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

by Tony Collins

The charge of the 4th Australian Light Horse at Beersheba late in the afternoon of 31 October 1917 is remembered as the last great cavalry charge.  This year is the 100th anniversary of that event and is particularly revered in Australia.  It was part of the wider British offensive collectively known as the third Battle of Gaza.  There was only one Victoria Cross awarded during that Battle and that was to my grandfather Sergeant John COLLINS, VC, DCM from Merthyr Tydfil.

John (Jack) COLLINS was born in Bickenhall, Somerset, and was one of fourteen children of THOMAS and MARY ANN COLLINS.  Life was hard in rural England and Thomas and Mary, together with eight of the younger children, moved to Penydarren, Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales in 1889 which had the largest ironworks in the world at that time.

In 1895 at the age of 18yrs John Collins enlisted in the Royal Horse Artillery as a driver (horses not vehicles!) and served in South Africa during the Boer War and was one of the first troops to enter Ladysmith with the relief column on 28 February 1900. He also served in India and would have completed his 12 yrs in 1907.  He was one of the oldest recipients of the VC and one of the longest serving soldiers.

He married my Grandmother, MARY ELLEN O’BRIEN, aged 20 yrs, in 1910. He was then aged 33 yrs. They had six sons and two daughters.

Although his reserve service would have come to an end in 1913 he voluntarily enlisted in the newly formed Welsh Horse (eventually the Royal Welsh Fusiliers) in 1914 at the age of 37. They arrived at Anzac Cove on the 8 October 1915 alongside Australian and New Zealand troops to carry out mining operations on Hill 60. How crestfallen must it have been, starting out as part of a regular regiment of Household Cavalry, then becoming infantry and then being used as pioneers. They were one of the last detachments of British troops to leave the peninsular.

The regiment then moved to Libya, North Africa, then on to Cairo before reaching Gaza in 1917. Now part of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers they were part of the attack to take the town of Beersheba and thus force the Turks out of Gaza.  On 31 October 1917 he was part of D Company at Wadi Saba, Beersheba (at which the famous charge of the Australian Light Horse took place) when it came under heavy shrapnel and machine gun fire and the battalion paid a very heavy price in men killed or wounded. It was in this action that he won his Victoria Cross.

On the 4 January 1918 he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (an extremely high level award for bravery second only to the VC) for action on 29/30 November at Foka and Hill 1750 Palestine where with a company of 80 men took a village occupied by 600 Turkish troops, taking some 300 prisoners, including 10 officers.

He was wounded whilst serving with the Fifth Army at Hinges in Northern France and his war came to an end.  He was discharged in February 1919.

After the war it was difficult for my grandfather to obtain employment as many thought they could not offer menial position to the winner of a VC.  On the 9 November 1919 a dinner was held for the holders of the Victoria Cross hosted by HRH Edward Prince of Wales.  When HRH met my grandfather he asked where he was working and my grandfather replied “as a coal tip labourer”.  The Prince responded that he thought a winner of the VC deserved a better job.  Following the dinner, my grandfather received numerous job offers eventually accepting a position as a security guard at the local steelworks.  As ever, it is not what you know but who you know!  He died after a fall at home on 3 September 1951.

John Collins’ grave at Pant Cemetery

To be continued in the next blog……

Turkish Baths

I would like to thank Malcolm Shifrin who got in touch regarding a previous post about the Turkish Baths in Merthyr –

He has a wonderful site about Victorian Turkish Baths in the UK, and has quite a bit of information about the ones in Merthyr.

I would encourage everyone to have a look at the site as it is fascinating.

Photo courtesy of



Merthyr: Then and Now


For the latest in our series, we have three photographs showing somewhere that has altered beyond all recognition – Penydarren High Street.

At one time Penydarren High Street was lined by houses and shops; a chapel – Radcliffe Hall; a cinema – the Cosy, not to mention several pubs. Penydarren High Street was also the site of The Lucania where Eddie Thomas had his gym.

The first photograph shows the High Street in about 1910.

Photo courtesy of

The next photograph taken just slightly further up the High Street is from 1972.

Photo courtesy of

In this photograph you can see that the houses are still standing, if a little more weather-worn than previously, and Radcliffe Hall Chapel is at the bottom of the photo on the left hand side.

The last photo is from 2012 – nothing remains. That’s progress for you!!!

Merthyr Man at Mons

The following article appeared in the Merthyr Express 103 years ago today…


Private Flurence McCarthy, 1st Batt. S. W. Borderers, attached the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, and who now resides at 187 Gellifaelog Road, Penydarren, has just returned home from the front, having been wounded in the battle at Mons. A piece of Shrapnel shell struck his right arm. In his story to our reporter, Private McCarthy said: “We landed at Havre and stayed there about three days then commenced travelling, being on the move for about a day and a half. We then arrived at – I don’t exactly know where – but we had to march a distance of about eight or nine miles. We then encamped, waiting for other troops to come up. We continued to march day and night until we came into the neighbourhood of Mons. Then we commenced to dig the trenches. We did a considerable amount of work, and we were near the enemy all the time.

We had to take our rest in these trenches. As soon as day dawned we heard shots rattling, and above us we saw a German aeroplane. Half an hour later we had orders to retire from the trenches we had just finished, and an hour later those trenches were blown up by the Germans. We started retiring in earnest on a Sunday morning, and on that day we fought the enemy. That was the first time we really saw anything of the Germans, who were in great force, but a long way off. We obtained about two hour rest that night. The German artillery opened fire in the early hours of Monday morning, the enemy having taken up position in front of us.

Our artillery covered the retirement of the infantry. The same things happened the next morning. Our retirement took place mainly at night. On the march I sprained my ankle and got detached. But Pte Morgan of Pontypool insisted upon staying with me. I had a bad twist, but with the help of Morgan, struggled on slowly. We came up with the Glos’ters the next morning with whom I marched as far as I could. But by 12 o’clock mid-day I was compelled to leave them again as there was no conveyance to take me on. We came across some French peasants, who directed us to a village, where we stayed for about four hours at a little house. The French peasants were particularly kind to me, bathing my injured foot, and fed us both handsomely.

On Tuesday morning Morgan and myself again set out, and endeavoured to catch up with the Glos’ters, my foot having by this time become somewhat better. We fell in with a French battalion, and one of the officers, who spoke excellent English, tried to persuade us to remain with them. We refused, however, and after the officer had given us a good supply of food and tobacco, we continued our journey. As luck happened we met an ambulance. I reported myself to the medical officer, and my troubles were practically over, for I was soon despatched to Havre and then home. This was at Cambrai, after we had rejoined the Glos’ters. It was with them we had the first real bit of fighting, during which I was wounded.

A section of us were told off to a certain trench, and shrapnel flew about us. Happily, none of our men were killed, though several were wounded, the enemy being only seven hundred yards away. We kept up a strong rifle fire, and did a good deal of damage. I had been wounded by a piece of shell long before I discovered the fact. I had fired many rounds before I noticed that blood issued from my arm, the flesh of which had been ripped up from the wrist to the elbow. Of course, the officer would not dream of me doing any more fighting on that state.”

McCarthy expressed himself feelingly in regard to the treatment which had been meted out to the women by the Germans. Women were outraged in many ways, and he saw slain females lying about. “Our officer,” said McCarthy, “after we had seen those terrible things, emphasised the cruelty of the Germans to the women folk, expressed the hope that Britishers would not be guilty of such foul deeds.”

Asked as to the spirit in which Britishers fought, McCarthy said he had had six years of Indian Army experience, and while he had known soldiers on peace manoeuvres growling about heavy work, there was never a grumble with the soldiers in France. The soldiers there spent as much time as they could singing and smoking.

“Of course,” added McCarthy, “the French girls were jolly with us, and we were jolly with them. From the time we landed at Havre they asked us for our regimentals and identification marks. Upon the loss of these we were ordered to write our identification marks on our caps and shoulders in ink, or anything that would make a black mark.”

McCarthy admitted that he was not really anxious to go back to that ‘hell’. He said: “I don’t believe any man who has once been there, really wants to go back. But in response to the call, I will do what every soldier does, go back with a good heart and do my best.”

Merthyr Express – 24 October 1914

The Forbidden Fruit

The article transcribed below is from the Merthyr Telegraph 153 years ago today. Do you think this was a fair sentence or totally disproportionate to the crime?

The Forbidden Fruit

John Davies, labourer, was charged with stealing four apples to the value of 1d, the property of the Brecon and Merthyr Railway Co. Peter Stormouth said: “I am carriage and waggon inspector at the Pant station; at six o’clock yesterday morning I was at the station and saw the prisoner on the line; I watched him go to a truck containing sacks of apples, unloose the covering, and I then went to him; he had his pockets full of apples; I asked him what he was doing there; he said “I came after apples;” I asked him for whom; he said “for myself to eat;” I handed him over to the goods clerk”. P.S. Howlett said he received the prisoner from the station master; he told him the charge; he said, “I was passing by, saw the apples, and thought I should like some, and took four.” The station master said that petty pilfering had been going on to a great extent on the line. It was not of course the value which the Company regarded, it was the protection of public property which they sought. His Worship quite agreed with this, and sent the defendant to digest the forbidden fruit in Cardiff jail, where he will remain for 21 days.

Merthyr Telegraph – 15 October 1864

Simon Sandbrook, J.P. (1850-1922)

Today we look at another of Merthyr’s prominent citizens, Simon Sandbrook, who died 95 years ago today.

Simon Sandbrook was born at Dolpwill, Pembrokeshire in 1850, the fifth son (of six) of Mr John Sandbrook. At the age of 18, he was apprenticed to Mr Levi James, an ironmonger in Cardigan, and following the expiration of his apprenticeship, he moved in 1872 to Pontypool to work with his brother William at the hardware business Davies and Sandbook.

In 1879, Simon Sandbrook moved to Merthyr and acquired the failing South Wales Ironmongery Company which had been established in the High Street. Within a short time, he had reversed the fortunes of the business, and established it as one of the foremost businesses in the town. In 1896, he took over the business of Mr John Sibbering, his father-in-law, a timber merchant which was located at the Great Western Station Yard. In addition he also became the agent for an important Midlands firm of builders and contractors.

Upon his arrival in Merthyr Tydfil, Simon Sandbrook became a member of Zoar Chapel, and within time was elected Treasurer, a position he held for 21 years, and later became senior deacon and trustee of the chapel, and throughout his life he made many gifts to the chapel, always quietly and unobtrusively, sometimes without his fellow deacons knowing. As well as his duties at Zoar Chapel, Simon Sandbrook also served as Treasurer of Brecon College and Treasurer of the Welsh Congregational Union.

Simon Sandbrook had five children – a son and four daughters. His son, Captain Rupert Sandbrook, served with distinction during the First World War, and fought with the 5th Battalion Welch Regiment at Gallipoli. His eldest daughter Gwladys became the wife of Henry Seymour Berry (later Lord Buckland) in 1905.

On 13 September 1922, just a month before his death, the deacons and members of Zoar made a special presentation of a solid silver salver to Simon Sandbrook in recognition of his service to the chapel. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to attend the service due to ill-health, but he was represented at the service by his son.

Simon Sandbrook died on 12 October 1922 and his funeral service at Zoar Chapel a few days later was attended by hundreds of people, the chapel being packed to its capacity and with people lining the streets. The service was conducted by Rev H E Rogers of Zoar Chapel; Rev Jacob Jones of Bethesda Chapel gave the eulogy saying:-

My dear friends, we are met under a shadow. He was a loving father, and an affectionate relative has crossed the bar. A friend whom we all loved is with us no longer. Our loss has been great. Mr Sandbrook of the Hawthorns is dead, and all Merthyr today is in tears, because we have lost one of our best and most influential citizens.”

Simon Sandbrook is now best known through the name ‘Sandbrook House’. Simon Sandbrook’s daughter Lillian moved into a house called Brynteg. In the mid 1930’s the house was converted into a rheumatic fever hospital and renamed Sandbrook House in honour of Simon Sandbrook.

Merthyr Memories: Discovering Tabernacle Orchestra, Treharris

by Christine Trevett

When I was at school at the start of the 1960s one of the books we had to study for the English literature exam was Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree. Our English teacher said it was a gentle masterpiece. I hated it – it was all ‘rural’ and about Victorians regretting a lost age. Yet I did quite like the plot line about abolishing the church’s string orchestra. There was a plan to replace it with a mechanical organ. I’d never heard of a church orchestra and I’d certainly never seen one. I played in the Merthyr Borough youth orchestra at the time, though, so I felt some sympathy about losing a music group.

It was in that English class that one of my friends said there was an orchestra in her own chapel in Treharris, where I lived too, and it had had one for longer than anyone could remember. She played in it. Then one summer she asked if I’d go along one Sunday instead of her, as she was going on holiday. I was used to chapels and curious, so I said yes, though all I knew of it was that this chapel had had a minister referred to locally as ‘Thomas Tab’ and that the building was one of two chapels facing each other on Perrott Street, each side of the main street just below ‘The Square’, which was the hub of Treharris town.

Tabernacle Chapel, Treharris

The language of the chapel was Welsh. I had no idea when I turned up at Tabernacle Chapel that for them this was the tail end of a very lively orchestral tradition indeed. It was more than half a century later that I came across the photograph on the Internet headed Tabernacle Orchestral Society, Treharris: winners orchestral competition, Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales, Barry, 1920. It showed just two female players among over thirty musicians, with an age range from schoolboys to the very mature.

The chapel, built in 1883, was bigger than my own, which was two years older and far from small itself. Tabernacle had hosted great congregations in the 1905 religious revival. It was rich in panelled pews, balustrade, mouldings and an impressive pulpit front (the building would be Grade 2 listed in due course). The part of the chapel I remember best, though, from the two occasions (I think) when I joined the string players, was the spot on the balcony from which the music came.

Tabernacle Chapel pulpit from the balcony

There were just a few players accompanying hymns. I was on the ’cello. The galleries raked steeply and the floor felt slightly sloping where we sat, just a few chairs and some music stands. This teenager’s imagination was working overtime in the unfamiliar setting, sitting alongside others who knew all the ropes and knew exactly what they were doing. The whole building was ‘weighty’ and this youngster was nervous. What if the spike of the ’cello slid and slipped into one of those small gaps between floorboards, and got wedged? It would be like some animated cartoon – the player using knees to wrestle with the thing while still keeping the bass part going using both hands. I tried not to move much.  It didn’t happen of course.

I knew at the time that I was experiencing something being kept alive by the skin of its teeth. Chapels had organs and probably a piano in the vestry as well. Yet many nonconformists in the 19th century hadn’t been entirely at ease as organs and harmoniums were being installed. It had seemed ‘popish’ to some. Tabernacle, in decades past, had encouraged and built an orchestral fellowship that went beyond anything needed to accompany hymns and now it didn’t want even that to be ended.

Nowadays instrumental ensembles are common in churches and chapels again – a fiddle, a flute and piano/keyboard perhaps, in a modern ‘worship group’, or some people looking like a rock group in another. Some very successful churches have much more variety than this, to take account of all tastes at different services. So the tradition’s far from dead. You could say it’s been resurrected.

Tabernacle Chapel Orchestra in 1920