Perhaps the grimmest legacy of Llandeilo Fawr Poor Law Guardians was the workhouse they built in Ffairfach in 1836 and ran until the abolition of the workhouse system in 1930. But the Poor Law Guardians had many more duties other than to run their local workhouse and were also empowered to dispense poor relief to claimants in their jurisdiction, which at that time incorporated the nearby Amman valley. Until the Labour government elected in 1945 created today's modern welfare state, including social security, the local Boards of Guardians undertook these functions, though with far greater discretionary powers at their disposal.

In the 1890s and early 1900s an outbreak of rabies in the Amman valley resulted in several victims being sent to Paris for treatment at the famous Louis Pasteur Institute, with Llandeilo Fawr Board of Guardians contributing towards the costs. The Pasteur Institute was the only place in the world then able to successfully treat rabies. Louis Pasteur was one of the great medical pioneers of the nineteenth century, responsible for identifying bacteria as the cause of many diseases and developing cures for some of them, including rabies. He has even given his name to the modern practice of sterilizing milk by heating it to kill potentially harmful bacteria – pasteurization. The disease of rabies has a place in the popular imagination not accorded to other diseases. Why this should be is not clear, for the disease is very rare, at least in an island nation like Great Britain which has had strict animal quarantine laws for most of the twentieth century. Rabies can only be transmitted by bites from a very small number of mammal species, few of which are found in the British Isles: it is not transmitted by humans to other humans. As an American website says of rabies:

Animals considered to be at highest risk of transmitting rabies to humans include bats, skunks, foxes, raccoons, and coyotes. Domestic dogs and cats can also transmit rabies they have acquired from wildlife, but pets are rarely found rabid. Reptiles and birds never get rabies. Theoretically, rats, mice, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, etc. can transmit rabies, but bites from these animals are not considered a rabies risk at this time. [Rabies website]
Subtract the skunks, raccoons, coyotes and chipmunks from this list, which are not found outside the Americas, and the risk to us Europeans is even less. Perhaps it's because the rabies virus attacks the central nervous system that our fears become out of all proportion to the rarity of the disease:
Rabies in humans is very similar to that in animals. The first sign in humans often consists of a general feeling of apprehension and itching or tingling at the site of the bite. Other signs of rabies in humans include headache, weakness, paralysis, and death. Because swallowing is often impossible due to paralysis of the throat muscles, humans with rabies often show extreme agitation and panic when offered water to drink. This is the origin of the term, hydrophobia (Greek for fear of water). [Rabies website]

Until the twentieth century rabies, once contracted, was incurable, which would have added to its fearsome reputation. And if the symptoms are not treated immediately, rabies is still always fatal, even today. With symptoms that include frothing at the mouth and extreme agitation than can seem like madness, before death inevitably sets in, it's no wonder that panic would often spread throughout a locality at the news of an outbreak. The response of members of the public was sometimes shocking, too, for there are well-attested stories of rabies victims being smothered to death for fear of what they might do to other humans. To such a story we shall now turn.

There were several hydrophobia scares in Carmarthenshire in the late 1890s and early 1900s, especially in the Pontarddulais and Amman valley areas. When three Garnant men were bitten by a rabid dog around 1899, money was provided by the Llandeilo Fawr Board of Guardians to send them to the Pasteur Institute and they returned home a few weeks later. Children of the Reverend Dr. Lloyd Morgan of Hope chapel, Pontarddulais were also sent to the Institute, as well as a group of children from Brynamman. One of the Garnant men bitten, Thomas Bowen, was taken ill about two years after having been treated at the Pasteur Institute and, according to local lore, he was smothered between two mattresses in Garnant by Dr. Hywel Rees of Tirbach, who supposedly obtained some 'certificate' of sorts from the Home Office. Not such a bizarre story, when one realizes that hydrophobia is such a terrifying disease. At one point, the local newspaper related: “ Mr Bowen was, to use the Doctor's words, ‘raving mad'. He became terribly violent and at times it required the united exertions of six men to hold him.” (Carmarthen Journal, 6th June 1902). According to the story, Thomas Bowen was smothered in Nant Maen in Garnant and there are umpteen references to smothering hydrophobic patients in the nineteenth century periodical press. Then, as now, this was illegal, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the authorities not only knew what was going on but were even complicit in it.

Hen Bethel Chapel, Garnant, built in 1773. Thomas Bowen is buried unde the yew tree behind the chapel.

Thomas Bowen died on 28th May 1902, aged 63, and was buried beneath the huge yew tree in front of Hen Bethel Chapel in Garnant, a lonely and peaceful spot overlooking the Amman valley from the foothills of the Black Mountain. Seldom can the phrase ‘rest in peace' have such resonance. By trade he was a carpenter and also the village's part-time undertaker and many of the 900 graves in Hen Bethel contain coffins made by Thomas Bowen.

Another of the men who was bitten by the same rabid dog and survived was Evan Jones of Garnant, who lived to a ripe old age and was well known in the area by the nickname 'Ianto Paris'! As we shall see below, the report of Thomas Bowen's death in the local press dwells quite a lot on the nature of his illness, and his strange, violent and dangerous behaviour during his last days. It also refers to the 'tragic circumstances' of his death, but without actually mentioning the alleged nature of his end. The proceedings of the Llandilo Fawr Board of Guardians as they deliberated the matter of grants for travel to Paris were reported in the Carmarthen Journal at the time. The newspaper doesn't mention anything about the victim being smothered to death, but then they probably wouldn't have known. Here is what Dr. Huw Walters of the National Library of Wales, and the leading historian of the Amman valley, says:

The 'suffocation' story is local lore - whether true or not, I don't know, but there are several accounts of the suffocation of hydrophobia sufferers in the nineteenth century periodical press. You wouldn't really expect to find it mentioned in the newspaper account – imagine the panic it would cause, at a time when rabid dogs were not uncommon, even in Cymru fach!
(Dr. Huw Walters, National Library of Wales. E-mail dated 15 Mar 2006.)

Here are the entries printed in the Carmarthen Journal about the rabies outbreak in the Amman valley.


Carmarthen Journal - September 7th 1900

Llandilo Board of Guardians: The Clerk said he had received a letter from Dr. H. Rees, Cwmaman, stating that two workingmen's boys were bitten in Cwmaman on August 9 by what is now apparently a mad dog. The children, whose names were Thomas Bowen and Evan Jones, should be sent immediately for treatment to the Pasteur Institute, Paris. Dr. Rees was prepared to accompany the two boys to Paris if the Guardians had the power to send them and pay the expenses. A second letter received from Dr. Rees stated that the two persons bitten in Cwmaman had left that place with the mother of the little boy on Wednesday, and duly arrived in Paris. A collection was made in the district on Monday which met with a generous response. It was hoped that the Guardians would pay the balance of the cost which would probably amount to some £15 or £20. The inhabitants of the district had done their best to get the patients sent away. After the boys had been bitten the police went there at once and reported, but nobody came for seven days, and it was then found too late to make a proper examination. Mr Samuel Callard believed that the gentleman who had been concerned in the matter could not have done better than send the patients for treatment at once, as the question was chiefly one of expediency. He believed it was the duty of the Guardians to give assistance. Mr James Rees proposed that the balance of the costs be paid by the Guardians, provided it did not exceed £20. This was carried.

Llandilo Board of Guardians: “Another Case”. Dr. J W Lewis, Medical Officer of Health for the Brynaman District, wrote a letter calling the notice of the Guardians to the case of George Griffiths, Aman View, Brynaman, who was on 2 August bitten by a dog which was in all probability, mad. It could not, however, be definitely proved that the dog was rabid, as it would take him time to make an examination. The patient was not in a position to bear the whole expense of the treatment at the Pasteur Institute. Dr. J W Lewis said it had not been proved that the dog was mad but from all appearances it was so. In any case the benefit of doubt should be given. The patient was going to be sent as soon as possible to Paris for treatment. Mr Lewis proposed that £10 be paid towards paying the expenses and this motion was carried.

Carmarthen Journal – 21st September 1900

Llandilo Board of Guardians: Dr. James W Lewis wrote to say (referring to the boy Griffiths who had been bitten by a dog and ordered to go to Paris for treatment) that a little girl had also been bitten, and it had also been decided to send her to Paris. As she was only four years old, it was necessary for her mother to go with her. It was resolved that £10 should be allowed the girl provided the Local Government Board consented.

Carmarthen Journal – October 10th 1900

Llandilo Board of Guardians: The following letter received from Dr. H Rees: I have the pleasure to inform you that out of the £20 granted by the Llandilo Guardians towards the expense of the two patients bitten at Cwmaman by a mad dog in August, to Paris and back, I shall only require payment of £9.12.2, as you will see from the enclosed accounts. [The accounts show the public subscription of £19.3.10 at Cwmaman which brought the amount up to £28. 16s, which was the total expense of the trip.] Dr. Rees added: I regret to say that two more persons have been bitten this week at Garnant by a dog showing symptoms of rabies. I had its head sent off to London immediately for examination and pending the arrival of the report I would ask the Guardians to be kind enough to grant the patients £10 each to send them to Paris before the Guardians again meet. The motion was carried.

Carmarthen Journal – 2nd November 1900

Llandilo Board of Guardians: Dr. James W Lewis, Brynaman, wrote to say that the total amount expended in sending George Griffiths and Katie Morris to Paris (with the latter's mother as attendant) was £25.2.11. Nothing had been subscribed locally but the amount expended over the £20 subscribed by the Board would be collected.

Carmarthen Journal – 6th June 1902

“Death from Hydrophobia” : A painful sensation has been created in the populous Aman Valley by the death, under circumstances of the more distressing character, of Mr Thomas Bowen, Nant Maen, Garnant. Mr Bowen, who was one of the best-known men in the district, was bitten by a fox terrier as far back as August 1900. The bite made two cuts in his left hand and Dr. Rowlands being called in, the cuts were cauterised.

At that time there was a hydrophobia scare in the county and the case then came under notice of Dr. Howell Rees, who stated and found with the object of sending Mr Bowen to the Pasteur Institute, Paris, for treatment.

A hearty response was made with the result that Mr Bowen was treated for 19 days at the Institute. He returned home in perfect health and the incident quickly passed from mind.

On Monday week Mr Bowen complained of pain in the left arm and attended Dr. Rowland's surgery the following day. He supplied his patient with some soothing medicine but it appeared the poor fellow was unable to take it, owing to a difficulty in swallowing. On Tuesday afternoon Mr Bowen walked to Glangarnant to consult Dr. Rees. Upon examining the man Dr. Rees made the discovery that he was suffering from hydrophobia in its acutest form. He immediately ordered the man to bed, and some hours later, Mr Bowen was, to use the Doctor's words, “raving mad”.

He became terribly violent and at times it required the united exertions of six men to hold him. With every hour, however, he became weaker, and on Wednesday night at about 8.30, death put a painful end to his terrible sufferings.

The funeral on Saturday afternoon was largely attended. The sensation caused by the terrible nature of his death, and the fact of his being well known in the valley generally, brought together a great concourse of people. The body was taken from Bryn Howell, Garnant, the residence of this man, and buried at Old Bethel.

The incident of Bowen's death has caused great interest in the valley. It seems now without doubt, that the terrible disease had been gradually coming on, for the deceased would, of late, complain of pain in his head, and later in his arm. On the Tuesday evening preceding his death, while on his way to Dr. Rees's surgery, Garnant, he had an unusually strange look and to those enquiring after his health, he would reply in an impatient and irritable manner. When Dr. Rees saw him the symptoms had developed that he had no hesitation in diagnosing the disease. Much sympathy felt for the father, Mr Howell Bowen, 89 years old, who was unable to attend the funeral.

Acknowledgment: much of the above material, including the articles from the Carmarthen Journal, have keen kindly supplied by Dr. Huw Walters of the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.


Without intending to alarm anyone about a disease that has been eradicated in the British Isles, here is the advice given by an American website to citizens of a continental country not having the geographic protection of an island nation like the United Kingdom. It indicates all too vividly the fears that must have been aroused in the Amman valley back in 1902, and may go some way to explaining the extreme response towards poor Thomas Bowen, even if it doesn't excuse it.

What is rabies?

Rabies is a viral disease that infects the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) of mammals. It is invariably fatal.

How is rabies transmitted?

Rabies is usually transmitted by the bite of a rabid animal. The virus multiplies at the site of the bite and after a few days moves up the nerves to the brain. After reaching the brain, the rabies virus moves to the salivary gland. The presence of rabies virus in saliva enables the virus to infect another animal or person. Rabies virus usually produces behavioural changes in animals that make them more disposed to bite.

This facilitates transmission to another animal. Rabies can also be transmitted when infected saliva comes in contact with an open wound, the eye, or the mouth. There have been occasional transmission between humans through cornea or organ transplants. A scratch from a rabid animal could transmit the disease because there might be virus on its nails. Petting a rabid animal has never been shown to transmit rabies to humans.

Which animals can transmit rabies?

Animals considered to be at highest risk of transmitting rabies to humans include bats, skunks, foxes, raccoons, and coyotes. Dogs and cats can also transmit rabies that they have acquired from wildlife, but pets are rarely found rabid. Reptiles and birds never get rabies. Theoretically, rats, mice, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, etc. can transmit rabies, but bites from these animals are not considered a rabies risk at this time. Your local health department can help you evaluate the risk of rabies following an animal bite.

Until the early 1960's, most of the rabies cases were dogs, cats, and animals bitten by dogs and cats. After pet vaccination increased and animal control programs were established, dog and cat rabies decreased rapidly. From the 1960s to 1988 skunks were the most commonly found rabid animals in parts of the USA. After 1988 bats became the most common rabid animal.

What are the symptoms of rabies in animals?

One of the first signs of rabies in an animal is a change in behaviour. A usually calm animal may become aggressive or a very active animal may seem depressed. Rabid wild animals can lose their fear of humans, and nocturnal animals might be seen during daylight hours.

In addition to changed behaviour, rabid animals can exhibit furious and/or paralytic ("dumb") rabies. Animals with furious rabies are aggressive and may attack other animals and even inanimate objects. The furious stage does not occur in all rabid animals. An animal with paralytic rabies seems uncoordinated and weak and has a "dull" or "vacant" expression. Weakness eventually leads to paralysis and death. In some rabid animals, paralysis of the muscles used for swallowing causes saliva to accumulate with possible drooling and foaming. In all cases, death is due to respiratory paralysis.

What are the symptoms of rabies in humans?

Rabies in humans is very similar to that in animals. The first sign in humans often consists of a general feeling of apprehension and itching or tingling at the site of the bite. Other signs of rabies in humans include headache, weakness, paralysis, and death. Because swallowing is often impossible due to paralysis of the throat muscles, humans with rabies often show extreme agitation and panic when offered water to drink. This is the origin of the term, hydrophobia (Greek for fear of water).

Can rabies be cured?

Once symptoms appear in humans, rabies cannot be cured. There have been only a few human rabies survivors, and almost all suffered permanent neurological damage. Rabies can be prevented, however, after the bite of a rabid animal but before symptoms develop.

Can rabies exposure be prevented?

You can avoid being exposed to rabies by doing the following:

  • don't attempt to pet animals unknown to you
  • don't approach animals that are sleeping, injured, eating or caring for young
  • avoid contact with wild animals; enjoy them from a distance
  • exclude wildlife access to your house, garage, etc.
  • don't leave pet food out where it will attract wildlife
  • keep garbage containers closed and secure
  • HAVE YOUR PETS VACCINATED AGAINST RABIES – a vaccinated pet is a barrier between you and rabid wildlife

Can rabies disease be prevented?

Rabies can be prevented in two different ways. Members of high-risk groups (veterinarians, animal control personnel, wildlife rehabilitators, etc.) can be vaccinated ahead of time. This is called pre-exposure prophylaxis. Members of the public do not need pre-exposure prophylaxis.

The second way rabies can be prevented is by vaccination after an exposure has occurred (post-exposure prophylaxis). It consists of one shot of immune serum given the first day of treatment and 5 shots of vaccine given over a period of one month. The serum is infiltrated around the wound, and the vaccine is given in the arm. Post-exposure prophylaxis, when given properly, has been extremely effective in preventing rabies in humans bitten by known rabid animals.

What should I do if an animal bites me?

If an animal bites you, there are a few simple steps you can take:

  • Wash the wound with lots of soap and running water.
  • Go to a physician or emergency room immediately if the bite is severe or bleeding.
  • In any case, notify your doctor or hospital that an animal bit you.
  • Make sure that you are up to date on your tetanus vaccination.
  • Take antibiotics if your physician prescribes them.
  • If possible and without causing further injury, try to identify or capture the biting animal.
  • Notify your county health department or animal control agency. The biting animal might need to be observed or tested to make sure that you were not exposed to rabies. If the biting animal is a dog, cat or ferret, it can be observed for 10 days after the bite. If it is not ill after that time, you were not exposed to rabies. Alternatively, dogs, cats and ferrets can be euthanized and tested immediately. High-risk wild animals should be killed and tested immediately. For other exposures, consult your local health department.

Date this page last updated: October 1, 2010