Merthyr Memories: Cyfarthfa School part 2

by Mary Owen

Some time in the 1980s, a fresh faced, pleasant boy came to Cyfarthfa. He seemed to enjoy his French lessons and he loved illustrating his written work, when required, with neat, labelled drawings. When I saw his excellent work on the ‘Clothes’ chapter, I suggested he repeat it for the wall display for homework, if he felt like it. He arrived at the next lesson with a set of ten delightful sketches of the clothes, including a smart chapeau with a chic feather in it. He had drawn them, coloured them, cut them out and mounted each one separately on a large sheet of paper and labelled them with their French names.

The stylish result amazed me. I didn’t know then that I was looking at the early efforts of a future young fashion designer, who would work at the house of Chanel in Paris, city of my dreams! and who would later make his own name and label famous: Julien Macdonald had done a fine piece of homework. I was delighted, we pinned his work on the wall and I showed it off to each class and to some of the staff. I think it would have remained there until the end of my teaching career but for a sad and regrettable incident a couple of years later.

The painters and decorators were in and gradually each classroom was going to be spruced up. I was instructed that work was to start on my room after registration the following day and the room had to be cleared of all its stuff. After school I stayed behind and carefully unpinned the wall decorations, that had become part of the furniture. There was a problem – some were too big to store in my cupboard so I decided, as it was time I went home, to leave them on a front desk until the following morning; after registration I would get help to carry them to some corner in the staffroom.

The next day I entered the classroom, without looking towards the precious pile, settled the class down and began to call the register, before assembly. A smell of smoke wafted up from the boiler room, somewhere down below: Glyn, the caretaker, was burning yesterday’s rubbish. A lot of it was paper. I gave a sudden look of panic across to the desk, on which my stack of papers should have been; the penny dropped! I knew in that instant that they would not be there and worse still I knew that they were probably being incinerated at that very moment. The pupil, seated at that desk, noticed my silent anguish and soon she and the rest of the boys and girls were sharing in my sorrowful and not so silent laments. The cleaner had taken them for a pile of rubbish (how could they have been considered rubbish?) and we never saw them again.

The maps of France and of Paris, the Boulogne – trip photos, the French flags, the cheese and wine labels, our exclusive collection of sketches by Julien Macdonald (not yet famous, admittedly) and all the other bits and pieces had gone up in smoke. I fumed at my lack of foresight and and my regret never ended.

Twenty or so years later, when walking in Thomastown Park, I met Matthew Howells, an old pupil of the school and former school-friend of Julien’s. He introduced me to his wife and as he reminisced about Cyfarthfa, he told us that once, when making their GCSE subject choices, he and some friends had asked Julien why he had chosen Art. Apparently, his answer had been “Well, Mrs Owen made such a fuss of some drawings I did for her I thought I would do Art.” After A-level success – nothing to do with me – Julien went on to study Fashion Design in London and is now known for his glamorous creations. He is one of Merthyr Tydfil’s most famous exports.

Aerial view of Cyfarthfa Castle. Photo courtesy of

Merthyr Memories: Cyfarthfa School part 1

by Mary Owen

The classroom where I taught in Cyfarthfa High School (Castle site) was at the back, looking on to an area, darkly shaded by old trees. They had been planted circa 1824 when the mock-Gothic edifice, Cyfarthfa Castle, was built by William Crawshay, the ironmaster of the Cyfarthfa works. Less than a century later the family and iron-making disappeared from Merthyr Tydfil and their magnificent, unwanted home became a grammar school.

In the 1970s, when I was appointed to teach French at Cyfarthfa, by then a comprehensive school, one of those old trees became a particular favourite of mine and I admired it often as I glanced, or even took some time to gaze, at the shady woodland scene, just outside the window of Room 15: it was a cedar of Lebanon, the tree that indicates that the landowner, who paid for it was seriously wealthy. In quiet moments in that room I would muse on the Mediterranean land, from which the tree had sprung and of the time when the millionaire owner had bought it and many other specimens of exotic trees and plants. These had been transported, at great expense, to Merthyr Tydfil, his ugly, industrial town, for the beautification of his estate. Thanks to those past extravagances we had the most wonderful – looking school, a grey stone turreted castle, with lawns and a lake in front of it and well- established trees and gardens all around.

Cyfarthfa Castle in 2013

My north-facing room was dark and the ceiling strip – lights were often switched on to lighten and brighten it. In the well-used fashion of making the classroom a pleasant place in which the pupils can learn and where the teacher can impart knowledge, I made sure that the walls of the dingy room were colourfully decorated with scenes relating to France: pictures of famous buildings and work that the pupils had spent time creating in class or at home. As time passed the walls of the room were pinned with a collage of memorabilia, which gave great delight to me and, I hope, to the children, entrusted to me. Some of my own postcards were there – of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Mona Lisa; a map of France was in the place of honour in the centre of the back wall and it was mounted by two crossed ‘Tricolore’ flags. These had been drawn, painted and cut out by some enthusiastic pupils in break times. They had tried not to forget that Mrs Owen had said “ the colours of the French flag are blue, white and red (bleu, blanc, rouge), in that order from the flagpole, not red, white and blue. You must get it right.” There were wine bottle – labels, cheese – box labels, Orangina advertisements, photographs of the annual 24- hour, autumn trip to Boulogne, with many pupils and several teachers and where, if my allotted group of eight pupils could order their drinks in good French at the first café stop up in the old quarter of the town, I paid the bill; there was Richard Probert’s print of the Sacré-Coeur, bought especially for our classroom, on his and his brother Michael’s family trip to Paris. They would not forget it in a hurry because their Aunty Norma’s handbag, with her money and passport in it, was stolen in that beautiful white basilica, overlooking the city.

Another aunty had been snapped colourfully for posterity by her eager nephew, Owain Rowlands, as she was eating her way through a huge dish of ‘moules’. She was in the restaurant of the Hôtel de la Plage in the harbour town of Dieppe. This town featured in the Longman’s textbook, which was the basis of French language learning in Mid-Glamorgan schools. Aunty Jean was not to know then that she would be up there on the wall in our classroom, eating those mussels for many years to come. She was a French teacher and she had entered into the spirit of the family trip with gusto. The photos were rushed to school at the end of the holiday and there in front of us were the hotel, the town hall, the church, the swimming pool, the harbour in Dieppe and Jean eating those mussels – more visual aids for learning the ten French words of vocabulary that were expected to be known at the end of each chapter. La plage, le port, l’hôtel, l’hôtel de ville, i.e. the town-hall, surmounted with two crossed French flags etc… And so it went on until the end of the book and there were always creative hands, ready to change the scene a bit and to add an item about France and the French language to our décor. There was a notice, written carefully in good, correct French, announcing to all that Mrs Owen’s favourite character in Coronation Street was Mike Baldwin and her favourite television programme was Only Fools and Horses.

One chapter was about clothes. The required new points of grammar were introduced and the ten words for articles of clothing were there, to be learned through looking, listening, saying, repeating, writing, drawing and even singing. And of course there were volunteers for drawings of shirts, trousers, blouses, skirts, dresses, shoes, socks, macs and hats. Teaching French, especially in the first years to children of eleven and twelve, some at the start of even becoming clever linguists is a delight. One amongst several of these, was Sharon Rogers, who found it so easy to master the tricky French ‘r’ sound as soon as she heard it. It usually took a great deal of practice.

To be continued……….

The Opening of St John’s Church, Cefn

143 years ago today the article transcribed below appeared in the Western Mail:

Opening of Cefn Church

Yesterday the pretty township of Cefncoedycymmer, near Merthyr Tydfil, was all astir, the occasion being the preliminary opening of the church of St. John’s.

Before the days of the iron and coal trade, but a solitary cottage or two marked the now well populated outskirt of Cefn, and in those bygone days the important section of the parish of Vaynor was concentrated at Pontsarn and  Pontsticill. There, in a pleasant little dingle, just above the banks of the Taff vawr, nestled the old parish church. About ten years ago the original building presented a decayed and irreparable appearance, and leading Churchmen of the parish at once decided to introduce another place of worship adjacent to the old site, where Welsh people had worshipped for so many centuries. A sum of money towards the necessary building fund was soon forthcoming; but at the outset Mr. Robert Crawshay, of Cyfarthfa Castle, with characteristic perception, pointed to the more urgent necessities of the people of Cefn with regard to church accommodation, and practically evinced his anxiety to see a want supplied in this direction by the handsome offer, that if the nominal sum already subscribed were transferred for the construction of an edifice at Cefn he would, at his own expense build the Vaynor Church. This was agreed to, and Mr. Crawshay’s idea was speedily verified in the erection and opening of a place of worship at Vaynor.

Meanwhile the committee at Cefn, who themselves had worked hard, and subscribed to the best of their ability, were not so successful, in a financial sense, as was anticipated. Nevertheless, available funds were invested with a view to a commencement of the work at a convenient site near the Brecon and Merthyr Railway, the ground having been gratuitously granted by Mrs. Gwynne Holford.

The designs of the church having been prepared by Mr. G. E. Robinson, architect, Cardiff, the contract was taken by Mr. David Jenkins, builder, Merthyr, for a sum less than £2,000, and he has discharged his obligations most satisfactorily, under, perhaps, trying circumstances. Time does not allow of our entering here either into the circumstances which caused such delay in the completion of this work, or a description of the building itself. We may however say that within a short time since when the work of completion was undertaken under circumstances which will presently appear – the sacred house, partially pledged, remained for a protracted period with the doors and windows barricaded with boarding.

At last Mr. Crawshay, who had long since redeemed his promise by erecting a parish church, was appealed to for further help, and he at once gave directions that the church should be forthwith completed at his expense. This has been done, and a cheque for £200 from the Iron King, with a sum already in hand, satisfies the contractor. Of late a few ladies have rendered assistance to the committee by efforts in the shape of concerts, and solicitations of one shilling subscriptions, in order to provide certain details in connection with the building, which, it is computed, will cost altogether £2,000.

The edifice is substantially built, will accommodate 250 people, and prove a great boon to persons who have hitherto been compelled to either worship under the ministrations of the Rev. J. S. Williams, curate, in a temporary apartment, or journey to Merthyr in one direction, or Vaynor in another. The names of the gentlemen who have assiduously applied themselves in securing the church for Cefn are Messrs. W. T. Crawshay, C. E. Matthews, William Jones, and T. J. Pearce, who have been compelled to carry out the work solely from public subscriptions, not having received the slightest aid from any society.

The interior of the church can be pronounced complete, but the exterior surroundings suggest an unfinished appearance. A preliminary service was conducted in the church on Monday evening, when the Rev. John Jenkins, of Llanfrynach, preached in English, and the Rev. John Cunnick, deputation from the Church Pastoral Aid Society, in Welsh. The services yesterday were choral, and there was not the slightest ostentation displayed; a more appropriate and impressive ceremony being deferred till the grand opening ceremony on occasion of the thorough completion of the building.

The service, which commenced at 11 o’clock before a crowded congregation, was intoned by the Rev. Mr. Jones, rector of Dowlais. The Rev. J. Griffiths, rector of Neath, preached an eloquent discourse. Services were also held in the evening. We were unable at the time of the despatch of our parcel to ascertain the amount realised from offerings. The clergy and visitors were entertained by Mr. Wm. Crawshay, Mr. Matthews, and Mr. William Jones. Mrs. William Crawshay has contributed a beautiful altar cloth, and Mr. C. E. Matthews a Communion service.

Western Mail – 22 April 1874

A Wizard at Cyfarthfa

The article, transcribed below, appeared in the Merthyr Guardian 170 years ago today:

On Friday evening, the 5th instant, by permission of R. T. Crawshay, Esq., Mr. Mathews, Wizard of Wizards, &c., exhibited his extraordinary feats of legerdemain at the Cyfarthfa ball room. The rapidity and cleverness with which Mr M. performed an almost endless succession of tricks, excited the wonder and curiosity of the spectators, and afforded very general satisfaction.

His ventriloquism was a novelty to many in the assembly and was very well done. But that which utterly confounded the shrewdest spectators in the room was the part enacted (as it would seem) by the so-called Mysterious Lady. She was truly blindfolded, and her back was duly turned upon the audience, yet she seemed to be perfectly cognizant of all that was carried on-and to every question she returned a correct and prompt reply. The contents of many a bachelor’s pocket were ransacked and every item was correctly described – she seemed to hear the very whispers of persons at a considerable distance from her, for she would pronounce aloud every secret that thus transpired. Even dumb show was significant to her for she appeared to see and understand it all.

A gentleman present shewed by chance a shilling of the Elizabethian age – a curiosity in its way – it was no sooner in Mr. Mathews’s hands than his lady yonder told him all about it. “Confound you” said one of the knowing ones present – I understand your other tricks very well, but this thoroughly puzzles me”- ” then you are confounded Sir”, was the prompt reply. This part of the performance was very cleverly accomplished.

The entertainment gave general satisfaction to a numerous and respectable company. The performances were repeated to a large company on Wednesday evening, with similar success.

Merthyr Guardian – 13 March 1847