This week we’re visiting Rhondda Cynon Taf, a county in the south of Wales, named after the five valleys that make it up. The region is close to the capital city of Cardiff.
Aberaman is found in the Cynon valley (pronounced ‘cuh-non’). As we learned last week, ‘Aber’ means river mouth, and this village is located where the Amman river (Afon Aman) arrives at the Cynon river.
Before the nineteenth century, Aberaman Isha was the rural home of the Mathew family. They were large landholders in the Glamorgan area, which included the modern Rhondda Cynon Taf region. Three of the Mathews served as High Sheriff of Glamorgan.
Their origin seems to lie with David Mathew, whose father had supported Owain Glyndwr (see Abberley for more details). Following the rebellion, the family aligned themselves with the House of York, one of two rival lineages holding a claim on the throne of England.
Edward Mathew was the last of the Aberaman line of Mathews, and after he died in 1788 the estate was split between his three daughters and their husbands. This paved the way for Aberaman to change from agriculture to industry.
Aberaman House was bought by Anthony Bacon II in 1806. He was an illegitimate child, but Anthony Bacon I had no surviving heirs from his marriage, so passed his estates on to his mistress’s five children. Young Anthony’s share was a Glamorgan estate with eight miles of prime mining land. But Anthony wasn’t interesting in mining. Instead he leased out the land and used the money to buy Aberaman House. After his death, the property passed to Crayshaw Bailey.
Crayshaw was an important player in the Welsh mining and ironworks industry. He saw great potential in Aberaman, and quickly bought up all the land there. He constructed the Aberdare Railway, which would enable easy transport of the raw goods produced in the valley. One of the stations was at Aberaman.
Aberaman Ironworks was set up in 1846, and the next year the first iron was ‘puddled’ there. Sadly the ironworks did not prove successful, and closed down in 1866 having failed to secure a buyer.
More successful were the coal mines. Aberaman became one of the centres of the Cynon Valley coal industry. Hundreds of workers soon arrived, as did others who saw business opportunities such as in construction and services. At first, the new housing spread along the Cardiff Road. Later it branched out to either side of the road and around the collieries.
The village was not prepared for the influx of people. In 1847 the vicar of Aberdare said that the population was already 1,200 after just eighteen months. Within a year it was expected to be nearly 5,000!
Aberaman lacked a local water source, so the residents had to travel a long way to get to their nearest water. Thomas Rammell reported in 1853 to the General Board of Health that:
There is much waiting at the spouts; three hours for a turn is no uncommon time. People have been known to go for water immediately after their dinner at twelve o’clock and return at six o’clock without any, their turn not having come round. They get up at two or three o’clock in the morning to go for water. A hundred jugs in a row are at times seen at the spouts. There is much immorality at the spouts, from people waiting there and having nothing to do.
Beyond this, some parts of the village suffered from damp and flooding due to poor drainage; the houses had gone up so fast nobody had thought about this issue. As a consequence, the residents of those areas suffered more from disease.
Of the many collieries in the area, Aberaman Colliery lasted longest but was eventually closed in 1965. At one time it employed over a thousand men.
Life was hard for miners all over Wales. They suffered from terrible working conditions and were struggling to get their bosses to agree to certain demands about their workers’ rights. In 1910 this came to a head, and led to a ‘Block’ strike.
The management of Lower Duffryn Colliery had taken away the right for workers to take home scrap wood. This was a policy that had been in place for 40 years. When the night shift arrived for work on 20 October 1910 and heard of this change, they were angry. So angry, in fact, that they marched on to Lletty Shenkin Colliery and got them to join in with the strike too.
Next day there was a meeting at Aberdare, workers and bosses, with eighteen issues on the table including the firewood. But they failed to come to an agreement. Negotiations broke down, and more and more workers around the region went on strike.
On 2 November 1910 striking workers at Aberaman threw stones at a train carrying non-striking workers to the mines. This was the first violent incident. A few days later, a group of 2,000 marched from Aberaman Hall to the power station. A quarter of them were repulsed early on using fire hoses, but the rest had worse to face. The police electrified the station’s perimeter fence, then threw boiling water onto the crowd from its boilers. They forced many of the protesters across the train track and down towards the canal. Some of them even went into the canal!
The situation worsened, with both strikers and police carrying out dangerous actions against each other. On one occasion a group of mainly women and children were charged at by mounted police.
Despite this, an inquiry was never held into the events. The miners were forced to go back to work in 1911 as they needed to earn money to support their families. Some never regained their jobs.
Life outside the mines
By the late nineteenth century, Aberaman had merged with its neighbour Cwmaman. In 1907 the foundation stone was laid for Aberaman Hall and Institute. It would be opened two years later by Keir Hardie MP, leader and founder of the Labour Party.
Keir Hardie is a very important figure in British political history. He was inspired to found the party thanks to similar situations to the ‘Block’ strike of 1910. Prior to that, he had led workers unions, and his cause was fairer treatment for workers. There were other political reasons too, but it is his championing of workers’ rights that would have brought him most support in Aberaman.
The new hall had two billiard rooms, two games rooms, baths, a swimming pool, library and a large auditorium. It served as the town’s social hub for the next ninety years, until in 1994 it was destroyed by fire.
Another favourite pursuit of the Aberaman workers was cycling. Bicycles were invented in the mid-1800s, and soon took off in the public imagination. The town’s cycling club was set up in 1884, and a number of its members did extraordinarily well on the international scene.
Aberaman Cycling Club produced Arthur, Tom and Samuel Linton, and Jimmy Michael. Arthur began to shine in 1892, when he was cycling all over South Wales. The next year he beat the world one-hour unpaced record, travelling 22 miles. The previous record had been set days earlier by the Frenchman who would go on to found Le Tour De France – Henri Desgranges.
His renown saw him travel to Paris that winter, as even back then the sport’s spiritual home was France. That January he beat the French champion in a 100 mile race, and later he was given the title of ‘Champion Cyclist of the World’. In 1896, he went on to win the famous Bordeaux-Paris race.
But the race took a terrible toll on Arthur. Six weeks later, at the prime of his life and career, he fell sick with typhoid fever and died. He was only 28.
Jimmy Michael had been raised in Aberaman by his grandmother Ann after his father died. She owned the butcher’s shop, for which Jimmy ran errands on his bike. From the 1890s he started racing, winning the 5 mile race at the Roath Ground in Cardiff. In 1894 he won the 100 mile race at the Cardiff Harlequins 44th meetup, five miles ahead of his nearest challenger.
In 1895 he became the first person to go 100 miles in under four hours, as part of a six-hour race where the goal was to go as far as possible (much like the modern World Endurance Championship for motor racing). In that same race he broke Arthur Linton’s previous distance record by 20 kilometres.
Jimmy raced often that year, only losing three times – once to Arthur. In one race, he backpedalled against his English rival, causing the other man to do the same to avoid a crash. Then, Jimmy shot off into the distance and won. A dangerous tactic that would be banned today, but it got high praise at the time.
In February 1896 he returned to Aberaman where a banquet was held in his honour and a humorous song performed with the following chorus:
“The pride of the cycle is young Jimmy Michael
With muscles hard as iron, and a heart as true as steel,
His banner he’s unfurled, as champion of the world,
Here’s good health and wealth to the knight of the wheel.”
Jimmy’s career continued, moving to America after Arthur Linton’s death. He managed to get a lot of money from his success, and indulged in his love of horses by running a racing stable. This business did not go well.
He returned to cycling in 1902, but suffered a bad accident at a race in Berlin. In 1904 aboard a ship from France to America, he complained of a headache that he believed resulted from the accident. He died at 11pm that night, and was buried in Brooklyn, New York. Like Arthur, he was still young, only 29 years old. Sadly, he had very little money left from his race winnings thanks to his bad gambling habit. But at one time, just like Arthur, he had been called the Champion Cyclist of the World.
As for Tom and Samuel Linton, both were good cyclists though outshone by their brother. Tom died of typhoid in 1914, while Samuel returned to the colliery and died in 1935.
Fighting against fascism
Another figure in Aberaman history is Edwin Greening. Born in 1911, he had a hard upbringing and was working in the coal mines even a child. This was a tragically common occurrence; often the only way these poor families could afford to support themselves was through child labour.
In the mid-1930s Spain broke out into civil war. The two parties involved were the Republicans, who were loyal to the existing democratic Second Spanish Republic; and the Nationalists, who would ultimately win and rule Spain under the dictatorship of General Franco. The war began when military leaders launched a coup against the government.
The country was split in two, with some regions supporting the Republicans and others supporting the Nationalists. An International Brigade was formed of thousands of men from around the world who backed the Republicans, and Edwin Greening was amongst the 150 from Wales who came to fight.
He returned to Britain in 1938, just before the outbreak of World War Two. During the war he fought in Algeria, Tunisia, France, Normandy, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Once the war ended, he trained as a teacher and worked in Warwickshire for a while before returning to Wales to teach in Aberdare.
His working-class roots and communist ideals encouraged him to join the Labour party, and he was a councillor from 1960-68. He was also a member of a number of causes such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and supported the miners strikes in the 1980s against the closure of the coal mines.
Edwin died in 2003 aged 92.
I am often surprised at how much it’s possible to find out about these small places with short histories. At the same time there are other places where nothing seems to have ever happened. Next week we’ll see both, as we visit Aberangell and Aberarder.
- Aberaman, Rhondda Cynon Taf Library Service – “Our Past”, Heritage Treftadaeth, 2011
- Crayshaw Bailey, Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, 2014
- Arthur Linton: The Champion Cyclist from Aberdare, People’s Collection Wales
- James ‘Jimmy’ Michael: Welsh Cycling Champion, 1877-1904, Cycling History, 21 October 2014
- From Aberdare to Albacete – A Welsh International Brigader’s Memoirs of his Life, gwales.com
- Memories of fighting Franco, Wales Online, 30 March 2013