BETWS PRIMARY SCHOOL
The source of the much of the earliest history of Betws often comes back to one Jonathan Griffies, who was the curate at St David's Church, Betws, from 1731 to 1776. The Church records had been destroyed in a fire in 1706, eradicating all that happened before. But Jonathan Griffies kept detailed records during his long curacy; he was also curate at Llandybie church at the same time so much of Llandybie's history during this period owes a lot to his dutiful recording of events in the area. Before moving to Betws from the Llandeilo area evidence suggests he had spent some years some years as a school master in one of the circulating school of Griffith Jones. In January 1739 it is recorded that he had established a school in Betws which was said to have attracted 56 children. Griffies was one of Griffith Jones earliest teachers in his movement and was reputed to be held in high esteem by Jones. (For a brief history of the Circulating School movement click on . It can also be found in the 'History' section of this web site).
"It is not known how long this school remained open; its purpose was to introduce the parishioners to the benefits of being able to read and write. It is doubtful that any other subjects were taught. Jonathan Griffies' interest in education was transmitted to his son. In 1755, a private school was conducted at Betws, it appears to have been based at the church; pupils were taught by Timothy Griffies (curate's son)."
(Source: from An essay by D. Emrys Williams.
Education was practically non-existent in Wales until Griffith Jones started his system of circulating schools in 1731. Betws is on record as being one of the first places where instruction in religious subjects began.
In 1847 a commission to look into the state of Welsh education (consisting of Anglican Englishmen) reported back, in what became known as the "Treachery of the Blue Books" (Llyfrau Gleision). This was a fairly damning indictment but also a very detailed one which recognised the class and religious divides which hampered progress in education in Wales. Unfortunately, it also made some severe generalisations along racial and moral lines which outraged the Non-conformists and led to a further alienation from Anglicanism.
These reports were taken from Llyfrau Gleision the Blue Books:
"In the most Southern Iskennen Hundred (Cantref) lies the parish of Betws. This parish contains a few agricultural labourers. The cottages are chiefly those of colliers. The farms are small and farmers are obliged to work on their own lands. Wages are 9 shillings a week with food and accommodation of the labourers own finding, or 8 pennies a day with food. Colliers earn about 18 shillings a week. The people are industrious and more sober than their neighbours in Llandybie parish. There is a fair school room in the village but the place is too poor and thinly populated to support a master. There is a prospect of very extensive works being carried out there."
(Extracted from commission of inquiry into state education in Wales report 1847.)
Betws Dame School, 1847
"This school is held by an old woman in the end of the school room newly erected in the village. Not one of the scholars present could read a single word in the New Testament accurately, indeed from what I heard from herself, I doubt whether the school mistress could read a chapter with any degree of accuracy".
(This report was also taken from Llyfrau Gleision.)
This resentment of the English Church authorities would simmer for seventy more years, to be finally resolved only by the dis-establishment of the churches in Wales. In 1920 the Anglican church in Wales became independent from the Church of England, renaming itself the Church in Wales in the process (and not the Church of Wales, which is often how people, wrongly, say it).
This second report shows just one example of the bias of the Blue Books it does not explain that the New Testament both pupils and teacher were asked to read would have been in English and in 1847 Welsh was probably the only language the children understood. The explanation probably applied to the teacher too. As it is, the report seems to imply that the children were illiterate, whereas they would probably have been able to read Welsh.
The present school was established during the 1840s on land leased from Lord Dinefwr into the guardianship of the church, which was responsible for the running of the school (ie it was a National Society school see below).
The original building consisted of just one classroom and the number of pupils was recorded as approximately 30. Pupils, or scholars as they were referred to in those days, had to pay a fee of 2 pennies and a farthing a week, or 2 shillings and 3 pennies a term. The school accepted pupils of all ages including adults, there was a higher proportion of boys in attendance than girls.
Beaten for speaking Welsh
Information regarding the school is easier to obtain from 1865 onwards. In 1833 the government had began to contribute to the building of schools, which were run by two organisations the National Society, which was run by the Church and the British Society, which promoted non-sectarian education. By a Revised Code of Regulations, from 1862 the head teachers of all schools receiving a government grant were required to make a daily entry in a School Log Book, an invaluable source reflecting the life of a school and Betws school has a full set of log books dating from 1865 to the present time. The entries for the first fifty or sixty years of the school's history tell a similar story to that of a Dicken's novel. One extract in 1880 tells of a pauper boy being taken to the workhouse in Llandeilo. Welsh was not allowed to be spoken on the premises and was considered a punishable offence. Several extracts relate to children being beaten across the shoulders with a birch rod when caught conversing in the Welsh language.
The headmaster in 1866 was John Lewis of Tycroes, who recorded the number of pupils in his charge as 37. He wrote with clarity of his problems and concerns. Irregular attendance was one matter of concern as children were kept away from school to assist their parents setting the gardens with vegetables. They were also kept away from school to help with haymaking and harvesting. Wet weather and inadequate footwear also resulted in absenteeism. Financial struggles at home resulted in irregularities in paying school fees, which in turn contributed to low attendance.
Subjects in the early period were quite basic: reading, writing and arithmetic, with gardening for the boys and domestic skills for the girls. Instruction on personal hygiene was also given precedence and pupils were often given soap and water and ordered to wash themselves. As water was not available on the premises, children were given containers and sent to carry water from Pant y Betws well, at Betws Road, particularly on hot summer days.
John Lewis of Tycroes appears to have suffered an intolerance to pupils marking their slates with chalk during leisure time. There were frequent punishments for the offence. He was succeeded in 1871 by John Lewis of Cardiganshire, who was the headmaster of the village school for 42 years. This headmaster wrote in great detail on matters relating to the running of the school. By the time of his retirement in 1912 the number of pupils had increased from 37 to 270. During the early years there were no other schools in the vicinity and as news of the school at Betws travelled, neighbouring areas began to send their children and the pupil numbers increased steadily. Some of these children had to walk a great distance in pursuit of an education and they came from Glanaman, Garnant and beyond. There were reports of some losing their way as was the case of one 5 year old from Ystalyfera who went missing on his way home. Fortunately, the child was eventually found on Betws Mountain.
In 1878 Betws Church School was let to the Llandeilo Fawr Urban District Board School for a fee of 5 shillings per annum. Gradually additional classrooms were added to the existing building. The children from Cross Inn (Ammanford) had great trouble getting to school on numerous occasions. Heavy rain being responsible for flooding in the River Amman. On October 6th 1891 the old wooden bridge across the Amman was washed away by the force of the water and children could not attend school. On the 19th October 1891 the bridge was again reported to be in dangerous condition. (In 1892 the wooden bridge was replaced by a new stone and steel girder bridge. This served well until 1990 when a new bridge had to be built again, this time to take the heavy goods vehicles that the 1891 bridge was not designed to support.). During winter a fire was lit in each classroom, large quantities of coal were purchased from Ammanford and Tirydail Collieries.
John Lewis noted that classes were overcrowded; some had as many as 46 pupils. He also complains of sanitation being poor, as was the health of the children. There was also a Board of Guardians involved with the running of the school; Colonel Morris of Brynffin was chairman. The guardians were consulted with regards to finance, equipment, and any other problems that surfaced. During times of extreme hardship a distress committee was set up to assist with the feeding and clothing of children most affected. In 1909, a school was opened at Parcyrhun to ease the demand on Betws. It was around this time that the school ceased to be a board school and became known as Betws County Council School.
It is interesting to note that following the abolition of school fees for elementary education in 1891, the number of pupils escalated to 420. This figure included a dramatic increase in the number of girls in attendance. In 1912 Rhys Thomas became the headmaster and he too complained of poor sanitation, overcrowding and ill health. The addition of an infants' class appears to have taken place sometime between 1912 and 1914. An entry in 1914 recalls that workmen from Ammanford Gas Company were laying pipes into the babies' room. Further building was abandoned with the outbreak of the World War I. The effects of the war created further problems for the school; there are comments on some boys being out of hand owing to their fathers being away at war. Women were left alone to cope with large families. This resulted in children being frequently kept away from school to help with chores, or to queue for food items that were scarce.
A high percentage were marked late or absent on Tuesday mornings, the main reason given was that Tuesday was the only day sugar was distributed at the Co-op store in Betws. It is evident that the school played its part in supporting the war effort. Pupils were requested to pick large quantities of blackberries, which were then collected by Mrs Jones, Dyffryn House, and along with Parcyrhun's collection they were forwarded to Carmarthen. It is unclear what they were actually used for. Horse chestnuts were also gathered by the sackful by pupils of Betws School and forwarded to assist the war effort. Cellulose was extracted from the chestnuts and used to produce high explosives.
Throughout 1917, conditions at the school were described as poor. Rhys Thomas appears to have experienced quite a struggle to obtain sufficient supplies of coal from the one source. At the end of the war he requests that the building work be continued as soon as possible. The entry is a little vague; there are no details as to the purpose of the building work. He also mentions the need for 6 new buckets for the WCs, 6 blowers for the stoves and 6 gas mantles; the purchases were later sanctioned. A list of staff salaries in 1918 reveals that a headmaster's salary was £30 per annum, a teacher's salary £27 per annum and caretaker's £23 per annum.
Plans in 1920 recommending the widening of Betws Road resulted in the school suffering a loss of 180 yards of its land. During the 1920s the infants were taught at the Capel Newydd vestry until an infants section was added to the school. The 1920s and 1930s were distressing times at the school. Disputes and strikes in the coal industry brought poverty and hunger which severely affected the children. The distress committee intervened and arrangements were made to provide pupils with two meals a day. The Guardians of the Poor provided clothing for the children in need of their assistance and a mysterious lady benefactor donated their boots. Many families declined the offer of assistance, their deep sense of pride prevented them from accepting charity.
The Minister of Health for Carmarthenshire Schools was forced to close the school several times owing to epidemics such as whooping cough, measles and scarlet fever and outbreaks of typhoid and diphtheria. Diphtheria claimed the lives of a number of pupils and continued to be a terrifying threat within the community until the immunisation for the disease began in 1941.
The Inter-Schools Sports between Amman Valley Schools was a welcome distraction during those days of depression. The event appears to have began between the end of the 1920s or beginning of the 1930s but Betws and Parcyrhun School had competed against each other for many years prior to this competition. Pupils looked forward to sports day, which was held at Garnant. They would walk in file down to Quay Street to the Ammanford Train Station to board the train bound for Garnant. At the end of their enjoyable day on their return those fortunate to afford it would purchase an ice cream from the popular Cresci's Café, in Quay Street.
Families slowly began to recover from the desperate hardships of the previous years but the recovery was short lived. On November 3rd 1939 representatives of the local A.R.P Committee visited the school to measure the children for gas masks, in preparation of the threat of an invasion by Adolph Hitler's forces, and the misery began all over again. World War II posed similar problems to those of World War I, with an additional worry of enemy planes patrolling overhead in search of their targets in Swansea and Neath. The threat of misplaced bombs was unsettling and disrupted lessons on occasions.
The 1950s and 1960s brought an improved standard of living and as the health and circumstances of the pupils continued to progress, the school itself began to decline. Repeated requests for modernisation of its facilities were made to the authorities. Education cuts towards l970s saw the formation of the parents and teachers association. Fund raising became a necessity as was the case in all schools.
The 1980s saw a decrease in the numbers of pupils and the once overcrowded school faced the prospect of closure had the trend continued. Constant pressure was applied on the authorities by the headmaster Mr Dennis Morgan, his dedicated staff members and other sources. Through their determined efforts, in 1988 the school was finally renovated, maintaining the character of the old building. The interior was brought up to date with modern standards and requirements. The present number of pupils is 114. The school is bilingual with all teachers fluent in the Welsh language. In keeping with its tradition two concerts are held each year, Christmas time and on St. David's Day. Sports day is held towards the end of the summer term and remains as popular as ever with pupils and their families who turn out to support the children. The school offers a range of activities and children are encouraged to participate in folk dancing and reciting along with a variety of sports.
For many years the children of Betws School have had their own song which they sing with the same pride and passion as the Welsh national anthem is sung at rugby internationals. The song is called 'Plant Bach Ysgol Betws'. It was written by a member of staff who has now taught at the school for over twenty years, Mr. Hywel Bowen.
During the 1990s, the school witnessed success at the eisteddfod with its 2nd place dancing team. The school cross country teams were winners of the Dinefwr and Dyfed Schools cross country championships and also placed at the Welsh Urdd Championships at Aberystwyth. Two pupils in recent years gained Welsh Honours: Mathew Steinman was selected to play for Welsh Schools Rugby Team and Ben Evans became Welsh Champion at Bowls. There is a collection of photographs of past pupils who went on to achieve Welsh Honours on proud display in the hallway.
List of headmasters: John Lewis, John Lewis (there were 2), Rhys Thomas, David Jones, W Williams, E B Davies, Dennis Morgan, E Morgan (present headmaster).
Two Old Boys become Cabinet Ministers
Betws Primary School must hold some sort of record for having produced not one, but two government cabinet ministers in its history. Plenty of preparatory schools (the privately funded primary schools) have no doubt produced even more, but how many state funded schools can make the same claim as Betws? Jim Griffiths MP (1890 - 1975) was the first who, along with fellow Welsh miner Aneurin Bevan, became one of the architects of the modern Welfare State as Minister of State for National Insurance from 1945 to 1950 in Clement Atlee's post-war Labour government. He then became Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1950 until Labour's defeat in the 1951 general election. He finally became the first Secretary of State for Wales in Harold Wilson's 1964 administration (see Jim Griffiths under a separate essay in the 'People' section of this website).
Ivor Richard was the next Betws Old Boy to sit around the famous table at Number 10 Downing Street, when he was brought into Tony Blair's cabinet in 1997 as Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lord's, having been 'ennobled' in 1990 as a life peer Baron Richard of Ammanford.
Both had been initially educated in Betws Primary School and both had connections with the mining industry. But there any similarity must end. Jim Griffiths started as a lowly miner whose father had been a blacksmith, while Ivor Richard's father had been a mining electrical engineer with an elevated management position in the mining industry. Jim Griffiths' home was a blacksmith's cottage while Ivor Richard's family lived in one of the grand houses of Betws, the country house built by their relative Colonel Morris after whom Colonel Road is named (see Ivor Richard under a separate essay in the 'People' section of this website).
School Log Book Entries
As we saw above, by a Revised Code of Regulations, from 1862 the head teachers of all schools receiving a government grant were required to make a daily entry in a School Log Book, an invaluable source reflecting the life of a school and Betws school has a full set of log books dating from 1865 to the present time. What was then merely a bureaucratic chore has become in time a fascinating and valuable social document. The following extracts have been taken from those log books of Betws School:
May 1st 1865: Attendance today is rather small the children are assisting their parents to set their gardens.
[When the fair was held in Betws the attendance at school was low. Sometimes only 17 pupils were at school. The school would sometimes close for the day during fair time. School attendance was poor in April and May because the children were being kept home by parents to help set up the gardens.]
29th December 1866: Rhys Thomas pupil teacher was sent home because his brother had an accident at Pantyffynnon railway station.
Nov 2nd 1867: Mr Jones Llwyn Cwn visited the school to complain of boys cutting sticks from hedges to play Bandy with.
Jan 4th 1872: Children punished for marking their slates with chalk during mid day leisure.
Mar 13th 1872: Boys cautioned about irregularity in paying their school fees.
Sun 26th, 1872: Yearly meeting of the Independents being held at Cross Inn.
16th May 1868: William Davies, John James, Ben Hughes, John Williams and John Miles are to be punished on Monday for trespassing on Mr Rees field. George Jenkins over 18 years old starts school for the first time.
In 1870, Jewish children came to live in Betws and attend the school. The headmaster gave a talk on how to treat them.
9th January 1870: David Jones caned for running away. Sent to wash his hands and never returned.
[It was commonplace for children of primary school age to die, as some entries will show. Isaac Bowen 1873, Elizabeth Davies 25th June 1880, George Fowler 11 th February 1875. Their names were taken off the school register.]
22nd August 1879: David Morris and Jonathan James pushed four girls into the brook and their feet got wet. As punishment they will be kept in four afternoons next week.
3rd March 1880: Rhys Thomas and John Jones were punished for speaking Welsh during school hours.
[From 1880 Welsh was not allowed to be spoken in the school and on 3rd March the headmaster warned the children about speaking Welsh.]
18th May 1883: Epidemic of Measles totalling 36.
24th July 1889: Sent for the Father of Ivor Jones about the conduct of his son, found a pipe full of tobacco in his pocket in the presence of his father. Advised Mr Jones to take him to work with him in the colliery.
[It seems that Ivor was in trouble everyday, fighting, playing truant, breaking doors and throwing books about. He even kicked the teacher on his shins. When he was sent to work, he never returned.]
19th January 1891: Opening of the Betws to Cross Inn [Ammanford] Bridge.
28th June 1906: An earthquake shock was felt in school at 9.45 a.m.
14th June 1914: Several absentees owing to the funeral of the two boys drowned in the Amman.
14th February 1915: Five pupils the children of Belgian refugees started at the school. The eldest an eleven-year old girl called Maria Van Den Bossche born in Antwerp.
24th July 1915: The headmaster, staff and senior scholars attended the funeral of Mr John Lewis who had been headmaster of the school for 42 years.
15th October 1919: Idris Powell, a standard two boy, died in Swansea Hospital as a result of a motor accident.
Dec 3rd 1920: The outbreak of Diphtheria has caused a slight scare.
(In 1921 the headmaster wrote in the school logbook that he was worried about children coming to school without food and lack of footwear and adequate clothing was causing concern.)
Thursday, 19th May 1921: Capel Newydd vestry has been turned into a soup kitchen and the first meal was served. Ten voluntary workers attended the kitchen. Six ladies and four men. Mrs w: M. Davies, Waungron, prepared the soup and Mrs Ellis Jones B. A .supervised the meal. It was attended by 55 for dinner and 68 for tea. The headmaster's announcement: "In no other school in the county does the committee spend as much as it does in Betws in the feeding of the children".
[The headmaster felt that through lack of food, the children were unable to take full advantage of the education provided for them, and the parents were not in a position to supply such food. A member of the distress committee asked for a list of names of children that could not attend school through lack of clothing and shoes. Several pairs of boots were distributed but no clothes.]
8th July 1925: Two collieries in this parish have been on strike for a week. Picketing has begun. The children are late for school in the morning. The parents do not get up in the morning as they did when the men are at work.
[There are two fuller essays on this dispute, known as 'The Anthracite Strike of 1925', in the 'History' section of this web site]
12th May 1926: The headmaster was informed today that the officials of the trade union had decided to terminate the general strike as from midnight tonight.
20th May 1935: Death of Denzil Bevan Julian, Son of Mr and Mrs J. H. Julian Iscoed. Eight years old. He died of Diphtheria at Llanelli Isolation Hospital on Friday 17th. The funeral takes place today at 4.30 p.m. A wreath was sent by pupils and staff. The morning service in school today was a memorial service to Denzil.
5th November 1935: Two boys from the same family have died of Diphtheria, Willie Owens and Derrick Owens Maerdy Road. The funeral will take place on Friday 5th November.
15th July 1938: The school was closed for the day to commemorate the 7th Jubilee of the translation of the Bible into Welsh.
3rd November 1938: Representatives of the local A.R.P. committee visited the school today to measure pupils for gas masks.
22nd November 1939: All classes to be held an hour earlier because of the blackout. 1.30 p.m. a rehearsal for an air raid attack was held. It went satisfactory, all pupils returned to their classrooms in 12 minutes.
2nd July 1940: An air raid warning was issued on the night of 2nd July. Many of the children were about the roads for hours. Children have been warned of the dangers of being about the roads when enemy planes are circulating overhead. A notice appeared in the press that the school would only be opened from 11 a.m. to 12 because of air raids.
10th July 1940: A few minutes after the dismissal of the children at the end of the morning session it was reported that enemy planes were somewhere in the vicinity. No air raid warning sounded but terrific explosions could be heard in the distance.
18th July 1940: During the course of the night at 12.45 p.m. an air raid warning was given. The raid lasted for two hours. No damage was reported in the vicinity.
23rd July 1940: School assembled at 10 a.m. An air raid warning was given at 11 a.m. Enemy planes were in the vicinity for nearly. 3 hours. The bombs could be heard bursting in the distance.
24th July 1940: Air raid warning given at 1 p.m. and lasted about an hot The all clear was given about 2 p.m.
29th July 1940: Enemy planes in the vicinity of the school from 10.45 am to 1.30 p.m. The headmaster writes: "The children are very tired through lack of sleep during the last fortnight."
8th to 30th August 1940: Summer Holidays.
4th September 1940: Air raid about 9.40 a.m. majority of children already school, many took shelter in nearby houses on the way. The headmaster has undertaken the work of turning off all gas and electricity in the school immediately on warning of impending attack.
17th September 1940: Air raid warning was given at 9.55 a.m. The children were dispersed to their billets. All clear sounded at 10.20 a.m.
[ The headmaster writes of many air raid warnings.]
15th June 1945: A victory tea given to the school children a celebration the end of the war in Europe. The food was supplied by the Civil Defence Services of the area.
Most of the above is summarised from 'Betws Mas o'r Byd' (Betws Beyond the World), Betws History Group, 2001
The provision of education in the Llandybie, Ammanford and Betws area has a long history, going back at least 270 years from the first circulating schools of Griffith Jones in 1731. This history is too long and detailed to be encompassed by one essay so it has had to be divided into several sections. And even this does scant justice to the rich and complex subject matter. It awaits a far more competent historian than the present author and will have to be far more scholarly than this patchwork quilt of a web site will allow. Still, we can but try. The various sections are:
Education in Ammanford 1
Education in Ammanford 2
Amman Valley Grammar School from 1914 to the present
Amman Valley Grammar School the beginnings
Betws Primary School
Ammanford Technical College
Gwynfryn College ('Watcyn Wyn's School')