Rescuing History: Discovering a Welsh hero

groupofcdvs

The notion that it’s better to travel in hope than to arrive might well have been invented by a dealer in old photographs; probably a slightly jaded dealer well versed in visiting flea markets and antique fairs. There’s many an early start on a dark morning followed by a long drive and a fruitless yomp around a muddy field in the rain. The thrill of the chase can wear a bit thin at times, but every so often something turns up, something languishing unrecognised on a dealer’s table, something that rings a tiny alarm bell in your head. The sort of item that can be transformed, by a hunch, and a little detective work, from something neglected, into something special. On a recent Sunday morning trip to the Carmarthen Flea Market I made just such a find.

As a dealer in old photographs and ephemera I try and scan every stall for old bits of paper and photographs, and it’s often on a general dealer’s table where I’ll find something unidentified or under valued. On this particular Sunday it was a small box of photographs that caught my eye. The box contained twenty or so Victorian carte-de-visite (CDV) photographs, so called because they are similar in size to the visiting cards of the era. These photographs were produced in their millions from their introduction in the 1850s through to their demise in the early twentieth century. Initially the preserve of the wealthy, by the later years of the nineteenth century nearly every small town had a photographer producing CDVs, and nearly every family had at least one album of family portraits. And CDVs have survived in their millions too, the vast bulk of them portraits of forgotten nameless people, forever separated from the families that once treasured them. You will find albums and boxes of these old photographs at every antique fair or flea market, and there is a collector’s following for these small windows into the Victorian age. Some are sought after for their unusual content; Victorian celebrities, soldiers, fashion, topographical scenes and social history etc. Others are collected for the location of the photographer and in some cases particular photographers are sought out. The rarest and most sought-after CDVs might fetch over £100, but the vast majority are worth no more than a pound or two, and many can be picked up for these sort of prices at fairs and markets.

So I approached the box with my usual combination of hope and low expectation. At first glance it wasn’t promising, all the photographs were unidentified portraits, and most dated from the late Victorian period when the CDV was available to all and was no longer restricted to the great and good. I selected a couple of photographs for the location of the photographers, and another two for the slightly better than usual poses. They were £1 each, and with luck, the ones I’d found might make £2 or £3 each. But one other image caught my eye, an otherwise unremarkable c1880s portrait of a seated man, a man who was wearing a medal on his chest. I’ll always buy portraits featuring a medal wearer, well certainly if they are only £1. I made my purchase, stashed my acquisitions in my bag, and carried on my hopeful way around the market. Not much more came to light and it seemed a disappointing haul, a not unusual feeling after a visit to a smaller venue. A couple of days later I took a closer look at my new stock, and began my investigation of the medal wearing mystery man.abercarn

A few things struck my about the image. The man wasn’t wearing uniform, but he was wearing his medal on his left breast, generally the side that military medals are worn. I’ve handled thousands of CDVs, and having had a special interest in military images, I’m quite familiar with British military medals of the Victorian period. The image wasn’t all that clear, but the medal wasn’t one that seemed familiar to me, so I doubted it was a military award. Masonic medals and temperance society medals often turn up on Victorian portraits, so I couldn’t rule these out, although they’re often worn on the opposite breast. There were three good clues to help identify the medal, and I took my trusty copy of the Medal Yearbook down from the bookshelf to help me. The medal shape was distinctive, more oval than the more common circular style, and with what was probably a crown shape to the top. Secondly the ribbon had four pale stripes, a particularly distinctive and hopefully diagnostic pattern, and finally there appeared to be some large raised letters on the medal.

abercarn2

I was still in the first section of the book, Decorations, when I reached the page for the Albert Medal, and straight away it looked like a good match. The shape and lettering looked the same, and yes the ribbon description matched as well. So our man was wearing an Albert Medal, an award instituted in 1866, firstly for gallantry in saving life at sea, and then extended in 1877 to include gallantry in saving life on land. The medal was awarded in two classes, bronze and gold, both with different ribbon designs, and excitingly it seemed from his ribbon that our man was the recipient of a gold medal. Between 1866 and 1949, when the gold medal was replaced by the George Cross, only seventy people were awarded a gold Albert Medal, and here was one of that exclusive band looking out at me from the past.

But who was this gallant life-saver, and would the photograph yield up any further clues? CDVs often have the photographers details printed to the card mount, either on the lower border, or on the reverse of the mount, and helpfully Mr J W Caple, photographer, of Abercarn, had his details printed to the lower mount. Abercarn is a small village in Monmouthshire, ten miles north west of Newport, and one of the many villages associated with the coal mines and ironworks of the South Wales valleys. So, a life-saver from the industrial heartland of South Wales; was I getting closer? I googled ‘Abercarn’ and ‘Albert Medal’, and immediately I was taken to the Abercarn Disaster of 1878, when a catastrophic explosion at the Prince of Wales Colliery in the village had cost the lives of 268 men and boys. The disaster, the third worst (in terms of lives lost) to affect the South Wales coalfield, was presumed to have been caused by the ignition of firedamp by a safety lamp. I read on, and discovered that in 1879 Queen Victoria had conferred eight Albert Medals on members of the rescue effort, six bronze medals, and just two gold medals. I felt like I was getting tantalizingly close; could our man be one of these two men; Henry Davies, a collier, and John Harris, a mason. I searched for images of the rescuers, but drew a blank, I searched for Henry Davies and John Harris, again, nothing. Then I found a news story from 2013. The family of John Harris had sold his medal at auction some years earlier, and unusually it had been purchased by the packaging company Smurfitt Kappa. The reason for their interest was that their industrial plant is built on the site of the former Prince of Wales Colliery, and the news report of 2013 reported on the unveiling of the medal in the conference room on their site. The news article included a small gallery of images; one of the medal, one of a group looking at the medal, and then, there I was, staring into the face of our mystery man, as the gallery included a badly damaged copy of the very same portrait. When Smurfitt Kappa had purchased the medal, the small photograph had come with it, and that fortuitous survival had helped me unlock a mystery. The unknown man languishing in a box of £1 photographs turned out to be a bona fide Welsh hero, one of the very few decorated with the gold Albert Medal for gallantry in the saving of life.

The London Gazette of August 19th 1879 confirmed the following details of John Harris’s selfless action.

On the 11th September, 1878, an explosion of firedamp occurred in the Abercarn Colliery, in the county of Monmouth, whereby 260 persons perished, and on which occasion the greatest possible gallantry was exhibited in saving about 90 lives. The force of the explosion was terrific, doing great damage to the roadways and to the bottom of the shaft, and setting the coal and timber on fire in several places. Into this state of confusion and apparent danger to life these men, without hesitation, descended, and, although they discovered that fires were raging in the mine, and that consequently the chances of another explosion were considerable, they remained at their gallant and humane work of rescue, not re-ascending the shaft until they had satisfied themselves that no one was left alive below.

Henry Davies, after being down the Abercarn Pit all the afternoon, with those recommended for the Second Class Medal, volunteered to descend the Cwmcarn Pit (a shaft two miles distant), with a view of conveying to the explorers, who had attempted to enter the workings from that side, an order from those in charge of the operations to come out, as, in consequence of the fires underground continuing to burn fiercely, and large quantifies of gas were pouring out of the workings, a second explosion was deemed to be inevitable, which, had it occurred, would assuredly have killed every man below ground. Henry Davies, after being deserted by two men who refused to accompany him further, and when he must have felt that there was little or no chance of his coming alive out of the pit, pursued his course alone for five or six hundred yards, and heroically accomplished the object of his mission.

John Harris went down the pit with those recommended for the Second Class Medal. Having descended to a depth of about 295 yards, the progress of the cage was stayed by the damaged state of the shaft. John Harris got off the cage, and sliding down a guide-rope, reached the bottom, where, although he knew well that any moment might be his last, he remained for many hours, until all who were alive (some of whom were badly burnt and otherwise injured) reached the cage by his assistance, and were taken to the surface in safety.

This is why I love my job, the chance finds that send me on a magical mystery tour through the past, and the opportunity to rescue remarkable objects and remarkable lives from obscurity.

Andrew Dally – November 2016

Advertisements

The New Gallery, London, 1888

g2

g11

Scarce boxed set of twelve extra large size cabinet photographs by Bedford Lemere & Co of Strand, London. With original cloth-covered card box. SOLD

The mounts measure 11 1/2″ x 9 1/2″ (29cm x 24cm).

The group comprises ten studies of the galleries of the New Gallery, a study of the The Old Market (site of the New Gallery), plus a card that lists the directors, consulting committee, architect and secretary.

The directors were Charles Hallé and J W Comyns Carr. The committee included the artists Alma Tadema, Edward Burne Jones, Arthur Gilbert, Hubert von Herkomer, William Holman Hunt, Edward Onslow, John William North, Alfred Parsons, Edward Robson, and William Richmond.

The New Gallery was founded in 1888 at 121 Regent Street, London; the building was designed by Edward Robert Robson FSA. The gallery was an important venue for Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movement artists, and hosted the first Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society showcase. The first exhibition opened on May 8th 1888.

The New Gallery building was later used as a restaurant, cinema, and church, and is currently the flagship store of the Burberry clothing brand.

This scarce set of cabinet photographs is available for sale. Contact us for price and availability. NOW SOLD

g4g9g5g10

g6

g7

g3

g13

g12

g8The Old Market (site of the New Gallery)

New Gallery

Avro Biplane visits Llanwrtyd Wells

A series of six postcards that show the visit of an Avro 504K aircraft to Llanwrtyd Wells, Powys in 1919. The aircraft can be seen in the first photograph on a landing strip in front of the Abernant Hotel.

The first passenger flight from Swansea to Llanwrtyd Wells took place in August 1919, when Captain Bruce accompanied by two Swansea reporters took his Avro aircraft on a 48 minute flight via Hendrefoilan, Ammanford, Llandeilo, and Llandovery, before landing in the grounds of the Abernant Hotel. Captain Bruce was met by the landlord of the Abernant, Mr Henry Rees. A large crowd witnessed the start of the return journey. This might be the occasion pictured on the postcards.

An August 1919 edition of the Brecon County Times reported that

Aeroplane flights have been numerous within the last few weeks at Llanwrtyd, starting at the Abernant Hotel. Many have taken this opportunity of experiencing the sensations of an air spin, and amongst them, on Tuesday of last week, was Mr J P Williams of Cefnllan, Llangammarch. He was delighted with it, and his description of the ride made many jealous of his experience, and made them wish their pockets were heavy enough to go and do likewise, but others were of the opinion that they felt safer on the ground. The machine was an Avro from Swansea, and the same one that gave an exhibition of flying at the Garth Show the following day.

lw6

lw3

lw4

lw2

lw5

This rare souvenir certificate for a flight in an Avro biplane at Swansea is dated August 20th 1919 and was issued to Miss Powell. The pilot is recorded as A C Weeks.

lw7

lw8

From the collection of Andrew Dally.

cilgerran

Bridge over River Teifi at Llechryd c1880s

A fine study by James Valentine of the bridge at Llechryd, Ceredigion. Mounted to card album page. A man can be seen on the water in his coracle.

The grade II listed bridge was built in the 17th century and is part of an ancient drovers road. The bridge can be entirely submerged during times of flood.

bridgec

Bridge over River Teifi at Llechryd 2014

The same view in September 2014. Many of the buildings on the far bank remain although the single-story chapel to the right of the graveyard is now a ruin.

From the collection of Andrew Dally.

A touching handwritten tribute poem to “Old Nell” who died February 21st 1905.

oldnell

In Memoriam of Dear Old Nell

Though but a dog, she was true, faithfull, and kind,

Many years she was with us every word did she mind,

We grieve at the parting, but we done all we could,

Her sufferings were great, yet still she was good.

She could all but speak, but we knew what she meant,

Seemed to share with our sorrows, our joys, was always content

Be kind to the dumb, and they’ll prove kind to you,

As poor old Nell, she died, good and true.

 

Initialled by “G.H.

 

A postcard sent to a soldier just weeks before the end the Great War brought unwanted news.

oldchum1

“It hardly seems possible such sorrow has come”

Mr dear Alf, my dear boy, your old chum was killed on Sept 30. One of the Sergts name Poole wrote to a friend of ours and told them the sad news. It hardly seems possible such sorrow has come I cannot realize it. He was wounded and was on a stretcher which owing to severe shell fire was put under cover. A shell burst near and the concussion killed him. I cannot write more now. Kindest wishes for you recovery. Yours very sincerely….

The card was addressed to 632487 Private Alfred Cobb, 2/20th London Regiment, at East Leeds War Hospital, Leeds, and was redirected to 18 Beckett Street. The former East Leeds War Hospital is now part of St James’s University Hospital.

The card is postmarked Leeds, 10 October 1918, and was sent from 61 Defoe Road SW17 (London). The name of the sender is difficult to decipher.

 

oldchum2

neuadd

Neuadd Arms Hotel, Llanwrtyd Wells c1880s

A fine early study of the Neuadd Arms Hotel in Llanwrtyd Wells, Powys. Mounted to card. No photographers identification, but may be the work of John Owen of Newtown.

The right hand part of the main building has a sign above the door which appears to be written in the Coelbren y Beirdd (bard’s alphabet) devised by the literary forger  Iolo Morganwg. I think it translates to “Llanwrtyd Hotel”. Two women are selling fruit or vegetables from a stall beside the fountain.

The building on the left edge of the shot which in 2013 is a Barclay’s Bank, was then a shop. The wrought iron work above the door sadly no longer present.

neuadd2

Neuadd Arms Hotel, Llanwrtyd Wells 2013

The same view in December 2013.

From the collection of Andrew Dally.