The road that we now call the A40 has for centuries been a main transport route across
Wales. In Roman times, it was a military road that linked garrison towns like Brecon and Carmarthen to enable the fast movement of troop reinforcements between different points. After the Romans withdrew, the roads deteriorated and the main route along the Towy valley was no exception. Travellers wishing to cross the country used other ancient byways made passable by drovers, moving livestock from the farms of Wales to the more lucrative markets of England. It was not until the Turnpike Trusts, which came into being in the 18th century that things began to improve and fast mail services, using horse drawn stagecoaches, would again connect distant towns along well kept roads.
Tolls were charged to pay for the roads, some of which amounted to extortion and led to a rebellion known as the Rebecca Riots as people objected, sometimes violently, to being charged large amounts to travel. Despite the inequities of overcharging, Turnpikes remained the model for road building for over 100 years.
In the 18th century, stagecoach travel could be dangerous. To make more money, coaches were overloaded sometimes with up to 18 passengers some of whom travelled, precariously, on the top of the coach. Falling asleep or ‘dropping off’ as it was known had a very literal meaning. Highwaymen were another threat and stagecoaches carried a guard armed with a blunderbuss; an inaccurate weapon often loaded with an assortment of bits of metal and other shrapnel.
Coaches would race between 10 and 15 miles to complete each ‘stage’ before changing the sweating horses for a new team, ready for the next stage of the journey. As the stagecoach approached the end of a stage, the guard would blow a horn to clear the road ahead and warn that a new team of horses was needed or that there were passengers requiring accommodation for the night. Ostlers, as the stablemen were known, could change a team of horses in less than a minute and the bigger coaching inns, which specialised in servicing stagecoaches, would have more than 50 horses in their stables. As the quality of the roads improved, the stagecoaches got faster and, with average speeds approaching 10 miles per hour, they ran to regular timetables.
On the 19th December 1835, Edward Jenkins was driving his Gloucester to Carmarthen Royal Mail coach west, along the turnpike between Sennybridge and Llandovery. The coach was lightly loaded and Jenkins had whipped up the horses to a full gallop as they approached a left hand bend. The team of horses drifted across the road as they began to turn only to find they were heading directly towards a cart coming in the opposite direction. Jenkins, who had been drinking, tried to turn the team to the left but he lost control whereupon the horses charged off the road and down a 121ft (38m) precipice, dragging the coach and its occupants with them.
When it reached the bottom of the precipice, the coach hit a large ash tree and disintegrated scattering the coachman, guard and passengers across the bottom of the ravine. Passengers on the outside included a Colonel Gwynn, Daniel Jones and a Mr Edwards. The passengers who had paid more for their tickets and started the journey inside were David Lloyd Harris, a Llandovery solicitor and a young lad believed to be called Kernick.
Miraculously, all the people on the coach survived the accident. Following the crash, the coachman, Jenkins, was fined £5 plus costs by the magistrate at Llandovery for being inebriated while in charge of a mail coach. He always denied being drunk at the time of the accident.
In 1841, six years after the accident, a monument was erected at the point where the stagecoach left the road. It’s a modest obelisk surrounded by a cast metal fence which today looks as if it has been left as an obstruction in the middle of a lay-by. The monument bears the following inscription;
“This pillar is called mail coach pillar and erected as a caution to keep from intoxication and in memory of the Gloucester & Carmarthen Mail Coach which was driven by Edward Jenkins on the 19th Day of December in the year 1835, who was intoxicated at the time & drove the mail on the wrong side of the road and going at full speed or gallop met a cart & permitted the leader to turn short round to the right and went down over the precipice 121 feet where at the bottom near the river it came against and ash tree when the coach was dashed into several pieces. Colonel Gwynn of Glan Brian Park, Daniel Jones Esq of Penybont & a person of the name of Edwards were outside & David Lloyd Harris Esq of Llandovery Solicitor and a lad of the name Kernick were inside passengers by the mail at the time and John Compton outside. I have heard say where there is a will there is a way one person cannot assist many, but many can assist a few as this pillar will shew which was suggested designed and erected by J. Bull Inspector of Mail Coaches, with the aid of thirteen pounds sixteen shillings and six pence received by him from fortyone subscribers in the year 1841.
The work of this pillar was executed by John Jones Marble and Stone Mason Llanddarog near Carmarthen.
REPAINTED AND RESTORED BY POSTAL OFFICIALS 1930.”
Sadly the condition of the pillar has deteriorated since it was restored in 1930. The top has been broken off, probably by a commercial vehicle reversing into it and the railing have rusted. Recently, the monument has been repaired and restored so that it will continue to serve as a reminder to avoid drinking and driving, a warning that is as relevant today as it was in 1835.