Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

50 Gems of Mid Wales by Geoff Brookes

The Murder of John Price 1826 - Llanafan Fawr, Powys

I have included Llanafan Fawr in my book 50 Gems of Mid Wales but I have only been able to give it a bare 220 words. But it is insufficient to capture the story of a remarkable dispute between two families, remembered now by a crumbling gravestone.

Llanafan Fawr church. (Author's collection, 50 Gems of Mid Wales, Amberley Publishing)

The B4358 sweeps up from Beulah towards Newbridge on Wye and, if you are paying proper attention to the traffic, you might miss the church which stands quietly opposite the Red Lion, the oldest inn in Wales. The Church of St Afan has a long history – and a murderous one. It contains one of the oldest living objects in the country and also a fascinating gravestone.

The church, built upon an Iron Age mound, is pre-dated by the huge yew tree, estimated to be over 2300 years old. It is a tree that has seen so much drama, so much murder.

This is such a beautiful and remote place. Hills unchanged, kites circling as they always have. And through the years a community has lived here, where lives have been carved out, away from the rest of us. Jealousies, rivalries, disputes, vendettas – things that the rest of us have known nothing about – have consumed them, defining their lives and their deaths. Old rivalries. Old crimes.

About thirty metres away from the church door, on the left, you will find it.  An old weathered stone, almost indecipherable now, but unique, carrying both the name of the victim – and his murderer. If you stare at it long enough the inscription will still emerge from the past.

John Price who was murdered on the Darren Hill in this parish by R. Lewis.

April 21 1826

The gravestone. (Author's collection, 50 Gems of Mid Wales, Amberley Publishing)

The Cambrian newspaper reported the murder a week later. It tells us that John Price was found, ‘his neck twisted till the blood ran out of his ears so that his death must have been occasioned by a dislocation of his vertebrae.’ Suspicions fell upon Rees Lewis, a shepherd and neighbour, who had disappeared. But the Price’s didn’t need evidence. Their suspicions always fell upon the notorious Lewis family.

This was one of the final acts in a dispute that combined these two families in mutual loathing and which had sparked another notorious murder 42 years previously, when Lewis Lewis killed Thomas Price.

The Lewis family were, it seems, a lawless bunch, ‘a vicious, wicked set of people.’ Sheep stealing, riotous behaviour and assault run unchecked through their history. David Lewis was transported to Australia for stealing a turkey. His wife Margaret was accused of murdering an illegitimate infant son, fathered in David’s absence. She was acquitted and went on to become the midwife in the parish.

The Price family weren’t much better. Thomas Price himself was accused of Riot and Assault in July 1784, just before his murder, and others were involved in stealing livestock themselves.

By 1784 the Lewis family were finding Thomas Price hard to take. They might have been self-confessed villains but they took comfort from the fact that he was worse. They would often find their sheep dead in the fields, laid head to tail, killed by Price and his dog.

Then, in October 1784 Thomas Price disappeared. A search was organised, one that even involved young Thomas Lewis, but there was no trace of him. The Lewis family, naturally, were accused by Thomas Price’s wife Gwenllian to no avail. Rewards for information were offered but the trail went cold and the Lewis sheep remain untroubled.

However, in 1788 John Lewis was convicted of sheep stealing and was sentenced to transportation for 14 years. The prospect was horrifying. He was ‘frightened in the highest degree at the accounts from thence and resolved rather to be hanged here, than to be starved there.’ Who can blame him?

And so he sang.  He told the magistrates everything he knew about the death of Thomas Price four years earlier. He had fallen out with his brother Lewis Lewis and could see no reason to protect either him or his two sons, one also called Lewis and the other, Thomas.

So Thomas Lewis was arrested. Within a fortnight he too turned King’s Evidence and in so doing condemned both his father and his brother to the gallows.

Lewis Lewis the Elder had offered sheep to his sons if they would kill Thomas Price. Lewis Lewis the Younger and his pal Evan Davies were eager to take up the offer, though Thomas claimed that he was less enthusiastic and that it was Lewis who made the plans.

The yew tree, a silent witness to 2,500 years of history. (Author's collection, 50 Gems of Mid Wales, Amberley Publishing)

In October 1784 the three of them had waylaid Thomas Price. Lewis knocked him to the ground with a stick and then strangled him, whilst Davies thumped him in the stomach. Thomas Lewis said that he just held down his legs. Their indictment would later say that they ‘did not have the fear of God before their eyes but were seduced by the instigation of the devil.’ Well, it happens a lot in Mid Wales, even today.

Once he was dead, Lewis took Price’s purse and shared with them the contents of 6 shillings. They threw the body into a pool and Lewis hanged Price’s dog with the same cord that had strangled its master.

Thomas Lewis, already regretting his involvement, joined the search party to throw suspicion away from himself. It was Lewis and Davies who then dragged the body from the first pool and threw it to a deeper one called Varlen Vawr, submerging it with a large boulder. Thomas was the one though who found the body in May 1785, when it bobbed back up to the surface. Together with their father, they put the corpse into a sack and carried it by horse to the home of the Younger Lewis Lewis where they spent all night trying to burn the wet body using wood and turf.

In the morning they packed up the bones yet unburnt and trampled the fragments and the ashes into the garden. The next night they tried again to burn the troublesome bones, this time at the Elder Lewis Lewis house, again scattering the debris into the garden the next morning. They did indeed stamp upon the skull but the fragments were still recognisable in 1788.

Evan Davies and the younger Lewis fled once they realised that Thomas was singing in custody. Davies disappeared but Lewis was apprehended in Dolgellau. He was tried and condemned to death. He was reconciled with his brother Thomas and a large crowd witnessed his execution, the first in Brecon for 30 years. It was an occasion of the ‘greatest decorum and solemnity,’ despite his mother turning up to watch, calling out ‘Bydd fawr’n galed Lewis (‘Die hard Lewis’) whilst eating a pie.

Vendettas have a habit of repeating themselves. In 1826, Rees Lewis strangled John Price with a necktie. He pleaded not guilty but was condemned and, like his relatives before, was hanged at Brecon. The Price family could not miss this opportunity to point a finger at their enemies through the gravestone we can still see. All that passion and hatred, once so real, is now represented by a simple crumbling stone.

We cannot visit the grave of Lewis Lewis. After his execution his body was displayed in a gibbet near Llanafan Fawr. The family took away his body for secret burial at night during a storm. Unable to release the ankle chains, they cut off his feet and left them behind. A local dog found the feet and took one home to his master.

Who owned the dog?

John Price.

Geoff Brookes new book 50 Gems of Mid Wales is available for purchase now.