Ben 𔄀Blow’ Whelan: An Irish Life in Wales

This is a transcript of a tape recording

made in March, 1976.

It is divided into 4 parts

Part 2

Q: What kind of game was ‘quoits’?

BBW: Quoits? Well, you had the big quoits, you know, different weights, seven pound was the average weight. Then you had 21 yards and your clay pistol for your quoiting. Now, there was never quoiting in Bargoed but there was in Brithdir. Merthyr was a big place for quoits.

Q: How about things like boxing and?

BBW: Oh, we had plenty of that, we had enough of that.

Q: Proper boxing, I mean, with gloves and

BBW: Well ah, I seen a man give Tommy Farr an awful hiding down here one night. Yeh. He had Tommy Farr crying in the ring! Oh, ‘tis a – you had Jim Driscoll up here, Freddy Welch – we had them all.

Q: They would come here in those days?

BBW: We had them in the ‘Songs Arms’ one time for the Catholic church in New Tredegar. Now Freddie Welch and Jim Driscoll were like that (crossing his index fingers). Jim Driscoll came up from Cardiff with about a dozen with him – free. Freddie Welch came up. He wanted �10 before he would take his coat off. Driscoll says, “Leave him keep it on.” Of course you’ve heard of the fight they had in Cardiff, have you? Well, it happened on December the 20th, 1910, in the skating rink what was in Westgate Street, and Welch won on a foul, in the 12th round, which should never have been. He aggravated Driscoll that night because they were very bad friends. Teggy Betterson was the referee and Driscoll was appealing all the time to Betterson about Freddie Welch kidney punching. Betterson wasn’t taking notice. In fact, as a youngster I was there at the time and the last drink I had with Jim Driscoll was in the ‘Barley Mow’ in Bute Street in Cardiff.

Q: You had a drink with him?

BBW: Oh, I had many a drink, and that’s the last place I had a drink with Jim Driscoll was in the ‘Barley Mow’ in Cardiff.

Q: There’s not much of Bute Street left now that you’d recognise

BBW: Oh well, the Barley Mow was knocked down in 1927.

Q: But in Cardiff at that time there was more than ‘Brain’s’ to drink, surely?

BBW: Oh, yes, yes Glasswell’s, Ely, Hancock all local, different to what you’d get there today

Q: Can you recall any old sayings?

BBW: Oh yes, there was a lot of old sayings: “Beware of that man, he has an axe to grind!” “Show me your company and I’ll tell you what you are!”

And superstitions? My mother was very superstitious. If a picture fell down there was somebody going to die. Or if there was a bright light on the top of the candle there was a letter coming. If there was smut on front of the grate somebody going to die again.

Q: Charms?

BBW: Oh yes, you had your charms

Q: Was there any antidote, something you could do to stop it if, for example, there was an omen that someone was going to die?

BBW: Oh yes, if you’d be carrying a potato in your pocket it’d be good for a magic. If you’d be carrying something else it’d be good for another ‘ism’. Home cures were a great thing.

Q: So you had to have home cures?

BBW: A lot of herbal cures which I remember well today.

Q: Any example?

BBW: Well, for a cold now you’d have elder blossom and peppermint. You’d pick them and dry them, maybe they’d be hung up in bags.

Q: Where did you pick them?

BBW: You’d pick them locally

Q: You didn’t have to grow them or plant them – they grew wild?

BBW: Oh no, no and you’d get hauntings again – you’d get different noises about – people would swear there was a ghost about. Oh, you couldn’t persuade a lot of people there weren’t ghosts, you know.

Q: What about down in the mines – were there any special superstitions in the mines? You worked in the mines – in Groesfaen – were there any superstitions among the miners?

BBW: Well, some of them had queer superstitions, you know, They’d think something was going to happen it’d bewhat it’d be if something was going to happena warning you knowbut some of them had superstitions you know

Q: Well, I’ve heard that some miners wouldn’t go to work if something happened

BBW: Oh yes, yes, yes they might have a bad dream or something and they wouldn’t go to work.

Q: Were there any omens about colliery explosions – accidents in the mines?

BBW: Warnings you mean? Oh no, you wouldn’t get anything like thatno, you wouldn’t know if something was going to happen

Q: Did any miners wear charms for safety?

BBW: Well you couldn’t say as they did.

Q: Did you have any ‘do it yourself’ cures in the mine – if somebody cut his hand with an axe or did you have any first aid?

BBW: Oh yes, but not as good as it is today, mind.

Q: I mean traditional cures

BBW: Ohwe had traditional ointmentsI can tell you an ointment I used for thatthat was made out of two penn’orth of red precipitate, two penn’orth of camphor, two penn’orth of white wax and a small bottle of olive oiland you could guarantee that today!

Q: Now, what was this ‘precipitate’?

BBW: Red precipitate? A little red powder it was that would make about half a cupful. Put it all in a cup, olive oil and all, and put it in the oven until it melted downthen it came out solid– and that would clean anything before it started to cure. That – and ordinary salt – I used to cure that finger and they were going to cut that offI used a lot of cures that ‘poor old Irish’ were after doing – he wasn’t my doctorhe was a doctor on Aberbargoed side. My doctor and assistant was going to cut it off there, look. And I said to my wife, “Well, I’m going to Midnight Mass instead of sitting here in pain”, I said.

Q: Why, what happened to you?

BBW: Shoot splinter went in there, it broke off in the bone..

After Mass Dr. Sinnott was sat in front of me. He turned around.

“What’s the matter now?” he says: I had a sling. I told him.

“I’ll have a look at it”, he said.

“I wish you would”, I said, “I met you last Sunday morning”, I said, “you were with Mrs. Sinnott”, I said, “going to second Mass.”

“So why’n the hell didn’t you ask me then”, he said.

“I didn’t like to.”

“Now,” he said “it’s Christmas morning. Don’t come over tomorrow morning” he said, “come over boxing morning.”

I went straight for my doctor, didn’t go to him. In the surgery like this, door open, not shut. You should have heard it. The place was blue. And he could curse! He treated me till he got it to that (pointing). He said to me:

“That other bone come out.”

And they was going to put me through a lot of pain taking it out.

“Wrap it up” I said.

“What the hell did you think was in it” he said, “a piece of three leaved shamrock? Sit down by there!” he said.

Then the doctor caught me by there and he got the tweezers.

“Put that in your waistcoat pocket” he said!

Q: And that was the end of it?

BBW: “I’d like to have that”, he said.

“Well you can have it if you let me take it home and show it to the old man”, I said.

And then we got to the lancing. “How much do you charge now sir?”

“Nothing” he said”

Q: So some things could be done right – there were doctors who could do things right?

BBW: Oh, he was a doctor!

Q: Right. The next question is about nicknames. Well, you yourself have a nickname

BBW: Well, I could give you a couple of dozen of them

Q: Any examples?

BBW: Yes, there was ‘Shunny Dover’, ‘Tom Black Horse’, ‘Ianto Laughable’, ‘Dai Jones Mawr’, ‘Twm Scwt’.

(Editor’s note: ‘mawr” – Welsh = ‘big’; ‘scwt’ – Welsh = waterfall or perhaps Hiberno-English ‘scut’ = a scoundrel)

Q: Well, why would he be called that?

BBW: Well,all according there was ‘Tom Black Horse’ or ‘Dai Black Dog’ –he had a black dog or he was driving a black horse. ‘Ned the Bear’ – of course he came from Forest of Dean. That’s where they’re supposed to have killed the German bear, the Forest of Dean.

Q:There was a famous story about the German bear in the Forest of Dean

BBW: That’s it. When they used to come round with old German bear and an organ and they reckons they killed the bear up in Forest of Dean so it’s all bears from Forest of Dean well, everybody had a nickname then

Q: You had a nickname yourself. Your name was Whelan and became ‘Blow’ and it stuck with you.

BBW: “Stuck”? It would stick.

Q: People have forgotten your real name

BBW: And it not only sticks to one family, it carries on I know where it carried on through three families. And they forget the real name

Q: We were talking about the German bear. Were there any characters in your area – travelling people, tramps, tinkers, entertainers?

BBW: Yes, there was characters here the ‘Three Royal Monarchs’ in Bargoed.

Q: Who were the ‘Three Royal Monarchs’?

BBW: ‘Teddy Lewis the Post Office’, ‘Dai Jones Davies Shop’ and T.M.Jones the schoolmaster.

Q: What periodwhen was this – before the first war?

BBW: Oh yes, from the time I first came to Bargoed up to, say, 1909. The old schoolmaster was the last of them. And we had two ladies here – now I must mention that: Lady James and Lady Kedward, aunt to Councillor Kedward.

Q: Why were these people special?

BBW: Because they had a bit more money and were a bit more well dressed, you know.

Q: Were they anything to do with the mines, did they own any property?

BBW: No, no, no Q: But they were called “Lady’ by the people but they weren’t really

BBW: No, no, no only they was the two ‘Ladies’ in this town. If Kedward every heard of that he’d have a laugh over that!

Q: But his aunt was the ‘Lady’ Kedward�because she was well dressed!

BBW: She was living in what is called ‘Capel Street’ and the other one was living down near where the Bargoed Station is.

Q: And these two ladies dressed particularly well?

BBW: Oh, they was respected a bit more than the other peopleyou had to look up at them a bit ‘Lady’ Kedward and ‘Lady’ James

As I told you about old Teddy Lewis, he was the Postmaster.

Q: He was one of the ‘Monarchs’?

BBW: and he’d commandeer you going to school in the morning:

“Yeh, I want you. I want you to run to Bedwellty (about 2 miles away) with a telegram

Q: Run?

BBW:You know where Bedwellty is? From the viaduct in Bargoed – down there the Post Office used to be – and you dare not refuse him! And when you got to school T.M.Jones would have the cane on you. But when you’d come back from Bedwellty he’d give you a penny and a note to give to T.M. Jones the Schoolmaster. And if you went in when the others was coming out you was alright so long as there was that note A penny! Now today they’d want about a 50p piece and pay their busfare!

Now they was the three characters in Bargoed. Gus Jones the Jeweller come here in 1902 and then he went in the council against them. That started a bit of uproar. When the other three was together – all Liberals, mind – the ‘Royal Monarchs’!

And as for the other characters we had Tom Phillips the Lawyer. He was a real character. In his office he had two boxes, one for a chair, one for a table, and his fur coat hung up on the wall and the blinds blowing out through the window. He was a real character.

And then we had another character, one Mr. Dix, the poor man’s lawyer. Never done any work – that was the tale – he was living on the parish relief then, you know, eleven children, and the tale was that the Relieving Officer went up there one day. He had a very polite way of speaking, this Mr. Dix, and, “Could you pay something off the home, Mr. Dix?” “Oh yes” he said, “yes, I could easy if you’d help me out” “Oh, which way, Mr. Dix?” “Oh well” he said, “if you’d grant me an extra 7/6 a week I’d be able to pay half a crown off the home”! That was Dix all over.

I went into the local there one night, ‘The Old Mill’. Mr. Dix was in there, quite drunk.. He said, “How do you feel this evening?” “Well, to tell you the truth, Mr Dix” I said, “I was in bed until twenty past seven. I feel tired now”. “Huh, dear, dear” he says, “I’ve had that tired feeling even more than twenty five years!”

Oh, then we had Mr. Bowns, the herbalist, he was another character. He was supplying all these anointments we’ve been talking about and medicines. He’d go around picking herbs, yeh, right down to the middle of his back. He’d go round wi’ a sack – many a pint I had off him for telling him to find what he wanted. He’d dry all these, make medicine out of them, ointment he was another real character.

Q: You were a boy at this time, you were a youngster?

BBW: Oh, I had started to work when Bowns was about. I went down that coalmine a thirteen year old. Ten hours a day for two shillings a day, stripped off to the waist. When I brought home my first pay – there’d be a pay every fortnight then – I gave my mother one gold sovereign and two clesian (Editor’s note: ‘clesian’ – I could not find it in any dictionary) pieces: she thought I was the best little thing in Wales. “Sixpence pocket money for a fortnight. – and be careful how you spend it”.

And I worked from then until I was 80 years old, until this got me (his arthritis – Ed.). I worked until I was 68 in the mines. The last 32 years I done on the surface because I had to come up from underground with silicosis.

After I finished there I went down to a factory. I worked there so long. I lost my wife and I packed in down there, I work hard a little bit on my own – backhanded, you know, until I was 80 years old, and the summer before this took me I worked terrible hard.

Q:What were you doing?

BBW: Oh, bit of carpentry, bit of masonry, doing my garden – I worked hard But I’m telling you I was never a day bad. It took me. I’m not bad now only for this. I’m in continuous pain and some days you know, it upsets me, the pain, night and day. I lose a lot of rest over it as well

Q: Right, transport, 50 years ago, before the lorries came, before the cars came, what was it like in Bargoed then?

BBW: Horse and carts, donkeys and carts I can remember the first motorbike going up Aberbargoed Hill, before the First World War. And I can remember the first motor car going up Aberbargoed Hill.

And horse-drawn vehicles You see, nearly all the tradesmen at that time had their horse and carts. Well it used to be a picture every May Day, the May Day Parade, with them horses and carts all decorated up for the May Day Show. There were very few motor cars about that time, but the early cars I was telling you were digging the sands going up Aberbargoed Hill – and that was a marvel that time. I never thought I’d see a bus going up there with 54 passengers!

But then there were lorries again, after the war. You had – we used to call – horses and drays and there were the big furniture vans with four horses. The main man around here was Tom Williams, Tirphil, he had a big furniture van and four horses. Then there were the breweries – they had the drays and four horses.

The first buses to come around here were what they called ‘The Blue Fleet’. It was during the First World War.

Q: Where was their depot?

BBW: At Maesycymmer. A man by the name of Will James started them. Me and him was schoolmates. Now, the trains, you’d see ‘em packed that time. And the one that used to come up from Cardiff on a Saturday night, 12 o’clock – the ‘Rodney’ – and there used to be old picture postcards in the window, ‘The Rodney leaving Cardiff’, with them all on outside the engine, on the buffers, everywhere. That used be on the postcards, ‘The Rodney leaving Cardiff’.

Q: It was always crowded?

BBW: Oh, the crowds, crowds on the train. You could go then from here to Cardiff 1/6 (7?p) return. Now before 9 o’clock in the morning it’s �1.66 – �1.87 after 9 o’clock. I remember you could go somewhere to Cardiff – 1/6 – and a three course dinner for sixpence (5p)!

Q: Where did you have your three course dinner in Cardiff?

BBW: Down under the market – ‘Sorry’ Andrew’s – on the St. Mary’s Street side of the market. Oh, I’ve had a ninepenny dinner – good plateful!

Q: Can you recall the ‘hard times’, such as the First World War? Was it a hard time?

BBW: O yes, very hard during the First World War.

Q: In what way? Did prices rise?

BBW: Not a great deal. You had shortages – shortages more than prices.

Q: Were you called up?

BBW: No, I was alright. I was exempt owing to the mining.

Q: Other miners have told me output was stepped up during the First World Warthere was more coal produced

BBW: Of course, it was then the allotments started to provide foodstuffs. It was a great craze then – nearly everyone had an allotment. In fact, they was growing more than what they wanted.

Q: But you were working underground then – which colliery?

BBW: Groesfaen.

Q: Were there demands made on you to produce more coal?

BBW: Oh yes. You see, the navy was burning coal then. In Groesfaen where I was you’d see all the waggons labelled for Southampton. But during the Second World War they burned oil. My son was a Leading Stoker during the Second World War. But during the First World War it was all coal and there was a terrible demand for coal. The coal boom started just before the First World War. If you read any of Jack Jones’s books you’d see it in there. Course they reckon, the people up in ‘The Valleys’ reckon as they made Cardiff! But Cardiff made the people up in ‘The Valleys’ but they won’t have it.

Q: In what way did Cardiff make ‘The Valleys’?

BBW: They was the coalowners there, they was buying the coaland exporting it! There was a terrible lot of Irish in Cardiff that timeyou see, there’s a book of Jack Jones’s, ‘A River out of Eden’. When they was making the first dock in Cardiff the navvies went on strike for a halfpenny an hour. They went over to Waterford and they fetched over 200 Irish navvies – never told them there was a strike in Cardiff. That’s how the Irish started coming into Cardiff.

Now that book as I’m telling you, well it’s wonderful, it gives a good history of Cardiff, but there was one – the theme of the rhyme was – Dan Regan. He was a bit more educated than the others and they gave him a job looking after a half dozen men., then a dozen men and it went on as Dan started on his own and he got up in the valleys and he started on the coalmining. In the finish he became a millionaire! When he died he wanted nothing in his coffin – although he’d become a millionaire he still wanted to be called a navvy – all he wanted in his coffin was his navvy shovel. I hope they won’t put one in with me!

Q: Well, you didn’t have a navvy shovel, you had a miner’s lamp, perhaps. What about the strike in 1926?

BBW: 1926? Well, we had a few uproars in it but, as it happened, I managed to work through that and the 1921.

Q:You were safety?

BBW: No, we were sinking the Wiley Colliery at the time, 1926, we had nothing to do with the coal pits. I went sinking over there. In 1921 the colliery I was working in, Groesfaen, was called out a fortnight before the strike for alterations. They was paid the dole. But, as it happened, I had a job with the navvies and I worked there all through the strike and three months after the pit started. I was rearing my family at the time

Q: So you were able to work both strikes?

BBW: I was lucky, I worked through the two.

Q: Did you see how it affected the other people?

BBW: Oh yes, it affected them very bad, especially the poor shopkeepers! You see, you don’t get much trust today or credit. At that time the shopkeepers was giving credit. It ruined hundreds of shopkeepers, the ‘21 strike and the ‘26. Well, you see, the people were going about in their clothes, children going to the soup kitchens, grown-ups going to the soup kitchens as well.

Q: So the shopkeepers ran out of money?

BBW: Well, you didn’t get the wages like you do today, come out on strike and you get more wages. We went back worse off after the strike in ‘21, the same with the strike in ‘26. The poor people were in debt and no money to pay it. The ‘21 strike was very hard

Q: People don’t talk much about the 1921 strikeeveryone talks about the General Strike of 1926.

BBW: Well, you see, you had all the collieries working then, you know.

Q: So the strike affected everybody

BBW:Oh yes, it was mining was the biggest industry, no factories or nothing about, it was all the coalmining, and everybody was dependent on the miner.

End of Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 1

Links St. Patrick’s Day / Gorgysylltiadau Gŵyl Padrig 2004

The Green Dragon No 8, Spring 1999.