Merthyr’s Bridges: Pont y Gwaith

Although Merthyr is world famous for its ironworks, most people don’t realise that there was an ironworks established in the Merthyr Valley as early as the late 16th Century. In 1583, Anthony Morley, an ironmaster from Sussex, set up a small ironworks on the western side of the River Taff between Merthyr Vale and Edwardsville.

The location had plentiful supplies of water for power and wood for charcoal, with iron ore readily available from surface deposits or shallow pits, but supplies and materials had to be transported over the river. To accommodate this, a wooden bridge was built and called Pont y Gwaith – literally Works’ Bridge. The small hamlet that built up around the ironworks took its name from the bridge.

The Pont y Gwaith Ironworks eventually closed, but the hamlet flourished, but by the early 19th Century, the Merthyr Tramroad, where Richard Trevithick ran the first locomotive on rails in 1804, had been constructed between Penydarren and Abercynon, bringing additional goods traffic to the area. The tramroad had a passing place on the east side of the river near Pont y Gwaith.

With the increase in traffic, the old wooden bridge wasn’t deemed suitable, so a replacement bridge was built. A new stone bridge was built in 1811 founded partly on bedrock and partly on squared masonry abutments. Its single arch spans 16.8m span, with a 4.8m rise. The slope of the approaches has been designed so that the curve of the parapet walls echoes the steep rise of the arch.

The bridge shares several design features with the longer-span William Edwards Bridge (Pontypridd, completed 1756), including the use of narrow stones to form the arch ring, the steep road gradient and a plan form that narrows from the abutments towards the midspan.

By the 1970’s mining subsidence had caused significant distortion resulting in the arch becoming pointed at midspan, so in 1979 the bridge was restored and a lightweight concrete saddle was used to strengthen the arch.

The bridge was awarded Grade II listed status in June 1988, and later became part of the Taff Trail from Cardiff Bay to Brecon. In 1989, it was closed to vehicles. In 1992-93, the bridge was repaired by Mid Glamorgan County Council and received a commendation from the Civic Trust.

Photos courtesy of Janice Lane.

Idloes Owen – another Merthyr Musical Giant

Everyone will know of the Welsh National Opera, but how many people know that its founder was yet another Merthyr boy – Idloes Owen.

Idloes Owen

Idloes Owen was born in Merthyr Vale in 1894. His parents Richard and Jane, originally from Llanidloes, moved to Merthyr Vale where Richard secured a job at the Nixon Navigation Colliery. Richard and Jane had six children – John, Thomas, Hannah, Mary, Idloes and Christmas.

As a child, Idloes took an interest in music and began studying the piano and violin, as well as being a promising boy soprano. At the age of 12 however, Idloes left school and followed his father into the Colliery. His time underground was short-lived as he contracted tuberculosis, and was forced to leave the pit. The enforced change in his circumstances made Idloes determined to pursue a career in music.

His ambitions were dealt another blow with the sudden death of his father, rendering the family unable to financially support Idloes’ music career. The villagers in Merthyr Vale, aware of Idloes’ talent and ambition, embarked on a series of fund-raising concerts to raise enough money for the young man to go to Cardiff University to study music.

Having graduated, Owen embarked on a career as a composer, arranger, teacher and conductor, and in 1925 he became the choirmaster of the Lyrian Singers in Cardiff. This male voice choir were able to take advantage not only of the demand for concerts, but also of the growing demands of radio, that had launched in Cardiff in 1922. The Lyrian Singers became, effectively, a resident BBC choir. He was soon also considered to be one of the finest singing teachers in Wales – one of his pupils was a budding baritone named Geraint Evans.

Musical life in Cardiff between the wars was largely amateur, with no public funding. An embryonic National Orchestra of Wales had foundered just before the outbreak of the Second World War and Owen’s plan, in the early years of the war, to launch an orchestra of his own were blocked by the prior existence of the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra.

Strangely, the war years saw another even less known contribution by Owen to Welsh music. The credit for the popular song, We’ll Keep a Welcome in the Hillsides has always gone to Mai Jones, a musician who became a light entertainment producer with the BBC in 1941, but it was Owen who, in 1940, arranged the music from a score supplied by Thomas Morgan, a member of the Lyrian singers, set to lyrics written by Mai Jones and Lyn Joshua.

In November 1943 Owen met with John Morgan, a former baritone with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and Morgan’s fiancée, Helena Hughes Brown, where they decided to form a national opera company for Wales. Only days later, on 2 December, 28 people met at Cathays Methodist Chapel in Crwys Road, Cardiff, at which they all pledged a guinea and promised to pay sixpence a week to pay for the rental of a rehearsal rooms. This company – originally called the Lyrian Grand Opera Company before deciding on the name The Welsh National Opera Company, gave a number of concerts around Cardiff all the way through 1944 & 1945.

The company’s first full opera season took place in 1946 with the first performance on 15 April of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci taking place at the Prince of Wales Theatre, with Idloes Owen as the conductor.

Poster for the first performance of the Welsh National Opera

Idloes Owen continued as the musical director until his untimely death in 1954, but the company he started has gone from strength to strength, and is now considered one of the finest regional opera companies in the world.

Mount Pleasant Spitfire Crash

On 7 July 1941, five people were killed in Mount Pleasant in Merthyr Vale as a result of a terrible accident involving two Spitfire fighters.

At about 6.30pm on Monday 7 July 1941, two planes were seen flying over the hills behind Aberfan at an altitude of approximately 600 feet. The planes were Spitfires of the Royal Canadian Air Force on a training exercise from No 53 Operational Training Unit, based at RAF Heston. The planes were piloted by Sergeant Gerald Fenwick Manuel (R/69888) aged 25, from Halifax, Nova Scotia and Sergeant Lois “Curly” Goldberg (R/56185), aged 27, from Montreal.

From eye-witness accounts, the one plane overshot the other and their wing-tips touched, resulting in both pilots losing control of their aircraft. Sergeant Goldberg’s plane crashed into a field, killing him instantly, but the plane piloted by Sergeant Manuel crashed into a house at the end of South View in Mount Pleasant.

The house was the home of the Cox Family: James Cox, a shift worker at a munitions factory; his wife Alice aged 33, and their five children. At the time of the crash, James Cox was in bed, having just come home from a shift at the factory; his three sons Donald, Thomas and Len were out playing; and Alice and the two daughters, Phyllis aged 14 and three-year-old Doreen, had just returned from a shopping trip. Alice and the two girls were killed instantly, as was Sergeant Manuel, but James Cox had a remarkable escape as the impact of the plane threw him out of the rear window of the house, and he escaped with minor injuries.

Alice Cox. Photo courtesy of

William Brown who lived next door to the Cox family, and who’s house was also damaged, spoke of his own lucky escape: “I was coming out of my house with a bucket of water to go to my allotment when I saw the plane coming towards my house. Some instinct made me go back in, and when I was going along the passage something gave me a smack on the head. I managed to get into a room in the back and I saw the Cox’s house in flames……..There are usually ten to twelve children playing by the lamp-post directly outside the house, but today they were playing in the fields down by the river. My wife and grandchildren were in the back of the house, and they too were uninjured”.

Neighbours and local residents tried in vain to rescue Alice and the children, but the house had burst into flames immediately following the crash, and the heat was too great for attempts to rescue the family. The local police inspector paid tribute to the people, especially the women, saying: “The people of the district were marvellous. They all worked and spoilt their clothing, and never seemed to tire. The women-folk worked unceasingly, carrying water and sand while the men worked the stirrup pumps. They were magnificent and worked like Trojans”.

The bodies of Sgt Manuel and the deceased family members were buried two days later in the Ffrwd Cemetery, Cefn-Coed, while the body of Sgt Goldberg was interned in the Jewish cemetery at Cefn-Coed.

In 2007 a mural painted by local school children was unveiled in memory of the victims of the crash.

Mount Pleasant Crash Memorial Mural

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.

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 (