The Dolaucothi Arms has been at the centre of life in Pumsaint for almost 500 years. But the history of this area goes back much earlier, beyond the Romans to the iron age Celts. The Celts would have known of the gold in the hills around Pumsaint and had the knowledge to extract it on a relatively small scale. For many years the history of Pumsaint was the history of the gold mine.
Indeed, the gold in our hills may have had a role to play in the location of an ancient iron age temple referred to in the prose of the early Welsh bards. Jay Laville’s ‘Introduction to the Pumsaint Temple of the Stars’ 2017, describes a temple in the form of a colossal landscape zodiac. A map of the stars on a gigantic scale, formed by natural and man-made features in the landscape - roads, streams and boundaries for example. The contention is that early man reproduced the constellations visible in the night sky with scaled reproductions on the ground. In Wales this temple, sacred to the Druids, is believed to have been created c4000 years ago. It is centred on Pumsaint and extends in a circle with a radius of 12 miles from Llanddewi-Brefi to Talley, from Cilycwm to Llanydydder, from Lampeter to Llandovery and Abergorlech to Rhandirmwyn.
When the Romans came to South West Wales, the Druids were still here. But, contrary to the way their relationship is frequently depicted on TV and in film, they spent most of the Roman occupation living side by side in harmony.
It didn’t start that way. When Sextus Julius Frontinus replaced Quintus Petillius Cerealis as Governor of Britain in 74AD, it had a big impact on the lives of the Welsh peoples. Just 34 years old, Frontinus was already a successful General, having led Roman forces at the Eastern edges of the Empire in Europe on the Rhine and Danube. Pushing his legions into Wales from the East, he subjugated the South Wales Silures tribe, the Brigantes and the Demetiae of South West Wales, building a large fort for the Legio II Augusta at Caerleon and a network of Auxilliary Forts throughout the region. Locally, forts were established at Llandovery (Alabum), Tregaron (Bremia) and Pumsaint (Luentinum) and roads were built and upgraded between them – like Sarn Helen, a road stretching from Carmarthen, north through mid-Wales linking Luentinum and Bremia on the way. The fighting didn’t last long, and the Romans were able to get down to their primary business - extracting natural resources like minerals and gold, plus produce, tributes and taxes. Something they did with ruthless efficiency.
In addition to his military skills, Frontinus was also an extremely capable Civil Engineer with experience and knowledge of water systems, especially aquaducts. He was later to write a definitive survey of the principal aquaducts of Rome where, like many ex Generals, he served as Consul twice and built a second career as a politician. Either directly or indirectly he was able to bring his engineering skills to the Roman Ogofau workings at Pumsaint. The evidence exists today, showing that water was channelled to the mines through rock and along aquaducts from the upper reaches of the Annel River and the upper Cothi valley 7 miles away. The water was stored in reservoirs and then released to wash through the mine as part of the process to extract gold from the quartz rock. It is estimated that the Romans excavated over 2 tons of gold using slave and convict labour.
These labourers and their guards would have been billeted in the fort that extends below the buildings of the Dolaucothi Arms, the pub gardens and car park.
After the Romans
Near the car park close to the gold mine in Pumsaint, there is a mound with a standing stone which is part of the legend that gives the village its name (Pum Saint – 5 saints). According to the legend five hermits lived here in the 6C AD. Sons of a Welsh Prince, the legend tells how the brothers fell asleep in the mine, vowing only to awaken when King Arthur returns to Wales. Pumsaint became a place of medieval pilgrimage. Visitors, many of them sick and lame, came to be cured in one of the 5 wells with ‘healing’ waters dedicated to each of the 5 Saints.
There is little detailed history of Pumsaint through the so-called Dark Ages. However, we know that the area around Pumsaint and Caio once lay within Cwmwd Caeo of Cantref Mawr. This remained an independent Welsh lordship until 1284 and largely retained native systems of tenure throughout the Medieval period.
On the flat land by the Cothi River a medieval manor house occupied a prime site in the valley. Dolaucothi means the meadows of the Cothi. It is likely that this early building would have been further developed during the Tudor period in keeping with changing building styles and growth of the estate. The Dolaucothi Arms was built in this period but was probably known as ‘The Inn of the Pum Saint’, or Inn of the Five Saints, because of the local legend.
The Dolaucothi Estate
The Johnes family acquired the estate in the late 16th century and the house was described in 1679 as a ‘simple and dignified’ property with 6 hearths. In the early 18th century, some of the existing features were incorporated into a rebuilding of the house as a 3 storey Georgian mansion with later developments by John Nash. The Johnes family flourished continuing to acquire land, property and businesses so that by the late 19th century the estate was well over 3,000 acres. The house would have required up to 10 domestic staff and twice as many more to work on the estate. Most of the farms in the surrounding area were built by the estate in the period 1850 – 60 in the distinctive ‘pattern book’ style.
In the summer of 1876, the estate went from bucolic obscurity to national notoriety with national press coverage of the murder of Judge John Johnes. The Judge’s Irish butler, a man called Tremble, shot and killed him with his own shotgun. Tremble was furious after the Judge reversed a decision to grant him the tenancy of the Dolaucothi Arms. The Judge was said to have changed his mind due to the excessive drinking of Tremble’s wife. Tremble severely wounded a lady in the house before rushing to Caio to murder the man who was given the tenancy of the Dolaucothi Arms. Fortunately, the man was away in Carmarthen or he too would have fallen victim to Tremble’s rage. Tremble returned to his cottage on the estate and shot himself.
Return of the miners
At the end of the 1880s a lead miner called Edward Jones formed the South Wales Gold Mining Company and sublet the mines from the Johnes family. Unfortunately, the ore he extracted had a very small proportion of gold, making the operation not viable.
The next man with gold fever, who had some measure of success at Dolaucothi, was a Cornish miner called James Mitchell. He had first-hand experience of the South African gold rush and this may have been why he was able to succeed where others failed. In the bar at the Dolaucothi Arms we have two signs that commemorate his workings – Mitchell Stope and Mitchell adit.
Mitchell re-opened the mines in 1905 working for the Johnes family. Initial profits tempted him to lease the mines and he set up Ogofau Proprietary Gold Mining Company which made profits while continuing to extract gold in small quantities. The business failed as gold bearing seams and capital ran out 4 years later.
A final attempt to exploit the mines was made by Cothy Mines, using Mitchell as their mining expert. This also failed when the mine shaft reached earlier Roman workings and flooded. It closed for good in 1912.
In common with many large properties during World War II, the house was requisitioned by the government. It may have fared better as a hospital or convalescence home for servicemen, but it was used by the Ministry of Supply and fell into serious disrepair with floors collapsing and lead being removed from the roof. Dolaucothi was gifted to the National Trust in 1941 subject to the life interest of its last owner, Major Herbert Lloyd-Johnes. When he died in 1956, the property, lordship of the manor and with it the Dolaucothi Arms became wholly owned by the National Trust.
The property has seen two significant archaeological digs in the 1970s and 1980s.