The Tanner Boy

As the railways pushed westward in the mid-1800s so began the decline in river traffic that brought goods of all kinds to Carmarthen and west Wales. For centuries ships had come to Carmarthen from England, Europe and beyond. The decline in river trade was gradual to begin with but dwindled away rapidly after the First World War.

24 Carmarthen Quay 1938In the late 1930s the opening of the Bascule `White Bridge', to allow ships to pass under the railway line, became an infrequent happening.

By this time the only visiting cargo ships were those bringing timber from Canada to the Robinson David sawmills, flour to the Western Counties Association distribution centre and cement to the P.G. Davies builders' yard on the Quay.

The ships relied on spring tides to make their way from the sea. Skippers unfamiliar with the meanderings and sandbanks of the River Towy called upon the services of a pilot who would board the ship at Ferryside, having rowed out to meet the vessel and tied his dinghy to the Barrel Post protruding from the water. The Barrel Post remains to this day, albeit at an angle, marking the main channel in the river.

A ship, under the command of the pilot, would make its way up stream on the rising tide, tie up just below the White Bridge until the lifting section opened to allow passage up to the town's Quay to unload its cargo. Unloading was always carried out at high water to avoid strenuous hauling from ship to shore. A small army of labourers would be engaged to get the job done in the limited time available.

Once the unloading was complete the crew would then have a twelve or twenty-four hour wait before turning the ship around to make their way downstream in day-light, on an ebbing tide. Time to kill, therefore, and most of it spent in one of the many local taverns - the Sloop, the Jubilee, the Pelican, the Red Cow and, most popular of all, the Jolly Tar.

With the cargo unloaded and the water level falling as the tide ebbed away, the mooring ropes would tighten and require constant easing until the keel settled on the river bed. Keeping a watchful eye on tightening ropes encroached on valuable drinking time, to get over the problem, local youngsters would be allowed to play on the open deck if they promised to run into the tavern to let the skipper know when the warps needed attention.

One boy, usually the oldest or the biggest lad, would be promised a silver sixpenny piece if he did the job properly and kept the rest of the boys in order.

He was called the "TANNER-BOY".

D. V. Davies

The Tanner-boy

From 'The Friend' February 2010