Alun C. Davies is an historian. He was until his retirement in 1999, Reader in Economic & Social History at the Queen’s University of Belfast. He is currently researching and writing about the history of the horological industries. He was born in Aberdare in 1938 and was brought up in Trecynon, later living in Abernant, briefly, and then Plasdraw, until he left Aberdare for university in Aberystwyth.
Several of Alun’s close family had connections with ABGS. His father, David Herbert Davies, (headmaster of Cwmdare primary school) was a pupil between 1915–1920, as were his brothers Mervyn Walter (1918–22) and Mansel Morris (1924–30). Alun’s sister, Mrs Menna Bird (AGGS 1947–55) taught at the school for six months in 1966: she married David S. Bird (ABGS 1944–51).
I entered Form 1 Alpha at ABGS in September 1948, aged 10 years and 4 months, proudly wearing a too large school cap passed down from a cousin who’d just left. Our form room was Room 3, and we numbered about thirty, including several friendly and familiar faces from Park School. Our Form Master was Griffith Quick who left at Christmas, to be succeeded by Garfield Griffiths (of whom more below). This note is written 67 years later (2015) and is prompted by my memories of some of the staff.
During my time there were three Headmasters – Gwilym Ambrose, T. Brinley Reynolds, and Jess Warren. The one who dominated my early years was Brinley Reynolds, then Acting Headmaster. The school magazine reported that
When Mr Ambrose left the School
To run a Training College,
Sir Brinley Reynolds took his place.
A man of wit and knowledge.
The ditty was right. In addition to his administrative duties ‘Brin’ taught French to the three streams — 90 boys — in the first year intake, to know something of all the boys thereafter. He sang the Marseillaise – in a fine baritone voice, unaccompanied, in good tune and with remarkably clear diction. None of us had heard it before. He ordered ‘No one is to laugh!’ No one did - because he effortlessly commanded immense respect. He could silence a rowdy classroom simply by opening the door and standing there. His wit and humour greatly appealed to ten and eleven year olds. When he taught us the time and weather in French he slowly stared out of the window, then elaborately stretched out his arm and looked at his watch and asked ‘Quel temps est il?’
‘Brin’ personified the school. When, in 1954, the day came for him to retire, he held his last morning assembly in the Main Hall. Adjacent classrooms and corridors were packed. All members of staff were there for the great occasion. There was a presentation. The atmosphere was electric. We knew that his life had been devoted to the School as pupil, teacher and then Headmaster. Towards the end of his valedictory words, emotion overcame him and he choked. The situation was saved when T.R. James played ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ several times on the piano. The singing allowed him to recover and we cheered.
T.R. James (‘Butch’) was one of the many members of the staff whose contributions well exceeded his formal duties as a teacher. He taught mathematics and was also a wonderful musician (LRAM in his spare time; no doubt he encouraged the School to acquire its Steinway grand). For many years he was the distinguished conductor of the Cwmbach Male Voice Choir. Just as importantly he helped to introduce generations of boys to classical choral music. Look at the ABGS web-site for details of the annual concerts in the Coliseum and the wonderful programmes he and P.E. Philips conducted between them. A vivid memory is of the Faure’s Requiem concert in 1949. (Avante garde for Aberdare, long before the days of LPs, CDs and Classic FM.) At the last full rehearsal on the day before the concert we were joined by the guest soloists. They included a rising young soprano, the brilliant Jennifer Vyvyan. When she sang her first solo (Pie Iesu) her voice, just a few feet away from the choir, was so electrifying that we failed to follow. Awestruck, we burst into applause.
Peter E. Philips (‘PEP’) was the other mainstay of the School’s musical extra-curricular activities, well aided by Jean Lindsay on the piano. PEP had a little pre-war Austin 7 boneshaker which was sometimes lifted and carried to a different part of the yard from where he had parked it. He took it all in good spirit. He taught French, was famous for his Saturday morning walks around town with his wife, Dr Blanche Phillips, and always raised his hat (a homburg) to boys he passed. He epitomised culture and civilisation.
Three other teachers who shaped my school days were Edwin J. Davies, J.B. Davies and Garfield Griffiths. They somehow pulled me through O and A levels in Economics, History and English. Edwin Davies’s nickname was ‘Will Hay’, I think because he bore a benign facial resemblance to the famous American comedian and movie star of the 1930s. He was a kind and stimulating teacher, with a built-in disapproval of William Thomas Lewis (Lord Merthyr) whose statue by the main entrance to Aberdare Park we could see directly through the window of Room 1 (under the Clock Tower). Lewis had been the driving force behind the South Wales Coal Association which opposed trade unions. In between explaining Demand, Supply and the Law of Diminishing Returns, Will Hay never concealed his strong political (and patriotic) views. Sadly, untimely and suddenly, he died on a visit to New York City in the summer of 1958.
J.B. Davies was aptly nicknamed ‘Curly’ because of his baldness. He was a thorough but uninspiring teacher who often simply copied out long paragraphs on the board which we then copied in turn. Bad behaviour was punished by ‘One Hundred Lines, Boy!’ Each term the lines started as ‘I am Silly Billy Number One’; the next miscreants would be ‘… Silly Billy Number Two’, ‘… Number Three’, and so on. Perhaps his best skills were reserved for playing the stock market for, after he died, the Daily Telegraph listed his will at more than £1m.
Garfield Griffiths (‘Garf’) taught English O & A levels. He took us through Julius Caesar, Macbeth and, memorably, Hamlet. We learned a few feet of Paradise Lost. He taught the valuable ploy of how to get extra mileage from the same few lines of poetry. Thus ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven’ might be used in an English exam question about Wordsworth and also about the French Revolution in History exams. Garfield joined in the Sixth Form’s evening social life at the town’s Church Club snooker room. Because he had a glass eye (a war wound), when potting a long-distance ball he would ‘triangulate’ – i.e. with his good eye line up the target ball first from the left then from the right, in order to judge distance. He oversaw the annual production of the school magazine—The Aberdarian—and inaugurated and ran the weekly Chess Club. Enthusiasts played chess on pocket sets between lessons. Garfield taught and played against all of us and selected teams for the matches against other schools in the district. He eventually left for Toronto: Aberdare’s loss and Canada’s gain.
Another member of staff who generously gave of his spare time, energy and enthusiasm was Elfed Bowen, driving force behind the School’s — and the Town’s Tennis Club. Indeed the two clubs overlapped when those who were keen on tennis joined both. We realised later we could play only because Elfed had sometimes marked the lines and put up the nets beforehand. Our tennis team included John Lloyd, (pianist for morning assemblies and later accompanist for the Cwmbach M V Choir), Bob Mathews and Ken Griffiths. Bob, Ken and I had been in the same class at Park School from 1942-48 and then through ABGS to 1956. Ken and I had a reunion in Aberystwyth over fifty years later, not long before his untimely death. Bob Mathews, Eddie Powell, Vic Morgan and Roger Hoyle from our 1948 intake were at the same table at the 2011 ABGS reunion. That reunion table has several photos on the web site – and, under Sports Activities, there is one of the 1955 tennis team. It includes Keith Rowlands: tennis was one of the many sports at which he excelled. He was already a WSSRU international and at the start of his glittering career for Wales, the Barbarians and British Lions. At more than six feet, Keith’s innate athleticism made his huge reach formidable at the net.
Amongst other staff remembered with affection was Ceredig Jones (‘Caesar’) whom we greeted in unison in Form Two, when he entered the classroom, with ‘Salve, Magister! ’ David Hill (nicknamed ‘Tojo’ after his resemblance to the late Japanese war leader) did his best to teach a smattering of German to a reluctant First Year Sixth. Luther James was another much liked-teacher to a Sixth Form equally reluctant to know about either Religious Studies or Civics. David Lewis (‘Dai Wood’) instilled useful practical skills in the woodwork laboratory and taught us to use a lathe; each of us made a wooden table lamp. Marie Howells, (who played viola in the Morgan Lloyd Orchestra at our annual choral concerts) was the peripatetic music teacher who heroically organised a School Orchestra (shared with AGGS). She taught me violin for two years and then sensibly moved me on for the next two years to cello: ‘You’ll find that easier than a violin’, she said, ‘… fewer notes and easier fingering’. Aged about eleven, I authoritatively told her that ‘Handel was the greatest composer who had ever lived’ (I’d recently been impressed by the Hallelujah Chorus.) ‘Do you know anything by Beethoven or Mozart?’ she gently asked.
It was a privilege briefly to meet again with Tom Evans at the ABGS 2011 reunion, another whose school connections spanned half a century. When, slowly, ‘Long Tom’ remembered, and recognised me, he boomed my name. We had both once lived in Broniestyn Terrace — he, very tall, at the top end (with his famous huge dog, Barney); me, very small, at the bottom end. After he’d expertly drawn maps for an article on the Aberdare canal we corresponded over the years, and on my occasional trips back to Aberdare I called on him at Ynyslas.
The late forties and early fifties were years of post-war austerity. Apart from annual family holidays to Llangrannog - and the chess and tennis matches which brought trips to other schools outside Aberdare, (notably Neath, Mountain Ash, Porth, Pontypridd, Cyfarthfa - even distant Barry and Penarth) - my horizons were bounded by Trecynon, the town centre and Cwmbach. Bicycle excursions to Hirwaun, Penderyn and Pen y Fan to the northwest and Aberaman and Abercwmboi to the southeast were, for me, exotic events. Trips to the outside world were very rare. One—a day trip—was to the Festival of Britain in 1951 to see the Dome of Discovery and the Pylon. A few years later we went to Paris, led by David Hill, Garfield Griffiths, and David Daniel Davies (‘Dai Cube’) where we stayed at the Maison des Etudiants, 214 Boulevard Raspail, (still there today, according to Google). A souvenir from the trip was a miniature chess set from the Bon Marche. At another event, to Dyffryn House, St Nicholas, (with Keith Rowlands, David Dally and Ralph Crooks) we were mixed for a week with about forty pupils from other Glamorgan schools for a taste of what university might be like.
Such was life in ABGS two thirds of a century ago, for one grateful pupil at least. My strongest memories are of the extra-curricular activities which helped to prepare us for life in the outside world. I enjoyed tennis for another thirty years (though not much more chess), and have often thought back to TRJ, PEP and Marie Howells for helping open the door to music. ABGS was, I guess, fairly typical of small valley grammar schools in the first half of the twentieth century. Its web-site well demonstrates how its dedicated staff through the years had such lasting beneficial influences on their pupils and our wider society.
After chess, tennis and the School Magazine at ABGS came a History degree at Aberystwyth and then an MA on ‘Aberdare, 1750-1850 : a study in the growth of an industrialising community’ (for which Tom Evans drew maps for ensuing publications). Four years in the USA followed, including a year at West Virginia University (tutoring their Western Civilisation course, aka From Caveman to Khrushchev, or From Plato to NATO). I then changed my field to American History at Princeton University. This led to a temporary post in American Studies at Manchester University and afterwards, for over thirty years, to the Queen’s University of Belfast from which I retired in 1999 as Reader in Economic & Social History. My geographical horizons were broadened in the 1980s and 1990s by teaching several summer schools for the University of Alaska at Anchorage, Palmer and Fairbanks. After retirement to Aberystwyth I tutored and examined for the Open University and at last got to know better some other places in Wales.
31 December 2015