DAVID REES GRIFFITHS
1882 - 1953
by Dr Huw Walters
First published in 'The Carmarthenshire Antiquarian',
Vol. 35, 1999, pages 89-102
Reprinted by kind permission of DR Walters.
One of 52 eisteddfod chairs won by Amanwy for his poetry. This one was for an eisteddfod in nearby Tumble in 1915. The chair is on permanent display in Ammanford library.
The villages of Betws and Cross Inn (later to become known as Ammanford) were two rural and comparatively inaccessible communities in east Carmarthenshire at the turn of the twentieth century. A Guide of 1860 describes Cross Inn as 'a pleasantly situated hamlet on the bank of the Amman river and is environed by some fine trees. The little church of Betws is situated upon the opposite side of the river, and like too many Welsh churches in unfrequented districts, is a very plain edifice, and totally unadorned'. Within a period of fifteen years however, the process of industrialisation in this district was already underway, and new collieries were opened at Cae'rbryn, Betws and Pantyffynnon. The availability of plentiful resources of coal, limestone and water led to the development of the tinplate industry at Pantyffynnon, Ammanford and Tir-y-dail, and employment opportunities afforded by these industrial developments attracted a large number of immigrants from the rural areas of Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire. According to the local correspondent of The Carmarthen Journal, writing in 1890:
To meet the increased demand for accommodation, many homes have of late been built in the village itself and in the neighbourhood. Strenuous efforts should be made at present to accommodate the fresh workmen which, at no distant date will make their appearance among us.
The district also experienced three influxes of immigrants from Glamorganshire in the late 1890s, and it was from amongst these that some of the foremost of the Amman Valley's Labour leaders were to rise. Families from Blaenau Ffestiniog arrived in the area at the same time, and large numbers of slate quarrymen and their families from Bethesda settled in Betws and Ammanford during the Penrhyn Lockout of 1900-1903. Further migration to the area continued, and for the first time a considerable group of English immigrants from Lancashire arrived in the district, following the establishment of the Wigan Coal and Iron Company. Such was the seemingly impregnable strength of the Welsh language in the area at that time, however, that the newcomers rapidly learned Welsh and were soon totally assimilated into the local community. By the early 1890s therefore, the area had become a flourishing centre for the anthracite coal industry with Ammanford as its 'capital' a village which was rapidly developing into a town.
David Rees Griffiths ('Amanwy') was born at the height of these industrial developments on 6 November 1882. He was the fifth child of the ten children born to William and Margaret Griffiths of Betws. His father was a native of the Swansea Valley where he had been apprenticed as a blacksmith to his grandfather at Ystrad-gynlais. He later worked at the ironworks at Ynysgedwyn before moving to Dunvant near Swansea as a railwayman. William Grifftths later became station master at Penclawdd and Llansamlet before he returned to Betws to open his own smithy in 1880. His mother, Susannah Rees of Pontaman, was well known throughout the district as a country herbalist of no mean repute. According to James Griffiths, Amanwy's brother: 'People from miles around would come to her cottage to seek a cure for burns and other ailments. She made a special ointment from what she described as "a mixture of what is in every woman's pantry" and the ointment worked wonders'. This gift was inherited by one of her sons, Jeremiah Griffiths, and there was such a demand for eli Jeri Jeri's ointment, that he resigned from his position as an official at the Emlyn Colliery so that he could devote his time to his herbal interests. Amanwy's mother, Margaret Griffiths, was a native of the parish of Llanddarog. She was a descendant of a family of weavers whose flannel was known to all who visited the fairs at Carmarthen, Llandeilo and Llangyfelach.
The children of yr Efail the Smithy were educated at Betws elementary school, where Amanwy's career was cut short in 1892 when he commenced work at the newly opened Betws Colliery. He recalled several years later: 'I slept but little the night before my big adventure, but I had to hide my tears and roll up my sleeves like every other young lad in the district'. [3 March, 1938] He began his working life at the Betws mine with two experienced colliers -William Evans of Pentwyn, and Rhys Rees of Waunhelyg, and his wages were is 2d a day at a time when five shillings a day was considered a good wage for an experienced collier. But the trade in anthracite was sluggish at this period, and most of the colliers worked for two or three days only. Amanwy left the Betws mine within two years and found employment at another local colliery known as Drifft y Parc. But the working conditions here were far worse than those at Betws:
"If ever there was a Dartmoor of a place for a boy collier, that was Drifft y Parc. It had been opened by a small company with very little resources and less financial backing, by people who had sought to make a quick fortune in the industry. Conditions here were primitive to say the least, and the memories of the slavery we boys endured at Parc y Drifft have left deep scars on our souls. It was enough to break a youngster's heart, and it must be remembered that colliers in those days were not as careful or as kind to the lads in their care as the colliers of today". [29 January 1953]
If the period Amanwy spent at school was of short duration, he took advantage of the opportunity to acquaint himself with the leaders of the local community, in the chapel and at his home in Betws. It was at yr Efail that the idealistic young men of the district met to discuss the controversial issues of the day, and William Griffiths the blacksmith was himself a keen debater on political and religious matters. As his son, James Griffiths recalled many years later:
"The smithy, was of course, the village parliament, where the local politicians gathered and argued about religion and politics, and the parish council and more distant institutions. My father ruled his parliament with the same iron grip with which he held the colliers' tools. He was a dissenter (Annibynwr) by denomination and a Radical in politics. His heroes were Gladstone, Tom Ellis and David Lloyd George in that order. The village parliamentarians were sustained by the two radical weeklies Llais Llafur [Labour's Voice] and Tarian y Gweithiwr [The Workers' Shield]. One of the backbenchers would read the editorials to the 'House' and then the debate would continue until the last tool had been tempered and the 'House' stood adjourned. I cannot recall a single division taking place in my time the smith would sum up and that was that."
The custom of tramping, or migrating from one coal mining district to the other was a common feature among miners of the south Wales coalfield in the second half of the nineteenth century. Having gained some experience in the comparatively small mines of the anthracite coalfield, some of the younger, single miners sought employment in the more developed collieries of Gwent and Glamorgan. And early in 1900 Amanwy together with two of his friends left the anthracite coalfield to work in the steam coal valleys of Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire, and they spent some time at Llanhiddel, Abertyleri and Abercarn. Here Amanwy became friendly with several miners who had been quarrymen in Llanberis, north Wales, but who had settled in Abertyleri during the Penrhyn Quarry Strike, and it was here too, that he became acquainted with T. Jacob Thomas ('Sarnicol') the poet and litterateur from Cardiganshire, who was his Sunday school teacher in one of the local chapels. Those were happy days' according to Amanwy. 'Regular work with a good wage in the Six Bells Colliery, and enough passion in the blood to live life to the full though Abertyleri was hardly the place for an innocent young man from Carmarthenshire in those days'. [8 October, 1942] However, he and his companions returned to Betws within a few months when they found employment at the Pantyffynnon Colliery.
By this time the effects of the religious revival of 1904-05 were to be felt in the mining districts of east Carmarthenshire, and Amanwy himself came under its influence, as he testified more than once. He recalled many years later how he and a small group of friends made their way to Loughor one Monday afternoon in 1904 to hear Evan Roberts, the revivalist preach:
"We had a brief chat before we entered the chapel, and we were warned by the eldest among us to keep a tight rein on our emotions lest we should make fools of ourselves in the chapel. We entered quietly and found a seat in the pew nearest the door. There seemed to be no order to the service, but no one took heed of this, and in the midst of the prayers and rejoicing, there were long periods of complete silence. We all felt a strange influence upon us and we looked at one another without uttering a single word. Then at about three o' clock, in the midst of the singing, Evan Roberts himself entered the sêt fawr. He knelt beneath the pulpit and he was soon joined by a dozen other people in quiet devotional prayer. The silence left us all in a state of awe. The evangelist then got to his feet and slowly climbed the stairs to the pulpit.
......This was our first opportunity to have a clear view of him. The only unusual feature about him were his eyes, which seemed to be full of passion. Then lifting the Bible slowly, he ran his fingers nervously over its pages and said quietly, without any emotion: Tears will flow here this afternoon, tears which we will not see, but God will see them all. Shedding tears is not a weakness but strength. If you have not wept with the Gospel, there is every reason to believe that you have not lived the Gospel. Kneel at the foot of His Cross in tears'. Several members of the congregation were now sobbing quietly, and the revivalist's eyes lit up with a strange light. He pointed his finger from pew to pew, both downstairs and on the gallery, and scores of people knelt, one after another, pleading for forgiveness. It was a strange sight, which I still find difficult to comprehend and describe but our hearts were as heavy as lead that afternoon. We returned to Betws that evening, but we spoke but little. Our experiences were far too sacred to share even with our closest friends and family."
Before the end of that particular week, Ammanford itself and its surrounding villages had felt the full force of the revival, and Bethany Calvinistic Methodist chapel, where the Revd W. Nantlais Williams ministered, had become the main centre for the revival in the Amman Valley. Amanwy at that time was a keen member of the Ammanford Rugby Club, but a meeting of the club's membership was hastily convened, and the majority of the players felt that they could no longer play a game of rugby ever again. Some members had even burnt their rugby kits, and Bezer Jones, a young man who had a bright future predicted for him in the game was among them. As a result, Ammanford Rugby Club was disbanded, and its membership of the Welsh Rugby Union was discontinued until 1907.
In the years following the revival, the economic and social life of the Amman Valley flourished, and a new confidence had taken hold of the younger members of the community. Owing to the increasing demand for anthracite, good wages were paid in the local collieries, the chapels and their multifarious activities both religious and secular, flourished, and there was a marked increase in social awareness. It was during this period that Amanwy began to take a serious interest in literature for the first time, and that as a result of an explosion which took place at Pantyffynnon Colliery. The explosion occurred on Tuesday morning, 28 January, 1908, when there were over 200 miners working in the mine. Six of these men were seriously injured, among whom was Amanwy himself. Two miners were fatally injured, and one of them Gwilym, was Amanwy's brother Gwilym Griffiths was the eldest and most seriously minded of the family. He was a convert of the revival, and it was he who persuaded his brother Jim (who was later to become the Labour Member of Parliament for the Llanelli constituency) to speak in public for the first time, at a meeting of the Young People's Society of the Christian Temple Independent chapel in Ammanford.
D. J. Williams (later of Fishguard) came to know Gwilym well when both worked together at the Betws colliery. D.J., writing in one of his autobiographical volumes recalled Gwilym with affection:
"Gwilym Griffiths was one of the most learned young men I ever met during the time 1 spent working underground. He was deeply affected by the Revival and I can well remember him telling me one morning, on the way home from work, that what he would like more than anything else was to speak that afternoon to the people on Ammanford Square, and tell them what was burning in his heart. I am indebted to Gwilym Griffiths for bringing that splendid weekly periodical Great Thoughts under the editorship of R. P. Downes, to my attention for the first time a periodical to which I subscribed for several years after that."
Amanwy was bedridden for many weeks following the explosion at Pantyffynnon, and it was during this period that he first came across copies of Cymru, the popular monthly which was edited by Owen M. Edwards. Among his fellow workers at Pantyffynnon were two local poets and ardent eisteddfodwyr John Harries ('Irlwyn'), who worked as check-weigher at the mine, and William Jones ('Gwilym Myrddin') who was employed as a lampman. Another was William Cathan Davies, a well read and cultured collier who lent him copies of the two literary quarterlies Y Traethodydd and Y Genhinen. Amanwy read avidly during his illness. His brother Gwilym had left an extensive library which contained collections of periodicals such as The Examiner and Great Thoughts, and he soon began competing at competitive meetings and small scale eisteddfodau in his home area.
It is worth noting that there was a considerable amount of literary activity in the Ammanford area at this time, most of which emanated from Ysgol y Gwynfryn, the preparatory school which had been established in the town by Watkin Hezekiah Williams the hymnist and poet 'Watcyn Wyn'. The school, which had been founded in the town as the Hope Academy in 1880, prepared young men mainly for the denominational colleges, but it was also here that the musician and composer David Vaughan Thomas won a scholarship to Llandovery College in 1887. William Llewelyn Williams of Brownhill, Llansadwm, who was later to become Member of Parliament for the Carmarthen boroughs also received his early education here. Other former pupils of Ysgol y Gwynfryn were the indomitable S. 0. Davies, the Labour Member for Merthyr Tydfil, Principal John Morgan Jones of Bala-Bangor Theological College, and others who were to become prominent leaders in their communities.
The school, under the headship of Watcyn Wyn, especially in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century became renowned for its literary and cultural activities. A lively debating society flourished here for many years, and the school's students were provided with the opportunity to acquaint themselves with some of the most prominent Welsh men and women of the day who were invited to deliver lectures on various subjects. Eluned Morgan of Patagonia, Sir John Rhys of Oxford, Daniel Protheroe of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Howell Elvet Lewis ('Elfed') were but a few of the many celebrities who visited Ysgol y Gwynfryn between 1889 and 1905. And Amanwy himself was well acquainted with the students of Gwynfryn School. Indeed a number of them had been fellow workers of his at Pantyffynnon Colliery, such as John Jones of Cefn Cefni, Ammanford, who had left the colliery to attend classes at Gwynfryn only three days before the explosion at the mine in January 1908.
But this period was also the heyday of the eisteddfod, and a number of students from Ysgol y Gwynfryn, probably with the encouragement of their headmaster who was himself a 'national' poet, competed successfully in poetry competitions at eisteddfodau far and wide. The columns of the local newspaper press of the period, and the pages of The Gwynfryn School Magazine testify to the diligence with which these budding poets devoted themselves. The literary tradition of the school continued under the headship of John (Gwili) Jenkins (1872-1936) who succeeded Watcyn Wyn as headmaster following the latter's death in 1905. Jenkins, a native of Pontarddulais, was educated at Bangor, Cardiff and Jesus College, Oxford. A friend of Edward Thomas (1878-1917), poet and litterateur, he was awarded the crown at the National Eisteddfod in Merthyr Tydfil in 1901, and was a well known and popular figure on the eisteddfod platform. Several months after the accident at Pantyffynnon, Amanwy was appointed to assist Gwili as secretary of the Ammanford Cymmrodorion Society. Amanwy recalled in 1950:
"I had the utmost respect for Gwili. After all, had he not won several prizes at provincial and national eisteddfodau for his poems poems which had created a stir in the Welsh literary world? And some of his articles in Y Genhinen and other influential periodicals had shaken the very foundations of the orthodox faith. But I soon came to know that he was a kind and warm hearted personality. Perhaps I won his sympathy more than others because I was recovering from the effects of the explosion at Pantyffynnon at the time, but I will never forget his kindness to me to the day I die. After a meeting of the Cymmrodorion Society he would always ask me what I was reading, and he gave me every encouragement to better myself." [20 July 1950]
It was Gwili who lent Amanwy his copies of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and Towards Democracy by Edward Carpenter two poets whose works were held in very high esteem by many young socialists in the south Wales valleys in the years before the Great War. Amanwy was also influenced at this time by the works of several other English authors who wrote in the style of Carpenter, such as F W. H. Myers and Arthur St John Adcock, but his favourite poets in Welsh were T. H. Parry-Williams and T. Gwynn Jones. In 1949 he recalled how his fellow workers at the Pantyffynnon Colliery had reacted to Parry-Williams's ode 'Y Ddinas' [The City]: "The young Socialists in the valley insisted that there was no flesh and blood in the poetry of Wales that it was far too romantic and feminine. I remember taking my copy of 'Y Ddinas' to the colliery; it gripped their imagination, and there was no end to their praise of the work". 115 August, 1949]
The years between 1910 and 1925 were Amanwy's most successful period as an eisteddfod poet. He had always been a keen competitor, but during these years he devoted all his leisure hours to compose poems and odes for the eisteddfodau which had become so popular in every community throughout the length and breadth of Wales. He had won a total number of twenty-five carved oak chairs by 1917, and a slim but attractive anthology of his best verse was published under the title Ambell Gainc [A Song or Two] by the press of the Amman Valley Chronicle, Ammanford, in 1919. The volume was well received by Welsh literary critics of the day, several of whom admired the determination of the miner who sought solace in poetry on his sick bed. 'I know of nothing that can raise the reputation of the miners of the Welsh valleys more than this little book of verse by Amanwy', remarked Owen M. Edwards a man who had but little sympathy with the industrial areas of south Wales, and far less comprehension of the social and cultural life of the coalfields.
By January 1923 Amanwy had won fifty-two chairs at various eisteddfodau, and that at a time when a poet's success was measured by the number of crowns and chairs he had managed to accumulate. Three of these chairs were won at eisteddfodau which had been held over the Christmas holiday in 1922; one at Cilffriw near Neath, the second at Glanaman and the third at Pwllheli. He repeated the same feat three years later in 1925 when he won chairs at eisteddfodau held as far afield as Aberffraw (Anglesey), Pontyberem and Llandovery on the Whit Monday of that year. He said of that memorable afternoon:
"I have every reason to remember that particular Monday, which was a memorable day in my life. I worked at the time on the coalface at Pantyffynnon, but I was also in the grip of what we poets call the fever an unrelenting obsession with eisteddfodau and literary competitions. To think that I had dared write three odes; one on 'Yr Ymchwilydd am y Gwir' [The Searcher for Truth] for Aberffraw, 'Yr Antur' [The Adventure] for Llandovery, and 'Ardderchog Lu y Merthyri' [The Most Excellent Host of Martyrs] for Pontyberem. I had spent every minute of my leisure time on these poems, and I thought very highly of all three compositions perhaps too highly! Whit Monday approached and I expected to hear that I had succeeded in winning at least one chair, but not a word had arrived by Wednesday or Thursday. By then I had lost all hope of any success, and I felt really downhearted. Not a single letter had come when I arrived home from the colliery on Friday afternoon, and I had to resign myself to the fact that all had been lost. Over supper however, a telegram arrived from Anglesey, informing me that I had won the Aberffraw chair and a prize of eight guineas. A little later, there arrived a letter from the secretary of the Llandovery eisteddfod, with the news that the chair and 3 guineas were mine. Before nightfall, there came a request from Pontyberem for me to attend the eisteddfod to be chaired there. I went to Anglesey, my wife represented me at Llandovery and my old friend Edgar Bassett was chaired in my name at Pontyberem. Dr. T. Gwynn Jones was the adjudicator at Aber-ffraw, Cynan at Llandovery and Cledlyn at Ponty-herein." [19 January, 1950]
He was also awarded a two guinea prize at the Llandovery eisteddfod for a soliloquy. In all, he won three carved oak chairs and sixteen guineas on that Whit Monday in 1925, which was not an insignificant sum for a collier in those days.
But Amanwy was also a teacher of poets, and a lively circle of young men, who took an active interest in literature met frequently at his home. They were also members of the extra-mural classes conducted by the Revd John Griffiths, minister of Ebenezer Baptist chapel at Ammanford, before his appointment as Professor of Greek at the Baptist College, Cardiff in 1925. Griffiths was a native of Rhosllannerchrugog, a district which was not unlike the Amman Valley, with its coal mines, its rich musical traditions and Welsh cultural heritage. Amanwy recalled in later years how John Griffiths introduced him and his fellow colliers to 'Berwyn', a poem in strict metre by Robert Ellis ('Cynddelw'):
"I well remember studying 'Berwyn' in John Grifflths's classes. We would be gathered in a group around the fire at the old Council School. Most of us were tired after a hard day's work at the colliery, but our teacher would pretend not to notice when one or two of us would nod and doze, despite our efforts to stay awake." [20 September, 1934]
Other members of these literature classes included John Harries ('Irlwyn') of Betws, John Roberts the elocutionist of Glanaman, and two young men Gomer M. Roberts and David Mainwaring, who worked at Cae'rbryn and Emlyn Collieries, and who had already had some success on the eisteddfod circuit. When Gomer Roberts (who later became the distinguished historian of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism) won a scholarship to Fircroft College, Birmingham in 1923, Amanwy devised a scheme to help him financially. According to Gomer Roberts writing in 1954:
"The following week, Amanwy decided to edit and publish an anthology of poetry by some local miners, the proceeds of which were for my own benefit. 'We can easily sell a thousand copies' he said. So he set to work at once, and received literary contributions from Gwyneufryn Davies of Cwmcoch, Gwilym Stephens, Llwyndu, Dafydd Mainwaring from Pen-y-groes and Jack Jones of Cross Hands. He also selected some of my compositions as well as a few pieces of his own, and shortly O Lwch y Lofa: Cyfrol o Ganu gan Chwech o Lowyr Sir Gar [From the Dust of the Pit: a Volume of Verse by Six Carmarthenshire Miners] appeared from the press of The Amman Valley Chronicle at Ammanford. I cannot recall who chose the title, it was probably Amanwy himself. However, a thousand copies were sold at a shilling each, and I received the princely sum of £35.00 from my friends over a cup of tea one Saturday afternoon at an Ammanford restaurant."
Amanwy took further advantage of the opportunity to nurture some of the younger poets of the district when he was appointed the caretaker of the newly opened Amman Valley Grammar School at Ammanford in 1928. In March 1929 he predicted a bright future for the young Meurig Evans, as a poet and scholar, and fifty years later in 1979, Evans wrote of Amanwy's influence upon him:
"In a school where Welsh was spoken by the majority of the pupils, having Amanwy to take an active interest in our literary efforts was an honour and a privilege. He knew every single pupil and he realised that many parents had to sacrifice a great deal on their children's behalf. Education in those days was of prime importance and would surely lead us on to successful careers. As a result the main emphasis of the school was placed on examinations thus ensuring that we would not have to follow in our fathers' footsteps to the mines. We, the budding poets and writers, spent most of our spare periods in his little caretaker's office, where we would discuss our latest compositions for some eisteddfod or other. He was well versed in Welsh and English literature, and he would often discuss his own compositions with us an ode or a sonnet on which he was currently working."
Meurig Evans returned to his old school as head of its Welsh department in 1947, and some years later became an acclaimed lexicographer and author of several school textbooks and anthologies of Welsh verse.
Amanwy also sought to encourage others who were pupils at the school, such as Ken Etheridge, the artist and dramatist of Ammanford, and D. Eirwyn Morgan of Pen-y-groes, who was later to become the Principal of the Baptist College at Bangor though he disapproved of the latter's activities with Plaid Cymru: 'I wish Eirwyn would not involve himself with nationalist politics', he wrote on 3 November 1938, when Morgan was awarded a prize for a series of essays at the National Eisteddfod held at Cardiff that year.
Amanwy himself came very close to winning the coveted crown at the National Eisteddfod more than once. Professor T. Gwynn Jones praised his ode 'Yr Ynys Unig' [The Lone Island] at Mold in 1923, remarking that the composition, in his opinion, was the best submitted for competition at the festival. Similarly Professor W. J. Gruffydd regarded his ode 'Yr Hyfryd Lais' [The Melodious Voice] as one of the best two entries at the Wrexham National ten years later in 1933. Indeed it is highly likely that Amanwy competed at the National several times between 1923 and 1932, but this fact can no longer be confirmed as most of his compositions which belong to this period have been lost.
These constant failures to capture the crown naturally caused him a great deal of anxiety, but his greatest disappointment was at the Port Talbot National of 1932, when his ode 'A Ddioddefws a Orfu' [He Who Suffers Endures] was placed first in the crown competition by Cynan and second by Caradog Prichard and Wil Ifan. I very much doubt I'll ever again come so close to winning the crown at the National' he wrote the following week. [4 August, 1932] But these were not the only frustrations to come his way. During the twenty years following the explosion at Pantyffynnon Colliery in 1908, Amanwy suffered one misfortune after the other. His wife Margaret, had died of tuberculosis in 1910 leaving two small boys Ieuan and Gwilym. The poet married Mary Davies of Dunvant, in September 1918, but three years later, his son Ieuan, died from a prolonged illness at the age of twelve. Six years later in 1927 it transpired that Gwilym was suffering from the same complaint as his mother.
Gwilym was a promising young man who had intended to take holy orders, but his plans were thwarted when he was advised by his doctors to spend a period of three months in South Africa. As a result, in August 1929, several of Amanwy's closest friends, among whom was Gwili, launched a fund to help defray the expenses of the journey to Cape Town where Gwilym and his father stayed for a month before venturing to the highlands of the Karoo. Amanwy remained here for a further two months, before returning to Wales in January 1930. Gwilym returned to the family home at Ammanford some three and a half years later, and within a year had won a scholarship worth £50.00 annually to enable him to study at St David's College, Lampeter. However his health failed in his third year at Lampeter and he had to return home to Ammanford where he died in June 1935 aged 27 years. This was a devastating blow to Amanwy. 'My dreams have been blown like chaff in the wind' he wrote to Gomer Roberts at the time. And though he remained a faithful chapel-goer, a deacon and a Sunday school teacher at the Christian Temple, Congregational chapel, Ammanford, throughout this period, the faith that had hitherto carried him through all his tribulations, was gradually weakened as the poems he composed at the time clearly show.
Amanwy to Aneirin Talfan Davies, writing in 1955, represented the cultured Welsh miner at his best 'yr oedd yn enghraifft odidog o gwerinwr diwylliedig'. It is probably true that there has been a tendency to romanticise the life of Amanwy, even in his own lifetime. His life story and frequent trials even became the subject of a popular and sentimental film, but Amanwy was a rare exception among the miners of the Amman Valley. As a poet, he was far more ambitious than any of his fellow collier-poets, and his verse is of a much higher standard than that of his contemporaries. To the ordinary, well read and cultured Welshman of today, he is probably remembered for his verse, but to the inhabitants of the Amman Valley, he was also a noteworthy writer of prose and a successful newspaper columnist.
Some five years after the explosion at Panty-ffynnon Colliery in 1908, he was invited to contribute a Welsh column to The Herald of Wales, a popular weekly newspaper published in Swansea, which had a large circulation in the industrial valleys of west Glamorganshire and east Carmarthenshire. These articles entitled 'Nodion o Finion Aman' were published under the pseudonym loan Aman between 22 March, 1913 and 21 August, 1915, and they usually contained items of news of local events. However, in September 1927 Amanwy was invited by the editor of The Amman Valley Chronicle to contribute a weekly Welsh language column to the newspaper. The first of these columns, entitled 'Colofr Cymry'r Dyffryn' [Column for the Welsh speakers of the valley] appeared in the issue for 29 September, 1927, in which he set out his policy as a columnist:
"I believe it is high time we as Welsh speakers in the Amman Valley should take an active part in safeguarding our language, and I hope that this column will contribute in some way to achieve that aim. I will do my best to record news and notes which will be of interest to all our readers. I understand that the Chronicle is read by natives of the Valley who have settled in all parts of the world, and they, no doubt will welcome this initiative to provide them with news of their homeland in the language of their forefathers."
Significantly, these weekly columns were published under the pseudonym Cerddetwr -one who walks or wanders aimlessly. 'This column is not so much concerned with news, but with local gossip' he wrote in the issue for 26 November 1942. But it dealt with all kinds of subjects such as religion, literature and politics. Sometimes he would review the latest Welsh novel or anthology of verse, or he would reminisce about his childhood in yr Efail at Betws. At other times he would pen a tribute to a deceased friend or relative, or write a lively account of some Ammanford characters of old.
As we have seen, Amanwy spent several months with his son Gwilym in South Africa from September 1929 to February 1930, and he continued to contribute his column to the Chronicle throughout this period. He wrote a detailed account of their voyage, in which he provides an interesting portrait of some of their fellow travellers on board ship. Father and son shared a cabin with four Scots who proved to be excellent company, but there were some Lithuanians on board as well, among whom were the most uncivilised people Amanwy had ever seen. 'There are many Englishmen on board' he said, 'most of whom wear the mantle of the colonial governors they are, for the most part both haughty and surly'. Having been at sea for a few days they soon came to Tenerife, the Ascension Islands and St Helena 'an arid and forbidding island with the guns and canons of the British peering through every nook and cranny of its rocky countenance'. [10 October, 1929.] It was here that they met with two officers of the Salvation Army, one of whom was a native of Ynyshir in the Rhondda Valley, who were on their way to South Africa.
They reached their destination in Cape Town in early October where they lodged with Rees Samuel (a native of Betws and a contemporary of Amanwy), and his family in Port Elizabeth. From there they travelled to Cradock in the highlands of the Karoo where they met several Welsh-speaking families from Cil-y-cwm, Rhuthun and Llanrug. However, the plight of the native South Africans made a profound impression on Amanwy and his son:
"The country is in a state of uncertainty and perplexity, as can be seen in every newspaper and magazine. The black people are treated abominably, and their white oppressors see nothing wrong in this. On our way home we had two days to spend at our leisure in Cape Town we were there on New Yew's Day 1930. We visited the Parade, a small park at the rear of the town, where we saw a number of black men addressing a large crowd of natives with much enthusiasm. Two spoke in English, one from Durban and the other from Pretoria, and I must say that I have heard worse English spoken on the streets of Ammanford. The two speakers were staunch Communists who demanded justice for the black people. Unfortunately one member of our company began to heckle the speakers and we were warned, in no uncertain terms, to leave immediately. The 'United Coloured Races Conference' was to be held there the following day, and representatives from all parts of the world were expected to attend. There were well over 3,000 people at the meeting which we attended. Is not this world in a terrible mess? It is but a useless dream to keep the natives of South Africa, or any other nation, in fetters for long, and if the Gospel which is preached from the pulpits of Ammanford every Sunday is true, the day of freedom must surely dawn for the black South African. It is not surprising that a man who has concerned himself with the social problems of his homeland should feel ill at ease in a place like this." 30 January, 1930]
Social and political consciousness had always motivated the sons of yr Efail, and there were in the Amman Valley at this time, a number of young men who held radical ideas in social doctrine. In 1913 the eccentric millionaire George Davison, owner of the Kodak Company, had purchased the old vicarage at Ammanford for £1,500, and had presented it to a group of local radicals as a centre for the study and promotion of political ideas. Soon, the White House, as it was called, became known as a meeting place for the young socialists of the district, and Noah Ablett, T. Rhondda Williams, T. E. Nicholas and the brothers Stet and Ben Wilson of Berkley, California addressed meetings there from time to time. However, a number of local people were uneasy with regard to the activities which were held at the White House, and Amanwy himself wrote in his gossip column in The Herald of Wales in November 1913, following a meeting which he had attended at the White House, that 'it will indeed be a sad day for the people of Wales if the ideals which were promulgated there that evening should ever come to pass.'
Yr Efail at Betws was also a popular meeting place for a number of young socialists in the area, who were, in the main, the friends and companions of Jim, Amanwy's brother. These included the brothers Evan and Edgar Bassett, Harry Arthur and D. R. Owen of Garnant, who later became local leaders of the Independent Labour Party in the Amman Valley. That Ammanford and its surrounding villages enjoyed some form of prosperity at this period there can be little doubt. It was an exciting time in many ways. Ammanford itself had become an important centre for the Welsh religious revival of 1904-05, and the years between the revival and the Great War were considered by many as the golden age of the industrial, religious and cultural life of the area, as Amanwy himself testified:
"The other evening I recalled to mind the years 1905 to 1912, a period which may be regarded as the renaissance age in the Amman Valley. The storm of the revival had just passed, and we were all searching for firm foundations on which we could base our lives. That foundation, for many of us became the chapel and the Sunday school, but others found an outlet in political activity, such as the Labour Party. Wherever one went, the young people were searching for the path which led to a fuller and fairer society. I well remember the Sunday school class which I attended at the Christian Temple in Ammanford; some of the lads there were very orthodox in their beliefs, whereas others dared to suggest that Christ was a social pioneer. Their plea was 'Give us bread!', whilst the other's demand was 'Give us a revelation of the Cross!' Those were indeed halcyon days." [19 October, 1950]
However, the economic life of the valley slowly deteriorated after the Great War. Following the regular disputes which took place between the coal masters and the workers of the anthracite coalfield in 1925, and the General Strike of 1926, the inhabitants of the area were plunged into the depression of the 1930s. 'There is no end to the dark clouds which have risen over our valley these days', he wrote in 1928. 'Collieries are being closed right, left and centre, and the workmen have nowhere to turn for a day's wage. And this is our legacy after the Great War!' [2 February, 1928] He voiced his opinions on the living conditions of the ordinary working man through this period. He was angered in 1934, for instance, when the British Museum paid £100,000 for the Codex Sinaiticus 'an old Bible, scarlet with the blood of the oppressor, while the majority of our country's workers are starving' was his unambiguous condemnation. [11 January, 1934] And it is probably true to say that some of his comments in 'Colofn Cymry'r Dyffryn' from time to time, invariably brought him into hot water In 1927, when the column was barely three months old, he chastised the teachers of Ammanford for their indifferent attitude towards the Welsh language:
"I remarked upon this at a St David's Day function here in Ammanford recently. Someone got to his feet and harshly condemned me, adding that I had no grounds whatsoever for making such remarks. The following morning, I stood by the school gate, and listened to the teachers and the gentleman concerned chattering in the yard and not a single word of Welsh was heard. And if I may say so, I found it highly amusing when I heard the wives of some of our foremost Welsh preachers, at the meetings of the Union of Welsh Independents here at Ammanford last summer Some of these ladies believe that speaking English is indispensable to their class. This is the only way they can show that they belong to the elite. Poor, insecure little things! But keep your ears open on the streets and in the shops of Ammanford, or in the lobbies of our chapels, and you'll hear the swankiest English ever created. And such English! Indeed I have heard better English spoken by the tribesmen of the Karoo." [10 November, 1927]
Ammanford town councillors often came under his lash, and he upset some local nonconformist ministers in 1927 when he denounced a number of them for their often insincere remarks at funeral services. 'I attended a funeral service here at Ammanford last week, and I have never heard such rubbish in all my life', he remarked. 'Is it not time we brought a little dignity to our funerals? A simple service with a sermon instead of an eulogy would be far more dignified'. [24 November, 1927] Amanwy could not restrain himself on matters like these often not thinking of the consequences, and this reckless streak was a natural trait in his personality. He had always been a man of deep convictions; he was also well known for his prejudices, and his stubbornness and unreasonable behaviour in debate often brought him into conflict with many of his contemporaries who happened to disagree with him. And his fiery temper was proverbial, as many former pupils of the Amman Valley Grammar School can testify.
Although he admitted more than once that he had but little interest in politics, a note of political propaganda can be detected in much of his verse and in his contributions to the press at this time. His brother Jim, had been elected to represent the Llanelli constituency in Parliament in March 1936, a seat he held for a period of thirty-four years, and needless to say, Amanwy gave him continued support in 'Colofn Cymry 'r Dyffryn'. Indeed he travelled to London with a group of Jim's supporters to escort his brother to the House of Commons in April 1936, where he happened upon David Embryo James ('Dewi Emrys') the exiled vagabond poet of Cardiganshire.
His first reference to the Welsh Nationalist Party occurs as early as 1927 when he refers to certain remarks made by Captain R. I. Evans (the prospective parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Party in the East Carmarthenshire constituency) at a conference in Llanwrtyd. Captain Evans had condemned Plaid Cymru's decision not to send any successful candidates at a general election to the House of Commons. 'The Welsh Nationalists have made but little impact on the people of the Amman Valley as yet' said Amanwy. 'And I believe that there is a much wider appeal in the high principles of the fellowship of all nations'. [15 December, 1927] Amanwy believed that there could be no hope whatsoever for the Nationalist Party to gain a foothold in Wales, as long as it remained under the leadership of Saunders Lewis. 'The ordinary working man can hardly agree with his narrow, conservative views' he declared in 1935. 'He has not once touched upon the dire economic plight of the ordinary workers of the land in any of his published works which I have seen'. [16 July, 1935]
One year later in 1936, when the controversy surrounding the R.A.F bombing school at Peny-berth in Llyn was at its peak, Amanwy was concerned at the plight of D. J. Williams of Fishguard, who had been accused with Saunders Lewis and the Revd Lewis Valentine for burning down the aircraft sheds at the aerodrome. D. J. Williams himself had worked as a miner at Betws colliery in the early years of the century, and had befriended Gwilym, Amanwy's brother. Amanwy knew D.J. well and penned a tribute to him in his weekly column on 21 January, 1937. He later set up a fund in Ammanford to help D.J.'s wife Sian, while her husband served his sentence in Wormwood Scrubs, though he also stressed that he strongly disapproved of the methods adopted by the three nationalists.
In 1934 he crossed swords with the playwright Kitchener Davies. Davies, a schoolmaster in the Rhondda valley, came to prominence at the Neath National Eisteddfod in 1934 with his three-act play Cwm Glo in which he aimed to portray the material and moral crisis which existed in the depressed Rhondda valley in the 1930s. However, the adjudicators at Neath, while acknowledging Davies's gifts as a playwright, withheld the prize. They believed that the play could never be given a public performance in Wales because of its frank treatment of sexual behaviour, and its realistic portrayal of working class life. But Cwm Glo was published a year later in 1935, and several public performances were given throughout the south Wales valleys by the Swansea Dramatic Company. Indeed a performance was given in Ammanford at the town's annual drama festival a performance which Amanwy himself attended. He was incensed with the content of the play, and gave vent to his feelings the following week:
"I am challenging Kitchener Davies publicly. In all the years I worked in the Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire coalfields, I never saw a miner so obscene as the one portrayed in this play. It is a slur on the miner's moral character." [14 February, 1935]
Cwm Glo was performed at Llandybie the following year when a number of local miners stormed onto the stage in protest, and the performance had to be abandoned. 'Well done, boys', wrote Amanwy. 'I hope that miners everywhere will react in the same way as the miners of Llandybie, wherever this obscenity is performed'. [2 January, 1936]
Why should Amanwy react so fiercely against Cwm Glo? Probably because, as Professor Hywel Teifi Edwards has shown, the Welsh collier's image had been severely tarnished by the play. The Welsh collier had always been portrayed in Welsh and Anglo-Welsh literature as the law abiding and peace loving pillar of his community. He was a staunch chapel-goer, whose main interest in life was his family and their well-being. He could well be a poet of some renown, or a member of the local choir. This was the romantic image of the Welsh miner, and in fact, the ideal Welsh miner was the type of miner whom Amanwy himself represented. A romantic and sentimental notion or not he would never allow the miner's traditional image to be tarnished in this way, and as we shall see later, he, in his own way, sought to restore the miner's reputation some years later during the Festival of Britain in 1951.
[A translation into English of 'Cwm Glo' has been made for this web site. To see what caused such an extreme reaction to this play click on Cwm Glo by Kitchener Davies, English translation]
Amanwy had been an admirer of David James Jones ('Gwenallt'), the poet and academic, throughout the late twenties and early thirties, and he mentioned Gwenallt's frequent visits to his home at Ammanford in 'Colofn Cymry'r Dyffryn' more than once. But their friendship gradually grew colder as the years went by, and came to an abrupt end at Caerffili in August 1951 where the National Eisteddfod was held that year. 'Awdl Foliant i 'r Glowr' [An Ode in Praise of the Miner] was the subject of the chair competition at Caerffili, and Gwenallt was one of the adjudicators. In his adjudication on the winning ode by Gwilym R. Tilsley, Gwenallt praised the poet for his down-to-earth treatment of the subject and for refraining from the sentimentality 'which is so characteristic of the tearful and over familiar speeches of James Griffiths.' The offending remark was also published in the volume of the Eisteddfod's compositions and adjudications, and as a result Amanwy refused to appear on the same platform as Gwenallt as a member of a literary panel at the Eisteddfod the following Friday. He made his position clear in a letter published in the columns of The Western Mail the following week:
"I have followed the Eisteddfod for the past forty years, and have never heard any adjudicator obtruding his political bias into his adjudication. His allusion to the 'tearful and over familiar speeches of James Griffiths' is typical of the venomous tactics of a certain Welsh political party. If he had the experience Jim had when a boy of fourteen, of seeing his two elder brothers carried home from a colliery explosion, one of whom died, and the other terribly mangled, who bears the scars to this day, maybe he also would have a tear in his voice and heart when speaking of the miner."
Professor T. Gwynn Jones, on the other hand, was one of Amanwy's heroes, and there developed a close friendship between them over the years. Jones had awarded three chairs to Amanwy at various eisteddfodau held in Anglesey, Manchester and Glyn Ceiriog, and Amanwy regarded him as the kindest of all Welsh critics. However, Amanwy also realised that he was one of a dwindling band of collier poets who once thrived in the south Wales valleys, and that teachers, academics and especially ministers of religion, were gradually taking over the eisteddfod platform. And he had but little patience with ceiliogod y colegau the college cockerels as he called them. He came to regard the Eisteddfod as the handmaiden of the colleges and the University, and he feared that the annual festival was rapidly becoming a playground for graduates. He also felt that a number of Welsh poets and writers were becoming increasingly fearful of the academics, and when the National Eisteddfod came to Llandybie in 1944, he suggested that the Eisteddfod authorities should establish an annual essay competition solely for those who never had a college education. His suggestion was well received and 'Gwobr Llandybie' as it is still known, was established, though the conditions which were set down in 1944 were annulled thirty years later in 1974.
But there was another side to Amanwy's personality as well, and he is at his best in 'Colofn Cymry'r Dyffryn' in his reminiscences of every day life in the Betws of his childhood. Naturally, as he grew older he tended to look back to the past and to the days of his boyhood. He brings to life vivid descriptions of some of the characters of the district, or memories of some exciting events, such as the time when a fire broke out at a local eisteddfod in 1912, and the time when he and a group of friends from Betws came close to drowning when their boat capsized at Aberaeron in the early 1900s. He also published a number of pen portraits of his acquaintances and contemporaries in his column.
In August 1946 he suggested that it was high time that someone wrote a play depicting everyday life in the anthracite coalfield. Nothing came of his suggestion, but when Aneirin Talfan Davies was asked to prepare the script for a film about Welsh life for the Festival of Britain in 1950, he chose to portray the life of a Welsh miner. Aneirin Talfan knew all about Amanwy the tragedies that befell him, the disappointments he had suffered and his sponsorship of Gomer M. Roberts in 1923. Here was the material for the film David, made by Paul Dickson in 1951.
David of course, was the typical Welsh miner of little education who had climbed the social ladder through literature and writing poetry the type of miner Amanwy himself represented. And of course, Amanwy himself played the leading role. The film chronicles his story as a miner, a school caretaker and a poet, and the value of tradition is stressed when the Revd Gomer Roberts, playing himself, returns to the Amman Valley Grammar School to distribute the prizes at the annual Prize Giving Ceremony. The film was shown 22 times in Ammanford in 1951 and it brought Amanwy some fame and recognition. 'I have received letters from all over the world', he wrote to Gomer Roberts in November 1951. But his name was already familiar to the Welsh reading public by then, especially since he began to contribute a weekly column entitled '0 Gwm i Gwm' [From Vale to Vale] to the Welsh language weekly Y Cymro in March 1949. John Roberts Williams, the editor of Y Cymro at the time, had seen his column in The Amman Valley Chronicle, and was more than impressed with its content. 'I obtained a copy of the Chronicle on one of my travels in south Wales, and I had seen Amanwy's column', recalled John Roberts Williams in 1979. 'This was the very thing I needed for Y Cymro. Amanwy immediately agreed to take on the task. I requested a readable and interesting column, and as editor of the newspaper, I certainly had no cause for complaint, for Amanwy was regular and dependable a literary man as well as a poet.'
Amanwy was taken ill in March 1953 and he spent some time at Morriston Hospital, but his illness had returned by the following December when he left Ammanford for the Middlesex Hospital. However, he continued to contribute his columns to the Chronicle and to Y Cymro throughout this time. In the issue of the Chronicle on 17 December, 1953, he wrote:
"I have a tough few days of treatment, ahead of me, but I am quite sure it will be for the best. I base my philosophy on a story I heard from Cynwyd Evans, the minister of the Christian Temple of my childhood. He told of a mother bathing her child on a Saturday night. "You can scream as much as you like", said she "but I will have you clean". I have to admit that I feel homesick here, but I send all my readers my heartfelt greetings. I must end here, for the light is to be put out. Rhaid tewi, mae 'r gloch yn canu a 'r golau i 'w ddiffodd".
These were his last words to the Chronicle, for Amanwy died on 27 December 1953, having contributed his 'Colofn Cymy'r Dyffiyn' to The Amman Valley Chronicle, every week for a period of twenty-six years.
That he was a complex character who had his preferences and prejudices, there can be little doubt. But Amanwy revealed in his writing the riches and poverty of everyday life in a Welsh industrial valley in the first half of the twentieth century. 'Colofn Cymry'r Dyffryn' is a store of immensely valuable information for the social and literary historian alike. He wrote in the main, of the anthracite coalfield, and though he himself had to leave the mines, he never turned his back on the industry. The anthracite miner was his hero, and he defended him from every attack at every opportunity. And to those who knew nothing and cared even less, Amanwy took pains to explain to them in plain and sometimes strong language what was the real price of coal.
This article, by DR Huw Walters of the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, was first published in the Carmarthen Antiquary, Volume 35 (1999), pages 89 - 102. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of Dr. Walters.
Dr. Huw Walters is a native of Glanamman and was educated at Amman Valley Grammar School and University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. He was appointed to the staff of the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth in 1981. He has published several bibliographies and various articles on the nineteenth century Welsh press, but his main interest is in literature as it relates to society. He was awarded his doctorate in 1985 for his study of poetic culture in the Amman Valley. Elected F.S.A. [Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London] in 2001, an honour rarely bestowed on Welshmen. Fellows of the F.S.A. are limited to 2000 in number. He lives in Aberystwyth.
....."Erwau'r Glo", [ie "Coal Acres"] (Swansea: Gwasg Christopher Davies, 1976). An anthology of prose and verse depicting life in the anthracite coalfield.
....."Canu'r Pwll a'r Pulpud: Portread o'r Diwylliant Barddol Cymraeg yn Nyffryn Aman", (Swansea, 1987), [ie "Songs of Pit and Pulpit: A Portrait of the Poetic Culture of the Amman Valley"], which won the Welsh Arts Council Prize and the Sir Ellis Jones Ellis-Griffith, University of Wales Board of Celtic Studies Prize for the best work of literary criticism published in Welsh in 1987.
....."Dyffryn Aman 'Slawer Dydd", [ie "The Amman Valley Long Ago"], edited (with D. A. Evans), Gwasg Gomer, 1987. Photographs of old Ammanford and the Amman Valley.
DVD/Video of 'David'
From March 2005 the film 'David' is available from Panamint Cinema on both video and DVD. Running time 72 min. DVD: £19.99; VHS: £16.99. Prices include P&P worldwide. Click HERE for ordering details.
Date this page last updated: October 1, 2010