The Philanthropic Order of True Ivorites,
St David's Unity, Friendly Society

Ammanford's Hall Street takes its name from the Ivorites Hall, built by the grandly named 'Philanthropic Order of True Ivorites, St David's Unity, Friendly Society', whose even grander motto was: 'Cyfeillgarwch, Cariad a Gwirionedd' (Friendship, Love and Truth). This was one of the many Friendly and Mutual Societies that sprang up in the nineteenth century, working men's self-help groups that were the forerunners of our modern building societies, insurance companies and trades unions. The Ivorites Order had been established in Wrexham in 1836 by Thomas Robert Jones ('Gwerfulyn', 1802-1856) and it was the only Working Men's Society which was exclusively Welsh. The Ivorites were named after Ifor Hael (Ivor the Generous) who had been the patron of Dafydd ap Gwilym (David son of William), the 14th century poet, and he lived at Bassaleg, Monmouthshire. In 1838 the St David's Lodge in Carmarthen was formed with powers to act as the principal lodge for the Order in South Wales but by 1840 there was a split in the Ivorites movement and Thomas Robert Jones lost control. The Carmarthen lodge was the chief lodge in Wales until 1845 when the central office moved to Swansea (and where there are still two public house called The Ivorites to this day). The Ivorites had firm rules for its members regarding morals and behaviour; it also nurtured the Welsh language, and during its golden years between 1840 and 1870 there was hardly a year without an Ivorite Eisteddfod. This cultural activity puts the movement in a special category, and assisting the poor and needy was not its only purpose.

Within one year of the St David's Lodge being formed in Carmarthen in 1838, it had fulfilled its function admirably. The growth of the Ivories was spectacularly swift in these early years – in the two years 1838 and 1839 no less than 76 lodges (branches) of Ivorites were opened in the Carmarthen district, and Llandybie alone had three lodges at one point (see 'The Rebecca Riots – a Study in Agrarian Discontent', David Williams, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1971, page 156). An Ammanford Branch, called the Glanllwchwr Lodge of Ivorites, was established on 4 March 1841 which had 51 members in 1848 and their total assets amounted to £120.00. The lodge must have flourished, for within a short period of time sufficient funds were accumulated to build a substantial building to be known as the Ivorites Hall in what was then called Chapel Road. The Hall must have had considerable prestige – and use – for the road eventually became 'Hall Street', the name it is known by today. Prior to the Hall being built, the Order's meetings took place in local hostelries, as did the neighbouring lodges in Llandybie and Llandeilo. Gomer Roberts in his Hanes Plwyf Llandybie (History of the Parish of Llandybie, published in 1939) informs us that the Llandybie Ivorites met at Llandybie's Red Cow Inn and organised an annual Eisteddfod on the open ground behind the tavern.

The actual date of the opening of the Ivorites Hall in Ammanford cannot be traced but it is known that an eisteddfod was held at these premises in 1879. The 1910 edition of 'Kelly's Directory for South Wales', describing Ammanford, has this to say of the Hall: "The Ivorites Hall is used for concerts, theatricals and public meetings, and will seat about 1,600 persons." Even today this would be a seizable premise: the town's two substantial cinemas that survived into the 1970s could not claim anywhere near such a capacity. The commercially run Palace Cinema was opened in 1914 to seat 900 (it closed in 1977 and was demolished in 1981 to make way for a car park). Ammanford Miners' Welfare Hall had been built by local colliers in 1932 with seating for 760, before it, too, fell before the relentless march of television, and its silver screen went dead in 1977. In 1997, however, the Miners' Welfare Hall underwent a major conversion into a multi-functional community centre, with facilities for youth activities, craft workshops, conference rooms with video and visual aid screens, theatre facilities, computers, including an Internet café, and a dance hall. A cinema projector has also been added to the Hall restoring it to something like its former use. (For more on the Miners' Hall, click HERE.)

The various editions of Kelly's Directory are good indicators of the fluctuating fortunes of buildings like the Ivorites Hall. The 1901 Kelly describes the Ivorites Hall as seating "about 1,000". This had grown to 1,600 by the 1910 edition, which was more-or-less the highest point in Ammanford's economic trajectory. In 1913 there were 35 collieries in the Amman Valley employing 7,900 people, and the valley would never have so many coal mines or coal miners again. The 1923 edition of Kelly's Directory now gives the seating in the Ivorites Hall as just 600, a dramatic decline. In 1910 Poole's Pictorium (an early word for a cinema) had opened in Ammanford and the Palace cinema soon followed in 1914, so the the Ivorites' monopoly as the only large, non-religious assembly hall in the town was now well and truly over. These cinemas showed only silent movies at first but the sheer novelty of 'moving pictures' drew capacity audiences.

The early twentieth century saw the greatest growth in the town's population. From a tiny hamlet of 300 souls in 1811, Ammanford (called Cross Inn until 1880) had grown to 3,508 by the 1901 census, with a truly explosive growth to 6,074 by the next census in 1911. In the days before cinemas and the radio, the 1,600 seats in the Ivorites Hall would certainly have been filled as often as not. As well as public meetings, the Hall provided a venue for property sales and auctions; concerts, plays and drama festivals; and, on the more serious side, was also the site for the magistrate's court. The Ivorites Hall seems to have been available for all sorts of uses, including providing a place of worship for churches with no home to call their own.

It provided a venue for a while for the Ammanford branch of the Plymouth Brethren, a rather severe evangelical church, first established in Ammanford in 1884. In 1911 the Brethren opened the Gospel Hall, their own custom built church in nearby Lloyd Street, its floor constructed with a built-in slope to discourage the premises being used other than to preach the Gospel.

Ammanford's Roman Catholics, a small but dedicated group in an essentially Protestant area, also used the Ivorites Hall for their church services throughout the 1920s until they took possession of a former chapel property on Margaret Street in 1926, converting it into their own church called Our Lady of the Rosary.

The Hall also gave a home to the first adult education school in Ammanford, at a time when no provision was made for education after school leaving age, and very little education was available at all. On the 6th of March 1880, the famous Watcyn Wyn opened his 'college' in the Ivorites Hall, and this was a new beginning in education in the region. Two Independent (ie, Congregationalist) preachers were the first teachers of the 'Hope Academy' as the school was called, with Watcyn Wyn himself as assistant teacher, and P. R. Williams the headmaster. In July 1888, the school was moved to Gwynfryn House, [the street was later named 'College Street' after the school] and Gwynfryn school, or Watcyn Wyn's school, it was always called from then on. Here, Watcyn Wyn's influence was strong until his death in 1905. A history of Gwynfryn College can be found in the 'History' section of tyhis website, or click HERE.

The Ivorites Hall could also be said to be the place where Ammanford was born. Until 1880 Ammanford was known as Cross Inn after a coaching Inn which stood on what is now Ammanford Square. The rapid population growth appears to have been the reason for changing the name of the village, as Carmarthenshire had another Cross Inn, resulting in letters sometimes being mis-directed. This seems to be the prime factor that influenced prominent citizens to convene a public meeting with a view of changing the name. Despite several large public gatherings, no agreement was forthcoming, and eventually it was decided to refer the choice of a new name to a group of prominent local dignitaries. So, on Friday evening, the 20th of November 1880, the nominated committee met at the Ivorites Hall. After a long discussion it was proposed by Mr. A. A. Morris of Wernoleu, and seconded by Mr. W Jones of the Cross Inn Hotel, that from this time forth the village should he known as Ammanford. The proposal was accepted unanimously – there being no other name before the meeting. After the vote was taken, the Chairman of the meeting, Watcyn Wyn, could not resist announcing that 'Cross Inn' had finally been 'crossed out'.

While the aims of the Ivorites Order were partly that of a conventional Friendly Society, namely to foster unity and fraternity and to assist one another in sickness and adversity, they also took on another important role by promoting the practice of speaking and writing the Welsh language. Their primary purpose may have been to provide burial, accident and sickness benefits for their members, but in naming themselves after the patron of Wales's greatest poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym, they clearly wished to emulate Ifor Hael's great service by extending their patronage to the Welsh language and literature. This description of the nearby Llandeilo Ivorites in 1840 gives an idea of the idealistic and moralistic motives of the Order:

"There is only one Society of Ivorites in the Town [ie Llandeilo] which was commenced in the month of September, 1840, and consists of eighty members. The state of its finance is very healthy, the sum total being £400. The "Order of Ivorites" has done a vast deal, of late, towards the fostering of Welsh literature by giving prizes, and holding congresses to bring out native talent. It may be termed a good Institution for the working class, as it has in view their intellectual, as well us their moral and social improvement. This society is held at the Red Cow, Bridge Street."

['Llandeilo-Vawr and its Neighbourhood, Past and Present', by William Davies (Gwilym Teilo), page 21, originally published in 1858 and reprinted by Dyfed County Council in 1993].

Booklet issued to all Ivorites, displaying secret handshakes (called grips) and secret signals and warnings. (Photo: Carmarthenshire Archives Service.)

In keeping with many organisations of the working class at that time, the Ivorites had much of the paraphernalia now associated with today's Freemasons and Orange Orders – secret signs and handshakes, passwords, blood-curdling oaths of secrecy, and ferocious sounding punishments for anyone who divulged the Order's secrets. When the Ivorites were formed in 1836, associations of the working class, especially trade unions, were heavily restricted in their activities by the state authorities, even banned, and this gave rise to a climate of secrecy and suspicion. The Ivorites gave a special booklet to each member in which 15 signs and handshakes, or 'grips', were illustrated and explained (in both Welsh and English). We are shown, for example, a sign for "Warning a brother of danger", and "Assuring a brother of his safety without speaking to him". There were severe fines for revealing details of a lodge's business to outsiders and in their rule book as late as 1920, we see the following:

"The Unity Secretary shall issue a password every six months to enable members to obtain admission into Lodges and also a password annually for the use of travelling members". (section 43 (1)).

While such practices were, by 1920, purely ceremonial they offer a glimpse into a past when they would have had a practical basis.

The Ivorites were especially keen on the conduct of their members during meetings. In their 1897 rule book the following are just some of the fines levied on misbehaviour:

62.Rules to be observed at Lodge meetings
 When a member addresses the officer presiding he shall be standing, or be fined 3 pence, and any member interrupting another whilst addressing the lodge shall be fined 6 pence for each offence.
 Any member intoxicated at a meeting shall be fined 5 shillings for a first offence, 10 shillings for a second and 21 shillings for a third and subsequent offence
 If a member neglects to address the present or past officers by their respectful titles, he shall be fined 3 pence.
 If a member swears, sings an indecent song or gives and indecent toast or sentiment, or lays or offers to lay wagers, he shall be fined 1 shilling.

Many Friendly Societies of the day had radical political agendas but the Ivorites were much more conservative in their ambitions for society, at least in the beginning. When the Rebecca Riots spread like wildfire through the heartlands of Carmarthenshire in 1842 and 1843, some Ivorites were strongly opposed to both the aims and methods of the movement. In the middle of the year-long disturbances the Tralog Lodge of Ivorites near Carmarthen passed a series of resolutions which provided for the expulsion of any of their members known to have participated in illegal meetings. (See 'The Rebecca Riots – a Study in Agrarian Discontent', David Williams, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1971, page 157.). A Fuller discussion of the Rebecca Riots in our area can be found in the 'History' section of this website entitled 'The Dynevor Peerage: a History'.

Along with the Rechabite's Hall, which stood on what is now the Railway Hotel, the Ivorites Hall in Ammanford provided a venue for meetings, concerts and other gatherings, often of a political nature, and it flourished as the only such place in Ammanford until the cinemas and working men's clubs took over that role in the twentieth century. The Rechabites, founded in 1835, were a Temperance organisation advocating the abolition of drink. They were also a Friendly Society, but before anyone could join them and benefit from their insurance and savings scheme, a document had to be signed swearing that the proposed member and his family would not drink any alcoholic beverages. This document was known as 'The Pledge' (a pledge being a solemn promise), from which comes the phrase 'signing the pledge'.

The Ivorites Hall was put to use during and after the four month long Anthracite Strike of 1925 which had started in Ammanford at the end of April that year. During the next four months Ammanford was the epicentre for riots and mass demonstrations whose shock waves were felt all all over the district. On one day alone, July 30th 1925, there were riotous disturbances simultaneously at Ammanford square; Ammanford No 2 colliery, where there was a police baton charge; at Betws; and also at Wernos, Pantyffynnon and Llandybie collieries. And the major battle was yet to come, the so-called 'Battle of Ammanford' which occurred on August 4th. In total 198 miners were arrested with 58 being jailed for periods of up to one year. Months after the strike had ended there was still huge involvement as the prisoners were released, and on April 3rd 1926 a mass rally in the Ivorites Hall in Ammanford drew charabancs from all over the valley. Each prisoner on his release was awarded a medal and a scroll by the International Class War Prisoners Aid Association. (For a fuller account of the Anthracite Strike click HERE.)

Ticket for Grand Concert at Ammanford Ivorites Hall July 8th 1893: "Proceeds for the benefit of John Williams who met with an accident at Ammanford Colliery. Front seats two shillings" (Ticket kindly provided by John Evans.)

The role of the Ivorites, as well as promoting the Welsh language, was in keeping with other Friendly and Mutual Societies of the time, which included providing for members in financial difficulty, or in sickness, or who were unemployed, and providing assistance for widows, including burial expenses. Essentially, their financial role in those days before the welfare state was that of a modern-day insurance company with benefits paid from the weekly contributions, or premiums, of the members. The Ivorites would also organise fund-raising benefits for members in distress (see right).

The Ivorites was not the only Friendly Society functioning in the 19th century however. Gomer Roberts lists the ones operating in the Parish of Llandybie (which included modern-day Ammanford until 1903):

Name of the Club Meeting Place Members
Friendly Society of TradesmenBridgend Inn, Tycroes7721/6/1851
Labourers and OthersIvy Bush Inn, Llandybie1423/11/1831
No 1 Friendly SocietySchoolroom, Llandybie 471/12/1837
No 2 Friendly SocietySchoolroom, Llandybie 7527/10/1838
British Faithful & Friendly SocietyFarmers Arms, Penygroes1095/1/1855
Union Society Red Cow Inn, Llandybie5627/7/1830
Gomerian Society Red Cow Inn, Llandybie6822/6/1846
Source: 'Hanes Plwyf Llandybie' (History of the Parish of Llandybie), Gomer Roberts, 1939, page 79 in the English translation by Ivor Griffiths (1986)

When the Welfare State, along with various commercial organisations, took over these and similar roles in the twentieth century, most Friendly and Mutual Societies were doomed, forced to adapt or die. Our modern Building Societies, Insurance Companies and Trades Unions are the direct descendants of those who obeyed the Darwinian imperative and adapted – think of the number of modern insurance companies and former Building Societies who have the word 'Friendly', 'Mutual' or 'Union' in their titles. The Ivorites didn't, or wouldn't change, and on the 31st of December 1959, after a dissolution vote of 922 members for and 25 members against, the Ivorites ceased to exist. But even by the time of the First World War the Ivorites Hall in Ammanford had seen its best days. Winnie Griffiths was the wife of local MP Jim Griffiths and herself active in politics. Around the time of the First World War the Ivorites Hall was the main venue for political meetings in Ammanford, which Winnie Griffiths describes in her autobiography as follows:

"The Trades and Labour Council [the local TUC] organised meetings, sometimes outdoors on Ammanford Square, sometimes indoors in the shabby Ivorites Hall." (Winnie Griffiths, 'One Woman's Story',1979)

Try organising a public meeting on Ammanford Square today!

The only visible evidence of the Ivorites now are two public houses named after them in Swansea, the fossil remains of their past existence.

As the twentieth century dawned, the monopoly the Ivorites Hall had enjoyed as Ammanford's only large meeting venue would soon end. The arrival of the 'moving pictures' posed the first threat and two commercial cinemas opened in the town in 1910 and 1914. The Ammanford & District Miners Hall and Welfare Institute was opened in 1932, followed by Ammanford Social Club (the 'Pick and Shovel') in 1936, and these took on the role previously played by the Ivorites Hall in Ammanford's political, social and cultural life. The Ivorites Hall was rented to the government for a while and was used as the local Employment Exchange until the government bought it outright in 1968, promptly demolishing it and building the custom-designed Job Centre that currently stands in its place.

Endnote – Friendly Societies for Beginners

The history of Friendly Societies has become a branch of academic study in its own right, complete with its own organisations and journals. The 'Friendly Societies' Research Group', with its home at the Open University, is one such association of historians, whose website provides this brief description:

What is a friendly society?
Friendly societies are mutual aid organisations designed to help people protect themselves against hardship. The idea of friendly societies goes back at least as far as the seventeenth century. They were seen as a solution to the problems people and their families knew they would face should they fall ill or die leaving their children or spouse with limited resources. The friendly societies movement grew as new towns and industries developed in the nineteenth century and people found it difficult to rely on village communities. State provision for the poor included the threat of the workhouse.
.....Workers regarded friendly societies as a means of reducing their chances of ending their days there. At first, many societies were locally based groups. Each month members contributed a small sum, provided payouts to those who needed them and saved or invested the rest. In the twentieth century, state welfare provision in the UK improved. It was partly run through the friendly societies between 1911 and 1948. Since then, through mergers and closures, more than 18,000 friendly societies have been reduced to fewer than 300. They remain mutual, non-profit, distributing organisations, with no shareholders to pay, owned and managed by their members.

What do friendly societies do now?
Friendly societies continue to encourage savings and provide financial products, notably pensions, healthcare, insurance and banking, within an ethos of mutuality and friendliness. These products enable people to make their own decisions and to take responsibility for their own lives and those of their families. They also include tax-efficient savings plans designed to provide a head start for a child or grandchild. Many products take advantage of tax concessions available only to friendly societies and, of course, the profits go to friendly society members, not to shareholders. The Friendly Societies Act 1992 enabled friendly societies to incorporate, take on new powers and provide a larger variety of financial services through subsidiaries. (The 'Friendly Societies' Research Group' on the Open University website:

A visit to the archives of the South Wales Coalfield Collection, held at Swansea University, yielded some of the material on the Ivorites.
'The Dictionary of Welsh Biography' (Supplement), published under the auspices of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 2001).
'Hanes Plwyf Llandybie' (History of the Parish of Llandybie), Gomer Roberts, first published in Welsh in 1939, with an English translation by Ivor Griffiths in 1986.
'The Rebecca Riots – a Study in Agrarian Discontent', David Williams, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1971.
'Llandeilo-Vawr and its Neighbourhood, Past and Present', William Davies (Gwilym Teilo), originally published in 1858 and reprinted by Dyfed County Council in 1993.
'The Friendly Societies' Research Group' on the Open University website:

Date this page last updated: October 1, 2010