The Roberts family connection with gardening in Llanelli goes back to the early nineteenth century when John and Frances Wells arrived in Llanelli as a young couple at some point between their wedding at Saint Margaret’s Church, Westminster in April 1809 and the birth of their daughter Sarah in July 1811.
He worked as a gardener, probably for George III’s sergeant surgeon Sir David Dundas at Wauncrychydd Farm or Ael y Bryn, now the Diplomat Hotel in Felinfoel. The death of John Wells’ three-month-old son John in 1813 is recorded in the Llanelli Parish register as “at Dundas’s”.
The population of Llanelli at that time was around 2,000. Most of them were said to be miners and sailors.
“Llanelly is a small irregular town and contains an old seat of Sir John Stepney’s, which though deserted by the family, afforded habitation to numerous tenants, till the mischievous operation of the window-tax in driving them out, left it to moulder in decay. The high square embattled tower if its church is remarkable, in being much wider at the base than upwards, forming a sort of cone. This town, however, offering no objects to detain us, we proceeded without halting and in a few miles ride gained the summit of Pembree Hill.J.T. Barber’s tour throughout South Wales and Monmouthshire 180
‘The gentry of Llanelly have subscribed liberally for the formation of a promenade near the seaside, entirely for the accommodation of the many genteel families that annually visit that delightful spot, for which for salubrious air, and sea bathing, few places in the principality can equal.The Cambrian: 7th July 1804
The number of ships with their tonnage entered and cleared outwards at the port of Llanelli in the Midsummer Quarter last amounted to 328 vessels and 13,629 tonnes (paper reports arrivals and departures from French, Norwegian, North Wales Ireland – carrying wine brandy, 1827 – brig called the Bridgend of Pembroke, on passage from America to Llanelli with a cargo of timber.The Cambrian 12th July 1806
It would appear that Frances Wells died in childbirth in 1813. According to Arthur Mee’s book about the Llanelli Parish Church published in 1888 she was buried at the Parish Church
Two years later in 1815 John Wells re-married Margaret Roberts by special licence and they had another eight children, six of whom survived beyond infancy.
- Marian (1816-1894) went into service at Badminton House in Gloucestershire where she married John Penduck and had five children
- Margaret (1821-1842) died unmarried at age 21
- Anne (1824-1878)
- Edward (1829-1882)
- Richard (1832-1892) managed the fitting shop in the Wern Iron Works. He married Harriet Davies and had eleven children
- Jane (1834-1874)
Their step-sister Sarah moved to the London area and married William Wessell.
A few yellowing pages remain of the bible in which the Wells and Roberts families recorded births and deaths.
In later life John Wells appeared to work as a gardener on rented land and according to local directories possibly a publican.
According to newspaper reports of his death, Edward Wells was well known in Llanelli as he grew to just over three feet tall.
“Proofs of the surprisingly diminutive stature which Mr Wells was subsequently to attain began to manifest themselves at an early date, and we believe that caution had to be exercised on his behalf lest some enterprising itinerant showman kidnapped him. When he attained his full height he was a little over three feet. Yet his health was good and he retained full possession of his faculties. Mr Wells was a consistent member of the Church of England, worshipping at All Saints’. He was a brother-in-law of Mr David Guest of the firm Dewsberry and Guest, South Wales Potteries.” An interesting feature is that Mr Wells was 53 years of age when he died – an attack of bronchitis carried him off – which is a comparatively great age for a “midget” to attain.
According to my mother June:
Gilmour says he is the same man that he was told about, he called him Willy-bach-gas, who spent his days watching the gas company laying gas pipes in Llanelli and became the expert on their location. That was certainly not a story I had heard, as my informant on almost all points was my dear Gran, and she didn’t fail to tell me all details that she knew. She said he was intelligent, always well dressed and perfectly formed, but very small.
After John Wells’ death in 1850 his widow Margaret ran a lodging house which took in Staffordshire pottery workers including David Guest (1825-1892) who married her daughter Anne (1824-1878) and Thomas who married her youngest daughter Jane (1834-1874)
Tom and Jane Roberts had 11 children, seven of whom survived beyond infancy and worked in the Llanelly Pottery
- Annie (1856-1886) who married Ebenezer David Morgan and died a few weeks after the birth of her son Captain David Roberts-Morgan.
- Sarah Jane (1859-1935) Auntie Sal, main decorator of the cockerel plates now the best-known wares from the Pottery
- John Wells (1862-1932)
- Margaret (1864-1921) also a painter who married Cornelius Stackpole Anthony
- Elizabeth (1868-1940) Auntie Liz worked in the pottery from about 1888 until the early part of the twentieth century, hand painting designs which included roses and fruit. Apart from a crude L as a means of identification her work was not marked but her painting was said to be as good as, and sometimes better than that of Samuel Sufflebotham. Latterly her sister Sarah’s Jane’s cockerels became so famous that they got all the attention. Like Sarah Jane she became ill during the last part of her life and was nursed by her niece Annie Gwendoline Hawkins until her death in 1940.
- Mary (1873-?) Auntie Polly, who married pottery manager Gwilym David Thomas and had eight children
- Emma (1874-1944) who married William Hawkins and had one daughter Annie. William died in Iraq in the first world war
By 1873 the Roberts family seemed to have returned to Staffordshire. Jane died in 1874, four months after the birth of her daughter and Thomas returned to Llanelli, shortly before the closure of the Llanelly Pottery in 1875. At that time many Staffordshire potters were leaving Llanelli but he stayed and made a living selling produce from his garden.
When the Pottery re-opened two years later in 1877 John Wells Roberts initially followed his sisters into the business as a painter but by 1888 he had persuaded his father to let him run the garden as a business. The new market had opened in Llanelli in 1884 and he rented a shop at the Cowell Street entrance which was run by the family for more than 75 years, later by his surviving sons Frank (1904-1960) and Jack (1901-1955).
J.W. Roberts and Co sold flowers, fruit and vegetables. Some was sent down by train from Covent Garden market in London but much of it was grown at Swansea Road Nurseries, a piece of land first rented from the Stepney Estate in October 1888. The lease refers to the land as “Caefelin” (field of the mill) suggsting that historically there might have been a mill nearby. The family were known locally as Roberts the Florist. According to my mother, they grew the best tomatoes in town. Fruit from each plant would be tasted and piece of rag tied round the best which would be saved for seed. At busy times members of the family were pressed into service making wreaths, bouquets and buttonholes. My mother said that Frank and Jack’s wife Winnie were talented florists.
June Roberts wrote about her grandfather’s business when she was growing up in the 1930s:
“Although his father had sold produce from his garden when the pottery closed in the 1870s, it was intended that his son should also work in the pottery when it re-opened. But it was not the life for him and he persuaded his father to allow him to run the garden as a proper business
He rented a shop in the new market that was opened in 1884. The old market was a remarkable building, in two covered parts with restricted roads serving all the tenants and stall holders, One part was a butter market and farmers from all over the area would bring their produce there on market days. The other building had a high curved glass roof and to there came the small producers of fruit and vegetables, some of which would have been grown in back gardens. There were small shops and stalls selling every conceivable thing, small cafes, in fact it was a normal market.
There were four entrances fronting on Stepney Street, Market Street, Murray Street and Cowell Street, where we had our shop. Opposite was a very good fish shop, Albert Drew’s, where, as a child, I wondered at the pheasants hanging on the walls with the hares and rabbits – not that we ever tasted them! My father would never eat rabbit as their poor skinned bodies reminded him of babies! It was, of course, the golden age of the small shopkeeper and at Christmas time, for instance, all the shops would stay open long into the evening. I loved, in winter, to be down in the town after dark.
The lights were so bright, everywhere was bustling with life. I sometimes went, as a child, with Len, or Willie, (employed as gardeners or delivery men), to the Railway Station to fetch boxes of flowers sent from Covent Garden that morning. As we went across the Wern we passed through a tin plate or steel works. A little train crossed the road at that point. We could see the silhouettes of the men tending the furnaces, and the noise and light never frightened, but fascinated me”
The freehold of the nurseries was not bought until the 1950s by which time the Roberts family had greenhouses and two adjoining houses on the land. Frank lived in one and Jack in the other.
The shop and the nurseries closed after the death of Jack in 1955 and Frank in 1960. By that time Jack’s widow Winnie was living in the larger house with her mother-in-law Caroline. My grandmother was living in the adjoining house: my parents, my brother and I moved in with her after my grandfather’s death. Most of the land was sold to the council and the houses were demolished in the 1980s for the construction of the new A484 road from Llanelli to Swansea.
According to his great granddaughter June, Tom Roberts was portrayed by his grandchildren as a difficult man.
“Jane Wells had eleven children of whom six survived; she died young, at the age of forty. My great-grandfather re-married and was supposed to have said that he didn’t know why, as she hadn’t given him any more children. My father remembered the second wife as someone who was always working, so I suppose he had his money’s worth from her.
He died in November 1904. My father, who would have been ten at the time, refused to go to see him on his deathbed. It was probably the first time that the old man had expressed any desire to see his grandsons, as he used to chase them out of his garden and had never given them any reason to like him.
My father’s stories about him are all derogatory. He was, according to him, a very proud man who considered himself a cut above many of his contemporaries. When some friends of the local landowners were being shown round the pottery one of them tried to tip him a shilling – he scornfully looked at it and returned it, saying in his broad Staffordshire accent – “Ya tak it, tha needs it more than me”.
He is credited with having started a local tailor up in his quite considerable drapery business, when this poor boy, who had been apprenticed to him in the dipping shop, was late for work one morning. The old man shouted menacingly -“Whist bin?” and the boy fled home and refused to go back, so he was apprenticed to a tailor instead.
Great-grandfather was a very keen whist player and would play at the Liberal Club, but was choosy about with whom he played.
One evening he arrived there to be greeted by the unctuous steward who asked whether he would like to make up a table with some members waiting for a fourth. “Whose playing?” he said. The steward named names, and he said – What them? I’d rather have me arse rubbed with a brick!”
He had a beautiful garden, which, when the Pottery closed briefly before being bought by the Dewsberry/Guest partnership, supported him and his family. He would give his friends baskets of produce from it but would not allow his grandchildren to collect windfalls. When his only surviving son decided that he did not want to work in the pottery but would prefer to work in the market garden, he agreed, and would sometimes join them in his leisure hours and offer to help with the work, but a family saying stems from that time as he was more trouble than he was worth, taking off his coat and saying “Wheer’s fork?….Gie us a barrowload o’ muck”!”
Tom Roberts’ family history suggested a tough upbringing. One of six children, his father William had been one of the first Staffordshire potters to sign contracts with the Llanelly Pottery when it opened in 1841 but he died eight years later. The family story was they spent three days in the workhouse but no records survive.
June has written about her memories of her great aunts and cousins when she was growing up in Llanelli in the 1920s and 1930s.
Annie Roberts was 29 when married and died shortly after the birth of her son, David. I remember David Roberts Morgan, referred to as Dai in my father’s letters. He died shortly after the start of the second World War. I believe he was brought up by his aunts, or, if not, had very close ties with them. There is amongst the old photographs one of his fiancee/wife, called Nance, of whom everyone seemed very fond. She died. He was in the regular army before the first World War, in the ranks, but by the time I knew him he was a Captain and had served in India. Annie Anfield was very fond of him and kept up a connection with his second wife and child after his death, but the impression I had was that the family did not approve of her. I remember seeing her and even though I was quite young I was impressed by her make-up, her fancy clothes. Her son, David Derek Roberts Morgan she supposed to look like Fred Astaire and destined for stardom, and he went to dancing classes in preparation.
Next born was Sarah Jane. She, of course, was the Auntie Sal of the cockerel plates. I do remember her and remember her dying. Annie Hawkins nursed her until her death, as she did for her mother and Auntie Liz. What illness they had I was never told, they all seemed to get smaller and thinner until they faded away. During the first World War Auntie Sal used to bully all the retailers in Llanelly to sell her cigarettes (in very short supply) for her nephews at the Front. After the Pottery closed she used to work in our shop at the Market entrance.
Next surviving child was my grandfather, John Wells Roberts. My grandfather does not seem to have taken after his father as he was a soft spoken, thinking man. He was one of the first members in Llanelli of the Labour Party and a follower of Keir Hardy.
He was also an atheist, although he did not force his views on his family, in fact he sent his sons Tom and Frank to Sunday School at Greenfield Chapel (I cannot fathom why it should be there, as I don’t think the family were Baptists). At any rate, the boys found that they could go into the school, pay in their savings to the school bank, slip out again through the back door, and then spend their afternoons on the beach. Inevitably the Sunday School superintendent found out and went to see my grandfather with the sad tale, only to be told, in no uncertain terms, that if he couldn’t make the lessons interesting enough to keep them there, their father would not enforce their attendance. He and my father, however, both believed that Christianity was the best moral teaching to be had.
Although his political views never changed, from the 1920’s, he refused to associate with the local Labour Party, as when they got into power in Local Government, he was disgusted at the corruption he witnessed.
He met my grandmother in Stepney Street. It was the custom of the young ladies and gentlemen to parade up and down there on a Sunday afternoon, presumably eyeing the talent. On this particular day it started to rain and she was offered the protection of his umbrella. This led to their marriage. She seemed to have shared much of his interest in politics and would insist on all the women in the family voting, as a vote was such a privilege. They both loved entertaining and filled the house with family and friends on all suitable occasions.
At Christmas time, in particular, although I was only five when he died, I remember going next door in the morning for a special breakfast of cold meats, and other special things. After Christmas dinner, in the afternoon, all the aunts and uncles, who I think were also there all day, would sit around the table in the Big Room and play Tippet, Newmarket, Strip-Jack-naked, Old Maid and other games. After an enormous tea, Charades. It was the one day of the year that I was allowed to stay up as long as I wished, and that last time I even saw them clear away the furniture for dancing – not the modern dance but country dancing. The next day we would all go to Auntie Liz for tea. Noone told me when Grandpa died but I still remember my shock and grief to find that the reason I had spent the day with a favourite courtesy Aunt of mine was because it was the day of the funeral. After his death, our whole way of life changed.
Margaret Roberts had died before I was born, but I remember her spoken of as “Auntie Mag.” She married “Uncle Con” and lived in Swansea. After her death he moved to Llanelli and lived with his niece in Bradford Street.
Elizabeth Roberts, on the other hand, I remember with great affection and was very upset when she died. She lived in the second house in Bryntirion Terrace and was married to “Uncle Jack Thomas” who was also a very great favourite of mine. He worked as a gardener in the Nurseries but died when I was quite small. I used to spend a lot of time with him and one of my memories is of showing him a new doll which he suggested I called Emmy Safora. My mother disposed, eventually, of the remains of this doll which had become very battered and dirty, but she always denied that she had done the dirty deed. I never forgave her. Auntie Liz and Uncle Jack had one son, Hubert, who was virtually brought up with my father and Uncle Tom. He, too, joined the army in 1914 and was killed. Auntie Liz worked in the Pottery, as has been mentioned earlier, but no one at home seemed to make much fuss about her work, although according to Dilys Jenkins she was a talented painter. This, I suppose, was because Auntie Sal’s cockerels were so famous, and got all the attention.
Mary Roberts was Auntie Polly to me. She married Gwilym Thomas who, at first, worked in the Pottery (as mentioned before), and afterwards started a brickworks. They had one son and six daughters, Arthur, Winnie, Norah, Jean, Hilda (known as Daisy as a child), Grace and another daughter who died in childbirth. This last, whose name I can’t remember, had two sons who were brought up by their aunts – their names are Michael and Robert Williams.
Winnie was a school mistress. She, I’m sure, used to choose my Christmas present from all of them as it was always a very good book – like “Alice in Wonderland” or “The Wind in the Willows” – and not the usual annual which I used to get from other people.
One of my favourites was Auntie Grace, who married a man called Gwyn Knight who at one time had a green-grocers shop in New Dock Road. They were childless and she was widowed quite young. Afterwards she kept an underwear shop in West End. She was always full of fun and my mother preferred her to all the others in the family. Unfortunately she developed Alzheimer’s Disease and died at a comparatively young age.
Auntie Daisy hated to be called that and in the end the only one who continued to use her nickname was my father who would say “You’ll never be anything but Daisy to me!” She went nursing to London and during the second World war served as a nursing sister in the army, as she had been a Territorial nurse. She told me that the only reason she had joined the T.A. was because she was paid a small fee, and never expected to be called up in a war! After the war she was a sister at the Royal Masonic Hospital. She once told me that the only place to eat an orange was in the bath, which was what she always did.
When she retired she came back to Llanelli but had her own home and did not live with her sisters in Old Road. I met her a few times in town when I was with my second husband David and they got on famously, as they had both been in the desert at the same time and he might even have been in her hospital.
She and her cousin Annie (Hawkins, Anfield) did not get on at all and she told me that this stemmed from their youth, as Annie had wanted to go nursing and had been stopped from doing so by her mother, Auntie Em, who instilled in her that she had to stay at home as a companion to her widowed mother.
Emma Roberts was the youngest child. Her husband, Will, died during the first World War. She had one daughter, Annie, whom she would not allow out of her sight, as far as I could see. I remember Annie escaping and coming down to the workroom in the nurseries for a chat. Inevitably, close on her heels would come Auntie Em, demanding her immediate return.
They lived next door to Auntie Liz in Bryntirion Terrace and was yet another of the adults that played such a large part in my childhood. There was always a lot of traffic between all the family houses and I used to pass from one house to the other as the fancy took me! Later I would spend even more time in her house as Annie gave music lessons and my parents decided, in their wisdom, that it would not be fair for me to have piano lessons with anyone but her.