A few weeks ago, I was talking to Geoff E. about the research for his forthcoming book on the Cynon Valley war memorials (see entries passim). During one of his frequent digressions, he said that he’s already toying with an idea for another book.
I don’t know how much progress (if any) he’s made so far, but something about the idea caught my imagination. I haven’t mentioned it to him yet, but yesterday I decided to make some inroads into the scheme anyway. When the war memorials book is safely lodged with the printers next week, maybe we’ll sit down and discuss it in more detail.
Some years ago, a local historian named Deric John wrote a book called Cynon Valley Place-Names (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 1998.) He examined the etymology of the many Welsh names which visitors to this area have to come to terms with: Blaennantygroes, Caegarw, Godreaman, Abercwmboi, Llwydcoed, Penrhiwceiber, and so forth. (Try and ignore that screaming in the background – it’s just the Firefox spellchecker begging for mercy again.)
Geoff’s idea, in a very brief outline, is to pick up where Mr John left off, and uncover the history behind some of the Valley’s street names. It’s a topic of which I’ve also scratched the surface over the years. I mentioned the roots of some of the Trecynon place names in Nooks and Crannies a few years ago. I modestly think that, between us, we could probably come up with a rather interesting little book.
I don’t know yet whether Geoff would be amenable to a collaboration. He might be jealously possessive of his brainchild. On the other hand, he might welcome someone else to lighten the load. (I’ll find out either way tomorrow, because he reads this blog regularly!) Either way, on Thursday evening I started compiling a list of the streets throughout the Cynon Valley.
I was working from the pocket atlas compiled by Philip’s Publishers for Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC, and adding some extra bits from memory. I’m sad to report that their little book isn’t as comprehensive as it could have been; some places mentioned in the index aren’t actually marked on the maps themselves. Quite often they’re too small to be squeezed onto the page, and are simply numbered – but in a lot of cases the key to the numbered streets is missing. It seems to be a rather slapdash effort, if I’m perfectly honest. However, the alternative was wearing out yet another pair of boots while compiling my own list from empirical data. I decided it would do while I constructed a basic framework.
By last night I’d virtually completed my outline, with the towns and villages divided into manageable chunks. Once again, I’ve encountered the problem which I discussed in Where Do We Draw The Line? – namely, trying to decide where one community ends and the next begins. With fewer than half a dozen streets, is it worth giving Robertstown a section of its own, or do I incorporate it into Trecynon?
Speaking of Trecynon: where exactly is the dividing line between that village and the Gadlys, which adjoins it directly to the south? I know these areas like the back of my hand. If I can’t make my mind up about them, how the hell do I divide up the various areas of Mountain Ash, a few miles to the south? With any luck, that’s a problem which I can tackle further down the line.
This morning, in Aberdare Library, I remembered a box file which Denise had shown me a month or so ago. I’m still halfway through a huge project (which will eventually see the light of day here), and Denise thought that the contents might be useful for my ongoing research. I asked to have a look at it again, and straight away I knew I’d hit paydirt.
I probably first came across it back in the days of the Cynon Valley Profile, but I’d forgotten all about it since. It was a copy of a 1945 housing survey by Aberdare Urban District Council. As I already knew from reading A World to Build, David Kynaston’s tremendous history of the original Austerity Britain, the Attlee government put improving the housing stock at the centre of their plan to modernise Britain. I assume that this AUDC survey, undertaken building by building, was carried out in order to assess the postwar demand for council housing. My friend Rob H. must have analysed the data in detail when we were working on the Cynon Valley Profile. However, I was only interested in the bare bones: the systematic cataloguing of every street in the northern Cynon Valley, giving information on when the houses were built.
This morning, therefore, I made my way through the typed sheets, divided into individual districts, and started to put some meat onto the bare bones of my list. To my surprise, I was able to complete the entire box before closing time.
As I’d already suspected, the majority of Aberdare was constructed in the second half of the nineteenth century. Hirwaun seems to have sprung up a couple of decades earlier, and the outlying villages lagged a little way behind. Some of the dates given in the document are clearly approximate, but others are remarkably exact, suggesting that foundation stones or original plans still existed when the survey was carried out. It would be an interesting diversion to take an old map, and colour it according to approximately when the houses were built.
I already knew that the majority of the council properties dated from after the war. It appears that a lot of private houses are also more recent than I’d originally thought; looking through my list again, a fairly large number seem to be missing from the AUDC report. I can only assume that they were built after 1945 – quite a few decades later than I’d originally thought.
As well as the core of the modern street layouts of Aberdare, Hirwaun, Trecynon, and the other villages in the northern half of the valley, there were some intriguing entries on the list which are no longer there.
I was talking to Alan, one of the pub regulars, this afternoon. He told me that he’d been brought up in Greenfach, a little warren of tightly-packed cottages alongside the River Dare. That whole area, except for two chapels, was demolished in the early 1960s. Aberdare Library and the Jobcentre now stand on the site. Similarly, my mother grew up in Bethel Place, in Hirwaun. The modern maisonettes which bear that name are a world away from the cottages which previously stood overlooking the River Cynon.
Closer to my house, it will be interesting to find out exactly when Cynon Place, Cynon Row and Cynon Side, all of which were in Trecynon/Robertstown, were pulled down. In fact, some of the foundations of Cynon Side can still be seen, beside the footpath which runs between the Iron Bridge in Trecynon and the railway station in Aberdare.
The biggest shock of this whole exercise so far, though, was seeing my old house on the list. As I told you in The Folks Who Lived on the Hill, I grew up on Meirion Street in Trecynon. Our house was one of two semi-detached houses at the end of the street; beyond our house, the road continued downhill to Robertstown, and the little terrace of Gadlys Uchaf branched off to the left. I knew our old house would have been there, of course – but it wasn’t listed under the name which I always associated with it. Instead, it was called something which I haven’t heard for over thirty years.
When I was growing up, every so often a letter would come to our house seemingly bearing the wrong address. You see, our house had a name, as did the houses on either side and the bungalows opposite. The terraced houses further up the hill had numbers, but ours were identifiable by their unusual names. Even so, once in a blue moon, its original address would crop up in correspondence. It’s too late to ask Dad about it, and I doubt whether Mother would know the explanation. For some reason, an occasional letter would thud onto the doormat addressed to ‘1 Economy Cottages’.
And ‘1 Economy Cottages’, and not the familiar name I remembered from my childhood, was the entry on the AUDC survey from 1945.
I’ve absolutely no idea why this particular name would have been attached to two semis on the fringes of the village. Maybe I’ll uncover the explanation at some point. Maybe it will remain a tantalizing unsolved mystery. Either way, it’s an intriguing flashback to my childhood, and another potential story to be uncovered – regardless of whether I do it on my own, or Geoff and I do it together.