Old Characters of the Parish of Bettws
The following commentary has been selectively extracted from the book " Old Characters of the Parish of Bettws " written in 1894 by D Trumor Thomas , who lived in Glanamman , and translated from the original Welsh by Mr Ivor Griffiths. The rights of both author and translator are fully acknowledged.
The book is fascinating , not only for the author's comments on C19th Bettws, but also for the fact that they were actually written over 100 years ago and say a lot about social attitudes then too.
To observe the old characters in a more clear light we shall observe them in the following chapters;--- Domestically, Socially , Industrially , Culturally , Morally and Religiously.
They lived in low dwellings roofed with rushes or straw, with plain doors, narrow entrances, and small windows (in the poorer house ,of wooden slats),which gave less than a quarter of enough light to the rooms. Some of these houses still stand today -- monuments to the old craft work in days gone by.
They fed , not on perpetual tea as they do today ,to cause toothache , constipation and consumption(these ailments were unknown in the country at that time) ,but on natural food products(home produced) like cawl , vegetables, meat, bread, barley and oats, and sometimes mixed bread of barley and wheat,
It is said that some of them would go to their graves taking much less of the doctor's medicines than we do today, still having all their teeth like ivory in their mouths, and at the good old age of between 80 and 100 years.
As a rule they were humbly dressed. The wasteful plague of conceited fashion which changed with every change of the moon did not visit our country in those days. They made their clothes from homespun woollen cloth made in the old ways.
For the men, breeches buckled at the knees above black woollen stockings, a cloak with a back piece, tall hat on a Sunday or fair day. For the women, a petticoat and Welsh dress, a cap and tall hat (the old Welsh costume). Among the more esteemed families, the women bought a device to place under their boots to go out in the wet called
'Patins' - possibly a corruption of the word 'Patents'. The patin was a circle of iron with a means of fixing it under the sole of the boot to keep the foot dry when walking in a wet or muddy place. They have not been in use for over 50 years. Generally, around the house, the parents wore wooden clogs, and their children were raised barefooted.
Socially, the old folks addressed each other by common names such as Dick; Tom; Shoni; Will; Dai, etc. ,instead of Richard; Thomas; John; William; David etc, and Malen; Peggy; Bess; Catti; Nani, etc. ,instead of Mary; Margaret; Elizabeth; Catherine; Ann, etc.
They also called their dwelling houses with a few exceptions, by the name of the occupants and not by their original names, such as Ty Dai Shon Dafydd on Gelliceidrym; Ty Wat Harri on Cwmgarnant; Ty Shon Dafydd Harri on Nantyricet, and 1 believe that is how Tir Eleanor Morgan first got its name - a name that has remained to this day.
They also gave names to their animals, such as cattle with names like Penfrith; Penwen; Shoncen; Pincen; Moelen, etc .
The general custom of courting among the young would be in the houses, and not out on the roads, standing about and often catching colds as they do at present. The young woman would open the door for her suitor so that he could come in to converse on their feelings. Very often, mischievous boys would play tricks in connection with the courtship arrangements. Sometimes when another jealous boy wished to speak to the girl, he would play a trick on the one inside by placing something to rest against the door so that it would fall in when the door was opened.
If it turned out that the man of the house was harsh and bad tempered, they would often disturb the peace of the courting couple in some way or other, such as placing something against the door so that it would fall in when the door was opened, and then create a tumult to draw the man of the house outside.
On a matrimonial occasion , there would be a great deal of fuss and preparations , especially to bring out the bride. Both sides would do their utmost to obtain original poems or suitable verses to argue the point. The mission from the groom would approach the house and there would be an exchange of recitations each way until she appeared.
The whole company would then rejoice together, and afterwards proceed joyfully towards the church. On horseback, if the families were in comfortable circumstances, otherwise, on foot. In earlier times, all marriage ceremonies were conducted in church.
After the wedding ceremony and the company have returned, the marriage feast takes place during the afternoon and evening with an abundance of food and drink prepared for the guests. Everyone would do their best to enjoy the event in the happiest way with music, songs, and interesting tales, with congratulations and good wishes being delivered to the young pair from all directions.
In this period, a secretary: and a treasurer would be appointed to receive gifts of money to assist the young couple to start their life together. These monetary gifts were called "Pwythion" ,and the amounts varied from 2s to 5s according to the will and ability of the giver. There were two aspects to the 'Pwyth', such as, calling in the old ones that the couple had given to others, and receiving new ones which would have to be repaid in the future. Selling beer was not a privilege in those days, but beer was given and pwythion accepted, therefore there was no danger of punishment for selling beer without a license which has been in force during the last 40 or 50 years.
Some marriages lasted a very long time - over 60 years in some cases .
In their leisure hours the old folks amused themselves by talking about the animals, the fair, the market, the weather, the need for work, and running ,kicking the football, etc., along with tales about the 'little people' ,'Jack o'Lantern' , 'corpse candles' ,etc. ,and telling the amusing happenings of particular persons, like the following:-
About 50 years ago,as a young man was walking down Heol Grenig to visit the gipsies who were camped below Cwarter Coch, he met a strange old character called Twm Alec, Glangrenig. The old man asked him, "Where are you going, lad?"
"To have my fortune read, Uncle Tom, " replied the young man. "Wait a while," said the old man, "I can read your fortune right now. You will live in a world of tribulation, and eat bread by the sweat of your brow. That is more of the truth than you will get from those gypsies, so do not be fooled."
Another was Modryb Gwen's Kettle.
About the beginning of this century, after the arrival of the 'Indian leaf ' to this country, some of the good ladies, in order to receive the latest gossip, were always ready to put the kettle on the fire, and among these was the well known Modryb Gwen(Auntie Gwen). But, her kettle, for some strange reason took a very long time to boil so that the visitors often became tired of waiting. The result was that it became a by-word when a kettle took a long time to boil that it was like "Tecitl Modryb Gwen" (Auntie Gwen's kettle).
Another was "The beer from above.".
During election time, J. Jones (Shon, Nantmain) acted as Tory supporter or agent - apparently because his landlord was a Tory. Once, during the Conservative meetings and canvassing when the beer flowed freely without any demand for payment, Shon was asked where the drinks came from? The answer was -- "From above ,drink up boys.". J.J . was considered a fine farmer, and a fairly humorous man. He died in 1892,aged 88 years.
Mr W. Jones (Will Jonath) of the "Butcher's Arms" was regarded as a skilled storyteller in the old fashion. He died on August 3rd 1894 aged 91 years, and was a by-word for his humour; and he always sealed his sayings with "Yes , that is quite true" .
The main work, yes ,in fact ,the general labour of the old folks was farming; and often at the marriage feast , the harvesting ,the cobbler's shop, the blacksmith's forge, the fair, and the market, you would hear them boasting of their accomplishments with the plough, the threshing flail, the sickle or the scythe.
Although under many disadvantages with the old wooden plough, etc. ,and when ingenuity was in its infancy or far from present day perfection, I venture to say --if only on the foundation of traces of old ridges still standing today on fields in various parts of the parish -that there was a lot more ploughing and labouring on the land in those days than at present.
Perhaps the low price of flour is partly to account for this, and also the desire of smallholders to earn money by conveying commodities along the roads, and sending their children to the collieries and the tin-plate works, etc.
By today, the threshing flail is almost silent, and the reaping sickle has completely disappeared from the fields. In earlier times it was not unusual to see 15 to 20 sickles handled by young girls and boys in the same field during harvesting, when all the local people would gather together to cut and bind a field in one day or even a few hours. This would be followed by a 'reaping festival' with a feast of food and beer and harmless games.
The rule was, to assist each other during the fine weather of the harvest. The scythe is fast giving way to the "harvesting machine " that by today there are not many of our more responsible farmers who have not already purchased a machine and using it with amazing efficiency. In the early days, being a good reaper was one of the chief ambitions of farming youngsters ,and it is true to say that occasionally a man would reach an extreme perfection in that direction
It was a wonderful sight to see four, five, or six of the most famous of the old reapers in the field, competing with each other and walking along with their sweeping scythes. The manner of walking with the scythe was part of the skill of a good reaper of Bettws.
I believe that the old characters were very neighbourly, and also brave in the face of misfortune and stormy weather. Such as, when a poor man would lose a cow or a pig, they would at once come to his assistance.
To forecast the weather before the advent of the weather glass the old people would study various signs ,such as signs for
Job's sheep(scattered clouds) would be in the sky and the swallows would be flying low near the ground; frogs would be a grey-black colour; the sun setting under a cloud with its redness disappearing to the South; a ring around the moon; the top of Turcan wearing its cap(of clouds),etc. I heard an old saying of theirs -- "Rain from Swansea will last as long as the day."
The swallows flying high; the frog a yellow colour; the sun setting red, with the redness rising and disappearing to the North; Mynydd Du without a cloud kissing its summit ,etc. They also paid great attention to the direction of the wind.
As the parish of Bettws is geographically at the centre of the anthracite coalfield, under the greater part of it can be found a dozen seams, the widest being the Red Seam at 4'10".
No wonder that the old characters were keen to search for the hidden treasure. Tradition has it that Hwliwn and Maliwn were the first coalminers in Bettws,and that they were established in the upper part of (Cwmamman). Whatever the truth of this, there are traces of the work of the old people before the time of Martin; Perkins; Arthur; Morgan, and the later coalmasters sinking innumerable pits here, there, and everywhere in the upper district of the big 'Grenig' fault as far as Garnant, and also down - although not so numerous -- from Grenig to Cathan.
The method used by the old fathers when the journey became too long to drag the coal out was to sink another pit about 15 to 20 yards deep ahead of the work, and raise the coal by a rope and winder.
The well know colliery on Brynlloi worked coal as far back as 1757. It was worked by means of a canal that went into the bowels of the earth, and the coal was brought out in a boat built of oak, the remains of which can still be seen in the loft of the cowshed at Brynlloi to this day.
It measures 14 feet in length by four feet wide, and two feet 3 inches in depth.
When the old colliery was re-opened at the beginning of 1862 by Mr Henry Richards of Brynamman, the measurements of Mr Watkin William. ,manager of the Brynamman collieries put the length of the canal at 640 links, going directly South; the width at 4 feet 4 inches, with about 5 feet 6 inches of headroom, and the sides cut upright like walls. At the far end of the canal there was an 'incline' 145 links long, rising at a grade of about 1 foot per yard until it reached the coal bed. It appears that the coal was allowed to descend over the incline in a 'dray' or small cart, by a rope or light chain from a winder which was at the top. The coal was worked by the old method of pillar and stall, with a bank on one side. It all revealed the skill and effort of the old underground workers , considering the disadvantages of the period.
Another colliery that was quite well known for a while was Pwll Jonathan. This stood above Twllgwyn on Bettws Mountain. It was sunk around 1815 to the Red Seam by Jonathan Morgan and produced coal for the next few years.
One strange thing was the method used by the old men which was described to the late Roger Rees, Gorslydan. When sinking through rock, their rule was to make a hole to a certain depth, then place powder in its base, then pack earth and stamp hard on it leaving a wire hole .
The wire would then be pulled out and powder poured in its place with a little powder spread around the top of the hole, and away they would go. On reaching the surface they would throw half a shovelfull of hot coals from a nearby brazier down the hole, and the blast would go off without delay.
Here again the coal was raised by a winder turned by big young men, the giants of those early days.
The coal was transported from the works in panniers on the backs of horses. This was before wheeled vehicles had become familiar in our country. I believe this is the reason for the many narrow roads - our forefathers intended them to be only wide enough for horse traffic.
The wages at that time was around 10 pence(about 4 new pence) per day.
In connection with the old collieries, the first explosion I have information about in this district happened about 75 years ago, at a colliery on Tirbach, North east of the river Garnant, when three residents of Upper Bettws were severely burnt.
It can be noted that the old craftsmen were exceptionally sincere and tried to get the best materials for their work, as proved by the old furniture and the old dwelling houses with their everlasting heart of oak rafters. It is said that the dwelling known as Brynlloi was built in 1494 and it still stands in its original style with its thick thatched roof kissing the lintel of the door.
There are no details of a shop of any importance in the parish of Bettws before the turnpike road was built in 1817 , and indeed possibly before the opening of the railway through the Amman valley in 1838. With the coming of the steam engine an exceptional trading " thrill " seems to have struck the upper part of the parish and has gradually increased to the present time.
Before this, the old people had to do their trading the fair; market, and town.
Llandeilo was the nearest place, but Swansea and Neath were the most popular in which to sell their goods. There are traces of' the old thoroughfares over the mountain past Hendryd called by the old residents "Ffordd Castellnedd" and "Ffordd Abertawe" indicating the footsteps taken by the old farmers , butchers, and the women and horses etc., in those far off days before there was any mention of "Heol Fawr Cwmgorse" and "Heol Bettws," and nobody had dreamt of a railway.
Although lacking in education and unfamiliar with arithmetic, they could count quickly - often faster than the shopkeeper with his pencil.
There was seldom any legal proceedings in the parish in those early days, because the old folks were so honest and trustworthy to each other. They trusted each other when borrowing and lending £10 or £40 in special circumstances without a scrap of paper to show for it and everything would work out according to the promise.
Under this heading, the most well known in his day was the famous Owen Dafydd,Cwmgrenig. He was a miller by trade, and lived around centre of Cwmgrenig. He came to the fore as a poet, and in this respect he stood among his contemporaries like Saul in the midst of his brothers - shoulder taller than anyone.
He composed many poems, among them " Lament to the five killed in the explosion in Craig Brynmorgan Colliery " in 1812.
There were many other " literary personalities " in the parish, among them were; Thomas Hughes, Ysguborwen; Old Thomas, Brynlloi; William Lewis[Cawr Dar] and his brother George Lewis ; Thomas Edwards[Iorwerth Grenig ] etc
Religion and Morality.
One must admit that the moral and religious appearances of the old characters in the first tales that we have of them was far from perfect to say the least, and no wonder when you consider the lack of education and the superstitions that they possessed.
In those olden days there was nothing except a fraudulent priesthood and a superficial form of service by the Anglican church available.
I understand that one priest, the incumbent at the turn of the century, after the service on Sunday, came out to play ball and drink beer with his listeners.
Once, with Thomas of Argoed as clerk, at the end of the singing, and knowing that his Reverence was not quite sober, and observing that he had seated himself in the pulpit, the clerk went up to him and said, "We have finished." He, only half awake shouted out ,"Send another quart in then.".
From other anecdotes still related locally, it seems his successor, was no better than he was.
The records of Bettws church date back to 1706.
The names of the first churchwardens in the above records were for 1730-- William Rees and Evan Lewis; and for 1731 --- Thomas Jones and Rowland Williams. . At that time they changed them every year.
The record book for that century showed signs of carelessness ,and was fairly untidy, the baptisms, marriages, and deaths all appearing on the same page, and I noticed that in 1728-29 the entries were written in a mixture of Latin and English.
This speaks clearly about the old ecclesiastical character that, although possessing a fine handwriting, and having undoubtedly received the best education available at that time, they were governed by something apart from the dignity related to the office of religious teachers and leaders of the people to a better life.
The Nonconformists began to worship in Brynlloi as early as 1727. It is true that at that time the good cause was only like smoking flax, but the Great Being took care that it was not extinguished, and in 1773,old Bethel was built.
So, the meeting place moved from Bettws to the parish Llandeilo. Bethel was rebuilt in 1826.
The first minister was the Rev. J. Davies , Alltwen, afterwards J. Rowlands (from Llanybri) following the famous Davies, Cwmamman, who came here from Penygraig, Carmarthen in 1835, he was of the chief notables of the Welsh pulpit in his time.
When John Davies first came to stay here, many of the old residents were uneducated and earthly in their thoughts, as shown in the following ;
During this period, newspapers were very uncommon, and the "Haul ("sun") under the editor 'Brutus' was the particular one that came to a small number of families in the parish.
At that time there was quite a tumult between the parties for and against the installation of Davies in Cwmamman, with the "Haul" presenting the testimony of the parishioners.
One day, old W. Jones, Ynysyfrwynen, having heard something about Davies and the "Haul",but
because of his lack of education did not comprehend what the trouble was, informed one of his
friends, "that something was wrong with the sun(haul) and some were talking of sending Davies,Cwmamman, to put it right ".
About 65 years ago, the Rev J .Davies came to visit an elderly man named Shoni Twm o'r Bryn ,
who dwelt in Cwmgrenig, and who happened to be ill at that time. Among other things, theminister asked him if he had heard about Jesus Christ, to which he gave a negative reply, adding
that possibly Catti, his wife might have heard something about him as she often went back and fore to town.
That was the way that many of the old folks lived and reached a ripe old age, receiving very few opportunities for education, or having a taste for it.
There was no regular daily school in those days ,but occasionally someone would keep a school for a quarter or half a year, sometimes a bit more, and then giving up. About 70 years ago, one of these was W. Hopkin, Bodist Ucha, who had a school in one of the Ynystumlyd houses.
Promoting mental and civilised culture, and pillars of the best causes, we can name, among others, the Morgans of Brynlloi; the Edwards of Cwmgrenig; Rees Alexander, Ty'nywern, who was born in 1741 and died in 1807,and afterwards his son D.Alexander who died in 1826 at the age of 46 years; Hopkins, Cwmcathan; William Morris, Penllech, born 1760 and died in 1841;and again his son, David Morris,who died in 1888 at the age of 79 years; the Thomases of Trumyrych who were prominent with the singing at the beginning of this century.
The old folks sang by the old system, and usually depended on their memory, not as we do today - only by the book. The old singers had two or three songs in every measure memorised.
At the beginning of this century the Methodists started a cause in the lower part of the parish,and among the elders can be named William Evans,a weaver,who died in 1835 aged 78 years.;John Morris, Aber-cathan, who died in 1881 aged 68 years; Rees Rees, Ty'nycwm, born 1800,and died in 1887;John Morgan, Tycoch, born 1808,and died in 1886.
Afterwards the Baptists started a cause in the upper part of the parish when William Morgan, Ynysceffyl, gave them a piece of land at Ynystomlyd on a 999 year lease at a 1/- a year, where they built Bethesda in 1843. William Morgan and his wife Gwenllian were a great strength to the cause. They were exceptional for their generosity and hospitality, especially in those early times to itinerant preachers, etc. These old pilgrims did a great deal of good to others at painful expense to themselves.
John Thomas ,Trumyrch,1ed the singing in Bethesda for many years, and was one of the good deacons of the place until 1885 when he died at the age of 69 years. He was ardent over the simplicity of the gospels.
The old fathers were exceptionally zealous and faithful over their religious obligations, especially in the family service. There are many tales of them being unable to close their eyes in sleep without reading some of God's words, and offering an evening prayer.
Among these were Phillip Evans, Cwmgrenig, the father. of the Rev.J.C.Evans, Patagonia. He was an assistant preacher with the Independents and one of the foremost men in the parish. He was killed in an accident about 50 years ago, and was buried by Llandybie church.
He, and others like him , although dead , still speak to us today.