Police Sergeant David James of Carmarthen Borough Police Force and the triple tragedy of death by drowning.


As I have mentioned previously, when researching an individual who is buried in St David’s Cemetery you never know what information comes to light during the course of that research. Such was the case with David James, a very respectable and popular Police Sergeant in Carmarthen. Little did I know that shortly after starting my research I was to find out quite by accident that he and two of his friends, one of which was also a Police Constable died together in a triple drowning tragedy on the River Towy on July 24th 1865. Even sadder was the fact that exactly two months later on 24th September, David’s only son Alphred died aged 4 years and five months, his mother Elizabeth, being unable to cope with the sudden loss of her husband, suffering a mental breakdown. It was to be another 35 years before Elizabeth herself, passed away in the Carmarthen Infirmary and was buried with them at the age of 60 in February 1900. My story however, would not have been complete without first visiting the “scene” of the tragedy on the River Towy 155 years ago and this Thursday evening I was privileged to be taken up river by Steve, a safety officer from the Gwendraeth Valley Paddlers, in a ribbed inflatable boat accompanied by Mr Malcolm Rees direct descendant of Owen Elias (who pulled out the body of Sergeant James from the river) and his wife Julie who had been kind enough to make all the arrangements. It was in fact memorable in more ways than one, in that it was 27 years ago in 1993 that I had last left the Quayside in a boat –as Admiral of the Port of Carmarthen.

The still and calm waters of the Towy with it’s deep pools

The sunlit evening and calm waters made the journey a very pleasant one if not a poignant one, passing many local landmarks along the way and seeing a great deal of wildlife, swans herons, squirrels, bats and much more besides. The clarity of the water was amazing in some stretches which belied its depth and after twenty minutes or so we reached our destination. From the detailed description of evidence given from the Coroners Inquest, we came to the spot close to the property known as Danyrallt where in 1865 four men entered the water and only one returned. The farmhouse – still occupied can be seen clearly from the river bank.

Whilst much of the course of the river has changed in the last hundred years this area will have changed little, largely due to the remains of the old Carmarthen Lead Mines carved out of the rock face protecting the river bank from any erosion. Visiting the scene, and seeing with my own eyes, the depth of the deep pools and strength of the current, it was not surprising that such tragedies occurred especially in the midst of a hot summer in July 1865 where “bathing” and not swimming was commonplace. Sadly, as we all know too well the Towy has claimed many lives over the centuries. The Towy Coraclemen – a celebrated group of experienced anglers and fishermen are as part of the fabric of Carmarthen as the river itself, and credit has to be given to them for the centuries of service they have given in the saving of many lives from the river and also for the retrieving of many of those who had sadly succumbed to it’s dangers.

Towy Coraclemen in 1908 assisted in locating the body of  3 year old Cromwell Davies who had fallen into a river near Merthyr. Note the “grappling Iron” being held by the man with the coracle on his back.

As will be seen from the Coroners report of this fatal tragedy, they had a large part to play in rescuing the three bodies before they disappeared for ever. At least the wives and family of those who drowned could now mourn the loss of a loved one at the graveside of their beloved son and husband. I am very grateful to Mrs. Julie Rees for taking some of the photographs & for organising the boat trip to the scene of the tragedy, which in some way brought closure on a story that is not well known but had very tragic consequences for 3 families whose lives were changed for ever 155 years ago.

My research first began when I started looking into David’s Police career and in particular involving one famous incident of his arrest of “POOR NANNY” (Anne Awberry) in February 1863. What follows is an extract from the late Pat Molloy’s “A Shilling for Carmarthen– The town they nearly tamed” followed by a further extract from the newspaper “The Welshman” published in July 1865 reporting on the Coroners Inquest into the deaths by drowning. Together they tell the tale of David James, whose bright and colourful career in the local Police Force was brought to a cruel and tragic end…..here then, is his story, one page out of many chapters.

“Anne Awberry, the doyen of the town’s drunks and nymphs of the pave, was still doing her stuff” PC William Jones said that about half past nine o’clock on Thursday night Anne Awberry was drunk in Guildhall Square. She had a crowd of children about her and was singing and dancing and very riotous. She is a prostitute. She was committed to the House of Correction for two months” (March 1863)

Police Sergeant David James charged Anne Awberry with being drunk and riotous. He said in his statement to the Magistrates “last night about 11o’clock I was on duty in Lammas Street when I saw the defendant there near the Boar’s Head Hotel. She was singing and making a great noise. She was very drunk and creating a disturbance. She has been very bad since she came out of gaol last. She is a prostitute and this is her one hundred and thirtieth appearance here in Court.” The magistrates committed her to the house of correction for three calendar months. So celebrated was “Poor Nanny” that she earned a distinction unique for one of the poorest of the community – an obituary in the Carmarthen Journal.

“Death of poor nanny”

This notorious person known as Anne Awberry is no more. She was only lately discharged from gaol where “Poor Nanny” as she called herself had spent most part of her time for the last thirty years, as an incorrigible drunkard. She was taken ill suddenly on Thursday and conveyed in a cart to the Workhouse, where medical assistance was given to her, but to no avail and she died on Sunday last (23rd August 1863) and was buried in the Town Cemetery in Trevaughan Road a few days later.

Sad that only this kind of notoriety could merit even a mention of the passing of those below the rank of “gentleman”, professional man or tradesman; only an entry in a court record or police occurrence book would mark their brief transit across Carmarthen’s crowded little stage. Others of the “lower orders” entered and left that stage without even leaving a footprint on its boards.


On Monday evening last, a melancholy accident occurred just at the time when thousands of people were assembled on the banks of the river Towy, to witness the ceremony in launching the steam-boat” Lily.” A few minutes before the launch it was rumored that, two Policemen and another man were drowned while bathing in the river, near Danyrallt. At first the statement was discredited, but when the ceremony was over it was known that the sad tidings were too true. It appears that Sergeant David James, Evan Jones, and D Williams all of the Carmarthen Borough Police Force and William Powell, formerly in the force but now an eating house  keeper in Water street, went out for a bathe. They walked across the Carmarthen Bridge and along the footpath at the back of Tygwyn, and when they got to the south bank of the river, they looked for a suitable place to bathe, and fixed upon a spot about 300 yards above the Tin Works.

The scene of the tragedy in July 1865

They decided upon the place, because it appeared less dangerous than any other, while in reality no one beside an expert swimmer should venture there. Williams tried the depth, but he did not go far enough for near the bank there is a deep pool with a strong current. James and Powell could swim a little; the other two could not swim at all. They waited a few minutes for the tide, and then went in. James plunged into the river and appeared to be swimming but he was cautioned not to venture too far. He made no reply, being probably at that moment in imminent peril. Powell was also out in the stream, and found the current carrying him away, he cried for help Jones and Williams then joined hands to assist Powell who directly afterwards sank, and the others got beyond their depth. Jones let go his hold of Williams and floated out into the stream. Williams was then altogether under water, and very much confused. He, however, fortunately turned and made a desperate effort to reach the bank, which he just managed to do in an exhausted state. He then saw Jones struggling far out in the river crying that a rope might be thrown to him. Neither James nor Powell were anywhere to be seen. Williams gave an alarm and some fishermen in coracles came to his assistance, but too late, the three unfortunate men were then drowned. A search was at once made for the bodies. Powell was found at about 8 o’clock, and James at 11 o’clock that night. Jones was not found until Wednesday. On Wednesday evening an inquest was held in the Shire Hall, before John Hughes, Esq., coroner, when the following evidence was given. P.C. David Williams

…… “About half-past five o’clock on Monday last, the 24th inst, I went to bathe in the Towy, in company with P.S. David James, P.C. Evan Jones, and William Powell, eating-house keeper in Water Street. We went over the bridge, and near Tygwyn. The tide was not in when we arrived at the river side. I stripped first and went into the river to see how deep it was before the tide came. I came back and sat on the bank to wait for the tide which came in about ten minutes, when we all went in. Sergeant James was the highest up the river, near a pool. He plunged himself, and he was very long before he came up, and we said he must have been drowned. When he came up about three or four yards off, Evan Jones told him not to venture so much for fear something would happen. He did not answer but turned to the right about and went up with the tide to a deeper place. I believe he was carried up by the tide about twenty yards. Powell then called out for assistance, as he was drowning. He was only three or four yards from Evan Jones and myself. Evan Jones said “give me your hand” and I did so. Before we got to him hand in hand he was out of sight – he had sunk. I did not see him again. When we were hand in hand, directly after Powell sank, Evan Jones lost his footing and sank, and in sinking pulled me down with him till we were out of sight .He left my hand loose, and I turned back, I struggled and came out of the river. I looked back and saw Evan Jones in the middle of the river, struggling and on his back. He called out to me to throw him a rope. I said, my dear fellow, I had no rope, but ran to some coracles for help. I ran back in two or three minutes, and he was not in sight. I did not see David James after he was carried up by the tide, which was running very strong. I could not swim, but Sergeant James and Evan Jones could swim a little. Powell could not. By the Jury the water was about two and a half feet deep where we first went in. We waited for the tide to have a salt bath.”

David Evans, fisherman, Priory Row, said last Monday evening….. “About a quarter to six o’clock I was coming out of my house, which is near the river. I saw the last witness running across the Tygwyn marsh naked; he was calling out for help to some men who were drowning. I took my coracle and went as quickly as possible to the place which he pointed out, but I could see nothing there. Three others and myself went home to fetch nets and hooks. When I returned some men who were there said they could feel something in their net. I got hold of William Powell by the ankle, with a hook, and brought him out about 8 o’clock. It was in a very deep place”

Owen Elias, labourer and fisherman, the Parade, said last Monday… “I went from my work, and when I was drinking my tea I heard someone say there were three men drowning. About half-past eight I went on the river in a coracle, with a grappling iron with which I found the body of Sergeant James. I found it about ten yards higher than where the last man found the body of Powell. I found it about quarter past eleven o’clock.” 

Mr Malcolm Rees with a “grappling Iron” at the scene of the tragedy. Malcolm is a direct descendant of Owen Elias, who found the body of Sergeant James.

Abraham Harris, fisherman, Priory-street, said…. “This morning about eleven o’clock I went out in a coracle, with a hook, to search for the body of Evan Jones. I put the hook down near where the others were found, and soon brought up the body. There were, perhaps, five or six yards between the three bodies. I was looking for the body yesterday with the grappling iron, but could not find it.”

This being all the evidence, the Coroner remarked that any comment from himself would be unnecessary, as the cause of death was apparent. The Jury immediately brought in a verdict of “Accidentally drowned while bathing.”


Sergeant James’s headstone & that of his infant son and wife in St David’s Cemetery Carmarthen.



The Memory of




Sergeant in the Carmarthen Borough

Police Force, who was Accidentally

drowned by bathing on the 24th July 1865

Aged 32 years.

Boast not thyself of tomorrow for thou knowest

not what a day may bring forth.

ALSO of ALPHRED J JAMES, son of the

above named who died 24th of Sept 1865

Aged 4 years and 5 months.


In loving memory of ELIZABETH, wife of

DANIEL JAMES, who died at Carmarthen

Infirmary,  Feb 12.  1900 aged 60 years


And finally, the photograph below shows the intrepid quartet setting off from the Quay just after 19.00 hrs on Thursday 17th September, returning safe and sound later in the evening. Left (front) Mr Malcolm Rees (Back) Richard Goodridge – Chairman of the Trustees of the Thomas & Elizabeth Mayhook Charity and author of this story. (Back right) Mr Stephen Bright, Safety Officer of the Gwendraeth Valley Paddlers, and Mrs Julie Rees








Translate »