Carwyn S. Hale: The Most Powerful Welshman You've Never Heard Of

One man's fantastic rise from scamming on the South Wales coalface to power and fortune in California. The untold story of Carwyn S. Hale and The Brothers of Glamorgan.
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One man's fantastic rise from scamming on the South Wales coalface to power and fortune in California. The untold story of Carwyn S. Hale and The Brothers of Glamorgan.

I’d be willing to place a significant wager on the fact you’ve never heard of Carwyn S. Hale. A wager of the magnitude that catapulted Hale’s to power and fortune, and ultimately allowed him to mould the history of the twentieth century to his own liking.

Yet, this tale is largely unknown outside the South Wales Valleys, relegated to little more than ‘local legend’ status. Indeed, you’ll be luck to unearth anything with a cursory search on Google, and even more detailed research will only point you in the direction of one book, published in the 1960s, and disappearing completely around the same time.

However, an amateur historian named Marc Penry-Williams seeks to change that. Through his new book, tentatively titled ‘Carwyn S Hale and the Brothers of Glamorgan,’ Penry-Williams details an account of how Hale made his fortune, and the deep influence he exerted on America, and it turn, the world.

“Remembering that we’re talking about the Valleys of the late Victorian era, this story begins with Hale, like many of his peers, leaving school at the ripe old age of 11, beginning work as a miner in the local colliery,” says Penry-Williams. “However, he was a voracious reader, which was unique in itself at that time, educating himself about the world beyond his grim surroundings. By his mid-teens he had developed a fierce entrepreneurial spirit and a fondness for money making schemes.

Hale set about organising a gambling extravaganza for the entertainment of the wealthy classes. In a single night of unadulterated swindling and brute intimidation, he made a small fortune.

These schemes took the form of organised gambling rackets, typically cards and bareknuckle fighting, and though not hugely lucrative given the limited finances that his fellow workers actually had at their disposal, they did make his life more comfortable. Along with his formidable stature and reputation in a brawl, this made him a respected figure in the locality. Respect that brought him to the attention of the mine owners.

“You have to remember that this was the age when coal was king. Wales was fuelling the world, and the first million pound cheque was about to be written at Cardiff’s Coal exchange,” Penry-Williams explains. “Hale therefore saw the attention the mine owners were paying him as an opportunity to make a grab for the money that was floating around the upper echelons at the time. He knew of their own penchant for gambling, and therefore carefully planned to capitalise on this.”

Ingratiating himself with the mine owners through a series of relatively small time card games, Hale set about organising a grand, albeit secret, gambling extravaganza for the entertainment of the wealthy classes. In a single night of unadulterated swindling and brute intimidation, Hale made a small fortune.

Penry-Williams strongly suspects that the reason that this part of the story is not widely known is in no small part due to a cover up exercise conducted by the mine owners and their associates.

“For a rip off of that magnitude to be publicised, to admit to the world that a lowly pit worker had taken them to the cleaners, was unthinkable, even if only for the ideas it would have given the other workers,” says Penry-Williams. “Hale knew he couldn’t stick around, and he had no intention of doing so.”

Taking the money, Hale and his two brothers, Ifor and John, fled.

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So, with scant records, how can this story be verified as anything other than a fun, yet ultimately tall, tale?

Fortunately, Hale continued to write home to his beloved sister Gwyneth (a rather pious young woman who loved him dearly but disapproved of the path he had chosen and his ill-gotten gains) on an almost obsessive basis. While there are notable gaps in the story resulting from loss, those letters have been passed down through the decades, eventually finding a home with Irene Hartwood, a distant cousin.

“The rumours have always been prevalent around these parts,” says Penry-Williams, “but to see them spelled out was just amazing. The access Irene allowed me to those letters was spine tingling. She’s a lovely woman, and I was a regular visitor to her modest terrace, spending hours poring over their contents.”

We know that Hale found his way to California, and in the early part of the twentieth century, and himself only in his early twenties, with brothers in tow, was beginning to expand his fortune as an industrialist. Investing heavily in steel, he amassed a fortune amounting to millions in modern terms, ranking alongside his fellow ex-pat Griffith J Griffith

Further digging in the annuls of Chambers of Commerce across the State unearthed evidence of various offshoot ventures, one of which concerned the importation of vast amounts of raw hemp and cannabis into the United States.

“You have to remember that cannabis had only just been criminalised. The importation of such goods was nothing new, but the bulk in which it was being brought in, and the quantity he was selling and planting for cultivation, was phenomenal. It seems that many of the sources of importation, and the means of bringing the goods in, are still being used by the cartels today,’ Penry-Williams says through a grin. “I’ve been a hip hop fan since my youth, and now every time I hear a rapper mention ‘Cali weed’ I can’t help reflecting on the fact that they’re talking about something that Hale, inadvertently or not, had a significant hand in spreading.”

And the story doesn’t end there. Irene’s letters elaborate upon Hale’s growing philanthropy and social, cultural and political influence. Establishing a society named the Brothers of Glamorgan, Hale set about reinforcing what he perceived to be the necessity to maintain a Welsh legacy in the United States.

The Brothers of Glamorgan became increasingly more clandestine. They systematically erased themselves from public view by handsomely paying off anyone holding the meagerest piece of information on them

Penry-Williams describes how Hale and a cabal of cash-rich Welsh immigrants proceeded with launching a silent but effective campaign, lasting almost two decades, wielding their considerable wealth and influence to help place those with Welsh heritage into elite positions.

“Records at the Olympic Club in San Francisco corroborate the fact that he was sponsoring sportsmen who found their ways into the major leagues. He used his connections in Hollywood to help young starlets meet the right producers. And it goes even deeper. At different times, he sat as Chair of both Democratic and Republican fundraising committees, pumping money into local candidates and courting presidential hopefuls, and police files connect him to a young Llewellyn Morris Humphreys, known more widely to the world as Murray the Hump. Whilst the Welsh contribution to the American way of life, for good or bad, is largely unsung when compared to the Irish and Scots, it flows in all directions.”

By 1930, Hale had withdrawn from public life almost completely, continuing to carry out his puppet mastery behind a cloak of secrecy, and spreading his seed as widely as possible, fathering no less than 22 children. The Brothers of Glamorgan became increasingly more clandestine. They systematically erased themselves from public view by handsomely paying off, with compulsive zeal, anyone holding the meagerest piece of information on them, right up until Hale’s death from syphilis in 1952.

So what of the Brothers of Glamorgan today?

“Now, this is where we do enter the myth of speculation and urban legend,” say Penry-Williams. “The story is that they continue to exist, albeit loosely, their members numbering corporate magnates and Hale’s descendents. Watching, and managing the legacy, continuing to bury their history with mountains of green dollars.”

Can Irene Hartwood shed any light on the status of the Brothers today?

Penry-Williams bursts into laughter at this question.

“It’s almost too perfect,’ he says. ‘When I started writing the book and spreading the word in an attempt to gain some publicity, a few of the local and regional papers ran stories on the Hale legend. They interviewed Irene, put her photo on their pages, and for a couple of weeks last year she was a bit of a local celebrity. Then a week later I went to pay her a visit to show her what was then my final draft. To my complete shock, she was no longer living there. She had donated the house to a newlywed couple, and neighbours said she had packed up and moved to America without any warning. They thought it extremely strange how the woman who had previously struggled to pay for the TV rental could now afford to move across the Atlantic, dressed like Elizabeth Taylor.”

Strange indeed.