Little Tommy Jones, victim of the Beacons

When a young miner's son perished on the Brecon Beacons in the summer of 1900, it shocked an entire community.

On 4 August 1900, the Saturday before a Bank Holiday, a miner from Maerdy, at the head of the Rhondda Fach, decided to take his five-year-old son with him to visit the child's grandparents who still farmed near Brecon. They arrived in the town by train at about six o'clock in the evening. From there they had to walk four miles to reach Cwm Llwch, the little farmhouse deep in the valley to the north of the Beacons.

By about eight o'clock they had reached the Login (today in ruins) where soldiers were encamped for training at the rifle range up the valley. It had been a warm walk, and though they had only a quarter of a mile further to go, William Jones was glad to stop for refreshment and buy little Tommy a pennyworth of biscuits at the canteen.

By chance, within a few minutes the grandfather also arrived, with 13-year-old Willie John, Tommy's cousin. Willie was sent back to Cwm Llwch to warn the household of the arrival of visitors, and Tommy ran off with him up the valley.

They had to cross two rough plank bridges, one without a handrail. In the failing light, the streams and trees were perhaps frightening to a small boy brought up amongst closely-packed houses. He may have been afraid of meeting farm animals also. At any rate, when the two of them had got about half way, Tommy started to cry and wanted to go back to his father. So the two boys parted.

Willie completed his errand and was back at the camp within about quarter of an hour of leaving it, but Tommy had not returned. Father and grandfather immediately started looking for him. Soon (perhaps about twenty minutes later) they were joined by soldiers from the camp: the hunt was truly on.

At midnight the search was halted, but at 3 o'clock on the Sunday morning it started again. Police and the general public joined in and the net spread wider. But no sign of the boy was discovered that day.

So it continued through the following weeks. Every day search parties of police, troops, farmers and other volunteers combed the area systematically. The tall bracken was cut, the woodland ransacked. It was at one point suggested that Llyn Cwm Llwch should be dragged, but it was thought unlikely that the boy could have gone as far up the mountain as that.

It seemed more probable that he had fallen off one of the footbridges into the stream, or had simply wandered straight on down the valley, instead of turning right to cross the second bridge to the camp. Thus the search was concentrated in the close and wooded country around the Login and down the valley as far as Brecon waterworks.

Inevitably, with the continued failure to find trace of the boy, theories of kidnapping gained favour. These now held the only hope that the boy might still be found alive.

Kidnapping, at that time, meant gypsies in the first instance, and though they are rarely mentioned in The Brecon County Times of the period, it appears that there were numerous camps of them in Breconshire and neighbouring counties. All were unceremoniously ransacked by the police during the search, without success.

The affair aroused national concern, and reports of the missing boy and suggestions for lines of enquiry came from all parts of the country. The Daily Mail took an interest in the matter and offered a reward of £20 to anyone who could solve the mystery. (The announcement of the reward was made, among other means, by the Brecon Town Crier).

The Daily Mail also sent a special commissioner to Brecon, who during the time he was there won considerable admiration and respect for his indefatigable work on the problem. It was under his influence that the gypsy theory lost ground, and abduction by a childless woman or couple thought more likely. He also mentioned the possibility of murder, but dismissed it in the very same sentence.

Only after several weeks did Tommy's father yield to the pleas of friends to return home to Maerdy. But he was soon back again, and was one of several people who climbed to the top of the Beacons in their despairing searches. It was not he who made the discovery however.

A Mrs Hamer, a gardener's wife at Castle Madoc, some miles north of Brecon, having read accounts of the search, is said to have dreamed of the very spot where Tommy was to be found. She spent a couple of restless days before finally persuading her husband to borrow a pony and trap on Sunday 2 September, to take her and some relatives to the Beacons - which they had never climbed before.

Mr Hamer did not believe that they would succeed where so many had failed. But later that day he was to be able to lay claim to the reward. 'They had reached the top of the ridge immediately above Llyn Cwm Llwch', the newspaper later reported, 'and were making their way towards the peaks across some open ground when suddenly Mr Hamer, who was a few yards in front of the others, started back with an exclamation of horror, for there in his path lay the remains of a body.' It was identified and brought down the same day.

At the inquest on the Tuesday the jury had no difficulty in bringing in a verdict of death through exhaustion and exposure. But no one managed to explain how this little five-year-old, 'short and stout of his age', tired and hungry after a long day and the walk from Brecon, had managed to reach the spot where his body was found. It was 686m above sea level, a climb of 400m from the Login: at least two miles over difficult ground, probably in the dark.

Certainly it had not been considered worthwhile to make a systematic search of high ground. The father must have passed within a dozen yards of the body a few days before its discovery, but by this time it would have looked much like a boulder in the long grass.

Various people with detailed local knowledge had suggested that Tommy might have wandered uphill to the left of his path when he started to return to the camp, or that he crossed the first footbridge, but not the second (just below the junction of the two streams and lying at right-angles to the first; both have now disappeared, though the ford beside the first remains in use).

In retrospect, the latter seems the more likely explanation. If he turned left here instead of right he would soon have started up the side of Pen Milan, following what was presumably the most direct route between the soldiers' camp and the rifle range. Alternatively he might have continued downstream a little further and then veered to the left on the path towards Llwyn-bedw. In either case, he probably joined the track which zig-zags up Pen Milan, climbing steeply to high ground.

Perhaps by this time, confused and panic-stricken in the failing daylight, he hoped he was returning uphill to his grandfather's farm, not realising until later how hopelessly lost he was. We only know with certainty how far his stamina and courage took him.

For many years his family kept the sailor suit with collarette which he had been wearing, the new light boots with pathetically worn soles; and the whistle which he had carried on a string round his neck. (Could this have saved his life if he had thought to use it while he still had energy?)

Today the spot where Tommy's body was found is marked by an obelisk. The jurors at the inquest gave their fees to start a fund for this memorial. They were joined by Mr Hamer, who contributed a part of his £20 reward, and many other citizens. By July the following year the inscribed stone was ready, and was hauled on a horse-drawn sledge up to the ridge. Since then thousands of walkers must have paused beside it, and been reminded of the small boy who fell victim to the Beacons through exhaustion and exposure.

Nonagenarian Recalls The Tommy Jones Tragedy

A 1980/81 newspaper article included the following account.

Ninety years old Mrs RM Martin of Hitchen, Hertfordshire sends her recollections of the tragedy:

"I must be one of the very few left to have vivid recollections of that time, August 1900. I was nine years old, born in the Postern, Brecon, the youngest daughter of PC Frederick George Harwood.

"My father was in charge of a search party that went daily for a month tramping all over the area. He even got the local farmers to cut down the shoulder-high bracken in some parts to help the search. Also the South Wales Borderers had a search party daily.

"How well I recall that Sunday, 2 September 1900! It was Sunday School Anniversary Service at the Dr Coke Memorial Wesleyan Chapel, Lion Street, and the service had just finished when a tremendous outcry went up. 'The little boy is found.' We rushed out, and several boys cycled up to the spot, including Sidney Martin, whom I married many years later.

"The photograph on the front of the now out-of-print Victim of the Beacons pamphlet was taken by Jack Clark who for many years had a souvenir and postcard business in the High Street. He was 16 years old at the time and interested in amateur photography.

"Many years later from this photograph, I was able to recognise those standing around as the little boy's remains were carried down the mountain-side on an improvised stretcher, my father leading the way with Sgt. Hands at the rear. My father was so concerned that the photograph showed him smoking a clay pipe, for smoking on duty was definitely against the rules. It was I who supplied the information that a farmer at the scene had given him this to counteract the odour which prevailed. I remember my father got the negative from Jack Clark and scratched the pipe out on the glass plate so that no further prints would show it, but this made the fact more noticeable and the negative was destroyed.

"The idea of an obelisk was my father's and it was he who obtained £20 of the £100 reward to start the subscriptions towards it and also suggested that the jurymen might contribute their fees. He also suggested that the obelisk should be erected a little distance from the actual spot where the body was found, to be in a more visible position.

"Many years later, my brother-in-law, Walter Martin, of Clovelly, Llanfaes, who was Overseer for the parish of St. David's, finding the obelisk was in very poor condition, went up with a family party armed with buckets and brushes and cleaned the stonework and Walter re-lettered the inscription.

The Obelisk and Inscription

The obelisk can be found on the approach to Corn Du (SO 000217). Its inscription reads: 

This obelisk marks the spot where the body of Tommy Jones aged 5 was found. He lost his way between Cwm Llwch Farm and the Login on the night of August 4th 1900. After an anxious search of 29 days his body was found on September 2nd.

The Beacons Circuit

There is a spectacular 11 mile (17.7km) walk over the main summits and ridges of the central Brecon Beacons that takes you past this memorial to Tommy Jones. Details of this walk are available through local information centres or via our online shop.