An Eighth Wonder of the World
Article taken from Carmarthen Journal 4th October 1995
On December 10th 1907, planning permission was given for a 'warehouse situated on Bridge Street and Quay'. On its completion in May 1909 the Carmarthen Journal enthused over the 'magnificent new structure of Towy Works...’an eighth wonder of the world'.
Its architect, George Morgan of King Street, designer of the English Baptist Chapel, Pentreporth School and the School of Art, had made maximum use of the awkwardly shaped site, formerly a coal depot. The glorious riverside building was of brick, cement rendered and adorned with three parallel lines of large blue enamel plaques advertising the firm's expertise and products. The roof was ornamented with a rail and filials cast at the local foundry. Rising to three storeys, the building occupied a strategic position, added to the bustle of the still thriving quay and became a landmark for road users and passengers using the town's new railway station. High over the door was the Towy Works trademark, with the legend ‘ESTABLISHED 1795’.
Readers may be surprised by this date - it refers to the founding of the original ironmonger's shop later incorporated into the works and makes it the oldest surviving business in Carmarthen. During the 200 years of its existence, it has passed through the hands of only five families: John David, wife and son; John James Morris and his wife; James Davies; J T M Harries and Tom McCall, his son and his three grandsons.
Founding Fathers of a Dynasty
The story begins with John David. Born in 1770, he set up his own business at the age of 25. He settled at what was eventually numbered as 109 Lammas Street in 1802. The shop is easy to identify because it was set in the middle of a run of public houses: on its left the Harp, Falcon and Old Plough: on its right, the New Inn, Three Compasses and Drover's Arms - a position well calculated to catch customers.
The premises survive, opposite the Fusiliers' monument, and are today occupied by Fashionwise. John David, his wife, Mary, and their eight children were devout members of Heol Awst Chapel, a few yards from their home. Nonconformity often went hand in hand with business success, of which John enjoyed a great deal. He was elected burgess in 1812 and became a ship owner. When he died in September 1834, aged 64, The Welshman described him as 'a truly honest man, a kind husband, an affectionate father, greatly esteemed by all who knew him'. John David’s wife Mary took over the business in September 1834. Mary thanked the public for the 'liberal encouragement her late husband had experienced in the business'. Mary died in 1846.
In May 1846 the firm was now known as 'David and Company' which comprised Mary’s son, Thomas and her daughter, Jane. Thomas David retired in 1864 and moved to his brother's home in Mansel Street, where he died in April 1871. In his will, he described himself as a 'gentleman'. His estate amounted to £4000, a small fortune.
In 1864, John James Morris, son of the New Inn next door took over from Thomas David's as he was his former apprentice. His family had been licensees there since the eighteenth century. He ran the business for seven years only, dying in October 1872 at the early age of 27.
In 1872 his widow, Sarah, aged 22, continued the business and she inherited the estate valued at £2000. This she did until 1875 when she retired or remarried, leaving James Davies in charge.
Apprentice becomes the Master
James Davies bought the business in 1879. He was born in1854 at Friar's Lodge, 31 Mill Street and was the son of William Davies, a merchant's clerk. He had been Morris's apprentice - understandably so. for their families lived near one another and attended St David's Church. In 1871, census shows that, aged 17, he as lodging at the New Inn with his employer's mother. and set about changing a traditional ironmonger's shop into one of Carmarthen's greatest and most influential business enterprises. A great deal of information is available about his activities, for he became a director of The Welshman and understood the value of publicity. He began by extending the shop back to St Friar's Park, making it '320 feet in length with a floor area equal to that of the Carmarthen Assembly rooms'. He carried the largest stock of ironmongery in South Wales and his determination was that no customer should leave his shop unsatisfied. A key to his success was his strong interest in the latest technology.
From 1879 onwards he submitted tenders to the Town Council for plumbing, gas-fitting and maintaining the street lamps. By the mid 90's his advertisements stated he had become a Fellow of the Institute of Sanitary Engineers (London) and a Member of the Institute of Heating and Ventilating Engineers and he was certified and registered by the Worshipful Company of Plumbers. He carried out work throughout the county installing the 'Towy Self Acting Hydraulic Ram' lifts, force pumps, electric bells, telephones, ranges, lavatories and baths. His first advertisements (1883 and 1884) are for a stove and a knife-cleaner. They describe him as 'Wholesale and Manufacturing Ironmonger' and mark the dawn of a new enterprise.
Having begun 'tinplate working' in an upstairs room with a single workman, he identified a profitable demand and was soon employing so many specialists in this line that he had to look for larger premises. He established a factory on the Pothouse, in a building, formerly an earthenware manufactory and a warehouse / malt house. The 1887 OS map shows the Pothouse building as ‘Towy Tin, Japan & Galvanized Works’. The move was followed by an advertising campaign which opened on November 16th, 1888 with:
LOOK OUT FOR DAVIES, TOWY WORKS ADVERTISEMENT NEXT WEEK.
After a suitable softening-up period, the real advertisements began and continued, relentlessly for several decades. There are engravings of the ‘Towy’ range of goods: the Coal Vase, the Box Iron, The Registered Grate, the Potato Masher, Mince Mangle, Lawn Mower and many more. The offices and showrooms were at 109 Lammas Street and there was a growing mail order enterprise.
The Pothouse building soon proved inadequate: Davies needed a modern factory, warehouse and showroom. These he built on a large site opposite the ‘old’ town station. The planning application referred to a ‘Warehouse and shed for James Davies’: it was dated November 1889 and the Architect was George Morgan. By May 1890 work was completed. Advertisements bore the address ’Davies, Towy Works, Lammas Street and Town Station, Carmarthen. Business was brisk: in 1893 the Welshman declared that there was no-one in Carmarthen who could excel Mr. James Davies when it came to enterprise. Potential customers were urged to visit the new works to which an additional wing had been added and for which an east wing, completing a quadrangle in the heart of the complex, was planned.
The Manager at 109 Lammas Street was Albert Kinder and there was a telephone link between shop and showroom. An innovation at the latter was a ‘first rate lift’ installed ‘at considerable expense’ to move heavy ironmongery from the basement to the road, whence it could be shipped to customers by train. The inner courtyard where wagons were loaded and unloaded contained a blacksmiths forge. Cottages, stables and a coach-house were built at Danybank and there was a ‘neat office for the book-keeper’. A traveller was employed to range the three counties and Breconshire. The men who made tin and galvanized goods were housed in the west wing. Davies had provided a ‘set of the most modern machinery’ which with ‘rapid and mathematical accuracy....cut out the material and then twisted it up to familiar articles of daily usage’. He demonstrated it at the Welsh Industries’ Exhibition in Carmarthen in 1898.
By 1896 the new Towy Works, for its time a revolutionary concept, was complete.
An ‘immense concern’ the editor of the Welshman called it, and he was astonished by the style and spaciousness of the buildings, the novel organisation of the large stock and the enormous storage capacity. An idea of the appearance of the Works may be gained from the line drawing printed in an advertisement of 1920. The station front, lit by ten fine windows, each 10 feet square, was the main showroom with a window display reflecting the range of goods available: tools for carpenters and other artisans, agricultural implements, tinner and japanned ware, enamelled goods, brushes, baskets and wood ware, lamps and lanterns, toys, china, glass and furniture. The east wing upstairs housed furniture, carpets, china and clocks. In the west wing was ironmongery of every description. Oils and paints which required precautioned handling were segregated in a warehouse at the rear. Other showrooms contained heavy kitchen goods, sanitary ware, Birmingham and Sheffield products and literally hundreds of household items. A new series of advertisements illustrated by whimsical drawings drew the public’s attention to the riches on offer.
In 1898, 109 Lammas Street was sold to Harries, Thomas and Bowen which then became John Bowen in 1902 and then John Bowen and Son. James Davies bought Redholm, one of the splendid new houses erected in Pentllwyn Park. In 1904 he moved again to Ucheldir, designed for him by Ernest Collier. Many people credited Davies with establishing new commercial enterprises in Carmarthen at a time when traditional ones were in decline. He became an influential, highly respected, public figure, a magistrate and Conservative councillor for the Western Ward. He spoke frequently and with considerable humour, about financial matters, was a founding member of the Chamber of Commerce in 1896, acted as its treasurer and became President in 1900. The organisation was an active one, campaigning successfully for a new railway station and a public park. When the latter opened with much celebration in 1900, Davies presented it with the beautiful iron bandstand (a small plaque acknowledges this to this day) and the two tall, decorative lamp-posts at the entrance, marked in bold letters with his name, JOHN TALBOT MORGAN HARRIES.
In 1906 Towy Works became a Limited Liability Company. Davies and his wife and sister each held a nominal share, the main shareholder being JTM Harries with 250 shares.
The opening in 1909 of the new building on the quay was marked by a vigorous advertising campaign-large displays depicted the new furniture showrooms and urged the public to ‘Call at our new premises and inspect our Showrooms- Terms can be arranged to meet all purchases. JTM Harries, Manager’.
In the spring of 1910 James Davies retired and advertising appeared under the name Harries, Towy Works Ltd. The Welshman wrote that Davies deserved his retirement. ‘He had spent a vast amount of energy and no small degree of business talent had been extended in developing the giant business and in bringing Towy Works to its present magnitude and flourishing condition’. He would still. From time to time, visit the Works and his advice to the apprentices was ‘Never lose your temper’. Ambitious, energetic and imaginative and, no doubt, capable of being ruthless when necessary, he had ‘an engaging personality’ and was well-liked- as his affectionate nickname, ‘Tintacks’ Davies. He was a strong churchman with a religious social life centered on CHRISTCHURCH. He died in 1937 and is buried in St David’s churchyard.
In 1912 JTM Harries took over the business. It is not clear why nor how, at the age of 25, he had acquired the capital to but it. He was the grandson of Thomas Harries, the agriculturalist and cattle breeder who farmed at Llandeilo Abercywin and later at Pilroath. He married Ethel Whicher of Morley Street and their life centered on Water Street Chapel where they were deacons. They lived in a flat on the top floor of the Quay building and he was respected as an honest and kindly employer. The nature of the business remained broadly the same-a 1912 advertisement assets they are’ experienced plumbers, fitters, blacksmiths and tinsmiths serving all parts of the County, Acelyne Gas Installations a speciality’ but when the chance arose they became involved in motor transport. They became ‘Motor Engineers and Agents for Cubitt, Autocrat, Ruston Hornby and other makes of Cars and Motor Cycles.’ On May 11th 1920 Harries was given planning consent for an extension to the Quay Street store. Designed by Percy J Williams, it had at its extreme end, a forecourt which was leased to a motor engineer from London. Cars entered from Bridge Street. In 1923, a traveller commented ‘they are motor specialists with a garage and a fleet of cars that would promote the envy of firms in owns of a much larger size’. A contemporary photograph shows a fleet of 7 cars lined up outside the Quay building. Towy works continue to manufacture tin, brass, copper and galvanized goods, dairy utensils in particular. The tinplate workers, approximately 5, worked across the road at 6 and 7 Bridge Street. Mrs. Harries with an all female staff was in charge of the entire china department, which stocked both popular and high class items.
A former employee has given an account of life at Towy Works in the late 20’s and the 30’s under Mr. Harries benign rule. The young countryman was apprenticed in 1926, at the age of 15, with a starting wage of 1s10 1/2d a week after deductions. He lodged in Bridge Street.
There were four or five other apprentices and the working day began at 8am by which time there would be a queue f customers waiting for paraffin. Luckily for the apprentice, the railway workshops sounded a hooter at 7am, 7.50am and 8 am, giving him ample time for a quick sprint from Bridge Street for a prompt start. The shop closed at 8pm except on Thursdays. Lunch, cooked on the premises included soup, fish from Laugharne, conger eel (very popular) and chicken on Sundays.
Harries retired in 1944 and his wife and he lie buried in the graveyard of Water Street Chapel which they loved and served so well.
In 1944 the business was bought by Mr. Tom McCall, a native of Glasgow and has remained in his family to the third generation. Towy Works today continues the trade of ironmongery and has developed the business of Builders’ Merchanting. The premises added to by successive generations no occupy most of the Quay. James Davies’ traditions have been maintained to this day. The supply of sanitary ware continues to be a major aspect of the business. A wide range of products is kept in stock and the knowledgeable staff upholds the principle of service and informed advice. The maxim that no one should leave the premises unsatisfied has been upheld.
And so to the present day
Lots of things have changed since the Towy Works started trading in 1795 but some things never change. Those days when a shop attendant would actually talk to you and advice you on your purchase may seem long gone but we all lament its passing. Towy Works director Nigel McCall is quite clear why the business has survived the ups and downs of fashion. ‘Customer service never goes out of date. Return business is our mainstay and if we did not look after our customers, they would not have looked after us after all these years. Although Towy Works is run in the ‘Hardware Store’ tradition of personal contact, we are constantly updating and reviewing our range of services’. Thankfully the reviews and updating never change that feeling you get when you walk through the door that this is a ‘solid’ firm that knows how to help you. Staffing is important and the firm seems to attract loyalty. The last person we took on was in 1988 (At time of publication) and he is still with us’ Nigel said. ‘Staff with a deep knowledge of the trade is vital if we are to remain more than cooperative. Very often we find ourselves instructing customers on how to do the job’. Towy Works have recently bought the old Jonwyn Building on the Quay to give greater car parking for customers. The greater appeal however is in the saying that has slipped into the local language:
‘ If you can’t get it at Towy, you can’t get it’.