Merthyr Memories: Merthyr’s Cinemas – part 2

by Kenneth & Christine Brewer

The biggest and most popular cinema in Merthyr was the Castle Cinema. It was very grand with a large foyer with a café and lounge upstairs. Inside the auditorium were three tiers of seats, and at the back there was a section that was partitioned off by glass so that you could watch (but not hear) the film whist you were waiting to go in.

The cinema was managed by Mr Cyril Smith, and the commissionaire was Vines Perry. The Castle also had a magnificent organ which would rise out of the floor, and the resident organist was Gene Lynne.

The Castle Cinema organ with Gene Lynne.  Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

The Castle was owned by ABC Cinemas (Associated British Cinemas), and on a Saturday morning they would have the ABC Minors – a cinema club with special showings for children. At the beginning of each Saturday morning session, the “ABC Minors Song” would be played to the tune of ‘Blaze Away’, whilst the lyrics were shown on the screen with a bouncing red ball above the words to help the audience keep the place.

The Palace Cinema, which was in Pontmorlais (where the car park near Flooks is now), was smaller than the Castle. It only had two tiers of seating, but it too had a café upstairs. The manager at the Palace was a Mr Jones who was always smartly dressed in a black suit and a dickie-bow. The Palace was a very popular cinema, but the lasting memory is that in the winter it was always freezing cold there, so there would always be a scramble to sit near the radiator.

The Palace Cinema

Also on the High Street, just a few doors up from the Castle Cinema, was the Electric Cinema. This was the oldest cinema in Merthyr, and by the 1940’s it was quite dilapidated and had a bit of a reputation – its nick-name was ‘The Bug-House’. I (Ken) only ever went there once when I was quite young. I had asked my mother to take me to see a George Formby film (I don’t recall which one), and when we got to Merthyr (from Abercanaid), the only cinema that was showing it was the Electric. My mother didn’t want to go there, but I finally persuaded her – but only on the understanding that I never told anyone that we went to the Electric!!!!!

The Electric Cinema. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

The Theatre Royal and the Temperance Hall were also used for theatrical performances as well as being cinemas.

The Theatre Royal was also quite grand – it also had two tiers of seating, with a standing area at the back…..not glassed in this time though. Every Christmas there was a Pantomime there – I (Ken) remember seeing Cinderella starring Ronnie Ronalde (the yodelling music hall star) as Dandini and the radio stars Clapham and Dwyer as the Ugly Sisters.

The Temperance Hall also put on plays – it even had its own repertory company. One of the junior leads was Pamela Mant who left the company to play Christine Archer in ‘The Archers’. Another regular at the Temperance Hall was Pat Phoenix who went on to star as Elsie Tanner in ‘Coronation Street’. When you went to see a film at ‘The Temp’, you had to be careful where you sat. Some of the seats downstairs were behind the pillars supporting the balcony, so you would be forever dodging from side to side to see the screen. Also, one of the rows of seats was quite rickety, and if you weren’t careful, you would find the whole row falling backwards…..with you on it!!!!

The Temperance Hall. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Of the other cinemas in Merthyr, the only others I (Ken) visited were the Oddfellows Hall and the Victoria in Dowlais – this was because the queues in Merthyr were so long that we caught the bus to Dowlais to watch the films instead. I only visited each of them once. I remember the Oddfellows Hall was quite big, but a bit old fashioned, and I particularly remember the Victoria because when you entered the auditorium, you came in from under the screen. I had never seen that before.

The Oddfellows Hall (left) and the Victoria Cinema (right)

Those days were poorer, but simpler times, but we were far more contented, and it is sad that all of the history of those days is being washed away.

Merthyr Memories: Merthyr’s Cinemas – part 1

by Kenneth & Christine Brewer

In the decade or so following the Second World War, cinema took hold in Britain in a big way. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true nonetheless that people loved the all the Hollywood glamour and escapism that the films provided to take their minds off the austerity of post-War Britain.

Merthyr was no exception – going to the cinema became one of the big attractions in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Such was the demand that at one time Merthyr had eleven cinemas – five in town (The Castle, The Palace, The Electric, The Theatre Royal and the Temperance Hall); two in Dowlais (The Oddfellows Hall and The Victoria); one each in Penydarren (The Cosy); Troedyrhiw (The Picture Palace); Aberfan (The Electric) and Treharris (The Palace).

The Castle Cinema in the 1970’s. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Going to the cinema in those days was a real night out. As well as the main feature, you would be treated to a ‘B’-movie (usually a Western from memory), a news-reel, a cartoon and adverts for forthcoming films. The news-reel footage made a huge impact – we only saw the news in newspapers or heard about it on the wireless, but seeing the pictures on the big screen really brought things home to us. I (Ken) particularly remember my grandmother being very upset and having to leave the cinema when they showed news-reel footage of the liberation of Belsen. Everything was on a continuous loop – there were no showings once or twice a day…the cycle would start at a certain time (‘B’-movie, news, cartoon, adverts, main feature), and would continue non-stop until closing time.

You could also have an ice-cream in the intermission as a treat. These were sold by the usherettes. They were a big part of the cinema going experience, they would show you to your seats, and woe-betide you if you misbehaved – you would have the usherette’s torch shining on you within minutes. Repeat offenders would be asked to leave!!!!

Quite often, after the last showing of the evening, you would emerge from the cinema and the town would be crowded with people coming from other cinemas all hurrying for buses to make their way home.

Forthcoming films were advertised in the Merthyr Express, and people would also turn out in droves to see their favourite stars. In the 1940’s the big stars were Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Clarke Gable etc. The big matinée idol at the time was Robert Taylor, and the pin-up girl was Rita Hayworth.

Robert Taylor and Rita Hayworth

When there was a ‘big’ film it wouldn’t be unusual to see people queuing around the block to get in. The ones that were particularly memorable were ‘The Robe’ at the Theatre Royal and ‘Quo Vadis’ at the Castle. The biggest queues however were for the re-release of ‘Gone with the Wind’ in the late 1940’s  (the original release was during the war) at the Castle Cinema – the queues stretched as far as the eye could see.

How times have changed, all of these cinemas have closed, and all but the Theatre Royal and Temperance Hall have been demolished. For many years, Merthyr didn’t have a cinema at all until the Vue Cinema complex was opened at Rhydycar. It’s not the same – the glamour and excitement have all but disappeared.

To be continued……

Treason and Bloodshed in Merthyr

The article transcribed below appeared in The Glamorgan and Brecon Gazette and Merthyr Guardian 178 years ago today. Would you say that this is an objective and unbiased piece of journalism?

MERTHYR TYDVIL (sic) AND BRECON, Nov. 9, 1839. Treason and bloodshed have again been the order of the day. Birmingham could not satisfy the dupes of the Melbourne Government; and Newport has been added to the riotous list. It wanted only that the spark should have been applied to the train at Cyfarthfa; it wanted only one word at a meeting on Penrheolgerrig, and Merthyr also had been the scene of similar disgraceful occurrences.

The few Chartists we have, are chiefly to be found in the neighbourhood we have alluded to. They have latterly been more cautious as to their places of meeting. The wicked and traitorous individuals, who from the mere love of spouting, and the petty gratification of the cheers of an ill-educated, we might almost say a non-educated populace, inflamed their passions, and rendered them dissatisfied with their condition, are skulking lest they should be arrested by the arm of the civil power, and suffer the punishment their crimes so richly deserve. The conduct of the magistrates of the neighbourhood, during the week, has been beyond all praise. Every precaution which it was proper to take has been resorted to; and they have given their almost undivided attention to the preservation of the peace of this locality.

We beg to direct their special attention to the beer-houses in the upper part of Merthyr, and in the neighbourhood of George Town and the Cyfarthfa works. There is where they will now find all the mischief concocted. It is matter of notoriety that these houses are kept open till one, two, and three o’clock in the morning. Surely this fact alone proves the necessity of having an effective police force; and, with all due deference to certain lovers of darkness, well- lighted streets also. But even more important than these would be the establishment of regimental barracks within four or five miles of Merthyr.

The idea is horrible, that the respectable tradesmen of a large town should be exposed, as they now are, to the brute force of a mob, led on by one or two traitors, who ought long since to have been made examples of at the bar of their county and that it might be several hours before a sufficient military force could be obtained. If the inhabitants are true to themselves, they will not rest till they have remedied this state of things.

A military depot between this place and Newbridge, would by its presence do more than thousands of special constables, towards keeping the misguided rabble within bounds. To this should be added a prison within the precincts of the town. At present if a prisoner has to be remanded, he is sent off to a public-house, with very fair chances of escape or rescue, because the place called the lock-up house is too beastly to turn a pig into.

We shall not lose sight of this subject; and in the mean time we would remind the inhabitants of Merthyr that a meeting of the parishioners is called for Tuesday next, to consider some propositions respecting a police or constabulary force and we trust that every tradesman will be present, determined to support any reasonable proposition remembering that a moderate expenditure now may be true economy in the end.

If anyone has anything they would like to contribute to the blog about the Chartists in Merthyr, please get in touch.

Merthyr’s Chapels: Elim Chapel, Penydarren

In our regular feature on the chapels of Merthyr, we next take a look at the history of Elim Baptist Chapel in Penydarren.

In 1841, Rev William Robert Davies, minister at Caersalem Chapel in Dowlais decided that a new Baptist cause should be started in Penydarren to cater for the ever growing population there. Land was leased from the Penydarren Iron Company and the chapel, named Elim was built in 1842.

In 1849, the infamous cholera epidemic struck Merthyr which caused the death of 1,682 in Merthyr and Dowlais alone (see previous entry – www.merthyr-history.com/?p=123). On 4 August, cholera struck Rev Davies’ household, when his daughter died of the disease. Despite his grief, Rev Davies continued to visit the sick and comforted their relatives. One of the results of the cholera was a sudden upsurge in chapel attendance, and on the last two Sundays of August alone Rev Davies baptised no less than 150 people.

By this time he had begun discussing with the deacons the possibility of appointing another minister to help him continue the work at Caersalem. However, before this could be acted upon, Davies was himself struck down by the cholera on 1 September. He became suddenly ill at nine o’clock in the morning, and by seven o’clock that same evening he was dead. He was buried in the same grave as his daughter at the graveyard at Elim Chapel. He was 51 years old.

Elim continued to be considered as a branch of Caersalem until it gained its independence in 1852. The congregation continued to grow however, and the chapel was rebuilt in 1858.

By the 1930’s it had become obvious to the members that the chapel needed a new schoolroom to accommodate the burgeoning Sunday School at Elim Chapel. The materials necessary to build the school room were offered to the chapel at a very reasonable price on the condition that the members of the chapel could collect them. As this was the time of the Great Depression, and the Dowlais Works having recently closed, most of the men at the chapel found themselves unemployed, so they collected the materials, and built the school room themselves. The women of the chapel organised many activities to raise money towards the building. The schoolroom was opened on 18 July 1933.

Elim Chapel, Penydarren in 1933 showing the recently built new schoolroom

On the night of 23 December 1977 Elim was severely damaged in a storm, the roof was blown off. The chapel was beyond repair and had to be demolished the following year. Services were subsequently held at Williams Memorial Chapel until that chapel closed, and the remaining members of the congregation rejoined their mother church at Caersalem.

Elim Chapel following the collapse of the front wall as a result of the storm

A development of flats for senior citizens has now been built on the site of the chapel and is called Hafan Elim.

Sgt John Collins V.C., D.C.M. part 2

by Tony Collins

Details of the Medal Citation for John Collins’ V.C.

The following is extracted from the book Heart of a Dragon – the VCs of Wales and the Welsh Regiments. 1914-82 by W. Alister Williams.

“On 30 October 1917 the operations against Beersheba commenced as soon as darkness fell with the 231 Brigade moving across Wadi Saba, finding their way across the rough, rocky terrain by means of screened lights illuminating their path. When they reached Kent Wadi, they ran into Turkish patrols which were driven back, thereby allowing the assault troops to deploy ready for the attack by 02.00.  The 25th Royal Welch Fusiliers(RWF) was positioned on the right of the 74th Division, in the centre of the line where, along with the 24 RWF, they were to be the brigade’s two attacking battalions, with D and A Companies in the front. The infantry were supported by artillery, but not on the scale used on the Western Front.  Instead, the crews of the 100 fields guns and twenty heavy guns had to be selective in their targets and endeavour to react as much as possible to the changing fortunes of the battalions in the attacking force.  The 60 Division, on the right of the line, who were to commence the attack, were to initially receive the full support of the artillery.

As dawn broke over the eastern horizon, the Turkish artillery opened with very accurate shrapnel fire on the British troops on the hills and at 06.48, D and A Companies moved forward into the heavy shrapnel fire and, as soon as they came within range, into machine-gun fire.  Just over half an hour later, a message was received that the British artillery were having to cease firing as they were unable to see their targets because of the dust.  Despite this, and ignoring their casualties, the battalion edged forward to the final crest of the hills before charging the enemy positions.  Every effort was made to silence the Turkish machine-guns but to no avail, and the battalion paid a very heavy price in men killed or wounded.

The ridge was traversed with a hail of lead and a line of dead, all shot through the head, that marked the limit of the advance testified alike to the determination of the attack and to the accuracy of the Turkish shooting.  It became clear that to call on men shooting from behind no sort of cover to use their rifles against machine-guns very strongly entrenched was throwing away lives to no purpose.  Automatically everyone drew in under cover of the last ridge and waited for some turn in the battle which would afford the infantry the opportunity to push on and bring matters to a definite conclusion.  (Historical Records of the Montgomeryshire Yeomanry).

The sight of so many of his comrades lying exposed in front of the ridge was too much for Collins.  With total disregard for his own safety, he rushed forward several times to bring the wounded back behind the ridge from where they could be carried back to receive emergency medical treatment.

Over to their right, the 60 Division had been held up whilst trying to take Hill 1070 and the limited artillery was concentrated on that area of the front.  This precarious situation continued for several hours and at about 11.00, Capt Fitzhugh, leading the Lewis Gun section stood up to try and identify the position of a Turkish machine-gun which was causing his men considerable problems. As he panned across the front with his binoculars, he was shot in the head by a sniper and killed.  Although only a junior NCO, Collins was now acting a rallying point for the men in his section and others around him.  Less than an hour later, the artillery switched its fire to the Turkish positions in front of the 74 Division and obliterated a particularly strong redoubt in front of the 25 RWF.  This had an immediate effect and the fire from the Turks in front died down as their trenches disappeared under the barrage of exploding shells. The infantry then fixed bayonets and advanced through the still uncut wire defences, enfiladed by rifle and machine-gun fire as they tried to take what little cover there was.  Within a few minutes, they had captured the enemy position, killing large numbers and taking 140 prisoners.  Collins was at the forefront of this charge and is reported to have bayonetted fifteen of the Turkish defenders. Having secured the trench, he then led members of the Lewis gun section and set up defences ready to repel any possible counter-attack.  The fighting in this sector ended at about 15.00.  Miraculously, despite being under fire for over nine hours, Collins escaped unscathed.  The attack had cost the battalion 2230 casualties.

The delay in capturing the area south-west of Beersheba prompted the Corps commander to order a classic cavalry charge by the 4th Australian Light Horse which crossed the open ground east of Beersheba and captured the town, thereby forcing the Turks to withdraw and open the route for an assault on Gaza which fell to Allenby’s forces one week later.”

It was for his actions that day that Collins was awarded the Victoria Cross.  The Citation reads:

“For most conspicuous bravery, resource and leadership when, after deployment, prior to an attack, his battalion was forced to lie out in the open under heavy shell and machine-gun fire which caused many casualties.  This gallant non-commissioned officer repeatedly went out under heavy fire and brought wounded back to cover, thus saving many lives.

In subsequent operations throughout the day, Corporal Collins was conspicuous in rallying and leading his command.  He led the final assault with the utmost skill in spite of heavy fire at close range and uncut wire. He bayonetted fifteen of the enemy and, with a Lewis gun section, pressed on beyond the objective and covered the reorganisation and consolidation most effectively although isolated and under fire from snipers and guns.

He showed throughout a magnificent example of initiative and fearlessness.”

He was decorated with the VC by HM King George V at Buckingham Palace on 1 June 1918.

Details of the Medal Citation for the DCM.

“……..(As part of the assault on Jerusalem) on 29 Nov 1917 D and B Company were ordered to take the village of Beit-ur-et-Foqa commencing at 20.00 and arriving at 03.30 the next day. The assault commenced 15 minutes later and, at first, everything went well.  D Company and part of B Company, a force of only 80 men, traversed the difficult terrain and reached their objective just as dawn was breaking, catching the Turkish garrison completely by surprise as they were either forming up on parade or preparing a meal.  Dividing his small force into two Maj Rees advanced and captured a Turkish officer. When they reached the village, using the prisoner as an interpreter, they called upon the garrison to surrender.  The Turks appeared to be complying with the request before opening fire with six machine-guns which fortunately had little effect, as the men were able to take cover behind low garden walls from where they returned fire.  Collins, by this time a sergeant, was instrumental in organising part of his line and was able to bring very effective fire onto the Turkish positions.  In a very short period of time, the Turks began to put up their hands and the entire garrison quickly surrendered.  The Welsh troops found themselves in charge of more than 450 prisoners and a small escort was detailed to take them back to the British lines.  Maj Rees attempted to contact the British line for support but was unsuccessful.  The main Turkish force then realised that Beit-ur-et-Foqa had been captured by an under-strength British unit and began to close on the village from all directions. By 08.00 they were surrounded and under fire from all sides.  Amongst the four officers and thirty men, John Collins played a pivotal role in visiting each group of defenders to ensure that they were being used to the best possible advantage. Rees, realising that his position was untenable, then withdrew his men from the village and succeeded in reaching the British lines at 09.45. The village was recaptured later that day by a stronger force from the 2259 Brigade.”

It was for his actions that day that Collins was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.  The Citation reads:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.  As soon as the enemy opened fire at point blank range, he rallied all the men near him, took control of a portion of the line, and brought every available rifle to bear on the enemy.

During the consolidation he did exceptionally good work, and later, when the enemy counter-attacked, went under heavy fire from post to post to see that they were being held to the best advantage.

His ability and devotion to duty were of the highest order”

Collins was decorated with the DCM by the Brigade Commander on 4 January 1918.

Memorial stone for John Collins at St Tydfil’s Church