Merthyr’s Girl-Collier

One hundred and sixteen years ago today, the following story broke in the Evening Express, and went on to grip the town for several weeks.

Six days previously, on Monday 30 September 1901, a fifteen-year-old girl had been found working as a boy in one of the Plymouth Ironworks’ collieries.

When interviewed, the girl, Edith Gertrude Phillips, said that she lived with her father, a pitman, her mother and five siblings at the Glynderis Engine House in Abercanaid, but was beaten and forced to do all the housework by her mother when her father was at work. On the previous Friday, her mother had ‘knocked her about the head, shoulders and back with her fists’ for not finishing the washing, so Edith decided to leave home. She dressed in some clothes belonging to her older brother, cut her hair, threw her own clothes into the Glamorganshire Canal, and walked to Dowlais Ironworks to look for a job.

Unable to secure employment in Dowlais, Edith then went to the South Pit of the Plymouth Colliery, and got a job with a collier named Matthew Thomas as his ‘boy’. She found lodgings at a house in Nightingale Street in Abercanaid, and it was there on Monday 30 September that she was discovered by P.C. Dove. The alarm had been raised about Edith’s disappearance by her father on the Friday evening, and following searches throughout the weekend, someone recognised the disguised Edith at her lodgings in Nightingale Street. Edith refused to go back to her parents, and in the ensuing arguments, collapsed from nervous exhaustion and was taken to Merthyr Infirmary.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children immediately started investigating the case, and Edith’s parents were questioned thoroughly. In the meantime, as news of the case leaked out, there was an outpouring of support for Edith, and dozens of people came forward with offers of support for her, some from as far afield as Surrey and Sussex. A committee was formed to start a fund to help Edith, and the met at the Richards Arms in Abercanaid, just a week after the news broke, and a public appeal was made for money to help her.

Evening Express – 17 October 1901

Despite the ongoing investigation by the N.S.P.C.C. and the countless offers from people to provide a good home to Edith, the Merthyr Board of Guardians, in their infinite wisdom, decided that the girl should be sent home to her parents upon her release from the Infirmary. Edith was indeed released and sent home to her parents on 31 October, but within hours, she was removed from the house by the N.S.P.C.C. and taken to the Salvation Army Home in Cardiff.

No more is mentioned in the newspapers about Edith until 8 February 1904, when the Evening Express reported that she had been living in Cardiff, but as the money raised to help her had run out, she had to leave her home. As she was in very poor health, she was unable to find work, so she had appealed to the Merthyr Board of Guardians to allow her to come back to Merthyr, and to enter the Workhouse. A doctor told the Board that Edith didn’t have long to live, so they agreed to allow her to return.

This is the last report about Edith in any of the newspapers, but thanks to the sterling work of Mike Donovan of the Merthyr Branch of the Glamorgan Family History Society, I have been able to discover that Edith didn’t actually die at the workhouse, she recovered and went on to work, in service, at a house in Penydarren, and  died in 1963 at the age of 77.

Evening Express – 4 November 1901

Merthyr’s Chapels: Graig Chapel, Abercanaid

We continue our series on Merthyr’s chapels with an article about Graig Calvinistic Methodist Chapel in Abercanaid.

In 1846, a number of people from Abercanaid who attended Pontmorlais Calvinistic Methodist Chapel began holding meetings in the village. Rev Evan Harris, the minister at Pontmorlais Chapel at that time, supported the small group and was instrumental in arranging for a chapel to be built in Abercanaid.

In February 1847, Rev Harris and Mr Evan Jones, a tea dealer, led a deputation to the annual Methodist Association meeting held in Bridgend, and permission was obtained to build a chapel, chapel house and cemetery on Coedcaellwyd field in Abercanaid, next to the Glamorganshire Canal. The chapel was completed and opened for worship on 15 March 1848.

The original Graig Chapel

Over the years the chapel was renovated three times, including in 1897 at a cost of £365. However in 1899 it was discovered that cracks were appearing in the walls of the chapel due to the structure of the building being affected by the underground workings of Abercanaid Colliery.

It was decided to build a new chapel in the centre of the village of Abercanaid. The old chapel closed in 1903, and the new chapel, designed by Mr Charles Morgan Davies, was completed in 1905 at a cost of £2000. The cost of building the new chapel was helped by a compensation payment of £509, and the stone provided free by the colliery. In the period between the closure of the old chapel and the opening of the new chapel, services were held in Abercanaid School.

New Graig Chapel

In 1948, Graig Chapel celebrated its centenary with a series of events, but the celebrations were tinged with sadness as the old Graig Chapel was demolished in the same year.

With ever decreasing membership, Graig Chapel was forced to close and the building was demolished in 1996. A house has since been built on the site. The cemetery of the old chapel still exists but is badly overgrown, and is almost totally inaccessible.

There were two magnificent memorials, pictured below, to prominent members of the chapel situated behind the pulpit in the original chapel, and these were subsequently moved to the new chapel. They were the work of the renowned sculptor Joseph Edwards (see previous article – http://www.merthyr-history.com/?p=344). The memorials were removed before the new chapel was demolished and moved to Cyfarthfa Castle Museum.

Merthyr’s Bridges: Pont-y-Cafnau

The Grade II* listed Pont-y-Cafnau over the River Taff in Cyfarthfa is thought to be the world’s oldest iron tramroad bridge. An influential early prototype and is a unique survivor of its kind, it is also an aqueduct, with a water trough below the deck. Its designer was Watkin George (c.1759-1822), the chief engineer of the nearby Cyfarthfa Ironworks, which it served, and the bridge/aqueduct enabled the movement of limestone on its tram rails and a water supply, both for the ironworks. The limestone came from the Gurnos Quarries, and the water from a leat supplied by the Taf Fechan. The water was used to drive waterwheels to generate power to run machinery for iron smelting.

The structure was designed sometime in 1792 and construction began in January 1793 and the bridge was completed some time before 1796.

The distinctive appearance of the bridge is created by two large cast iron A-frames, which span the river, their raking ends embedded in the coursed rubble abutment walls on either side. The span measures 14.3m. Three transverse iron beams, at the halfway and quarter-points, connect the A-frames and support the deck. George was originally a carpenter and he used carpentry techniques for the ironwork – mortise-and-tenon and dovetail joints can be seen.

The deck consists of rectangular aqueduct trough, 1.9m wide and 610mm high, made of long iron plates. The trough is covered by an iron deck, cast in sections, on which was laid the 1.22m (4ft) gauge tramroad. Wagons ran on straight iron rails carried on iron chairs. Some chairs and sleepers are still in place along the full length and segments of rail survive at the southern end.

The cast iron handrails were supported at the centre and quarter points of the span. Most of the original cast iron railings have now been replaced.

In 1795, a second bridge was cast from the same patterns to carry an extension of the tramroad and aqueduct from the ironworks to the Glamorganshire Canal. This bridge, sadly, no longer exists.

Shortly after Pont-y-Cafnau was completed, the Gwynne Water Aqueduct (completed 1796) was constructed over the top of it. Gwynne Water was 185m long, built entirely of timber and used the cast iron uprights of the bridge for support. it supplied water to the 15m diameter Aeolus waterwheel, also designed by George, which powered an air pump for the blast furnaces. Presumably, the extra bracing that has been added to the bridge dates from this work. Nothing of the second aqueduct remains.

Pont-y-Cafnau is a Scheduled Ancient Monument as well as a Grade II* listed structure. The iron trough no longer carries water. However, its name means “bridge of troughs”, testifying to its former life.

The bridge influenced the construction of other, better known, aqueducts. In 1794, Shropshire ironmaster William Reynolds (1758-1803) made a sketch of it. Reynolds’ involvement in the rebuilding of Thomas Telford’s (1757-1834) navigable Longdon on Tern Aqueduct on the Shrewsbury Canal in 1796 seems to have led Telford to reconsider using stone and to opt instead for cast iron. It was also the prototype for Telford’s famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which opened in 1805.

Pont-y-Cafnau in March 2017

The Building of St Mary’s, Merthyr Vale

In the last post, a newspaper cutting appeared announcing the opening of St Mary’s Church in Merthyr Vale. The story of the building of the church is a fascinating one, as the church was built at a time of austerity, actually coinciding with the General Strike of 1926.

A number of people from Merthyr Vale and Aberfan worshipped in the Anglican faith, and indeed they had their own vicar – Rev P Evans. The one thing they didn’t have was their own church. Encouraged by Rev Evans, they decided that they would build a church themselves, and despite the deprivations of the time, and having very little money, plans were drawn up by Rev Evans; Mr Walter March, the engineer of Merthyr Vale Colliery; and Mrs Lewis James.

One of the first problems facing them was where to get the materials needed to build the church. Fortunately the owners of the Glamorganshire Canal told them that they could have the dressed stone from the old, disused pump house near the Pontyrhun Bridge in Troedyrhiw, but they would have to dismantle the building and transport the stones themselves. Mr Ernie Williams, a coal delivery driver from Troedyrhiw offered them the use of his delivery lorry, and every day, people from Merthyr Vale, led by Rev Evans went to Troedyrhiw and pulled down the pump house, stone by stone, and Ernie Williams delivered the stones to Merthyr Vale. After many months of back-breaking work, the building was finally completed, but the generosity didn’t stop there.

merthyrvale_stmaryschurch
Rev Evans and volunteers during the building of the church

Money being very scarce, the group had very little to spare for fixtures and fittings for the new church, however, a church in Aberdare offered the people of Merthyr Vale a pulpit. Once again, the services of Ernie Williams were called upon, and with the aid of a steam wagon borrowed from Merthyr Vale Colliery, not to mention many willing helpers, the pulpit was loaded on to the wagon for the journey to Merthyr Vale. Hearing of the endeavours of the Merthyr Vale group, the firm of Williams and Williams, colliery lamp makers, gave those who had journeyed to Aberdare a free meal.

The journey from Aberdare to Merthyr Vale was not an easy one. The steam wagon travelled at a speed of five miles per hour, and was so heavy that several bridges en route had to be strengthened to take its weight. Despite this, the pulpit arrived in one piece and was installed in the church. The church was consecrated on 12 December 1926.

St Mary’s Church

Sadly, due to subsidence caused by the mine workings at Merthyr Vale Colliery, St Mary’s Church was demolished in 1967, after just over 40 years serving the community. A new church was built on the same site in 1974.

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