The Pontardawe Tragedy of October 1888 became inevitable once Thomas Lott had been employed cutting chaff. With a sharp knife. He also worked occasionally as a butcher. With a sharp knife. And most significantly of all, he worked in the abattoir. With a sharp knife. This story is a terrible thing. Elemental. Terrifying. Your dead child, carried home from the woods, ripped open by a blank-eyed forest demon, sacrificed on a tree stump without reason. The last thing the child you loved ever saw were the empty eyes of the damned. Poor John Harper. He was 4½years old and the family lived in James Street, which leads up the hill out of Pontardawe towards Rhyd y Fro. Their house was close to the woods and Mr Harper worked in the Pontardawe Tin-plate Works, John was playing outside, enjoying the natural easy freedom of childhood when he disappeared late on Saturday afternoon, 20 October 1888. When he didn’t come home his parent’s first thoughts were that he was lost in the Clynmeirch Woods or, more worryingly, that he had fallen into the Upper Clydach River which rushed through the valley. They called the police who began a search. They soon established that John had been seen standing with 18 year old Thomas (or Twm) Lott on the wooden bridge over the river near Primrose Row which divided Pontardawe from the wood. Another boy had been there called David Evans. Mary John, a young girl sent out to collect water had spoken to them there. They questioned Lott who said that he had told John to go home because the bridge was dangerous, smacked him and then sent him home. But the police were not convinced. P.C. Hopkin felt sure that John was lost in the wood and searched using a lamp and the light of the moon. All too soon ‘a sickening spectacle confronted him.’ It was as if he had stumbled upon the site of a satanic ritual.
‘On the stump of an old oak tree he observed signs which indicated the shedding of blood, and a few yards further off, he discovered the dead body of the boy lying on his stomach in a pool of blood. The throat was cut in a most horrible manner, and on the chest were a punctured wound and some scratches.’
The poor child’s throat had been slashed right through to the bone. A boy butchered. His ‘knickerbockers were disarranged’ and a piece of skin had been cut off one of his buttocks. In this condition John was taken home where James identified the child he had seen alive just a few short hours ago. He would later tell the court ‘My little boy was not in the habit of going to the wood. I did my very best to find him, and joined in the search for him.’ But it had been futile. John had been dead for some time. They questioned David Evans. Lott had frightened him. He had told David to take his clothes off, so he had run home to his mother, holding up his unbuttoned trousers. But John hadn’t run home. He had stayed with Twm Lott, even though everyone was frightened of him.
The police knew they didn’t need to look for anyone else. They found Twm in bed at home, next door to the James family, where he had lived with Mrs Lott who had brought him up, and given him his name. Lott was arrested at three am. He admitted the crime without any apparent understanding of what it meant. He seemed dazed when charged, as if still drunk with the horror of violence he had found within himself. Then on Sunday morning he told the police that he wanted to go home for breakfast. When he was told that he had to stay, he suddenly said “I’ll tell you where the knife is. It is on the window sill in the slaughter house.” It was never a question of if he had done it. Rather the unanswerable one of why? He had never been to school. The Cambrian newspaper said he ‘has a loutish appearance’ and is ‘not by any means smart.’ They said he was ‘half-witted, though abnormally cunning.’ It was clear that he had endured a dysfunctional childhood. His father was called Williams who was now kept securely at Bridgend Asylum. Thomas
‘had been brought up in a state of squalor and neglect which would not tend to the development of the brain. A more unintelligent countenance it would be impossible to imagine, and, everything taken together, there would seem to be little grounds for doubting that he is an idiot.’
In recent days Lott had been displaying particularly disturbed behaviour. He had killed a neighbour’s cat, opened it up like a rabbit, and then, ‘having properly skewered it, hung it up outside its owner’s door.’ He told Mrs Lott that he would “Rip her up like that one day.” He was described as a terror to the children in the village. And it appears that just before meeting the boys on the bridge he had been to the slaughter house. He was an explosion waiting to happen. English newspapers in the grip of hysteria, accused Lott of imitating the Whitechapel Murders. Was the Ripper on holiday in South Wales? They reported excitedly that John had been disembowelled, which he hadn’t, but truth has never been allowed to stand in the way of a sensational story. The police believed that he had returned to the body in order to disembowel John but had been unable to complete that awful mutilation since he was disturbed by some people with a coffin at the Methodist Chapel above the murder site. Perhaps in some way Lott was paying homage to Jack the Ripper. Perhaps he had heard the sensational stories, even down in Pontardawe. But whether he had or not, there was no doubt that he had killed John Harper. He admitted it quite freely. “He followed me all through the wood till just below the Methodist Chapel where he had it. He didn’t cry.” There could only ever be one issue that the law had to consider. Did he realise what he had done? Was he mad? When you consider what he did how could anyone say he wasn’t? In court he was largely disengaged from the proceedings. ’A more unintelligent face it would be almost impossible to conceive.’ He was reluctant to speak. He turned his back upon the court and faced the wall, spending his time ‘trying to pick his cap to pieces.’ Sometimes he laughed randomly. All he would say was “I want to say nothing.’ He refused to plead in either English or Welsh. This raised the central legal point. Was Lott ‘ Mute of Malice or of the Act of God?’ Was he choosing to remain silent or didn’t he know what was going on? On such niceties did his sentence depend. Dr Pegge said he had examined Thomas and decided that he was an imbecile. ‘The formation of the head indicated a low, weak development’ and he felt he was unable to answer questions or understand what going on. There was some discussion about the difference between imbecility and ignorance but the fact that he was constantly singing and whistling in his cell was regarded as significant. Lott appeared capable of understanding all that was said to him in Welsh and answered intelligently but seemed dull and stupid when addressed in English. He knew why he was there. ‘For killing a boy,’ he said. But whether he understood all the implications of that statement is doubtful. Could determine what was right and wrong? They couldn’t know for sure but they could make an educated guess. On 19 December 1888 he was ordered to be detained in custody during her Majesty’s Pleasure and was sent to Broadmoor. No motive was ever assigned for the crime. Perhaps in Thomas Lott’s world he didn’t need a motive. We may regard it as a forgotten Victorian tragedy. A young son ‘lured away and foully murdered,’ so close to home. It is a cliché to describe this as the very worst parental nightmare. But that doesn’t stop it being true. The Harper’s lives were irreversibly changed; their sleep murdered, their dreams haunted, their lives poisoned. James and his wife Jane continued to live in James Street with their daughter Alice. They had no more children. Jane died in her early forties, sometime after the 1891 census.
But the story then suddenly re-appeared much later in The South Wales Evening Post on 13 December 1955. Because a death had been announced in ‘Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum’ in Berkshire. The oldest inmate had died aged 85 and had been buried inside the institution in an unmarked grave. He had spent 67 years inside. It was Thomas Lott. I can tell you nothing more about Twm Lott. His files in Broadmoor are closed until 2055. I am sure they will be very revealing. However by then such research will be a job for someone else. Perhaps in Broadmoor he found the security and the peace that had been denied him. He had been there for a lifetime. The lifetime that John Harper never had. If John had lived he would have been seventy two when Twm Lott died. Instead he was slaughtered when he was four.