Merthyr Memories: Merthyr’s Cinemas – part 2

by Kenneth & Christine Brewer

The biggest and most popular cinema in Merthyr was the Castle Cinema. It was very grand with a large foyer with a café and lounge upstairs. Inside the auditorium were three tiers of seats, and at the back there was a section that was partitioned off by glass so that you could watch (but not hear) the film whist you were waiting to go in.

The cinema was managed by Mr Cyril Smith, and the commissionaire was Vines Perry. The Castle also had a magnificent organ which would rise out of the floor, and the resident organist was Gene Lynne.

The Castle Cinema organ with Gene Lynne.  Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

The Castle was owned by ABC Cinemas (Associated British Cinemas), and on a Saturday morning they would have the ABC Minors – a cinema club with special showings for children. At the beginning of each Saturday morning session, the “ABC Minors Song” would be played to the tune of ‘Blaze Away’, whilst the lyrics were shown on the screen with a bouncing red ball above the words to help the audience keep the place.

The Palace Cinema, which was in Pontmorlais (where the car park near Flooks is now), was smaller than the Castle. It only had two tiers of seating, but it too had a café upstairs. The manager at the Palace was a Mr Jones who was always smartly dressed in a black suit and a dickie-bow. The Palace was a very popular cinema, but the lasting memory is that in the winter it was always freezing cold there, so there would always be a scramble to sit near the radiator.

The Palace Cinema

Also on the High Street, just a few doors up from the Castle Cinema, was the Electric Cinema. This was the oldest cinema in Merthyr, and by the 1940’s it was quite dilapidated and had a bit of a reputation – its nick-name was ‘The Bug-House’. I (Ken) only ever went there once when I was quite young. I had asked my mother to take me to see a George Formby film (I don’t recall which one), and when we got to Merthyr (from Abercanaid), the only cinema that was showing it was the Electric. My mother didn’t want to go there, but I finally persuaded her – but only on the understanding that I never told anyone that we went to the Electric!!!!!

The Electric Cinema. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

The Theatre Royal and the Temperance Hall were also used for theatrical performances as well as being cinemas.

The Theatre Royal was also quite grand – it also had two tiers of seating, with a standing area at the back…..not glassed in this time though. Every Christmas there was a Pantomime there – I (Ken) remember seeing Cinderella starring Ronnie Ronalde (the yodelling music hall star) as Dandini and the radio stars Clapham and Dwyer as the Ugly Sisters.

The Temperance Hall also put on plays – it even had its own repertory company. One of the junior leads was Pamela Mant who left the company to play Christine Archer in ‘The Archers’. Another regular at the Temperance Hall was Pat Phoenix who went on to star as Elsie Tanner in ‘Coronation Street’. When you went to see a film at ‘The Temp’, you had to be careful where you sat. Some of the seats downstairs were behind the pillars supporting the balcony, so you would be forever dodging from side to side to see the screen. Also, one of the rows of seats was quite rickety, and if you weren’t careful, you would find the whole row falling backwards…..with you on it!!!!

The Temperance Hall. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Of the other cinemas in Merthyr, the only others I (Ken) visited were the Oddfellows Hall and the Victoria in Dowlais – this was because the queues in Merthyr were so long that we caught the bus to Dowlais to watch the films instead. I only visited each of them once. I remember the Oddfellows Hall was quite big, but a bit old fashioned, and I particularly remember the Victoria because when you entered the auditorium, you came in from under the screen. I had never seen that before.

The Oddfellows Hall (left) and the Victoria Cinema (right)

Those days were poorer, but simpler times, but we were far more contented, and it is sad that all of the history of those days is being washed away.

Merthyr Memories: Merthyr’s Cinemas – part 1

by Kenneth & Christine Brewer

In the decade or so following the Second World War, cinema took hold in Britain in a big way. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true nonetheless that people loved the all the Hollywood glamour and escapism that the films provided to take their minds off the austerity of post-War Britain.

Merthyr was no exception – going to the cinema became one of the big attractions in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Such was the demand that at one time Merthyr had eleven cinemas – five in town (The Castle, The Palace, The Electric, The Theatre Royal and the Temperance Hall); two in Dowlais (The Oddfellows Hall and The Victoria); one each in Penydarren (The Cosy); Troedyrhiw (The Picture Palace); Aberfan (The Electric) and Treharris (The Palace).

The Castle Cinema in the 1970’s. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Going to the cinema in those days was a real night out. As well as the main feature, you would be treated to a ‘B’-movie (usually a Western from memory), a news-reel, a cartoon and adverts for forthcoming films. The news-reel footage made a huge impact – we only saw the news in newspapers or heard about it on the wireless, but seeing the pictures on the big screen really brought things home to us. I (Ken) particularly remember my grandmother being very upset and having to leave the cinema when they showed news-reel footage of the liberation of Belsen. Everything was on a continuous loop – there were no showings once or twice a day…the cycle would start at a certain time (‘B’-movie, news, cartoon, adverts, main feature), and would continue non-stop until closing time.

You could also have an ice-cream in the intermission as a treat. These were sold by the usherettes. They were a big part of the cinema going experience, they would show you to your seats, and woe-betide you if you misbehaved – you would have the usherette’s torch shining on you within minutes. Repeat offenders would be asked to leave!!!!

Quite often, after the last showing of the evening, you would emerge from the cinema and the town would be crowded with people coming from other cinemas all hurrying for buses to make their way home.

Forthcoming films were advertised in the Merthyr Express, and people would also turn out in droves to see their favourite stars. In the 1940’s the big stars were Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Clarke Gable etc. The big matinée idol at the time was Robert Taylor, and the pin-up girl was Rita Hayworth.

Robert Taylor and Rita Hayworth

When there was a ‘big’ film it wouldn’t be unusual to see people queuing around the block to get in. The ones that were particularly memorable were ‘The Robe’ at the Theatre Royal and ‘Quo Vadis’ at the Castle. The biggest queues however were for the re-release of ‘Gone with the Wind’ in the late 1940’s  (the original release was during the war) at the Castle Cinema – the queues stretched as far as the eye could see.

How times have changed, all of these cinemas have closed, and all but the Theatre Royal and Temperance Hall have been demolished. For many years, Merthyr didn’t have a cinema at all until the Vue Cinema complex was opened at Rhydycar. It’s not the same – the glamour and excitement have all but disappeared.

To be continued……

Joseph Williams – ‘Y Tyst’

by Carl Llewellyn

Joseph Williams was born at St Clears, Carmarthen, and came to Merthyr as a boy in 1842 to be apprenticed to his cousin Rees Lewis as a bookbinder. After serving his apprenticeship, he left Merthyr and went into business as a grocer at Llangattock. In 1872 he bought the printing business of Mr Thomas Howells (who had died the previous year) in Glebeland Street, which formed part of the block of buildings erected for Merthyr Express.

He continued at the premises for a few years before moving to other premises in Glebeland Place, extending his offices and putting in new machinery which helped with the journal publications. Some time after moving to the new premises, Williams took over the printing and publishing of the Welsh Congregational Newspaper. The newspaper had previously been published in Liverpool from its inception in 1864 under the title “Y Tyst Cymreig” (The Welsh Witness) then at Dolgellau, under the name of “Y Tyst a’r Dydd” (The Witness and the Day), but in the year 1892 the latter part of the title was dropped and it became known as “Y Tyst”.

Joseph Williams’ ‘Tyst’ Office in Glebeland Place

Joseph Williams also published two monthly periodicals – the religious magazine “Cenad Hedd” (Messenger of Peace) from 1880, and “Cronicl Cenhadol” (The Missionary Chronicle) established in 1897, recording the work done in the foreign mission field by the London Missionary Society, both magazines were well known throughout the Welsh Independent denomination.

He was a life-long teetotaller, and from his earliest years in Merthyr Tydfil was closely associated with the temperance organisations which came into being in later years. Notably he was indentified with the well known society “Cymmrodorion Dirwestol” a literary society devoted to the preservation of the Welsh language, his connection enabling him to render great service to Welsh literature. He was for many years a most zealous and efficient secretary of “Cymmrodorion Dirwestol”, and in that capacity he had a good deal to do with the promotion and production of the long series of successful Eisteddfodau held at the Temperance Hall on Christmas Day.

In religion Mr Williams was a Congregationalist. He was a member of Zoar Chapel, until 1850 when Joseph Williams with 59 other members of the chapel transferred themselves to Ynysgau, due to the demise of the minister Rev T. B. Evans, who’d lost the respect of his congregation through his persistent indulgence in intoxicating liquors. As a result Ynysgau Chapel almost became extinct. With the influx of members from Zoar, the congregation began to increase, giving the chapel a new lease of life. Only two of the 60 members of Zoar remained at Ynysgau – Joseph Williams and William Powell. Joseph Williams never coveted office or position, but his remarkable faithfulness to the church won him the foremost positions in Ynysgau Chapel – where he was prepared to lead others were willing to follow. In 1875 he was elected a deacon; he became the chapel treasurer from 1880-1892 and he also became the Sunday school superintendent.

In politics Joseph Williams was a Liberal and was ardent in the maintenance of his principles. He was regarded not to be extreme or bigoted, or self-opinionated in the slightest degree. He was a fair minded man ready to hear the other side, and meet it with kindly discussion. Through being an active member of the Nonconformist Committee he was co-operated in the political organisation of the Liberal party in Merthyr Tydfil.

In 1899 Ynysgau Chapel celebrated the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the cause plus the clearance of Chapel debt. The chairmanship was given to Joseph Williams who gave an account of his connection with the church during his 50 year membership, and he called upon his son D. D. Williams to read out a very ably written history of Ynysgau Chapel from its establishment.

Joseph Williams died in July 1903, and at his funeral service at Ynysgau Chapel was remembered as a naturally able man, and his acquaintance with Welsh literature was extensive. He possessed a large amount of knowledge which was very accurate, and was a man of sound judgement, an upright character and a credit to the community.

Merthyr Express – 22 July 1903

Merthyr Poverty

When looking at Merthyr’s history, it is sometimes easy to forget the crippling poverty that afflicted a lot of people in the town. Below is an article that appeared in the Merthyr Telegraph 139 years ago today about a group of local dignitaries who tried to alleviate the situation….

28-12-1877
Merthyr Telegraph – 28 December 1877