There were so many women without men in Dinas in the 1890s that the local paper suggested that the village should have a policeman to keep an eye on all these vulnerable “lady residents whose husbands are engaged at sea”.* However, it was the sea that posed the biggest threat to these ladies, who otherwise seemed strong and capable and not unduly prey to criminal intent.
A life at sea was a dangerous life and too many men never returned. David Rees, of Smithfield, Dinas, had been 1st mate on a Newport Ship, the “Celynen” when he was drowned in 1898. According to the Welsh Mariners Index he died from a fall into the Kiel Canal, a recently completed short-cut linking the North Sea to the Baltic along the Northern coast of Germany.
Eleanor Rees had been married to David for only ten years when her mariner-husband was drowned. Her family wasn’t local but she stayed in Dinas after the tragedy, moved house and set up shop to support herself and her three young children. The shop was called Kiel House as a memorial.
Her two sons both followed in their father’s footsteps and eventually became master mariners – like so many of Dinas’ young men. Her daughter, Eliza Blodwen, who was aged nine at the time of her father’s death, eventually took over the shop and ran it with her husband, John Philip Howell.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that Blodwen and John Philip’s family histories had a tragic symmetry – both stricken by events that were determined by Dinas’ closeness to the sea. John Philip had been a child of 12 when his mother disappeared from their home at Hescwm Mill.
The story was eventually told in the Kemes Guardian: 8 Jan 1904
Disappearance at Dinas Cross.
From her home at Hescwm Mill Farm, Dinas Cross, overlooking one of the many coves on the Pembrokeshire coast, Mrs Martha Ann Howells, wife of Mr J. Howells, disappeared early on Monday morning week. After assisting her husband to load some young pigs into a cart for a neighbouring fair, she went from the house in the dark towards the garden, leaving her mother and a son of 12 indoors, and has not been seen or heard of since. She is tall, 38 years of age, and her outer clothing consisted of two shawls of Welsh flannel, tweed cap, and clogs. Search parties have scoured the vicinity of the farm and adjacent mountain, and emptied the mill pond, while the local fishermen and coastguards in boats have been grappling under the high cliff near the farm, but without result. Mrs Howells has been suffering from melancholia for some months.
Her clogs were found on the beach at Aberbach.
For Eleanor, Martha Ann’s mother, this presumed drowning marked the death of the last of her children, all five of whom died before her: two boys died early at sea and another in infancy; the other daughter died when she was about 14 and finally the tragedy of Martha with whom she had been living at the time.
I don’t remember the Howells, who must have been shop keepers at Kiel House when I was a child. Kiel House has always struck me as a sunny place. It saved Eleanor Rees from destitution and I hope it brought happiness to Blodwen and John Philip after the tragedies of their childhood.
Kiel House is now for sale. Click here to find out more about this wonderful shop. I wish the new owners business success and every happiness.