A BIOGRAPHY OF THOMAS SAVIN
Thomas Savin was born in 1826, at Llwynymaen between Oswestry and Trefonen. Though he never lived in Llanymynech he had strong connections with the village, and influenced its development hugely.
He started out as an apprentice draper in his father’s shop, later becoming a partner in “Morris & Savin” of Cross Street, Oswestry.
He married Elizabeth Hughes of Park Farm in 1852. They moved to Plasffynnon, on Middleton Road and had the house enlarged and rebuilt. He entered Oswestry Town Council in 1856.
He branched out from draping to being a hop and seed merchant, and a grocer, and owning the Old British Colliery. But the new thing in Britain was railway building, and this seemed to attract him like nothing else, because for the rest of his life he described himself as a ‘Railway Contractor’. George Owen, another local Oswestry Railways man and future Mayor, introduced Savin to David Davies of Liandinam in a room over the tobacconist shop opposite the old Post Office in Church Street, Oswestry. This significant meeting started their railway building partnership. The feeling is that while Davies had the greater knowledge, Savin provided the energy and drive for what must have been a very difficult business.
Savin built at least ten different railways, in Wales and the border area. He was also employed to build the Bishop’s Castle Railway in 1863, but he must have already been experiencing some monetary problems, because he took their £20,000 advance but never built the line. In that year he was appointed Oswestry Town Mayor, and around this time he began to build and buy a number of hotels on the Welsh coast. Also in this year he took over the lease of the Llanymynech quarries, both the Welsh side owned by the Earl of Powis and the English side owned by the Earl of Bradford. Savin was already operating quarries at Porth-y-waen.
He was an immensely popular man in the area. When the Oswestry and Newtown railway was completed “hats were thrown into the air and healths were drunk to the victory for local enterprise. Oswestry parish church bells rang for two days, and the Rifle Corps band blew itself dry outside the houses of Mr Savin, Mr George Owen and others. Mr Savin met with a fantastic reception at Oswestry. He was carried shoulder high through the streets of the town, accompanied by a surging crowd of cheering admirers, armed with torches, to the tune of See the Conquering Hero comes. The small haberdasher, who had been deemed incapable of organising railway schemes, had indeed become something very like a railway king!”
Oswestry would not have become the important railway town it was if Savin had not insisted that the locomotive works for the Cambrian Railways was built in Oswestry, and not Welshpool, as was suggested. His five years of railway building must have been exciting and extraordinarily busy, but in 1866 everything crashed spectacularly. His estimate for the cost of the Machynleth to Barmouth Railway was wildly low, because he hadn’t realised that at Aberdovey the railway would need so many tunnels. His other problem was that instead of taking money when he built railways he often took shares. This meant he had a huge number of shares in a great number of companies all over Britain and the world. But contractors have to buy goods and services, and the people that provide those goods and services demand money, not shares, and on February 5th 1866 so many people wanted money he was forced to declare himself bankrupt.
It was discovered he owed over £2 million, a huge sum for those days, the equivalent of perhaps a billion pounds now. When Savin’s finances were sorted out, all his shares were taken from him to pay his debts, except for four small companies, one being the LLanymynech quarries. These companies were tiny in comparison to the ones he had partly owned before his crash, but he seems to have put all his energies into running them. But from now till he died he always seemed to have money problems, either owing money or complaining that he was getting a bad deal.
He obviously still yearned for greater things: he organised two demonstrations of gunpowder blasting at Llanymynech quarries, with local dignitaries invited to watch the explosion. The first experiment took place on 17th September 1867, with one and a half tons of gunpowder. An immense mass of rock was brought down, weighing about eight or nine thousand tons, and about half that amount was loosened. But this wasn’t enough for Savin, and he wanted an even bigger experiment, using electricity to set off the explosive, and six and a half tons of blasting powder. An eye-witness on 11th March 1868 described the result:
“A few minutes after three o’clock, Mr Savin gave the final signal for the explosion, which, it is almost needless to say, was instantaneous. The effect was terrific. The huge rock was burst from base to summit with tremendous force, and poured down, with a fearful roar, on to the floor of the quarry, the dull thunder of the explosion causing a tremor to pass through the rock. Some of the debris fell at an immense distance, a portion of the tramway bridge was destroyed on the Oswestry road, beneath the rocks, and a large quantity of powder was carried over a mile distant. The noise of the explosion was distinctly heard at Welshpool, ten miles away.”
The report finishes, not surprisingly: “No other experiment of the kind has since taken place.”
Four years later there was a smaller explosion, but with deadly rather than comic results. It happened at Cooper’s Rock, which is on the west side of the quarry, and shows the danger that quarrymen had to face, as six men and boys were killed. As a result of the Cooper’s Rock disaster Savin conducted some experiments at Llanymynech with dynamite, which was then a new explosive; if it had been used at Cooper’s Rock there would not have been such a devastating explosion.
In 1878 he became embroiled in the great Traction Engine Dispute. He had been unsuccessfully trying for several years to get a railway built along the Tanat Valley to Llangynog, where he owned quarries. Instead he used traction engines to take slate from his works and coal to them. But these heavy vehicles made deep ruts in the road, apart from being smoky and noisy. Several people complained and he was taken to court. However, the Justice of the Peace was his old friend Sir Watkin Williams Wynn and the case was dismissed. A feast was held in his honour with songs in praise of him, as he was a major employer in the region. His last 10 years were full of petty disputes, about the traction engines, the leases for his quarries, his attempts to see the Tanat Valley Railway built, and always about bills he hadn’t paid or paid late.
On the 20th July 1889 the Tanat Valley Railway was refused permission by Parliament Three days later, perhaps not coincidentally, Thomas Savin died. He is buried in Oswestry Cemetery.
He is largely forgotten now, among railway people, when others like David Davies continued to achieve greater success. But he seems the more interesting character, always trying new ideas and starting new projects, even if he overreached himself in a spectacular way. Without him it is hard to see that many of the railways in the area would have been built, and Llanymynech quarries would have stayed a much more minor feature.
(Adapted from “On The Border,” by Neil Rhodes)
The Biography Of Thomas Savin
1) Where and when was Thomas Savin born?
2) What was his first job and where did he work?
3) What was the job that really excited Savin ?
4) Thomas Savin became an important businessman, but what happened to his businesses in 1866? (p2)
5) What experiments did Thomas Savin carry out at the Llanymynech quarries in the 1860s? (p3)
6) Why did Savin later change to using Dynamite to dislodge the rocks? (p3)
7) Why do you think Thomas Savin was such a popular man in Llanymynech and Oswestry?
8) What do you think the author meant when he wrote, “perhaps not coincidentally,” on Page 4, paragraph 2?
9) Look in a dictionary to find the meaning of the following adjectives:
Impulsive Successful Argumentative
Which one do you think best describes Thomas Savin, and why?
10) If a statue had been built in Llanymynech to honour Thomas Savin, what wording do you think he would have liked to see on the plaque?