THE BUILDING INDUSTRY IN THE UPPER SWANSEA VALLEY
AND ITS ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL RAMIFICATIONS, c.1750/1975,
By R.O. Roberts and J. Elizabeth Hall.
Published by Edwin Mellen Press, 2000
This is a review by Paul Reynolds of Swansea which appeared in the Morgannwg journal, volume 45 in 2001
"In 1972 C.I.L. Homes Ltd, a building firm of Caergwrle, near Wrexham, approached the Department of Economics in the then University College of Swansea with a request for a history of their subsidiary, David Davies & Son of Alltwen, Pontardawe. The project, which might have appeared rather daunting, given the almost complete lack of original records from before 1947, was undertaken by R.O. Roberts, at the time a senior lecturer in the department. Funds from C.I.L. Homes made it possible to employ Elizabeth Hall as his research assistant. The first draft was completed in 1975, but by that time Davies & Son had virtually ceased trading and so for over twenty years the manuscript languished unpublished. Eventually the Edwin Mellen Press stepped in and undertook publication as part of their series, 'Welsh Studies'. The original version has been updated where necessary, including considerable changes made during 1997 and 1998.
Davies & Son were based in Alltwen. Whilst some contracts were undertaken farther afield, the bulk of their work was carried out within the upper Swansea Valley, which for present purposes is taken to be the former rural districts of Pontardawe and Ystradgynlais. Thus the first two chapters of the book start by giving an account of the economic development of this district and its industrial history. To approach the central theme from a distance, as it were, is valuable, since an appreciation of the activities of Davies & Son is greatly enhanced by an understanding of the milieu within which they operated, and of the historical conditions which led to the demand for their services.
The third and fourth chapters look at the factors which influenced this demand for housing within the district and how it was met, considering in particular changes in the size and composition of the population and their ability to invest in housing and other items of social capital. The role of friendly societies and building societies as a source of funding is examined. A period of particularly rapid population growth occurred in the first decade of the twentieth century, associated with the expansion of the anthracite industry. At the same time it was coming to be accepted that local authorities had a responsibility to ensure that the housing stock within their areas met acceptable standards and was adequate for the demand. Both Pontardawe and Ystradgynlais started to build houses from about 1910: they were intended for 'the most self-respecting work people' and commanded a weekly rent that was very high by the levels of the day. The basement-dwellers of Ystalyfera were not considered to be desirable tenants: they were expected to benefit from the 'trickle-down effect' by moving into properties vacated by the tenants of the new council houses.
Finally, having fully described the historical context within which the firm operated, in the last chapter the authors focus on the Davies family and their building activities. Much of the early history of the company is based on oral evidence supplied by individuals who had been connected with the firm. With its registration as a limited company in 1946 some original records start to become available. The business was founded by Henry Davies in 1875. After serving his apprenticeship he had been foreman-carpenter on the construction of Tabernacl chapel, Morriston. In later life he was said to have been thrifty to the point of stinginess, allegedly going so far as to collect and straighten old nails for further use. The business passed to his nephew, David Davies, in 1908. He began in a small way, building just a few houses a year, but after World War I he obtained regular and frequent housing contracts from the two local councils. This type of work remained a mainstay of the business for the next fifty years, although it also carried out various other projects, including civil engineering contracts, industrial buildings, and chapels. The nature and location of all the known contracts are listed with their dates and values. In 1972 all the shares of D. Davies & Son (Builders) were sold to C.I.L. Plumbing and Heating Ltd and by 1975 the firm had ceased trading. The book comes to rather an abrupt end without giving any explanation of the circumstances that led to this, one of the few places where its origins in the early 1970s are betrayed.
In the absence of a full set of company records the authors have inevitably had to depend on other sources. In particular, they have used the annual reports of the Medical Officers of Health for the two authorities to good effect. They have also made themselves fully aware of the secondary literature, and their sources are meticulously listed in footnotes to each chapter and in a separate 'Sources of information'. The student of any aspect of the history of the district will find much of value here. The book will also serve as a template for other researchers who wish to investigate the provision of housing within their locality, since the methodology is of general application.
The standard of production is high. I failed to notice any typographical errors, stylistic solecisms, or verbal infelicities. The case binding is sturdy, although how well the predominantly white cloth will last before it becomes discoloured remains to be seen. The paper is of good quality and - blessed relief! - it is not glossy. This, combined with the generously spaced lines, results in a book which is easy on the eye. It is unfortunate, however, that the publishers chose to issue it with stabbed binding, rather than sewn in sections, since as a result the book will not lie flat when it is open. It is also unfortunate that the price has had to be pitched so high. Nearly £40 for less than 200 pages will deter many who would enjoy the book and benefit from reading it."
Paul Reynolds, Swansea