St Woolos Cemetery - The Haunted Holy Ground

From the book "The Haunted Holy Ground" by Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame published in 1988.

About the Authors




Location: FC 60


A Boatman’s Cosy Berth

By Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame
First published 1988

© Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame 2012

It is doubtful whether the full story behind the rise and rise of Richard Burton, mariner of this town and buried in St Woolos beneath an unspectacular slab, will ever be known.

Richard Burton's grave is marked by an unspectacular slab
Richard Burton's grave is marked by an unspectacular slab
(lower right of picture)
Location FC 60

We do know that Burton, a stocky and fearless man able to take life on the chin and deal out a few blows himself, left the customs service in 1819 and within a year was a boat-owner in his own right. By the middle of the century, Burton was a shipping magnate, whose maritime empire had long conquered the home waters of the Bristol Channel, and reached out to Liverpool, Belfast, Glasgow and beyond.

The story of Richard Burton starts around the beginning of the last century, when local history records him as living as a customs boatman in a cottage within a stone’s throw of Moderator Wharf in Newport.

For such a man as Burton, life could be dangerous. Men hungry for the riches which contraband could bring did not scruple to fire upon a customs yawl, and we can suppose that in his patrols up the Usk as far as Caerleon Burton faced his share of the danger.

Despite the hardships of the job, all appeared to go well with the diligent boatman until 1819 when dissatisfaction broke out among his fellows because of an order which required them to man the Watch-house.

An indignant Burton maintained that his job was on the river and on the river he would stay, and so in that very year he left His Majesty’s Service.

By 1820, Burton had purchased a boat and was touting for cargo between Newport and Bristol and anywhere else a few guineas might be made. Things might have remained at this modest level had he not shortly afterwards met David Jones, who for many years had operated a horse-drawn market boat taking goods up the Monmouthshire Canal to Risca, Cross Keys, Abercarn and Crumlin.

Burton’s cargoes were matched to a steady and growing trade in the mining towns of the Western Valleys and it was not long before he was able to afford additions to his fleet.

In 1825, six years after leaving the customs service, he purchased the Bristol Packet, a sloop of 49 tons, built at Newport in exactly the year he had gone into business for himself. Burton’s father joined him as a partner in the business and shortly after that father and son bought another sloop, the Mary, of the same tonnage.

In 1833, Burton commissioned John Johns, of Newport, to build the Bristol Packet II, a vessel of 64 tons, and four years after that he bought the Bristol Packet III with the money raised from the sale of the original Bristol Packet and the Mary.

There followed in fairly quick order the Norman, a schooner of 75 tons; the Burton, a smack of 52 tons built by John Young at Newport in 1848; the smack Edgar, 57 tons, built in 1851; the sloop Emily Maria, 61 tons and built in 1853, and the ketch Victoria, 58 tons, built the following year.

The meeting with Jones had provided Burton with his first major business opportunity, but it was to be dealings within the family that would take him on the final, and greatest, leg of his commercial expansion.

In 1851, Richard Burton’s sons, Henry, William and Edgar were taken into the partnership. Henry was agent for the Rhymney Iron Company and also represented Messrs. Guest of the Dowlais Works. The Bristol Packet Wharf, from which the Burton concern operated, was approved by the Commissioners of Customs for the landing of and shipping of foreign goods and from that point there was no looking back for the family business.

The family opened branch offices in both Bristol and Cardiff and started daily cargo services between each of these ports and Newport.

From Newport there would be shipped nails from the Corde’s Dos Works, wire from Messrs. Hill, of Cwmbran, iron pipes and paving stones and tinplate and all sorts of manufactured goods. There was always a cargo waiting at Bristol for shipment to South Wales, and so for the best part of threequarters of a century it seemed as if some charmed sea sprite was sailing with the vessels that proudly carried the Burton pennant.

By the middle part of the 1870s, the economic expansion of Great Britain was in full swing and the Burton business reflected the strength of the economy as a whole. By 1875 their fleet consisted of the screw steamers Ethel, Moderator II, Enid, Isca, St David and Lincolnshire, while the ships Bristol Packet, Burton, Edgar, Prince of Wales Forerunner and Emily Maria continued under sail.

The Bristol Packet Wharf had belonged to the family for some time but so great was its usage that they purchased in quick succession the

Beaufort Wharf, Varteg Wharf, Hanson’s Brick Wharf, Moderator Wharf and, finally, the Nantyglo Wharf.

It was following the purchase of these wharves, later consolidated into the Burton’s Wharves, that the family began a weekly steamer service to London and shortly after that steamer services to Glasgow and Belfast.

Shortly after that again a twice-weekly service was started between Liverpool and Newport using the Burton-owned steamers Ibis, Snipe, Plover and Teal.

When in the penultimate decade of the last century the Burtons purchased the wharves and business of Cross Street Wharf it marked the high point of their prosperity.

In 1898 Messrs. R. Burton and Son sold out to a Cardiff syndicate for the then considerable sum of £80,000, which marked the end of the family as active commercial figures in the town.

Looking back on this solid history of Victorian endeavour is it proper to dwell on the circumstances which surrounded Richard Burton’s steps to success?

Since the 12th century the whole of the South Wales coast had been a hotbed of smuggling and in 1895, when the founder of the Burton business was snug in his cottage down by that stretch of river which was later to bring him wealth, the smuggling was at its lucrative height.

It seems as though the importation of contraband began to reach a virtually unimpeded flow some time after 1770. On December 21 of that year, customs officers discovered 12 casks of brandy, some 96 gallons in all, in a Newport barn.

There can be little doubt that the smuggling of brandy and tobacco in the 18th and 19th centuries was similar to the smuggling of drugs today in that the customs officials were able to discover only the tip of an iceberg.

On the 8th of April, 1784, at Goldcliffe, 12 hogsheads of finely cut tobacco, well manufactured and weighing upwards of 9,800 pounds, were landed, together with a cask of brandy containing 40 gallons. Newport customs officers were quickly on the scene but not before the smugglers had made good their escape.

The dangers of customs work are well illustrated in an incident involving Richard Burton which happened in the River Usk on October 10, 1791.

A customs report reads:


We have to inform you that on the 10th inst. a smuggling skiff of some fifteen to twenty tons burthen (open hold) with a small boat attending her came to anchor at our river’s mouth. One of our officers, Richard Burton, being then down the river with others in company, went alongside and endeavoured to board her, but the persons on board her, with horrid imprecations, recited him, swearing that if he presumed to come on board they would blow his brains out and at the same time brandishing a cutlass and pointing a pistol with horrid threats to his life, etc.”

The report for the following day continues;

“We have been endeavouring to find where any goods were landed but to no effect.

“There are six or seven desperate ruffians on board, she is a new vessel, black sides and upper works painted red and on her stern the John of Comb but we are assured she belongs to Barry Island and is built for smuggling, and one Brown her master.

“We have no force sufficient to attack such desperate villains therefore you will be pleased to recommend and lay before the Commissioners the necessity and utility of a small cutter drawing but little water, to be stationed at Penarth with force sufficient to detect such small craft and to whom officers in the neighbouring ports in the Channel occasionally may give proper informations and apply for assistance. We are also credibly informed that this is the second or third trip she (the ‘John’) has made on this coast and up the Channel within this six weeks past.”

The report reveals the extent to which customs officials were hampered by a shortage of resources. There is more than a hint in the rather convoluted language of the report that assistance was not coming forward as readily as it might, which, in truth, was the case.

We have to remember that in those days the monarch might command fear and respect, but it is far from certain that he would have the love of his subjects.

If the parson could have his drop of brandy and the squire his bowl of finest Virginia, the cost of which was unencumbered by tax, then so much the better.

When customs officials complained that they were not getting sufficient support from local pillars of the community it was often with very good cause!

With the explosion in shipping in the first part of the last century and the opening of the Monmouthshire Canal, which meant that contraband goods could quickly be shifted up the valleys, smuggling grew apace.

In 1804 an official report which admitted: “the running of goods up the River Usk has been frequently attempted and sometimes with success, as we are assured” must have been the understatement of the century. Between 1837 and 1840 the customs men had some success, mainly small hauls of Irish whiskey brought over in the cattle boats from Cork and the other Irish ports, but the largest part slipped through their nets.

In the latter part of the 18th century the island of Lundy was a haunt of sea-going rogues, notorious as any in the Spanish Main, and duels with pistols and swords between excisemen and the smugglers were not uncommon. With the expansion of legitimate trade, however, smuggling became more sophisticated and there is some evidence that some of the most prominent men in Newport had an interest in this clandestine business.

Even to this very day, if you speak nicely to the warden of Flatholm Island, you might be allowed to drop down a mineshaft sunk at about the time Mr Burton began to make his fortune.

It is a dank, eerie place and your first thought might be that having gone to the immense trouble and danger of sinking the shaft, the miners might at least have persevered in driving the levels further into the rock.

The reason becomes obvious when you think about it against the background of smuggling. Extracting minerals is hard work and profits marginal. But a few cases of spirits and some bales of tobacco, well, what’s so difficult about taking a cut from a smuggler in exchange for the use of the old shaft as a cache, or even going into smuggling in a small way yourself?

Many a schooner must have stood off Flatholm during the last century while its dinghy put out to the island to return laden with contraband. There was a great deal of shipping in the Bristol Channel in those days, and not all of it legal.

In March, 1837, the revenue cutter Sylvia came alongside the schooner “Good Intent” (a misnomer if ever there was one!) and found on board 259 kegs, each containing four gallons and one quart of French brandy: 1,100 gallons in all.

The master of the vessel was sentenced and spent a long spell in Monmouth gaol and the vessel and cargo were condemned to be destroyed. Two of the owners petitioned for the release of the Sylvia but their petition was refused and she was broken up in 1838. It later transpired that of the five prominent Newport merchants who had a share in the Sylvia, one at least had intimate business relations with the Customs.

Elsewhere in this book you can read about the mouth of the River Ebbw that terrible day in July, 1909, when the works at the New Dock being built at the entrance to the river caved in, killing 46 workers.

Sixty years before that accident the river mouth was a very different place; only partly tamed and haunted by wreaths of mists and the booming of the bittern.

On March 13, 1841, there was anchored at the entrance to the Ebbw a schooner named the Rose, a Newport registered vessel. That night, Edward Frost, a Newport customs man, led a swoop on the Rose and the shoreline near her and found 118 casks of brandy with three carts and a team of five horses ready to take the contraband away. There was plenty of evidence to link the on-shore find with the Rose and when the ship was searched two kegs of brandy were found in her hold.

If that were not sufficiently conclusive, letters found on the master implicated two of the former owners of the vessel and the muddied clothes of those same two were found on the river bank near to where the seizure had been made.

There was some evidence to link the former owners of the Rose with the incident but this was never conclusive. As had happened in the instance of the Sylvia and has had happened to many smugglers’ vessels many times before, the ship and the cargo was destroyed and the master was handed a stiff prison sentence.

There is plenty to suggest that even if they were not directly interested in the smuggling trade, local owners were prepared to turn a blind eye when a vessel setting sail from the Channel Isles supposedly bound for the continent altered course and dropped its illicit cargo in the quiet and remote parts of the Severn Estuary.

In many cases ingenious concealment places were built into the ships, and it is difficult to see how this could have been done without at least the tacit consent of the owners.

Despite the speed with which Richard Burton was able to purchase his first vessel after his retirement from the customs service there is nothing to suggest that his retirement was other than for the reasons he had stated.

But one thing is certain. If anybody was able to make a guinea or two out of contraband the general feeling was that what the excise didn’t see, the King’s heart didn’t grieve about.

From the contemporary evidence it seems that in the course of a long day’s ride you might not find a respectable Gwent house that in some odd little corner did not harbour a nip of brandy or a pipe of fine Virginia.

Wise old Richard Burton started off as a lowly customs boatman and ended up owning a goodly share of the shipping on the River Usk.

What stories he could tell us of smugglers and gentlemen who were no better than they should be, were he able to rise from under his slab, fill his pipe, pour himself a brandy and reminisce!

In memory of Richard Burton of this town who died December 17th 1859 aged 60 years
In memory of Richard Burton of this town
who died December 17th 1859 aged 60 years