A case already beyond control.

Details of the crime were already common knowledge and about to be published n the valley newspaper.

Details of the crime were already common knowledge and about to be published n the valley newspaper.

It was only after the coroner had adjourned the inquest and the gathered pressman crowded and jostled around the men from Scotland Yard in some hope of a quote that Nicholls realised Dr Jones had already been interviewed by a reporter from the Amman Valley Chronicle, the local weekly newspaper.

His heart sank even lower when he learned that Thomas Hooper Mounstephens, the dead man’s landlord, had also already received a visit from the press.

Nicholls and Canning dispatched everyone else from the vestry save for the man from the Chronicle before demanding to know exactly what the doctor had said – and more importantly, what the newspaper planned to print.

The reporter said he had spoken briefly with the doctor on the Sunday evening after his initial viewing of the body but prior to the post-mortem examination.

“Dr. Jones said he was called to the shop about ten o’clock on Sunday morning and saw the deceased lying behind the counter with his head towards the window,” the reporter told them.

Flicking through his notepad, he read the quotes he had taken down during the conversation.

“On a superficial examination I found a gap in the throat, which had severed the carotid artery and the jugular vein. There was also a punctured wound in the abdomen.”

The newsman then reeled off a list of the dead man’s injuries which both Nicholls and Canning would have preferred to keep to themselves for the time being.

“The puncture wounds were done with a sharp instrument, and the bruises may have been caused by the brush.

“Either of these wounds would ultimately prove fatal, but the immediate fatal wound was the gash in the throat, from which he would bleed quickly to death.

“The wound was about one inch by one inch and death would come in the course of a few seconds.”

Nicholls shook his head and wondered what other evidence and details of the case which could in time prove essential to the investigation had already been made public. His worst fears were soon to be confirmed.

Turning his page, the reporter continued quoting the doctor.

“The peculiar part of the wound in the abdomen was that none of the clothing was cut,” he read.

“The top buttons of the trousers were opened and also part of the waistcoat. The shirt had been uplifted, and there was a punctured wound with a couple of scratches round about it.”

Crucial information about the nature of the crime which should by rights have been known only to the police and the killer would be common knowledge within days, if it was not already.

To make matters worse, the reporter flicked another page and continued.

“It would then have been an easy matter for the murderer to have followed the deceased upstairs and then felled him,” the doctor had said.

“The first blow apparently only stunned the deceased, leading to the conclusion that Thomas Thomas must then have recognised his assailant.

“On his partial recovery another scuffle seems to have taken place, with the result that the murderer got hold of the broom handle lying at the time on the floor and afterwards found in the brook, and belaboured deceased with it.

“The knife was eventually brought into use.”

With the details of their case already known to the general public before they had even arrived on the scene and about to be published in the valley newspaper, the two Scotland Yard detectives began to wonder whether the investigation was already beyond their control.

A simple question of identity.

New Bethel Chapel where a crowed packed sardine-tight to witness the opening of the inquest into Thomas Thomas' death.

New Bethel Chapel where a crowed packed sardine-tight to witness the opening of the inquest into Thomas Thomas’ death.

The spacious vestry at the rear of New Bethel Chapel was already crowded when Nicholls, Canning, Sergeant Richards and Deputy Chief Constable Evans arrived at its gates as the residents of Garnant pressed their way inside to hear what might be said and for those who had not been at the earlier visit to scene to get a first glimpse of the men from Scotland Yard.

The chapel itself was just 20 or so yards down the valley road in the direction of Ammanford from the Star and sat on the border of Garnant and neighbouring Glanaman with the purpose of serving the Non-Conformist faithful of both villages.

It had been opened in 1876 with the foundation stone laid two years earlier and was erected on land gifted for the purpose by Evan Daniel of Swansea.

Designed by architect John Humphreys of Morriston and built by T. Thomas of Llanelli for a reported £2,040 11s and 6d, New Bethel has originally been the cause of some dispute with many residents preferring that two chapels be constructed – one in each village.

However, a small majority had won the day and a single unifying place of worship was erected, but the schisms within Non-Conformity would not go away and within the next 25 years three smaller chapels were built in Glanaman to serve their respected denominations.

Reverend Timothy Eynon Davies ministered at New Bethel Chapel until 1883 when he left to take up the pulpit at the Countess of Huntingdon Church, Swansea.

At the time of his departure, New Bethel was to be one of the most well attended Welsh chapels, having a regular congregation numbering in excess of 1,300 worshippers.

Davies was replaced by the Reverend Josiah Towyn Jones who remained at New Bethel until 1904 when he left to become a Christian missionary with the Welsh Congregational Century Fund.

A Liberal Party activist, Jones – a close friend of David Lloyd George – acted as election agent for Abel Thomas, the Member of Parliament for Carmarthenshire East and Llanelly for more than 22 years and when Thomas died in 1912, replaced him as MP in Carmarthenshire East and Llanelly. When the seat was abolished in 1918 Jones was elected MP for the new seat of Llanelli. .

Meanwhile, New Bethel continued to see its congregation swell and in 1914 a new organ was constructed at a cost of £1,000 – mainly due to the efforts of the Organ Fund Committee’s energetic secretary William Michael – the husband of Margaret Michael, whom Diana Bowen had breathlessly told her tale of awful screams and boys with their hands in bacon slicers while Thomas Thomas lay dying.

A hush fell on the crowded vestry and all eyes turned towards Inspector Nicholls and his colleagues as they entered the chapel and passed beneath the inscription stone, which read:

This Stone
Commemorates The Gift By
E Daniel, Esq., Swansea
Of The Site Of The Temple
With Other Valuable Donations
To The Congregational Church
Worshipping At This Place

Nicholls, Canning, Sergeant Richards and the Deputy Chief Constable took the seats reserved for them alongside the gathered pressman just moments before John Nicholas took his place at a table under the pulpit and called the proceedings to order.

Once the formalities of swearing in the eight-man jury – with John Phillips, postmaster, as foreman – were over, the coroner eyed them each in turn.

“You are sworn to inquire into the circumstances attending the death of Thomas Thomas,” he said solemnly.

“All I think is necessary today is to simply take evidence of identification,” he added.

The reverential hush amongst the sardine-tight crowd turned to a groan.

With a scolding glance around the room he offered only the explanation that the day’s proceedings would be unable to throw new light on the crime due to the strictest secrecy of the ongoing police investigation.

“I shall then adjourn the enquiry until some convenient day, in order that the police, after making further investigation – we hope with some result – may be able to place before the Court a continuous, consecutive and strong story.

“I think it better to do that than call part of the evidence now and part again.”

However, before any evidence was taken or the witness called, the coroner and jurors were taken to Glanyrafon Villas where the body of Thomas Thomas remained so that they might view the corpse and see for themselves the gruesome injuries he had suffered.

Upon their return to New Bethel Chapel and the calling once again to order, the day’s only witness was sworn in.

He gave his name as John Thomas, only brother of deceased.

Thomas told the court that he lived at Blackpill, Swansea, and was employed by the London and North West Railway company as stationmaster at Mumbles Road.

He confirmed that the dead man was indeed his brother Thomas, who was two months short of his 45th birthday at the time of his death.

His brother was, John Thomas said, a bachelor who has been employed by the Star Tea Company as a store manager for some 14 years, first at Bridgend, then Llandeilo and latterly at Garnant.

“What was his condition as to health?” asked the Coroner.

“Fair,” replied the witness. “He was never very robust, and suffered from headaches and varicose veins.

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

“He had, as recently as last week, undergone an operation at Swansea for nasal trouble.”

John Thomas said he had last seen his brother alive when the latter had visited him and his wife in Swansea to celebrate Christmas.

With confirmation of Thomas Thomas’ identity complete, the Coroner adjourned the inquest until a second hearing on March 1, when he hoped the full facts of the case and the identity of the killer might be revealed.

Misery makes Heroes – an announcement.

John Rhys Davies

John Rhys Davies

I am delighted to announce that star of Lord of the Rings and the Indiana Jones movies – amongst many others – John Rhys Davies has agreed to record Misery makes Heroes of us All.

John, who was born in the Amman Valley, has agreed to record my tribute to Ammanford solider Arthur Williams at the BBC studios in Cardiff on Tuesday.

BBC Wales producer Bethan Jones has agreed to allow us use of the studio for the recording.

Arthur, a member of 9 Royal Welch Fusiliers, died on September 27, 1915, in a military hospital after being shot at the Battle of Loos.

I am incredibly grateful to both John and Bethan for their kindness.

I will announce details of where to hear the audio as soon as possible.

I am also grateful to Anita Evans – @laraseren – for such a brilliant suggestion.

Misery makes heroes of us all.

This piece has nothing whatsoever to do with the murder at Star Stores. It was an article I composed for Remembrance Day a few years ago based on the original letters I was fortunate enough to have been handed by Arthur’s niece. Coming across it again now I have decided to post it here. I apologise if it is not what readers of this blog were expecting, but I beg your indulgence and hope you forgive me on this one occasion. 

Private Arthur Williams  9 Royal Welch Fusiliers

Private Arthur Williams
9 Royal Welch Fusiliers

At 5.50am on September 25, 1915, a furious bombardment – like the revving engines of one thousand motorcycles – roared across the sky above the heads of the 9th Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers towards the German lines positioned north of Loos, a small mining town in northern France.

 

For three whole weeks, the men of the 9 RWF had lain in wait – face down in the craters of earlier exchanges – preparing for the order that announced The Big Push – the great advance that would drive the Germans out of France and end the unendurable horrors of the Great War.

An artillery bombardment had pounded the German line for four days solid to shatter enemy morale and decimate the machine gun nests and wire defences that protected Kaiser Wilhelm’s men, but in the cold, damp morning air the shelling intensified beyond the worst imaginings of the most battle-hardened Tommy.

On that almost breathless morning as unceasing rain transformed the British positions into a quagmire, the war would surely change its course. Until that day, the Germans had outnumbered and outgunned the allied forces, but now, at last, opposing generals boasted all but equal resources in terms of men, guns, bullets and munitions.

Huddled with their brothers-in-arms in those filthy, rain-drenched fields awaiting the shrill whistle to advance were men – or rather boys – from Ammanford, Llandeilo, Cross Hands, Brynaman and every village in between.

On September 20 – the day before the bombardment had begun, Mrs Williams of 33 Heol Las, Ammanford, received a letter from her 22-year-old son, Arthur. Arthur and his comrades, in the fields and trenches north of Loos, knew the push was merely days away. His younger brother Richard was a few miles up the line. Accompanying the letter, Arthur sent a note home to his sister:

“You mustn’t worry mother about him; he will be all right, and tell mother that I am as happy as a lark, and to be proud that she has got two sons fighting for our country.”

Arthur ended: “Trusting that God will spare us to come home again after doing our duty.”

In those early hours of September 25, at Divisional Headquarters some miles rear of Arthur and his comrades, General Sir Douglas Haig watched a junior officer light a cigarette.

As the smoke drifted gently in the direction of the German lines, Haig’s mind was at last set firm.

For six long months, the Germans had unleashed a fearsome new weapon – chlorine gas. But now the allies possessed a horrific cloud of their own to asphyxiate and debilitate its victims and leave them helpless to hot metal spat from angry guns.

As the cigarette smoke danced along the morning breeze, Haig gave the fateful order to release the Allied gas.

At 6.30am the British guns fell silent and a pall of smoke and chlorine fell between opposing lines. The whistles which refused to go unanswered sang out across the dawn and Arthur, Richard, Private Stephen Prout – another Ammanford boy – and Corporal John Evans of Cross Hands, and thousands like them clambered out from the water-filled holes and trenches where they had sheltered and slept in comradely trios, each taking a turn in the middle to savour whatever warmth could be found there.

“We braced ourselves and leapt onto the open field,” said one survivor afterwards.

“Misery makes heroes of us all.”

Arthur, according to his fellows, was one of the first “over the top”.

The spreading gas forewarned the Germans of the Push, and unbeknownst to the boys of 9 RWF the unrelenting bombardment had done little to diminish the defences that awaited them.

The incessant rain of days and weeks made progress all but impossible. Their great coats were soaked in mud and blood and rain and each weighed heavy as an overflowing coal sack as the men of 9 RWF walked on through mounting piles of corpses into a hail of burning lead.

Haig’s gentle breeze began to falter. The wind turned south and pushed the noxious fumes away to leave the Kaiser’s men unmoved and offer them clear sight of Tommy’s slow charge.

Undeterred, the boys and men of 9 RWF pushed on, and undeterred the German guns rang out.

Arthur took a bullet to the stomach and fell on that blood and rain-soaked field so very far from home. Some unknown, un-named comrade ignored the fizzing, whizzing Hell about him and stopped and kneeled and freed poor Arthur from his backpack. Together they crawled, with Arthur fighting harder even than he’d fought the Hun, back from whence they’d come.

From the British line, he was carried in a makeshift ambulance 150 miles south-east to No2 Stationary Hospital at Rouen, arriving either on September 26 or 27.

On September 29, a letter was delivered in the morning mail to 33 Heol Las.

“Dear Mrs Williams,” wrote the nurse, “I am sorry to tell you that your son, Private Arthur Williams, died last night of wounds received in action.

“He was admitted at 8pm, and was unconscious, and died very peaceably at 11.

“He was suffering from abdominal wounds, and the surgeon had no hope from the first.

“I wish I had more to tell you. It is terribly hard for you to only get bare facts, but unfortunately it is all I can do.”

Stephen Prout was wounded at Loos, but survived the war, as did Richard Williams and John Evans, who despite the horrors he would live to witness, said of the September 25 advance: “It was a charge I will never forget.”

Arthur Williams was buried at Abbeville Communal War Cemetery near the Somme in France.

There is a corner of that foreign field that is forever Ammanford.

Not a single clue to work on.

Nicholls meeting with the Deputy Chief Constable of the Carmarthenshire Constabularly did not go as well as he might have hoped.

Nicholls’ meeting with the Deputy Chief Constable of the Carmarthenshire Constabulary did not go as well as he had hoped.

The meeting with Deputy Chief Constable Evans did not got as well as Nicholls had hoped.

Despite the discovery of the murder weapons, the broken button and possible – albeit imperfect – fingerprints, Evans was already expressing doubt that the crime would ever be solved.

“As far as I can see, there remains not a single worthwhile clue for the police to work upon,” he told the man from Scotland Yard.

Evans was 65 years old and less than two months from retirement from the force.

It seemed to Nicholls that perhaps the Deputy Chief Inspector was already thinking of his garden and his pipe, though he chose not to share such thoughts with the local officers.

Evans did however place at Nicholls disposal “the full assistance” of the Carmarthenshire Constabulary to investigate the crime as he saw fit.

In reality, the full assistance of the force meant the services of Sergeant Richards and Constable Thomas.

Nicholls was assured however that should there be a breakthrough in the case “any other assistance that he might require would be readily given,” but for the day-to-day ground-work of the investigation he should look no further than the support provided by the two Garnant officers.

With little more to be gained from further discussions, Nicholls, Canning, Sergeant Richards, PC Thomas and Deputy Chief Constable Evans made their way to New Bethel Chapel where John William Nicholas, the Carmarthen County Council solicitor, was – in his role as county coroner – to open the inquest into the death of Thomas Thomas.

A word of thanks.

Perhaps Thomas Thomas will now at last be able to rest in peace.

Perhaps Thomas Thomas will now at last be able to rest in peace.

I would just like to say a huge thank you to everyone who contacted me with messages of support and positivity following yesterday’s news.

Murder at the Star began as a pet project which has been taken to a completely unexpected level thanks to the support of those reading the blog and following on Twitter.

When I started researching the murder of Thomas Thomas, it never crossed my mind that what I was doing would be of any interest to anyone apart from myself. How wrong I was.

The blog – which in reality is still in its infancy – has been read almost 2,000 times by readers from as far a-field as the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Spain, France, Germany, South Africa, the Middle East, all over the UK, and of course here in Wales.

The use of this blog and Twitter – and the way readers have used them to respond and interact with me throughout the process so far – has, I believe, made Murder at the Star a truly unique project. There may be something similar out there somewhere, but I am honestly yet to find. That is down as much to you, the readers, as it is me, the writer.

I truly believe we have all been part of something which has changed the way writing will take place in the future. The Murder at the Star blog – and subsequent book – may not be the greatest piece of literature ever penned, but I really do think it will have played a part in defining writing and researching in the digital age.

The increasing interest created by the use of social media has proved inspirational in pushing me to dig deeper, look further and work harder to uncover all the facts. I now feel I know exactly what happened on that fateful night 93 years ago, and in the days and weeks – and indeed years – which followed.

It is only due to the support, feedback and – continued and ever-increasing – interest in what I was doing that I took the decision to actually contact a publishing company.

Nothing is yet signed and sealed, but I’ve been given every indication that a formal deal will be approved within the next two weeks.

While on a personal level, the thought of Murder at the Star appearing on the shelves of bookshops across the country is incredibly exciting and rewarding, the real winners – I hope – will be truth and justice – and trust me, I am aware just how pretentious that sounds.

For more than 90 years one man has been labelled a killer in the pubs and shops and over the kitchen tables of the Amman valley. Those rumours were undoubtedly wrong.

Murder at the Star will finally clear the name of man wholly innocent of the heinous crime which claimed the life of Thomas Thomas. For that reason alone, these hours spent in libraries, archives and dusty storerooms – not to mention the hundreds and hundreds of hours spent staring at a computer screen long into the night – will all have been worthwhile.

Similarly, the chance to name the man who I always suspected and am now completely sure took a blameless life for nothing more than £100 or so – only to then rub shoulders with his neighbours, point fingers at the innocent and spend the remainder of his days living a happy and successful life – has proved a major driving force.

While it is obvious that the truths I plan to reveal have come much, much too late to have any impact on these men, they will – unofficially at least – bring down the curtain on the Amman valley’s only unsolved murder.

I hope they will also, in some strange way, allow Thomas Thomas to finally rest in peace.

For your support and interest, I once again thank you all and I am sure that somehow, somewhere Thomas would like to do the same.

Steve

A broken button at the heart of the Star

Sergeant Richards showed the detectives to the cellar door leasing into the heart of  the Star.

Sergeant Richards showed the detectives to the cellar door leasing into the heart of the Star.

Nicholls was keen to visit the scene of the murder at the earliest opportunity and after finishing breakfast the four men walked the short distance to Star Stores.

The Deputy Chief Constable had arranged to travel over from Llandeilo at 10am to discuss the case prior to the opening of the inquest and both Scotland Yard detectives wished to familiarise themselves with the shop and surrounding area before the meeting.

Sergeant Richards was also keen to show Nicholls what, he considered, might be the only clue to have been found inside the Star and he led the men the short distance along the valley road to the shop.

Before entering however, Nicholls asked to be shown the broken, boarded window pane fixed by Thomas Thomas in the hours prior to his death.

With the detectives noting down the details in their pocket books, Richards then guided them down the darkened Coronation Arcade to the yard at the rear of the Star where, in response to the questions of his new companions, he highlighted the complete absence of any footprints which might have been linked to the crime and subsequent getaway.

Nicholls was again satisfied that the uniformed officer’s assessment was correct that there had been little or no chance of any impressions being left due to the heavily compacted earth and sub-zero temperature overnight on February 12.

Richards then ushered them to the cellar door through which the killer had most likely escaped and from there up into the heart of the Star.

After carrying out a minute examination of the bloodstained floor and wooden box on which the shopkeeper’s vital fluid had been splashed, the detectives expanded their search throughout the remainder of the shop, warehouse and cellar area.

During their examination, Nicholls marked a number of smudges and grease marks which, after viewing under his magnifying glass, he identified as fingerprints.

Nicholls, Canning and the two Carmarthenshire officers then examined each of the doors and windows of the Star and – apart from the broken window pane – could find nothing untoward.

There appeared no sign of forced entry anywhere on the premises.

Once the senior office was satisfied that nothing has been missed during previous searches he allowed Richards to direct his attention to the safe and the one item which the sergeant believed may have been worthy of consideration as a clue.

During his initial examination of the open safe in the hours following the discovery of the body, Richards had spotted a small piece of a broken button lodged in the lower of the two mortises inside the right-hand side of the safe.

The broken button appeared like that which may have been found on a waistcoat or coat sleeve.

Richards surmised that the thief may possibly have caught his clothing on the safe lock while reaching in to remove items, causing the button to snap.

Although Nicholls agreed that the idea was solid, by testing the door it became clear that the officers were able to open and close the safe while the broken button remained in situ without causing any hindrance to the movement or mechanism.

It was therefore decided that while it was indeed possible that the button had broken from the killer’s clothing it was just as likely to have been present and gone unnoticed long before the crime had been committed.

Taking out his magnifying glass again, Nicholls then began a minute inspection of the safe both inside and out, again finding numerous fingerprints and greasy smears particularly around the door and lock.

His expert eye however left him of the opinion that the marks were poorly defined and unlikely to prove useful.

It also seemed likely that the thief may well have found the safe door open and would therefore have had no need to touch any part of the box itself.

The two tins in which the shop takings were kept, and which were found lying at the side and in front of the safe were also carefully examined under Nicholls’ magnifying glass.

The larger tin, in which the shopkeeper had kept the silver, appeared to have fingerprints on the inside at each end. However the marks on one end were overlayed and superimposed due to repeated handling, making them indistinct and impossible to isolate one from another.

Those at the other end were slightly clearer and less smudged through multiple handlings though were also, in Nicholls opinion, of poor character.

In spite of his reservations, he withdrew a small container of black powder from his pocket and, while the Carmarthenshire men watched closely, sprinkled some of the contents over the clearer of the finger impressions.

While able to improve the contrast of the prints against the metal of the container, Nicholls again formed the opinion that the marks would be of little use – unless they were able to identify a suspect whose own fingerprints could be taken and tested in comparison.

Nonetheless, he ordered Sergeant Richards to carefully remove the tin and store it under lock and key at the station ahead of such an eventuality or the possibility that in the coming days he might change his mind and have the container despatched to London for more scientific analysis.

With their examination complete, the four men returned to the station to await the arrival of the Deputy Chief Constable.