First encounter with Old Nick
I spent a semester abroad in 2019 with the Erasmus programme, that took me to the city of Swansea, Wales. Along with Football and Rugby, Wales is also known for its amazing folklore, its old castles and breath-taking landscapes, its beautiful flag with a red Dragon and its Celtic language and traditions.
During my stay in this fascinating country, I had the chance to visit different places and museums that were very interesting. I went to the Dylan Thomas Centre one day, and not far away from it was the Swansea Museum, which I decided to visit as well. As I walked around the museum I suddenly stopped, horrified at what I was seeing! My eyes were laid on a horrible statue with horrific eyes: I just met ‘’Old Nick’’, also known as ‘’The Swansea Devil’’.
Old Nick’s story & St Mary’s church
Old Nick is a wooden sculpture of the Devil that has a bad reputation but a fascinating story. It all started at the dawning of the 20th century, when the council of Swansea city decided to rebuild Saint Mary’s Church, in the centre of the town. The Council launched a tender for the design of the church and many architects from different backgrounds applied for it. An English architect named Sir Arthur Bloomfield, a Cambridge alumni who graduated in architecture, also President of the Architectural Association in 1861, a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1867 and its vice-president in 1886 (so a guy with a good pedigree) won the tender. Soon enough the works on the church started. However, a local architect (unnamed in the sources), who lost the tender, was fuming and jealous. Why would an Englishman be chosen to rebuild the church, over a respected and serious Welsh and local architect who spent every Sunday going to that particular church? The angry man had yet to say his last word. He patiently waited for revenge…
The new Saint Mary’s Church was finished and acclaimed by the public in 1896. Some parts of the old church survived the redevelopment. The overall new architecture was celebrated by the local believers.
A couple of years later, the buildings facing the church went up for sale. The local grumpy architect whose plans for the church had been rejected, bought these buildings and transformed them into some offices and then into a brewery. If you had looked up these red bricks buildings at that time, your eyes would have been astonished to catch a little horned silhouette at the top window, looking down the church. This silhouette, as you would have guessed, is the Swansea Devil, the Old Nick: a sit devil, as big as a six-year-old child, holding its goatee in the left hand, the right hand being loose on its curled-up legs, a fixed grin and his gaze… two insane bright glass eyeballs morbidly starring at Saint Mary’s Church, its foe.
It is said that when the local architect unveiled the sculpture of Old Nick to the public, he predicted in these words:
“My Devil will be able to leer and laugh, for at some future time he will see St Mary’s burning to the ground”.
It must have been scary to hear that at the time, and people remembered it and feared the Swansea Devil since.
The prediction comes true
A few decades later, an event changed the face of the world: the Second World War.
In 1941 Swansea was bombed and pretty much razed during the “Three Day’s Blitz Campaign”, also known as the “Swansea Blitz” operated by the Luftwaffe. The Nazis intended to destroy strategical places related to aircraft bases and factories, and it soon turned into a direct attack against civilians. The German forces found Swansea to be a strategic target because of its port and docks that exported coal, oil and other important resources (like men and emergency services) to the continent to help the Allies in war effort. The whole of Swansea area was bombed between the 19th to 21st of February 1941. These attacks killed 230 people, injured 409 others, and left many other traumatised. Swansea city centre suffered severely: many commercial premises and even the then famous Victorian market were demolished, and other structures such as… Saint Mary’s Church! The Church had not been completely destroyed, but extensively damaged. But… while there was wholesale destruction all around
(…)the Swansea Devil, and the building on which he stood, was one of the few properties which, some might say miraculously, survived unscathed. The devil simply sat there, smiling and stroking his chin, with his glass eyes fixed on the burning church. The prediction had come true
Mark Rees reports in his book The A-Z of Curious Wales.
What happens next…
Saint Mary’s Church was only rebuilt in the 1950s to the original designs. Old Nick, however, went missing: there was no trace of him anywhere. It is only in the 1980s that a local historian from Swansea wondered where this devil might be. Due to this man’s tireless efforts, Old Nick came back home: he had been left rotten in a garage in Gloucester, England (a few hundred miles away from his hometown) ! Back to Swansea, Old Nick was placed as closed to its original location, in the newbuilt Quadrant Shopping Mall, still looking at the Church (despite some local believers’ and notable overall religious discontentment). The Quadrant Shopping’s team used to regularly change its place to frighten people and add to the scary local legend.
Later on, the shopping mall needed to be refurbished and Old Nick was given to Swansea Museum, its current location since 2019 and where he could better be looked after. The Museum also paid attention as to place the Swansea Devil in the direction of Saint Mary’s Church, waiting for the day when it burns to its ground again, and he, Old Nick, will be watching, and laughing…
If you want to know more about Old Nick, here is a video you should watch!