The Gruesome Ghosts of Ynysfach – a special Halloween Tale

by Carolyn Jacob

Many tragically lost their lives while working in the Ynysfach Blast Furnaces, but a greater number died sheltering in the old Ironworks here.

In February 1866 the Merthyr Express had the following story entitled:- Two More Men Suffocated At Cyfarthfa – describing the blackened and shrivelled corpses of two men found in the Ynysfach Works. The men were probably drunk when they crept into a warm place near the boilers. They suffocated by inhaling the carbonic acid gas and then when steam was got up they were literally roasted.

Again on 23 July 1870 the headline was:- Shocking Death of Two Miners. On Monday morning when the engineer at the Ynysfach Works was going his rounds to examine the boilers, he saw two men lying in one of the gas-holes. They were perfectly roasted, and probably did not survive long after entering the place of their doom. They came from Aberdare on Saturday night, no doubt for the purpose of a spree, ‘as they were seen in China’ late on Sunday night, and having spent all their money, were glad to get a lay down anywhere. The mystery is how they got into the works, as they are surrounded by a wall several feet high. In June 1874 there was a shocking accident which resulted in the immediate death of two men and the burning of two others so severely that they were not expected to live.

At the beginning of the Twentieth century the homeless, destitute and generally disreputable elements of the town of Merthyr Tydfil made their home in the Ynysfach Coke Ovens. This was their refuge but many died here too. After the Ynysfach Works closed in 1879 this area became infamous as a ‘den of debauchery’ where the ‘wild-ones’ of Merthyr Tydfil slept rough. The police steered well clear of the place and the first Chief Constable in 1908 suggested that dynamiting this whole area would help in the ‘cleaning up’ of the town. In 1900 it was reported that as many as 50 persons were to be found living around the Coke Ovens, and fatalities were common.

Ynysfach was also the main stomping ground of Redmond Coleman, the Merthyr Tydfil legend, who would fight anyone, anywhere, anytime. It was here that Redmond had his legendary fight with Tommy Lyons one Saturday night. The ‘battle’ was reputed to have lasted over three hours. If there was a grudge to be settled then the Ynysfach Coke Ovens were the place to fight it out. There are many stories, such as the time he and Danny Hegarty punched themselves into a state of exhaustion until they lay side by side on the Coke Ovens gasping curses at each other. Redmond Coleman is reputed to have said that he would never leave Merthyr but always haunt the Coke Ovens.

However, the White Lady of Ynysfach is the best known of all the various ghosts of Ynysfach. The Merthyr Historian Volume Eight contains the story of the Ynysfach Murder by Eira Smith, and establishes the notoriety of the area around the Iron Bridge and Ynysfach. The police regarded the area as being a den of thieves, robbers and prostitutes. Such an ‘unfortunate’ was Mary Ann Rees, who was murdered by her younger lover. In 1908 after plying her trade in the town, Mary then returned to her friends by the Coke Ovens with food and drink. However, after eating his fill, her younger boyfriend, William Foy, decided to go into town by himself and, suspecting that he was chasing after a younger woman, Mary ran after him. She was later found down a disused furnace with her neck broken.

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Mary Ann Rees

Did her boyfriend deliberately push her down the disused furnace or did she just accidently fall with or without a quick push?  The local police claimed that when they came across Foy he was in a distressed state and told them that he had committed a murder and killed Mary Ann.

In May 1909 William Foy was hung in Swansea gaol for her murder. He wrote a moving letter from prison begging for forgiveness. It is still said today that Mary Ann Rees is the White Lady of Ynysfach who haunts the area around Merthyr College. There have been a number of sightings of the White Lady and there are some who strongly believe in her existence. She is imagined as a sad lady in a long white dress, but there are no stories of her causing any harm to any human being.

In the late 1980s the caretaker of Merthyr College looked back at the building from the car park after locking up and saw a distressed lady looking out of the window. He rushed back thinking she must be very anxious after being locked in an empty building and re-entered the building. However, although he searched and searched this white faced, worried looking lady was never found and did not seem to have existed. The volunteers of the Engine House have come across a number of strange incidents, especially in the basement area, where a vague female figure has been seen or someone pushing past them has been sensed or felt. Paranormal investigator Colin Hyde claims to have questioned her and discovered that she thinks that her death had accidental causes. Mary Ann Rees is therefore a sad figure, who has no thought of exacting any form of revenge.

Many thanks to Carolyn Jacob for the above article.

Romans in Merthyr

I’m sure most people have heard of the Roman Fort at Penydarren, but how many of us know that much about it?

The first evidence of Roman occupation at Penydarren, was discovered in 1786 by workmen building Penydarren House for Samuel Homfray, owner of the Penydarren Ironworks. The site for the house (near the present day Penydarren Park) had lain undisturbed for centuries, and as the workmen began digging the foundations for the house, they firstly discovered a number of Roman bricks, and when these were cleared, they revealed a beautiful tessellated pavement made from hundreds of differently shaped and coloured clay cubes. However, no records were kept of what was discovered, but the story was passed down the generations orally, and the story was recorded by Charles Wilkins in his ‘History of Merthyr’ in 1867 – the first book written about Merthyr’s history.

In 1902, plans were made to build a new football ground at Penydarren Park, but before work could begin, a committee was formed to investigate the site. It wasn’t until this excavation that it was discovered that the remains were actually part of a Roman Fort.

Excavations started in September 1902, 200 yards west of Penydarren House. After removing the soil to a depth of about five feet, a hypocaust – a form of Roman under-floor heating was discovered. The hypocaust was connected to the remains of a furnace. Just about 12 yards from the furnace, the excavators found the remains of a brick building and a boundary wall. The remains of a Roman well were also discovered.

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Roman well discovered at Penydarren Park.

Two further excavations were carried out at Penydarren Park in 1957, and the eastern and northern defences of the fort were discovered. The eastern defences consisted of ‘two outer ditches and a rampart of clay with a rubble core, based upon a cobble foundation’. The northern rampart was of a similar design. At the north-eastern corner of the fort, the rampart was preserved to a height of five feet, its rubble core composed of large boulders, probably used as reinforcement for the corner. Within the rubble core a ten-inch stone-lined post-hole was found which indicated the existence of a timber angle tower.

The actual plan and dimensions of the fort are not known, but if we go by other typical Roman fort designs of the period; and assume the well found in 1902 was centrally placed within the fort, and a square outline is also assumed, then the dimensions would have been in the region of about 500 feet square across the rampart crests, and would have covered an area of almost 5¾ acres.

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Plan of the Penydarren Roman Fort

But when was it built? The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales states:

“The dateable material is almost all early and clearly indicates that the fort was founded by Frontinus in the period 74-78 AD. It does not appear to have been held for very long. Recent re-examination of the pottery evidence indicates that occupation continued during the first third of the second century but no later.”

Pottery recovered from the site points to an early foundation for the original timber fort, very likely during the governorship of Julius Frontinus, which was replaced by stone fort around the turn of the second century. The bath-house which was discovered outside the fort’s southern defences is probably contemporary with the rebuilding of the fort itself, but the latest pottery recovered from the site is Trajanic, which suggests that the site may have been abandoned in the Hadrianic period and its garrison removed to man the northern defences of the province.

As we speak archaeological excavations organised by the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust are in progress around Merthyr, so who knows what further secrets may be revealed?

Photo and plan courtesy of Old Merthyr Tydfil (http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm)

For more information about the Romans in Merthyr, check out the link below:
https://ggat.wordpress.com/2015/12/16/romans-in-merthyr-tydfil/

Bridging the gap 2

Following on from the recent post about Cefn and Pontsarn Viaducts, here is a bridge-related article from ‘The Weekly Mail’ of 24 September 1910:

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Please remember – if anyone has any suggestions for this blog, or if anyone would like to contribute an article – please contact me at the e-mail address below

merthyr.history@gmail.com

The Olympia Rink

The next time you travel past the General Hospital heading towards Pontmorlais, you may very well see a street sign on the left for ‘The Rink’….but why ‘The Rink’?

In the first decade of the 20th Century, a new craze hit Britain – roller-skating. In Merthyr, skating rinks were opened at the Angel Hotel and also at the disused theatre of the Old Market Hall, but in 1909, a purpose built skating rink was begun in Pontmorlais. Commissioned by The South Wales Rinks Co. Ltd in partnership with Messrs Cross and Cross of Walsall, the rink was designed by Mr Longworth to accommodate 3,000 people. A prospectus was issued by the company, and 2,000 shares were sold in the first weekend alone. The building which was 208 ft long and 70 ft wide, had a hard rock maple floor, orchestral gallery, lounges, a refreshment buffet, and was lit by 30 electric pendant lights. The Rink opened on 19 March 1910.

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Merthyr Express – 1 November 1909

When completed, it became one of Merthyr’s major venues (and certainly one of the largest), and as well as being used for roller skating (the Olympia Rink even had its own roller-hockey team), the building was used for balls, political meetings and other special events. Following the death of Keir Hardie, the former Merthyr MP, a Memorial meeting was held at the Olympia Rink.

merthyrtydfil_olympiaicerink_keirhardie_24-9-1916

Sadly, with the advent of the First World War and the inevitable wane in interest in roller-skating, the Olympia Rink began to lose money, and by the end of 1916, was put up for sale. Very little information is available about the building after this, and it sadly burned down in the 1920’s.

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

If you have any information about the Olympia Rink you would like to share, please leave a comment to the left or email me at: merthyr.history@gmail.com

Merthyr’s Modest Maestro

Many thanks to Carl Llewellyn for the following article:

This a tribute to the first musical director of the Dowlais Male Choir – Mr D.T. Davies L.R.A.M., F.R.C.O. M.B.E.

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Born on 28 June 1900 in Dowlais, where he lived all his life, David Thomas Davies, affectionately known to all as “D.T.”, devoted a lifetime to music, rendering a priceless and distinguished contribution to the cultural life not only in the local community but in Wales as a whole.

To give D.T. the credit he deserved he began as a gifted amateur — his musical qualifications were obtained by part time study. He began his working life in 1914 as a clerk in the Local Iron Works, then in 1925 became a local Government employee. It was only in his later years that he taught music as a subject in school from 1953 until his retirement in 1965.

By nature a retiring, and reserved personality who shunned, indeed detested the limelight, when he stood before his Choirs or sat at the keyboard, this quiet unassuming man was transformed into a colossus before whom one sat in awe and admiration. Had he been born later, in the Television and Record era, he would have received star billing, and his massive talent would have reached and impressed a wider audience than those of us who were privileged to sing for him or listen to him play. His record of achievements in the musical world speaks volumes for his versatility as well for his brilliant musicianship.

Qualifications

D.T. attained his L.R.A.M. (Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music) in 1926 and his F.R.C.O. (Fellow of the Royal College of Organists) in 1934

Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales

Dowlais Ladies Choir –  First Prize Treorchy 1928; First Prize Neath 1934 & First Prize Caernarfon 1935

Dowlais United Choir           First Prize Fishguard 1936

Dowlais Male Choir              First Prize Ruthin 1973

This achievement of three firsts in the three major choral competitions at the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales is considered rare, probably unique in the history of the National Eisteddfod.

As well as conducting choirs at the National Eisteddfod, D.T. also adjudicated in the classes for mixed choirs, male choirs, and organ competitions and on one occasion was the official accompanist for the Eisteddfod.

Cymanfaoedd Ganu

Since 1924 D.T. had conducted over 150 singing festivals in all parts of Wales as well as in London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol.

Accompanist

D.T. was one of the old Penywern (Dowlais) Male Choir accompanists during its existence.

Organist

D.T. was the organist and precentor at Soar-Ynysgau Welsh Congregational Chapel Merthyr Tydfil from 1928 until his death in 1983.

Honours

1968 D.T. Davies was awarded the M.B.E. for services to music in Wales

1974 D.T. became an honorary Freeman of the County Borough of Merthyr Tydfil in recognition of a lifetime virtually dedicated to music.

D.T. is remembered for his humility in his genius, kindly gentleness and quiet humour, acclaim was thrust upon him – never sought.

What is certain is that the choristers of the Cor Meibion Dowlais, who knew D.T., would echo the words of Mr. John Haydn Davies (Treorci) Doyen of Welsh Male Choir conductors, in speaking of D.T. after Dowlais’ win at the 1973 National Eisteddfod— “Y Twysog Ei Hunain” – “The Prince Himself”.

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D.T. Davies with the Dowlais United Choir in Bryn Sion Chapel, Dowlais

To read more about Dowlais Male Voice Choir, follow the link below:

http://dowlaismalechoir.co.uk/

Merthyr’s First Boxing Champion

Most people know of Eddie Thomas, Howard Winstone and Johnny Owen, but how many of you know anything about Jimmy Wilde?

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Jimmy Wilde

Jimmy Wilde, or “The Mighty Atom,” “Ghost with the Hammer in his Hand” and “The Tylorstown Terror” as he was nicknamed, was born on 15 May 1892 in Quakers Yard, but by the time he was 12, Jimmy’s family had moved to Tylorstown in the Rhondda. The son of a miner, Jimmy followed his father into the colliery, and being so small, he was able to crawl through gullies impassable to most of his colleagues, which undoubtedly helped develop his renowned strength.

He started boxing at the age of 16 in fairground boxing booths, where crowds were amazed by his toughness and ability to knock down much larger opponents, most of which were local toughmen weighing around 200 lbs. He left Tylorstown Colliery in 1913, and in 1916, Wilde joined the British Army and was sent to Aldershot as a PT instructor.

The record books often show that Wilde started boxing professionally in 1911, but it is widely assumed (and later confirmed by boxing analysts), that he had been fighting professionally for at least four years before that, and his officially listed debut was on 26 December 1910, when he fought Les Williams to a no-decision in three rounds. His first win came on 1 January 1911, when he knocked out Ted Roberts in the third round.

Managed by Teddy Lewis, reserve captain of Pontypridd RFC, Wilde went undefeated in 103 bouts, all of which were held in Britain, and on 14 February 1916, he won the British flyweight title by beating Joe Symonds by a knockout in round twelve at the National Sporting Club in London. On 24 April 1916, Wilde beat Johnny Rosner by a knockout in the eleventh round at Liverpool Stadium to win the IBU World Flyweight title. In December of that year Wilde became recognised as the first World Flyweight Champion (the IBU title was only recognised in Europe) when he defeated Young Zulu Kid of the United States whose corner threw in the towel during the eleventh round of their bout at the Holborn Stadium.

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During the First World War, Jimmy Wilde served as a Sergeant Instructor, fighting professionally only twice in 1917, and three times in 1918. Following the War, Wilde went to America in 1919; he toured the States beating an assortment of mainly much heavier opponents. The Americans grew to love Wilde and to this day he is revered by American boxing fans.

By 1921, Jimmy Wilde was 28 years old, had fought in hundreds of contests (possibly up to a thousand including booth fights) against bigger men and had held his world title for four years. Now he was to suffer only his third defeat (in 128 fights) when matched in a non-title fight against Pete Herman, who weighed in at 121 pounds to Jimmy’s 108 pounds. Wilde returned to the ring out of a sense of obligation to defend his title against Pancho Villa on 18 June 1923. After losing by a knockout, Wilde announced his retirement.

Jimmy Wilde lived the last few years of his life in the Cadoxton district of Barry, South Wales. With his final boxing winnings, Wilde entered into several business schemes, including a Welsh cinema chain and partnership in a cafe at Barry Island that was named ‘The Mighty Atom’ cafe. None was successful and he spent his final years in poverty. In 1965, Wilde suffered a serious mugging at a train station in Cardiff, from which he never recovered. His wife, Elizabeth, died in 1967, and two years later Wilde died in a hospital in Whitchurch. He was buried in Barry Cemetery.

Wilde had a record of 139 wins, 3 losses, 1 draws and 5 no-contests, with 99 wins by knockout, which makes him one of the most prolific knockout winners of all time. Ring Magazine, a publication which named him the 3rd greatest puncher of all time in 2003, has twice named him the greatest flyweight of all time (March 1975 and May 1994). In 1990, Wilde was elected into the International Boxing Hall Of Fame as a member of that institution’s inaugural class, a distinction shared with all-time greats such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Harry Greb, Benny Leonard and Henry Armstrong. In 1992 he was also inducted into the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame and one of his prize winning belts is part of the organisation’s display. Wilde was ranked as the number 1 flyweight of all-time by the International Boxing Research Organization in 2006.

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The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, congratulates Jimmy Wilde after his defeat of Joe Lynch in 1919

If you wish to read more about Jimmy Wilde, check out the following website:

http://www.johnnyowen.com/jimmy_wilde.html

Heritage Calendar

Many thanks to Carolyn Jacob for the following:

The 2017 Old Merthyr Tydfil Heritage Calendar is now available. The calendar is dedicated to the memory of Alan George, the founder of the website, and features a selection of Alan’s favourite photographs, chosen by him shortly before his untimely death last year.calendar

The calendar, which will cost £2.99 is currently available from Ynysfach Engine House, and will be available from Holdaway’s Newsagent, St Tydfil’s Church and Cyfarthfa Castle Museum from next week, or will be available via the Old Merthyr website within the next few weeks.

http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm