Not from where he came or whither he went

When man turns God out from his soul.

When man turns God out from his soul.

Dawn was late in coming on the morning of Thursday, February 18.

When the darkness of night finally did subside it gave way to thick black clouds swollen with freezing rain which fell with a grim incessancy throughout the day.

Uniformed constables remained stationed outside the Star Stores and gave short shrift to the now only occasional gawkers who attempted to peer in beyond the drawn down shutters and catch a glimpse of the murderous scene inside.

Meanwhile, outside Number Two, Glanyrafon Villas, where the funeral of Thomas Thomas was due to begin, more than 300 people had gathered to pay their last respects to the slain man.

Inside, the body of Thomas Thomas had already been placed in a coffin of unpolished oak with silver fittings. The sealed lid bore the inscription:

Thomas Thomas,

Died 12th February 1921,

Aged 44 Years.

No mention of the manner of his end was mentioned on the casket, nor would it be on his headstone when he finally came to rest in the village where he had been born.

Despite the rain and sombre mood, stilted gossip and hushed rumour still raged amongst the gathered mourners as the manner of Thomas Thomas’ death and the identity of the culprit remained the only topic on village lips.

Some of those present poured scorn on the efforts of the men from Scotland Yard, claiming they were “baffled”, had come on a wasted trip and were sure to soon return to the metropolis. Others reported that a telling new clue had been uncovered that very morning and an arrest was to be made that day.  The reports, however, were wrong.

At 11am, Reverend John Thomas, pastor of Bethesda Chapel in Glanaman where Thomas Thomas had gone to worship, opened the proceedings with a short private service conduct inside the house where the dead man’s brother, his landlord and representatives of the Star Tea Company were the only ones present. Those outside jostled and pressed as close to doors and windows as decency would allow, in a bid to hear what was being said.

Rev Thomas then moved outside to address the throng and from the shelter of the doorstep raised the spectre of the brutal crime that had brought them there.

“I believe it would be better that the murderer lay in this coffin than Mr Thomas Thomas,” he told the hushed, now silent crowd.

“The people of the Amman Valley will never feel more than what they do this day.

“No man has ever left Cwmaman under such tragic circumstances.”

Then, glancing from face to face of those in the crowd and staring hard into eyes of any who dared hold his gaze, with the fire and brimstone authority he would often show while sermonising from his pulpit, he proclaimed: “The moment man turns God out from his soul, his conscience has left him, and he has no control over life.”

Of those present, few were not then moved to tears as the Reverend led them in a rendition of the miners’ hymn, Yn y dyfroedd mawr a’r tonnau – In the great waters and the waves.

Reverend William Williams, the vicar of Garnant, also offered up a few short words in memory of the dead man, but all thoughts lingered on Rev Thomas proclamation and the realisation that a killer without remorse stood amongst them, most likely right there in the midst of the gathered crowd.

At precisely 11.30am the coffin was carried from the house on the shoulders of Inspector Eardley, Councillor David Jones, Mr D Evans and Mr D Thomas, the regional inspector and respective managers of the Porthcawl, Llandovery, Ammanford and Llandeilo branches of the Star Supply Company.

John Thomas, the dead man’s brother, and his wife were the only family mourners present.

The four shopworkers placed the coffin in the rear of the waiting motorhearse and covered it in the wreaths and floral tributes sent by the directors of the Star Supply Company, of 292-314 Old Street, London, the staff from Star Stores branches in Ammanford, Bridgend and Carmarthen, numerous residents of Garnant and Glanaman, and one from Mr and Mrs Phillips of Bridgend, with whom Thomas Thomas had once lodged.

The hearse slowly departed and led a slow procession of some 30 cars along the valley road where every business in Garnant and Glanaman had closed for the day in tribute and where the blinds of every house had been drawn down “as a token of the deepest sympathy”.

The five-mile road to Ammanford was thronged with people as the funeral procession made its slow progress westward to Llangendeirne Churchyard for interment. In Ammanford itself, the streets were crowded with sympathisers as the cortege passed by, followed by the many Garnant and Glanaman residents who made the 30-mile journey to attend the burial in the dead man’s home village.

Following the burial, the mourners took shelter in the Farmers Arms pub across the road from the churchyard cemetery where refreshments had been arranged.

While at the pub, John Thomas, stationmaster and brother of the deceased, was approached by a man he had never seen before.

He did not recall seeing the man at the house in Garnant nor at the graveside, though the fellow could well have been present at both, although it was just as possible that he had arrived later, after the mourners had adjourned to the Farmers Arms.

The stranger appeared to be in his mid to late twenties, more than 25 but less than 30. He stood roughly five-foot-four or possibly just slightly taller, with rather small, shallow features and dark eyes. He wore a thin, unimpressive moustache. On his head was a cap pulled down, but his dress was otherwise un-noteworthy.

The man leant in close to John Thomas without introduction or conversation and whispered: “I know who killed the shopkeeper.

“Thomas Mountstephens murdered your brother.

He said Mountstephens was a wicked, evil man.

“He cannot be trusted,” the stranger said.

“He is a man of bad character.”

He said it was well-known within the valley that Mountstephens was the killer.

“I was surprised that your brother ever went to lodge with him – or that he stayed there,” the stranger said finally, then disappeared back amongst the bodies of the crowded bar.

John Thomas saw no reason to ask any questions of the stranger or make any attempt to follow him. Nor did he see any reason to report the conversation to the police for two more days.

“He took no steps whatever to find out who this man was who was speaking to him, nor did he ask him any questions upon his statements,” wrote Nicholls in his report to Scotland Yard.

“He does not know whether the man was in the funeral party, where he came from or whither he went.”

A ticket to wealth and prosperity

The arrival of the railway brought unprecedented wealth to Cwmaman.

The arrival of the railway brought unprecedented wealth to Cwmaman.

The railway arrived in Cwmaman on April 10, 1840.

The Llanelly Railway and Dock Company line linking Pontarddulais to Cwmaman via Ammanford opened the valley to the world for the first time, and the world was happy to take advantage.

The railway provided the small-scale mining operations with a direct link to the tin-works of Llanelli and the docks of Swansea and beyond, and its arrival signalled the coming boom in industry, people and wealth.

Passengers and goods arrived while coal – valuable Cwmaman anthracite – began to leave in quantities far in excess of what had gone before, and the economics of industry began to feed a ravenous hunger for the rich minerals locked beneath the valley.

The line was extended south-east to Gwaun cae Gurwen just 13 months later and by the summer of 1842, the station at Cwmaman – initially little more than a platform in what was to become the village of Garnant – became a key junction, thanks to the opening of a secondary branch line north-east to Brynaman.

The growth of the valley economy required bigger and better service, and a new, improved station was soon required. In a short time, the station at Garnant was expanded, and a second station was built just a mile or so to the west.

The Cross Keys station, named after the public house nearby, was soon renamed Glanaman, and at a stroke, a disparate agrarian valley community gave birth to two thriving industrial villages.

The introduction of the railway presented the opportunity for the modernisation and industrialisation of the Amman Valley at a rate previously unimaginable. What were once only minor pits providing work to just a handful of men were, within the space of a few years, transformed through the advances mining technologies.

Where previously coal had been dug from exposed seams, now shafts were sunk and full-sized collieries opened – Garnant Colliery at the eastern end of the valley had been in operation to some degree since the middle of the 1830s, but transportation links made it far more productive – and more profitable – and with every extra pound earned the colliery expanded.

By the mid 1840s, other mines were being sunk, and, in 1854, Raven Colliery – taking its named from the family emblem of the Dynevor family, who owned the land of Cwmaman – was opened.

Raven was a massive undertaking which would, at its peak, go on to employ almost 500 men.

Mining – even with modern techniques – remained a dangerous, back-breaking toil, but men began to swell the valley population with the promise of work and wages.

The first dedicated passenger service was opened on May 1, 1850, and by 1869 the Llanelly Railway and Dock Company was running a twice-daily service into Garnant.

The company was taken over by The Great Western Railway on January 1, 1873, but the 30 years since its opening had seen the population of the valley double from 500 or 600 to 1,100.

Those residents who found themselves concerned by the sudden transformation of a rural community into industrial heartland had however seen nothing yet.

While coal provided the foundation of both Garnant and Glanaman, tinplate would see population and purchasing-power rocket even further.

Processed iron created steel, but this metal of the future proved vulnerable to the elements, exposure to the air caused it to corrode and rust, and so it required coating – or plating – with something less susceptible to moisture and atmospheric conditions.

The problem of protecting steel gave birth to an industry of its own – tinplating.

By the middle of the 19th century, Llanelli was already well on its way to becoming the tinplate capital of the world and the availability of the raw materials required to produce tinplate meant that Cwmaman was equally well-suited to the industry.

The Amman Tinworks was built at Garnant on the southern banks of the River Amman in 1882 following the laying of a foundation stone by the vicar of Christchurch in May of that year. Operations at the works began in earnest in 1883.

Another new colliery – Gelliceidrim – was opened between Garnant and Glanaman in 1891. It would – in time – become the largest, most productive mine in the valley.

The expansion of the operations and the opening of the tinworks catapulted Cwmaman into a thriving hub of industry and each passing decade saw only further expansion – of industry and people.

By 1901, the combined population of Garnant and Glanaman had risen to more than 2,400 as word spread that work was available in the rural west. Men flocked from London, the Midlands, the north of England, Scotland and beyond in search of a wage.

By 1910, Garnant Station was receiving seven passenger trains a day from Monday to Saturday, and two more on Sundays, as the population doubled to 4,777.

In 1903, the station had issued 32,735 passenger tickets. In 1913 the figure has risen to 76,491 – almost 1,500 each week as the valley residents took advantage of the money in their pocket and the opportunities to spread their wings, on day trips to Carmarthen, Swansea, Llanelli and beyond.

Meanwhile, the train’s role of delivering mail to the swelling numbers of incomers rocketed from 4,257 parcels handled in 1903 to more than 9,000 a decade later.

And while the railway provided the oxygen in which Garnant thrived, it was coal that continued to be the fuel that fed the economy.

In 1903, 5,867 tonnes of coal passed through Garnant. Ten years later, the figure has risen to 13,470.

When Nicholls and Canning stepped onto Garnant station platform on February 15, 1921, the population of Cwmaman was at an all-time high of 5,302.

The five-mile valley as a whole – from Ammanford to Gwaun cae Gurwen – was home to almost 21,000 souls, and at its heart, the twin villages of Garnant and Glanaman were heaving, throbbing centres of industry and commerce which men like Morgan Jeffreys were able to exploit.

With thousands of working men boasting wages in their pockets, a host of opportunities sprang out of the soil to help relieve them of the weight of the burden in their pockets.

By 1920, there were at least 70 separate businesses registered in Garnant. Glanaman offered another 54.

From confectioners to cabinet-makers, shoe shops to sheet-music sellers, Garnant and Glanaman were alive with trade, services and the exchange of money.

Garnant was host to six greengrocers and four fruiterers; there were seven drapers, three tailors and four bootmakers.

The village was home to a hairdresser, six general stores, four ironmongers, a chemist and a dedicated china-ware shop.

There were two butchers, a miller, a saddler and a blacksmith.

There was also a Post Office, two stationary outlets and two newsagents.

The village had its own architects, lawyers and a doctor.

Garnant had branches of four of the major British banks, a Co-operative store and six public houses.

Within a 15-minute walk, Glanaman boasted an equally diverse and vibrant economy.

When the two Scotland Yard policemen arrived in west Wales, they stepped off the train into a bustling, heaving community as active and vibrant as any of the London boroughs they had left behind.

Men and women from across the nation worked, earned, lived, loved and fought in numbers beyond the imaginings of those who had been born in Cwmaman just a generation or two previously.

The Amman Valley would never see such life – or such wealth – again.

The glow of the firebox

Coal had been mined in Cwmaman since at least 1757.

Coal had been mined in Cwmaman since at least 1757.

When Nicholls and Canning disembarked from the coal train in the darkness of that sharp Tuesday morning they were most likely unaware that they had arrived in a community little older than the senior officer.

Certainly when Nicholls’ father had bawled his first in the London parish of St Luke’s, the village of Garnant 200 miles to the west on the banks of the River Amman in the rich green foothills of the Black Mountain and the Brecon Beacons had not yet come into existence.

Garnant – possibly a mutation of cae-nant or caer-nant, meaning brook-field or brook-fort after the small stream that danced its way down the southern slopes to join the winding trout-filled Amman at its floor – was a shooting star of a community, bursting forth from speck into a blaze of light.

That speck around which the lives of thousands now revolved, glistened with a pitch-pure blackness; forged under the relentless pressure of geological millennia; a speck as perfect as the diamonds on the crown of King George. Garnant had burst forth from the earth on the back of a glittering, glistening mote.

Unbeknownst to the two London detectives however – and in fact to the residents of the coal-dust-coated valley – the village was already at its zenith.

Within just a few years of the two policeman returning east to the bosom of their families and the crimes, the paperwork and the promotions they would experience, Garnant would splutter and falter as its wealth and population began to ebb.

When the men from Scotland Yard stepped onto the railway platform on that cold February morning, Garnant – and the Amman Valley – was at the pinnacle of its hustling, bustling, existence, but the act which had brought them there would serve as a high-water mark for this village so deeply grounded in the earth.

The days, weeks and years which were to follow the murder of Thomas Thomas would witness – imperceptibly at first, but relentlessly, inevitably – the beginning of the slow decline of a community and the demise of the industry which nourished it.

By the time of the detectives’ departure, the River Amman ran thick and black with the detritus of a landscape’s exploitation and the trout were all long gone.

Garnant’s growth had been anything but slow. It exploded into life with all the combustive immediacy of the deadly gases which lurked among the workings underground.

The bounty of the South Wales coalfield had powered an empire on which the sun had never set. The reach of British influence had stretched from the Americas in the west to India and the Orient, and it had done so thanks to the energy stored within the fossilised carbon layers found beneath the ground, from the Amman and Gwendraeth valleys in the west to Ebbw Vale in the east. From Jamaica to Bombay, the empire had fuelled its growth with coal. The most productive, most powerful, most sought after and subsequently, most valuable of which, was anthracite, a hard, compact variety mined around the villages of Garnant, Glanaman, Betws and Llandybie.

Anthracite contains the highest carbon content of any coal – between 92 and 98 per cent, the highest calorific content and the fewest impurities. It produces the least tarry residue and gives off the fewest noxious vapours. It is denser, harder and more compact than any other coal. It has the highest lustre – a lump dug straight from the seam, glistens like polished black glass. So dense and compact is the anthracite of Cwmaman that a lump can be drawn down a freshly laundered white cotton shirt without leaving so much as a smudge. Amman Valley anthracite is valued in the top one per cent of the world’s coal deposits. It is the finest coal on earth.

By the middle years of Victoria’s reign, anthracite hewn with pick and shovel from within Cwmaman was the most valuable power source known to man. It heated homes, powered engines, and fuelled the British dominance of the globe. The Amman Valley grew fat and rich as the unceasing demand for the black gold beneath its rolling slopes expanded exponentially throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Though the anthracite itself was clean and hard, the job of extracting it from the ground was filthy, back-breaking work, but the promise it offered saw men flock from near and far to harvest the rich bounty of this land.

When Victoria had come to the throne in 1838, there had been no Garnant or Glanaman. There was simply Cwmaman – the Amman Valley. Between Ammanford in the west and Gwaun cae Gurwen to the east, the five-mile valley course had boasted fewer than 100 homes and considerably less than 1,000 residents, mainly farm workers and their families.

There was no road east or west and the only access came down from the mountain road which linked the droving town of Llandeilo to the north with Brynaman in the east. That road followed the summit of the hills that marked the northern limit of the valley, and from a point above what would one day become the twin villages of Garnant and Glanaman, a track descended down to the River Amman and offered residents their main means of transport, communication and escape.

There was also a small population of coal-miners, who toiled and sweated at those points where geology and geography had combined to see the rich harvest which lay beneath the ground burst forth at isolated spots along the valley sides, exposing a glimpse of the rich black seams which had remained untouched for 300 million years.

In the early days of industry, men had dug what they could from the climbing slopes on either side of the valley, loaded their haul into buckets to heat their homes or onto the backs of ponies to walk their treasure along the muddy banks of the fish-filled river to Ammanford – still then just a village known only by the name of its pub, Cross Inn – or east to the head of the Swansea Valley and on to the small towns which ran south down towards the sea. Mining, in one primitive form or another, had taken place in the valley since the Middle Ages and the first record of a mine appears in 1757, but for the first 50, 60, 80 years, the energy and effort expended in the harvest were of greater value than the resource produced.

The population of the valley remained steadily in the high hundreds throughout the early 1800s as each generation succeeded the last. Numbers rose to slightly more than 1,000 for the first time by the middle of the century, but then the universe that was Cwmaman exploded into life as if the God Almighty, worshipped every Sunday at Hen Bethel, had intoned the incantation, Let There be Light.

And there was light – the light of steel and steam; the light of modernity. The light that sparked the birth of Garnant and Glanaman was found in the orange glow of the steam train’s firebox.

An abomination to the eyes of God.

Armed with mops, buckets and brushes, a deputation of village matriarchs arrived at the Star.

Armed with mops, buckets and brushes, a deputation of village women arrived at the Star.

With Sergeant Richards attending the post-mortem examination of the body at the dead man’s lodgings and the men from Scotland Yard not expected to arrive in Garnant for another 18 hours, PC Thomas was given the relatively straightforward task of securing the Star Stores.

News of the crime had spread through the Amman Valley faster than a firedamp explosion underground and crowds had begun gathering outside the shop immediately rumours of the murder had begun to emerge.

All day Sunday and throughout Monday morning ghoulish sightseers had gathered along the valley road, exchanging titbits of information and speculation while attempting to peer past the drawn down shades of the Star’s front windows.

PC Thomas had been left with strict instructions to ensure that none gained entry to the shop and with the lesser, more hopeful task of encouraging those gathered outside to disperse.

While the two doctors were cleaning the wounds of Thomas Thomas less than a mile away from scene of his grisly end, a determined knock at the front door of the Star drew PC Thomas’ attention from the darkening pools of congealed blood behind the provisions counter.

He opened the front door a little to see the general crowd had pulled back, allowing a small gathering of formidable-looking women armed with buckets, mops, rags and brushes to present themselves on the doorstep.

The deputation was led by a number of the village matriarchs, women grown strong and determined by brutal lives spent dealing with husbands and sons hardened by long days underground and loud evenings in the pub.

Faced with such a fearsome mob of housewives, PC Thomas’ protestations bore little likelihood of success.

While the men of Garnant defined their lives down the pit, on the sports pitch or in the pub, the women were governed by far higher powers.

Each Sunday, the many chapels of the Amman Valley were filled with the faithful while fire and brimstone ministers preached Hell and damnation from the pulpits.

PC Thomas was told in no uncertain terms that for the blood of Thomas Thomas to have been left to go cold and dry on the floorboards of Star Stores was ungodly, unchristian and quite simply unacceptable.

The authority of the Carmarthenshire Constabulary or even Scotland Yard paled into insignificance compared to that of the Almighty.

To the woman of the Garnant, every drop of blood on the floor of Number Two, Commerce Place, was blasphemy and an abomination to the eyes of God.

Faced by laws of the good book and women who feared the policeman’s uniform no more than they did the fist of a tired, drunken husband, David Thomas was powerless.

His arguments were dismissed and he found himself pushed aside as the women streamed in, galvinised metal mop buckets clanking and screeching as they were laid out and pushed with soapsuds overflowing around the Star as the women set about their pious chores.

Thomas sent word to Sgt Richards to come at once, but he knew his effort would be in vain – by the time his senior officer received the call and returned to the shop, the last of Thomas Thomas’ blood would be gone.

The warm glow of home

The unmistakable flickering of flames in the night.

The unmistakable flickering of flames in the night.

Shortly before 11pm on Saturday, February 12, Priscilla Davies’ attention was caught by a flickering light at the rear of the row of properties known as Lamb Buildings.

At the time she was completely unaware of the dramas which had infolded just a few minutes’ walk down the road at Star Stores and which would remain undiscovered until the following morning.

The block, a row of low cottages with a couple of larger buildings at the western end where Upper Station Road joined the valley road, had been built by Priscilla’s father William ‘The Lamb’ Thomas after he had taken out a lease on the plot from Lord Dynevor in 1874.

Over the following years, William had transformed himself for coal miner to property developer to Baptist minister.

The Thomas family were one of Garnant’s oldest, with William – who was born in nearby Llandybie on the outskirts of Ammanford in 1833 – setting up home at Nantmain Cottage on the valley road sometime in the early 1850s.

Priscilla was born in 1876 – the seventh child of the household – and married builder Thomas Davies in 1909. The couple had daughter Hannah in 1911 while living with at Anchor House, the detached property at the end of the row built by her father. Mary Ray had followed in 1915 during the young family’s short stay in the nearby town of Pontardawe.

By 1921 however, they had returned to Garnant and were back in one of the Thomas family properties – this time at Lamb House, next door to Anchor House – which was now being rented out to paying tenants at 18 shillings a month – and the building in which Priscilla had been born.

As Priscilla peered out through the window into the darkness on that cold February night she could see the source of the unmistakable flickering light.

It came from the rear of Anchor House, where despite the hour and much to her surprise, her neighbours were having a small bonfire.

It seemed however that the fire would not last long for, from what Priscilla could make out by the light of the dancing flames, all they were burning was a few rags.

Cardboard and paper for a bed.

Rolled cardboard formed a makeshift headrest and his body was draped in newspaper.

Rolled cardboard formed a makeshift headrest and his body was draped in newspaper.

Nicholls and Canning were already at Glanyrafon Villas when Mr Matthews, the photographer, arrived to capture the final images of Thomas Thomas’ dead body.

The corpse had remained in the property the deceased had shared with his landlord Thomas Hooper Mountstephen, Mrs Mountstephen and their sons Arthur, aged 11 and William, nine, along with the second lodger, Arthur Impey, after being transported there on Deputy Chief Constable Evans’ instructions following its discovery on Sunday morning.

It was in the Mountstephen home that Dr George Evan Jones, assisted by Dr Trefor Rhys of Glanaman, had the previous day completed the grisly task of carrying out a post-mortem to ascertain the full extent of the dead man’s injuries.

The examination had taken more than three hours.

When Matthews, led by the two police officers from London, made his way into the bedroom where the shopkeeper had slept in life and now lay in death he was met by the grim outline of a corpse draped beneath paper shroud.

From head to foot, the body had been covered in the pages of Saturday, February 12, edition of the Herald of Wales, a flimsy weekly newspaper given away without charge in the Swansea area.

While Matthews set up his equipment, Nicholls lifted off the sheet which had covered the head of the dead man and then removed a second which blanketed the chest and stomach.

The photographer, who had previously only ever taken the portraits of the living or captured the images of daily life around the Amman and Towy Valleys, fought the urge to vomit.

The dead man, so frail and thin, was marble white. A piece of rolled up cardboard and one of his old white work shirts had been fashioned into a makeshift headrest.

Beneath his thick brown moustache, Thomas Thomas’ mouth hung open as if caught forever in the early stages of a morning yawn. His eyes stared emptily at the ceiling above his head.

A thick band of flesh ran like a knotted cord from a rope-maker’s workshop from his groin all the way up his stomach and chest and over his right shoulder in evidence of the two doctors’ internal examination. Thick black thread had been used to close the body in ungainly pragmatic stitches without art or consideration held the remains of the dead man together.

A second band of sewn flesh ran from the centre of the shopkeeper’s throat up to and around the rear of his right ear. A third weaved its way from above the top of his left ear along the hairline of his scalp.

The right ear and surrounding area was swollen, bruised and showed numerous small cuts and gouges.

Further up the right-side of the head, close to the hairline and beneath the dead man’s brown hair the skull was misshaped and deformed and again showed a number of cuts and bruises.

The discolouration of the injuries stood out all the more against the pale cold flesh.

Matthews was astounded by the thinness of the man who lay before him, the stomach was sucked in under the ribcage; the arms lacked all meat and muscle. Thomas Thomas was mere skin and bone.

The photograper was in no doubt as to just how easily this specimen could have been overpowered and bullied by anyone of even the most average strength or menace.

The two policemen, well versed in the spectacle of death and with more than 40 years experience between them, also blanched at the brutality of what lay before them.

It was clear that the wounds were not limited to those which might debilitate or intimidate Thomas Thomas. The perpetrator would have been in no doubt of the result of his actions.

Once those gathered in the room had regained their clarity of thought, Nicholls, with the workmanlike authority he had mastered in his 21 years a detective, directed the photographer.

As instructed, Mr Matthews carefully photographed the left side of the dead man’s body.

He then moved his equipment to the other side of the room and set up once again, this time forever capturing the image of the right side of Thomas Thomas and the wounds which had brought him to his end.

With the photographer’s work complete, the two Scotland Yard men carried out their own minute inspection of the injuries.

Nicholls, at times, pulled a magnifying glass from his pocket and leaned in closely over the body, pointing out numerous points of interest to Canning who duly noted each in the small black notebook which he kept poised and ready.

Their examination over, they removed from their bags what seemed to Mr Matthews a bottle of black India ink.

Canning first lifted the dead man’s left hand as Nicholls removed the lid from the bottle and soaked a clean white cloth in the liquid, ensuring the material was given time to soak up the substance.

He then gently and with a tenderness far greater than that shown by the doctors who had last worked on the corpse, dabbed it in turn on the fingertips of Thomas Thomas.

He then smoothed a sheet of white paper beneath the hand and Canning gently pressed each digit against it, leaving a small oval black smudge.

The two men then carried out the same procedure on the right hand.

“Now we have his fingerprints for comparison,” Nicholls said to the silent photographer.

No ordinary policeman

No ordinary policeman: George Nicholls rose from lowly constsble to become one of Scotland Yard's 'Big Five'.

No ordinary policeman: George Nicholls rose from lowly constsble to become one of Scotland Yard’s ‘Big Five’.

Even by the standards of Scotland Yard’s elite Criminal Investigation Department, George Robert Nicholls was not your average policeman.

By the time he had left school, Nicholls was fluent in both French and German, and at the age of 14 was employed as a barrister’s clerk with the New Securities Corporation at Finsbury House, Blomfield Street, on the edge of the City of London’s Square Mile – the financial centre of the empire on which the sun never set.

The position was merely a means to an end for Nicholls however and a career in high finance held no interest.

On the turning of his 21st birthday – the minimum age acceptable for applications to the Metropolitan Police – the Islington boy followed in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather William Haines and applied to join the Force.

After a long, frustrating recruitment process, Nicholls finally fulfilled his life-long ambition and on November 28, 1898, he became a constable of the Metropolitan Police. He was aged 21 years and 255 days and received Warrant Card number 84634.

However, his sharp intellect and linguistic abilities were quickly noticed by his senior officers and his days amongst the uniformed ranks of beat constables of D Division – based at Marylebone – would be short-lived.

On April 24, 1900, Nicholls was transferred to the legendary plain-clothes Criminal Investigation Department, based at the Commissioner’s Office in Scotland Yard.

After less than 18 months in uniform, Nicholls became a detective.

But even amongst the ranks of the finest officers the country could boast, his meteoric rise continued.

The warehouse nightwatchman’s son made Detective Sergeant in December 1903 and was promoted through the Force grades from third to second to Sergeant First Class by 1909.

From the moment he joined CID, his language skills were put to good use.

He became the Met’s expert on the foreign criminals and crime gangs that flocked across the Channel in the late Victorian era, particularly those who made for London where he was a familiar face at the various haunts populated by the numerous overseas communities.

His abilities also ensured he became one of the first truly international policemen and he was well known to the Police Chiefs of Paris, Berlin and beyond as crime became a cross-border problem.

It was Detective Sergeant Nicholls that accompanied Detective Inspector Roux of the French Police to oversee the arrest and extradition of the gambler and fraudster Charles Wells, the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.

Wells – known variously as Lucien Rivier, James Burns, Charles de Ville and a host of other aliases – defrauded thousands of French citizens of millions of francs with an elaborate pyramid investment scam, but was best known for “breaking the bank” at the casinos of Monte Carlo again and again thanks to an ingenious means of rigging the roulette table.

Wells method would never be understood and despite being the constant attentions of numerous private investigators in the employ of the casinos, he was able – time and again – to beat the table and empty the safe.

In one audacious evening’s gambling, Wells bet his entire stake on the small white ivory ball coming to rest on the Number Five. He followed up on the next spin of the wheel with exactly the same bet. Then he did it again, and again.

Wells bet on Number Five no less than five times in succession. To the fury of the casino owners and the horrified croupiers, but the delight of the growing crowd, he won each time – beating the bank and unfathomable odds of billions to one.

His triumphs at the table were clearly down to far more than simple luck, but more than one hundred years later the mechanics of his scam would still remain a mystery.

News of Wells’ exploits at the roulette wheel spread across the continent and he achieved immortality as The Man Who Broke the Bank of Monte Carlo, courtesy of Fred Gilbert’s music hall hit.

However, he could not escape the law forever and after being traced to the luxury yacht Excelsior off the coast of Falmouth in January 1912, Nicholls and Roux swooped.

Wells and his French lover – a woman half his age, were transported back to London and on across the Channel to face justice in a Parisian courtroom. He would ultimately die penniless in Paris in 1922 after his release from prison.

Charles Wells: The man who broke the bank at Mote Carlo.

Charles Wells: The man who broke the bank at Mote Carlo.

The successful apprehension of Wells made Nicholls a celebrity in his own right and he was as much the darling of the Commissioner’s Office as he was newspaper headline writers.

Within a month of Wells’ arrest, Nicholls was promoted to the rank of Detective Inspector (Second Class). A year later he was upgraded to First Class.

With the outbreak of the Great War, the Metropolitan Police was forced to broaden its horizons and direct its attention beyond the normal limitations of domestic criminality as the ex-pat communities from the continent in the capital began to simmer with discontent.

Nicholls, with his mastery of German and French and his intimate knowledge of the overseas enclaves of London, was tailor-made for the times.

He was seconded to Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, the specialist intelligence unit developed to counter threats of terrorism, subversion and overseas propaganda on the UK mainland.

He joined the unit with an espionage and counter-espionage remit, and from 1914 until the German surrender in 1918, the nightwatchman’s son took on the role of spy-catcher.

As the war came to a close, his role ensuring the security of the nation was rewarded with another step up the promotional ladder and he was appointed to the rank of Divisional Inspector.

Nicholls experience and intelligence ensured his name remained a regular feature in the newspapers as he became the face of Scotland Yard during high-profile case after high-profile case.

His regular appearances at the Old Bailey as the key prosecution witness only served to further his renown.

Prior to the murder of Thomas Thomas in Garnant, Nicholls had appear on the front pages of newspapers from Cornwall to Dundee during the prosecution of the infamous Bamberger case, where Thelma Dorothy Bamberger, the wife of a well-known London stockbroker was eventually jailed for perjury.

The scandal was the talk of post War Britain, as Bamberger – born Lily Amelia Taylor, the daughter of an evangelist preacher – was proved a multiple adulteress, a liar, a Madam, a fraudster and a thief, who had told her lovers that it was not she, but her non-existent twin sister who had committed the litany of offences she left in her wake.

Nicholls was also Scotland Yard’s chief hunter of fakes and fraudsters, and he boasted a long list of successful prosecutions of fortune-tellers, astrologists and palmistrists.

But it was when investigating murder that Nicholls felt most useful to the common good.

Although the killer of Thomas Thomas would ultimately elude him, Nicholls career would suffer no setback. A year after his return to London he would be made Chief Inspector and on May 21, 1926, Superintendent, a move that would see him labelled in the national press as one of Scotland Yard’s “big five” – the quintet of Britain’s most important and influential police officers.

He was made an MBE in the 1932 New Year honours list and on August 8 that year, 32 years after he had been made detective and in the department in which he had spent almost his entire career, he was appointed Chief Constable of the Criminal Investigation Department.

George Nicholls retired from the Metropolitan Police in 1934 after 35 years service.