Merthyr’s Trams

78 years ago today saw the last tram journey run in Merthyr. To mark the occasion, local historian Keith Lewis-Jones has provided the following fascinating article.

Trams at Pontmorlais Circus

The first thoughts of a tram system in the Merthyr area were in 1878, when a scheme was proposed by Messrs. Taylor, Forester and Sutherland, to construct a horse or steam tramway between Merthyr and Dowlais. In 1879, a public meeting was held at the Bush Hotel in Dowlais for the three promoters to explain their plans and to canvass support for the proposed system. The tramway failed to materialise for a variety of reasons, both financial and fear that the toll on the horses hauling trams up gradients, as steep as one in eleven, would make the tramway unprofitable to work.

By 1890, the population of Merthyr was 60,000, and the service of horse cars and brakes was wholly inadequate for the transport needs of such a large population. By this time a large section of the working population was employed at the Dowlais Works, with many living along the Brecon Road corridor and in Cefn Coed

It was therefore proposed to lease out, to a private company, the right to construct Light Railways between Cefn Coed and Dowlais, with a branch running to the centre of Merthyr at Graham Street. As is always the case with such progressive ideas, a great deal of vigorous and influential opposition was forthcoming from vested interests. It was decided to set up a commission to hear evidence and propose a way forward.

In May 1898 the Merthyr Tydfil Electric Traction and Lighting Co. Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of British Electric Traction (BET), made an application for a Light Railway Order under the Light Railways Act of 1896, and the order was granted on 16 May 1899.

The Light Railway Order authorised the construction of three railways.

Railway no. 1 was to be 3 miles 1 furlong 2.8 chains long and was to run from opposite the Morning Sun public house in Cefn High Street via Cefn Bridge, Brecon Road, Pontmorlais Road West, Penydarren Road, High Street Penydarren, New Road & High Street Dowlais to a terminus opposite the Bush Inn.

The section from the Morning Sun to the Merthyr side of Cefn Bridge was not to be constructed until Cefn Bridge had been re-constructed or replaced.

Railway no. 2, 3 furlongs 3.5 chains in length, was to run from the north side of the Owain Glyndwr on Pontmorlais Road West to Graham Street via High Street, terminating at the west end of Graham Street.

Railway no. 3 was 1.7 chains in length and formed the third side of the triangle at Pontmorlais, joining railway no. 1 with railway no. 2 on the east side of the Owain Glyndwr.

Trams at the terminus in Graham Street

The Tram Depot, known as the Traction Yard, was constructed on the site of Penydarren Ironworks and was reached by way of a branch line which left the Dowlais route at the Trevethick (sic.) Street Junction. As well as providing facilities for tram maintenance, the site also housed the generating station for 550 volts direct current. As can be seen in the Company’s name, not only was it set up to operate trams but also to provide lighting within the area.

Traction Yard

For the opening of the system, thirteen single deck and three double deck trams were obtained. The single-deckers, nos. 1-13, were built by the Midland Railway Carriage & Wagon Co. Ltd., of Shrewsbury. They seated twenty-six passengers.

The open top, double deck trams came from the Electric Railway & Tramway Carriage Works Ltd. (ERTCW), of Preston – part of Dick, Kerr & Co. Ltd. They were numbered 14-16 and seated forty-eight passengers.

The first passengers were carried 6 April, 1901 with Dowlais route trams displaying a triangle and Cefn route vehicles a square on the front. The trams ran between 5.15 a.m. and 10.15 p.m. Passengers fares were one penny per mile or part thereof. Some examples being – Merthyr to Dowlais 2d and Cyfarthfa to Merthyr 1d. The fare for a journey from the Morning Sun in Cefn to the Bush Hotel in Dowlais would be 4d.

A tram outside the Bush Hotel in Dowlais

1903 saw the only serious accident to affect the tramway. On 22 January car number 10 left the rails while descending New Road, Dowlais causing no serious injuries, but the tram was badly damaged.

Passenger numbers had declined to 2,086,684 by 1936. The 1930’s had seen a decline in the number of passengers carried, partially due to the high rate of unemployment in the Borough – 41.7% in 1936.

The Corporation had been prevented from competing with the trams under the provisions of the Merthyr Tydfil Corporation Act of 1920 and so the tramway was eventually purchased by the Corporation for £13,500 in 1939, and abandoned on 23 August, leaving the Company to continue electricity generation until 1948.

Merthyr’s Last Tram

During its life, the tramway carried an estimated 85 million passengers and the tramcars covered a distance of around 8 million miles. Apart from the system in Cardiff, Merthyr’s tramway was the longest lasting in South Wales.

A fuller account of Merthyr’s Tram system by Keith Lewis-Jones can be found in Merthyr Historian volume 20.

All photos courtesy of

Merthyr’s Boxers: Howard Winstone

The series on Merthyr’s great boxers continues with arguably Merthyr’s greatest champion – Howard Winstone.

Howard Winstone was born on 15 April 1939 in Penydarren, the second of four children. He attended Penydarren and Gellifaelog Junior Schools and, encouraged by his father, showed early enthusiasm and aptitude for following Merthyr’s rich boxing tradition. He started boxing aged eleven, and in 1954 joined the gym opened by the former welterweight champion Eddie Thomas, a short walk from the Winstone family home. He won three Welsh schools titles, and one British title.

After leaving school he worked at a Lines Brothers Toy Factory where on 19 May 1956 his right hand was crushed by a power press, leaving him without the tips of three fingers. As a result of the accident he lost much of the punching power in his right hand and so had to change his style developing one of the fastest left hand jabs in the sport. Far from hampering Winstone’s career, in 1958 he won the Amateur Boxing Association’s featherweight championship, a gold medal (Wales’ only gold) at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, and the Welsh Sports Personality of the Year Award – an honour he would receive on two further occasions, in 1963 and 1967.

Winstone won 83 of his 86 amateur bouts and hoped to box at the 1960 Olympics, but instead turned professional under Eddie Thomas’s management. He made his professional debut in February 1959 at Wembley Stadium, London, when he beat Billy Graydon on points over six rounds. He then proceeded to win his first 24 professional fights, at which point he was considered ready for a shot at the British featherweight title, and in May 1961 he fought Terry Spinks the holder of the title, and the 1956 Olympic gold medallist at the Empire Pool, Wembley. He out-boxed Spinks, forcing him to retire after ten rounds, and so claimed the British title.

He continued to win all his contests, and in April 1962 he defended his title against Derry Treanor, at the Empire Pool, winning by a technical knockout in the fourteenth round. The next month he defended his title against Harry Carroll in Cardiff forcing him to retire after six rounds.

His first defeat came in November 1962 – his 35th fight after 34 straight wins. He was beaten by Leroy Jeffery, an American featherweight, by a technical knockout in the second round after having been knocked down three times. In January 1963, he defended his British title for the third time, defeating Johnny Morrisey by a technical knockout in the eleventh round, and won the European title the same year, defending the title in May 1964, January 1965,  and March, September and December 1966.

Winstone now set his sights on becoming the World Champion. In September 1965 he challenged for the WBA and WBC world featherweight titles held by the Mexican left-hander, Vicente Saldivar. The fight was held at Earls Court Arena, London and Saldivar won on points over fifteen rounds.

He challenged Saldivar again in June and October 1967, but was defeated on both occasions. Following the defence of his title in October 1967, Saldivar announced his retirement leaving his world title vacant. In January 1968, Winstone fought the Japanese, Mitsunori Seki for the vacant WBC world featherweight title at the Royal Albert Hall. Winstone won the contest and finally gained the world title.

In July 1968 he defended his newly won world title against the Cuban, Jose Legra, at Porthcawl, Wales. Although Winstone had beaten Legra twice before, he was knocked down twice in the first round. He continued fighting, but unfortunately he sustained a badly swollen left eye, which caused the bout to be stopped in the fifth round. Having lost the world title in his first defence, Winstone decided to retire at the age of 29.

He continued living in Merthyr Tydfil after retirement. In 1968 he was awarded the MBE. Later, he was made a Freeman of Merthyr Tydfil due to his boxing accomplishments. He died on 30 September 2000, aged 61.

In 2001, one year after his death, a bronze statue of Winstone by Welsh sculptor David Petersen was unveiled in St. Tydfil’s Square, and in 2005, he beat many other local luminaries to be named “Greatest Citizen of Merthyr Tydfil”, in a public vote competition run by Cyfarthfa Castle and Museum as part of the centenary celebrations to mark Merthyr’s incorporation as a county borough in 1905.

The Meaning of ‘Gurnos’

by Carl Llewellyn

Some time ago I read an article in an old edition of the Merthyr Express. It was written by a J.R. Evans of Aberdare who complained that many local Welsh place names were incorrectly spelt; he then gave his interpretation why places in our locality were so named. Many Welsh place names were bestowed centuries ago and were often descriptive of their pictorial detail. Perhaps because these place names were seldom written, and again because of the inability of the English to pronounce Welsh words, in some cases these words become so changed in form they become unrecognisable and unintelligible, with the original signification being entirely lost.

Examples of the mutilation of Welsh place names can be found in “Lechwedd” (meaning a slope) has become “Leckwith” near Cardiff, and “Rhaiadr” (water fall) becoming “Radyr”. When referring to the name Gurnos, it immediately brings to mind one of the UK’s largest Housing estates situated near Prince Charles Hospital to a majority of people but most of them are not aware of its origin and translation. We often find the name of parts of the body are used in place names. For instance we speak of head or top of a hill, for instance  Penydarren, (pen, head or top; y, of the; darren, a rocky hill) also Troedyrhiw (troed, foot; y, of the; rhiw slope). So the word “Cern” meaning “side of the head”, is applied similarity to the side of the hill, which perhaps has an even surface resembling earth moulds protruding on the side of the hill. There is a diminutive plural suffix “os”, when appended to “Cern” gives us “Cernos”, The placing of the letter “y” before the word modifies it into “Y Gernos”, meaning the lower side of the hill. In the opinion of J.R. Evans “Y Gernos” has been incorrectly spelt by some as the “Gurnos”.  I tend to agree with J.R. Evans over the centuries it’s possible the word has been corrupted either by incorrect spelling or pronunciation. On the site of Gurnos Housing Estate once stood the “Gurnos” farm whose name aptly describing its location.

Gurnos Farm by Penry Williams. Photo courtesy of

Charles Wilkins in his History of Merthyr Tydfil calls the farm “Gyrnos” and gives it derivation as “Carn-nos” (carn, a heap of stones; nos, night), signifying “Night Watch Beacon” stating that it may have reference to the warfare day of the district. You the reader must make up your own mind on the explanations for the Welsh word “Gurnos”. I concur that Charles Wilkins reference is a romanticised version while J.R.Evans interpretation has more of a down to earth explanation.

These differing points of view reminded me of a television series, “The Dragon Has Two Tongues”, where Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, and Professor Gwyn Alf Williams gave their own passionate satire about Wales.

Romans in Merthyr

I’m sure most people have heard of the Roman Fort at Penydarren, but how many of us know that much about it?

The first evidence of Roman occupation at Penydarren, was discovered in 1786 by workmen building Penydarren House for Samuel Homfray, owner of the Penydarren Ironworks. The site for the house (near the present day Penydarren Park) had lain undisturbed for centuries, and as the workmen began digging the foundations for the house, they firstly discovered a number of Roman bricks, and when these were cleared, they revealed a beautiful tessellated pavement made from hundreds of differently shaped and coloured clay cubes. However, no records were kept of what was discovered, but the story was passed down the generations orally, and the story was recorded by Charles Wilkins in his ‘History of Merthyr’ in 1867 – the first book written about Merthyr’s history.

In 1902, plans were made to build a new football ground at Penydarren Park, but before work could begin, a committee was formed to investigate the site. It wasn’t until this excavation that it was discovered that the remains were actually part of a Roman Fort.

Excavations started in September 1902, 200 yards west of Penydarren House. After removing the soil to a depth of about five feet, a hypocaust – a form of Roman under-floor heating was discovered. The hypocaust was connected to the remains of a furnace. Just about 12 yards from the furnace, the excavators found the remains of a brick building and a boundary wall. The remains of a Roman well were also discovered.

Roman well discovered at Penydarren Park.

Two further excavations were carried out at Penydarren Park in 1957, and the eastern and northern defences of the fort were discovered. The eastern defences consisted of ‘two outer ditches and a rampart of clay with a rubble core, based upon a cobble foundation’. The northern rampart was of a similar design. At the north-eastern corner of the fort, the rampart was preserved to a height of five feet, its rubble core composed of large boulders, probably used as reinforcement for the corner. Within the rubble core a ten-inch stone-lined post-hole was found which indicated the existence of a timber angle tower.

The actual plan and dimensions of the fort are not known, but if we go by other typical Roman fort designs of the period; and assume the well found in 1902 was centrally placed within the fort, and a square outline is also assumed, then the dimensions would have been in the region of about 500 feet square across the rampart crests, and would have covered an area of almost 5¾ acres.

Plan of the Penydarren Roman Fort

But when was it built? The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales states:

“The dateable material is almost all early and clearly indicates that the fort was founded by Frontinus in the period 74-78 AD. It does not appear to have been held for very long. Recent re-examination of the pottery evidence indicates that occupation continued during the first third of the second century but no later.”

Pottery recovered from the site points to an early foundation for the original timber fort, very likely during the governorship of Julius Frontinus, which was replaced by stone fort around the turn of the second century. The bath-house which was discovered outside the fort’s southern defences is probably contemporary with the rebuilding of the fort itself, but the latest pottery recovered from the site is Trajanic, which suggests that the site may have been abandoned in the Hadrianic period and its garrison removed to man the northern defences of the province.

As we speak archaeological excavations organised by the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust are in progress around Merthyr, so who knows what further secrets may be revealed?

Photo and plan courtesy of Old Merthyr Tydfil (

For more information about the Romans in Merthyr, check out the link below: