Of ‘Turks’ and Cornishmen ~ by J. D. Davies (First published in Llanelli Miscellany No. 30 2016/17)
The origin of the nickname ‘Turk’ for anyone from Llanelli has generated much debate over the years – much of this debate, it has to be said, taking place in licensed premises, or during local derbies at Stradey or Parc y Scarlets, and especially when in the company of a ‘Jack’ or ten. All sorts of theories have been advanced, ranging from the turban-like dampened towels worn as headgear by tinplate workers to keep them cool, to suggestions about Turkish ships coming into Llanelli docks because Swansea was on strike. There’s also a theory that in 1915, a Welsh Regiment battalion raised in Llanelli was sent to Gallipoli to fight the Turks, which led the Swansea battalion, who’d been sent to the Western Front, to apply the nickname. But another, and perhaps much more plausible, explanation is suggested by a document held at Llanelli Library – although I suspect that, as has always been the way with these things, this explanation will, in turn, be pooh-poohed by those who hold fast to one or other of the alternatives!
In 1831, the vicar of the town was the larger than life Reverend Ebenezer Morris, while its new squire, living just across the road from Morris’s parish church in Llanelly House, was the English landowner William Chambers, an illegitimate son of Sir John Stepney, eighth baronet. Morris and Chambers were soon at loggerheads, and their quarrel eventually became so bitter that there were such surreal spats as the vicar publicly comparing Chambers to a hyena, and even throwing the squire out of a window of the Thomas Arms Hotel. One of the reasons for this bitter conflict between the two men was Chambers’ desire to widen the road outside his home, which would mean the loss of part of the churchyard and thus of the graves within it. Morris appealed to the local population by publishing three placards, in Welsh, denouncing Chambers and his scheme, and one of these – known as placard ‘C’ – imagined the ghosts of all those buried in the churchyard rising up and crying out for assistance:
Upon this, lo, a thousand voices at once rising in the graves with a shrill frightful scream sing, “Fathers, mothers, children, brothers, sisters, lovers, relations, old friends, nay, even Turks if there be any here of that race, come and assist us against the vile presumption, horrid desire, and the pomp and vanity of this English stranger!”.
The placards were produced as evidence in the subsequent court case against Morris, which resulted in the extraordinary outcome of the Vicar of Llanelli being fined twenty pounds and bound over to keep the peace, especially against William Chambers.
Is it, perhaps, too fanciful to suggest that in response to the placard, many Llanelli people proudly described themselves as Turks in order to show their support for Morris, and that this moniker then proved irresistible to visitors from neighbouring towns? Or could Morris’s comment possibly be a subtle allusion to Llanelli people already being known as Turks in 1831? At that time, the Turks had a particularly ferocious reputation: the Greek War of Independence, which witnessed many atrocities and in which the poet Byron died, had just ended, and only four years before the incident in Llanelli, the British fleet had fought a full-scale battle against the Turks at Navarino. Thus the nickname ‘Turks’ might have appealed equally to Llanelli people as a symbol of their spirit and fighting qualities, and to their neighbours as a way of damning the town as a den of heathen savagery. Regardless of this speculation, the fact is that William Chambers remained the squire of Llanelli for another twenty-four years, more than enough time for the name of ‘Turks’ to gain popular currency, and for people to forget why it had gained it in the first place. Even if the origins of the term were soon forgotten in Llanelli, such things often take on a life of their own; and there would certainly be a neat paradox in our distinctly ‘heathen’ nickname having been invented by the town’s vicar!
While unsuccessfully trawling online British and Welsh newspapers, of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, for references to ‘Turks’, I came across an unexpected and astonishing find. In 1881, the Penzance-based newspaper The Cornishman published a series of articles by a correspondent who went by the pen-name ‘A Cornish Laddie’. This gentleman had just moved to Llanelli, and during the autumn of that year, he published a dozen articles giving his impressions of the town, together with a shorter series giving an account of his voyage back to Cornwall from Nevill’s Dock. The first piece gave an account of his train journey from Paddington, and in subsequent articles, he provided detailed factual accounts of the industries of the town, the shipping of the port, the nature of local government, etc. Sadly, there were many aspects of Llanelli life that he ignored completely – sport, for instance, where an outsider’s view of the early years of the Scarlets would have been invaluable. Nevertheless, ‘Cornish Laddie’ provides many fascinating snippets about the people and habits of Llanelli. Taken together, these are far too long for a single article; in due course, it is hoped to transcribe all of his pieces and place the texts online. For now, though, a few excerpts will have to suffice.
On 1st February, 1881, the day after his arrival, ‘Cornish Laddie’ had a look around his new home, and formed the distinctly uncomplimentary first impressions that he recorded in his second article.
Well, I must candidly confess...that the town, as a town, appeared to me somewhat of a failure…The principal streets are Stepney Street and Vaughan Street. The ‘High Street’ is a miserable, straggling road, which leads nowhere…Certain it is that before leaving the metropolis I had pictured something far better.
One of the most noticeable features of the town are the immense chimneys, or ‘stacks’ as they are termed, belonging to the various lead and copper works. These stacks can be seen for miles around, and smoke is always issuing from them, the fires being kept burning day and night. There are three particularly which are far above the others in height; the tallest of them (that of the Copperworks) being 320 feet high. Another circumstance which particularly struck me was the number of public houses and places of worship.
Unfortunately for our Temperance friends, there are no less than seventy-five public houses! (His emphasis) On the other hand, there are rather over thirty chapels and churches…Almost everyone can understand English, yet the poorer classes still speak Welsh. It is strange to hear people talking a language which you do not understand and which there is hardly necessity to understand. The Welsh language is fast disappearing (my emphasis); it is not allowed to be taught in the day schools, though many churches and Sunday schools have their services in the native tongue…
In his next article, the writer somewhat moderated his harsh assessment of the appearance of the town.
…when you are four or five miles from the town, and looking back, see it lying in the softened glare of the evening sun ‘rosy and beautiful’ and its triumvirate of stacks ambitiously pointing skywards, even Llanelly, dirty as it is, is not altogether without beauty. But of the country around, ‘one and all’ agree it is really fine.
The Athenaeum is, I suppose, the chief building [2018 currently the Llanelli Library]. It comprises the mechanics’ institute, library, reading room, chamber of commerce, and a large hall (60 feet by 30 feet) for concerts, lectures, etc. Attached to this building also is the Nevill memorial building, geological museum, school of art, School Board offices, etc, but, after all, it is very small in size. The town hall, too, is small and insignificant, and is very inadequate for the requirements of the town. If the people here were anything like as go-ahead as the Cornish, many new buildings would have been erected ere this (sic); but I am afraid I must chronicle the fact that Llanellyites, as a rule, are behind the times. It is only fair, however, for me to say that a music hall, with a coffee palace underneath, and a police court, are in course of erection. The union workhouse is nothing to boast of. The banks are small but are ornamental and central. But there is one place that the people justly pride themselves on, and that is the market place. This is in the centre of the town and covers an area of three acres. It is well supplied with fruit, vegetables, poultry, butter and cheese, Welsh flannel, hosiery, shoes etc; and nearly forty stalls are occupied by butchers…. There is a public park of about fifteen acres in extent, but it is more like an enclosed common than a park. The national schools, on an elevated site, are supposed to have a picturesque appearance; they may – by moonlight.
‘Cornish Laddie’ then went on to describe the division between the English and Welsh speaking congregations that had both, previously, used the parish church, with the former moving out into the new church of All Saints.
Inevitably, he was very interested in the close connections between Llanelli and his native county.
I had expected to discover that there were many Cornish people in the vicinity, but I was not prepared for the great number I have already found. How quickly and how gladly I recognised the old familiar prefixes of Tre, Pol and Pen! Such names as Treharne, Pollard, Pender, Pascoe, Richards, Williams, Thomas, Grylls, Phillips, Vivian, Mead, Broom and Gurnell recall the dear old county. Yet what a host of such names as Evans, Jones, Davis, Rees, and the like there are!...I felt quite proud of the old county when I found that most of the principal men of the town and the captains of the ships were of Cornish stock; the rest belong to the Welsh and others…when I walk down the docks here, it is almost as though I were again in Cornwall, so often do I see Cornish faces, and hear the twang of Cornish voices.
‘Cornish Laddie’’s accounts of the industries of the town are mostly dull and statistical, but that of shipbuilding is more interesting.
Shipbuilding used to be carried on here to a great extent some years previously, but now it is almost entirely a thing of the past. A large number of vessels were registered at the port, and some of the iron vessels were remarkably fine ships. There appears, however, to have been a strange fatality with regard to the Llanelly vessels; they have shown a peculiar aptitude for getting wrecked, or lost, or ‘missing’. For example, in 1879 there were about 85 vessels, of an aggregate tonnage of 13,000 tons register, belonging to this port. Out of that number nearly one third have already been lost.
He then went on to describe the harbour.
Let us commence with the entrance to the harbour, which is a very tortuous one, and very dangerous without a good pilot, on account of the number of sandbanks… The sand, too, has been encroaching for some years past, and the navigable part of the river is much narrower. This encroachment will continue if not attended to speedily. It is absolutely necessary that steam dredgers should be employed, or in time the channel will become so shallow that it will be impossible for any but small vessels to enter the port, except at very high tides. But, as I have before hinted, there appears to be a lack of ‘go’ about the place… Welshmen, as a rule, do not care to speculate much, and there are really very few people in Llanelly who would feel disposed to lay out their money, pro bono publico. This state of things, too, is rapidly assuming alarming proportions; indeed, very few large vessels enter the port now, but touch somewhere on the sands in entering.
‘Cornish Laddie’ then moved on to discuss to recount an astonishing tale of what he described as ‘Welsh lynch law’.
Passing through a populous part of the town, inhabited chiefly by coal miners and labourers, my attention was called to a slip of paper, which I saw in the windows of an empty house. Wishing to gratify my curiosity (a curiosity almost woman-like) I approached the house and read the paper. Much to my surprise I saw, written in a large bold hand, the following remarkable words:
for starf rosey
What did this mean? I gazed and gazed and gazed again, but I could not unravel the mystery. Was it Welsh or English? If so, why? For my enlightenment a friend, who understood the vernacular, questioned one of the ‘natives’ and eliminated (sic) this strange story.
It appeared that the ‘John Roberts’ in question was a man in good circumstances, but was very miserly. To so great an extent did he carry this disposition that his little niece, Rosie, who ‘kept house’ for him, was systematically starved. She was indeed kept on such low diet that she had to go to the kindly neighbours to get sufficient food to keep herself alive. However, this state of affairs did not happen long before retribution overtook the stingy uncle. He was burned in effigy by the neighbours. Not content with that, they took the law into their own hands by pinning a paper- similar to the above- to his back, describing the name and nature of his crime. They then ransacked the house and put his household goods out on the pavement for ‘immediate removal to a more congenial locality’, and the niece was taken by some of them ‘to be trained up for the matrimonial market’. The place being made so warm for him, the old miser had, perforce, to leave the vicinity for ‘fresh fields and pastures new’, while the paper, stuck in the window of the empty house, was the only memento of what had been.
In his final articles, ‘Cornish Laddie’ returned to the subject of the Welsh language.
The Welsh are very proud of (almost conceited about) their language, and aver that it is the language of Paradise. They cling to it with great tenacity, and cling to it with a greater tenacity because it is slowly – yet, I think, surely – dying out… The language is very expressive and very forcible: they call a spade a spade; however the spade in question might shock our somewhat highly-minded ideas of propriety.
He also described at length some of the peculiarities of the Llanelli way of speaking, many of which hold true to this day – for instance, the insertion of ‘by’ (‘come by here’) and ‘indeed’ into sentences on industrial scale, the use of passive rather than active verbs (‘instead of saying ‘it’s a fine day’ they would say ‘it was to be a fine day today’’), the universality of ‘aye aye’ and ‘mun’ for ‘man’ (‘to so great an extent is ‘aye aye’ used as an acquiescent answer that it is really difficult to get a Welshman to say ‘yes’’), the frequent deployment of ‘whatever’ (plus ça change), and finally,
…their use of the phrase ‘just now’ is somewhat peculiar and just the reverse of the ordinary construction; in fact, their ‘just now’ is equivalent to our ‘bye and bye’. For instance, anyone saying ‘I’ll speak to you just now’ would mean that he could not speak to you at present, but would do so at some future time.
Constraints of space prevent publication of all ‘Cornish Laddie’’s encounters with the Welsh language, or, more exactly, with ‘Llanelli Welsh’. However, it is worth concluding with the tale he recounted to end his series of articles. It smacks of being apocryphal, but even so, it is too good a story to omit!
Let me here relate an anecdote of a simple Llanelly girl who went to London to seek her fortune, firmly imbued with the common idea that the streets of the metropolis were paved with gold, etc. When she arrived at Paddington she was so struck with the bustle of that great terminus that she could but gaze, open-mouthed, at the sight she saw. After a little time she turned to a female friend and said, with a great sorrow in her face, ‘What a pity all the handsome men are married!’ ‘How do you know that?’ replied her companion. ‘Why,’ said she, ‘because they have husbands written on their caps.’ The joke may not be apparent, till I explain that G.W.R. (the initials of the Great Western Railway), or gwr, is the Welsh word for ‘husband’; and this forlorn damsel immediately imagined that the officials stuck this on their hats to show the outside world that they had joined ‘the holy state of matrimony’.