CREATIVE Elizabeth Griffiths

NWR Issue 121

Abel Thomas and Sons Butter Merchants Ltd

‘The Abel family had business in its blood.’ So writes DJ Williams of my mother’s forbears in his deeply felt memoir of nineteenth-century Carmarthenshire rural life, Hen Dŷ Ffarm (The old farmhouse). ‘Honest’ Abel Thomas, who ran a small horse-and-cart carrier business in Williams’ Esgairdawe neighbourhood, was my great-great-great-grand- father, whose descendants extended their family businesses all the way to Swansea. Among them was my grandfather, who ran a butter factory in the Aman Valley.

My great-great grandfather William is described in Hen Dŷ Ffarm as being among the first buyers on the scene at Llandeilo’s dairy market every Saturday, setting the prices early for butter, eggs and poultry. It was his son John who continued the butter merchant’s business my grandfather took over, though he never lived to see its heyday, dying at only thirty-two after a fall from a cart.

The name Abel Thomas and Sons Butter Merchants Ltd would stare up at me from the headed paper I used for making notes when I was studying at Lampeter University; it is written, alongside the telephone number Aman Valley 4, on a few orange pencils I now keep as mementoes, and it’s on the greaseproof butter wrapping papers which were carefully stashed away after my grandfather’s factory closed in the 1970s and which some of my relatives still find handy for lining their cake tins.

But until I read Hen Dŷ Ffarm – translated into English with such a feel for the Welsh and the raconteur style of the narrative by the poet Waldo Williams – I never felt any such close connection with these forbears that DJ (as he is usually known) so evidently felt towards past generations of his own farming family and community. The connection largely passed me by even though my grandparents, now retired, often picked me up from college and drove me across the same hill country between Lampeter and Llandeilo that ‘honest’ Abel, and his son Abel after him, used to cover every week on the way to Neath market and back, to sell goods entrusted to them by the communities they passed through.

The latter Abel, writes DJ, was ‘the last I remember of the old type of carrier that, like the drover, used to be such an important figure in the life of Wales.’ Such a carrier was, he says, the ‘human connection’ that kept the countryside and the growing towns in continual touch with each other, ‘the last knight errant of the old Welsh way of life’.

Only later did I realise why, on our cross-country journeys, my grand- father would repeatedly point out the places he used to call at while delivering and collecting goods in his van – a distant farmhouse across the fields, a roadside inn painted white – and talk on and on about the people who lived there. These places and people were in his blood.

‘Duw, youngsters today, they haven’t a clue what travelling was like in the old days,’ I seem to remember him saying to my grandmother in that robust and roistering voice of his. And even though I barely took in what he said, he had a way of making those ‘old days’ sound so much more real and substantial than the present, that I’d sit in the back of the car feeling like a wraith, as if I hardly existed...

This is an extract from Elizabeth Griffiths’ highly commended entry to this summer’s New
Welsh Writing Awards 2019 Rheidol Prize for Writing with a Welsh Theme or Setting.

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