Saturday 30 January 2016

34 The Plaza Cinema

34. The Plaza Cinema - (photos: Plaza, Paul Robeson, Dylan Thomas & Leon Atkin)- 30 Jan 2016

In 1931 the largest cinema in Wales was opened in what was then Northampton Lane, on the site where Oceana now stands, awaiting demolition in the Kingsway.  Built in ornate Italian Renaissance style, the imposing Plaza Cinema was designed by Cardiff architect Howard Williams, and could seat 3,000 people.  It was opened by Swansea’s Mayor on 13th February 1931, with the first film shown being ‘The King of Jazz’, not Al Jolson in ‘The Jazz Singer’ as is popularly believed. 

The foyer and restaurant were decorated with teak and walnut panels bearing Welsh insignia and motifs, with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.  In front of the box office a large marble slab bore the name ‘Plaza’, while in the upstairs foyer the poem ‘The Women of Mumbles Head’ was inscribed on a metal plaque.  In front of the screen a cathedral-like three-manual Christie organ could rise up from the floor for concerts or to accompany silent films.  The orchestra lift was designed and installed by a Leicester firm, while the furnishing of the lounge and restaurant was supplied locally by the Ben Evans store.  Seats in the balcony cost from 2s 4d (almost an eighth of an old pound) to 1s 6d, but in the auditorium prices ranged from 1s 3d down to 6d in the front stalls.  For half the price of those cheapest seats you could enjoy coffee and biscuits in the smart cafĂ© while seated in wicker furniture.

The Plaza could be hired for a political rally, as in July 1934 when Dylan Thomas accompanied Bert Trick to hear Oswald Mosley of the British Union of Fascists.  With his menacing black-shirted supporters in attendance, Mosley gave an impassioned speech before he overstepped his anti-Semitic sentiments in responding to a question from Rev. Leon Atkin.  The meeting descended into uproar, with Mosley making a hasty exit as Communist sympathisers chaired Leon Atkin from the building.  A happier occasion was a concert in February 1939, when Paul Robson made excellent use of the superb acoustics in a concert.

In his short story ‘Old Garbo’, Dylan Thomas drew on his brief career as a reporter, to mention his press card gaining him free admittance to a film at the Plaza.  During the 1940s the BBC used the cinema to broadcast big band music to British forces abroad.  

In 1953 the Plaza became the first independent cinema in Britain enabled to show films in CinemaScope with stereophonic sound, with the showing of ‘The Robe’ starring Richard Burton.  Part of the cinema can be glimpsed in the 1962 Peter Sellers film ‘Only Two Can Play’, based on the Kingsley Amis novel ‘That Uncertain Feeling’.  While this was being filmed in Swansea, projectionist Ted Hopkins of West Cross would show the rushes of each day’s filming to the director in the Plaza.  But the completed film was screened at the Albert Hall Cinema in Craddock Street - nonetheless Ted Hopkins crept in to see it there, as he did later with ‘The Inspector’, part of which was also filmed locally.

Having survived aerial bombardment during the Second World War with only minor damage, after 35 years the Plaza Cinema closed in April 1965, finishing with a Peter Sellers comedy ‘A Shot in the Dark’.

It was demolished to make way for a new Odeon Cinema, which opened on 17th May 1967 with the Rogers and Hammerstein musical ‘The Sound of Music’.  On the ground floor was Swansea’s first Tesco supermarket, with a Top Rank dance hall beneath.  But the spread of television made it increasingly difficult to sustain a large auditorium, so in 1982 the Odeon was converted into a three-screen cinema, before finally closing in 1997. 

Oceana night club could accommodate 3,000 people, like the Plaza.  Currently it awaits demolition before new Council offices are built for staff once the Civic Centre is vacated, leaving Cardiff with the largest cinema in Wales.         

Saturday 23 January 2016

33 The Prince's Fountain

33. The Prince’s Fountain (photos: Prince’s Fountain, King Edward Road) – 23 January 2016

In Mumbles on 10th March 1863 the foundation stone was laid for the Prince’s Fountain, at the foot of Western Lane and Myrtle Terrace, near the present Kinsale (formerly the William Hancock and the Waterloo Hotel).  The Prince’s Fountain commemorates the marriage that day in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, of 21-year-old Edward, Prince of Wales, eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, to 18-year-old Princess Alexandra, daughter of the heir to the Danish throne.

A year later the work in Mumbles was completed, with the occasion being celebrated by a meal for 200 elderly persons, and entertainment for several hundred children on the open fields then opposite the White Rose.  The stone drinking fountain was erected on land donated by the Duke of Beaufort, and supplemented the public water pumps near the Antelope Hotel and the George Hotel.  It was particularly needed at a time when cholera and other water-borne diseases frequently threatened public health.

At Windsor the Royal Wedding celebrations were somewhat muted, as the Queen was still in mourning for her consort Prince Albert, who had died of typhoid fifteen months earlier.  At the service ladies were restricted to wearing grey, lilac or mauve.  The Queen watched from a special box high in the chapel, and did not attend the wedding breakfast. 

The groom had been created Prince of Wales when just three months old, and was known by that title for all but the final decade of his life.  He was daring – as an 18- year-old during his 1860 tour of North America he agreed to be carried by Blondin on a tightrope 160 feet above the Niagara Gorge, before Prince Edward’s horrified aides intervened and dissuaded him.  Blondin made the quarter-of-a-mile crossing with his reluctant agent on his back.

It was 38 years after his marriage that Prince Edward became King, but during this time he was not permitted to exercise any royal power of any consequence.  By contrast the present Prince of Wales has initiated and headed the Prince’s Trust for forty years, along with undertaking numerous royal duties. 

‘The devil makes work for idle hands’, and without regular responsibilities Prince Edward’s activities, lavish lifestyle and choice of companions alarmed the Queen.  When in 1871 Sir Charles Mordaunt sought to divorce his 21-year-old wife, it emerged that the Prince of Wales had been visiting her in the afternoons while her husband was at the House of Commons.  An accusation of cheating at the French card game baccarat revealed that the heir to the throne was among those used to betting extravagant sums of money on cards.  Consequently the Scottish Free Church removed his name from those for whom they prayed each week.  But there was sympathy for the Prince in December 1871 when, like his father, Edward nearly died of typhoid. 

Prince Edward became King Edward VII on the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.  Notwithstanding his lack of experience in carrying out royal duties, Edward VII was an effective King during a reign of nearly a decade, and popular after the austerity of his mother’s time.  As Prince he had visited Swansea in 1881 to open the Prince of Wales Dock - though it was another eight months before it actually opened to shipping - and the new boulevard through an area cleared of slums was named Alexandra Road.  He returned as King in 1904 with Queen Alexandra to perform the ceremony of ‘cutting the first sod’ of the King’s Dock, which opened five years later, and King Edward Road in Brynmill was named in his honour.  Parkmill School was among schools closed for the occasion, as the royal couple passed through the village in the evening to Penrice Castle.
With the coming of mains water the Prince’s Fountain fell into disuse, but to mark his great-granddaughter’s Silver Jubilee, in 1978 it was restored by the Mumbles and District Conservation Society. 

Saturday 16 January 2016

32 C.R.M.Talbot of Margam

32. C.R.M. Talbot (photos: Margam Castle, Penrice Castle) - 16 January 2016

The town of Port Talbot is named after Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot, eldest child and only son of Thomas Mansel Talbot, who had built the mansion of Penrice Castle in the 1770s.  C.R.M. Talbot was born there in 1803, went to Harrow School and on to study at Oxford University, obtaining a first-class honours degree in Mathematics.  

Talbot inherited the estates of Penrice and Margam, but unlike his father he chose not to live in remote Gower.  In the early 1830s he built in Tudor Gothic style the mansion of Margam Castle, of which the daguerreotype taken on 9 March 1841 by Calvert Richard Jones is the earliest known photograph in Wales.  Links with early photographers proliferate, for Talbot was a cousin of pioneer photographer W. H. Fox Talbot of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, and Emma, the youngest of Talbot’s seven sisters, married photographer J.D. Llewelyn of Penlle’rgare at Penrice Church.  Both Talbot and J.D. Llewelyn were founders of the Royal Institution of South Wales, which built Swansea Museum.

Talbot realised that improved transportation could stimulate industrial growth, and, having succeeded his stepfather Sir Christopher Cole as Liberal MP for Glamorgan, he introduced a Bill in 1834 to improve the old harbour at Aberafan, with the river diverted.  Two years later another Bill facilitated its expansion, and in his honour its name was changed to Port Talbot.  Subsequent decades saw significant industrial and population growth for the area.

From the outset Talbot was a shareholder in the South Wales Railway, and ensured that the railway track was laid across Margam Moors, so that trains could not be heard from Margam Castle.  He became chairman of the South Wales Railway from 1849, and later gave the company £500,000 to complete the line to Milford Haven, for which he had great hopes as a deep water harbour.  When travelling on the Great Western Railway he once remarked to I.K. Brunel: ‘I am always glad when we have passed the points at Reading, as they are so complicated’.  He had hoped for a reassuring reply, but Brunel merely answered ‘So am I’. 

As a shareholder Talbot was very interested in the building of Brunel’s gigantic PSS Great Eastern, though it was commercially unsuccessful and its major impact was laying transatlantic cables.  When the South Wales Railway merged with the Great Western Railway in August 1863, Talbot became a director of the GWR.   

As a young person he had enjoyed fox-hunting in Parc le Breos, and kept a pack of hounds in the ruins of Penrice Castle.  After some falls he ceased hunting, and took up yachting.  He was a fine pianist and with his mathematical expertise a skilled chess player.

But Talbot’s wealth could not exempt him from tragedy – he was only ten when his father had died; his wife Charlotte died of consumption aged 37 at Malta in 1846 when the Talbots were on their yacht Galatea, and his only son Theodore died in 1876 - having fallen from his horse while fox-hunting: St Theodore’s Church in Port Talbot was built in his memory.  The eldest of Talbot’s three daughters, Emily, would later inherit the estates.

It was Emily who opened Swansea’s South Dock (now The Marina) in 1859 amid much ceremony when her father was Lord Lieutenant of Glamorgan.  His yacht Lynx was one of the first vessels to enter that dock, and ten years later in the Lynx he attended the opening of the Suez Canal.
Talbot continued in Parliament, becoming ‘Father of House of Commons’ from 1874, but declined a peerage three times.  He died at Margam Park in 1890 at the age of 87, and C.R.M. Talbot, after whom Port Talbot was named, was buried in the family vault at Margam Abbey.

Saturday 9 January 2016

31 Pennard Castle

31. Pennard Castle (photos: S & N Buck print, the castle from the E and from the N-E) - 9 Jan 2016

In the eighteenth century the brothers Samuel and Nathanael Buck, engravers and printmakers, toured the British Isles making detailed drawings of castles, monasteries, cathedrals and other ancient buildings.  Their published “Antiquitiesinclude an engraving of Pennard Castle from the best viewpoint, the north-east, since the north curtain wall is nearly intact, whereas from other directions the castle’s ruinous state is obvious.  The Buck brothers entitled their depiction of March 1741 “The North East View of Pennarth Castle, in the County of Glamorgan” - Pen-arth being a headland enclosure.

Details are fragmentary about the history of Pennard Castle (also spelt Penard), which is sited across the valley from the motte and bailey castle on the headland at Penmaen.  The stone walls were erected in the late thirteenth century above the earlier wooden palisade of a ring-work, by Henry de Newburgh, Earl of Warwick, when he became Lord of Gower.  

Within the courtyard traces are visible of a 20-metre long building which comprised twin store-rooms, and a large communal living area with a private retiring room, as revealed by excavations in 1961.  On the cliff edge a projecting rectangular building which overlooks the valley was added later, perhaps for extra accommodation.  Near the castle are fragmentary remains of a church that pre-dated Pennard Church a mile away.

But in the fourteenth century tsunami-like sandstorms swept across the coast of South Wales, leaving sand dunes at Kenfig and southern Glamorgan, and be-sanding Pennard Castle, which had to be abandoned, as did the original village and church across the valley at Penmaen.  A document of 1317 from William de Breos, granting hunting rights to his huntsman on “the sandy waste at Pennard”, may indicate when the be-sanding had commenced.  An old legend suggests that the “verry-folks”, the fairies of Gower, called down the sandstorm as judgement on the lord of the castle for harshly dispersing their dancing and music-making on the occasion of his daughter’s wedding!      

Pennard Castle stands uniquely on a golf course, so that its care is not the responsibility of Cadw or the National Trust.  Before the Golf Club purchased the burrows in 1920, the area including the castle had belonged to the Kilvrough estate.  Just as Penrice Castle has the folly known as Oxwich Towers, so the Kilvrough estate contains a folly, originally a two-storey tower.  It may be that in the 1790s some stones from ruined Pennard Castle were used to build this.

An early view of Pennard Castle’s twin-towered gatehouse from the east shows that both towers had been undermined at the base.  This was remedied by concrete patching during 1923-24, although the impact is visually intrusive.  In January 1960 part of the detached section of the southern wall, exposed to the south-westerly winds, collapsed.  Following an appeal for funds, the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works undertook repairs, with less visible and more sympathetic impact than the earlier concrete work on the tower bases.

Of the twin ‘D’-shaped gate towers, the left-hand tower is substantially slimmer than that on the right.  An 1870s photograph shows it intact and matching the right-hand one, but with a long vertical crack in the stonework.  This evidently led to a collapse, which was partially repaired by concrete in the 1920s. 
In 1803 it was first reported that yellow alpine whitlow grass was “growing wild and abundantly on walls and rocks around Pennard Castle”, so for a while botanists thought that that was its sole location in Britain.  However the “county flower of Glamorgan” can also be found in narrow crevices on the upper cliffs between Pwll Du Head and Rhossili.  Even without that distinction, Pennard Castle is well worth walking on the path across the golf links to see, for it commands a view down the valley to Three Cliffs Bay that is second to none.

Saturday 2 January 2016

30 Evan Roberts and the 1904-05 Welsh Revival

30. Evan Roberts and the 1904 Revival - 2 January 2016 (photos: Moriah, Mal Pope)

The subject matter of both Mal Pope’s current musical ‘Cappuccino Girls’ and his documentary film ‘Jack to a King’ are totally different from that of his 2005 musical ‘Amazing Grace’, which concerned Evan Roberts and the 1904-05 Welsh Revival.

Before the twentieth century brought vast changes through two World Wars, the availability of motor transport and mass communication, Welsh society was very different from today.  In 1904 churches and chapels were still the social hub of communities, with good attendance at Sunday services and midweek meetings.  However, the influence of the social gospel and scepticism about the Bible were eroding the nation’s religious life, producing mere chapel-going with little spiritual reality.

In Loughor 12-year-old Evan Roberts left school to work in the mines – at first as a door boy, opening and closing underground doors for the trams to pass.  Converted a year later, he taught in Moriah Chapel’s Sunday School, and felt led to enter the Christian ministry.  Before going to college, he embarked on preparatory study at Newcastle Emlyn, and at a mission led by Seth Joshua in September 1904 he prayed ‘Bend me, O Lord’ - and experienced the reality of God’s Spirit.

After a month of praying and seeking God’s guidance, Evan Roberts returned to Loughor, where his minister allowed him to hold evening prayer meetings at Moriah Chapel. 

In the schoolroom (adjacent to the new chapel of 1898) on 31 October 1904 Evan Roberts spoke of four conditions for receiving God’s Spirit - confess sin, remove anything doubtful from one’s life, surrender to the Spirit, and publicly admit to being a follower of Christ.  Those present were caught up in the worship of God, and from a human standpoint the outbreak of the 1904 Welsh Revival dates from that time.

In other areas of Wales God’s Spirit was moving quite independently of what was happening around Loughor, and there were other ‘revivalists’ besides Evan Roberts – indeed some were ministers.  The 1859 Welsh Revival had been ‘led’ by outstanding preachers, but Evan Roberts never regarded himself as a great preacher. 

At the meetings there would often be spontaneous unaccompanied congregational singing, and women played a prominent part, singing and sharing testimonies of what Christ meant to them.  Annie Davies, one of the young ladies who accompanied Evan Roberts to meetings, would often sing ‘Dyma gariad fel y moroedd’ (Here is love, vast as the ocean), which became known as ‘the love song of the revival’.  Gatherings did not all just happen – venues were booked in advance when meetings were arranged in Liverpool in the spring of 1905.

Large numbers of people started attending meetings at places of worship, and the revival made an impact in various ways - pit ponies became unresponsive because they were used to language punctuated with oaths and blasphemies, pub trade lessened, sport fixtures declined, unpaid debts were settled, and the crime rate decreased.  Although the Revival mainly affected Welsh-speaking nonconformists, in Mumbles meetings were held in the back room of Tabernacle Congregational Church from December 1904, and 62 people joined the church.  In general few English-speaking chapels and Anglican churches were involved, and the Revival was criticised by some ministers.

The demands of Revival meetings, along with the publicity from the Western Mail and newspaperman W.T. Stead (who later drowned in the Titanic), caused a strain on Evan Roberts, who suffered a breakdown in 1905.  He withdrew from public life and moved from Wales, though he later lived quietly in Cardiff, where he died in 1951.  A memorial to him stands outside Moriah Chapel, Loughor. 
The impact of the 1904-05 Revival stretches far beyond Wales - in the Khasi hills of north-east India the Presbyterian Church of India builds on that foundation, while generous support for the Bible College of Wales comes from overseas Christians, grateful for the mission work that flowed from those times of Amazing Grace.