‘Dialedd Gwŷr Caernarfon,’ a short story by Thomas Owen Jones (1875-1941), also known as Gwynfor, was published in his collection, Straeon (1931), and is translated below. In the original, it is preceded by an author’s note explaining its historical background: the pillorying by the people of Caernarfon of a witness in a smuggling trial, the names of the chief excise officers at the time, Carreg and Cwellyn, and an incident, related as an anecdote by one of the characters, which this translation omits, in which the local excisemen nearly choked the town by burning a large amount of confiscated tobacco.
The story reflects the desire of writers in the early 20th Century to move beyond the concern with religion and chapel life which had limited Welsh Victorian fiction, especially in the light of innovations by T. Gwynn Jones (1871-1949), whose assistance Gwynfor acknowledges. Its depictions of smuggling, drink and public disorder seem almost riotous in their literary context, although it remains even-handed in its depiction of crime and law enforcement. My translation makes changes to the structure of the piece, tightens the narrative, and seeks to give some individuality to its protagonist’s companions. In the light of Gwynfor’s gleefully Gothic prose, a reference to Edward Bulwer Lytton’s opening line proved irresistible.
A Smugglers’ Revenge: a short story by Thomas Owen Jones
Translated by Rob Mimpriss
I write with regard to the smuggling in Caernarfon, concerning which you and I, my Lord, have long corresponded, and in the pursuit of which my officers have frequently placed their lives at risk. It is my humblest honour to inform you that due to the perspicuity and selflessness of our witness, a known smuggler has been arrested and brought to trial, and has been found guilty and sentenced…
It was a dark and drizzly night. The eight o’clock bell sounded across the maritime town of Caernarfon, one damp evening in December, 1750. As its sound faded, a number of men met on a corner of the quay, on the border of St Mary’s churchyard. Despite the dim light that penetrated through the church window, it would have been hard for even the sharpest of eyes to perceive that the four men were there.
Ned was tall, stooping, lean, with straggly black hair that hung low over a long and broken nose; Wil and Jac were brothers, thick set and muscular, with curly hair and round faces that belied great courage and determination; and Barni, the leader of the group, not strong, but quick of foot and wit, would shoot a man that night. Inside the church, the choir was practising carols for Christmas Day, but the four men were deaf to the sounds of song, and left the church: their minds were intent on something other than music that night.
‘The owl is late tonight,’ said Barni.
‘Here it is on the word,’ said Ned.
‘Really?’ said Barni. ‘But your ear is sharper than mine, Ned.’ Ned could hear as well as a mole.
‘Listen.’ And now a sound like the hoot of an owl came from the direction of the Menai. Ned replied with an echo of the sound. The four moved furtively down towards the shore. After waiting a moment, bent double, and listening, they could hear the oars of a boat lapping the water.
‘It’s coming,’ said Jac. ‘Ah! There it is,’ and a boat with two rowers came towards them out of the gloom. The four leapt towards it, and the darkness swallowed them.
In the shadow of a shed that stood nearby, another man was concealed: William Buckley, a servant of the town magistrate. ‘What’s afoot tonight?’ he asked himself. ‘Smuggling again, no doubt, and one of those men was Barni Fawr, the old scoundrel.’ He went home, and reported what he had seen to his master.
‘Do you know who they were, William?’ asked the magistrate.
‘Only one: Barnabas Roberts, sir,’ replied William.
‘He’s gone back to the old game, then,’ said the magistrate. ‘Go and see Mr Carreg, the exciseman, and tell him what you have told me.’
‘But sir,’ said William, ‘if they hear I’ve shopped them, I’ll be in danger of my life.’
But after further urging by his master, Buckley went at once to make his report, and came across John Carreg, the chief exciseman, in the door of his house. He was just setting off for a dance and banquet at the King’s Head.
‘Is this important, Buckley?’ he asked.
‘Very important, sir. Barnabas Roberts is on the job tonight.’
‘Come inside and tell me what you know.’ And Buckley told him his story. ‘You’ll be well paid for your trouble, Buckley,’ said the exciseman, ‘if we catch the smugglers.’ John Carreg called on Robert Cwellyn, his assistant, and the two despatched their spies — Carreg’s dogs, as they were called — to watch the shores of Ala Las as far as the mouth of the Foryd.
‘Remember, Barnabas Roberts and his crew are at work tonight,’ he told them. ‘You’ll stay on guard if you know anything about Barnabas.’
The boat moved smoothly on an ebbing tide. Having moved far enough from land and from sight, the crew began to speak freely and without fear. ‘Raise the lug, Jac, so this north wind can help the oars,’ said Barnabas. ‘The sooner we reach the storehouse the better I’ll like it: this is a job we need to do quickly, and take the tide home.’
‘Have you heard the owl at all, Ned?’ asked Barnabas. ‘She’s running late again. Pull the lug down, Jac. We’ll wait a bit; he’s sure to turn up. Hold! We’re drifting, boys, hold our position. Ned, try now.’
‘Towoo, Towoo, hoo,’ called Ned.
‘Louder, Ned.’ But before he could try again, an answer came from the shore. ‘There it is,’ said Ned, and the boat headed straight for the shore and scraped on pebbles within two minutes.
‘All clear, Will Bach?’ asked Barnabas.
‘All clear,’ replied Will from the shore. Will Bach was one of Barnabas’s spies, and lived in Dinas Dinlle. He called in town every Saturday for his orders, and Barnabas Roberts was his hero.
This was the fourth time they had visited the storehouse for a ‘legitimate’ cargo. The storehouse was a shed among the dunes on the Pelan side of the Menai, a wild and lonely place at the time, with neither house nor sty for miles around: a wide hole in a sand dune, panelled with wood, its roof concealed by a thick layer of sand. A man could walk over it, and never suspect that there was more than sand beneath his feet. Goods smuggled out of France by Captain Morgan’s ship, the Cambrian Maid, were there that night, casks of brandy and rum.
The Captain was responsible for the storage and concealment of the contraband, while it was Barnabas’s job to carry it from there and sell it to various inn-keepers in the town and surrounding countryside. Barnabas Beer, as it was called, had a reputation for potency, and if the towns people saw someone staggering as he walked down the street, they would point him out and say, ‘Someone’s been at the Barnabas beer.’
‘Right, boys, off with the sand,’ said Barnabas. Jac raised the trapdoor, and Ned and Wil slipped down out of sight. Presently there was the sound of heavy objects shifting, and the first of the casks rolled onto the sand, where Jac and Wil Bach took it and carried it down to the boat.
‘How many are there, Ned?’
Ned groped in the darkness, counting by touch. ‘Twelve, Barni.’
‘Right, then. We’ll have to collect the rest before Christmas. The Maid will be back in the new year with another load, so we need to clear this load before then.’
By the time they had launched, and reached the mouth of the Menai, the tide was running strongly into the strait, and the boat was swiftly carried by the current.
‘Stay as close to the side as you can, Ned, in case an owl calls, and in case of danger.’ Barnabas had as many owls watching the shoreline as Carreg had dogs.
‘Less talk, boys, and keep your ears peeled,’ said Barni.
The boat flowed through the dusk past the Foryd and past Porth Lleidiog and onward towards the town.
‘Did you hear that?’ asked Ned.
‘No,’ said Wil.
‘Well, listen! It was louder that time!’ And then they could all hear it.
‘Closer to shore, Ned,’ said Barni, and as they approached the shore, a soft hooting came to their ears. ‘Hold our position, lads, there’s danger about,’ said Barni.
‘Boys,’ came a low voice from the shore, ‘Carreg’s dogs are out tonight.’
‘Who’s there? Brown Owl?’ asked Barni.
‘Yes, Barnabas,’ came the reply.
‘Quiet, you fool! We use no names here — the hedges have ears. Who have you seen?’
‘Simon and English Jack together by the kiln,’ replied the owl. ‘I recognised their voices.’ And just as the words were spoken, two men leapt out from the dusky shadows, shouting and raising their guns. Immediately a shot rang out from the boat, and one of the sentries gave a cry and crumpled to the floor. The other rushed to support him, and Brown Owl slipped away in the confusion, while the boat disappeared into the night.
‘Boys,’ said Barni, ‘straight for Porth yr Aur.’
‘No, no, straight for Ala Las at all costs,’ said Jac.
‘No, no. To Porth yr Aur, as quick as we can — it’s closest. And the sooner the better, before they raise the alarm. Give it everything you’ve got now, lads.’
‘What about the cargo, Barni?’ asked Ned.
‘We’ll have to take our chance, but we’ll do our best. Come on, boys, pull for your lives — it’s a race between us and the dogs. Now — how many pistols have we got, apart from mine?’
‘I’m armed,’ said Wil.
‘And I,’ said Jac.
‘Now, listen. The minute we land, Wil, you’ll head towards the church, and Jac, you’ll turn south towards the customs house. And whatever happens, stay out of sight. Ned and I will take care of the stuff, and I won’t be surprised if some of the owls are on look-out.’
The boat came ashore at Porth yr Aur. Wil and Jac scattered right and left, but in the darkness Wil ran up against someone in the port.
‘Who goes there? Hands up!’ cried Wil.
‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! I’m an owl,’ said the other.
‘Go and help Barni unload the stuff. Hurry — there’s danger tonight.’
Barni and Ned had unloaded the contraband. By this time three others had joined them, and they had carried the casks through the back of the Gerlan, a pub on Castle Street. The casks were safely stowed in a hidden cellar, and the crew sat down in the kitchen with the publican, one of Barni’s best customers, to breathe freely and to slake their thirst.
‘Someone betrayed us,’ said Barni, ‘But he’ll get his come-uppance, I swear! Drink up, lads.’ And they drank.
‘Where are Wil and Jac? They should be here by now,’ said Ned.
‘Well, yes,’ said Barni. ‘But I wouldn’t be surprised if they found the lane clear, and moved the boat to safety.’
Jac and Wil entered. ‘Barnabas beer for these two!’ called Barni. ‘How did it go, lads?’
‘Give us a drink first,’ said Wil. Then he began to narrate what had happened. ‘There wasn’t a soul about but ourselves for a spell, so we decided to stay by the river mouth. Then two of the dogs turned up, and saw us off, so we came here.’
‘Who did I shoot, Wil?’ asked Barni.
‘English Jack, but it was only a flesh wound. You scared him more than you hurt him.’
‘Of course,’ said Jac, ‘we heard the dogs talking about it. They had no idea who was in the boat.’
‘Very good,’ said Barni; ‘very good indeed. More beer for the lads, mister.’ The Barnabas beer was beginning to make its mark on the company.
‘Did you hear them saying anything about Carreg?’ asked Ned.
‘Oh, yes. He and Cwellyn are dancing this very minute, next door in the King’s Head.’
‘What?’ said Barni. ‘Dancing in the King’s Head? Come on, lads, we’ve got to see this.’ And he rose from his chair.
‘No, Barni — don’t. You’ll only get into trouble.’
‘No chance of that, lads. Old Powel, the landlord, is one of my customers — he won’t dare say a word against me. Just think of it — Carreg and Cwellyn, loyal servants of the king, drinking my best smuggled Barni beer in the King’s Head. Hurrah for King George and his loyal servants! Come on, lads; I’m taking a look.’
It made no difference to Barni now what he attempted. He was heroic when sober, and reckless when drunk. They went out onto the street, and Barnabas laughed as he shouted, ‘Barnabas beer, lads! Nothing beats it!’
He went into the King’s Head and through the hall to the dance room, but the others lost courage and turned back. The guests in their finery looked doubtfully at this tall, commanding man in his clothes wet from the sea, and streaked with mud and sand, but he ignored them. He sat down at a little table, and summoned one of the servants. ‘Here, lad,’ he said, ‘a pint of Barnabas beer.’
Mr Powel heard him, and approached.
‘Barni,’ he said, ‘not another word.’
‘It’s all right, Mr Powel. I’m just enjoying a glass of your best beer.’
Just then, Carreg saw who was there, and without letting on, went over to speak to Cwellyn, nodding his head in Barni’s direction. A short while later, he and Cwellyn went out together.
‘More Barnabas beer over here!’ called Barni, holding up his empty glass. Powel put a hand on his arm, and said, ‘Barni, come with me to the cellar and let’s see what we have in stock.’ Barni got to his feet, but slipped on the polished dance floor. He was helped upright, but slipped again, and by that time he was reeling drunk.
But then the outlook suddenly changed. Cwellyn returned with two constables and four officers of the inland revenue. ‘Arrest him,’ Cwellyn ordered the constables. They moved to take hold of him, but Barni raised his fists, and at the same time fell comatose on his face. He was rushed upon and held down, and cuffed, and marched semi-conscious towards the jail.
…to three years’ hard labour. Our witness, William Buckley, has paid a high price for his loyalty to the King. The day after Barnabas Roberts was sentenced, the townspeople dragged him from his place of work and frogmarched him through the streets, despite the best attempts of the magistrate and constables to restrain them. It was necessary for me and my officers to stay away from the mob, or it is certain that we would have become the objects of the people’s rage. The aforesaid William Buckley was dragged to the pillory, and a piece of wood was placed on his chest, bearing the Welsh word, bradwr, or traitor. There he was pelted with rubbish and filth until nightfall, when he was left half dead. After the mob had dispersed, the constables approached and released him, and took him into protection. I am glad to report that by this time he has made a full recovery, and with your permission, my Lord, I intend to reward him for his services.
Although we have captured Barnabas Roberts, his companions remain at large, and we believe, in addition, that he operates a network of lookouts and spies perhaps as large as my own. His sentence is a short one for such a hardened offender, and we have no reason to doubt within a few short years he will begin his operations again between the Ala Las and the Menai.
I am your obedient servant,
Chief Officer of the Revenue,