On 12th of November 1887 a brutal murder took place in the [Box] cemetery near the top wicket gate that leads to Dafen. Thomas Davies a messenger employed by Dafen Tinplate Works was returning from The London and Provincial Bank with a bag containing £590 that was to be used as wages.
He was found laying in a field near the wicket gate his face covered in blood his head had been battered by a weapon known in the tinplate industry as an “Opener”. This was a machete type blade and was very sharp; it was used to open tinplates that had become stuck together. Near the body was the bag containing the wages, this had been cut open with £335 missing.
That evening David Rees was arrested on suspicion of murder. Two young boys had seen him acting suspiciously near the wicket gate that morning, Rees denied being anywhere near there. On the way to the police station they passed the Wicket Gate, he again denied he had passed that way that morning.
An inquest was held at the Stepney Hotel; many witnesses were called and described how Thomas Davies had been found, where and when David Rees had been seen that Saturday. One witness, a young boy claimed he witnessed the whole thing. Evan Evans, a medical practitioner, described the nine horrific head wounds Davies had received. The Jury returned a verdict that “David Rees, and some person to the jurors unknown, did wilfully, feloniously, and with malice of forethought, murder the said Thomas Davies” (so much for the principle, Innocent until proven guilty.)
Thursday 24th November, saw David Rees appear before Llanelli Magistrates in the Athenaeum Hall, chairman of the magistrates was Mr. Richard Neville. Mr. W. Brodie appeared for the prosecution and Mr. W. Howell for David Rees. After hearing evidence from various sources over a two day period, the prisoner was committed for trial at the next Carmarthenshire Assizes.
On Wednesday 22nd February 1888 Rees’s trial started at Carmarthen. After a Grand Jury had heard the outline of the case and returned a verdict that there was a true bill (there was a case to answer) against Rees, a petty jury was called and the trial began. All the witnesses that had previously given evidence were called and stuck very closely to their previous statements, especially the young boy who claimed to have seen the murder. At the end of his evidence the judge turned to him and said in a loud voice “look at that man, (pointing to Rees in the dock) are you sure that is the man you saw commit murder?” “Yes I am” he replied.
After the remainder of the crown witnesses had been called and cross-examined, Mr. A. Lewis addressed the Jury and wound up the case for the prosecution. Mr. Bowen Rowlands then rose to speak on behalf of David Rees. He called into question the very young ages of some of the witnesses, they, he said were probably less bias than an adult, but they would be more susceptible to be frightened and their imagination run wild and would also be open to the powers of suggestion. He also queried the boy, who claimed he saw the murder, evidence. If he had seen the whole thing why had he only seen one blow to the head when there were obviously nine?
The judge then summed up the case and the jury retired to consider their verdict. After a mere 50 minutes, the jury returned a guilty verdict. The judge donned the black cap and pronounced the death sentence. Before the prisoner was taken down, a little old man went up to the dock and put his trembling hand on the rail, when David Rees looked down he could see it was his father. His hand remained there for a while until he was gently led away, his head bowed.
As the judge was about to leave the courtroom he was informed that David Rees had not understood his sentence. So the court was reconvened and the sentence repeated which was repeated back to the prisoner in Welsh by an interpreter. He was then taken from the court and returned to goal, he cried continually, pleading that they couldn’t hang him as he was innocent.
The date for the execution was fixed for 14th March 1888. The executioner was James Berry from Bradford. He was something of an extrovert and wore a red fez on his head. He also loved to give details of how he carried out his executions to anyone who would listen.
On the day, at 7.30am the people who were to witness the execution arrived at the prison, shortly after the execution cortege appeared from the condemned cell. First was the Chief Warder and Warder John, the chaplain reading the burial service next followed by David Rees supported by two warders then James Berry. They slowly trudged to the execution shed, a walk of about 55 yards. When in the shed Berry began strapping the legs of David Rees he could be heard repeating over and over again “Arglwydd, trugaredd wryth fi” (O Lord, have mercy on me). The white cap was pulled over his head, the noose adjusted around his neck, and the bolt drawn. No more than 35 seconds elapsed between the trapdoor being opened and the corpse hanging perfectly still.
At the inquest that followed, the coroner read out what was reportedly a written confession by David Rees, dated 28th February, 1888. It stated that he alone had killed Thomas Davies, and had hidden the money in a hedge in a field next to the cemetery but couldn’t remember where. Later he added to his confession that he had taken the “Opener” hidden in his sleeve when he went into Llanelli on the Saturday morning. A number of things do not ring true with his confession, (a) he said he acted alone yet he managed to throw Thomas Davies over a hedge, with the wounds Davies received there would have been a great deal of blood yet there was only a little on Rees, and this could not be determined if it was human. (b) He couldn’t remember where he had hidden the money (£335 was equivalent to about 3 years wages), if it had been me I’m positive I’d remember where it was. (c) He says he hid the “Opener” in his sleeve. It would have been practically impossible to have done this; these tools were at least two foot long, he would not have been able to sit in barber’s chair and pay for his shave without anyone noticing it. Finally, the language that the confession was written in was not that of David Rees.