Aberkenfig in the 1920’s: Our own Milk Wood

(From the memoirs of Horace Drake)

Less than five hundred souls inhabit the three quaint streets and the
few narrow by-lanes and scattered farmsteads that constitute this
small, decaying watering-place which may, indeed, be called a ‘backwater
of life’ without disrespect to its natives who possess, to this
day, a salty individuality of their own. The main street consists, for the
most part, of humble, two-storied houses… though there are remaining
a few eighteenth-century houses of more pretension, if, on the
whole, in a sad state of disrepair.


from Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas.
Thomas’s village might easily be the sleepy hamlet of Aberkenfig in
the 1920’s

Our cottage bordered the Ogmore river path and so local people would regularly pass between Sarn and Aberkenfig. If my mother saw someone walking home laden with shopping she would insist that they come inside to rest their legs. The kettle would be on, and they would enjoy a cup of tea and a chat on a Sunday morning. We were not interested in what was being discussed – we were far too preoccupied with the mannerisms and eccentricities of our guests. One regular was Mrs Tudor, who would call in on her way back from church. We found it hilarious that she would only take a prescribed number of tiny crystals on her spoon. Even today I meet people who had called in for a chat with my mother. It was part of a way of life before the age of television or radio. Although my parents had a small income there was always a welcome, and if my father was at home, it was always “come and have a look at my garden”. After the tour they would always leave with a bunch of rhubarb, a cabbage or a pile of carrots.

My mother was always ready to help anyone in the community who was in need. On one occasion, she told me that Mr King, who lived about half-a-mile away, was suffering from pneumonia (lifethreatening in those days). She instructed me on preparation of elder flower tea which I had to deliver to him without delay. We also had to collect elder berries with which my mother would make wine, and in winter we had to take a sip of wine – which I didn’t enjoy! In those days (before the Welshman Anaerin Bevan invented the National Health Service) you had to pay to see a doctor and wages were low, so it was important to try and treat yourself.

Around this time there was a rudimentary electricity relay service starting up in the village and they wanted to erect two posts in our field to enable them to take their system to Sarn and beyond. They would carry the telegraph wire to the house and install a plug on the wall. Then they would supply you with a speaker so that you could listen to the grainy voices from the BBC in London. They called this the “plug on the wall”. It was run from a small substation near Pandy School to obviate the need for electricity to be generated in your home.

Mrs Tudor calling for a chat

The BBC had started broadcasting regular daily news bulletins a few years earlier in 1922 – the year that we moved to Ty’n y Wern. The first major story was the General Strike in 1926 which affected more than two million workers around the country. A decade later, the death of King George V was another landmark for the BBC and the ensuing state funeral was the first to be broadcast live. Later that year, Britain was gripped by the Abdication Crisis as King Edward VIII renounced the throne to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. However, 1936 was far more important to me for other reasons – which I will recount later. Other memorable broadcasts were Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war on Germany in 1939 and Winston Churchill’s rallying call to the nation when he became Prime Minister in 1940.

Huddled round our new radio set

Every year a policeman would visit to inspect the stock book. This was an official record of where you bought your pigs and where and when you sold them. This was implemented under the Swine Fever Order of 1908 so that any outbreak could be quickly traced. He would also want to see the annual dog licence – which cost seven shillings and six pence (37.5p). Usually they would stop for a cup of tea, but one police officer by the name of Parr preferred home-made wine which my mother used to make. Luckily he didn’t have far to go – the police station was a short walk from our cottage. His son was in school with me, so he always told me when his father was due to see Mr Drake – nothing was secret in our small community in those days. It has turned ‘full circle’ now in the age of ‘Freedom of Information’ legislation and social networking sites, except that human contact is too often conducted in front of a screen rather than face-to-face. In addition, I never once heard anyone rant on about their “human rights” in those days – they were far more concerned with their communal responsibilities. The strongest influence on societal values was not from Government, but from the local preachers who were men of humble origin who combined their religious zeal with day jobs such as farming or carpentry. Nowadays, there are many attempts to undermine religion, but what have they put in its place?

Another regular visitor to our cottage was the “Onion Johnny” - the nickname given to Breton farmers and labourers who sold pink onions door-todoor, and this was their “golden age”. Typically, they brought their harvest across to Wales in July to store in rented barns, returning home in December. In 1929, nearly 1,400 Johnnies imported over 9,000 tonnes of onions to the UK. After the Great Depression of the early 1930’s this trade never again exceeded a third of the previous high. One particular onion seller would always enjoy a cup of tea and a chat in Welsh, and for the duration of his stay he would sleep in a railway van in nearby Tondu.

 

The fly-fishing era was coming to an end as I grew up, and I probably witnessed one of the last big catches – a massive Lewin (similar to a salmon). The decline in salmon stocks may have resulted from the decision of a local landowner to introduce otters to undermine poachers. The beneficiaries were the foxing hunting brigade. A hunt of otter hounds from the Wye valley would meet at Merthyr Mawr – near the sea at Ogmore (where some of Europe’s largest sand dunes are situated). The hounds would work up the river towards Aberkenfig, and I recall seeing them catch an otter just below Pandy bridge. A young female member of the hunt, witnessed her first ‘kill’ and tradition demanded that she was ‘sworn in’. They promptly cut off the otter’s tail and rubbed the blood into her face as part of the initiation ceremony.

The French Onion Salesman calls
Dewi escaping from the pantry with apple tarts

One day a few naughty boys got into our field (uninvited) and started chasing the chickens around. My mother who happened to be in the garden saw what they were up to and she was not going to let it go unpunished. She gave chase and successfully apprehended one of the culprits. She marched him unceremoniously back to the house and locked him in the pantry. I don’t know what else she had in mind for him, but when she opened the pantry door, he had disappeared. My mother had forgotten that there was a small casement window at the back of the pantry. He had climbed through and escaped over the brook to freedom. The boy unsurprisingly grew up to be an entrepreneur, with a business selling coal – his name was Dewi Jenkins. Just before Dewi died he met my brother Cliff at Sarn Social Club. “Damn, Cliff”, he said “I owe you a drink”. Cliff wondered what he meant. “Sit down Cliff and I’ll tell you a story. When I was a young boy, your mother put me in the pantry for being naughty and I was very hungry. I noticed some apple tarts on the shelf. I ate the lot and escaped through the window! Drink up, Cliff”.

Life on a smallholding was rather hard. We had pigs, chickens, turkeys and goats and they all had to be fed and their outhouses kept clean. My father was responsible for the pigs and the garden and my mother looked after the poultry, shopping and housekeeping. She would also go looking for turkey eggs for hatching and on one occasion she took me to see Mrs Payne at Kildidy Farm in Coytrahen, who would not let us go until we had had a cooked meal, and a good number of turkey eggs.

Pigs grunt in a wet wallow-bath, and smile as they snort and dream.
They dream of the acorned swill of the world, the rooting for pig-fruit,
the bagpipe dugs of the mother sow, the squeal and snuffle of yeses
of the women pigs in rut. They mud-bask and snout in the pig-loving
sun; their tails curl; they rollick and slobber and snore to deep, smug,
after-swill sleep.


from Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

We found that turkeys were not easy to rear; they would grow so much and then die suddenly. In the end my mother became so upset that she sent for the Vet, who said they were being poisoned by walking in their own droppings. He suggested buying some fine wire mesh and nailing it about six inches above the ground, allowing the droppings to fall through the mesh onto the floor. This is where I came in. I went to the ironmongers for the wire and fixed it as recommended – it was a huge success.

My mother catching a turkey in the field

Christmas was the busiest time of the year for all of us. My mother did all the killing of the turkeys and chickens. She learnt her trade working in Wernddu Farm when she was very young. I remember sitting down all day feathering; we were not allowed to get up until the job was finished, so as not to disturb the feathers, but we could have an occasional drink of warm ginger cordial to keep us going. The next day she would clean and dress the poultry and lay them out on the long stone slab in the pantry where they would stay until the time of delivery. One day she came out of the pantry very excited, proclaiming that one turkey had not had a heart! I said “Mam, you have made history – breeding one without a heart”. On further inspection I discovered that another bird had two hearts – she had made a simple mistake of putting it back into the wrong bird! We would deliver the birds free of charge to the customers, and we would always leave the biggest one for ourselves. Two of us would carry it to Mr Perkins’ Bake House for cooking, as our oven was far too small.

 

When we needed to kill a pig, Mr Tommy Butler – a slaughterman for Gordon Spencer – the local Aberkenfig butcher would come over and do it. We would help hold the pig down, while Tommy would kill it. He was an expert, just like a surgeon – no fuss and no shouting. Mind you, when I saw him play rugby he was not so gentle! It was always nice to cut a slice of bacon for breakfast before going to school and we always had a few sides of cured pork hanging from the beams in the living room (the kitchen was too small). They were ready to be sliced for anyone who came through the door – friend or stranger. My mother would make sure we had eggs to go with it. She would preserve eggs in a large earthenware bowl of Isinglass, which meant that you always had eggs available even at the time when they were scarce. We had a hen house at the top of the field with fine white and brown hens. They laid brown and dark speckled brown eggs – all as big as my fist. Hens have a distinctive smell about them, coming from their feathers; it is one of the homeliest smells imaginable and brings with it a flood of happy images of my early years in Ty‘n y Wern.

Some of the most vivid of recollections are of our two female goats and one Billy goat (the male). We acquired them to provide milk which was specifically recommended for sick people – in this case, one of my younger sisters. When she improved in health the goats were no longer required, which was a pity because we used to ride the Billy round the field hanging on to his massive horns. He was a lovely animal. An old lady from the village of Heol-y-Cyw came and bought the female goats and I was selected to help her home with them, which was not an easy job – and worse was to come. I again had the task of taking our beloved Billy to Bridgend for auction. My mother told me to put a rope on him and I set off via Sarn and Pencare to the cattle market, where I put him in a pen. Along came Mr Hopkin Morgan the auctioneer, and poor Billy was under the hammer. “What am I bid for this fine beast?” “Half a crown” a man shouted. “Any advance” bellowed Hopkin – No. So Phipps the Butcher had bought old Billy for what is 12.5p in today’s money. When I went to the settlement office the lady said “Dear me, I cannot take any commission for this, can I?” and handed me the two shillings and six pence. Now it was my turn for decision-making – should I walk home or catch a bus? I decided to take the bus as I was emotionally, if not physically, exhausted. When I arrived home I handed over to my mother the handsome sum of two shillings and three pence (the fare having been three-pence). My mother was not at all pleased, and I really felt the weight of her hand. I was never allowed to go to market again on my own – Hurrah!

Finding the turkey with two hearts
Auctioning my beloved Billy goat

During the haymaking season it was my father’s job to cut the grass on the lower field using a scythe. He would make an early start and continue for a few hours, completing the job in two or three days. After this was done, depending on the weather, it was “all hands to the pump” to turn the grass over until it was dry and then transport it by shank’s pony to the hay shed, where it was used as bedding for the pigs. My father would often do the odd voluntary job and our proximity to Llansantffraid church added another job for my father (and me on one occasion) – that of part-time gravedigger. Later, when the community decided to build a church hall, all the manual work was carried out by volunteers, including my father and eldest brother.

“This morning is all singing. The Reverend Eli Jenkins, busy on his
morning calls, stops outside the Welfare Hall to hear Polly Garter as
she scrubs the floors for the Mother’s Union Dance tonight”.


from Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

The community also came together for entertainment in a way that rarely if ever happens today. I remember performing on the Welfare Hall stage, first as one of the three wise men with live sheep supplied by the local butcher and, second – reminiscent of the silent films of the same period – as a chef suspected of putting the missing ring in the cake. Whether my acting matched the genius of Charlie Chaplin in a contemporary Keystone Kops movie is another matter.

Grave-digging at Llansantffraid

There was a tin shed on the Bridgend Road in Aberkenfig where we could escape into another world every Saturday morning. Matinee performances at the mini-cinema, where we sat entranced for an hour or so on long wooden benches, were among the highlights of our week. “Davies the Cinema“ combined the role of manager, usher and pianist, and we never left without a sweet or even an orange on special occasions. The main feature was a ‘big picture‘ but also a short comedy, a five-minute newsreel and a serial (usually comprising fifteen two-part instalments). After each episode of serials like ‘The Broken Coin‘ you were left begging for more. Long after the Great War ended, us children joined ‘Davies the Cinema‘ in a rendering of “Pack up your troubles in your old kit back“ and “Tipperary“. Another favourite was our own Ivor Novello‘s evocative “Keep the home fires burning“.

I attended two services every Sunday: Holy Communion in the morning and Evensong, mainly because I was in the choir. In the afternoon I went to Sunday School. Inevitably, the Rector had a big influence on our values and philosophy of life. Mr James was not a learned scholar who lived in an ivory tower, but a man of character who dominated his flock, driving them to prayer and participation in community life. Mr. James’ three sons all became Ministers – one at Llandaff Cathedral and another at St. Brides Major. On Sunday’s they would dominate the local community from the pulpit, fingers quivering towards heaven, threatening damnation to those who gave way to the temptations of the flesh or the demon drink. On Monday mornings, if you had not been in church on Sunday they would call to find out why. On several of these visits the dog took a dislike to Mr James and once took a bite out of his trousers. My mother would repair the torn leg and off he would go. I guess he must have pointed his umbrella at the dog just as he pointed at a wayward member of the congregation.

A guilty-looking Horace after putting a ring in the cake

And at the doorway of Bethesda House, The Reverend Jenkins recites
his sunset poem:
Every morning when I wake,
Dear Lord, a little prayer I make,
O please to keep Thy lovely eye
On a ll poor creatures born to die
And every evening at sun-down
I ask a blessing on the town,
For whether we last the night or no
I’m sure is always touch-and-go.

We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milk Wood,
And Thou, I know, wilt be the first
To see our best side, not our worst


from Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

Rev. Eli Jenkins Prayer

My father and my eldest brother had strong ties with the local church through their friendship with the preacher Mr James – they even helped to dig the foundations for the Church hall. My mother was a founder member of the Mothers Union and we all became active members of the Church. My parents were true Christians in their daily life – not just on the Sabbath and they taught us to be upright, helpful and (particularly because we lived next door to the church!) never to tell lies.

“I am the Resurrection and the Light” recited Mr. Gruffydd in his voice
that was the voice of a man, noble of depth and beauty”. “Amen” said
we all.


from How Green Was My Valley

Mrs Mary Jane Mole was the organist for many years. All my brothers had pumped the organ over the years and I had also done it occasionally. Mrs Mole and her husband (the local JP who later gave me a job reference which is reproduced on page 33) lived in a cottage (Persondy) next to the church. It seems that ‘Persondy’, ‘Ty‘n y wern’, and the cottage where Mr and Mrs Angove lived, were the only private properties around before Aberkenfig, Tondu and Sarn were created.

Mrs Pugh to Organ Morgan: I saw you talking to a Saint this morning.
Saint Polly Garter. She was martyred again last night. Mrs Organ
Morgan saw her with Mr Waldo.


from Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas