Archives for February 2012

Free entry to Cadw sites on 1 March

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 16:00 UK time, Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Story of Wales features a number of historic sites in the care of Cadw, the Welsh Government's historic environment service.

As part of the celebrations to mark the transmission of the series, all Cadw directly managed sites will be included in the free entry programme on St David's Day, March 1st. Sites include Harlech Castle, Caernarfon Castle, Caerphilly Castle, Castell Coch and St Davids Bishop's Palace.

Caernarfon castle

Special Story of Wales events also take place at Caernarfon Castle on Saturday 3 March and at Caerphilly Castle on Sunday 4 March.

Find out more on Cadw's website.

To accompany the series project partners will be running activities tied to The Story of Wales. Find out more.

Telling the history of Wales

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:30 UK time, Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The people of Wales have always been proud of their history. Long ago that history would have been recorded and passed down - normally in an oral and poetic manner - by the bards and storytellers of the nation. In more modern times it has been the duty of professional historians to write and tell the history of Wales.

john davies

Historian John Davies

Wales has been lucky in that over the years there have been dozens of highly gifted and capable historians, people only too ready to record their views of the nation's past. Many have been academics, some have been professional writers, some what can be euphemistically and best termed 'peoples historians'.

The one thing they all have in common is the ability to tell a damned good story - and working to Rudyard Kipling's old adage that history would be a lot better remembered if it could be told through the medium of good stories, that is a crucial element.

Any look, no matter how brief, at the historians of Wales has to begin with JE Lloyd. Born in 1861 and from 1899 professor of history at Bangor University, his finest work was surely A History Of Wales From The Earliest Times To The Edwardian Conquest. The book was the first comprehensive study of medieval Wales and Lloyd went on to produce another masterpiece on the life of Owain Glyndwr. He also worked as consultant editor on The Dictionary Of Welsh Biography.

The other name that immediately springs to mind when considering Welsh historians is the redoubtable Gwyn Alf Williams. Born at Dowlais in 1925, he lectured at Aberystwyth and Cardiff before, in 1985, becoming a television writer and presenter. He wrote numerous books on topics such as the Merthyr rising and, in 1985, a work that was probably his best, When Was Wales?

A Marxist who, in later life, joined Plaid Cymru, Gwyn Alf was fired by a huge passion for his native land. He loved the dramatic moments, both in his writing and in his TV presentations. He will always be remembered for his part in co-presenting, with Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, the series The Dragon Has Two Tongues, a powerful and dramatic statement about Wales and its past. Gwyn Alf Williams died in 1985.

There are so many other historians of note. Two women historians who, over the years have produced a whole string of well-researched and informative texts, are Catrin Stevens and Deirdre Beddoe. Stevens' Welsh Courting Customs is a classic of its kind and is still in print nearly 20 years after publication.

Deirdre Beddoe has written extensively about womens history, producing works such as Discovering Women's History and finding time to edit books such as Parachutes And Petticoats, a compilation of womens remembrances of life during World War.Two.

John Davies is probably the premier Welsh historian working and writing today. After studying at Oxford, he taught at Aberystwyth before retiring to Cardiff. He was commissioned to write The History Of Wales by Penguin and was pleasantly surprised when he found that the book would be published in both English and Welsh. It was, for many years, the standard history of the country, with a revised edition produced in 2007.

Dai Smith, currently chair of the Arts Council of Wales, is another historian of note. Born in the Rhondda, he was professor in the history of Wales at Cardiff before moving into the media and becoming editor of BBC Radio Wales and head of English language programmes. Over the years he has produced numerous detailed and well-written studies of various aspects of Welsh life, including The Fed, a history of the South Wales Miners' Union.

wynford vaughan-thomas

Wynford Vaughan-Thomas

Current historians and writers are many and varied. They include people such as Stephanie Ward, Chris Williams and HV Bowen. Gomer Press recently published A New History Of Wales, edited by Bowen and featuring the views of many of the historians quoted here. They were originally published as a series of articles in the Western Mail and offer a new and, in many cases, different view of Wales - which is exactly what you would expect from some of the country's finest historians.

The public face of history, however, often rests on the presenters of any particular programme rather than the research brains behind it. People like Gwyn Alf Williams, who can write and present, are few and far between. And the Welsh have not been backward in providing good quality presenters who can catch and hold the nation's interest.

Perhaps Wynford Vaughan-Thomas was at the forefront of the move to popularize Welsh history but he has been followed by many fine TV and radio presenters. Huw Edwards and John Humphrys are possibly the best known public faces. They are men who are interested in the history of their nation and are happy to pass on that interest to the general public.

There are undoubtedly many more fine historians of note and people will probably take exception to those quoted above. "What about...?" they will say. Good. Any discussion of the men and women who have made our history fascinating and compelling can only be for the good of the nation and the subject.

Read Huw Edwards' article explaining why he wanted to be involved with the new BBC Wales history series The Story of Wales.

The Story of Wales continues on Thursday 1 March at 9pm on BBC One Wales. If you missed the first episode you can watch it on the BBC iPlayer.

Let us know your thoughts on The Story of Wales. Join our BBC Wales History Twitter group, visit our Story of Wales Facebook page or simply leave a comment below.

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Huw Edwards on retelling the story of Wales

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 12:26 UK time, Monday, 27 February 2012

Huw Edwards spoke to BBC Wales History about why he wanted to be involved in the new history series, The Story of Wales, which starts tonight at 9pm on BBC One Wales.

When BBC Wales suggested my name for this series, it really was a dream come true. No self-respecting Welsh broadcaster would turn down such an offer. To bring the nation's story to life is a daunting challenge, to say the least. Great men have laboured in this field, and I enter it with respect.

The last major television history of Wales was The Dragon Has Two Tongues in the mid 1980s, when the great Gwyn Alf Williams and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas slugged it out in one of the best history series ever seen on British television.

The Dragon Has Two Tongues mesmerised viewers: each presenter vigorously promoted his own story of Wales, engaging in endless argument about people, places and events. They conveyed the volatility of that period: there was a palpable uncertainty about the very notion of Wales. The country seemed to be in flux, the political landscape dominated by the year-long miners' strike. Gwyn Alf and Wynford taught viewers that the best history provokes debate and encourages reflection.

huw edwards

Huw Edwards on location for The Story of Wales

We made this series, 26 years later, in a rather different climate. Wales is in many ways a new country, clearly energised and boasting its own government and law-making National Assembly. For the first time in the history of our nation, laws are being made by elected Welsh representatives in Wales for Wales.

So it was high time for us to re-tell the story of Wales for the 21st century.

Wales has a remarkable story to tell: we start our series on the rocky Gower coastline where an English clergyman made the first discovery of a human fossil anywhere in the world, and the oldest ceremonial burial discovered anywhere in Western Europe. We end our series in my home town, Llanelli, where we reflect on the rapidly-changing shape of Wales in the 21st century.

In between we criss-cross the country visiting places and times whose significance we try to explain in a lively and accessible fashion. I am endlessly fascinated by the dazzling growth and ambition of Victorian Wales. Our Victorian ancestors were remarkable people and we are still in their debt today.

Some of the locations were exceptionally thrilling. The site of Crawshay's immense iron furnaces in Merthyr is still impressive in scale and form. The sadness and tranquillity of Llyn Celyn in the early morning light was a very special experience. The ruins of Strata Florida Abbey near Pontrhydfendigaid offer a haunting glimpse of life in medieval Wales.

The vivid lunar-like landscape of Parys Mountain in Ynys Mon, with its old copper workings, is unforgettable. Dinefwr Castle, majestically sited above the Tywi, is probably my favourite castle in Wales. And who can resist the peace and beauty of St David's Cathedral, a prime site of Christian worship for the past 1,400 years?

Ryan Davies, Welsh entertainer

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:30 UK time, Friday, 24 February 2012

There are many people who can lay claim to the title of Wales' best loved entertainer but, surely, no-one has more right to that title than the mercurial Ryan Davies.

Ryan Davies

Ryan Davies

Between 1971 and 1973, with his fame and success already assured in his native Wales, Davies and his comedy partner Ronnie Williams performed for three BBC One television series. Ryan and Ronnie were star names, not just in Wales but across the whole of the UK, earning for themselves the, probably, unwanted but nevertheless accurate description of the Welsh Eric and Ernie.

Ryan Davies was born in Glanamman on 22 January 1937. After a two year National Service stint in the RAF he went to Bangor Normal College, followed by the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Then followed a period of five years working as a primary school teacher in Croydon.

Acting and entertainment were in Davies' blood, however, and in 1965 he left the school to become a full-time professional actor. It was not long before his wonderful singing voice and comic talent were finding him work across the country. He also wrote songs and scripts and was soon, after appearing at large scale events such as the 1966 National Eisteddfod, being regarded as an emerging talent.

Davies' big break came when he teamed up with Cefneithin-born Ronnie Williams. As a double act they made Welsh language TV shows and performed live at many Welsh venues. As a combination of comedy, singing and light drama, it could not be beaten. When their act was seen by Billy Cotton Jnr, then head of BBC light entertainment, they were commissioned for an English language version of Ryan And Ronnie on BBC One.

The shows gave them national exposure, something that was soon being eagerly anticipated by viewers across Britain. For a long time people had been asking why England, Ireland and Scotland had produced great comedians but Wales had not done the same. Ryan And Ronnie certainly provided the answer to that conundrum.

The comedy show was well received, three separate series being broadcast in the early 1970s. One of the highlights of each episode was Davies' portrayal of a "typical" Welsh housewife in a sketch entitled Our House. Davies played his part of Mother in drag while Williams appeared as the father.

After several years of huge success the duo split in 1975, supposedly due to Williams' poor health. Davies, who had always pursued a complementary solo career, continued to work in cabaret, TV and film. He was always something of a workaholic, never seeming to slow down or take a break.

In 1972 he had appeared as Second Voice - even though he played the part as a mute - in the big screen adaptation of Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood, alongside Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O'Toole. It was a misguided adaptation but Davies' portrayal was one of the few highlights of the film.

For many, however, Ryan Davies is best remembered for his appearances on the legendary Poems And Pints series of programmes, an unlikely but hugely successful combination of poetry and song that was sometimes felt to sum up Welsh entertainment and culture in the early 1970s. Davies' recitations along with the poetry of Harri Webb were the highlights of the show. Poems And Pints, incidentally, gave early air time to a young singer/songwriter from Glynneath, Max Boyce.

In 1977 Davies was in Buffalo in New York State, visiting friends. At a barbecue in his honour he suffered a serious asthma attack and, despite being rushed to hospital, died of a heart attack on 22 April. He was just 40 years old.

Davies' death came as a dreadful shock to family and friends, and to the thousands of fans who loved his music and comic ability.

His body was brought back to Wales and he was buried in the graveyard at Hen Bethel Church, just above Glanamman. He is commemorated by a bust that holds a place of honour in the foyer of the BBC Wales headquarters in Llandaff.

He left a wife, Irene, and two children but, significantly, a legacy of comic genius that is still spoken about throughout Wales. Nobody who ever saw Ryan Davies perform can ever forget the experience.

Family history: waiting for the eureka moment

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 09:45 UK time, Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Last year I received a plea for help which tugged at my heart. Tanya Roberts emailed to say:

"During the war my family in Nantymoel had an evacuee from London, a little boy called Stanley Cordish (unsure of spelling). He had to leave us as his parents decided to send him to America for safety. Stanley always said he was going to come back but he never did. We heard that a ship had gone down and wondered if Stanley was on it. My mother loved Stanley and always wondered what had happened to him."
Photograph of Stanley Kodish as a teenager

Stanley as a teenager

My first thought was to determine whether Stanley had been on board the fated City of Benares, which was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 77 children. An email to the Evacuees Reunion Association (ERA) was quickly replied to with incredible detail. This was the reply:

"I have checked in the book The Absurd And The Brave; its appendix lists the names of those lost in the City of Benares disaster. I could not find any reference to Stanley Cordish, neither is he listed in the names of survivors. A total of 12 ships sailed to Canada carrying Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB) evacuees. I have also checked the list of evacuees who arrived safely at Canada on those ships, but could not find a Stanley Cordish"

Although this had confirmed that Stanley had not been sent to Canada, it brought more potential complications since I now knew that the Government's scheme known as CORB evacuated children to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, but not to the United States!

Photograph of Stanley Kodish aged 10

Stanley aged 10

I began to wonder whether Stanley had attended school whilst in Nantymoel and a visit to the gleaming and spacious Glamorgan County Archives revealed that, while plenty of other local schools had deposited their attendance registers with the archives, this was not the case for Nantymoel.

According to ERA, if Stanley had been evacuated via the Government's evacuation scheme, Operation Pied Piper, then it was just possible that the billeting officer's register for that area still exists. If it does it should be held at the relevant County Record Office or main public library, and would have Stanley's name, date of birth, home address, parents name, foster parents name and address as well as the date he left and where he went.

But luck was not on my side that day. The register had not survived so I decided to take a step back and sent emails to the local library in Nantymoel and the local junior school.

At this point I was asked to give an update while appearing on BBC Radio Wales' Jamie and Louise programme. The listeners often seem to have that knack of solving a problem.

And so it was that I received an email from Norma who said that she happened to be listening last time I was the radio talking about the search for Stanley.

That night Norma attended a meeting of the Ogmore Valley History and Heritage Society, after which she bought a CD which contained the local school admissions registers. Here's what she told me:

"I don't know if you are still looking for information on Stanley but a Stanley Kodish (not CORDISH) attended Nantymoel junior school from 20/5/1940 until 31/7/1940," she said. "His date of birth is given as 12/9/1930 and he was staying with a J Roberts at 21 Oakfield Terrace"

Thanks to the kindness of Norma's heart, and of this small yet dedicated local history group, this was the eureka moment I'd been waiting for. Now that I had the correct spelling of the surname and the year of birth I was quickly able to trace Stanley's birth and then his marriage to Gillian in 1962.

And, although I was able to locate Gillian on the electoral register there was no sign of Stanley living at the address.

Gillian answered my letter confirming that Stanley had sadly died in 2007 but that they had enjoyed a long and happy marriage together.

So, only one final question remains. This time posed by Stanley's widow Gillian Kodish who kindly sent me a photograph of Stanley at school (he's sitting right at the back).

Is this Nantymoel junior school and, if so, can anyone name the other children? Please leave a comment below if you can help.

stanley at school

Stanley at school

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Rare opportunity to explore historic Swansea Castle

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 15:30 UK time, Monday, 20 February 2012

At the end of this month, Swansea Castle is being opened up for public tours. It's only the third time in decades that people will have the chance to explore the historic building.

Swansea Castle

Swansea Castle (Photo: City and County of Swansea)

The castle is being opened up for public tours on Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 February as part of Swansea Council's St David's Week celebrations.

Visitors will be able to access parts of the castle including the whole of the first floor, several vaulted rooms of the medieval castle and the cells of the 18th century prison.

Swansea Castle was originally founded in about 1106 by Henry de Beaumont, who was later given the Lordship of Gower by King Henry I. It originally consisted of earthworks and timber defences.

After various unsuccessful attacks by the Welsh, the castle fell in 1217 but was restored to the English in 1220.

William de Braose III built the new castle that survives today at the end of the 13th century as a set of private apartments for his family and himself that was later crowned by its distinctive battlements. The building has served many purposes over the centuries including a barracks and a drill hall.

The surrounding buildings were badly damaged in the blitz of 1941 but today you can still see the tower containing the debtor's prison and William de Braose's new castle built within a corner of a walled bailey.

If you would like to tour Swansea Castle, please visit to book a tour.

Edgar Evans: A Welshman to the Pole

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:25 UK time, Friday, 17 February 2012

No matter what you think about the efficacy of Scott's 1912 expedition to the South Pole, his organisation and his overall attitudes, you cannot dispute the raw courage of the five men involved in the final push for the pole - a push that was ultimately as cruel and brutal as it was futile.

Scott's ship Terra Nova leaves Cardiff for Antarctica 15 June 1910 National Museum of Wales

Scott's ship Terra Nova leaves Cardiff for Antarctica 15 June 1910 (National Museum of Wales)

As most people now know, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amunsden beat Scott to the pole by five weeks and, devastated by the knowledge, all members of Scott's party perished on the return journey.

People often speak about the courage of Captain Oates, walking out to his death in the final blizzard rather than delay and hinder his comrades, but one man whose contribution to the expedition is often overlooked is Welshman Edgar Evans.

Evans was born on 7 March 1876 at Middleton, near Rhossili on the Gower Peninsula. He was the son of a sailor and was always destined for a career at sea. At the age of 13 he enlisted in the Royal Navy and by 1899 was serving on HMS Majestic where Lieutenant Robert Falcon Scott was employed as torpedo officer.

Edgar Evans served his time and was duly promoted, eventually reaching the rank of petty officer. He went with Scott on his first Antarctic expedition between 1901 and 1904, being part of a three-man team (the others being Scott and William Lashley) that travelled by sledge into the interior of Victoria Land in 1903.

Evans was always a big man and was described both as a "huge, bull necked figure" and, perhaps more damagingly, as a womaniser who enjoyed his ale and rum. Certainly by the time Scott's final expedition left Britain on the Terra Nova in 1910 he was past his prime.

An episode in New Zealand where he fell, drunk, into the water while attempting to get back to the ship after a night on the town would certainly have had him shipped back home in disgrace if there had been a different commander. Scott knew his man, however, and felt that he would need Evans' strength - and cheerful personality - in the weeks and months ahead.

Scott was right. Evans was a tireless worker who was always busying himself at one job or another. Scott's decision not to use dogs to pull the sledges - a decision that, arguably, lost him the race with Amunsden - meant that Evans' enormous strength was soon found to be invaluable.

The Polar party departs

When the Polar party was announced it was, perhaps, inevitable that "Taff" Evans would be one of the number, along with Scott, Lawrence Oates, Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers. Late in 1911, the small five-man team set off, reaching the South Pole on 17 January 1912, just 11 weeks after departure. The sudden and devastating realisation that they had been beaten to their goal must have been horrendous and the journey back to base was both desperate and deadly.

The Antarctic was hit by some of the worst gales ever seen, with snow and ice battering at the five disappointed explorers. It soon became apparent that they were in serious trouble.

Evans had cut his hand just before reaching the pole and, in the dreadful conditions the party endured, the wound refused to heal properly. Always the strongest and most physically able of men, Evans now began to unravel - both physically and emotionally - before the eyes of his fellow explorers. Within days of leaving the pole he was suffering from frostbite to his fingers and nose and often seemed to be living in a different world.

Short on food, supplies and time

When descending the Beardmore Glacier on 4 February, Evans slipped and fell through the ice. He was pulled clear but had injured his head - Scott thought he had concussion - and his condition worsened. By now he was making extremely slow progress through the ice and snow, often delaying the party which was already short of both food supplies and, most important of all, time.

On 16 February he was left far behind as the other four men hauled their sledge towards the next supply depot. Scott wrote in his diary, which was later recovered from his body:

"After lunch and Evans still not appearing, we looked out to see him still afar off... I was first to reach the poor man and was shocked by his appearance; he was on his knees with clothes disarrayed, hands uncovered and frostbitten, and a wild look in his eyes."

Captain Oates stayed with Evans while the others went back to their tent for a sledge to transport the stricken man. They could do nothing for him and Edgar Evans died at approximately 12.30am on 17 February, exactly one month after they had reached the South Pole.

His body was never found, although Scott and his comrades must have buried it somewhere in that icy wilderness. Had Scott lived they would have recovered the body and given it a suitable burial. It was not to be. Within a few short days Scott and the other three had also perished.

Edgar Evans' widow erected a plaque in his memory in the church at Rhossili. It bears the inscription "To seek, to strive, to find and not to yield," a suitable and appropriate testimony to the first Welshman ever to reach the South Pole.

If Phil's article has made you curious about Scott's Polar expedition, the National Museum Cardiff is running an exhibition called Captain Scott: South For Science. It runs until Sunday 13 May 2012 and is supported by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust. Find out more about the exhibition on the National Museum Cardiff website.

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Family history: Mum knows best

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 10:54 UK time, Wednesday, 15 February 2012

It's the school holidays again and while some families are heading off to visit relatives others are planning trips designed to keep their little darlings occupied in other ways. While driving I gaze at the loaded cars and wonder how their half terms will compare to mine.

Image of deeds

During my childhood I was frequently treated to a half term like no other child; a trip to St Catherine's House. This included so-called "educational research tasks" set by my mother that were worse than any homework a teacher could have created.

And yes, I hated it! Or at least I thought I hated it, but now I come to think of it perhaps I didn't after all. Perhaps I even enjoyed it since it also included the challenge of competing with my sister to find the right entry in the right book and the promise of tea and cake afterwards.

How did my mum know that I would end up doing this for a job? Are all mothers psychic? is that part of the job criteria for being a mother?

St Catherine's house was where all the birth, death and marriage indexes were housed. These huge heavy books were bound in red, black or green accordingly and covered all the civil registration entries for the whole of England and Wales from 1837 virtually up to the present day.

Not only were the rooms small and the books bigger than me, but the space in which you had to turn around and open them created a struggle. Each time you fought for a place on the reading stands, elbowing people as you went, only to find that when you turned around to replace the book - always methodically in its correct place, knowing from experience even at that young age what a disaster it would be for the next person if the index was misplaced - someone would jump into your spot. You would then wait patiently for them to turn around so you could jump back into the space.

My memory tells me that the adoption indexes were kept upstairs alongside the entries for overseas events and those births, deaths and marriages registered by military personnel.

A short walk away was Somerset House. I think that now it is the home of an ice skating rink in winter and concerts in summer, but it was then the home of thousands of wills, which seemed to miraculously appear while you waited.

That all seems such a long time ago. Since then the GRO BMD indexes have been moved twice, ending up at the National Archives in Kew via the purpose built and gloriously spacious Family Record Centre in Islington (complete with modern requirements such as lockers, toilets and photocopiers) and very conveniently located near Exmouth market for sumptuous snacks to fortify family history researchers.

And now here I am at my kitchen table barely lifting more than my little fingers to access all those indexes which have been digitally scanned onto various databases and websites and beamed into my house via some elaborate technology way beyond my comprehension.

I hate to say it but I miss the old days and the old ways. And, even worse, I have to admit that those were the best ever half term holidays, so thank you Mum.

The Defensible Barracks - a Victorian wonder

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 08:30 UK time, Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Contrary to what many people believe, the west wales town of Pembroke Dock was never a naval town like Plymouth or Portsmouth. It was a dockyard town, a place that built ships, launched them into the waters of Milford Haven - and never saw them again once they had sailed off to duties in many other parts of the world.

Pembroke Dock at Sunset

Pembroke Dock at Sunset (Photo:William Hart)

Dockyards have to be protected, however, and if it was anything, Pembroke Dock was a military town. Barracks, forts and gun towers proliferated in and around the place, many of them being still in existence although, these days, long out of use.

Chief amongst these military fortifications were the Defensible Barracks, a huge renaissance style fortification based on an early 16th century design. The barracks still sit - although now in a deplorable state of disrepair - on the top of what is known locally as the Barracks Hill, dominating the town and the site of the old dockyard that they were originally built to protect.

The barracks covered an area of some 6,000 square yards, offering fields of fire to landward and out to sea. Its walls were many feet thick. The purpose of the barracks and fort was the defend the dockyard from landward attack and to this end there were rifle loops in the walls for nearly 700 muskets. In addition, the barracks were equipped with 16 24-pounder cannon. It was originally designed to be garrisoned by eight officers, seven NCOs and 240 other ranks.

Local legend - possibly an urban myth - declares that the Defensible Barracks were completed in just 12 months. Certainly the contractor, Thomas Jackson, handed over the finished product to the military on 25 November 1845, having begun work on them in the late summer of 1844. As official records state:

"Possession was taken at three o'clock in the afternoon and was officially indicated by the hoisting of Her Majesty's flag amidst deafening cheers from the hundreds of spectators. A substantial dinner with a liberal quantity of double strength Welsh ale was given to the workmen."
Vernon Scott : PD Days

Given the size of the barracks, the workmen certainly deserved their "double strength Welsh ale" and if the work really was completed in just one year then it was an amazing feat of engineering and human enterprise. Other sources, however, state that work began in 1841.

It is likely that preparation work, digging out footings and so on, did commence in 1841 leaving just the construction of the walls and buildings to be completed in 12 months. Even so, the mammoth effort required to bring building material to the site and then erect it in such a short space of time was nothing short of miraculous.

The place was first known as Treowen Barracks, after the nearby road, although the original intention was to call them The Prince Albert Barracks, in honour of Queen Victoria's husband. In the end, the name Defensible Barracks was adopted and it stuck.

The first occupants of the Defensible Barracks were the Royal Marines of the Portsmouth Division, transferring from their cramped and draughty quarters on the old woodenwall 'Dragon' which had served as their base for many years. They were soon joined by two companies from the West Yorkshire Regiment.

Over the years many fine and famous regiments were based in the barracks. These ranged from the Pembrokeshire Artillery to the Royal North Gloucestershire Regiment - and, in particular, the 24th Foot, better known as the South Wales Borderers.

In the early days the deep moat surrounding the Barracks was not fenced in. Several soldiers, returning from a night in one of the town's many beer houses, fell into the open moat and were either seriously injured or killed.

It was a fate that also befell Dr Sumpter from the town - returning home late one night after treating a patient in nearby Pennar, he plunged into the darkened moat. The shock to his nervous system and several physical injuries were sufficient to kill him within a few days of the accident.

The most renowned victim of the unprotected moat, however, was an otherwise unremarkable Private in the Royal Marines, one John Harding. He pitched head first into the chasm in October 1850, his gravestone in the town cemetery recording his demise with the following words:

"Except the Lord direct our feet
And guide with gracious care;
At every step we danger meet,
In every path a snare.

Then reader pause, who e'er thou art,
As thus my grave you view;
Remember, thou from life must part -
Perhaps as quickly, too."

The twice daily firing of a blank charge from the barracks cannon became an essential part of the town's customs, alerting those residents without watches when it was noon or 9.30 at night. The 9.30pm gun soon became a signal marking the curfew for those local girls "out courting."

Over the years many famous soldiers served at the Defensible Barracks. None of them was more renowned than the famous Gordon of Khartoum who, although stationed at the barracks, was afforded the privilege of living out "in digs" in the town.

When he left Pembroke Dock to serve in the Crimea it was 1855 and he apparently remarked "I have received my death warrant." In fact Gordon did not die in the Crimean War but had to wait another dozen or so years before meeting his maker at the defence of Khartoum.

Arthur Lowe as Captain Mannering

Arthur Lowe as Captain Mannering

Another famous resident of the Barracks was the actor Arthur Lowe who later found immortality as Captain Mainwaring in the TV show Dad's Army. He served there during the World War Two with the Duke of Lancaster's Own Yeomanry.

The barracks were the scene of a major tragedy on 28 April 1942. Nineteen men were killed while practicing to disarm mines, four of them from the Royal Engineers, four from the King's Own Scottish Borderers and four serving with the Pioneer Corps. An officer who had been in the room moments before escaped death when he left the room to answer a telephone call.

When the military left Pembroke Dock in the mid 1960s, the Defensible Barracks were abandoned to their fate. They have subsequently served as a Council Depot and as the clubhouse for the South Pembs Golf Club.

Now, however, they are empty and forlorn. Although they are officially classified as a Grade II listed building, they are privately owned and are slowly crumbling into dust. It is a tragic state of affairs for a wonderful and historic old building.

Saunders Lewis and The Fate of the Language

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 14:10 UK time, Friday, 10 February 2012

Perhaps not many people - certainly not those outside the country - are fully aware of the fact but Monday 13 February 2012 marks an important moment in the history of Wales and the Welsh language.

Saunders Lewis

It was exactly 50 years ago this year, on 13 February 1962, that the writer and political activist Saunders Lewis delivered a radio lecture on Tynged yr Iaith - the Fate of the Language.

In itself that might seem interesting but hardly world shattering. Except that the lecture was a seminal moment in Welsh history, one that triggered the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh language Society) and, ultimately, the creation of much of the bilingual policy and material - forms, documents, road signs and so on - that we now have in Wales.

Even Welsh language radio and TV services owe a huge debt to Saunders Lewis' crucially important broadcast, made on what was then the BBC's Welsh Service.

Saunders Lewis was born on 15 October 1893, the son of a Welsh minister who, although he was born in Cheshire, was raised in a Welsh speaking family. He went to Liverpool University, where he studied English, but his studies were interrupted by World War One. He served in the South Wales Borderers, returning to university after the war to finish his degree.

Patriotic and hugely conscious of his Welshness, Lewis became a lecturer at Swansea University in 1922 and three years later, along with men such as HR Jones, was instrumental in founding Plaid Cymru, the National Party of Wales. He was president of the party from 1926 until 1939.

He was a writer of great skill and range, producing novels, critical studies (including one of William Williams, Pantycelyn), essays and poems. In the main, however, he considered himself to be a dramatist, producing no fewer than 21 different plays, although his real mission and purpose was, arguably, to alter the course of Welsh history.

Lewis was a writer who produced work with a highly intellectual element - something which later added fuel to the charge of elitism in his writing and views - working mainly from history and legend. He became a Roman Catholic in the early thirties and took up a stance of opposition to what he regarded as "Godless communism."

He was certainly opposed to socialism and even the pacifism that he encountered in the 1930s was suspect in his eyes. As far as he was concerned, the main purpose of politics was to defend civilisation - a nation or a people without traditions, he believed, was in danger of disintegration.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that his views would lead him to extreme action. In 1936 he took part in an arson attack on the government bombing range at Penyberth in North wales.

Penyberth was a military range that had been established despite half a million Welsh protests and which, due to strong objections from local people in other parts of the United Kingdom, had already been rejected in Northumberland and Dorset. In the eyes of many it had been imposed on the Welsh by an uncaring government that had little understanding or recognition of Wales as a nation.

Saunders Lewis, DJ Williams and Lewis Valentine were sentenced to nine months imprisonment for their part in the affair and Lewis was dismissed - before the guilty verdict was returned - by Swansea University. Such was the strength of feeling, however, that the three Welshmen were greeted by a crowd of nearly 15,000 when they returned to Caernarfon after their release.

He continued to write, working as a journalist, farmer and teacher, but returned to academia as a lecturer in Welsh at Cardiff in 1952. His greatest moment came, however, with his radio broadcast, almost exactly 10 years later.

Tynged yr Iaith was basically an appeal to Plaid Cymru members living in predominantly Welsh speaking areas to give up what Lewis thought were useless or futile electoral campaigns to send MPs to Westminster. They should concentrate, instead, on creating an atmosphere where all forms of government, local and national, were impossible without the use of the Welsh language. He predicted the decline and death of Welsh unless there was a campaign to rescue it.

Consequently, at that year's National Eisteddfod, some members of Plaid Cymru - many of them young - decided to establish a Welsh language movement or society, separate from Plaid. Since 1962 the Welsh Language Society has achieved much. It has been an important element in establishing the whole concept of bilingualism and the saving of the Welsh language. The Welsh Language Acts of 1967 and 1993 also owe much to this pressure group.

And, of course, it can be argued that none of this would have happened had it not been for that one crucially important radio broadcast by Saunders Lewis in 1962. Nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, he died on 1 September 1985.

Saunders Lewis remains an important cultural figure in Wales, having been voted number 10 in a 2005 poll to establish the 100 greatest Welshmen of all time.

Radio Cymru has been celebrating the Fate of the Language lecture over the last week and will continue to do so next week with a series of special lectures. All the content in the links below are Welsh language content.

Copper kingdom at Parys Mountain

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:25 UK time, Thursday, 9 February 2012

The old copper mines at Parys Mountain - Mynydd Parys in Welsh - lie just south of Amlwch at the north east coast of Ynys Mon.

parys mountain

The old ship building yards, Parys Mountain

They remain the best (or worst) example of industrial devastation in Wales. Anyone visiting the site cannot fail to be impressed at the deep gullies and crevasses that have been gouged into the land and the overall impression is not of Wales but of the surface of the moon.

There had long been stories of the Romans and even people from the Bronze Age mining in the area but nobody really knew where. From 1764, when Charles Macclesfield was granted a 21 year lease to work the area, some desultory attempts to find copper were made but it was all very low key and half hearted.

It was not until 2 March 1768 that a miner by the name of Rowland Pugh stumbled across what was to become known as "the great lode" and, as a result, serious mining began on Parys Mountain. As a reward Pugh was given a bottle of whisky and a rent-free cottage for the rest of his life - no small gift in those days.

The copper was fairly low quality but its great advantage was that it lay close to the surface and therefore did not require deep mining. It was also present in great quantity. Thomas Williams, a lawyer who originally from Llandinam, was the man who saw the potential.

He was a businessman of great acumen. Acknowledged as the country's first "copper king," over the next 40 years he came to dominate the world copper market.

Once extracted from the ground, the ore was broken up on site by hand, most of the work being carried out by the famous 'copper ladies'. These doughty women worked on the surface using large hammers, smashing the lumps of ore to extract the copper and separate the good metal from the bad. Michael Faraday wrote about them as follows:

"a large group of these, about 8 or 9 women, were working on the ground in the midst of heaps of ore, large and small; their mouths were covered with a cloth to keep the dust of the ore from entering with their breathing."

Working in long timber sheds, the 'copper ladies' were usually seated in long ranks, each of them with a block of iron - the knockstone - alongside them. On their left hands they wore a heavy gauntlet, the fingers protected by iron bands, and usually wielded their hammers with a rapidity and a strength that amazed everyone.

The port of Amlwch

The port of Amlwch - originally a tiny fishing port - quickly developed to keep pace with the production of the ore. At first the ships from Amlwch simply took the ore to places like Swansea where it was smelted but once furnaces and kilns were developed at Parys Mountain they began to transport the finished product.

The village of Amlwch also expanded into other trades. Brewing and tobacco processing were just two of these while there were numerous by-products, such as ochre and sulphur, of the copper smelting process. What had once been a tiny fishing village soon developed into a thriving town that eventually grew to be the sixth largest community in Wales.

Parys Mountain also produced its own coinage for a while, about 12 million copper Anglesey pennies being issued to workers in the mines after 1787 when coins were in short supply. The practice did not last long and the use of private coinage was made illegal in 1821.

What developed at Parys Mountain was a sophisticated and complex industrial process. The ore was kept in purpose-built ponds along with copious amounts of scrap iron to speed up the chemical process. The port of Amlwch was extended in 1793 and soon dozens of heavily laden sailing ships were leaving the place every day.

Parys Mountain dominated the world copper market during the final quarter of the 18th century and by the 1780s it was the largest mine in Europe. In particular, the copper mined here was used to sheath the hulls of wooden warships, thus making Nelson's battleships the fastest in the world as well as protecting them from barnacles and other sea creatures.

The bubble bursts

It was a a bubble that was almost inevitably bound to burst and, coinciding more or less with the death of Thomas Williams in 1802, there was a sharp decline in copper production at Parys Mountain. The more easily accessible deposits of ore had been worked out and now, if they wanted to stay in business, the mine owners had no option other than to dig deep.

It was a process that was begun but it was both costly and difficult. As early as 1799 production was down to 484 tons a year - in 1787 it had been as high as 4,000. John Vivian from Swansea took over Parys Mountain in 1811 and did, for a while, manage to revive its fortunes but by the 1830s, in the face of further difficulties extracting the ore and cheap foreign competition, the mines were just a shadow of their former selves. Closure was inevitable.

There have been various schemes and plans to begin copper, zinc, lead, even gold and silver mining once again. In the main, however, the place has become the domain of cavers, historians and explorers. When the Parys Footway Shaft was opened in the late 20th century it made several early Bronze Age workings suddenly available. From this it was seen that pre-historic mines like Parys Mountain included shafts going as deep as 100 feet.

These days it is the almost mind-blowing sight of the old craters that impresses most, the vast canyons that have been carved from the earth. The ground's rich colours - red and brown, purple, orange and black - dominate the eye. They remain an incredible and lasting tribute to what was once the major copper mines in the country.

Family history: the power of the note

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 10:00 UK time, Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The variety of topics and queries in my research is one of the things that makes my job so special and stops me from ever getting bored.

Recently I've been trying to help find a photograph of a RAF service man who died in 1944 on the outskirts of the Althorp estate in Northamptonshire. Patricia Betts is writing a book about the crash of a Wellington bomber with the tragic loss of all seven crew members.

Wellington bomber

Sergeant Thomas William Jones came from Roath in Cardiff. He is buried in Cathays cemetery in the same grave as his little sister Gloria. Details were kindly confirmed by the staff in the Bereavement Services office in Thornhill.

Their parents were Thomas William Jones and Ethel Reeves who kept a corner shop in Cyfartha Street in Roath. I was pleased to quickly establish that he also had a younger brother, John born in 1931, but looking for a John Jones in Wales is not an easy task and I quickly decided that alternative methods would need to be employed.

Changing tack I approached the RAF Museum and learned that although it would be possible for me to apply for his service records, because over 25 years had passed since his death at the age of just 19, there would be no photograph of him held in his service records unfortunately.

But it was just possible that a group photo may have been taken before the fateful flight. The archivist at the RAF museum told me that Sergeant Jones served with 85 operational training unit and encouraged me to try the Imperial War Museum, so I sent them an email and waited patiently. Two days later the answer arrived with usual military three letter abbreviations; no photographs were held of 85 OTU at IWM.

Another thought occurred to me while out walking one day. Some time ago, as part of BBC Radio Wales' Look Up Your Genes family history series, we met a man who incredibly had found all the members of his long lost family with the help of just one sticky note.

Thomas William Jones

Thomas William Jones

Being a lover of graveyards and a hater of litter I'm not suggesting a new line in products for placing notes on the headstones of our ancestors, but sometimes a discreetly positioned card is the only way to make contact (with others who visit the grave and not the deceased obviously!).

A quick visit to the cemetery (which required the help of staff to locate his grave amongst the 50,000 spread over 84 acres) revealed that Sergeant Jones had a standard Commonwealth War gravestone in Portland stone.

The words at the base of the headstone were individually chosen, I imagine by his grieving parents. They read: "A daily thought, A secret tear, And an everlasting memory".

More relevant to the search though was the granite vase "From Neighbours" at the foot of the grave, which contained evidence of recent flowers being placed there by someone who cares. Perhaps someone who knew Thomas, perhaps his brother, a cousin or even a nephew or niece.

In December I was invited to appear on Roy Noble's BBC Radio Wales afternoon programme along with Patricia to talk about the search for Sergeant Thomas William Jones (service number 3031716).

And our prayers were answered! His cousin Jacqui Burridge rang in to say that she had a photo of Thomas as a young boy. Jacqui also had some last known contact details for her first cousin once removed, also called John Jones, but he too remains elusive.

So in the meantime perhaps I should nip along to Cathays cemetery and check that the note is still there after all those strong winds we've had this winter.

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