The Hecla and the death of William Thomas 1865

Soothing wrinkles from the brow of agony


The history of Wales has always been tied up with the sea. In the nineteenth century ships drifted in slowly from beyond the horizon bringing trade and ideas, changing lives. The sea was always the route to a new and exciting world, to places of unexpected adventure and danger. And sometimes that danger came to the shore, in the shape of a drunken sailor perhaps, or a fugitive. But once. that danger came as a deadly disease.

The Front

     Let us start with the grave. Hundreds of people go past along the busy road every day; pupils from the local school might wander along too. But few of them know what is here or realise the warning that this overlooked  grave might have for all of us. 

     Go through the lych gate of St Paul’s Church on Sketty Lane in Swansea and you will find it a short distance away, to the left. The ground is uneven and the ivy is pushing slowly into the cracks on the headstone. The grave boundary has disappeared beneath the rough grass.  Soon the face and the words upon it will have fallen away in the rain, taking with them their unexpected story. It is important to capture those words which you can still make out, if you look hard enough.

      The stone is inscribed on both sides. One side contains the family details.

     Sacred to the memory of William, son of William and Margaret Thoma,s who died the 29 of September 1865 Aged 25
He weakened my strength in the way: he shortened my days.

     William is buried with his parents and his brother.  His days were indeed shortened  but in the most unlikely of ways. Because if you look at the other side you will see why this grave is notable.  He died ‘of yellow fever, caught while working in Swansea at a yard near where an infected ship, The Hecla from the West Indies was lying.’

The rear

     You see, he died in the only recorded outbreak of yellow fever on the mainland of Great Britain. And this decaying gravestone might well be pointing the way to our future…

Read the rest of this surprising story in Grave Tales From Wales Volume Two. Find it in the menu or on the How To Buy Page or in The Shopping Cart

This article of mine was originally published in Welsh Country Magazine in September 2011 and is reproduced here with kind permission

This piece has been included in my new book (Grave Tales from Wales Volume Two published in April 2022) Go to the How To Buy page which you can find in the menu
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  1. A fascinating piece of Swansea history and, as you say, worryingly timely in these pandemic days.

  2. Glad to see other people taking an interest in this topic! I’m writing about the yellow fever epidemic as part of my MA dissertation. Are you able to provide the names of the newspapers/journals you’ve referenced here? The information would be very helpful!

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