An Ammanford Childhood

ON SUNDAY evenings in the winter – when it was too cold, or wet, to go to chapel – Mother would gather us around her before the fire and show us the pictures in the album. As she turned the pages we would see the likenesses of Dadcu and Mamgu Llanddarog, Mother's father and mother who had died before I was born, and then of Dadcu and Mamgu Pontamman, Father's parents, one of whom, Mamgu, was still alive and living in the old home. Then there were the host of pictures of uncles and aunts and cousins and of my own brothers and sisters at varying stages on life's journey. Now I am old I too have an album and, being a nostalgic Welshman, I like to turn the pages and live life over again. This is my album as memory turns the pages.

Whenever one Welshman meets another away from their native land the first question they will ask each other is: 'Where are you from?' For every Welshman belongs to a village and a valley and a town. And I belong to the village of Betws, in the valley of the Amman and near to the town of Llanelli.

There are many villages called Betws in Wales. Everybody knows of Betws-y-Coed with its Swallow Falls. Very few people know of my Betws except those like me for whom it is home. The learned have argued for years, and still go on arguing about the origin and meaning of the name 'Betws'. I like the story which links all our Betwses with long ago. In olden days, before Henry VIII and all that, the Church would provide a sacred place where the folk could come and count their beads-and in time a village would grow around the 'Beads-house' and become another Betws as mine did. To distinguish it from all the others my Betws was known as 'Betws-mas-o'r-Byd' ('Betws-beyond -the-World'). My Betws is set by the side of the River Amman, which gives its name to my valley. The river begins its journey from the Black Mountains which stand at the head of the valley behind Brynamman. It flows in summer, and rushes in winter, down the valley to join the River Loughor at the bottom, on its way down to my town Llanelli. These are the three – the village, valley and town in which my life has been rooted all the seventy-odd years of my journey.

Father and Mother had made their home in a thatched cottage – the nearest to the river – and it was there that I was born on what Mother told me was a lovely Indian summer day (hâf bach Mihangel) in September of 1890. By the side of the cottage Father had built his smithy (yr êfail), that is why I am still known as 'Jim-yr-êfail' to those who grew up with me in our village.

My father belonged to a family with its roots deep in the life of our valley. One of my compatriots, the writer D. J. Williams of Fishguard, who worked and lived in Betws for a while, has painted a word-picture of my father and our family. In his autobiography 'Yn Chwech Ar Hugain Oed' ('When I was Twenty-six') he tells the story he had heard that my father's family were the descendants of a race of people born of the intermarriage of the women who belonged to the 'little dark people' of the Black Mountains with the warriors of the Roman Legion. And I can believe him, for that explains the Roman nose which marked out the faces of the Griffiths. D. J. Williams, not content with this discovery, goes on to say that Father was the very likeness of Joseph Stalin. My Griffiths grandfather was a smith and my father and two of his brothers followed him in his craft. I do not remember 'Dadcu Pontamman', as we called him, but I heard so much about him from old Twmi Hopkin that I feel as if I must have known him. Twmi was a regular visitor to our cottage. As soon as he entered our kitchen (y gegin fach) Mother would say 'Make room for Twmi by the fireside'. Seated in the big chair, Twmi would beg a cigarette (pib bapur – paper pipe, he would call it) from one of my elder brothers and turn to me and ask me to peel off the paper so that he could put the tobacco in his clay pipe. That done, he would settle down to tell us once more of the time when he had gone away with my grandfather to work at the ironworks at Ystalyfera making munitions for the Crimean War.

At the works Grandfather followed his craft and Twmi worked as his mate. They would walk the twelve miles to the works, toil long hours for 'good money' and once a month they would come home for a Sunday, walking the twenty-four miles there and back. Twmi's most vivid memories were of 'Fifty-Nine' – the cholera and the revival – and the story would end with Twmi singing one of the old revival hymns in his still sweet (if broken) tenor voice. My grandmother, Mamgu Pontamman, was still alive and survived till her ninety-fifth year. She had been Susannah Rhys, and was known to all as Susannah Rhysi. There were times when she and Twmi would sit together at our fireside and join in the story of the Crimea. But she had her own story of those days when she would walk all the way up the valleys and over the hills to faraway Merthyr to buy iron, straight from the ironworks, for use at the smithy, a journey of fifty miles, bringing back with her samples of what she had bought. She was proud of Dadcu's skill and would tell me, 'If ever you go as far as Ynyscedwyn [Ystradgynlais today] look at the gates of Sardis Chapel and you will be proud of your Dadcu.'

Mamgu did not have to depend on the fame of Dadcu – she herself was known, and revered, for her skill as a 'doctor'. People for 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. Sometimes when the malady was not to be seen with the eye there were ways of taking out the evil in the blood which were among the secrets of Susannah Rhysi. She bequeathed her secrets and her skills to her son, my Uncle Jerry, whose fame still survives at Penygroes, where he worked at the Emlyn Colliery for fifty years and on his retirement was made a presentation for his services to the community as a 'doctor'. The smith and the 'doctor' of Pontamman reared a family of five sons and one daughter, who between them have left a brood of Griffiths in the valley of the Amman.

My mother was Margaret Morris, the daughter of a handloom weaver who taught his craft to his three sons. My uncles each had a loom in their garden and on holidays I would be taken to see them making Welsh flannel. This they would carry to the fairs at Carmarthen and Llandeilo, where the colliers' wives came to buy the flannel to make the shirts and pants which the colliers wore in the coal-mine. The old colliers would say that this flannel was the best because it absorbed the sweat and did not become clammy and cold or make one shiver, as did the shoddy stuff from the shops. My Uncle Sam developed a kind of flannel which was much prized by women for their costumes – even the ladies of the 'county' became his patrons. So it was that William Griffiths and Margaret Morris came from two families of craftsmen. How sad it is to relate that there is no longer a single smith or weaver in either of the families. The old crafts, with those of the bootmaker, saddler and dressmaker, have become lost arts, and with them has gone a way of life and its values.

Ten children were born to my parents – six Sons and four daughters. Two of the sons died at birth and the eight of us who survived grew up in the cottage in Betws. I was the lucky one, y cyw melyn olaf ('the last yellow chick'), as the old saying goes. By the time I had arrived the older brothers and sisters were already at work, so that I was nurtured in the days of affluence. The 'hen gownt' ('the old debt') which every large family incurred while the older children grew up to working age, was already repaid. Indeed it was during my childhood that my father ventured to buy the old cottage and to build a new house. This brought me into contact with the two 'L's ' – landlords and leases, and their uses and misuses. The house was built out of the stones ('pobbles') which the River Amman brought down from the Black Mountains. The landlord was the riparian owner, so my father had to pay a shilling for every load of stones we gathered from the river bed. My father contracted with the stonemason to trim the stones and build the house. When all was done the new house had cost no less than £150, and it was a happy day when father announced to the assembled family that the last penny bad been paid and that the new house was now our castle. Except – and this is where the riparian owner changed his role and became the landowner – the site was leased to my father on a ninety-nine years' lease with what the lawyers called a covenant, and which I came to call by other names, for it meant that at the end of the ninety-nine years the house would 'revert' to the landlord. However, that time was not yet, and so we rejoiced in our castle. And, of course, the smithy remained.

The village of the 'Beads-house' had by now been merged with the bigger village across the river to become the township of Ammanford. The world was beginning to discover the value of anthracite coal and new mines were being opened. The smiths' old customers, the farmers, were getting fewer so that Father had to adapt his skill to new tasks – the sharpening and tempering of the colliers' mandrels and the making of hobnails for the colliers' pit boots. This meant changing the working hours at the smithy – for the colliers would bring their tools at the end of their shift, around five in the evening, and they had to be ready for the next morning. To enable the job to be done in the winter months the boys of the family were recruited in turn for duties at the smithy – holding the candle while father sharpened the tools on the anvil, and holding the sharpened tools in the 'bosh', a tub of water into which the red-hot mandrel would be plunged and held until it was 'tempered', fit to cut the 'stone coal' in the 'little vein'. On Saturdays we became the collectors, going around the cottages to gather in the money for the work done during the week.

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. I can see the 'Stalin' there. 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. By the time I came to hold the candle the order had changed, for it was the time of the Boer War and Lloyd George was lighting valiantly against the enemy on his own side as well as the ancient enemy, the Tories. 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. My last recollection of the village parliament is of the burning indignation at Balfour's Education Act of 1902 – with the injustice of asking dissenters to pay for the schools of the alien Church. This carried us out of the smithy to the road to march to the demonstration at Ammanford where the great man himself – David Lloyd George – was the orator. So it was that I began my training in politics, demonstrations and all that goes to the making of a politician – on the way from one parliaments to another.

Meantime, there was school to attend – indeed two schools, the Board School and the Sunday School. The Betws Board School is still there and nowadays it proudly boasts of the two M.P.s who once were among its pupils, Thor Richards, the Member for Baron's Court, and myself. In my days the headmaster was John Lewis – a kindly man from Cardiganshire. He had two ambitions for his pupils: to learn to read and to enjoy reading, and to write in the 'Cusack' style – thin strokes up and thick strokes down. He told my father that I was a 'good pupil'. I am afraid that if he came back he would be furious with my handwriting, but pleased that the love of books and reading abides. For this precious gift which he nurtured so tenderly I salute his memory. Was it H.G. Wells who said, through one of his characters, 'The wonderful world of books – the happy refuge from the cares of every day'? John Lewis spoke no Welsh, and the only two songs which he taught us were 'The Last Rose of Summer' and 'Home, Sweet Home'.

We formed two teams, the village boys and the farmer boys from the hills around. We had no playing grounds, but we had a rich variety of games and, of course, cricket and rugger. While we were at school fame came to our community, for Dr Lloyd's son Percy had won his Welsh cap as a wing three. From that day we all dreamed that we too would some day streak along the touch line, ball tucked under our arm, and plunge over the line to score the winning try against England.

That was one school. The other was the Sunday School at the Christian Temple, the Welsh chapel with the English name. Here the 'headmaster' was John Evans the stationmaster. He was a born teacher who had a remarkable way with children. We would gather in the chapel vestry, a rowdy lot; in would come John Evans, always in a rush, jump on to the rostrum and no sooner had he called us to order with his 'Nawr te mhlant I' ('Now my children') than we were his to command. Always he began with a song in Welsh, 'Mae Iesu Grist yn Derbyn plant bychan fel nyni', and would send us home with:

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone,
Dare to have a purpose firm,
And dare to make it known.

And as we sang we knew who our Daniel was – John Evans the stationmaster. Every year we would learn a cantata with a lesson to impress our young minds' with the need for the boldness of a Daniel to face life's battles. And the giant evil to be fought was drink, as in the cantata, 'Buy your own cherries'. So I grew up in the simple society of our village – home, schools and play, and soon I was of the age to be launched on the workaday world.

At the age of thirteen I had reached the top of the ladder at the Betws Board School – Standard X 7. Already some of my classmates had started work at pit or mill and on Saturdays would swank about their pocket-money. At home I had overheard whispered conversations about my future. Should it be the mine, the tinplate mill, or another school? One of my classmates had found a place at the intermediate school at Llandeilo and we envied him his cap and blazer. My father had his own plan for me. To the coal-mine for a year or so, and then to the Gwynfryn, a school established by Watcyn Wyn, our poet-preacher, to prepare students for the nonconformist ministry. This was the road along which I was to travel from pit to pulpit. But first to the pit as a collier's boy.

Sixty years after, I recalled that first day in the mine in an article in the Western Mail which, by the courtesy of the editor, I include in these memoirs. I was going on fourteen and had reached the top of the ladder – Standard X 7 – at our village school at Betws.

Ever since this last year had begun the 'Old Master', John Lewis, had been striving ever so hard to initiate us into the mysteries of algebra and mensuration. It must have been a hard task for him; it was certainly hard going for us.

When he grew tired of his labours he would hand each one of us a copy of one of his two favourite books – Ballantyne's Coral Island or Marryat's Mr Midshipman Easy – and leave us alone to read. Meanwhile, he would turn his attention to those lower mortals who shared our room, the Sevens, and on one occasion he made me feel very proud when he called my name and asked me to show my exercise book to them as an example in the art of penmanship, Cusack style, thin lines up and thick lines down!

The 'New Master', Rhys Thomas (a Betws boy who had come back to his old school as a teacher), was a man of music. He was the leader of our village brass band and that put him on a high pinnacle. After the Christmas holidays he had enrolled the X-7s to sing in the school choir. We were needed: the girls as 'top sopranos', and the boys as 'lower altos' to sing 'Y Bwthyn ar y Bryn' at the Dewi Sant concert.

Easter followed, and when I came back to school after the holidays most of my school mates had gone. The boys from the mountain (cryts y rnynydd) had stayed to help their fathers on the farm. The boys from the village (cryts y pentre), had gone to work at the coal-mine, or the tinplate mill.

I felt very lonely at school and even lonelier of an evening as we gathered for cricket on 'Cae'r Ynys' by the Amman river. My old mates now belonged to a different world to me. They wore long trousers and flashy cravats. They flourished their pink packets of 'Cinderella' fags before my eyes and blew the smoke curling up to the sky.

They would keep on chattering about their new world as they talked of how many trams they had filled. It was worst of all on Saturdays, when we wended our way over the river to the bright lights of Ammanford Square. They would display their silver sixpence which made the penny in my pocket shrink.

I could not bear it any longer – not even till July when school would be over anyhow. I had to join them at once, at mine or mill. Which was it to be? I had three older brothers at home; two at the coal-mine, and the oldest one of all was already a millman at the tinplate works. It was the brother next to me, Shoni, who decided my destiny. He was working as a 'senior colliers' boy' ('crwtyn tro') with John Davies (a Cardi, or native of Cardiganshire) at the Betws Colliery, and there was a vacancy in his stall for a junior ('crwtyn bach').

That settled it. I was to start next Monday. At once preparations began for the great day. My mother had been to Uncle Sam's (the weaver] to buy his special blue Welsh flannel to make shirts and drawers. A brand new pair of moleskin trousers had been bought and washed to get the smell out. Two big pockets had been sewn to the insides of the coat, which belonged to my second best suit, to hold the box and jack. My father had nailed my heavy boots, and best of all there was a strong leather belt and a pair of yorks to tie under my knees.

So it was that one Monday in June I set out with Shoni at six in the morning up the road to Betws Colliery. I was taken to the office to see old Picton the gaffer, and there I signed the book of the contract between me and the Ammanford Colliery Co. Ltd. Off then to the lamproom to 'raise my lamp' with a command from the Lampman to remember my number – 317.

Holding the handle tight I went on to the 'spake' and down the slant to the double parting of the little vein. John Davies's stall was the third up the 'heading', and when we reached near to the coal face and put our coats and waistcoats safely on the nails on the arms of the 'par dwbwl', the day's work began.

My first job was to fill the coal into the 'curling box' and carry it to the tram and empty it all inside the tram. There was a 'pitch' in the seam. From the upper side it was not too bad – I soon learnt that the 'box' would slide down – but from the lower side it was hard pushing. In the course of the long day – from seven to half-past four – Shoni explained to me what the various tools were for: the two mandrels, 'Cam a Cwt'; the sledge and wedge; the hatchet and the bar; and last, because the most hated, the 'Trowr' to bore holes in the coal but leave marks on the groin!

There can be no more joyful banquet than the miners' snap time. I joined the 'cryts bach' from the other 'stalls' on the heading to enjoy the bread and butter and cheese – with a tomato for 'afters' – and swill it all down with pearl-barley water, which Shoni had found to be best for slaking a thirst.

At long, long last came the colliers' "Who goes home?" – "Tools on the bar and ou"'. The journey back to the double parting did not seem half as long and we were soon on the spake and in no time out to the top and the June sunshine. The first day was safely over.

Home to a feast prepared by Mam for her three colliers – 'Cawl-Cig a Tatws', 'pwdin rice' and tea. For the once, as a special favour, the youngest was at the head of the queue for the 'tub' and I rushed down to join my mates on Cae'r Ynys. . . . Once again I was one of them. I could now talk of trams and all that. The penny mother gave me had been quickly turned into a pink packet of Cinderellas, and come Saturday I would have a silver sixpence, for I was now earning is 1s 3d plus percentage, a shift.

That was a lot of money when pay day came once a fortnight, and I knew from Shoni that John Davies-Cardi gave his boys extra for themselves if they were good boys and gave all their pay to their Main.

And so it was that on that Monday in June a new collier joined the ranks.

The hard struggle to raise a family of eight was now over, for all of us were at work and Father and Mother would find life easier. My two eldest sisters were working at the tinplate mill as 'plate openers'. The 'box' of plate (about 112 separate sheets) had been through the furnace, rolled and doubled, and rolled again, then dipped in the 'pickling tub' and would then reach the bench where my sisters and their fellow 'openers' would wrench each separate sheet away from the 'box' and pass it on its way to become 'sospan fach'. My youngest sister had been put out to service with a local tradesman who was a trusted deacon at our chapel, and the other sister stayed at home to help Mam. My eldest brother had started work at the mill and had advanced to the stage of a 'behinder' at the rolls, when he was struck by illness which was only cured by an operation at Guy's Hospital. On his return he changed to a 'healthier' job in the coal-mine. The other three of us were already in the mine on the way to become hewers of coal, and anthracite coal at that. We were now installed in our new house, Bryn Villa, with its commodious accommodation, kitchen, middle room and parlour, and four bedrooms, two big and two small. Of course there had to be some doubling up, two in a bed, by the younger ones. There was no bath or hot water; these were luxuries reserved for 'them'. So each day Mother, and the sister at home, had to boil water for the tub in which the colliers took turns, the youngest enjoying for a while the privilege of 'going first'. After the tub there would come the dinner. There would, first, be cawl, home-made broth, a kind of super version of what chefs call minestrone. On some weekdays (and always on Sundays) there would be butcher's meat; on other days Mother would draw upon the supply of bacon and hams which hung from the kitchen roof. The vegetables in their season would come from our garden, and there were always plenty of potatoes for, in addition to those we grew in our garden, there were the extras from the 'row in the farmer's field' which our family, like others, were allowed to plant under the reciprocal agreement by which the family helped the farmer with the harvest. Bread and cakes were home baked and there would be 'teisen-Iap', a special kind of fruit cake baked on a flat iron 'bake stone'. Plain fare, but in plenty, and we all grew up strong and healthy. Two of my sisters lived to their eighties, the other two lived out the allotted span. My eldest brother paid the price of coal at twenty-nine, the next brother survived fearful burns and lived to win fame as a bard and writer in Welsh. The next to me, who sponsored me in the mine, went through the battle of the Somme, and came back to the pit with his lungs full of gas to work in the mine till he collapsed and died. Now I am left alone in my seventies to turn the pages of our family album.

In the year in which I started work, 1904, came the 'Welsh revival'. This was not one of those elaborately organized and expensively advertised affairs we have seen in more recent times. This was a homespun revival inspired by a young coal-miner who had entered an academy to be trained for the nonconformist ministry. Evan Roberts (for that was his name) came to one of the chapels in our village and all our family went to hear him. I do not remember a word of what he said, but I can still see him standing up in the pulpit, tall, with dark hair falling over his face, and the quiet voice reaching the gallery as if he were singing. Why did it happen? That is a question beyond me. All that I have are the memories of a boy who had just started work, of how everything seemed to be suddenly different. There were services down the mine, in which the gaffer took part, and our home was turned into a chapel. For a year or two it transformed life in the valleys, then it seemed to fade out, leaving behind a void which was later filled by another kind of revival, as I shall come to relate.

I count myself fortunate to have been nurtured in a home which had its own world of books. Father had his Bible commentaries and his radical journals. My eldest brother had religious books by Henry Drummond, Jeremy Taylor and Thomas a Kempis. The brother who became the bard had his tomes of Welsh poetry and prose and his sheafs of manuscripts. The next to me had his own world of boys' papers, three each week: Marvel, Pluck and Union Jack. And in due time there was added my own collection of pamphlets and periodicals. Most important of all in their influence on me were the two journals which came to our home because we were dissenters. These were the denominational weekly The Examiner and its companion The Christian Commonwealth. Both had one feature in common, the weekly sermon by the minister of the Congregational Cathedral (the City Temple), the Rev. R. J. Campbell. These weekly sermons suddenly threw two bombs into our family circle, the New Theology and Socialism. This set us all arguing at home, at chapel, and in the mine and mill. Four years after Evan Roberts, there came to our valley the new theologian from the City Temple, and from Merthyr the Socialist Scotsman who was causing a stir in the valleys. The journals and their sermons, and the visits of the preacher and politician, were to lead me to 'The Movement' which ever after was to be my life.

(Source: Jim Griffiths, 'Pages From Memory', J M Dent 1969, pages 1 - 12, 'Roots')

Brief Biography
James Griffiths became a Labour M.P. in 1936 and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in 1956. Jim Griffiths was one of those articulate, strongly principled sons of the working class who played a major part in establishing the Labour Party as a credible opposition and eventually as a government. A stalwart of the Trades Union, non-intellectual wing, Jim Griffiths was born in 1890. He was born, and received his schooling, in Ammanford, Carmarthenshire. Like nearly all the men in 'the valleys' at that time, Jim Griffiths and his three brothers were miners, so he learned the hardness of the pitman's life at first hand. After leaving school he continued his education at London's Labour College. A convinced opponent of the 1914-18 war, he was secretary of Ammanford Trades Council [the local TUC], 1916-1919, and President of the South Wales Miners' Federation from 1934 to 1936. And was thus able to understand the problems and responsibilities of those called upon to represent the manual worker.

He was Minister of National Insurance from 1945 to 1950 when the Welfare State was being created, and Secretary of State for the Colonies, 1950-1951. He became deputy leader of the Labour Party to Hugh Gaitskell in 1956 and finally Secretary of State for Wales, an office he held in the 1964-1966 Wilson Government.

Through Jim Griffiths we can see the early strivings of Labour in Wales, its eventual takeover from the Liberals, and the galloping change in the Amman valley as an intimate, self-sufficient society with its life centred on the miners institutes, libraries and home-grown entertainments melted away.

Date this page last updated: October 1, 2010