Merthyr Memories: Cyfarthfa School part 1

by Mary Owen

The classroom where I taught in Cyfarthfa High School (Castle site) was at the back, looking on to an area, darkly shaded by old trees. They had been planted circa 1824 when the mock-Gothic edifice, Cyfarthfa Castle, was built by William Crawshay, the ironmaster of the Cyfarthfa works. Less than a century later the family and iron-making disappeared from Merthyr Tydfil and their magnificent, unwanted home became a grammar school.

In the 1970s, when I was appointed to teach French at Cyfarthfa, by then a comprehensive school, one of those old trees became a particular favourite of mine and I admired it often as I glanced, or even took some time to gaze, at the shady woodland scene, just outside the window of Room 15: it was a cedar of Lebanon, the tree that indicates that the landowner, who paid for it was seriously wealthy. In quiet moments in that room I would muse on the Mediterranean land, from which the tree had sprung and of the time when the millionaire owner had bought it and many other specimens of exotic trees and plants. These had been transported, at great expense, to Merthyr Tydfil, his ugly, industrial town, for the beautification of his estate. Thanks to those past extravagances we had the most wonderful – looking school, a grey stone turreted castle, with lawns and a lake in front of it and well- established trees and gardens all around.

Cyfarthfa Castle in 2013

My north-facing room was dark and the ceiling strip – lights were often switched on to lighten and brighten it. In the well-used fashion of making the classroom a pleasant place in which the pupils can learn and where the teacher can impart knowledge, I made sure that the walls of the dingy room were colourfully decorated with scenes relating to France: pictures of famous buildings and work that the pupils had spent time creating in class or at home. As time passed the walls of the room were pinned with a collage of memorabilia, which gave great delight to me and, I hope, to the children, entrusted to me. Some of my own postcards were there – of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Mona Lisa; a map of France was in the place of honour in the centre of the back wall and it was mounted by two crossed ‘Tricolore’ flags. These had been drawn, painted and cut out by some enthusiastic pupils in break times. They had tried not to forget that Mrs Owen had said “ the colours of the French flag are blue, white and red (bleu, blanc, rouge), in that order from the flagpole, not red, white and blue. You must get it right.” There were wine bottle – labels, cheese – box labels, Orangina advertisements, photographs of the annual 24- hour, autumn trip to Boulogne, with many pupils and several teachers and where, if my allotted group of eight pupils could order their drinks in good French at the first café stop up in the old quarter of the town, I paid the bill; there was Richard Probert’s print of the Sacré-Coeur, bought especially for our classroom, on his and his brother Michael’s family trip to Paris. They would not forget it in a hurry because their Aunty Norma’s handbag, with her money and passport in it, was stolen in that beautiful white basilica, overlooking the city.

Another aunty had been snapped colourfully for posterity by her eager nephew, Owain Rowlands, as she was eating her way through a huge dish of ‘moules’. She was in the restaurant of the Hôtel de la Plage in the harbour town of Dieppe. This town featured in the Longman’s textbook, which was the basis of French language learning in Mid-Glamorgan schools. Aunty Jean was not to know then that she would be up there on the wall in our classroom, eating those mussels for many years to come. She was a French teacher and she had entered into the spirit of the family trip with gusto. The photos were rushed to school at the end of the holiday and there in front of us were the hotel, the town hall, the church, the swimming pool, the harbour in Dieppe and Jean eating those mussels – more visual aids for learning the ten French words of vocabulary that were expected to be known at the end of each chapter. La plage, le port, l’hôtel, l’hôtel de ville, i.e. the town-hall, surmounted with two crossed French flags etc… And so it went on until the end of the book and there were always creative hands, ready to change the scene a bit and to add an item about France and the French language to our décor. There was a notice, written carefully in good, correct French, announcing to all that Mrs Owen’s favourite character in Coronation Street was Mike Baldwin and her favourite television programme was Only Fools and Horses.

One chapter was about clothes. The required new points of grammar were introduced and the ten words for articles of clothing were there, to be learned through looking, listening, saying, repeating, writing, drawing and even singing. And of course there were volunteers for drawings of shirts, trousers, blouses, skirts, dresses, shoes, socks, macs and hats. Teaching French, especially in the first years to children of eleven and twelve, some at the start of even becoming clever linguists is a delight. One amongst several of these, was Sharon Rogers, who found it so easy to master the tricky French ‘r’ sound as soon as she heard it. It usually took a great deal of practice.

To be continued……….

Merthyr’s Chapels: Bethesda Chapel

Over the years, Merthyr has been home to over 120 chapels, and they became one of the mainstays of life in the town. Every month I would like to post a history of a different chapel. Let’s start with one of the most famous of Merthyr’s chapels – Bethesda Welsh Independent Chapel.

Bethesda Chapel

In 1807, the minister at Zoar Chapel, Rev Daniel Lewis, embarked on a visit to London and other large towns to solicit gifts of money from sympathetic benefactors to help clear the debts at Zoar Chapel.

Even though this was the custom at the time, some members of the congregation took exception to the trip and to the expenses incurred by the minister, and instigated an investigation into the affair by senior ministers from surrounding areas. When the investigation exonerated Rev Lewis, his accusers, unhappy with the outcome, left to start their own church.

The congregation originally met in an upstairs room of a smithy near the spot where Salem Chapel now stands in Newcastle Street, and called it Philadelphia. After two years larger premises were necessary and the congregation moved to another blacksmith’s forge between Zoar Chapel and the Morlais Brook and called it Beth-haran.

It was while they were at Beth-haran that the congregation extended an invitation to Rev Methusalem Jones to come and preach at their small meeting. He eventually became their minister and the congregation decided to build their own chapel. They obtained a piece of land on a lease from Mr W Morgan, Grawen, for £5 per annum rent. They built the chapel at the start of 1811, and Rev Jones licensed it at Llandaff court on 23 July 1811.

Under the guidance of Methusalem Jones the congregation had grown from 90 to almost 300, thus a larger chapel was needed, and a new chapel was built in 1829 at a cost of £1,002. Whilst under Rev Methusalem Jones’ ministry, Bethesda became mother church to many other chapels including:- Bethania, Dowlais; Saron, Troedyrhiw; Ebenezer, Cefn Coed; Salem, Heolgerrig. Rev Methusalem Jones continued to minister to the congregation at Bethesda until his death on 15 January 1839 at the age of 71.

Following Rev Jones death, Rev Daniel Jones was invited to become Bethesda’s minister in 1840. At the time that Daniel Jones became minister, there was an influx of people coming to Merthyr from Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire seeking work in the various iron works; as Daniel Jones was known in those counties, a large number of the people coming to Merthyr started going to Bethesda Chapel thus greatly increasing the congregation.

Two years after becoming the minister however, Rev Jones had to have his right arm amputated, but because of the support and kindness he received from the congregation, he made a swift recovery and continued to preach at Bethesda until he left in 1855 to join the Anglican church.

It was at this time that the world famous composer Dr Joseph Parry was a member of Bethesda Chapel. He attended the chapel with his family until he emigrated to America in 1854. Indeed, Dr Parry’s mother, Elizabeth, had been working for Rev Methusalem Jones as a maid in her youth, and moved with him to Merthyr when he became the minister at Bethesda.

Following Daniel Jones departure, Bethesda was without a minister for three years, but the cause continued to flourish, and it was at this time that a number of members of Bethesda started a new cause at Gellideg Chapel.

By the late 1870’s it was decided to build a larger and more comfortable chapel, and on 24 June 1880 the foundation stone was laid by Mrs W T Crawshay, wife of William Crawshay the owner of Cyfarthfa Ironworks.  The architect was Mr John Williams of Merthyr and the builder was Mr John Francis Davies of Dowlais. The chapel was completed in 1881 at a cost of £1,200.

Following its closure due to a diminishing congregation in 1976, Bethesda Chapel was used as an arts centre for several years. The building then began to fall into dereliction until it was finally decided to demolish the building in 1995.

The site of Bethesda Chapel has now been landscaped and a mosaic by Oliver Budd based on a painting by the renowned local artist and historian Mr Dewi Bowen has been erected as a memorial to the chapel.


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….

Merthyr Telegraph – 28 December 1877