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Recollections_of_a_Garw_Boy_

My father died on December 16th 1923. I was 7 months old, brother Edmund was 3 years, and brother Merlin was just 2 years old. If he had lived I'm sure we would have been a very large family. From that day on, we were a one-parent family and although life for my mother must have been pretty hard, we boys never felt deprived in any way. Our mother was very protective, and although she was quite poor by any standard of the time, the offer to take one of us off her hands, was met with the response "none of them's going".

My early recollections are of living in a basement of two rooms under the home of Mr and Mrs Gear in a street called Gloucester Buildings in Pantygog. I must have been about three years old, because I started school from there and remember crying when my mother left me. I also remember the lady who's family owned the bakers shop Mrs Tutt, giving me a book called "Chicks Own", a well used childs book belonging to one of her children. I think it pacified me because I still remember the moment.

It must have been some years before my next memory of moving to Cuckoo Street Pantygog and the opening of my mother's corner shop. This must have given us a reasonable standard of living, with all around the Clock opening hours. In fact, I don't think the shop was ever actually closed. Miners on their way to work, would knock on the door as early as six in the morning for a packet of Five cigarettes, take one or two and leave the rest to be collected on their way home from work. (Cigarettes and matches were not allowed at the PitHead.)

Giving credit known as 'Tick' was a way of life in those days. One local shop had a clock in a prominent position with a notice stating 'No tick here'. One of my jobs on the way home from school on a Friday would be to call and try to get a payment off some of the bills owing to us. Some people would owe about ten shilling (50p) and may pay off as little as sixpence (2 and halfpence) a week if we were lucky. Then again some people would say 'not this week' but I kept calling. The cheeky buggers would make you sign and deduct the amount from the original bill, but it was all good training for my future career.
We sold all sorts in our shop, sweets, cigarettes, vegetables some clothes (woman's pinafores,) home made toffee apples (we cut the sticks from any old box wood, complete with splinters) but at halfpenny each, no one had cause to complain. Some weeks there was home made faggots and peas and people came with a basin or jug to make their purchase. Of course there were no Health and Safety rules like today or otherwise the stuff would not have left the kitchen.
We also sold fireworks for Guy Fawkes Night, but not many people could afford to spend money on such a thing. The best banger we had, was a tin with a tight lid fitting, we then made small hole at the other end of the tin. We would put a small rock of Carbide in the tin, wet it , which gave off gas fumes. We would then place the tin on the floor, put our foot on it to hold it down, touch a light to the small hole, and there would be an almighty bang as the gas exploded blowing the lid off the tin, and of course you could do this over and over again. The tighter the lid, the bigger the bang.
One year my mother was taken to court on a Gunpowder charge. This came about when the local copper walked in and found the fireworks on sale on the counter in an old biscuit tin. Of course we know now that they should have been under glass. The policeman who summoned her came back a few days later to check that we had a licence to sell fireworks. By the time he came back we did, because Merlin had been sent down to the Council Offices to get one, so we felt we'd had one up on him. The case went to court, and we had to pay four shillings costs.

My mother had a helper, not a quite a maid, but a general hard working ex farm girl. She was known by all and sundry as Maggie the Farm. I must admit I don't recall her surname, if she had one. She was a rough diamond, and showed very little emotion but I always felt she was fond of us boys and my mother said I was her favourite. I suppose we were her surrogate family. Maggie used to have fits. I don't know what sort, but she would go rigid, moan, and foam at the mouth. We were used to it, so if she had a turn in the Chapel, they would get one of us to look after her. The only action we took was to rub her hand (as instructed by my Mother) until she came out of it. I don't think it did any good, but it gave the impression that one was helping. When she came round, usually after a few short minutes, she would shake you off and act as if nothing had occurred. As I said, she was pretty tough, and her cure for chilblains (which I suffered from) was to thrash your feet with holly until they bled. I took the other option, and suffered. Years later, when we were grown up and visiting the old places of our youth, we always made a point of looking up Maggie.

Growing up in the Garw Valley was a child's dream. The mountains were our playgrounds, and we roamed for miles, never with any fear. We had quarries to climb hills and valleys to explore, and dens to build. Some of our dens were a work of art. They were so well constructed that we would spend hours in them. We had fires and chimneys, and lined them with bits of carpet and old mats. We spent hours in these smoke filled dens, smelt not too sweet, but as we all smelt the same we didn't notice.

Very few families had a wireless (radio), and I remember standing outside one house with a gang of other kids waiting to hear the chimes of Big Ben at Six o'clock. We weren't invited in but they left the door open so that we could hear. On another occasion a newspaper van from Cardiff drove up through the valley, with a big sign posted on each side of it.
"R1O1 CRASH"
This was a new British Airship on its maiden flight and had crashed in France. People waited outside the house with a wireless, to hear the latest news- I know, cos I was there (October 7th 1930). I was about seven years old.

Sunday in the valley was a day of closure. The only places open were the chapels, and churches. Of course there were no cinemas or pubs open on that day It was the day when you wore your Sunday best, and if you had no Sunday best, you rarely went out on that day. We were lucky, because we all had a Sunday best. Even our boots had less studs or hobnails on a Sunday. We went to Sunday school just to have somewhere to go. Salem was our local chapel and was all Welsh. We sang in Welsh, read verses in Welsh, and prayed in Welsh, but we couldn't understand the meaning of the words. When Brother Ed and Merlin were a bit older, they were allowed to stay at home from Sunday school. I went because I met my pals on this boring day. One day as I went out, Ed called out "Say a prayer for us" I called back "Say your own bloody prayers". After Chapel we would roam around the lower level of our mountains, with the threat of "don't you dare get that suit dirty'. This restricted our activities somewhat but we would always find something to do .We had a local tramp(John the Tramp) who lived on the mountain, so some times we would visit him ,sit in his little shanty and let him tell us some stories, or we would make up some stories to tell him. I know the one time we came across a dead sheep, and with it being Sunday we felt a bit religious, so we dug a hole and buried the thing. For a few weeks after we would visit the site and stand around the (grave) plant a few stones, and hope the sheep hadn't suffered too much. I just hoped it was dead when we buried it.

The Chapel was a main source of activities, with concerts, operettas and wonder of wonders the yearly Chapel outing to the seaside. On this day, most of the people and certainly the kids were loaded on a fleet of buses and taken to Porthcawl or Barry for the day. It was the greatest day of the year, because no one to my knowledge went away on holiday, and this was the day when you went with all your pals. "Wonderful". One year we were ready to go, when my mother spotted a little lad standing on the doorstep of his house watching us preparing to set off on our adventure. A real little urchin ragged and dirty (why are poor families kids always so bloody dirty). Anyway my Mother said "Hold the bus", she grabbed the dirty little sod, gave him a quick wash, stuck an old pair of our trousers on him, plus a jersey and took him with us. I think his name was Billy Greenslade. I wonder what happened to him in later life.

My best school pal was Tommy Rees . There were only two days between our birthdays. Tommy was on May 6th and mine was on May 8th. We went through the whole of our school days together, and yet on Tommies 14th birthday he went away to join the Royal Marines boys band, and on my 14th birthday we moved to Gloucester and I never heard a word of him since. Away from school I always had a gang of five or six pals, where-as Ed and Merlin had mainly single mates. A suitable meeting place was outside the shop, where we had a small garden and a low wall where we could sit and plan or plot our exploits for the day or week

There was no legistation covering the working hours of school kids employed in part time jobs. I was about eleven when I had my first job delivering newspapers. I had to be at the railway station to meet the first train at six o'clock, and the papers were sorted at the station. I had a little (Gambo) a small four wheeled box, and this I pulled up the hills but had the pleasure of riding down all the gradients. Wonderful feeling. My Auntie Mag had a fish and chip shop and the fresh fish arrived twice a week on the same early morning train. This was to be another source of income. The fish were packed in ice, in slatted boxes, and they leaked from the moment you picked them up. I'm sure my Tuesday and Friday newspapers had a flavour. I had one shilling (five new pence) a week for collecting the fish, and two shilling (ten new pence) for delivering the one hundred and ten newspapers daily, come rain or shine. When I found the people were charged a penny a week delivery charge. I asked Mr Fox for a rise from 2 shilling (ten new pence) to 2 shilling and six pence(twelve and a halfpence). He said I should mind my own business and gave me the sack. Still I got another job with the John Bull Stores. They were the early leaders of the present day supermarkets My hours of work were 4.15 to 6.30on a Thursday, 4.15 to anything up until 10 on a Friday and all day Saturday 9 till 9. For this I was paid four-shilling (twenty new pence a week). I went out in all sorts of weather, dragging or pushing a hand truck loaded with boxes of groceries for delivery. The furthest point of the delivery was Blaena Terrace the highest point in the valley. Dragging the truck over uneven ground would shake the goods to hell, and often there would be a trail of sugar from the split large pre-packed paper bags. One of our duties after the shop was closed, would be to help weigh and pack the bags of various products delivered in large sacks. Fruit like raisins and currants would be tipped out onto sacks on the floor and while some of us picked out the maggots, others would be weighing and bagging in the different coloured paper bags, blue, brown and white. There was a skill in closing the bag, which meant after folding, you could tip the bag upside down and not a grain of sugar would fall out. We spent many late hours doing this and I remember my mother banging on the shop door at about 10'o clock one night shouting 'When are you letting those boys home'. It didn't seem to do us any harm, and it was all part of life and growing up in that day and age.

I was named after my Grancher(Grandfather) David Lewis. He was not an educated man, he could barely read or write, but he was a respected elder of the valley, and held the view that "you can buy education, but you can't buy brain". He may have had a point because, he was on the committee of the local Co-op, and also on the local education committee. He made the occasional visit to our school, when we were told to sit up and look smart for the visit of an important person. In would walk my Grancher looking very distinguished indeed. Another notable character was our Uncle Dai. He was the brother of our Granny, and was sometimes called 'Dai Yank'. This came about because he had apparently been in America at the time of the First World War, and joined the American Army as a free passage back to Britain. I don't think he got involved in any war like experiences, and stayed in this country perhaps to fight another day. He was known for his story telling, (typical Yank) and they did say that he told such good lies that he believed them himself. There was nothing he wouldn't turn his hand to. He kept chickens and other wild life. We kids sometimes had the privilege of holding a chicken tight to stop it flying, while Uncle Dai would hold its head over a block and chop its head off. He would also cut our hair, but was best known to us kids when he took an old bell tent to Ogmore -by -Sea for most of the summer. We would go to stay with him for a week or so, and he would aim to teach us some various crafts, such as how to hit a seagull with a slingshot. (Another typical Yankee show off). He would walk us for miles and as a little boy I remember saying after being out for hours while walking home to camp, "how much farther Uncle Dai". He would say "not far". Later I would say " how much farther now Uncle Dai". He would say " not far now, were nearly half way". When you're a tired little lad of eight or nine, it makes an impression on you.

Another lasting impression is to remember the old style Welsh funeral. When anybody died, a notice would be displayed in various public places such as lamp posts and hoarding stating the time, etc, but would always state, Men Only. On the day of the funeral, people would assemble outside the home of the person concerned, and as the coffin would be carried out from the house (there were no chapels of rest those days) someone would start the singing of a Hymn and all would join in the singing. Very often various people on route would carry the coffin to the cemetery. Sometimes, depending on the age of the person the procession would snake along for hundreds of yards as the people followed, or joined the procession on route. Everyone would then assemble around the graveside, and after the Minister had said his piece the whole assembly would break into song with the final Hymn, as the coffin was lowered to its final resting-place. The last time I saw this was at my Aunty Phoebe's funeral. We arrived at the house in Nantymoel, the streets were deserted. The family gathered in the living room, the Minister arrived, said a prayer over a large family Bible open on the table. We then left the house, and on the previously deserted street, were a great number of men all in black. The coffin was borne on a hearse, followed by the mourners and assembled crowd. At the cemetery the normal procedure was carried out, followed by a Hymn. I was told this practice was still done for the old people, but I'm sure it's not done anymore. The ideal time for a real Welsh Funeral is on a damp, foggy, misty day, when As my Mother once said, "Even the mountains weep".

I must have been about twelve or thirteen when the most serious event in my life, up until then took place. I was on my way home for dinner from school just after twelve o'clock. We passed the entrance to the pithead of the Ffaldau Colliery, where a large crowd had gathered surrounding an Ambulance. There had obviously been an accident and I heard someone say "its Edmund Thomas from Pantygog" My feet barely touched the ground as I ran and ran to get home as quickly as I could, but the Ambulance overtook me before I could get there. When I did get there, the Ambulance had already stopped to pick up my Mother and was away to Cardiff Infirmary. No one knew of the extent of Ed's injuries, And there was chaos in the house. All the neighbours were there. I don't know who was looking after the shop, but I remember one woman over the washing tub, finishing the washing that my Mother had been in the middle of doing. There was so much going on that I had to get away from it all, so I went up to our bedroom to cry and pray on my own. It was a long day. We had no information until about six o'clock that evening when the Ambulance came back with my Mother and Ed on board. What a relief, his injuries were not too bad but he had had a lucky escape which would prove to be a turning point in all our lives. Had my prayers been answered? I don't know, but I'd like to think they helped. Ed made a good recovery and was out and about in a week or so. One person asked him how his brother was after the accident, and Ed told him he was going on all right. My Mother had arranged for Ed to go to our Auntie Tina's in Gloucester for a break and while he was there he had the chance of a job, and took it. He lodged with Auntie Tina, but I don't think he liked it very much.

I don't know when my Mother made the decision to move to Gloucester and to give us a chance to get away from working in the coal mines, but it was a tremendous decision on her part, and a great sacrifice to leave the safety of our village and friends, to start a new life in a new environment. We know she only did it for us boys, and it was only in later life that we fully appreciated the sacrifice she had made on our behalf. The leaving was quite an exiting time, and the adventure of moving kept my mind off the fact that I would be leaving my lifetime pals. The removal van arrived, and was duly loaded with our worldly possessions. My mother and Mrs James (my Mothers best friend) sat up front with the driver, while the rest of us sat in the back, including the cat. We arrived in Gloucester to find our new home to be in a rather posh area of the city. We were to share this large house with another family from Pontycymmer whose name was also Thomas. Our large living room had a marble fire place and mantle shelf. One of our first pieces of furniture, a mantle mirror looked really good on the shelf, but as we turned around to find something to fix it to the wall, it fell and smashed to pieces. I cried and said, "Mam, lets go home". Was this to be Seven Years bad luck, and on my Fourteenth Birthday?.

David Thomas



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