Aberdare Valley a Hundred Years Ago
W HAT was the Aberdare Valley like when the first British School was built? What a great transformation has taken place since that time. Nearly all the population was then collected around the iron works at the head of the Valley, around Hirwaun, Llwydcoed, Abernant, and at the “village” of Aberdare, then generally called “Y Pentre.” Cwmbach began to grow at about 1840, and Aberaman from about 1845, and soon afterwards, Capcoch (or Abercwmboi). Apart from a few houses around the bridge at Mountain Ash, all the rest of the Valley dawn to the Navigation (now called Abercynon), was a beautiful glen, occupied by fields and woods from the bottom of the Valley right up the steep sides of the hills to their summits, with a few farm-houses here and there. For about thirty-five years, the only communication link with Cardiff was the canal.
To convey goods, coal, iron, lime, etc., from Penderyn, Hirwaun and the iron works to the canal, there was established the slow-travelling transport system along the tram-road to the canal-head. There was another tram-road from Hirwaun through Rhigos, the goods then being lowered along an incline to Pont Walby, in the Neath Valley, and carried by the Neath canal to Neath and on to Swansea.
But the Aberdare T.V.R. Railway made a great difference. This was opened in 1846. It commenced at Mill Street (Trecynon), near the old tin works, and joined the T.V.R. at Aberdare Junction (Navigation, or Abercynon), known to the natives as Ynysfeirig. At Aberdare Junction, the train was drawn up the steep Merthyr Valley by means of a strong rope attached to a drum on the top of the hill, worked by a stationary engine. The third-class passengers travelled in open trucks, and opened umbrellas when it rained.
THE WALK TO SCHOOL IN 1848
How strange the Aberdare of to-day would have appeared to the children who trudged through all weathers from the lower end of the Valley to their lessons in the new school. The children from Abernant and Cwmbach would cross the Cynon by means of a narrow iron bridge, and after crossing the Aberdare railway, would walk up the street with houses beginning to be erected on their left (the present Commercial Street). On their right, where we have the level streets of Maesydre, there were then wide fields where hay-making would be carried on in its season. At the top of Commercial Street they would have a narrow wooden bridge to cross the River Dare, which was then a beautiful clear open stream, crossing the little square (Welsh Harp), between the present Woolworth's shop and the rising ground covered with trees, on which St. Elvan's Church was built. The present spacious Victoria Square was then occupied by gardens with narrow paths leading to the cottages on both sides, behind the present shops.
Luscious apples grew on a tree where Caradog's monument now stands. The present Wind Street and High Street were then the main thoroughfares, but very narrow. Near the present Post Office, was the bridge to cross the Dare. On the right was the ancient corn mill, which had ground corn for centuries. Later, it gave way to a woollen factory (which was later converted into a clog and boot and shoe factory). On their left, they would pass the four Alms Houses in Green Fach, built by Eleanor Mathews, of Aberaman, about the year 1720, which stood in the space now leading to Williams's Garage.
The present Town Hall was then the Market Hall, with the Wellington Inn opposite, with but a narrow street between. The old parish church would be seen on their left, surrounded by the unenclosed churchyard, then rapidly filling up, while on their right would be the big shop or warehouse of Mr. Evan Griffiths (now Ty Mawr). Canon Street had not been built in 1848. At the place where Trinity Church now stands, a few houses stood on the very spot along which the street now runs, facing an orchard. These were called “Tai y Berllan,” or “Tai'r Berllan” (i.e. “The Orchard Houses”)
GADLYS IRONWORKS “TRUCK SHOP”
Crossing a little stream skirting the churchyard, they would wend their way (with no railway or Gadlys bridge to cross as at present), past “the Company's shop,” then in the basement of the present Dover Terrace. This was one of the “Truck Shops” organised by the iron-masters (there being another at the foot of Llwydcoed Hill, where the present Shop Houses stand). On their right would be green fields, now occupied by the Gadlys Central School, and beyond were the Gadlys Iron Works. At the foot of Gadlys Trip there were houses known as the Malt Houses (Brewery), and called “Tai'r Bragdy.” They are the tall houses on Gadlys Road, at the foot of Morgan Street.
Passing up the “Gadlys Trip,” which was then much steeper than at present they would pass several thatched cottages, walk under a bridge conveying iron-ore and coal, cross tram lines carrying trains of coal from the Gadlys Colliery to the coal-yard on their right (where we now have the entrance to Gospel Hall Terrace). Further along, on their left, they would pass a row of houses with wooden shutters on their windows, then called “Watchmakers' Row,” and soon would pass through the turnpike gate, and cross the open common to the little school just opened. Beyond their school, to the north, and between the present Mount Pleasant Street and Mill Street, was a field called “Cae Jacki.”
Such was the position in 1848. But soon afterwards, with collieries being sunk in Cwmaman, a village sprang up there, but for another half century, Godreaman remained a series of fertile fields. Soon after 1850, with the sinking of the Deep Duffryn and Navigation Collieries, Mountain Ash commenced to grow.
From a little above Carmel English Baptist Chapel (which was originally the Welsh Chapel called “Penpound”), there were no houses in the Monk Street of that time. Amid green fields, a path zig-zagged up to the top of the Graig Mountain. This path, called “Heol-y-Mynach” (“The Monk’s Road”), had been worn by the countless feet of monks, pilgrims and friars during many centuries, travelling from Penrhys Monastery between the two Rhondda Valleys, on their way to the small monastic cell at Ty-Draw (the ruins of which are now situated inside the grounds of the Aberdare Co-operative Central Offices), where they rested before resuming their journey over Merthyr Mountain to Caerleon or Llantarnam Abbey.
Clifton Street, Pendarren Street, and the streets of Foundry Town, were built on the fields which formed part of the Ynyslwyd Estate, owned by Mr. Jenkin Davies, and his son Griffith Davies, and later by the latter’s son, David Price Davies, J.P. So we have streets named after members of this family, such as: Jenkin Street, Griffith Street, David Price Street, Rachel Street, Davies Town, Ynyslwyd Street, etc.
At this time, there were no ash carts to carry away refuse from the houses. All kinds of rubbish were thrown into the street (if there were no gardens attached). Dirty water, soap-suds, potato peelings, cabbage stumps, bones, etc., were thrown out. No fresh water was available in the homes of the people, and water was obtained from wells, springs and pumps, which were often contaminated. During hot summers, women and children had to queue up with jars (ystên) for long hours to collect water trickling from the rocks. One such spring was to be found behind the present clinic, underneath Clifton Street.
The prevailing overcrowding, accompanied by a lack of pure water, with cess-pools, instead of a proper sewage system, caused the fell disease, cholera, to visit Aberdare in 1849, carrying away scores of people. The effect was somewhat like the plague which wrought such havoc in London.
Hundreds died in Merthyr and Dowlais during the same period. The lack of proper sanitary arrangements in Aberdare caused the Government to hold an inquiry, which led to the election of the first Aberdare Local Board of Health in 1854. Mr. R. H. Rhys, J.P., the blind man of Llwydcoed, was elected on this first Board, and it was he above all others, who “saw” the need for a Park, when those who had the gift of eyesight, wanted to convert it into potato patches.
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