Monday 30 October 2017

131 The Balinka Expeditions

131 The Balinka Expeditions
Peninsular Gower’s subterranean caves were explored during the 1950s and 1960s by the unlikely trio of Maurice Clague Taylor and his sisters Marjorie and Eileen.  At an age when less demanding activities might be expected, they were caving pioneers in this area.  But even caving in Gower can have its hazards, as when in November 1961 three young cavers exploring an abandoned lead mine in Brandy Cove made the grisly discovery of the dismembered skeleton of Mamie Stuart, who had been murdered forty years earlier.  But it takes particular courage to deliberately set out to recover bodies of those who have been violently killed, which was the mission of some members of South Wales Caving Club in the 1960s.
In the upper Swansea valley Dan-yr-Ogof cave was first explored in 1912 by three local Morgan brothers, which led later to that extensive cave network being opened up to the public.  Across the valley, the headquarters of the South Wales Caving Club is in the former quarrying village of Penwyllt, along with that of the South and Mid Wales Rescue Team, also located in Powell Street’s terraced houses.  The Caving Club has around 300 members from all over Britain, and makes frequent trips to other British caving regions, as well as embarking on overseas expeditions.  One such expedition, to Balinka, about 60 miles south of Zagreb, concerns us.                
Members of the South Wales Caving Club had been caving in the former Yugoslavia in 1961, when a Bosnian mentioned an event that occurred during World War II.  When Germany had invaded Yugoslavia, resistance came from communist partisans under future President Tito.  On 2nd April 1942 four prominent partisans were murdered by guerrillas known as the Chetniks, and their bodies flung down a vertical pot-hole called Balinka pit.  After the War two of the deceased were declared national heroes, and attempts made to recover the bodies for burial; but at a depth exceeding 500 metres the pit was too deep for local cavers.  South Wales Cavers offered to help, and received a formal invitation in May 1964 from the Croatian Speleological (the scientific study of caves) Society. 
In Penwyllt it was decided that a motorised winch would have to be built, capable of hauling a man-carrying cage up and down the main shaft.  Anticipating an exceptional depth, a cage with a power-driven winch was built by the late Gwyn Sanders, who lived at Twynybedw Road in Clydach.  Having worked as a mechanical engineer in local coal mines, he was then working at Clydach’s Mond Nickel Works.  In the summer of 1964 the first expedition set out from Penwyllt in a modified bus carrying all the equipment for the long drive to Yugoslavia, with the group having to cope with mechanical problems along with customs delays at international borders.  Balinka is in an area of mixed forest, so all the equipment had to be hauled to the entrance of the pit by Land Rover, horses, and expedition members.  Some trees in the State-owned forest near the pit entrance even had to be felled by foresters.  There was telephone contact between the winch cage occupant (and it was sometimes two people) and the winch operator and others on the surface.  Although several descents were made which gradually extended the known depth of Balinka, time ran out and it was necessary to return to Wales. 
After some adjustments and re-designing of equipment, a second expedition in 1966 managed with much difficulty to recover the bones of the men murdered 24 years earlier, which were placed in four metal coffins.  Those four Partisans had been war-time comrades of President Tito, so the undertaking aroused much media interest, and the cavers received medals of appreciation from the president himself.  The South Wales Caving Club can take pride that their members, including Gwyn Sanders from Clydach, successfully performed this demanding and compassionate recovery.

Saturday 28 October 2017

130 The Slip Bridge

130 The Slip Bridge
The Slip Bridge was built by Swansea Corporation between June 1914 and September 1915 and sited on two stone abutments near the Bay View Hotel.  In March 2004 the footbridge was removed, ostensibly to examine what repairs were necessary, and placed on the Recreation Ground.  After a year the estimated cost of £350,000 to make it safe for restoration was deemed to be uneconomic, so it was moved onto the seafront promenade opposite, where after twelve years it seems unlikely to return to its original site.  Notwithstanding opposition from the Civic Society, the Open Spaces Society and others, the public right of way across the road which the Slip Bridge had spanned was closed. 
The “coat hanger” footbridge had been erected to take pedestrians across Oystermouth Road to the part of Swansea beach known as “the Slip”, near a signal box and level crossing.  The Slip was very popular before the last war, and crowded at holiday times, being near a tram terminus, and having tearooms, beach huts, vendors and offering donkey rides: Dylan Thomas’s short story “One Warm Saturday” starts there.  But the footbridge did not merely cross Oystermouth Road – substantially narrower in those days – but also crossed two railway lines that ran parallel with the road.  
One was the L.N.W.R. (London and North Western Railway), which from 1923 became the L.M.S. (London, Midland and Scottish), which ran along the coast from Swansea’s Victoria Station – roughly where the Leisure Centre LC2 is – to Blackpill.  There it turned inland over a long-demolished bridge to continue up the Clyne Valley – the route is now a cycle track – to Dunvant, Gowerton and along the Central Wales line to Mid Wales and Shrewsbury.  The section from Victoria Station to Gowerton was closed amid Dr Beeching’s reports of 1963 and 1965, which led to extensive closures throughout the entire rail network.
The other line was of course the Mumbles Railway – originally called the Swansea and Oystermouth Railway - which as most readers will know became the first passenger-carrying railway in the world.  It was initiated by an 1804 Act of Parliament as a mineral line to transport lime, bricks and also marble to Swansea from the Clyne Valley and Mumbles, but from 25th March 1807 it also carried passengers along the 4½-mile route to a regular timetable.  This was initially from the Rutland Street depot to Oystermouth Square, until in 1898 an embankment was built enclosing the natural harbour known as Horsepool, so the route could extend to the newly-opened Mumbles pier.  
Today a few signs of the railway remain, such as Blackpill’s Junction Café with its colonnaded porch, formerly the Mumbles Railway’s electricity sub-station and the Blackpill stop.  At Oystermouth Square a rusty pole remains that carried the overhead transmission wire to the electric carriages, and in the Maritime Quarter the tram-shed by the Dylan Thomas statue contains the front part of red double-deck passenger car no. 7.  The tram-shed also displays the three means of transportation during the 156 years that the railway operated – horse-power, then steam locomotion from 1877, and finally electrification from 1929, until closure on 5th January 1960.  
From the 130-tonne iron walkway of the Slip Bridge one had a fine view of Victoria Park’s working floral clock, which the Parks Department maintained from 1911 for much of the twentieth century, before a large segment of the park was taken as the site for the new Guildhall.  By the end of the twentieth century, with Victoria Park smaller, both railway lines removed, and car ownership opening up Mumbles and Gower’s beaches, the Slip had ceased to be a mecca for bathers, so the main reason for the footbridge was gone.  
The two stone abutments remain, with access up the steps blocked on safety grounds, so their future survival may be in doubt.  Those abutments at the Slip and the grounded footbridge on the prom are jarring reminders of what is missing.



Wednesday 25 October 2017

129 Lady Houston

129 Lady Houston
A recent article concerned the inventor Harry Grindell Matthews, known as “Death Ray Matthews”, who lived in Tor Clawdd on Mynydd y Gwair in upland Gower from 1934 until his death in 1941.  One interesting response provoked speculation about a possible connection to the name of an avenue in Newton. 
At Tor Clawdd, where there was a private airstrip, a frequent visitor to Grindell Matthews was aviator Lieut. Col. P.T. Etherton, who organised the first aeroplane flight in April 1933 over Everest, whose summit was unconquered until 1953 (assuming Mallory and Irvine were unsuccessful).  That enterprise was sponsored by a good friend of Grindell Matthews, Lady Houston, a political activist and philanthropist whose patriotism played a crucial part in Britain’s success in the Second World War.
Born Lucy Radmall in Lambeth in 1857, she became a professional dancer who was left a handsome annuity by a married member of the family who owned the Bass brewery.  Her first marriage, to a baronet, ended in divorce, and in 1901 she married George Byron, 9th Baron Byron.  He died in 1917, the same year that she was appointed a DBE (Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire) for her support for a home for nurses who had served in the First World War.  In 1924 she married the shipping magnate and MP Sir Robert Houston, who died fifteen months later, leaving her an extremely wealthy widow.  She had no children.
Thereafter she gave generously to British aviation, in particular, after Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government had withdrawn their support, donating £100,000 (over three million pounds in today’s money) to Supermarine, declaring “Every true Briton would rather sell his last shirt than admit that England could not afford to defend herself”.  This financial support enabled them, with an RAF crew, to win the 1931 race off Cowes to retain the Schneider Trophy, which was significant in advancing aeroplane design, especially in engine design and aerodynamics.  The first Supermarine landplane design to go into production was the Spitfire - so Lady Houston’s support had far-reaching consequences. Her gift provided a valuable impetus to the development of the engine technology that would ultimately be vital in the Second World War, and in particular in the Battle of Britain.  Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, president of the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust, commented: “The donation was the incentive to develop a high-speed aeroplane.  We were just about able to prepare in time for Hitler’s air armada.”
Lady Houston went on to fund that first aeroplane flight over Everest, before she died of a heart attack in December 1936, aged 79, at her home in Hampstead Heath.  Her headstone in St Marylebone cemetery describes her as “one of England’s greatest patriots”.
Although she was a good friend of Grindell Matthews, we cannot be certain that Lady Houston visited Tor Clawdd.  But might an avenue between Newton and Murton be named after her?  If Housty were a corruption of Houston, that might explain why Lady Housty Avenue is so named.  There have been enquiries about who Lady Housty was from as far afield as Canada, without any definitive answer as yet.  However a Lady Housty cottage, with two fields attached, is shown on the tithe maps from the 1840s, thus predating any Grindell Matthews connection by a century.  Swansea’s local studies librarian Gwilym Games speculates that the avenue might have been church land during medieval times, with the name being a corruption of Lady House, indicating some connection with worship of the Virgin Mary - perhaps the land was owned by St Mary’s, Swansea, or St Mary’s, Pennard?       
While Lady Houston may not be remembered through the name of an avenue in Newton, “the saviour of the Spitfire” was a friend of Grindell Matthews, thereby providing an indirect, albeit tenuous, connection with upland Gower.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

128 Rotherslade

128 Rotherslade
Rotherslade can be reached at low tide from the beach at Langland, or by descending the steps from the clifftop path.  It used to be called Little Langland or Ladies Bay, when men would swim in Langland before mixed bathing became customary.  The 1902 Guide to Swansea and Mumbles claimed that Rotherslade “affords splendid attraction for ladies and children, who crowd there during the summer”.  On the beach was a wooden refreshment room and shop – sometimes with canvas sides and a tented roof.  Swimming lessons were available during the 1890s, with wheeled bathing machines in use until the 1920s.  
But by 1926 access other than from Langland beach had become difficult, for the rickety steps cut into the cliff were crumbling away, and the footpath needed the support of wooden struts.  Rather than erect a new retaining wall and steps, Swansea Council considered building a large concrete structure to shore up the coastline and to provide steps, a shelter, café and promenade terrace.  The estimated cost (in 1926) was £10,325, but the Council envisaged the expense could be gradually recouped by hiring out deck chairs.  The General Strike delayed progress in construction, along with shortage of materials and of skilled workers, and the challenge of high tides.  Then it emerged that the concrete wall would be too high for anyone in deck chairs to see the bay!  The Council faced the dilemma of either proceeding as planned and thereby forfeiting the income from deck chairs, or amending the scheme and incurring extra costs.  Newspaper headlines proclaimed “the Rotherslade blunder”, there was acrimonious debate among councillors, and the project was dubbed “the white elephant”. 
In March 1927 however, an amended plan was approved, with railings being installed for an extra £800, so that people in deck chairs could see the beach and enjoy the view.  A ground floor shelter was erected, with refreshment rooms above, beneath a promenade roof.   The Rotherslade Shelter was opened in 1927, which was a wet summer - so the shelter was appreciated, even if there was little demand for deck chairs.
But after seventy years the Shelter had become abandoned and derelict, so it was demolished in 1997.  The Rotherslade Shelter was replaced by a new retaining wall, with steps and promenade, opened on 21st August 1998.  Below the privately-owned green beach huts, the terrace café is open throughout the year, with an outside seating area that overlooks the beach.  While this is a vast improvement on what had become an eyesore, Kate Jones, who assembled the display currently in Oystermouth library, points out that there is no shelter from the wind and rain.  
Originally a private residence for the Bassett family, the Osborne Hotel used to overlook Rotherslade Bay.  During its extension in 1892, Rother's Tor Cave was discovered, which contained several prehistoric items, including a mammoth's tooth, now displayed in Swansea Museum.  The cave was filled in and sealed to secure the hotel’s foundations.  In 1897 the Impressionist painter Alfred Sisley stayed at the Osborne after marrying his long-term partner (they had two children) in Cardiff registry office.  Preferring to paint in the open air rather than in a studio, Sisley was enthralled by the windy cliffs, and captured the distinctive light effects on the sea and the tidal ranges in at least eleven paintings, such as “Lady’s Cove, Langland Bay, Morning”.  Some of those paintings show the distinctive Storr’s Rock, formerly called Donkey Rock.  His painting “Donkey Rock in the Evening” now belongs to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. 
The Osborne Hotel was popular with visiting rugby and cricket teams who were playing at St Helen’s, Swansea, but like the Caswell Bay, Langland Bay and Langland Court Hotels it closed in the 1990s, and was demolished in 2003-04, before the Osborne Apartments were built on the site. 
Oystermouth library’s display shows the huge changes at Rotherslade in just over a century.

127 William Thomas o Lan

127 William Thomas o Lan
Which Swansea statue commemorates a pioneer?  It is evidently not those of J.H. Vivian MP in Ferrara Square, his son H.H. Vivian outside St Mary’s Church, Dylan Thomas by the Pump House, Ivor Allchurch outside the Liberty Stadium, the soldier on the Boer War cenotaph on the Promenade, or Captain Cat in the Marina.  It is the Victoria Park statue outside the Patti Pavilion of Alderman William Thomas o Lan, known as “The Pioneer of Open Spaces”.  This now stands alone, though it used to have the two Vivian statues on either side, and the Boer War statue had also been in Victoria Park - before a major segment was appropriated for building the Guildhall.
William Thomas was born in Lan Manor, Trewyddfa, Morriston, in 1816.  His father was agent to the Morris family, and a partner in the Millbrook Iron Company. William Thomas joined that firm, and married in 1853 in Shrewsbury, though his wife died seven years later.  They had no children, and he never re-married.  Since its formation in 1851, he was a director of the Landore Tinplate Company, which at its peak had 1,000 employees.  With a 122-acre estate near Defynnog, William Thomas was a keen fisherman on the river Tywi.  He became a captain in the local militia, the 4th Glamorgan Rifles, and was elected to Swansea Council in 1871, where he became a vociferous campaigner for open spaces, seeking recreational facilities for all. 
The rapid increase of industrialisation in the 19th century had left little land for recreation, and while the Council’s plans to lay out Cwmdonkin Park would benefit middle–class residents living nearby, most of the working population who lived in the docks and lower Swansea Valley areas were not catered for.  So William Thomas offered a prize at the 1874 Christmas Eisteddfod at Morriston’s Libanus Chapel for the best essay in English or Welsh on the desirability and advantages of recreation grounds for the working classes and the poor children of Swansea.  His challenge elicited eight essays, with first prize of 20 guineas going to R. Rice Davies of Brunswick Street.  Even better, there was an offer of a suitable piece of land for recreation.
John Dillwyn Llewelyn of Penllergare responded to William Thomas’s challenge by offering the 42-acre Cnap Llwyd Farm, near the ruins of Morris Castle, to the people of Swansea.  Later he also gave £1,000 towards the expense of the farm being laid out as a park.  During William Thomas’s term as mayor, this was officially opened in October 1878 by his son John Talbot Dillwyn Llewelyn (as his father was unwell), and named Parc Llewelyn.  The day was declared a local holiday, with a fireworks display in the evening.
William Thomas went on to secure the land for Victoria Park, opened in 1887 in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, Brynmelyn Park the following year, as well as the Recreation Ground at St Helen’s, and Brynmill Park.  He was appointed Chief Magistrate, and after 23 years retired from the Council in 1894.  The Eastside was accommodated with the opening of Jersey Park in Dan-y-graig in 1903. 
Bandstands were a regular feature of those early parks, which in the case of Victoria Park could also be used for drill by the local militia, and staging Bostock and Wombwell’s Menagerie, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  There were games of tennis and bowls at several parks, with cricket at Parc Llewelyn, and Brynmill Lake was used by a model yacht club.  The Gorsedd ceremony was held in Cwmdonkin Park in August 1907 when Swansea hosted the National Eisteddfod, for Singleton did not become a public park until 1920.       
The statue of the man who inspired all these was funded by public subscription and unveiled in Victoria Park in 1906, three years before the death of William Thomas, the “pioneer and champion of open spaces”.                                                            

Monday 16 October 2017

126 Death Ray Matthews

Death Ray Matthews’
Last month an Evening Post article contained a Craig Cefn Parc resident’s recollections about Harry Grindell Matthews, popularly called Death Ray Matthews, a pioneer inventor described by Churchill as being “100 years too advanced”.
Born in 1880 at Winterbourne in Gloucestershire, Matthews enlisted in Baden-Powell’s South African Constabulary during the Boer War, becoming interested in wireless telephony.  Subsequently he became an electrical engineer, though he was something of a visionary, interested in the hidden powers of radio and light.  
Matthews transmitted the first wireless press message from Newport to Cardiff in 1912, and in order to transmit speech from the ground to an aircraft he developed an Aerophone, which he demonstrated to King George V at Buckingham Palace.  After the outbreak of the First World War the government offered £25,000 to anyone who could devise a weapon against zeppelins or remote controlled unmanned vehicles.  In the presence of Admiralty representatives Matthews demonstrated with a searchlight beam that he could control a launch on an artificial lake in Richmond Park by using light-sensitive selenium cells.  But his invention was never used, though subsequently Lord Fisher made him an advisor on the Board of Invention and Research. 
Matthews experimented in recording sound directly onto film, and claimed that an interview with Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, recorded before his final expedition south, was the world's first talking picture, though that was not the case.
During the inter-war period when there was concern about lethal rays, Matthews claimed to have developed ones that could stop an engine by de-activating the magneto.  In 1924 he made a short film to promote his invention the death ray – alleging that with enough power he might be able to shoot down an aeroplane: this was described on the Pathé News as “war’s latest terror”.  A 1925 photo purports to show a night demonstration on Flat Holm Island, though Matthews was reluctant to have his inventions scrutinised or tested – citing a fear of industrial espionage.  After previous bad experiences with alleged inventors, the Air Ministry was wary of proceeding further, but there was concern lest Matthews sell his death ray to another country, for he visited France and the United States.  The High Court in London even granted an injunction to Matthews's investors that forbade him from selling the rights to the death ray.  
In 1930 at Hampstead he demonstrated his latest invention, a “sky projector” to project an image onto clouds in the sky.  But it was not successful, and he faced bankruptcy, having used up much of his investors' money by living in expensive hotels.  
Helped by new financial backers, Matthews moved in 1934 to upland Gower, where in a remote area he built Tor Clawdd, a large white bungalow on two acres of land.  During construction he was a popular lodger at a farmhouse on Mynydd y Gwair, and would dine at the Masons Arms in Rhyd-y-pandy.  Tor Clawdd, standing a few miles south of Penlle’r castell, contained six bedrooms and two bathrooms, a laboratory, with mains electricity and its own supply from a generator.  It also had water from a man-made well, a private airstrip for light aircraft (Matthews was a qualified pilot), and was surrounded by a tall electrically-guarded fence with steel gates.  Matthews employed a housekeeper and a handyman/gardener, while he worked on a system to detect submarines.  He enjoyed solitary rambling in that remote area.
Following two marriages of short duration, at the age of 57 he married in 1937 the Polish-American Ganna (Hannah) Walska, whose unrealistic operatic aspirations rivalled those of Florence Foster Jenkins.  She had accumulated a fortune from four previous marriages. 
But they separated after four years, shortly before Matthews died at Tor Clawdd of a heart attack aged 61.  After cremation at Pontypridd, his ashes were scattered at Tor Clawdd.  A 2009 blue plaque outside his Gloucestershire birthplace commemorates “one of the most enigmatic and shadowy inventors of the twentieth century”.

Monday 9 October 2017

125 31st October

31st October
Next Tuesday will be the final day in the month, and for many people 31st October means celebrating Hallowe’en.  For decades the impact in this country of the Americanised Hallowe’en has increased, with “trick and treat”, and the wearing of all sorts of bizarre and ghoulish costumes - though we haven’t yet followed New York’s Greenwich Village with a huge Hallowe’en parade!
To some this is just harmless fun, but to others it is a sinister and unwelcome focus on the forces of darkness.  Yet I suggest two historical events on this date that are more worthy of our notice.  The first has already received much attention, for this year is the 500th anniversary of when German monk Martin Luther pinned up 95 theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Saxony, in 1517.  This set in motion the Reformation, which led to the emergence of Protestant and Nonconformist Christian denominations. 
The second event is local, being the start (in human terms) of the 1904 Welsh Religious Revival, which we date from a prayer meeting in Loughor’s Moriah Chapel on 31st October 1904.  In the schoolroom (adjacent to the new chapel of 1898) a young man named Evan Roberts spoke of four conditions for receiving God’s Spirit – to confess sin, remove anything doubtful from one’s life, surrender to the Spirit, and publicly admit to being a follower of Christ.  Those present felt a move of God’s Spirit, which escalated into months of packed meetings throughout the valleys, in North Wales and in Liverpool, with people gathering to experience God.  Meetings often included spontaneous unaccompanied congregational singing, with women playing a prominent part - singing and sharing testimonies of what Christ meant to them.  Especially popular was the hymn “Dyma gariad fel y moroedd” (“Here is love, vast as the ocean”), which was called “the love song of the revival”.  Many people came to faith in Christ, hundreds joined chapels and churches, the impact caused the crime rate and drunkenness to plummet, and many pubs were closed.  Men’s lives were changed - even pit ponies had to adjust to miners’ commands that now excluded swear words and blasphemies!  Although the Revival mainly affected Welsh-speakers, it could develop independently of meetings at which Evans Roberts was present.  In Mumbles the Tabernacle Congregational Church schoolroom held revival meetings from December 1904, resulting in 62 people joining the church.
The reporting of these events in the Western Mail and by newspaperman W.T. Stead (who later drowned in the Titanic) tended to focus on 26-year-old Evan Roberts.  Born in 1878, this earnest young man had worked as a miner from the age of 12 and as a blacksmith’s assistant, before embarking on training at Newcastle Emlyn for the Christian ministry.  In September 1904 during a Seth Joshua mission at Blaenannerch, Cardiganshire, he had an experience of God which led him to return to Loughor and seek permission to hold prayer meetings.  Evan Roberts never sought the limelight, and whereas the 1859 Welsh Revival had been led by outstanding preachers, he had no illusion of being an inspiring orator.  Though he toured the country and addressed many meetings, the strain of publicity and expectations led to his breakdown the following year, and withdrawal from public life, moving initially to Leicester.  He later returned to Wales to live quietly in Cardiff, devoting himself to prayer and to writing, until he died in 1951, and was buried at Moriah.  Yet the impact of the 1904 Welsh Revival spread overseas, even to the Khasi hills of north-east India.
A memorial column to Evan Roberts stands outside Moriah Chapel in Loughor.  Mal Pope’s 2005 musical “Amazing Grace” gives a good idea of what occurred, and the fierce opposition encountered, even from certain ministers. 
So on 31st October I prefer to thank God for what happened on that date in Wittenberg and in Loughor, rather than concentrating on dark and unedifying aspects of Hallowe’en.         

Sunday 8 October 2017

124 Edgar Evans statue

124 Edgar Evans statue
A recent Evening Post article reported on plans to raise £90,000 for a 15-foot statue of Edgar Evans “to honour the Polar explorer”.  Evans was the Rhossili seaman who accompanied Captain Scott on two expeditions to Antarctica, during the second of which he was among the five men who reached the South Pole in January 1912, though the first of them to perish on the return journey.  I would suggest that Petty Officer Evans, an integral member of both Captain Scott’s Antarctic expeditions, is already suitably honoured in his home town, and further afield.
Swansea Museum contains a fine bust of Evans, based on the famous photograph of the five men at the South Pole, carved by Philip Chatfield, who carved the Merchant Navy memorial in SA1, as well as many other commissions.  Evans’s bust, which was commissioned by the Captain Scott Society of Cardiff, from where the 1910 “Terra Nova” expedition had sailed, was presented to the City of Swansea in 1995 by the Lord Lieutenant of West Glamorgan at a Civic event held at the Brangwyn Hall. 
In 2012, on the centenary of that expedition, Swansea Museum had an excellent display about Evans and the 1910 British Antarctic Expedition for many months, with the actual centenary of Evans’s death being marked by a Civic Service at St Mary’s Church in Swansea.  In Rhossili, at the church where Evans had married in 1904 his cousin Lois Beynon, who used to sing in the church choir, is a plaque commemorating him, as well as a stained-glass window in his memory, along with an information board.  On sale at West Glamorgan Archives is the first biography of Evans, my 1995 book “Swansea’s Antarctic Explorer”, while the more comprehensive biography by Dr Isobel Williams entitled “Captain Scott’s Invaluable Assistant: Edgar Evans” was published in 2012 and continues to have a wide readership.  That year Evans was the subject of a fine HTV television documentary, and in November 2014 a blue plaque was unveiled outside Middleton Cottage, his birthplace near Rhossili. 
Furthermore Swansea Museum has items relating to Evans – one of his boots is displayed in the Cabinet of Curiosities – and researchers can view two letters which he sent from Antarctica, and peruse information pertaining to him and Scott’s ill-fated 1910-13 British Antarctic Expedition.
Evans’s old school, St Helen’s in Vincent Street in the Sandfields, has a fine framed photograph of their famous former pupil, while the former Head Post Office in Wind Street (Evans worked as a telegraph messenger boy at their previous Castle Bailey Street premises) used to display H.A. Chapman’s large framed photograph of him taken at the time of his wedding.  That building at the junction of Green Dragon Lane is now Idols bar, so the photograph can be seen at the Royal Mail premises on the Enterprise Zone.  Evans’s Royal Naval roots were recognised by a residential block being named after him at HMS Excellent in Portsmouth, while in Antarctica two geographical features bear his name.
Although much focus is on what is called “Scott’s Last Expedition”, Evans was also a prominent member of Scott’s earlier Antarctic expedition from 1901 to 1904 in the “Discovery”.  Swansea Museum contains a two-volume first edition of Scott’s account of this.  The “Discovery” is open to the public at Dundee, where this wooden ship was built, though the “Terra Nova” sank off Greenland in 1943: her figurehead is in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.
Besides the soldier on the South African War memorial, Swansea has statues of industrialists John Henry Vivian and his son Henry Hussey Vivian, of William Thomas of Lan “the champion of open spaces”, of poet Dylan Thomas and of footballer Ivor Allchurch.  Though the intention is laudable, surely plans for a 15-foot high statue of Petty Officer Edgar Evans are superfluous?    

Thursday 5 October 2017

123 Unitarians

123 Unitarians
What links American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and radical scientist Joseph Priestley, with novelist and biographer Mrs Gaskell?  It is that all these people were Unitarians.  Britain has 170 Unitarian meeting-houses, of which 27 are in Wales - the same number as at the Religious Census of 1851.  Swansea’s meeting-house is next to the Argos store in High Street, with Gellionen near Pontardawe being another well-known Unitarian chapel - built originally in 1692 by Protestant dissenters on Mynydd Gellionnen.  The Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagan’s has Pen-rhiw Chapel, which is also Unitarian.  This was probably first built as a barn during the mid-eighteenth century, before being acquired in 1777 by Unitarians for use as a meeting house.  The original loft was removed or altered in the 19th century to create the gallery, greatly increasing the seating capacity.  The floor of the building is of beaten earth, except the communion area which is boarded.  Originally at Drefach Felindre in north Carmarthenshire, the chapel was dismantled in 1953 and moved to the Folk Museum.
In 1774 a former Vicar, who had left the Church of England, opened Britain’s first Unitarian meeting-house, in Essex Street, near the Strand in London: today the headquarters of British Unitarians stand on that site.  The first meeting-house in Wales was established 20 years later by Thomas Evans (Tomos Glyn Cothi) - known as “Priestley bach” from his adherence to the teachings of Joseph Priestley.  Evans preached the first Unitarian sermon published in Welsh.  In 1802 the Unitarian Association of South Wales was founded, one member being the controversial poet and Unitarian hymn writer Iolo Morgannwg (Edward Williams), who introduced Druidism and the Gorsedd ceremony into Eisteddfodau.
Swansea’s Unitarian Chapel is set back from High Street, being reached across an open paved forecourt, and having a gabled porch.  After the 1689 Act of Toleration permitted Dissenters (though not Unitarians) to meet, it was used for worship by initially Baptists and later by Presbyterians, before being rebuilt in 1840. 
In Pennard after the war a small meeting-house was built in Hael Lane.  This was supplied with ministers from Swansea - Rev. Basil Viney would walk to Pennard - but after numbers dwindled the building was sold at auction in 1966, then demolished and a bungalow erected on the site.
Unitarians differ from various Christian denominations in that they do not recognise Christ Jesus as being God the Son, co-equal with God the Father and with God the Holy Spirit.  The term “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible, being a human attempt to describe God, but Unitarians do not recognise the Trinity, and would deny Christ’s deity and pre-existence prior to his birth in Bethlehem.  During the nineteenth century Christian ministers who opposed Unitarianism included the Welsh Methodist and hymn writer William Williams (Pantycelyn), Peter Williams, who translated “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah” into English, Welsh Baptist Joseph “Gomer” Harris (of Capel Gomer), and Christmas Evans, who is buried in Swansea’s Bethesda Chapel. 
Unitarians do not impose creeds or specific beliefs, but welcome people with open minds who share their tolerant and inclusive views.  They conduct naming ceremonies and weddings for people of any faith or none, and welcome those planning a second marriage.  At times Unitarians have been persecuted – as have Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, Quakers and others.  The term “Christian” can be loosely used to mean a gentleman or a respectable person, whereas it should mean a follower of Christ Jesus.  For example, to state that Nick Clegg MP is not a Christian is not to denigrate him or to cast aspersions on his integrity, but merely to state a fact - he is an atheist.  Similarly Unitarians are not Christians, which does not preclude their campaigning for such issues as the abolition of slavery and for gender equality.  They support equality of respect and opportunity foreveryone.                       

Wednesday 4 October 2017

122 Vernon Watkins 50th anniversary

122 Vernon Watkins 50th anniversary
This year October 8th falls on a Sunday, as in 1967, when in Seattle, North America, 61-year-old Pennard poet Vernon Watkins collapsed and died while playing tennis.  Following retirement from long service with Lloyds Bank, mainly at Swansea’s St Helen’s Road branch, he took up a Gulbenkian Fellowship in poetry at University College, Swansea, which awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Literature, before he travelled with members of his family to Seattle.  This was intended to be a year as Visiting Professor of Literature at the University of Washington, where he had lectured on W.B. Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins for one semester in 1964.
Often referred to as “Swansea’s Other Poet”, Vernon Watkins was a good friend of Dylan Thomas, whose obituary he wrote in “The Times”.  He sought to defend his friend’s reputation, for the often exaggerated anecdotes of Dylan’s drinking and outlandish behaviour distracted attention from appreciating the quality of his poetry and other writings.
Vernon was a very fine poet in his own right, whose work was as different from Dylan’s as that of John Donne (like Vernon, a metaphysical poet) from that of John Betjeman.  There was no rivalry between Dylan and Vernon, for both appreciated the other’s poetry, and during the 1930s they would regularly meet to discuss poetry, and suggest any words or phrases that might improve what either had written.
During Vernon’s lifetime Faber and Faber published six volumes of his poetry, with a seventh being printed at the time of his death.  Subsequently three more volumes of his poetry have appeared, as well as his “Collected Poems” in 1986.  For the centenary of his birth “New Selected Poems” was published in 2006, and this was recently reprinted for the 50th anniversary of his death.  In the foreword, Dr Rowan Williams describes Vernon’s long poem “The Ballad of the Mari Llwyd” as “one of the outstanding poems of the century”.  Sadly the radio recording of Dylan reading it (which takes 30 minutes) has not survived.
Vernon could speak German and French, and translated poems from both languages, having spent one year at Cambridge studying modern languages.  He made several visits to Germany, being outraged at the time of the Nazi book burning in 1933 when books by German nineteenth century poet Heinrich Heine were burnt: he had to be hurried away by friends from danger.  Vernon translated two cycles of Heine’s poems composed in 1825/26 into English, entitled “The North Sea” and this was published in 1951.  At the time of his death Vernon was being considered, among others, as a possible Poet Laureate, following the death of John Masefield.
His poetry was composed in spite of the time pressure of full-time work six days a week in a bank, entailing bus journeys to and from Pennard to Hospital Square (the junction of St Helen’s Road and Bryn-y-Mor Road), and not neglecting his wife Gwen and his five children.  He met Gwen during the war, when they both worked at Bletchley Park, near Milton Keynes, the government secret code-breaking centre.  They lived on Pennard cliffs where a friend recollected “my image of him will always be out of doors, on walks above or below the cliffs, or on the rocks at low tide, out for lobsters, crabs and prawns…”
The 50th anniversary of his death is being marked in several ways.  This month Jeff Towns’ exhibition is in the foyer of the Singleton campus University library, with last Monday a reading of and discussion about his poetry at the Taliesin Theatre.  This morning a Vernon Watkins walk will start from outside Pennard’s Three Cliffs coffee shop at 11am, while on 19th October the Ostreme Centre in Mumbles hosts a talk from the editor of “New Collected Poems” at 8pm - admission £3.  
These events and a forthcoming biography should ensure that Vernon Watkins, whom Dylan described as “The most profound and greatly accomplished Welshman writing poems in English”, is not forgotten.                                                                                  
  Late I return, O violent, colossal, reverberant, eavesdropping sea.
  My country is here.  I am foal and violet.  Hawthorn breaks from my hands.
  I watch the inquisitive cormorant pry from the praying rock of Pwlldu,
  Then skim to the gulls’ white colony, to Oxwich’s cockle-strewn sands.
  (from “Taliesin in Gower”, courtesy of Gwen Watkins)