I was given three sound files relating to the town of Tredegar, all recorded in 1992, but so different in content that I asked if I could write three blogs to do each file justice.
The three files include the first CD released by the Tredegar Town Band, which had just won third place in the 1991 European Championships; a jingle written for the very last Garden Festival Wales; and a narration based on life-time resident William Cliff Smith’s memories of the Tredegar between 1912 and 1926. I am going to start with Mr Smith.
Tredegar is a town which maintains a hugely popular community following – not only does it have its championship brass band, but it is home to the Tredegar Orpheus Male Voice choir (started in the 1880s), at least three websites and several open forums which were very helpful for fact and name checking. Most of these are available through the umbrella site www.tredegar.co.uk which was set up in 1991.
My sound file is a clean copy (with added organ music) of a cassette tape recording available on YouTube. It begins with the narrator (presumed to be Barry Davies thanks to some investigative digging on one of the forum sites) saying:
“It could be truthfully said of Cliff Smith that he sincerely loved Tredegar, and this underlying dedication to Tredegar is evident in his two books: “Tredegar, My Town” and “Tredegar’s Yesterdays’.”
W C Smith “Tredegar’s Yesterdays” book cover – found on Amazon
Thus begins an interesting recollection of life after the turn of the century, up to and including the Great Miners’ Strike of 1926, covering all aspects from housing and living conditions, the daily routine of ‘the housewife’ (beginning at 5am) to the realities of washing day in a mining town. Men took care of their own clothes on Saturdays while the children were at one of the four cinemas in Tredegar, and the wives chatted with their neighbours, knowing their official washing day was on a Monday.
The descriptions and naming of the various hawkers – from food to underclothing to coal and oil – are interesting and detailed. There’s a real sense of neighbourhood during this timeframe. Each of Tredegar’s neighbourhoods had established door-to-door salespeople, including packmen who unrolled their wares on the stoop and women who came on their cobs from as far away as Crickhowell to sell chickens and vegetables. Commercial Street lives up to its name as the hub for shops, some of which were the pick-up locations for the vendors who then dispersed to their associated neighbourhood.
I particularly enjoyed the story about the fish mongers who came from Merthyr in a fleet of flat-top, horse drawn carts on Tuesdays and Fridays. Since there was a bylaw in Merthyr about unsold fish, there arose a tradition of these fish carts lining up, at the end of the route, outside a tea shop called The Rice Pudding owned by spinsters, the Misses Price. Their café served pudding for a penny and tea for a half penny and while the fish men enjoyed their break, elderly townsfolk would gather around the carts to see what was left. They were able to buy a fish for a penny, while the remainder was distributed for free to the poor.
Another section of the sound file was allocated to nicknames of the various hawkers, including Jack Lookup (who sold everything imaginable from his high cart and who serviced the whole town), Billy Dumpling (baker), Trevor the Milk (whose descendent was awarded an MBE to go with the appellation in 2008), Mott the Oil and others.
Townsfolk also earned memorable nicknames. There was Dai Backrent who collected for the Tredegar Iron & Coal Co., Billy Born-Drunk, Jackie Banjo and Jim Drummer, Billy Kidgloves (temperament or affectation?) and Dai Bluemark, so called because of a scar on his face which, because of coal dust impregnation, turned blue on healing. George Pierce became so well-known for his tall stories, that anyone caught telling a white lie was called a ‘george pudding’. The three Jones brothers of Whitworth were called Jimmy Hallelujah, Tommy Saviour and Billy Cow-and-Calf. The first two were converted at a Tent Appeal in 1912; presumably Billy missed out on that but due to his small holding was awarded a nickname too.
Cliff recalls the ice cream vendors on pedal carts, a similar cart was also used by Mrs Morris, the lady who ran a fish & chip cart with a tubular chimney – smoke billowing out “like a first world war naval dreadnaught.” Apparently, her chips were golden brown and her batter unrivalled. Then there were the milk ladies – Angelina and her sister, and the one-eyed cockle man from Dowlais. There was as much friendly competition between the fruit and veg sellers as there was on the allotments to see who could grow the biggest cabbage. Consequently, there was a greengrocer on almost every street.
The memoirs overall show a great spirit of community – every shop on the high street thriving, the poorest section of the population cared for in some way or other, but also the realities of living in a mining town. Towards the end of the file, the depravations experienced by the town due to major strikes in 1921 and 1926, bring home the importance of community pulling together.
Even before the lean years, allotments, chicken coops and pigsties were a common site around Tredegar. The allotments were cared for by the miners who began the growing year with a May Day celebration of digging and sowing seeds. I loved the description of the children going around with a soapbox trolley gathering up horse manure – deposited daily and imperative for the allotment plots. In some areas, the street sweeper would anticipate the trolley by shifting the manure into a tidy pile ready for collection on a street corner.
Side two of the sound file, which was digitised by the Sound Archive, is dedicated to stories of Cliff’s early work life in a brick kiln from the age of thirteen, and his love of dancing which started when he was fifteen.
Life was hard in these days – everyone worked from an early age and long hours, but they enjoyed life as well. There was a rhythm to the town; everyone knew the routine of industry into which home life fit as a harmony. The descant to this lifestyle was made from the moments of social pleasure, which came in the form of music (the band and choirs which had started in the late 1800s, glee parties, the dancehalls) and the cinemas – Palace, Workman’s Hall, Olympia and the Top Cinema (officially the Queen).
These were the days before talkies and Cliff’s adolescent heart was stolen by the actress, Pearl White. Although the films were silent, the audience were incredibly noisy with adults shouting to read the captions aloud for their unschooled friends and the pandemonium of the children on a sugar high screaming whenever the villain appeared on screen.
After the Saturday morning chores, eight-year-old Cliff and his sister would rush off to the closest sweet shop to load up on marble rocks before heading to the cinema for the weekly dose of Pearl’s serial “Trail of Hearts”. After the movie, the two would go to a fish shop on Commercial Street where they would gorge on “fish batter and chips strainings”. This part of the recording had me salivating!
By the time Cliff was a teenager, there was excellent choice in dancehalls – the Town Hall at the top or the Drill Hall at the bottom of Tredegar. The north end of town was looked after by a band leader named Tom James, and several times a year dances were held, under special licence, at the Crwsiad Hall at the catholic school.
Walking was popular and one of Cliff’s favourite summer routes would commence at the end of the afternoon shift crossing in Cefn Golau (now a nature reserve), descending into Rhymney, and then circling north to Princetown and Tafarnaubach. Cliff and his friends would arrive back home at Dukestown between 1am and 2am. Some days he got up at 3am to walk to the Dyffryn to pick mushrooms or winberries.
Proposed 9-mile walking route taken by Cliff Smith and his friends from the brickyards in Georgetown – using the OS map route planning open-source software
The end of the second side is depressing. By 1926, Cliff had been appointed secretary of a soup kitchen. Financial aid came from the Orpheus Choir which split into touring groups, holding concerts in London, Liverpool, and Birmingham, sending donations to the Cooperative Society, which in turn, bought the produce required for Tredegar’s four soup kitchens. Cliff’s post at Ebenezer Chapel fed 130 men and boys every day. Cliff relates the realities of the morning task of peeling five sacks of potatoes. The peelings went to a pig dealer who traded for a few packets of cigarettes, which were split between the men. Cliff passed his allocation on to his father.
The unemployed queued with their admission cards; some ate their stew or soup at tables, others brought a jug so they could take their allocation home, which would be watered down to feed the whole family. Another testament to the community spirit of Tredegar is in the words: “Through it all, the miners and their families bravely endured the hardships, exhibiting a spirit of unity and brotherhood which has not been surpassed.”
The sound file finishes with Barry Davies telling the listener that Cliff Smith died on 22 November 1990, aged 84. According to one of the Tredegar forum members, there are at least 24 other cassette tapes recorded by him. I am not sure if the National Library holds them all, or if they have been digitised, but he is an engaging narrator, and with subject matter like Cliff Smith, brings to life the joys and struggles of everyday Wales.
Rasma Bertz, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Volunteer