Lyn John’s 2013 article on “Thomas the Black Barber” inspired me to see what I could add to his story.
Thomas’s burial record at St Mary’s Kidwelly has a note attached: ”A Blackman who came to this place with the Rev. Mr Norcross”. This is supported by the Cambrian article quoted in the previous article and by his death notice in The Welshman, which reads “an African who was taken a slave to the West Indies when only 8 years old, where he after some time got his freedom, and obtained a passage to England”.
An article in The Carmarthen Antiquary of 2007 notes that a “Rev. Norcross” petitioned to become a burgess of Kidwelly in 1817 but that there had never been a vicar of Kidwelly of that name. The likeliest candidate for this Rev. Norcross is the John Norcross who was the absentee vicar of Framlingham in Surrey. This patriotic vicar had been so moved by stories of heroism at the Battle of Waterloo that he famously wrote to the Duke of Wellington, offering an annuity to whomever the Duke considered to be the “most deserving soldier at Waterloo”. Unfortunately, a succession of poor harvests dramatically reduced his tithes from local parishioners and Norcross, unable to pay the annuity any longer, left his parish in some embarrassment, eventually dying in obscurity in Devon. He had been raised in Lancashire, where a notable family of Rigbys lived at Middleton, including an Alexander Rigby who served with the army in Jamaica. At this distance of time the connection can only be speculative but it’s worth noting that one of Thomas Rigby’s sons was given the unusual name of Alexander.
Thomas died at the Union Tavern, Thomas Street, on 8th March 1841 of typhus fever and his occupation is given on the death certificate as “Victualler”. The informant is another local tradesman, Frederick Tredwell, a cabinetmaker, also of Thomas Street. The Welshman noted that “He has left a wife and large family to lament his loss” and indeed at that point six of Thomas’s nine known children were still alive.
Living conditions in the early years of industrialisation were often crowded and unsanitary and three of Thomas’s children - his19 year old son George, a ship’s carpenter, 14 year old son Thomas, a potter, and 11 year old daughter Elizabeth – all died in 1844 from the bacterial infection “scrofula”. The death certificates indicate that Elizabeth suffered from this for three years before her death and had passed it on to her brothers. Scrofula is a form of TB, which takes the form of disfiguring lesions of the skin and can be fatal in some cases. It was also known as “the King’s Evil” because until as late as the reign of Queen Anne it was commonly believed that it could be cured by the touch of the monarch.
By the 1840s the credulous had turned to newspaper advertisements for their miracle cures, such as the advert from from The Welshman in 1846 for “Holloway’s Ointment – Extraordinary Cure – A never-failing remedy for all cases of scurvy, scorbutic humours and scrofula”. Elizabeth, George and Thomas jnr all had the services of a “nurse” at their deathbed but without modern antibiotics treatment options were in practice very limited.
So, what happened to Thomas’ three remaining children?
Mary Ann never married and worked as a live-in cook for a doctor and then later a barrister in Swansea. The fact that she left a will when she died in 1878 suggests some degree of success in her career.
William started as a potter and lived in Water Street but later moved to Aberdare where he worked as a cabinetmaker and raised a large family. One of his daughters, Catherine, became a health visitor and school nurse in Neath.
Caroline married a local ironworker, George Thomas, and lived in Annesley Street, Llanelli. She had three children before dying at the age of only 35, ironically of the same disease, scrofula, that had killed her three siblings nearly 30 years before. Three Llanelly Pottery jugs still survive which name Caroline, George and Mary Ann and were probably made to celebrate the baptism of Caroline’s daughter Elizabeth in 1872.
Thomas’ widow Mary married again in 1844, this time to a mariner from Liverpool, Thomas Collins. She seems to have been widowed for a second time soon afterwards and by the 1851 census was earning her living by running an eating house and taking in lodgers. She died in 1854 of “synochus” (an unspecified fever).
Mary’s marriage certificate to Thomas Collins names her father as Joseph Richards, farmer, and the 1851 census gives her place of birth as Kidwelly. One of the witnesses to her first marriage (to Thomas Rigby) at Kidwelly in 1819 was a Joseph Gravel. These pieces of evidence, taken together, strongly suggest she was the daughter of the Joseph Richards of Kidwelly who married Elizabeth Gravel in 1796 and who farmed at the Graig Farm in Four Roads.
If this is indeed the case then there is a poignant postscript to the story of the African barber in Llanelli. Another of Joseph and Elizabeth’s daughters, Elizabeth, was the mother of the legendary Welsh composer Joseph Parry (1841-1903), who rose from humble beginnings as a miner in Merthyr to a doctorate at Cambridge and a professorship in music at Aberystwyth University. He is remembered as perhaps the greatest Welsh hymn-tune writer. His works include the music for the male-voice choir standard Myfanwy and also the hymn tune Aberystwyth, later adapted as the music for Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, a rallying-cry of the anti-apartheid movement, which became one of the joint national anthems of South Africa in 1994.
Notes and Citations
- Photograph of The Llanelly Pottery Jug courtesy of Mair Evans.
- London House. Llanelli Library Illustration ILL2513
- Llanelly Pottery Sketches courtesy John Wynne Hopkins
- Birth, baptism, marriage, census, Cambridge Alumni, death, burial and probate records from Ancestry.com and Findmypast.co.uk
- Extract from The Carmarthen Antiquary 2007
- The History of the Parochial Chapelry of Goosnargh in the County of Lancashire (Henry Fishwick)
- The Welshman 12th March 1841 and 2nd October 1846
- The Carmarthen Journal 20th May 1910
- The King’s Evil (West of England Medical Journal Vol 112 No 2 Art 3 June 2013)
- The Scum of the Earth: What happened to the real British heroes of Waterloo? (Colin Brown)
- Inside Views: An Anthem to ignorance: The case of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (The Anton Mostert Chair of Intellectual Property)[Stellenbosch University] 2012
- Dr Joseph Parry: the story of Wales’ greatest composer (Colin Wheldon Jones) (2019) biography.wales (online dictionary of Welsh biography)