Saturday 26 September 2015

17 Tir John Power Station

17. Tir John Power Station (photos: tower demolition, interior) – 26 September 2015

In 1881 London’s Savoy Theatre became Britain’s first public building to have electricity, whereas in Swansea electric light was used in 1886 in J.S. Brown’s Oxford Street premises.  Initially private companies as well as municipal councils provided electric power: Swansea Corporation’s power station was built from 1899 to 1901 in the Strand near the North Dock, and operated a general supply from December 1900.  But its 23-megawatt output struggled to meet the growth in demand for the new source of energy: by 1924 the need for a new power station was being discussed. 

James William Burr was Swansea Borough’s electrical engineer from 1914 to 1939, and he oversaw the largest engineering project in Wales - the building of Tir John power station.  The Strand power station closed in 1936 - to widespread relief having discharged smoke and grit over a wide area.

Tir John North electric generating station was built on the east side of Kilvey Hill on the edge of Crymlyn Bog between 1931 and 1935.  Unemployment relief schemes were utilised, as with building Cefn Coed psychiatric hospital, and the Main Drainage scheme.  Tir John cost £1.4 million to build, from the outset was connected to the National Grid, and operated from 1935 to 1976.  At the time it was the largest power station in Britain, being revolutionary in its use as fuel of anthracite duff.  This was a waste product from the washing of mined coal at colliery pit heads, supplied at a fixed price of four shillings per ton for 25 years, which made it the cheapest rate for fuel ever supplied to a British power station.  Once the 25 years had expired, the price increased in 1960 to 35 shillings per ton. 

Tir John was opened on Thursday 20 June 1935 by Labour MP and future Home Secretary Herbert Morrison, followed by an evening gala dinner at Swansea’s recently completed Guildhall.  The Evening Post issued a commemorative supplement for the occasion.

Tir John eventually had three 89m high brick chimneys, though by the start of the Second World War two were only partly built, being completed afterwards.  The final brick of each chimney was fitted by the wife of the foreman in charge; she was hoisted to the top of the chimney, and had her name inscribed on the brick she laid.  The third chimney was completed in 1947.

By agreement with the Great Western Railway Company, seawater for cooling Tir John was drawn from the King's Dock through an 820m (over half a mile) underground inlet tunnel.  After passing through the power station’s condensers the seawater was returned to the larger Queen’s Dock by a 1,180m long discharge tunnel; each tunnel was concrete-lined and about 3m in diameter.  The water flow was 6 million gallons per hour, with warmer water being returned to the Queen’s Dock, thereby raising its water temperature.  Every two years Tir John had to be closed for a week while the build-up of mussels – an estimated 50 tons - was removed from the inlet tunnel. 

Although one bomb fell into Crymlyn Bog, Tir John escaped war damage.  Throughout the 1950s the power station employed as many as 420 people, but in 1967 it was converted to oil burning, with a direct pipeline from the nearby Llandarcy Oil Refinery, built in 1921.  Ironically a few years later the OPEC oil embargo led to the substantial escalation of oil prices which made it uneconomic – so Tir John closed in March 1976. 

The three chimneys were blown up in June 1980, and following demolition the area became a landfill site.  Tir John’s capacity when opened was 40-megawatt, later increased to 155-megawatt, while Baglan Bay power station, built from 2000 to 2004, uses natural gas and has a 525-megawatt capacity.  That shows the extent that provision of energy has progressed, but in its time Swansea’s Tir John power station was innovative.                                                    (With thanks to Mr A.R. Walker) 

Saturday 19 September 2015

16 Vernon Watkins - Lloyds Bank

16. Lloyd’s & Vernon (photos: VW, blue plaque, church plaque, VW in 1948) – 19 September 2015

Last October a bi-lingual blue plaque was unveiled outside the former Lloyds Bank premises (now William Hill’s) at the corner of St Helens’ Road and Beach Street, in memory of Pennard poet Vernon Watkins.  Present on that occasion were his widow Gwen, whom he met while both worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, and members of their family.  Vernon had worked at that branch, which initially was located further along St Helen’s Road, for 38 years, until he retired aged 60 in 1966.  But other Swansea branches of Lloyd’s bank have significance for him too.

For much of the 20th century the principal Swansea branch of Lloyd’s occupied nos. 24 to 26 Wind Street, now the premises of the Revolution Bar.  Vernon grew up in Swansea because his father, William Watkins, came to manage that branch just before the outbreak of the First World War.  Vernon had been born in Maesteg in 1906, but his father’s managerial ability saw the Watkins family move to Bridgend, then to Llanelli, and finally to Swansea, where William Watkins worked until he retired.  The family – Vernon had one older and one younger sister – lived throughout the First World War in the Uplands, in Eaton Grove - now part of Eaton Crescent.  Subsequently they moved to ‘Redcliffe’ (now demolished) in Caswell, and later to ‘Heatherslade’ in Pennard, now the Heatherslade Residential Home.

In those pre-television days Vernon from the age of nine or ten used on Saturday afternoons to attend the Uplands Cinema, popular with many youngsters.  It occupied the site where the Uplands branch of Lloyds Bank now stands.  Vernon wrote of the excitement as a crowd of children waited behind the brass railing for the doors to open at 2 o’clock.  He was particularly enthralled with the serials starring Pearl White, where each episode ended with a cliff-hanger that left the heroine in mortal peril, as the words ‘To be continued next week’ flashed across the screen.  Years later in 1938 he saw a newspaper headline ‘Pearl White is dead’, for she died aged 49 at the American hospital in Paris, her health affected by injuries while doing her own stunts.  He was prompted to write Elegy on the heroine of childhood (in memory of Pearl White), which begins:

‘Four words catch hold.  Dead exile, you would excite

In the red darkness, through the filtered light,

Our round, terrified eyes, when some

Demon of the rocks would come

And lock you in the house with moving walls:

You taught us first how loudly a pin falls.’

The Uplands Cinema was later frequented by a young Dylan Thomas, eight years younger than Vernon, who by then was living in Caswell.

But the branch most associated with Vernon was the one in St Helen’s Road.  When his parents moved to Pennard he would travel in on the Swan bus, and later the United Welsh bus, to Hospital Square.  What is now Home Gower was then the Swansea Infirmary, opened in 1869.  Old photographs show it almost camouflaged by trees, with a police box outside, and the unexpected felling of two chestnut trees in the 1960s inspired Vernon’s poem ‘Trees in a town’.  This begins:

‘Why must they fell two chestnuts on the road?

I did not see the lorry and its load

Before a wall had grown where they had stood.

I wish I thought that sphinx-like block was good

Builders have raised, to brood upon the loss

Of those two chestnuts, where the two roads cross.’ 
During his lifetime Vernon had six volumes of poems published by Faber and Faber, and more posthumously.  The firm’s directors included the poet T.S. Eliot, who for eight years had worked in a London bank – Lloyds, of course!

Saturday 12 September 2015

15 Missionary Dr Griffith John

15. Dr Griffith John (photos: bust, memorial garden, Griffith John) – 12 September

After the First World War a young woman from London worked as a parlour-maid in Swansea, before later becoming famous as a missionary in China.  Was Gladys Aylward influenced by hearing of Griffith John, who had spent 50 years there as a missionary?

Born in 1831, Griffith John lost both his parents to cholera when he was still a child.  A Welsh speaker, he became a member and later a deacon of Ebeneser Welsh Congregational Chapel (now Ebenezer Baptist Chapel) near the Railway Station, as is stated on a plaque inside.

At the age of 16 he began regular preaching before training for the ministry at Brecon Congregational College.  He joined the London Missionary Society in 1853 as he felt called to missionary work in Madagascar, where his wife Margaret, a missionary’s daughter, had been born.  But when that country was closed to Christian work Griffith John turned, initially reluctantly, to China.  After two years' training he sailed from Gravesend on the four-month voyage to Shanghai in 1855 (today you could fly there in 13 hours).  He managed to become fluent in both spoken and written Chinese – a daunting task since unlike a mere 26 characters in the English alphabet, Chinese has as many as 6,000 in regular use!

Griffith John was challenged with people enmeshed in idolatry and indoctrinated by the teaching of Confucius, and encountered widespread addiction to opium smoking.  Rather than concentrating on learned members of society, as some missionaries did, he spent much energy among the illiterate poor people.

Griffith John made a major contribution to the Christian Church in China as author, translator, and preacher.  He translated the New Testament and much of the Old Testament into more than one Chinese dialect, and compiled a Mandarin translation of the New Testament and Psalms.

A powerful and eloquent speaker, he was usually popular with the Chinese, who would gather in great numbers to hear him.  On occasions when threatened he might state boldly that he was “An Englishman” – since affirming his Welshness would not achieve the desired deference!  He became well-known for extensive missionary journeys into the Chinese interior to establish mission stations, and was successful in training and mentoring numerous Chinese evangelists. 

He was no stranger to tragedy - after much ill health his wife Margaret died in 1873, and though he married the widow of an American missionary, she also died twelve years later.  Griffith John was elected chairman of the Congregational Union, but declined the honour in order to remain among the Chinese people whom he loved.  He supported Anti-Opium Societies, and in 1889 was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity by Edinburgh University, in recognition of his service to the Chinese.  Throughout half a century of missionary work, Griffith John left China only three times, finally returning to Britain just before he died aged eighty in 1912. 

Following a funeral in Ebenezer Church, he was buried in the cemetery of Bethel Welsh Congregational Chapel in Sketty. 

He is remembered by Griffith John Street in Dyfatty, and with the bi-lingual blue plaque unveiled in 2013 on the wall of Ebenezer Church.  This states: “Reverend Dr Griffith John 1831-1912 Pioneer Missionary in Hankow, China, worshipped and was ordained here”.  To mark the centenary of his death, a delegation from the Union Hospital, Wuhan (a conglomeration of Hankow and two other cities), which has a programme of co-operation with Swansea University's School of Medicine, visited Swansea to present the bust of him which is displayed in the Museum.  The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth holds letters that he sent from China, with an original manuscript of his biography.      

If Gladys Aylward heard about Griffith John during her time in Swansea, his example
may well have inspired her to contemplate missionary service in China.

Saturday 5 September 2015

14 Petty Officer Edgar Evans

14. Edgar Evans (photos: plaque, St Helen’s/Chapman photos, Discovery, sledging)- 5 Sept 2015

In south-west Gower a blue plaque in memory of P.O. Edgar Evans hangs outside his birthplace, Middleton Cottage near Rhossili.  Yet at West Glamorgan Archives a book entitled “Swansea’s Antarctic Explorer” shows that this Gower seaman has been closely identified with the town itself.  

When Edgar was aged seven the family moved from Gower to Hoskins Place, off lower Oxford Street.  His father had secured work with Bacon’s Boats, later taken over by Coastlines, whose warehouse is now part of the Waterfront Museum.  Edgar attended St Helen’s School in Vincent Street, which has a framed photograph of their famous former pupil.  The 1870 Education Act permitted pupils to undertake a form of “work experience” during their last two years of schooling, so from the age of 11 Edgar worked part-time as a telegraph messenger boy at the Head Post Office.  This used to stand on the green in front of Swansea Castle, and messenger boys would begin each day with drill before starting on their errands. 

The Head Post Office moved to new premises in Wind Street (now Idols Bar), at the corner of Green Dragon Lane.  A photograph of Edgar taken by H.A. Chapman of 235 High Street used to hang above the counter there, and more recently it hung in the Royal Mail premises on the Enterprise Park.

In Castle Street, on the site where the Midland Bank (later HSBC, and now the Varsity Bar) was built, stood the Castle Hotel.  Edgar worked there after leaving school until he was old enough to join the Royal Navy.  As the Hotel was patronised by captains of the copper ore barques, he doubtless overheard conversations that further motivated him to seek “a life on the ocean wave”. 

In 1904 Edgar was interviewed for the South Wales Daily Post, by then based at the building in front of Swansea Castle vacated by the Post Office.  He had returned from the “Discovery” expedition to Antarctica, and been commended in Captain Scott’s report to the Admiralty.  To go to Antarctica in those days was akin to how later generations would regard journeying to the Moon.  The newspaper report described him as being “reticent as to his own deeds and expansive as to the deeds of others”.

At St Mary’s Church Rhossili Edgar married his first cousin Lois Beynon, daughter of the licensee of the Ship Inn (now Ship Farm), where the wedding breakfast was held.  The Gower Church Magazine commented that “he is one of those who are likely to do great things and make his mark in the world”. 

This strong Welshman stood beside Captain Scott in the famous photograph taken at the South Pole in January 1912, but a month later 35-year-old Edgar was the first of the five men to die on the return journey.

Swansea Museum contains a white Italian marble bust of him carved by Philip Chatfield, and presented to the City by the Lord Lieutenant at a civic occasion in 1994 in the Brangwyn Hall.  Guest of honour was Edgar’s elderly daughter Mrs Muriel Hawkins of Gorseinon, who had last seen her father when she was three years old, before he embarked on the fateful voyage from Cardiff in the “Terra Nova”.   

In 2012 St Mary’s Swansea held a Civic Service on the centenary of his death, while Swansea Museum hosted a fine exhibition about Edgar.  Also at the Museum Dr Isobel Williams’ book “Captain Scott’s Invaluable Assistant: Edgar Evans” was launched, which authoritatively refutes suspicions that he initiated the catastrophe by being the first to perish in those appalling conditions.

Swansea as well as peninsular Gower honours this seaman who did make his mark in the world, and who lies buried at the foot of Antarctica’s Beardmore Glacier.