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.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A far from dismal local theme?

Saint Dismus is the patron saint of undertakers. He is said to be the “good thief” at the crucifixion and gives us the very gloomy word “dismal”. This year, Phylip Jones in delivering the Annual Noel Thomas Memorial Lecture gave a far from dismal lecture on the role of Abergarwed undertaker, John Barclay, in inadvertently keeping a record of the social history of Resolfen in his notebooks. Phylip explained, that he was reprising a talk he gave in 1985, and he doubted whether many would remember it now though it was well worth a second visit.
Resolfen c.1900

John Barclay of the Stag, Abergarwed was the product of a second marriage,his father in his will bequeathed him an apprenticeship as a carpenter. His labours can still be seen in the ornate carpentry in Jerusalem Chapel today. He ran an undertaker’s business and two small copy books remain in his copperplate writing recording every death in the village between 1878 and 1910. There are over 1000 entries over the period. Three hundred and twenty of the deaths are those of babies under one years of age and four hundred and eighty eight are of infants under five (this was the normal infant mortality at the time Ed.). The average life span of a resident at the time was twenty five and a half years, and those who survived five years usually between forty five and sixty years. Between the ages of fifteen and forty the majority of deaths were women, undoubtedly because of the risks of childbirth and conversely,  males outnumbered female deaths between forty five and sixty years of age.

Phylip stated that the contents of the books gave him two contrasting emotions. On one hand, a fascination with the names, occupations, addresses, family links and historical footnotes . On the other, a revulsion at the young deaths caused by common diseases such as “whooping” cough, diphtheria , scarlet fever and pneumonia which would be treatable today. Families were often halved in size by epidemics.

Phylip then turned to the contents of the books. He referred to taverns such as the long demolished “Bottle and Glass”, in Clyne and the Ynyscollen Inn (now the Rock and Fountain). Farms such as Ty’n Garn and Pencraignedd, which remained as family names decades after the homesteads had been abandoned. Street that have now been subsumed such as Sims Terrace, Jenkins Terrace, Erw Coed, Oak Villa and Jones’s Terrace (now part of Commercial Road near Garfield’s shop).
A child's funeral crossing from Glynneath Road c.1890
Family names were also a fascination because the old Welsh way of naming by taking the name of the father and grandfather following the Christian name would conflict with the name in the Censuses following 1841. For instance, one burial referred to the death of Billy Rhys Enoc in 1892, whose official name was William Thomas. His mother in turn was Ann, and she was known as Ann Rhys Enoc. A similar example was that of Mrs Jane Evans who died in 1907, a resident of Lyons Row she was known as Siân Dafydd Dafis. The concept of “Mr and Mrs”, was largely absent in the monoglot Welsh culture of the village at the time and it was more common to refer to people by their family relationship. A concept which has to some extent continued in Resolfen is to refer to non-local people by their places of origin e.g. Wil Cardiff or  David Dafis Penderyn.

The footnotes in the copy books reveal some invaluable clues as to the development and chronology of the village. The first funeral in John Street occurred in 1901, the first death in Gored Terrace was in 1905 and the first funeral in Cross Street occurred in 1906. Some people lived very long lives and there six entries of residents surviving well into their nineties and one Ann Howells had survived the entire nineteenth century having been born in 1799 and buried in 1904 at a hundred and five years of age.

Mr Gwyn Thomas thanked Mr Phylip Jones once again for a remarkable insight into the history of Resolfen.