Merthyr Memories: Tramroadside North Memories

by Christine Brewer (née Williams)

I was born on Tramroadside North during the War, and I spent all of my early life there. The Tramroadside North I remember from that time bares very little resemblance to the same area today – it has been developed beyond recognition.

The part of Tramroadside North that I am talking about, or ‘The Tramroad’ as it’s more commonly known, is the road that runs between Church Street and what was known as Harris’ Hill – roughly where the Tesco roundabout is today. When I was growing up, the road was much narrower and was lined on both sides with small houses and cottages.

A map showing Tramroadside North (marked in yellow)

On the side of the road nearest the Railway Station were also several ‘courts’ of houses: Joseph’s Court, Vaughan’s Court and Rosser’s Court. There was also a pub, The Tydfil Arms, and we also had a green-grocer’s shop and a small ‘front-room shop’ in one of the houses.

An aerial view showing the top part of the Tramroad. The Tydfil Arms is at the centre of the photo (the larger white building). Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

When I was a child I clearly remember the old tram-lines running down the middle of the road, the trams had stopped running years before of course, and I also remember the air-raid shelter near the lane up to Thomas Street. I often wondered how effective this would have been in an air-raid as it was quite a flimsy brick-built building just built at the side of the road.

The Tramroad decorated for the coronation of King George VI in 1937. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Most of the families who lived on the Tramroad had lived there for generations, and we were a community all of our own. Everyone knew everyone else, and I could tell you who lived in almost every house. I was born in a very small two up, one down cottage – the youngest of five children, so when I was young I went to live with my aunt who had more room. She lived at the bottom end of the Tramroad, and had huge garden which stretched all the way back to the Station Yard. I clearly remember the animals being brought into the Station Yard before being taken to the abattoir, which was near the present day Farm Foods store.

There were, of course, some characters living on the Tramroad. One of our neighbours had a garden full of fantastic cabbages, and whenever anyone asked her about them, she would say that she had buried her husband’s ashes there, and that is what made them so big. Another lady, actually another one of my aunts, had a menagerie in her house. Whenever she came across an injured animal, she would take them in and care of them. Over the years I remember her having many wild birds, hedgehogs etc. At one time I even remember her having a fox-cub!

At the top of the Tramroad was Adulam Chapel. The chapel actually faced Lower Thomas Street, but the cemetery was on the Tramroad, and there was path to the chapel through the cemetery. I went to Adulam Chapel every Sunday, and I remember going to Sunday School in the vestry underneath the chapel and being taught the Lord’s Prayer in Welsh by the teacher Evan John Peters.

The Tramroad in the 1960’s with Adulam Chapel in the middle of the photo. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Also underneath Adulam Chapel were two very small houses that shared a kitchen and toilet. When I was a little older, my sister married and moved into one of these houses. I dreaded going to see her as I would have to walk along a path through the cemetery to get to the house; I remember one occasion walking down the path and a boy jumping out at me from behind a grave – he thought it was one of his friends and wanted to frighten him…..he certainly frightened me!

Adulam Chapel. Left is the front of the Chapel on Thomas Street. Right is the back of the chapel on the Tramroad, showing the cemetery with the path (left) leading to the houses

So much has changed. Most of the houses have been demolished, and all of the courts, the Tydfil Arms and Adulam Chapel have all gone. It’s sad to look back and see all I remember disappeared.

Vaughan’s Court being demolished. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Railway Accident at Merthyr Station

143 years ago today, on the afternoon of Saturday 16 May 1874, a scheduled passenger train left Brecon for Merthyr at 1.50pm, and following a few unavoidable delays arrived just after 3.25pm, eight minutes late, at the Great Western Railway Station at Merthyr Tydfil. The train was just reaching the end of the inner platform when it was hit by great force from behind by twenty-one fully-laden coal trucks.

At approximately 3.00pm that afternoon, a coal train of twenty-four fully-laden trucks had left the same platform at the Station heading for Swansea. At that time it was the policy of the Great Western Railway Company to work mineral trains going up the incline to the Aberdare Tunnel with an extra engine at the rear or at the front of the train to help propel the train up the incline. On this day, the train that had left Merthyr station was in one of these latter configurations.

On such occasions, it was the duty of the guards to be at separate positions at each end of the train to help operate the brakes with the brake-man. For some reason, the guard on this particular train was travelling with his colleague in the engine at the front, leaving the brake-man alone in the rear van. Shortly after the train had entered the Aberdare Tunnel, a coupling somewhere near the front of the train broke. The guards were alerted to this by the fact that the front part of the train suddenly accelerated. Having brought the train to a standstill the guards ran back along the track to find that more than half the train – twenty-one trucks in all had become detached from the train and had run back along the line on which they had just travelled. Between the Great Western Station and the Aberdare Tunnel, the railway line rises over three-quarters of a mile in a series of inclines ranging between 1 in 45 and 1 in 70 gradients, so this, coupled with the weight of the loads being carried, meant that the runaway trucks were accelerating the whole time along the track. The train was travelling at such a speed that the signalman at the Cyfarthfa Crossing and another signalman at the Rhydycar Junction, just half a mile from the station, were powerless to do anything to stop the train’s progress or to warn those at the Great Western Station.

Within minutes the trucks hit the passenger train. It is estimated that they were, by this time, travelling in excess of 40 miles an hour. They hit the passenger train with a force of approximately 300 tons of deadweight travelling at a mile a minute, and the sound of the crash was heard over a 300 yard radius. The force of the impact smashed the passenger coaches and forced the locomotive engine ‘The Elephant’ through the buffers at the end of the track, across the platform at the end of it, through the front of the station and into the road beyond before finally crashing into the high retaining wall at John Street, penetrating the wall to a depth of about four feet and damaging the foundations of the Grosvenor Hotel in John Street.

The first carriage on the train, immediately behind the engine tender, took the main force of the concussion that travelled along the train, and it was reduced to splinters, the only portion left for identification being the framework which was embedded beneath the guard’s van. Fortunately there were no passengers in this carriage – it is obvious that if there had been anyone in the carriage they would have been killed outright. Next was a composite (a mixed first and second class) carriage which came to rest on top of the guard’s van, amazingly the only damage this carriage sustained was broken windows and doors, and passengers in this carriage sustained only minor injuries, two further third-class carriages followed this, but the final third-class carriage which took the main brunt of the collision was almost totally demolished. It was in this carriage that most of the injuries occurred.

In all 52 people were badly injured, most people suffering from fractures and cuts and bruises. A large number of people also suffered from the effects of shock. The most serious injuries were sustained by the recently married Mrs Stephens of Pontypridd who suffered serious fractures to both legs, resulting in them both being amputated below the knee.

Miss Sarah Davies of Coed-cae Court, Twynyrodyn, also sustained fractures to both legs and needed one of her legs amputated below the knee. Mrs Elizabeth Morgan, aged 30, of Cefn Coed, also had both legs fractured and needed one leg amputated below the knee. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the doctors, Mrs Morgan’s injuries were far worse than originally thought, and she died of her injuries a week after the accident. It is miraculous that this was the only fatality. The driver of the train, David Humphreys, along with the stoker and the guard, managed to jump from the engine just as it crashed through the end of the station and sustained only minor injuries.

An artist’s impression of the crash from 1874

If you want to find out more, a fuller account of the crash appears in Merthyr Historian volume 26.

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.

John Mathias Berry

Today marks the centenary of the death of one of Merthyr’s most prominent citizens – John Mathias Berry.

John Mathias Berry and Mrs Mary Ann Berry

Born on 2 May 1847 in Camrose in Pembrokeshire, John Mathias Berry was brought up in Haverfordwest in a strict non-conformist household, and as a young man he began working for the Great Western Railway as a clerk. On 24 May 1870 he married Mary Ann Rowe of Pembroke Dock, and in 1872 became a father to a daughter, Lucy Beatrice. In 1874, Berry secured a better position as a station-master with the Taff Vale Railway and the family moved to Merthyr Tydfil.

On 17 September 1877, Berry became a father for the second time when Mary gave birth to a son – Henry Seymour. As a sideline to his job at Merthyr Station and also to earn extra money, John Mathias Berry began selling tea in the town, and this led on to him becoming a commercial traveller. During this time his family grew and he became a father to two more sons – William Ewart in 1879, and James Gomer in 1883.

In 1894, at the age of 46, John Mathias decided on a career change and opened a new business as an auctioneer and estate agent in Victoria Street. Due to a combination of his remarkable personality, his energetic business acumen and the economic growth at the time, the business became a huge success, and Berry became a very prosperous and important person in Merthyr.

As a result of his success, John Mathias became very active in public life in Merthyr. In 1902 he was made a J.P. for the County of Glamorgan, and he also became a councillor for the Town Ward on the District Council and from 1905 Borough Council. In November 1908 he became an alderman and was elected as Mayor in November 1911, and as such was responsible for welcoming King George V and Queen Mary on the occasion of their visit to Merthyr and Dowlais on 27 June 1912.

John Mathias Berry reading the proclamation of the visit of King George V and Queen Mary on the steps of the Town Hall

Despite his business and public activities, John Mathias remained a staunch non-conformist, and became a member of Market Square Chapel soon after his arrival in Merthyr, and within time he was elected as a deacon of the chapel. It was in this capacity that he was instrumental in the founding of the Caedraw Mission Sunday School and also the Ragged School. When Market Square Chapel celebrated its centenary in 1938, William Ewert and James Gomer, the two surviving sons of James Mathias, paid for a magnificent pipe organ to be installed in the chapel in memory of their father.

The pipe organ installed in memory of John Mathias Berry in the old Market Square Chapel

Indeed, John Mathias Berry was known as much for his charitable work in the town as his business and public life. As early as 1875, during the great ‘Lock Out’, John Mathias was at the forefront of the movement to open soup kitchens for the relief of the poor, and throughout his life he gave unstintingly of his time and money to help the under-privileged of the town.

John Mathias Berry died on 9 January 1917 after a short illness.

Despite everything he did in his life, John Mathias Berry’s lasting legacy will be as a father to three sons who became hugely successful millionaires and peers of the realm:-

Henry Seymour Berry (1877-1928), 1st Baron Buckland

William Ewert Berry (1879-1954), 1st Viscount Camrose

James Gomer Berry (1883-1968), 1st Viscount Kemsley

There will be more about the remarkable Berry brothers in the future. In the meantime if you wish to read more about them, take a look at the link below.

http://yba.llgc.org.uk/en/s2-BERR-BUC-1847.html