Tuesday 31 January 2017

90 Phil Tanner, Gower's folk singer

90 Phil Tanner, Gower's folk singer
In those pre-television days before the last war, no social function in peninsular Gower was complete
without the input of Phil Tanner, the traditional folk singer whom broadcaster Wynford Vaughan Thomas
called “The Gower Nightingale”.he youngest of six sons and one daughter, Phil Tanner was born in 1862 to a family of weavers in Hillend.  At that time Llangennith (or Llangenny as it was known locally) had about 400 inhabitants, most engaged in weaving, spinning or agricultural work, for much of peninsular Gower was self-contained through the paucity of good roads.  Phil worked at various times as a weaver and as a farm labourer, but is best known as the folk singer of Gower, for with a prodigious memory he acquired a wide range of folk songs from travellers, gypsies and from oral tradition.  He became integral to celebrations of Harvest Home, the Mapsant (St Cennydd’s Day on 5th July), Wassailing at Christmas time, and the old custom of “bidding weddings”, where with a flower in his coat and a ribbon-decorated walking stick he would sing a formal invitation to those invited.  If there was no fiddler or musician at the celebrations, he would accompany the Gower Reel and other dances with his “mouth music”. 
One of Llangennith’s four public houses was the thatched Welcome to Town on the village green.  
In 1887, 25-year-old Phil married its 46-year-old widowed landlady Mrs Ruth Nicholas at Ebenezer chapel in Oldwalls.  Although twenty acres of arable land near Coety Green had been farmed by Ruth’s late husband, Thomas Penrice of Kilvrough Manor declined to transfer the yearly tenancy to Phil: he challenged that decision before the Royal Commission of Land in Wales and Monmouthshire.  At the hearing at the King Arthur in Reynoldston in 1893 Phil expressed his case eloquently, but in spite of sympathy for his aspiration to become a tenant farmer, his appeal was in vain.
Living at the Welcome to Town enabled him to accumulate more folk songs, though the licence passed
to his step-daughter in 1898, and the Welcome itself closed seven years later.  The Tanners moved to the grist mill at Lower Mill, and after Ruth’s death in 1921 Phil settled in Barraston, a mile south of Llangennith.
Between the wars he was a familiar sight seated on a bench outside the King’s Head, dressed in 
homespun tweed, with his dog at his side, singing from memory from a repertoire of over eighty folk songs and ballads.  For a pint of beer he was always happy to oblige with a request for a song.
In 1932 he turned up at a holiday camp run locally for unemployed workers and their families from
the South Wales valleys.  Folk musician F.A. Bracey was among the party of students running
 the camp and, after an evening sing-song Phil virtually took over the entertainment for each evening; this prompted Bracey to have Phil’s folk singing recorded. 
When Phil was over 70 he was taken to London in 1937 to be recorded for the Folk Song Society, and for 
the BBC’s Saturday evening Radio programme “In Town Tonight”.  As the taxi was driving past Buckingham Palace, Phil made it stop so that he could get out and sing the National Anthem before the gates!
In 1941 he moved from Barraston into Glan-y-Mor Nursing Home in Penmaen, but this did not curtail his singing.  Eight years later an article by John Ormond Thomas in “Picture Post” magazine entitled “The Old Singer of Gower” prompted the BBC to visit him to record the octogenarian folk singer - though Phil’s repertoire surpassed the number of blank discs they had brought down.                                                      
Phil Tanner regularly attended St Cennydd’s Church, without ever joining the choir, and after he died 
aged 88 in 1950 he was buried in the churchyard: but those recordings (available on DVD) mean that the voice of Gower’s folk singer lives on.  


Monday 30 January 2017

89 Baptist Chapels

89 Baptist chapels

There might not seem any obvious connection between a large chapel in Swansea’s Kingsway, some ruins in the Ilston valley, and the NSPCC Service Centre.  The chapel is Mount Pleasant Baptist, built in 1825 in what was then Gower Street, on the edge of the town.  The ruins in the Ilston valley, a short distance from the Gower Inn’s car park, are of the first Baptist church in Wales, established in 1649 at the end of the English Civil War.  The Swansea NSPCC Service Centre is at the former Bethesda Welsh Baptist Chapel in Prince of Wales Road, built at a similar time as Mount Pleasant to accommodate Welsh-speaking Baptists. 

The Ilston valley ruins are more significant than merely the site of the first Baptist church in Wales, which the plaque unveiled by David Lloyd George in 1928 states; this was the second nonconformist church in Wales (the first being at Llanfaches in Gwent in 1639).  During the seventeenth century attendance at the Church of England was compulsory, and anyone desiring another form of worship – such as Independents, Quakers, Baptists and Roman Catholics - needed to meet secretly and to exercise discretion.  Following the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660, those who failed to conform – nonconformists like John Bunyan, author of “Pilgrim’s Progress” - faced fines and imprisonment. 

Like the Pilgrim Fathers nearly fifty years earlier, some of that Ilston congregation emigrated to the New World, establishing the colony of Swanzey, Massachusetts.  Other Baptists met in Swansea in Back Lane, at the top of Orchard Street on part of the site of Alexandra House, until under William of Orange in 1689 the Toleration Act allowed freedom of worship to protestant dissenters.

In the early nineteenth century the Baptists in Back Lane amicably divided into English and Welsh congregations: Mount Pleasant Chapel was built for English speakers, and Bethesda for Welsh. 

Mount Pleasant was opened in October 1826, when Rev. Christmas Evans was one of the preachers.  The £4,510 cost was a huge undertaking at that time when the chapel had just 54 members.  Subsequent enlargement in 1875 added the classical façade with four Corinthian pillars, similar to Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle in London.  Mount Pleasant added a lecture hall in 1885, followed by class rooms and vestries in 1905.

Bethesda Welsh Baptist Chapel in Prince of Wales Road was built in 1831, subsequently enlarged and rebuilt in a neo-classical style with an elaborate Renaissance porch, with seating for a thousand people.  Rev. Christmas Evans, who preached in Welsh at Bethesda and in English at Mount Pleasant in the week before his death in 1838, is buried in the churchyard.  Now re-named Tŷ Findlay, the building has been adapted since 2004 into the Swansea NSPCC Service Centre.

Sadly as with any Christian denomination, schisms can occur.  Mount Pleasant, like Ilston chapel, was a Particular or Strict Baptist Church, admitting to membership and communion only those believers baptised by immersion.  Some members left in 1866 to establish Mount Zion Chapel, at the top of Craddock Street, as a General Baptist congregation.  Following the Second World War this became Capel Gomer when taken over by the congregation of that Welsh Baptist chapel, whose Orchard Street premises (now part of the multi-storey car park) were destroyed during the Blitz.  More recently Capel Gomer in Willows Place has become the home of Swansea Chinese Christian Fellowship. 

During the 1850s Mount Pleasant opened a schoolroom in Aberdyberthi Street in the Hafod, replaced in 1975 by the building now known as Hafod Baptist Church.  On the Sketty Park estate, Mount Pleasant opened a church hall in June 1971, which later became Parklands Evangelical Church. 

While the Ilston valley and Bethesda chapels are no longer places of worship, at Mount Pleasant and the chapels it initiated the challenge and relevance of the Christian message is clearly proclaimed.           






Sunday 29 January 2017

88 Edward I at Oystermouth Castle

88 Edward I at Oystermouth Castle

Oystermouth Castle is certainly not hidden history, although one aspect may be somewhat overlooked.  That aspect is the visit of the English King Edward I during December 1284, when Oystermouth, rather than Swansea Castle, was the principal residence of the lords of Gower. 

The castle’s fortunes had oscillated during a time of social unrest as the Normans sought to consolidate their hold on South Wales.  During the twelfth century within a period of twenty years Oystermouth Castle, which was initially built of wood, had twice been captured and then burned by the Welsh of Deheubarth - the area of Dyfed, Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi. 

Even in 1256 – less than thirty years before King Edward’s visit – the castle was again destroyed, on this occasion by Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, recognised as prince of Wales, and grandson of the powerful ruler Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great).

Gower in 1203 came into the hands of the de Breos family (there are variant spellings), who held Oystermouth Castle as part of their extensive land holdings and titles, along with other castles in Gower and in the Welsh Marches.  The de Breos dynasty had the means to rebuild Oystermouth in stone, with a high curtain wall, additional internal buildings, a chapel, basements, and three-storey residential buildings with fireplaces on each floor.  Towards the end of that century Oystermouth rather than Swansea had become their principal residence.

Edward I, who at 6ft 2in tall acquired the epithet Longshanks, became King of England in 1272 when aged 33.  He was known as “the hammer of the Scots”, though that campaign followed his dealings with the Welsh, especially the war of 1282-83.

The last prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Guffydd, was killed in a skirmish near Builth Wells on 11 December 1282 - an obelisk stands near the site in the village of Cilmeri.  Ironically four years earlier Edward I had been present at Llywelyn’s wedding at Worcester Cathedral - and had paid for the wedding feast.  Llywelyn’s death marked the end of effective Welsh resistance until the time of Owain Glyndŵr over a century later. 

1284 was a significant year for Edward, culminating in his stay at Oystermouth Castle in December.  The Statute of Rhuddlan imposed English law throughout Wales, and the king journeyed through the country to emphasise English dominion over Wales, reminding Marcher Lords that it was with his permission that they ruled.  To consolidate his conquest of North Wales, Edward initiated the huge building project to erect the “iron ring” of colossal stone fortresses from Harlech in the west along the North Wales coast to Caernarfon, Beaumaris, Conwy and Rhuddlan, to the innovative deigns of James of Saint George.  It was at Caernarfon Castle (whose construction took nearly 40 years) that the future Edward II was born on 25 April, at that time being second in line to the throne.   But the baby prince’s elder brother Alfonso died aged ten in August, so that by the time the King came from Kidwelly to Oystermouth in December the prince was heir to the throne – two other elder brothers having already pre-deceased him.  Prince Edward was the 16th and last child of Eleanor of Castile, who died aged 44.  Twelve ‘Eleanor crosses’ were later erected at the site of each overnight stop as her body was carried from near Nottingham to London, the final one being Charing Cross, though this is now a replica and does not stand on the original site.  

The two-day visit to Oystermouth Castle in 1284 came when the castle had been fairly recently re-built, when Edward I’s conquest of Wales was complete, and in the year of the death of one son and the birth of another.  He could then turn his attention to the Scots …                         

Saturday 28 January 2017

87 Parry-Thomas at Pendine, 1926

Parry-Thomas at Pendine, 1926

We venture beyond Swansea and peninsular Gower for an example of history that was hidden for four decades from 1927, before being revealed.  This piece of history is the racing car named Babs that was buried in Pendine Sands after a fatal accident in an attempt to break the land speed record.  The six-mile stretch of Pendine Sands was where Wrexham-born J.G. Parry-Thomas set the British land speed record at 170mph in 1926, only for it to be surpassed by Malcolm Campbell the following year before Parry-Thomas’s fatal attempt to recapture the record.

Formerly chief engineer with Leyland Motors, John Parry-Thomas co-designed the luxury Leyland Eight car (only 14 were made), which was designed to compete with Rolls-Royce.  Having experienced driving the limousine around Brooklands in 1920, he gave up his career with Leyland to become a full-time motor-racing driver and engineer.  He achieved some success on the circuit, winning 38 races in five seasons and setting numerous records, before in 1925 concentrating on the land speed record.  Following the death of 29-year-old Count Zborowski in November 1924 at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Parry-Thomas purchased from his estate a Higham Special powered with a huge 27-litre Liberty V-12 aero-engine, the fourth of the Count’s aero-engined cars named 'Chitty Bang Bang'.  Parry-Thomas rebuilt the racing car with four Zenith carburettors and his own design of pistons, and new bodywork to improve aerodynamics, naming it Babs.

On 28 April 1926 at Pendine Sands, where Malcolm Campbell had achieved record speeds the two previous years, Parry-Thomas achieved a new land speed record of 170 mph (273 km/h).  But in February 1927 Campbell in Bluebird pushed the record to 174 mph. Parry-Thomas faced the challenge of trying to regain the land speed record - which might soon be out of reach, since Henry Segrave in a supercharged V12 Sunbeam was aiming for 200mph on Daytona Beach in Florida.            

Just weeks after Campbell had set the new land speed record, Babs was back on Pendine Sands on 3 March 1927.  Parry-Thomas was not well, recovering from flu which had turned to bronchitis, yet he chose to decline medical advice.  Lynn Hughes of the Museum of Speed at Pendine suspects that a coughing fit may have caused him to lose control of Babs, for he was killed through injuries sustained while the racing car rolled and slid along the beach at more than 100 mph.  43-year-old Parry-Thomas was buried in Byfleet, Surrey, close to the Brooklands Circuit, while Babs was buried ignominiously in the dunes at Pendine Sands.  Later that month Henry Segrave did attain 200mph at Daytona Beach: three years later he was killed at Windermere when seeking the water speed record.

Having being buried in Pendine Sands for 42 years, the racing car was controversially exhumed and recovered in 1969, and restored over the next 16 years at Capel Curig in Snowdonia by automobile restorer Owen Wyn Owen, a lecturer in engineering at Bangor.  The project attracted much skepticism, for many considered the wrecked car unsalvageable and beyond restoration to working order.  A new body had to be constructed, and many new replacement parts made from original designs.  Babs was successfully restored, and was run at the Centenary of the opening of the Brooklands Circuit in 2007, and now is usually on display from July to September at the Pendine Museum of Speed (opened in 1996), and during the winter at Brooklands Museum in Weybridge, Surrey.
While many readers will have seen film of Donald Campbell’s fatal accident at 300mph at Coniston Lake when seeking the water speed record in 1967, thankfully there is no film footage of Parry-Thomas’s tragic death forty years earlier on Pendine Sands. 

Thursday 26 January 2017

86 The Albert Hall

The Albert Hall

After the American Civil War, a group of African-American singers from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, toured Britain and Europe in 1873 to raise money for university education for freed slaves.  Unlike performers using theatrical make-up to enable a white person to resemble a black person (as in The Black and White Minstrel Show), the Fisk Jubilee Singers were authentic, popularising such negro spirituals as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, and singing before Queen Victoria.   Relevant to us is that when the eleven Fisk Jubilee Singers toured Britain again in 1874, they sang before an audience of 1,500 in Swansea. 

That venue still stands, on the corner of Craddock Street and De La Beche Street, and is remembered as The Albert Hall.  It was opened in 1864 as The Music Hall, with tickets ranging from half a guinea to a shilling to attract a wide range of patrons.  When Music Hall and Variety Shows were at their height, performers like Harry Lauder and Marie Lloyd did not need a wide repertoire, having no mass exposure from radio and television.  Swansea’s Music Hall was extended in 1881 to accommodate over two thousand people, and later re-named the Albert Hall in memory of Queen Victoria’s husband the Prince Consort, who had died of typhoid aged 42. 

The hall became a venue for concerts, public meetings and bazaars in aid of worthy causes.  Among those appearing on stage was Charles Dickens, during the popular tours when he gave readings from his books, and Oscar Wilde in 1884.  That year Dame Adelina Patti gave a morning concert to raise money for Swansea Hospital.  She travelled by train from Craig-y-Nos to Midland Station at St Thomas, with crowds lining the route of her carriage through the town.  She also gave a one-night charity concert in 1899, the year the Liberal Party Rally was held there.  David Lloyd George addressed a number of political gatherings, though many were shocked at the rough treatment meted out to protesters of the Women’s Suffrage Movement.  A Pageant of Famous Women was held at the Albert Hall in 1910.

When Swansea was hoping to become the second University of Wales College after Aberystwyth, a fund-raising meeting was held at the Albert Hall in 1882.  However Cardiff became the second college, and Bangor the third, until a meeting in November 1916 with the Haldane Commission at the Albert Hall led to the foundation stone for the fourth college being laid at Singleton.

Before the Swansea Gospel Mission opened in Pleasant Street, Oscar Snelling, a minister without Anglican or nonconformist affiliations, held Christian meetings at the Albert Hall.  Two thousand people were present at his 1889 New Year’s Eve meeting, and H.A. Chapman broke with tradition by holding his mayoral inauguration service there.  Gladys Aylward attended some meetings prior to her missionary work in China.

In 1929 sound equipment was installed as the hall was fitted out for “Talkie Pictures”, with a projection box hung under the front of the circle.  After the Brangwyn Hall opened in 1934 as a prestigious concert venue, the Albert Hall became a regular cinema, with the foyer remodelled in Art Deco style, the original exterior arches removed, and a new canopy added.  Following purchase by the Rank Organisation in 1977, like many other cinemas the Albert Hall changed to bingo, first with Top Rank and then with Mecca.  It eventually closed in April 2007, its demise hastened by the ban on smoking in public places.

It was reported that the building was sold at auction in August 2015 for £100,000 to a London-based person, and there are plans to convert the upper floors into student accommodation, with retail outlets below.  To see this grade II listed building in its present forlorn condition, one could scarcely imagine that so many notable persons once graced the stage of Swansea’s Albert Hall.      




Friday 20 January 2017

85 Neath's England crciket captains

Neath's England cricket captains

C.F. Walters was a firm of Neath and Swansea opticians, established in 1899.  Coincidentally, though no relation, it is the name of the first Welshman to captain the England test cricket team.  Only two Welshmen have done this during the last 140 years - and both went to Neath Grammar School.

Test cricket consists of international matches which last from three to five days, unlike one-day games where the number of overs is limited.  Test cricket began in March 1877 when Australia played England, and has now expanded to ten countries, including West Indies, South Africa, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and New Zealand.

Tony Lewis first played for Glamorgan while a 17-year-old at Neath Grammar School.  A middle-order batsman, who had played rugby at full-back for Neath and Gloucester, he played county cricket regularly from 1962 after three years at Cambridge, the last one as captain.  He took over the Glamorgan captaincy in 1967 from Ossie Wheatley, another Cambridge graduate, and in 1969 led Glamorgan to County Champions – and runners-up the following year. 

In test matches he had appeared once as twelfth man in 1966, having scored 2,000 runs that season, but during the winter of 1972/73 Ray Illingworth was unavailable to lead a touring team to India (as Alistair Cook has recently done).  Tony Lewis was appointed captain, with a certain Mike Brearley (another Cambridge graduate) as vice-captain.  In his first test, Lewis hit the winning run in scoring 70 not out, as England won the match which finished on Christmas Day 1972.  It doesn’t get much better than that - and in fact it did not, as England lost the series 2-1, which nonetheless was far better than Cook’s team (which lost 4-0).  Lewis retired from cricket with a knee injury in 1974 to a career in broadcasting and journalism, at various times serving as Chairman of the Wales Tourist Board, President of MCC, and Chairman of Welsh National Opera. 

C.F. Walters, a doctor’s son born in Bedlinog in 1905, is the other Neath Grammar School old boy to captain England.  He played for Glamorgan from the age of 17, but with moderate results.  His availability for county cricket was curtailed by work commitments as a surveyor and architect, until he became secretary of Worcestershire Cricket Club in 1928, which enabled him to play cricket as an (unpaid) amateur.  Following residential qualification, he blossomed into a stylish opening batsman - comparisons were made with Swansea’s Gilbert Parkhouse - becoming Worcester captain in 1931 and securing a regular place in the England team.  After a test century on Jardine’s tour of India, as senior amateur Cyril Walters stood in as captain for the next test - against Australia at Nottingham in 1934 - when regular captain Bob Wyatt withdrew though injury. 

Yet just over a year later, with the cricket world at his feet, Walters suddenly withdrew from cricket.  Reasons are still unclear - he may have contracted an illness from the tour of India, for in 1935 he had a breakdown in health, resigned as captain and secretary of Worcester, and distanced himself from cricket.  He had recently married a woman who did not care for the sport (some cricket-loving men could have advised him how to solve that problem!).  It was a painful decision, for Walters stated: “I wouldn’t go anywhere near cricket because I was afraid if I did, I would start playing again.  I never went near a match of any sort.” 

After his wife died in 1974, he returned to Neath, and renewed his connections with Worcestershire.  C.F. Walters died in 1992 aged 87, still playing golf - and having been cautioned about driving his Mercedes at a speed exceeding his age.  Perhaps his greatest service to his former club was in 1950 advising them to follow Worcester’s example by forming a Supporters Club: this gave Glamorgan financial stability after years on the brink of bankruptcy.