A Child of the Valley, Part 3

Part Three, by Ann Leitch

In September 1943 I set off down The Avenue to begin my education at the Garw Grammar School. I was proudly wearing my new brown gymslip with orange sash, white shirt, striped  tie and thick brown stockings. I mustn’t forget my smart brown blazer and heavy leather satchel. I had long plaits, which the boys liked tugging and some would dip the tips in the inkwells. In the upper forms I wound them round my head and wore them that way for the rest of my schooldays.

The new boys and girls were soon sorted into their classes, 2A or 2B, and we all went into assembly. I had never seen so many teachers, and most of them seemed to be male. Mr I D Harry was our headmaster, and he was very charismatic and highly esteemed. Miss Sali Davies was the Senior mistress in charge of the girls and Willie Reese was deputy head and a respected local counsellor. It was a very small school by today’s standards with less than 400 pupils, but it had an energy and a spirit which was second to none. Most of the masters were middle aged, because the younger ones were in the forces. Mr W Polmeer, the Woodwork teacher returned to the school from the RAF in 1946. He was admired by the girls for his youth and good looks and very popular with the boys too, for his expertise and good humour. Miss Anne Thomas, whose father was the Undertaker in Blaengarw, was the Domestic Science teacher. She was very well organized and stood no nonsense. I can clearly recall that in our first cookery lesson we made rock cakes and mine lived up to their name! Miss Davies, our first art mistress, seemed very glamorous and made quite a big impression on us all.

The school motto was “Dim byd, byd heb wybodaeth” — “No world without the world of knowledge”. Looking back, I think we had a very well- rounded education and enjoyed a breadth of experience better than that in many modern Comprehensive Schools. Most of the teaching was excellent. Some pupils were exceptionally clever and went to top universities and on to distinguished careers. Music played a large part in our curriculum and we were imbued with a strong sense of Welsh Culture. Annually, in the Easter term, we had our Eiddsteddfod, held in the Memorial Hall, Pontycymmer. The school was divided into four Houses. Mine was Ty Derw, ( Reds) The others were Ty Bedw, (Blues) Ty Collen (Greens) and Ty Ffawydd (Whites). We did our utmost to gain points for our team by submitting poems, stories, paintings, or craft work. It was a great bonding experience. There was a House Magazine too which was judged and awarded points. A lot of hard work went into the production of this. After auditions in their specialty, the chosen few would compete on stage on the Big Day and some children were very gifted. I wish I could fully describe the excitement and joie-de-vivre felt by us. There would be singing, playing instruments, reciting, folk dancing and as a light relief, group whistling! This always caused great hilarity. Miss Annie Hills adjudicated the verse speaking and her comments were very sharp and forthright!  We all cheered on our own house and went home tired, but happy. The victorious house members felt that extra satisfaction. From my year Eirwen Matthias, from Blaengarw, stood out as the outstanding singer and won all the top prizes. I am sure she will be well remembered.

In 1944 the Junior choir competed at the Urdd Eisteddfod in North Wales. Mr Harry conducted us and we sang “Nant Y Mynydd”, a lovely Welsh song with a bubbly tune. We returned home with the winning cup, a great achievement. I recall that we were over -crowded on the bus, and the younger children had to sit three on a seat! Eirwen, of course, also won her competition. She was much admired and loved.  Sometimes she could be persuaded to sing to us in a private corner of the playground or in the cloakroom. Our favourite song was “Dancing, Dancing, High in the Clouds”, an old Deanna Durban number.

Later, Mr Harry also conducted us in the Messiah. It proved to be an exhilarating and unforgettable experience for the choir, and was very much appreciated by the audience.

My special Pontycymmer friends at school were, Myra MacIver, sisters Mair and Nan Davies, Sheila Prickett and  Vaynor Powell. My Blaengarw mates were Margo Davies (the Nant), Eirwen Matthias, Menai Jones (fluent Welsh speaker) and Moira Davies. These were all great fun and we had many enjoyable evenings acting and singing in the private rooms of the Nanthir Hotel. Of course, there were many other great girls and admirable boys in our school too. We all enjoyed the annual Christmas Parties, one for the Juniors and the other for the Seniors. The girls could wear their prettiest dresses and the staff organized games and sketches and were good sports.

Sadly Mr Dan Harry left us to become Principal of Coleg Harlech in North Wales. He was succeeded by Mr H J Davies and he introduced some changes.  He, too, was very committed and wanted the best for the school and its pupils. His wife, a biology teacher in Bridgend  Boys’ High School, was very charming.  Miss Maddocks was our very efficient and pleasant school secretary and Mr Ebenezer Howells our long suffering care-taker.

The war was still going on, of course. My uncles saw action in the Army and the RAF. Vernon Garfield, from The Avenue, a navigator in a Bomber Squadron, was shot down over Germany and declared “Missing in Action”. Fortunately, months later, his family heard he was a POW in one of the Stalag camps. He had been an art student in Cardiff when he was called up.

Two adventurous senior boys from our school had cycled to St Athens’ RAF camp and returned with a canister. One boy threw it at the bottom of his garden and unfortunately his little sister opened it. She was struck down by a sudden illness which at first baffled the doctors. The canister turned out to contain the deadly mustard gas and tragically it proved fatal. This caused quite a stir and we were all greatly saddened.

On May 8th 1945 we had VE Day. I well remember the joy and excitement we all felt. People wandered about in high spirits and a crowd began dancing outside The Conservative Club, near Waun Bant. The blue fairy lights outside were magical.

Our vicar had left Pontycymmer and I now went to the Welsh Tabernacle chapel in Meadow Street. There was a very enthusiastic young minister in charge, who was very modern in his approach. He set up a Youth Club and we would meet each week for discussions, quizzes or concerts. We played table tennis and occasionally other games too, like “Forfeits” or “Postman’s Knock” —exciting stuff for young people! On Sunday evenings, after chapel, we all went for a long walk down past Pantygog and Pontyrhyl. Only heavy rain or snow could deter us. This was a good chance to socialise outside school and mostly we kept in gangs. It is amazing how well we organized ourselves, as there were no mobile ‘phones and not many domestic ones either. We had our own ways of networking!

Myra and I went together on the annual Sunday School outings to Porthcawl or Barry.  Mostly it rained, but we still had a good time. Some week-ends we went on cycling trips and especially liked whizzing along Bridgend Road which was free from traffic. On Saturday nights many senior pupils would go to the Cinema and enjoy the Gainsborough costume dramas like “Wicked Lady, Madonna of the Seven Moons and The Man in Grey” — all considered very daring. Couples, of course, would sit in the back row! The National Anthem, “God Save the King” was always played at the end.

Another popular Saturday night activity was a visit to Porthcawl Pavilion on Wally Carpenter’s luxury coach. After the dance, the returning passengers would cheerfully sing “You’ll never go to heaven in Wally’s bus” and indeed were lucky to get home without an engine breakdown!

Even though the war had ended, we still had rationing. I remember one year when there was a shortage of potatoes and we felt hungry, even after school dinners! There were long queues for second helpings. The boys must have suffered most. The early winter months of 1947 were seriously cold and the UK had the worst snowfalls in living memory. In the extreme conditions all traffic was paralyzed and the schools closed. We had a difficult time.

In 1948 I sat the CWB Examinations for my School Certificate. I was then able to stay at school for another two years to take The Higher School Certificate or Highers. My subjects were English, History and Latin and my teachers were Miss Rees (interesting and lively), Mr Hopkins (demanding the best) and Mr R Bartholamew (scholarly and enthusiastic) They were extremely good and I was lucky to have them. Other Senior teachers, like Mr H Garfield (Chemistry), Mr C Matthews (Physics), Mr “Fuzzy” Thomas (French) and of course Willie Reese (Maths) were also highly regarded. Miss Sali Davies exerted a strong influence and I wish to pay tribute to this stalwart and fully committed woman. Mr T Jones (Music and Welsh) was affectionately known as Tojo! He was in charge of the choir. He and Miss Davies produced a very successful Welsh History Pageant for the National Eisteddfod, held in Bridgend. I must also mention Mr Ezra Plummer (Geography and Geology) who was very popular and approachable. He took us on trips to Cardiff, to see plays and also the ballet. He also introduced us to French Cinema, considered very avant- garde at that time. We felt very grown-up! A group was also taken to see Laurence Olivier’s highly acclaimed film “Hamlet.” All these experiences kept us in touch with main- stream culture and we were lucky to have such opportunities.

Sadly, another tragedy occurred in the summer of ’48 when three pupils went to Brittany on  holiday. The Mayor took them on a pleasure trip around the bay. The boat overturned and Anne Richards from Brynmenyn was drowned. This was a great shock to all who knew this gentle, popular girl and such a blow for her family.

We had a very vigorous Debating Society and even had inter-school debates with our great rivals Ogmore Grammar and Maesteg Grammar. Visiting lecturers talked about UNESCO, Careers and Health.  A trio from Cardiff regularly played Chamber Music and a Theatre Company performed plays for us. We had our own orchestra, of course, and many gifted musicians. Our singers, instrumentalists and verse speakers won prizes in the Urdd Competitions. No wonder we were proud of our school and its good reputation. The headmaster converted the school basement into a VIth form annexe and there we enjoyed a considerable amount of freedom. We were really very privileged.

As for sport, Glyn John was a wonderful all- round sportsman and athlete. He had played for the Welsh Juniors in Soccer and also for the Welsh Secondary Schools in Rugby. Of course, he was Captain of the school Rugby team and Betty Jones was his very pretty girl friend. Her family kept a grocer shop in King Edward Street. Corris Edwards was the Vice- Captain and another good athlete. Mr Matthews was chief coach and much appreciated. The girls’ hockey team had a poor year, I fear, although Inez John (Right Back) was an excellent Captain. The younger girls had a first class netball team, however, and the mixed tennis team was above average. Tennis was my favourite sport and Jean Williams was our outstanding player. Boys like Graham Browning, Gilmore Hurley, Dennis Lloyd, Hopkin Maddock, John Phillips, Clifford Rees, Donald Rees, Royden Rosser, John Thomas (Tyn Ton) and Terry Watts  were just some of my contemporaries and I remember them with fondness. In our final year, John Phillips and I had the honour of being appointed Head boy and Head Girl. And who can forget the incomers like Marjorie and John Semmens, Howel and Ronald Pugh and Eric Evans? They were extremely clever and contributed much to the school. Another bright pupil, Joyce Long, had already left, having passed the Civil Service Examination, and now worked at the Welsh Board of Health in Cardiff.  Molly Parkin joined us now and then and made her own impact. Life was never dull!

On 29th March 1950 a Memorial Tablet was unveiled in school by Mrs Winifred Thomas (Chairman of the Governers) in memory of the past pupils who were killed in World War 2. In the evening a Memorial and Dedication Service was held at the Noddfa Chapel. Altogether it was a very moving and impressive ceremony and I will never forget the deep emotion felt on that occasion. John and I had the privilege of reading the lessons.

Earlier in the month, my sister Jayne was born. My mother, Daisy, had married Mesach Thomas from Victoria Street. She had left Tymeinor School, where her cooking had been much appreciated. Later she would take over the library shop in Oxford Street, and this she ran successfully for about 16 years. I think some will still remember her.

At school, we duly sat our “Highers,” most of them in a heat wave! In August Mr Thomas bravely took a group of us to Paris. What an inspiring guide he was and what a wonderful trip we had! We stayed in a large hostel and were served French peasant food, which I unexpectedly enjoyed. I particularly remember the pungent smell and taste of garlic. We climbed the Eiffel Tower, had a boat ride on The Seine and visited the lovely Versailles Palace. I also had my first taste of red wine and some of the boys had rather too much! It was great fun and an unforgettable experience.

All of us in the Upper VIth, had now formally left school, of course. Most were ready to go on to Higher Education. Some of the boys, however, chose to do their National Service first. My ambition was to be a school teacher and I left for College with my good friend Margo in late September that year. My family moved from Pontycymmer to Bridgend in 1957. I thoroughly enjoyed my teaching career in London before moving with my Scottish husband and two small children to Caerleon in 1972.  Over the years I have revisited the Garw with Peter and my mother, both, alas, now deceased.  Daisy was 96 when she died and still in possession of all her faculties. We never failed to have our fish and chips from the Waun Bant chip shop! Peter (Blacklaws) wrote a lovely song called “I Married a Garw Girl” which he sang on “All Kinds of Everything”, an HTV show of the early’80s. He was accompanied by The Risca Male Voice Choir. My family is very proud of that song.

Of course the valley has changed considerably over the years, but some of my old haunts remain. I did find that 87 The Avenue was now the end house of the terrace, as the one next door had disappeared. I still felt alarmed by this!  I treasure my memories of the Garw, however — it always weaves that magic spell, which only a valley child would understand. I hope that by giving you this glimpse into my past, I have partly conveyed the true essence of my early life. I value my heritage and never wish to have been brought up anywhere else.

6 comments Add yours
  1. Hi Ann

    I am glad to see part 3 on the Heritage Site, and again thank you for reminding me of our early days growing up in The Avenue.

    Colin

  2. Hi
    My father went to the Garw School although not sure what years. I have a photo of him in the rugby team in 1939. I would love some information on any records of that school if anyone knows how i can aquire them or on the school rugby team. I still do have his school report naming some of the teachers. His name was Tyssul Griffiths and went on to play for Wales at rugby and moving up to Leeds Yorkshire to play for Hunslet, Doncaster, Dewsbury and the famous Wembley and Bradford finals in 1954

    Regards
    Kay

  3. I loved reading this article, having lived in Blaengarw until 1969. Is it possible to have a copy of Part Two, please.

    Many thanks.

  4. Hi Kay, Part Two and indeed Part One can be read by visiting the Local Stories page. Link at top on menu bar. Thanks!

  5. Loved your story. I lived in Blaengarw until I was seventeen and then my parents bought Thomas “French’s” house in Albany Road. I moved away from the valley when I was twenty one but always love my visits there. As you said it always weaves a magic spell.

Leave a Reply