Some Memories Of Penny Readings

The bulk of this article is taken from a longer essay by David John Morgans.

12_penny_readingsPenny readings were very popular entertainments in the Valleys before the days of cinema or even radio. The penny was the price of admission, (although it did go up to 2d for adults), and before I was old enough to go to these, I assumed that the meetings involved instructive or entertaining Readings by well-known authors. Instead, at every meeting, we had solos, recitations, duets and a large number of competitions. Competition themes, in addition to the solos and recitations, were Impromptu Speeches, Spelling Bees, Life Stories, Unpunctuated Reading, Best Story, Chief Choral, and several others.

In my chapel, Tylagwyn Baptist Chapel, these ‘Penny Readings’ were held once a fortnight on a Wednesday, and then on the alternate Wednesdays at the Welsh Independent Chapel. In Betws they were held in the Long Room of one of the local inns, apart from the inn but on the inn premises, and they were very popular, people often walking 3 or 4 miles to get there.

In the Spelling Bee competition, which was held in Welsh, the competitors stood in a line in the pulpit and each had to give in turn a word beginning with a given letter; if the word had already been given by another then he had to stand down. I remember the two who always took part in this competition: Twm Wil Ifan and Joe Tycwrdd. These two were always the two who survived and the prize would have to be divided because they could go on indefinitely.

The Best Story competition was always an interesting one as most of the half- hour tales concerned people in the locality or incidents in the nearby mines. The Hanes Eich Bywyd- Your Life Story, also rendered some tall tales as each partici- pant started by giving a certain amount of truth about himself but soon the imagination was given full rein and some wonderful tales ensued. Some of the competitors – Billy Williams, John Braund and Dafydd Llewellyn had been in America for a short time so you could imagine that the audience, particularly the children, were spellbound.

Another wordy competition, Impromptu Dialogue, involved choosing a partner and then being given a topic once you were up in the pulpit. Some subjects I can remember:

“Which is the more useful animal- the sheep or the cow?”
“Which would you prefer- a wife who kept the house spotlessly clean but was a bit of a moaner, or a wife who was slovenly but who had a happy and contented nature?”

I was often an adjudicator in the General Knowledge competitions, and I re- member one in particular when I asked one boy “What do the letters D.C.M. stand for?” He answered without any hesitation “Duchy Colliery Manager”. (The boy’s father worked there).

On the musical side some memorable characters were William Davies, known as Billy Foxhole, who once sung unaccompanied a hugely complex anthem when no-one had ever heard him sing a note up to that point. Watkin Rees, known as Wat Coker, was another talent considered equal to Caruso in his rendering of “The Last Rose of Summer”.

There was one item that came on every session, a trio, made up of John Grif- fiths, a tall man over 6ft in height, Dafydd Powell, a very short man about 4ft 6inches and a younger man named Jack Jenkins, who afterwards toured the country with an opera company. The song was always ‘by special request’, about the kind of wife they would like to have. The six-foot John Griffiths would sing out “a short wife” and then Dafydd Powell would answer “a tall wife”, reaching his hand up as far as he could, while Jack Jenkins would sing “no wife at all for me”.

The climax to each Penny Reading was the Chief Choral competition, where a choir of no fewer than 12 gave the best rendering of a given hymn tune for a prize of 5 shillings. Had the prize been £50 there could not have been more excitement. Three or four choirs would compete: there was Côr Tylagwyn (con- ductor Evan Job), Côr Carmel (Dafydd Powell), Côr Nazareth (conductor Billy Thomas who was a baker known as Billy Bara Heddi), and Côr Tommy Ifans. These choirs held practices twice or three times a week- in someone’s parlour as a rule, or anywhere where a piano could be found. It was no easy job being an adjudicator at one of these choral competitions. The amount of bantering before and after the competition was enormous, but it did develop a sense of humour in everyone, and there was rarely any ill-feeling on the announcement of the winner.

The Penny Readings were held for some years after the last war and were a celebration of how people could get entertainment and enjoyment by coming together and sharing their talents within the community- no need to be glued to a television or computer screen!

The bulk of this article is taken from a longer essay by David John Morgans.

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