The Murder Stone is a remarkable thing for a number of reasons. But for me, the most striking thing about it are the words – and the depth of the emotion they represent.
It is the anger of it that grabs your attention. It speaks of “murder”, “violence”, “savage” “outcry”, “blood” and “judgement”. The words on the stone are the words of Elijah Waring, a local Quaker and well-known orator, who commissioned the stone to express the outrage of the community at the murder of Margaret Williams and their belief in a retribution from which there could never be any escape. The Murderer is truly a man without hope or salvation for “God hath set his mark upon him.” It also reflects too, the belief – or indeed the hope – that the murderer won’t escape.
It stands out because it is not square to the path. It is at an angle to the others around, positioned to face where everyone was convinced the murderer lived. The stone stretches out an accusing finger with absolute conviction, silently pointing, inflexible, immovable. It was on the main path through the village for all to see. The house at which it is aimed has long since gone, but this permanent accusation has never gone away.
When you see it you want to find out more – what is this remarkable gravestone about? Why was Margaret Williams murdered?
It can be no surprise, of course, that she was pregnant. It had become the great female sin, especially in towns, though clearly things have always been a little more relaxed in the countryside, where it was frequently important to establish fertility before any marriage. But pregnancy was a woman’s greatest risk, and her greatest crime. And yet you see in her story and the reaction to it, the essential contradiction of the Victorian Age in their anger that a woman, however fallen, should be murdered and their desire for justice. You can see, too, their differing perceptions about the roles of men and women.
But let us look at Margaret’s story. who was found dead on Sunday morning, 14 July 1822.
Margaret was an unmarried country girl from Carmarthenshire. She came from Llangyndeyrn in the Gwendraeth Valley, near Kidwelly. Her father, John Williams was a labourer. She is described as a ‘fine, healthy young woman,’ known for her ‘industry and cheerfulness.’
Margaret was pregnant, probably at least 16 weeks. And Margaret was adamant about the father of her child. She had announced it confidently on a number of occasions. It was Llewelyn Richard, or Richards, the son of the farmer for whom she worked as a servant. He, of course, denied it. There was nothing to prove that he was the father of her child. Paternity, after all, is deniable. Maternity, on the other hand, is a fact and only in recent years has paternity ever been anything other than a matter of opinion. He accused Margaret of being a fantasist, as a country girl on the make; it probably wasn’t his child; she was older than him and was exploiting his innocence.
She could have done little to contradict any of this.
In May she had moved out of the Richard farmhouse – or had been thrown out – and was now working for ‘an industrious old man’ living in Cadoxton.
On the night she died, Margaret had been to Neath. 13 July 1822 had been a fine summer’s Saturday, though there had been strong wind and ships on their way to Ireland had been forced to take shelter in Milford Harbour. Margaret had gone to buy a sheep’s head, This was found in her basket, along with her hat, on the marsh, a short way from her body. She was on her way home. Was it a chance encounter? Was the murderer waiting for her? Had she arranged to meet someone?
She was found lying on her left side in a ditch on the salt marsh, in about 30 inches of water, with her head under the surface. Her body was badly bruised, with marks on her throat and neck and on both arms above the elbow: the marks on her ‘throat were manifestly caused by strangulation.’
Clearly he grabbed her, shook her, strangled her, left her in a ditch. And yes, she was pregnant, for they ‘opened and examined the body.’
The newspaper sympathised with the family who were ‘summoned to witness the heart-rending and appalling spectacle of their murdered child’.
Now in these circumstances, suspicion fell immediately upon Llewelyn Richards. But in the days of capital punishment what possible advantage could there be – in this world – to confession? The newspaper always carried reports of recent executions – it wasn’t a distant fantasy. What incentive was there to confession? So he said nothing.
He was arrested on Tuesday 16 July 1822. and everyone was sure that they had the right man. The newspaper was pleased to announce that he was ‘the man generally suspected of having committed the diabolical act.‘ But suspicions alone have never been enough.
The problem was that there was no proof. And this was the key point. They couldn’t find any evidence. There was nothing to link him to the murder. All Llewelyn had to do was to keep quiet.
We are told that the strongest suspicions existed against the prisoner but that ‘no evidence was adduced to establish his guilt.’ In fact, the absence of clues was almost proof in itself, for it was merely an example of ‘human wickedness and cunning.’ More work was obviously required.
‘The magistrates ‘declared their resolution to seek out fresh evidence with unremitting scrutiny and it is devoutly to be wished that the inhuman monster who perpetrated this foul and horrid deed may yet be brought to justice.’
It is not a person they seek. Merely evidence.
The only verdict the jury at the inquest could reach was therefore was ‘Wilful Murder against some person or persons unknown.‘ But everyone knew he had done it. Or thought they knew. We are told that ‘The eye of Providence is upon him.’
Llewelyn may have escaped conviction and execution, but what now could he do? His position within his community was untenable. His family will have known this too. He fled to Hereford, whilst a donation was sought to build the accusatory headstone. It took a year to have it prepared and erected.
There is a report in the paper on 3 May 1823 about the stone which had been erected three weeks before and was already a local attraction. Think about that. The whole community in which your family lives is absolutely convinced that you carried out a horrible crime. They know it, in their eyes beyond all reasonable doubt. Perhaps the family had a reputation. Perhaps he had. And they wouldn’t let it go.
Eventually on 16 April 1825 Llewelyn Richards was tried at the Glamorgan Great Sessions in Cardiff for the murder of Margaret Williams, in a prosecution brought by her father.
The indictment reads
Accused of murder by beating her and throwing her into a rivulet. The deceased was pregnant and the prisoner suspected of being her father. She used to be a servant of the prisoner’s father.
Llewelyn’s plea was “not guilty.”
But there was still no evidence which could be presented which put him on the marsh on that Saturday night. He was acquitted.
Not long afterwards, he left Swansea on a cargo vessel to start a new life in America – or Australia. But his family still had to face that eternal call for vengeance from the graveyard across the road, standing on the main path through the village for all to see, every day. The crime cannot slip into the past whilst those words are set in stone. Margaret’s family sought consolation that, whilst he might escape human justice, there must come an inescapable final reckoning. A greater power was in pursuit. Llewelyn might run- and we can be sure that he did – but he could never hide. And for some, in the anticipation of that revenge, there was hope.
The Murder Stone, so easily found, speaks of tragedy. It speaks of two families scarred. Of two lives taken. Of lives ruined. It is a crime and pain that endures. There are still flowers placed on Margaret’s grave.
This is the local legend, the story that has endured.
You won’t be surprised to learn that perhaps there is a different narrative. It comes from a book by Charles Wilkins of Springfield, Merthyr, published in 1879, fifty years after these events. He says in his Preface that what he tells us is true.
In his version, one of his neighbours called Parry, claimed he had seen Llewelyn and Margaret together on the night of the murder, looking as if they had quarrelled. That is the reason why Llewelyn was arrested, because Parry said he had seen them. But there was no other compelling evidence to suggest that he had actually done it. However, it was Parry who was a killer and he confessed to the crime on his deathbed.
He said he had approached Margaret on the marsh and, when his advances were rejected, had attacked her. His accusation of Richards threw the scent off himself, but he couldn’t make it stick. But he’d done enough to point the finger, though in all honesty he didn’t have to do much. Margaret herself had already prepared the ground in her pregnancy. Everyone had already made their minds up. Parry himself was in the clear.
Did Charles Wilkins of Springfield, Merthyr really know something? Did the true murderer frame the father of her unborn child?
Of course, it brings us no closer to the truth. Nothing will now. All we know is that a pregnant woman was murdered, her life, and the potential of her child, snuffed out on a marsh. The passage of time has dissolved an outrage into a curiosity. But the stone is still there silently pointing, a symbol of divine pursuit.
But I now look at it with some sadness, for it is the stone and the power of Elijah Waring’s words that are remembered today, rather than poor Margaret, found dead upon a marsh.
This story is in my book, Stories in Welsh Stone. Sadly, there are no longer copies available for sale on this website.
However, there are thirty other fascinating stories from the history of Wales in my book, Grave Tales From Wales. Some stories you might know, but others are forgotten surprises, from all parts of the country..
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