lanelli One square mile

Llanelli can be first visualised in history from a description in the 1566 report of a Commission comprising the Bishop of St David's, Thomas Vaughan and Dafydd Morgan. It describes Llanelli as a community of 12 houses on a creek of Burry, part of the Duchy of Lancaster under the lordship of John Vaughan. The picture is augmented from a 1586 inventory which lists, a cargo arriiving from Bristol, which was described as being on its way to William Johnes of Llandeilo, consisting of iron, cheese, soap and raisins. From Wexford, in 1599, another ship was recorded as carrying eight horses and two colts. By 1676, the number of houses in Llanelli had increased to 188. At the time, houses were taxed according to the number of hearths they contained. Henry Mansel, for example, was taxed on 15 hearths and Henry Vaughan on 12. The number of hearths was not only a measure of the size of the house, but also of the size of the estate. Vaughan owned Llanelli House, opposite the church, and Machynys House on the dune pastures to the south of the town. Mansel owned Trimsaran Mansion and also, perhaps, a house on Stradey land, near the sea. Mansel's land subsequently developed into the Stradey estate and Vaughan's into the Stepney estate, two great properties upon which the town expanded.

The Vaughans of Llanelli were a branch of the Vaughans of Golden Grove near Llandeilo. They lived in Llanelli House to the south of the parish church. This property passed to the Stepney family through marriage of Sir Thomas Stepney with a Vaughan heiress. The Stepney or Stepneth family was founded by Alban Stepney , son of Thomas Stepney of S. Albans Hertfordshire. Educated at Cambridge and Clement's Inn , it is said that he came to Wales as a young lawyer in the employ of bishop Richard Davies during the visitation of 1559 . On 31 Dec. 1561 the bishop appointed him receiver-general of the diocese of S. Davids for life. He was also registrar of the diocese . He married Margaret, daughter and coheiress of Thomas Catharn of Prendergast , who brought him the manor of Prendergast. Thereafter the Stepney's rapidly became powerful members of the Pembrokeshire gentry.

After his marriage to Margaret Vaughan Sir Thomas Stepney (died 1744) rebuilt Llanelli House. A map of 1761 shows the extent of the grounds which occupied both banks of the River Lleidi and dwarfed the town. It was the grandson of Sir Thomas, also named Thomas, who, after succeeding to the baronetcy and the estate in his early 20s, began developing its coal resources.

1761.jpg

The name Stradey is derived from the Welsh Ystrad (plural Ystradau), which means a level area or vale. The old house of the Stsradey estate was indeed on level ground adjacent to the Afon Dulais. In the mid 17th century it belonged to the Vaughans of Derwydd. It came to the Mansels in 1672 through an earlier marriage with the Vaughans. In the mid twelfth century it is known that the English Family of Mansel held lands in the county of Buckingham; the first to settle in Wales was Richard, who married the heiress of Scurlage castle on Gower. Thereafter, the family continued to marry into the eminent families of the time. They prospered under the Tudor monarchs, whom they served with fidelity. The main agricultural settlement of Scurlage Castle is a clustered grouping of post-medieval farmsteads and associated outbuildings in a matrix of small enclosures and yards at a road junction between the road from Llanddewi to Port-Eynon with the lane/trackways to the associated field system.

Thus, by careful marriages the Anglo-Welsh Stepneys and Mansels came to own mineral rights to a western extension of the great South Wales coalfield and from the 17th century coal was exported by sea from the small tidal creek of the River Leidi to markets as far away as India. But it was not until the industrial demand for coal developed at the beginning of the 19th century and metal working came to Llanelli, that coal became an economic factor in the expansion of the town. This happened on big scale with the investment of Richard Janion Nevill, who built the copper works. It was these investments that brought iron, copper, lead and tin ores to be smelted on the coalfield and attracted an immigrant labouring population of around seven thousand by 1831. At mid century, when the first tinplate works was established, the population had increased to thirteen thousand. During the second half of the 19th century the growing economy of Llanelli became almost totally dependent on the metal industries. Imports were mainly metal ores and timber and exports were tinplate itself and articles made from tinplate. Railways and docks were built to serve the industrial investments, of the area in and around the town that came to be known as ‘Tinoplolis’.

The economic momentum of the late Victorian investments in metal working continued through the First World War but began to falter in the 1920s. The first sign was the closure of the Llanelli pottery in 1923, which was the only sign of a diversified economy. This was a time of general short time working, which was followed by closures of furnaces. By the end of the 20s Llanelli was officially designated as a ‘distressed area’ and Government money was invested in public works. This involved slum clearance and culverting of the River Lliedi. There was no economic recovery and the decade leading up to the Second World War saw the end of an inward looking largely self-sufficient culture supported by the heavy industry economics of what came to be known as Tinoplis. The following short description by John Edwards of growing up in Llanelli paints a vivid picture of the culture of the town in the 1930s. By and large it could be duplicated by the experiences of people brought up in similar sized towns in the South Wales coalfield. Furthermore, apart from the enrichment of Llanelli with a previous generation of Italian immigrants, it could also descibe the interwar culture of self-contained English coastal communities which had grown rich on the fishing industry.

It was... "quite pleasant. The old market was a magical place with its variety of stalls. There were beautiful shops which sold everything that any heart could desire. Fish-and-chip shops provided wholesome fare and Italian cafes served ice cream and coffee among other delights. The Italian cafes were more like clubs, with their regular customers. Sartori's in Park Street was a favourite meeting place on Sunday nights after a stroll on Monkey's Parade. The YMCA proved a haven of rest and relaxation with a beautifully furnished lounge and snooker room. Snooker was a very popular game at this time. The largest snooker-halls were the 'Lucania', 'Hatcher's' and the 'Welcome'. Boxing was also popular, with 'Gipsy' Daniels a local hero. Concerts were held regularly, mainly in chapels, and we were given the opportunity of seeing and hearing world-famous singers performing solo roles in oratorios. Most of us were poor but we did not realise it because everyone else we knew was in the same boat. Christmas was always made special by hanging paper chains on the walls and there were usually a few trinkets in our stocking and a fabulous turkey dinner. Sixpence a week deposited in the Sunday School bank would yield an amazing 25s in time for Christmas, and New Year's morning would see us out singing for a 'calennig' which would add, at least, another 5s. The magnificent Odeon cinema opened in 1938, the last word in luxury, making a total of five cinemas in which people could indulge in their favourite entertainment, and escape from the troubles of everyday life. The Regal was a luxurious cinema where people could drink tea in the Palm Court lounge. Other cinemas were the Odeon, the Hippodrome, the Palace and the Astoria".

Actually the writing was on the wall for the end of the cycle of prosperity generated in this part of South Wales by the tinplate industry. It began in Llanelli in 1840s and by 1880 seven tinplate works were operating in the town. However, by the start of the 1930s there were 7,000 unemployed out of a population of 17,000, and a Mayoral fund was established to provide boots and clothing for needy chidren. There was a short boost in prosperity during the Second World War, after which the decline of Llanelli's economy, which had been dependent on manufacturing tinplate and articles made from it, declined rapidly. The transient five years of prosperity, generated to supply the fighting forces, passed. So that at end of the 1950s there were only 3 tinplate works operating out of the 18 which once thrived between the River Lougher and Kidwelly.

Schemes were rapidly launched to regnerate a new economic base for the town. To quote the experience of John Edwards again:-

Plans were "...under way for the new Gelli Onn roadway linking West End and Thomas Street which also meant the demolition of the Old Town Hall as well as Jerusalem Welsh Wesleyan Chapel. Some of Llanelli's oldest streets similarly fell prey to the bulldozers; Wind Street, Edgar Street, Union Square and Cilheol. Whatever the pros and cons of the scheme, it was pleasant to approach the town from the west and get a clear view of the Parish Church, with its magnificent tower. In the mid-1960s, unemployment in Llanelli reached almost 20 percent and crime seemed to be on the increase. One sad aspect was the fact that churches and chapels had to lock their doors when no services were being held. Many people, including visitors complained about the practice but times had changed and there would be no going back.

Churches and chapels themselves were experiencing a drastic drop in numbers by this time. In a Guardian survey conducted on a November Sunday in 1881, it was estimated that over 50 percent of the population attended Sunday services. By 1970, this figure was down to 20 percent and the slide continued. The first Nonconformist chapel to fall was Siloh, still some years short of a century of existence. It was taken over by the Council and converted for use as a Community Centre for the Lakefield area. The Anglican Church were not immune either and St Paul's was later closed and demolished. Siloh and St Paul's were the first; others would follow. It seemed that all the old certainties were being shaken at this time. The grand old Market Pavilion, Llanelli's Crystal Palace, was pulled down in 1968 and a new market replaced it by 1970, topped by a monstrous concrete car park. Old family shops were disappearing in 1967 and being replaced by multiple stores. Individuality gave way to conformity and Llanelli became a look-alike for any other town. Even our dream-factories, the cinemas, were either demolished, closed or they scraped along as bingo-halls. In fact, the Regal Cinema, once the height of luxury and the fourth largest in Wales, died of shame as a bingo hall in Llanelli's biggest blaze of the 1960s just before Christmas, 1969".

More industrial closures followed and by the beginning of the 1980s unemployment stood at 19%. This was the time when hard drugs made their appearance on the streets of the town. In a letter to the Lanelli Star in 1989, Dudley Gershon returning after an absence of 21 years wrote:-

" Then (1968) shops were kept in good repair, were presentable and had individuality... Stepney Street is now in a state of dilapidation... The multi-storey car park is hideous...the town lacks character. What had happened to make people lose pride in appearance?"

Industrial buildings, including a power station at Pembrey and a new shafts for anthrocite coal at Cynheidre Colliery, come and went within a single generation.

Yet local government had vastly increased and Llanelli now stretched from the town itself along the coast to Kidwelli.

These economic upheavals can be traced in the history of the Dudley Gershon's much lamented Stepney Street. Built in the grounds of Llanelli house in the 1850s Stepney Street, named after Llandelli's major landowning family, rapidly became the main shopping thoroughfare, lined with pemises large and small, all under local family ownership. Now, although it has been pedestrianised and beautified, Stepney Street is no longer the retail centre of the town, which has shifted to the St Elli shopping centre where an ASDA supermarket is the major attraction. Local family firms have disappeared and been replaced by national and international chain stores. It is in this sense that on entering the town from the East, the traveller could be anywhere in a world obsessed by large scale consumerism.

However, by sticking to the minor coastal road along the shore of the Burry Inlet, a seascape meets the eye that is now enhanced by the creation of the Millennium Park. This was landscaped in the 1990s to include 2,000 acres of former industrial land and derelict docks. It is a major leisure facility with a marina and new upmarket homes for people who wish to live with unparalleled views over water to the northern shore of the Gower Peninsula. It carries part of the Wales' National Coastal Footpath through a variety of first class estuarine habitats from Llanelli to Pembrey and beyond.


Edwards, John. (2007) 'Llanelli: Story of a Town', Breedon Books
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Llanelli
http://www.archiveswales.org.uk/anw/get_collection.php?inst_id=30&coll_id=1033&expand=