The Tonypandy that Mum knew

I spent a few days last week visiting the old coal mining area of Rhondda in south Wales with my brother. The Tonypandy environs was where the previous couple of generations to mum lived, worked and many died (many at a good age but others weren’t so fortunate), along with plenty of cousins, aunts, uncles etc. We spent a long morning in Trealaw cemetery tracking down as many related gravestones as we could, followed by an afternoon exploring the town, in particular Blaenclydach, finished off with a warm welcome from second cousin (twice removed) John Osborne and wife, with many old photos, documents, paintings and talk plus fresh tea and sandwiches.

While I am still digesting all this, the following extract from Mum’s ‘Recollections and reflections’ (written 2007) will give a taster of the place. Here she talks about her grandparents from “hard working, working class backgrounds”.

The Watkins side were from very definitely established Welsh speaking families: many generations likely to have been born in Wales. I have gathered from reference books that the Watkins tribe probably originated in Brecknockshire. The Scott side were immigrants from Southern England. Grandpa Scott was born in, or near White Lackington [actually Whitelackington – subtle but important distinction] in Somerset; he came to the Rhondda Valley as a young man, to find a job in the mines, which was more lucrative than working as a labourer on the land. I know nothing about my Grandpa’s early life or his family background.  Grandma Scott, I know, spent most of her childhood in the Rhondda area. I used to love listening to her tales about her childhood and from them I know she went to school there. Her family had moved from Dorset; their family name was Osborne.

Grandsire (Granshir we called him) and Granny Watkins lived only a few hundred yards away from Grandpa (Grampa) and Grandma (Granma) Scott, so when we went to Tonypandy, where they lived, we were able to visit both sets of grandparents. My sister and I always stayed overnight with my maternal grandparents, if it was an extended visit. I don’t know where my parents slept. My paternal grandparents died about two or three years before the Second World War, when I was about seven or eight, so I never grew to know them as well as I did my mother’s parents. I do know that sometime during his life that Granshir Watkins went to America to find other employment. I have an idea that he went with other members of the family: a brother perhaps? Maybe it was to find gold? Anyway he returned and was unemployed for most years of his later working life, as was Grampa Scott.

My most vivid memory of Granshir is seeing him sitting at the end of David Street, where he lived, chatting with his mates. He always waved or had a word with me as I passed. Granny was always at home, usually preparing food or such like, in the middle room, where all the main activities of the house went on. There was a small room called the scullery, which had the kitchen sink, that you went through to reach the garden. I only remember going into the garden on one occasion. The hub of life took place in this middle room or living room, which was lit by a gaslight hanging down centrally over the table. I can hear the pop of the mantle being lit as I write: a very gentle satisfying “pop”!

Grampa and Granma Scott lived at 15 Fern Terrace, which was nearly at the top of a very steep hill that led on to the mountain. When parking a car outside the front door it was necessary to turn the wheels into the kerb and to put a stone, or some other restraining mechanism, behind a wheel, as well as pulling hard on the brake. It was really hard work walking from the bottom of the hill to Granma’s, if you had been out shopping or such like: instead, we usually zigzagged through the back lanes or side roads, to ease the journey home. Just a small recessed porch, to shelter you from the elements, lay between the pavement and the front door. There was a lane at the rear of the house and the back gate was more generally used, if there was someone at home and the back door unlocked.

Fern Terrace, Tonypandy/Blaenclydach, April 2011. Number 15 is a couple of doors up from the children. Photo by Pete Howes

The back door of the house opened onto a small paved area positioned between the two adjoining houses. Ten stone steps led down to the cellar beneath the kitchen, with the W.C. housed in a separate brick building beside it. A small kitchen garden, where my grandfather grew vegetables, but no flowers or grass, was in this lower area. I remember falling down the stone steps, when I was about seven years old, which gave both my grandparents and me a nasty shock, but I didn’t come to much harm and I was careful to use the metal hand rails that ran down beside the steps after this.

The kitchen was where the main activities of the house happened. There was a large range with two ovens: a small one used to keep food warm and keeping the kindling dry etc. and a larger one for the main cooking. There was usually an iron kettle on the hob, which was the source of hot water for washing and cooking. Sometime in the early part of the second world war Granma did have a gas cooker fitted, but the range fire was still the main source of heat, so that oven was still used, when the fire was lit.  Bathing took place in front of the range fire in a tin bath, which was kept hanging from a nail on the back wall outside. Later, about the same time as the gas cooker was installed, a glass conservatory was built, between the kitchen and the neighbours’ wall, to house a bath and the sink. This was a horrendously cold place to have a bath in winter.

More Tonypandy memories

There has been a ‘living memory’ project in the Rhondda which finished in 2010. One of the published stories on Our Valleys Heritage is from Phyllis Bowen, who recalls her childhood days in Clydach Vale in ‘A fold in the hills’ – direct link to the pdf document (65KB). There’s also one on funfairs in Tonypandy.

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