Some Brief Memories of Aberdare
1930s and 1940s
(Including the School and its Masters)
Malcolm B Lloyd
For me, Aberdare was a good place to live. It was rightly described
as “Queen of the Valleys”. The central shopping area of the town was
a hub of three main streets: High Street, Canon Street and Victoria Square, from
which Commercial Street, Market Street and Cardiff Street radiated. It was not too
crowded a town, with little vehicular traffic since few people had cars. Public transport
included buses and trains. The Aberdare Urban District Council buses, in their cream
and brown livery, serviced Aberdare and its surroundings, including Trecynon, Abernant,
Cwmbach, and so on, as far as Hirwaun up the valley, and Abercwmboi down the valley.
The double-deckers would squeeze past each other in Canon Street, before the one-way
system began. Only single-deckers used High Street and Victoria Square. The Red & White
and Western Welsh buses were the long distance coaches, as it were, travelling as
far as Swansea and Cardiff and other, to me, distant places. Both companies had garages
in Aberdare: Red and White on the Gadlys, and Western Welsh opposite where I lived
in High Street.
Some shops I remember particularly are:
Parr’s the newsagent1, for the Beano and Dandy,
the ‘penny dreadfuls’, and the Wizard, Rover, and Hotspur , the ‘stupefy
terribles’. It was in the Wizard that I read about the extraordinary athletic
prowess of Wilson, who live on the Yorkshire moors and performed
his feats dressed in a one piece, black, homespun singlet. He first awakened my interest
Lewis the shoeshop2, owned by Mr. Lewis, a short well
dressed man, usually wearing jodhpurs and always with well polished shoes. His maxim
was that however down on your luck you were, you could always polish your shoes.
He had a twisted, waxed moustache which extended an inch or so either side of his
upper lip. His assistant, Mr. Jones, later inherited the business from him. Here
my mother bought my first shoes: StartRites. All my shoes were bought here during
the 1930s and 40s. The last pairs I bought there were when I visited Aberdare in
the late 1990s, just before this shop closed and was demolished.
Watson’s the photographer3, in Commercial Street,
was where, as a young lad, I had many photographs taken. I particularly remember
the one of me in a Welsh Guards uniform (Figure 1). I went as a guard to the annual
Hospital Ball, in the Girls’ Grammar School on Cwmbach Road. That year I won
first prize, with my picture in the Aberdare leader.
Servini’s Café was on the opposite
side of Cardiff Road. On Saturday mornings, during the long summer holidays, the
upstairs tearoom was the venue for some sixth form students of both sexes, as well
as some past students. There we tackled the Daily Telegraph prize crossword, whilst
nursing cups of coffee. On one occasion, we actually won a set of bridge playing
cards from the Telegraph, which we donated to Headmaster Reynolds, via his son Dickie,
who sometimes attended the gathering. T.B. Reynolds was, apparently, an avid
The Trap Surgery, on the corner of Abernant
and Cwmbach Roads, was the realm of Dr. Harry Banks, our family doctor, who lived
in Ty Mawr, High Street. The surgery was paved with stone slabs and had wooden benches
along three walls. It reeked, appropriately, of carbolic soap. Dr. Banks, who was
a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, a rare qualification, I believe,
for a small town doctor in those days, removed my appendix at Aberdare Hospital,
in 1940. It was my impression that Dr. Banks was even more revered than the average
doctor was in those days. He was not so easy to approach for a “doctor’s
certificate”, as some doctors were, particularly a Dr. Wilson whose surgery
was in Elizabeth Street, who I remember had the reputation of handing them out willy-nilly.
The cinemas in Aberdare
These were a great attraction for me. There was the Rex, opened
in 1939, very near where I lived in High Street, the Palladium in
Cannon Street and the Aberdare Cinema in Cardiff Road. There was
also a cinema on the corner of Wayne Street and Gadlys Road, not
far from the School, next to a café. Earlier, there was Haggar’s
Kosy Kinema in
—the fleapit as it was known—next door to the old police station. It
was demolished in the late thirties. The Palladium had Saturday
morning matinees, with entrance through the side of the cinema in Weatherall Street.
I still remember the aroma of freshly baked bread that wafted from Godding’s
bakery, just across the road, next to Miss Alder‘s, who tried to teach me pianoforte.
For tuppence you could spend the morning watching the Lone Ranger or Hop-Along Cassidy
or Flash Gordon or the Three Stooges, and other ‘B Movies’. The cacophony
of children shouting and yelling quieted as soon as the screen lit up. When the Rex
first opened just before World War II, it featured an organist
who played during the intervals. Sitting at his lighted, multi-coloured organ, he
arose majestically, in evening dress, from a pit just in front of the screen, playing
as he came into view. What an event for Aberdare!
I was born in 1931 at 54, High Street, then Beecham’s
Grocery, where I lived with my parents and an elderly aunt, Harriet Beecham.
My mother managed the business for her and my father was the manager of the Western
Welsh garage, then opposite the shop, until he volunteered for the RAF before war
broke out in early 1939. He served in France and then with a US Squadron of P38
fighters based at Speke aerodrome, near Liverpool. Next door to us were county court
offices and the Toc H. Across the road were the Rock grounds, site of the old Rock
brewery, where a new clinic and swimming pool (Rock Baths) were built. During the
W.W.II, a communal air raid shelter was sited just opposite the shop and against
the garage. It was never used. The only time I remember any danger from bombing
was when some German planes, returning from bombing Swansea, dropped bombs on the
I attended the National School from the summer
of 1934, when I was 3½ years old. The National School, a church school, was
then divided into two departments: the Infants School and the Junior Mixed School.
My infants school teacher, Miss Jones, whom I can just remember as an attractive
blonde and the daughter of the owner of the White Horse chemists opposite Caradog’s
statue, at the top of Victoria Square. Another teacher was Miss Eynon, who left little
impression on me other than being a friend of my mother. She is shown in the picture
below of the 1937 George VI Coronation school party (Figure 4).
Miss Eynon is at the back right of the picture and I am to
her immediate right in a white shirt, standing against the wall. Notice how we were
generally expected to sit with our hands folded behind our backs. Also, there are
some Coronation mugs on the tables. I still have mine. I cannot remember much more
about this period of my life — except that Haydn Manning peed over me in the
play yard urinal! I walked to and from the National School along Bute Street, at
the back of the school, where people piled their “rubbish”
and fire ashes in boxes on the curbside outside their front doors,
on both sides of the street. These I used to jump over, which I see now as basic
training for my then, unknown, love of hurdling.
One Thursday, in June 1942, was a red letter day at 54 High Street.
That day’s issue of the Aberdare Leader included the listing of the ‘scholarship’
winners: those children from the surrounding schools who, in the
coming autumn, would attend the ‘county’ school, as the Aberdare Boys
County School was then called. I cannot remember what celebrations took place at
number 54, but one thing I do remember is that now I would be able to wear the school
cap: black, with two amber rings and a badge. I had for years watched enviously as
boys wore these caps around town! It was quite a surprise for me to see my name on
the scholarship list and even more so at being in sixth place! I can only put it
down to the teaching at the National School and in particular to one Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Davies
who taught me in my latter days at the school. Miss Davies was a middle aged, dark
haired, wiry, chain smoking spinster who wielded a mean cane, which inevitably found
its mark on the outstretched palms of any wayward class member. We were never able
to determine if the myth of placing a strand of hair over the palm alleviated the
pain, since Dolly would carefully brush the palm before the cane descended! She was
a golfer and lived in Alexandra Terrace, Abernant.
The early 40s was a time of food and clothes rationing and it
was a great advantage to be living in a grocery. Tea, sugar, fats (butter, margarine,
lard), cheese, bacon &
ham were all delivered in bulk: tea in tin-foil lined chests (coveted
by those who were moving house for packing their china and glass), sugar in sacks,
fats came in tubs, cheeses in skins and bacon & ham “on the bone”.
Tea would be pre-weighed into blue paper bags and the fats in greaseproof paper — but
not too much at a time since there was no refrigeration! Cheeses were sectioned and
then cut and weighed to order. Ham and bacon were sliced by hand and also weighed
to order. Because of the bulk shipment of these provisions to the grocer from a distributor,
ours was in Swansea, there were invariably extra leftovers, or weighing up allowances,
which were used at the discretion of the grocer, often to barter for other rationed
products, such as clothes and meat, with local shopkeepers - and with Hodges and
the Brecon Meat Supply in particular. Most of our customers were from the nearby
streets around and opposite the shop, as well as from Green Fach, the area where
the new library now stands. They were mostly colliers and their families, who were
allowed, at one time or another, unquestioned credit from my aunt. Not all of it
was paid back. We had other customers from farther afield: one I remember was Condon,
the undertaker, who lived on the corner of Elm Grove and Gadlys Road. Mrs. Condon,
a friend of my mother’s, would visit the shop to place her order, which I remember
was usually quite large. Her husband would arrive in a hearse to pick it up—my
mother said this was because the order was a dead weight!
I arrived at Aberdare County School, as it was then called, at
the beginning of the 1942 school year, in September. I remember little about the
first years. The school was laid out much the same as shown in the school plan elsewhere
on this website: there were lower and upper yards, with the class rooms more or less
as shown. However, a lawn existed where the new dining room is shown on the plan.
Photographs of school teams were taken here. The Head’s office was then immediately
to the right of the main hall, where the secretary’s office is now shown. In
fact, at morning assembly, the Head would appear from his office, deus ex machina,
through a door directly behind the dais, from which he would lead morning prayers.
Directly in front of the Head would be the junior forms with the seniors at the back
of the hall. Masters would stand along the wall facing the windows.
G.P. Ambrose, Headmaster. I can say little about
Ambrose, except that he was a keen musician and played piano in the first School
concert I took part in at the Coliseum. We performed Haydn’s
“The Seasons”, with P.E. Phillips conducting and with Peter Pears, tenor,
as one of the principal soloists. (q.v. Musical and Dramatic Activities: School Choir
1942-43.) Ambrose was replaced as Head by T.B. Reynolds.
J.T. Bowen. Sasso was a tall man with a stiff gait and closely cropped
hair. He was not well liked with the students as far as I remember. He taught me
Welsh for one year — I wish now I had paid more attention to those lessons,
as to many others! If he wanted to make a point to you he invariably pointed his
index finger at you from an upturned hand, with shoulders hunched and his left hand
behind his back, holding back his gown, and would growl: “Now look here boy!” I
believe he had a son attending the School a few years after me.
S. Evans. Sammy taught me chemistry for just one year before he
left and Little Willie took his place (see below). Sammy knew my parents and it was
his encouragement that led me to my first “chemistry set”. This was used
in the cellar of our house which developed into quite a chem. lab, with condensers,
retorts and lots of chemicals, bought by mail from a laboratory supply house. Right
up to the time I left Aberdare in the late 40’s, I had a supply of sodium,
kept in a glass stoppered bottle, under mineral oil. It was eventually disposed of
in a pond at the side of the Heads-of-the-Valleys road. I often wonder if there was
ever a mysterious explosion reported from that pond.
E.J. Excell. No nickname, he was just “Excell”. Always
seemingly calm and collected, he invariable wore a sports coat and flannels — and
the inevitable trilby. I cannot remember him changing from this attire, even when
refereeing and umpiring School rugby and cricket matches. The same at School sports
days. It was Excell who took a few of us to Cardiff one summer Saturday to join a
number of athletes from schools throughout Glamorgan. There we met Geoff Dyson, the
British Olympic coach and husband of Maureen Gardner, the British and Olympic hurdler.
It was Dyson who taught me to run over hurdles and not jump them, with consequent
successes in many hurdle races thereafter. Just shows what professional coaching
will do — and there was little or none available in Glamorgan schools at that
time, including ABCS.
R.V. Hoggins. He never taught me. All I remember of him is that
of a large man who had a son at School — Bryan Hoggins.
H.I. James. Jimmy, the biology teacher, left to join the army shortly
after I came to the School and he returned at the end of W.W.II.
During his absence he was replaced by a rather voluptuous lady
who we called Katie4 — I
cannot remember her full name. Katie would sometimes take here
biology classes, al fresco, on the lawn, in the summer. She was
T.R. James. Butch was a first class maths teacher. A small man who
tolerated no nonsense, he taught me in the sixth forms. He was a heavy smoker evident
from the yellow stained first and second fingers of his right hand. He actively participated,
with P.E. Phillips and Ambrose, in the annual school concerts.
C.E. Jones. Caesar. Just one year of Latin with him. He lived in
Llwydcoed, near W.D. Towler. Can’t remember much about him except that he had
D.A. Lewis. Dai’ood, the woodwork master, seemed rather out
of place with the rest of the masters. He was an artisan.
W.D. Towler. Towler taught me physics through the sixth forms. He
was an avid photographer. He had an attractive daughter who married a relatively
well known opera singer.
P.E. Phillips. PEP. A dapper man with a pale, waxy complexion and
Hitler-type moustache. He lived in Glannant Street. He taught me French in my early
years and was a keen musician, actively contributing to the annual school concerts,
mostly as conductor.
T.B. Reynolds. Brin was my French teacher before he became Head,
and always wore a gown — which most masters did not, in my days. I will always
remember, when he was Head, and the School had won the Middle School Cup at the Glamorganshire
Sports, he took me aside before he was to present me with the cup that morning at
prayers, and said: “now Malcolm, don’t let this success go to your head!” Brin
was a keen bridge player. His younger son, Dickie was one of a team of old boys which
toured Somerset in 1950 (q.v. photograph in Sporting Activities).
Aubrey Roberts. When I knew Bobby he was an elderly
man of small stature and a suggestion of wispy, graying hair on his near bald head.
He walked the corridors in Harris tweed suits carrying a two foot, flat piece of
polished wood, which he used to slap a desk to get attention. I believe he played
scrum half at Oxford. His lessons were always interesting since he made history a
series of stories, using very descriptive language. Whenever any historical figure
was to be punished, he would invariably be placed first in “a deep, dark, dingy
dungeon, with only cobwebs to wipe away his tears”!
W.E. Roberts. Bonzo taught English language and literature, and
taught them very well, from form I through V. He was a quiet, gaunt faced, pipe smoker.
I believed he lived in Clifton Street and most days walked to school with PE Phillips,
who lived in Glannant Street. They would meet up in Monk Street. Since they walked
along High Street, I would look out for them to pass my house before starting for
school myself. I preferred to walk behind any masters than in front of them. On the
occasion I played truant and spent the afternoon at the Rex, I had to take great
care coming out of there, since PEP, Bonzo and Little Willie would pass along High
Street on their way home, up Monk Street, to Glannant and Clifton Streets! Bonzo’s
plan was to retire to Aberaeron. We learned this one day when he commented on the
name of one of my class mates, Aeron Davies. Whether he did retire there, I don’t
know. Many parts of poems I now remember were through writing them out as punishment
lines. They include, from Tennyson’s La Morte D’Arthur: “deep harm
to disobey, seeing obedience is the bond of rule” and “the old order
changeth, yielding place to new”.
A.L. Trott. Trott was another dapper man who always wore heavily
starched, usually white, collars. He taught me art for one year and I am indebted
to him for his lessons on perspective, which I have found, from time to time, very
useful. If I remember correctly, the “art” room was above the kitchens,
next to the staff room. Pre-lunch art lessons were taken with pre-lunch kitchen aromas.
In fact, the art room was also used to seat an overflow from the main lunch room
G. Williams. Little Willie was my chemistry master until I left
school, before he became Head. He was a tall, good looking man
from, I believe, Mountain Ash and graduated from U.C. Cardiff. When I first arrived
at school, during W.W.II, he was nicknamed Conshy, a somewhat derogatory name used
to denote a conscientious objector. I later learned that he had an invalid, widowed
mother in Mountain Ash, which, presumably, was why he did not “join up”.
After the war, he became known as Little Willie. He had a penchant for puns, but
seldom laughed at them, he just placed his tongue in his cheek. This led to most
in my class doing the same at the appropriate time! He would demonstrate various
experiments from the raised bench at the end of the chemistry lab. These were somewhat
nerve wracking experiences since occasionally the experiments would not quite work
out, which is why he was also called Willie Blow-Up! One experiment involved the
use of a catalyst and produced a crystalline substance which had a distinctly mousy
smell, which Little Willie attributed to the catalyst
used! Such was his humour. He occasionally refereed rugby games.
So much then for some brief memories I have of the Aberdare
I knew in my adolescence. It was a happy life and the education I received at “the
County School” was priceless and everlasting. I regret the School no longer
stands. But then, as I remember well: “the old order changeth, yielding place
Malcolm B. Lloyd. March 2009. Virginia USA.