A Caballero from Hendy
In his last years before he died in 1957 William Samuel Thomas of Llettycaru, Croesyceiliog, Carmarthen set down something of his life-story. What follows is an edited and condensed version told in his own words, except where it has been desirable to paraphase. Much of the omitted material includes personal reflections, sometimes self-critical, and describes life and conditions abroad. E.V.J.
William Samuel Thomas was born in January 1870 at Llangennech, but when he was six months old his father Thomas Thomas,
"gave up his work as a mechanic at Llanelly to work as a pickler at the practically new tinplate works at Hendy. This tinplate works was the first to be built in the neighbourhood of Pontardulais - by a firm from Birmingham... and was fairly successful up to the passing of the McKinley Tariff Bill1
in America in the early 1890s. Soon after that many of my youthful friends and acquaintances left Hendy for the tinplate works in America and many of them made good there.
"I went to the primary school at Hendy which was built by the owners of the tinplate works. It was a Church of England school... and the only schoolmaster in my time was a Mr. D. Jones... He had hoped to make me a school-teacher and during the last year of my time there I was at times a pupil teacher. Mr. Jones (Rev. D. Jones M.A.) was afterwards Vicar of Sandringham and chaplain to the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.
"At the age of eleven I obtained the School Certificate, as also five other school-mates, entitling us to eighteen shillings a year for three years. The school fees were two pence a week for each child and this was deducted by the Company from the pay of the parents. During my last year at school Mr Jones had the six who obtained the School Certificate to attend classes in the evening to teach us magnetism and electricity at his house and also at eight o'clock in the morning. However, we all failed at the examination as our that we had copied the answers from each other." William Thomas never forgave this "foolish" examiner who failed to recognise thorough teaching.
"On my thirteenth birthday I went early in the morning to ask for employment and was immediately taken to start work with my father at the pickling department. It was very hard work for a youngster and the wage was nine shillings for a six day week, starting at six in the morning and finishing at five o'clock. After a short time I was promoted to the tinhouse ... where the steel sheets were tinned and finished to make tin cans." This tinhouse had nine 'sets', each comprising a tinman, a washman and a raiser. "I started at the bottom as a raiser at the rate of one penny per box of 112 sheets. Our task was to turn out 36 boxes per shift. We had half an hour for breakfast and one hour for dinner. Next — promotion to washman ... and at the age of seventeen I was at the top of the sets, which only handled the large plates."
"The owners of the Hendy tinplate works, at the same time as building the factory, also built about forty five-roomed houses on the land belonging to the Company. These were the nucleus of about one hundred other houses built by the workmen themselves, mostly detached houses containing five rooms. My father built two semi-detached houses . . ." How he and others could do this never ceased to amaze William Thomas, "considering they nearly all brought up large families — we were eight children in our family. No workman at that time at the tinplate works earned more than £2 per week. The lower grade workmen earned only 18/- per week."
More houses made Hendy an appreciable village, which "had practically no truck with Pontardulais on the Glamorgan side of the river. We worked, played, studied and prayed on our own. The only difficulty was that there was no Congregational Chapel, with the exception of the old Hendy Chapel about two miles uphill, which was not so convenient for us to attend. So Hendy Congregationalists joined up with the Pontardulais folk to build the Hope Chapel on the Glamorgan side of the bridge." One pastor there was the Rev. Penry Evans, "who lectured often and was always most instructive. He went on a trip to London and visited Drury Lane Theatre to hear Sir Henry Irving and soon afterwards lectured on the subject . . . as a result, there was an awful hullabaloo by some members that their Minister had been to the theatre."
"Hendy had a Methodist Chapel from the start," but "there were no Wesleyan or Baptist Chapels at that time". By the time he was 21 Hope Chapel had built a place at Hendy for Sunday School and week-day services and William Thomas became the secretary. Cantatas were performed at the Market Hall, which had been "built by the workmen of Hendy, who mostly took shares, but the owners of the tinplate works held the majority of the shares. There was no Hall at Pontardulais." The Hendy Hall "was a large building, the ground floor being used as a Market place, and the first floor was used as a Hall. It was a boon to the residents of Hendy to have a Market, as everything needed by the household was sold there every Saturday. As a youngster I remember having a stall for the sale of garden produce and flowers. My father had built a small greenhouse in his garden and we could therefore sell choice flowers. His was practically the only greenhouse in the district and he was one of the first to grow tomatoes — they were new in the country then. Most of the employees of Hendy had one eighth of an acre of land for each house and the gardens were always well looked after. Each house had a pigsty at the end of the garden, thus the people provided themselves with nearly sufficient vegetables and bacon for the year . . . There was no sanitation then, only a small closet in the garden. There was also a small run for fowls to provide eggs and a chicken now and then for Sundays and especially for Christmas dinner."
The Hall "was the only one for Hendy and Pontardulais. All concerts etc. were held here by both sides of the bridge . . . also we had various touring theatrical companies visiting us all the year round and what a pleasure that was to all of us, especially such plays as East Lynn. Hendy was much more go-ahead than its neighbours in starting nearly everything first. At Hendy the first football team was organised" and Bancroft of Swansea and Pitt of Llanelli were invited as mentors. "Eventually Pontardulais organised a football club and Hendy joined them."
"The McKinley Bill in the U.S.A. played havoc with the tinplate industry, especially the Hendy works ... Due to lack of orders we were often on stop and this, coupled with frequent strikes, was too much for the works and it closed down. During the slack periods after the McKinley Act there was a flow of young men as well as families emigrating to America. The cost of passage was £8" William Thomas contemplated joining the flow, but fate sent him in another direction.
"There were five public houses and they were well patronised in the evenings, especially on Saturday, but . . . there was were no
practically no drunkenness . . . Everyone was very religiously minded and discussed chapel matters freely, but as soon as anyone was appointed a deacon in any chapel he would cease to attend the public houses. These houses were not often frequented by the young men of the place. They had other amusements, such as football, cricket, quoits, and some belonged to choirs in the chapels . . . . You would always see crowds of young men and girls going to choir practice in the evenings." There was also a drum and fife band of "about twenty young men dressed in red coats and black trousers and red and black caps and looked fine marching through the streets."
The rugby football club rented a field on the Forest road and "often in the week we took a six mile run from Hendy to Llannon and back (twelve miles in all) .... We went to the Away matches nearly always in Dai Neddy's two-horsed coaches . . . fifteen players and perhaps ten supporters singing all the way . . . and the crowds alongside the roads cheering . . . . People were rather keen on football those days, except the Ministers of various chapels, who looked upon it as a sin . . . . I, as well as others, were often pointedly referred to in the sermon on Sunday evening."
"Fishing was another pastime . . . and our favourite river was the Gwili which ran through the lower part of the village and emptied into the Lougher." A friend was John Jenkins, who would later win the acclaim of his fellow-countrymen for his poetic talent practised under the bardic name of Gwili.2
"The mother and father of Gwili the Bard lived on the banks of the Gwili . . . They brought up a large family of eight or more children. As Gwili was about my age, in fact he was a little younger, we often went together to fish ... he knew every nook where the trout lodged" and "did his fishing by hand — he despised the boys who had a rod and line. Many a lot of fine trout I took home with the help of Gwili."
"I recollect the few old ladies - ladies in the true sense of the word - who had practically no income to live upon. They made mead and Welsh cakes and people called at their houses for a glass of mead with a cake - at one penny. We enjoyed this in many of the poor ladies' houses on the outskirts of Hendy,"
"The ground floors of the houses were paved by big stone slabs and once a week a donkey cart came from the nearest seaside — six to ten miles away — with a load of clean sand to spread on the floors. It was sold at a penny or two a bucketful to the housewives, so we had a clean sandy floor every week. Another habit was the whitening of the doorsteps . . . .
"In a kindly community the children were always the first consideration of their parents and anything that could be done for the children was done well. One of the main treats for the children was the Sunday School trip to the seaside every year, and both the children and the parents went by train, carrying baskets full of the best food to be eaten upon the shore."
"We had our Benefit Clubs, such as the Oddfellows raid the Hearts of Oak. These held their meetings at the Black Horse Hotel. When any member was ill he received a small sum . . . it helped to provide a little food for their families. These Clubs had their processions through the streets, with a hired brass band preceding. I remember being taken by my father and mother with a Club to see Mr Gladstone at Singleton Park [Swansea] when the clubs marched past him. I also went with a trip to see the then Prince of Wales (Edward VII) when he opened the Prince of Wales Dock" [at Swansea].
But back to the Hendy tinplate works, which "continued to be on stop intermittently from my age of 17 until I was 25 and the stoppages were prolonged ones at time, so all had to pick up any kind of work or starve. My father obtained work as a pickler at Gorseinon and walked there and back daily about eight miles, starting work at 6 a.m. every morning. I obtained work as a navvy on the section of the N.W.R. from Swansea to Pontardulais . . . . The wages for all the members of the gang paid by the Company was 4½d per hour .... We were all very grateful for even that wage."
"Next door to our house there was a draper's shop owned by Mr. J. Ll. Thomas. I think it was the only one in the district at that time. Mr. Thomas was a Member for Llanedy on the [Carmarthenshire] County Council.... He had to take a small party of children to Paris for treatment for hydrophobia by Professor Koch."
Some young Hendy men often "went to play billiards at the Coffee Tavern, which was the first building across the Bridge [in Pontardulais]. There we played with some of the youths of Pontardulais .... Playing billiards was not enough for us, so we ... bought a few daily and weekly newspapers between us. This was extended little by little to magazines and books ... I understand that from this start the Workmen's Institute and Library were built at Pontardulais."
The migration of tinplate workers to America is well-known and much has been written about it, but less familiar is the lure of other fields in a totally different and unexpected direction, as witness the decision of William Thomas and three of his friends to try their luck in Italy in 1897. "The last day before the four of us went along on our long journey to an unknown life was spent on the Ffosyrefail field, Pontardulais, with all the school children of both places and their parents to celebrate the Jubilee of Queen Victoria in August 1897. There I bid farewell to many friends of all ages."
The four adventurers made their "tiresome journey" via Newhaven, Dieppe, Paris, Modena, Milan and Pisa, having the benefit of advice from Cook's agents en route. At Pisa they savoured the architectural and culinary delights, the latter including their first encounter with frogs' legs. The last stage of their journey was a two-hour long run to Piombino, a coastal town on the straits dividing the island of Elba from the mainland. The day of their arrival was marked by the funeral of two men who had been drowned, an occasion for "mummery and hired mourners" which the newcomers found "noisy and disagreeable."
"The four of us went to Piombino as key men for the practically new tinplate department in order to teach the natives in the industry. It was stiff work and did not turn out very pleasant for us, what with the very hot weather of August and our lack of knowledge of the Italian language and the strangeness of our environment; Also the habits of the people, together with the difference in food and other things", which latter included the need for mosquito nets at night and the presence of "little harmless lizards on the walls of the bedrooms."
Piombino they found to be "an historical little town. It is surrounded by a high wall except that part which adjoins the sea. There is only one entrance to the place by a gate a few yards wide. This gate was closed in the night time ans was always guarded." Around "was a fertile country with large muscated grape fields. This was my first taste of these grapes and they were very fine."
"On the beaches only males were to be seen . . . My landlady told me that she and her women friends occupied the beaches a little after daybreak every morning, weather permitting.
"Two of my co-emigrants left Piombino for home after a few weeks, the weather and the change of food possibly brought on colitis, a complaint which all new people contracted. I did not feel inclined to leave and coaxed my other friend to stay on with me. He stayed after I had promised to leave with him if he felt like leaving later on. After a few months my friend wanted to leave, so I had to stick to my promise and we both left for home. This interlude was really a good thing for me in preparing me for my future . . . . It also gave me an insight into what life from home was like and mixing with other people, English and Italian. Both of us left suddenly one morning with all arrangements in our own hands and no Cook's agent to look after us. We had to pay our own passage home and had to take much care of the little money we had in our pockets."
"So back again to the Hendy tinplate works, to the same old drudgery . . . . Sometime after I came home I went to Swansea one evening to hear Ben Davies the celebrated Welsh tenor in 'Faust'. It was a very wet evening and, walking through the rain to and from the station, the soaking I had resulted in a very bad cold. This cold developed into asthma . . . . I realised that it would be folly to continue my occupation in the tinplate works and consequently continued my studies of commercial subjects at home."
William Thomas had earlier acquired some knowledge of book-keeping and commercial practices as a result of spare-time study and now decided to go to Pitman's College in Southampton Row, London. "This was my final break with the tinplate industry .... and I became obsessed [with an urge] to get on in the world . . . . The life of a tinplate worker at that time was a hollow makeshift merely to earn enough to keep body and soul together."
In London, "I did not have much money at my disposal and to save as much as I could I walked back and fore from [my lodgings in] Westminster Bridge Road to Southampton Row morning and evening. I worked at the College from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. every day, except on Saturday afternoons and Sundays . .. . At the College there were about two hundred students, one half male and one half female."
His Sunday activity included regular chapel attendance, often to hear Dr. Hugh Price Hughes
, a Carmarthen man who had a national reputation as the embodiment of 'the Nonconformist conscience'.3
"I also became friendly with Mr. Gibbs, a tenor with the Carl Rosa Company. I met him first when he was at Holloway Infirmary having his leg straightened before he went to the Carl Rosa Company. He also came from a town in South Wales and started in London as a clerk. We often went to hear Dr. Parker preaching at the City Temple. We always had a seat alongside the pulpit where we practised writing shorthand."
"Before leaving Pitman's, I managed to get the certificate of the Society of Arts for book-keeping and the school certificate for short-hand, typewriting. I only had a smattering of French, which I used very little."
His first jobs were with a firm of stockbrokers and later with firms selling printing machines before finding employment with a mining combine operating in Africa. "We were three clerks in the general office and I was the general factotum, doing typewriting, book-keeping and the registration of shareholders, which was onerous after nearly all settlement days on the Stock Exchange .... It was very hard work at this office, very long hours and small salary, but I did not grumble much because I was collecting a great deal of experience of mining nearly all over the world."
"At the time I was in London there were no motor vehicles; buses and trams were seen with horses, although a year or two before I left electric tram lines were seen. It was a sight to see the horse-drawn buses and trams in Oxford Street and Piccadilly .... One never to be forgotten celebration was Mafeking
night on 18 May 1900. I did not go to the West End that night, as the City was gone quite mad. I have never seen anything like it. The City, and our office particularly, was interested in the gold mines of South Africa and Rhodesia. I could not get away until the early morning and had to walk all the way from the City to Kennington. Another historical event I was to witness was the funeral of Queen Victoria. I was near Buckingham Palace when the procession passed."
A Gentleman of Spain
Amalgamation with another company in 1905 made him redundant, but he became personal secretary to the Chairman in a private capacity at his home in Mill Hill. His employer was an expert in geology and mining operations, from whom he learnt much and who in time offered him the post of secretary to the general manager of the Peña Copper Mines in the province of Huelva in south-west Spain. Having accepted the appointment, William Thomas left for Spain on 13 December 1907, leaving behind his wife and two small boys until he had established himself. He sailed in a Rio Tinto cargo ship called Don Hugo,
with a Captain Jones as master. "The night we were in the Channel was the roughest I have ever experienced. It was so stormy that we could not lie in our bunks. The Captain ... told us in the morning that a four-masted ship went down in the Channel that night and later we had news from home of the terrible storm in Pontardulais, where some chimney stacks were blown down." A fellow-passenger was a young mining engineer going out to his first job at the Santa Rosa mine in Huelva province. "He was young and very enthusiastic about his job and spoke nearly all day abont his sweetheart . . . . Sad to say that on the first morning after arriving at the Santa Rosa mine when he went down the pit in a cage a Spaniard stabbed and killed him."
The Don Hugo
arrived at Huelva on the morning of 18 December 1907 and William Thomas proceeded inland about forty miles to Peña del Hiero, a few miles from the small town of Nerva, and commenced duties on the following day. "My duties as secretary were very light and I was bored with it at first. I spent a great deal of my time in going over the different departments and learning something of the whole field of mining. There were no pits, the whole extraction being done by opencast, on the face of which worked a very great number of men. The whole opencast looked like a huge quarry, all work being done by hand and explosives. The costs were only a few pesetas per ton to extract the pyrites . . . . The mineral was transported to large heaps of thousands of tons of pyrites which was washed — that is, water constantly run through these heaps and thus copper was dissolved and this was then let to run out of the bottom of the heaps into fairly shallow runways filled with old scrap iron, upon which the copper content was deposited and collected daily. This is what is called the process of cementation. About 100 to 150 tons of copper was extracted monthly in this way, put into sacks in powder form and shipped to England, to be melted down, yielding about 98% copper. The mineral in the heaps after most of the copper was extracted was shipped to England in bulk as pyrites containing about 60% sulphur. This is burnt . . . to make sulphuric acid", which was "used in the pickling department of the tinplate works where I commenced work .... there was a small sulphuric acid works at Pontardulais . . . built by Samuel Williams, where pyrites was burnt down."
William Thomas's wife and children sailed from Port Talbot in the Don Hugo
in April 1908. When his four-year contract ended he accepted an appointment with a French company at the Huelva copper and sulphur mines, at one of which the first smelting works in that part of Spain was built some time later. "This smelter came in useful for the supply of copper in the 1914 War, and all through the war we shipped about two hundred tons a month of high grade copper for the Allies . . . I was too old at the time to serve in the Army and all who worked on the mines were exempt of army service". During the war necessary materials became scarce and "I had my hands full hunting all over Spain for supplies . . . especially coal, shipments of which from Britain had been stopped." Inferior coal was obtained at last from a small coalfield opened up by a farmer; otherwise alternative fuel was found in cepa
(heather root). These "were round and just about the size of a man's head. We bought thousands of tons of these cepas,
which were brought in by the small farmers for miles around on . . . their donkeys". Food also became scarce and steps had to be taken to develop agriculture as much as possible on what was poor land. "In May 1918 the influenza epidemic4
broke out suddenly in our village and during a week or so over ninety people died. It stopped all work and it fell on me to attend to everything, food had to be provided and about twelve food kitchens were put up at once to provide soup and other food for all the people. Our little cemetery was full and we had to carry the dead during the night along rough paths over the mountains . . . to bury them in the cemetery of the county town of Almonaster more than a dozen miles away . . . I recall speaking to our book-keeper in the office in the morning and in the evening he was carried by mules to the cemetery."
"In the first week of January 1919 I received a communication from the Governor of the province of Huelva that a royal decree (. . . Alfonso VIII was on the throne then) awarded me the title of Caballero de España (Gentleman of Spain), first class, I believe that
no other Britisher holds this title except myself. It was hardly ever awarded to a foreigner. One, who is now dead, also had this title and he had a residence near Carmarthen and was also a Welshman."
William Thomas returned with his family to Wales at the end of 1921, settled at Llettycaru, Croesyceiliog and established a haulage business. He died in 1957.