13 March 2017

Lavernock: Grave of James Richards

I was admiring all the lovely lichens when the epitaph on the grave of James Richards caught my eye during my recent visit to Lavernock’s Church of St Lawrence:

to the memory of
James Richards,
native of the town of Cardigan
who died at Cardiff Docks
on board the S.S. Crindau
Sep. 4th 1885 aged 46.
Be ye also ready for we know not
what moment we may be called to judgment.

I thought perhaps James had met with a shipboard accident but the truth was much more gruesome, as the Welsh newspapers were quick to document.

Here’s one of the more concise reports, from the Denbighshire Free Press 12 September 1885 p.2:

Lloyd's agent at Cardiff telegraphed: “The Crindau, steamer, of Newport, entered the Bute Dock, Cardiff, and was ordered out again next morning's tide, with one man dead from cholera, and four others sick."
It appears from medical examination that the fatal case of cholera that occurred on board the steamer Crindau, of Newport, from Barcelona, was Asiatic cholera. The following particulars have transpired: Four men were engaged to assist in loading the Crindau with coal for Cadiz. One of them named James Richards, from St. Dogmaels, was observed drinking from a cask of water under the fore bulkhead, which had been filled up at Barcelona. He shortly afterwards complained of griping pains and excessive diarrhoea, to relieve which the chief officer give him some cholera mixture. Richards, however, grew rapidly worse, and soon after nine o'clock was found dead in the latrine.
Dr. Laen and Dr. Paine, the port sanitary authorities, examined the body, and concurred in the opinion that the deceased had died of Asiatic cholera. Captain Pomeroy, the dock master, promptly had the Crindau towed out of dock to the quarantine station at the Flat Holms. The body of Richards was sewed up in a tarpauling [sic], weighted with iron, and sunk off Breaksea Point. Dr. Paine, after having the steamer disinfected, examined the crew and found them all in a good state of health.

We tend to forget these days how frightening diseases like cholera can be, how rapidly they kill and how quickly they can spread, especially in a busy port city like Cardiff then was. Cholera had struck Cardiff several times before, with devastating effect. The first great epidemic was in 1832, then it struck again in 1849 resulting in 396 deaths – that number may not seem large but we need to bear in mind that Cardiff’s population at the time of the 1841 census was only 10,079.

As G Penrhyn Jones noted, in his article ‘Cholera in Wales’ (National Library of Wales journal, vol.X/3, Summer 1958). Cardiff in 1849 was seriously overcrowded, with far too many people squeezed into poorly ventilated slum housing, with no proper drainage systems, and almost all drinking water was drawn from the Glamorganshire Canal or the river, into which filth and raw sewage were also deposited.

Cholera broke out in the city again in 1854, when 225 people died, and the disease struck once more in the summer of 1866, resulting in 76 deaths. No wonder the authorities were quick to act following James Richards’ death.

Unfortunately, his burial at sea was not the end of the story for James, as the South Wales Echo reported on 15 September 1885:

Inspector King, of the Penarth Constabulary, has had reported to him that a corpse has been discovered at Sully, cast up by the rising tide. From the appearance of the body, as described to the inspector, it had been encased in canvass, and wrapped up as if consigned to the deep after death on board ship. No detailed particulars are as yet to hand, but in the mean time there are the gravest suspicions that the corpse is that or the man James Richards, who died of cholera on board the Crindau. Our readers will remember that the corpse was taken to below the Breaksea Point in a ship's boat in tow of a tug, and after being properly weighted was cast overboard.

This further report by the South Wales Echo, on 17 September 1885, explains how James Richards came to be buried at the Church of St Lawrence in Lavernock:

The body of a seaman, supposed by some to be the body of the man Richards, who died from cholera on board the Crindau at Cardiff, and was buried in the Bristol Channel on the 5th inst., was, on Wednesday, interred at the churchyard, Lavernock, the service being performed by Rev W. Evans, vicar of Merthyrdovan. The body, still encased in a canvas bag, was enclosed in a coffin, and interred in the usual way. The pilots are of the opinion that from the set of the currents in the Bristol Channel, a body buried at Breaksea would be carried to the Somersetshire side of the channel, and something very unusual would be required to bring a body from Breaksea to the spot where it was found.

The death of James Richards was a tragedy but some good did come from the misfortune of Cardiff’s cholera victims. Penrhyn Jones writes that the epidemics ‘had the consequent virtue of stimulating the public conscience on matters of sanitary reform and the great improvement in the public health in the latter half of the nineteenth century can, in some measure, be attributed to the sobering and salutary lessons of that vicious disease’. Rest in peace, James Richards.

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