Bedlinog. Glimpses of a Pre-War Society        by ALUN MORGAN


Bedlinog is a small village in the extreme north-east corner of Mid Glamorgan. It was one of the communities chosen for an in-depth study by the South Wales Coalfield History Project, the purpose of which was to carry out an investigation of the history of villages in an area noted for community spirit, a strong sense of identity, a shared work experience, and a tradition of cultural activities, self-education and radical political outlook. The Project was financed by the Social Science Research Council and was based at University College, Swansea. It took place during the period 1971-4 under the direction of Professors Max Cole and Glanmor Williams.


These village societies were essentially single-class structured, i.e. working class. The middle class would be minute (a few teachers and the doctor) and the upper class (the local landowner and the colliery manager) would normally live outside the village in those well-known edifices of the South Wales coalfield y tai mawr ar y bryn ("the big houses on the hill").


The selection of the area to be investigated was a difficult one. However, Bedlinog was one of the places singled out because it is relatively isolated; before the War this isolation would have been more pronounced through communication difficulties and the village was thus a separate social entity functioning round its own internal institutions and community relationships. In addition, the village is physically very much the same as it was in 1939 and the traditional source of male employment in the area, the pit, still functions.


The method of the study was based on interviews with a random sample of people who had been at least sixteen years of age in 1939 and who had lived in the village during the pre-war years. The beginning of World War II was chosen as the terminal point for the study because it was in many ways a watershed for the communities involved; it marked the effective end of the depression that had brought economic hardship throughout the inter-war years, women entered the factories for the first time, the coal industry was soon to be nationalised and the living standards and leisure habits of the bulk of the population would begin to change rapidly.


There was a number of choices of method of gathering the evidence which would build up a historical picture. The records of village institutions, the occasional diary, letters, postcards, photographs and other mementoes, would all prove useful, but the major instrument of investigation was to be the tape-recorded interview. In this situation it is practically certain that the recollections, opinions, facts, emotions and values expressed orally would never have been recorded in print. The subjects to be covered in the interviews largely suggested themselves; the nature of the institutions which existed in the village, the social and economic forces which shaped the community's development and existence, cultural activities, work, leisure, domestic life and specific events and occasions.


The selection for interview was not difficult. Publicity for the survey and its aims was provided by the local press, by the issuing of a small leaflet and by utilising personal contacts in the area to set off a chain reaction. The personal approach was easily the most profitable means of securing contacts, although the newspaper articles helped greatly in familiarising people with the nature of the study, in particular that the requirement of the interviews was not an historical record of the village's development, but a personal account of experiences, views and recollections. Thirty-six people were interviewed initially, followed by a further eight, all the interviews being taped and supplemented by notes taken during and after the interviews. The sample is small, but it is worth remembering that Bedlinog is a small village and that death, sickness and migration had taken their toll of persons qualified for interview. From the interviews which did take place there emerges a vivid set of insights and portrayals of village life which are best understood in the context of a descriptive account of Bedlinog.


Within the geographical patterns of the South Wales coalfield Bedlinog can be classified as a remote, isolated vi]lage. Three miles to the south lies the next village, Trelewis, but the major features of the surrounding terrain are mountains and barren moorland stretching ten miles to the north as far as Dowlais Top and five miles east to the villages of Deri and Fochrhiw. Bedlinog was originally a hill-farming hamlet built along the banks of the TaffBargoed and was known as "Cwmfelin". It is here that one finds the earliest expression of religious life in the village, Salem chapel and St. Cadoc's church, together with the village square and the inn. This rural scene was transformed in the second half of the nineteenth century when coal, the most important raw material in the world at the time, changed the South Wales valleys from thinly-populated "backwoods" into one of Europe's industrial heartlands. The process had begun a century earlier with the growth of ironmaking in the "top towns" along the heads of the valleys. This first stage of the industrial revolution had bypassed the Cwmfelin area, even though the eerie glow from the giant furnaces at Dowlais must have brought a strange nocturnal aurora to the hills. Within these hills lay the rich coal deposits whose discovery led to rapid industrial development of the area by the powerful Dowlais Iron and Coal Company, which established two collieries, Bedlinog and Nantwen. Following the traditional pattern, housing now congregated round the collieries and the population exploded as hundreds came from Mid and North Wales or the border counties of England, bidding to escape from rural poverty or the depressed quarry industry to the "Klondyke" of the coalfields, although the many rumours of high wages were grossly exaggerated.


Though the larger of the two new collieries was high up on the hillside this presented no obstacle to it becoming the growth point of the new community. This pit, "Top Pit" or "Big Pit", gave rise to the new, expanded village of Bedlinog, a name derived almost certainly from Bedd Llwynog ("Fox's Grave"). This rapid growth round the Top Pit gives the village a distinctive appearance. Commencing at the village square it winds up the hillside like a long serpent, veering in sharp bends through Lower High Street (itself on a one-in-three gradient) via the aptly named Graig, from where there is a panoramic view of the valley to the south, to Upper High Street and the barren common to the north. All along this climb terraces branch off at unusual angles and the houses seem like limpets clinging to the rock face. Social developments were as dramatic as the physical expansion, four huge chapels appearing between 1876 and 1889, and in the same period five new public houses for the less pious. A village schoo], several grocery stores and an ironmonger's store were added, while a new connmunications link was established between the sprawling towns of Dowlais and Merthyr. This was the railway line which enabled hundreds of men from Penywern and Dowlais to travel to work in Bedlinog and also enabled the local people to visit Merthyr with its large markets, entertainments and social bustle.


Evidence of the fluid state of the population can be found in considering the origins of the people interviewed, all but two of whom were born in the 1890-1910 period. Twenty-five of these had fathers who had come from outside to work in the village, fifteen had mothers who were not born in the area, yet only five were themselves born outside the village. This suggests that a second generation of young people, single men, came to Bedlinog and married the daughters of the established population, the bulk of whom had lived in the area since the pits were first sunk in 1876.


Bedlinog pit was very deep and working conditions were hot and dusty. Nantwen, by contrast, was a damp pit where naked lights supplied the illumination and where women and girls were employed on the surface till the early years of this century. The pits were virtually the only source of employment. All the men interviewed had worked underground for varying amounts of time and only three had not gone straight to the pit from school, usually at thirteen years of age. There seems to have been a love-hate relationship with the pit, the interviews emphasising the danger and rigour of the work, but also bringing out the feeling of comradeship existing between underground workers. Conversation between the men was nearly always about the pit and its affairs, so that those who did not work there often felt excluded. This was especially the case with the lads, who eagerly anticipated their symbolic entrance to manhood through leaving school and going bright-eyed to join their friends already at work and full of talk about the pit. Usually the envy and excitement were soon transformed by sweat, darkness and dust to a much grimmer outlook.


The economic strength of the locality was severely depleted in 1924, when both Bedlinog and Nantwen pits closed down. Considerable numbers left the area, others looked in vain for fresh employment nearby, while those "lucky" enough to find work usually did so in the neighbouring collieries at Treharris and Deri. The next major event occurred in 1926, when the powerful Ocean Powell Duffryn combine announced the sinking of a highly mechanised pit halfway between Trelewis and Bedlinog,the name of which, Taff Merthyr, was to become prominent in the annals of the history of the miners of South Wales.


The village that this pit was to both benefit and blight was physically fairly typical of the mining communities of the time, that is, it had some semblance of planning in that it had a sewerage system, a continuous supply of running water and other municipal facilities. Thus it avoided the dreadful epidemics which had ravaged the older industrial communities, particularly Merthyr. Nevertheless, Bedlinog's housing was cramped and families were large. In the sample the average family into which the people were born contained five children, though one person belonged to a family with twelve. Living conditions for most families were inadequate and life was made harder by a combination of low wages, periods ef unemployment and punitive welfare rules. Infant mortality was high and fifteen people in the sample had lost a brother or sister in childhood. Life for boys and men often meant long hours at work (in winter seeing daylight only on Sundays) and for women and girls the day was filled with domestic chores, culminating in the preparation of the bath for the men returning home from the pit. Nevertheless, a rich, active community life developed in the village, for the harsh conditions made a high level of social activity a necessity in the existence of the working man.


Bearing in mind the small amount of leisure time available to most people, the level of activity was intense. There were, at one stage, four choirs, an amateur dramatic society, evening classes, two active political parties, two football teams, a cricket team, a bowls team, and a whole range of talent at individual level which found full expression in the eisteddfodau. The two institutions from which many of these activities stemmed were the chapels and the workmen's institute. In inter-war years religion was still a very powerful, though declining, force within the coalfield. Prior to World War I, every person interviewed said that attendance at Sunday-school and later up to three services every Sunday was a feature of their upbringing. During the week up to four evenings would be occupied with activities relating to the chapel (Band of Hope, Good Templars, choir practice, preparation for eisteddfodau competitions, Temperance Union). The chapels also organised the major village event each Christmas, the Cymanfa Ganu, while Moriah Young People's Society, under the guidance of the radical minister, Buckley Jones, raised questions about Darwinism, Ireland, science, and the future of Christianity. However, the slackening of religion's hold on the community is best illustrated by the fact that, for a variety of reasons, exactly half the people interviewed no longer attended a place of worship.


The workmen's institute, run by the local lodge of the South Wales Miners' Federation (S.W.M.F.) promoted drama, debates, welfare schemes, and self-education through its excellent library. It also acted as a centre for public meetings and political rallies, and was financed by workmen's contributions. The sports teams and the local band were highly successful at a local level. Because of Bedlinog's proximity to Merthyr and Aberdare, where league football was popular (each town having a Third Division team), and because its immigrant population came from areas where association football was popular, rugby football did not catch on in the Bedlinog area in the inter-war years. However, the village boasted two successful football teams, in particular "Bedlinog Midgets", two of whose players progressed to league football. One of these was Evan Edwards ("Ianto Bloggs"), of great fame locally for his cannonball shot. In the summer cricket became the major sport.


The one full leisure day, Sunday, was normally spent at home and at chapel or church, with the evening seeing social gatherings, while the teenagers paraded in Sunday best on "the monkey walk", or strolled with sweethearts on the nearby hills. Straightforward popular entertainment on week nights was scarce, for the chapel elders frowned alike on drinking and dance-halls. Approximately half the people interviewed were non-drinkers, while others had waited until well into adult life before beginning to drink. Unquestionably, heavy drinking did take place, nearly all of it by males and the drink almost always beer. The drinking seems to have taken place mainly on Saturday nights and immediately after finishing a shift. In the'thirties young people began increasingly to seek entertainment outside the village and whereas the Saturday morning train to Dowlais had long been packed with the village women going to market the later trains became full of young men going to watch Merthyr play football, to be followed by an evening in a Merthyr public house, music-hall or cinema. The big town was like Las Vegas in comparison with Bedlinog, ten miles away. The dancehall and cinema in nearby Treharris also became favourite haunts for the local people.


Bedlinog was unusual in two particular spheres—its politics and the fact that it was a stronghold of the Welsh language for two decades after it had practically disappeared in the surrounding areas. Only six people contacted were not fluent Welsh speakers and stories abound with how their elders would frown should they hear any English spoken. The Penywern, Dowlais Top and Cwmfelin areas had traditionally clung to the Welsh language and the arrival of North and Mid Walians reinforced this situation. However, the strict emphasis on English in school, the gradual decline of the chapels which had done so much to maintain the language, the growth of the popularity of radio and cinema, and the shift in reading habits away from religious books (mainly the Welsh Bible) to fiction and political works all tended to establish English as the first language of the village.


[n politics the strong working-class character of the population and the proximity of Bedlinog to Merthyr ensured that the village would follow the pattern set by the town which had elected an lndependent Labour Party (I.L.P.) candidate as one of its M.P's in 1900 and which had a large and flourishing LL.P. organisation. This was the case for some considerable time, a local branch of the I.L.P. being founded in 1903 by a local shopkeeper, Joe Sparks, who claimed to be a nephew of the Newport Chartist, John Frost. The branch became very active, and leading names in the Labour movement, such as Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden, spoke in the village, while one member, Jack Williams, was later to become a Labour M.P. However, by the mid-twenties there were discernible changes in the political attitudes in the village. The Labour party had proven largely ineffective during its first term of office, and the collapse of the General Strike followed by the long, ultimately unsuccessful miners' strike in 1926 further heightened disillusionment with the Labour party and in some areas of the coalfield a newer, more vigorous organisation was acquiring its lost support. This was, of course, the Communist party. The local branch was founded largely through the initiative of Edgar Evans, an ironmonger. Village tradesmen were less dependent than the miners upon the traditional holders of power, the landowner and the colliery manager. The secret ballot protected the working-class in elections, but visible political activity of a radical nature could easily incur the displeasure of these controllers of employment. A tradesman was thus in a better position to initiate political action, but many men who joined the I.L.P. and later the Communist party were to be victimised through losing their jobs. Despite this the Communist party became a very powerful local influence. It attracted large audiences to its meetings, at which leading figures such as Harry Pollitt, Saklavala and A. J. Cook spoke in the twenties, and Will Paynter, Arthur Horner, and Lewis Jones spent some time in the village in the thirties. The party organized recruitment campaigns, distributed leaflets, sold large numbers of the Daily Worker, contested and won several local elections, and a number of its members fought as volunteers in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.


In addition to international causes, the party also took an active part in local issues, such as obtaining a bus service for the top half of the village, and came to be widely viewed by the villagers as the party which best represented their interests. This attitude was reinforced by the role played by the party in the most important single event in the history of the village, the Taff-Merthyr dispute. The opening of this pit occurred just after the miners returned to work in 1926, and the morale of the miners and that of their union, the Miners' Federation of Great Britain (M.F.G.B.) and at the South Wales level the S.W.M.F., was at its nadir. At the same time a new phenomenon was appearing on the scene, the spectre of company unionism. Membership of a company union meant adhering to strict rules, agreeing never to strike and never to introduce any political matter at a union meeting. It was thus a tool in the hands of the coalowners and a grave threat to the established trade unions. Employment at Taff-Merthyr could only be obtained by joining the local company union, the South Wales Miners' Industrial Union. In the struggle against this union and the effort to re-establish the S.W.M.F. the local branch of the Communist party played a vital role. The regional economic depression and the confusion in the Labour movement after the MacDonald split added national reasons to local for supporting the party, which became so dominant for a few years that Bedlinog is probably the only place in Britain ever to have had a Communist chamber of trade.


The party aim at Taff-Merthyr was to get the S.W.M.F. recognised. Work was scarce and money scarcer, so many local men took work at the new pit. Soon, however, large numbers were demanding the right to join a union of their choice and two factions emerged in Bedlinog and neighbouring Trelewis, those who supported "the Fed", and those who stayed loyal to the company union, "the non-pols", or more bluntly, "the scabs". Hitherto harmonious relationships were now shattered as families and long-established friendships gave way under the strain. Sports teams, choirs, chapels and cultural groups all felt the backlash of growing bitterness and division and it is correct to say that no villager or village institution was left unscarred by the dispute and its consequences. The affair reached a climax in mid-1935, when the S.W.M.F. had reorganised and was launching a campaign against company unionism. Taff-Merthyr inevitably became one of the focal points in this struggle. Some sections of the work-force now commenced a stay-down strike in support of the S.W.M.F., while many other local men had lost their jobs for supporting the Federation. The strike was broken by the use of force and tension mounted daily as large crowds collected outside the pit to jeer those who remained at work. Contingents of police were brought in from as far afield as Birmingham and when one large-scale demonstration was checked by the police matters got out of hand. Scores of villagers were arrested and thirty-one (including Edgar Evans) received sentences of up to fifteen months imprisonment. Those imprisoned became martyrs in many local eyes and were feted as heroes on their return. The "scabs" were ostracised as traitors to their class, and, as Bedlinog was a one-class community, they were deemed to have betrayed their community, their families and ultimately themselves. The struggle to reinstate the Federation came to be regarded as a fight to restore a basic freedom. Those who were judged to have obstructed the communal will had long sentences of social alienation passed upon them which remained in force long after the issue was settled in the S.W.M.F's favour and company unionism became a thing of the past, and long after the Ocean-Powell Duffryn group was replaced by the National Coal Board.


In spite of the bitterness of the struggle the community remained, revived and was ultimately reconciled to itself, though the scars are sometimes still visible. From its beginning Bedlinog has had to survive adverse social conditions, economic depressions, long and often unsuccessful struggles to improve living standards, and the possibility of sudden personal tragedy, a young child taken by T.B., or the broken shell of a man brought home from the pithead for the last time. Through it all a rich communal network of activities was created and a strong sense of compassion and concern for human welfare emerged. There was a disciplined code of values, but these were manipulated in such a way as rarely to produce a morally stern and intolerant environment. On the contrary, help was not often withheld from the old or sick, the widows of pit accidents, large and poor families, or the occasional girl who found herself "in trouble". Long hours at work were put behind as people threw themselves into the many pursuits which gave their lives a greater purpose and generated the momentum of social life.


The Taff-Merthyr dispute provided the most serious challenge to this way of life, because it struck at the very core of the basic philosophy of the community, a man's right to work and belong to an organisation which would represent his interests at work. The S.W.M.F. was more than a union, it was a centre of social activity, the organiser of welfare, and an attack upon it was an attack upon local society itself. The village recovered, giving proof of the resilience of such communities as Bedlinog and their capacity to resist dehumanising processes and still produce much that is worthwhile in social endeavour.




The greater part of this investigation was carried out while the author was a member of the South Wales Coalfield History Project and he wishes to thank Professors Williams and Cole, together with colleagues on the Project, Hywel Francis, Dave Egan and R. Merfyn Jones, also Mr. D. B. Smith of the History Department, University College, Swansea, for their comments and advice during and after the study.


A fuller account of the methodology employed in the study is provided in the unpublished S.S.R.C. coalfield history project—report, 1971-74. Excerpts from some of the interviews can be found in Bedlinog—the people remember, by Alun Morgan, Merthyr Express, 1974.


A vivid account of boyhood and youth in Bedlinog is provided by Walter Haydn Davies in The right place, the right time (Llandybie, 1972), while an outstanding treatment of the struggle in the Welsh coalfield between the S.W.M.F. and the company union can be found in an article by D. B. Smith, "The struggle against company unionism in the South Wales coalfield. 1926-39", Welsh history review, vol. 6, 1972.