Saturday 25 June 2016

55 The Boer War cenotaph

55 Boer War Cenotaph – 25 June (photos: Boer War statue, burning farmstead, soldiers in battle)

Murton Green Hall displays the names of local people who died in the twentieth century’s two World Wars, and one other name - that of Corporal Stephen Jones of Oldway Farm.  Aged 21, he had died earlier, in the South African War, also called the Boer War, and was buried at Heilbron in the Orange Free State in February 1902. 

Boer is the Dutch word for farmer, for the first European settlers in South Africa were the Dutch under Jan van Riebeeck, who landed in the Cape in 1652.  The South African War commenced in 1899 when the Boer way of life was threatened by the expansionist plans of Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of Cape Colony, and the influx of prospectors after the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and gold west of Johannesburg.  The Boers under Paul Kruger, Transvaal’s president, sought freedom from British control and the influence of the London government.

A cenotaph is an “empty tomb”, usually a memorial to those killed in war but buried elsewhere.  Swansea has two cenotaphs sited on the promenade opposite St Helen’s, and the earlier one with the statue of a soldier guarding his fallen comrade concerns the South African War.  This originally stood in Victoria Park flanked by two cannons, and surrounded with a chain-link fence.  The £500 cost was raised by contributions to a shilling fund, set up by the “South Wales Daily Post”, the forerunner of this newspaper.  The memorial was designed by the art master at the Intermediate School, Mr Littlejohn, using as model for the statue of the soldier Sergeant-Major Bird, nick-named “Oiseau”, the physical training instructor at Swansea Grammar School and the Municipal Secondary school.  The memorial was unveiled by Mayor Griffith Thomas in April 1904, and lists on the Swansea side 19 soldiers killed in action, with another five who died later of their wounds; on the Mumbles side are the names of 29 who died of infectious diseases.  Overall, of every five British casualties, three were from disease.

Among those listed as killed was 25-year-old Lieutenant Roland Miers, who was in fact murdered in September 1901.  Seeing three Boers approach on horseback carrying a white flag, which suggested willingness to discuss terms for surrender, Lieut. Miers rode towards them, only to be shot dead.  His faithful dog was found beside his dead body.  The perpetrator was later tried, convicted and executed in June 1902 – fittingly the firing squad included some from Lieut. Miers’ regiment.

The South African War was notorious for Kitchener’s “scorched-earth” policy (destroying farms, crops and livestock), the use of concentration camps by British troops to intern Boer families, and the Boer response with guerrilla warfare.  Among those involved in the war were future Prime Minister Winston Churchill (a war correspondent for the “Morning Post”), and cavalry officer Captain Oates, who later accompanied P.O. Edgar Evans of Rhossili to the South Pole.

As with more recent conflicts, support for the war was not universal, for R.D. Burnie, MP for Swansea Town from 1892, was outspoken in denouncing the conflict as “imperial claptrap”.

The estimated British loss was 22,000 men, and for the Boers 6,000, though to this must be added the deaths of 4,000 women and 16,000 children, mostly through disease in the unhygienic and badly-run concentration camps.  After two years and seven months, the war ended with the Peace of Vereeniging (the name of the town means “Union”) in May 1902.  But resentment at the British use of the “scorched-earth” policy, and interning women and children in concentration camps, festered for generations, contributing to South Africa’s decision in 1961 to withdraw from the Commonwealth and to become a Republic. 

Further details of those listed on Swansea’s South African War cenotaph are on the “Roll of Honour” website.  As for Corporal Stephen Jones of Oldway Farm, he was among those who died of disease.

Saturday 18 June 2016

54 Rev. Leon Atkin

54 Rev. Leon Atkin (photos: Leon Atkin and Dylan Thomas at the Bush) - 18 June

From 1934 St Paul’s Congregational Church, opposite Joe’s Ice Cream Parlour in St Helen’s Road, provided refuge and assistance for homeless people through the work of its controversial and unconventional minister, Rev. Leon Atkin.  When he took up the challenge of becoming its minister, St Paul’s had only 12 members and a debt of £2,000 (a very considerable deficit at that time).

St Paul’s Congregational Church had opened in 1881, and since closing as a place of worship in the late 1960s was used as a cinema (often showing what might be termed “adult” films), before more recently becoming Miah’s Indian Restaurant.  Though currently closed, it seems likely to re-open again as an Indian Restaurant. 

Born in 1902, one of seven children, Leon Atkin would attend the Methodist chapel next to his home in Spalding, Lincolnshire.  When he was 12 the family moved to Staffordshire, where within a few years he became well-known as a boy preacher.  Following an engineering apprenticeship, he trained in Birmingham for the Methodist ministry. 

His concern was always for the disadvantaged - at Risca in Gwent he preached the “social gospel”.  Prominent in America in the early twentieth century, this sought to apply Christian ethics to social problems such as poverty, alcoholism and poor housing.  Its activism challenged religious belief that lacked any practical outworking in a person’s life.

At the Methodist Central Hall in Bargoed in 1932 Atkin used the large chapel and its schoolroom to assist the unemployed.  The building was open every day of the week, with a shoe repairing workshop, a barber shop, and a kitchen providing free meals.  Part of the building became a hostel for some young unemployed people to have an address (which enabled them to claim benefit), which brought him into conflict with the authorities.  

When Leon Atkin moved to St Paul’s Congregational Church he held popular open-air meetings, preached a social gospel, and dared to challenge militant Communists and to criticise the ineffectiveness of the Labour Party (to which he belonged) and churches in Wales.  He courageously challenged Oswald Mosley’s anti-Semitism at a British Union of Fascists rally at the Plaza cinema in July 1934.

Leon Atkin’s care for “down and outs” in the crypt of St Paul’s (in spite of the opposition of the deacons) became known through his articles in the press, especially in the Sunday newspaper “The News of the World”.  His congregations grew to 200 on winter Sunday nights and, with holiday visitors, to over 500 in the summer.  Though he was something of a maverick, public disapproval never deterred him, and unlike most ministers he would christen babies of single mothers.

From November 1935 he served as a Labour councillor for Brynmelyn Ward, changing to an Independent in 1947, and remaining on the Council until 1964.  Ironically the outbreak of war curtailed performances of his play at the Llewelyn Hall “Until the Day Break”, with its exposure of injustice.  Though formerly a pacifist, during the war he joined the Royal Artillery, before being invited to become an Army Chaplain, in which capacity he served in the Netherlands.  

The crypt of St Paul’s became a refuge for the homeless and “down and outs”, particularly during the bitter winter of 1946-47, and they were welcomed each Christmas.  Leon Atkin would visit Swansea pubs each Friday to collect money for the homeless and to enable children from poor families to enjoy Guy Fawkes’ nights and to visit the circus.  Though criticised by ministers for going into pubs, he would drink with Dylan Thomas, notably at The Bush in the High Street before Dylan’s final visit to New York.
With his beret and clerical collar Leon Atkin was a well-known figure, admired by people with little time for churches, ministers or organised religion.  Though he died in 1976, Christian ministry among the homeless and disadvantaged carries on today at Zac’s Place in George Street.  

Saturday 11 June 2016

53 Isambard Kingdom Brunel

53 I.K. Brunel (photos: Brunel, Great Eastern, Flying arches, Landore viaduct)

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is associated with the SS “Great Britain” in Bristol, the Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash, the Box tunnel near Bath, the Maidenhead Viaduct, and designing the Clifton Suspension Bridge, but in Loughor, Landore and Llansamlet this area has examples of the great Victorian engineer’s work. 

A wooden railway bridge was built over the river Loughor and opened in 1852 to carry the broad gauge line of the South Wales Railway from Swansea through to Carmarthen.  This became the last remaining timber viaduct designed by Brunel, whose other timber bridges had been gradually replaced by masonry.  Loughor’s bridge was 750ft long with a 40ft opening swing bridge at the Swansea end, and seventeen fixed spans.  It was on timber piles driven 14ft into the riverbed, with the piles arranged in groups of three, across the width of the viaduct.  A mixed-gauge track was laid, being broad gauge for the South Wales Railway and standard gauge for the Llanelly Railway.  The SWR converted to standard gauge in 1872, so when the viaduct was first rebuilt in 1880 both tracks were laid to standard gauge.  Major rebuilding was also carried out between 1908 and 1909, when the swing bridge (unused since 1887) was removed.

With the re-doubling of railway tracks between Cockett West Junction and Duffryn West Junction, in 2013 Network Rail replaced the viaduct with a modern railway bridge, but did relocate part of the old grade 2 listed structure onto railway land just to the west.

The Landore viaduct had been built from 1847 to 1850 to enable the South Wales Railway to cross the canal and the river Tawe to reach Swansea.  The arrival of the train from Chepstow at Swansea’s High Street Station in June 1850 was an occasion for much celebration, with speeches from Brunel and local dignitaries during a banquet in a marquee especially erected on the Burrows.  That site was later excavated for Swansea’s second dock, the South Dock (now the Marina), which opened in 1859, the year Brunel died aged 53.

Landore was Brunel’s longest viaduct, originally 1,788ft (a third of a mile) long, with thirty-seven spans, and built of Canadian pitch pine.  Forty years later its length was substantially reduced by building up an embankment on the eastern side of the valley with slag from the nearby Hafod copper works, and replacing many original timber piers with masonry.  But near Neath Road stand four masonry piers, each pierced with two arches, which are part of Brunel’s original design. 

At Llansamlet where the railway line passes through a cutting there was danger of land slippage from old mine workings.  Brunel countered this with four “Flying Arches” to hold back the cutting through which the line passes.  These span 70ft from the sides of the cutting; the design and weight of the arches, with heavy copper slag on top of each masonry arch, is sufficient to resist the thrust of the side. 

There is also a local link to one of Brunel’s three innovative steam ships.  SS “Great Britain” was the second of these, the first iron-built ocean-going ship with a screw propeller, now restored in its dry dock in Bristol.  But even that was eclipsed by his final nautical project - the huge PSS “Great Eastern”, which was beset with problems during construction at Millwall and in attempting to launch her sideways in 1858.  As a luxury transatlantic liner she was a commercial failure, yet her most productive use was laying transatlantic telegraph cables between Europe, America and India. 

The Swansea connection is that copper merchant Henry Bath’s company diversified into ship-breaking, and in 1889-90 dismantled Brunel’s giant paddle steamship using a wrecking ball at Rock Ferry, Birkenhead, on the Wirral.  It took over 18 months, with just the top mast surviving as the flagpole at the Kop end of Liverpool’s Anfield football ground: sadly not at the Liberty Stadium!  

Saturday 4 June 2016

52 John Dillwyn Llewelyn and Penllergare Mansion

52 Penllergare (photos: Penllergare Mansion, Observatory) – 4 June 2016

Large houses and mansions which have been demolished locally during the last sixty years include Hill House, home of Swansea’s first stipendiary magistrate, Sketty Park, the residence of Sir John Morris, Burrows Hall, where antiquarian George Grant Francis lived, and Penllergare, home of pioneer photographer John Dillwyn Llewelyn.  Currently Danbert Hall (of the Dyffryn Tinplate Works in Morriston) seems likely to share their fate.

The mansion of Penllergare stood at the north end of the present-day Country Park, bounded now by the M4 motorway to the north and the A483 dual carriageway to the west.  Around the year 1710 a tall three-storey house with five bays was built for the Price family.  It later passed to a cousin John Llewelyn of Ynysygerwn, who added a two-storey block to the side around 1800.  Seven years later his daughter Mary Adams (he had not married her mother) married Lewis Weston Dillwyn; when Colonel Llewelyn died in 1817 he left the mansion to their seven-year-old elder son, his grandson John Dillwyn, to inherit on his 21st birthday.  In the meantime as trustee Lewis Weston Dillwyn, who was a co-founder and first president of the Royal Institution of South Wales, was obliged to move from The Willows in Mount Pleasant into Penllergare, which he did with some reluctance. 

As a condition of inheriting Penllergare in 1831, John Dillwyn took on the additional surname of Llewelyn, to become John Dillwyn Llewelyn.  Two years later at Penrice Church he married Emma Talbot, youngest daughter of Thomas Mansel Talbot and cousin of the pioneer photographer Fox Talbot of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.  L.W. Dillwyn moved into Sketty Hall, which he had purchased in 1831, and Penllergare underwent much reconstruction from 1835 to 1836.

J.D. Llewelyn exploited the natural beauty of the estate in his grand design to create a landscape planted with a rich variety of trees, shrubs and exotic plants.  From 1836 one of the first purpose-built orchid houses was erected in the kitchen gardens, and close to the mansion an Observatory was built around 1851-2.  There one of the first photographs of the moon was taken by J.D. Llewelyn with his eldest daughter Thereza around 1856.  The Observatory survives, and having undergone restoration is registered as a Scheduled Ancient Monument by Cadw.  With his scientific interests, J.D. Llewelyn conducted experiments on the man-made Lower Lake with an electrically-powered boat, which he had built.

He died in 1882, having given 42 acres at Cnap Llwyd (near Morris Castle) to be laid out as a park.  Now known as Parc Llewelyn, the first of Swansea’s “open spaces” was opened in 1878. 

After his son Sir John Talbot Dillwyn Llewellyn, MP for Swansea Town from 1895 to 1900, died in July 1927, the mansion’s best days were over.  It was occupied by the baronet’s daughter, then aged 65, until she moved to 10 Bryn Road in Swansea.  Most of Penllergare’s furniture and contents were auctioned over three days in October 1936, and the mansion was unoccupied for several years.  After brief usage by American troops towards the end of the last war, its condition further deteriorated.

The Bible College of Wales in Derwen Fawr had plans to purchase Penllergare to accommodate Jewish refugees, but these did not materialise, and the mansion was bought by Glamorgan County Council.  With vandalism and further deterioration over the years the building had to be blown up in a series of explosions by the Royal Engineers on weekend exercises in 1961.  Subsequently Lliw Valley Borough Council offices were erected nearby, and opened in 1982, with a car park where the mansion once stood. 
Today Penllergare Country Park is much visited and the estate is gradually being restored, but to glimpse the grandeur of the demolished mansion one should peruse certain photographs of its principal occupant - John Dillwyn Llewelyn.