Saturday 26 March 2016

42 The Arctic Convoys in World War II

42. The Arctic Convoys - (Dai Evans, HMS Gipsy, medals, Fleet Review) - 26 March

While many Second World War operations have long been commemorated, others like the Arctic convoys were somewhat overlooked until recently.  An Abercrâf man served in these, which also involved him in a dangerous rescue mission. 

Born in the Rhondda in 1917, Dai Evans initially followed his father into coal mining, starting work aged 13 at the colliery in Ystradgynlais, before joining the Royal Navy at Devonport five years later.  He was at the Coronation Naval Fleet Review for King George VI at Spithead in May 1937 serving in a battleship; Germany was represented by the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee - just over two years later she was scuttled after the Battle of the River Plate. 

Dai Evans served in the Eastern Mediterranean in the G-class destroyer HMS Gipsy, which on the outbreak of war was transferred to Western Approaches Command at Plymouth.  On 21 November 1939 she rescued three German airmen, but that evening was patrolling the North Sea with three other destroyers when she struck a mine off Harwich and sank, with the captain among the 30 men drowned.  Petty Officer Evans was among the 115 men rescued by the other destroyers, and he recalled with gratitude the efforts of Salvation Army ladies in Harwich to wash the oil off him. 

He served in HMS Zealous, a Z-class destroyer built in 1944 by Cammell Laird, which was involved in the Arctic convoys.  These would escort merchant ships delivering essential supplies to northern parts of the Soviet Union, which demonstrated the commitment of the Allies to help Russia, as well as tying up a substantial part of Germany's Navy and Air Force.  The route passed through a narrow funnel between the Arctic ice pack and German bases in Norway, and was particularly hazardous in winter when the ice came further south.  Many of the convoys were attacked by German submarines, aircraft and warships.  Conditions were among the worst faced, with extreme cold, gales and pack ice – Churchill described it as “the worst journey in the world”.

At the request of King Haakon of Norway, exiled in London, HMS Zealous and three other destroyers undertook the rescue of 525 Norwegians who after the German occupation were hiding in caves on the snow-covered mountains of Sørøya Island, off the north coast of Norway.  For three months they could not emerge from the caves during daylight hours for fear of capture by enemy patrols, which would have meant internment in concentration camps or being used as forced labour.  Operation Open Door committed the four destroyers to a daring race 60 miles (97 km) behind enemy lines in February 1945, to evacuate the Norwegians via Murmansk in Russia to the port of Gourock in Strathclyde.  Following the cessation of hostilities, some returned to Sørøya to rebuild their community.  Dai Evans’s son, who lives in Sketty, made contact a few years ago and visited Sørøya Island, finding the efforts of his father greatly appreciated.  One elderly person marvelled that people from so far away would come and help them.  The contacts with people in Sørøya continue to the present day.

Notwithstanding the heroism of those involved, for many decades Britain did not award Arctic medals, though Dai Evans received the 1939-45 Star, the Africa Star and the Atlantic Star.  Ironically in 1985 it was Russia who awarded him a medal on the fortieth anniversary of the Arctic convoys.  Through the campaigning of former naval officer Sir Ludovic Kennedy and others, the Arctic Star was awarded from 2013, though mainly posthumously.  So now the family of Dai Evans can proudly place the Arctic Star beside his other medals, as recognition of the service of those engaged in the Arctic convoys during the Second World War.      

Saturday 19 March 2016

41 The hymn 'Calon Lan'

41. Calon Lân (photos John Hughes, Mynyddbach chapel, Daniel James memorial) - 19 March 2016

Calon lân yn llawn daioni,
Tecach yw na’r lili dlos:
Dim ond calon lân all ganu -
Canu’r dydd a chanu’r nos.

The tune of the Welsh hymn ‘Calon Lân’, which is sung on religious occasions and at Welsh rugby internationals, was written by John Hughes of Landore. 

Born in 1872, where a plaque hangs outside the cottage in Pen-y-bryn near Cardigan, John Hughes was just two when his parents moved to Swansea.  When his father died eight years later, he began working for the Duffryn Steel and Tinplate Works in Morriston, where he progressed from office boy to commercial manager.  A Welsh speaker and organist at Philadelphia Welsh Baptist Chapel in Neath Road, Hafod, he travelled abroad for the company, becoming proficient in six languages.  Living in Landore he was known as John Hughes (Glandŵr), to differentiate from John Hughes of Pontypridd, who wrote the tune ‘Cwm Rhondda’.  He composed tunes for the Welsh hymn-singing festivals - Cymanfaoedd Ganu - and at the request of Daniel James of Treboeth he composed the tune for his poem ‘Calon Lân’.  The tune can be set to other hymns which fit the metrical pattern, such as ‘I will sing the wondrous story’, and it became very popular during the 1904-05 Welsh Revival. 

Married with three daughters, John Hughes died suddenly in 1914 of a brain hemorrhage aged 42, at 3 Stockwell Villas, off Mount Pleasant Hill.  Colleagues from the Duffryn Works carried the coffin for his burial near his parents’ grave in Caersalem Newydd Chapel, Treboeth. 

The words of ‘Calon Lân’ were written by Daniel James, born in Treboeth in 1848 into a family that attended Mynyddbach Welsh Independent Chapel.  This was then the cultural as well as the spiritual centre of the area.  He began work aged 13 at Morriston ironworks, where he became a puddler - stirring the pig-iron to become wrought-iron - and later moved to Landore tinplate works.

Daniel James mastered the intricacies of Welsh poetry, taking the Bardic name Gwyrosydd, which can mean ‘truth will stand’.  Members of Mynyddbach Chapel encouraged him to write verses and pieces for recitation.  But to their dismay Daniel James enjoyed drinking beer, and used to sit on a particular high chair in the ‘snug’ of the King's Head, composing verses for those who bought him drinks.  That high chair is now in Gwyrosydd Junior School. 

In 1871 he married Ann Hopkin: they set up home in a thatched cottage at Plas-y-Coed Terrace in Llangyfelach Road, and had five children.

His verses were published in periodicals and newspapers, as well as in collections like ‘Canneon Cymru’, published when he was 37.  After Ann James died (on Christmas Eve 1887), he married Gwenllian Parry, a widow with five children of her own, and the family moved to the Cynon Valley, where he worked as a miner in Tredegar and Dowlais, before twenty years working in the colliery at Mountain Ash.  He wrote the words of ‘Calon Lân’, with sentiments that a pure heart is to be prized more than material wealth, while living in Blaengarw, where in 2008 Parc Calon Lân was opened at the top of the valley.  Towards the end of his life in 1918 he returned to Morriston to live with his youngest daughter Olwen, before he died two years later aged 73.  He was buried in Mynyddbach Chapel cemetery, and in 1936 a memorial tablet was placed outside Treboeth Public Hall.    

‘Calon Lân’ differs from popular Welsh hymns like ‘Cwm Rhondda’ (‘Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah’) in that no English language version is usually sung.  The first verse can be translated:

I do not ask for a luxurious life,
the world's gold or its fine pearls,
I ask for a happy heart,
an honest heart, a pure heart.

Saturday 12 March 2016

40 Swansea Museum

40 Swansea Museum  (photos: Swansea Museum, L.W.Dillwyn, floodlit Museum) - 12 March 2016

What might be the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Wales’s second city - perhaps the Brangwyn Hall, or the Liberty  Stadium, or the Leisure Centre/LC2?  I would favour that historic building standing in Victoria Road with four Ionic columns supporting the portico – Swansea Museum, also known as the Royal Institution of South Wales.

In 1834 the founding of Neath’s Philosophical Society prompted some prominent Swansea citizens, including Lewis Weston Dillwyn of Sketty Hall, Sir John Morris of Clasemont and George Grant Francis of Burrows Lodge, to found Swansea’s Philosophical and Literary Society, for “the advancement of Science, Literature and the Arts”.  Initially two rooms were leased in Castle Square for a library and a museum, though larger premises were soon needed to carry out research, disseminate knowledge, and house many exhibits and works of art. 

John Henry Vivian MP obtained permission from the young Queen Victoria for the Society to be renamed the Royal Institution of South Wales in 1838, and the foundation stone of the oldest museum in Wales was laid on 24th August.  Designed by Liverpool architect Frederick Long, the museum, with a classical façade and Greek and Egyptian features, opened in 1841.  It enabled Swansea to host the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1848, and similarly the Cambrian Archaeological Association in 1861 made the first of five visits to Swansea and the museum.

Although the development of Swansea docks with the overhead railway caused some talk of relocating to St James’s Crescent in the Uplands, that plan came to nothing.

In the museum foyer hangs a photograph of Lizzie, a stuffed elephant which used to stand there - children would pat Lizzie for luck before music exams in the lecture theatre which housed the grand piano.  The elephant was from a Bostock and Wombwell travelling menagerie, but she did not survive war-time bomb damage.  Downstairs are the china gallery and the main gallery, with the fine staircase lined with paintings and portraits.  A lift enables disabled access to the first floor, which contains the Archaeology Gallery, the Cabinet of Curiosities with the Welsh kitchen, and the museum’s best known item – the Egyptian mummy.  In 1888 the future Lord Grenfell of Kilvey, of the St Thomas family of copper masters, presented the mummified body of the priest Hor to the museum.  There are busts of Dr Griffith John, for 50 years a missionary in China, and of Petty Officer Edgar Evans, the subject of a 2012 exhibition on the centenary of his death returning with Captain Scott from the South Pole.  Also among the collection, though rarely on display, are the 1303 marriage contract of the ill-fated Edward II, and the 1833 wedding dress of Emma Talbot of Penrice, bride of pioneer photographer John Dillwyn Llewelyn of Penllergare.  The museum garden contains fossil trees, while the history of the Mumbles Railway is displayed nearby in the tram shed in Dylan Thomas Square, and large items like the former Mumbles lifeboat ‘William Gammon’ can be viewed in the Collections Centre in Landore.

After some years of uncertainty the building and its collection were taken over in 1991 by the Local Authority, then the City of Swansea.  The Royal Institution of South Wales now functions as Friends of the Museum, and since 1993 publishes annually the ‘Swansea History Journal’ (originally called ‘Minerva’), which along with the Gower Society’s Journal provide a comprehensive resource for researchers.  Major exhibitions such as on the Great War, or about Dylan Thomas during the centenary of his birth, along with visits from school parties, lectures, workshops - all demonstrate that the Swansea bard’s remark about ‘the museum that should be in a museum’ is wide of the mark.
But even in the face of economic constraints on the Local Authority, to consider a not-for-profit body running the Museum would be poor stewardship of what is arguably the jewel in Swansea’s crown.    

Saturday 5 March 2016

39 Dame Adelina Patti

39. Adelina Patti (photos: Patti Pavilion, Craig-y-nos, Adelina Patti) – 5 March 2016

At Abercraf in the upper Swansea Valley stands Craig-y-nos, literally ‘Rock of the Night’.  It was named by Dame Adelina Patti, who while staying at Cadoxton Lodge near Neath in 1878, followed the suggestion of Henry Hussey Vivian MP and his brother Graham Vivian of Clyne by purchasing what was then a Victorian country house.  The world-famous operatic diva bought it for £3,500, along with 17 acres.  After her second marriage, to French tenor Ernesto Nicolini at Ystradgynlais Church in 1886, she had the building enlarged with North and South wings, designed by Bucknall and Jennings, whose designs in Swansea’s High Street include the Palace Theatre and the rebuilt St Matthew’s church.  The furnishing was by Ben Evans and Company.  Patti also added a clock tower, a conservatory, a theatre seating 150 (a miniature version of La Scala, Milan), and a winter garden, which is now the Patti Pavilion in Swansea’s Victoria Park.  The purchase of hundreds of acres of surrounding land further augmented her estate, and Craig-y-nos was probably the first private house in Wales to be wired for electricity.

A private road was constructed from Craig-y-nos to the Neath and Brecon Railway station at Penwyllt, which was part funded by Madam Patti, and where a lavishly furnished private waiting room was installed for her.  In return the Neath and Brecon Railway provided Patti with her own private railway carriage, which could be attached to any train within the United Kingdom wherever she wished to travel.

Born in Madrid in 1843 of Italian parents, the family moved to New York where Adelina Patti made her operatic debut aged 16, and two years later enjoyed remarkable success at Covent Garden.  With a fine soprano voice she conquered the music capitals of Europe earning huge fees: at her peak she insisted on being paid in advance - in gold.  Divorce from her first husband had been expensive.  Madam Patti was married three times, but had no children.  

During an American tour in 1862 she sang ‘Home, Sweet Home’ at the White House before President Abraham Lincoln, who called for an encore, and that song became closely associated with her.  In her sixties when her voice was past its prime she made several gramophone recordings at Craig-y-nos, of which a number have been reissued on CD by Marston Records.  She last sang in public in October 1914 at a Red Cross concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall for victims of the First World War. 

The winter garden at Craig-y-nos was a spacious building with a soaring roof made mainly from glass, where Patti would stroll with her guests among tropical plants, whilst exotic birds flew within.  Before her death she donated it to the people of Swansea, though because of the war there was insufficient manpower available to move it from Craig-y-nos to Victoria Park until 1920, the year after she had died at Craig-y-nos aged 76.  She was buried in Paris, near the graves of her father and Rossini, her favourite composer.

After her death, Craig-y-nos and the grounds were sold in 1921 to the Welsh National Memorial Trust, founded to combat tuberculosis in Wales.  Reconstructed as a sanatorium it was called the Adelina Patti Hospital.  In 1959 it became a hospital for the elderly, before closing as a hospital in 1986.

The Patti Pavilion in Victoria Park had a cosmetic makeover in a 1994 ‘Challenge Anneka’ television programme, but required far more substantial work.  In 2008 money from the Welsh Assembly and Swansea Council facilitated a £1.7million refurbishment of this grade II listed building, providing a glazed extension which forms the seating area of the Patti Raj restaurant, and parking for 39 vehicles. 
Now the building given by the operatic diva who opened Swansea’s Grand Theatre in July 1897, and was made the first Honorary Freewoman of the Borough in June 1912, is again in regular use.