The above photograph shows Cymmer Old Chapel before the removal of the graveyard in preparation for the new by-pass.
I have included further stories from my book about the history of the Rhondda. Though not exhaustive, the stories offer a brief introduction to some fascinating stories about the locality.
The Rhondda is synonymous with coal and its effects on world markets during the early years of the twentieth century should not be underestimated. The only evidence of working local seams two hundred years ago was to be found at the Nyth-Bran level, Haford, Cymmer, and Dinas in the Lower Rhondda. The two main valleys, the Rhondda Fach and the Rhondda Fawr, retained their unspoilt charms until exploration for coal began during the later years of the century.
The term Rhondda was not in use. Much of the locality, including present day Rhondda was, up until the end of the 19th Century, based within the Parish of Ystradyfodwg.
The Parish society of these years had remained virtually unchallenged. There were three distinct classes. There were no great landowners or local gentry in the Rhondda. Many landowners were absentee proprietors. The farmers who developed their estates were in charge of local affairs.
The second group consisted of smaller tenant farmers. There were less than eighty of these farms in the Rhondda. Though their social standing was respectable, the farmers lived in abject poverty. The final group were the artisans, servants, apprentices, and shepherds. Eventually, some labourers hoped to own their own farms. The population lived in scattered farmsteads; villages were rare in upland locations. The buildings were rudimentary and stood close to the rivers or on hillsides near springs. The farms were low, with thatched or tiled roofs; thick stones taken from local quarries, dressed for the main structure.
Agriculture followed traditional methods with that of other upland valleys with a system of mixed farming and crop rotation. Farmers would rear sheep, cattle, and produced sufficient crops for their domestic use. The humus was not of good quality and this, with the poor climate, made it impossible for farmers to make a living by the land. Ploughing would have been attempted along the river flats. The natural inclines of the mountains provided good ground for the sheep runs. The hardy Rhondda sheep was well-known throughout Britain.
Welsh produce was in great demand at this time. Sheep and cattle, because there were no fairs in the Rhondda, were taken to the fairs of Neath, Merthyr, Llantrisant, Ynysbwyl, and Llandaff. When it was necessary to take stock further a field, farmers employed drovers.
Communications were non-existent at the time. Harsh winters usually led to farms being isolated from their main markets. Sufficient crops and foodstuffs were stored for domestic as well as personal use. Little land was available for the animals trapped by snow, so terraces dug into the side of the mountains, using the best soil along south facing slopes, were used as shelters.
There were improvements in husbandry, the coming of the Taff Vale Railway, and the slow growth of the population in both Rhondda Valleys. Some farmers improved their livelihoods by becoming blacksmiths.
Important events continued with communal shearings. Black wool was set aside for the farmers’ personal use, but other wool, after its washing and dyeing, was spun into yarn or woven into cloth or flannel. Finally, the wool was sent to the Pandy to be bleached. The main Pandy, or fulling-mill, was near the confluence of Nant Clydach and the River Rhondda Fawr at Tonypandy. The mill’s days ended with the opening of the railways and the cheap textiles that came from the North of England. The population in the Rhondda in the 1830s was 1,636, rising to 128,000 in 1891.
During the latter part of the century, the population increased with men coming to the valleys to work in the mines. Agricultural workers came from all parts of the country to join those seeking employment in the Rhondda and Taff-Ely.
By the 1930s, production begun to fall and so fell demand for Rhondda coal in the world markets. The population dropped by as much as 16% according to major studies as people left to find work in Cardiff, Manchester, Lancashire, and London. Unemployment peaked at 40%. Cymmer Colliery employed 2,331 men at its peak before ceasing production in 1940. Treforest Estate opened in 1938 and created much needed employment. Leiners, the Gelatine Company, were established in the 1950s. The Tinplate factory, founded by William Crawshay, set up in the 1800s, still produced tin and offered employment to the local populace into the 1930s.
BRONWYDD HOUSE, PORTH
Bronwydd House is a Grade 2 listed building. W.D. Thomas for William Evans, the main founder of Thomas and Evans, built the house. The company had many shops in the valleys, Welsh Hills Works where Corona was bottled, the Terry Stores, and supplied many establishments throughout South Wales. William Evans bequeathed Porth Park to the people of Porth. A memorial to him is in the park. Bronwydd House is now council offices.
Cymmer Independent Chapel
The independent cause, with a sister chapel in Porth, since demolished, was established at Cymmer in 1738 by Henry Davies, a minister from Blaen Gwrach in the Vale of Neath. The chapel, the first Nonconformist place of worship in the Rhondda, was built in 1743. The minister met his death, age unconfirmed because it was illegible on his tombstone in the graveyard next to the chapel, when his horse was frightened while crossing the river at Porth; he was thrown into the water; drowning.
During the next one hundred years, the chapel fell within the boundaries of the parish of Llantrisant, which extended to Pont-y-cymmer. Today it lies within the boundaries of the Rhondda.
A Sunday school begun at Cymmer Chapel in 1817 and was attended by over eighty children who learnt the scriptures and were taught in Welsh. This was the only education the children had, as during the week they would have been working underground.
The Chapel was a known meeting place for discussions, choral practices, and fairs that took place within its grounds. It had a famous choir, the Porth and Cymmer Mixed Choral Society conducted by the Minister M.O. Jones. Ivor Novello’s mother brought her choir there and Joseph Parry conducted on a number of occasions. One other chapel, besides Cymmer Chapel, is still extant in High Street: Caer Salem Newydd Welsh Independent Chapel was built in 1817 and is now a block of flats. Cymmer Independent Church, just down the road from Cymmer Chapel, is now part of the buildings belonging to the R. A. Hulland Group.
Walter Coffin (1784-1867)
An introduction to mining in the Rhondda would be incomplete without the mention of Walter Coffin. Coffin’s original intention was to prospect for bark in the Rhondda before he became interested in looking for coal. He purchased Graig-Du Farm and opened his first level there in 1817. Further pits were sunk during the years of 1815 and 1832. The “Rhondda no.1 seam” and “Rhondda no. 3 seam” became world famous. Coffin’s Unitarianism did not alter his major flaws. There were a number of explosions at the pits in Dinas, leading to many lives being lost. Reports from H.M.I. of Mines make harrowing reading with the testimonies of the children who were working in the levels at Dinas. Dinas, between the wars, had fourteen pubs along its narrow roads. Coffin did employ a doctor and his wages were deducted from the miners’ wages. An explosion on 1st January 1844 claimed the lives of twelve men and boys. Another explosion occurred on 13th January 1879 at the Lower and Middle Pit when sixty-three men and boys lost their lives.
Here is a selected list of collieries beginning with the date when they were sunk and closed. The dates are subjective.
Dinas Middle: 1832-1893
Cymmer Colliery: 1847-1940
Hafod nr.1: 1850- 1927
Hafod nr.2: 1850-1930
Tynewydd: 1852- 1901
Ty Mawr: 1848-1983
Cymmer Old Pit, sunk in 1847, later complemented by New Cymmer Pit, which was sunk by George Insole in 1855. The River Rhondda is prominent in some early photographs taken of the colliery. Insole also owned a colliery in Glynfach. In 1856, the colliery suffered the worst explosion known in Britain at that time when one hundred and fourteen of the work force, out of one hundred and sixty men and boys working underground, were killed. Thirty graves were opened in Cymmer Chapel graveyard: in one grave, a father and his three sons were buried. The inspector said in his report that the cause of the explosion was neglect of safety precautions. The collieries ceased production just after the outbreak of the Second World War.
Griffith Morgan- (Guto Nyth-bran) 1700-1737
The famed cross-country runner was born in Llwyncelyn, Porth. His family moved to Nyth-bran, where stories of his speed soon spread across Glamorgan. Some tales may be embellished, but there is little doubt that he was an extremely fast runner.
One story tells of him following the Llanwynno Hunt, running all the way to Cardigan with a few dogs after the fox. He stayed in the area and it was said that he outran a horse, winning substantial wagers for a knowledgeable gentleman.
His preparation for racing would definitely raise a few eyebrows today. Guto would sleep in a bed of warm manure, believing that the natural heat would loosen his limbs, making him run faster. His limbs, noted his friend Sian the Shop, were like whipcords. She is supposed to have won £500 on Guto after he beat an army captain in a race. Another challenge came from a runner named Prince. The race, run from Newport to Bedwas Church, was over a distance of twelve miles. Hundreds of pounds were wagered.
Guto started to play his old tricks. While Prince was far in front, Guto would stop and chat with friends before starting again. With such impunity, he overtook Prince and arrived at Bedwas Church. Sian was overjoyed to see him and congratulated him with a tap on the back. This caused his heart to move and killed him instantly. He died after his greatest race: running the twelve miles in fifty-three minutes. Guto’s story is told in the book Plwy Llanwynno by William Glanffrwd Thomas.
Guto was buried beneath the south wall of Llanwynno Church in 1737.
The Llynfawr Hoard
In 1911, during the conversion of Llynfawr into a reservoir, an exceptional find of Bronze and Iron Age artefacts were found packed into cauldrons. The finds are listed below and it is supposed they were offerings to ancient gods.
This is a Bronze Age burial site near Ferndale. Not much remains of the burial chambers. There are Roman-staging camps nearby at Graig-y-Gwilern above Ferndale and Gelligaer.
Tonypandy Riots 1910-1911
I always remember my grandmother Morfydd Edwards of Tegfan House, Appletree, telling me how she and a friend were shepherded to safety under Pandy Bridge by a miner, as a running battle fought between miners and police was underway. She said it was a terrifying experience as she and her friend tried to find safety.
The origins of the riots concern fifty men who went on strike from the Ely Pit, Penygraig, and this escalated until twelve thousand men from other pits stopped work.
The Ely Pit was part of the Cambrian Combine, which was brought together from existing companies by David Thomas, later Viscount Rhondda, and put under the management of Leonard Llewelyn. Pay negotiations had broken down at the Ely Pit, resulting in the fifty miners facing a lock out on September 1st, 1910.The union saw this as an underhanded move to cut piece rates and joined the Ely miners on November 1st.
Rioting broke out a week later in Tonypandy and Llwynypia, shop windows smashed. This occurred, I believe, because shop owners had put the names of the miners who could not afford to pay their bills in the windows as a provocation. Chief Constable Lionel Lindsay sent a request for extra police.
Six hundred police were sent from Cardiff and Swansea, five hundred metropolitan police arrived and Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary, called in the troops. Glamorgan Colliery, owned by Archibald Hood, was heavily involved in the disturbances and was pivotal when the Riot Act was read.
There were no winners in this desperate struggle and the recriminations lasted for years. The men stayed out of work until September 1911. They then returned to work for the wages they were offered the previous year. Alexander Cordell’s “This Sweet and Bitter Earth” uses the Tonypandy Riots as a backdrop to the story.
The Troedyrhiw Coal Company sank the colliery in 1852. The colliery ran alongside the Rhondda Fawr River near its junction with the Rhondda Fach at Porth. During April 1877, a flooding of the mine occurred and fourteen miners found themselves trapped by a torrent of water that escaped from the old level at Cymmer Colliery. Five men died, four rescued many hours later, leaving the remaining miners to take refuge in another level. They survived for four days before rescuers heard their knocking through forty feet of coal. The subsequent rescue, with Queen Victoria awaiting news of the trapped men, made headlines around the world. It was ten days before rescue of the trapped men succeeded. The accumulation of gas and water threatened all of whom were involved. Gwillym Thomas, Abraham Dodd, and Issac Pride were members of the rescue team. Pride received the Albert Medal First Class and Thomas an honourable mention. Abraham Dodd’s bravery was surprisingly overlooked. Joseph Parry composed his “Miner’s Anthem” after the Tynewydd Disaster. Issac Pride was later killed in an accident at Cymmer Colliery.
Twyn-y- Briddant – Roman Staging Camp. Rhondda Fach
The camp, some 1,480 feet above sea level, is situated on Twyn-y-Briddant. It is an extraordinary view, stretching from the Brecon Beacons, Carmarthen and the ridges of North Glamorgan to the Vale, the Bristol Channel, and the Somerset Coast beyond. Only to the southeast is the view restricted by the higher mountains. The camp, along with the ones at Blaen-Cwm-Bach and Penycoede gives some idea of the Roman military prowess. Their campaigns against the Silures, Ordovices, and the Decangli continued for many years.
The present name Rhondda Cynon Taff derived from the old Borough that took its name from the Rhondda Fawr and Rhondda Fach rivers that meet at Porth and run into the Taff at Pontypridd. The name Rhondda is thought to derive from the Celtic word “rad” (speak, recite) which gave a later Welsh word “rhawdd”. The second element would have been “gneu” meaning to give birth. The two elements became Rhoddna, later the name changed to Rhondda. The consensus to its original meaning was that it meant “babbling brook”.
Blaenclydach – This means the “head of Clydach, though the village is really below Clydach Vale in Tonypandy.
Blaencwm – This means “at the end of the valley”, in this case Cwm Selsig at the head of the Rhondda Fawr Valley.
Blaenllechau – The village takes its name from the old farm that stands alongside the road to Llanwynno. There is a stream here called Nant Llechau; this means the head of the Llechau stream. The word Llechau suggests a stream flowing over stones.
Blaenrhondda – “The head of the Rhondda”. This was originally a farm name, the settlement developed on the former farmland. It is marked as Blaenyrhondda on early Ordnance Survey maps. Ebenezer Lewis sank Fernhill Colliery in 1872.
Clydach Vale – The River here flows into the Rhondda Fawr at Tonypandy. The place name was Duffryn Clydach in the 17th Century. Duffryn means vale. Lewis Jones, the author of “Cwmardy” (1937) and “We Live “(1939) was born here. The
Cambrian Collieries was the scene of the last disaster in the Rhondda on the 17th May 1965 when thirty-one miners lost their lives.
Cwmparc – A medieval park during the Tudor period was named Parc Cwm Brychiniog. It consisted of four farms, two of which were Parc Uchaf and Parc Isaf (Upper and Lower Park). Cwmparc was its designated name and the stream Nant Cwmparc. The name was adapted for the village that was here in the 19th Century. St. George’s Church built at the sole expense of Mrs Llewelyn, who also donated the land. Consecration took place in December 1896.
Cymmer – The word means confluence and refers to the point where the two Rhondda Rivers meet at Porth. The full name is Cymmer Glyn Rhondda. The house Porth-y-cymmer, from which its house name derived, is marked on early maps. Gwyn Thomas, the author of “All Things Betray Thee” (1949) was born in High Street, Cymmer. Tudor Davies, the renowned Tenor, was born just up the road from Gwyn Thomas’s home.
Dinas – This is where Coffin sank his first levels in 1812 on land belonging to Dinas Uchaf farm. Dinas mean “hill-fort “, there used to be historical remains of an Iron Age settlement on the nearby hill Craig-y-Ddinas. Dinas was nicknamed Dinas-y- Glo, the coal city, in the 19th century. Walter Coffin’s residence Ty Mawr was still to be seen as late as the 1920s near Dinas football pitch. An apocryphal story suggests that William David of Penygraig, who knew Dr. William Price of Llantrisant, worked for Coffin at his mine, became a local leader of the Chartists and later fled to America after the failed rising on Newport. One of the last explosions at Dinas took place at Dinas Main Colliery on 14th December 1907. Eight colliers died.
Ferndale – The name is a translation of the Welsh name Glyn Rhedynog. David Davies of Llandinam who sank the Ferndale Collieries adopted the English name. Stanley Baker, star of “Zulu”, “A Hill in Korea,” was born here.
Gelli – The name was adopted from “celli”, the word-meaning grove. There were two farmhouses here: Gelligaled and Gellidawel. Edmund Thomas and George Griffiths sunk Gelli Colliery in 1877.
Llwyncelyn – A district of Porth. There was a colliery nearby. The name means “holly bush” or “holly grove”. Guto Nyth-bran, Griffith Jones, was born here.
Llwynypia – This could mean grove or bush of the magpie. The name belonged to an old farm occupied by the Bevan family. Archibald Hood sunk the Glamorgan Colliery at Llwynypia.
Maerdy – One suggestion for this name is that it means “lord’s house. The village is named after an old farmhouse. Mordecai Jones and James Cobb sunk two shafts in 1875. The third Maerdy shaft was sunk in 1893 after the mine was leased to Lockets Merthyr Coal Company.
Penrhys – Penrhys, situated 1,000 feet above sea level, still has an air of mystery about it. The Cistercian Monastery was famed in the Middle Ages for St Mary’s Well and the medieval shrine that was ordered to be destroyed by Cromwell. The Black Prince was betrayed by one of the monk’s after staying here and was later captured in Tonyrefil. The name is supposed to mean “head of Rhys” after the execution of Rhys ap Tewdwr.
Pentre – Another name taken from an old farmstead. It means “village or “homestead”. The name could have been taken from the farm buildings that were known as Y Pentref. Prince George, later King George V1, played golf at Ton Pentre Golf course in 1915. Mrs Clement Atlee visited Ton Pentre in 1947. In 1916, a landslide destroyed shops and a skating rink.
Penygraig – “Top of the rock”. Another name taken from a farmhouse. Moses Rowland sunk The Naval Colliery in 1875.
Pontygwaith - The name means “bridge of the works” and refers to a small ironworks that has not survived.
Porth – Porth means “gateway” and describes the town’s situation at the entrance to the two Rhondda valleys. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor stopped for a pint at the Rheola pub in the 1960s. Porth Cottage Hospital, built 1892, was established with gifts and weekly subscriptions from the people of Porth. The hospital has since been demolished.
Stanleytown - This part of Tylorstown is built around the Stanley Hotel, though it is not known which Stanley this commemorates. It could be H. M. Stanley, the Victorian explorer.
Ton Pentre – There was originally a farm here called Y Ton; the word means meadow. The village that later came was similiarly called Ton, but it was later changed to Ton Pentre to distinguish it from Tonypandy. Maindy Colliery was the first colliery sunk by David Davies of Llandinam in 1866.
Tonypandy – “The meadow near the fulling-mill.” The mill stood until the outbreak of the First World War and was a well-known establishment, dating back over one hundred and fifty years. The “Ton” was the side stretching from Cross Keys to the Clydach brook. The hamlet near the mill was called the Pandy. Tonypandy suffered from heavy snowfalls in 1916.There is a story that Stanley Baker took Alan Ladd to the Naval Club while they were filming “The Red Beret” for a pint. Actors Glenn Ford, star of “The Big Heat” as well as the Houston brothers, Donald and Glyn, was born in Tonypandy. Donald made his film debut with Jean Simmons in “The Blue Lagoon”. One of Glyn’s television parts was in “Where the Buffalo Roams” with a young Hywel Bennett. The Empire Theatre opened in 1909. Tommy Farr fought his famous fight against Joe Louis in the 1930s. The Rhondda was spellbound.
Trealaw – David Williams was a landowner on whose land Trealaw was built. Tre is Welsh for town and “alaw” was Williams’s bardic name. Ancient tumuli are shown on a 1830s map above the mountain near Brithwaunydd. Ray Smith, another fine actor, was born in Trealaw. He was a memorable Dai Bando in the television version of “How Green was my Valley.” Walter Coffin opened a colliery here managed by Daniel Thomas, the manager of Dinas Middle Colliery. Thomas was to die after an unsuccessful rescue attempt at Naval Colliery, Penygraig, in 1880. He was buried in Trealaw Cemetery. Howard Spring, the author of “Shabby Tiger”, had his play “Jinny Morgan “performed at Maes Yr Haf.
Trebanog - The name probably means high/lofty town. Cliff Morgan was born on Trebanog Road. A new housing estate was built in the 1960s.
Trehafod – Houses shown on early maps were situated on the area formerly the land of Haford Uchaf; the mineral rights were first leased by Jeremiah Homfray in 1809.
Treherbert – The Bute Merthyr Colliery opened here in 1855. The area became known as Cwm Saebren, or Saebren. The name Tref Herbert appears in records around this time. It commemorates one of the family names of the Marquis of Bute, whose trustees opened the colliery, built the houses, and named one of the streets after him. Thomas Joseph sunk Tydraw Colliery in 1865.
Treorchy - The town is on the Gorchi stream that had given rise to the old farm name of Aberorchi or Aberoergy. The stream flows into the Rhondda Fawr River at this point. Gorchi may have meant a stream marking a boundary. The Opera House in Station Street was built in 1872; destroyed in a blaze on April 30th 1934. George Insole sunk Abergorki Colliery in 1865.
Tylorstown – The village named after Alfred Tyler of Newgate Street, London, who bought the mineral rights to the Pendyrus Colliery. Jimmy Wilde, flyweight champion of the world 1916-1923, was born here. Wilde’s nickname was “The Tylorstown Terror.”
Tynewydd – This means “new house. The village near Treherbert took its name from the old farmhouse.
Wattstown – The National Colliery was here in the 1880s. Among the many companies that worked the pit included Messrs. Watts, Watts and Company, headed by Edmund Watts. Where does the name come from?
Williamstown – The name is taken from the old farmhouse called Hendre Gwillym. Its original name Tre-william was never used.
Ynysfeio - This is the old Ynysfeio Colliery site. There was a farmstead with the original name once on the site. It is derived from “ynys” meaning “riverside meadow” and “feio” which is probably the plural of the welsh “fa” meaning place.
Yynshir – Once again named after a farm. It means “long riverside meadow” and the old farmstead was very close to the Rhondda Fach River. A well-known jazz band from Yynshir the Pierrot band performed regularly in the valley.
Ystrad – The name means “vale” and is taken from the old parish name, Yystradyfodwg. The name means “vale of Tyfodwg, who may have been a disciple of Saint Illtud. The area is probably where Tyfodwg had his hermitage. Tyntyla Isolation Hospital was previously known as Ystrad Cottage Hospital. Warner Simpson & Company sunk Bodringallt Colliery in 1864. Nebo, a Welsh Baptist Chapel, founded in 1786.
Coffin’s assertion that no coal would be discovered in the upper Rhondda was to prove unfounded. In 1850, a director of the Taff Vale railway offered a premium of £500 to any man who could find coal one hundred and twenty yards below the surface of the riverbed in the Rhondda Fawr.
The Chief Agent of the Bute Mineral Estates, W.S. Clarke, took up the challenge. He discovered the Upper 4ft seam at one hundred and twenty five yards in October 1851. Land prices rapidly rose and the T.V.R. extended their line. On the 21st December 1855, the first tram load of thirty-eight trams went to Cardiff. During the years 1864-1865, demand for Rhondda Steam Coal increased dramatically when its superior quality became known.
The physical and mental strain took its toll on the men working underground and they were aged before their time. There were few of the modern devices that would make the retrieval of coal much easier. The working day never varied and there was little respite to the poverty wages that were paid. The generosity of the coal owner is little evident. Walter Coffin did pay on occasions for the funerals of miners killed at Dinas.
A typical collier’s day would begin before it was light. He would be at the level before 7am, stopping to eat his bread and cheese for dinner, and ending his shift in the late afternoon. Starting pay was as little as one shilling and thruppence a day. Daylight must have been a godsend when they had Sunday’s off. For these men, there was little tranquillity and they died young. The correlation between inhalation of coal dust and pneumoconiosis was not then known.
Trams were the main mode of transport around the valleys at the beginning of the twentieth century. Introduced in the first decade, the electric system existed for more than a quarter of a century. They were cumbersome, difficult to operate, and road subsidence led to difficult conditions. Though there were frequent crashes, there were no serious casualties. Older people still miss the Rhondda Transport for the reliability of their buses. They had more routes back then and its service never deteriorated during the years the company operated.
Cymmer Old Chapel, from the hill that used to run alongside the cemetery.
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