Sunday 13 November 2016

84 Dai Jones, tenor

84 Dai Jones, tenor

A recent feature about William Samuell, a baritone from St Thomas, elicited some details of another notable opera singer – Dai Jones, a tenor from Pontardawe. 

Born in 1906 in the village of Pant-teg, Dai Jones was the youngest of five children, whose father was a foreman at Dyffryn Tinplate Works.  The family moved to Rhydyfro, just north of Pontardawe, and after leaving school Dai began work aged 14 at Pontardawe’s tinplate works. 

Throughout the 1920s W.D. Clee, organist of Wern Chapel in Ystafyfera for nearly 40 years, used to visit local chapels in the Swansea valley to hold auditions for the famous 400-strong Clee Choir of Ystalyfera.  Dai had no inflated opinion of his singing ability, but when W.D. Clee heard him sing at Saron Chapel, Rhydyfro, he was impressed with the crystal-clear quality of his voice, so Dai became a member of the choir and received training to develop his singing talent.  At concerts performed by the Clee Choir he was frequently one of the soloists.  Dai also competed in local eisteddfodau, and his winning championship solo at the 1926 Ammanford eisteddfod was heard by a producer of the Carl Rosa Opera Company (formed in 1873): following a successful audition Dai joined the company.

In 1934 at Tabernacle Chapel in Thomas Street, Pontardawe, Dai married Mary Phillips, who was actively involved at Tabernacle and with Pontardawe Opera Company, and whose half-sister was the actress Rachel Thomas (whose films included The Proud Valley).  When Dai made a guest appearance as soloist at the 1935 Caernarfon National Eisteddfod, his impact was such that several listening assumed that he was a famous Italian tenor! 

Though he was due to sign a contract with Milan’s La Scala Opera Company in 1936, it did not proceed because of the rise of fascism and the deteriorating European situation.  Nonetheless Dai was overseas during his son Trefor’s early months, touring South Africa, which was then still part of the British Empire, with the London Follies.  The theatre critic of the Natal Witness commented in January 1937: “Dai Jones has a most exceptional voice, its timbre and quality allowing him to render equally faultlessly a strongly dramatic air or a delicate little cradle song.”  

Following a successful season at Brighton’s Palace Pier Theatre, Dai was among those of the “Brighton Follies” in the first Variety Show broadcast on BBC Radio from 1937.  His Briton Ferry colleague, bass baritone Bruce Dargavel, applauded his vocal range and said Dai sang a “thrilling top C”.

With the outbreak of war Dai returned to work at Pontardawe tinplate works.  But subsequently, like many others, he found it difficult to establish his singing career again, until he performed with the Welsh National Opera at Cardiff’s Prince of Wales Theatre in 1948.  Changing his stage name to John David, he signed with the Gorlinsky London Quartet, and toured Britain along with a soprano, a mezzo soprano and a bass baritone.  When in 1950 he sang at the Porthcawl Pavilion, a newspaper reported that at the conclusion “hundreds of people were upstanding in their excitement - the scene can only be described as awe-inspiring, as was this artiste’s singing.”  At the first performance of Verdi’s opera “Don Carlos” in Dublin, John David sang the title role, and in Cork he sang the principal part in Gounod’s opera “Faust”.  A 1951 review of the oratorio “Judas Maccabeus” described him as “an outstanding Welsh tenor”.

After performing for over thirty years in opera, concerts, oratorios, variety shows and on the radio, and having worked with such people as baritone Sir Geraint Evans and conductor Sir Adrian Boult, John David retired from singing in the late 1950s, to become a familiar figure as Pontardawe’s park keeper.  This outstanding Welsh tenor died quietly in December 1978 aged 72.  Inducted into Pontardawe’s Hall of Fame in May 2004, his picture hangs in Pontardawe Arts Centre in Herbert Street.             

(with thanks to Mr Trefor Jones)






Saturday 12 November 2016

83 Killay House

83 Killay House

The famous engineer of the Great Western Railway, I.K. Brunel, purchased an estate in south Devon where he planned to build a mansion for his retirement.  But the property now called Brunel Manor was erected many years after Brunel had died aged 53 in 1859.  Similarly some years later a retired railway tycoon had a mansion built in Swansea, though this was through the railway boom in Russia rather than in Britain.

On the south side of Gower Road, where Sketty becomes Killay, there used to stand a mansion at what would be 365 Gower Road.  Often referred to as The Orphanage, it was named Killay House, and was for many years run by the National Children’s Home.

Although it is hard to imagine amid all the present-day housing, the mansion was built in open countryside near the village of Killay in 1878-80, by Morgan Bransby Williams.  Born in Stoke Newington in 1825, his family moved to Bridgend when he was aged eight, and he attended Cowbridge Grammar School.  A civil engineer, he pioneered railway construction in Russia, where he married in 1859 a widowed baroness of Swedish descent, and moved in highest circles of society, knowing the reforming Tsar Alexander II.

But after his wife had died from a heart attack, and the completion of his railway projects in Russia, Bransby Williams retired at the age of 45 and returned to South Wales.  He remarried in 1871 – spending the honeymoon in Russia - and became director of the Swansea Bank, which later became the Metropolitan Bank of England and Wales in Wind Street (and later again part of Midland, then HSBC).

After moving into Killay House, Bransby Williams’s railway expertise was utilised when he became Chairman of the Rhondda and Swansea Bay Railway Company.  A supporter of the Liberal party, he was uncle of Eliot Crawshay-Williams, Lloyd George’s parliamentary private secretary and lifetime correspondent of soprano Morfydd Owen.  Guests at Killay House in 1896 included the Home Secretary and future Prime Minister Herbert Asquith.

Morgan Bransby Williams died aged 89 in 1914, and was buried in Penmaen churchyard.  Killay House was used during the First World War to house Belgian refugees, and convalescing Canadian servicemen.

After his widow died in 1922, Killay House’s upkeep became difficult following wartime losses and taxation.  For a few years the mansion was let before being sold in 1926 to the Swansea Orphan Home for Girls, which had been established in 1859 in St Helen’s Road, and later moved to Northampton Lane.  The purchase cost was aided by a bequest from Roger Beck, the steel magnate and philanthropist who had died in 1923.  With 14 acres of land – part of which was a cricket ground – and two large outbuildings, Killay House could accommodate 55 children and six staff, and opened as an orphanage in March 1930.  The YMCA cricket team rented the cricket ground. 

During the Second World War an Air Raid Precaution post was sited there.  After the cessation of hostilities, responsibility for Killay House was taken over by the National Children’s Home, with the 21 girls gradually being joined by boys to make three family groups of ten children each.  The fund-raising garden fêtes were very popular occasions, and the children could use a camping site in Mary Twill Lane in Newton.

In 1985 the Children’s Home closed and the house was used for respite care for handicapped children, with the two-storey George Thomas House for the Stepping Stones Project for children under five.  But eventually Killay House became uneconomical to run and was put up for sale.  Local opposition thwarted plans for a supermarket, so the mansion was demolished in 2003, and the houses of Stephenson Road, Millwood Gardens and St Nicholas Court erected on the site. 

Bransby Williams’ mansion may be no more, but unlike Brunel in Devon he was able to enjoy his retirement home for over thirty years.                              


Friday 11 November 2016

82 Pete Ham and Badfinger

82 Pete Ham

You might assume that a plaque by the entrance to Swansea’s railway station would commemorate its re-opening by some dignitary after modernisation.  But in fact the blue plaque on the right-hand side is in memory of Pete Ham, a singer and song-writer from Townhill, about whom there is information on two bi-lingual panels just inside.

Pete Ham was a founder member of the group The Iveys, who took their name in 1965 from Ivey Place - by the station.  A year later they moved to Golders Green in London, and built up a following through performing around the country, with Pete Ham writing much of the band’s material, as well as singing and playing guitar.  After performing at London’s Marquee Club, they came to the notice of the Beatles, and were signed to the Apple record label in 1968.  Paul McCartney suggested a change of name, so they became Badfinger, with the name emerging when John Lennon with an injured finger played on the piano the song that became “When I’m sixty-four”.  Success followed with songs like “Come and get it” (written by McCartney) and Ham’s own composition “No matter what you want”, leading to a three-month tour of America in late 1970.  George Harrison co-produced their album “Straight Up”, until interrupted by his commitments organising the Concert for Bangladesh.  Badfinger played at that major event at New York’s Madison Square Garden in August 1971 (along with Bob Dylan, among others), with Pete Ham and George Harrison duetting on acoustic guitar on “Here Comes the Sun”.  Badfinger’s LP “Straight Up” secured them two top twenty hits in the USA.

Their most lasting success came when Ham and fellow band member Tom Evans wrote “Without You”, which, following the worldwide success of American Harry Nilsson’s version, won the Ivor Novello award for Song of the Year in 1973.  Subsequently the song was a success for Mariah Carey in 1990, and there have been numerous other recordings.  But with the four Beatles going their separate ways, and the Apple record label starting to crumble, Badfinger moved to the Warner Brothers label, and became embroiled in internal, financial, and managerial problems which stifled their music creativity.  

A hazard of the pop music business can be shady business dealings by middle men who endeavour with dubious business acumen to take advantage of financially naïve pop musicians.  Notably the American singer and song writer Buddy Holly had such difficulty obtaining royalties due from his manager Norman Petty, that he was forced to undertake the ill-fated 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour, in which he was killed in an airplane crash in atrocious weather conditions.

Just two years after that Ivor Novello award, the complex legal and financial pressures became too much for Pete Ham.  Following a discouraging phone call from the United States on 23 April 1975 about finances, he hanged himself in the garage of his home in Woking, Surrey: it was a few days before his 28th birthday, and just a month before his daughter Petera was born.  His body was cremated at Morriston.  Eight years later Tom Evans, the other co-writer of “Without You”, also hanged himself.

On 27 April 2013, with Mal Pope integral in making the arrangements, the first of Swansea Council’s heritage blue plaques was unveiled at High Street station in memory of Pete Ham, by his daughter Petera, on what would have been his 66th birthday.  Mal Pope read out a tribute from George Harrison’s widow Olivia, and there was appreciation from the USA where the music of Pete Ham and of Badfinger is still highly regarded.  That evening two original members of Badfinger played in a Pete Ham tribute concert at the Grand Theatre.

With his blue plaque prominently sited outside High Street Station, and information on those bi-lingual panels inside, the memory of Pete Ham and Badfinger will, in the words of the Buddy Holly song, “not fade away”.                                              


Wednesday 9 November 2016

81 The Kardomah

81 The Kardomah

Since 1957 the Kardomah café and coffee house in Swansea’s city centre has been prominent at its corner site, 11 Portland Street.  It is particularly well-known for its former pre-war premises which were the meeting place during the 1930s of Swansea’s talented group of young writers, artists and musicians, who came to be known as the Kardomah gang or Kardomah boys.

Kardomah was initially the name of a brand of tea produced by the Liverpool China and Tea Company in 1887, and later applied to a range of teas, coffees and coffee houses.  From 1929 there were Kardomah cafés in South Wales in Cardiff and Newport, though Swansea’s was earlier – in late August 1918 the soprano, musician and composer Morfydd Owen lunched in Swansea’s Kardomah with her husband Dr Ernest Jones, before the appendix operation at Craig-y-môr in Thistleboon from which she died.

Swansea’s Kardomah was originally at 13 Castle Street, before destruction by aerial bombardment in 1941 during the last war.  Just as in lower St Helen’s Road St Paul’s Congregational Chapel (whose minister was Reverend Leon Atkin) was transformed into an Indian restaurant, so the Kardomah had been originally Castle Street Congregational Church, where Dylan Thomas’s parents were married in 1903.  Their deacons included William Watkins JP, of the builders and contractors Thomas, Watkins and Jenkins, who twice served as mayor.

The Kardomah stood on the opposite side of Castle Street from the former Head Post Office, which used to stand in front of Swansea Castle.  It had then become the offices of the Evening Post, for which Dylan Thomas worked briefly as a young reporter.  Most Kardomah customers sat downstairs in the main body of the former church, but in the 1930s that group of artistic young men would gather in the first-floor gallery for animated discussion about “Einstein and Epstein, Stravinsky and Greta Garbo, death and religion, Picasso and girls”.

The group included at various times the poets Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins, painter Alfred Janes, writer and art critic Mervyn Levy, composer and linguist Daniel Jones, journalist Charles Fisher and broadcaster Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, amongst others.  By the time Vernon Watkins joined the group, Dan Jones was abroad studying music in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany and the Netherlands, having won the 1935 Mendelssohn Scholarship.  As Vernon worked at Lloyds Bank in St Helen’s Road (now the premises of William Hill), in a reserved occupation he was the last of the group to leave Swansea after the outbreak of war.  He and Dan Jones first met when both were working at the government code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park.  

Some of those young men are in the Evening Post photograph which was used as a Radio Times cover in October 1949, taken in the BBC’s temporary studio at The Grove in the Uplands.  It shows Vernon Watkins, writer John Pritchard, Alfred Janes, Dan Jones and Dylan Thomas, with John Griffiths, producer of the radio programme “Swansea and the Arts”.  The last survivor of the Kardomah boys, writer and poet Charles Fisher, who lived in Canada until his death aged 91 in 2006, wrote: “I could always find time to enjoy an hour or so of conversation in our time-honoured corner”. 

The Kardomah is mentioned in Dylan Thomas’s radio script Return Journey, first broadcast in 1947.  He recalls visiting Swansea after the February 1941 ‘Three Nights Blitz’, and wrote “The Kardomah café was razed to the snow, the voices of the coffee-drinkers - poets, painters, and musicians in their beginnings – all lost.”

Nowadays the Kardomah in Portland Street can accommodate 130 people, and provides affordable quality food and drink, with waitress service.  Having been frequented by a young Russell T Davies, the “Doctor Who” screenwriter decided to film part of an episode there.  So in April 2009 Swansea’s Kardomah was visited by David Tennant, Catherine Tate and Bernard Cribbins: not a bad substitute for that 1930s clientele.                                                  

Tuesday 8 November 2016

80 All Saints Church, Oystermouth

80 All Saints Church, Oystermouth

With the approach of Christmas, several chapels and churches feature cribs and nativity scenes, though throughout the year there is much of interest inside and outside the buildings, as for example with All Saints Church in Oystermouth.  

Outside the church are several interesting graves - on the north-west side stands the chest grave of Dr Thomas Bowdler, the expurgator of Shakespeare, and on the east side by the car park are the gravestones of two crewmen of the lifeboat “Wolverhampton”.  They were among the four who drowned in January 1883 when going to assist the barque Admiral Prinz Adalbert near the lighthouse rocks: William Jenkins (whose brother also drowned in the tragedy) was aged 35, while his brother-in-law William McNamara was 41.  Around the corner on the south of the church is the gravestone of John Thomas, master mariner, who drowned in 1835, just before a lifeboat was first provided at Mumbles. 

Burials ceased in the churchyard in 1882, with Oystermouth cemetery opening the following year.

On the south side the churchyard contains a Celtic cross of Portland stone, dedicated in 1948 in memory of the 69 men and two women of the Parish killed during the Second World War.  “Displaced persons” (mainly Ukrainians from the camp at Scurlage) carried out much of the labour for this.

The village’s increasing population necessitated the church closing for nine months in 1860 while a north aisle was added.  Yet by the start of the twentieth century even this proved inadequate for the number of worshippers, especially with summer visitors.  So in 1915 the north aisle extension was taken down and replaced with a large nave and chancel, dwarfing the original church, which was retained as a side chapel and south aisle.  The work was partially complete within a year, though the post-war economic depression and the need to erect a new church hall (now the Ostreme Centre) delayed final completion until 1937.  Viewing the church from the direction of Church Park on the north side shows how it looked before the huge extension – with the tower in proportion to the original building.  The clock was started in 1875, though the dials on three sides of the tower (there is no dial on the west side) are not identical, for they were purchased at different times.  The tower used to hold three bells from Santiago, which were returned to Chile in 2010; a memorial to the victims of the fire at Santiago’s Jesuit Cathedral is in the south aisle.

The 1860 restoration and enlargement uncovered fragments of a Roman tessellated pavement on the north side of the churchyard, which suggests there was some Roman settlement in Oystermouth, with the church perhaps being built on the site of a Roman villa.

Inside the church brass plaques are in memory of three lifeboat disasters, with stained- glass windows depicting the tragedies of 1883 and 1947.  The window commemorating the 1947 tragedy was installed in 1977, and shows the wreckage of the Samtampa with the upturned lifeboat Edward, Prince of Wales in the centre, and the eight lifeboat men at the top standing over a roaring sea; at the bottom are rocks, the lifeboat house and a village street with cottages. 

The St. Christopher window beside the main door marks the 175th anniversary of the Mumbles Railway, and shows the three different forms of propulsion over 155 years - horse-power, steam and finally electric - as well as depicting St Christopher, Oystermouth Castle and the Lighthouse.

Separating the nave (where the congregation sits) from the chancel (where the choir sits) is an imposing rood screen carved from Welsh oak, a memorial to the 98 men of the Parish killed during the First World War: their names are inscribed on the base panels.                                         

Although being primarily for the worship of God, All Saints Church contains much of interest both locally and nationally.                         


Monday 7 November 2016

79 Opera singer William Samuell

Opera star’s promising career cut tragically short
An earlier article concerned the tragic death in Swansea in 1918 of the brilliant 26-year-old soprano, musician and composer, Morfydd Llwyn Owen.  Two years previously another fine singer had died young; this time it was a 31-year-old Swansea baritone named William J. Samuell.

He was born in 1885 at 16 Mackworth Terrace in St Thomas – the only son of a manager at the wagon works in the docks.  Samuell sang in Fabian’s Bay Congregational Church choir before taking up competitive singing, which led to winning medals and awards.  His favourite recitation solos were Longfellow’s narrative poem ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ (first published in 1842) and ‘The Raft’. 

Samuell was a baritone with a fine technique who studied singing at the Royal College of Music under Frederick King, himself a baritone, and became an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music.  Samuell was part of Beecham’s Comic Opera tour around Britain of 1910-11, making his operatic debut as Dapertutto in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”, and winning favourable notices for the three roles played.  In January 1911 he was especially applauded at Swansea’s Grand Theatre, and similarly in March at Cardiff’s New Theatre.

He joined the Quinlan Opera Company, which had been founded that year in Liverpool by musical impresario Thomas Quinlan to give the provinces and further afield Britain’s dominions (this was pre-Commonwealth) the opportunity to hear grand opera on the same scale as at Covent Garden.  It was a huge undertaking with a total of 163 people in the company - including an orchestra of 55 musicians, three conductors and its own chorus of 60 singers.  The Quinlan Opera Company performed in February 1912 in South Africa, at Cape Town and Johannesburg, en route to a ten-week visit to Australia, with five weeks in Melbourne and five in Sydney.  Fifteen operas were presented, four of them new.    

From their tour of North America, the Canadian press reviews describe how this Swansea man excelled in the part of Rigoletto in Verdi’s opera of the same name, based on a play by Victor Hugo.  The Manitoba Free Press said, “Mr Samuell seemed actually to sink entirely his own identity in that of the jester.  Into Rigoletto’s paternal tenderness he put a fitting amount of emotional power.  His voice was highly gratifying, both in quality and in quantity, and his singing had the impressiveness of his acting.”  The Winnipeg Saturday Post wrote, “In the title role both voice and acting were brought into play in such a masterly fashion that the Rigoletto of Tuesday evening will never be forgotten by those who witnessed the sinister working out of the father’s curse which had been laid upon him.”  The Montreal Herald considered that “As Rigoletto, he was easily the star of the evening”, while the Winnipeg Tribune commented, “His version, both vocally and histrionically, was quite equal to the famous jesters of 40 years ago, surpassing some of these great names, for Mr Samuell is true to pitch - even in moments of intense emotional excitement there was no deviation.”

He joined the Boston Opera Company, but though that company presented a wide array of works, and was admired for its artistic excellence, amid the upheavals of the First World War it went bankrupt in 1915.  Samuell returned to Britain where he made some recordings for HMV, before his sudden death from typhoid in London in early 1916.  His body was brought back to Swansea, where crowds lined the road from High Street Station to Dan-y-graig Cemetery for the burial, with his headstone paid for by public subscription. 

On 9 March 1916 Swansea’s Albert Hall (then a major concert hall) was the venue for the William Samuell Memorial Concert, which featured three soloists, the Swansea Ladies Choir and the Swansea District Male Choir. 

A career that might have rivalled that of Bryn Terfel had been cut short.

(With thanks to Bob Rees)

Sunday 6 November 2016

78 Richard Glynn Vivian

78 Glynn Vivian

Swansea’s re-opened Glynn Vivian Art Gallery displays much of the varied collection of art and ceramics of its founder.  A member of a major family of industrialists, his inheritance from the Hafod copper works enabled him to travel widely during the 19th century collecting paintings, porcelain and sculpture, until with the onset of blindness he experienced a spiritual transformation which led to his influence spreading far beyond his native land. 

Born in 1835, Richard Glynn Vivian was the fourth and youngest son of John Henry Vivian MP of Singleton Abbey and owner of the Hafod copperworks, and he was educated at Eton and Cambridge University.  Although his elder brothers, Henry Hussey of Parc Wern and Graham of Clyne Castle, were closely involved in running the firm Vivian & Sons, and Glynn inherited one quarter of the business in 1855 when his father died, he took on no responsibility with it, choosing to travel widely, collecting works of art, paintings and ceramics, and visiting theatres, opera houses and botanical gardens.  In just one year he visited Italy, Sicily, the West Indies, North America and Canada, and in later years South Africa, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.  He kept detailed journals of his travels, with sketches and photographs.  He was a patron of the French artist Gustave Doré, after whose death in 1883 he made purchases at the artist's studio sale of Doré’s illustrated books.

Glynn Vivian’s first engagement to marry was broken off after an allegation of improper conduct at Osterley House in Isleworth in 1877, but he married aged fifty in 1885 at the British Embassy in Paris: it was not a happy union, and six years later his wife divorced him.  He settled at Sketty Hall in 1898, laying out the extensive Italian gardens, adding balconies, and building the gazebo tower above the roof to give panoramic views of Swansea and the surrounding area.  When aged sixty-seven however, Glynn Vivian became blind, and three years later offered his art collection, with a gallery in which to house it, to Swansea.  Initially there was reluctance to accept his offer because of maintenance costs, but when the offer was renewed in 1908, following a poll of ratepayers, it was accepted.  Designed by Swansea architect Glendinning Moxham in an Edwardian Baroque style, the Art Gallery’s foundation stone was laid by Glynn Vivian on 14th May 1909.  The following year he died of pneumonia aged 74 at his London house, 24 Eaton Square, so the completed building was opened by his brother Graham of Clyne Castle.  

Glynn Vivian published a book of his poems ‘E Tenebris Lux’ (meaning “Out of Darkness, Light”), and in Caswell founded the Glynn Vivian Home for the Blind, on the site of which Mary Twill Grove now stands.

The Vivians supported the established church, then the Church of England.  Henry Hussey had St Paul’s Church in Sketty built in memory of his first wife, who died in childbirth, and later erected St John’s Church in Hafod where many of the firm’s work-force lived, while Graham Vivian built Clyne Chapel, stipulating that it be free of stained glass or any Anglo-Catholic decoration.  But Glynn Vivian moved in a different direction.  At his doctor’s recommendation he visited Brighton in 1905, where the preaching at the Union Street Mission led to his conversion to Evangelical Christianity.  With a change in his priorities he established the Glynn Vivian Miners’ Mission (now the International Miners’ Mission), with an endowment of £30,000 – a huge amount at that time.  The first pastor of the Miners’ Mission in Pentremawr Road - the building designed by Glendinning Moxham still stands - was his own valet and private secretary, Herbert Voke, and their first overseas mission was started in 1908 in a remote copper mining area of Japan.

Glynn Vivian’s benevolence has spread far beyond the Art Gallery that bears his name.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Richard Glynn Vivian 1905

Saturday 5 November 2016

77 Mutiny on the 'Caswell'

Mutiny led to 8 dead from copper barque

77 Mutiny on the Caswell - 26 November 2016 (photo: ‘The Caswell’)

To most people the name “Caswell” signifies a fine bay between Langland and Pwll Du, accessible by road from Newton or Bishopston, or on foot by the cliff path from Mumbles or Pennard.  But it is also the name of a ship, a painting of which used to hang in Swansea’s former Maritime and Industrial Museum. 

Built at Dumbarton in Scotland in 1875 for the Swansea merchant William Tucker, the “Caswell” was a 750-ton barque with an iron hull, which became notorious through a mutiny that resulted in the killing of six men and the hanging of another two. 

Captained by Londoner George Edward Best, who was married to a daughter of Swansea's Chief Constable Allison, she sailed on 1st July from Glasgow with a cargo of iron pipes for Buenos Aires in South America.  The 73-day voyage was none too convivial, for the captain had earned the nickname ‘Bully Best’.  Perhaps it was because of clashes with the fiery-tempered captain that at Buenos Aires the 16 Scottish crewmen were all discharged, which left just the first and second mates, carpenter, steward, and two apprentices.  Over the next six weeks the crew were replaced by a motley assortment of seamen, including two Maltese brothers named Pistoria, a Turkish Greek called Baumbos, along with two other disreputable looking Greeks.  There was nearly a mutiny as the British seamen were displeased at having to work alongside three Greeks and two Maltese, who were surly and conspiratorial.  The plan was to sail around Cape Horn to Valparaiso on the west coast to collect a cargo of nitrate.  Morale was not helped by the captain’s habit of waving a revolver about when shouting orders to seamen, and at Valparaiso an Irish seaman and a German cook took the opportunity to jump ship.  After the cargo was loaded, the captain arrogantly rejected advice to discharge potential troublemakers, and the “Caswell” set sail for Queenstown in southern Ireland. 

Matters came to a head when Captain Best found fault with how one of the Greeks was performing his duties on the rigging, for the man leaped down and stabbed the captain, who was then also shot by one of the Pistoria brothers.  In the ensuing fracas the mate, second mate and the Welsh steward were all killed, and the ship taken over by the Greeks and Maltese: four bodies were cast overboard.  Able Seaman James Carrick of Rothsay was able to navigate, and it seems the ship made for Greek waters in the Mediterranean.  However when the Pistoria brothers later departed in the lifeboat with various booty, the British seamen were able to stage a counter-mutiny, and gain control of the “Caswell”.  Two Greek mutineers were killed, and the third Baumbos was placed in irons as the ship made for Kinsale in southern Ireland.

At his trial in Cork, Baumbos was found guilty of murder by eleven members of the jury, who were nonetheless unable to persuade the twelfth person.  They were discharged and a second jury sworn in who had no such reservations, so 23-year-old Baumbos was hanged in the yard of Cork County Gaol.  Strangely, three years later when James Carrick was about to serve in a German barque, he noticed among the crew one of the Maltese Pistoria brothers - who fortunately did not recognise him.  Consular authorities were alerted, Pistoria was arrested and shipped back to Britain, where he was tried in Cork and hanged; nothing was heard of his brother. 

So the mutiny on the “Caswell” led to eight deaths - the murder of four crew members, the killing of two mutineers, and later the hanging of two more.  After this the “Caswell” served her Swansea owner for a number of years, and was last heard of in February 1899 sailing from New South Wales with a crew of twelve carrying a cargo of coal: her fate is still unlearned.                                       

Thursday 3 November 2016

76 The Swansea Canal

Step back to time when canal was key to industry

The imposing Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a UNESCO world heritage site, draws visitors’ attention to the Llangollen Canal, which it carries over the River Dee in North Wales.  Far less obvious, with only part of it surviving, is the Swansea Canal, for which Coedgwilym Park in Clydach is a good starting point to explore what remains.  To the south-west only a small section survives beyond the Mond Nickel Works, while to the north-east is the majority of the remaining five-and-a-half miles of what was a 16-mile long canal opened in October 1798. 

From when James Brindley completed the Bridgewater Canal in 1761, canals played a crucial part in the Industrial Revolution, even after the emergence of the railways.  By the 1830s Britain had about 4,250 miles of navigable inland waterways. 

After the opening of the Neath and Tennant canal in 1791, a public meeting was called to discuss a proposal for a canal to transport coal from the upper Swansea Valley to the port of Swansea.  Opinions differed as to whether the canal should lock into the river Tawe at Landore, or extend to near the Cambrian Pottery in Swansea, though either way as the principal landowner the Duke of Beaufort stood to benefit.  Canal engineer Thomas Sheasby was appointed to conduct a survey for a possible route.  On 23 May 1794 the Swansea Canal Act was passed, which also permitted connections to tramroads and canal branches - as with Pontardawe’s branch to the river.  Rather than using contractors, the canal was built by direct labour, with Charles Roberts being engineer in charge of the project, assisted by Sheasby.  The first section from Swansea to Godre'r Graig was opened in 1796, with the whole 16-mile length completed two years later.  Thirty-six locks enabled the Swansea Canal to ascend 372 feet from sea level at Swansea to the terminus at Hen Neuadd, near Abercrave in Breconshire.  The project was within budget, at a cost of £51,602.  Narrow boats 5’9” by 7’7” were designed so that two could pass on the canal, and these were often built at yards along the route.  The last one to be built on the canal was the 'Grace Darling' at the Godre'r Graig boatyard in 1918.   The narrow boats could carry 75 tons of coal, either for use by smelting industries in the Lower Swansea Valley, or for export.  Wharfs were built alongside the River Tawe at Swansea, so that cargo could be transferred from the narrow boats into ships.  

Inevitably rail transport brought about decline in canal usage, and in 1873 the Swansea Canal was sold to the Great Western Railway, though the canal remained profitable until 1895; from 1904 only the lower six miles continued in use.  The last commercial cargo - transporting coal from Clydach to Swansea - was carried on the Swansea Canal in 1931.  Horse-drawn boats were last recorded at Clydach in 1958, before the canal closed for navigation four years later, and the section south of Morriston was filled in.  But a section of five-and-a-half miles survives, from beside the Mond Nickel Works in Clydach to Ynysmeudwy, where the only surviving lock-keeper’s hut has been restored. 

The Swansea Canal Society was formed in 1981, and inspired by Clive Reed this voluntary group continues restoration and preservation of the canal.  A spokesperson pointed out that many of the canal’s bridges, aqueducts and locks are listed buildings or scheduled ancient monuments, and part of Swansea’s unique heritage.  As reported recently, members of the society aim to reinstate a section of the towpath which was covered up to make a council highways depot at Clydach in 1973. 

Along the towpath where two centuries ago a horse would have ambled pulling a narrow boat, people can now walk their dogs, cycle, jog and enjoy the scenery - even if the views cannot rival those from the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.


Wednesday 2 November 2016

75 The Bells of Santiago

75 The Bells of Santiago

Swansea’s initial links with Chile in South America came about through the copper industry.  In the Lower Swansea Valley coal seams ran down to the River Tawe, so it made economic sense to bring copper ore to Swansea for smelting.  When ore from Parys Mountain in Anglesey and from Cornwall was worked out, vessels from the Swansea area would travel across the Atlantic with cargoes of coal, and negotiate the hazardous route around Cape Horn to obtain supplies of copper ore from Chile to bring back to South Wales for smelting.

However, a terrible disaster in Santiago has enabled firm bonds to be formed between Chile and Swansea that transcend mere commercial links.

The Jesuit Cathedral in Santiago, Chile, hosted a month-long festival in 1863 in honour of the Virgin Mary.  During the final night of the festival on 8th December, the Church de la Campaňía de Jesus was packed with people, with much incense, oil lights, liquid gas lights and wax candles.  This combustible material ignited and the cathedral burned down, with an estimated 2,500 persons - mainly women and children - losing their lives.  The church bells crashed to the ground, just as the ring of eight bells at St Mary’s Swansea did when that church was burned during the Three Nights’ Blitz of February 1941.  Subsequently there was no desire to rebuild the Chilean church, which was the fourth on that site, so what remained of the building was taken down, and the site was transformed into a garden with a statue in memory of all those who perished. 

From 1860 All Saints Church, Oystermouth, was being restored and enlarged.  Graham Vivian, of Clyne Castle and of Vivian & Sons of the Hafod copper works, had purchased a number of bells from Santiago as scrap, arranged for them to be taken overland to the port of Valparaiso, and then shipped by copper barque to Swansea.  He offered three of the bells, cast in north-eastern Spain and dating from 1753, to Oystermouth Church – not as a gift but in exchange for their three original cracked bells, which were then melted down.  Those were probably cast in the early eighteenth century by the bell-founder David Davies of Oystermouth, who cast bells that hang in Gower churches in Bishopston, Ilston and Llangennith.  The Chilean bells were hung in Oystermouth Church tower until 1964, when for reasons of safety they were taken down and displayed in the porch for many decades.

In 1973 a musical re-telling of the story, entitled “The Bells of Santiago”, was part of the Ostreme Festival, and this was performed to large audiences at subsequent festivals.

After the Chilean filmmaker Pedro Pablo Cabrera heard about the origin of the bells at Oystermouth, the Parochial Church Council received a letter from the Chilean ambassador requesting their return.  Though various formalities had to be followed, the PCC and local people were in full agreement that this should happen.  With the aid of the Royal Navy ship HMS Portland, which was due to take part in exercises off Valparaiso, the three bells left Mumbles in April 2010, and were transported to Chile in time for the celebrations of 18th September.  Each year Chile’s independence from Spain is celebrated on that date, with 2010 being the 200th anniversary.  Fittingly Mumbles was represented at the returning ceremony, since an engineer from Newton, Mr Andrew Jones, who was working in Santiago at the time, was able to be a guest of honour.

Incidentally two years later another bell from Santiago was returned to Chile, having been given by Graham Vivian to St Thomas Church in Neath, which already had six bells, hung for ringing and not merely chiming. 

As Canon Keith Evans, Vicar of Oystermouth, says, “the story ends with one community’s generosity to another and the renewing of historic links between Swansea and Chile.”     


Tuesday 1 November 2016

74 From Plas House to Castle Square

74 Castle Square

Castle Square is the name of the area resembling a continental piazza opposite Swansea Castle.  It has replaced Castle Gardens, which many found to be a pleasant haven of greenery in the old town centre, and which was laid out on the site of the huge dome-topped Ben Evans department store, destroyed during the February 1941 “Three Nights’ Blitz”.

Previously this area was occupied by the town’s most important building after the castle – the Plas, or Plas House.  Its construction was commenced in 1383 by John de Horton of Leicester on a plot within the castle’s outer ward.  With enlargement and extensions the mansion was not completed until the end of the 15th century, by his descendant Captain Sir Mathew Cradock, who died there in 1531: his splendid tomb in old St Mary’s Church was a casualty of the 1941 bombardment.

Through his daughter, the mansion passed to the Herbert family, and the Plas became the residence of stewards of the absentee Lords of Gower.  Glamorgan’s first High Sheriff, Sir George Herbert, resided there until his death in 1570.  After the Dissolution of the Monasteries he was given St David’s Hospital (part of which was on the site of the Cross Keys Inn) as a reward for military services in Cornwall.  After his grandson Sir William Herbert died, the Plas passed through maternal heirs to Calvert Richard Jones from Gloucester.  He permitted Rev. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, to preach in the courtyard during his visits to Swansea and Gower in the 1760s.  Calvert Jones lived there for about 15 years until his death in 1781.  His son and namesake gave the Ropewalk Field for the site of a new market (on present- day Oxford Street), and in turn his son – the third Calvert Richard Jones - was the notable painter and pioneer photographer.

The Plas gradually fell into ruin, as illustrated in Stockdale’s print of 1826 which shows the mansion from Goat Street – today’s lower Princess Way.  After much of it was demolished in 1840, some of the materials, such as the windows, were incorporated in the home farm on John Henry Vivian’s Singleton estate.  Coins dating from the fourteenth century reign of Edward II were found - significant since some of the King’s equipment and possessions were purloined from nearby Swansea Castle in 1326 after the fugitive King was captured; his marriage certificate and the Oxwich brooch survive.  

The draper Ben Evans began with two of the shops that were built on the site of the Plas during the nineteenth century, and as his business expanded he bought up more neighbouring properties, before massively enlarging his premises in 1893-94 at a cost of £30,000 into the Ben Evans Department Store, with entrances on Castle Bailey Street, Temple Street and Caer Street.  It occupied virtually all of present-day Castle Square, apart from the Three Lamps in Temple Street and the Swansea Gas Light Company at the corner of Temple Street and Castle Bailey Street.

Following destruction from the massive aerial bombardment of February 1941, the store was not permitted to rebuild on the same site because of plans to lay out gardens in the town centre as a memorial to those killed in the Blitz.  It relocated to Walter Road, finally going out of business around 1960.

Castle Gardens was replaced in 1994-95 by Castle Square, which contains six historical plaques relevant to the location, based on drawings by primary schoolchildren.  These illustrate Welsh attacks on Swansea Castle, the Royal Inquiry investigating William de Breos in 1306, King Edward II with his marriage contract, John Wesley preaching at the Plas, Dylan Thomas and the Three Lamps, and the “Three Nights Blitz”. 

With the installation of the Big Screen, Castle Square has become a venue for outdoor screenings of sporting and cultural events, but whatever changes future plans may implement, it remains a notable historical part of the city.