Llandeilo Bridge - History

by Lynn Hughes (2004)

Who Built Llandeilo Bridge?

Bridges are a necessity, and we take them for granted. Journeying west from Llandovery, gateway to the Towy Valley, on the A40 - the old Gloucester to Milford trunk road - twenty bridges will have been traversed on reaching Llandeilo: and that is not counting culverts. Another twenty-five bridges lie ahead before arriving at Carmarthen. Forty-five bridges in twenty-seven miles: we cross them without thinking.

Not so very long ago, they would have required a lot of careful thought: for most of them were not there, and those that were, were not so very convenient.

Aerial photo of Llandeilo bridge
Aerial photo of Llandeilo Bridge in 1998

Before 1730, only two major stone bridges spanned the Towy - one at Carmarthen of six arches, and another at Llandeilo of seven arches; the 'great bridge' over the Cothi which Leland encountered in 1536 at the eponymous village, may also have been of stone: it is not certain. There was a bridge-crossing at Llandovery 'on and off', but the gravel substrate posed grave difficulties for generations of bridge-builders, and the town was notorious for its treacherous ford. The remaining bridges, wherever they could be found, were generally wooden and, as a tourist travelling through Carmarthenshire in 1775 complained, not only "most inconveniently narrow but too few in number, for where a little bridge should be, you have a steep little paved channel across the road, excessively disagreeable to those who ride in carriages".

Equestrians could manage fords fairly well when river and stream levels were moderate to low - though many a horse slipped and tumbled his mount to a concussed and watery fate even in low water. Algael deposit formed in warm weather, fed by nutrients, so that ford-paving became lethal. A fatality occurred at College ford on the Cennen at Derwydd in June 1840 when a horse and rider fell. A minister had been thrown from his horse and killed at Johnstown in November 1828. Treventy bridge, Llanarthne, was the scene of another such fatality in September, 1865.

For the pedestrian, too, fording was a potential hazard. In damp weather, stepping-stones and stone-slab 'clapper' bridges, wooden bridges or rope foot-bridges alike, became slippery. At Pontynyswen, a poor girt lost her footing on the wooden bridge and was drowned in the Cothi in August, 1839. In 1848, a Llangadog carrier crossing Ffrwdfelin ford in December saw a woman lose her footing on the little bridge and drown before he could help her. In rainy weather, when rivers and tributary streams were full and the current strong, you took your chances with your life, mounted or on foot. Throughout Celtic folklore bridges are deemed perilous.

You could be lucky. A French tourist walking from Llangadog to Llandovery in the summer of 1795 encountered Welsh enterprise at a Carmarthenshire ford where…

…a little obstacle presented itself - a little river to cross - and no bridge. (Luckily) some Welch people came very civilly out of a neighbouring cottage and showed us the ford. Upon the shore was a Welch cart, of very economical construction, saving the expense of wheels, which they used to cross the brook.

The Romans were not the first to build major bridges in Britain, but it was a science they sophisticated and brought with them. The Bronze Age people who built Stone Henge were skilled engineers, capable of large-scale bridge building. A massive oak bridge from the Bronze Age, 3500 years ago, was uncovered by the Thames Archaeological Survey in 1999 at a site two miles upstream from the later Roman bridge at Vauxhall, at the confluence of the river Effra with the Thames. The paired oak piles were 13 feet deep, and the bridge - at 30 feet wide - allowed two carts to pass.

Pons, the Latin technical term for bridge (bont in Welsh, pont in French), has the same root in most European Romance languages. In its three hundred-and-fifty-year regime in Carmarthenshire, the most formidable military machine in the world marched with a skilled cadre of surveyors and engineers, road and bridge builders whose determination was both strategic and defensive. Though famous for their 'straight-line' approach, the Romans too were careful to select the driest' routes between river-crossings, taking account of historic flood high-water levels, presumably gleaned from local knowledge and observation of old tracks and pathways. Where they met impeding rivers they emplaced temporary pontoon bridges on barges, later to be enhanced by more permanent edifices.

Their priority was efficient communications for operational purposes in the supply of goods and services to and from their mines, fortresses and ports. Although fords and ferries were the norm, uninterrupted passage between key stations at Luentinum (Pumsaint), Leucarum (Loughor) and the lead/silver mines at Rhandirmwyn, could not have been achieved without a number of strategically-located bridges. We can only speculate as to where they would have been sited, but they were usually associated with a ford. Rivers change course; fords and bridges wash away. At key crossings on the Via Julia, between Moridunum (Carmarthen) and Alabum (Llandovery) they would have needed to erect several bridges of mainly wooden construction - in some cases defended and with central drawbridges. Oak piles with iron-clad points were driven into the river bed and, on rock foundations, footings of stone or brickwork were employed as necessary, though we have no evidence for any in the county.

Carmarthen was, strategically, not a good military supply port. Progress along six miles of tidal river was slow and reliant on water and weather for oar and sail, and cargoes were vulnerable to ambush. Loughor was a more accessible and secure marine anchorage with direct access to the Bristol Channel. The supply-line to Caio's gold mines and the north, via Sarn Helen to Chester, followed the north-south wind-gap where it crosses the Towy, mid-valley. There may not have been a permanent pre-Roman settlement where Llandeilo now stands, but the strategic worth of the bluff known as Penlan Fawr is obvious, commanding as it does vast vistas in all directions.

That the recently-identified and newly-drawn line of the Via Julia proceeds towards and runs eastward beneath this feature is hardly surprising. It apparently runs from Broad Oak to a hitherto uncharted marching camp between Cae William and the main entrance drive in Dynevor Park. A branch possibly veers off past Llandyfeisant church to the modem bridge location. If so, the old road divided at a 'tee-junction', crossing the Towy at Bridge Farm, heading south towards Loughor and north in the direction of Llandovery. Physical evidence for this original crossing (likely to have been a bridge) of 2,000 years ago has long disappeared, though dressed stone and bricks from various eras reside in the river gravels and are exposed in the alluvial soil of the Towy's tall river banks for miles downstream. No formal investigation of these materials has ever been undertaken. Considering the large size of the 'Llandeilo' encampment and associated settlement, relatively few Roman artefacts have come to light in the parishes of Llandeilo Fawr, Llandyfeisant and Llangathen, but then the Roman fortress stood for no more than 60 years.

When the Romans left west Wales, in the late 300s AD, they had no obvious reason to 'burn their bridges'. With the withdrawal of the garrisons, responsibility for local infrastructure and security became once again a matter of patrimony. In the dark era that followed the Romans' departure, any standing bridges would soon enough have needed repair and maintenance. Anno Domini, floods, tribal warfare and foreign raiders would have decided the fate of many a Roman bridge head. According to strategic importance, it would have been for an ethnic king, a prince, a clan leader - or indeed a prelate - to take charge of bridge defence and upkeep. It is curious that the Welsh medieval laws, redactions from the Dark Ages to the 12th century, make scarcely a reference to roads and bridges or of obligations for their upkeep.

Inland commercial activity in Wales during the Dark Ages and the early medieval period seems to have been almost non-existent. The overall impression is that society became regressed and introverted: the population small and scattered, with few settlements larger than villages. Though the military purpose of permanent river crossings could never be ignored, bridges, it may be assumed, were rare and associated with an exceptional local power-base.

When Giraldus Cambrensis, 'Gerald the Welsman' made his journey with Archbishop Baldwin through Wales in March 1188, preaching to raise support for the Crusades, there was no bridge at Carmarthen. A boat carried them across the Towy on March 20th:

We crossed the River Towy in a boat and travelled on to Carmarthen, leaving Llanstephan and Laugharne on the rocks by the seashore on our left.

No mention of a bridge. But when they arrived at Cardigan there was a fine bridge across the Teify built by the Lord Rhys, Rhys ap Gruffudd. Cardigan Castle had become of greater strategic importance to the ruler of south Wales at that time than either Dynevor or Carmarthen.

The first factual account of a Towy bridge-building to emerge in history appears in the Chronicle of the Princes , Brut y Tywysogion. In a description of a siege at the castle of Carmarthen, in 1233, we learn that the host of the Earl of Pembroke gathered together a Carmarthen. And they laid siege to it for three months, and they made a bridge upon the Towy.

It is pretty clear from this that no bridge was previously in place. From the thirteenth century onwards the burgesses were obligated by Norman statute to ensure that there was always a bridge across the tidal river, in good repair, to link the town with outlying centres of royal influence. The presence of a bridge is again specifically mentioned in 1250. But some dire fate evidently befell it, for a statute of Edward II, in 1326, bestows a right of collecting passage dues from a ferryboat, to be used for the repair and rebuilding of the bridge, presumably broken or swept away.

When Carmarthen's prior, in 1362, cited the absence of a bridge as an explanation for the poverty of his house, the bishop was persuaded to confer upon it avowson of the parish of Llanihangel Ioreth to boost finances. Pilgrims and other travellers passing on the south side of the river were unable to avail themselves of the Grey Friars hospitality, and the revenues were presumably intended for bridge restoration.

At times when its bridges were down, the river Towy caused social and economic hardship. It presented a formidable barrier to Lewys Glyn Cothi, the soldier-poet - thought to be from the Caio-Llanybyther district - who complained around 1470 of the lack of a bridge on the Towy to enable him to visit his friends, Henry and Llywelyn ap Gwilym, at Llangathen: of such a bridge it seems there was no hope, failing Divine intervention:

Oh God, may He grant long life to them both,
If He wills it, and allow ripe old age to me as well,
And within our life-time, please God, deliver a bridge over the Towy.

Salvation was at hand. Very likely as a result of activity on a Leicestershire field of battle where Rhys ap Thomas of Dynevor helped win the Crown of England for fellow Henry Tudor of Pembroke. Showered with royal patronage and possessing estates on both sides of the Towy - at Derwydd and Abermarlais - the likelihood is that only the hero of Bosworth Field was alive to Lewys GIn Cothi's plea for a bridge.

He is the sole figure on the political stage who, over a long period, could have afforded the expense of the undertaking; and his temperament was not one for suffering long the inconvenience of a dependable link between his divided estates.

It is a fair assumption then, that sometime after 1485, Rhys commissioned the stone seven-arch bridge at Llandeilo that is known to have been in long existence in the succeeding century. Jervoise, in his Ancient Bridges of Wales & Western England , quotes a sixteenth century traveller's assertion that "there was a stone bridge at Llandeilo in 1577", and the cartographer, Bowen, in his Britannia Depicta or Ogilby Improved , issued in the early 1700s, tells us that Llandeilo stands on rising ground upon the river Towy over which it has a handsome stone bridge.

And there it stood, on and off, up and down, until well after another famous victory - on the field of Waterloo.

Doyen of Welsh historians, Sir JE Lloyd, presided over the magisterial A History of Carmarthenshire , in two-volumes, published in 1939. Specialists contributed chapters in their fields. Lloyd would have been dismayed to learn that an error in their article on the economic and social life of the county misled a generation of historians in believing that the bridge at Llandeilo as late as 1795 was a dangerous wooden structure, which was swept away by the river in the same year. Another was built in its place, also of wood, but appeared to be so insecure that a foreign visitor expressed his great astonishment that it had not been replaced. It was either destroyed by the river, in its turn, or pulled down by the inhabitants, and a new bridge built in its place.

This assertion from the fountain head, led to the compounded myth that Llandeilo's was an entirely wooden bridge from the late 18th century until its replacement by the 1848 single-span. Though the team of writers quote their references, the evidence is that they were not aware of reliable contemporary records contained in visual art sources, while prepared to give credence to casual notebook doodles of a "foreign visitor". This person was, in fact, a Monsieur ABL Maudet de Penhouet, a native of Brittany, who walked through south Wales in 1795, "in pursuit of cultural comparisons" - of manners and paintable views - which he conveyed in a series of persuasive letters to a lady friend. These, together with some execrable sketches ('I took this sketch as I walked'), were later anonymously published by ' A Traveller' on A Tour through South Wales :
Returning from Newton Park to the town by the riverside, I could not help taking a draught (sic) of the bridge at Llandeilo. You will be as surprised as I am, Madam, that they are not being more expeditious in rebuilding the bridge which in its present situation is every moment threatened with destruction. They have indeed for some time engaged in a warm debate on this subject, and a difference of opinion relative to its size has alone retarded construction. I hope, for the sake of those who travel this way, that the affair will soon be amicably decided.

Later, he continues: We left Llandeilo today ('for Langedoc') and, for a second time, passed over the frightful bridge.

Llandeilo bridge
Llandeilo Bridge and Dinevor Castle, by JMW Turner (1795). One of the central stone spandrels, or supports, is shown missing, having been swept away by a flood. The flimsy wooden struts hardly seem adequate, even as a temporary repair. [National Museum & Galleries of Wales]

Lloyd's team were content to rely on de Penhouet's quite dreadful plate, [No 23] "Llandeilo war Bridge" (sic), as evidence of demolition and complete replacement of the stone structure by a wooden footbridge. Had they looked a little further they could have weighed the testimony of landscape painter, JMW Turner (no less!) who, during that same summer, had himself made sketches of Llandeilo's fractured seven-arch bridge. Turner's carefully-observed sketch-notes resulted in the painting, 'Llandeilo Bridge and Dinevor Castle' which would be exhibited at the Royal Academy, in 1796. It was acquired for the collection at the National Museum in Cardiff where it could have been seen to demonstrate, in 1938, that the bridge had lost but two of its spandrels [Numbers 2 and 3 from the right bank] when viewed both by Turner and Penhouet.

The Breton, no doubt to impress the lady, was intent on exaggerating his predicament. His perspective selectively depicts only the ricketty-racketty repair, which is achieved by editing out the five solid, standing arches of the bridge. From his sketch-book studies in the Tate and his finished work, it can be seen that twenty-one-year-old Turner drew in detail the bridge he saw. There is no doubting the temporary repair was a real local lash-up, but the medieval stone arches stand defiant. In frail outline the hand-rail hangs loose, and two saplings - or split timbers - offer up meek support from the river bed. These are crudely anchored with posts and rip-rap boulders.

Turner is strictly graphic in his notes, carefully detailing background. It can be seen though that even Turner, pioneer impressionist, manipulates perspective in the worked-up studio painting. Applying artistic licence, the wooded hill topped by the ruins of Dynevor castle is brought dramatically forward by a mile for the sake of the composition. And, it must be owned, in a painting, looks the better for it!

Llandeilo bridge
Llandeilo Bridge, by MA Rooker (1796). Another spandrel is shown to have been destroyed by yet another flood, but a good idea of the original seven arches can be seen. [National Library of Wales]

The very next year, Llandeilo bridge came under the scrutiny of peripatetic landscape painter, MA Rooker, following in Turner's footsteps and confirming his observations. In Rooker's fine and graphic painting of Llandeilo bridge, floods can be seen to have taken further toll. Another arch has been swept away. Four arches out of seven stand and three of the central spans are down [3, 4 and 5 from the right bank], Rooker's painting, 'Llandeilo Bridge', was also exhibited at the Royal Academy - in 1797. His view, though, is taken from a vantage down-stream on the left bank, and shows a more robust and elongated gantry repair. Two pairs of sawn-timber support-struts replace the sapling braces depicted by Turner.

JE Lloyd's team's error, derived from de Penhouet, was propounded by, among others, the self-styled local historian 'JF Jones, BSC', late curator of Carmarthen Museum. In contributing a series of centenary articles on the bridge for The Carmarthen Journal in 1948, he goes as far as to say of the previous crossing: "A wooden bridge was thrown up from bank to bank". Jones may also have seen de Penhouet's engraved sketch and thought no more about it, other than to accept the JE Lloyd testament. Vestry records of the parish of Llandeilo Fawr and the archive of Carmarthen quarter sessions would have told him, and other dilatory antiquaries, that the seven arches would again be made fit to provide forty more years of useful service.

A centenary plaque fastened on the present bridge shows an imaginative representation of the former multi-arch bridge, Hen bont saith bwa' (old seven arch bridge). In a finely-executed bronze relief, apparently unattributed, artistic licence spurns architectural perspective to fall far short of reality: the medieval bridge was as long and low as in the bronze is shown as short and tall.

Plaque on llandeilo bridge

There was a local saying that "Most of the money comes over the bridge", meaning that customers for farm produce sold at Llandeilo markets were the mining, quarrying and iron-making folk south of the river. When there occurred, on February 10th, 1798, "the largest flood ever remembered by the oldest inhabitant of the town", which carried away the temporary wooden bridge, the loss of its primary economic link was potentially catastrophic to the market town. Lord Dynevor, within a day or so, authorised the operation of a ferry for the transportation of coal, sheep and calves These were charged by weight and by head. Pack-horses, wheeled vehicles, horned cattle and boat-shy pedestrians were delayed until the much-complained-of gang-planking was re-asserted.

Drawing showing original seven arch bridge
Llandeilo Fawr, Dynevor Castle etc, in the Vale of Towy (1812), drawn and etched by LG Wood. Detail showing the original seven arch bridge (and Paxton's Tower at the top, built in 1805). [National Library of Wales]

Among those who travelled through Wales during the war with Revolutionary France were the Wood brothers, artists and anglers (like Turner!). Their lavish two-volume The Rivers of Wales , published by JG Wood in 1812, contains a fine panoramic view of 'Llandeilo Fawr, Dynevor Castle etc, in the Vale of Towy', drawn and etched by LG Wood. From it can be seen that the medieval bridge is restored; Paxton's Tower, commissioned to celebrate Nelson's victory at Trafalgar in 1805, is fully built - and the bridge's seven arches are standing firm with horse and rider crossing.

Further confirmation that the stone bridge was restored to its medieval specification comes from Thomas Rees, the travel-writer topographist, when he complains of it in his Beauties of England and Wales , published in 1813. The bridge he found at Llandeilo was built

with such shameful disregard to public convenience. Owing to a miserable parsimony, it has been made so narrow that a carriage cannot be passed on it, either on foot or on horseback without some danger.

This danger was tragically borne out in an incident that was to occur on a Sunday morning, following Holy Communion at Llandeilo parish church, some years later. The family of Dr Williams, surgeon, of Glancennen, near to Derwydd, were returning from church on Sunday, March 8, 1840, when mother and daughter were killed - "and the boy taken up senseless" - at the bridge. Their horse, drawing a phaeton, took fright, bolted, and charged furiously down Bridge Street, to distressful cries from the passengers. The rig crashed over the parapet of the narrow bridge, falling 35 feet. The horse was killed in the fall and Mrs Williams died instantly. The daughter was carried to Love Lodge where she, too, died within a couple of hours.

Emilius Nicholson, in his The Cambrian Tourist's Guide, published in a fifth impression in 1814, throws a pebble of confusion into the pool. He asserts that "the bridge [over the Towy] at Llandeilo consists of three very light and elegant arches, built by David Edwards of Beaupre, in Glamorganshire." In an accompanying illustration, such an elegant bridge is depicted. The engravings detail seems accurate enough, save for the river, which is a Thames, not a Towy. Accessory topographic features - Bridge Street, church, houses, foreground figures - suggest close observation of both Turner's and Rooker's paintings in the Royal Academy. The bridge shown, to which there is no other reference on record, resembles another Llandeilo bridge - the three-arch at Nantgaredig, Llandeilo Rwnws bridge, broken in November 1931 and rebuilt. Its foundation was in 1786.

Morbid curiosity following the tragic accident to the Williams family drew the townspeople's attention to serious erosion that was again, attacking the mid-stream piers and footings beneath the breakwaters, and a parish vestry was convened to discuss the matter. July quarter sessions were notified that the bridge was "in a dangerous state, owing to the insecurity of its foundations". A sum of £30 was accordingly allotted to the Llandeilo and Llandebie Turnpike Trust "to keep this and other bridges in good repair".

Remedy and sum were woefully inadequate: sufficient only for yet another make-do-and-mend. With the growing industrialisation of south Carmarthenshire, radical improvement to the county's infrastructure had become a priority. The demand for raw materials such as timber, stone, lime, iron and coal, dictated the opening up of rural communications. Throughout the eighteenth century increasing activity in bridge building and road widening took place throughout the county. The gentry were active in such matters, often for their own ends, and it was a recurrent topic at parish vestries. Road-maintenance and re-building had always been, from the Middle Ages, a parish matter. Parishioners had a statutory obligation to devote so many days a year to road repairs.

That this activity was subject to wide abuse is to be expected, and is exemplified in Wales by the expression Diwyrnod i'r Brenin!, ("A day for the King!"), for a pleasurable day off, doing very little. Some individuals - masons and carpenters - were contracted long-term to maintain bridges, and worked at it when it suited them. Yet when government introduced privatisation in the guise of pay-as-you use charging, transferring responsibility for main road upkeep to Turnpike Trusts - who charged variable tolls on goods, riders and passengers - there was an outcry. In west Wales it was to trigger the Rebecca Riots - which expression of social and economic discontent in the rural community forms the contemporary background to the building of the new bridge over the Towy at Llandeilo.

The Trusts were not sufficiently capitalised for major engineering projects. Upon request from the parishes, it was incumbent on local magistrates to oversee major public works such as bridge-building. For the purpose, they were empowered to raise bank loans secured against the county rates.

In the year 1843, it was observed that Llandeilo bridge, due to further erosion at the footings, was near to collapse. Urgent action was required. Decent, wide, modern bridges had already been built up and down the Towy valley, setting a precedent. Such a one, erected at a cost of £4,000 at Llandovery in 1772, was unfortunate: it was down again within the year, which then led to the resolution to build a replacement on the solid-rock Dolauhirion site, the Thomas Edwards gem.

In 1784, an act was passed enabling a bridge to be built at Llandeilo Rwnws, Nantgaredig. Lord Cawdor was not long in having bridges built at Dryslwyn and Golden Grove (Cilsane) under the same parliamentary instrument, The main purpose of all these mid-Towy crossings, focal points for the burgeoning Turnpike Trusts, was the transportation of burnt lime from the Mynydd-y-cerrig district, Crwbin, Torcoed and Pentre Gwenlais to mid Carmarthenshire farms, north of the river. Agricultural improvement was on the march. A bridge built in 1819 at Llangadog facilitated lime and coal transportation from over the Black Mountains to the Dulais and Cothi valleys. This bridge cost £2,300 - the expense being shared between the parishes of Llanddeusant, Myddfai, Llandeilo, Llansadwrn and Llandeilo. Llandovery's disastrous town crossing was meanwhile graced by a very fine suspension bridge, modelled on Thomas Telford's Menai concept, built by Philip Thomas of Ynysangharad. A parliamentary act gave the Llandovery magistrates powers to recoup their loan from tolls levied on the minor road to Llwyn Jack ford.

So the scene had been well set for an ambitious bridge at Llandeilo of which the town and county could be proud. Two factions emerged: those for a wooden bridge and those for a new, wide span, stone edifice. No one dared suggest another rebuild of the seven arches! The latter faction won the day and tenders were invited for a single span stone bridge. They varied from £12,000 to below ten. William Williams's estimate was in the region of £10,000, and considered by the magistrates to be realistic. But when Morgan Morgan offered a cut-price tender of £6,000, they were foolish enough to accept. Seemingly, Morgan was determined to have the contract, come what may. Little did anyone guess that the final total, with bank charges and interest, would be more than twice the figure of the highest tender.

In this manner Llandeilo Fawr parish vestry approached the Llandeilo and Llandebie magistrates with a request to raise major funding. Notice was posted in the local press:

Clerk of the Peace to the County Council

We, William Peel of Taliaris, Carmarthenshire, and John Williams of the parish of Llandebie in the said county, clerk, two of Her Majesty's Justices of the Peace, usually meeting in and for the division of Llandeilofawr in the said county and in which division the site of the intended new bridge over the river Towy at Llandeilo is situate do hereby give Notice that we intend to apply at the next Quarter Sessions of the Peace, to be holden in the said count to apply to borrow from the Commissioners for the Loan of Monies for Public Works upon security of the county Rates (under provisions of the Acts 4th & 5th of Victoria, cap 49) the sum of five thousand eight hundred and seventy pounds, towards building the said new bridge and approaches thereto.

Carmarthen Journal, Friday March 24, 1843.

On the signing of the contract, the forty workmen engaged were awarded 4 lbs of beef, one pint of beer and half an ounce of tobacco to celebrate. Work commenced on July 4th, 1843. Edward Haycock, Carmarthen, was consulting architect. They began the process of diverting the river by constructing coffer dams. Pits were dug upstream of the old bridge to try and strike foundations.

At 3 pm on December 3, 1845, the foundation stone of the new bridge at Llandeilo was laid. William Williams had died in the summer, and his son, also William, took over his work. The progress of construction during the first year proceeded slowly, due to technical difficulties, bad weather and floods, until it ground to a halt in April. Morgan was now hopelessly in debt. Preparatory work had taken far longer than estimated. Labour costs were rising due to inflation, and would double before the end of 1846. The price of timber and iron had also escalated. Edward Haycock reported to quarter sessions that the likely cost of the bridge-building was rising in excess of £7,000 and only a £1,000 advance from David Thomas's Llandovery bank provided the means for work to restart.

Portrait of Thomas Jenkins
The only known portrait of Thomas Jenkins, aged 33. See below for the diary entries for his involvement in building Llandeilo Bridge

May saw the centering, the temporary timber framework on which to build the stone vaulting, begin to form. The timber bill for that alone was £700. Local man, the diarist Thomas Jenkins, was formally engaged to design and build the awesome wooden Frame. In a diary entry for June 6th, 1846, he records: "Morgan Morgan agreed to give me 21/- per week for superintending the making and erecting of the centering". Nine days later, he was at Carmarthen, sleeping a night at the Ivy Bush, preparatory to buying timber: "800 feet for bridge centering". On July 20th; "Walked to Cross Inn (Ammanford) and got to Lllanelli by rail by 11 am. Bought 29 baulks for the bridge centering." Ten days later he was at Pontarddulais buying iron in order to build derrick cranes. From there, he proceeded to Llanelli to secure another lot of timber for the bridge.

An amazing, polymath character, "small-town Leonardo" Jenkins could turn his hand to any task, the more challenging to his inventiveness the better. He built the many different hydraulic pumps for baling the pits for diverting the river channel. He built an "engine for testing the strength of the stone" that was quarried from volcanic rock at the Cennen gorge, Ffairfach, and the 'black marble' limestone from Cilrychen quarry, Llandebie. He also built the iron cranes for lifting dressed stone for the masons to offer up when assembling the arch. As friend and adviser, Jenkins stood beside Morgan in interpreting drawings and buying materials as required. The odd thing is that his occupation at this time is described as 'solicitor's clerk'.

The cranes were erected on August 25, and were evidently a worry. On 2 September this not uncharacteristic entry is found:

Dreamt derrick crane broke and came down with a rattling noise. This evening the crane did break and ran over the pulley with the same noise I had heard in my dream. Three or four of us had a narrow escape.

There were more narrow escapes, and worse. A small boy's Sunday afternoon joy-ride in a tram ended, fatally, in the river. A spate on 22 October, 1845, carried away six of the supports to the centering, in which event five men working on it were swept off by the torrent, Two scrambled ashore and were pulled out; one got up a rope thrown from the old bridge; and the remaining two ended up in a very dazed state four miles away at Cilsane.

That same afternoon the magistrates were considering a letter from the bank at Llandovery accusing Morgan of continually altering the specification. He had moved the southern parapet site without consultation, altering the agreed line of the structure. Edward Haycock was forced to admit that the cost, as he now saw it, would certainly exceed £10,000, and a stormy meeting resulted in the formulation of the following resolutions:

  1. That it appears very desirable to this Court that the work be taken out of the hands of the present contractor
  2. That it would be desirable to effect an arrangement with the contractor by which the work already executed should become the property of the Court, on paying him a sum of £6,500.'- [£1,000 more than his contracted price].

Those in favour were: Earl Cawdor, Sir John Mansel (Llanstephan), His Hon Col Rice Trevor (Dynevor), DA Saunders Davies (Pentre), R Goring Thomas (Llysnewydd), J Lloyd Price (Glangwili), William du Buisson (Glynhir) and JW Phillips (Aberglasney).

Those against were: William Morris (Carmarthen) and Messrs Chambers (Llanelli).

Edward Haycock took over management of the project, being granted an additional credit facility of £4,000. He very properly refused to sign any contract or documentation, as he was taking over someone else's work. His fee was agreed at 5% of all moneys spent under his supervision. It was allowed that he engage as Clerk of Works a friend, Thomas Simons of Shrewsbury, at £2 a week.

Although it had taken him three years, Morgan, in all fairness, had effectively completed a third of the work for under £7,000, and he had done well in all but his initial costing - considered the first virtue of a civil engineer. Morgan had built the northern abutment on rock to 5 tiers, and the southern one on piles to 6 tiers. He had the centre form-work in place. Naturally, being sacked, he was not a happy man. His headstrong character and inexperience were to blame.

The Carmarthen magistrates were even more at fault, for they were unqualified to judge a civil engineering matter, and had been deaf to the advice of William Williams and Edward Haycock. But Morgan Morgan did himself no good by carping. Haycock, in a statement to the magistrates, found it necessary to "clear up any idle rumours that may have reached the Magistrates". It was being put about that the foreman was engaging too many men, and the work was not as it should be. Haycock intimated that it was not difficult to imagine who was behind the rumours:

As regards the first, seeing the steady advance of wages all through the kingdom and the probability of men being scarce in Carmarthenshire with the new ironworks and railways being commenced, I thought it best to make every effort to finish the arch as quickly as possible, to avoid having the centre up too long, as the river floods are so violent; and to make the bridge passable so that the old one can be taken down and the materials used in the new one.

The stone quarries were reported by Haycock to be in a very bad state. They Jacked machinery to move the heavy masses of stone: and the stone itself was of interior quality:

As regards the work being slight, I gave the Foreman orders to do the work as sound as possible, but to throw away no extra labour on dressing the stone and making them fine.

I fear most, if not all these tales originate with Mr Morgan, the late contractor. He wished to be employed as a working mason and I fixed his wages at a guinea a week in the short days. He pressed for more and allowed him 25 shillings, and he ought to have been satisfied.

My only anxiety is to save the county purse, to get them out of the difficulty and to have sound work at least possible expense.

In response, the chairman of quarter sessions was only able to comment that the cost of the new bridge was becoming "a great public calamity".

Justly arguing that he was being criticised for rising costs beyond his control, Haycock now requested release from a position which had, after all, not asked for. The period following the Napoleonic wars is characterised by serious agricultural depression and spiralling inflation. On being pressed to continue with his work as supervisor, he acceded, but again refused to sign any undertaking. The probable costs were, in his view, likely to rise to twelve or even £15,000.

An unimpressed visiting barrister, who was present in court, apropos of the bridge, 'Llandeilo's White Elephant', waggishly wrote:
Llandeilo Bridge! That Bridge of Sighs
Is now the plague of all the Quorum
'Tis no offence unto the wise
To call it now Pons Asinorum.

[Pons asinorum - Latin for 'bridge of asses' - is an intelligence test that the wise are able pass but dunces, ie asses, cannot.]

Another October flood, in 1846, damaged the old bridge, still in daily use. A hole, 7 foot deep, had appeared under the north-east pier, which visibly hung in mid-air, above water level, the arch held in place apparently by 'lateral structural dynamics'. Above it the road sagged significantly at the spot, to the discomfiture of passengers. Thomas Jenkins, in his Diary observes prosaically that the ancient spandrel was "cracked right through". Appointed sub-contractor, he immediately made application in the sum of £22 for repairs to the offending arch using 'Herring wire'. He went off with William Williams, Jnr, to Cilgwyn, Llangadog, "where we purchased 1,000 ft of beech timber to make a coffer dam around the damaged pier".

The final keystone was lowered in position at 3 pm on 25th November 1847. Straight afterward, work on removing the form-work was begun Thomas Jenkins makes no reference to difficulties experienced in this process, but the late Robert Morris, brother of the artist Carey, used to relate the story told him by his father and his friend Tom Williams, stonecutter, whose people had worked on the new bridge project, that the following drama occurred:

The worry was that the considerable weight of the masonry having 'settled' on the centering, was creating stresses: audible stresses. Workmen, brave men, attempted to release the unyielding structure with saws and axes, but were afraid of it splintering or coming down on them. They then resorted an old, well-tried method - fire - but the green timber proved resistant combustion. A problem.

Three days later, Providence, it seems, intervened in the form of another Towy deluge which in a confused mass (Thomas Jenkins's phrase), carried off the centre structure finally away, baulks and all. After all the set-backs, some luck was deserved! And the bridge, happily, has since held perfectly for a hundred and fifty years.

The bridge-arch effectively finished, Edward Haycock had now to address himself to the approaches. What had so far been achieved was an incongruous, hump-backed edifice, suggestive of a giant dolphin. He planned easing the gradient up Bridge Street by raising the highway level - at an estimated cost of £200. The scarcity of in-fill material was a major problem - and was not assisted by an accident which occurred in Llandeilo churchyard on April 18th. Thomas Jenkins records:

Quarry opened up in the churchyard, gave way and buried five men. Four saved, but one, after remaining buried for two hours, taken out a corpse. Great carelessness on someone's part. Now the quarry will have to be abandoned without procuring any stones worth using from it.

By April 1848 Haycock was anxious to dismantle the old bridge - as he needed material to complete the approaches. The cost of demolition was reckoned at £685, with a further £200 to complete the job. This would be met by a penny rate levied on the county which would raise £1,348, a sum capable of clearing all outstanding creditors, except the bank. A sale, in 72 lots, of all residual timber, iron, pumps etc. was held on 18-19th April, yielding £104. Haycock estimated on 3 months to completion. He was not far out. At the Michaelmas (19th Oct) quarter sessions, Edward Haycock was able to report "the bridge is now with the approaches completed in a plain and simple manner".

Expounding on the unexpectedly high outlay, Haycock referred to William Williams original estimate of £9,785, in which he had costed dressed stone at 6d a foot Due to the hardness of the stone, this proved to be one third of the actual cost - which could be put at one shilling and sixpence a foot.

In addition, the expense of raising the stone in the quarries near the town far exceeded all calculations, as they proved so full of faults. "I was obliged to abandon them and bring in the Black Marble from six miles distant [Cilyrychen, Llandebie]."

The arch of the bridge is constructed with this carboniferous limestone, while the less important sections are of the Llandeilo series, and the rest of the work, in particular the approaches and the northern flood wall, near Moreb, are likely to have been salvaged from the ancient bridge.

Haycock drew comparison with construction costs relating to bridges of similar size, recently completed at Chester (£40,000) and Gloucester (£60,000). Llandeilo had taken rather a bargain, considering that, having been built with materials inland (which the two for comparison were not) the carriage costs of materials were half the amount. In conclusion, he refused to take the full sum of his agreed remuneration, for which he was widely applauded.

Llandeilo bridge

It may have been a bargain, but the experience had been an unhappy one for all concerned. The result of Morgan, Jenkins and Haycocks efforts that greets and transports us still today may be, as Haycock observed, "plain and simple", but it performs its function perfectly, and has that elusive virtue: style. To the eye, the line of the arch is undeniably triumphant, if not indeed, beautiful. Poet and designer William Morris (of wallpaper fame), averred that what you know to be useful and believe to be beautiful is the essence of style. Antiquary George Eyre Evans pronounced it "the finest single-arch stone bridge in Wales". So it is: and the biggest. And we take it for granted. Only a few note it has the requisite 'style'.

For a number of years, one half of the total county rate went towards payment of arrears on the bridge. At the 1858 quarter sessions the account was produced to reveal £9,605 still owing. Morgan Morgan, urged on by friends, sued for estimated under-payment in the sum of £1,350. At the request of the justices, Thomas Jenkins and Alfred Thomas were set to "measure the work Morgan Morgan had done at the bridge, which we find by fair valuation amounts to £10,080. 03. 1d". In court, Morgan was met by a formidable opponent in the person of Hugh Williams, the St Clears solicitor who covertly supported the Rebecca Rioters' cause and openly took up their defence in the courts. Solicitor Williams thought the magistrates had already been generous enough with their £1,000 ex gratia payment to Morgan, and so it remained.

The final dispute was over the bridge-builders' credits: finding a form of words appropriate to adorn a lapidary. There were those on the bench who could not abide the thought of Morgan Morgan's name appearing in any inscription, after all the bother he had caused. Haycock was, in some eyes, a mere employee. William Williams, senior, had died before he could make much of a contribution. The son, in succession, had done his best.

Collectively, all deserve mention, not least the 'brave men' who worked on the site. Simply to duck out with 'ERECTED IN 1848', as stands [the magistrates' considered, and cautious, not to say cowardly, solution], is quite inadequate. Perhaps the following could be struck:

Begun by MORGAN MORGAN & THOMAS JENKINS. Completed by EDWARD HAYCOCK. Supervised by WILLIAM WILLIAMS, father and son, and built by many brave and skilled men.

The Cost : Haycock's charge: £7,574; Approaches: £4,470; Morgan: £6,500; Sub Total £18,544; Haycock @5%: £700; Sub Total: £19,244; Add Interest: £1,756; Grand Total: £21,000.

Cost Analysis : Masons' wages: £3,740; Quarrymen: £1,149; Pumping water: £497; Labourers: £2,662.11.0; Haulage: £2008; Lime: £410; Timber: £398; Ironmongery: £474; Royalty & lime stone: £200; Rubbish & haulage: £226; Sundries: £130; Total: £12,044.11.0.

Article by Lynn Hughes, published in: Carmarthenshire Life, November 2004

Pons Asinorum is derived from a chapter of Lynn Hughes' work in progress, Towy: The Biography of a River , to be published in the near future. Lynn Hughes is also the editor of A Carmarthenshire Anthology , first published in 1984 and reprinted in paperback with additional material in 2002.

Llandeilo boy and Carmarthenshire man, Lynn Hughes returned to work as a publisher and writer in his native Tywi valley after a career in the film and literary world of London as head of the script department of MGM. The BBC TV serial Hawksmoor, based on the life and legend of Twm Sion Cati, was his creation and he is series editor of The Welsh Classics, whose purpose is to present in English the classic literature of Wales to a wider reading public.
[From the flyleaf of A Carmarthenshire Anthology, 1984 edition.]