EDITORIAL: INTRODUCTION TO PENCAMBRIA NUMBER 39 Winter 2018
Well I hope you have all managed to cool down after the hottest summer since 1976. I certainly never thought that I would have to be carrying drinking water to the house again, especially for so long. Luckily there is a laundrette in Llanidloes now so I didn’t have to go and stand in the river to do the laundry like I did then.
We have had a sad loss to the PenCambria team this month: Diana Brown, who was a stalwart of our local history and heritage articles, died quite suddenly in August. We will miss her greatly and you will find an appreciation of her beginning this month’s issue. We have had glimpses of the illustrious career another colleague; Reginald Massey, and earlier this year he received another accolade, the P.D. James Award, for which he receives our hearty congratulations. For centuries, leather and leather goods manufacturing were one of the staple means of income in Llanidloes. Alas most of that has now gone and Diana Ashworth has been talking Llanidloes leatherman, Len Davis, who is the last of his kind, and what an extraordinary career he had, too. Shivering around the coke stove, far from the heat of this summer, Norma Allen remembers her school days in Llandrindod Wells.
Ivor Davies has had a book on 18th century veterinary practices in his family’s possession for many generations and he and Brian Poole have written an article integrating a commentary on that and bilingualism in Aberhafesb over the centuries. The Davies family of Llandinam are well known for their philanthropic support for so many projects in mid Wales especially in the fields of culture and the arts. Their wealth came originally from David Davies’s enterprises in the south Wales coal fields and Barry docks. Peter wrote a biographical sketch chronicling the lives of David Davies and his grandson David Davies, the 1st Baron Davies, and this is will be serialised in the next few editions of PenCambria. This month’s chapter is all about the first David Davies, or Top Sawyer, as he was known.
Trust between man and bird, and a butterfly are the subjects of Bruce Mawdesley’s exquisite little pieces this month.Richard Meredith is in pursuit of the Manuels whose name he bears.
After Chris Barrett’s introduction to megaliths in mid Wales, Lawrence Johnson has been on a strenuous hunt for a stone circle high in the moorlands behind Carno. Michael Apichela, on the other hand, shows us the delights lower down in the seaside town that is Aberystwyth. Michael has a love of all things Aberystwyth and he just cannot keep his feelings in check with both a piece of prose and a poem celebrating this seaside resort and its traditions and introducing us to one of its artists, Karen Pearce.
In 2014 we began our commemoration of the centenary of the First Word War with Brian Lawrence’s account of the Home Front in Rhayader with a compilation of reports from the newspaper, council and other groups. This year sees the centenary of the end of this dreadful conflict and the documentary section of this magazine ends with his compilation of accounts relating to 1918 up to the armistice in November of that year.
Last year the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments in Wales began a project on place names in Wales. The history of Mid Wales, more so than north or south, can be said to be revealed in our place names so I have suggested to our writers that we could do something similar here. Jim French has started the ball rolling. If any of you would like to send me information about place names in your area I should be delighted to hear from you and perhaps we can add it to what we already have.
In the Dragon’s Crypt, thrills and chills for Hallowe’en from Norma Allen, Michael Apichela’s Ode to Aberystwyth and two beautiful poetic meditations on birth and death at the turn of the year from Paul Hodgon.
CONTENTS OF PENCAMBRIA 39
Diana Brown, 14th August 1932-13th August 2018, an appreciation compiled by Gay Robert
Reginald Massey awarded P.D. James Award
The PenCambria Quiz number 2
Last Leatherman in Llanidloes Diana Ashworth
Veterinary Practice and Bilingualism in 19th Century Aberhafesb Brian Poole
David Davies(Top Sawyer) 1818-1890 – a biographical sketch Peter Lewis
Walking the Old Ways of Radnorshire: book review Lawrence Johnson
What’s in a Name? Richard Meredith
The Butterfly Bruce Mawdesley
Will the Circle be Unbroken? Lawrence Johnson
Karen Pearce : a Welsh Artist of Many Hues Michael Apichela
From Coke Stoves to Computers Norma Allen
In Praise of Old Aberystwyth Michael Apichela
The End of the Great War – Rhayader 1918 Brian Lawrence
Fields and ‘Edges Jim French
Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales – Latest Research into Abermagwr
AS USUAL THE EDITOR HAS CHOSEN ONE ARTICLE TO PUBLISH ON THE WEBSITE IN FULL
LAST LEATHERMAN IN LLANIDLOES by Diana Ashworth
In the 1549 record of the Court of Great Sessions there is a reference to Stryd Gwyr y Gloferiaid (Street of Glovers) suggesting a flourishing glove making trade in the town of Llanidloes. Leather working would seem to have been an obvious enterprise for a town like Llanidloes – an economy being an industrial ecology system with inter-dependant enterprises fuelling each other’s success. Leather working certainly fitted snuggly with all the other enterprise in the town and there was much enterprise during the industrial heyday of the town. A leather industry needs hides in plenty (a by-product of the meat produced from cows and sheep by local farms), bark for tanning from the oak trees felled for building and for pit props for mining. The hills around Llanidloes had been mined for lead since Roman times. Lead was mined at Bryntail from 1708 and the ore shipped down the Severn to the sea in small boats. A rich lead seam was discovered in the Van in 1865 and it became the boom industry – in 1876 it produced 6,840 tons of lead, more than the total production of the rest of Britain and supported hundreds of workers. A new light railway was built to link the mine with the rail network at Caersws. Oak bark was also a by-product of charcoal burning and charcoal was also important, before coke, to fuel the blast furnaces used to smelt the lead ore. The remains of blast furnaces can still be found along the footpath on the north bank of the Clywedog River as it enters the town.
For almost any industry you need power – it is no accident that the wool processing factories in Llanidloes were called mills – mills originally powered by water. Water crashed down over the paddles of the great water wheels that powered local industry before the extravagant days of steam. Even in the little settlement of Llawr-y-glyn the gardens of the present houses are criss-crossed by the earthworks of ancient mill leats. Water was needed for tanning and dyeing and to carry away the chemical effluent from the factories. Tanning continued in other places after it ceased in Llanidloes so there are still some people who can remember how every few days their river would run a different colour, according to the colour of leather in production that particular week!
There are three other things you need for a buoyant industry – investment, transport links and a skilled work force. With the success of the mines, the flannel mills, farming and the iron foundries (which grew up to support the mining and the railways and really took off in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century) the town was prosperous and there was no lack of investment. With plentiful work and railway links to the rest of Britain, the town grew and with a strong tradition of religious non-conformity there was a lively Welsh culture and a relatively sober, educated workforce with a strong work ethic. So Llanidloes was perfectly situated to have a thriving leather industry.
In 1878 there were three tanneries listed in the town: Thomas and Edward Davies, skinners, of Short Bridge Street of Crybine and Phoenix-stream mills; Robert T Foulkes of The Nant and David Swancott of Great Oak Street. Later in the century there were skinyards on Lower Green in Cwmdu and later still, Spring Mill flannel mill, over the Short Bridge, was bought by Edward Hamer and converted into a skinyard and tannery by his son T Pryce Hamer. When he was killed in the First World War the business was taken over by his brother George F. Hamer. In 1931 George Hamer acquired another defunct flannel mill, the Cambrian flannel mill, which he converted to a leather factory which he ran in conjunction with Spring Mill. These premises were large, impressive industrial buildings. The Cambrian Flannel Mill had two large three story blocks with an oblique chimney that voided the smoke from the steam boiler at a distance from the factory so that soot did not get deposited on the acres of flannel that used to be pegged, with tenter hooks, on frames on the nearby hillside to dry. These great mills and the foundry must have dominated the town landscape in a way that is hard to believe today.
By the second World War these works, now producing fine leather, employed more than 100 people, a quarter of them women. Rough hides were processed at Spring Mill, cleaned and de-greased and turned into leather which then went to the Cambrian Leather Works to by dyed and softened – a process known as finishing. There are still people who remember the drying rooms, where hides were pegged to dry on frames that slid into drying cabinets heated artificially. These were up on the hill, above Spring Mill and behind what until recently was Shirley Houson’s house. Gloves continued to be made in the town up until the Second World War and at that time there was still a tannery on the river at the rear of Victoria Avenue. Sandringham Leather Goods Ltd occupied the first floor of the Cambrian Works from 1939 making belts, wallets etc before moving to new premises in 1953. In that year there was a major fire at the Cambrian Leather Works but the factory was rebuilt and continued until the 1960’s although latterly, I am told, the premises were leased and run by at least one other leather producer before being sold to BSK who ran it as an engineering workshop. By 1970 leather production in the town had ceased. However there remained in the town many skilled leather workers, men who could handle and match hides by second nature and skilled machinists. One man who had been born in the town recognised this.
Enter Len Davies who was born in Cae Gwyn, Llanidloes, and left school in 1955 and went to work at Titley Evans in Cambrian Place. The company had been general dealers for over 100 years, buying goods and selling direct to the public. They had two salesmen — one for south and one for north Wales. They went from door to door and took orders from housewives (who were at home in those days), posted them back to Llanidloes where Edward Williams, the manager of the business and uncle of the two young women who had inherited it, ably assisted by Len, would make up the orders and deliver them. Len was interested in the fabrics and haberdashery and he was paid £2 per week. But those were the days when you could have a night out in Newtown, by train (cinema with friends and a bag of chips) for two shillings and six pence (2/6) — that’s 13p in today’s money! Len was born at just the right time; he missed the last call-up for National Service by a matter of weeks. Many of his friends from the new Llani High School, opened in 1951, had gone that year into the Welsh Guards who always recruited in Llanidloes. Len was ambitious and when, one day, he was stopped in Newtown by a man from the Youth Employment Department he was interested in the opportunities that were on offer. Before he knew it he had applied for a job at a famous department store on London’s Buckingham Palace Road. This was Gorringe’s, opened by Frederick Gorringe in 1858 though later taken over by Selfridges. This was a very exclusive emporium with several royal warrants – they were silk mercers to the Queen Mother and hatters to the Queen! To complete his application Len had to enclose a photograph of himself. That was a problem — these were the days before digital photography. One or two people might have a Kodak box camera with which they took tiny black and white snaps on holiday which took a couple of weeks to get developed, or you might have a studio photograph taken by a professional photographer in the nearest big town at great expense. There was a photographer in Llanidloes who took pictures at weddings, Len sought him out and explained his quandary – “I’m doing a wedding on Saturday – meet me outside the church and I’ll see what I can do.” Len got himself all dressed up in his Sunday best and was outside the church the following Saturday and a very respectable photograph was produced and duly sent off. Len got the job and off he went to London.
He presented himself at Gorringe’s — a very grand place indeed in a building not unlike the present Harrods building but just around the corner from Buckingham Palace, opposite the Royal Mews. He wore his new brown suit, a cream shirt, a splendid tie and new ox-blood shoes, of which he was very proud. “Oh dear! You won’t do at all,” said the floor manager at Gorringe’s shaking his head – there was a strict dress code for employees. They wore smart black or navy suits, black shoes and socks and the house tie. However they were accommodating to this innocent from the Welsh hills; they dressed him appropriately (deducting 2s 6d from his weekly pay for the hire of the suit while his own was made which in the end he got for free. They adjusted the way he spoke (I always wondered what had befallen his Welsh accent!) He lived in the staff hostel and was payed 24s 6d per week (£1.22½p in new money!) In London he earned a lot less than he had in Wales but they sent him to the College of Distributive Trades in Charring Cross Road in the evenings where he got a good sound grounding in retail and business (including window dressing) and was teased by the snooty young women who worked at Gorringe’s, Harrod’s, DH Evan’s, Derry and Tom’s and the like. These were young Mrs Slocombes and this time of his life was like finding himself in a scene from “Are You Being Served?” But if he felt homesick he could stand on the steps of Gorringe’s and watch the men of the Welsh Guards, stationed at Chelsea Barracks, marching past with their band and nod at 2 or 3 lads from home who he recognised as they went to change the guard at Buckingham Palace! He certainly cut a suave figure when he returned for his holidays to Llanidloes and from these sound foundations his career in the fashion industry blossomed. He trained as a buyer for Freeman’s, the mail order people. – travelling all over the world, to Paris, Milan, Madrid, Barcelona and Portugal – buying for the catalogue and spotting the latest trends at fashion shows and in the expensive shops all over Europe that could be copied and sold through Freeman’s catalogue – it was a fabulous job!
They were building a factory in Ireland but had to sell their product outside Ireland. Len went to work for Peter and learned the arts of selling. Later Len decided he would like to be involved with manufacturing leather clothing and where better to do this than in his own home town where as we have seen, the leather industry had run its course but where there remained so many skilled machinists and leather workers. In 1970 Len rented the old Cambrian Mill for £5 per week and set up Cambrian Fashions Ltd, manufacturing leather clothing, producing up to 1000 jackets per week and the Phil Read range of motor cycle racing leathers (Phil Read was the Grand Prix motor cycle road racer, World Champion and TT winner!) But he could turn their hands to other things – fulfilling one order for 24,000 pairs of pyjamas! At that time there was also a leather coat factory at the old station building.
The 70’s was a challenging time for business in Britain –it was the decade of high inflation, tight fiscal control, poor industrial relations, political instability, the three-day week with the downfall of Edward Heath’s government, the return of a Labour government with Harold Wilson succeeded by James Callaghan and in 1979, the winter of discontent with widespread industrial action. At the end of the decade Mrs Thatcher came to power and took on the power of the unions about which passions in Wales still run high. Whatever your politics it was undoubtedly a difficult decade! It proved the downfall of many businesses and heard the death knell of much manufacturing in Britain and many enterprising men and women found themselves in unenviable positions due to circumstances way out of their control. Leather clothes are no longer made in Llanidloes.
In 1975, 76 and 77 the workers at Cambrian Fashions Ltd took to the streets in paramilitary uniforms – not to protest — it was carnival! Llanidloes Carnival was in its heyday and Len and all the girls (for they were mainly girls at the factory) threw themselves wholeheartedly into the spirit of the thing. They were clothes manufacturers after all and their machines hummed with enterprise, making white trousers with black stripes down the sides and smart burgundy jackets with brass buttons, epaulets and gold lanyards. Hats were made –peeked flower pots with crossed sword cap badges. Brian Crisp was drum major and the girls were taught to march. Brian in his blue suit with white accessories wielded a baton made from the missing snooker cue to which an equally illicit knob had been fixed and sprayed with gold paint. The company flag was born by the factory manager and protected by armed guards with cardboard rifles and ammunition. There were 60 in the band – playing kazoos, disguised as bugles and with the boss playing the drum. They practised their music and their marching and on the day they went down a storm, marching out of the old Cambrian Mill, playing and twirling as they went through the town, passing all the crowds waiting for the floats, up to the station where they joined the back of the parade to do another whole circuit of the town – the Cambrian Fashions Marching Band!
Thanks are due to Len Davies for sharing some of his memories and acknowledgement to E. Ronald Morris, whose book Llanidloes Town and Parish – An Illustrated Account proved so fascinating and helpful in preparing this article.