4 Apr 2023

The ‘Circus Stone’

Helen Whitear

This is the story of an intriguing stone, with a mysterious inscription. It is also the story of a local man – Terry Treharne, who recognised the link between the stone and the long history of the Middleton Estate – now home to Wales’ National Botanic Garden.

The Middleton Estate lies to the south of the Tywi Valley near Llanarthne, in a tranquil stretch of Carmarthenshire’s rolling countryside. Terry Treharne grew up in the estate’s old stable-block during the middle years of the 20th Century. This building still survives with its grand arch-ways and courtyard – originally built to house the estate’s horses, along with the grooms and it seems from local recollection, the hunting dogs. The stables were part of the mansion ‘complex’, which included the house (which burnt down in the early 20th C) and the separate servants’ quarters (now known as ‘Tŷ Melyn’).

When Terry Treharne lived there as a child, the surviving buildings had passed into the hands of the local council, and were divided up into smaller units, with each unit allocated some land close by on the old Middleton estate. These ‘starter farms’ were a way of giving local families a ‘leg-up’ into the Tywi Valley’s main source of income – agriculture.

It must have been an amazing, enchanted place to be as a child – full of mysteries and adventures amongst tumbled-down relics and disjointed fragments of a past, very privileged way of life. The garden with its high walls and peaches still growing, the rolling designed landscape, the remains of the grand old house. It gave Terry a life-long fascination with Wales’s abandoned and crumbling mansion houses. His childhood memories include regularly being shouted at to ‘GET DOWN!’ from his favourite vantage point – the clock tower on the south side of the stable-block. He remembers playing in what remained of the former pleasure park’s artificial lakes, in a very old wooden boat. His job was to bail out the water that gushed in through a large hole. He also remembers clearly his discovery of the ‘Circus Stone’.

As a teenager in the 1950s, Terry found work locally up at Clearbrook Hall (a former dower-house belonging to the Middleton Estate). In the large walled garden there, underneath scrub and brambles, Terry discovered a stone with an inscription which read:





When years later Terry went back to try to find the stone, the place he remembered it being was now very overgrown. Ownership of Clearbrook had changed and as he couldn’t locate the stone he was concerned that it had been removed or broken up and lost. After a long and determined hunt, he eventually found it, built into a retaining wall at the back of Clearbrook Hall. Terry felt that the stone represented an important, but forgotten piece of the history of the Middleton Estate, and should be returned to prominence. And he knew where it belonged!

Having grown up around the old mansion, Terry knew the local place-names and field names well. He recalled that a field belonging to Waun Las Farm (another council ‘starter farm’) had always been known as ‘Cae Syrcas’ (Circus Field). There was also a local story which told that many horses had been buried there, and Terry believed there was a link between the ‘Cae Syrcas’ field-name and the stone.

The stone records the name EDW.ABADAM. We know that in 1855, Edward Abadam owned the Middleton estate, having inherited it in 1842. He had changed his name from Adams to ‘Abadam’ in a nod to Welsh custom. The stone also commemorates what appears to be a specific event – a Circus in 1855.  But why would Edward Abadam be in the slightest bit interested in having a circus on his land, nor yet commemorating it in stone?! To understand this, it helps to know a bit about the history of Circus in Britain.

From the late 18th century onwards, touring circuses became a very popular form of entertainment as they travelled to their audiences, visiting even small towns. By the time of our stone, in the mid-19th century, the popularity of ‘circus’ was at its peak, with hundreds of circuses operating across Britain, many of which would have been travelling circuses. We know that covered circuses, which could be flat packed for transportation, were being advertised for sale as early as 1854. Although early circus arenas were open to the elements, adding a roof meant that audiences could enjoy performances all year round.

19th century Circuses were all about dramatic equestrian entertainment, with equestrian displays the mainstay of performances by Philip Astley (1742 – 1814 – the ‘father of the modern circus’), and his rival Charles Dibdin (1745 – 1814), who first coined the word ‘circus’. Other acts such as clowns, ropewalkers, acrobats, jugglers and strongmen joined the equestrian tricks, along with the introduction of lions and other wild animals, becoming performances which more closely resemble what we now understand as a ‘Circus’.

However, trick-riding remained the central attraction, and it is worth noting that Edward Abadam was said to be fonder of his horses than of people!  Extravagant equestrian dramas such as Ivanhoe were often staged in larger arenas – thrilling audiences with cantering horses, scenery changes, beautiful costumes and dramatic theatre. Before the advent of music-hall, circuses not only provided entertainment, but were also an important way for audiences to keep up-to-date with topical events and news. Events of the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 15) were presented in dramatic form through horse displays. In 1853 – two years before the inscription on our stone commemorates the Abadam circus, Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre in London presented ‘The Battle of Waterloo’ and ‘The Battle of the Alma’.

In trying to understand why a circus should be determinedly commemorated in stone, it may be relevant that ‘Paxton’s Tower’, is also sometimes referred to as ‘Nelson’s Tower’. This neo-gothic folly, built for the owner of Middleton Hall before the Abadams, Sir William Paxton as an ‘eye-catcher’ and ‘sumptuous’ banqueting hall, is highly visible for miles around and stamps an uncompromising mark on the local landscape. As a ‘monument to Admiral Lord Nelson’, this was a determined statement by Paxton about his wider connections and political affiliations. Edward Abadam, an aspiring member of the gentry, and in 1855 (the time the stone was carved), in office as High Sheriff of Carmarthenshire, would have been seeking to re-enforce these sorts of connections. Did he choose to do this by staging a grand re-enactment of a famous battle, with horses?

With this in mind, the location of the field known as ‘Cae Syrcas’ (turn left on your way out to Waun Las meadow, and look to your right!) is interesting. It is the only relatively flat area of land on the central portion of the estate (potentially large enough to re-enact a battle with horses and spectators), which is clearly visible both from the site of the grand house, and also from the banqueting hall at ‘Paxton’s Tower’.

Whatever the case, the events in the most recent chapter in the story of the ‘Circus Stone’, commenced when Terry re-discovered it and the owners of Clearbrook at the time, Tony and Julie Salini, decided to donate it to the National Botanic Garden of Wales. They kindly gave their permission for the stone to be removed from the wall behind the house, and just before Christmas 2021, a local stone-mason set to work to extract the stone, rebuild the wall, and return the stone to the National Botanic Gardens.

This work led to more intriguing discoveries. As suspected, the wall into which the stone had been set was not very old – stone cladding on a breeze-block retaining wall. The stone was also much larger (and heavier!) than it had appeared to be from the visible, carved face. But the most interesting aspect that could not be discerned when the stone was set in the wall, is that the side with the inscription on is slightly convex, as if it was once part of a curved structure – the centre of a circus ring?

Terry’s memories and the story of the ‘Circus Stone’ show how important local knowledge is to understanding the past. His determination and perseverance have finally returned the stone to the public gaze, back at the heart of the Middleton Estate, to commemorate again a spectacular event of the middle 19th century, and a previously little-known part of the estate’s more recent history.


www.vam.ac.uk/articles/the-story-of-circus poster advertising The Battle of the Alma at Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre, lithograph by G. Webb & Co., 1854, London. Museum no. S.545-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London