Thomas Jenkins (1813-1871)

by Byron Rogers

The Leonardo of Llandeilo

It is December 1858, and in west Wales the small town of Llandeilo is preparing to celebrate the return of Lord Dynevor, its greatest landowner. Thomas Jenkins, the town carpenter, has been put in charge of the entertainment, in particular of the fireworks. In his diary he records a busy week.

December 3:
Made 30 torches. Labour and materials, 15/9.
December 6:
Lord Dynevor and family arrived at 6pm. Town illuminated. Made 20 fireballs…
December 7:
Dynevor Castle caught fire at 8pm…

There are no comments, no expression of surprise. It could be Oliver Hardy writing, for nothing is beyond the poise of a great comic figure. But unlike Ollie, Mr Jenkins kept a diary.

There are three tombs in the north-west corner of the churchyard in Llandeilo, a town so dominated by death that its main road had to be cut through the graves. The three are not hard to find, for they stand in line. Here Thomas Jenkins is buried, also his two wives, his children and their children. But it is a single job description that stops you in your tracks. Sacred to the memory of Thomas Jenkins of this town, Carpenter and Diarist, 1813-1871.

What follows is a quest for a remarkable man.

For in addition to being a carpenter and a diarist, Jenkins was an architect, astronomer, antiquary, musician, inventor of a cast-iron passenger-carrying tricycle, scientist, caver and undertaker. This man could make boats, violins, artificial legs, wax figures for the Great Exhibition of 1851, also coffins.

There were many coffins; so many that in the graveyard on the hill Thomas Jenkins must be surrounded by his craft. In the middle of the nineteenth century Renaissance Man was alive and well and living in Llandeilo, only Renaissance Man was a member of the working class.

Where do you look for him 150 years on?

It is a wild morning, and I am standing on Llandeilo Bridge with Lynn Hughes. This bridge is a work of art, completed in 1848, the largest and finest single-span bridge in the country.

Jenkins built the pumps to divert the river says Hughes. He bought the timber, the iron and the stone. For a guinea a week he built the centre form-work for the arch and he invented an engine to test its strength. Yet you won't find his name on any commemorative plaque - he was just a working man from the town.

But I am old enough to have met men for whom his exploits were a living memory, who had been told about them by their fathers. You could say I grew up with Thomas Jenkins.

Old men would point out his work: the elegant inn signs and basreliefs on the walls, like those outside the Castle Hotel; the Doric columns that support the porches, for Jenkins loved columns. Many of these have gone, but even now, walking through the town, you come on puzzling features, such as the extraordinary grandeur of the frontage to a takeaway Indian restaurant.

That's probably him, says Hughes. And see that sign over the alley opposite, on that wooden arch? That speaks of Jenkins to me.

The sign reads Public Hall & Literary Institute, the lettering still visible with its elaborate twirls and scrolls. Up that alley there met the Llandeilo Mechanics’ Mutual Instructing Institution, which Jenkins founded in 1843. This is the man who passed into local folklore.

The private man only emerged in 1976 with the publication of his diary, later republished by the National Library of Wales. That took some nerve on the part of his family, for the diary records a fascination for life so complete that Jenkins even noted the occasions when he had sexual intercourse, usually with his maids, two of whom he was obliged to marry as a result. Like Pepys, he resorted to code, and was laconic when he recorded being ordered to pay one shilling and six-pence a week towards another illegitimate child. Yet suddenly in the midst of these one-line entries there occurs one of the great deathbed scenes in Victorian writing, as Jenkins records, hour by hour, the death of his great love, Sarah Davies. She was twenty-one years old.

But the main impression is of one man walking. We forget just how much our ancestors walked before the railways came; they had to, on account of the stagecoach fares. In 1838 Jenkins earned 12 shillings a week but it would have cost him 2 shillings to make a 30-mile return journey by coach. And not only did our ancestors walk, they were prepared to turn night into day to do so.

…May 3, 1836. Left Carmarthen for Haverford West at 15 minutes past 1 a.m. Got to Narberth at 8 a.m. and Haverford West at 12 noon…

There followed a day of sightseeing with his uncle, this after walking 29 miles in less than eleven hours. The following day he returned, feet sore, the weather being warm. It was not just the men who walked. At one point, Jenkins records that his wife left Llandeilo to walk to Carmarthen at 4 a.m., though she was pregnant at the time.

And even at the slow pace of the old world there were traffic accidents, such as a horse taking fright in Bridge Street, Llandeilo, and plunging over the parapet, killing two passengers in a carriage. So you can share Jenkins‘s wonder at the arrival of the railway. He walked to Swansea, took a ship to Bristol and there got on a train for the first time. His comment is to the point: 20 minutes - 12 miles.

On 21 December 1849 he is almost as brief. Made a homomotive carriage with three wheels.

No plan survives and Jenkins does not describe how it works, this man-powered carriage, but on the following day there is this: Left for Carmarthen in the carriage at 5 p.m. Arrived 7.30. For him to average 6mph means that on the flat or downhill he must have been touching 15 to 20 mph, said Lynn Hughes. All this in a thing made of cast iron. He must have had some kind of belt drive and pedals.

But what I find so in amazing is that when he set out to make something, it rarely took him longer than a day:

  • Made a blast fan
  • Made a turnip cutter to my own plan
  • Made two hand pumps, also horse pump
  • Made an air furnace
  • Made a circular saw

Then there were the local caves, into which he ventured prepared for anything. I took a pistol and Peter brought his clarinet. But at Llygad Llwchwr, near Carreg Cennen Castle, he was alarmed enough to bring a ball of twine, which he attached to a stalactite in case they got lost among the side passages, when they went 567 feet underground. The fascinating thing is that he and his friends chose to enter at 8 p.m., and then emerged at 1 a.m. Our ancestors had a strange sense of time. On another occasion he hit a stalactite with a hammer. It made, he recorded, as fine and loud a noise as any bell in Llandeilo steeple.

The old world intrudes from time to time. He takes the 6 a.m. coach and records: A tremendous storm of hail and sleet blowing in my face - so he must have been on the roof, where the fares were cheaper. He meets the famous wizard, Henry Harris, but records only: He is in a decline, can't live many weeks.

1835. Went to Carmarthen Fair. Saw a giantess, a Hottentot woman, a flaxen-haired negro, two serpents, a crocodile, alligator, porcupine, American sea serpent, boa constrictor etc. Saw a woman raise 300lbs by her hair. It is the old poise that did not desert him, even when castles were burning.

He was in love once: a widower with four small children when he met Sarah Davies. He was in his late thirties, she was twenty, and theirs was a formal courtship. They wrote each other many letters, each one of which he notes, for they must have meant a great deal, as did their encounters. Took tea with Miss Davies.

Sarah Davies came from Aberdauddwr on the B4337 north of Llandeilo, not far past Edwinsford, where the little bridge he built still stands. It was here that he came to her deathbed. She died a few weeks after her twenty-first birthday, in such a state of religious ecstasy that she saw Heaven opening. Jenkins made notes. She said: The sun is setting,… but it will soon be light again, offering up a short prayer and singing several scraps of hymns. She desired that should be buried at Bethel, near the brook in which she had been baptised at 12. She requested that I should make her coffin and design her headstone…, and all this was done.

The chapel is two miles from the village of Farmers. You see the brook first, then the stone groove into which a wooden dam was inserted to make the water deep enough for baptism. Above this, on a hill, is the chapel. Her grave is not hard to find, being one of a matching pair made of slate set into an elaborate limestone frame, both cut by Jenkins, who did make her coffin, and then placed an account of her death in a stone jar.

It is quiet there, as it must have been when he returned to spread flowers on her grave. All you will hear is the sound of water, just as he heard it, this remarkable man of whom just one crumpled portrait survives. A long, abstracted face stares out of the past.

Article from The Bank Manager and the Holy Grail: Travels to the weirder reaches of Wales, by Byron Rogers, Aurum Press, 2003. Reproduced by kind permission of the author.

Read extracts from Thomas Jenkins' diary