The Abergavenny fugitive who brought honour and dishonour to the town in equal measure

By Tim Butters in Local People

ON a hot summer’s day in August 1938, Abergavenny’s John Donald Lester Wagstaffe hired a car and disappeared in suspicious circumstances from the town he worked, lived, and was an extremely popular and well-known figure in.

The rugby-playing solicitor and coroner had left his wife and young son, and driven off the radar into the abyss of obscurity.

Wagstaffe had practiced law in Abergavenny for over a decade. He’d been a Lieutenant in the 2nd Mons and was a member of both the Town Council and the Chamber of Trade as well as Abergavenny Rugby Club.

Yet in the wake of his vanishing act, all evidence of his existence has been seemingly whitewashed from the official historical record.

Wagstaffe had been involved in a scandal Abergavenny wanted to distance itself from.

One of their own had brought shame on the town and all trace of him was to be eroded like a tide obliterates footprints in the sand.

Yet for Wagstaffe, that fateful August day was to be just the beginning of his adventures.

The shamed solicitor was about to embark on an epic odyssey which would see him join the French Foreign Legion and earn a battlefield Croix de Guerre in World War 2.

Wagstaffe was also captured by the Germans and forced to endure the horrors of Stalag 194.

It was in the cruel confines of the POW camp where Wagstaffe would meet a Polish prisoner who would become his second wife.

Wagstaffe’s tale is a curious, engaging, and until now, a largely forgotten one in his home town. It’s time to set the record straight.

When John Wagstaffe fled Abergavenny in a hired car he headed straight to what is often the last refuge for many a desperate man - Newport.

Broadly built and standing at six feet tall, the dark haired and mustached solicitor cut a fine figure in his navy blue pin stripe suit and light grey trilby hat.

His smart and suave appearance belied the fact that he was a desperate fugitive on the run from the law.

Wagstaffe was fleeing from warrants for his arrest and the type of publicity which would finish him.

One of the warrants was for all alleged fraudulent conversion of £630 from Lemuel Lewis of Porth-y-Parc Farm, Llwyndu and amount which equates to about £36,000 in today’s coin.

Another warrant referred to his alleged conversion of the title documents and mortgage charge of Rockfield Farm between November 1937 and March 1938.

Needless to say, the Avenue Road resident wasn’t about to hang around and face the music.

Word was put out that the runaway solicitor was an embezzler and fraudster. By the time the boys in blue had found his abandoned car in the car park of a Newport Cinema, Wagstaffe was long gone.

He’d hitched a ride with a wad of other people’s money and was crossing the channel on the Girl Pat, skippered by an old friend and character called ‘Potato’ Jones.

‘Potato’ Jones was part of the brave gang of Welsh skippers, also known as the Jones boys, also known as the Blockade busters.

These likely lads risked bombing, shelling, and capture by Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War, to take in thousands of tons of supplies to the Basque country of Northern Spain and return with thousands of desperate refugees.

‘Corn Cob’ Jones, ‘Ham-and-Egg’ Jones and ‘Potato’ Jones were the trio of Welsh sea dogs who gave General Franco the two-fingered salute and run the gauntlet to deliver badly-needed supplies to the oppressed and hungry.

On this particular voyage ‘Potato’ Jones’s unusual cargo was a crooked solicitor who immediately upon landing on French shores signed up for five arduous years with the French Foreign Legion under the name John Watson.

The proverbial stranger in a strange land was sent for training to Sidi-bel-Abbes in Algeria. Amongst the fresh-faced raw recruits, Wagstaffe immediately caught the eye of his superiors when his previous military experience with the 2nd Mons became apparent.

When war broke out in 1939, the Monmouthshire refugee found himself promoted to the rank of Corporal, and facing the hell and horror of the German blitzkrieg, as he stood shoulder to shoulder with other soldiers in the 11th Foreign Regiment.

For his bravery and skill under fire, Wagstaffe was awarded a Croix de Guerre medal of honour on June 23, 1940.

Meanwhile back in dear old Blighty, John Wagstaffe was declared bankrupt by the London Gazette in the same year.

Later in 1940 Wagstaffe’s regiment took a terrible hammering and a man called Corporal Watson was taken prisoner at Colombey-Less-Nelles in Lorraine and sent to Stalag 194.

The man who was born a Wagstaffe and who later became Watson was now reduced to a number - 7667.

Stalag 194 was a forced labour farm operated by the Nazis. It was here where Wagstaffe met his second wife Anna Smedjda.

Anna was a Polish woman whose first husband had been tortured to death in a concentration camp, after the Nazis had invaded her homeland.

In 1942, back in Abergavenny, Wagstaffe’s first wife was granted a divorce on account of desertion.

Wagstaffe was not to know this, and told Anna he’d joined the Legion because he was devastated after losing his wife and small son in a car crash.

Anna, thankfully wasn’t too inquisitive about her prospective husband’s previous life in Wales. Such was the period of history the two found themselves in, a lot of people had things they wanted to forget and didn’t tend to dwell on the past.

They were grateful just to be alive and see the sun rise on another day.

In September 1944, John and Anna had special reason to be thankful. The Americans arrived and with them came liberation. The war for Wagstaffe was over. His new life was just beginning.

By the end of the war, Wagstaffe was fluent in Polish and the American troops offered him a job as an interpreter in the claims branch at Verdun.

Whilst working there he married Anna and shortly afterwards was successful in landing a job at the British Embassy in Paris under the name on his marriage certificate - John Watson.

Wagstaffe never saw his first wife or son again, but he did father two girls with Anna.

By 1954, the years had taken their toll on Wagstaffe’s mortal frame and on November 20 he took to his bed never rise again.

In the wake of his death Anna attempted to secure British citizenship as the widow of an expat.

Wagstaffe had told his wife he had once played rugby for Newport and was a Lieutenant in the 2nd Mons.

With the help of British Embassy officials Anna began looking for proof of her late husband’s British roots.

The only trouble was, they were looking for a John Watson, and there was no evidence of such a man in the 2nd Mons or Newport RFC.

Assuming John Watson was a fictional name the Embassy enlisted the help of Gwent detectives who came up with the idea of searching for Newport rugby players with the surname W. They soon hit upon Wagstaffe.

The name instantly rang an alarm with Detective Sergeant Jack Bale of the Newport Police who said at the time, “I remember him as a hefty chap with plenty of beef. A forcing forward in the line-out. But he suddenly disappeared at the time of some financial scandal or other. He was a solicitor. Very popular in Newport and Abergavenny where he did most of his business. He vanished just before the war.”

The detectives realised they were close to solving a very old mystery.

The information was sent to Paris and the head of Abergavenny CID, Detective Chief Inspector David Thomas arrived in person to bring everyone up to date on the Wagstaffe saga.

Feathers were ruffled and serious implications were raised but the dust soon settled, and Anna was granted British citizenship.

On a fine March morning in 1957 the Abergavenny Magistrates ordered that the 19-year-old warrants for a rugby-playing solicitor they had once seen plying his trade in that very courtroom be withdrawn.

The case was closed. The slate wiped clean. Wagstaffe was no longer a wanted fugitive.

Such an ending to his tale would no doubt have brought a wry smile to the lips of a man who made a few mistakes, but who in the final analysis was a remarkable man who lived a remarkable life.

• Many thanks to Abergavenny Library’s George Beale for his invaluable research.

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