THE PARISH OF ST. ISHMAEL’S. CARMARTHENSHIRE,
AND ITS ANCIENT CHURCH.
Carmarthenshire FHS, 2000
A Rare Old Parish Register
Whether St. Ishmael was a Welshman or an Armorican, whether he was or was not. a nephew of the patron Saint of Wales whether St. David was a sort of archbishop, having St. Ishmael as suffragan, and whether the latter built the Carmarthenshire Church which bears his name, are among the several knotty questions which I propose to keep clear of on the present occasion. One thing very evident to me and many others is that St. Ishmael is a church of great antiquity, and has several very interesting associations. Probably it was a small building originally. At present it is what the late Dr. Freeman used to call a "double-bodied church" of the type so characteristic of ancient Wales; but it is stated that the northern aisle or nave, forming about half the existing edifice, was erected in comparatively late times. This portion of the structure runs eastward until the end is flush with the east window, giving the interior the appearance of a double chancel as well as a double nave.
The wooden screen is somewhat elaborate in workmanship, and of unusual dimensions, so that the chancel is in reality screened off to a considerable extent from the body of the church. All round the walls, inside the chancel, runs a low stone seat, resembling, on a smaller scale that to be seen at Westminster Abbey. This is ‘not the usual form of sedilia, but doubtless it was intended and used for the same purpose. The Vicar’s theory is that this feature of the church has been traditionally preserved by rebuilders and restorers from the time when St. Ishmael himself erected the first little temple here. Assuming St. Ishmael to have been a suifragan of his uncle, St. David, the Vicar holds it to be very probable that ordinations took place at this church in the sixth century and later. Numerous clergy would attend on these occasions, he believes, to join with the bishop in the laying on of hands, and hence the propriety of having a seat running round the chancel to accommodate them.
There is at least one conspicuous monument in the chancel - a tablet commemorating the virtues of the Mansel family. An architect who has had much to do with ancient churches would be likely, on visiting St. Ishmael’s, to search for traces of a north transept. It is not improbable, I think, that the building was cruciform before the latter half of it was erected, but at present there is no sign of any transept except that on the south side, which is pretty large in proportion to the extent of the nave. This south transept may have been a chantry; at any rate, it appears to have been a rather important side chapel of some kind, and doubtless something could be learned by stripping the walls of their thick coat of plaster, if the churchwardens would permit. There is a fine hagioscope giving a full view of the communion table from this transept. In the porch on the right-hand side, just as you enter the church, may be seen an ancient holy water stoup, of familiar pattern, but smaller than many I have seen in Pembrokeshire and other churches of this district. Several more features might be noticed, but I do not dwell longer on matters architectural, in which I am no adept .
Many people have wondered why the church of St. Ishmael should stand on the side of a lonely steep overlooking the waters of the Bay, and in one of the most thinly inhabited corners of the parish. The vicarage seems to be the only habitation near. The explanation appears to be that this was formerly the church of the most important village-or town, as it was called-which existed anywhere on the route between Kidwelly and Carmarthen. Many people acquainted with the tradition of how a town once existed on the low ground-now sands-near the church, and how it was swept away by the sea during a terrific storm, are under the impression that the place thus overwhelmed was named St. Ishmael. For reasons which I hope to give on a future occasion it will appear that this is an error.
I believe there is good reason for stating that the village was called Gorton (Called Hawton in Spede’s Map of 1610) A genteel residence higher up the hills in the same parish has always been known as Gormont. It seems evident enough that these names are contractions of ‘Gowertown" and "Gower mount." There is a Gowerton not far from Swansea at the present time. It is very natural to suppose that some men of the race which made extensive settlements in Gower and South Pembrokeshire would plant small colonies in other places along the coast . So far as 1 can make out, the storm which is blamed for the destruction of Gorton was that which occurred in 1606. It is believed that a dreadful volcanic disturbance took place at that time in the bed of the sea all along the Bristol Channel and Carmarthen Bay. The billows of water appeared to be mingled with billows of flame, and rushed in upon the land with such speed that (in the words of an old document) "no greyhound could travel faster." The look of the incoming sea gave spectators the impression 4 mountains on fire. "In less than five hours’ space ‘‘ (we are told) " most parts of those countreys [Gloucester, Somerset, and South Wales], especially the places which Iaye lowe, were all overflown, and many hundreds of people, both men, women. and children, were then quite devoured by those outrageous waters." Bristol, Chepstow, Newport, Cardiff, Swansea, LIanstephan, and Laugharne are some of the places mentioned as having suffered most. Cardiff was almost swept away bodily.
I cannot find anywhere Hawton named, but I hope, as already stated, to return to this subject, and explain why I believe it was the storm of 1606 that overwhelmed the ill-fated town. That a. town, or a village of considerable size was overwhelmed and destroyed in this particular place at some time or other is no longer a matter of vague tradition, but a demonstrable fact. On several occasions of late years, when there have been exceptionally heavy tides, numerous intelligent and respectable people from Ferryside and the whole neighbourhood have been able to inspect portions of the shattered walls of numerous houses along the sandy shore. In several places the size and the form of the rooms could be discerned, and in some places (it is said) fireplaces. The masonry and general character of the ruined buildings are such as belong to historic, if not comparatively recent times. But more of this again. While the old church of St.. Ishmael is now so isolated, there are in the parish two chapels of ease, each surrounded by a busy and fairly large population. Perhaps the better known of the two, though certainly not the older, is St. Thomas Church, Ferryside, which was opened by the late Bishop of St. David’s early in the year 1875. This is really a new building, but although I cannot find that there was any church at the Ferry in ancient times, the present one is not the first erected where it stands. An aged parishioner, who died some years ago, stated that she remembered the building of the former church and that the chief agent in its erection was the Rev. E. Picton, of Iscoed, brother of the famous General Picton. She had heard that owing to the high tides at times and other causes, the Iscoed family felt it difficult to attend St. Ishmael’s (the parish) Church regularly, and this greatly helped to hasten the building of the chapel of ease. The other is at the village of Llansaint, a place chiefly inhabited by those healthy, robust, and wonderfully industrious women, who at all seasons and in all weathers may be seen wading, knee-deep, through sand, mud, and slush, as they follow the receding tides to gather cockles below Ferryside. It is not pleasant work, but they make a fairly good living out of it, and are said to Bye somewhat luxuriously. Their attire on week days is of a peculiar and very primitive kind. but they are as fond of Sunday finery as their betters. There is an idea prevalent among outsiders that these toiling women support their husbands in idleness and there used to be a proverb here in the parish that he "who marries a Llansaint woman marries a fortune," and may take things quietly for the rest of his life. The truth is that the male folk of Llansaint however it may have been in the past, are not idlers at present. Some help their wives in cockling, some work on the railway, some are employed by farmers and all appear to fellow some useful occupation. These cockle gathering people appear to be as virtuous as they are hard-working and they are extremely temperate. I believe the population of Llansaint is made up almost entirely of total abstainers.
They are very musical. We have all heard at times how the cockle-women can sing, but only few outside the parish know how their sons and husbands can play. For some time there has been a very good brass band at Llansaint and the village subscribed at least £70 to pay for instruments alone. The men and women of Llansaint make no pretence of belonging to a different race from their neighbours, like the oyster-fishers of Llangwm. but still they live a good deal to themselves, and have preserved, not only in dress but in speech, much that has become obsolete elsewhere. For instance, when they speak of a man being imprisoned, they do not recognise the modern ‘‘ "goal" but quaintly tell you the poor fellow has been shut up in "Castell Caerfyrddin" When they go to church they do not speak of it as "Eglwys" but as "Capel" I have somewhere heard it said that Llansaint was once a separate parish and benefice from St. Ishmael's. but the fact of these primitive and unchangable people calling their church a "Capel" appears to show that it must have been a chapel-of-ease from time immemorial The Nonconformist chapel, of course, they call " "ty cwrdd" But all this is in some sense a digression. I want to get back to the parish church .
The Rev. R. J . James, vicar of St. Ishmael's is the fortunate possessor of a document which would make many an antiquary’s mouth water. Churches are now considered fortunate which possess a parish register which goes back to The middle of last century, but Mr . James has one, tolerably well preserved, in which some of the entries date back to 1561, in the reign of Elizabeth. I had often wished to have a glance through the old book, and being in the neighbour-hood not long since, I took the liberty of calling on the Vicar. though suffering from a very troublesome cold at the time, he received me in a genial and most courteous manner, readily producing the antiquarian treasure, and further helping me to read some crabbed and contracted Latin, perpetrated by his predecessors of the Tudor and Stuart period. The old manuscript book, the calf binding of which is almost worn out, contains three divisions, recording the names of certain notable parishioners who were "baptizati," " copulati,’’ and " sepulti," respectively.
The heading of the death and burial division is a little peculiar—"nomina mortuorum," written at the top of every page. I do not propose now to say anything more of the christenings, weddings, and funerals, particularly as the book contains other matter more suitable for the present ax-tide. Under date 1636 there is a "terrier," that is, a list of all the property then belonging to the Church of St. Ishmael. Among the entries of 1706 there is a minute of a presentment made by "the churchwardens and others." This may be described as the minutes of a vestry meeting. The occasion of the meeting is first stated. "The wages of the parish clerk had not been duly paid by several of the inhabitants." "The church-wardens and others’’ now present that the sums to be paid-" and hath been paide time out of mind " —are "fourpence from every man and wife, and twopence from every widdow inhabiteing in the said parish." It was to be "payable at Easter every year besides his usual wages or duty at weddings, christenings, and burials." The incumbent heads the list of the names subscribed to this presentment, which is as follows: "David Morgan, vic. ibidem,’ Howel Morris and Jenkin David, churchwardens; Dick Bonnell, John Bonnell, Richard Nicholas, John Bevan, Morris Richard, Anthony Morris. William Bonnell." The following occurs among the entries under the year 1597: "In this yeare 1597 corn was excessive dear throughout the relme of England. Wheat was sould at Carmarthen for 40 shillings a bushel, and bailey 28s. 3d., ready money, by Carmarthen measure. From the like dearth and scarcity God keep His, for Jesus Christ sake, Amen. Per David M. Jenkins, clericum." With a few more extracts I must close for the present. "November. 1703. Upon the 26th and 27th of this month of November, 1703, there happened a most terrible and dreadful storm of wind, which destroyed a great many ships of war, and many other ships belonging to this kingdom. Many houses and buildings have been thrown down, and great numbers of timber and other trees have been torn up by the roots that. the like hath not been seen or felt in the memory of any person living. From the like dreadful calamity the Lord keep His, for Jesus Christ sake, Amen." A later scribe has tried to improve on this by underlining the word "people" to read after "His." "1715. April 22. This day, between 3 and 9 of the clock in the morning, the sun was totally eclipsed that the stars appeared very visibly." In almost the same words there is a record of how the sun was totally eclipsed between 6 and 7 on the afternoon of May 11th, 1724.
H.C. Tierney : From Transactions of Carmarthenshire Antiquary 1906-07
Carmarthenshire FHS 2000.