When Dylan Thomas's body got lost in transit between Southampton and Chepstow, the waiting funeral cortege did what the great poet himself would have done; they hit the bar
Chepstow Museum is helping to stage a musical tribute to Dylan Thomas that will mark one of the more bizarre episodes surrounding the poet’s death.
Thomas died in New York on November 9 1953 and his body was brought back via Southampton for burial in Laugharne on November 24.
But the driver of the hearse - who was from West Wales and had never ventured further east than Newport before - got lost on the way back, leaving the waiting funeral cortege, which included Thomas’s wife Caitlin and the journalist and broadcaster Wynford Vaughan Thomas, stranded at the rendezvous point in Chepstow.
Eventually the police were called and the hearse driver was found driving around Exeter and directed back to Chepstow. As he said later, he did not know that the country forked.
The intervening 12 hours were not wasted, however, as the cortege spent the time as Thomas himself would have done: drinking heavily.
Today the location of this soiree has been lost to the whiskey and ale fumes of time. But Chepstow Singing Club, in conjunction with the Museum and the Drill Hall, are marking this fitting incident in the death of Dylan Thomas by staging an event called Return Journey, which features screenings, music, singing and, one would hope, drinking.
Ned Heywood, of the Drill Hall, says he first heard about the story of the cortege when “listening to Radio 4 about 15 years ago”.
“We have tried to find out where it might be,” he adds, “but it was 60 years ago and it may not have been the most obvious event at the time, in that it would have just been a load of drunks in the pub or the hotel.”
Anne Rainsbury, the curator of Chepstow Museum, has a recording from the BBC of Wynford Vaughan Thomas telling one version of the story. But sadly he doesn’t reveal the location.
“I think it was probably a hotel – probably the Beaufort,” conjectures Heywood. “But we have no confirmation of that and there are a number of possibilities. The reports from the funeral were that it was a day of great emotion and drinking whiskey.”
A screening of the 1972 film of Under Milk Wood, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O'Toole and narrated by Richard Burton, will start the evening. Then the Singing Club, dressed in early 1950s costumes, will entertain with songs of the time and readings from Thomas's works.
In the meantime, if anyone knows the location of the soiree of Dylan Thomas’s funeral cortege, Chepstow Museum would like to hear from you.
Performance takes place November 23 at 6.30pm at the Drill Hall, Chepstow. Tickets are £6/£4, available from Chepstow Museum 01291 625981.
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