The Leonardo of Llandeilo
Thomas Jenkins (18131870)
by Byron Rogers
The Leonardo of Llandeilo
The only known portait of Thomas Jenkins, aged 33
Thomas Jenkins (18131870) was a man of many talents: cabinet maker, carpenter, undertaker, artificial-leg maker, violin maker, musician, engineer, bridge builder, inventor, astronomer and amateur scientist being just some of them. We know all this because of a diary this remarkable man kept for over forty years from the age of thirteen, and which has since become one of the best sources of life in 19th century Llandeilo and the nearby Amman Vallefy. Until its initial publication in 1976 the diary was kept in the archives of the National Library of Wales in Aberytwyth, where it lay in relative obscurity, scrutinised only by historians, antiquarians and other avoiders of natural light. Originally from Tycroes, near Ammanford, Thomas Jenkins and his family eventually moved to Llandeilo where he commenced writing his diary in 1826. The editor's foreword to the published diary begins with an intriguing overview of his life and his many accomplishments:
"Thomas Jenkins was born at Tycroes, in the parish of Llanedy, Carmarthenshire in May 1813. His grandfather had been curate of Llandeilo-fawr and vicar of Meidrim and Brechfa. His father also was a man of learning but his financial disasters perhaps caused his son to take up a practical occupation - cabinet making. In 1826, puzzled, startled, and quite frightened by a supernatural event, Thomas started keeping a diary in which he wrote until a few months before his death. Thomas' family moved to Carmarthen and later back to Llandeilo where Thomas' father had been born ...
....His diary was written in two hard-covered exercise books. The first, which takes us to the end of 1854 is written with interest and care and contains most of his sightseeing trips. The second concerned itself more with his mounting family and business commitments. All are absolutely fascinating, with names of local people, events and places being recorded for posterity and our enjoyment. The diary ends in December 1870 and the following October Thomas Jenkins died, secure in the knowledge that his family would have the £200 life insurance policy whose payments he had faithfully recorded. Thomas was buried in the upper parish churchyard of the town that he had served so faithfully." (The Diary of Thomas Jenkins of Llandeilo; edited by D. C. Jenkins; Dragon Books; Bala, North Wales; 1986.)
In addition to extensive diary extracts which can be found in the 'History' section of this website, we include the following short essay on Thomas Jenkins by Welsh-born journalist and biographer, Byron Rogers, originally published in The Bank Manager and the Holy Grail: Travels to the Weirder Reaches of Wales, by Aurum Press, 2003. Then follows the introduction to the diaries by the editor D C jenkins, who is Thomas jenkins grandson.
The Leonardo of Llandeilo
2. The Leonardo of Llandeilo
by Byron Rogers
It is December 1858, and in west Wales the small town of Llandeilo is preparing to celebrate the return of Lord Dynevor, its greatest landowner. Thomas Jenkins, the town carpenter, has been put in charge of the entertainment, in particular of the fireworks. In his diary he records a busy week.
....December 3: Made 30 torches. Labour and materials, 15/9.
....December 6: Lord Dynevor and family arrived at 6pm. Town illuminated. Made 20 fireballs ...
....December 7: Dynevor Castle caught fire at 8pm ...
....There are no comments, no expression of surprise. It could be Oliver Hardy writing, for nothing is beyond the poise of a great comic figure. But unlike Ollie, Mr Jenkins kept a diary.
....There are three tombs in the north-west corner of the churchyard in Llandeilo, a town so dominated by death that its main road had to be cut through the graves. The three are not hard to find, for they stand in line.
....Here Thomas Jenkins is buried, also his two wives, his children and their children. But it is a single job description that stops you in your tracks. 'Sacred to the memory of Thomas Jenkins of this town, Carpenter and Diarist, 1813-1871.' What follows is a quest for a remarkable man.
....For in addition to being a carpenter and a diarist, Jenkins was an architect, astronomer, antiquary, musician, inventor of a cast-iron passenger-carrying tricycle, scientist, caver and undertaker. This man could make boats, violins, artificial legs, wax figures for the Great Exhibition of 1851, also coffins.
....There were many coffins; so many that in the graveyard on the hill Thomas Jenkins must be surrounded by his craft. In the middle of the nineteenth century Renaissance Man was alive and well and living in Llandeilo, only Renaissance Man was a member of the working class.
....Where do you look for him 150 years on?
....It is a wild morning, and I am standing on Llandeilo Bridge with Lynn Hughes. This bridge is a work of art, completed in 1848, the largest and finest single-span bridge in the country.
....'Jenkins built the pumps to divert the river,' says Hughes. He bought the timber, the iron and the stone. For a guinea a week he built the centre form-work for the arch and he invented an engine to test its strength. Yet you won't find his name on any commemorative plaque - he was just a working man from the town.
....'But I am old enough to have met men for whom his exploits were a living memory, who had been told about them by their fathers. You could say I grew up with Thomas Jenkins.'
....Old men would point out his work: the elegant inn signs and basrelie on the walls, like those outside the Castle Hotel; the Doric columns that support the porches, for Jenkins loved columns. Many of these have gone, but even now, walking through the town, you come on puzzling features, such as the extraordinary grandeur of the frontage to a takeaway Indian restaurant.
....'That's probably him,' says Hughes. 'And see that sign over the alley opposite, on that wooden arch? That speaks of Jenkins to me.'
....The sign reads 'Public Hall & Literary Institute', the lettering still visible with its elaborate twirls and scrolls. Up that alley there met the Llandeilo Mechanics' Mutual Instructing Institution, which Jenkins founded in 1843. This is the man who passed into local folklore.
....The private man only emerged in 1976 with the publication of his diary, later republished by the National Library of Wales. That took some nerve on the part of his family, for the diary records a fascination for life so complete that Jenkins even noted the occasions when he had sexual intercourse, usually with his maids, two of whom he was obliged to marry as a result. Like Pepys, he resorted to code, and was laconic when he recorded being ordered to pay one shilling and six-pence a week towards another illegitimate child. Yet suddenly in the midst of these one-line entries there occurs one of the great deathbed scenes in Victorian writing, as Jenkins records, hour by hour, the death of his great love, Sarah Davies. She was twenty-one years old.
....But the main impression is of one man walking. We forget just how much our ancestors walked before the railways came; they had to, on account of the stagecoach fares. In 1838 Jenkins earned 12 shillings a week but it would have cost him 2 shillings to make a 30-mile return journey by coach. And not only did our ancestors walk, they were prepared to turn night into day to do so.
....'May 3, 1836. Left Carmarthen for Haverford West at 15 minutes past 1 a.m. Got to Narberth at 8 a.m. and Haverford West at 12 noon...'
....There followed a day of sightseeing with his uncle, this after walking 29 miles in less than eleven hours. The following day he returned, 'feet sore, the weather being warm'. It was not just the men who walked. At one point, Jenkins records that his wife left Llandeilo to walk to Carmarthen at 4 a.m., though she was pregnant at the time.
....And even at the slow pace of the old world there were traffic accidents, such as a horse taking fright in Bridge Street, Llandeilo, and plunging over the parapet, killing two passengers in a carriage. So you can share Jenkins's wonder at the arrival of the railway. He walked to Swansea, took a ship to Bristol and there got on a train for the first time. His comment is to the point: 20 minutes - 12 miles.'
....On 21 December 1849 he is almost as brief. 'Made a homomotive carriage with three wheels.'
....No plan survives and Jenkins does not describe how it works, this man-powered carriage, but on the following day there is this: 'Left for Carmarthen in the carriage at 5 p.m. Arrived 7.30.'
....'For him to average 6mph means that on the flat or downhill he must have been touching 15 to 20 mph,' said Lynn Hughes. 'All this in a thing made of cast iron. He must have had some kind of belt drive and pedals.
....But what I find so in amazing is that when he set out to make something, it rarely took him longer than a day. 'Made a blast fan.' 'Made a turnip cutter to my own plan.' 'Made two hand pumps, also horse pump.' 'Made an air furnace.' 'Made a circular saw.'
....Then there were the local caves, into which he ventured prepared for anything. 'I took a pistol and Peter brought his clarinet.' But at Llygad Llwchwr, near Carreg Cennen Castle, he was alarmed enough to bring a ball of twine, which he attached to a stalactite in case they got lost among the side passages, when they went 567 feet underground. The fascinating thing is that he and his friends chose to enter at 8 p.m., and then emerged at 1 a.m. Our ancestors had a strange sense of time. On another occasion he hit a stalactite with a hammer. It made, he recorded, as fine and loud a noise as any bell in Llandeilo steeple.
....The old world intrudes from time to time. He takes the 6 a.m. coach and records: 'A tremendous storm of hail and sleet blowing in my face' - so he must have been on the roof, where the fares were cheaper. He meets the famous wizard, Henry Harris, but records only: 'He is in a decline, can't live many weeks.'
....'1835. Went to Carmarthen Fair. Saw a giantess, a Hottentot woman, a flaxen-haired negro, two serpents, a crocodile, alligator, porcupine, American sea serpent, boa constrictor etc. Saw a woman raise 300lbs by her hair.' It is the old poise that did not desert him, even when castles were burning.
....He was in love once: a widower with four small children when he met Sarah Davies. He was in his late thirties, she was twenty, and theirs was a formal courtship. They wrote each other many letters, each one of which he notes, for they must have meant a great deal, as did their encounters. 'Took tea with Miss Davies.'
....Sarah Davies came from Aberdauddwr on the B4337 north of Llandeilo, not far past Edwinsford, where the little bridge he built still stands. It was here that he came to her deathbed. She died a few weeks after her twenty-first birthday, in such a state of religious ecstasy that she saw Heaven opening. Jenkins made notes. 'She said: "The sun is setting, ... but it will soon be light again," offering up a short prayer and singing several scraps of hymns. She desired that should be buried at Bethel, near the brook in which she had been baptised at 12. She requested that I should make her coffin and design her headstone ...' And all this was done.
....The chapel is two miles from the village of Farmers. You see the brook first, then the stone groove into which a wooden dam was inserted to make the water deep enough for baptism. Above this, on a hill, is the chapel. Her grave is not hard to find, being one of a matching pair made of slate set into an elaborate limestone frame, both cut by Jenkins, who did make her coffin, and then placed an account of her death in a stone jar.
....It is quiet there, as it must have been when he returned to spread flowers on her grave. All you will hear is the sound of water, just as he heard it, this remarkable man of whom just one crumpled portrait survives. A long, abstracted face stares out of the past.
[Byron Rogers, The Bank Manager and the Holy Grail: Travels to the weirder reaches of Wales, Aurum Press, 2003. Reproduced by the kind permission of the author.]
There are extensive extracts of the diary in the 'History' section of this website, or click HERE. Click the 'Back' button at the top-left of your browser to get back to this page.
Note on Byron Rogers
Byron Rogers, a Welshman from Carmarthen who emigrated to England, has filled a good few column inches with characters and places that have passed his way as a journalist and biographer. Brought together in several collections, they make an impressive body of work. Consistently the funniest and most unusual journalist writing today, he is a historian of the quirky and forgotten, of people and places other journalists don't even know exist or ignore if they do.
He writes for the Sunday Telegraph, Guardian and Saga magazine and was once speech writer for the Prince of Wales, but in recent years has researched and written five books. The first three were: An Audience with an Elephant and other encounters on the eccentric side (2001); The Green Lane to Nowhere: The Life of an English Village (2002); and The Bank Manager and the Holy Grail: travels to the weirder reaches of Wales (2003). His biography of J. L. Carr, The Last Englishman, came out in paperback in 2003. Carr, novelist, artist and schoolmaster, is perhaps best known for his novel, A Month in the Country, which was made into a successful film in 1987. Byron Rogers' latest collection of journalism is The Last Human Cannonball and other small journeys in search of great men (2004). Just the titles of these books are pretty good clues what to expect once you start turning their pages. His biography of Welsh poet and Nobel nominee R. S. Thomas, The Man Who Went into the West, was published in 2006.
The Leonardo of Llandeilo
3. Thomas Jenkins, Diarist
(Forward to the Collected Diaries, 1826-1870)
Thomas Jenkins was born at Tycroes, in the parish of Llanedy, Carmarthenshire in May 1813. His grandfather had been Curate of Llandeilo-fawr and Vicar of Meidrim and Brechfa, and his father appears to have been a person of some learning, with at least one volume of verse published, including his own translations from the French.
....With this background of better-than-average learning it is somewhat surprising that Thomas Jenkins should have taken up cabinet-making as a career, but his father's recurring financial crises may have been the reason for this.
....In 1826, puzzled, possibly startled, by an event which he could not explain Thomas started keeping a diary. The explanation of the happening may be quite simple, but we should be grateful for the result.
....Like many poets who are dreamers and idealists his father's practical vein was not well developed. Affairs deteriorated, the small-holding was sold and the widower and his two children moved to Carmarthen where the father had lived before. From there Thomas moved to, and settled in, Liandeilo, where his father had been born.
....Locally, the town was emerging from its medieval shape and was assuming its present form. A broad road had been driven through the great churchyard and would connect with the new bridge. The New Road was new, and was another breakaway from the old single thoroughfare through the town.
....Nationally, the Industrial Revolution was gaining impetus and Thomas was determined to miss nothing. He travelled to Bristol and saw the Clifton suspension bridge under construction and the steamship 'Great Britain' building. On foot to Pembroke Dock to see the warships and dockyard. He visited foundries and coalmines. At Queenstown he saw the ships carrying the new telegraph cable which would span the Atlantic. There were large balloons being inflated, the Channel Fleet to see and more iron works and buildings. He noted tonnages, widths and heights, cubic capacities, temperatures and volumes.
....In 1843, excited by the growth of science he, with another, founded the Liandeilo Mechanics' Mutual Instructing Institution which met in his house, and of which he was librarian and frequent lecturer, his lecturing no doubt aided by his subscription to the 'Magazine of Science' published in monthly parts.
....In his lifetime he built boats, made violins and taught himself to play thereon. He fitted a man with an artificial leg, calculated and erected sundials for the local gentry. During his work on the new stone bridge he built pile-drivers and pumps from his own design, and invented a machine for testing the stones that were to be used. He collected fossils, conducted chemical and electrical experiments and was a scientific cave explorer. A keen watcher of the skies he knew the constellations and their constituent stars, and both Halley's and Rosa's comets are followed in the diary. He made two wax figures which, clothed in Welsh costume of local manufacture, were exhibited in the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park. He erected public lighting, was actively concerned in bringing gas and water into the town and was prominent in the activities of the lead and zinc mine. He inspected breweries as far afield as Birmingham before laying out the South Wales Brewery at Liandeilo. And all this in addition to his workaday life of cabinet-making, undertaking, building and bringing up a large family of twelve children. In many ways the overworked adjective 'remarkable' is fitting in his case.
....Thomas Jenkins married twice. Both the young women had been servants in the household - not in itself a bad test of a future wife - but he seems to have drifted into marriage in each case because of proximity and necessity. Very different was his ardent courtship of Sarah Davies of Aberdauddwr, whom he would have undoubtedly married but for her untimely death at the age of 21, and whose grave he was still attending 8 or 9 years later....The diarist must have been a very familiar figure as he tramped to and from his jobs in the Towy valley. He was a prodigious walker, and apart from his longer journeys, a two or three hour homeward-walk after a day's work was a very frequent occurrence.
....This familiarity must have later turned to amazement, for a journal entry in December 1849 records 'made a homomotive carriage with three wheels' and on this heavy iron passenger-carrying tricycle he did some of his later travelling.
....Fore-knowledge was one of his claims, and in the diary he notes a death that he had dreamt of, and an accident that he had foretold which could have ended in tragedy.
....Like most good craftsmen Thomas was scornful of poor work manship, and there are several instances of esteem for a good piece of work and contempt for a job badly done. His own ability and integrity is vouched for by the number of times he acted as referee or assessor in disputes or valuations.
....The diary is written in two books which we would describe today as hard-covered exercise books. The first, which takes us to the end of 1854 is written with interest and care and contains most of his sightseeing trips. By the time the second has been started he has mounting family and business committments and more and more of his entries relate to his work only. The punctuation becomes almost non-existent, the writing hasty to the point of near-illegibility and spelling erratic. All the original diary entries are included in full apart from a few words which are indecipher able. Otherwise, apart from the insertion of punctuation and a tidying-up of the spelling both original and edited versions are the same. There are parts which are not understood. The entries call for a fair amount of editorial explanation and comment, and to avoid irritating footnotes or frequent references to the back of the book these comments have been inserted in italics in the body of the diary to make for continuity. Some information about persons named has been included in the index.
....The diary ends with the entries for December 1870. When the new year came in the diary-keeping was not resumed, and in the following October Thomas Jenkins died and was buried in the parish (upper) churchyard of the town in which he had served.
[From the Diary of Thomas Jenkins, 1826-1870), edited by D C Jenkins, grandson of Thomas Jenkins, Dragon Books, Bala, North Wales, 1986.]
The Leonardo of Llandeilo
Date this page last updated: October 1, 2010