William Chambers Senior and the Vicar of Llanelli

Rev Ebenezer Morris (reproduce by kind permission of Llanelli Library)Rev Ebenezer Morris (reproduce by kind permission of Llanelli Library)Although the confrontation between William Chambers Senior and the Reverend Ebenezer Morris has already been written about by the historians John Innes, John Edwards and Howard Jones, the event is worth revisiting and updating, especially with the recent discovery of the court proceedings as they were reported in the contemporary newspaper, The Cambrian, and certain papers deposited in the Reference Department of Llanelli Library.

In 1821 the town and parish of Llanelli consisted of a population of 5649 inhabitants [1]. It was a coastal town that was undergoing a time of change, a change that witnessed the demise of an iron industry under the Rabys', growing into a major coal and copper exporting seaport under the Nevills'. This was reflected in the contemporary guide The Cambrian Tourist, which reported that the town was 'a miserable dirty place filled with miners and sailors '[2].

As well as the industrialists of the town the other people of some influence were the major land owners, Thomas Lewis of Stradey and George, Fourth Earl of Cholmondeley, the inheritor of Llanelly House and the Stepney Estate. It appears these landowners were in effect, absentee landlords. The local government and management of the town fell under the authority of a corrupt body consisting of a Portreeve and Burgesses.

Also exerting an influence on the population of Llanelli at that time were the leaders of the religious establishments, and the most formidable was the Vicar of the Parish of Llanelli, The Reverend Ebenezer Morris. He had been appointed to the incumbency, by popular choice, following the death of Reverend Jeremiah Davies in the May of 1820 [6]. Vicar Morris was colourful character and has been described by the Victorian historian, Arthur Mee as:

a man of noble and commanding presence and magnificent physique. His bodily strength was enormous and many anecdotes are told of his prowess. Mr Morris was, almost literally a fighting parson, as often he measured his strength with roystering bullies, he never knew what it was to be vanquished

Furthermore, his pugilistic exploits are reported in an old newspaper cutting:

he was a fierceless (sic) man, as most of us have already heard. On one occasion two unruly colliers entered the church and stayed to service. Seating themselves in the gallery they amused themselves with disturbing the sermon. The old vicar paid no attention to their interruptions and finished his discourse without a word of complaint. The service over, he hastened to his vestry and disrobing himself of his vestments he emerged from the portals with flashing eye. He spotted the two disturbers near the 'Mansel' and his knicker-bockered legs were up with them in a moment's time, and without a word he laid hold of both. In either hand the colliers were helpless and he banged them together with such force that blood spurted from their noses and besprinkled the pavement. Never again did those colliers disturb the services at the Parish Church

The years following Reverend's promotion to Vicar of Llanelli saw some improvements made to the Parish Church, it was partially restored. Its fabled second bell tower was removed along with a 'three decker pulpit'. Improvements were also made in the town as plans were in hand for the building of a new Town Hall in Hall Street, and new Alms Houses for the poor. New gates were added to the Copperworks Dock making it a floating dock. The town was growing, and so was Ebenezer!

In 1824 the Rev Morris appeared in the Carmarthenshire Great Sessions as the plaintiff against Daniel Williams. He had lent Williams his horse to travel to Llandeilo and as a result of the horse being 'over ridden', it had died! Daniel Williams maintained that subsequent to his use of the horse, the Rev Morris had ridden the animal to Pembrey and Carmarthen, but it was reported that a great number of witnesses were called on behalf of the Rev Morris who succeeded in recovering damages of thirty Shillings [5]. Rev Ebenezer Morris was indeed by now a powerful man, such that the contemporary writer and granddaughter of Alexander Raby, Helen Watney, gave him the pseudonym of 'Mr Machiavel'. But things were about to change! [7] In 1827 The Fourth Earl of Cholmondeley died and his Llanelli estate passed into the hands of a certain William Chambers Snr.

William Chambers had inherited the Stepney Estate via a complicated list of legatees who were believed to be friends of Sir John Stepney. The reasoning behind the writing up of this complicated and unusual will proved to be a puzzler to researchers for nearly two hundred years until it was finally solved by the sterling work carried out by the Llanelli historian, Dr J.D. Davies (a full account can be found in issue 17 of the Llanelli Miscellany). William Chambers Snr. was the illegitimate son of Sir John Stepney. According to his solicitor's brief, upon succeeding to the Stepney Estate, William Chambers Snr. moved from Bicknor, Kent, to Llanelly House:

instead of entailing upon his numerous tenantry the evil of an absentee landlord he had formed the laudable resolution of taking up his residence at Llanelly

The fact that his new home was literally an easy stone's throw from the parish church, and living in very close to proximity to the Vicarage it was inevitable that Vicar Morris and William Chambers would both rub shoulders, and this they did.
In 1828 William Chambers Snr. was appointed High Sheriff of Carmarthenshire for that year and he installed Vicar Morris as his Chaplain, by which time Morris and Chambers were on quite amicable terms. It was likely that Vicar Morris was one of the 300 guests that were invited to Llanelly House in October of 1828, to celebrate the opening of 'Mr Chambers' new market place' in the grounds of Llanelly House [8].

The cordial relationship between the vicar and the new owner of the Stepney Estate continued for nearly two years until the building of a new inn in the town by Vicar Morris, known as the Thomas Arms. Although the name of the Thomas Arms does not appear in either the court proceedings or the barristers brief, it appears in Innes' account in Old Llanelly.

Llanelly House stood very close to the Parish Church, so close that it was only twelve feet from the graveyard wall, amid which ran the town's main thoroughfare. An application had been made by the trust that managed that road to widen it by taking away part of the graveyard to the advantage of William Chambers. Permission was granted by the Bishop of the Diocese with the support of Vicar Morris, which during the course of the following events, was withdrawn.

The new hostelry, was advertised 'for let' in the Cambrian on 19th September 1829. and was subsequently run by a William Lover at the end of February 1830. Although the Thomas Arms had been built in opposition to the town's other hostelry, probably the Falcon, it was low on trade. To remedy this, Vicar Morris organised a 'house warming' dinner, as was the tradition in those days, and to encourage custom he invited the most respected gentry of the area. Included at the dinner table were the then High Sheriff for Carmarthenshire & Chairman for the evening, Rees Goring Thomas, J E Saunders of Glanrhydw, William Chambers and his son William Jnr. The soirée which had begun at six thirty continued until ten o'clock, when both Chambers senior and junior left for home. The house warming then got a little hotter when an argument had broken out between Vicar Morris and Mr Saunders about the topic of singing. In an attempt to cool things down the High Sheriff called upon the Vicar to sit down whereupon as an act of defiance Vicar Morris stood up on his chair shouting that he cared for no man! In an attempt to defuse the situation Mr Saunders told Vicar Morris that it was an improper way to treat the chairman. This gesture was like lighting the touch paper of a gigantic firework.

Vicar Morris floored Mr Saunders with a single blow and jumping from his chair he continued to belabour the man with a tirade of blows. The remaining members of the dinner party attempted to save Mr Saunders, who was bleeding profusely, by remonstrating with the raging vicar while Mr Saunders shouted 'do you mean to murder me Morris!'. They then dragged the victim Saunders to the safety of a nearby bedroom. This did not deter the vicar who pursued his quarry and burst open the bedroom door in an attempt to continue his attack on all and sundry, however they all managed to escape.

(An account of the same event in 'Old Llanelly' by John Innes, states Chambers JP, was still at the dinner and had observed that 'Vicar Morris was no gentleman – a gentleman never knocked down his own guest in his own house' whereupon Vicar Morris rose, seized and pushed him, not out of the window, but through the window!)

The following day, Chambers Snr., who had heard about the evening's fracas expressed his disapproval of the Vicar's behaviour and expected the Rev. Morris to make an apology for his actions, but there was none! From that time on, Chambers Snr. distanced himself from the vicar and ignored him in the street.

In revenge, Vicar Morris attempted to turn the people of Llanelli against this new English incomer by having a number placards printed in Welsh and posted about the town demonizing Chambers and accusing him of lying and desecrating the graves of their ancestors by exhuming some of the churchyard graves to widen the road, quoting a number of references from the Bible. He had also called a public meeting to the same effect in an attempt at rabble-rousing the inhabitants of Llanelli and although Chambers attended the meeting it appears that he could not state his case. Most of the people there were Welsh speaking and probably could not understand him, also, it must be remembered that in nineteenth century Wales, a great majority of the people were taught to read using the Bible and held the word of the book literally. The vicar was on to a winner. Chambers had a lucky escape, as by chance a few local constables were also at the meeting and this 'kept the lid on the pot' on what could have turned very nasty. Vicar Morris called another meeting!

About this time the miners employed at the Bres Colliery, Llanelli had gone on strike for more wages and had staged a demonstration outside the house of William Webb, the colliery manager. As a result, both Webb and his employer Richard Janion Nevill advised Chambers not to attend the second meeting as it would only aggravate the situation. Although Chambers proposed that he could swear in special constables from the town to serve and keep the peace. Nevill warned him that if there was an insurrection all the constables he could swear in would be of no avail and that there were no troops within distance to assist. Chambers did not attend the second meeting which turned out to be peaceful, because by that time the Llanelli people had got to learn what Vicar Morris was up to, despite the fact that he had been drinking with the local colliers and canvassing the inmates of the poor houses.

Wombwell's Royal MenagerieWombwell'sAt the beginning of 1832 Wombwell's Travelling Menagerie of Wild Beasts had arrived in Llanelli and had set up at Parc Eynon. (The new East Gate Development now occupies the site of this old park). Being the most important gentleman of the town Chambers and a number of his guests had been invited to attend a private showing of the animals as they were being fed on Thursday, 12th January 1832. Vicar Morris arrived and entered the show (According to Innes, the Vicar gate crashed his way in to the menagerie by knocking down the showman) and commenced insulting Chambers and comparing him and his family to the animals on display singling out Chambers by comparing him to one of the hyenas. Chambers was of the opinion that the Vicar 'was under excitement of liquor' and so took no notice of him. Reverend Morris then left the show.

William Chambers Senior had been accompanied at the menagerie by his son, William Junior, his nephew, The Reverend Thomas Foley, and a Mr Gough. As the party proceeded home, Chambers' was approached by Lloyd, his gamekeeper bearing a message from the Chief Constable of Llanelli, stating that there had been a disturbance in the town and that some persons had been held in custody near the gates of Llanelly House. The Chief Constable needed to know if Chambers as the magistrate, wanted the perpetrators brought before him, but just as the message was being delivered Vicar Morris appeared on the scene!

The Vicar was furious, having seen Chambers' gamekeeper carrying a gun, he shouted 'Holloa'! - who is that carrying arms by night. How dare you go about the streets armed at night! Lloyd replied that his gun was not loaded and he had just come in to the town after a day's shooting. Vicar Morris was not satisfied and demanded to be given the gun saying that he would 'pull him up for it' but Lloyd refused and hung on to his gun. William Chambers junior told Vicar Morris to mind his business as Lloyd was employed by his father and the Vicar had no right to interfere. But the Vicar was unperturbed, stating it was not legal to carry arms at night, concluding with the words 'I'll bring him up for this!' William Chambers Senior concluded that if there was any case, he would hear it in the morning. Instead of ending the matter the Vicar answered 'What! - are you not Magistrates at all times'? Vicar Morris continued to badger Lloyd the gamekeeper, and so to end the matter Chambers Senior told his gamekeeper to go home and not answer the 'ruffian'.

As the party headed for Llanelly House a crowd had already gathered by its entrance gates where the police were holding a man in custody. As Chambers paused at the front doorway of his house to tell his son that he would hear the case immediately, Vicar Morris appeared from behind and assaulted Chambers Snr., by pushing him and violently kicking him, shouting 'make way, make way, I am on way home!' Chambers' son and his nephew, Rev. Thomas Foley rushed up to separate the combatants and stop the assault. This action was the last straw as far as Chambers Snr was concerned. He ordered the police that were already on the scene, to take the turbulent vicar into custody, which they were reluctant to do, probably because of Vicar Morris' influence and power. However upon the arrival of the Head Constable the Vicar was taken into custody with Chambers Junior calling for him to be handcuffed, after threatening to take off his coat. Vicar Morris was then escorted home by the constable.

Summons (Llanelli Public Library Collection)The following day the Clerk of the Magistrates Court, Mr F. L. Brown sent Constable Jonathan Thomas Griffiths with a summons to bring the Reverend Ebenezer Morris before the Magistrate, J E Saunders of Glanrhydw, as a result of a complaint being brought by William Chambers Snr [9].He was subsequently bound over to appear at the next assizes to answer to the charge of 'assault'!

At the Carmarthenshire Assizes held on 20 July 1832, the court was held before a judge and a special jury...
Wm Chamber V Reverend Ebenezer Morris of Llanelly:-
Mr Chilton, Mr John Evans, Mr Whitcomb and Mr FL Brown (Attorney), and the witnesses Mr James Gough and William Chambers Junior, all appeared for prosecution, while Mr Wilson, E V Williams and Mr John Davies (Attorney), Constables John Powell, Simon Samuel and the witness, Hector Rees, appeared for the defence.

During the course of the trial Chambers' attorneys put the case that although Chambers had resided in Llanelli and intended to spend his large income amongst his tenantry instead of draining his estate and living abroad, the Vicar had been endeavouring to make Chambers' life so uncomfortable by undermining his authority as a Justice of the Peace and his standing in the town that he would be forced to quit the town leaving the vicar triumphant. Also, he had been physically assaulted and witnesses were called to prove this, namely those that had accompanied him to Wombwell's Travelling Menagerie. All stating that Vicar Morris was intoxicated and had deliberately assaulted Chambers Snr.

On the other hand the Vicar's witnesses consisted mainly of the parish constables of Llanelli who stated that although they were present they had not witnessed any assault. However one witness Hector Rees stated that he had seen 'Chambers Junior leaning with his back against the wall with his feet over the flags as if to prevent the Vicar from passing' and when vicar protested, Chambers Jnr told him to go on the road and called for the constables to take the vicar to the 'Dark House' (archaic term for jail). The Judge must have suspected the evidence given by the defence witnesses, because he cautioned them to 'take care what they were about and not to quit the court' Another witness by the name of Mr W. Long Wrey stated that he had been with Vicar Morris that evening and although the vicar had taken wine, he was not drunk.

To date there is no record of any personal statement or evidence of defence by Rev. Ebenezeer Morris however, the verdict of 'Guilty, on the second count' was passed and the Judge on the day on passing sentence stated...

I am sorry it falls to my lot to pass sentence in a case of this description on a clergyman of the Church of England; because I am sure in a more serious moment you will see that it becomes you to regret the transaction that took place on the evening in question; the offence that was committed was not one which imposed serious injury on the plaintiff, but, as in ordinary cases, we look at the situation of the party. So to insult a gentleman in the true sense of the word to injure him, and to injure him in the most important sense of the word; this insult was not committed on one in low rank of life but on a gentleman of education – of that education which softens the character of a man. Now an insult from one of your situations, and a gentleman of talent, has certainly more of aggravation than assaults usually have; because also it was done before a crowd of people, in the village where you live, and where such an insult must have been most painful to the prosecutor. It appears very obvious to me that there exists such a want of good feeling between you both, as imposes on me the necessity binding you the trammels of the law. I am however willing to allow that there are circumstances of mitigation. I acknowledge that Mr Chambers used an inappropriate expression, and I could have wished he had not ordered you into custody; I am also sorry that Mr Chambers the younger ordered you to be handcuffed, because your character ought to have protected you; but this was done under the excitement consequent on seeing his father insulted. Nothing however can justify a Magistrate ordering handcuffs but in cases of danger – but there was no pretence for it in this case. I wish I could have had it in my power to avoid passing sentence, and that you had made that apology which was suggested. I have, however, taken the whole case into my consideration, and the sentence I have to pass is that you pay to the Crown a fine of 20 l., and provide sureties, yourself in 100 l.,and two others in 50 l., each, to keep the peace for two years, towards all his Majesty's subjects, but especially towards the prosecutor.

According to the Cambrian, 'The defendant immediately paid the fine, and entered into the security required; and afterwards left the Court'. [10]

William Chambers Senior died on 9th February 1855, and was interred within a vault of the Llanelli Parish Church, he was succeeded by his son William Chambers Junior. The Reverend Ebenezer Morris died on 18th April 1867, and was buried in the churchyard, his grave can be seen adjacent to the lychgate path. He was replaced by Reverend Canon David Williams.

William Chambers Snr. memorial plaque Rev Ebenezer Morris grave Rev Ebenezer Morris grave 


 Notes and Citations

I am very grateful to Kathryn Edwards, Caru James and Estelle Evans of Llanelli Public Library for bringing to my attention a number of documents related to the events of the above article.

[1] Llanelli population in 1821 – 5649 (Booth report)
[2] Innes Old Llanelly p161
[3] History of Llanelly Parish Church A Mee p xxxviii
[4] Llanelly Mercury 1893 'Reminiscences of Old Llanelly' V Architectural
[5] The Cambrian, 3 September 1824
[6] The Cambrian 23 December 1820. Morris made vicar of Llanelli on death of Rev Davies presented by R G Thomas
[7] 'Mary de Cllifford' by Madeline Jones 1847. (Helen Watney nee Raby.)
[8] The Cambrian,18 October 1828
[9] Llanelli Library Local Collection LC 1607
[10] Llanelli Library Local Collection LC 7116 & The Cambrian, 27 July 1832 Report of the court case proceedings