the shop slightly inebriated.

Mr Thomas, a rather religious man, did not approve of those who consumed intoxicating liquor, but had been willing to serve the customers and take their money as none appeared to be in a state of drunkenness despite smelling of alcohol.

They individuals in question were all local men and regular customers at the Star who had attended the rugby match played earlier at Cwmamman Park.

At about 6pm the various members of staff – apart from Mr Thomas – took their turn to leave the shop and go home for a short tea-break. The boys and Nellie had all used the side entrance when leaving while Phoebe had gone out through the cellar door to make the short trip to her lodgings with the Jeffreys family at nearby Commerce House.

Sometime after Phoebe had returned, though she could not offer a specific time, Thomas Conway Morgan, an occasional customer at Star Stores, had entered through the main street door and spoken with Mr Thomas about the possibility of taking a wooden box.

Mr Thomas often allowed customers to reserve boxes to fill with their purchases and it was not in any way unusual for him to allow such customers to go unaccompanied to the cellar and select a box of their choice. These customers would usually then leave the shop by the cellar door.

Phoebe had a clear recollection of Mr Morgan going to the cellar in search of such a box as she was not altogether comfortable in the presence of the man who had a reputation as ne’er do well. A deformity to his right hand only added to her unease in his company.

On Saturday night, at least half a dozen regular customers had gone down into the cellar to choose a box and then left either by the cellar door or returned up the stairs to leave by the main entrance.

Shortly after 7.30pm, Mr Morgan Jeffreys, the landlord of Star Stores, had entered the shop and purchased various items. He was on the premises for ten to 15 minutes before leaving, but none of the shop staff could recall whether he had left by the main door or had gone out through the cellar.

Between 7.45pm and 8pm, Mr Thomas Mountstephens and his wife Lily came into the shop and remained for approximately ten minutes during which time they settled a bill for goods which had been delivered earlier in the day by the errand boy. The couple, though they did not speak with any member of staff save for the shop manager himself, were well known to the various assistants as Mr Thomas lodged with the couple at Glanyrafon Villas.

At 8.15pm Thomas Thomas closed the shop for the day and doused the two window lights to ensure any late arrivals hoping to gain entry were left in no doubt that they had missed their opportunity. The shop’s remaining 14 gas lights would not be extinguished until Mr Thomas left for the night.

As was the norm, Henry Morris then fixed the portable gate at the front door and Mr Thomas locked the front door.

 

For the next 30 minutes or so, the three boys working in the shop set about brushing the floor and generally clearing up while Nellie Richards tidied the grocery area. She shut and locked the window behind the grocery counter before pulling down the blind. Mr Thomas did the same to the window behind the provisions counter – checking as he did so that the wood covering the broken pane remained fastened in place.

The boys cleared their sweepings into a bucket which was then carried to the cellar and emptied into a wooden box kept near the rear door for that purpose. Emlyn Richards then leant the shop broom, with the head uppermost, against the wall next to the safe as usual.

At approximately 8.45pm, just before she left for the day, Nellie ran a quick errand for Phoebe when she went – via the cellar door – to Commerce House and spoke with Mrs Jeffreys regarding a dress she was mending which Phoebe intended to wear that evening to a concert at Stepney Hall.

Nellie was gone for no more than five minutes and when she returned she secured the cellar door. She informed Phoebe that her dress was ready and left for the night by way of the side door, along with the three boys.

Phoebe, meanwhile, made up the shop ledgers and reckoned the day’s takings from the receipts. The job took her a little over an hour to check and then double-check, as demanded by Mr Thomas.

The shopkeeper took off his apron and shop coat, placing them on a hanging near the warehouse door, before he emptied the tills of money and settled behind the grocery counter with the shop cash book and the weekly accounts.

At 9.45pm, with her work for the day over, Phoebe left by the side door leading up the small alleyway on to the valley road. Before she departed, as was his habit, Mr Thomas asked her to check the cellar door was locked.

Phoebe went to the top of the cellar stairs and, from where stood – despite there being no light in the cellar – she could, thanks to the illumination of the shop lights – clearly see that the door had been both locked and then bolted with an iron bar used specifically for that purpose.

She then left by the side door, slamming it hard behind her to ensure the bolt caught in the latch meaning it could only be opened from inside.

Mr Thomas was still standing at the grocery counter with the cash book, the day’s takings and the two small tins into which he would eventually place the cash, laid out in front of him.

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To hunt a murderous quarry.

Like King Arthur before him, Nicholls arrived in the Amman Valley to hunt a murderous quarry.

Like King Arthur before him, Nicholls arrived in the Amman Valley to hunt a murderous quarry.

As Nicholls approached the station at Garnant in the murky pre-dawn hours his arrival echoed that of another huntsman from the mists of time and myth.

While Nicholls had been summoned by the Chief Constable of Carmarthenshire to hunt the killer of Thomas Thomas, so too King Arthur had once been called upon to pursue a murderous quarry along the length of the Amman Valley.

In the story of Culhwch and Olwen, the ancient tale which forms part of the Mabinogion, Arthur is despatched to Cwmamman to chase the mythic Twrch Trwyth, whom God had transformed into a giant boar as punishment for his sins.

Nicholls could only hope that his target would prove so easy to identify.

While Arthur selected his finest knights to accompany him, the detective – for his quest – had chosen just one, Detective Sergeant Canning.

As with the band of brothers who pursued the boar in a time past beyond reckoning, so too did Nicholls and Canning reach Cwmamman as the first light of day was beginning to illuminate the sky.

They were met at the station by Sergeant Thomas Richards who led them to the village police station which he and his family also called home.

While Arthur and his knights devoured a feast fit for a king before embarking on their hunt, Nicholls and Canning breakfasted on bacon and eggs before beginning their investigation in earnest.

Cold hands and cornets.

Frederick James placed his sheet music up against the window and began to play.

Frederick James placed his sheet music up against the window and began to play.

As the clock neared midnight, Frederick James and his fellow members of the band began to filter away from Stepney Hall.

Frederick, a 31-year-old collier by day and cornet player by night, faced the long walk home to Glanaman along the pitch black valley road.

As he and band-mate made their way to their beds still buzzing with excitement and energy from a live performance, they were surprised to see one lone light still burning in the night.

The pair moved closer and paused in the arc of gaslight cast from behind the thin blinds of Star Stores.

“Like a spotlight on the stage,” Frederick joked with his companion.

As their laughter hung in the cold night air, a mischievous grin took shape on Frederick’s lips as a thought began to form.

He nudged his fellow player closer into the doorway of the shop and pulled out a piece of sheet music from his pocket.

Holding the paper up against the cold glass of the window so the lights from inside illuminated the notation, Frederick raised his cornet to his lips.

Struggling to hold back his giggles, he began to play. His companion raised his own instrument and the pair played out a midnight melody to the deserted valley road.

Less than ten feet away – behind the window pane and blinds, Thomas Thomas’ corpse was already going cold.

[This tale has been passed to me by Frederick’s daughter Catherine,]

From Scotland Yard by mail train.

At Scotland Yard an officer was chosen to head west and lead the investigation.

At Scotland Yard an officer was chosen to head west and lead the investigation.

Two hours after the arrival of Chief Constable W. Picton Phillips’ telegram at Scotland Yard a meeting was already underway in the Commissioner’s Office of the Criminal Investigation Department at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Force in London.

One of those present was Divisional Detective Inspector George Robert Nicholls.

Nicholls was a month shy of his 44th birthday and had 23 years service with the Met under his belt, 21 of which were as a detective with CID.

A brown-haired, blue-eyed Londoner standing five-foot-ten in his stocking feet, Nicholls was the quintessential Met officer.

Nicholls, a married father of two, had been selected from the available senior officers to travel to west Wales and lead the investigation into the killing of Thomas Thomas at the Star Stores.

He also chose to take Detective Sergeant Charles Canning to assist with the inquiry.

Canning was of similar stature to Nicholls and was only six months younger than his senior officer.

He had joined the Met in 1902 and had spent his career stationed at Marylebone and Greenwich before transferring to the CID Commissioner’s Office in December 1918.

Enquiries were made and tickets booked for the mail train from London to Cardiff where they would change trains and move on to Llanelli in Carmarthenshire. There a coal wagon would – after unloading its cargo of Amman Valley anthracite – await their arrival and carry them north to the shellshocked village of Garnant.

With the details agreed, Nicholls telephoned the Chief Constable of the Carmarthenshire Constabulary to confirm that he and his sergeant would arrive first thing in the morning.

Murder committed – send an officer to assist.

PC David Thomas with the boning knife discovered in the brook to the rear of Star Stores.

PC David Thomas with the boning knife discovered in the brook to the rear of Star Stores.

While the doctors set about their grisly task over the River Aman and across the rugby field at Glanyrafon Villas, Deputy Chief Constable Evans oversaw the beginnings of the investigation from inside Star Stores.

The first hand, Miss Phoebe Jones, was summoned.

Firstly, she was asked to confirm whether any items were missing or had been disturbed.

The shop, she said, was as it should be, save for the bloodstains on the floor and the broomhead and dentures behind the provisions counter. The warehouse was strewn with paper and items from the safe, but she could see nothing missing apart from the money which should have been in the two empty tins.

After a pause however, she looked again.

A boning knife, usually kept in the safe, was also missing. There were seven knives in all used in the shop, but only six could now be located. The knife had a red handle and Phoebe herself had used it a number of times on Saturday.

The broom used to brush the shop floor which was kept in the warehouse was also missing. The broomhead was identical in all aspects to the one on the floor behind the provisions counter and Phoebe was in no doubt they were one and the same, but the handle was nowhere to be seen.

She was also instructed to examine the day’s receipts and calculate the amount of money missing.

Meanwhile, Sergeant Richards summoned his 14-year-old son Emlyn and Trevor Morgan.

Emlyn had left school the previous year and worked alongside his elder sister Nellie as an assistant at the Star. At 13, Trevor Morgan was in his final year of school and worked at the Star as an errand boy after class and on Saturdays.

The boys were set the task of searching the fields to the rear of the Star up to the River Aman. Anything unusual was to remain untouched and be reported back to Sergeant Richards immediately.

At 10.45am, the pair raced out-of-breath up the hill back to the Star where Sergeant Richards and Constable Thomas were again examining the rear garden area behind the row of shops and the Jeffreys’ home at Commerce House.

Some 200 yards to the rear of the Star in the little stream – or nant – which babbled down the valley side to join the River Aman in the basin and which had given the village its name, the boys discovered a broken broom handle.

It was submerged in the water, held down by stones.

As Sergeant Richards carefully removed the handle, Constable Thomas and the boys scoured the river. They found the knife beneath a large stone in the deepest part of the stream just a few yards downstream.

The blade was speckled with rust and bloodstains. Its handle was dark brown.

Richards summoned those constables from Llandeilo and Carmarthen who had remained in Garnant overnight and a thorough search was carried out of the field, particularly around the brook, and also hedges, gateways and muddy areas in the hope that a set of footprints or some other item might be discovered, but nothing more was found.

Meanwhile at Number Two Glanyrafon Villas, the dead man’s clothes were being examined. Despite the stab wounds to Thomas Thomas’ body, his clothing – though stained with blood – was undamaged. In his pockets was discovered £15 and a penny in cash, his watch and a number of well-read newspaper cuttings on spiritualism and religion.

At the Star Stores, Phoebe Jones had double-checked the receipts.

They represented, she told DCC Evans, the takings from Friday and Saturday. Mr Thomas had last been to the bank on Thursday.

There was £128 and two-and-a-half pence missing.

Immediately, DCC Evans passed the message on to Chief Constable W Picton Phillips who in turn contacted Llandeilo Post Office with instructions that a telegram be sent in all haste.

The telegram, despatched at 12.20pm, read:

Handcuffs London

Murder committed Garnant Carmarthenshire
Saturday night or yesterday morning early
Come send an officer to assist.
Chief Constable of Carmarthenshire
Llandeilo Station. Officer should proceed to police station Garnant.

"murder committed...send an officer to assist."

“murder committed…send an officer to assist.”

The telegram – number 123969 – was transmitted to Parliament Square Post Office and from there hand delivered to the desk officer at Scotland Yard.

A most harmless man.

Thomas Thomas, the murdered shopkeeper.

Thomas Thomas, the murdered shopkeeper.

When Diana Bowen, the closest thing we have to a witness to the murder of Thomas Thomas, told police she heard “an awful screech as of a boy or some weak person” coming from inside Star Stores at a little after 10.15pm on February 12, 1921, she was without doubt describing the final moments of the shopkeeper.

In a community where men earned their living either underground at the coal-face or within touching distance of the red-hot furnaces of the tin-plate works, where life was cheap and death only a single slip or error of judgement away, Thomas Thomas was a weak person.

He was 44 years of age when he died and had spent his entire working life behind a shop counter.

Compared to the men of Cwmaman, Thomas Thomas was a weak person.

He was frail, deaf in one ear and little better in the other, and had spent his entire life battling ill-health.

Thomas was a man of poor physique and was little more than skin and bones.

He was afflicted with deafness, more particularly in the left ear, and had a deformity of the right leg caused by an accident when a youth”.

A week before his murder, Thomas had undergone surgery “for nasal trouble” at a clinic in Swansea.

“He was never very robust,” his brother would say. “He suffered from headaches and varicose veins.”

“He was almost stone deaf in one ear and this had affected the other.”

According to those that knew him, though the indication appears to be that few in Garnant knew him well, he was a man of regular and simple habits and, according “of studious nature”.

“He was a most harmless man,” his landlord Thomas Hooper Mountstephens would say. “He had not an enemy in the world”.

A bachelor, he was also devout in his worship and on his corpse was found a number of newspaper cuttings relating to religion and spiritualism which he appears to have read repeatedly.

He took on management of the Garnant branch of Star Stores in November 1919 having previously been employed, according to his brother John, “in similar positions” for 15 years at branches of the Star in Bridgend and Llandeilo.

It is possible that Thomas spent his entire working life in the employment of the Star Tea Company, owners of the Star Stores chain of shops.

He was born in 1877 in the Carmarthenshire village of Llangendeirne – Llangyndeyrn in its pure Welsh form – to James and Elizabeth Thomas.

Llangendeirne lies some 20 miles directly west of Garnant.

James was a well-known local shoemaker who was born and lived his entire life in Llangendeirne. Elizabeth grew up in another Carmarthenshire village, Llanegwad

Thomas was the eldest of the couple’s three children and was born – somewhat surprisingly – when both his parents were aged 37.

By the age of 14, Thomas had left the family home and was a paying lodger at 38 King St, Carmarthen, where he worked as a shopkeeper’s apprentice. There was certainly a Star Stores in Carmarthen at this time though whether Thomas was yet employed by the company is difficult to tell.

At some point during the next decade he left rural Carmarthenshire and moved to Cardiff, a young city growing rich and fat on the coal industry though still a long way from becoming the capital of Wales.

By 1901 Thomas was employed as a shop assistant while boarding at 11 Stockland St in Canton, Cardiff. Again, Star certainly had a store in the town, though whether Thomas was an employee remains uncertain. He may have moved to Cardiff in search of more than was on offer in Carmarthenshire, but it does certainly seem more likely that he was moving from one branch of the Star to another.

By 1911, Thomas was branch manager of the Bridgend and Maesteg branch of Star Stores, renting a room – or at least a bed – at Y Gongl, 12 Port Terrace, Maesteg.

Precisely how long he remained in Maesteg – or Bridgend if we accept his brother’s comments – is unknown, but we can be sure that at some point between 1911 and 1919 he had moved again to take over the running of the Llandeilo branch before then replacing the outgoing manager at Garnant. It seems certain that Thomas was only the second man to hold the title of Garnant branch manager with the store only opening its doors for the first time around 1916.

Upon arrival in Garnant he took up lodgings at 2 Glanyrafon Villas, directly across the valley from the rear of Star Stores, where he shared a room – and indeed a bed as was the regular custom amongst lodgers in communities where demand for rooms far outstripped supply – with David Impey.

Broken, bruised and battered.

Eleven separate pieces of broken bone were embedded in the brain.

Eleven separate pieces of broken bone were embedded in the brain.

On the morning of Monday, February 14, Dr George Evan Jones, assisted by his partner Trefor Hughes Rhys, began the gruesome task of carrying out a post-mortem examination on the body of the shopkeeper.

Jones was a North Walian by birth though his mother’s family hailed from Cheshire and it was here he spent his schooldays before undergoing medical training at Edinburgh University, where he was a contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Rhys was originally from Kidwelly some 30 miles east of Garnant on the River Gwendraeth.  He earned the rank of Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Great War, and seen his share of bloodshed and death in Mesopotamia in the spring of 1918 having arrived in Baghdad the previous August. After the war, Rhys came home to Wales and the fiancée he had left behind. He married his childhood sweetheart Dora in Pembroke in the spring of 1920 and the young couple immediately moved to the Amman Valley and a new life where the now 30-year-old Rhys has taken up the position alongside Dr Jones.

The two men set about the examination with a grim stoicism. Both had experienced the worst of injuries, whether from the battlefield or the pit, but the mutilated body of the frail shopkeeper bore witness to a unique tragedy.

Thomas Thomas had been battered, stabbed and his throat slit.

Thomas Thomas had been battered, stabbed and his throat slit.

Upon removing the scalp, the two men – with Dr Jones taking the lead – immediately noted a fracture of the squamous portion of the right temporal bone.

There were also fractures to parts of the front and right parietal bone which were now in contact with the temporal bone.

A total of eleven separate pieces of bone had been broken from the main bones and were pressing on the membranous coverings and onto the brain itself.

The zygomatic bone – the cheek bone – was also fractured in two places.

On the right side of the neck was a puncture wound.

The doctors traced the trajectory of the wound and found to pass upwards and inwards, just missing the carotid sheath and contents before passing underneath the floor of the mouth, cutting through the root of the tongue, passing through the left tonsil and almost passing out on the left side of the neck.

There was a punctured wound in the abdomen just below the lower end of the sternum.

Again Dr Jones traced the wound. It passed through the left lobe of the liver and along the small curvature of the stomach, making an incision into the stomach as it passed over it, and then passing completely through the left kidney.

The stomach was practically empty with the exception of some fluid and a small piece of partially digested moat. It contained no cheese.

All the internal organs were healthy but pale due to the considerable loss of blood.

The doctors agreed that Thomas Thomas had died between 9pm and midnight on Saturday, February 12.