S. O. Davies, M. P.

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the death of Merthyr’s longest serving Member of Parliament – S. O. Davies. In 1934 he became MP for Merthyr Tydfil and held the post continuously until his death in 1972; for the Labour Party 1934-1970 and as an Independent Socialist 1970-1972.

S. O. Davies

Stephen Owen Davies was born at 39 John Street, Abercwmboi (officially) on 9 November 1886 (some sources place his birth in 1883 or even earlier), the fourth of six children of Thomas Davies, miner and union organizer, and his wife, Esther.

After attending Cap Coch School in Abercwmboi, Davies started work in Cwmpennar Colliery at the age of twelve, but subsequently studied mining engineering at night classes, and in 1908 secured sponsorship from Brecon Memorial College to study for a BA at University College, Cardiff, with the ultimate intention of entering the non-conformist ministry. Despite Brecon College withdrawing the funding due to Davies’ reticence regarding his religious beliefs, he gained his degree in 1913.

Following his graduation, he began working as a collier in Tumble, and during the First World War was adopted as an Independent Labour Party candidate for Llanelli, and in October 1918 he was appointed the full-time agent to the Dowlais district of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, remaining in the position until 1934, entering into a formidable partnership with his counterpart for the Merthyr district, Noah Ablett.

Davies quickly developed a reputation for militant action. He became strongly opposed to the post-war demands for the nationalization of the British coal industry. He visited Russia in 1922 and became a lifelong admirer of the Soviet system. He remained loyal to the Labour Party however, despite being strongly attracted by the appeal of the Communist Party. In 1924 he was appointed Chief Organizer and Legal Adviser to the South Wales Miners Federation and also became its Vice-President in the same year. He also served on the Executive of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, 1924-34, as the representative of the South Wales miners, and he was elected a member of the Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council in 1931. He later became an alderman of the Council and served as its Mayor in 1945-46. He remained a member of the council until 1949.

In 1934 Davies was elected Labour MP for Merthyr. The same year he remarried, his first wife Margaret Eley (who he had married in 1919) having died two years earlier leaving him with three daughters. His second wife was Sephora Davies from Carmarthenshire, with whom he had two sons.

At Westminster, Davies consistently proved himself of independent mind, as prone to oppose the policies of a Labour government as those of a Conservative administration. Ever the watchdog for socialism, in its purest sense, as well as a rigid apologist for Soviet domestic and foreign policy whatever the excesses, he lost the whip on three occasions between 1953 and 1961 on issues relating to American bases in Britain, West German rearmament, and opposition to the Polaris submarine programme. A thorn in the side of the Wilson government between 1966 and 1970, he disagreed with its policy on public spending, wage controls, and trade union legislation. His support for the idea of Welsh self-government also often found him at variance with party policy.

Unsurprisingly, Davies was never offered government office but proved himself an excellent constituency MP. His concerns included reformation of the national insurance law in 1967, giving additional compensation to former miners afflicted with dust-related diseases.

The Aberfan Disaster in 1966 led to Davies’s final estrangement from the Labour Party. Harold Wilson’s support for the idea of using the disaster fund to contribute towards removal of the tips led Davies to boycott the ceremony bestowing freedom of the borough of Merthyr on the Prime Minister in 1970. His constituency party consequently replaced him as its candidate in the general election later that year. Refusing to accept that his political career was over, he stood as an independent socialist and, campaigning on his record, won by more than 7000 votes over the official Labour candidate. While this may say something about the historically individualistic nature of Merthyr’s politics, it also testified to his reputation and the local esteem in which he was held.

S.O. Davies died at Merthyr’s General Hospital on 25 February 1972, following a chest infection, and was buried at Maesyrarian Cemetery, Mountain Ash, in his native Cynon Valley.

The Meaning of ‘Gurnos’

Gurnos
by Carl Llewellyn

Some time ago I read an article in an old edition of the Merthyr Express. It was written by a J.R. Evans of Aberdare who complained that many local Welsh place names were incorrectly spelt; he then gave his interpretation why places in our locality were so named. Many Welsh place names were bestowed centuries ago and were often descriptive of their pictorial detail. Perhaps because these place names were seldom written, and again because of the inability of the English to pronounce Welsh words, in some cases these words become so changed in form they become unrecognisable and unintelligible, with the original signification being entirely lost.

Examples of the mutilation of Welsh place names can be found in “Lechwedd” (meaning a slope) has become “Leckwith” near Cardiff, and “Rhaiadr” (water fall) becoming “Radyr”. When referring to the name Gurnos, it immediately brings to mind one of the UK’s largest Housing estates situated near Prince Charles Hospital to a majority of people but most of them are not aware of its origin and translation. We often find the name of parts of the body are used in place names. For instance we speak of head or top of a hill, for instance  Penydarren, (pen, head or top; y, of the; darren, a rocky hill) also Troedyrhiw (troed, foot; y, of the; rhiw slope). So the word “Cern” meaning “side of the head”, is applied similarity to the side of the hill, which perhaps has an even surface resembling earth moulds protruding on the side of the hill. There is a diminutive plural suffix “os”, when appended to “Cern” gives us “Cernos”, The placing of the letter “y” before the word modifies it into “Y Gernos”, meaning the lower side of the hill. In the opinion of J.R. Evans “Y Gernos” has been incorrectly spelt by some as the “Gurnos”.  I tend to agree with J.R. Evans over the centuries it’s possible the word has been corrupted either by incorrect spelling or pronunciation. On the site of Gurnos Housing Estate once stood the “Gurnos” farm whose name aptly describing its location.

Gurnos Farm by Penry Williams. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Charles Wilkins in his History of Merthyr Tydfil calls the farm “Gyrnos” and gives it derivation as “Carn-nos” (carn, a heap of stones; nos, night), signifying “Night Watch Beacon” stating that it may have reference to the warfare day of the district. You the reader must make up your own mind on the explanations for the Welsh word “Gurnos”. I concur that Charles Wilkins reference is a romanticised version while J.R.Evans interpretation has more of a down to earth explanation.

These differing points of view reminded me of a television series, “The Dragon Has Two Tongues”, where Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, and Professor Gwyn Alf Williams gave their own passionate satire about Wales.

The Puddler

Many thanks to prominent local historian Joe England for the following article:-

The Puddler

Who or what was the Puddler? He (always male) was a worker who in his day was central to the making of iron and a person of some importance in Merthyr and the other iron towns.

One writer reminisces: ‘One puddler I knew at Dowlais filled the chapel with his presence . . . a Cyfarthfa man stood in the Star parlour with his coat tails to the fire in the presence of Admiral Lord Nelson … another of the species used regularly every week to ride down to the seat of an influential county gentleman whose daughter he came very near marrying . . . it was by the merest accident in the world they found out, just in the nick of time, that the son-in-law elect was only a puddler.’

Puddling was a method of turning pig iron into much more malleable wrought iron. It was invented by Henry Cort but perfected by Richard Crawshay at Cyfarthfa in the 1790s. The puddler stirred the molten metal in a puddling furnace with an iron bar, working in conditions of tremendous heat and agitating the metal as it boiled and then gathering it at the end of a rod while the molten metal thickened.

This was arduous, strength-sapping work, but the puddler’s special skill was his judgement of when to bring out the congealing metal, a decision crucial to the quality of the finished product. He therefore held a key position in the manufacture of iron. They were usually young men in their twenties and thirties. By their forties they were physically burnt out.

In the early years of industrialisation their key position in the manufacture of iron made them workplace militants, although later they accepted the wage cuts imposed by the ironmasters. The reasons for that I have explained in my forthcoming book The Crucible of Modern Wales: Merthyr Tydfil 1760-1912. But the masters, nonetheless, were determined to find ways of getting rid of them. Puddlers were expensive and too powerful.

The opportunity came with the Bessemer process of making steel which would replace wrought iron in making rails. When the first steel rail was rolled at Dowlais in 1858 it broke while still hot ‘to the undisguised rejoicing of the assembled puddlers.’  But the writing was on the wall. Steel rails began to be successfully manufactured and by 1876 the iron rail was seen as a thing of the past. So was puddling. In 1885 the number of puddling forges at Dowlais was 19. There once had been 255.

Joe England

The Angel Hotel

Many Merthyr people of a ‘certain age’ will remember one of Merthyr’s most striking buildings – The Angel Hotel.

The Angel Hotel in the 1880’s. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

In 1873, a successful local businessman Mr Enoch Williams decided to build a grand hotel in Merthyr to serve rail passengers arriving at the Taff Vale Railway Station. Mr Williams decided to build the hotel at the lower end of the High Street, and he bought the old Angel Inn and adjoining buildings to erect the hotel, retaining the licence of the Angel Inn to enable him to sell alcohol at the new hotel.

Despite having no experience in the building trade, Enoch Williams decided not to use a contractor and he controlled and supervised the project himself, even ordering and checking the supplies. This he continued to do until his death in 1876. Although dying before seeing his hotel finished, Mr Williams made ample provision in his will to complete the building, and the construction was completed under the supervision of a group of trustees. One of the consequences of Williams’ inexperience in architecture, was the fact that there was no provision whatsoever for gas in the building, and this was added before completion at considerable extra expense.

The hotel was finally completed in 1879, and it became an immediate landmark in the town. Described as “a uniquely strange Gothic castellated building”, the Angel Hotel towered above most of the other buildings in the town, and with its castellated roofline (formed by the regular pattern of chimneys around the top of the building), and its enormous glass roof, it was indeed a striking and unique building.

The Angel Hotel showing the famous glass roof

When completed, the hotel had 60 bedrooms, 84 fireplaces, 400 windows, a bar, a billiard room, a meeting room that was 76 foot by 26 foot in size, several sitting rooms and offices, and a promenade on the roof “from which, high above the smoke and amidst the pure air, a most agreeable walk can be enjoyed”. The famous roof was glazed with nine tons of glass. The bar, which ran the whole depth of the building was 100 foot long and 24 foot wide, and was divided in to four compartments. The upper floors of the building and the roof promenade were reached by a huge straight flight staircase at the centre of the building flanked by huge ornamented balustrades. The hotel also had the finest sprung dancefloor in Wales.

Unfortunately, from the outset, the Angel Hotel proved to be a ‘white elephant’. During the time it took to complete the hotel, the Taff Vale Railway Station was superceded by the Central Railway Station as Merthyr’s main station (the Taff Vale Station would eventually become a goods depot), thus the hotel was in the wrong part of town to attract the intended clientele.

Over the coming years, the Angel was used to hold religious meetings and political rallies and other such functions, and during the roller skating craze in 1909, a skating rink was installed at the hotel.

The hotel finally closed in 1933, and the building was put to several uses until it was demolished in 1957. A tragedy occurred during the demolition when a 21 year old worker, Cyril Jones died, and another, Dennis Murphy was seriously injured when they fell from a fourth floor window and covered in debris.