Saturday 29 August 2015

13 The Ben Evans Store - 'the Harrods of Wales'

13. The Ben Evans Store (photos: Ben Evans before and after the Blitz) - 29 August

In “Return Journey” Dylan Thomas recalls returning from London to bomb-damaged Swansea after the Three Nights’ Blitz of February 1941.  Following a comment on the loss of the Three Lamps pub in Temple Street, one person remarks “You remember Ben Evans’s stores …. Ben Evans isn’t there either”.  The premises referred to was the large dome-topped department store sometimes called “The Harrods of Wales”, which occupied most of the block now known as Castle Square.

The Ben Evans store was on the site of the town’s finest medieval house The Plas, demolished in 1840.  Ben Evans himself was born in Carmarthenshire in 1839, and started his drapery business in 1863 at numbers 2 and 3 Temple Street, Swansea.  As the business grew adjoining properties were bought up until the whole premises was enlarged and rebuilt in 1893-94 at a cost of £30,000, along with widening Castle Bailey Street.  Entrances were on Castle Bailey Street, Temple Street and Caer Street, with a porter on hand to assist customers who arrived by carriage.  Aldermen and councillors attended the opening on 24 November 1894, with a short speech given by Henry Hussey Vivian, Lord Swansea.

The following year Ben Evans and Company Limited was floated on the stock exchange.  A hundred members of staff were living on the premises at the time of the 1891 census, housed on the upper floors.  A housekeeper was in charge enforcing strict rules about how late one might be out: on getting married a woman would automatically cease employment.  By 1898 the number of staff had risen to around 500 people.  Vehicles for Ben’s were built and painted by John Jones and Co., Carriage Builders of Fisher Street (today lower Princess Way), while the Ben Evans stables and vehicle depot were in nearby Frog Street.  By 1906 Ben Evans himself was retired and living in Llandovery, aged 67.

A 1929 advertisement described Ben’s as “The Premier Fashion and Furnishing House of Wales and the West”, with thirty-eight departments to provide ladies’ fashions, children’s wear, baby linen, home furnishings, sports and travel goods, and offering complete funeral services.  There was a restaurant, a hairdressing Salon, and even a full-size model horse for those wanting to try on riding attire.  Ladies appreciated the provision of a refreshment room.

As with Lewis Lewis in the High Street and other departmental stores, wire cash carriers would carry customers' payments from the sales assistants to the cashier, and return the change and receipt.  Dylan wrote of the money “singing on the wires”.

Although a large and thriving business, Ben’s did not neglect advertising, using Swansea trams and Mumbles Railway carriages to display prominent advertisements.

On 21st February 1941, the third night of the massive aerial bombardment known as the Three Nights Blitz, this iconic building was destroyed by incendiary bombs.  The adjacent David Evans department store which had been similarly gutted was permitted to rebuild on the same site, but not Ben Evans, for the Council planned to lay out memorial gardens to remember those killed in the Blitz.  Ben Evans moved to Walter Road, where “The House of Quality” remained in business until around 1959, though never able to recapture the prominence it had enjoyed.  The bombed site was cleared and Castle Gardens created as a pleasant oasis of green in the old town centre, often patronised by ‘gentlemen of the road’.  In 1994 the area was transformed to resemble a continental piazza and re-named Castle Square. 
Though many like Dylan, who lamented “Our Swansea is dead”, regretted the loss of the Ben Evans store with the employment it provided, the real tragedy of the February 1941 bombardment was the human cost - 230 people killed, 409 injured, and over 7,000 made homeless.  

Saturday 22 August 2015

12 The Suicide at the Mackworth, 1816

12. The Suicide at the Mackworth (photos: Mackworth, Shelley, etc) - 22 August 2015

Near the top of Wind Street, at the junction with Green Dragon Lane, stands Idols, formerly Swansea’s Head Post Office which had opened in December 1901.  It was built on the site of an old coaching inn called The Mackworth Arms Hotel, demolished in 1898. 

The Mackworth Arms in Wind Street was described by a Rev. Richard Warner as “the best inn in the place”, and the 1802 Swansea Guide stated it was “admirably adapted for the accommodation of the more stylish traveller”.  The painter J.W.M. Turner stayed there, as did Lord Nelson, accompanied by Sir William and Lady Hamilton, when visiting Swansea in August 1802.

But nearly two centuries ago it was the scene of a tragedy, when in October 1816 a 22-year-old single woman named Fanny Imlay took an overdose of laudanum in a first-floor room.  Her suicide note was printed in the weekly newspaper “The Cambrian”, whose premises were directly opposite, where The Bank Statement is now.  Perhaps Fanny Imlay felt the title of Oscar Wilde’s play “A Woman of No Importance” described her, yet she was connected to four notable people whose portraits hang together upstairs in the National Portrait Gallery, and whose books are still in print after two centuries.  

Fanny Imlay’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft was a remarkable woman who wrote the influential “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” in 1792; her step-father William Godwin was a radical philosopher and author of “Political Justice”, which challenged the forms of government in those undemocratic times; her half-sister Mary Shelley wrote the much-filmed novel “Frankenstein”, while her future brother-in-law was the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.    

Fanny was born out of wedlock in Le Havre in 1794, but three years later her mother Mary Wollstonecraft died in London after giving birth to the future Mary Shelley.  Fanny grew up near St Pancras, in a household beset by financial problems.  Her step-father Godwin married a “Mrs” Clairmont, who brought into the family her two children by different fathers, and Fanny became the eldest of five children in a household where none had the same father and the same mother: dysfunctional families are nothing new. 

From 1814 they were visited by the 22-year-old as yet unknown poet Shelley, who admired the radical ideas of Godwin and of Mary Wollstonecraft.  The atmosphere in the Godwin household deteriorated further when Shelley abandoned his pregnant wife to elope with Fanny’s 16-year-old half-sister Mary! 

Fanny had hoped in vain to escape the repressive Godwin household through employment at the Dublin girls’ school run by her aunt.  For in spite of her good character, to employ anyone linked with the scandalous behaviour of Shelley and Mary could jeopardise prospects of attracting pupils to a fee-paying girls’ school. 

Probably the final straw was some remark from her stepmother about Fanny’s illegitimacy, for she packed her few belongings and took the mail coach to Gloucester, and from there the Cambrian coach to Swansea – to get as far from London as she could afford, to distance the family from her intended suicide. 

A letter to her half-sister Mary said “I depart immediately to the spot from which I hope never to remove”, which caused Shelley to hurry from Bath to Swansea, though too late to avert a tragedy.  He managed to keep Fanny’s identity out of the newspaper, and she was buried in the churchyard of St John’s Church (subsequently rebuilt as St Matthew’s, near High Street Station).  

Remembering their recent final meeting at Piccadilly Circus, Shelley wrote:

Her voice did quiver as we parted,

Yet knew I not her heart was broken

From which it came, and I departed

Heeding not the words then spoken.

Misery - O Misery,

This world is all too wide for thee.

Saturday 15 August 2015

11 Weaver's Flour Mill

11. Weaver’s Flour Mill (photos: 3 of derelict Weaver’s Flour Mill) – 15 August 2015

William Blake’s poem about seeking to build Jerusalem among England’s “dark Satanic Mills” is sung on such diverse occasions as the start of cricket Test matches and meetings of the Women’s Institute.  Blake may have had in mind London’s Albion Flour Mill on the Thames, near where Blake lived, at a time when industrialisation seemed to threaten workers’ livelihoods.  In fact the Albion Mill was burned down in 1791, with suspicions that the fire was caused deliberately.

Prior to 1984 Swansea had its equivalent of a “dark Satanic Mill” brooding over the eastern approach along Quay Parade in the derelict Weaver’s Four Mill.  Unlike the Albion Mill, its very means of construction caused some to believe that it could never be demolished.

Weaver and Company had been founded in 1892, importing wheat from France, Russia and North America to produce flour for distribution to bakeries over a wide area.  The firm occupied adjoining buildings around the one-acre Beaufort Basin off the North Dock, the earliest of the town’s five docks.  As their business expanded there was need for a new mill and silos.  A ferro-concrete construction system had been patented by French engineer François Hennebique, whose agent in Britain Louis Mouchel had an office in Briton Ferry.  Mouchel knew a director of Weaver’s, John Aeron Thomas, who was Mayor of Swansea in 1897.  They visited France to see ferro-concrete construction, after which the contract was signed to construct Weaver’s new mill using the Hennebique method.

Co-designed by local architect Henry C. Portsmouth, the mill was built on a site beside the half-tide basin that linked the North Dock to the river.  It was constructed of materials imported from France - cement, aggregate and steel.  When opened in August 1898 it was called the Victoria Flour Mills, and is believed to be the first ferro-concrete building in Britain.  Although the construction is often described as “reinforced concrete”, ferro-concrete is a combination of concrete and steel in order to utilize the strengths of each material.   

The flour mill was six storeys high, 80ft by 40ft by 112ft, with its lower floor cantilevered some 10ft above loading bays.  The reservoir on the roof could hold 20,000 gallons of water.  Around the roof parapet in capital letters and visible from a considerable distance was the name WEAVER AND COMPANY, and above that the brand name OREX.  Though the North Dock closed in 1928, its basin remained open for vessels going to and from Weaver’s, which was producing 70 sacks of flour an hour in 1930. 

Weaver’s survived aerial wartime bombardment, but closed in 1963, and was left standing amid the post-war clearance of other industrial buildings in the area and the filling-in of the adjacent North Dock basin in the late 1960s.  Depending on one’s point of view it was either an important piece of industrial archaeology - or a dreadful eyesore on the eastern approach to Swansea. 

With considerable difficulty it was demolished in early 1984 to make way for Sainsbury’s supermarket, whose car park occupies the site of Weaver’s Flour Mill.

All that remains now is a column on the riverside path by the wall of Sainsbury’s car park, where a plaque states “This column was part of the old Weaver’s Mill, the first reinforced concrete framed building built in Britain”. 
At Liverpool docks stands a prominent ferro-concrete building that is still in use - the Royal Liver Building, the offices of the Royal Liver Assurance Group.  Opened in 1911, for fifty years this was the tallest storeyed building in the country, reaching 322 ft to the top of the spires.  Yet Britain’s first ferro-concrete building was not Liverpool’s Liver Building but Weaver’s - Swansea’s “dark Satanic Mill”.        

Saturday 8 August 2015

10 Gower's 'Pilgrim Father' - John Miles

10. John Miles (photos: memorial, Lloyd George, John Bunyan) - 8 August 2015

The old Pennard School at Parkmill was closed on Wednesday June 13th 1928, for the visit to the Ilston valley of the most famous living Welshman, former Prime Minister David Lloyd George. 

From the Gower Inn at Parkmill a path leads up the valley towards the hamlet of Ilston.  But a short distance from the Inn, across one bridge, stands the seventeenth century stone remains of the first Baptist chapel in Wales.  It was in order to unveil a commemorative plaque that the 65 year-old leader of the Liberal Party went there, having tenuous Baptist connections from his childhood.  A one shilling programme for the day provided admission and entitled the holder to a cheap return ticket to Parkmill via South Wales Transport, and many came dressed in Puritan attire.

The plaque commemorates Rev. John Miles (also spelt Myles), who established in 1649 a church that practised “believer’s baptism” - baptism by immersion.  Yet the plaque omits to mention the American connection, perhaps the most interesting element. 

With the end of the English Civil War and the execution of King Charles I, a Herefordshire man named John Miles, of Puritan leanings, became minister of Ilston church.  He organised it on Baptist lines into a “gathered” rather than a “parochial” church, to become only the second nonconformist church in Wales (after Llanfaches in Monmouthshire in 1639).  On weekdays they met in groups at Lunnon, Llandewi and even across the estuary in Loughor, with the main Sunday meetings at Ilston – during which preaching was in Welsh during the second hour!  Throughout the rule of the Commonwealth and Protectorate the membership grew to 261, drawn from a wide area.  Its influence extended beyond Gower, with Baptist churches being established at Llantrisant, Hay, Carmarthen and Abergavenny - a considerable achievement with the difficulties of travel and communication in those days.

After the death of Oliver Cromwell, however, the monarchy was restored in 1660, when Charles II returned from exile.  In a reaction against Puritan reforms scores of ministers like John Bunyan in Bedford were ejected from their pulpits - Miles was ejected from Ilston on 26 July 1660 - to be replaced by clergy who adhered to the rites and practices of the Established Church, the Church of England.

Some of his congregation met to worship near the ruins of an old pre-reformation chapel, at what was called Trinity Well, in the Ilston valley.  This was on private land owned by Rowland Dawkins of Kilvrough, a Puritan sympathiser.  But repressive legislation like the Conventicle Act and the Five Mile Act made life difficult for dissenters, some of whom sought religious freedom in the New World, like the Pilgrim Fathers forty years earlier.  With 18 of his congregation Miles sailed from Bristol on the perilous voyage to North America, landing at Boston, and later established in 1667 the settlement of Swanzey in present-day Massachusetts in New England.  This first overseas ‘Swansea’ was on the edge of the frontier, around the time depicted in Nathanael Hawthorne’s novel “The Scarlet Letter” and Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible”. 

The Wampanoag, local native Americans, had assisted early settlers to survive the winters, but attitudes hardened with successive shiploads of newcomers who enclosed land where Indians once freely roamed.  An alliance of tribes attacked the settlements in what was known as King Philip’s War in 1675-6.  Colonial troops were garrisoned at Miles’s house, and their superior firepower eventually prevailed - a presentiment of what would happen further west in later centuries with the Plains Indians.  John Miles died aged 62 in 1683 and was buried in Providence, Rhode Island. 
In spite of no mention of the settlement of Swanzey on the plaque, the Ilston memorial is frequently visited by North American Baptists, appreciative of John Miles - ‘Gower’s Pilgrim Father’. 

Saturday 1 August 2015

9 Morfydd Llwyn Owen - soprano, musician, composer

9. Morfydd Owen(photos: Karl Jenkins, Katherine Jenkins, Morfydd, grave) - 1August

Imagine the musical talents of a composer like Karl Jenkins of Penclawdd and of a mezzo-soprano like Katherine Jenkins of Neath - but combined in one and the same person.  That was Morfydd Owen, who died aged 26 in tragic and somewhat mysterious circumstances in Mumbles nearly a century ago, and whose grave with a red sandstone column stands at the top of Oystermouth cemetery.

Born into a Welsh-speaking home in Treforest in 1891, Morfydd showed musical ability from an early age.  She won a scholarship to Cardiff University, graduating in 1912, and that year was admitted to the Gorsedd of Bards at the National Eisteddfod at Wrexham, adding the Bardic name Llwyn.  In 1913 Morfydd Llwyn Owen won first prize for her singing at the Swansea Eisteddfod.  She won a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music, where she was an outstanding student, winning prizes for music and composition.  She composed choral works, chamber music, piano and orchestral works, songs and hymn tunes, becoming an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music.

But in London she moved in two quite distinct circles.  Besides respectable friends at the Welsh Presbyterian Chapel in Charing Cross Road, in Hampstead she mixed with people in Bohemian circles, such as the novelist and poet D.H. Lawrence and the expatriate American poet Ezra Pound.  She was friendly with Eliot Crawshay-Williams MP, Churchill‘s parliamentary private secretary, whose career was abruptly terminated when he was named in a divorce petition. 

Friends from the Welsh Presbyterian Chapel were shocked when on 6 February 1917 at Marylebone registry office Morfydd suddenly married the Gowerton-born atheist and psychoanalyst Dr Ernest Jones, at a time when psychoanalysis was viewed with much suspicion.  Jones, known for his flamboyant lifestyle, had proposed on only their third meeting. 

Although Morfydd performed in 1917 at the “The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair” (so called because the winner Hedd Wyn had been killed in action), marriage curtailed her musical activities, with many weekends spent as hostess to Jones’s psychoanalyst friends at his cottage in Sussex.

The First World War precluded her taking up a Fellowship from the University of Wales to study the folk music of RussiaNorway and Finland, so Jones took her on holiday to Gower, which she had not visited previously.  In Thistleboon, Mumbles, next to the property belonging to Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas, is an older house called Craig-y-môr, where Jones’s widowed father was living in the summer of 1918. 

The couple stayed there and visited Caswell, Langland, Sketty, and Swansea Market, and had a meal at the Kardomah in Castle Street.  But Morfydd was taken ill with appendicitis, which required an operation, although instead using Swansea Infirmary it seems that the operation took place at Craig-y-môr.  Tragically chloroform instead of ether was used as the anaesthetic, and Morfydd Llwyn Owen died on 7 September 1918, just weeks before her 27th birthday.  Ernest Jones had acted as anesthetist, a situation that would not be permitted now.  Had it not been wartime one imagines there would have been some investigation into the circumstances.

At the top of Oystermouth cemetery her grave is marked with a red sandstone column bearing a quotation from Goethe’s Faust, for German was the language of Sigmund Freud and the leading psychoanalysts.  In translation this can be rendered ‘Here the indescribable consequences (of love) have been fulfilled’.  Her obituary in Y Gorlan, the journal of the Welsh Presbyterian chapel, commented: ‘Oh, Death! We knew that thou were blind, but in striking Morfydd thou hast taught us that thou art also deaf’.

In mid-September Swansea University’s Taliesin Theatre hosts a dance theatre production entitled “I Loved You and I Loved You”.  This is based on the story of Morfydd Owen, Wales’s brilliant young composer, who died tragically in Mumbles nearly 100 years ago.