“Old Nick” the Swansea Devil

The Art Scene with Mark Rees

Swansea’s most notorious, and some might say diabolical, folkloric figurine has a new home.

 The Swansea Devil, a three-foot tall “cursed” sculpture which, according to local legend at least, is responsible for destroying a church, now resides at Swansea Museum. And on August 2,

I’ll be getting up close and personal with “Old Nick” to launch my new book, The A-Z of Curious Wales.

The satanic statue’s story begins at the end of the nineteenth century, when the decision was made to rebuild Swansea’s St Mary’s church in the centre of town. The design was opened for tender, and the English architect Sir Arthur Blomfield, a designer of some renown whose previous work included the Royal College of Music in London, won the contract.

His completed church was unveiled to the public in 1896, and while it won almost universal acclaim, there was one architect from the city who felt seriously aggrieved that he’d been overlooked for such a coveted job. He immediately set about planning his revenge and bided his time until a row of houses became available to buy next door to the church. He snapped them up, only to demolish them and create some new offices of his own.

On top of this red-bricked building, which became occupied by a brewery, he placed a statue that we now know as Old Nick. Upon unveiling the Swansea Devil, which stared directly at the church, he prophesied that: ‘My devil will be able to leer and laugh, for at some future time he will see St Mary’s burning to the ground.’

In 1941, that’s exactly what happened. The church, along with much of the city centre, was razed to the ground during the Second World War. The Luftwaffe forever changed the face of Swansea during the devastating ‘Three Days’ Blitz’ bombing campaign, which obliterated huge swathes of longstanding homes and businesses. But while there was wholesale destruction all around, the Swansea Devil, and the building on which he stood, was one of the few properties which, some might say miraculously, survived unscathed. The devil simply sat there, smiling and stroking his chin, with his glass eyes fixed on the burning church. The prediction had come true.

The horned one continued to watch over the house of God until 1962, when the brewery offices were demolished, and the church was restored to its former glory. The demonic carving then seemingly vanished without a trace, and it was only thanks to some detective work in the 1980s from historian Rowley Davies, backed by a campaign in the South Wales Evening Post newspaper, that it was tracked down to an antique dealer’s garage in Gloucester where it was gathering dust.

It was decided that the devil should be brought home, but by this time the Quadrant Shopping Centre had been built on the site of his old abode. Despite some resistance from local religious groups, it was relocated to the shopping centre, where it remained hidden in plain sight in various locations throughout the complex. Rarely staying in the same place for long, shoppers looking upwards might unexpectedly catch a glimpse of him peering back down at them as they went about their business. At one point he was even placed above the entrance, which once more gave him an unobstructed view of his hated church.

More recently the devil has been on the move again, this time to the nearby Swansea Museum where he can be better cared for, and the experts can restore him to his former glory. He is now on display to the public in a permanent exhibition, and since being relocated, new theories as to his original purpose have been suggested.

One of the more intriguing is that it might once have been a figurehead on a ship due to the previously unseen back of the sculpture, which begs the question – who would want a carving of the devil leading their boat through the high seas?

As for the curse, which states that the Swansea Devil should keep his beady eye on St Mary’s church at all times, this was also taken into account by the curators. Old Nick has been positioned in such a way that he still faces directly towards his old enemy, patiently waiting for that fateful day when St Mary’s church will once again burn to the ground.


A “CURIOUS” NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM

On Friday, August 2, 6.30pm, I’ll be teaming up with Swansea Museum – and the Swansea Devil – to launch my new book, THE A-Z OF CURIOUS WALES. It’s a collection of weird and wonderful tales from across the land of mysteries, eccentrics, crimes, folklore and ghost stories, with local entries including Swansea Jack, the Mumbles Railway, the spirit of a murderer who returned to haunt his former neighbours and, yes, Old Nick himself. Along with the devil I’ll be joined by actors, storytellers, ghost hunters, and I’ve got a few surprises up my sleeve as well for this “curious night at the museum.” It would be great if you could join us!

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