A tragic Rebecca-related death

HT church NCE

This photo (with thanks to Dylan Moore) shows Holy Trinity church in Newcastle Emlyn. Though the church isn’t actually mentioned in None So Blind, it does have a link to the Rebecca Riots. There’s a memorial in the churchyard to a Trooper John Kearns whose epitaph runs like this:

He fell not in the battle strife, nor on the sultry plain. Death did not meet the Warrior there, nor on the stormy main. But there, in Tivy’s winding stream, on sunny summer’s day, where bathing peacefully he sank, his spirit passed away. Mourn reader, with his comrades mourn, o’er one so young and brave, and trust in Him whose mighty arm from endless death can save.’

So who was Trooper Kearns and what was he doing in Newcastle Emlyn? Well, he was serving with the 4th Light Dragoons who’d been sent to Carmarthen to try and keep the peace there (more of that in another post) and who were called to Newcastle Emlyn where they were billetted at the Emlyn Union Workhouse (more of that in another post, too!) to stop the Rebeccaites storming it, which they had threatened to do.

Then, of course, because the Dragoons were in town, everything went quiet. It was the summer so, as bored young men will, they gravitated towards the river and swimming contests. But it ended badly for poor trooper Kearns who went unwarned by the citizens of Newcastle Emlyn about the treacherous waters on the downstream side of Newcastle Emlyn bridge.

There’s an interesting side-note on the unfortunate trooper’s death from Thomas Campbell Foster, the Times journalist who was sent to West Wales to see what on earth all the fuss was about. Foster was broadly sympathetic to the farmers’ cause but he was also convinced that they were being stirred up and manipulated by the dissenting ministers of West Wales’s chapels. A bare week after he’d arrived, he wrote:

‘The Welsh are a very religious people and with many of the ignorant and simple-minded peasants this opposition to the turnpikes is mixed up with the kind of fanaticism that they think they are doing a good and praiseworthy work in endeavouring to destroy that which they look upon as an oppressive injustice. I heard a Welshman myself say in allusion to a Dragoon being drowned while swimming in the river at Newcastle Emlyn ‘Ah, you see, Providence is against them. They have had no luck since they have been here. They have had two horses die [at Carmarthen workhouse] and now ther is one of their men drowned.’ [The Times, 30 June, 1843]

I was really touched by the story of Trooper Kearns who was, after all, just doing his duty and probably felt a lot of sympathy for the Rebeccaites. As a footsoldier, he wouldn’t have come from a well-off background himself. So, in an early version of None So Blind, I had Harry and Gus Gelyot discussing the dragoons and the people’s attitude towards them, including the little vignette from Foster. But, colourful though it was, it didn’t really earn its place in the book and ended up with an editing line through it.

That’s the thing about research, 99% (probably literally) never goes into your books at all!

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