Beyond the Railway

In which The Author brings you some century-old satire

I’ve spent this very wet afternoon in Aberdare Library, working my way through the indexes to the 19th Century census returns. They were compiled by the former borough librarian and keen local historian Richard Arnold, and must have taken him months. In these days of online genealogical resources and subscription websites, it’s easy to forget that things were different in the comparatively recent past. Where today’s researchers have DVDs, we had microfilms and microfiches as our mass-storage devices.
Apart from unearthing (virtually) the lost streets of the Cynon Valley, Mr Arnold would have been up against the highly individual writing of the census-takers. I spent an afternoon spooling through the microfilmed returns from the 1871 census back in the spring. Halfway through one reel, I remember joking to Steven G. that I’d found one job which neither of us would ever be able to do: Victorian census enumerator. His handwriting is even worse than mine; unlike Franz Kafka’s, our notebooks won’t have to be burned after we die, as no bugger would ever be able to decipher them.
To add to the confusion, the clerks who were charged with knocking on people’s doors seem to have had little, if any, working knowledge of the Welsh language. Mr Arnold did his best to make sense of the phonetic attempts to write down ‘Ynysboeth Isaf’ and other traps which we Celts laid for the English colonists, presumably as a fiendish form of non-violent direct action.
It’s fascinating to scroll through these records and ponder the demographics of the area a century and a half ago. I might do another entry to highlight some of the more intriguing data which will live on for ever. I’ll just tell you one of them for now: in Market Square, Aberdare, the census logged two inhabitants of a ‘fairground booth.’
Anyway, this afternoon I got as far as the 1861 census before calling it a day. While I was scanning the index, I came across a lovely reference under ‘Aberdare Parish, Aberdare district’: Beyond the railway. That was enough for the census, apparently. Straight away, I put a status on Facebook, saying, ‘You don’t want to go into them parts, young master…’
It ties in nicely with a piece of local history which Geoff E. and I were trying to unravel a couple of days ago. I was going through Geoff’s 6″ x 4″ cards, transcribing them into my framework for the book, when I spotted a discrepancy. In fact, it was more than just a discrepancy. I’d go as far as to call it a howler. Luckily, I found it long before our book hits the shelves – although it has been mentioned in a previous edition of Hanes, the Cynon Valley History Society’s quarterly publication. Let me explain…
There’s a long terrace of houses in Robertstown called Bridge Street. It runs roughly east-west across Wellington Street, with one end near the Gadlys Arms and the other end overlooking the railway line. There’s also a footbridge between Bridge Street and Thomas Street, linking Robertstown to the foot of Tudor Terrace. It would be reasonable to assume that Bridge Street was named because of its proximity to the bridge, wouldn’t it?
Anyway, while I was typing up Geoff’s notes on Bridge Street, I decided to look at the old Ordance Survey map, which I’d already scanned to my hard drive. I got as far as Robertstown, and spotted the clanger almost immediately. Bridge Street was there long before the footbridge was built.
Part of the 1875 map. Bridge Street and Thomas Street are immediately east of the railway line. Look, no bridge!
Part of the 1875 map. Bridge Street and Thomas Street are immediately east of the railway line. Look, no bridge!
I emailed Geoff the following day to tell him what I’d found. I suggested that the ‘bridge’ in Bridge Street is actually the one at the other end, which crosses the River Cynon and connects to the old tramroad south of Cynon Side. Geoff emailed me back to say he agreed with my analysis of the situation; not only that, but his date of 1892 for the construction of the footbridge was wrong as well. In fact, it seems unlikely to date from much before World War I.
Geoff did some more digging, and eventually sent me a link to the old Aberdare Leader from 15 August 1908. It’s a superb piece of satire, so I thought I’d share it with you here.
UNAPPROACHABLE ROBERTSTOWN
At last the worm has turned. Un-get-able and un-get-outable Robertstown has tired of its “insularity”—to cite the Rev J. D. Rees; and, as Mr Ogwen Williams put it, has uttered a Macedonian cry of appeal to the Aberdare District Council for help. Robertstown is in the same position as a besieged city. Those who are within the village cannot get out, and those who are without cannot get in, and both have joined in asking the local authority for a bridge which will connect the town of Roberts—or according to the old name, which should never have been changed, the town of Salem—with the world outside. This quiet hamlet is in as isolated a position almost as any island in the Pacific. It is encircled with insurmountable barriers to passage in the form of two railways, a river and a tramroad. The only consoling unction which a Robertstonian may lay to his lone soul is that he is safely barricaded against the invasion of the road hog. However the people of Robertstown are unanimous in their cry for a bridge to join their deserted village to the mainland. At the last meeting of the Aberdare District Council was read a petition praying for a bridge. The petition had been signed by practically all the adults in Tresalem. Besides, a deputation in boots representing those within and without the gates appeared before the municipal fathers in conclave assembled, and pleaded eloquently for a bridge. The surveyor stated that there were no engineering difficulties. The only likely obstacles are lodged in the feared obstinate hearts of the directors of the G.W.R, and T.V.R. [Taff Vale Railway], and also in the heart of Capt. Roberts, who is annoyed because a false rumour has been circulated regarding a grant of money from the G.W.R. which the gallant captain nor his esteemed father never received. It is truly a wicked habit to spread untrue rumours, but it is hardly fair that the innocent people of Robertstown should suffer for the actions of irresponsible gossipers. It is hoped that the present agitation will culminate in Robertstown securing a proper and respectable approach.
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