GERALD GABB is the senior historian of Swansea, and an oracle on the city’s history from its origins to present day. Here he relates the fascinating story of an annual event to walk the boundary of the city that sounds like it was a very drunken affair. Interestingly its route takes it right past Bay HQ in Cae Banc, Sketty – maybe we should think about resurrecting the tradition.
Councillors are people we elect, their task being to organise things on behalf of the community. For the first 700 years of Swansea’s existence the role of what became called the corporation was utterly different. When Swansea was founded soon after 1100, Henry Earl of Warwick invited in Englishmen to populate his precarious conquest. Each received a plot beside a street (see map above) and other privileges, but there were down-sides…fierce and repeated attacks from Deheubarth to the west, Brycheiniog and Gwynedd to the north. As late as 1401 Owain Glyndwr’s adherents may have captured the little town.
Those who survived passed on their rights. You became a burgess if your father was, if you married a burgess’s daughter, or if you were apprenticed (for seven years) to a burgess – rules which lasted until 1835! Unelected therefore, they were responsible to nobody. And, bit by bit, over centuries, they took advantage of the fact that successive lords dwelt at more or less distant Warwick, Bramber, Axholme, Raglan or Badminton, to filch lands and establish “rights”, theirs, they came to argue, “time out of mind”. The Dukes of Beaufort, as the lords became from 1682, were always addressed with cloying servility, but there was little doubt who had the whip hand locally.
Though not obliged to organise the town, it was in the burgess’s interest to keep it stable and prosperous. With Christian charity as well as self-interest a factor, they doled out money for the poorest and had clothing made for them, something which helped local tailors and shoemakers, too. Burgesses lived in the streets of the town and were thus daily kept aware of the needs of society as a whole. They came to believe in fair mechanisms which made life viable for their poorer neighbours. When corn was short (1768, 1793) or butter (1766) they stepped in to counter profiteers.
So, they were mixed in their motives, just as we are today, but in the context of a different world. It as well to keep this in mind.
In some areas it is especially hard not to judge (and condemn) them. Their implementation of the law often looks callous – sending illicit settlers packing and having beg-gars, men and women, whipped. Jane Morgan was “whipt” in 1753, her crime stealing Scotch snuff (ground-up, dried tobacco for inhaling) from a Swansea shop. In 1760 a local woman was whipped for taking milk from other people’s cows. And their acceptance of fellow-burgesses working for and sup-plying the corporation, to us, smells of corruption. Thus, the smith William Gillar in 1723 earned 9s. 6d in all for a lock and staple for the Dark House door (under the Town Hall) and cleaning the ceremonial halberds. He and Richard Phillips were Common Attorneys, corporation business officers, for that year. He effectively paid himself! In 1749 Thomas Wibborn was Common Attorney and his formal account for the year includes the item “For my own mare 3 days 3 shillings”. At the time this probably just seemed common sense.
Their different mindset encompas-sed an unselfconscious, whole-hearted and rumbustious determination to enjoy themselves. They gave themselves a formal dinner at Christmas and Michael-mas until September 1750 when the first was “for Ever Abolished” – and the funds devoted to making the second that much more sumptuous! They celebrated with great regularity and gusto; one suspects that they made excuses for these occasions, just as we do on Guy Fawkes Day. November 5th was marked by church bells and beer in 1693 and 1694, with expenditure on biscuits and, of course, large outdoor fires. So was the marriage of the 2nd Duke of Beaufort in 1706 and the birthday of the third duke in 1729. The restoration of Charles II in 1660 was remembered until at least 1714, and his recovery from illness soon before his death in 1685 prompted purchase of drink from John Hughes’s wife (6s. 2d).
There was hearty drinking to mark the proclamation of James II, more than £18 being “payd for drink at Tamplins”, but without fear or favour, after his deposition, beer was drunk “at ye proclaiming King William and Queen Mary” in 1688, at their coronation in 1689, at the anniversary of this on 11th April and at the king’s safe return from campaigning in Flanders in 1695. Under Queen Anne in 1706 they paid Phillip Mansel for ale when news came of a victory in Flanders and in 1713 for “wood & Cole” on “ye Proclamation of peace” leading to the Treaty of Utrecht the following year.
If they had felt the need to make excuses for all this – and they did not – they might have said two things. Most of these events were in the marketplace, under the castle walls. There might be a bonfire, sometimes called a “bunfire” or “burnfire”. Drummers, bell ringers and even an artillery salute in 1760 heightened the excitement and created a sense of carnival in which the whole town might join. Also, the way they consciously spread their custom benefited a range of tradespeople. For the first anniversary of George I’s coronation, in October 1715, they bought in drink from Mr. Phillips 5 shillings, Mr. Cupit 6 shillings and 6 pence (d), Mrs Hudson 5s., David Williams 6s. 8d, Laurence Batchelor 5s., William Richard 4s., Hugh Harris 3s., Robert Else 4s., Mr. David Jones 18s., John Bowen 5s., Grace Vinicot 5s. 6d, Catherine Gwither 3s. 6d, Richard George 1s., Mary Mansel 10s., Mrs Jones 3s. 6d, Owen Jones and Thomas Evans 2s. 6d each. And as late as 1820 the corporation paid Thomas Francis £20. 8s. “for the Ale given to the Populace, on the day of proclaiming his majesty King George the fourth.”
The occasion when the burgesses really treated themselves was what we tend to call the beating of the bounds, but they called processioning or the Perambulation (and at least once “preambulation”). An assemblage of burgesses and hangers-on rode or strode around the borough boundaries. The original aim had been to impress on all and sundry the extent of Swansea’s jurisdiction. Once good maps were available there was no need, and Matthew Moggridge as mayor seems to have led the last of these in 1841 – excepting the consciously antiquated junketing with Mayor George Grant Francis at its head in 1854. His route was from the mouth of the Bwrlais (on the upper Strand) to Pentre (on the western edge of Hafod) to Cwmbwrla, via Gors to Cockett, then down past the fringe of Sketty and in our terms through Singleton Park to the sea. There must have been rites and customs associated with this day, which was usually Ascension Day, May 25th, but the records only tell us of the attendant food and drink.
In 1666 this was just two casks of beer when the portreeve, alder-men and burgesses, “went about the ftranchise”. In 1679 quantities are not quoted when a bill was “payd at the Colledge house for drink to those…went to view the Liberties of the Town…” In 1698 the “bear [beer] at widow Smiths” cost only three shillings. Thereafter it all became more lavish. Evan Evans provided 33 “pottle pots” of ale in 1703, which seems to be more than sixteen gallons. By 1712 the bills were for ale (£1. 4s. 6d), pipes and tobacco, jugs and cups, cheese and bread, meat and dressing, a quarter of figs, horses and “more in drink at Catherine Gwythers”. The next year “Mr. Secomb” (probably Ambrose Secomb of Wind Street) alone received £7. 1s. 2d for wine, punch and cider, and there were two other suppliers. A lot of alcohol. Jugs and glasses came from Hugh Harris. And the provender had extended too – beef, half a stone of cheese (seven pounds), raisins. By 1723 additions included tongues, prunes, vinegar, pepper, mustard, mugs, ribbons and pins, drummers to accompany them, and, of course, “drink at their return”. In 1731 the drink amount-ed to 29 bottles of wine as well as £2. 9s. on ale. In 1739 they stip-ulated Bristol cheese as well as Welsh. In 1740 the beer was said to be taken “at Sundry houses”, and in 1741 there were “severteen” of these, which sug-gests the custom had developed into a sort of protracted pub crawl. Expenditure in 1741 included “Mr Else for a ham 11/4, John Lewellin for 3 neat [calves’] tongues 4/6…mustard pott…spigetti, folotti” and concluded with “wine & tobacco at Mrs Shuttletons after they came home”. The 31 gallons of ale might help explain why “a napkin [was] lost at ye hill”. This went up to 39 gallons in 1747. There was rum as well in 1758.
Details occasionally emerge which help us picture the scene. By 1790 they rounded it all off with a dinner provided by Lewis Miles, innkeeper – that alone cost £16. In the 1780s there was music en-route, and plenty of candles were taken – since this was May, they must have made a long day of it to need them. The only timing I have found was, in 1828, leaving the Town Hall at 11.00. The horses had panniers to carry the provisions and ha’pennies were taken “for throwing among the boys” (1747) – one can imagine a swarm of poorer lads following the cavalcade, and by 1790 they were given cockades (rosettes, hat badges) to wear, costing £1. 6s. 5d – the turnpike trust charged four-pence for “Two Horses & the Car” [cart] in 1767 when Mathew Thomas was paid a shilling “for leading the way” – he probably carried a flag like Mr. Jones and “the Sergeant Major” in 1782. In that year we have a detailed run down of expenses, including: 34 pounds of beef, a ham, 2 neats (calves’) tongues, 2 fowls, dressing, 33 pounds of cheese, sugar, bread, jugs, tumblers, glasses, half a gallons of brandy and rum, a gallon of port, sugar and lemons which seem to be added to the spirits, “grog” (watered rum), a thirty gallon cask of ale (which must have taken a lot of carrying) and a further ten gallons in ten quart (twenty pint) containers, carried by William Jones, Robert Anderson, “Harty” and “Mr Jaffras Sergeant”. The number of burgesses in 1782 is unknown, but in 1789 the number was as low as 35. At a guess they had a large entourage, otherwise the intoxication levels would have been unbelievable. The custom continued, with the “usual refreshments on the Hill at the Cockett” in 1818, but perhaps the shiver sent through them by European political changes of the 1790s introduced some sobriety. In 1792 a ceiling of £10 on total costs was ordained, though it was up to £20 again by 1828.
The Municipal Corporation Act of 1835 introduced elections and symbolised a rationalism in tune with new times. It was inevitable and largely desirable. But some of the new councillors were sober-sides for whom economy was the priority, and a certain simple merriment was gone. When George Eliot wrote Silas Marner in 1861 she was a little closer to this world where “the poor thought that the rich were entirely in the right of it to lead a jolly life…and when the seasons brought round the great merrymakings, they were regarded on all hands as a fine thing for the poor.”
Long narrow former burgage plots behind the Wind Street houses, still obvious in 1793 – Fisher Street is roughly lower Princessway (West Glamorgan Archive Service, WGAS).
Top pic: Another source of alcohol, the Golden Lyon in the marketplace, as portrayed by John Nixon in 1793 (British Museum).
Pic above: The Townhall among the castle ruins from which the “processioning” probably began – drawing by Calvert Richard Jones (National Library of Wales)
Here is the route in pictures: 1. The Pottery Mill was powered by the Bwrlais Brook – where it flowed into the Tawe began the northern boundary of the liberty of Swansea – from a painting by Paul Padley of about 1794 (Swansea Museum). 2. Libanus, sadly now gone, symbol of Cwmbwrla, through which the burgesses rode. 3. The Cockett Inn marks the beginnings of the second stream, St.David’s Ditch, which the “processioning” followed. 4. Across the road from the Cockett is that precious piece of countryside, the Cwm, through which St.David’s Ditch begins to trickle. 5. Behind Gower College the stream is unglamorously culverted. 6. At the bottom of Lon Cae Banc the former bed of the stream can be discerne 7. On the Tithe map of about 1841 the course of the watercourse is shown, top left to bottom right – “Cross Inn” is Sketty Cross. 8. Latterly called the Vivian stream, the boundary brook flows through our Singleton Park. 9. It veers towards the Brynmill side of the park…10. The burgesses, those still able to ride, cantered across the beach to the little town, and the completion of their circuit.