Saturday 27 June 2015

4 Cyril Gwynn, Bard of Gower

4. Cyril Gwynn (photos: Cyril Gwynn, Penrice castle) - 27 June 2015

Peninsular Gower can boast a major Poet in Vernon Watkins, a Folk Singer in Phil Tanner, and, though less well known, a Bard in Cyril Gwynn.

Born in Briton Ferry in January 1897, the eldest of twelve children, Cyril Gwynn grew up at Langland Bay Farm where his parents were tenants, until it was sold in 1906 to make way for Langland Bay golf course.  He could speak the Gower dialect, and went to school in Newton and Mumbles.

After serving on mine-sweepers during the First World War, he married in 1922 and settled initially in Parkmill.  At different times he worked as a farmer, steam-roller driver, and road mender in various Gower parishes.

When ploughing or working with horses he might compose verses about local matters.  If he wrote them out they were rarely altered from what he had composed mentally, being intended to be recited rather than read.

One time when the entertainment booked for the Gower Inn could not come, Cyril Gwynn was persuaded to recite some of his rural poems.  This led to him being regularly called upon to recite one or more of his “yarns” - after a ploughing match, at a harvest supper, when welcoming a new vicar, or at a wake.  His subjects might be the village blacksmith, harvest prize-giving, the Penrice Castle Shoot, local characters, new road schemes - all delivered with a native wit, and often an ironic twist in the final line.  He made some pithy comments on the changing face of farming, and on town dwellers’ views of the countryside.

In 1928 Cyril Gwynn published a small booklet of 33 of his Gower yarns, but with no illusions of literary ability.  He wrote “I now submit them as a truly rural product with no pretension to literary excellence or grammatical perfection”.  That year he was political agent for the unsuccessful Conservative candidate for Gower, and was offered a job on the ‘Western Mail’, which he declined.

But in the 1950s he moved from Gower.  After ten years working as an engineer in Neath Abbey, he emigrated to Australia in 1964 for the sake of his wife’s health, as two of their daughters had already settled there. 

During his first visit back to Wales in 1975 (aged in his late seventies), Cyril Gwynn was still able to recite scores of his yarns, some having ten or twelve verses.  J. Mansel Thomas, deputy headmaster of Bishop Gore School, had written about him in the 1951 Gower journal describing him as “The Bard of Gower”.  He persuaded him to let the Gower Society publish ‘The Gower Yarns of Cyril Gwynn’, containing 31 of his poems and including 12 from the 1928 publication.  It was reprinted in 1989, and is a collection of narrative folk poems depicting a rural society that is no more. 

The sentiments of another Welshman, W.H. Davies - ‘What is life so full of care we have no time to stop and stare?’ - are echoed in Cyril Gwynn’s poem ‘Contentment’:

So save your pity, ‘tis as well, he needs not it who labours,

And they who in the country dwell, lack neither life nor neighbours.

I have the birds, the flowers, the trees, beside my cottage door,

did you bit know the worth of these you would not count me poor.

For nature’s beauty doth outweigh the pageantry of kings,

And I am quite content to stay here, near the heart of things.

The Bard of Gower died in Australia in 1988, aged ninety.  The late Nigel Jenkins wrote an appreciation in that year’s Gower journal and described Cyril Gwynn as an authentic bardd gwlad/folk poet, albeit using the English language.                      


Saturday 20 June 2015

3 Lewis Weston Dillwyn

3. Lewis Weston Dillwyn (photos: LW Dillwyn, Sw. Museum, Sketty Hall) – 20 June

On 2nd July the tenth of the recent blue plaques will be unveiled outside Sketty Hall.  This is in memory of Lewis Weston Dillwyn, father of John Dillwyn Llewelyn of Penlle’r-gaer and of Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn of Hendrefoilan House, and grandfather of Amy Dillwyn, whose own blue plaque stands on the promenade near the West Cross Inn.

L.W. Dillwyn was born in Ipswich in 1778, the eldest son of Pennsylvanian Quaker William Dillwyn, who had campaigned against slavery and who purchased Swansea’s Cambrian Pottery in 1802 on behalf of his son.  A keen botanist, L.W. Dillwyn employed William Weston Young there to illustrate Swansea ware with precise diagrams of plants in botanical details.

Through Dillwyn’s marriage in 1807 to Mary Adams, daughter of Colonel Llewelyn of Penlle’r-gaer, their elder son (born in 1810) would inherit the estate when he reached the age of 21, on condition of taking on the additional surname Llewelyn: thus he became John Dillwyn-Llewelyn in 1831.   

An eminent naturalist, L.W. Dillwyn published works on botany and conchology, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1804.  “A Descriptive Catalogue of British Shells” was published in two volumes in 1817, and “Contributions towards a History of Swansea” in 1840.  In this he mentions red deer antlers “said to have been found among stumps of trees on the wet sands between Swansea and Mumbles”.

Dillwyn accompanied Miss Talbot of Penrice to Goat’s Hole, Paviland, after human bones had been discovered in the cave in December 1822.  He wrote to William Buckland, Oxford University’s first Professor of Geology, inviting him to examine what became known as the “Red Lady of Paviland”.

Dillwyn was High Sheriff of Glamorgan in 1818, represented Glamorgan as a Whig (Liberal) MP in the first reformed parliament from 1832, and became Mayor of Swansea seven years later.  After living in Burrows Lodge, which used to stand by Swansea Museum, he moved to Penlle’r-gaer in 1817 until his elder son came of age.   Then Dillwyn moved out to Sketty Hall, which he had purchased for £3,800 in 1831. 

He was a founder member in 1835 of the Swansea Philosophical and Literary Society, which became the Royal Institution of South Wales, and built Swansea Museum six years later.  For nearly twenty years until his death he was President of the Society, with his expertise being curator of the Natural History section.  When the British Association for the Advancement of Science met in Swansea in 1848, Dillwyn was President of the Zoology and Botany section, while his son-in-law Henry De la Beche was President of the Geology section.

Dillwyn kept diaries from 1817 until 1852, just a few years before he died.  These comprise 36 volumes held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.  Among other matters they deal with family and business concerns, his work as a naturalist, as well as his public duties as a magistrate and a member of parliament.   Gerald Gabb has brought out a most readable edition of extracts of the diaries aimed at schools.

Dillwyn was not exempt from personal tragedy, for the death-bed scene of his young daughter was captured by the artist C.R. Leslie in 1829: the painting is in Swansea Museum.

In 1855 two of Swansea’s most eminent citizens died within a few months of each other.  Copper-master and MP John Henry Vivian of Singleton Abbey died on 10 February in his seventieth year, and Lewis Weston Dillwyn died on 31 August aged 77 at Sketty Hall.  A later occupant of Sketty Hall was Vivian’s youngest son, Richard Glynn Vivian, while it was L.W. Dillwyn’s second son Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn who succeeded J.H. Vivian as MP for Swansea and District from 1855.         


Saturday 13 June 2015

2 Swansea trams

2. Swansea Trams (photos: Trams in the Uplands and Bryn Road) – 13 June 2015

The disruption seemed endless a few years ago when the layout of Swansea roads was being altered for the Metro or “Bendy Bus”, especially along The Kingsway.  It could hardly compare with the 1870s, however, when roads were being widened and rails laid to introduce horse-drawn trams.  Later there was more disruption, though on a much smaller scale, when those tram rails were removed in 1937.

Street tramways had originated in the United States, prompting Britain’s 1870 Tramways Act which encouraged the provision of urban public transport.  The Swansea Improvements and Tramway Company was established in 1873, and empowered by an Act of Parliament a year later.  The Company widened streets, demolished Island House at the top of Wind Street, constructed Alexandra Road and Prince of Wales Road, and widened Hafod Bridge. 

From April 1878 horse-drawn trams ran north from the High Street to Morriston, and a few months later west to St Helens, later adding a route to Cwmbwrla.  Each tramcar was pulled by a pair of horses, with three pairs being needed each day.  The horse teams would be changed around midday, and again in the early evening.  The tram depot was in lower St Helens Road, on the site of the present Crown Court, with stables, blacksmiths and a body shop.  Initially ten tramcars were shipped in from North America, though tramcars were later assembled at the St Helen’s Road depot.  The busiest route was from Swansea High Street to the terminus at The Duke in Neath Road, Morriston.

The “Improvements” element in the Company’s name allowed scope for building a place of entertainment, which opened in the newly-built Prince of Wales Road in 1888.  Originally called the Swansea Pavilion it is now the Palace Theatre, in a sad state of dereliction. 

But horse-drawn trams encountered problems with steep gradients, especially on the Cwmbwrla route, and passengers sometimes needed to alight and walk before a steep hill.  In spite of objections it was hoped that steam locomotion would be the solution.  Three Hughes Locomotive engines for use by the Mumbles Railway were brought into service, and housed in a new depot built at Cwmbwrla.  There were even plans to use steam locomotion on the Morriston line, but after two years this method of transport was abandoned, for the steam engines were too unreliable.  Additional horses were purchased to assist on the gradients.

The gradient problem was overcome when the Company was taken over by British Electric Traction, for in 1900 Swansea became the first town in Wales to use electric traction.  The four initial routes were from High Street to Morriston, High Street to Cwmbwrla, along Alexandra Road to the Docks, and along Gower Street (now part of the Kingsway) to St Helen’s.  That route had no low bridges so it could use an open-top double-decker, but other routes were limited to single-decker tramcars.

With electrification there was a dramatic increase in passenger numbers, from 2.5 million for the last year of horse-drawn trams, to 4.5 million when they were electrified in 1900.  Regular stopping places along the routes for boarding or leaving trams were now introduced, instead of the informal stopping arrangements with horse-drawn trams.

After the First World War motor buses were used to feed the tram routes from outlying districts, which indicated the future direction for urban public transport.  The Company’s directors formed the South Wales Transport Company, which in 1927 took over the parent company: this led inevitably to trams being replaced by motor buses.  The final tram ran in June 1937 as the motor buses took over, foreshadowing a similar fate for the Mumbles Railway in January 1960, but that is another story.     

Saturday 6 June 2015

1 Vernon Watkins

1. Morgan and Higgs (photos: Dylan, Vernon, Heatherslade plaque) - 6 June 2015

In these days of Kindle, television and the Internet, the specialist bookshop might not occupy such a vital position as it would have done in the 1930s for those seeking to widen their knowledge and further their interests.

Heathfield Road, now known as just Heathfield, runs off Mount Pleasant Hill.  There was also a Heathfield Street, which following post-war reconstruction is now part of the Kingsway.  It ran from the top of Union Street to the top of Portland Street, and contained at number 18 the premises of Morgan and Higgs, booksellers.  In more recent years Peters Bookshop was at a similar site – 47, The Kingsway.

In 1935 the Morgan and Higgs bookshop was regularly visited during his lunch hour by 28 year-old Vernon Watkins, who worked at the St Helen’s Road branch of Lloyds Bank.  He had worked for the bank for ten years, though spending the first two at the branch in Butetown, Cardiff. 

One February Monday Vernon was amazed to see in the window of the bookshop a display of a new book called “18 Poems” which prominently claimed to be by A LOCAL POET.  He was unaware that there was anyone in Swansea other than himself writing poetry, so he went into the shop and looked at the volume, with no intention of buying it, before hurrying back to work.  Dylan Thomas’ first volume of poetry contained such poems as ‘Especially when the October wind’ and ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’: like a moth attracted to a flame Vernon was drawn back each lunchtime that week to read more of the poems.  Eventually on the Saturday afternoon (for banks were routinely open on Saturday mornings then), he purchased the book, before catching the Swan bus home to Pennard where he lived with his parents at Heatherslade (now a residential home), above Foxhole Bay. 

The Watkins family used to attend Paraclete Congregational Chapel in Newton when they lived at Redcliffe (now demolished) in Caswell.  Paraclete’s minister was Rev. David Rees, married to one of Dylan’s maternal aunts.  By 1935 he was retired, but a chance meeting enabled Vernon to obtain Dylan’s address.  When he called at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive he found that Dylan was away in London, but Vernon left his phone number with Mrs Florence Thomas.  Contact was established once Dylan returned to Swansea and the two poets met up, forming a friendship of mutual benefit.

Vernon encouraged Dylan to give titles to his poems, for those in “18 Poems” merely had numbers as with Mozart symphonies.  Equally Dylan encouraged Vernon to renounce his earlier decision not to have his poems published.  He had hitherto been content as a metaphysical poet to be unfashionable, with no expectation of public acclaim.

When Keidrych Rhys brought out a new magazine “Wales” in 1937, Dylan persuaded Vernon to let him send off two poems for inclusion.  He did not tell Vernon that he had altered two words in the poem “Griefs of the Sea”.  When Vernon received his copy of the new publication he was very angry at Dylan’s presumption.  He went into Morgan and Higgs and altered every copy back to what he had originally written, and did similarly at Swansea’s other major bookshop, W.H. Smith, then at 11 High Street.  One wonders what response members of staff received at either bookshop when seeking to dissuade Vernon, for the determined and indignant bank worker was not to be thwarted from his task!  After Vernon had made his feelings known to Dylan, cordial relations were subsequently re-established between the two poets.           
The Morgan and Higgs premises were among those destroyed by aerial bombardment during the war.