Saturday 24 September 2016

68 Oystermouth School

68 Oystermouth School - 24 September 2016 (photos: two of the school)

British educational development during the last century-and-a-half is mirrored by the changes to Oystermouth Primary School.  In 1870 WE Foster’s Elementary Education Act set up School Boards to establish a network of what we would call primary schools, to provide free education up to the age of eleven.  These were non-denominational, whereas from 1811 the National Society for Promoting Religious Education had set up “National Schools” on behalf of the Church of England.  Pupil teachers were frequently used, gaining experience before often going on to study at a training college.  

In January 1878 Oystermouth Board Boys’ School opened with 47 boys, in the schoolroom of what was then Tabernacle Congregational Church in Newton Road.  Separate schools were also set up for girls and for infants, with all coming together on the present site in the shadow of Oystermouth Castle in August 1878.  Four years later 220 pupils were on the register, by which time school attendance had become compulsory.  When average attendance in 1907 was 332, alterations were needed to the buildings, with the boys moving temporarily into the vestry of Castleton Chapel, and the girls into the Victoria Hall.  The teaching of Welsh was introduced from 1928, two years before it became mandatory in the borough.

During the Second World War only two local children were among those from Swansea evacuated to Carmarthenshire, but school numbers increased with evacuees from London and elsewhere.  School dinners at a cost of five old pence were introduced for the first time in December 1942, a temporary expedient that was never discontinued.

Events local and national which prompted an extra school holiday for Oystermouth pupils include the day in October 1881 when the Prince of Wales visited Swansea, another in June 1887 when former Prime Minister WE Gladstone opened the new library in Alexandra Road, and again in October of that year for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.  The Relief of Mafeking in 1899 during the Boer War merited a half-holiday, with normal school in the morning.  School closures in the twentieth century included the day in 1904 when Edward VII opened the King’s Dock, and in 1920 when George V laid the University College’s foundation stone, and in June 1954 for the 150th anniversary of the Mumbles Railway.

In 1947 the school closed for the afternoon for the funeral of the eight Mumbles lifeboatmen who drowned while seeking to aid the shipwrecked Samtampa.  A happier occasion was a special assembly in 1948 after Glamorgan had won the County Cricket championship for the first time: a framed photo of the team was presented to the school cricket team’s captain – Jim Pressdee, who would himself become a fine Glamorgan batsman and left-arm spinner. 

RA Butler’s 1944 Education Act introduced Secondary Education for all, and raised the school leaving age to fifteen, so new classrooms were added for the change to Oystermouth County Secondary School in 1947, though the official name change came five years later, when 106 children were transferred to Grange School in West Cross.  In spite of rationing and post-war austerity, 134 pupils went on a school trip to London in 1949, and the following year there was a visit to Windsor.  The first overseas trip took place in April 1958, when three staff accompanied 19 girls to Lausanne in Switzerland.
From 1970 Oystermouth became a Junior Comprehensive School, often overcrowded with as many as 427 pupils in 1976.  In the early eighties it became Oystermouth Primary School, losing those aged 11 to 13 to Bishop Gore Comprehensive (formerly Senior Comprehensive), while acquiring pupils from the closed Dunns Lane School.  Currently Oystermouth has nearly 250 pupils aged from 3 to 11, whom the school seeks to nurture and educate - as it has been doing for 138 years.

Saturday 17 September 2016

67 Welsh newspaper 'Seren Gomer'

67 Seren Gomer(photos: Joseph Harris, Capel Gomer, front page) – 17 September 2016

Many readers will be aware that the first English language newspaper in Wales was The Cambrian, published in Swansea from 1804.  Not so well-known is the fact that the first Welsh language newspaper in Wales was also published in Swansea, rather than in a predominately Welsh-speaking part of the Principality. 

This was Seren Gomer (literally meaning “Star of Gomer”), launched in January 1814 by Rev. Joseph Harris, who took the Bardic name Gomer.  Born the son of a farm bailiff in Pembrokeshire in 1773, Harris was inspired by a religious revival at Puncheston in 1795, and after his marriage became minister of Swansea’s Welsh Baptist Chapel in Back Lane in 1801, living in first Tontine Street and later in High Street.  He also kept a day-school, had a bookshop and a printing works, publishing sermons in Welsh and English, and in 1821 a collection of hymns “Casgliad o Hymnau”, which included some of his own compositions.  He wrote pamphlets and books to uphold belief in the Trinity and oppose trends towards Unitarianism.  He was a contemporary of Christmas Evans, with whom he collaborated on a translation into Welsh of Dr Gill's Commentary on the New Testament.

Seren Gomer was published by David Jenkin of High Street, Swansea, and sold in about fifty places throughout Wales.  It was intended as a ‘general weekly informant for the whole of the Principality of Wales’, and contained local, national and foreign news, poems, letters, details of the movement of shipping, and reports on markets and fairs.  Compared with the immediacy of the contents of current newspapers, Seren Gomer of necessity often contained news translated into Welsh of events that occurred long before publication date, which were often updated or corrected in later reports towards the end of the same edition, as with the progress of Napoleon’s march through France before Waterloo.

But the heavy tax on newspapers and paucity of revenue from advertising caused the newspaper to cease publication in August 1815 after 85 editions.  Three years later it was re-launched as a fortnightly publication, and in 1820 it became monthly.  Before Joseph Harris died aged 52 in 1825, Seren Gomer was sold to Carmarthen publisher David Evans, and became a quarterly Baptist magazine, which continued until 1983.  Its editor from 1951 to 1975 was Rev. Lewis Valentine, who, along with other Plaid Cymru founders Swansea University lecturer Saunders Lewis and teacher D.J. Williams, had been imprisoned for a year after their 1936 protest against plans to erect an RAF bombing school in the Llŷn peninsula. 

It was Joseph Harris who secured the site overlooking Penclawdd where the now ruined Mount Hermon Baptist Chapel was built.  After his death, the Back Lane congregation divided amicably to form separate English and Welsh chapels – respectively in 1827 Mount Pleasant in Gower Street (now The Kingsway), and in 1831 Bethesda in Bethesda Street (now Prince of Wales Road).  Capel Gomer opened in March 1891 in what is now lower Orchard Street, where the multi-storey car park stands, being named after Joseph Harris.  Along with the Central Hall next door, it was destroyed by enemy bombardment during the Second World War in February 1941.  The congregation re-located to Mount Zion Chapel at the top of Craddock Street, which was rebuilt in 1962 as Capel Gomer, and is now home to the Chinese Christian community in Swansea. 

The newspaper’s bicentenary was marked two years ago by an exhibition at Swansea’s Central Library, public lectures in Welsh and in English by Professor Prys Morgan, and the unveiling of a plaque on the village green in Wolfscastle, near Haverfordwest, in the parish where Joseph Harris had been born.  Seren Gomer’s significance lay, in the words of the late Professor Glanmor Williams, “in encouraging an awareness of nationality”.

Saturday 10 September 2016

66 Morris 'Castle'

66 Morris Castle(photos: colour and b & w of the ruins) - 10 September 2016
Supporters of Premier League football teams who visit the Liberty Stadium may well not notice beyond the Landore viaduct some ruins on the horizon.  Even if they do, they would no doubt be most surprised to know that those partial remains of two towers are called Morris Castle. 

This was never an actual “castle” as at Oystermouth or Pennard, even though it is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.  Also known as Castle Graig, Morris Castle was built on Cnap Llwyd hilltop between around 1768 and 1775, to house colliers working in Trewyddfa colliery in Treboeth, by the industrialist Sir John Morris (1745–1819), owner of the Forest Copper Works.  Confusingly his son shared the same name, as well as also becoming a baronet.  Like the Vivians of Singleton and the Grenfells of St Thomas, the Morrises built housing as well as schools for their employees.

The significance of Morris Castle is that it was probably the first tenement housing for workers in Europe, if not in the world, designed to accommodate twenty-four families within four castellated corner towers around an internal quadrangle.  It was probably designed by the architect John Johnson of Leicester, who also designed Morris’s Georgian-style mansion of Clasemont just to the north, which balanced Morris Castle as a landscape feature, catching the attention of such artists as Thomas Rothwell and John “Warwick” Smith.

It may have been John Johnson who brought to this area as his assistant William Jernegan, who went on to become “The architect of Regency Swansea”, designing such buildings as Stouthall, Kilvrough Manor, the Assembly Rooms, the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel, and Mumbles lighthouse.  His gravestone lies on the north side of St Mary’s Church.

In 1815, in his survey of the agriculture and economy of South Wales, Rev. Walter Davies described Morris Castle as being “a kind of castellated lofty mansion, of a collegiate appearance, with an interior quadrangle, containing dwellings for forty families, all colliers, excepting one tailor, and one shoe maker, who are considered as useful appendages to the fraternity”.  Rather than forty families, the number is generally believed to have been twenty-four, but mention of a tailor and a shoe maker suggest it was envisioned that the residents might become a fairly self-contained community.  It was built four storeys high, of local sandstone and brick, ornamented with bands of copper slag.

However this experiment in workers’ tenement housing did not last very long - perhaps after a 12-hour working day it was unrealistic to expect colliers to climb up to Castle Graig and then face further steps up to their dwellings; furthermore the supply of water to the elevated site could be erratic at times.  By March 1811 Morris Castle was being advertised in “The Cambrian” newspaper for sale or to be let, described as “A Building containing Twenty-four convenient Cottages for Workmen, with Gardens adjoining, in a healthy situation, within two miles of Swansea”.

With the increase of quarrying and open cast mining nearby, it evidently declined into a ruinous state, being designated on the 1876 Ordnance Survey map as “Morris Castle (ruins of)”.  Stones would have been removed for building purposes, and in January 1990 the east wall collapsed in a storm, to leave just the partial remains of the two corner towers which stand today. 

The first Sir John Morris later laid the foundation of the workers’ village designed in a gridiron pattern by William Edwards - best known for his single-arch bridge across the Taff at Pontypridd - which was first called Morris Town, and is now known as Morriston.  Though that is his enduring memorial, those stark ruins on Cnap Lwyd are the remains of “possibly the first block of workers’ flats in the modern world”. 

Saturday 3 September 2016

65 Mumbles Pier

65 Mumbles Pier (photos: pier, entrance, mumbles train at pier) - 3 September 2016

Britain’s coastal piers might puzzle a resident of a landlocked country.  The thought of strolling along to the end of a pier, admiring the view, and strolling back could seem a strange British custom, even if not as bizarre as rolling a giant cheese down a Gloucestershire hillside for sport.  In his book ‘Icons of England’, American Bill Bryson recalls his initial puzzlement at seeing Brighton pier - “the idea of constructing a runway to nowhere would never have occurred to me”.  Of course a pier also serves as a landing stage for pleasure cruisers, and provides access for fishermen to deep water regardless of the state of the tide.

During the nineteenth century piers were often like off-shore islands connected to the beach by a narrow bridge.  Then civil engineer and seaside architect Eugenius Birch devised wrought-iron pillars that could be screwed through sand and shingle directly into the bedrock beneath.  This allowed many pillars to be used, and beginning with Margate, Birch constructed 14 piers around the country, including Brighton’s West Pier and the North Pier at Blackpool.  Throughout Victorian times piers proliferated, so that by 1900 there were 80 around the coast of Britain.  Although built primarily so that people could promenade out to sea, to breathe in healthy sea air without having to set sail on potentially dangerous seas, piers also soon became places of entertainment - with concerts, Punch-and-Judy shows, amusement arcades and shops.

With the Mumbles railway being extended in the 1890s from Oystermouth Square to the headland, Mumbles pier was constructed, being opened in May 1898 by the wife of Sir John Jones Jenkins MP, Chairman of the Mumbles Railway and Pier Company: refreshments followed at the Mermaid Hotel for 100 invited guests.  The pier was 835 feet (255m) long, 25 feet wide, cost £17,000, and was lit by acetylene gas.   Entry to Mumbles pier cost 2d, and by 1900 the South Wales Daily Post (forerunner of the Evening Post) advertised that a “splendid band” was playing every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, followed by tea and refreshments. 

There were tentative plans for a deep water harbour, so that passengers could travel by the Mumbles train to the pier, and then embark on large ships to other ports, but these plans were discarded.  The landing stage sufficed for pleasure cruises to Lundy Island, Ilfracombe and along the coast of the Bristol Channel, especially in the White Funnel paddle steamers of P and A Campbell. 

The 1904 Mumbles Railway Centenary Souvenir declared that “among the most attractive features during the season are the vocal and instrumental competitions which bring forward the cream of the musical talent of South Wales.  Splendid bands are engaged, while an accomplished troupe of troubadours give concerts twice daily”.  It described “the busy worker listening in the open air to sweet music whilst inhaling the health-giving ozone from the Atlantic Ocean”.

Alongside the pier a new slipway for the lifeboat was built in 1916, with a boathouse added six years later, so that Mumbles pier became an excellent vantage point to watch the lifeboat being launched.  This has been superseded by the new boathouse for the RNLI lifeboat at the end of the pier, which was opened in March 2014, with summer sailings, such as by the Waverley paddle steamer, taking place for many years from Swansea’s King’s Dock.

Of nearly one hundred piers that used to be around Britain’s coastline, only about half survive now, and several face an uncertain future.  So in 1979 the National Piers Society was founded under Sir John Betjeman to promote and sustain interest in preserving and building seaside piers.  For Mumbles pier the future seems bright, with major repairs currently being carried out, part of ambitious plans to regenerate the area that include building a hotel, spa and exhibition centre. 
Even Bill Bryson might be impressed when the plans reach fruition.