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!

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