Cymdeithas Hanes Resolfen History Society

A web log for the Resolven History Society which publishes articles and stories related to Resolven and the immediate surroundings.

Monday, December 31, 2018

January Meeting

Unfortunately, MrPhylip Jones is too unwell to give his annual local lecture. We all wish him a speedy recovery and hope to see him back at our meetings very soon. "Pob dymuniad da Phylip."

Luckily, Mr Glyn Williams has agreed to speak in the January meeting, and the Society is very grateful to him.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Battle of the Christmas Crackers

A Report on the December meeting of Resolfen History Society.

Some years ago the committee of the History Society decided to make the December meeting a Members’ Night. The idea was not to deter other interested parties attending, but rather a reaction to the fact that competing events tended to diminish the size of the audience. Therefore, members were given the chance to show their local knowledge or give an item on anything they fancied.

The meeting began with a power-point presentation given by the Chairman Gwyn Thomas. Gwyn has amassed a large collection of photos regarding the activities of the Society in recent years. None of the slides was given a title, instead the members had to guess which activity was taking place. Without going in to detail some of the memories were a little rusty, but the exercise at least let people speak about their experiences once dredged from memory.

The second item was a reading from the autobiography of Joe Cookson who worked in a coal level above Melincwrt in 1919. The extract related to his first day in the mine and gave a vivid description of the poor working conditions devoid of any notion of Health and Safety legislation. The most interesting aspect of the work was its use of technical terms while describing the journey to work and the work practices of a boy assigned to a collier. Decades ago, terms such as “haulier”, “gob”, “journey”, “mandril” or “dram”, would not have needed an explanation to a Resolven audience,but times have changed. Luckily, enough of the audience had experience underground to enrich the narrative with details and subsequent anecdotes. Poor Joe, spent the end of his first day in a state of unconsciousness owing to succumbing to a bout of the Spanish flu, which incidentally claimed as many lives globally as the number of casualties in the Great War.

The evening finished with the annual quiz. Quiz being a very loose description, since it involved a competition to win Christmas crackers should three history questions be answered in succession by the same person. The accuracy of the answers was a little varied, since the members also helped themselves to refreshments and of course mulled wine to charge the brain cells. The Quizmaster had to resort to some very generous clues in order to get some reaction from the audience.

Merry Christmas, and a happy new year, from the History Society.

Nadolig Llawen, a blwyddyn newydd dda o’r Gymdeithas Hanes.

Trefor Jones.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Members' Night

Please note that everyone is welcome, it is not exclusive to members.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


Tinplate in the Swansea Area

The meeting began with a minute’s silence to mark the Armistice which brought hostilities to an end on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.

In recent years the Swansea Branch of the History Society has provided ‘outreach’ speakers to history groups in the area.  Mr Peter Rees is one of those speakers and following his highly enjoyable talk last year on the history of copper, the metallurgical theme continued with a talk on the successful relationship which west Wales has with tinplate.

Mr Rees began his talk with explaining that the origins of coating metals with tin for decorative or non-corrosive purposes was ancient and could well extend to 500 BC. However, in a more modern context the centre of the industry in the 16th century was Bavaria in modern Germany. Craftsmen there had developed a process of using a tilt hammer to flatten the metal, this was then placed in a vat of oatmeal which cleaned the sheet and the process was finished by coating it in molten tin. England alone imported over two million sheets mostly to make plates. Pewter was expensive and wood only used by the poor, therefore Bavarian tinplate was a status symbol in the Tudor home. Henry the Eighth was not happy with the effect this had on the balance of payments and the search was on for producing home manufactured tinplate. The imported ware was known as ‘crooked lane ware’ and providers give us the origin of the name ‘tinker’.

The race was then on to find to found a home produced industry, after all there was plenty of valuable tin to be found in Cornwall. In 1667, several entrepreneurs including John Hanbury visited Dresden. Hanbury needed coal for heat, water for power and ironstone to begin his works and found that Pontypool was the perfect location. Capel Hanbury his son had worked in the woollen industry and had introduced mechanical processes. He in turn invented a ‘mangle’ like device to flatten the sheet, so creating a nascent ‘rolling mill’, thus getting rid of the tilt hammers.  In 1728, Major John Hanbury introduced a modified three cylinder mill which was largely the same as the ‘pack’ mills which remained in use in Wales as late as 1962. There is evidence that Welsh tinplate was getting to be used widely in that Goya used a sheet of tinplate from Pontypool as the base of one his paintings in 1781.

Quickly the industry spread across south Wales and tinworks appeared from as far afield as Lydney to Carmarthen. By 1843, there were 23 works in Wales, but this had almost quadrupled by 1891 to 90 works with the locus of the industry very firmly in the west around Swansea.  Production increased from 4,000 tons in 1801 to 690,000 in 1900, which made it easily the most productive area in the world for tinplate and the global price was set in the metal exchange in Swansea Docks. The expansion was partly due to the evolution of the railway network which made the economic transportation of the raw materials much easier.

Crucial to the development of tinplate was the development of the tin can , which enabled meat and other food to be kept edible.  Initially, canned food had a military purpose since it allowed armies to move unhindered by the need to forage for food while advancing. The American Civil war  took up to 70% of the British production and  the ‘Wild West’ , wagon trains were made possible by the fact that the chuck wagon was full of tins and the plates did not rust.  However, the position was to change dramatically when the USA decided that they wished to develop their own tinplate industry. The McKinley Tariff of 1890 placed a tariff of 50% on all imported goods, but on tinplate it was placed at 70% so causing massive problems to the blossoming Welsh industry (plus ca change.Ed). Ironically, many Welsh workers emigrated  to the US in order to manage the foreign plants around Pennsylvania and Philadelphia (there is a house named ‘Scranton ‘in Neath Road .Ed). Some 36 works closed in Wales, including the famous Dyffryn works in Morriston.

Mr Rees pointed out that the Welsh industry proved resilient. The plants were largely revived by the development of a new canning process by Bliss & Williams which utilised steel from the Elba works and Llangennech tinplate to deform a tin in a press. The advent of the Bessemer process (Dowlais) and the Siemens furnace method ( in Swansea) of producing steel efficiently, sped the development of canning in the area. The main locational pull factor was now the availability of steel in the west of Wales around Swansea.

The next innovation in tinplate once more came from America with the advent of the far larger integrated strip mills, production per man was increased ten-fold and the days of the smaller works ( such as Clyne tinworks Ed) slowly came to an end. The area around Llanelli did indeed make “sospans” and the canning industry had new markets in the corned beef from “Fray Bentos” in Argentina which fed the the troops in the Great War with “bully beef”. Canned fruit from South Africa, more exotic peaches from Australia and even pineapples from Singapore became the regular Sunday tea in Welsh households. 

The new and bigger plants were built in Ebbw Vale , Velindre and Trostre. Today only Trostre survives but is still improving and produces over 10,000 tons of tinplate per day.

Following the lecture, a long question and answer session compared the local aluminium industry at Rheola with the processes in tinplate.

Mr Gwyn Thomas thanked Mr Rees for a very interesting talk, and the Society looks forward to his return next year.

Monday, October 29, 2018

November Meeting

Monday, October 15, 2018

Historical entertainment at Ystradgynlais Welfare Hall

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Historical Geography in action: Skewen.

A Report on the October meeting of Resolfen History Society

The History of Skewen

This month’s speaker hardly needed an introduction since former Neath College lecturer, Mrs Carole Wilsher has been a resident of the Forest Lodge in Glynneath Road for thirty seven years. However, despite being well on her way to gaining her permanent -residency in Resolven, she described herself as being “Skewen through and through”.

She began her talk by given a brief account of why she had undertaken the work of producing a book on the history of her home village. The chief motive was the increasing march of globalisation in the modern world which was fast erasing the folk memories and even the buildings that had given rise to settlements in general.  At first, her family were sceptical as to why she wanted to embark on such an epic journey, but this was justified by her realisation that her entire family, back to her great grandparents had emanated from the Skewen  area. She praised the contribution of Gareth Richards, former proprietor of Gwasg Morgannwg in Skewen, for his encouragement and practical help in her endeavour. She started the work with an attempt to interpret the history of Skewen, by analysing the street names of the village, but failed when she realised that this called for some more serious research. The fruit of which was her book on the history of Skewen.

The story began with a look at the background to the development of the Skewen area.  In 1129, the Cistercians at Neath Abbey were granted lands amounting to ten square miles in order to clear and manage, a process known as “assarting” in Old English. The work of the monks can be seen today in the prefix “cwrt” or grange(self-sufficient farms) which are still evident in local place names. In the Skewen area many names included ‘cwrt’for example ,Cwrt-y –Betws; Cwrt -y - Clafdy; Cwrt Herbert; and Cwrt Sart ( in Briton Ferry) is a corruption of “assart”. (And of course, Melincwrt in the Resolven area, referring to a mill. Ed.)

In the 1600s, the now dissolved monastery was acquired by the Hobby family and later bought by Lord Dynevor. Parcels of land were leased for the use of both industry and the concurrent agricultural revolution. In 1801, the famous Neath Abbey Ironworks was established in the Skewen area, and copper works were situated along the river Neath. Another catalyst in the development of the settlement was the building of the Tennant Canal by George Tennant (1821) which took products to the docks at Swansea (Port Tennant).  However, the first embers of a sizable settlement came with the opening of the new turnpike road in 1830 to Swansea. This now forms the main thoroughfare through Skewen, as against the “old road”, which runs now to Llandarcy passing the Abbey.

It is difficult to give an exact date to the birth of Skewen, however, Mrs Wilsher showed that the area was almost exclusively farmland in 1770. However in 1816 a newspaper report on a robbery refers to the area as “Skewen Hill”, for the first time.  By 1801, Coedffranc  Parish ( still the name of the community council, Ed.) had some 50 scattered dwellings and in the 1811 census the area had 454 residents. The important aspect here is that instead of individual holdings, houses were now being built in clusters, surrounding industrial enterprises alongside the existing tracks on Skewen Hill, especially around the Crown Copper Works (There is a Crown public house to this day, Ed.). An estate map of 1838, shows that commercial premises were also being established in Skewen, and  Mrs Wilsher noted that her family were residents at that time. Living conditions were squalid and epidemics of cholera (1840s), smallpox (1872) and Scarlet Fever (1890) were endemic. By 1871, Skewen was firmly established as a community with 2,500 residents.

The next period of development surrounded the coal industry and the main railway line. Edward Ackland Moore and his son ( brother in law of Neath entrepreneur  Howel Gwyn) bought and ran a large colliery at Cwrt Herbert. In addition, large railway sidings were built nearby  in order to transport the coal via Birchgrove to Swansea. They also acquired the Cwmdu estate in Skewen, but changed the name of the emerging settlement to Mooretown, which gave rise to a nascent” upper” as against “lower”, Skewen. This is a distinction which persists to this day. All Saints Church was built at this time.

A sketch map of Skewen.
The dawn of the twentieth century saw a massive boom in the population of the village, with the population in 1901 standing at 5, 410, this increased exponentially to 8,125 by the next census of 1911. The reason for the explosion is obvious since the Main Colliery Company had opened two new pits in Skewen , in 1903 and 1904. New houses were built for the workers along Dynevor Road ( formerly Coronation Road) , thus joining upper and lower Skewen for the first time. The streets were built on a typical grid pattern and organised by the Coombe- Tennant family, indeed Stanley Road refers to the famous H.M.Stanley ( a friend of the family) and Christopher Road is a son of the Coombe-Tennants. However, this blossoming development came to a crashing halt with the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. The Skewen collieries failed to gain an Admiralty contract for their coal which sent them into permanent decline, closing in the early 1920s. Another unwelcome guest at the time was the Spanish flu which decimated the population.

The saviour of Skewen without doubt was the coming of a large oil refinery in 1920 to nearby Llandarcy.  This undoubtedly saved the village economically, and it was considered one of the wealthiest settlements in Wales because of the 3,000 well paid and varied jobs which came from the refinery.  This is noticeable in the prevalence of mainly 30s style detached and semi-detached houses along Crumlin Road and Wern Road. The vast Skewen Park was established alongside the nine acres of Tennant Park. The Ritz cinema opened along with a dog track for racing and other notable buildings. The Refinery was a target during the second world war but mercifully was not badly bombed.

After the war, a period of council housing saw one hundred and fifty new houses in Skewen and also a move to clear the derelict land was undergone by Coedffranc Community Council following the Aberfan disaster of the mid-1960s. Another development was the setting up of new private estates following the closure of Llandarcy . Indeed, the only two original shops which are left are the Italian café run since the early twentieth century by the Cresci family and the Jeffreys Stores ( now Arborne) which was opened by a Jewish family.  With a population of 8,500, Skewen is recognised as the largest village in Wales if not the UK.

Following a lively question and answer session, Mr Gwyn Thomas thanked Mrs Wilsher for a memorable evening.

(All proceeds from the book are donated to theTŷ Olwen Hospice, and remaining copies are still available from Mrs Wilsher at a cost of £12).