The Murder at the Star posts in order…
Fat in the Fire: Billo Rees and the Amman Valley derby.
The Amman Valley derby was by nature a brutal bloody affair, stoked to boiling point by simmering feuds, ancient enmity and bellies filled to bursting with sour booze and bitter hatred.
The rugby fields of south Wales in early years of the 20th century were no place for the faint-hearted. These were the dancefloors and strutting pens of their day where young men sent underground at 14 were able to display their brain, their brawn and their talent; arenas where a man would find his place in life and battle for individual acclaim and recognition. Where reputations were made and hearts won; where stars were forged and faded.
Contests between the valley’s two premier sides – Amman United and Ammanford – were a major event for both communities which hundreds flocked to witness. Where the anger and frustrations of a six-day week of ten hour shifts spent toiling at the coal-face spilled into violence on and off the field. The meeting of the sides on the afternoon of Saturday, February 12, proved no different.
One of the largest crowds ever witnessed converged on Cwmaman Park, on the border of the twin villages of Garnant and Glanaman – and where the sportsmen of both joined forces for the greater good in the form of United, was further swelled as hundreds made the five-mile eastward journey from Ammanford in buses, charabancs and on foot in beer-fuelled expectation.
With the sporting season already drawing to a close, the fixture was to be the third and final meeting between the sides during the 1920/21 campaign and the expectation amid even the most ardent of the visiting faithful was of a comfortable home victory: Without question, it was United who possessed superior guile, skill and strength. There seemed little doubt that they would claim victory over the visitors from the bustling little town just along the valley road.
United, or The Amman as they were known, had crushed the visitors underfoot when the two sides met at Cwmaman Park early in the season and the odds were firmly stacked in their favour once again. Ammanford had claimed an unlikely draw when the old rivals had come together on their own patch just a few weeks earlier, but the result was seen by all as nothing more than a mere blip – a lucky result on home turf. This latest fixture would restore the natural order and Ammanford and their fans would be sent whimpering back down the valley with eyes blackened, teeth chipped and tails firmly fixed between their legs.
There was however one chink of light in the Amman’s armour on that cold February afternoon, and it came in the form of the club’s finest talent. William ‘Billo’ Rees was the valley’s stand-out player of his generation. At outside-half he was a master in the role of lynchpin between the Amman’s battling, bruising all-powerful front eight and their athletic, marauding backs.
On a rugby field with oval ball in hand, Billo was a visionary, fleet of foot and mind, capable of dictating play and controlling possession from the centre of the park. Through Billo Rees the Amman played their game and outscored all comers.
Billo’s prowess had not gone unnoticed further up the Welsh rugby pyramid. In the years to come he would move north and pocket the silver pieces on offer playing Rugby League in northern England, but even while he was still immersed in the union code of south Wales his fame had spread far beyond the confines of the Amman Valley.
On the day Ammanford and their masses rolled up at Cwmaman Park, Billo Rees had been selected to play for Swansea at the highest level of the Welsh amateur game.
These were the days – at least officially – before a penny changed hands in the principality for pulling on a jersey on a Saturday afternoon.
Though financial reward was not on offer – at least none that any would admit, still the major clubs were able to entice the shining lights from lower down the food-chain. For smaller clubs like Ammanford and the Amman, seeing one of their own link arms with the nation’s best brought its own prestige.
The permit that was requested by Swansea though, was for once not met with favour amongst all Amman fans, and a controversy raged amongst the home support. The shortsighted labelled him Judas, claiming he was turning his back on his own for personal gain and that though illegal, money was surely behind it.
When Ammanford arrived at Cwmaman Park and their followers swelled the pubs of Garnant and Glanamman and set the tills ringing with their weekly wage, there was – for once – real hope. Small hope indeed, but without Billo Rees to orchestrate their superior forces, the Amman’s Achilles Heel had been exposed.
As the drinkers, home and away alike, weaved their way with ale-stretched bellies and whisky on their breath through the crisp afternoon towards the park, tempers flared. Old rivalries from pub, pitch and pithead stirred and jostled amongst the crowds of barging shoulders, pointed elbows and on occasion, flailing fists. Along the way, Police Sergeant Thomas Richards and Constable David Thomas did what they could to uphold order, through mere visible presence more than interventionist hands-on policing.
When the groups of supporters finally arrived at the ground, a whispered rumour found its voice and began to spread like a wildfire. Cheers erupted amongst the home faithful and ripped with burning fury through the visiting ranks.
As impossible to believe as it seemed, the word was being spread that Billo Rees had turned down the request from Swansea and instead opted to spend that Saturday with the Amman.
He had chosen to turn his back on greatness – or at least decided to delay it – to crush the bitterest rivals of his community under foot and boot.
Rees had rejected the chance to tread upon the greater stage of the field at St Helens and opted instead to ensure his home side smashed the hearts of Ammanford in what seemed a petty, bitter, spiteful choice.
The decision, to the travelling fans at least, seemed like a betrayal of the very notion of true sportsmanship. That the Amman had persuaded their shining light to reject the dreams to which all those who followed the amateur game aspired was utterly beyond redemption.
The anger swelled around Cwmaman Park like a torrent and shoves and pushes spilled over into punches, kicks and fights. “The fat was properly in the fire,” reported Sentinel, the Amman Valley Chronicle’s rugby correspondent.
For the players of Ammanford, the Billo Rees controversy brought far greater, more immediate problems.
They knew that whatever the bitter atmosphere amongst the crowds pressed tight and 30 deep around the touchlines, they would have to face him and somehow suppress him.
To a man, they all knew without a doubt, that Billo’s talent far surpassed their own, his speed of thought, his vision and awareness of the field around him would leave them floundering in the mud as it had so many times while the Amman raced out of sight to yet another victory.
They knew also that such was his guile, agility and understanding that they would be lucky to ever find themselves within an arm’s reach of him. The genius that was Billo Rees was simply head and shoulders above them all and far too good for any to ever lay an off-the-ball punch, let alone a legal tackle, on him.
And so instead they opted for a different approach.
As they tied their bootlaces and pulled on their jerseys, Ammanford came up with a plan. A plan so unpredicted and unlikely, that none in the Amman’s ranks could see it coming.
While every team the Amman had ever faced would through their men in ever greater more desperate numbers in the direction of Billo Rees, the Ammanford skipper ordered his team to do precisely the opposite. They would all but ignore the genius Rees and leave him free to wander how and where he wished.
The role of outside-half which Billo had so mastered may well have been the key link in a chain, but just as with chains at the pithead that lowered men underground, there were other links vital to the greater cause.
The Amman’s muscular, unstoppable front-eight pack would claim every ball in scrum or ruck and feed it out to scrum-half Joe Griffiths. Griffiths’ single purpose was to ensure he offered up clean ball to Rees, who would linger ten yards clear of the forwards’ melee. From such a point of freedom Billo was able to release his rampaging backs and leave the Ammanford rearguard chasing ghosts.
The Ammanford tactic would be to focus all their attentions on Griffiths – an excellent player in his own right – but far short of the standard of Rees and without the physique and mental ingenuity of his three-quarter line partner.
Ammanford targeted Griffiths with brutal an unerring accuracy. They simply battered him into the ground. Two, three, often four men at a time would converge on him before he was able even to scoop up the ball up from the back of the scrum. Ammanford crushed him under a melee of flying bodies, flailing arms and heavy, studded boots.
The tactic sent the home fans apoplectic and fights broke out along the sidelines. The mood both on the field and off turned ugly, but with Billo Rees enjoying barely a single touch of the ball all afternoon, Ammanford claimed a historic and infamous 10-8 victory.
The mood all along the Amman Valley spat and fizzed throughout the remainder of the afternoon and long into the night. Threats were uttered, fists flew, and the pubs and police struggled to maintain order. The fat was most certainly in the fire.
An awful screech and then a thud.
At 10.15pm on February 12, 1921, Diana Bowen filled her basket with potatoes, carrots, onions and a few apples from the display boxes in Fanny Smith’s fruit shop at Number Three, Commerce Place, in the Carmarthenshire mining village of Garnant.
Diana paid for her items and bade her goodnights to Mrs Smith and shop assistant Alice Stammers before ushering her two young daughters – Catherine and Elsie – to the door. Diana was already running late.
The 33-year-old housewife knew she must hurry if she was to have a hot supper ready for David when he arrived home exhausted from another twelve-hour shift as a stoker at Gellyceidrim colliery.
Diana pulled her girls out into the street where a fine mist was settling on an unseasonably warm, damp evening.
The main road through the village, which in time would become known as Cwmamman Road but in 1921 was still known simply as the valley road, was relatively quiet as Diana and her girls left the shop.
Here and there a few wives and mothers could still be seen rushing for late-night provisions to feed tired husbands and sons who soon, like David Bowen, would be heading home from the pit once the end-of-shift hooter blew, but for the moment the road was still peaceful. Those men not working were still in one of the many village pubs, reliving the agonies of the afternoon’s big Amman Valley derby where Ammanford had upset all predictions by beating Amman United on home turf, despite the shock inclusion of the hosts’ star man Billo Rees.
Diana and the girls had walked no more than a few steps towards the small rooms they called home at Northampton Buildings when they were stopped in their tracks by an ungodly noise from within Star Stores, the upmarket national chain store which occupied Number Two, Commerce Place, next door to Fanny Smith’s fruit shop.
“It was an awful screech,” Diana would later tell the Amman Valley Chronicle.
“I was standing on the pavement a few feet away from the window of the Stores.
“I heard an awful screech and the sound of boxes being moved about.
“There was a thud and the sound of running feet – as if someone running upstairs.
“The children with me heard the noises as well, and were frightened.”
Elsie, the youngest Bowen girl at 9 years, may have been frightened, but she was an inquisitive child by nature.
She rushed to the window and peered in, trying to catch a glimpse of what had gone on behind the drawn-down blinds of the shop’s frontage.
“She said she had seen nothing inside but tins of condensed milk,” said Diana.
“It would have been about 10.15pm when I heard that dreadful noise. At 10.30pm I was preparing supper in our own house.”
However, at the inquest into Thomas Thomas’ death three weeks later she put the time of the screech at 10.20pm.
“It was such an awful scream,” she told Sergeant Thomas Richards, the highest-ranking officer based at Garnant Police Station, the following day.
Diana told the inquest that the scream had startled her and she thought it strange, but that she made no attempt to peer inside the window.
“I was going to have a look, but after hearing running on the stairs I thought everything was all right,” she said.
“I thought the boy in the shop had had his hand in the bacon slicing machine, which was on the counter nearest to the side I was standing. I know that he had done it before.
“The scream was a loud one, but it gradually died away and then all was calm afterwards.
“Everything was quiet when we left.”
Diana Bowen pulled her girls away and made for home, her mind more focussed on the meal she must prepare for David.
She did however pause briefly when she saw two neighbours – Mrs Michael and Mrs Walters – coming towards her but on the opposite side of the street.
“I told them that I had had a fright and that the boy had caught his hand in the bacon machine,” she told the inquest.
“I told them everything was all right now.”
She only stopped again on when she had reached Northamption Buildings where she met Mrs Smith, another neighbour, on the doorstep. Again she relayed her tale of the dreadful noise and the boy with his hand in the bacon slicer, and then she went inside and set about preparing David’s supper.
All was quiet when Diana, Catherine and Elsie Bowen left the pavement outside Star Stores. All was quiet because Thomas Thomas was already dead.
A figure in the shadows.
As Diana Bowen was telling her tale of awful screams and bacon slicers to Mrs Michael and Mrs Walters, another Garnant resident was heading home at the rear of Commerce Place.
William Charles Brooks, one of the many incomers who had arrived in the valley seeking a regular pay packet a decade earlier, was dreaming of his own hot supper as his shift as a beater came to a close at the Amman Tinplate Works and he made his way to 4 Arcade Terrace, a row of houses in the valley’s dip behind the shops.
Brooks, a 32-year-old Londoner, had settled in Garnant around 1910 and married Mary Ann Harries – quite likely with a shotgun at his head. Baby Henrietta had died before she reached six months – and long before her parents celebrated their first anniversary – but Nelly had soon followed and William junior too.
As Brooks made his way past his mother-in-law’s house at 2 Arcade Terrace, he glanced up at the rear of the shops and the dim glow of the valley road which he could see through Coronation Arcade. The arcade, which had given his own terraced row its name, ran at ground floor level between Numbers Four and Five, Commerce Place. Number Four was the second of the two Williams and Harries drapers shops in the row – the partnership between two former valley rivals had benefitted both and their booming business had seen them occupy Numbers One and Four, sandwiching Star Stores and Fanny Smith’s fruit shop.
As Brooks looked on he saw a figure lurking in the Arcade’s shadows.
The figure made no move towards the street, but stayed hidden deep within the folds of darkness as if watching and listening. He appeared to be waiting for any sound or movement that might be made out on the main highway beyond William Brooks’ sight or hearing.
The figure turned and made his way down to the end of the Arcade before turning out and heading off behind the fruit shop and the Star.
The man, Brooks knew, was Morgan William Jeffreys, the landlord of Commerce Place who lived nearby at Commerce House
Before renting the empty plot of land on which he would one day build Commerce Place from Lord Dynevor, the Jeffreys house was known more simply as Glanyrnant, but with property came grandeur and a more suitable title had been required for the family home.
The curious incident of the dog in the night.
A little after 10pm, but certainly before 10.30pm, Anne Jeffreys opened the back door of Commerce House and let out Spot the family dog.
The rear of Commerce Place was quiet and Mrs Jeffreys noted nothing untoward. She went back inside and left Spot to his business.
Within minutes however, the peace was shattered.
“Spot barked furiously,” Mrs Jeffreys said in her statement.
“As everything was so quiet outside I shouted to the dog: ‘What’s the matter boy?’”
The 61-year-old was alone in the house, but was not one to be shaken easily.
It was Anne who, on July 13, 1895, had reached agreement with land-owner Lord Dynevor and finally signed the lease for the vacant plot that would one day house the shops of Commerce Place.
The lease remained in Anne’s name until she signed it over to her husband Morgan on August 29, 1903, but it was Anne who would remain the named defendant in the 20-year-old legal dispute with the Dynevor Estate. The wrangle – over financial responsibility for costs incurred by necessary road improvements – saw the Jeffreys family refuse to pay a penny in a ground-rent until ordered to do so after a bitter High Court battle with Walter FitzUryan Rice, the seventh Baron Dynevor, in July 1915. The legal costs all but bankrupted the Jeffreys.
Anne was not a woman afraid of the dark.
She went to the door to see what had so riled the dog, but saw nothing obviously out of the ordinary.
“I could see nothing so I called the dog to come in,” she said.
“Spot then came in, so I forgot everything about it.”
With the day’s work done.
At precisely 10.30pm, Fanny Smith and Alice Stammers locked the front door of the fruit shop at Number Three, Commerce Place, and pulled down the shutters.
With business over for the day the two women went upstairs to their living quarters and settled down to supper – they would return to the shop later to clear up.
Like so many of the residents of Garnant, neither Fanny nor Alice were natives.
Fanny Mansfield had been born in Bath in 1869 and at the age of 25 was swept of her feet by a smooth-talking travelling fruit salesman from Wolverhampton by the name of William Henry Smith.
They married in the summer of 1894 and in little over a year, a son – Raymond – was born.
All was not well with their new-born however and Raymond was classed as “paralysed at birth” – quite possibly a Victorian diagnosis for cerebral palsy.
For a time at least – and quite possibly because of Raymond’s condition – the Smith family settled in Bristol. William continued his life as a commercial travelling salesman while Fanny remained at home with Raymond and Phillip, the family’s latest addition. Phillip arrived in the early months of 1901 and would be Smith’s only other child.
The family had also gained another – albeit unofficial – member by the time Phillip had been born. The couple had taken on a general maid to help relieve the pressure on Fanny while William was “on the road”.
Alice Stammers was a Londoner, born in 1878, and by 1901 was already a fixture in the Smith household. She would remain at Fanny’s side until the death of her employer in 1950, but would receive not a penny of her mistress’.£2,400 bequests.
By 1911, William too had tired of the life of a travelling salesman and, with Fanny, Phillip and Alice joining him, had set up in business running a fruit shop in Sale, Cheshire. Raymond meanwhile had been placed in the care of a residential school for epileptic children close by at Nether Alderley.
Life in the north of England did not go especially well for the Smiths however and by the middle of the decade they had returned to Bristol. Raymond died in the city aged 23 in 1918.
Soon after the death of their eldest son, the Smith family moved again, taking up the tenancy of a vacant shop in the village of Garnant, Carmarthenshire. Alice would help out in the shop as well as with the household’s domestic chores.
Once the two women had locked up the shop and gone upstairs, they settled down to eat in a room at the rear of the first floor of Number Three, Commerce Place.
The room overlooked the rear of the row and down towards Arcade Terrace. Further still the lights were still burning at the Amman Tin Works.
As they sat and ate their meal they heard not a sound nor saw any movement at the rear of Commerce Place.
They heard no barking dogs, no shouts, no awful screams, nor did they see a killer running from the rear of the building next door.
At 12.45am, Fanny Smith and Alice Stammers could put off their final chores no more. The two women returned downstairs to the fruit shop and cleared up the detritus of the day’s trading.
Both women noticed however that despite the hour, the gas lights within Star Stores were still burning.
Nothing but that the door was closed.
Thomas Walter Jeffreys clocked off work at Cawdor Colliery at 10pm after another gruelling eight-hour shift and made his way home.
By the time he reached Commerce House, passing to the rear of Fanny Smith’s fruit shop, Harries and Williams drapers and the cellar door of Star Stores, it was almost 10.30pm.
Thomas, at 26, was the youngest – and more sensible – son of Morgan and Anne Jeffreys, landlords of Commerce Place.
When interviewed by the Chronicle in the days after the incident, Thomas claimed he had noticed nothing out of the ordinary on his way home that night.
Perhaps he was too tired or too hungry; perhaps it was because of the heavy mist that had settled in the valley that evening, but for whatever reason he claimed he had not spotted the lights still burning at Star Stores.
“I noticed nothing then but that the back door was closed,” he told the paper.
However, when interviewed by police in the days that followed, his recollection of the evening proved somewhat different.
“I noticed a light on in the Star Stores as passing through the back,” he claimed, telling Sergeant Thomas Richards that he had commented on the shopkeeper’s long hours on his arrival home.
Once inside Commerce House, Thomas settled down in the kitchen to eat the supper prepared for him by his mother. There he remained until Miss Phoebe Jones, the first assistant at Star Stores who lodged with the Jeffreys, arrived home from a concert at Stepney Hall. Phoebe too had noticed the lights and praised the dedication of her manager, who was clearly still tallying his accounts inside the store.
At around 11.30pm, Thomas and his father set out across the fields to the stables which they kept nearby to “bed the ponies for the night”.
As they made their way back to Commerce House they noted that the lights were still burning throughout the store, but saw no reason for alarm.
By the time father and son had arrived back home, Phoebe Jones was nowhere to be seen. Mrs Jeffreys told them she had gone to check on Mr Thomas at Star Stores. Morgan Jeffreys went to bed while Thomas settled back into his seat alongside his mother.
When Phoebe returned she told them that Mr Thomas must have left the lights burning and gone home for the night. She praised his conscientiousness, but admitted that he could, on occasion, be rather forgetful.
Phoebe went to bed a short time after, as did Mrs Jeffreys, but Thomas remained at the kitchen hearth, alone with his thoughts.
He later claimed that he wondered whether such a careful man as Mr Thomas might deliberately have left the gas lights burning in a bid to deter any would-be burglars. A window in the store had been broken earlier in the day and was only loosely boarded up with wood.
Thomas told himself that burglars might well view the broken window as an open invitation and to leave the lights burning was a prudent decision, yet he kept such thoughts to himself until questioned at the coroner’s court some three weeks later.
At 12.45pm Morgan Powell Jeffreys, Thomas’ elder brother arrived “the worse for drink”. He had been oblivious to the goings-on around him as he stumbled home and had completely failed to notice that the lights at Star Stores were still burning. He certainly had no clue as to whether the rear cellar door was open.
“I waited up for my brother then locked the door and put the key underneath,” Thomas later said.
“I am quite sure my brother did not say anything about the lights being on.”
Thomas served his brother supper and then both men retired for the night.
A most unusual course.
Phoebe Jones, the first assistant at Garnant’s Star Stores, had been keen to finish work as quickly as possible on Saturday, February 12. She had somewhere else to be.
Phoebe planned to spend what was left of the evening attending a concert in Stepney Hall with a friend and had had her best dress mended and laundered by Mrs Jeffreys that afternoon.
A night out at Stepney Hall may well have been a birthday treat for Phoebe, who turned 30 in February, 1921.
A tall, thin woman with angular features, Phoebe, like Thomas Thomas, was born in the village of Llangendeirne, though took up employment at the Star Stores in Garnant in 1917 – two years before Mr Thomas took over as manager.
She had got on very well with the previous manager and by the time Thomas Thomas arrived in 1919 she was already the highest-ranked member of staff other than the manager.
She raced through her end-of-day duties as fast as she was able and at 9.45pm left the Star by the side door, used only by staff. She closed the door behind her leaving Mr Thomas alone in the shop balancing his accounting books at the grocery counter.
The concert finished at 11pm and Phoebe made her way back along the valley road to Commerce House and her lodgings with the Jeffreys family.
As she passed Commerce Place she could not help but notice that the lights were still burning behind the blinds at Star Stores.
When she arrived home, she remarked how strange it was that the manager was stilling working so late on a Saturday night.
“Fancy Mr Thomas in the shop now,” she told Morgan Jeffreys.
“Whatever is the matter with the man? He must be shop mad.”
However, Phoebe felt a growing sense of unease and at 11.25pm went back outdoors, through the arcade and out to the front of Star Stores.
The lights in the shop were still burning as they had been when she had passed previously.
She, like the youngest Bowen girl a little over an hour earlier, peered through the window, trying to glimpse around the lowered blinds to look inside.
She could see no movement in the shop.
As she moved around to get a better view into the building she spotted Mr Thomas’ white shop jacket and apron hanging next to some sides of back at a rack at the rear of the shop.
She saw no sign of Thomas Thomas.
Initially she imagined he might be in the back room or in the upstairs warehouse, but when she heard no sound she decided he must have gone home without switching off the lights.
“Though this would have been a most unusual course.”
Obligations and outsiders.
Glanyrafon Villas was a row of semi-detached properties at the top of Horney Road on the opposite side of the valley to the Star.
Separated from the throng by the GWR train lines, the tinplate works, River Amman herself and then the recreation ground and rugby pitches, the nine-house development was set apart from the village. From its elevated position, Glanyrafon Villas looked down on the bustle of the valley road with an aloof, foreigner’s eye. It was at the fringes of the community. So too were its residents.
At Number Two, Thomas Charles Hooper Mountstephens lived with wife Lily, sons Arthur and William, and lodgers Thomas Thomas, the manager of Star Stores, and Arthur Impey, a chess-loving cockney whose childhood read like a Dickens novel.
Impey was born within earshot of Bow bells in West Ham in 1888, the middle of three children. Life was a struggle for the Impeys: David, Arthur’s father, brought home only a labourer’s wage. Life was hard for the Impey children, but it was about to get worse. On November 25, 1892, David Impey died aged 45.
Less than seven months later, he was followed into the ground by his wife, Ellen. She was just 42. On June 18, 1893, the Impey children were made orphans. David was five, sister Ellen 12 and Albert two.
Despite the hardships, Ellen had some money. When she died she left £82 and nine shillings. Where she came by it is unknown. It was not a fortune, but certainly it was a sum of money. Ellen’s Will left everything to a woman named Charlotte Elizabeth Housdon. The nature of Housdon’s relationship to Ellen Impey remains uncertain, as does the question of whether the money came with an obligation to care for the Impey children.
Whatever the logic behind Ellen’s bequest, the children did not spend any length of time with the Housdons and the Impey family dissolved.
By 1901, Arthur, now 13, was an inmate at Muller’s Orphan House, Bristol. How long he had been there is unknown, but he would not stay at Muller’s much beyond his 14th birthday. At some point he made his way west – presumably in search of work. He settled in the Amman valley.
By 1921, the workhouse orphan was working at Gellyceidrim colliery. He was 33 years old and in love: Arthur would marry fiancée Blodwen Jones in Garnant before the year was out. In the meantime however, he remained in lodgings. Renting a room at Number Two, Glanyrafon Villas, meant renting a bed, or rather a share of a bed – a necessity in rural Wales where the number of paying lodgers far outweighed the available sleeping quarters. Arthur shared with Thomas Thomas, the frail, Bible-quoting little shopkeeper. Prior to Thomas’ arrival in Garnant, Impey had shared with Mr Lewis, his current bed-mate’s predecessor at the Star.
Thomas Charles Hooper Mountstephens was born in St Pancras, central London, in the summer of 1886; the son of a piano tuner. By 1910 he, Lily and baby Arthur were already living in Garnant. William arrived in 1911.
Mountstephens was a pumpman below ground, but remained aloof from the majority at the colliery. Perhaps it was at Cwmaman Chess Club, where Mountstephens was chairman, that he and club member Impey first discussed accommodation.
At 11pm on Saturday, February 12, 1921, Thomas Mountstephens and his wife ate supper. Their two sons were already asleep and neither of the lodgers had yet returned. Arthur Impey would soon be trudging his way up the hill out of the mist at the end of his shift. Thomas Thomas had warned of his intention to work late when Mountstephens and Lily called in at the Star earlier in the day.
At 11.45pm Lily Mountstephens kissed her husband good-night and went to bed. Thomas stepped outside to take in the night air. From his doorstep he could look down across the valley basin and a lake of mist to the rear of Commerce House where the lights of Star Stores still burned.
Arthur Impey arrived home before midnight. Seeing the lights on at the Star, Arthur suggested that he and Mountstephens walk back across the valley to ensure all was well. Mountstephens told him of his visit to the store earlier and his conversation with Mr Thomas.
The two men went inside and Mountstephens pointed Impey to the hot supper Lily had left simmering for him. He reminded Impey to be sure to leave enough for the returning Mr Thomas.
At 1am, the shopkeeper had still not returned and Arthur Impey began to fret. The lights at the rear of the Star were still burning, but a man of Mr Thomas’ beliefs was unlikely to be working into the Sabbath. He again asked Mountstephens to accompany him across the valley. Again, Mountstephens brushed off his concerns and reminded him of Mr Thomas’ warning.
Cold hands and cornets.
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.
No sign of life but silence.
Police Sergeant Thomas Richards and Constable David Thomas walked the valley road beat umpteen times that evening.
The Amman Valley derby, played out that afternoon, was usually an occasion of boisterous high spirits and drunken brawling as post-match debate raged, but for once there was little to report.
Both officers noted that the lights remained on in the Star each time they passed, but saw no reason to investigate.
The two officers were still unconcerned when they strolled past the shop on final time at 11pm, although they did attempt to peer in through the window as they made their way back to the station, near Raven Colliery to the east of Commerce Place.
Dr George Evan Jones, of Brynteg, also passed the Star a little after 11pm, summoned on a late night call. He too spotted the gas lights burning inside, but thought nothing of it. Besides he had a more pressing engagement.
At 3am the weary doctor passed along the valley road again as he made for home. He also stopped outside the Star and tried to see in around the blinds. With no signs of life and nothing but a peaceful silence emanating from inside, he shrugged off any doubts he may have had and made, exhausted, for his bed.
A man of vision.
Morgan Walter Jeffreys had every reason to feel satisfied with his lot in life. Throughout his 58 years, the butcher, grocer, businessman, property developer and landlord, had experienced the sufferings and hardships that either broke a man or steeled him.
He had been born into the relative prosperity that came with land ownership, but had watched helpless through the eyes of a child as it all but disappeared before he could reach an age to put it to good use.
His father, also named Morgan, had inherited 250 acres, and employed six farmhands, a housemaid, a servant, a nurse and a groom by the time his second son arrived in 1862. Morgan senior had been handed control of Ystradwalter, the family farm near Llandovery, at the age of fifty following the death of his parents who passed away within months of each other in the spring of 1855.
Only then, with land and assets finally to his name, had Morgan taken a wife, marrying Mary Williams, a woman thirteen years his junior, in the summer of 1856. His first-born, David, arrived in 1859. Three years later, Morgan junior was delivered safe and well, but his father was already sixty-two years of age and would not live long enough to mark his second son’s sixth birthday.
With two young sons to care for and widowed on the cusp of her fiftieth birthday, Mary sold Ystradwalter to the highest bidder and moved her family lock, stock and barrel into nearby Llandovery, a bustling market town.
In doing so, she turned her back on the farm which had prospered under the Jeffreys family name for generations and had provided the bedrock on which they had built their reputation. The money from the sale ensured Mary would never need worry or toil again, but without the income generated from the land, and the crops and livestock it hosted, her sons would be forced to find their own way through life.
By his early teens Morgan had already left the safety of the family home and turned his back on farming once and for all. He travelled the 36 miles across the Brecon Beacons to take up a post a grocer’s assistant in the mining town of Aberdare where, under the wing of another Llandovery exile – a man named Rees Davies, he learned the skills required of a shopkeeper.
His ambition ensured he would not be content to remain an assistant to anybody for long, and by his mid-twenties, Morgan Jeffreys was a married man with an assistant of his own and a thriving business Roath, a bustling working-class district of Cardiff. The town was still decades from earning city status or adopting the crown of Welsh capital, but nevertheless it was growing faster than anywhere else in the principality.
Within a decade and before the century had turned, Jeffreys had sold his burgeoning business, returning west with his young family in tow. He bought the property Glanynant just off the valley road in Garnant and once again set up his own grocer’s shop, this time expanding his market by proclaiming himself a butcher. Morgan had timed his arrival to perfection – Garnant and neighbouring Glanaman were booming as the coal mines and tinworks swelled the villages with incomers.
Morgan Jeffreys was a man who understood that where there were workers with money in their pockets there was profit to be had.
Communities such as Garnant needed men like Morgan Jeffreys – men of vision, ambition and drive.
In 1895, he – or rather his wife Anne – leased a piece of land alongside the valley road from Lord Dynevor with high hopes of building an empire.
The plot would become the cause of a 20-year legal row between the Jeffreys and the Dynevor Estate.
In 1903, the title deeds for the land were transferred from Anne to Morgan and in 1911 were transferred again – this time into the name of Morgan Walter Williams-Jeffreys, though why Morgan choose to incorporate his mother’s maiden name with his father’s surname to become a double-barrelled landowner remains something of a mystery as there appears no other time he used the title.
The legal battle between the Jeffreys and Lord Dynevor centred on improving the road outside the properties – and the responsibility for meeting the inevitable costs.
Between 1895 and 1915, the Jeffreys refused to pay a penny in ground-rent, claiming the Estate had agreed to take responsibility for the road. Lord Dynevor saw things differently, culminating in a High Court appearance and an order that the Morgan and Anne pay £74 13 shillings and seven-and-a-half pence in back rent.
The fight all but bankrupted the couple.
“Both Mr and Mrs Jeffreys are impecunious people,” Lord Dynevor’s solicitor warned. They were penniless, at least as far as the lawyers could tell.
They renamed Glanynant – their home – as Commerce House in keeping with the elevated position and sat back to count their rental income.
A cup of tea and a corpse.
Morgan Jeffreys always liked to start his day with a cup of tea.
On any normal Sunday Anne would have attended to such domestic chores and he would already have been seated in his favourite chair in front of the fire, his pipe at his lips and the morning’s papers spread across the kitchen table.
Today however his wife of 31 years and more twists and turns than he dared recall was unwell. She had remained in her bed leaving Morgan to fend for himself.
The 58-year-old had risen around 8.30am and set about lighting the fire and stove in a bid to bring some much-needed warmth to the house on a cold, crisp February morning.
It was only then that he realised there was not a drop of milk in the house.
Fortunately, Morgan’s eldest son – also called Morgan – was also up – despite nursing the after-effects of spending his Saturday night – and most of his weekly wage – drinking in Ammanford, Glanamman and Garnant.
With little consideration for his condition, the 28-year-old was despatched to the nearby farm with an empty jug in his hand.
Morgan junior had been gone barely long enough to hop over the low wall between Commerce House – the Jeffreys’ home – and the neighbouring Star Stars before he returned. Morgan senior was at the cold-water tap filling the kettle when his son reappeared in the doorway.
“There is a light at the Star, and the door is open,” he told his father.
The time was approaching 9am.
Mr Jeffreys paused a moment as the copper kettle in his hands grew heavier. The rear door to the Star opened into a cellar. A staircase ran from the dark, damp storage area up to the back room, which in turn opened out into the shop at street level.
“Oh, Mr. Thomas is sure to be there,” he said eventually. “Call out to him.”
Morgan nodded and climbed the wall once more before approaching the rear of the shop. At the open back door he stopped and called to the shopkeeper.
He reported back that he had received no response, though whether he shouted loud enough for Thomas Thomas, stone deaf in one ear and partially deaf in the other, to have heard remains a mystery.
He suggested that his father rouse Miss Jones, the head assistant at the Star who lodged with the family, before climbing the wall once more and making his way across the field towards the farm. Morgan was far more interested in a cup of tea than the comings and goings of shopkeepers.
Morgan senior, meanwhile, considered the implications of the gas lights being left on so late at the Star the previous evening and the realisation that they remained burning the following – along with the open rear cellar door.
Strangely, he would initially tell the Amman Valley Chronicle reporter that it had been he who first spotted the lights at the Star and the door left open, however in time his version of events would become more in keeping with that of his son.
Whether it was Morgan senior or junior who first spotted that the door was ajar, it is certainly true that the elder man eventually decided to take his son’s advice and it was he who called up to Miss Jones.
In a bid not to startle or frighten the young lady, he decided he would avoid alerting her to the events at her place of work immediately by asking whether she would be attending chapel that morning.
In her room upstairs, Phoebe Jones was annoyed to be disturbed so early on her one day off a week, particularly by such a strange question.
Mr Jeffreys knew all too well that Phoebe was not a regular chapel-goer. The thought of some Hell and damnation preacher sentencing her to the fire and brimstone for her sins in a freezing chapel as she failed abysmally to make herself comfortable on a granite-hard pew held little appeal for Phoebe compared to the warmth of her bed. The Bible-quoting Mr Thomas, her employer, provided enough parables and lessons from the good book for her during the working week.
Ten minutes later, Mr Jeffreys called up to her again. This time to inform her that the rear door of the Star was open.
Phoebe leapt from her bed, dressed as quickly as she was able and within minutes was in the kitchen where the kettle was beginning to boil.
While Phoebe dressed, Morgan Jeffreys senior had gone to the rear of the Star, poked his head in the open cellar door and called out to Mr Thomas, again without response.
Morgan junior was returning with a jug of warm milk when the shop assistant came out of the home they shared. He sat down on the wall between the Star and his home with an air of curious indifference as his father appraised Miss Jones of the situation.
Phoebe pushed open the rear door of the Star and like the two Jeffreys men before her, called out to Mr Thomas. She too was met with silence.
She strode into the cellar and began to climb the fourteen steps which lead into the back room.
immediately she stepped onto the first of the stairs, her head was level with the floor of the rear room where the safe was located and which in turn led through an open doorway into the shop itself.
The sight which met her eyes set her heart pumping her chest.
The safe door was wide open and the contents were scattered over the floor. The drawers were half pulled out as if someone had hurriedly searched them. Insurance cards were spread over the floor, as were some dusters and swabs which were kept in the safe. The small tin box in which the day’s taking were placed before being locked away for the night was lying near the safe. The tin was open and clearly empty.
By the time she had climbed the third step she was able to see into the interior of the shop proper.
What she saw would remain in her nightmares for the rest of her life.
Thomas Thomas was lying on his back behind the provision counter. His head was smeared with blood and a thick red pool had congealed on the floor around where he lay. His mouth hung open in a fiendish gape.
As the scream burst from Phoebe’s lips, she looked into the eyes of Thomas Thomas and the dead man stared back.
Phoebe screamed his name, but she knew that Thomas Thomas was dead.
Splashed with that vital fluid.
Morgan Walter Jeffreys was barely a step behind her when Phoebe Jones gave out her awful scream.
She froze stock still as if the horror she faced had drained her of all forward momentum and Mr Jeffreys was forced into an evasive manoeuvre to avoid crashing into the back of the young woman and knocking her flat on her face.
“Mr Thomas!” she shrieked.
There was nothing but silence.
After a heartbeat pause, Phoebe spun on her heels and bustled past Mr Jeffreys in a state of great distress.
The shop assistant had raced down the stairs and out of the cellar door before her landlord had time to catch his breath.
Within seconds of Phoebe disappearing out of the cellar door, Morgan burst in with a look of bewildered panic on his face. Mr Jeffreys turned and, followed by his son, slowly took another step upwards.
As his eye level rose to above that of the top step he too caught sight of the vision that has so terrified Phoebe.
Thomas Thomas lay dead behind the provisions counter. His head was towards the front windows. One leg stretched back towards the rear of the shop, and pushed out of the doorway into the back room closest to Morgan Jeffreys. The other was bent at the knee against a box on the floor. The dead shopkeeper lay on his back and slightly turned so, with eyes wide open, he looked directly into the eyes of those coming up the stairs.
He head had been bashed open and a pool of blood had congealed around him. His shirt front was soaked and his neck and collar were stained dark red. A box nearby was also splashed with that vital fluid.
The safe was wide open and papers and cards and various other items were spread about the back room floor.
Both men, like the female shop assistant before them, were forced to take a moment to comprehend the sight that met them before they were sent reeling backwards down the stair and out into the sharp morning air.
The sound of the two men bursting out of the rear door of the Star Stores startled William Copestake, another resident of Commerce Place who was outside collecting coal for the fire.
Copestake originally hailed from Derbyshire and was another who had made his way to south Wales in search of work.
He had arrived in the Amman valley around 1896, aged about 20. It was not long before made the acquaintance of Margaret Davies, a woman almost twice his age. They married in the summer of 1897 and their first child, a daughter named Mary duly arrived some five months later.
Copestake moved south for work, and by 1901 was underground hewing coal, just as his father had done in the pits of Derbyshire.
The work was hard and life was a struggle. For whatever reason, William was not destined to spend long underground and by 1911 he was working as a farmhand in the employ of Sarah Hicks at Waunwhiad Farm in Glanaman.
While Williams had found bed and board with the widow Hicks in exchange for sweat and labour, his family was not so fortunate.
Margaret, now in her mid 50s, along with Mary, William junior and Annie were residents of the Llandeilo union workhouse.
By the time the two Jeffreys men burst pale-faced and gasping into the sunlight through the rear cellar door of the Star Stars on that chill February morning in 1921, William Copestake was aged 45 – Margaret was passed 60. Despite their past woes the couple were now in residence in rooms above one of the shops at Commerce Place.
William called over to the two men in greeting – it was always good to remain on friendly terms with one’s landlord – but he was made immediately aware that something was wrong.
Mr Jeffreys called him over and told him of the horrors inside the store.
The three men returned inside and climbed the stairs to where William Copestake could see the body of Thomas Thomas.
He was then dispatched to fetch the doctor. Morgan Jeffreys junior was sent to summon the police.
‘You must come at once.’
Police Sergeant Thomas Richards of the Carmarthenshire Constabulary was leaning on the counter of Garnant Police Station filling out the station diary to note an unremarkable night when Morgan Jeffreys burst through the door.
Richards had held the position of sergeant at Garnant since May, 1913, having transferred a month after his promotion while stationed in the village of Ferryside, some 25 miles to the west.
Originally from the small Carmarthenshire droving town of Newcastle Emlyn, he had joined the constabulary in January 1895 at the age of 21 and would also find himself stationed at Llandeilo, Llanelli, Pontyberem and St Clears before making a home for himself, wife Mary Ann and children Maggie, Hubert, Nellie, Emlyn and Gwyneth at the police station in Garnant.
Richards would remain the sergeant at Garnant until the summer of 1936, more than 15 years after the murder at Star Stores. During his 41-year career, the killing of the shopkeeper was the only murder investigation he would take part in.
PS Richards had had an eye on Jeffreys for some time.
The 28-year-old was earning himself a reputation as a drinker – and a committer of the various sins and misdemeanours that walked hand in hand with the bottle.
However it did not take an experienced officer such as Thomas Richards to recognise that something was wrong. It was clear that Jeffreys had run the entire distance from the family home at Commerce Place to the station more than half a mile east along the valley road.
“You must come to the Star shop at once,” said Morgan, before he was fully through the door.
“Mr Thomas, the manager is lying behind the provisions counter.
“His head must have been bashed in, as he was lying in a pool of blood.”
The policeman’s pocket-watch said 9.25am.
PS 69 Richards summoned his only constable, John Thomas, and the pair set off behind Morgan Jeffreys to the open rear door of the Star.
The shop appear in perfect order, save for the corpse on the floor.
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 shop 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 end 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.
Blood, cheese and buttons.
Dr George Jones arrived at Star Stores shortly after Sergeant Richards and PC Thomas and carried out a brief medical examination.
He pronounced Thomas Thomas deceased at 9.45am.
During the course of his exam, the doctor noted that the shopkeeper’s left wrist and hand were covered with blood. There was no blood on the palms and no blood at all on the right hand.
The head was lying in a pool of blood up against a box on his right. The front of the box was splattered with blood.
There was bruising and minor injuries to the right side of the face and temple as well as bruising to the left temple and eye. On the right side of the head, two incisions cut to the bone.
The neck had been punctured in the region of the carotid sheath.
The trousers were unbuttoned except the two last lower buttons. The pants were unbuttoned, and the waistcoat undone at the lower button. The front of the shirt and vest were raised up, as was the Cardigan. The clothing was soaked with blood, but appeared on preliminary examination to be otherwise undamaged.
A lump of cheese was firmly impressed in the palate of the artificial teeth of the upper jaw.
It was the doctor’s view that Thomas Thomas had died approximately eleven hours earlier – around 10.30pm the previous night.
Fingerprints in the butter
While Dr Jones carried out his examination of the body, PS Richards and Constable Thomas began a search of the premises.
Close to the skull of the deceased was the head of a broom, the bristles of which were smeared with congealed blood. The handle which should have been attached to the broomhead was nowhere to be seen.
An upper set of dentures lay some three to four inches from the head of the deceased embedded in a lump of cheese. The lower set was also on the floor near the shopkeeper’s knee.
On the grocery counter, which ran along the left-hand side of the shop as customer entered from the door onto the valley road, a cash book lay open. It was clear that there were a number of incomplete entries.
Next to the book was a provisions stock sheet and a registered envelope addressed to the Star Tea Company, London. Inside the envelope was a set of the till roles. Also on the counter was a small canvas bag contained five shillings and tuppence.
The grocery counter till was open and there was two shillings worth of bronze in the tray. There was another three shillings in bronze in the till on the provisions counter.
The rest of the shop was in perfect order, and everything seemed to have been left undisturbed.
In the warehouse to the rear of the shop, on the floor close to the open safe, were two tin boxes, both empty. The tins were open and lay on their sides on the floor as if thrown down or dropped.
Insurance cards, invoices, shop and company paperwork and various items of business correspondence was scattered around the room. Dusters and cleaning rags also lay about the place.
The safe drawers were pulled open. A ring of keys hung from the safe key which was still in the lock.
Leaning against the wall at the foot of the stairs leading from the cellar to the warehouse, PC Thomas had identified an iron bar which appeared to form part of the back door’s bolt. The bar was smeared in blood.
While Richards then searched the premises for fingerprints, PC Thomas went outside to examine for footprints.
There was little to find outside, with night temperatures falling close to freezing the ground had proved too firm to catch any distinct impressions.
Richards was more fortunate however and a number of sets of fingerprints, albeit faint, were identified. There were two clear impressions on the provision counter butter block, close to where the body had fallen. There was also a number of fingermarks on a lower shelf behind the counter. All the impressions were marked and secured by Sergeant Richards in preparation for recording.
As Richards and Thomas continued their respective searches, Deputy Chief Constable John Evans arrived from Llandeilo. He was followed soon after by the Chief Constable of the Carmarthenshire Constabulary, W Picton Phillips, and officers from Carmarthen.
Once the senior men were satisfied, the body of Thomas Thomas was carried to a hearse which had been summoned by deputy Chief Constable Evans and removed to his lodgings across the valley at Number Two, Glanyrafon Villas, carried by four constables.
The remaining officers, marshalled by DCC Evans then secured the scene both inside and out to ensure to prevent any interference with articles which might afford any clue.
Broken, bruised and battered.
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.
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.
A most harmless man.
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.
Murder committed – send an officer to assist.
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:
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.
The telegram – number 123969 – was transmitted to Parliament Square Post Office and from there hand delivered to the desk officer at Scotland Yard.
From Scotland Yard by mail train.
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.
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.
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.
A hitchhiker in the night.
Inspector Nicholls and Sergeant Canning welcomed the bacon and eggs that awaited them as warmly as they were greeted by the residents of Garnant police station.
While housing the village station on the ground floor with an office, a reception area and a cell, the building was also the home of Sergeant Richards, his wife Mary, PC Thomas, his wife Annie and their respective families.
It came as little surprise to the men from Scotland Yard when they found themselves the centre of attention for prying young eyes which peered around door jambs before being shooed away by their mothers who scurried from kitchen to dining room with second helpings and cups of hot, sweet tea.
With their breakfast plates cleared and despite the fatigue of their overnight journey, the two detectives were keen to be brought up to date on all developments since Nicholls had spoken with the chief constable via the telephone the previous afternoon.
The four officers, two uniformed and two in their London suits, sat around the kitchen table sipping tea from the finest china cups the ladies of the station had available as PS Richards and PC Thomas gave what information they could and answered whatever questions the men from Scotland Yard put to them.
Nicholls was impressed. He had come to Garnant doubtful of the efficiency of these local Welsh Bobbies and fearful that their inadequacies might well impede the investigation rather that progress it.
Instead, he had found two men who – despite the limitations of the equipment and training available to them – appeared conscientious and professional. Sergeant Richards in particular left Nicholls confident that no obvious clue had been missed nor ruined by clumsy fingers or over enthusiasm.
Richards produced the boning knife and broom hand retrieved from the brook for inspection. Two nails head protruded from the end of the broom handle and it seemed safe to assume that these had previously secured it to the broomhead.
Satisfied that the evidence – as it was – had been kept secure and untouched in the station strongbox, Nicholls asked what over leads might have come to the fore.
The only fresh line enquiry to have emerged since his conversation with Chief Constable had arrived late on Monday afternoon when a gentleman from Ammanford had presented himself at the station.
He was interviewed by Sergeant Richards who ascertained that the man had attended the same concert as Phoebe Jones on Saturday night.
The gentleman had then set out on his homeward journey in his motorcar but had stopped a short distance from the Star Stores to pick up a lone hitchhiker who was walking along the valley road in the direction of Ammanford. The time had been approximately 2am.
The motorist had happily given the man a lift for the night had been cold with a damp mist settling along the valley.
The two had chatted amiably enough during the short journey before the passenger was dropped – as requested – at Tirydail Square in Ammanford a short time later.
The walker had claimed that he too had attended the concert, though the driver had no recollection of seeing him at the event.
Nor did the driver recognise the man as a resident of Ammanford though he had aroused no suspicion as the motorist was at that stage completely unaware of the events which had occurred earlier in the evening at the Star.
The two men had shared little more than idle chatter and had not exchanged names or any other information which might further identify the pedestrian, their conversation centring solely on the weather, driving conditions and the motorist’s car.
The fact that this man had remained in Garnant for some three hours after the dance had come to an end at 11pm was a cause of some suspicion for Sergeant Richards and Nicholls agreed it was imperative that he be traced as soon as possible.
Broken buttons at 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.
Not a single clue to work on.
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 simple question of identity.
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:
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.
A case already beyond control.
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.
The ace face up.
Nicholls was furious.
Specific details of the crime had not been leaked to the press, but thanks to Dr Jones had gushed out in a torrent.
Minute aspects of the case which should by right have only been known to the police and the killer would be available for every Tom, Dick and Harry to read when the Amman Valley Chronicle went on sale in less than 48 hours time.
Nicholls’ experience told him that it was often an intimate knowledge of the details of a crime which could catch a killer.
With the right encouragement, a suspect might be encouraged to entrap himself with details to which only the killer or those present at the scene would have been privy. Thanks to the good doctor, those details would now be the central topic of conversation and gossip up and down the valley.
Crucial information such as the unbuttoning of the clothing would, it seemed to the detective, have been a trump card in the questioning of a suspect as they closed in on the culprit. Their ace however was now lying face up on the table for all to see.
He was further disturbed that the doctor had decided to inform the press of his assessment of the order of events based on the injuries before detailing his theory to the police.
Both Nicholls and Canning were aware that the calculating of the correct timing of the injuries and the order in which they were inflicted often proved crucial in attaining a conviction for murder and yet the good doctor had already broadcast his professional medical opinion to the world at large.
The mood of the man from Scotland Yard was further darkened when he realised that the only photographs of the scene had been taken by the Chronicle’s photographer and they too would be appearing in Thursday’s edition of the newspaper.
In a bid to reclaim some form of control of the investigation – however minor, Nicholls asked Sergeant Richards who he considered the best photographer in the region.
PC Thomas was then despatched to Ammanford to secure the services of Mr William Matthews, Photographer, of The Arcade, Ammanford.
Matthews returned with Thomas and took pictures of the interior and exterior of the crime scene before joining Nicholls and Canning at 2 Glanyrafon Villas where he set about photographing the mutilated body of Thomas Thomas.
No ordinary policeman.
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.
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.
Cardboard and paper for a bed.
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.