Sunday, 29 March 2020

From Celtic Saints to Souvenir Mugs

Some time ago I visited St. Fagan’s Welsh Folk Museum with my grandson and daughter. We love wandering around dipping into our past and gaining new insights into how our forebears lived. The place holds great memories for me, not least when in my former incarnation as a headteacher in 1989 I spent a day filming a video we were making about a local man named John Williams. A common enough name in Wales! His was one of three graves we discovered in the grounds of  St. John the Baptists’ in Ton Pentre, Rhondda which bore the same name. Two of the children involved in the project, entitled ‘Dig Where You Stand, sponsored by the Gulbenkian Foundation, appeared on Frank Hennessy’s radio show. Frank inquired, why they thought there were three graves all with the name John Williams. One boy replied, “Because he was buried in three different places.” Hung drawn and thirded, must have done something really bad!

Photos by the late Derek Clayton
The parish of Ystradyfodwg, in which St. John the Baptist’s church stands, is named after Saint Dyfodwg.  Dyfodwg was one of the numerous ‘Celtic Saints’ who travelled the length and breadth of Wales spreading the Christian gospel. St Patrick even got as far as Ireland! Their message, however, was not universally welcomed. Above the entrance to the old church, now replaced by a new building, were two stone gargoyles. The face of one of the gargoyles displays a protruding tongue. The other does not.

Maindy Iron Age Camp, Ton Pentre
The story goes that the gargoyles both represent the unfortunate Saint Tyfodwg.  The remains of an iron age camp can be seen nearby, above the Maindy, and apparently the local chieftain took such exception to the saint’s  message that he ordered his offending tongue removed. A grim history written in stone.

In a corner of the churchyard stand a cluster of trees. The sexton informed us that close to the trees lies an unmarked grave where children who died from the cholera epidemics that frequently swept through valley communities were buried. It was a solemn moment. Our focus fell upon one grave in particular:

  “John Williams (formerly of Cowbridge), 
Served 24 years in 1st Regiment of Lifeguards. 
Accidentally killed in Rhondda Valley Railway
 15th Feb. 1865”

Born the year of the Battle of Waterloo, John Williams’ life spanned a period of dramatic change for the country and Rhondda in particular, driven by the discovery of a powerful new source of energy. . .  steam. Some of the events included:
The British army massacred on the road from Kabul. Anaesthetic used for the first time. The first wagon trains set out from Missouri. The Great Potato Famine in Ireland leads to the Irish diaspora. Gold is discovered in California precipitating an unprecedented gold rush. In Crimea a war is fought between, Great Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire and Russia. Florence Nightingale takes nurses to the Crimea and Lord Cardigan leads the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade. The Great Exhibition opens at Crystal Palace. Livingstone discovers a great river in the heart of Africa. Charles Darwin publishes the Origin of the Species while in America the Pony Express is launched. Civil War erupts between the Northern and Southern States. Prince Albert dies.

In Wales the Rebecca Rioters burn down toll gates. The leaders are caught and sentenced to transportation. The Chartists under Robert Frost march on Newport and are savagely put down. Many are sentenced to transportation but Dic Penderyn is hung. All the while steam power was taking hold of the nation and Rhondda was transforming from a rural community into an industrial society. By 1863 there were already ten collieries in Rhondda and of course there were the railways. Others had followed, copied and improved upon Richard Trevithick’s ideas and the Age of Steam was well and truly upon us.

We made our film and our project was included in a book that was launched in London. Respecting and preserving our cultural heritage on a local and global scale is vital. If we forget where we come from, we lose sight of who we are. That’s why a visit to the Welsh Folk Museum usually fills me with pride. On this occasion it left me feeling distinctly disappointed. While browsing the wares on display in the souvenir shop I came across a mug with a print of an iconic photograph. Delighted with my find I bought it without a second thought. It was only when I returned home that I examined it properly.
To my amazement there was no caption or indication anywhere as to what the photograph was all about. It shows a densely packed crowd of cloth capped miners staring defiantly at the camera pointed at them. They are standing on a hill in Tonypandy known locally as the ‘Empire Hill’ because at the base of the hill stands ‘The Empire Theatre of Varieties’. They have not been to see a show but to attend a mass meeting of strikers. The strike began with the lock out at the Ely Pit, one of three pits that comprised the Naval Colliery, Penygraig and was made famous by the so-called ‘Tonypandy Riots’.

Instead of respecting our past my purchasing the mug felt more like I was participating in its exploitation. Their sacrifice merits our acknowledgement and respect, lest we forget who we are and from whence we came. Just one of the reasons why we should do our utmost to save the Mid Rhondda Athletic Field, 'The Track', from becoming just another housing development. Too many great memories to be discarded and forgotten - it needs to take centre stage in our community again.

If you have not already signed the petition please consider doing so and help us preserve our past for future generations.

The 'Mid' is left of centre.

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