The Brecon & Abergavenny Canal at Llanfoist Wharf

by Grant Vaughn


A newspaper of 16 April 1847 reported, “The Mormonits [sic.] at Llanfoist recently baptized a woman in the canal, out of whom they say three devils were cast.”[1] While there are no extant records of a branch in Llanfoist of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often referred to in the nineteenth century as “Mormonites,” there are early British missionary journals that mention baptisms in Llanfoist by November 1841.[2] No other account of the reported 1847 baptism has yet been identified.

John Needham (1819-1901), a Lancashire draper’s apprentice, joined the Church in 1838. In 1840 he was sent on a mission to Herefordshire and finding that the people over the border in Monmouthshire understood English as well as Welsh, he was one of the first missionaries to preach in South Wales. In 1842 he travelled to America to join with the Saints in Nauvoo. In 1851, he travelled to the Salt Lake Valley with a pioneer wagon company where he became a successful retail merchant, later turning over much of his business interests to an LDS co-operative institution. President Brigham Young sent him on a second mission to Britain that lasted five years. After returning to Utah, he relocated to Logan in Cache Valley.[3]  

Elder John Needham recorded baptisms in Llanfoist for 1841 and 1842 as follows:

  • 26 November 1841, Elizabeth Davies
  • 17 December 1841, Elinor Vaun [Vaughan], Elizabeth Davies, Catherine Davies
  • 2 February 1842, “Sister” Vaun [Vaughan, likely Elinor’s daughter, 19-year-old Catherine, or possibly Jane at age 12.]
  • 6 March 1842, James Davies, “Sister” Edwards

James Davies (1794-1847) and his wife, Elizabeth Sykes Davies (1797-1855), and children, James, Jr. (1826-1865), Elizabeth (1829-1851), and Mary (1829-188) emigrated to the United States 3 September 1843 sailing on the Metoka from Liverpool, bound for New Orleans. They travelled up the Mississippi and settled in Nauvoo. The Saints there faced much opposition from within and without leading to the forced evacuation of Nauvoo in 1846. The Davies Family travelled across Iowa to the Missouri River where James died at Winter Quarters, Nebraska Territory, during the winter of 1846-47. Elizabeth and her daughters travelled to the Great Salt Lake Valley, arriving on 29 September 1847.[4] In 1846, James Jr. enlisted in the Mormon Battalion, recruited for the war between the United States and Mexico. He marched from Iowa to Santa Fe, New Mexico then to Pueblo in modern-day Colorado arriving in the Great Salt Lake Valley on 27 July 1847, just a few weeks ahead of his mother and sisters.[5]

Elinor Vaughan (1789-1861) remained in Llanfoist for some years, living across the street on the Cutting from where the Davies family lived. There is no evidence that her husband, John, was baptized into the Church. John died in 1851 and is buried in Llanfoist churchyard. In 1856, Elinor emigrated to the United States on the Enoch Train, sailing from Liverpool on 23 March. Arriving in Boston, she traveled by train to Iowa City where she joined with the family of her married daughter, Jane Vaughan Lewis. They traveled in the Ellsworth Handcart Company, the first of its kind, arriving at Salt Lake City on 26 September 1856. Elinor and Jane then resettled in Jacks Valley in present-day Nevada by 1860. Elinor died circa 1861 and Jane re-married, to Abednego Johns, and resided in Jacks Valley until her death in 1890.[6]

There are five women with the surname Edwards in the 1841 Census for Llanfoist and there is no further evidence as to which one may have been the “Sister” Edwards baptized by Elder Needham.

Early LDS missionaries had to find locations to baptize where the water was deep enough for immersion. The first LDS baptisms in the United Kingdom were performed in the River Ribble at Preston, Lancashire. In 1840, there were baptisms in Benbow’s pond at Hill Farm near Castle Frome, Herefordshire. While the River Usk flows by Llanfoist, it is not always easy to find a convenient pool of still water along a river bank. The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal conveniently on the other side of the village against the Blorenge Mountain would be a preferred location.

The portion of the Brecon & Abergavenny Canal from Govilon just west of Llanfoist to Pontymoile at Pontypool linking with the Monmouthshire Canal was completed in 1812. The Monmouthshire Canal Co. eventually bought out the other and the name became the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. There has not been significant restoration work in the portion of the canal near Llanfoist[7] so we can assume that the basic structure is the same as it was in the 1840s. The canal is now used principally for holiday recreation.

The wharf at Llanfoist where the canal met the incline to Hill’s Tramroad was a busy place with the loading and unloading of coal, steel, limestone, and other commodities on the eastern edge of the South Wales industrial landscape.[8] This activity at the wharf would have detracted from the sacredness of a religious ceremony. The missionaries would have attempted to avoid attention, looking for a place that provided some privacy and easy access into the canal. There is a set of steps into the canal just under a half of a mile along the towpath south of Llanfoist

Wharf. There is another set about the same distance north. If the Elders, Church members, and those to be baptised were to approach across the farm lanes to the steps south of the wharf, they would have had much easier access to the canal still at a distance away from the wharf. Access to the steps on the north would be more difficult where there is on a much steeper slope near the Tŷ Mawr or Llanfoist House estate.

This, then, is the likely spot of baptisms performed by missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Llanfoist during the 1840s.

Steps into the canal south of Llanfoist Wharf
Another view of the steps into the canal
Another view of the steps into the canal


[1] The Pembrokeshire Herald and General Advertiser, Vol. IV, No. 172, p. 3 (16 April 1847).

[2] Levi Richards papers, 1837-1867, Diaries, Vol. 1, 1840 October 4-1842 January 22, Church History Library, MS p. 109; John Needham autobiography and journal, 1840 August-1842 December, Church History Library, MS-4221, pp. 152.

[3] John Needham, Personal History,

[4] James Davis and Elizabeth Sykes Davis,

[5] James Davis, Jr.,

[6] Elinor Jenkins Vaughan, Life History,  LDS CHL MS 29129,

[7] The Brecon & Abergavenny Section of the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal, John Norris (1994), pp. 7-9.

[8] Hill’s Tramroad: Blaenavon World Heritage Site, Chris Barber (Amberley Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2019) pp. 86-87.