Llanelli and the Fishguard Invasion
Many years ago the town of Llanelli boasted a surfeit of public houses and inns, some of which were named after topics associated with our colourful history and heritage; The Cornish Arms, The Whitehall Vaults, The Trafalgar, The Lord Nelson, The Duke of Wellington, The Britannia, The Three Mariners, The Waterloo and The Fishguard Arms are to name but a few. Some have been renamed while some have disappeared completely from existence. Click images to enlarge
The Cornish Arms was likely to have connections with the many mariners and traders who came from Cornwall when the port of Llanelli had a flourishing trade in coal and copper. The Whitehall Vaults was named following its connection with Francis Dunn, a local sailor who was lost on Sir John Franklin's famous expedition to the Arctic in search of the North West Passage. Sadly our heritage is being gradually 'air brushed' out by trendy fads whereby old pub names have been re-branded with modern replacements. The Cornish Arms is now The Bucket and Spade, while The Whitehall Vaults became Barnums some time ago. But what about The Fishguard Arms?
Evidence exists that a public house called The Fishguard Arms was located in the Seaside district of Llanelli at least as far back as 1838, [a] an old town plan confirms that it was in Bryn Terrace of the same district. [b] Perhaps like The Cornish Arms, it was so named because of its connection with sailors trading from that West Wales harbour of Pembrokeshire or was it given that name after that famous event in our history sometimes known as the Last Invasion of Great Britain or the Fishguard Invasion?
Much has been written and told about the invasion of Fishguard by the French on 22nd February 1797, by about 1400 troops of the Black Legion under command of the Irish American, Colonel William Tate.
Part of the invasion plan was to attack Bristol or else land on the west Welsh coast, disrupting commerce, diverting British forces and it was hoped encouraging the local peasantry to rise enthusiastically in the cause of Liberty Equality and Fraternity. [c]
The French had underestimated the patriotism and loyalty of the Welsh people, for the whole event turned out to be a fiasco. The French were defeated by the local inhabitants and the militia, with a little help from the Welsh ladies, attired in their traditional clothes of the day who duped the invaders into believing that they were British Red Coats! The whole affair has now become deep-rooted in Welsh tradition and folklore. The story of the part played by the women in the surrender is described In the novel The Fishguard Invasion or Three Days in 1797.
The mistake occurred in this manner. Large numbers of the country-women (among whom were Jemima and Nancy) had assembled on a hill commanding an extensive prospect, including the French outpost at Carnunda, desiring, with the curiosity of their sex, to see as much as possible of what was going forward. It was, by the way, the same hill on which I had also stationed myself. Most of the women wore their distinctive shawl, a scarlet whittle, this being the colour appropriated by the daughters of Pembrokeshire; while their Cardiganshire neighbours have adopted the white whittle. All of them at that time wore high black hats. Lord Cawdor, as he was riding about inspecting things in general, was struck by the resemblance of a mass of these women to a body of regulars, and he called upon the daughters of Cambria to give a proof of their patriotism by marching towards the enemy in regular order. The females responded by a considerable cackle, which, however, signified assent. I saw Jemima and her niece in the front of the regiment which moved forward boldly towards the enemy. Ere long a sudden dip in the ground rendered them invisible to the French, at which place, turning into a side lane, they came again to the back of the hill whence they had started, and renewed their former course; it was done almost in the way in which, I am told, these effects are managed in a theatre. This manoeuvre caused much laughter among the spectators, and no little puffing and panting to the fair sex who accomplished it, many of whom were somewhat stout and not very young. However, it had the desired effect. General Tate acknowledged afterwards that they had been taken for a regiment of regulars, and the French troops (greatly composed of convicts) utterly lost heart. If they had but realised that it took a matter of seven days for the news to travel to London, they need not have distressed themselves on the score of quick aid from England. [d]
The Jemima referred to in the above quote was the legendary Jemima Nicholas, the renowned heroine and cobbler by trade, who took on the French by marching out with pitchfork in hand, capturing twelve enemy soldiers near the village of Llanwnda. The legend of the ruse of the Welsh women is based more on fact than was originally considered, for a more recent publication by Richard Rose gives strong evidence this bluff did really take place. [e]
News of this event reached Llanelli as recalled by Mrs Elizabeth Morris, from Pentrepoeth, Llanelli. Interviewed at the end of the nineteenth century:
Mrs Morris could not herself recollect the landing of the French (1797) at Fishguard, or as she expressed it “yn y fro;” but she well recollected them talking about it, and gave a graphic description of the Welshwomen in their red whittles whom the French invaders mistook for troops. This ruse of the whittles spread, and companies of women thus habited with pitchforks in their hands were accustomed to march about Machynis, that the French if they arrived might mistake them for soldiers. [f], ... She remembered her mother buying a red shawl when the scare occurred in Pembrokeshire with regard to the French invasion, and the scare spreading up to these parts, it was believed that the French would appear, and the shawl was bought with the intention of making a show on the Machynis cliff, as did the Pembrokeshire women at Fishguard. [g]
Along with Jemima Nicholas, the heroine who boldly took on the French invaders, was Margaret Evans of the town Llanelli, among those ladies in their Welsh costumes with whittles or shawls of red flannel and stove-pipe or Beaver hats that so fooled the Frenchmen into surrendering. Interestingly, hats such as these were once manufactured in Llanelli. [h] Was her husband, George Evans a member of the local militia defending the district under the command of Lord Cawdor?
Not far from the Fishguard Arms in Bryn Terrace, Llanelli stood the old houses known as St David's Row. Although demolished c 1972, the old street can be located today by the modern complex of St David's Close, Seaside. Records show that two residents of that street came from a place called Dinas, a small village about 4 miles from Fishguard. They were George and Margaret Evans. George Evans was a miner who moved from Dinas, Pembrokeshire to Llanelli with his wife Margaret prior to 1841. Records show that George was employed as a coal miner and a coal trimmer in Llanelli. [i] He would have probably come over to Llanelli seeking employment in the town's collieries, many of which were operated by the nearby Copperworks Company. Despite his occupation, George lived to a ripe old age of 74, (quite an age in1852). Margaret Evans outlived her husband and died at the age of 85 in 1864. As well as being born in close vicinity to Fishguard they must have been involved some way in the defence of the place during the invasion, as the epitaph on their gravestone states that they were among the Defenders of Fishguard 22nd February 1797. It is a claim which they must have been very proud of to have it engraved on their tombstone. But what exactly did they do? Margaret was about 17 years of age when the French invaded so she could have taken part in the great ruse and as her husband would have been about 19 years old, he may have been a member of the militia. They were both buried in the graveyard of Capel Newydd, the old chapel that stands half way up Felinfoel Road, Llanelli. The full epitaph reads...
In Loving memory of George Evans Seaside, Llanelly Who Died Jan 22 1852 Aged 74 Also Margaret wife of the above who died May 3 1864 Aged 85 years. The above were among the Defenders of Fishguard 22nd February 1797.
Perhaps Llanelli's link with Fishguard Invasion does not end there.
Following the official surrender of the French by Colonel Tate in The Royal Oak, Fishguard, many of the French Prisoners of War were despatched to the notorious Golden Prison in Pembroke and subsequently sent to other prisons such as Portsmouth and its prison hulks etc. The more senior officers were escorted to London by Lord Cawdor. [j] About a century after the event, The Llanelly Mercury 1901/1902 published a serialised account of the invasion of Fishguard by Gwilym Morlais.
Morlais in his article, quotes a letter (13 March 1797) from Lord Cawdor to his wife and describes the above journey with the prisoners.
Early in the morn we left Carmarthen with three chaises. In the first, Joe Adams had charge of Tate and Capt. Tyrell, the first alarmed and confused, the other a stupid Paddy. I had Le Brun with me, as dirty as a pig, but more intelligent and far better manners. In the last, Lord E. Somerset had care of Capt. Norris and Lieut. St.Leger. both greatly frightened and had but little conversation. The whole road we passed through had great crowds of people who had gathered, especially at all places where we changed horses. Throughout the whole of Wales, although the indignation of the people was great, I found that my influence would protect the Frenchmen from molestation without difficulty. The women were more clamorous than the men, and made signs to cut their throats, and desiring me not to take the trouble of carrying them any further, especially was this evident at Llanelly where a tremendous crowd had gathered near the Falcon Hotel. Although the people behaved well, yet there were no signs wanting that if they had their own way they would have made short work of the cringing invaders. [k]
However, a more accurate publication of the letter does not mention the line – especially was this evident at Llanelly where a tremendous crowd had gathered near the Falcon Hotel. [l] Either Morlais had embellished Cawdor's letter to make his story more interesting locally, or had he incorrectly added the line from some extra information he had learned from local folklore? To establish the facts the original Cawdor letters will have to be examined. (Unfortunately these were not available at the time of writing).
On the centenary of the invasion in 1897 the South Wales press proclaimed that several Llanelli-ites were descendants of the French Prisoners of War, one being Bill Morris who unlike his ancestor, turned-coat and donned the colour of Scarlet or red as worn by the Welsh Ladies of Fishguard. [m] According to his obituary Bill Morris was a famous Llanelli and Wales forward who played and captained the club for three seasons. He also played for Wales against Scotland, Ireland and England in 1896/97.[n]
Although some of this article is conjectural, the epitaph on George and Margaret Evans' tomb is Carved in Stone. Perhaps more research on the Fishguard and Llanelli connection may prove fruitful?
I would express my thanks to the following for their assistance in preparing this article: the author and historian Dr David Davies, Gwilym Games of the Swansea City Library, Iwan ap Dafydd of the National Library of Wales, and the staff of the Llanelli Public Library.
Notes and Citations
[a] Pigot's Directory 1838.
[b] Board of Health Plans 1852/53.
[c] Britannia's Dragon A Naval History of Wales p 77, by J.D. Davies.
[d] The Fishguard Invasion or three days in 1797. by M.E. James 1897.
[e] Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion Vol 9 2002 (2003) The French at Fishguard: Fact, Fiction and Folklore – The women in red at Fishguard p93 By Richard Rose.
[f] A Century Old, Llanelly and County Guardian 5 March 1891 and 7 March 1897
[g] Carmarthenshire Notes Vol 1, 1889 p3. Recollections of an Old Llanellyite. Ed Arthur Mee.
[h] Old Llanelly John Innes p 59
[i] Census Returns for Llanelli 1841 and 1851
[j]The Fishguard Fiasco John Kinross 1974 p91. and The Last Invasion Phil Carradice p 118, 123.
[k] French Invasion by Gwilym Morlais. Llanelly Mercury 30 January. 1902 p3 c1
[l] West Wales Historical Records Vol XIV 1929 p165. and The Decent of the French on Fishguard by David Salmon p37, 38.
[m] The South Wales Press 25 Feb 1897 p5
[n] The Llanelly Star 9 Nov 1946 p6
Britannia's Dragon A Naval History of Wales by J.D. Davies.
Welsh Costume in the 18th and 19th Century by Ken Etheridge (2011)
The Fishguard Fiasco by John Kinross 1974
The Last Invasion by Phil Carradice
The image of the Royal Oak, Fishguard: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic licence. Attribution: Donar Reiskoffer
Images of Welsh Lady by permission of National Library of Wales License No: 1433