A. Opel Treharris story
The following are Stories centred around Treharris. They are from the period 1935-1956
The following stories are an account of life in the south Wales valley town of Treharris, and the surrounding district.
They have been written for our enjoyment by Aldo Opel who lived in Treharris between 1930 and 1956 at Number 2 Fox Street, a very popular shop called the “Square Cafe”
He attended the Central Elementary school, Perrot Street, and Quakers Yard Grammar School. Aldo now lives in Canada,he lives on Vancouver Island,after emigrating in 1974. Aldo still has an affinity with the town in which he spent his youth and tries to visit Wales annually. He visits his in laws and some life long friends and he still has a brother who lives in Dudley, West Midlands.
Treharris 1939…a very busy commercial town
My recollection of the town as a child just prior to the war was that of a vibrant bustling community. Saturday nights saw a crowded Perrott Street and part of Fox Street for in those days there was a thing called Saturday night shopping where family groups would do the week-end shopping, the shops staying open till 9 p.m.
The Salvation Army band would be found playing under the tall gaslight standard lit those days by a lamplighter brandishing a long pole, but later replaced by a clock, at the front of the Palace’s paved area. It was quite a social occasion as families met each other on their way around.
On Sunday night the street would change roles along with dark tree lined Mill Road and become what was called a ‘monkey parade’, a practice that continued into the fifties where the young people of the area which included Bedlinog and Nelson strolled in small groups of male or female between the cafes at the top and bottom squares each seeking each other out in hopes of some romantic interlude.
The commercial area and centre of the town consisted mainly of Perrott Street and Fox Street. If I start at the Square and move along the left side of Fox Street it would begin with Rees the shoe shop, then Richards the Jewellers which later became the Square Cafe; Pegler’s Grocers, Richards the Chemist that doubled as the town’s optician; Shaw’s Bakery shop, Hilbourne’s Newsagent, Curtis Greengrocers, Fish and Chip shop, Spinetti’s Cafe; Howell’s the Saddler, owned I recollect by Elwyn Howells who travelled in daily from Mountain Ash, there you could by all forms of leather goods including football and rugby boots and balls–Vinyl had yet to be invented–The D.J. Williams, family grocers; Ladies Hairdressers, some vacant shops and then Trenchard’s the cobbler;
Across the street and returning to the Square was Jenkins’s the grocer, a clothing store, WD Clee, Ironmongers; Hopkins shoe shop, James the confectioner, and finally the Navigation Hotel. At the top of Cardiff Road was a small confectioner, Clee’s materials Yard, and then completing the group was London House, the departmental store;
At the Square on the corner was the Meadow Dairy, grocers, later to become Pearks, descending the hill was then a cafe that became vacant, the entrance to the Den, a snooker hall, an electrical components shop; a lane that led down to Shaw’s Bake house. This reminded me of the then traditional Xmas custom of the bake houses offering to bake the Xmas dinner for the Housewives. Then there was the Tabernacle chapel, followed by a gap at the bottom of which was the town blacksmith and farrier, where a child could watch the making of horseshoes and their shodding, or the rimming of a cartwheel as it lay on a large flat steel annulus. It was also claimed that if you suffered from warts they could be cured by plunging your arms into the quenching barrel.
At the other side of the gap was a family butchers, Lloyds Bank; the Co-op departmental store that extended as far as the Library. On the upper floor of Co-op was the Lucania billiards room. Beyond the library there was wall behind which, below street level, was an overgrown orchard. It finished at a large building which seems to have several purposes. I recall picking up my gasmask there. It became home of the local fire service, then opened post war as Celtic Batteries, a small factory making car and lorry batteries. Then came Warrens Fashions, a large store with long display window that led into the store; a ladies hairdressers; Warren’s confectioners where you could buy a tuppenny monster, a large paper bag of broken chocolates; Oliver’s Shoes, Long staff’s Bazaar, a veritable Aladdin’s cave for children, full of small toys where you could buy a gazoo, a skipping rope, a yoyo, or a spinning top. The latter was something I enjoyed as a child. To keep the top spinning it was necessary to whip it with a thong attached to a stick. Another of the array of pastimes children indulged in; then a green grocers; Eastman Meat Purveyors, Lipton’s grocer, the gas showroom, and on the corner before Perrott Place Smith’s General Store where I am sure you find anything you wanted. The other side of Perrott place was another grocers, then The Bon, the clothing outfitters; a few vacant shops , a grocers; Forward Movement chapel, a confectioners that always had s stack of Welsh Cakes in the window; at the corner David (Dai Echo)Evans newsagent. Across Thomas Street to Conti’s Cafe, a greengrocers and Collin’s Fish and Chips.
Turning back along Perrott Street on the other side, at the corner with Thomas Street was a grocery store and bake house. Then some vacant fronts, pass the Central Elementary School, the Police Station, some houses and then Eames Cake shop, later owned by Shaw, set back from the pavement close to Edwards Street was the post office, which in those days hand sorted all the mail for the area.
Up the hill to Cook’s fruiterers, Guy’s Meat and Pie shop where you could buy prepared meats; Kitchener’s the glazier, a small quiet Jewish family of four. I recall Mr. Kitchener carrying the necessary panes of glass on a wooden framed form of backpack; another vacant front and then Thomas & Evans grocery at the corner with John Street.
Across to Bethel Chapel; the first shop was Williams family butchers, Lockyers greengrocers; a lane that led to a largely disused slaughter house; Midland Bank, Hawkins Cafe, and at the Square, Rees the Chemist. Turning the corner onto Bargoed Terrace was a small newsagent, and Pearce the Barbers, above the barbers was Edwards the Dentist. Then Addis’s garage where you could obtain petrol from a hand cranked pump that filled a glass measuring tank before releasing into the vehicle; then a drycleaners and a Radio shop.
On the opposite side of the road, at the foot of Williams Terrace, was, in ascending order, Co-op shoes, grocery and bakery. In its interior through an entrance half way up the building was a large hall occasionally used for dances and also used as a youth club. To round off we end up at the Palace theatre, a tall majestic building, where at street level could be found the Workman’s Institute and Barclays bank. The theatre was used mostly for movies, though occasionally pantomimes, Go as You Please competitions, and concerts appeared on stage. I remember that Waldini’s Accordion Band was a popular attraction. The cinema did not have a continuous showing, there were two houses each evening and a matinee on Saturday afternoon for children. Films were changed once a week, so there were two different film programs per week. A program those days consisted of a main feature, a comic short, and a B movie. The films featured were displayed on two bill boards on either side of the stepped entrance. In those pre-television days it was nothing on a Friday and Saturday evening to see a queue that extended across the front and part way up Williams Terrace. The second house usually finished around 10 p.m.
Part one…Mis-spent Youth
Where, Oh! Where do I begin? When I last counted the number of dance halls visited in my youth I came up with a grand total of twenty nine and there is a story attached to each one of them. How had I and a few close friends been able to scatter ourselves so successfully? Well in the early days the answer was quite simple, for among us stood one Gwilym Edwards, the son of the landlord of the fashionable, at least in those days, the Commercial Hotel, and in his possession was an old drivable 1937 Ford 8, green in colour as I recall. The world stood at our feet, well anyway south Wales did. Our mobility was the envy of our contemporaries. We were trying to negate Oscar Wilde’s comment that youth is wasted on the young.
I suppose it’s smart to begin with the first dance hall on whose maple floor we placed our polished shoes. That, of course, would the local one called The Rink, so named as it began its life the year I was born as a roller skating rink. As a building it had little to recommend itself, much of its external surface was covered with corrugated sheeting painted in the most disagreeable shade of near maroon ever, probably the only rustproof colour available those days. Even before entering at the massive price of nine pence I knew every inch of the place as it doubled as the headquarters of local St John’s Ambulance Brigade, of which I had been a member since the non-legal age of nine. I had even won the Leigh Challenge Cup there. An event my mother would not let pass, requesting written confirmation, over which I was much embarrassed, but it was dutifully complied with. I still have the now dog-eared certificate.
My hometown straddled a steep hillside with the Rink near the foot of the hill. All the amenities of those days lay close by. If I were to draw a sixty yard circle with the Rink as the centre it would include the following. Taking a cue from the song ‘There’s a cafe on the corner’ two doors from the cafe was that rarity of the time, a non-Italian fish and chip shop owned by the Collin’s family. On the other corner was a newsagent, known locally as Dai Echo, a dark wavy haired would be ladies man who flaunted copies of the magazine Nature in his window, though not immediately to the front. There you could on your way to the dance purchase the pink papered Football Echo to get the latest results, after all it was Saturday. Just a short distance down the slope form Dai Echo was the stone faced edifice of the Brynhyfryd chapel keeping its watchful eye on the proceedings as it looked across at the Rink. Next to the chapel was a small railway station, not a halt, for the town was big enough to have its own railway station. Then across a short stone bridge that spanned the tracks was the crucially important Royal Hotel, where I don’t remember anyone asking your age.
To the dance then, how does one learn to dance? Remember it was not yet the days of do whatever you will. There were definite steps or patterns to each of the various dances. If you were fortunate to have an older sister then she could be persuaded to teach you some basic steps. If you were like me with no sister one had to rely on the generosity of a cousin. Usually one started by learning to dance the coronation tango where there were set steps, no exceptions, along with a couple of daring dips. You could judge the number of learners on the floor by the density of the crowd when it was announced that the next dance was a coronation tango. The second dance on the learning curve was the St Bernard’s waltz. If you had mastered those two dances you were well on your way progressing to the slow foxtrot with some smooch dancing in its wake.
Now the problem was that you had to dance with someone. The Rinks interior saw high back benches lining the periphery of the hall about six feet back from the floor. These were invariably occupied by females who always seem to arrive early. The males usually gathered under a small balcony near the entrance standing on the fringe of the floor, perusing the talent. Both sexes gathered mainly in small clusters. There was frequently an attempt for clusters to talk to each other in an effort to overcome the accustomed reticence of usually the males. Single boys talking to individual girls were strictly for the more adventurous. As the evening wore on, more and more intermingling became the norm.
Some of the boys, or even the young men, becoming more venturesome, daring to ask seated girls of their fancy to dance. Some thought it a little too venturesome, there was no good way to determine whether a seated female was not taller than the male, another good reason for standing in clusters and being able to note the height differences.
The dance, it being a Saturday night concluded with the last waltz at 11 p.m. by which time whatever assignations arranged had been firmed up. The hall had to be completely cleared by 11-30, thirty minutes before the dreaded Sunday, or else. The puritanical chapel enthused Sunday laws would then descend upon us.
For those travelling by rail the last train left at exactly 11-10. It was the last opportunity for some impromptu necking aboard the darkened two-carriage train, most light bulbs having been removed for the journey.
If you managed to take someone there was a sense of elation. For those not so fortunate there were always fish and chips at Collins.
Part Two…All gone now
Every time I watch such television dramas as Berkley Square or re-runs of Upstairs, Downstairs I am reminded of how all pervasive that way of life was. It persisted well into the late forties. Even in those days of the late forties as a teenager living in a small mining town, I only had to look out of my bedroom window to witness its existence, for across the town Square, certainly no Berkley Square was a microcosm of the form of living.
My father’s business lay just off what was locally know as The Square with my bedroom to the front of the building. The Square was a large paved area at the intersection of four roads that formed a business centre. In those days there were no signs to tell us that, for we knew it anyway. It’s only later generations who had lost their way and needed such direction.
On the further most corner from me was one of the two local chemists, Rees the chemist. You may think it Welsh silliness to tag people in that fashion, but it is important to differentiate between the abundant Rees’, for there was yet another Rees diagonally across from the chemist, that of Rees the shoes, a local footwear shop. On the other corner was a grocery, The Meadow Dairy in a glorious green and white facade. The remaining corner was taken up by the Navigation Hotel, a long straggling building of late Victorian architecture, finished in stone with window edging in pale yellow brick. It was a substantial building of three floors, with attic turreted frontage on the upper floor. It occupied most of the side of the street. I remember it had several bars, a lounge, and four entrances. The doors to each section had frosted glass baring its etched name. At the lower level at the back that exited onto Cardiff Road was the location of the Treharris Homing Pigeon Club, from which pigeons were tagged for the racing and then placed into baskets for a journey to some remote point. One wonders what life was like in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
Century that required imbibing centres of such magnitude, for the Navigation was just one of the three large hotels, not counting the Perrott Inn and three clubs.
Overseeing and dominating the Square, fully occupying one side was the Palace Theatre with its brass railed curved balcony, two boxes and even a” gods”. On the ground floor at street level it included the Workman’s Institute that also housed an extensive library, and Barclays bank.
To the side of the Meadow Dairy was the piece-de-resistance, a large pseudo-Tudor building in black and white, somewhat pretentiously named London House. This was the focus of my attention, for here was the source of the microcosm mentioned. Euphemistically described as a department store consisting haberdashery, clothing and furniture sections on descending levels that followed the downside of the hill it rested upon. It even had pneumatic chutes for the handling of cash and receipts.
London House was the home of the Lewis family, no hyphens, a family of four and two Housemaids. The head of the family was Mr. Lewis for I never knew his first name, even my father always deferred to him as Mr. Lewis. A short ram rod straight, highly polished shoes of a man, gray short hair and always wore a waistcoat. I remember he was very fussy about the cigarettes he smoked, only Senior Service. His wife, again no first name was a frail dowager looking woman, rarely seen in the store, and never without a walking stick. Then there was William, the son who served in the Royal Air Force in the latter days of the war. On his return he seemed untouched by the war, slipping quickly out of uniform into the Harris tweeds of civilian life and his station. A man about town, who pretensions required him to be at the centre of activity and surrounded by a small cadre of cronies. He devoted his time to organizing cricket and rugby clubs, making use of the Pandy Fields, and the Church choir. To some extent I may have misread him for some three or so years later he entered the Anglican Church. I recall in the usual Welsh fashion of nicknames he became known as the Reverend Pandy whereas he had previously been known as Squire Pandy. Then there was his sister Mary, an attractive single woman in her late twenties, who ran the business when permitted. Would she get married was the buzz around town, as she was politely wooed by a local doctor. The locals thought it an ideal match. I remember my mother who liked her very much, “She’ll never marry him, it will never be allowed.”
Our local doctor was Polish and lo and behold, a Roman Catholic. People considered him a good and kind doctor, a religious man who was known to have, when his ministrations failed to help a patient, to kneel at the bedside and offer a prayer. My mother as usual was right.
There were two maids, one day maid, and one live in maid, who resided downstairs to the back of the house where one found the kitchen and scullery. I recall her vividly, her name was Glenys, an attractive and full bosomed lass. I was never sure of her intentions, for occasionally on an early closing Thursday afternoon when my parents were out she would arrive at my doorstep, cup or jug in hand claiming to have run out of sugar or milk.Today nothing remains.
Part three..A Sense of Community Lost:
A coal mining town perched on a hillside, hardly a place conducive to the health of older pneumonconiotic miners whose initial movement was always uphill for those who lived in the lowest part of the town, like The Huts at the bottom of Cardiff Road. They required frequent stops to refill their stifled lungs. This was the least appealing aspect of the town, but without them this once bustling town of my youth would never have existed. None of the institutions or the characters that weaved and enriched the tapestry of a colourful community.
I reflect on the number of characters that it held within. I doubt if Damon Runyon had more. I guess we are all characters or caricatures in this nebulous world of ours. Today I am not conscious of any such rich characters in my current surroundings, perhaps in those days there was, in the words of W.H. Davies ‘ time to stand and stare’. Mores the pity. We stood and listened to the distinct human sounds of the town, not distracted by the impersonal bleating of a computer.
Treharris consisted of two main commercial streets that converged at the plateaued crest of a hill, that was commonly known as the Square, though the exact geometry escapes me. One could call it the hub of the town for there stood the Palace theatre, an authentic one, and the Navigation Hotel with its canopied entrance. The Workman Institute, part of the ground level of the theatre provided a long backless bench that offered respite to those who staggered up the hill. Diagonally across the Square above the Meadow Dairy was the meeting place of the minds, the local billiards hall, euphemistically known as the Den. Five snooker tables resided there, the doors opened at 9.a.m. and hopefully closed at 10.p.m. It had a large cast of characters who played out their roles on the well polished, but frequently patched brown linoleum floor. The town itself had a preponderance of religious denominations complete with the appropriate chapel or church, enough to satisfy any religious bent. They, however, exerted little influence on the gambling instincts of the Den’s inhabitants, other that its Sunday closing. Not that it mattered, there was no horse racing on Sunday anyway.
Its narrow wooden staircase was in a constant state of reverberation from the steady flow of footsteps upon its wearing treads. The ownership of the premises was in the hands of one Alwyn Thomas whose ribald laughter greeted you as it cascaded down the stairs. He was jovial robust looking man in his forties, a little on the heavy side but with little evidence of flab. His agreeable personality kept order without the appearance of doing so.
But where do I start with this array of characters, perhaps with Islwyn Hughes, the town wit, as he rarely failed to appear on a daily basis. A thin quick witted man of indeterminate age in an over-ironed blue suit that never seemed to change or for that matter age. He was an expert on full-time work avoidance and how to deal with the employment exchange personnel. He complied with the latter’s rules by working approximately four weeks a year, usually as a rat inspector. He was an asthmatic but somehow managed to play football for a few hours on Sunday afternoon on the then sloping football field at the Park. Occasionally the game found him joined by the town clown Tommy M, who regardless of the weather be it a wet afternoon or a hot sweltering one would be wearing a long overcoat, a muffler, and a flat cap. On his feet would be a pair of working boots.
Then there was Danny Tibbet, a short well groomed man, always immaculately dressed in dark pinstriped suit and matching waistcoat, always carried a silver knobbed black cane occasionally used to support an infirmity, a necessary adjunct to his compensation payments from the Coal Board. Somehow I always expected him to break out into some dance routine on the polished patchwork linoleum floor. He never did. He had been secretary-treasurer of the Miners Lodge, a position of some prestige. Now in his retirement he was secretary of the Snooker league. His epistles on upcoming events and travel always opened with,” Anyone desirous…” An average snooker player, but devastating when playing a four hander with side bets.
Next was Bert Biddles, another short man, maybe Lloyd George was right when he said the Welsh were the last of the five foot nations, a middle-aged bachelor with pleasing disposition, quicker on his feet than Dan. He was a bus inspector for Pontypridd transport. I never saw him board a stationary bus that was too easy. He made alighting and boarding a moving bus an art form. He was the fastest snooker player around. As the tables at the Den were paid for on a per game basis I avoided playing him like the plague.
Now we come to the Beau Brummell of the snooker tables, Jack Williams alias the Count. An above average height, a well dressed individual, another three piece suit, his dark hair sleeked back and a thin moustache. A ladies man, so it seemed to me. Not the greatest of snooker players, but possessed of a phlegatism that always carried the betting money, permitting him to beat players of greater ability.
Of course there are others among the denizens of the Den. So I would like to step outside and at least mention a member of the Medical fraternity of the town that sticks in my mind. Dr Robertson, the father, for he had two sons who followed him into Medicine. I don’t recall seeing him in other than a pair of breeches, a big man who drove a large Wolesley car, and, I swear, do house calls at the rate of ten an hour, always brisk in movement.Housewives expecting him to call would leave the front door open so that he could enter immediately without losing his quick stride.
Part Four…The Old School:
Somehow these days the characters of my youth linger longer, as if, they, not wanting to be forgotten with the passage of time take up residence in my mind. In talking about the characters of my home town I was being forgetful of those in my old school, namely the teachers.
I recollect very little of my early days at Quakers Yard Grammar School. There was an acceptance of all things new, a minimal curiosity. A nine year old, I was probably the youngest student to attend the school. I was not even conscious of that. I was equipped with a blue serge cap sporting a light blue diamond outline, and a leather satchel, no backpacks then, though one quickly learned to convert the satchel into a form of backpack by passing the long straps under the armpit and pushing the pouch section over one’s head. The school, such that it was, would today most likely be condemned as substandard, but for me it was where I was to spend the next eight years of my life. I paid little attention to its shortcomings. I thought them funny rather than an inconvenience. Oh! How things change.
The school consisted of a straggling single storey building, which followed the outline of the hillside, at the foot of which it stood, meaning that though much of it sat at one level there were sections where long stairs climbed to the stars. As you entered through the main doors ahead of you was a steep concrete flight of stairs to the dining room, then along a narrow corridor and another three flights to the Art Room, probably the highest point in the school. Michelangelo would have been pleased. There was another set of concrete stairs to the Boys Cloakroom at the outer reaches. The building was never intended to be more than temporary, and began life as a military barracks during the First World War. It saw its life extended through the Second World War into the sixties. It was mainly of lumber construction with an asphalt roof, a source of frequent leaks, long corridors with unpainted plank floors that creaked, complaining at every footstep. Classrooms were separated by walls of compressed cardboard, often perforated and in need of continual maintenance. But we endured and enjoyed it despite the endless flaws.
The teachers did not appear to be disturbed by their surroundings. I should point out that this was co-ed school, perhaps a major factor in its favour. Leading off was of course our redoubtable Headmaster, H.A Davies, known commonly as Herbie. He was a slightly rotund man, his waistcoat always just ahead of him, short in stature but towering in erudition. A Cambridge fellow and blue, a published world historian known throughout British academic circles, never referred to notes whether giving a public address or teaching. He was capable of amazing academic feats, I recall a period when the chemistry master was away ill, he took it upon himself to read up the necessary subject matter and give the lessons required. It was said they were better than those given by the chemistry master. He always wore a gown that billowed out and skimmed the surface of the floor as he rushed along the corridors at his usual brisk pace. His one failing was that he was not particularly street wise, but that was more than made up by his imperious looking senior master, Richard Price otherwise known as Dick. A consummate psychologist, there was little one could get away with. Always wore a light blue or grey suit, blue eyed, short hair with a small tonsured spot. He was highly perceptive and rational. Never took offence at having a fault pointed out, rather he took as an indication that students were paying attention. One look was sufficient to maintain discipline. He also played piano for the hymn singing at the morning assembly or more accurately hammered hell out of it.
Next in line in terms of seniority was T H Lewis also known as Tommy, a tall elderly lithe figure who allegedly taught history, occasionally doubling as the games master. Extramurally he directed the school drama society. His auditions for the Browning Version or Outward Bound would take place during the history lesson. He would ask a few likely candidates to go to the back of the classroom and read a page from our text book Brett’s British History. I was once asked to do so, I gladly disappointed him. As a history teacher per se, the least said the better. He taught parrot fashion, for me a cardinal sin.
Of the female teachers one could hardly avoid the delectable Ann Williams also known as Fanny. She taught French, a sparkle among a partly frumpish group. Well rounded and petite, her very presence engendered a rush to puberty among the younger male students. She even caused a flutter among the male teachers; some even blushed, sadly, a thing of the past. Personally I preferred the other Williams, Sybil, who taught upper school French. However she was not rated, out of the running and getting married.
Part five…Childs’ Play
Do we find comfort in reviewing the distant past and therefore seek it out? Or is it simply the innocence of pre-pubescent age untrammelled by the weight of passing years? I reflected on my early school days, where simplicity appeared to be the norm. Perhaps not knowing what awaited me absolved me from concern. That did not mean that my character was not already being moulded and unconsciously shaped by the environment and culture that surrounded me. It did not mean that everything was cool. There always the daily scrapes, confrontations, arguments and of course the bullies.
My elementary school, Treharris Central, was built like s fortress, what appeared to me to be an eight foot wall encircled it, all that was missing were the turrets and the drawbridge, though we did have two steel railed gates, one on Edwards Street and the other on Perrott Street. There was no grass, simple a large concrete schoolyard on which a variety of games were played, net ball, rounders, the playing perimeters marked out in white lines and circles. The gentle slope of the yards encouraged some roller skating, at least for those who possessed a pair. To the right was a large open fronted corrugated roof building which gave protection from the rain, and acted as an assembly area. It was always referred to as ‘the shed’. The furthest wall held black wooden boards upon which were painted various symbols, letters and numbers. One board had a set of vertical numbers and was used as a form of hazing for newcomers; your height against the board determined the number of times your head was pressed against the board. Strangely enough, I was never subjected to this objectionable practice. I have often thought if there was something about me that deterred such action. Also school yard bullies, of which there were several, always kept their distance. Maybe it was my aloofness, something of which I was later in life to be accused of, was manifest at that time. The odd entanglement with a bully ended in the bully withdrawing. Maybe it was the few lessons that I had been given by Danny Andrews the local boxer.
Let us take a look at the enjoyable pastimes of the school yard. First and foremost was the throwing of milk top rings against the wall that ran along a narrow gravelled lane to one side of the school. Nearest to the wall collected the tops. In those days each child received one third of a pint per day. The milk came in a small glass container shaped like a carafe, the wide neck of which was closed by the cardboard ring. Then in season, whenever that was, the lane became the contest area for marbles. Autumn saw the game of conkers, usually obtained by throwing heavy sticks at the clusters growing on the horse chestnut trees that grew along the right hand side of Bargoed Terrace.
Inside, the classrooms were Spartan at best, no embellishments, several rows of double seated desks, complete with white enamel inkpots with a sliding tarnished brass cover, and the inevitable pink blotting paper. The teacher was provided with a lacquered wooden table which served as a desk, upon which lay that instrument of dread or humour depending how you regarded it, the proverbial bamboo cane. Though a recipient of the odd stroke it was soon laughed off as a talking point to your credit. The cane held by my teacher, Rhys Davies, was shorter than most, as he was in the habit of poking the coals of classroom stove with it.
The classrooms were separated by tall fan folding doors which when required could be used to expand or contract the room size.
Outside school, activities centred mainly on playing football, girls had not yet entered the picture. Wherever possible if someone had an old tennis ball, we would play hand ball against the gabled wall of the last house in the street, in our case this was Penn Street opposite the colliery. It would continue until someone from the house came to complain about the rat a tat inside, which did not happen too often. The other late evening game was that of cigarette cards of famous football players. To play this one needed a stone window sill upon which each player would place a card face down. The aim was to invert as many cards possible from one puff. I recall that inside the pit lodge the wall was covered with an almost complete set of these cards kept by the lodge keeper.
Part six…A child’s war time memory
It was 1942, I think. It may have been 1941. There was for a child, little to differentiate those early years of the war. The same old ration books, wrinkled and curling at the corners, the identity cards, a folded piece of thin cardboard with no photo, the lugging around of a gas mask in its bulky rectangular cardboard box, the emergency water tanks that took up the width of such streets as Edwards Street and restricted our football there. It was also a devourer of the rare tennis ball used for such play if one fell through the protective mesh placed over the tank. The playing of chess by candlelight in the Boy’s Club when the sirens sang out and the light automatically doused simultaneously. The pencilled spot of light from the covered electric street lights while we attempted to play hand ball against the gabled end house.
Every Thursday afternoon as was the practice those days, the shops in Treharris would close at noon. It was known as the Shoppers half day off. For my father it meant a rabbit hunting trek to some farm on the Brecon Beacons for a week-end meal. Every Thursday he and some of his fellow shopkeepers would pool their petrol coupons, they were allowed five gallons a month, and fuel one car, pile in, and take off to the hills. For the wives it was an opportunity for a brief shopping expedition to the city, in our case, Cardiff, about an hour’s bus ride away if nothing intervened. Most times I was taken along in tow on a promise to see the pups and homing pigeons at the market. So we would catch the 12-30 at the lower end of Bargoed Terrace. There were the occasional reminders of war along the way, the anti-aircraft batteries at the south end of the Treforest estate and a little further along the searchlights. Even today, whenever I pass that way I still see them there. As we neared the city the noble barrage balloons dotted the sky.
The bus terminal on Cathays’ park was some distance from the city centre so I found myself being dragged along as my mother made haste to the market, the first of her two stops. She always seemed eager to conclude the first of the stops, a necessary encumbrance, where she would quickly seek out fabrics at the materials stall on the upper floor. She was a tailoress as she would sharply remind those who would refer to her as a seamstress, she would review the fabrics and negotiate a price in typical Italian fashion with the stall owner who knew her well. Then there would be the obligatory stop at the pet stall for me. You don’t really need a pigeon she would tell me as I dawdled.
Out again, through Queen Street arcade, a short cut to her final destination, the real reason for her visit. The arcade exited onto Queen Street directly opposite the elegant Carlton Hotel, and its marbled stepped entrance to the foyer. For my mother, the opulence of the foyer was merely a place that one passed through to reach the winding brass railed staircase that clung to its periphery. The staircase opened out onto a wide corridor with a large oak double door immediately to our left, through which we passed, that led onto a large balcony area that hovered over a small dance floor below. This was what my mother sought on those Thursday afternoons, a change from the humdrum of daily business.
We sat at a spotless white clothed table alongside the wrought iron balustrade. My mother ordered afternoon tea complete with freshly baked scones from a black and white trimmed waitress. Even in those days there was nothing skimpy about the place, the tea etc; arrived, all in silver. There was a trio of musicians on a small stage providing dance music, for this was the afternoon tea dance. Several couples graced the floor. I have often reflected on what romantic dreams my mother may have harboured at those moments, but she simply smiled with contentment. In later years I have regarded these kinds of events as one of those more pleasant and saner moments of a sadly, bygone age, unfortunately never to be repeated.
At five p.m. we caught the last bus home. Alas! It was to be the last occasion of being able to do that, for that night, a random bomb of the Luftwaffe was to select the Carlton Hotel as its target, and though not totally destroying the hotel severely damaged that section containing the kitchens. The Carlton Hotel kept its doors open, limping along for the rest of the war. The foyer remained open even though parts were boarded up. It became a popular meeting place for GIs where even a doughnut making machine was installed.
More Stories from Aldo, great memories of the town
The Treharris of my youth was fairly self-contained town, most facilities were available. If one were seeking a greater variety to be found in Merthyr, Pontypridd or Cardiff, a frequent bus service was readily available. Merthyr Corporation provided a thirty minute service to Merthyr, and along with Cardiff Corporation and Western Welsh an hourly service to Cardiff. The latter was supplemented by the Red & White, via Nelson at five past the hour in front of the Navigation Hotel. Transport to Pontypridd was provided by Treharris Commercial Motors and Pontypridd U.D.C. The Com also provided service to Bedlinog and Blackwood. The Railway Station of the GWR provided train service to Pontypool Road. In an earlier item I had written about the shops of Fox and Perrott Streets. There were a few notable shops outside those streets, namely Emlyn Stores a family grocers store owned by the Griffiths, opposite the Royal Hotel; There was a Singer Sewing shop on lower Thomas Street, Trevor Knight’s Ladies Fashion shop on the hill between Bargoed and Brynteg Terraces, rounded off by a few front room shops like those on Fell Street and Brynteg Terrace.
At first glance one would have viewed the town as a deeply religious one as it seemed to cover most of the spectrum of religious denominations of the Western world. Starting from highest point in town geographically there was a relatively newcomer, a Pentecostal church between Webster and Evans Street. At the top of Webster Street was the Salvation Army, Bethania Chapel on Penn Street; St Matthias Anglican Church on Bargoed Terrace. Then, at the top of Perrott Street, stood the Tabernacle, Bethel Chapel, and Forward Movement. On John Street were the chapels of English and Welsh Methodists; Church of Christ at the end of Commercial Terrace. On Thomas Street, Brynhyfryd and a small Roman Catholic church near Susannah Place. There was some religious confusion in Families. I recall my friend John Hopkin (Shoe shop) having on a Sunday to go to Tabernacle in the morning to satisfy the religious leanings of his father, and then the Welshness of Brynhyfryd in the evening to satisfy his mother.
In the entertainment and amusement sectors much depended on one’s age and interests. Of Course first and foremost was the Palace theatre with two different film programs a week. If one was not happy about the films being shown there was always a walk to Nelson through the Pandy Fields or catch a readily available bus and take a seat at the Cosy cinema. For the preteens there was the occasional magic lantern show at the Parrish Hall. The latter also acted as the meeting point for the Boys and Girls Scout group.
Dancing was high on the entertainment list mainly catered for by the Rink and on special occasions the Cooperative Hall on Williams Terrace. There were, also, the odd dances at the community halls of Trelewis and Nelson. For the frequent dancers there was always the short bus trip to the Empress in Abercynon on a Tuesday.
When I reflect upon the town of that period all sorts of activities come to mind, and for all ages. In trying to list them I am sure I shall overlook some, for that I apologise in advance. Regarding outdoor activities the Park provided as it does still, Tennis, Lawn Bowling, soccer, and Rugby though in those days on a sloping field, the only flat piece being a wicker constructed between the rugby and soccer fields. The Park in those days was magnificently maintained with frequent flower beds and manicured lawns. It was well worth the walk. Each summer there would be a Fete & Gala held there. It was always well attended by the towns’ people. The Swimming Pool at Edwardsville was then an open air one, so most outdoor sporting activities were available, there was even a golf course above Fiddler Elbow.
Treharris had two senior soccer clubs, (no rugby other than that provided by the Grammar school); Treharris Athletic playing in the first division of the Welsh League, and the Treharris Rangers, both played at the Commercial Field. I have some quirky recollections of that field. In the post war years there were no white painted lines marking the field. Line marking was done by the laying down moist sawdust obtained from the colliery. The cutting of the grass, particularly after the summer growth, was quite an event. Several helpers pushing roller blade cutters, cutting a twenty inch path up and down the length of the field and where the grass was particularly high and thick a couple of scythes were in use. It was quite a performance.
I can’t leave the activities at the Commercial Field without reference to the Cue & Ball annual soccer tournament organised primarily by Alcwyn Thomas at the Den (Snooker Hall). Anyone who had a team could enter. The Den itself had two teams, Cue & Ball A and B. To be a member of the Cue & Ball B you had to the minimum age of 39, I suspect that was Alcwyn’s age at the time of the first tournament. There was I believe an added stipulation about the consumption of beer before the game. I was still at Grammar school at the time and we had decided to enter a team. I don’t know who arranged the draw but we found ourselves drawn against Cue & Ball B. The young, against the not so young. For the most part it was fun and largely enjoyable despite the number of bruises our team collected. The Den had even chartered a bus to take their supporters to the field; after all it was all of 200 yards away.
The Huts by Aldo Opel
Throughout most of my life I had regarded the mining town I was born and bred into was typical of most Welsh mining towns. For some reason, in more recent times, I have reflected on that viewpoint, concluding that I was incorrect in that assumption, in fact I now regard Treharris as unique due mainly to a combination of factors that do not appear elsewhere. It also opened up a moment of self-analysis as I considered its possible influence on my character development. There was some but it seemed that it’s the inherent traits that matter. It did however provide a backcloth to the display of those traits.
So what about this town, what is it that made it unique? It had a population of about 9000, somewhat larger than most mining towns, affording a slightly more lavish lifestyle, if that’s the word for that period. It was a town of extremes, the manor styled houses of Park Place, the endless rows of houses in parallel streets, with the exception of Cilhaul, climbing the hillside from the River Taff and its tributaries, to the almost forgotten unpaved street of the Huts, the bottom street of the town geographically and status. Nowhere else can I recall a habitat of this nature?
The coal mine had been started in 1870; the Huts provided housing for the labourers that sank the mine shaft, a half mile in depth. The Huts was an appropriate name for the place as they were mainly constructed of wood planking set vertically with some brickwork as a base and a slate roof. There were some 30 front doors, usually the only freshly painted part of each abode, a solitary splash of colour. They occupied both sides of a narrow street that despite having a standard flagged pavement, the road remained unpaved throughout its existence, its uneven bump and dip surface hardened over time. Fortunately there were few car owners. A schoolmate of mine lived in one of the Huts so I was on occasion able to glimpse the interior. There were three rooms, two small bedrooms to the front, an L shaped sitting/ dining room, the leg of which provided a small kitchen, and of course a coal fireplace with hob, the coal being provided free for those who worked at the colliery. This schoolmate had two brothers and a sister, and his parents. I have often wondered what the sleeping arrangements were. There was rental paid for occupancy, the grand sum of one and nine pence a week. Somehow there was never a vacancy. I think they existed until the 1960s.
From there a steep hill to the town centre, past the Ash Tip, over the railway bridge, a few better looking houses to the Square, a small plateau that crowned two hilly roads before continuing skywards. This was the hub of the business centre and partial secret to its uniqueness. There , on a large flag stoned area that fronted the Palace Theatre, if one stood or leaned against the green painted transformer, or even sat, for there was long backless bench available to the weary after the hill climb, one could gaze at, leisurely, a few of the factors in the town’s unique make up.
This is the story of an Adolescent’s Impression of the MP for Treharris S.O. Davies
By Aldo Opel
In my young mind I saw him as more actor than Member of Parliament, maybe both are synonymous. He was a strange individual who was to remain at Westminster well into his eighties. He was occasionally referred to by his initials.
A narrow gaunt face at my first seeing him, with wispy grey hair brushed across a bony top. His complexion non-descript like someone describing mousey hair. His dress seemed to take on a matching tone, wearing a well-worn grey suit on a tall spindly frame. I could imagine him playing some Dickensian character. He made me feel somehow uneasy, the impression, wrongly I’m sure, that he had been scrubbed over with carbolic soap. His skin seemed to have a pale transparency where some blemishes to the side of his head became a remembered feature.
The war had recently ended and there was talk of ousting Churchill abroad. The first signs of the impending election arrived in Treharris with the appearance of an old 1936 green, partly rusted Ford at the bottom of Fox Street facing the Colliery gates. It was nearing 2 p.m. shortly before the day shift would emerge from the Pit Head baths. The car door, in keeping with my image of him opened with a squeak and a creak, and out tumbled this grey angular person, doubled up, his head barely missing the top of the door frame. He nodded to two assistants waiting for him, and they in short steps took up strategic positions near the gates.
The miners emerged, singly, through the only exit of a narrow corridor of the time keepers’ lodge. S.O.D. attempted to greet each one of them, partly in Welsh, shaking as many hands that acknowledged his bony hand. Many of the miners shuffled by or turn directly into the street to the right thus avoiding him. He continued his routine, his assistants handing out pamphlets and reminding everyone about the meeting on Sunday afternoon at the Palace theatre, 2 p.m. prompt. Most would go, after all what other entertainment was there on a dry Sunday afternoon.
I will always remember that meeting at the Palace. Being a true theatre the ground floor had no cinema slope; one was obliged to look up at the stage. The political meetings of my youth were invariably well attended; the memory of the Great Depression was still very much alive despite the intervening war years. I, not having much to do on that particular Sunday afternoon, fired by a youthful curiosity about such proceedings, quietly and with some stealth made my way along the darkened aisle at the back of the main floor, careful not to take a seat. Not being of voting age I did not want to draw attention. I perched myself on the sill in front of a shuttered window.
The stage was lit, ready to reveal the drama. There were five players seated behind a long table at centre stage. S.O.D. sat second from the right. I wondered if he were wearing makeup, his complexion had improved.
The show began with the chairman’s call to order, followed by some opening speeches, a predictable arpeggio of sycophantic rhetoric that cascaded over the stage. Finally, the main event, S.O.D. was introduced to a modest round of applause. We, then, all learned of what a wonderful job he had done for his brothers— I don’t recall there being any women in the audience other than the cinema staff probably had better things to do.
After a long soliloquy, the shedding of sack cloth and ashes, or was it coal, then the question period. Welsh miners are nothing if not blunt and some difficult questions were asked. I noticed that, whenever faced by a difficult question S.O.D. would resort, I was to learn later, to his standard tactic.
First in Welsh,”Chwara teg brioddi! (Let’s be fair, brothers), then in English. “Let’s not forget the movement, we’ve come a long hard way together, let’s not sacrifice it.” There would be a murmur of support, and the question would dissipate into the darkness at the back of the hall.
Yes, for me, He was more actor than M.P. How appropriate that he should be on stage in a theatre. I am told that on the London stage he was less forthcoming.
I have thought occasionally, if the accoutrement of the well-worn suit, a raglan raincoat, fawn, along with 1936 rusty green Ford ever appeared on the London Stage.