One of the many wrecks on the beach.
FROM THE SCHOOL RESOURCE
Shipping, which for many years was the most efficient method of transportation, was the key influence in the development of coastal areas such as Pembrey, Kidwelly and Llanelli.
As far back as Roman times we know the sea was vital for supply and communication with fortresses at Carmarthen and Lougher. Following the Norman invasion Carmarthen again became an important ‘’shipping place’’. Documentation from 1287 shows passage of goods from landing stages and pills at Laugharne, St. Clears, Llanelli, Penclawdd and Lougher.
In the early 17th century, a licence was granted to ‘’Robert of Kidwelly’’ to trade with ports at Gascony. A report from 1644 tells of a vessel conveying ammunition to Tenby during the Civil War – ‘’beleaguered by the Parliamentarians, she was chased by a frigate but escaped to a creek in Llanelli’’.
The quays and landing stages of the North Gower pills such as Penclawdd and Llanmadoc are well recorded for their supply of limestone, but it was coal, the ‘black gold of South Wales’, which played a major development in the area’s volume of shipping. Lelands ‘’Itinerary’’ of 1540 mentions Llanelli – ‘’At Llanelthle, a village of Kidwelly Lordship, the inhabitants dig coles’’.
As methods of coal extraction improved, so production increased, forcing the landing stages of the creeks and pills to be replaced by Quays, Harbours and Docks. These also serviced the massive growth in the areas metal processing industries.
Kidwelli Quay in 1766, Llanelli Docks in 1799, Pembrey Harbour in 1819 and the New Pembrey Harbour (Burry Port) in 1836 are all testimony to an era of escalating development. Increases in shipping tonnage are vividly seen by the following Llanelli Dock records:-
1831 – 816 vessels taking 53,884 tons.
1868 – 2,266 vessels taking 206,693 tons.
Owing to the vast amount of siltation which has occurred, locals and visitors alike are puzzled to think how ports at either end of Pembrey Sands/Cefn Sidan could ever have been capable of such a large amount of shipping activity. It is amazing to think that Pembrey Harbour, which has now become a salt marsh, had tramways and canals leading to it for the purpose of shipping. Kidwelly, at Kymer’s Quay, was able to accept vessels drawing up to 18 feet in 1797.
Pembrey Sands or Cefn Sidan as it is known has been termed as ‘the dustbin of the Atlantic’. The vast and varied amount of flotsam and jetsam washed onto its shore seems to qualify this title.
Over the centuries, the beach has been willing to accept any type of vessel onto its shore. Not just coasting and short-sea commerce vessels of the day, but also, many ocean going vessels associated with exotic trades and passages. Over the years, the foreshore here has had various names for different sections of its shoreline such as ‘’Cefn Hooper’’,’’ the Nose’’, ‘’Cornel Mawr’’, ‘’Burrows Point’’ and ‘’Pembrey Scott’’. The contours of the beach, aided by wind and weather, can change dramatically. In a very short period of time sandbanks move, channels change routes and depths alter.
Whatever the name or shape, a rich and long maritime history has been provided by this 8 mile section of shore. Here are some examples of the more well known vessels that have come to their grief on Cefn Sidan.
1810. The ‘’Union’’. Sailing from Cadiz to London. Cargo of Indigo, Copper and Cochineal. 14 lives lost.
1816. The ‘’William’’. Sailing from Newfoundland to Bristol. Cargo of Seal skins and oil.
1818. ‘’La Providence’’. Sailing from Bordeaux to Dunkirk. Cargo of Juniper berries, Wine, Brandy and Coffee. Many local people were found on the beach by the authorities, totally inebriated. One man died due his severe intoxication.
1828. ‘’La Jeune Emma’’. Sailing from Martinique to Le Havre with Rum, Sugar and coffee. 13 lives lost including Lieutenant Col. Coquelin and his daughter Adeline, niece of Josephine, consort of Napoleon Bonaparte.
1833. The ‘’Brothers’’. Sailing from Bahia to Liverpool. Cargo of Buffalo Hides and Cotton. 15 lives lost.
More recently and still to be seen are:
1886. The ‘’Teviotdale’’. Cardiff to Bombay carrying Coal. 17 lives lost.
1925. The ‘’Paul’’. Halifax in Nova Scotia to St. Anne’s Head where she was to be given her final destination. Cargo of Timber.
The last two vessels lost on this beach were,
1980. The ‘’Resolva’’. A private pleasure yacht making for a sailing festival at Bristol. 4 lives lost.
1996. A yacht with no registered name coming from Morocco to an unknown west coast destination was blown ashore. On board was found many large sealed and watertight packs of cannabis resin with a ‘street’ value of £800,000.
‘Gwyr y Bwelli Bach’
Associated with Cefn Sidan, over part of its history, was a group of people known as ‘Gwyr y Bwelli Bach’ – People of the Little Hatchets! This title refers to people of the surrounding hamlets who carried about their person an uniquely designed tomahawk type hatchet – ideal for the plundering of shipwrecks! Their era of most notoriety was between 1770 and 1870. During storm conditions, under cover of darkness, they are said to have lit beacon type bonfires on Pembrey Mountain. They thought this would lure a ship’s captain into thinking he had seen a light of a safe haven such as a port or harbour. They hoped the ship would be drawn into the shallows in order to plunder its cargo and rob its crew.
In reality, by the time a ship’s captain could have observed a bonfire ashore whilst in storm conditions in the hours of darkness, then the ship was probably already in a desperate plight amongst the shallows, sandbanks and storm waves. A ship’s captain would never set course for an unknown light as it is normally used to signify danger. Also, lighting beacons, looting cargo and robbery from crews was far from unique just to this area. The North and South Devon coast, the Cornish coast and West Wales coast were well known for this practice so sea captains would exercise the best of caution in observing a strange light on shore.
Reports of the time indicate sail damage, blown off course and largely navigational error to be the causes of grounding upon this shallow shore. It cannot be denied though, the despicable act of looting and plundering did take place. Cargo, sails, ropes, ships furniture, instruments and tools would be taken. Possessions of crew and passengers, whether dead or alive, would be taken. Items on a body difficult to remove, such as rings, would, with a stroke of the hatchet, result in removal of fingers. It was reported that Adeline, niece to Napoleon Bonaparte’s consort, had two of her fingers missing. Reports and correspondence at the time called them ‘’Lladron Glan y Mor’’- Robbers of the sea.
The establishment of the Militia barracks at Pwll marked the end of ‘’the Hatchet Men’’ as the foreshore was regularly patrolled by horse back units. In 1886, 30 men and women were arrested trying to loot the ‘’Teviotdale’’ whilst 17 bodies of the crew lay on the shore.
In total contrast, when the ‘’Paul’’ was grounded in 1925, the vessels insurers complimented the local community for their help in retrieving her cargo of timber. Only about 5 tons of her cargo could not be accounted for, obviously an acceptable loss.