Memories of Merthyr Tydfil

Memories from the 1930’s

The following article is taken from a tape recording sent to me by Mr Dai Harmon who grew up in Penyard, Merthyr Tydfil. He still lives in Merthyr, and has helped many people research their family origins, working at the LDS family history centre in Merthyr.

I have lived most of my life , on and off in Penyard, Merthyr Tydfil. Talking about Penyard, what a wonderful place to live. It was for a child, an adventure playground. I lived in the longest street, Darren View, it came up behind the Theatre Royal and also Trevethicks monument. You come up the redhill and, there’s Darren View stretched out in front of you at the top on the left hand side. The backs of Darren View open out where Trevethicks first steam engine ran. It was at the back of Penyard where Trevethick ran his engine to win a £500 bet for his iron master against Crawshay.

Up above Penyard, Incline Top on the left hand side you had the Rockies, with a big stack there which was about 25 feet high and about a yard square, which you could climb up inside to the top and look all around Merthyr Tydfil. The Rockies, well, what a place to play. It had a nice stretch across it with rocks everywhere. Down below we used to build ‘cloche tents’ and we used to fight the boys from Penydarren who used to come up, and we’d throw stones at each other like some invading armies. At the bottom of the Rockies was a small pitch where we would play football or cricket. Up above the Rockies was the big white tip made from all the shale that came from the Dowlais works. About two thirds of the way up was a cave. We used to play in there and it was magic. At the top of Incline Top was another place called the Aerials, it was another shale tip and, what a beautiful tip it was. There were huge buckets which would come along and deposit the shale on the tips. As boys, we would climb in the buckets and go for a ride. It was all very dangerous, and we’d often get many bruises, but they were wonderful times. There were also many other tips where we used to slide down them on a piece of tin, and many a pair of trousers were torn. That was the top of Penyard.

At the bottom of Incline Road there was a little mining pit. I always remember getting on the horsedrawn carts that carried the coal and, on the side was a sign ‘clean hand picked coal’. I never really knew what it meant. Next to the side of the pit used to be the old brickworks where many women of Penyard found employment. Very hard work it was too. Crossing the road there were trams pulled by horses going into the level behind Model Cottages, which was the top street of Penyard. Up on the left hand side was a slag heap and, often you would see people  sorting through it, picking out the little bits of good coal that may have been tipped there. The Patches was above Penyard on the right hand side as you left up the Pontfen Road and, in front of the Aerials was the Dandy, another tip. The Patches was a place where people would sink little mines to get the coal out for themselves, unemployed people including my father. He used to have a bike, well, a boneshaker really and he’d take it to the Patches and collect a bag of coal and bring it home. Up on the Dandy I remember Jack Jones the playright, who was a Penyard boy, writing stories. His brother Ike Jones was a bookmaker. At the bottom of Darren View, you had the old Thomastown park and the new Thomastown park. Opposite there was Queens Road school. Also in Penyard you had Queens Road infant school, and this was at the back of Garth Terrace. The Queens Road school was where you went if you didn’t pass your test for the grammer school. It was known as the Queens Road school for the over 12s.Anyway, there were these parks, Thomastown parks. Oh what beautiful places. At the top used to be a circle where many a fight was had. It was just like a boxing ring, although it was only a circle about 20 feet across. I remember fighting Dai Bedford, Georgie Hammond and a few others. There was a dingle where we would play ‘pop-op’. There were bushes either side, and we’d be in gangs hiding in the undergrowth. As soon as you saw one of the other gang you’d point at them and go ‘pop-op’-‘pop-op’ and they would be out of the game. It would last until there was only one member of each gang left to ‘pop-op’ each other.

A little football field was there and further down you had the tennis courts and the bowling green. The bowling green was a very important place, as Thomastown bowling club was one of the oldest in Merthyr Tydfil. Past the bowling green was a statue erected in memory of the people of Merthyr Tydfil who were killed in the first world war. As you left the old park, you went straight into the new park, and a lovely park it was too. You could play football, cricket or whatever.Behind the other side of Darren View between Mountain Air and Queens Road was the Legion. Oh boy the Legion, the football pitch. Above that, made out of tips of rubbish, now the site of Edwards Close and Vernon Close a housing estate, was another football field, so we had two football fields. They were known as the bottom Legion and the top Legion. The bottom Legion was where the Jones boys of Penyard played. Not only them, but everyone loved the legion. We’d start playing football about nine in the morning and finish when it went dark. Football all day! I remember Cliffie Jones coming up from Swansea, and he was such a little tut, but he would play on the wing and he was brilliant. Bryn Jones learnt his 25-30 yard passes on the legion. Mind, it wasn’t a flat ground by any means, it was up and down like a yo-yo, but it was the Legion and everybody loved it. We’d go to the club there on a Sunday as there were no pubs open after 2.00 clock, and the older men would challenge the younger men to a football match at half a crown a man. It was a lot of money in those days. There would be a proper referee and very often it would be a very tidy match.Down at the bottom of the Legion ground there was a club built by the unemployed, a wooden shack, but nice. Big enough to hold a stage, and we had a few concerts too. It housed a snooker table and people would be playing all day Saturday and Sunday. I learnt to play solo whist there with Ike Jones the bookmaker and his brother Dickie Jones. That club became the social centre of Penyard, and everybody got to go there at one time or other. The whole of Penyard was a great adventure playground. You’d have to pay hundreds of pounds today to go to an adventure playground like that!

Let’s talk now about some of the surrounding areas and some of the people that lived there. Shops, as you came up to Darren View there was a paper shop, ‘Owens’ the paper shop.Wyn Owen and his son were lovely singers, and Wyn used to sing with the best dance bands in Merthyr Tydfil. Owens used to deliver the papers to all over Penyard. Opposite was a shop called ‘Coffees’. When they had money they used to open, but if they were skint they would close. On the corner of Penyard there was a little wall and a lampost, and the singsongs that used to be there every Saturday night, beautiful singing every Saturday night.; They just used to congregate there. The Dees. Amos Dees, a good footballer mind, and he could have gone places, he used to have his Hawaiin guitar and we used to have lovely sing songs with it. Coming up into Darren View was Butlers shop and Jack Nash the butchers. Turning round into Penyard, up by Garth Terrace you’d have Pugh’s the shop. Now Mrs Pugh was a character. She used to wear a wig. A little gate led up to her shop, and as you went through the gate the bell would go ting-a-ling-a-ling. She always had meat and faggots in the window, with potato sacks outside. If you wanted potatoes she would go and weigh them with her hands, and then if you wanted a cake, she would put the cake in with the potatoes using the same dirty hands. There were always flies gathering in the window. We would sing a little song, behind Mrs Pugh’s back and we called her ‘scruffy’. The song would go like this:
As I walked into Scruffy’s shop, the stink was enough to blind me, the faggots said, God strike me dead, and the peas walked out behind me. Oh my cat is dead, it died in Scruffy’s shop.
We always sang it as kids, but never in front of her mind. At new year she always gave the children a little gift. Further up the street was Bakers. Mr Baker used to cook everybodys turkey if they had turkey, although most people in Penyard at that time could only afford chicken. He used to bake bread as Mr Baker was the baker. Coming down Corporation Street, you had Jenkins the shop. Mad Mr Jenkins and his father before him, always kept that shop, and funnily enough when he died he left it to Aidan Williams. It was a grocers shop, and that was where most people of Penyard would go.My brother Raymond, published a book of poetry, and there’s a lot of good poetry about Merthyr Tydfil. Well, he went to Jenkins shop for some cheese, and he brought it home and my mother asked him if she could have a look at the cheese. Well, there in the cheese were some lovely teeth marks!She asked, “Ray, have you been eating this cheese?”. “No Mam” said Raymond, and he continued, ” Mr Jenkins said the cheese was overweight so he bit a piece off to make it the right weight”. Well, to this day Raymond still claims he was innocent. After the incident he was given the nickname ‘Mickey Mouse’, which has stuck with him all of his life.

Now then, let’s talk about schooling. Once the children were about 4 or 5 years old they used to go to Queens Road infant school. A lovely school, right there in Penyard itself, at the back of Garth Terrace. It was a good school and the schooling was great. My teacher was Mr Hopkins, I’ll never forget him. He was a lovely teacher and bred me a love of mathematics, which I still love today. So all the children used to go there, and then on to Queens Road senior school, which was down a little further. They would go there until they were 11 years, and take their 11 plus, and if they passed the test they would go to either the grammer school, and oh it would be published in the Merthyr Express, all the people who have passed for the grammer school. I’ll never forget my sister, who was living opposite. Her husband worked in the Merthyr Express and she fetched the paper over early, for me before it reached the shops. I had passed 4th in the borough. Of all the children I had passed There’s excitement. I loved it, I’ll never forget it. It didn’t do me any good mind. I left grammer school after 2 years and worked for Tommy Bought the butcher, pushing the little bike about and giving meat out for 14 shillings per week.

Now there were 2 grammer schools in Merthyr Tydfil. One was called the County grammer school and that was opposite Penyard, and there were some wonderful teachers there. The other grammer schoolwas very well known. The Cyfartha grammer school. One wasn’t better than the other, and probably County was slightly better, but there wasn’t much between either of them. Schooling in that time was really fabulous, no question about that. If you didn’t make it to the grammer schools, you’d go to Queens Road school or you’d go down Quakers Yard technical school where you were taught such things as engineering even.

Now, the mining industry, where they went down the mines so young or worked at the pithead with their fathers, before my time they were going down the mines there at age 8 or 10 year old. In my time they had to be 14. That’s where they would go a lot of the people, down the mines. But, in Merthyr, industry, Kayser Bondor. Now Kayser Bondor was a stocking factory and that’s where I went after working in the butchers shop. I made stockings for Queen Mary. I remember she was size 8 1/2.
In the 1930’s, at one of the lowest points in the economic history of the area, with high unemployment and boarded up shops, a fashionable hosiery and underwear manufacturing company, Kayser Bondor Ltd, was the first new company to start operations in the borough. The factory was built at Dowlais, and men with a tradition of heavy industry had to quickly adapt themselves to operating high precision machines, but the success of this venture was demonstrated in the opening of a new lingerie factory at Pentrebach in 1945, and other similar enterprises like Berlei, and more recently Forma and Morris Cohen, have opened in the borough.
There were other factories, and , just after the war Hoover, which was the biggest factory in Merthyr Tydfil was opened by a Penyard boy, Danny Bowen, coal miner who lived on the top of the hill in Darren View. His wife and his mother were killed in a train crash going through a tunnel towards London. Very sad. Danny was a member of the Bowen family who were very prevelant in Penyard. Jackie Bowen and Frankie Bowen. Danny was a lovely singer who teamed up with Wyn Owen. They called themselves Owen and Bowen, lovely singers and were always booked to clubs not only in Merthyr, but other parts of Wales too.

In Penyard there were many families, and there was the chapel. The Penyard Forward Movement Chapel. There used to be soup kitchens in there during the thirties to help people because times were so hard. There were Sunday school trips to Pontsarn, lovely. Or down to Barry Island, oh what trips. But that was it, that was your holiday once a year, the chapel trip, of course there were no other holidays in the thirties. Come September there was hop picking in Hereford and people, particularly the unemployed would go up to Hereford on the backs of lorries. Once there you would have a small tent of some kind and lay down straw as a mattress. You could make some money picking those hops. You’d fetch money home, also sacks of potatoes, sacks of apples and other vegetables that would last you through the winter. Oh, it was wonderful, it was great. I used to love hop picking.In the thirties, you’d never see a car in Darren View, except once a week. There was a person called ‘Jiggy’, Mrs Williams, and she used to have a stall in the market in Merthyr and in Pontypridd. Well a taxi would come up Darren View to pick her up, and we’d all have to stop playing football. We’d pick up the ball and run over to the taxi, as it was such a rare thing to see.

We were always playing football in the street and there was only the odd horse and cart that would pass us by. There was Sprawley’s horse and cart and the rider would shout in an Italian accent, ” chipsalot, steaming hot chips, chipsalot, steaming hot..gerraway froma my horse, watta you doing with my horse?” He’d also come in the night selling his chips, with lanterns on the cart. Mr Harris would come on his horse and cart trying to get salvage, a rag and bone man. If you had any clothes you’d get a penny for them if you were lucky. You’d have to be very lucky with old man Harris, he was tighter than anybody! But, he had six girls to look after and wasn’t working, but there you are, it was all horses and carts in those days. Don Cunnington who lived in Garth Terrace at the back, his father Mr Cunnington was a tram driver who used to drive the trams up Merthyr High Street. I remember the last one coming up there.

I remember Lord Haw Haw in the second world war when we were digging up the tram lines to make bullets. He said ” You people of Merthyr Tydfil, you’re digging up your tram lines for bullets, well we’ll send bombs over, and we’ll bomb them rails up for you.” We used to listen to the wireless during the war, and I remember Mrs Smith up above hearing Lord Haw Haw saying “You don’t know what bacon and eggs is anymore, because it’s all powder eggs in Merthyr” and her husband was working the night shift, so she got her frying pan and was cooking bacon and eggs, and, turning to the wireless she shouted at the top of her voice, ” smell this you stupid man! Of course we’ve got bacon and eggs!”Good old Mrs Smith, I’ll never forget her.

Prior to world war II, because money was so short , we’d see people coming from the Rhondda trying to make money. They would start at the bottom of our street singing, and work their way up. They put their caps on the floor and would get a copper here and another there, and take it back to the Rhondda. They must have walked about 10 or 15 miles to come and sing. Then our boys would go over to the Rhondda and sing there.
Now what else about Penyard? Well, Penyard was the Las Vegas of South Wales. There used to be so much gambling going on, well well, Las Vegas had nothing on it. You could go round the back of Garth Terrace any time of the day, you could be playing Pontoons, you could be playing Farrel. Micky Jones used to teach us. On the top he would put the Ace, King, Queen, Jack, 10, 9, 8, 7 and all squares around them. You’d put your money on say the Ace, and he would turn a card over, and if it was an ace he would take the money off. But, if the Ace came up second he’d pay you out. So if you put threepence on it you’d take sixpence off. But, if two Aces or two Kings came up he’d win, so the bank always had a little better odds. Then there was pitch and toss. You’d put your little china mot down and then scratch a line to throw from. You’d toss the pennies to get them as close to the little china pot. The one who got the closest would pick up the pennies and throw them in the air. All the ones that came down ‘heads’ he would keep, and all those that landed ‘tails’ the second closest man would then toss them in the air, and so on and so on. That was pitch and toss. Then of course there was Purling. Purling was just two pennies. You would bet on if they would ‘head’ or ‘tail.There was a big circle, and I’ve seen as many as 40 or 50 people in it. One of them, Eddie Hunt, would say “C’mon heads for Eddie” when he threw his pennies in the air. I’ve seen people winning £5 having only started with say 5 shillings. That was Purling. Then, when the police came, someone would shout “Police, Police” and everyone would scatter all over the place. Mr Dunford from the bottom of the hill there, he was the policeman for the area and he’d come now and then, just to keep the boys on their toes. But, I don’t think he ever caught anybody!

S.O.Davies was the M.P for Merthyr Tydfil in the twenties and thirties, Labour of course. The first socialist M.P. in Britain came from Merthyr. I remember in the early days our house used to be turned into committee rooms for Will Owen to stand as the local councillor.These were the days of the means test, when they would come up to your house. If you had items in the house, you’d have to sell them before they would give you any benefit money.In our house, my Grandmother was the head of the home, at 18 Darren View. My mother and father were there too, but it was my Grandmother who was the head. Every morning you would get up and the fire would be lit by one of the women. They’d black lead the grate and clean the brasses around the fireplace. There were no carpets, just rag mats which my Grandmother used to make.On a Sunday morning we would all help together preparing vegetables for our Sunday dinner. After dinner, all the women would wash the dishes, and then the family would dress up in their ‘Sunday best’ clothes for the 6’o’clock evening service at church. We’d have tea before we went, usually fry up using any vegetables that were left from dinner. Then it was off to church, Presbyterian at Penyard Forward Movement Church, and Watkin Williams the minister. He was a Military Cross Captain from the army during the 1914-18 war. He had a lot of friends in London from his army days, and when he visited them, he would cadge as many things as possible to bring back to the poor people of Penyard. He was one of the greatest men I have ever known. He lived for the people and died for the people. My brother Raymond wrote a poem after Watkin Williams died.

Mondays was always wash day. Out would come the big old tub, it was huge. Large buckets of water were poured into the tub and out would come the scrubbing board. Hard graft! If you had miners in the family, well their clothes were dirty, really dirty. Perhaps another of my brothers poems describe it accurately. The washtubs gave people a lot of arthritis in their time without a doubt, her hands were crippled before she died. I remember well that her and my Grandmother worked hard on the washtub.
Then came Tuesday, which was ironing day of course. They dried all the clothes on the fender in front of the fire. Beside that of course, they had to do all the cooking and everything else, and the money was tight, there’s no doubt about it. If possible she would try and find a bit of work and go cleaning down Mrs Jones. Later in life she got work in the laundry. It’s funny those women, they never stop, all their lives they worked. Their homes were like little palaces, you could eat off the floor, they were clean, they worked hard.

During the 1920’s and 30’s most of the work for women was in service, there was nothing else for them to do. So they would go and work for other women for a penny or tuppence an hour, doing the ironing, piles and piles of ironing for a couple of coppers so that they could buy something for the children. When I think of the work people had, and very little money to get by. My father had been in the 1914-18 war and came home with Asthma. He was given a little pension. So, with his little pension, there would always be people around trying to borrow it. He’d have it on a Monday and lend some of it out, and then go out on Friday trying to get it back off them. Very hard, very very hard.Yes, during the 20’s and 30’s in the valleys, times were very hard, and people used to live in each others houses, there were no doors locked at night or in the day. All of a sudden the door would open, and we could be in the tub bathing! Mrs Lucas who lived next door but one would come in and she’d be talking away as we were bathing in front of her. Everybody would come to our house, “…can I borrow a cup of sugar?”, “…can I borrow a little tea?”. And, of course the teapot was always there, with plenty of Welshcakes for anyone that called. Then, the last thing at night, my father would clean all the childrens shoes, so that when we got up for school in the morning we all had clean shoes.Yes, times were hard then, but we also had a lot of fun as children. As I said earlier, Penyard was a lovely place to live.I hope you have enjoyed these memories of Merthyr and Penyard in particular.
Thankyou.
Dai Harmon