Archives for October 2011

Hallowe'en and Galan Gaeaf

Post categories:

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 13:25 UK time, Friday, 28 October 2011

Hallowe'en. A time when people avoid churchyards and cross roads, places where, in ancient times, spirits were thought to gather. A night of spooks and demons, witches, ghosts and ghouls - at least, that's how children see it.

Pumpkin lantern

A pumpkin lantern

These days the night before All Hallows Day has been "Americanized" to the extent that nearly all Christian and pagan connections with the time have been forgotten under a welter of witches hats and trick or treat games. But there used to be much more to Hallowe'en and here in Wales the traditions of Galan Gaeaf, as the night is called, go back many generations.

The origins of Hallowe'en celebrations are a little unclear. Certainly it is the eve of All Hallows or All Saints Day, a major Catholic festival. It is also the eve of a pagan Celtic festival of the dead, a time when spirits were thought to walk the earth. This festival was known as Samhain and 31 October and 1 November each year are now a time when Christian and pagan celebrations intertwine for a brief period.

In rural communities, long before the industrialisation of Britain destroyed many of the old traditions, the end of autumn and the first day of winter - 1 November - was a cause for celebration.

The harvest had been gathered in, excess livestock had been culled or killed off and put into storage for the coming year. It was very much a communal festivity, a time for celebration and enjoyment. Everyone, from the farmer to the lowest cow hand, had participated in growing crops and keeping the animals and now they would celebrate together.

Often this manifested itself in the traditions such as the harvest mare. Corn would be fashioned into the shape of a horse and hung above the hearth. But getting the harvest mare into the house was a cause of much horseplay - the origin of the term - when women tried to prevent it coming inside, soaking it with water, and the men attempted to keep it dry.

In Wales 1 November, the first day of winter, was called Calan Gaeaf. The night before - the eve of the day - was referred to as Nos Galan Gaeaf or, occasionally Spirit Night. And many traditions gradually grew up around the festival. Almost inevitably, they were connected with all things frightening or disconcerting.

One of these was called Coelcerth. A fire was built, everyone placing stones with their names on in and around the fire. If any stone and name were missing the following morning, that person would die during the coming year. It is easy to imagine the thrill of apprehension and horror as people looked for their stones in the cold light of day!

Being frightened soon became an essential part of Galan Gaeaf. The image of Y Hwch Ddu Gwta, a black sow without a tail, accompanied by a headless woman, that would together roam the countryside, terrified everyone on Galan Gaeaf when the best place to be was inside your house in front of a roaring fire.


Even then there were dangers. Touching or smelling ground ivy was thought to make you see hags or witches while you slept. In order to see into the future boys were told to cut 10 leaves of ivy, throw one away and put the rest under their pillows. For girls seeing what would come was a much more rigorous process. They had to grow a rose, train it around a large hoop, then slip through the hoop three times before cutting the rose and placing it under their pillow when they went to bed that night.

Traditions changed, of course, with each region or part of the country altering things to suit themselves. The American custom of trick or treat actually has a Scottish origin, guising as it was known, while modern customs such as apple bobbing or the lighting of bonfires on Hallowe'en night go back many years.

Traditionally, if a woman wanted to see the face of the man she would marry, on Hallowe'en night she would darken her room and look into the mirror. The face of her future bridegroom was supposed to materialise behind her. If, however, a skull was to appear, it meant that she would die before the year was out. In Pembrokeshire in the 1950s this tradition had changed to the more simple one of never looking into a mirror on Hallowe'en or else you would see witches and demons in your sleep.

In the 18th century, as Britain changed from a rural to an urban country, many - but not all - of the Hallowe'en or Galan Gaeaf customs died out. The ghost story is one that has remained and 31 October each year is a time to bring out the tall tales and terrify yourself with visions of headless horsemen and spectral wraiths, knowing of course that when you wake up on 1 November everything will be back to normal. You hope!

Black History Month Wales celebrations at the Millennium Centre

Post categories:

BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 10:58 UK time, Friday, 28 October 2011

The fourth pan-Wales Black History Month ends this weekend with a grand finale on Saturday 29 October at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay.

The venue will host a number of free events between midday and 6pm, giving visitors the opportunity to experience a range of entertainers, performers, market stalls and participatory workshops reflecting the history and culture of Wales' African Diaspora communities.

Performers include SWICA's Maracatu Brazilian Carnival Dancers, world class award-winning hip-hop dance troupe Jukebox Juniors, and Bob Marley tribute band Bob Bailey and the Jailers. The special guest speaker is Jean-Robert Cadet of Haiti's Restavek, who is an advocate for enslaved children.

Black History Month has been running throughout October. In 2010, 7,000 people took part in the pan-Wales programme of workshops, exhibitions, lectures and special events. This year, up to 10,000 people are anticipated to attend the events during the month.

More details on Saturday's events and foyer performances can be found on the Wales Millennium Centre website, or visit the Black Voluntary Sector Network Wales (BVSNW) website for updates.

1905: Cardiff becomes a city

Post categories:

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:23 UK time, Friday, 28 October 2011

Most of us are so used to the knowledge that Cardiff is not just any old city but also the capital city of Wales, that we are probably lulled into the mistake of thinking it has always been that way. No so. Cardiff did not become a city until 28 October 1905. And it was only proclaimed the capital of Wales in 1955.

Cardiff Castle (photo: Esther Illan)

Cardiff Castle (photo: Esther Illan)

These days Cardiff has a population in excess of 300,000 and is acknowledged as the 10th largest city in the UK. However, it was not until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution that the place really began to grow and develop.

The history of Cardiff goes back many years, of course. Long barrows at outlying places such as Tinkinswood and Coedkernew show that Neolithic people had a significant presence in the area, and by the first century AD the region was largely populated by the Silures tribe. But it was with the arrival of the Romans in around 75 AD that the community which was later to emerge as the city of Cardiff began to establish itself.

The Romans built a fortified settlement on the banks of the River Taff and based a fleet there in order to patrol and protect the Severn estuary and the western sea lanes. The Roman fortress probably fell into disuse at some time late in the second century as, by then, the Silures had been pacified and, with nearby Caerleon well established and defended, it was simply not needed.

The settlement around the old fort continued to thrive and grow, however. Tradesmen established their shops and businesses and, rather than return to their places of origin, retired Roman soldiers settled down to life in the area. The remains of a villa at Ely to the west of the city, exactly the type of dwelling a retired soldier would build, seems to show that this was now quite a peaceful and settled part of the Roman province.

When the Normans came to the area in 1081 they immediately set about fortifying their newly acquired territory and built a castle within the walls of the old Roman fort. Although the castle itself was substantially altered by the third Marquis of Bute and his architect William Burges at the end of the 19th century, the remains of the old Norman keep, as everyone knows, can still be seen today inside the newer castle walls at the top of St Mary's Street.

In the Middle Ages Cardiff was a port and trading centre, with a population of about 1,500 making it a significant and sizeable community. In 1404 Owain Glyndwr burned the town and castle during his rebellion against the English crown but the wooden houses were soon replaced and in 1542 Cardiff was created a free borough.

When the Industrial Revolution began to change the face of south Wales, Cardiff - strategically placed at the bottom of the coal and iron valleys - was in the best possible position to benefit. Before long canals and railways, in particular the Taff Vale Railway, were linking this coastal community with the industrial hinterland. And with the railways and industrial development came wealth on a scale previously unimagined.

To begin with Cardiff was somewhat overshadowed by the burgeoning iron town of Merthyr Tydfil and it was only when the Marquis of Bute built his first dock in the 1830s that the place really began to develop and expand. By the time of the 1881 census Cardiff had overtaken both Merthyr and Swansea in terms of population.

These days Cardiff is not just the capital of Wales, it is also the home of the Welsh Assembly Government, the magnificent Millennium Stadium and the largest waterfront development in Europe.

A university college was established in the town - as it then was - in 1893 but while Cardiff might be able to boast museums, churches and cathedrals, it was denied the honour of hosting the National Library of Wales - supposedly because too large a proportion of the population was non-Welsh! It's a great story but how much truth is in the statement remains to be seen.

The origins of the name Cardiff are a little clouded. Most probably it derives from the Welsh/Brythonic name Caerdydd - "fort on the Taff". It has been suggested that the name might originate from the name Caer Didi, the fort of Didius, but this explanation or suggestion had been discounted and even ridiculed of late.

Edward VII gave city status to Cardiff on 28 October 1905 in recognition of the fact that it was one of the great economic and industrial successes of the age. Despite the Depression years, when the docks and the shipping lines that operated from them suffered incredible hardship, and despite the rigours of German bombing raids during World War Two, Cardiff endured.

As the largest and most significant centre of population in Wales, the city was proclaimed capital of the country on 20 December 1955. It was just in time for the Empire Games - the precursor of the Commonwealth Games - which were held in Cardiff in 1958. Now one of the fastest growing economic communities in the country it remains a vibrant and welcoming environment, of which all Wales should be proud.

Appeal launched for Welsh Passchendaele memorial

Post categories:

BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 10:58 UK time, Monday, 24 October 2011

The Passchendaele Society in Belgium has launched an appeal to erect a memorial to commemorate soldiers from Wales who were killed in the Battle of Passchendaele during World War One.

The Battle of Passchendaele, which is also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, saw hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides of the conflict.

It lasted from 31 July to 6 November 1917 and is notorious, not just for the high number of deaths, (there were a total of 325,000 Allied and 260,000 German casualties) but also the abominable muddy conditions in which it was fought.

The appeal for a Welsh memorial was unveiled at an event close to where many of the Welsh soldiers died in Langemark, near Ypres.

Retired police officer Peter Jones, who is co-ordinating the appeal in Wales, and was in Belgium for the launch, said it was important to remember the Welsh soldiers lost their lives during the conflict.

"It's very worthwhile. Everybody else has got a monument out there - the Irish and the Scottish - but we don't have anything at all," he said.

"On the Somme in France there is a memorial for the Welsh but not here.

"There is a lot of support for it. Whether that support will be converted into cash we will have to see."

Appeal organisers are looking to raise 60,000 euros (£52,000) to fund the Welsh memorial.

Read more about the appeal on the BBC Wales News website.

View Welsh Voices of the Great War Online gallery on BBC Wales History

Organisers hope it will become a memorial to all Welsh soldiers who died in the Great War.

Bill Frost - the first man to fly?

Post categories:

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 11:41 UK time, Thursday, 20 October 2011

Wilbur and Orville Wright are commonly accepted as the first men to design and fly a power-driven aeroplane. But there was one man, in west Wales, who might just have beaten the brothers to the punch. His name was Bill Frost and in the eyes of many he is the person who deserves the epithet of 'the first man to fly'.


Bill Frost's flying machine flew about 500 yards before being clipped by a tree (image: Gale's Photo)

Bill Frost was born in Saundersfoot on the Pembrokeshire coast on 28 May 1848. The son of John and Rebecca Frost, he became a carpenter on the Heyn Castle Estate in Saundersfoot.

Although a relatively poor man, he became obsessed with the concept of flying. According to legend, in the winter of 1876 he was carrying a long plank of wood while a gale was blowing and the wind - always strong and powerful on that stretch of coast - simply picked him up and carried him several yards through the air. Frost's obsession was born.

Frost was a religious man, and became deacon of his local chapel. He was also an accomplished musician and founded the Saundersfoot Male Voice Choir. But his real interest lay in flight.

Locals, it was said, had seen him running about the fields holding a piece of zinc above his head, perhaps hoping that the wind would once more lift him into the air. The people of the town put this bizarre behaviour down to the grief he was experiencing since his wife and daughter had recently died. It was more likely to be Bill Frost testing out the concept of aerodynamics.

In 1894 Frost applied for a patent for a flying machine; the design was registered on 25 October that year. The machine was something of a cross between a glider and an airship, and was equipped with two reversible fans designed to lift the machine into the air.

When aloft the wings would be spread by means of a lever and the machine would move forward and down. When the lever was pushed the other way the machine would rise once more.

Bill Frost built his aircraft in the workshop of his house on St Bride's Hill in Saundersfoot. It was over 30 feet in length and was apparently made of bamboo, canvas and wire. The gas bags or pouches that helped keep the craft aloft were filled with hydrogen.

Unfortunately there are no photographs or written testimonials but Frost - and many people from Saundersfoot - claimed that he flew in his glider/airship on or around 24 September 1896. He travelled, it was claimed, for about 500 yards, a distance that, if true, was considerably longer than the Wright Brothers managed seven years later in 1903.

The flight was not without incident, however. The undercarriage of the machine caught in a tree and he crashed in a field. Although Frost managed to repair the flying machine, disaster was waiting to happen.

Despite being tethered to a tree the machine was totally destroyed in a storm, with pieces spread over a wide distance. Frost had neither the money nor the time to start again and his patent lapsed after four years.

The story of Bill Frost and his flying machine is a fascinating one. Unlike the Wright Brothers he did not have any independent witnesses to the event or, most important of all, any photographic evidence that he had taken to the air.

Bill Frost died in March 1935. By then he was nearly 90 years old and was both blind and poor. He was not bitter but bemoaned the fact that the government, following his first flight and the disaster that befell his machine, had turned down his request for funding.

The government stated that they had no intention of using aircraft either for navigation or for warfare. In the light of the later development of aircraft during World War One, it seemed to Frost and everyone else to be a strange and rather short-sighted statement.

Everyone who knew him was clear that Bill Frost was the most truthful of men. If he said that he had flown then he most certainly had done so. At this distance, however, and without written or photographic proof, it is hard to come down, one way or another. The story remains one more fascinating episode in the history of flight - and of Wales.

Beau Nash, the Welsh dandy

Post categories:

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 14:15 UK time, Monday, 17 October 2011

Say the name Beau Nash and people automatically think of Bath and of his role as Master of Ceremonies in the spa city.

But Richard 'Beau' Nash was a Welshman through and through. He was born and educated in the principality and, although he turned his back on his native country after his teenage years, the urban sprawl of early industrial Wales must have impinged itself on his consciousness - he became determined that elegance, good taste and high fashion were the crucial elements of any civilised society.

Nash was born in Swansea on 18 October 1674. His father, also called Richard, came from Pembrokeshire and had since risen to become one of the partners in a Swansea glass works.

His mother also originated in the county of Pembrokeshire, having strong links with the Poyer family of that region. Indeed, one of her ancestors was John Poyer, the mayor of Pembroke, who had defied both Oliver Cromwell and the king during the Civil War.

After early education at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Carmarthen, Nash enrolled at Jesus College, Oxford, but his restless nature soon caused him to drop out. He tried the army but quickly decided that the discipline (not to mention the expense) of military life was not for him. He turned, instead, to the law.

In 1693 he was called to the Middle Bar in order to study his new chosen profession but was wayward in his attendance, preferring to spend his time in gambling and drinking.

One thing he did do at Middle Temple was organise a pageant for King William during a royal visit. This was in 1695 and the king was so impressed he even offered Nash a knighthood. Nash declined due to lack of appropriate finances, but it hardly mattered, his name was made.

Roman baths in Bath

Roman baths

Dropping out of his law studies he quickly gravitated towards the city of Bath, an old Roman centre where the mineral springs were said to have healing properties. The city had declined in importance over the years but now Richard Nash had great plans for the place.

He somehow got himself appointed as assistant to the master of ceremonies, Captain Webster, and when this man was killed in a duel Nash took over the main role and began to transform the city into the most fashionable place in England.

Presiding over the city from the house of his mistress Juliana Popjoy on Saw Close, Nash was soon awarded the nickname or appellation 'Beau'. Realising the value of a good image, right from the start he dressed for the part of a dandy.

Fashion at that time decreed that wigs should always be white. Turning this on its head, Nash insisted on wearing a black wig with a contrasting white hat, always set at a jaunty angle. He finished this off with brocaded waistcoats and gorgeously ruffled shirts. Before long, all over the city - indeed, all over England - men were trying to copy his style and listen to his advice on fashion. Women, too, turned to Beau Nash for advice on what to wear and how to behave.

Nash organised public balls of great magnificence, the like of which had never been seen before in Bath, and raised nearly £20,000 in order to improve the state of roads around the city. He met all new arrivals and made judgements about their social standing, deciding whether or not they might be suitable for admission to the select company of 500 or so individuals at the centre of Bath social life.

He matched ladies with dancing partners, regulated gambling - an amazing task for a man who was clearly addicted to the activity - and even brokered marriages. He kept a string of mistresses as well as Juliana, and took a significant role in breaking down the rigid class barriers of English social life. Nash encouraged the creation of new buildings in the city, including the Pump Room and Assembly Rooms, and even went so far as to draw up a list of rules of dress and behaviour.

Some of Nash's rules were eminently sensible. He insisted, for example, that when attending a ball ladies should appoint a time for their footmen to return to the Assembly Rooms to escort them home and so avoid disturbances for all parties. Others were clearly matters of fashion:

"Gentlemen should never appear in a morning before the ladies in gowns and caps and should show breeding and respect."

In 1735 Beau Nash took on extra responsibility as Master of Ceremonies at Tunbridge Wells in Kent. He continued to preside at both Bath and Tunbridge Wells until his death on 3 February 1761, controlling the entertainments and ruling over the two most important spa towns in the country. It was said that if Bath was Nash's kingdom, then Tunbridge Wells was its colony.

In his later life Beau Nash was hampered by more stringent laws that had been imposed against gambling and, towards the end, he lived in virtual poverty. When he died the corporation of Bath funded an elaborate funeral but he was buried in a pauper's grave. His mistress, Juliana Popjoy, nursed him during the last years of his life and, after his death, was so distraught that she apparently spent her own final years in a hollowed out tree near Warminster.

Richard 'Beau' Nash was a gambler and womaniser, a dandy and something of a rake. But his influence was huge and effective - after the death of his predecessor, for example, he outlawed the wearing of swords in Bath. He certainly set the bar as far as fashion in 18th century Britain was concerned. Not a bad record for a boy from Swansea.

The Senghenydd pit disaster

Post categories:

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 14:19 UK time, Friday, 14 October 2011

At 8.00am on Tuesday 14 October 1913 a huge explosion rocked the tiny town of Senghenydd, to the north of Caerphilly. It came from the coal mine belonging to the Universal Colliery, the most significant employer in the area, and before the hour was out it was clear to everyone, miners and their families alike, that what had happened was a disaster of major proportions.

The explosion, and subsequent release of poisonous gas, killed 439 miners, making the Senghenydd pit disaster the most lethal and tragic mining disaster in British history. On that morning nearly 950 men had been working below ground, and many of them were killed or injured before they even knew what was happening.

The Universal Steam Coal Company (a subsidiary of Lewis Merthyr Consolidated Collieries) had sunk the first shaft at Senghenydd in 1891, full production using two shafts - the Lancaster and York - beginning five years later. In the years leading up to World War One there was an unprecedented demand for Welsh coal, most of it being used to fuel the battleships of the Royal Navy. And Universal, privately owned and privately run, like all of the other south Wales collieries, prospered.

The explosion that brought about the disaster was probably caused by an electrical spark from something like the electric signalling gear igniting methane gas, firedamp as it was known. As if that wasn't enough, the firedamp explosion caused coal dust lying on the floor of the mine to rise and this also caught fire and exploded in a gigantic roar. The shock wave promptly caused more coal dust to rise into the air and this also then ignited. In effect, what happened was a series of self-fueling explosions.

The explosions were so violent that the cage of the Lancaster pit was even blown back up the shaft to wedge in the pithead winding gear. A bandsman standing close by was decapitated by a piece of flying wood.

The fires spread through most of the underground workings, quickly followed by afterdamp. These were gasses formed by the explosion, waves of carbon monoxide, that ensured those miners who had escaped the explosion would be suffocated due to lack of oxygen unless they could quickly get to the surface.

Rescue teams from places such as Crumlin and Aberdare were rushed to the scene but attempts at getting the men out were hampered by fallen debris, by a series of roof falls and by raging fires. One of the rescuers was caught and killed in one of these roof falls but, regardless of the cost, the men worked on.

And they did manage to find men and boys still alive in the wreckage, the families of the Senghenydd miners greeting each successful escape with joy and with the belief that their own loved ones would soon be brought to the surface. However, as the days wore on, survivors grew fewer and the carrying out of bodies became the norm.

The rescue attempts lasted for three weeks although, by then, the chances of finding anyone alive had long since gone. Some of the bodies had been so badly mutilated in the explosion that they could only be identified by certain items of clothing they were wearing. One man was recognised by his new boots, worn for the first time that day; another - a young boy - by the patch his mother had sewn onto his jacket only a few days before.

It was estimated that over 1,000 people in the area were bereaved by the Senghenydd disaster. Certainly nearly all of the families in the town were touched, in one way or another. And yet, despite the resulting enquiry finding numerous faults that could be laid at the door of the owners and managers, when compensation and fines were levied they came to a derisive £24 - in total! As one newspaper commented, that meant that miners lives were worth just £0 .. 1 .. 11 - a sum that, these days, would equate to no more than six pence.

Universal Colliery was back in use by the end of November 1913 and full production was again achieved by 1916. The mine was not to last much longer, however, workmen and staff being given just one day's notice of closure in March 1928. Although the site was later acquired by Powell Duffryn in order to give extra ventilation to their Windsor Colliery, the Senghenydd shaft was finally filled in 1979.

There are several memorials to the men and boys who lost their lives at senghenydd, one at Nant y Parc Primary School which now stands on the site of the mine. There is another at the local comprehensive and a clock in the square at Senghenydd also commemorates the disaster.

But the real tragedy of Senghenydd does not lie in just the 1913 disaster. Proving that the old adage "lightning does not strike twice in the same place" is a mere fallacy, twelve years earlier, on Friday 24 May 1901, the same colliery had experienced its first disaster. At 5.00am on that day an explosion decimated the mine and killed 81 men. There was just one survivor pulled from the mine shaft.

The history of Wales and its industrial past is full of tragedy, human grief and loss. But none of the disasters that have befallen the country are worse than the Senghenydd mining disaster when tragedy struck the same village and the same community, not once but twice within the space of a dozen years.

Listen to an interview with William Vizard, ex-miner who survived the Senghennydd pit disaster in 1913.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions

Historic buildings to get £400,000 restoration funding boost

Post categories:

BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 11:08 UK time, Friday, 14 October 2011

Huw Lewis, Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage, has announced that some of Wales' most important historic buildings are set to benefit from Welsh Government grants ranging from £11,200 to £75,000.

The grants awarded to historic buildings across Wales will pay for essential repairs and restoration work.

Speaking about the repair and restoration funding, Huw Lewis said: "The grants will ensure that some of our most important buildings are restored and maintained for the enjoyment of future generations."

The Powerhouse at Llwynypia Colliery Site is set to receive a grant

One historic site set to receive funding is The Powerhouse at Llwynypia Colliery Site in Rhondda Cynon Taff. A grant of £75,000 has been offered to undertake remedial work to the roof, walls, metal windows and rebuilding of gable parapets of the Grade II listed building .

Other buildings to benefit from grant funding include:

St Cynog's Church in Brecon is a Grade II* listed church which is in regular use. A grant of £64,000 has been offered to undertake a number of internal and external repairs.

St Cynin's Church, Llangynin in Carmarthenshire is a Grade II* listed building and is the only community facility within the village of Llangynin. A grant offer of £49,720 has been given to restore its tower.

Mary and St Michaels' RC Church, Llanarth in Cardiganshire is one of the oldest Roman Catholic churches in Wales. A grant offer of £39,500 has been made for repairs to include upgrading leadwork, repair rendering, upgrade joinery and make specialist repairs to stained glass windows.

Plas Tirion, Llanrwst in Conwy is also a Grade II* listed building and one of a small number of gentry satellite houses built locally in the second half of the 16th century for junior branches or members of the Wynn family of Gwydir. A grant of £22,500 has been offered to repair front and side elevations, lime wash all elevations and chimneys and replace modern windows with moulded oak mullioned frames to match original features.

For a full list of funding recipients, visit teh Cadw website at Cadw is the Welsh Government's historic environment service.

The death of Edward II - the Welsh connections

Post categories:

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 13:30 UK time, Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The death of King Edward II of England is a relatively well known story - the time was that every schoolboy in the country would happily tell you he was murdered by having a red-hot poker thrust into a very painful part of his anatomy!

Edward II and Hugh Despenser sought refuge in Caerphilly castle

Whether or not that story is true remains a matter of some conjecture. But what is certainly true is the fact that Wales played a hugely important part in the king's downfall.

On 16 November 1326 Edward and his close friend (and probable lover) Hugh Despenser the Younger were captured by forces loyal to Queen Isabella, the king's own wife, whilst they were making their way from Neath Abbey towards Caerphilly Castle. The story of the king's journey from glory to ignominious failure in south Wales is both tortuous and compelling.

Edward's reign had been nothing short of disastrous. Succeeding his father, Edward I, in 1307, it seemed at first that he had all the kingly attributes.

Tall, strong and physically attractive, he had been born at Caernarfon castle. The story that Edward Longshanks presented his infant son to the Welsh leaders who had demanded a prince who could speak no English is patently untrue, like many of the stories surrounding this most ambiguous of men.

In 1308 he married Isabella of France but almost from the start the marriage was doomed. Edward was probably homosexual, and certainly bisexual. His preference for young men over his queen led him, first, to an intense friendship with Piers Gaveston and then with Hugh Despenser.

Military disasters like defeat in 1314 at the Battle of Bannockburn - arguably the greatest English defeat since the Battle of Hastings - and quarrels with his barons ensured that the king was enormously unpopular and mistrusted, both by the aristocracy and by ordinary people.

However, if the king was unpopular, the autocratic and greedy Despenser family were hated. As the rift between Edward and his queen grew ever wider, it seemed as though the Despensers (Hugh and his father, also called Hugh) became richer and more powerful every day.

Isabella fled to France for a while, returning on 24 September 1326 with her lover and ally Roger de Mortimer in an attempt to sweep Edward from the throne. Her army was small, consisting of barely 1,500 mercenaries, but as she and Mortimer marched on London supporters flocked to her banner and the king realised that he had to leave the city in order to ensure his own safety. He left with the Great Seal of England and something in the region of £30,000.

He fled westwards, towards Wales where Despenser held lands and, more importantly, the powerful fortress of Caerphilly Castle. However, arriving at the inland port of Chepstow, Edward and Despenser decided to take a boat. Whether they were intending to go to Lundy island - another Despenser possession - or to Ireland to gather support is not known. In the event the wind was against them and they spent five days pitching and tossing uselessly in the Bristol Channel.

By now Isabella had issued a proclamation saying that she had come to rid the land of the evil of the Despensers. As a result many Despenser properties were looted or burned and the king and his increasingly desperate friend realised that Caerphilly Castle offered their best chance of survival. Caerphilly was a massive and powerful structure, one that would withstand siege for many months, and it was here that the fugitives first went.

News soon reached them that Bristol Castle, held by the elder Hugh Despenser, had fallen to Isabella's forces and Despenser had been hung. For some strange reason, one that has never been fully explained, Edward and Despenser now left the safety of Caerphilly Castle and rode for Neath Abbey. They arrived on 6 November and remained there for two weeks.

Whether or not Edward thought the religious nature of the house would protect him has never been made clear but from the abbey Edward tried to negotiate peace, sending the abbot and Edward de Boun to his queen to parley and seek a compromise. When the delegates returned with a straightforward message - No! - Edward knew he had to return to the security of Caerphilly Castle.

He and his party had reached Llantrisant when they were surprised by forces led by Henry, Earl of Lancaster. Edward was detained overnight in Llantrisant Castle, already separated from his beloved Hugh Despenser. The end was now in sight.

The king was soon moved to Berkeley Castle across the border in England and was still imprisoned there when the announcement of his Deposition, quickly and easily passed by parliament, was made. His son, Edward III, was proclaimed king in his place on 25 January 1327.

After that the vengeance of Isabella was swift and decisive. Once she had Edward and Hugh Despenser in her power their lives were hanging by a thread and Despenser was quickly condemned. Stripped naked and with messages of hatred scrawled across his body, he was hanged, drawn and quartered. His head was then displayed on London Bridge.

Edward lingered, briefly, in Berkeley Castle. There were two attempts to rescue him by forces loyal to his name but in September 1327 it was announced that he was dead. It has never been totally clear how he died but it is certain that his life was ended on the orders of Queen Isabella.

He may have been strangled, possibly suffocated, but popular opinion will always tend to the view that his death came as a result of a red-hot poker inserted into his anus. Some people say that his screams could be heard for five miles around the castle. It does not bear too much thought.

Hidden Merthyr

Post categories:

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 15:10 UK time, Friday, 7 October 2011

Most people in Wales have at least some idea about the significance of Merthyr Tydfil. These days around 30,000 inhabitants live in the town, with the Borough of Merthyr Tydfil hosting approximately 50,000 more.

Inevitably, most of Merthyr's glory rests in its past and there is no doubt that, at one time, this truly was a big town, the greatest iron producing centre in Britain, possibly even the world. With four huge ironworks, Merthyr was also a mining and railway hub and, at their peak, the Dowlais works alone were operating 18 blast furnaces and employing over 7,000 men, women and children.

The four great ironworks - Dowlais (1759), Cyfarthfa (1765), Plymouth (passing into the ownership of Richard Hill in 1788) and Penydarren (1784) - brought prosperity and hardship to the town. Conditions in the hovels of the working classes were dire, a far cry from the luxury enjoyed by people like the Crawshay family, sitting happily and comfortably in their mock Gothic castle at Cyfarthfa.

The oppression of the working classes, the terrible conditions endured by people like the brick girls of the town, has been written about many times - too many to warrant repeating here. Yet there was far more to Merthyr than just iron and coal. And if the interested tourist or the historian cares to look they will find a wealth of fascinating stories.

The town was named after St Tydfil, daughter of Brychan, ruler of Brecheiniog in the fifth century. She was martyred here, murdered by raiding Saxons some time around 480AD, but it was only with the coming of the industrial revolution that the town began to assume major significance - so much so that by the early years of the 19th century this was the largest town in Wales. Cardiff and Swansea, by comparison, were little more than large villages.

Richard Trevithick's steam locomotive

As an industrial centre, it is perhaps appropriate that Merthyr Tydfil was where the first steam railway locomotive in the world once ran. Despite those who scoffed or disbelieved, Richard Trevithick's huge engine pulled an incredible load of 10 tons of coal and 70 men between Penydarren and Abercynon, a distance of over nine miles.

It happened on 14 February 1804, the journey being undertaken as a result of a £1,000 bet between Samuel Homfrey of Penydarren works and Richard Crawshay of Cyfarthfa. Despite demolishing its chimney on a low bridge, Trevithick's engine won the bet for Homfrey.

Visitors to the present-day museum at Cyfarthfa Castle can see a replica of the machine standing outside the main entrance. Trevithick's Tunnel at the site of the old ironworks, complete with mosaic floor, is also worth a visit.

Hoover factory

What many people do not realize is that Trevithick was not alone in creating new inventions within the town. Merthyr was also the site for another famous experiment nearly 200 years later when, in January 1985, Sir Clive Sinclair's C5 battery operated vehicle went into production at the Hoover works on the outskirts of the town.

Sinclair C5

Sinclair C5 battery operated vehicle - no licence or insurance was needed to take the vehicle on the road.

The C5 was revolutionary and created huge media interest but it was a financial disaster. The idea did not catch on and, with only 17,000 units sold, production was halted in the summer of 1985, only six months after it had begun.

Although the machines were assembled at Hoover's, they were powered by motors made in Italy. The experiment, however dismal a failure, did give rise to one great urban myth - that the C5 vehicle was powered by a washing machine motor.

Hoover's, like the great ironworks, has closed now but for half a century the factory was a major employer in the town. The factory opened in October 1948, producing washing machines in the post-war boom when such luxuries became an expectation in most households. By 1973, when the Queen opened an extension, the factory was employing almost 4,000 people.

Hoovers in Merthyr was a community on its own, running sports teams, social clubs and even a library. The factory also had its own fire brigade. By the 1990s, however, the bubble had burst, and despite protests and marches by the work force, job cuts were made. On 13 March 2009 the last 337 workers left the factory and Hoovers closed its doors.

The lack of employment in the town was just one of many reasons why, in a television programme in 2006, Merthyr was voted the third worst place to live in Britain. It was a sad indictment and one that was also decidedly unfair.

Charlotte Guest

Charlotte Guest

Lady Charlotte Guest

The town has a wonderful literary heritage that far too many people tend to forget. To begin with, Lady Charlotte Guest, wife of one of the ironmasters, translated The Mabinogion, the famous collection of folk tales, from Welsh into English while living in the town. Suddenly, for the first time the stories that she enjoyed and loved reading were available for English speaking readers, making Charlotte Guest's work invaluable and richly rewarding.

Writers, artists and musicians

The writers Glyn Jones and Leslie Norris are also famous literary sons of the town. Glyn Jones' book The Island Of Apples is largely set in Merthyr, although he calls it Ystrad. The novel gives a superb evocation of the streets of the town and life in what, in the early 1900s, was still a thriving and bustling community.

Glyn Jones himself attended Cyfarthfa Grammar School and the school, the teachers and the educational system also find their way into what is arguably his greatest book. Leslie Norris, like Jones a teacher as well as a writer, is more circumspect in his comments about the town but his collections of short stories still present a fascinating picture.

Of course, Merthyr did not just produce writers. Artists also worked in the town - the museum at Cyfarthfa has a superb collection of town views and, in particular, a series of cartoons by Sydney Vosper. He was not a Merthyr man but married Constance James, the daughter of the town Mayor. From there his connections and contact with Wales, and Merthyr Tydfil in particular, increased rapidly, his picture Salem garnering him eternal fame.

And then, of course, there was also the musician Joseph Parry, so beloved of Welsh male voice choirs, who lived for many years in a small cottage with his family before emigrating to America and then returning to find fame in his native Wales.


However, two of the least known of Merthyr's sons - at least by people outside the town - are John Hughes, the ironmaster of Yuzovka, and Dr Merlyn Pryce.

In 1870 John Hughes took 100 iron workers from Merthyr and nearby Rhymney, and transported them to the wilds of Czarist Russia. Here they founded the Russian iron and steel industries, even creating a town, named Hughesovka (or Yuzovka) in their leader's honour.

Merlyn Pryce was the assistant to Alexander Fleming and was the man who, in 1928, drew the attention of his chief to a blue-green mould in one of the petri dishes in their laboratory. Arguably, that makes Pryce, not Fleming, the man who discovered penicillin.

Both Hughes and Pryce were born in Merthyr Tydfil Borough, Hughes in the town and Pryce in Troed-y-Rhiw. John Hughes worked, like his father before him at the Cyfarthfa ironworks, while Merlyn Pryce left the area at the age of 19 in order to study medicine. Both men are renowned sons of the town but both are often overlooked when lists of famous Merthyr people are compiled.

Champion fighters

Sport, of course, has often provided the town with heroes. The names of Howard Winstone and Eddie Thomas are rightly renowned, in particular Winstone who became World Featherweight Champion, but another great fighter who is sometimes overlooked is Johnny Owen, the Merthyr Matchstick as he was known.

The Bantamweight Champion of GB and the Commonwealth, in 1980 Owen was knocked out in the 12th round of a World Championship fight and lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered. He died a few days later on 4 November.

Merthyr Tydfil has always had great sporting facilities. Not least amongst these are two well known golf clubs, Morlais Castle and Cilsarnws. This latter course, one of the highest in Britain, has fairways littered with rocks - all of them an integral part of the course, from which golfers do not receive a free drop. Members, so the story goes, always carry a "rock iron" in their bag, an old and battered club that they use when playing a shot from close to one of these boulders. After just one trip to the course, all visitors quickly learn to add a rock iron to their bag!

Merthyr Tydfil will never escape its tag as one of Britain's greatest iron towns. And nor does it want to. The iron foundries may have gone, closing and going out of business as the iron trade declined in the face of steel production in the second half of the 19th century, but the people and the town remain.

The coal mines that were created down the valley in the wider Borough of Merthyr Tydfil - at places such as Bedlinog and Treharis - have now also closed, part of the economic downturn that hit Wales in the last few decades of the 20th century. And at times the people of Merthyr must have felt that a gigantic black cloud had settled over their community.

Places such as Dowlais soldiered on for a while, the works only finally closing in 1987, but the heart of the industry had gone many years before that. And yet the people battle on. There is history in the town and the Borough, real and vibrant history that is rich and compelling. If visitors care to search for it they will not be disappointed.

Phil Carradice will be joining Roy Noble on BBC Radio Wales on Tuesday 11 October from 2pm to talk about the history of Merthyr Tydfil.

'Wales breaks its silence...' at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea

Post categories:

BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 10:58 UK time, Friday, 7 October 2011

Fifty-three Welsh Italians perished on the SS Arandora Star in 1940. The liner was transporting German and Italian internees along with prisoners of war to internment camps in Canada.

Arandora Star

Arandora Star

The Arandora Star, which previously operated as a cruise ship, had been commandeered by the Admiralty in the early part of World War Two. On 1 July 1940 it left Liverpool with nearly 1,200 Italian and German internees on board.


Replica scaled model of the Arandora Star in her pre-war, luxury cruising days, when her beautiful appearance earned her the nickname, The Wedding Cake.

The following day she was torpedoed and sunk by a German U Boat resulting in the loss of more than 800 lives. The internees who did survive were brought back to the UK and immediately shipped to internment camps in the Australian outback.

The fascinating stories of those touched by the tragedy now forms an exhibition at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea.


Terracotta sculpture of Mary Cradling the Arandora Star, by artist Susanna Ciccotti

Speaking about the exhibition, curator, Paulette Pelosi, a member of the Arandora Star Memorial Fund in Wales said:

"For 70 years, the people of Wales, both Welsh and Italian, for whatever reason, remained mostly silent about the tragedy. As highly emotive stories began to be told to members of the fund, it seemed a logical and worthy tribute for me to create the exhibition."

Wales Breaks its Silence...From Memories to Memorial runs until Sunday 30 October at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea.

Phil Carradice wrote a blog about the loss of the SS Arandora Star. You can read it here.

The Llandow air disaster

Post categories:

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 15:18 UK time, Thursday, 6 October 2011

In the years after World War Two there was a surge in demand for air travel. Numerous private companies, many operating aircraft that had been sold off as surplus to requirements after the war, were established when people began to realise that travel by aeroplane really was something that was available to everyone, not just the rich.

In 1950 the Welsh rugby team was on the brink of its first Triple Crown for nearly 20 years. Victories over England and Scotland set up a deciding match with Ireland and thousands of Welsh supporters decided to make the trip across the Irish Sea to watch the game. Most travelled in the usual way, by boat from Holyhead or Fishguard.

However, a Cardiff entrepreneur called Harry Dunscombe planned to charter an aeroplane and, at £10 a ticket, fly from Llandow airfield in the Vale of Glamorgan to Dublin, especially for the game.

The aircraft Dunscombe hired was an Avro Tudor V, owned and operated by Fairflight Ltd in Buckinghamshire, a small company operating just a couple of planes. And Llandow field was certainly not a commercial airport. In fact it was an old RAF war time base, one that was still operating in a military capacity, and did not have facilities for passenger comfort or for essential requirements like weighing baggage.

The flight to Dublin on Saturday 11 March 1950 was piloted by Captain Parsons. The trip was uneventful and the passengers were soon making their way to Lansdowne Road to watch the match. Wales duly won an exciting and pulsating game of rugby and the 78 passengers, after a night in the bars of Dublin, arrived at Collinstown Aerodrome the next day just after lunch for the flight back to Llandow.

The return flight took just under an hour and, with dozens of friends and families waiting to welcome people home, the plane was soon spotted in the west, about two miles from Llandow airfield.

With its undercarriage down the aircraft seemed to be flying very low and then, when it was just half a mile away, the engines seemed to be suddenly boosted. There was a roar like thunder and the aircraft rose steeply about two or three hundred feet.

Then, before the horrified gaze of the spectators, the engines cut out. The plane dropped like a stone and fell into an adjacent field. After the crash there was a deathly silence before panic and utter pandemonium set in.

RAF rescue crews were hurriedly despatched from the nearby St Athan air base, as well as ambulances and fire tenders - although there was no fire - which came from Cardiff.

Three survivors, cut and bleeding, had already staggered from the wreck and 10 more were quickly pulled, alive, from the fuselage of the Avro Tudor. Unfortunately they later died in hospital and when the casualty figures were finally put together it was only the three men first out of the plane who had survived. They had been sitting together in adjacent seats at the rear of the aircraft and must be regarded as three of the luckiest men on the planet.

One of the three survivors was Handel Rogers. Traumatised by the crash, he vowed that in the future he make every second of his life count for something special - and he did. He became president of the Welsh Rugby Union.

Many of the dead came from the Monmouthshire area of Wales, and several villages lost three or four of their inhabitants. It was a tragedy on a national scale and the Western Mail organised a disaster fund that soon raised over £40,000 for the families and the bereaved communities.

In total 75 passengers and five crew members died in the Llandow Air Disaster. It was, at the time, the worst accident in British aviation history.

A court of enquiry was held in Cardiff a few months later, lasting for eight days. All sorts of rumours had been rife, including one that passengers had been singing and dancing in the aisles as the aircraft came in to land. This report was duly squashed at the enquiry but no firm or clear causes of the accident were ever established.

One possible cause, it was decided, might have been uneven loading of luggage - certainly extra baggage had been taken on at Dublin and with no weighing facilities at Llandow it was never clear how much extra weight the plane was carrying.

In the years after the Llandow air disaster many more commercial airports were established in Britain, Rhoose Airport - later renamed Cardiff International Airport - being just one of them. And whether or not extra baggage contributed to the crash, the weighing of luggage has been a crucial factor in air travel ever since.

The end of the Conway

Post categories:

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:50 UK time, Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The coastline of Wales has seen thousands of shipwrecks over the years but none is more interesting than that of the famous boys' training ship Conway which went ashore in the Menai Straits on 14 April 1953. The Conway was an old wooden battleship, one of many once used to train boys for careers afloat.

The ship involved in the wreck was actually the third Conway, the previous vessels having been changed as they became too tired and dilapidated. This third Conway was actually the 91 gun battleship Nile, but everyone associated with the training ship knew her only as the Conway.

From a fleet of over 100 training establishments that were once located around the coast of Britain, ships and shore bases that trained both officers and crew, by 1953 the Conway had become almost the last of her kind.

Founded in 1859, she was intended to train officers for Britain's enormous merchant fleet. She was, to begin with, moored off Rock Ferry on the Mersey and here 120 young boys came for a two-year intensive course of seamanship before beginning their careers as apprentices in one of the great shipping lines.

It was a hard and rugged life. The upper deck had to be scrubbed every day, regardless of the weather, the task invariably being carried out in bare feet. The rope's end across the back was a common punishment if tasks, physical and theoretical, were not carried out quickly or efficiently enough. As you might expect on an old ship full of adolescent boys, a fair amount of bullying took place. As one young trainee later said:

"I don't think I shall ever forget the stinging clout I got on my head on my first day; and all my toffee was taken from me. There was too much bullying and small new chums were not looked after as they should have been. The result was that I lived to bully other small boys but, thank goodness, I was soon ashamed of myself."

Amongst famous Conway boys were the poet John Masefield, who later wrote a book about the ship, and Captain Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel. Webb, incidentally, was not considered a particularly good swimmer while he was training on board.

The Conway remained on the Mersey until the dark days of World War Two when, for safety reasons, she was moved to the Menai Straits and moored, firstly off Bangor and, from 1949, off Plas Newydd on Ynys Mon. The ship was owned by the Mercantile Marine Service Association, continuing to operate as a training ship, despite her old age and lack of modern facilities. Then in 1953 it was decided that, if she was to continue functioning, she required a refit.

The intention was to tow her to Cammel Laird's dry dock in Birkenhead, a task that involved navigating the treacherous Swillies Channel in the Menai Straits. It was a trip that had to be done at high tide but, even then, the clearance between the Devil's Teeth Rocks was a mere four feet.

On the morning of 14 April, towed by the tugs Dongarth and Minegarth, the old ship left her moorings. All went well until the Conway passed the Menai Suspension Bridge and there she was met by the flood tide. A sudden north-westerly wind doubled the strength of the tide and the two tugs simply could not make headway. The towing hawser parted and Conway's bows swung helplessly round towards the Caernarfonshire shore.

Under the gaze of thousands of enthralled spectators, there was a roar like a million pebbles being washed along the beach and ship ploughed up onto the foreshore. An inspection soon revealed that her hull was badly buckled and strained - there was little hope of refloating her, at least not immediately. During the very next high tide, however, the Conway flooded aft and before anyone could do anything about it she had broken her back.

The Conway was abandoned and lay for many months on the foreshore. She provided an interesting attraction for the tourists and the locals alike, most of whom had never seen an old woodenwall in the flesh, so to speak. The ship's trainees were educated, for a while, at Plas Newydd, the house of the Marquess of Anglesey, but the great days of the British mercantile marine were already coming to an end. There was, quite simply, no longer any need of an establishment like the Conway.

Declared a total loss, it was decided that the Conway should be broken up where she lay. This was duly done, the remains of the hull being finally destroyed by fire in October 1956. It was a sad end for a once proud ship, a vessel that had provided thousands of officers for the merchant navy - and more than a few for the Royal Navy, too.

In the wake of the disaster Captain Eric Hewitt, who had been on board at the time, was much criticised. However, the responsibility for the tow rested with the towing master, not Conway's captain. Knowing the strength of the tides in the Menai Straits, Hewitt had asked for three tugs but had been told that two were more than enough for the job - as they sometimes say, hindsight is the only exact science.

More from this blog...

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.