Llareggub and the 1939 War Register
David. N. Thomas
I’ve always found Llareggub’s maritime profile somewhat puzzling.
On the one hand, it’s a schooner and harbour town, as Dylan put it, whose sailors have travelled the world. Captain Cat and his crew have been to Nantucket, San Francisco and more. Dylan tells us they have sailed the clippered seas, bringing back coconuts and parrots for their families. Rosie Probert’s poem “What seas did you see” says it all.
Llareggub’s seafaring profile is reflected in some of its place names. Captain Cat lives in Schooner House. The town’s pub is called the Sailors’ Arms and not, for example, the Fishermen’s Arms, and certainly not the Cocklers’ Return. In the same vein, the Rev. Eli Jenkins’ White Book of Llareggub has a chapter on shipping and another on industry.
All this makes me think Cardiganshire, a county that Dylan first visited in 1930. So then I think Cardigan, New Quay, Aberaeron and Aberystwyth. But especially New Quay, with its history of both producing master mariners and building ocean-going ships, and doing so on an industrial scale – six shipyards and over 200 vessels built.
On the other hand, Llareggub is also a town of fishermen. But I’m still thinking New Quay here because of its rich coastal fishing, including lobster and crab, as well as its legendary herring and mackerel catches, often celebrated at the top of the town in the Sailor’s Home Arms. It also has a working harbour, which helps to anchor Llareggub in the particularity of New Quay (Laugharne’s harbour had disappeared under silt long before Dylan’s time).
But all that said, I just can’t ever ignore that Mog Edwards’ wholesaler was in Carmarthen, or that Captain Cat’s boat was called the S.S. Kidwelly (mind you, the Kidwelly was also the name of Captain Tiny Evans’ boat in Quite Early One Morning, Dylan’s 1944 broadcast about New Quay). Nor could I possibly disregard that Llareggub is on an estuary (“boat-bobbing river and sea”), where cockles bubble in the sand, sanderlings scamper and curlews cry. It has Cockle Row and Mr and Mrs Floyd the cocklers, as well as other webfooted cockle women.
So now I’m thinking Carmarthenshire. I think Laugharne, Llansteffan and Ferryside, as well as neighbouring Llansaint, known locally as Cockle Town. And, just like Llareggub, Laugharne also has its dabs and flounders, which Caitlin harvested, squelching them up from the sand with her feet. But then again, if it’s Laugharne, why are there no herons priesting Llareggub’s shore?
All this brought me to a state of curiosity, if not excitement, about the 1939 War Register, whose 80th anniversary falls this year. It’s the only population count presently available that was taken during Dylan’s lifetime. It was done soon after he and Caitlin had moved to Laugharne, and just three years before they went to live in Cardiganshire, first in Talsarn and then two years later in New Quay itself. This was the very period in which Dylan’s ideas for Llareggub were developing, and in which he wrote both his New Quay pub poem and Quite Early One Morning.
So would it be useful, I asked myself, to examine how many of Laugharne and New Quay’s inhabitants earned their living on or from the sea? And could it be interesting to compare this data with that for Llansteffan and Ferryside, two other coastal communities that Dylan knew well and could have drawn upon in the writing of Under Milk Wood?
Trawling for Data
Data from a particular year and source, such as the 1939 War Register, need to be put in context, so I’m going to start with three census tables. The four towns shown are of a similiar population size, around a thousand residents in each. Make of it what you will. Llareggub, after all, is in the mind’s eye of the listener. But, if I were you, I’d take a long, close look at both New Quay, which has the seafarers, and Ferryside, which has the fishermen. Ferryside also had the cockles, and the railway station to take them to market, but I have omitted cockle gatherers from the tables because there are many inconsistencies of enumeration, as well as a major problem of under-counting.
1. 1881 Census
Active and retired. My search criteria for the census data can be found in Note 7. The Notes are published in full, together with reading and sources, at https://sites.google.com/site/dylanthomasandnewquay/Llareggub-and-the-1939-war-register
In addition to New Quay’s seventy-three seafarers in the table, there were 109 others who were not at home on census night (thirty-seven master mariners and seventy-two mariners). Most of these would have been at sea or berthed in another port. Their inclusion puts New Quay’s seafaring population in 1881 at 182 master mariners and mariners.
The town’s fishermen, however, have slipped through the enumerator’s net. None are found in the census returns of 1881 and 1891, yet in 1886 the Aberystwyth Observer noted that “New Quay boats are a better fleet of fishing boats than in any place in Cardiganshire….” Three years later, another local paper, The Cardigan Bay Visitor, noted there were fifteen herring and mackerel boats in the harbour. It also observed that although there were many fishing smacks in New Quay, their owners did not appear particularly industrious:
…doing a little painting to their craft, while others were whittling sticks and evidently having by years of hard work on sea earned sufficient to enable them to take things easy and to follow fishing more for pleasure than for profit.
Such foreshadowing of Llareggub’s indolent fishermen is not difficult to find in the Welsh press. The New Quay fishermen lacked enterprise, as well as the ambition to fish in deeper water, said one newspaper. The seafaring men of the town were not used to sea fishing, said another, and “cannot wheedle even the silly herring into their October nets.” Rather than go fishing, they preferred to take holidaymakers into the bay on pleasure outings.
2. 1901 Census
Active and retired.
Only three fishermen in New Quay? Not quite. Just a year later, the Cambrian News reported that the town’s fishing fleet of twelve to fifteen boats and two sailing trawlers came in every morning with good catches. As for the town’s master mariners, the newspaper observed that: “New Quay, that rising little Welsh watering place, boasts that it has more retired sea captains living in it than any other place of its own size in Wales.”
3. 1911 Census
Yet again, most of New Quay’s fishermen have escaped detection. Just a few months before the census, the Cambrian News noted that the town’s fishermen were daily catching large quantities of whiting. It also reported that its fishermen were at the forefront of prosecuting illegal fishing by steam trawlers: “The New Quay fisherman…has the eye of a vulture and has learnt to be as vigilant, stealthy and merciless as a spider.”
There is a dearth of relevant census data after 1911. The 1921 census has yet to be published, and the 1931 census records were destroyed by fire. Other sources of data available for this period include trade directories, such as this one below:
4. Kelly’s Trades Directory, 1926
Of the 175 master mariners listed in the Directory, ninety-seven were resident in Cardiganshire, and four in Carmarthenshire. There were only ten master mariners listed for Swansea.
The 1939 War Register
Taken together, the above four tables suggest that, historically, New Quay and Ferryside provide the best fit with Llareggub’s maritime profile of seafarers and fishermen.
We can now look at the situation in 1939, through the Register that was compiled on September 29 that year in preparation for the war with Germany. Table 5 provides the data for New Quay, whilst Table 6 offers a comparison with Laugharne, Ferryside and Llansteffan.
5. New Quay
Active and retired. On pitfalls in searching the Register for master mariners, see Note 13.
It’s evident from Table 5 that, in 1939, New Quay had a significant number of master mariners and seagoing sailors, fifty-eight in all. But there was a good deal more to the town’s maritime profile; there were also three coastguards, a lighthouse service officer, a lifeboat coxswain, a boatswain and four fishing protection officers. The fish police included Dai Fred the donkeyman, aptly assisted by Mr J. Fish of Water Street and, before him his father, Mr. J. Fish.
As in previous census returns, New Quay’s fishermen remain hidden within the 1939 War Register. Only two people gave their occupation as fisherman. But there were many in the town with fishing boats, who fished to supplement their savings, war pensions or income from another job. Several of the master mariners and retired sailors had their own boats, as did some of the tradesmen, including grocer Norman Evans, whose boat was aptly-named the Idle Hour. Cobbler Glanmor Rees and carpenter Carsey ‘Evans the Death’ also had fishing boats, as did Skipper Rymer of the Dolau pub and butcher Dai ‘Come Back’ Lewis.
Fishing had for decades been a part-time and often seasonal job in New Quay, but an important one. The town’s fishermen provided most of the fifteen crew members of the sail-and-oars lifeboat. It was in service until 1948, and its daring rescues sometimes made the pages of the Western Mail. The town’s boats, nets and fishermen are clearly to the fore in a 1959 ITV programme on New Quay, which you can view at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpt8NgODHQY.
6. New Quay, Laugharne, Ferryside and Llansteffan
Active and retired. Searching by location/occupation for Laugharne yields (a) three master mariners
but they are all from Carmarthen town. (b) thirty-two fishermen, but this is the total for the
Carmarthen R.D. and M.B. areas. Only the first six entries (F. Brown to T. Rowlands) are from
Laugharne and of these six, three are fishermen and three are cocklers.
The marked contrast, in the first three rows of Table 6, between New Quay and the three Carmarthenshire towns is reflected in the Register’s county tables. For example, whilst Cardiganshire boasted a hundred master mariners, Carmarthenshire with its much larger population had just eleven. What’s even more remarkable is that tiny New Quay had more master mariners than the whole of Carmarthenshire, and almost as many as Swansea and the Gower put together (37). Only three of the Swansea masters lived in the Mumbles.
Ferryside still had its fishermen in 1939, but their numbers had declined since the 1911 census, due largely to the predations of steam trawlers from Lancashire and Devon ports. Even as early as 1910, a Ferryside fisheries officer had reported that “the local fishermen around the district are in a worse state than I have ever known them to be.”
Ferryside also had several of Dylan’s maternal relations, with whom he had spent childhood holidays, as well as one of the pubs he liked, the White Lion. Both Richard Hughes and Billy Williams of Laugharne have described the “wild, marauding expeditions” that Dylan made by cabin cruiser to Ferryside. On the very day that the 1939 Register was being compiled, he wrote to Vernon Watkins inviting him “to go over to Ferryside and get silly.”
And it was certainly a good place to get silly in. Just like New Quay, there was a cosmopolitan feel to Ferryside. The railway had long brought holiday makers from the south Wales industrial belt and the English cities, whilst the sea brought boats with cargo to discharge, crewed by sailors from far and wide. Not to mention the overseas mariners wrecked on the estuary sands, who were put up in the White Lion and other pubs to rest and recover.
Laugharne and Llansteffan are at the bottom of the Llareggub maritime league table, as it were. Neither had more than a handful of seafaring sailors and full-time fishermen, though there would undoubtedly have been part-timers, as well as subsistence fishing and cockling. But even cockling was in decline, as the Western Mail reported in 1938, noting that a
grave depletion of the beds had greatly reduced the landing of cockles at Ferryside and Laugharne.
Not surprisingly, there had also been a decline in the number of Laugharne’s fish and cockle merchants, from thirteen in 1911 to just three in 1939. And a visitor in 1947 also lamented that the town’s coasting smacks had all gone. That Laugharne was on an estuary near the sea was, in Dylan’s time and later, of little consequence to most of its residents, except in the hard times when its cockles kept many a belly fuller than it might otherwise have been.
And hard times there were, as Clough Williams-Ellis gloomily noted: “Everything had gone down, population, income, the harbour silted up, the castle falling down…” Since the silting up of the estuary, the town’s occupational profile had been determined largely by the land, not by the sea. For most of the 1930s and beyond, Laugharne was largely a poor and ill-housed working class community. The 1939 Register tells us that the town’s residents included a large number of general and agricultural labourers (67), lorry and bus drivers (19) and quarry workers (15), with a long roll-call of gardeners, roadmen, railway workers, engineers, mechanics, electricians, masons, colliers, carpenters and blacksmiths. These were their stated occupations on the 1939 Register, but many would have been unemployed, and having to walk four miles to St Clears to sign on for the dole. It was the dole, said the vicar, that kept the town going: “no other industry had ever brought so much money into Laugharne.”
As for Dylan and family, they were at Sea View when the 1939 Register was compiled. Their immediate neighbours on Market Lane and Victoria Street included several lorry drivers and labourers, alongside two mechanics, an electrician, butcher, baptist minister, domestic servant and hairdresser, as well as a publican, farmer, cowman and master blacksmith. There was not a sailor or fisherman in sight.
(You can view Dylan and Caitlin’s entry on the Register at this link:
The Long View
Snapshots such as those taken in 1911 and 1939, or at any census, provide valuable information but it’s useful to augment them with data gathered over a longer term. Fortunately, there are two further data sets we can examine. The first, in Table 7, is an index of 23,758 Welsh merchant master mariners, mates and engineers who were active from 1800 to 1945.
7. The Welsh Merchant Mariners Index 1800-1945
It was not just Cardiganshire’s larger towns such as New Quay, Cardigan (766), Aberystwyth (658) and Aberaeron (453) that provided the men for the merchant navy. The smaller settlements also made a substantial contribution, such as Borth (401), Aberporth (202), Llanon (190), Llangrannog (170), Aberarth (59) and Llanrhystud (51). The bulk of Carmarthenshire’s 791 merchant sailors came from Llanelli (322), Carmarthen (172) and Pembrey (63).
8. Merchant Master and Mate Certificates issued by the Board of Trade, 1850-1927
These are the numbers of certificates issued, not the number of men. A sailor might acquire a number of certificates on his way to becoming a master. In Laugharne, for example, the twenty-one certificates were gained by ten men.
Dylan’s New Quay
There were some forty master mariners, active or retired, living in New Quay in 1945. The puppeteer, Walter Wilkinson, was there in 1947 and noted that the town abounded with sea captains: “address any gentleman, not an obvious visitor, as captain, and you will be safe.” That same year, the author, Daniel Parry-Jones, observed that New Quay was unmistakably Welsh with its own Welsh dialect, but also cosmopolitan: “here were dozens of lads who knew intimately the life and ways of all the great maritime cities of the world.”
Dylan had once complained about the droning of these Cardi sailors, blaming the “maudlin sea-captains” for disturbing a phone conversation in the Black Lion bar. A year later, he was more sympathetic, looking forward to joining the “gently swilling retired sea-captains in the snug-as-a-bug back bar.”
The bugs had always been snug in the Black Lion. Some fifty years earlier, in 1891, a Pontypridd visitor had written about the sea captains in the “snug little parlour of the Lion…the host, Mr Patrick, is a gentleman…” His host had been John Patrick, whose family had been running the Black Lion since at least 1841. By the time Dylan arrived in New Quay, John Pat had been succeeded by his grandson, Jack Pat. There were also a number of seafarers in the Patrick family, including Captain Will Pat, who sank the Earl of Aberdeen whilst drunk, and Captain Charles Pat, but always known as Captain Pat who, in Dylan’s time, lived up the road from the Black Lion with his parrot. If all these Pats and Cats are too much for you, take a drink in the Blue Bell, a pub at the bottom of the town that was run, in Dylan’s day, by auntie Cat.
Apart from these personal testimonies, there are other voices that remind us that shipping and maritime industry were part of Dylan’s upbringing:
me, Hedley Auckland, off with Dylan to the Strand, to swill beer with the sailors in The Cornish Mount.
me, Alban Leyshon, off with Dylan to Port Tennant, to sip tea with the sailors in the Arab cafe.
me, Aeronwy, sitting in the Boat House, listening to my Dad’s stories about the rescue of the Paul’s sailors grounded on Cefn Sidan sands.
Dylan’s family included not only the Ferryside coxswain, Capt. David Jones, who rescued the Paul’s sailors, but also two shipping agents, a docks chief shipping inspector, two coal shippers, and a docks traffic supervisor. Not to mention the two master mariners in the family, both living in New Quay in the 1940s when Dylan was there. The first was Thomas Legg. He had married Dylan’s first cousin, Theodosia Williams, in 1930, setting up home at the top of the town. The second was Thomas’ father, George Legg, who moved to New Quay in the early 1940s, after service in both world wars. He was awarded the OBE in 1943.
So there you have it, Llareggub’s maritime profile in a sea shell, though you might say I’ve left out the sad bit, the end bit that comes at the beginning with Captain Cat’s dead dears, his first, second, third, fourth and fifth drowned. When Dylan left New Quay in July 1945, the town was mourning its war dead; of its thirty-one men killed in action in the 1939-1945 war, twenty-seven were serving at sea. Between them, Laugharne, Llansteffan and Ferryside lost as many men, of whom just eleven were seamen.
Llareggub: A Town of Sailor-Farmers
It’s very clear that Llareggub was not just a fishing and seafaring town but also a farming community. As early as the second paragraph of the play, First Voice establishes Llareggub as a town of farmers and fishers and, just a few lines later, confirms this with a colourful reference to “the bucking ranches of the night and the jolly, rodgered sea.” Immediately afterwards come horses asleep in fields, cows in byres and dogs in wetnosed farmyards.
Then follow numerous mentions throughout the play of cows, bulls, pigs, sheep, horses, goats, fields, farms, farm boys and farmyards. First Voice tells us that a farmer drives past in a car full of fowls. Milk churns stand on Coronation Corner. Fourth Drowned wonders who milks the cows in Maesgwyn. Polly Garter loves both the farm boys and the sailing jacks, as she puts it. Mary Ann Sailors has a farmers’ almanac hanging above her settle. Draper Mog Edwards advertises “Economical Outfitting for Agricultural Employment.” In Salt Lake Farm, Utah Watkins rides cursing through his farmyard on a carthorse, whilst Bessie Bighead fondly milks the lake-eyed cows. Milk churns bell, pigs grunt and sheep cough on the clog dancing farms, and cows from Sunday Meadow ring like reindeer.
Did New Quay fit Llareggub’s agricultural profile? There were sixty-eight farmers and farm workers in the town and its rural hinterland in the 1939 War Register. New Quay was their first port of call for services. They came to buy clothes, to bank money, post letters, see the doctor, attend chapel, and have a pint or two in the Penrhiwllan Inn. It was a favourite pub for local farmers and their labourers, partly because it was a venue for blackmarket trading, but it was also very conveniently placed. Both a blacksmith’s forge and a saddler’s shop stood opposite the pub, and a master wheelwright was just up the road, with a livestock haulier right next to him. In today’s jargon, the Penrhiwllan was an agricultural hub. The saddler and wheelwright in particular would have attracted many outlying farmers to New Quay simply because there were no other saddlers and wheelwrights for many miles around, not even in neighbouring Aberaeron.
It was in the Penrhiwllan that Dylan and Augustus John had their alliterative exchange about Dylan being a purveyor of pornographic poetry. The pub and its small farm were run by the Lewis family from the 1930s to about 1950. There are many other reflections of the significance of farming in New Quay. For example, in the later part of the 19th century, the town also had the Farmers Arms, whilst another pub, the Neuadd Arms, was named after one of the biggest local farms. There was certainly no Cockle Row in New Quay but there was at one time a Farmers’ Row and a Mariners’ Row, the one leading gently into the other.
Land and sea had long been closely tied in New Quay. Money from farmers in the town’s rural hinterland had helped fund the development of the harbour, as well as the building of ships. Some farming sons went to sea, to come back many years later to run the farms that their parents had bequeathed them. Documents suggest that farmers who owned fishing boats leased them to New Quay residents, whilst farm hands would come into the town to help with the mackerel and herring catches. So close were the ties between land and sea, including marriage, that the maritime historian, Susan Passmore, has concluded that New Quay was essentially a town of sailor-farmers:
Men with farming backgrounds seem to have had no difficulties in mingling
with both worlds…From generation to generation, this tradition of a family
combining seafaring or maritime investment and farming persisted.
And then there’s the topography. New Quay is pressed tightly between water and meadow. The fields of Towyn and Neuadd farms, for example, were just a a street or two away from the sea. It was this feature more than any other that struck Walter Wilkinson on his 1947 visit: “The farm fields still come down to the town, and as you walk from the baker to the draper you can talk to a donkey or a horse, poking their heads over a fence into the street.” Take a look for yourself in this aerial photo from 1954:
Before the caravans came in the 1960s, Majoda itself stood in farmland that stretched all the way to the back door of the Black Lion. The sounds around Majoda, wrote Dylan, were not just seagulls and the baying of the sea, but also the throbbing of tractors, the squealing of trapped rabbits, the songs of thrushes, blackbirds and cuckoos, as well as “naying, chucking, quacking, braying, mooing…”
It may be surprising that it was here, above the crashing waves along Traethgwyn, that Dylan found the inspiration to start writing Fern Hill, but Majoda was as much in a rural and agricultural setting as a coastal one. Again, take a look for yourself, in this photo of the farmland along the cliffs between Llanina Point and New Quay. Majoda is clearly visible, the furthest white building in the image, just below the branches of the tree.
Dylan’s nine months at Majoda were the most fertile period of his adult life, a second flowering said his biographer, Constantine FitzGibbon, with a great outpouring of poems. These Majoda poems, including Fern Hill, provided nearly half the poems of Deaths and Entrances. There were film scripts as well, and a start made on Under Milk Wood. Not since his teenage years had Dylan been so productive, and there would be nothing like it again.
© D. N. Thomas 2019
This paper is also published with notes, sources and reading at
With many thanks to Griff Jenkins, with whom I have enjoyed a correspondence about New Quay that has lasted two decades, and to Susan Passmore (Susan Campbell-Jones), whose painstaking research on New Quay’s maritime history has been an inspiration. My gratitude, too, to Rod Atrill, Keith Davies and George Legg in New Quay, as well as Dr Reginald Davies (Welsh Mariners Index), Gwilym Games of Swansea Libraries, Steven John (West Wales War Memorial Project), Andrew Dally, and staff at Brecon and Abergavenny public libraries, the National Library of Wales and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Aberystwyth.
Images: Aerial photo of New Quay 1954: From the Collections of the National Monuments Record of Wales. © Crown: MoD. You can find an enlargement of this photo at https://coflein.gov.uk/en/archive/6168947/details/504. Aerial photo of the land around Majoda: Rod Atrill http://www.newquay-westwales.co.uk/history.htm.