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Sker House || The Maids of Sker - Martha Howells (b.1771)
Martha Howells (b.1771)
Whilst researching the history of Sker House a third romance connected with the house was stumbled upon by Leslie Evans. Details of it he was able to obtain, but a far fuller version exists in a copy of a 'Western mail' newspaper from 1936.
This was written by an E.W.Pearce and was thought that it referred to Elizabeth Williams, the original Maid of Sker, yet found to be not the case. This maid of Sker was born some two years after the death of Elizabeth's father, and although it is generally supposed that Morgan Howells immediately succeeded him as the tenant at Sker, this is not necessarily the case. The earliest mention of him living there comes in 1772.
Armed with this material therefore, the story of Martha Howells, "The Other Maid of Sker" can now be told.
The Story of 'The other Maid of Sker'
Old Morgan Howells arrived at Sker a fairly well-to-do gentleman farmer, with several sons and two daughters named Mary and Martha. The latter had been born in 1771, and as the girls grew up it was Morgan's determination that they should marry well. The eldest, Mary, in accordance with his wishes married Jenkin John, a prosperous tenant farmer from Pwllygarth farm, Kenfig Hill, but Martha fell in love.
Unfortunately the object of her affection was a humble labourer named William David employed on the Nichols' estate at Merthyr Mawr. Once Morgan found out he was furious, and not only forbade the liaison, but took steps to confine Martha to the house to prevent its continuance.
Martha, as old Lena Rees recalled her was a "handsome" woman, "rather above middle stature, and extremely fond of pleasure in her day, viz, dancing, etc". She was also endowed with the spirit, energy, and sheer bloody-mindedness that characterised the Howells familly in those days. William had won her heart as she had won his, and nothing was going to stop her claiming him for a husband.
Plot to Elope
Somehow or other the two contrived to keep in contact, and between them hatched a plot to elope. Accordingly, in the early hours of a November morning in 1793 Martha slipped out of the darkened house to where William was waiting, and the two made their way to the nearby village of Newton.
The harbour and the town at Porthcawl were still in the future, but there was at Newton, a small port that carried on a thriving trade in coal with Bristol and other small creeks on the opposite side of the channel. It was a Bristol boat which now lay there on which William had booked them a passage.
The craft would not have been large - probably less than 20 tons - and would have been flat-bottomed. At low tide its cargo of coal would have been heaped upon the beach around a tall stake driven into the sand.
When the tide rose it covered the mound of coal, but using the top of the stake as a marker, the captain of the vessel would have anchored as near to it as possible and loaded his cargo when the tide ebbed sufficiently to leave his craft high and dry. His coal safely aboard, the captain was waiting only for the tide to rise suffiently to lift his boat off the sand, when he was attracted by a hail from the shore. There stood a furious Morgan Howells who had now discovered his daughter's "escape".
Angrily he demanded that the captain put her ashore immediately! The old salt however stood his ground, unmoved even by a proffered bribe of 10 shillings! As the tide rose that little extra, the boat lifted from the sand and turning her bow towards the open sea, set sail for Bristol with William and Martha still aboard.
Old Morgan was not finished yet though. Riding to Pyle Inn, he caught the next mail coach bound for Bristol, and the race was on! Mail coaches boasted an average speed of 10mph - laughable today maybe, but probably far better than would be managed by the battered old collier vessel in which the lovers were travelling.
Moreover, although taking a more direct route, the latter was at the mercy of the wind and weather, whilst (barring accidents) the coach, whilst making a more roundabout journey to cross by the ferry at Chepstow, would almost certainly get to its destination on time.
Morgan's chase therefore was not made such a forlorn hope, but when he arrived at Bristol docks it was to find the vessel unloading at the quay, and his enquiries failed to discover where the lovers had gone. In fact William and Martha had made their way to the fashionable resort of Bath and, as the parish registers of the church of St.James record, exchanged their vows there on 10th November.
Return to Newton
The couple returned and set up home at Newton, where a furious Morgan refused to have anything more to do with his errant daughter, perhaps hoping that a few weeks as a labourer's wife would "bring her to her senses".
Martha, however, had all her father's determination, and steadfastly settled down to her new life, keeping home for her husband and in due course raising their children. There is a story passed down in their family that relates to this period that reflects her determination to succeed in this new life. Perpetually short of money, the day came when from amongst her belongings she pulled out a riding habit - probably the one she had worn during that madcap flight to Bath.
It had been part of her former life as a young lady of breeding with servants at her beck and call, but had no place in the life of a labourer's wife, so she cut it up to make new clothes for her children.
Martha's uncomplaining steadfastness in her altered circumstances did not go unnoticed in the village, which numbered amongst its inhabitants a certain Betsy Burnell. A woman well regarded for her wisdom and natural common-sense she hatched a plot to try and forge a bridge across the widening gulf between Martha and her parents.
A Preaching at Sker House
A devout methodist, Morgan was in the habit of allowing their itinerant preachers the use of the great hall at Sker in which to conduct meetings. Betsy waited until a particularly well known preacher was due to speak at one of these gatherings and managed to persuade Martha to accompany her to her him.
The hall was packed, but as Morgan was about to take his accustomed seat at the head of the congregation, he spotted that his daughter was amongst them. His face turned purple with rage that she should have dared to re-enter the doors of her former home, and he stormed out of the room.
Minutes later the congregation - most of whom were probably fully aware of the situation - were startled to hear a shot from the back of the house. More minutes passed, and then Morgan returned and resumed his seat in a stone-faced silence. Later he was to admit that his temper had so got the better of him, that he had fired his shotgun into the air as a way of regaining his self-control!
The service started and in due course the preacher began his sermon.
He was good - very good and it wasn't long before Betsy noticed a softening of old Morgan's stony features, and a tear or two as he, like the rest of the congregation, was moved by the power of the speaker's eloquence.
Once the service was over, Betsy made a beeline for Morgan and his wife and, reading between the lines, probably gave them "a piece of her mind". How could they dare to call themselves Christians when they lived in luxury in this great mansion, whilst their own daughter and their own grandchldren left to eke out an existence simply because of their stiff-necked pride? There was probably more - but that would be assumed what would have been the gist of it!
Morgan and his wife turned away without a word, and Betsy's shoulders slumped. Her plan had failed, and far from bringing daughter and parents back together, she feared that her meddling had now only gone and made matters worse. Martha returned home to her humble cottage and her family.
A Mysterious Stranger
The following morning she had a caller, a mysterious stranger who, without a word, handed her a large parcel of clothing and left as suddenly as he had arrived. A day or two latter, men were seen driving a cow and 20 sheep through the village to the door of her home, and this time there was a note to say that the livestock and clothing were gifts from her parents.
The long bitter feud was over! The breach was healed and if old Lena's failing memory was correct the day dawned when Martha and her husband did indeed set foot inside the family home with Morgan's blessing.
Lena recalled that she and a gang of workers were gleaning in a field there called Buarth Mawr, and recalled how they all set up a great shout of welcome "this being her first visit to Sker since her marriage".
William and Martha lived to a ripe old age and lie buried in the churchyard at Newton where the memorial erected over their grave can still be seen today. In all they had seven children, of whom six grew to adulthood. Their descendants living in the area today still remembering and treasuring the story of their romance.
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