MUR­DER STONE MARKS VIC­TIM’S GRAVE

Wales On Sunday - - NEWS -

AMONG the graves around St Catwg’s Church, near Neath, is one known to any­one who grew up in the vil­lage as “the mur­der stone”. The stone, plain but im­pos­ing, does not just mark a grave – it ex­presses the out­rage of a com­mu­nity, and was de­signed to prick the con­science of a killer.

St Catwg’s is a hand­some build­ing dat­ing back to the Nor­mans, with a dis­tinc­tive wagon ceil­ing and a fine stained glass win­dow.

In its large ceme­tery are graves from an area much larger than the vil­lage it­self, for the parish once stretched from Skewen to Glyn­neath. The ceme­tery has some very or­nate grave­stones mark­ing the last rest­ing place of those from wealthy fam­i­lies, and some very sim­ple ones.

And it has a mur­der stone, one of only a hand­ful of such memo­ri­als in Wales.

Grow­ing up in the vil­lage I would pass the stone al­most ev­ery day, and it al­ways fas­ci­nated me – how could it not? The in­scrip­tion, chis­elled in big, bold, cap­i­tal let­ters, is not eas­ily for­got­ten.

Though the decades have weath­ered the stone, the mes­sage it­self could not be any clearer.

The stone marks the grave of a 26-year-old woman called Mar­garet Wil­liams, a na­tive of Car­marthen­shire who was work­ing for a farm­ing fam­ily in Ca­dox­ton.

Her bat­tered and bruised body was found on the marshy land between the vil­lage and the River Neath in July 1822. She was preg­nant. Her mur­derer was never found. The words on the stone read:

This much is known, but much else about the cir­cum­stances of her life and death are the sub­ject of spec­u­la­tion, folk­lore and the po­etic telling and retelling of the story over the decades.

News­pa­per ac­counts at the time re­ported that she was work­ing as a ser­vant for a lo­cal ten­ant farmer when she fell preg­nant – Miss Wil­liams claimed the fa­ther was the farmer’s son.

It is known she left her em­ploy­ment some 10 weeks be­fore she was mur­dered – whether through choice or be­cause she was fired we will never know – and went to live in Neath.

She was found on the morn­ing of Sun­day, July 14, ly­ing on her side in the marshy land south of the vil­lage, her head sub­merged un­der wa­ter.

Be­side her was a bas­ket con­tain­ing her hat and a sheep’s head she had ap­par­ently bought at Neath mar­ket the pre­vi­ous day.

An ex­am­i­na­tion found bruises and dis­coloura­tion on her neck and throat. It was deter­mined that she had been stran­gled.

An in­quest into her death was held on the fol­low­ing Tues­day and Wed­nes­day.

As The Cam­brian pa­per re­ported at the time: “The in­quest was at­tended by sev­eral mag­is­trates and other gen­tle­men, whose in­ter­est had been strongly ex­cited by a well-founded sus­pi­cion that the de­ceased did not die from any nat­u­ral or ac­ci­den­tal cause.”

The fin­ger of blame pointed at the son of the farmer she had been em­ployed by or, as the pa­per put it, “he was gen­er­ally sus­pected of hav­ing com­mit­ted the di­abol­i­cal act”.

The sus­pect was held while the coro­ner and jury con­sid­ered the case, and on Wed­nes­day – af­ter a “de­lib­er­ate and able in­ves­ti­ga­tion” – the ver­dict was reached.

As the pa­per re­ports: “Though the strong­est sus­pi­cions ex­isted against the pris­oner, no ev­i­dence was ad­duced to es­tab­lish his guilt, the ver­dict of the jury was, there­fore, of wil­ful mur­der against per­son or per­sons un­known.”

With no phys­i­cal ev­i­dence to tie him to the mur­der scene, no eye wit­nesses, and no con­fes­sion, the sus­pect was re­leased.

The pa­per adds: “The mag­is­trates have de­clared their res­o­lu­tion to seek out fresh ev­i­dence with un­remit­ting scru­tiny: and it is de­voutly to be wished, that the in­hu­man mon­ster who per­pe­trated this foul and hor­rid deed, may yet be brought to jus­tice.”

But no ar­rests fol­lowed, and no­body was brought to jus­tice.

The mur­der stone it­self wasn’t erected un­til the year af­ter the death, the words be­ing com­posed by Eli­jah War­ing, a Neath Quaker and well­known or­a­tor – and those words clearly ex­press the out­rage of the com­mu­nity, and the be­lief that the mur­derer may have evaded earthly jus­tice.

The carv­ing on the stone con­cludes with: “God hath set his mark upon him ei­ther for time or eter­nity, and the cry of blood will as­suredly pur­sue him to cer­tain and ter­ri­ble but right­eous judge­ment.” An ex­tra­or­di­nary epi­taph. Over the years many tales around the mur­der have de­vel­oped.

One ver­sion has a death-bed con- fes­sion by a man who orig­i­nally claimed to have seen the vic­tim and the farmer’s son ar­gu­ing on the marsh that fate­ful evening.

In an­other, the wronged woman fell preg­nant to the son of a lo­cal squire. The stone it­self is set at a cu­ri­ous an­gle to the main path through the church­yard, and some say it was put in that po­si­tion to face the house of the ac­cused as a daily re­minder of his wrong­do­ing.

A pop­u­lar de­tail in many of the ver­sions is of the pre­sumed killer fleeing the vil­lage fol­low­ing the in­quest. One colour­ful telling re­counts the sound of his horse’s hooves echo­ing through the vil­lage as he makes a dead-of-night dash to Swansea port to catch a sail­ing ship to Amer­ica.

What be­came of him and his new life in the New World is not re­counted.

The mys­tery re­mains un­solved.

ROBERT MELEN

The mur­der stone at St Catwg’s Church grave­yard in Ca­dox­ton near Neath

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