Interview With Roscoe Howells, Alan Evans 30th November 2009
I began by asking Roscoe what it was like growing up as a chid in Saundersfoot
The colliery at Boneville’s Court was still open and I was
there at the time of the 1926 strike. My mother died when I
was three weeks old. My father married again and my
stepmother was wonderful to me. I grew up referring to her as
my mother. My real mother’s sister was a right bitch and she
made my stepmother’s life hell. We lived at The Bethanny
Manse, which had a garden that went down to a field where
the regency hall is now. It was known as Vickermans field. I
remember the pit ponies coming up and grazing there when
the miners were on strike. It was a difficult time. My father
was a builder and I remember men coming to the back door and asking if they could
have a weeks work so that they could get a stamp to go on the dole. Grown men,
coming round crying and genuinely so, genuine workmen, not like today’s parasites.
The great excitement for me was that Bonneville’s court was still working. I used to
spend most of my time down at the harbour with the boatmen. The coal boats would
come in to get coal from the colliery. The merchant seamen used to come in and get
to know people in the village. We used to be down there when the boats went out
waving them off. There were two or three pilots there and there was tremendous
contention between them to get the job piloting the boats in from Monkston. These
boats would come in and drop anchor off Monkston. These pilots would be racing out
to be the first out to get the boat. My father used to tell the story. His father could see
the boats coming in and he would run down to Saundersfoot and tell one of his mates.
Eventually the pilots got wise than Granfer Ben was doing this. My grandfather had
an arrangement with a local pilot and he would run down. The local boys would see
him and set off but there was nothing there. When there was a boat my grandfather
would run down ‘quatting’ as we say in Pembrokeshire beneath the wall so no one
would see him.
If you could meet anybody today in Saundersfoot who was born in the village,
without exception their parents would have come from the surrounding villages. This
is the significance of the subtitle of my book, Old Saundersfoot from Monkston to
Marros. My father was born at Wiseman’s bridge. He went to Saundersfoot to look
for work. My mother was a nursemaid and had gone there from Crosseli. My
stepmother had gone there from Kilgetty. Saundersfoot had a very good football
team. We had a lot of visitors. People started coming in, boarding and lodging
What are the main changes you have seen?
People coming in from the outside. The second homes and holiday homes. They
come in and take over and in ten minutes they know it all. They tell you what’s
wrong with you.
Is it fair to say that you love the area?
Yes, I love the area. You can read every word I’ve ever written about it. It is home,
there is no place like home. I love the sea, I love the countryside it’s been my life. I
know a so many of the people. I know some of the better ones and I’ve met some of
the awful ones.
You were chairman of a number of organizations including the Pembrokeshire
records society. How important is it to record and preserve local history, especially
that of the ordinary working man?
It is very important to preserve the history of the working man. It is tragic that so
much has been lost. I have been guilty of it myself, shredding papers. Then I ask
‘what did I do with that’?
You told me when we first met that there is no such thing as fiction. Are you
suggesting that all literature has at its source real life experiences?
There is no such thing as fiction. Everything
comes from something either your own or other
peoples experiences. I could always write in
school I remember when I was in the infant’s
class at Saundersfoot council school. Mrs.
Morris was the teacher. She always said to us,
‘you have the sentence in your head before you
start it, get the sentence right and then you
wont have to cross out’.
Kenneth Griffith the actor was a friend of mine. When I wrote the manuscript for my
first book I saw him in Tenby and showed him the book. He read it and said that it
must be published. I sent the book to Tony Whitton then I went up to London to meet
him. He said it was a lovely book but it was a shame that it wasn’t set in Cornwall or
Lancashire. He couldn’t believe that a place like this existed. I had to have Tony
Whitton down for a weekend for him to see something of the area. I took him all
around the area and he couldn’t believe it. He went back and the book was published.
I could write a wonderful book about literary agents and London publishers. He took
the book on and managed to persuade his people to publish it. When it was due to be
published I told Ian McClarren, now Lord McClarren head of Tesco about it. His
grandmother was born at Herons Mill as was my stepmother’s mother. Ian and I
were quite close and when Ian married he called his first house Heron’s Mill. Ian was
so pleased about the book that he told me to tell Hutchinson’s that Tesco would go
50/50 on a big launching party. The man at Hutchinson’s asked, ‘What are we
selling, margarine’? Ian was so cross so Tesco launched the book at the Stradey Park
Hotel. The book Herons Mill sold out in three weeks. Publishers in America took it
on and Hutchinson’s did not republish.
Alexander Cordell gave me some wonderful advice. He told
me that no one person writes a book and that no novel left
his house until it had been proofread. I used to read
everything I wrote to Lucy my first wife. If she said it
wasn’t right there was something wrong with it. I never used
a typewriter in my life. My second wife Margaret began to
type my work and eventually went on to using a computer to
type my work. I eventually learned how to use the computer
and I can tap away at it now. I write everything on screen
and Margaret can go through it and make corrections.
Cordell was very helpful and he had a look at my novel Heron’s Mill. He was living
in Cheltenham at that time. He told me to bring my manuscript to him. I sent it to him
and called on him a few weeks later. I asked him to tell me if he thought I was
wasting my time trying to write. He told me ‘if you were wasting your time I
wouldn’t be wasting my time talking to you’. He told me to take the manuscript home
and that I should learn my craft. Words are diamonds, jewels, precious gems, every
word must carry the story forward, every word must count. He said ‘you go home
remembering everything I told you and start again and I’ll edit it as I think it should
be’. I came home and I started again and I knew I could write. I sent it to him and
when it came back it was worse than ever.
One thing I remember and if you’re ever thinking of writing boy you remember this.
One thing that drove it home to me. If you read my novel Heron’s Mill you’ll see that
these two boys were going to Sunday school and they came on a badger in a trap.
Evan Harter went running back to fetch his grandfather who was one of the big
characters in the book and the other boy ran on to Sunday school. Granfer Jenkins
was standing by the gate smoking his pipe. He said ‘Granfer, Granfer, come quick
there’s a badger in the trap’. When they got there Granfer put the fork down on the
badger’s neck to hold it down. A few hours later when they went back they went into
the kitchen. Ben Harter was very upset and the two girls were crying. Granfer said,
‘What’s the matter’ and Ben said ‘Cosiah she’s dead’. Granfer Ben said, ‘Dead’.
With that, Evan was running up the stairs before anyone could stop him. He looked in
through the bedroom door and there was his mother lying on the bed on the old
patchwork quilt and the old brass knobbed bedstead. I had written ‘Mam, Mammy’s
dead, but there was no reply’. Cordell had crossed off the first Mam. One Mam is
enough ‘but there was no reply’, he cut it off. He put in the margin, ‘she’s dead isn’t
she’? And it then read, ‘Mammy’s dead, go to the side of the bed he touched his
mother’s face and at eight years of age he knew death’ full stop. I knew I could write,
I can’t speak but I can write. The significant thing is that I have been very fortunate
to have mixed with very good journalists.
A lot of your work is illustrated with photographs. Do you believe that a picture is
worth a thousand words?
Oh, ten thousand words. Every picture tells a story. I have worked with some very
good photographers in my time. I wasn’t a bad photographer myself.
Do you have a favourite photograph?
Yes I do. They all bring back different memories. One favourite is hanging inside the
door as you come in. That’s a picture of my late wife Lucy taken four weeks to the
day before I found her dead on the floor. Its bound to mean something isn’t it? I’ve
got another lovely photograph of Margaret when we were on honeymoon with the
Blaskets in the background.
One of your most controversial pieces of literature is A Pembrokeshire Pioneer
written about William Frost. You claim that he was the first man to perform a flight
in an aircraft. How did you come to that conclusion?
How I came to the conclusion, Good God I knew the man I was there, he showed my
father the patent and the pictures. My mother had been the Sunday school teacher
there and Bill Frost was the Sunday school supervisor.
What do you think you will be remembered for?
Me! Being argumentative I suppose. I’d like to think that I’d done a bit of good I
can’t tell you. How do we know? I’d like to think that I would be remembered for
saving things, which might have been forgotten. I could be wrong.
You’ve reached your ninetieth birthday. If you could sum up your life in a few words
what would they be?
I’d like to think that I would be remembered for standing up to be counted. Not afraid
to say my piece. I think that if I have achieved anything in life without anyone
realizing it was when crooked people were intent upon putting a sewerage scheme in
Saundersfoot, which would have been discharged into the sea. It would have been
deathly for Amroth and the whole area. Evil people financially motivated it finished
up with some of them going to jail.
Roscoe Howells was born in Saundersfoot in 1919. His mother died when he was three weeks old.
His father remarried and he was brought up during the depression. Roscoe witnessed the harshness
of the depression with Bonville’s Court colliery closing down leaving families in utter poverty.
Roscoe’s work has its roots in the community and countryside around Saundersfoot, Tenby and
Amroth. Roscoe was a former pupil of Christ College Brecon as well as vice-president and former
chairman of the Pembrokeshire Historical Society, of which he was a founder member. He was also
a founder member and chairman of the old Pembroke shire Records Society. His many books
include Woodreef – From Amroth to Utah – Pembrokeshire’s Islands – Old Saundersfoot: From
Monkstone To Marros – Crickdam & Roseanna. Roscoe also wrote numerous articles on farming
and agriculture in Wales. Roscoe was outwardly emotional when relating some of his many stories.
One could feel his passion for writing and the people and countryside of West Wales. At 90 years of
age Roscoe has an exceptional memory.