Cragen Beca was given to Carmarthenshire Museum in the 1980s by descendant of the original owner, Gwynfor Phillips. This evocative account of the shell was part of the accession documentation.
Cragen Beca – A brief account
When I was a child “Cragen Beca” was kept under lock and key in a small wooden cabinet, hidden away behind a settee in my grandmother’s parlour in Talog. Her home had once been the “Castle Inn” public house, where her father and grandfather had been inn-keepers and which she inherited in due course.
During the Rebecca Risings (1839-46) this conch shell (Cragen Beca) had been given to the inn-keeper, who was my great great grandfather, and was used by him to muster the rioters to clandestine meetings etc. He was the official ‘whipper-up”. His involvement in the Riots was therefore most significant and put him in great civil danger. When the Rebecca Riots ceased there was a general round-up of all who were connected with the risings. Many were apprehended, some were imprisoned, others were transported, and many Talog men went into hiding in farm lofts and even in the woods which surrounded the village. It is obvious that the inn-keeper had kept a very low profile throughout because he was not even suspected!
No wonder then, that the Cragen was so carefully hidden – for a whole century its secrets were so closely kept that my mamgu would only show it on rare occasions, and even spoke about it in whispers! Only once did I ever hear it being blown in public, and that was without her knowledge. The occasion was the success of a Liberal candidate in a parliamentary election. My uncle had taken the conch from its hiding place and trumpeted his joy from the hilltop, for which indiscretion and indiscipline he was verbally and physically chastised by his mother!
And now to the origin of Cragen Beca. Most historians would agree that the organising genius behind the Rebecca Riots in west Wales was a Carmarthen solicitor, Mr. Hugh Williams, a native of Machynlleth who had married a St Clears lady, practiced law in Carmarthen but resided in Cydweli. It is accepted that he had radical tendencies and was sympathetic to the Chartists. The Rebecca Rioters themselves were mostly farmers and farmworkers, most of whom were illiterate and quite unable to organise such a covert, but highly disciplined crusade. It required an astute, intelligent brain to bring scattered communities of highly charged farmers together into a viable force, and who better than the pragmatic lawyer from Carmarthen?
It transpires that Hugh Williams had a brother serving either as a consul or else a Civil Servant in Sierra Leone, and that he was stationed in Freetown, originally founded as Granville in 1788 as a home for liberated African slaves. These had come from the Caribbean islands and from the mainland of America.
During the 1939 – 45 war I served in the Royal Navy, and during one of my visits to Freetown I witnessed a native funeral. Proceeding the cortege was a man who blew a conch shell, the sound being directed towards the sea. The sound was unmistakable, it was the same reverberating “hoot” that I had heard in Talog years previously! We spoke to this man who explained that it was traditional to inform the spirits who dwelt in the sea whenever a fisherman’s soul was returning to his final resting place. I was immediately reminded of the god Triton in Greek mythology who ruled the waves by blowing his conch.
Is it too improbable to assume that Hugh Williams was given the conch, that became “Cragen Beca”, by his brother, and that he in turn gave it to the inn-keeper of Castle Inn Talog to be used by the “whipper-up” to summon the rioters?
(And since the conch is not indigenous to West Africa, is it beyond the bounds of possibility that it was brought to Sierra Leone by one of the liberated slaves? *)
*This is supposition, of course.