South Wales Guardian: Reporter set to solve 1921 murder. April 23, 2014.
For those who may have I missed my over-excited social media triumphalism earlier today, I would like to announce that I have today received formal confirmation that Murder at the Star is to be published in book form.
Bridgend-based Seren Books will be publishing Murder at the Star as part of their Spring 2015 catalogue.
I am absolutely delighted to have struck a deal with Seren as it has always been my hope that I would be able to keep Murder at the Star an entirely Welsh project and they have always been my first choice publishers.
In fact, Seren is the one and only publisher I approached, so to have received such positive feedback and indeed confirmation that they wished to be part of the project has been nothing short of brilliant.
To my mind, Seren is the most prestigious non-academic publishing company in Wales and boast authors such as Edward Thomas, RS Thomas and Dannie Abse in their catalogue along with the likes of Whitbread nominee Richard Collins and Welsh Book of the Year winner Lloyd Jones.
I am therefore delighted that Seren has agreed to publish for Murder at the Star and I look forward to joining their prestigious roster of writing talent.
I would, once again, like to thank everyone who had followed this blog and @murderatthestar on Twitter for your support and interest.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The first thing Sgt Thomas Richards noted as he climbed the stairs from the basement back door of the Star Stores to the ground floor rear storeroom was that the safe was open.
There were insurance cards and letters scattered around the floor.
As he looked further through the open doorway into the rear of the shop, he saw the body of Thomas Thomas, the manager.
Thomas was lying on his back, with his head towards the window and feet towards the back of the shop. There was no doubt in the policeman’s mind that Thomas Thomas was dead.
Sgt Richards ordered PC Thomas to secure the premises while he went to examine the body.
The body was flat on its back, the head inclined forwards and to the left so that it looked towards the top of the stairs. The arms lay partly on the body. The right leg was straight, the left leg, partly bent.
There was a deep gash on the left-hand side of the shopkeeper’s throat and blood had pooled on the floor around him and stained the collar of his clothing.
Another deep wound scarred his right temple and there were also cuts and bruises to his left ear.
One of his eyes was discoloured and there was an open wound on his cheek.
The upper part of the dead man’s trousers, the lower part of his waistcoat and a portion of his Cardigan jacket were open.
Richards could see that the waistcoat, shirt and vest had been deliberately drawn up while the trousers had been unbuttoned and pulled down to expose the abdomen.
The clothing was stained dark red.
Lying close to the body – some three or four inches from the left shoulder – was the upper set of a pair of dentures embedded in a block of cheese.
The lower set of teeth lay some six inches away from the dead man’s left knee.
A brass brush-head was also on the floor, about six inches beyond the top of Thomas Thomas’ head. Thick red blood was congealing in its bristles. There were bloody marks on a wooden margarine case a little to the right of the head.
The shop itself appeared in perfect order, save for the corpse on the floor and everything seemed to have been undisturbed.