Saturday 30 July 2016

60 Benefactor Roger Beck

60 Roger Beck – 30 July 2016 (photos: Singleton portrait, Mansion House, YMCA)

The Bible does not state that money is the root of all evil, but rather it is the “love” of money.  What a benefit it is when wealthy persons – whether their riches be inherited or earned – use that wealth to enrich mankind.  Two such benefactors are named on foundation stones of Swansea’s old Ragged School (later Swansea Gospel Mission) in Pleasant Street, off Orchard Street.  One is Amy Dillwyn, featured in this series on 3rd October, and the other is Roger Beck.

Born near Richmond, Surrey, in 1841, Beck worked in a family business until the deaths of his father and elder brother caused him to change direction.  He came to Swansea aged 31 and with two others formed the Elba Steel Company in Gowerton.  Following an abortive start, the company re-opened in 1878 and managed to successfully produce steel by the Siemens process.  With Beck’s financial expertise the firm expanded, later merging with Richard Thomas and Baldwins, forerunner of British Steel.

A bachelor, Roger Beck lived at The Rhyddings in Southward Lane, Langland, having the same housekeeper for thirty years and the same maidservant for twenty years, which speaks well of his character as an employer.  He responded to an 1897 drowning in Langland Bay by providing a lifebuoy and a lifesaving boat.  Like Graham Vivian of Clyne Castle he did not install a telephone, and furthermore he would travel to Swansea on the Mumbles Railway rather than own a car.

When Swansea’s General and Eye Hospital (now Home Gower) was a voluntary institution he was a major benefactor, from when he endowed a two-bed ward in 1911.

As treasurer of the appeal for a YMCA building on the corner of St Helen’s Road and Page Street, Beck pledged to add 5 per cent to all monies pledged, as did Sir Alfred Mond and a few others.  He laid one of the foundation stones in 1912. 

In 1914 he received public recognition when given the Freedom of the County Borough of Swansea, and he was elected chairman of Swansea Harbour Trust four years later.

When Brooklands in Ffynone came on the market, Beck purchased it for the Swansea Home for Orphan and Friendless Girls, of which he was a trustee.  They needed to move from cramped premises in Northampton Lane, though in the event the new orphanage was established at Killay House, and Brooklands was sold to the Corporation to become The Mansion House.

In February 1918 Beck took part in a Sunday night fund-raising entertainment at the Empire Theatre in Oxford Street.  This was on behalf of the War Prisoner Fund, of which he was a trustee, and for which the Daily Post, forerunner of the Evening Post, was campaigning.  Beck had known Charles Dickens, and that evening, with breaks for solo singing items, he recited without notes “A Christmas Carol” to a full theatre.  The Daily Post commented “Hoary headed, yet he was as upright as a dart at seventy-seven years of age; his ruddy cheery face put everybody in the best of spirits.”

In 1920 he purchased Parc Wern in Sketty, formerly Henry Hussey Vivian’s residence, with its 18-acre estate for £16,500, for a nurses’ training school with a site for a new hospital (though the building did not take place on that site).  When opened by Beck in 1922, its name was changed to Parc Beck.
He died aged eighty-two in 1923 and, after a simple funeral in keeping with his Quaker background, was buried in Oystermouth cemetery.  This philanthropist’s name endures on foundation stones of several buildings, along with Beck Hall in the Uplands, Roger Beck Way in Sketty, and Ffordd Beck in Gowerton, while his portrait hangs in Singleton Hospital’s boardroom.  Gren Neilson has given a fuller account of his many business and benevolent interests: Roger Beck’s wealth was neither hoarded nor used exclusively for himself, but dispersed to benefit others. 

Saturday 23 July 2016

59 Oxwich Castle

59 Oxwich Castle - 23 July 2016 (photos: Oxwich Castle - 2)

In the 1980s novelist Susan Howatch settled in Oxwich, making that Gower village the setting for her 1984 saga “The Wheel of Fortune”.  Oxwich Castle, which is more of a fortified Tudor manor house than a mediaeval stone castle, was thinly disguised as Oxmoor.

But truth is stranger than fiction, for the castle was the scene of a noblewoman’s killing in the sixteenth century, and more recently a medieval gold brooch was uncovered within that may have belonged to a King of England.

Though Oxwich Church and the Oxwich Bay Hotel (formerly the Rectory, now much enlarged) are clearly visible looking west from Pennard cliffs, the castle is hidden among the trees.  It stands off the road that leads uphill from the village to the hamlet of Oxwich Green. 

The castle was erected on the site of an earlier castle in two stages, though there is no consensus on which part came first.  The late Bernard Morris favoured the impressive six-storey eastern block, which contained the hall of Oxwich Castle, being built first - by Sir Rice Mansel.  Born in 1487, after his father’s death Mansel had been brought up by his uncle in Swansea at The Plas, which stood where Castle Square is now, where the Ben Evans store was later built.  Above Oxwich Castle’s gatehouse a stone heraldic panel contains Rice Mansel’s initials, quartered with the arms of the Scurlage and Penrice families.  His third wife had been a lady-in-waiting to Henry VIII’s eldest child, the future Queen Mary, and Mansel attained status and position under the Tudors.  The castle’s two-storey southern wing was probably added by his son Sir Edward Mansel, and when the family moved their main residence to Margam after the dissolution of the monasteries it was used as a farmhouse.

In 1949 the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works planned to lower the walls of the six-storey eastern block to the height of the two-storey wing, until campaigning by the recently-formed Gower Society caused the decision to be reversed.

For decades the castle was closed to the public while restoration work took place intermittently.  In 1968 workmen uncovered a gold ring-brooch dating from medieval times.  This 40mm-diameter brooch, with six elaborate settings, may have belonged to Edward II, and is now in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.  

Amid the storms of late December 1557 a French ship was wrecked on the rocks of Oxwich Point, and since Britain was at war with France local people had no compunction in seizing the cargo and detaining the surviving seamen.  When news of the shipwreck reached Swansea, Sir George Herbert, steward to the Lord of Gower and no friend of the Mansels, hurried to Oxwich with a group of armed men, determined to recover the booty.  They ransacked some cottages in the village to retrieve goods taken from the shipwreck, before moving on to the castle.  Sir Rice Mansel was absent, but his 28-year-old son Edward in a belligerent mood stood up to the demands of Sir George.  His aunt Lady Anne Mansel, possibly from Old Henllys near Llanddewi, endeavoured to calm the situation, counselling moderation and suggesting taking an inventory of French goods stored at the castle.  The group was about to withdraw reluctantly, when Watkin John ap Jenkin, one of Sir George’s men, flung a stone towards those by the gatehouse.  It struck Lady Anne Mansel, causing her death four days later. 

London’s Court of Star Chamber – so called because of the star pattern painted on the ceiling - had been established at the Palace of Westminster to enforce the law against prominent people whose influence might hinder an ordinary court from convicting them.  Sir George and his men were summoned before the court, and justice administered by fines, imprisonment, and the return of goods seized.

This intriguing castle, which opened to the public in 1995, is now in the care of Cadw.

Saturday 16 July 2016

58 Scientist Percy White

58 Percy White - 16 July 2016 (photos: Aldermaston, Percy White, graduation)

In the context of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan to end the Second World War, there was much apprehension lest weapons of mass destruction be developed and used by hostile nations, leading to total annihilation.  In some quarters it was felt that if Britain possessed a nuclear weapon that would be a deterrent against threats from any enemy.

The Atomic Weapons Research Establishment was set up after the Second World War in Aldermaston, a village south-west of Reading, where research on Britain’s first H-bomb was being carried out, amidst the uncertainty and suspicions of the Cold War.  Many readers will remember that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) organised over Easter weekends what were called the Aldermaston Marches to protest about that research.  In 1958, the year following the testing of the first bomb, 9,000 people marched on Aldermaston.  Later there was concern over Dounreay, a village on the north coast of Scotland, where Britain’s “fast reactor” nuclear programme was operational from 1959 to 1977; this was replaced by the larger version Prototype Fast Reactor from 1974. 

This might sound far removed from Swansea, but a person brought up in this area was at the centre of the development of Britain’s nuclear programme.  Just as the government code-breaking work at Bletchley Park was top secret until a few decades ago, so secrecy and anonymity has meant that much of this work had remained unknown to the general public.  Atomic scientist Percy White was born in London a century ago, on 16 July 1916, the son of a tent-maker and a seamstress.  The family moved to Swansea, and settled in Middle Road, Ravenhill.  Percy White attended Gendros School, then Dynevor, and won a scholarship to University College, Swansea, where he graduated with first-class honours in chemistry at the age of 19.  A further scholarship took him to University College London, where he obtained a diploma in chemical engineering. 

Having begun work in the metals industry and on the design of power station equipment, at the outbreak of the Second World War he was recruited as a government scientist in the Ministry of Supply.  The Royal Ordnance Factories were struggling to meet the demand for ammunition until he developed a new method of filling shells with high explosive - thereby mechanising a process that had been labour-intensive: his invention was patented.  After the war as a government scientist he worked at Porton Down in Wiltshire and at Woolwich Arsenal, part of the large ARD (Armament Research Department).  In 1949 he was recruited to the super-secret group within the ARD to design, make and test an atomic bomb for Britain. 

As the project grew the group moved in early 1950 to the former RAF base at Aldermaston.  White had to research, design and commission a radioactive liquid treatment plant for the site, for until that was done no radioactive material could be used.  Britain’s first atomic bomb was successfully tested in October 1952 off the north-west coast of Australia.  In the 1960s he led a team of chemists, metallurgists and engineers researching for the “fast reactor” at Dounreay in Caithness. 

Awarded an OBE in 1966, White retired to Lymington in Hampshire six years later, and acted as consultant for Hampshire NHS, advising on the design and installation of clean air areas in hospitals and laboratories.  He became proficient as an artist enameller, holding a one-man exhibition at Winchester City Art Gallery.  Married for over 65 years with two children, Percy White died in January 2013 aged 96, six years to the day after his wife’s death.  He was described as a highly-talented engineer who was energetic and self-confident, “with an enquiring mind and the ability to express himself with extraordinary clarity”.

Advocates of nuclear disarmament may disagree, but Swansea can be proud of contributing to the education of this outstanding scientist, born a century ago.

Saturday 9 July 2016

57 Ceri Richards

57 Ceri Richards (photos: Music of Colours, The Pianist, Ceri Richards) - 9 July 2016

The re-opening of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery will enable visitors to see some paintings of Ceri Richards, Swansea’s most distinguished artist, again.  However a somewhat controversial painting of his can be viewed in St Mary’s Church - The Deposition.   This portrays the body of Christ Jesus after it had been taken down from the cross, lying on a plain white sheet with debris around, and the feet of bystanders: one holds a workman’s bag which seems to contain the nails that had been removed.  What Canon Harry Williams called “this disturbing picture” is the artist’s response to sanitised portrayals of the Crucifixion.  The agony and pain is conveyed in the distorted feet and hands of the body.  The only face depicted is that of Christ, with the hands of the bystanders suggesting those who pray, those who work, and those who seem indifferent. 

The Deposition was submitted for a 1958 exhibition organised by the Contemporary Art Society at London’s Tate Gallery.  A study for the painting hangs in Leeds City Art Gallery, but with different colours, more bystanders and no workman’s bag, compared with the one inside St Mary’s Church.  Dr Rowan Williams is in no doubt of the painting’s merit, for he nominated it for an Art and Christianity award. 

Ceri Richards was born into a Welsh-speaking family in Dunvant in 1903.  His father, a rollerman in the Gowerton tinplate works, wrote poetry in Welsh and English, conducted the Dunvant Excelsior Male Voice Choir, and played the organ at Ebeneser Chapel.  Ceri, along with his younger brother and sister, was taught to play the piano, becoming familiar with the works of Bach and Handel, for music would be a lifelong inspiration for his work.  From Gowerton Intermediate School he enrolled aged 18 full-time in the Swansea School of Art in Alexandra Road, whose director then was Grant Murray.  During those years he was inspired by a week's summer school in 1923 at Gregynog Hall in Mid Wales, where he first saw canvases of Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Cézanne, the sculpture of Rodin, and sheets of old-master and modern drawings – all of which confirmed him in his vocation.  That collection of Impressionist paintings is now in the National Museum of Wales.

In 1923 he won a scholarship to study in London at the Royal College of Art.  Six years later he married fellow artist Frances Clayton, and they had two daughters.

Ceri Richards spent much of his life in London, living near the Dulwich Art Gallery; influenced by Picasso he gravitated towards surrealist painting.  During the Second World War he taught for four years at Cardiff School of Art as the head of painting, and produced drawings of the Gowerton tinplate factory where his father had worked. International recognition came when his large painting Trafalgar Square (now in the Tate Gallery) was shown at the 1951 Festival of Britain.  His former student Alfred Janes introduced him to Vernon Watkins, who became a close friend.  They shared a love of poetry, music and Gower, and in the 1960s he bought a holiday bungalow on Pennard cliffs near Vernon’s home.  Some Ceri Richards paintings, drawings and lithographs were inspired by Vernon’s poetry and that of Dylan Thomas, whom he met just before the poet’s final visit to New York in 1953. 

Appointed CBE in 1960, he won the Gold Medal at the 1961 National Eisteddfod and was a prizewinner at the Venice Biennale of 1962.  He designed stained glass windows for Derby Cathedral, and for Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral’s Blessed Sacrament Chapel in 1965.

Ceri Richards died in London aged 68 in 1971, eighteen years to the day after Dylan Thomas died.  His work is in such collections as Tate Britain, the National Museum of Wales and the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery (where he held his first solo exhibition in 1930).  A blue plaque may shortly be placed outside his birthplace in Dunvant.

Saturday 2 July 2016

56 Six Rail Terminus Stations

56 The Railways - 2 July 2016 (photos: Victoria Station, GWR, High Street Station)

The routes of former railway lines provide some fine tracks for cyclists, joggers and walkers.  For example, from Swansea’s Leisure Centre one can follow the former route of the London and North Western Railway along the seafront to Blackpill, then turn inland, where a bridge used to take the track over the Mumbles Road, to continue up the Clyne Valley to Gowerton. 

The route of the Mumbles Railway used to run from Rutland Street parallel with the LNW line, along part of what is now the much-widened Mumbles Road as far as Blackpill, but would then pass under the LNW railway bridge to follow the coastal route to Mumbles Square.  This used to be the terminus, until the line was extended to 4½ miles to reach the pier, which opened in 1898.

Railway companies competed carrying minerals and passengers down the Afan valley, the Vale of Neath, the Swansea valley and the Clyne valley, until as many as six lines (some primarily for freight) all ended in Swansea. 

The Vale of Neath Railway served the collieries of Merthyr, Aberdare and the Neath valley.  Taken over by the Great Western Railway in 1865, its terminus was Wind Street station until 1873, subsequently extended to East Dock. 

The Rhondda and Swansea Bay Railway ran from Treherbert from 1894 to the terminus at Swansea Riverside; it was taken over by the Great Western Railway in 1906.

The Swansea Vale Railway, which served the Tawe and Amman valleys, ran to Pontardawe by 1860, and to Brynamman by 1864.  Ten years later it was taken over by the Midland Railway, which became the London, Midland and Scottish Railway in 1876, with the terminus at St Thomas.  The Swansea Vale Railway Society maintained the remaining track before merging with the Gwili Railway in Carmarthenshire.

The Mumbles Railway was famously the earliest passenger-carrying railway in the world, with the terminus at Rutland Street.  It began as a mineral line serving the Clyne valley, with horses pulling trucks along a railway between Mumbles and Swansea, before passengers were carried to a regular timetable from 1807.  With the increase in private car ownership and the need to widen the Mumbles Road, it closed in January 1960, to widespread dismay.

The Llanelly Railway ran initially to Pontardulais, but was extended to Swansea’s South Dock in 1866.  It was taken over by London and North Western in 1873 and ran to Victoria (approximately the site of the Leisure Centre) until closed in 1964.

The South Wales Railway reached Swansea in June 1850 after the completion of the Landore viaduct, with the terminus at High Street station.  It merged with the Great Western Railway in 1863, and nine years later all its track was converted from the 7’0¼” broad-gauge favoured by Brunel from 1838 to the 4’8½” standard or narrow-gauge.  From 1906 the Swansea Loop enabled the main line from London Paddington to West Wales to run to Swansea (High Street) station, where an engine could be attached to the other end so that the journey continued without passengers needing to change trains at Landore.

The former North and South Docks - now Parc Tawe and the Marina respectively – were linked by an overhead railway, while an iron bridge carried the Harbour Railway over the junction of Wind and Mount Streets.
Many rival companies throughout the country were merged by the 1921 Railway Act into just four railways – the Great Western, the Southern, the London and North Eastern, and the LMS.  With the nationalisation of the railways in 1948 these became parts of British Railways, until the 1963 Beeching Report instigated a massive reduction of the rail network.  So Swansea’s principal station is no longer called “Swansea (High Street)”, for it is the only remaining station in the city: Cockett, Loughor, Landore and Llansamlet have all closed - along with five of those terminus stations.