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Memories of the Great Depression in Nantyglo-Blaina, and my Dad

By Gwenllian O'Neill

The day I was born, 18th January 1921, which should have been a joyous day, turned out to be a very memorable day in the lives of the Williams family. I was the seventh child born into that family; four children survived, my other siblings where two brothers, one sister. My arrival was not received with the popping of corks from Champagne bottles; it was a day that changed the lives of the family for many years to come.

What news could have been more devastating than the losing of one's job?

My father was a collier—that was the posh name for a man who tunnelled in the bowels of the earth (a coal miner or, more broadly, a worker in a coal mine, as some of the jobs didn't require "mining" coal). He was born in 1884 in Hope Street, Blaina, brought up by his aunt and uncle. His uncle was a splicer by trade (a joiner of ropes, wire, and steel). He worked in the local colliery and, I expect, he was able to be the means of obtaining a job for his nephew, with the view of teaching him to become a splicer in the future.

At the tender age of 12 years, my dad entered the mines, therefore losing the chance for the education he would need. I have often wondered what were his thoughts when descending in the cage that lowered them into the darkness, with rats running around. Was he claustrophobic? What terrors did the descent into the earth hold?

Unfortunately for my dad, his uncle proved to be very unsatisfactory as his mentor in teaching him the splicing trade; the love of the demon drink being his downfall. The only other alternative was to become a door boy, meaning it was his job to open the doors for the loaded trams to continue on their way toward the cage that hauled the trams to the top of the pit. This was regarded as a dangerous job; the trams would gather momentum as they travelled along. Sometimes, they were overloaded and toppled over, spewing the coal in all directions and derailing other trams. Many lives were lost; many men maimed.

When my father lost his job in 1921, his position in the colliery was regarded as being an underground contractor. After he left the door boy job, he became a miner. That means he hewed the coal, and proving to be a good worker, he secured for himself what was called a place, making him eligible to have his own team of men. The more coal that was hewn from that area and placed in the trams, the more was credited to Dad's "place," and those men were paid accordingly, Dad receiving the higher salary. In the years when Welsh coal was needed around the world, the iron and steel much of it coming from the Nantyglo area, the people of the valleys were able to make a living mining it.

Their primary aim was to educate their children, as education was the stepping-stone for the future of the children. No father wanted his boys to toil in the bowels of the earth; rather, let them work in daylight and enjoy the warmth of the sun. Working down in the pits 12 hours a day, six and a half days of the week, seeing the children only on the weekends…the dream of the parents was Education, Education, Education.

On that day in January, all my parents' dreams were shattered. Can you imagine the turmoil, with no real warning (only rumours), and then it became reality overnight. My entry into this world on that day, my lusty demand to be fed would have been a reminder of another mouth to feed. In an article in The Rose and The Thorn I stated that we moved to Hope Street. How ironic that we moved next door to where my father had been born. He came back to his roots.

The loss of the job overnight, when the whole pit closed, was a devastating blow to the township. To be left with no wages coming in called for drastic measures. We were living in a three-bedroom home with a bathroom, which was regarded a luxury in those days. The house in Hope Street had two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a front parlour, and a very tiny back garden. The toilet was at the top of the garden; there were no modern conveniences. Some furniture from the larger house was sold. Now the family was cramped together in a very small house.

My father showed great judgement in cutting his cloth to suit the situation at that time. In those days, no compensation was paid for loss of a job, though I understand my dad did receive some money in lieu of advance notice of unemployment. With no chance of further work, the future looked bleak. For us, the Great Depression began in 1921. My parents were prepared to emigrate to Australia, but that idea fell through as my mother's parents were alive at the time and my mother didn't want to go. (In 1959, we took that step, coming to Australia. I like to think that I then fulfilled my father's dream.)

My father must have looked at us children and wondered why he was not able to provide for us. My elder brother and sister were sent away to work; my brother to Ramsgate, my sister to London. The reason they went was to help feed and clothe us two younger children.

I remember that day when my sister left our home in Hope Street to go to London. London was the capital of England; in my mind it was far, far away. It was the same as when my brother left to go to Ramsgate. Would we ever see them again?

The humiliation both of my parents must have suffered, knowing they had to find some means for us two younger ones to have at least one good meal each day. The County Education Board came up with a scheme whereas children whose parents couldn't feed them were interviewed to prove their circumstances. My brother and were I horrified when we were informed we would have to go to the Feeding Centre to at least have one hot meal for five days a week. This scheme didn't function during school holidays.

To describe this event, even 70 years later, makes me shudder. At 11:45 a.m., the school bell would ring, alerting the children who were to go to the Feeding Centre. We were lined up, marshalled by a teacher up through the main street of the town. At the hall used daily for the meals, the smell of the dinner cooking was very nice. My only complaint was the lumps in the gravy. There was always a scramble to get a seat at the top of the table, as there were no lumps on the top of the enamel jugs. If you sat at the end of the table, your meal would be covered in lumpy gravy. At least we did have the hot meal each day. I was nine years old when this happened; by the time my tenth birthday came around, my father and our mother became the caretakers of The Salem Baptist Chapel.

When our parents received their first pay packet in 10 years, they showed it to my brother and me, the princely sum of (two pounds and 50 shillings) sterling, in Australian money $5.00 dollars. On that day, when we arrived home from school, our parents thanked the Lord for His goodness. The years of hardship were rolled away, the tears were of relief, good things were ahead. I remembered well the first morning when my father left the house to start the new job. The Salem Baptist Church was quite large, it also had a three-storey building across the road used as the Sunday School and for various activities during the week. The lower and first-floor rooms were let out to the Department of Labour and Industry during the working hours five days a week. It was known as the Dole Office. The unemployed men reported three times a week to the office, the men who lived in Nantyglo also used the office; they were required to walk through rain, hail, and storm. Any failure to do so would deny them their dole money.

The job was certainly a very busy one, needing the help of my Mam, my brother Ronald, and myself. Our jobs were to dust the Chapel ready for the Sunday services, and scrub the wooden floors in the Chapel. It was a family job; we were happy to be part of our Dad being able to get back his responsibility as the breadwinner.

Unfortunately, our Dad suffered an accident in the line of duty, while cleaning the inside windows on the ground floor. The window ledges were about three feet from the ground, requiring a ladder to step on to the ledge. Losing his balance, he fell, causing serious damage to his left leg. It was a serious blow to the family, yet there was a silver lining. Both of my parents were employed by the Salem Chapel, making our Mother an employee. My brother, who had gone away to work, was sent for to come home, to help Mam continue the work.

Our Dad spent a long time in recovering from the accident. It was ironic that, having worked in the mines for 24 years, he didn't suffer any injuries, ever. The legacy working in the mines left was the dreaded disease known as miner's dust (silicosis), which clogged the lungs caused the miners to suffer untold agony as victims of a known killer.

Our Dad died at the age of 64. His lungs had given out. Although he had been out of the colliery for many years and enjoyed the sunshine and daily walks, it claimed another victim.

There are many lovely memories of our family life, especially during the time Dad worked as the caretaker. The family was reunited again in 1947. For the first time, we were able to sit around the family table with our partners. I will still continue to put down on paper the events, some very hilarious accounts of family life.

My father was known for his sense of humour and his beautiful red hair, which was passed on to me. Also was the love he showed to the family. He taught us how to live, even though some things seem very unfair at the time. Above all, he showed us to show respect to each other.

I am now the head of the family. My daughter lives here in Australia; the nieces and nephews live in the UK. As a child, although we suffered many hardships, for me I am enjoying my walk through life in an entirely different era.

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