Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Another Old Post


Widows and Spinsters

You don't find much written about the Welsh businesswomen of the Victorian and Edwardian period.  Such females did exist of course, although it helped to be a widow or a spinster or otherwise unencumbered with a spouse.

The Hotel trade in pre-First World War Llandrindod was no small beer, as the buildings of the town, now somewhat decayed, still testify.  And it was a trade which was dominated by the women who owned, or managed, the majority of the most important such businesses in the town.

Look at the 1911 Census and you'll find Miss Duggan and her sister, they were from Hundred House, the owners of Duggan's Temperance Hotel.  Then there was the Llanyre born Miss Sheen, manager of Plas Winton - now the Commodore.  Miss Ace ran the Waverley, Miss Jenkins York House and Miss Smith the Montpelier.  If they weren't spinsters they were widows like Mrs Bentley of the Spring Hotel and Mrs Smith of Ye Wells - currently occupied by Coleg Powys's Llandrindod campus.

The largest hotel in the town, indeed in the whole of Wales, was the Pump House; with its posh clientele and Continental cuisine - one of my aunts married the son of a Swiss chef from there.  It was managed for many years by the Monmouthshire born Miss Duffield, who interestingly enough was elected to the town council in 1900.

 The great rival of the Pump House was the Bridge, which would eventually supplant it as the largest hotel in the country.

Like many of the businesses in the town it was originally built and operated by local Radnorshire families.  For even though Llandrindod has been described as "not a Welsh town, but a town in Wales," most of the entrepreneurial spirit that built the place was Welsh.  In 1897 the five Wilding sisters and their two brothers sold the Bridge Hotel to the redoubtable Mrs Miles (see picture) for a tidy £7850.

Born in Treforest in 1847, Elizabeth Miles (nee Spencer) was the daughter of Pontypridd innkeepers.  Married at 20, she found herself widowed by the age of 24, and with two young sons to boot.  Perhaps because of this setback Elizabeth went on to own or lease some 10 hotels in South Wales, including the Angel in Cardiff.  A Welsh speaker - and so were her two sons - Mrs Miles eventually changed the name of her Llandrindod purchase to the Metropole Hotel.  This was for the rather frugal reason that she had bought a quantity of bankrupt linen and crockery, all  inscribed with the letter M.

So why aren't such women, and others like them elsewhere, better known?   Well, apart from the fact that history has largely been written by men, such successes may not have suited the agendas of those who tend to sell Wales short

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Bill Sikes, Radnorshire's Own

Let's forget for a moment the utter stupity of supplying depleted uranium shells to a bunch of mindless idiots, who will more than likely use them contaminate farmlands described as Europe's breadbasket ...... and travel back to simpler times when I put forward a theory that Dickens' villain Bill Sikes was inspired by a Radnorian:

Bill Sikes the Radnorian

I've blogged about Bill Sheen before, see here.

I believe he was a model for the Dickens character Bill Sikes, although now we learn that the great novelist used the names of everyday folk from his teenage neighbourhood for some of his best-known creations. William Sykes, it seems, was a harmless tallow seller.

While not doubting that Dickens may have found the surname in that way, the character of Sikes is surely based in part on the Radnorian Sheen, once pursued from London to the Severn Arms in Penybont after slicing off the head of his jade Letitia's infant son and being subsequently found not-guilty of the murder on a legal nicety - twice!

Now Bill Sheen was not some anonymous Radnorian abroad in the smoke, he was famous, a 19C celebrity if you like. He was Sheen the infanticide, Sheen the child murderer, whose every scandalous court appearance for twenty years was reported assiduously in the public press - not least by the Thunderer itself.

Bill and his notorious mother Ann Sheen* ran brothels in Spitalfields, in particular in Wentworth Street. A street that was also home to another well known criminal, the receiver of stolen goods, Ikey Solomon - who many agree was the model for the Dickens character Fagin.

Sheen's brothels were infamous dens of child criminality where youngsters were lodged and sent out to pick pockets and plunder. Take a look at this evidence to a Select Committee of the House of Commons from 1837, just a year before the publication of Oliver Twist, evidence which was quoted verbatim in the Times.

And what of Sikes' moll, the unfortunate Nancy? Well in 1847 Bill Sheen was sentenced to two years with hard labour for violently assaulting and slashing his common law wife of eighteen years, one Mary Ann Sullivan. The Times reported that Sullivan had been "the subject of constant ill-usage" during her nearly two decades with Sheen and had frequently needed hospital attention after the brutal beatings she received. Was this violent relationship known to Dickens perhaps? He could certainly have read of the court case in 1836 where Bill had threatened to "rip up the bowels" of a lass called Mary Moore.

Radnorians may be interested in an obsequious letter Sheen wrote to the Lambeth Street magistrates from the New Prison in Clerkenwell, following the rescue of eight young mites from his clutches. Sheen boasted of "the respectability of my relations in Radnorshire." There was: a Mr___, a respectable farmer, and Mr___, shopkeeper and farmer at ___, and "aunt Sheen who lives on her own freehold estate at a place called ___, where my grandfather lived and kept his hounds for 70 years." Unfortunately the Times omits the actual names, no doubt to spare his relatives' blushes. If only the magistrates would release him, Sheen promised, he would leave London and go to Radnorshire and "never more trouble you." Thankfully for Radnorshire the magistrates ignored his plea and sent him down for 18 months.

* Like her neighbour Ikey Solomon Ann Sheen was a well-known fence - she owned a chandler's shop in Spitalfields. In 1840 at the age of 59 she was sentenced to be transported for 14 years. In the event Mrs Sheen pined away in the Millbank Penitentiary, dying in 1842. Ann left her not inconsiderable fortune in Bank Stock and properties to her favourite son, Bill.


Radnorshire must reluctantly lay claim to one of Nineteenth Century London's most notorious criminals, Bill Sheen, a man who must surely have been one of the models for Dickens' Bill Sikes.

Sheen came to prominence in 1827 when he cut off the head of his girlfriend's infant son. Fleeing from Whitechapel to Radnorshire he was tracked by a London constable, Robert Davis, to Penybont and eventually taken at the nearby home of a relative, Lane House, Llanbadarn Fawr.

You can read a report of Sheen's first trial here, He was found not guilty on a technicality, a confusion over the actual name of the murdered child. A second trial was held and Sheen was again acquited on the grounds that you could not be tried twice for the same crime.

This stroke of good fortune did not induce Sheen to follow the straight and narrow. By now something of a minor celebrity, his assaults and burglaries were widely reported in the press. A girlfriend, one Mary Anne Sullivan's throat was cut and she was left for dead after being brutally kicked, Sheen was jailed for two years. Perhaps the clearest evidence that Sheen may have been the model for Sikes comes from the fact that he kept brothels in Spitalfields which were also home to between 30 and 40 boys and girls, some aged as young as nine, who spent their days begging and thieving throughout the city. Read about them here, pages 149 and 150.