The 1849 Cholera Outbreak

In 1849 a deadly outbreak of cholera hit Merthyr Tydfil resulting in hundreds of deaths.

The summer of 1849 was a long, hot one, in which drought conditions prevailed. This caused many normal supplies of fresh water to dry up, and forced people to use much less safe sources of water. In cities and towns this often meant using water from sources which were seriously contaminated, like rivers and canals. Conditions were therefore just right for the serious spread of cholera. The 1849 outbreak began in Edinburgh in October of 1848, having arrived there from a German port. This outbreak would cause over 53,000 deaths in England and Wales. It reached Wales in May of 1849, the first outbreak occurring in Cardiff.

Lady Charlotte Guest wrote in her diary on 31 May: ‘There is great alarm at Cardiff about the cholera, which has broken out there with great violence.’

Meanwhile, The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian began reporting the outbreak shortly after this, and gave advice to the people of the district how to deal with the outbreak:

‘THE STRICTEST CLEANLINESS SHOULD BE MAINTAINED – in person and in habitation – and having done all that can be done to effect this object two should calmly proceed with our usual occupations, placing firm reliance in the merciful providence of an All-wise deity. The circumstances in which we are placed should induce caution, but not nervous agitation or faithless misgivings. In the year 1832, when the cholera committed sad havoc in Swansea, a little boy told his mother that he had discovered an effectual remedy for the complaint in the 91st Psalm – a portion of scripture which we commend to the perusal of our readers.’

 In late May, cholera appeared in Merthyr. A four year old child caught the disease, and by the end of the month, six people had died. On 7 June, 22 deaths were reported in Merthyr and the same number two days later. In the following month, 349 deaths were reported.

On 31 July, Lady Charlotte Guest wrote in her diary: ‘I am sorry to say the accounts of the cholera at Dowlais are fearfully bad. They are beyond anything I could have imagined, sometimes upward of twenty people dying in one day, and eight men constantly employed in making coffins …one of our Infant School Mistresses is dead. One of the medical assistants sent down from London is dying, and the whole place seems in a most lamentable state.’


In July, 539 people died in Merthyr, and in August, the death toll reached an average of 36 a day. The infection continued to rage in the town until November when the winter rains helped to dispel the conditions in which the cholera thrived. At the end of the epidemic, Merthyr had experienced the second highest death toll in England and Wales (second only to Hull), with 1,682 having succumbed to the disease.

St Tydfil’s Hospital and the Cholera Cemetery courtesy of Old Merthyr Tydfil (

If you have any information you would like to share, please leave a comment to the left or email me at

Merthyr’s Spitfire

Following on from yesterday’s blog about HMS Beverley, here is a newspaper cutting from the Merthyr Express of 31 October 1942 referring to yet another bit of fund raising by the people of Merthyr during the Second World War:


The Merthyr Tydfil Spitfire. If you look closely you can see the name of the town just below the cockpit

Merthyr’s Destroyer

Did you know that Merthyr adopted its very own warship in the Second World War?

Between 1941 and 1942, the concept of National Savings was introduced by the British government. Each region in the country was provided with a savings target to achieve. This was based on the region’s population, with each general level of savings having a class of warship assigned. This became known as ‘Warship Week’. In one such ‘Warship Week’ in February 1942, Merthyr Tydfil raised the amazing sum of £57,000, the highest amount raised during the period, and was thus ‘awarded’ a ship – HMS Beverley.

HMS Beverley

HMS Beverley, was actually an old American ship – USS Branch, a Clemson-class destroyer that entered service in 1920. Built by Newport News Shipbuilding, the ship was laid down on 25 October 1918 and launched on 19 April 1919. Commissioned on 3 April 1920 for service in US Navy, she was held in Reserve in 1939 until she was transferred to the Royal Navy under the Lend Lease Agreement on 8 October 1940 and commissioned at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

HMS Beverley was assigned to convoy escort duties, and during 1941 escorted several Atlantic convoys, attacking U-boats on three separate occasions, and escorted several convoys to Malta.

In April 1942 she was an escort for Convoy PQ 14 en route to North Russia. On the journey the convoy was attacked by a superior force of enemy destroyers, which had approached unobserved during a snow storm and fired several torpedoes at a range of 9,000 yards. One merchant ship was sunk. The enemy returned four times and took part in short gunnery duels, but did not close the range below 8,000 yards. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, HMS Beverley and the other escorts outfought the German opposition.

Following a refit, HMS Beverley returned to Atlantic Convoy duties, and would soon see her finest hour, taking part in the one of the most bitterly fought convoy actions of the entire Battle of the Atlantic: the defence of convoys HX-229 and SC-122. The convoys were attacked by over 40 U-boats, and despite heavy losses to the merchant ships, the U-boats were beaten off by HMS Beverley and her fellow escorts.

On her next voyage across the Atlantic, whilst escorting Convoy ON-176, some 360 miles southeast of Greenland, HMS Beverley collided with the merchantman, SS Cairnvolona on 9 April 1943. The incident, occurring in “thick weather,” severely handicapped the destroyer. Two days later, U-188 chanced across her and torpedoed her. The old ship went down quickly, leaving only four survivors. 139 men, including her commanding officer, went down with the ship.

HMS Beverley Ship’s Crest

For more information on HMS Beverley please check out the following links:

Merthyr’s Forgotten Literary Pioneer

Merthyr Tydfil is currently commemorating the 60th anniversary of the death of a forgotten pioneer son, the distinguished playwright, J.O. Francis (1882-1956).

J. O. Francis

He was born in 15, Mary Street in Twynyrodyn but spent his childhood and youth at 41, High Street, living above the shop of his blacksmith father, David Francis. His Rhondda-born mother, Dorothy, was a dressmaker and milliner. John Oswald (known as J.O. for most of his adult life) was the eldest of five children. He was a gifted scholar, having received a good education in the “learned paradise” of the new County Intermediate and Technical School, at which he became a pupil on the day it opened in 1896. It gave him the chance of going to university at Aberyswtyth, whence he graduated with a first in English Literature in 1904. He never forgot that good fortune and he never forgot Merthyr Tydfil for all it had meant to him. It was the inspiration of his writing: the many memories he recalled depict the Merthyr Tydfil of our grandparents and great-grandparents. He is part of our heritage but has been sadly neglected.  He was a man of many enthusiasms with a passion for the theatre and for rugby. He gained fame two decades before the celebrated Jack Jones, who was a contemporary and who echoed many of the ground-breaking ideas of J.O. Francis, who wrote for most of his life living as a proud London Welshman in an area of London that made the theatres, the London Welsh playing fields and Twickenham internationals easily available. He was much respected as a gifted dramatist and stylish essayist and was a popular broadcaster. “He was a man of many opinions and no prejudices”.

The Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Trust, the libraries, the researchers at the Ynysfach Engine House, the Redhouse theatre staff, Cyfarthfa Museum, the Merthyr Tydfil Museum and Heritage Group and many individuals are pleased to be able to celebrate belatedly the life and work of a once famous pioneering son of the town. He wrote the first Anglo-Welsh realist drama about the working class. It was called ‘Change’ about a family of Welsh colliers at the time of a strike and he helped to make amateur dramatics a new culture in the grim industrial valleys of South Wales and beyond- all in need of some fun and entertainment.

Many thanks to Mary Owen for contributing the above article.

A loaned portrait of the writer, commissioned by Lord Kemsley and painted by Ceri Richards is on view in the Wedding Room of Cyfarthfa Castle.

J. O. Francis painted by Ceri Richards

J.O. Francis  (1882-1956)  The Distinguished Merthyr-born Dramatist is an appreciation of  his life and work, written by Mary Owen. It includes many extracts from the work of J. O. Francis. It will be launched by the library in Merthyr Tydfil on 12 October  at 11.30 a.m. in the courtyard of The Redhouse.


Bridging the gap

One of the most striking structures in Merthyr if Cefn Viaduct. You can’t miss it, but how much do you know about it?

Cefn Viaduct photo courtesy of Christopher Surridge

The viaduct was commissioned by the Brecon and Merthyr Railway company to span the Taf Fawr Valley in Cefn-Coed-y-Cymmer. Before work began, a special Act of Parliament had to be sought in 1862 to allow construction. The viaduct was designed by Alexander Sutherland and Henry Conybeare, and was built by Thomas Savin and John Ward. In early 1866, the project faced disaster when Savin and Ward suffered serious financial and legal difficulties. It was eventually completed with the assistance of Alexander Sutherland, and was completed on 29 October 1866 at a cost of £25,000.

Cefn Viaduct under construction courtesy of Old Merthyr Tydfil (

The viaduct is 770 ft long, and at its highest point stands 115 ft high; it has 15 arches, each one 39 ft 6 inches wide. It was planned to be constructed entirely of limestone , but a strike by stonemasons in February 1866 caused the company to buy 800,000 bricks and use bricklayers to complete the 15 arches. The most striking feature of the viaduct is its elegant curve. The viaduct was apparently designed this way to avoid encroaching on Robert Thompson Crawshay’s land.

Smaller, but no less impressive is Pontsarn Viaduct. This was also designed by Alexander Sutherland and built by Savin and Ward to bridge the Taf Fechan Valley. Opened in 1867, Pontsarn is 455 ft long and 92 ft high at its highest point and comprises seven arches. Unlike Cefn Viaduct, it is built entirely of limestone.

Pontsarn Viaduct courtesy of Old Merthyr Tydfil (

The Merthyr to Brecon Line stopped carrying passenger trains in 1961, but goods trains continued to use the viaducts, with the last train crossing them on 1 August 1966. Both viaducts are now Grade II* listed and form part of the Taff Trail.

London to Dowlais via Downton Abbey!!!

Many people of a certain age will remember Dowlais Central Schools, but did you know that the building was actually designed by Sir Charles Barry, the architect responsible for building the present Houses of Parliament (not to mention remodelling Highclere Castle – the setting for Downton Abbey)?

Sir Charles Barry
Sir Charles Barry

In 1853, Lady Charlotte Guest decided to commission a new school in Dowlais in memory of her late husband, Sir John Josiah Guest. She approached Sir Charles Barry, a personal friend who had previously re-designed the Guest’s new home at Canford Manor in Dorsetshire, to design the school to accommodate 650 boys and girls and 680 infants. The school was built by John Gabe, the prestigious Merthyr builder, and it was completed at a cost of between £8,000 and £10,000 (depending on which source you consult) and opened in 1855. The cost of the building was paid for, in full, by the Dowlais Iron Company. The Merthyr Telegraph described the completed building as:-

“…very chaste, massive and grand, without being at all heavy in its effect. The principal entrance admits, under a spacious gallery, into the Infants’ School-room, a noble apartment, 100 feet long by 35 feet wide; the roof of the open Gothic is 60 feet from the floor at the highest point. To the right and left, through two immense arches, open the schools for boys and girls, each 90 feet long by 30 feet wide. Light is admitted through very large and handsome Gothic windows – there are several spacious and handsome class-rooms attached, and there is an extensive play ground in front.”

Dowlais Central Schools
Dowlais Central Schools courtesy of Old Merthyr Tydfil (

There was even a form of central heating used in the school, provided by hot air pumped from an engine house in the ironworks through underground ducts to the school itself.

Sir Charles Barry also designed, at Lady Charlotte Guest’s instigation, the Guest Memorial Hall (now the Guest Keen Club), a library and reading room for employees of the Dowlais Iron Company.

Guest Memorial Hall
Guest Memorial Hall

Dowlais Central Schools were demolished in the 1970’s, one of the many architectural masterpieces that Merthyr has sadly lost in the name of progress. Luckily the Guest Memorial Hall still survives to this day.

Do you have any memories of Dowlais Central Schools? If so please share them by using the comments button, or by e-mail at

If you want to learn more about Sir Charles Barry have a look at these sites: