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Emlyn Davies - the two redheads

(June 01, 2015)

Cymraeg

Emlyn Davies is a former broadcaster who started his career with BBC Wales as a presenter and producer. He later became S4C’s first Senior Commissioning Editor before joining the ranks of the independent sector to form his own production company. Originally from Llanberis, he now lives in Pentyrch.

Here, in the first of a series on those deserving better recognition than they have, Emlyn looks at …

The Two Redheads

"Let us now praise famous men" is the exhortation in the Apocrypha. As a nation we are quite accustomed to doing this, but fame is in no way synonymous with virtue. Sometimes we forget those who should be commemorated and honoured as benefactors, whereas others are remembered and exalted for unworthy deeds.

This became very apparent to me recently when researching two contemporaries of the second half of the nineteenth century. They were born, and died, within a year of each other. They were both nicknamed because of their ginger hair. One was called "Cochfarf", the other "Coch Bach y Bala". Cochfarf's contribution to the Welsh language and Welsh life in Cardiff during its years of growth was phenomenal, but oral and printed recollections of him are sparse. Coch Bach y Bala, on the other hand, has been immortalised in more than one volume, specifically for his crimes. He was even attributed a second nickname, "The Welsh Houdini” following his numerous jailbreaks.

Coch Bach y Bala, John Jones (1854-1913)

Emlyn - Cerdyn post ar farwolaeth Coch Bach y Bala, Prifysgol BangorPostcard published on Coch Bach y Bala's death
Image: © Bangor University

John Jones (1854-1913), a relentless burglar, was born in Llanfor, near Bala, and that is where he first became notorious for his thievery. This story appeared in the North Wales Weekly Times on October 4th, 1913:

"John Jones escaped from Rhuthun Prison on Tuesday morning, in a blaze of bravado, and is still at large at the time of writing this report. He gained his freedom by persistent courage, considerable shrewdness and remarkable agility … some regard "Coch Bach" as a hero; his performance certainly demonstrates courage."

We have to remind ourselves that this reporter is describing a ruthless serial offender, with no principles. Coch Bach spent almost half his life under lock and key for burglaring houses, shops and taverns. He appeared in court at least ten times, and on one occasion for the serious crime of inciting a crowd to attack the police in Bala.

The first time he escaped from prison was in 1879. He was 25 years old at the time, and being held in Rhuthun Prison for stealing fifteen watches. He had apparently managed to open the door of his own cell and those of three other prisoners, and all four of them walked out of the prison's main door while the warder was eating his supper.

In 1906 he was accused of burglary and the assault of a 71 year old woman in Abererch, near Pwllheli. When he appeared before the magistrates he began addressing the bench mid-afternoon and continued until three o'clock the following morning. But he was found guilty of the crimes and spent the following seven years in prison at Dartmoor. By 1913 he was back in Rhuthun Prison. He excavated his way through the cell wall and used his clothes as a rope to climb down the prison wall. He was on the run for six days before being spotted on Ystad Nantclwyd land, some distance from Rhuthun on the outskirts of the village of Llanelidan. He was shot, and died of his injuries. Coch Bach had already been considered a hero and now everyone sang his praises. Postcards were designed - depicting his funeral, and the stile where he was shot - and hundreds of them were sold.

To this day, people remember him fondly, marvel at his adventures and glorify his escapades. Precious few mention the other redhead...

Cochfarf, Edward Thomas (1855-1912)

Llun Cochfarf gan C. C. Williams Eiddo, Cyngor Caerdydd
Cochfarf's portrait, by C. C. Williams Eiddo 
Image: © Cardiff Council

Cochfarf, whose proper name is Edward Thomas (1855-1912) was a native of Betws, Maesteg. By the age of 23, he was in Cardiff, employed in the building of the Town Hall in St Mary's Street. He eventually became the mayor of the city and a very influential councillor. He prided himself in not knowing a word of English until he was 14 years old, and could therefore hardly have dreamt that he would one day have his own English column in the Weekly Mail; with a circulation at that time in Cardiff and much of Somerset and Gloucestershire. And Cochfarf, in his refined English, would discuss Welsh poetry and literature as well as the burning issues of the day. And this was an important facet of his personality. Opinion was divided amongst Cardiff Welsh speakers of the day - some who were introvertly protecting the language, and others, like Cochfarf, who were all for proclaiming their Welshness from the rooftops to spread the word and gain goodwill towards the language in wider circles.

Within a year of arriving in Cardiff, he was the secretary of the National Eisteddfod, which was held in Cathays Park, Cardiff in 1879. A year later, in 1880, he was employed by the Cardiff Coffee Tavern Company, and made quite a name for himself by criticising his employers for opening on Sundays. His strong feelings about this drove him to make a stand by resigning from the company and opening his own coffee tavern in Tollgate Street. Two others were opened before long, the Metropole near the Taff Vale Railway Station and the Red Dragon in the docklands. In 1890, he was elected to the city council and by 1902 he was the mayor of the town he witnessed becoming a city in 1905.

One factor which makes Edward Thomas's story so interesting is that he represents a particular kind of person who was responsible for making Cardiff what it is today: a Welsh town in every sense of the word. Their priority was promoting the Welsh image of "Wales's Metropolis". At that time, Welsh was greatly revered in Cardiff, despite the fact that only 10.7% of its population of 116,207 spoke the language. But that meant there were 12,000 Welsh speakers, many of them influential businessmen. One of the most influential cultural institutions was Cymrodorion Caerdydd, a society founded in 1885 in Cochfarf's coffee house. His interest in history and antiquities was extensive and it was only natural that he was the powerhouse driving the campaign to found the Free Library in The Hayes in Cardiff.

A staunch Baptist, he gave lifelong service as a deacon in Tabernacl chapel, and politically, he was a staunch Liberal. Judging from the correspondence between them, it appears that he was very close to David Lloyd George. He fought strongly for the disestablishment and disendowment of the Established State Church. He was Ceidwad y Cledd (Guardian/Keeper of the Sword) in Gorsedd y Beirdd in the National Eisteddfod, and corresponded with Mrs Augusta Herbert, the daughter of Lady Llanofer in 1907, regarding the reinstating of the harp as the national instrument of Wales. Cochfarf was a fervent teetotaller. He was particularly close to the Irish, and deplored the effect alcohol had on their community. On becoming mayor, he decided to prohibit any alcoholic drink from the mayor's parlour, and even from all civic feasts and functions.

According to the information submitted by him in the 1901 Census, he considered himself a Justice of the Peace, a journalist and hotel proprietor, but it is evident that his contribution to public life in Cardiff was much more than this. When the National Eisteddfod was held in Cardiff in 1899, several visitors from the other Celtic countries were also honoured. One of Cochfarf's duties that week was to escort a young Irishman who was being invested to Yr Orsedd by the name Areithiwr (Orator), none other than Pádraig Pearse. A century later, in November 1999, a memorial was unveiled at Brunel House, Cardiff, the Consulate General of Ireland in Wales, by Conor O'Oriordan, Consul General of Ireland, to commemorate the honour bestowed upon Pádraig Pearse.

I wonder when the inhabitants of Cardiff, and the rest of Wales, will decide to commemorate Cochfarf?

Emlyn Davies, June 2015

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Emlyn Davies:

     Canon William Evans; September 2017
Robert Owen; June 2017
Ynysyfelin; a lost community; March 2017
Laura Ashley; December 2016
Adelina Patti, September 2016
Billy Hughes; June 2016
Coed y Bleiddiau; March 2016
Betsi Cadwaladr; December 2015
Sir Thomas Artemus Jones; September 2015


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