Here, just behind the bumper of the car you can find the gravestone that I went to Aberystwyth to find. The grave of John Williams. He died in 1957, aged 21.
The grave seems overlooked now, an event once important enough to be mentioned in Parliament, but now long forgotten.
The stone is one of the many that line the pay and display car park at the end of King Street in Aberystwyth. It was moved and placed here some time ago. It is next to the church of St Michael which lies on the edge of the town, up against the sea.
The castle grounds, neat and picturesque protect the church from the sea, though the church was not always able to protect its congregation from its dangers. There are many graves that remember death at sea – sailors lost over board for example. You will find such graves in all of our seaports. Men who went out to sea and never returned to their families. This no longer troubles as many people as it once did.
The last time we were there, generations of families were stretched out on the grass, enjoying the sun that had unexpectedly interrupted their week of rain. We looked down on the scene from the castle. They still had to shelter from the traditional wind off the sea that always seems to throw itself at Aberystwyth. They played on the grass, surrounded by the re-sited gravestones, their histories and their stories less important now than their role as a border.
There is an arch way in the south corner where there is a lovely inscription which begins with the arresting words,
“Stop Traveller, stop and read. This stone was erected by those who fully appreciated the integrity and fidelity of David Lewis, alias The Old Commander.”
David Lewis died in 1850 at the age of 66. He had fought on the “Conqueror” under Nelson at Trafalgar and for 13 years he had been the respected Deputy Harbourmaster. He was able to build a longer life of achievement than James Williams.
Down by the arch, you will find the Williams boys. Three of them. Their father John was a mercer and he and Mary buried their three sons. James, William and John. How difficult that must have been.
Squeeze past the bumpers of the cars and you will find them. The stone has slipped down to cover those beneath it but it is thankfully undamaged.
The parental grief that it describes is hard to imagine. William who died in July 1841 and John, their second son, who died in 1825 only 7 weeks old.
But it was James, an ordinary boy from Aberystwyth who had drawn me to this car park. He was their youngest son, born in 1836. When he died at the age of 21 he was serving in the merchant navy on the schooner John and Edward.
It happened so quickly and unnecessarily.
It was 24 May 1857. The schooner took shelter in the harbour of Sarzeau on the north east coast of Belle Isle, off the coast of Brittany. They had been driven in by the weather and thus the necessary signals were not ready to be hoisted. They anchored close to the stern of a French man at war, the Maratch. A shot was fired to persuade the British ship to fly its flag. As the sailors worked to do so a second shot was fired and then a third. It was the third shot that hit James as he worked to haul up the colours. He died instantly
James was in the rigging trying to unfurl the flag but had become entangled in it. The French became impatient and fired a warning shot. It was too well directed. The shot went straight through the flag and James Williams.
James was originally buried in Belle Isle.
Mr Lewis Dillwyn, MP for Swansea, outlined these unnecessary events in Parliament which were duly recorded in Hansard. It was Viscount Palmerston who replied. He confirmed that the first two shots were blank musket rounds. The British vessel was at fault for “no ship ought to enter the harbour of a foreign country without colours to distinguish her nationality” but there was no justification in ordering a live round to be fired at the ship. The officer claimed to have ordered the shot to be fired high but unfortunately it had ricocheted.
Even before the British government could complain the French called in the British Ambassador in Paris and Count Walewski offered a full apology of “the most satisfactory and handsome kind.” Orders had already been given to “dismiss from the French service the officer who had given orders to fire the fatal musket shot.” The French government wanted to “mitigate the affliction of the family of the unfortunate seaman.” Palmerston was impressed by the way the whole incident had been handled, certainly in ways which did not impact upon the Williams family back in Aberystwyth. “Nothing can be more honourable and proper than the manner of their proceeding towards the English Government on the subject,” he said. Cold comfort to a family that had now lost its third son.
James’ body brought back home in state on a French ship on 1 August 1857. Stories were told that he was tangled up in the rigging in the Union Jack and that the musket shot had gone through both James and the flag but the fact remained that he was dead. And it is a fact too that his gravestone is now part of the boundary of a pay and display car park.