An account in three parts by Ann M Leitch (nee Evans)
This account is meant as a social history, to show what life was like for a child brought up in the Garw valley in the 30s and 40s. It is a personal story and I cannot guarantee the accuracy of the names or the dates, but this is what I can remember. All the mistakes are mine! I hope it will give you some insight into the influences and pressures that made me the person I am today.
I was born in School Terrace, Blaengarw, on August 11th 1932. My mother always claimed it was the hottest day of the year. Nurse Cotterell was the kind mid-wife who delivered me. In later years I often saw her trim, tiny, figure walking briskly round the village with her little black bag and still delivering babies. I looked upon her with some awe.
School Terrace was so steep my mother was afraid to push my heavy pram up or down it! There were cobble stones on one side for the horses to grip as they went about their business. Milk was delivered in churns from the back of carts. The milkman would pour the required amount into your jug and the fresh, unpasteurised milk always tasted so delicious. The rubbish was collected by cart also. Everyone had coal fires for heating and cooking of course.
In 1933 my family moved from School Terrace to 87 The Avenue in Pontycymmer, and this is where I was brought up and remember so well. The terraced house had three stories and was very basic, like many others. We had no indoor amenities and only later did we have water in the kitchen and electricity throughout. But we had plenty of coal to keep us warm as well as Welsh blankets and home-made quilts on our beds. It was my home and I loved it. My father, Gwyn Evans, had trained at Clarke’s Business College in Cardiff and worked as a weighing clerk at the International Colliery (the Carn) in Blaengarw. This involved recording the amount of coal which was brought to the surface. I once visited his office and was amazed to see one wall lined with cages containing yellow canaries. These were kept to take down the mine to check for methane gas, which was a killer. His pay was about £2 and 6s a week and our rent was 11s and 3d, which seems quite high. Not many owned their own houses in those days. Times were hard. There had been hunger strikes in the 1930s and the country was only getting over the great depression.
My mother, Daisy Evans, was a housewife and a very good one. The main washing was done on the Monday and a long time it took, too. I disliked those days, especially if it was wet, as the kitchen was steamy and smelt of damp clothes. Daisy was an excellent pastry cook and also a wonderful seamstress. She made me very pretty dresses, copying those worn by Shirley Temple or Deanna Durban. She was a careful shopper and watched the pennies. She later went to evening classes at “Night school” as it was called then. What a wonderful organization – anyone could attend for a small fee. My mother learnt dressmaking, upholstery and embroidery and enjoyed the social get-together.
The Garw had four mines at that time, The International, The Ocean, The Ballarat and The Ffaldau. We were used to seeing the colliers, still in their working clothes, walking home after their shift. There were no pit-head baths then. We had coal at reduced price, so that was a great help. Unfortunately, one inevitable product of the mining industry was the unsightly springing-up of slag heaps and coal tips. One very long slag heap lay behind Victoria Street and we could see this from our bedroom window. In the cold weather it would steam because of the burning coke deep in its interior. It smelt too. Men, disregarding the danger would often forage for coal along the top of this mound. Sadly, one winter’s day, an unlucky chap had sunk into this unstable mass and would-be rescuers had failed to save him. This left an indelible impression on me and cast a gloom on all in the valley. Another unwelcome result of the underground mining was the subsidence of houses. A few friends had severely sloping floors in some of their rooms and walking on them gave me a strange, insecure feeling! Worse still, some end- of- terrace houses would suddenly partially collapse. I found that rather alarming, even though the families would have already abandoned that site.
Most people belonged to The Medical Aid Society and my father paid a few shillings a week for this wonderful service. If we were ill, we could attend the surgery behind the Ffaldau Institute that could be reached by steps from Oxford Street, or also by a narrow lane. We would wait to see Dr Bowen, who was much respected and loved. Dr Griffiths was later to take over the practice. I can still see the giant bottles of brightly coloured medicines lined up on the shelves in the surgery, ready to be dispensed. Dr Reese, an Indian doctor, practiced in Blaengarw and he too was admired and considered to be extremely clever.
The mountains which surrounded us were wonderful for walks and picnics. It was usual for children to go off on their own. We took our bottles of water and sandwiches (jam or cheese) as if we were going on a great adventure. I still remember the smell of the bracken and the pleasure of looking over our village below, especially on a hot summer’s morning. Everything was so peaceful – “All’s right with the world” We had a great sense of freedom and joy for the open air —our only other companions being the scraggy sheep! In the late summer we could pick the whinberries, which my mother cooked in a tart – my favourite. My visiting cousin always wanted rabbit droppings for her grandpa’s allotment. We would collect them with bare hands and put them into a brown paper bag! They were quite dry and odourless.
We also had two parks where we could enjoy playing on the swings and roundabouts. Here, we would meet children from other streets. The grown-ups had the adjoining tennis courts and bowling greens for their leisure activities.
Oxford Street was our main shopping centre and most things could be bought there. Shops like Peglers Stores and The Home and Colonial would deliver our groceries every week. In the war we mostly shopped at The Co-op, which paid out a dividend, and very welcome it was too. But then we had to queue for everything with our ration books at the ready. There were small sweet shops and grocers in the other streets too, where go-ahead families had started their own businesses. And, of course, there were the fish and chip shops, always so popular.
I particularly remember Elmo Ash, the cobbler, who worked in a small tin hut below us in Victoria Street, which we rudely called Mutton Tump! He was there for many years, cheerfully surviving the cold and the heat. I often I took our shoes down to be repaired — this was not the “Disposable” age! We also knew nearly all the families who lived in The Avenue and I can still name quite a few! We were a close-knit community and this gave me a warm, comfortable feeling.
We were also lucky enough to have three cinemas in our valley, and “picture -going” was very popular. My favourite stars were Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Deanna Durbin and the skater Sonja Henie. And I mustn’t forget Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan! Hollywood was in its hay day. I also loved the British comedians like George Formby, Will Hay and Old Mother Reilly – anything daft, in fact. I longed to dance like Ginger Rogers and I had a pair of red tap-shoes which made a lovely sound on the slab in our kitchen floor. Harriet and her sister Maisie (connected to the well- known, theatrical Anderson family) ran the local dancing school, but alas, it closed at the outbreak of war and I never did learn to tap dance.
I have very fond memories of the Memorial Hall in Pontycymmer. Here, many excellent dramas and light operas were performed and here began my love of the theatre. The valley had its own Amateur Dramatic Society and Miss Annie Hills and Eric Marwood and his wife were leading members. Every year we had a big Drama Festival when visiting societies would compete. The many chapels too, of all denominations, played a large part in the cultural life of the community. Welsh people love singing and there were many concerts and choirs. The Messiah was performed in the valley every year — these were the days before television, of course.
The Workmen’s Institutes in Pontycymmer and Blaengarw also played an important role because here men could have access to the daily papers and various journals. They also provided meeting rooms for whatever business was on hand. Each had a library and sometimes my mother, being a keen reader, would borrow their books. I was impressed by the heavy, dark tables in the dimly lit rooms and the big cupboards crammed with books, some beautifully bound. Borrowers had to sign an enormous ledger. My father, Gwyn Evans, was Hon. Secretary of The Blaengarw Workmen’s Hall in the early 40s and we always felt this was a great privilege and honour.
To be continued….