Mumbles Hill, A Ramble Through Time
by Carol Powell M.A.
'The great fleet of oyster boats which had been dredging was coming in round the lighthouse point with every shade of white and amber sails gay in the afternoon sun as they ran each into their moorings under the shelter of the great harbour cliff.'
So wrote an evidently-entranced Rev. Francis Kilvert following a picnic on Mumbles Hill in April 1872. Today, we can continue to enjoy the wide-sweeping views of Swansea Bay and distant Devon from the same place—and perhaps become curious as to what has occurred in times gone by on this small patch of land.
Man has been making his mark on the hill since time immemorial, as instanced by the discovery of a Neolithic stone axe head in an allotment there in 1938 and a fissure on the hill has also revealed prehistoric human bones and teeth.
The area was quarried extensively for its limestone over many years. By 1650, at the time of the Cromwellian Survey, rent from the enterprises was said to be worth £10 per annum, Collonell [sic] Phillip Jones was a customary holder ‘for a house and garden’ and Walter Thomas ‘for a messuage and lands’ at ‘Fistlebone’ nearby.
Mumbles Hill from Clements Quarry, c 1880
By the mid 18C, much of the ‘cliffes of the Lord’ were leased by Mrs. Mary Watkins from the Beaufort estate, and she in turn, leased portions out to various small quarrying operators and to John Griffiths, Richard Edwards and Jenkin Dunn and others for grazing their sheep and horses. Thomas Griffiths, Daniel Cleypit and William Michael paid annually for cutting furze on the hill and Jenkin Dunn and David Lowarch, were among those who held leases for various 24 square-yard plots ‘upon parts of the clift.’ By the 1850s Captain Phillips, a quarry owner, reported that ‘3000 to 4,000 tons were being quarried in the area and the trade was employing some forty men,’ with consequent employment for those supplying tools and other necessities. Twenty years later, a letter to the Cambrian pointed out the ‘danger to walkers on the hill from indiscriminate quarrying’.
Still to be seen at the Knab Rock car park are the remains of two limekilns, in which limestone was burnt using coal into lime, which was used on the fields as fertilizer, for the whitewashing of houses, exported by boat from the nearby shore to the lime-free county of Devon and in later years, used for road surfacing. In its ‘rock’ form it was used for buildings and walls and in some instances as an excellent substitute for marble. Lime could also be utilized for its medicinal properties, reputedly being good for cases of ‘stone, gout, relaxation of the bowels and for some types of scurvy’. Eventually, the success of the trade necessitated a further form of transport other than loading it onto boats and so in 1804, the Mumbles Railway was born as a cargo line.
The Cambrian News of 7 April 1810 reported that employees of Mr. Yaldon during the course of quarrying about half way between Mumbles Village and the Mumbles Point ‘had cut through a complete cemetery in which were found immense quantities of human bones. It is probable that this was the burial place of a vast multitude, who perished nearly at the same time either by pestilence or by the sword.’ Could this be the burial-ground of the chapel, predating All Saints’ Church reputed to have been situated near the edge of the cliff?
The presence of iron ore had been known for many years, but was mined more regularly from 1845 until 1899 from a seam, which stretched from near the Knab Rock through and over the hill to Limeslade and the remains of which are visible today. The ore would be taken down to the beach from where small ships would transport it across the bay. The danger of mining was highlighted with an inquest at the Ship and Castle on 27 February 1852 into the death of one ‘T. O’Connor who had been killed at David Pugh’s iron ore mine’.
The 1844 tithe map apportionment affords us an opportunity to discover the names of the fields, some of their boundaries still in evidence today—Lower Bramble End, Upper Bramble, Higher and Lower Barn Fields, Hill Field and the larger area of ‘Mumbles Hill and Cliff’, which stretched over as far as the Inner Sound, were just some of the names known to those locals over many years.
Also shown is the position of the hill-top Battery, built overlooking the Mumbles Head by 1804. A Royal gun salute resounded from there in June 1804 on the occasion of the birthday of King George III and later that summer for that of Queen Charlotte. The Board of Ordnances invited tenders for the removal of its stores in June 1804 and the following year, for the removal of the guns. The battery was replaced by another on the lighthouse island in 1860.
Notice in the background, working oyster skiffs, two in full sail; the recently-blasted slopes of the hill devoid of vegetation and the partly-made road going nowhere; but see also the absence of the ‘Cutting’, the old lifeboat house, the Pier and its buildings, the promenade and the railway track, which would all be part of the future.
Gradually, quarrying ‘sliced’ off the vertical slopes of the hill on the Mumbles side, changing the topography of the area considerably e.g. notable by its absence on the 1844 map are the promenade and the ‘Cutting,’ which were not finished until the end of 1888, both undertaken to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Prior to this it would have been necessary to walk up over the hill through Thistleboon or up the steep slope from the George or indeed take a boat trip around the Mumbles Head, to get to from Mumbles to Limeslade or Broadslade (Bracelet).
The main Coastguard station was at Church Parks, consisting of a District Officer’s house and a terrace of seven houses for the coastguards and their families. Around 1850, a look-out or ‘Watch House,’ consisting of half a boat upended, was positioned on the hill and was reached by the path behind the George Hotel. Although the facilities were improved somewhat in later years, the look-out was dismantled in 1910.
On top of the hill is Somerset House, which was built originally as a public house by local victualler and iron-ore mine owner, David Pugh. A grand opening was advertised in The Cambrian News on 14 December 1849. It appears to have not been a success as less than a year later on 15 November, a notice in The Cambrian announced its closure and it was put on the market. During the intervening years, it has had several incarnations—Jan McKechnie, the present owner writes that, ‘From 1919, Mr F. Le Boulanger, who was a ship-owner, ship-broker, coal exporter and Hon. Sec. of the RNLI, lived at Somerset House and in 1939, it was requisitioned by the Secretary of State for War and became a headquarters and officers’ mess. There were army huts, concrete bunkers and ack ack guns on the hill, where the foundation remains amongst the brambles can still be seen’. After the war, the house was occupied by caretakers Bill Morris and a colleague until the coastal battery had been dismantled, when it was left empty and deteriorating until in 1963, ‘the Secretary of State for War’ finally ceased to be on its title deeds. This was followed by a time as an Old People’s Home.
Sheep grazing, was still common practice on the hill up until the Second World War recalls Malcolm Webborn, ‘I would sometimes help my friend Gerald Lilley, who worked at Woolacott’s farm, to round up the sheep, which grazed the hill from Thistleboon to Bracelet. They would be driven to a field below Somerset House, where they would be counted as they passed through a stile and any missing ones would be then searched for in nooks and crannies until all were accounted for’.
Rev. Wilkinson, Vicar of All Saints'
Anne Ardouin, daughter of the Vicar of All Saints Church recalls her father’s wartime duties. ‘Every Sunday morning, between church services, he would celebrate Holy Eucharist at the army camp of Thistleboon on the Mumbles Hill, wearing a purple armband, emblazoned with O.C.F. (Officiating Chaplain to the Forces) on top of his clerical robes. If we were especially lucky, he would let us accompany him and later, in the Officers’ Mess, we would enjoy breakfast of bacon and eggs, which were so heavily rationed at home,’ although Muriel Schroter (née Hawkins) of the ATS, stationed on the hill, commented that she and her colleagues ‘always had bread and jam.’
Another hill-top resident, Michael Llewellyn remembers, ‘The ATS appeared on the camp at the Mumbles Hill sometime after 1940. They were accommodated in newly built Nissan Huts in the lower field in which Thistleboon Drive is now situated and were inclined to clip small boys over the ear if discovered in the vicinity of their huts. The sight of enormous khaki bloomers swaying in the wind on clothes lines held a compulsive attraction for young lads. ‘Although there was much barbed wire surrounding the Mumbles Hill Camp, access for us youngsters was extremely easy—just hop over the hedge onto Boulanger's carriage drive. We used to wander into the camp with some freedom, as long as we did not adopt too high a profile and avoided officers. The soldiers were always kind to us and we used to Blanco kit in return for cap badges, uniform buttons and the like. When the Naafi hut showed films or had entertainments, there were usually a gang of local kids sitting at the front’.
Mumbles Hill resident, Hilary Mackenzie, ‘On warm summer days, my mother and I would walk across the hill, past the lush buttercup meadow of Mr Boulanger’s large house, Somerset House, and down through the bracken to Bracelet Bay. It all came to an abrupt halt in the autumn of 1939, when war descended on our peaceful little corner. The far section of our lovely hill was requisitioned by the War Department for a large anti-aircraft station, our walk to Bracelet was shut off by barbed wire, and where the sheep grazed, Nissan huts of tough soldiers appeared.
Bill Morris, then a serving soldier with the RA, recalled ‘On the Bracelet Bay side at the top of Mumbles Hill Headland there were two 6˝ BL Mark II (ex-naval) guns along with their fire control, all in separate concrete casements. Next to the guns, there were ammunition bunkers at the bottom of steps. This was in addition to the four Heavy Anti- Aircraft guns, which were based nearer to the Thistleboon Common end’. In all, there were several thousand serving personnel, including the Royal Sussex Regiment, ATS and 360 members of the Home Guard, working at different times on the hill during the Second World War.
Nowadays by contrast, Mumbles Hill is a largely-deserted peaceful haven, overgrown in places, but beautiful nonetheless, where one can escape for a while to just ‘stand and stare’ at the wonderful views, enjoy a picnic, read a favourite book or explore the gradually re-emerging wartime remains.
As true now as it was a century ago comes this excerpt from Ernest Rees, in his 'The South Wales Coast 'written in 1911 . . . ‘The time to climb the Mumbles hill is late on a summer evening, when the tide is full and the sun westering.. . .
Davies, A., ‘Iron Ore mining at Mumbles and Langland Districts, 1845-1899’ Gower, XII
Gabb, G., The Story of the Village of Mumbles, 1986
Thomas, N., The Mumbles: Past and Present, 1978
The Cambrian News, 2 June 1804, 9 June 1804, 26 October 1805, 7 April 1810, 15 November 1850, 27 February 1852, 18 July 1873
The Cromwellian Survey of Gower, 1650 WGA cat. No. D/D MG1 or D/D KE/1
Powell, Gabriel, ‘Survey of the Lordship of Gower, 1764’, Gower Society, 2000
1844 Tithe map and Apportionment of the Parish of Oystermouth, WGA
Written contributions from Anne Ardouin, Michael Llewellyn, Hilary Mackenzie, Jan McKecknie, Bill Morris, Muriel Schroter and Malcolm Webborn.
ATS — Auxiliary Territorial Service
OHA—Oystermouth Historical Association
RA — Royal Artillery
WGA—West Glamorgan Archive