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.                                                  

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. In the 30s my mother in law and her sister didn't like the school dinners and so they came to the Karfomah instead.