A New Approach

In which The Author tries something different

While I was chatting to Geoff and Haydn on Wednesday afternoon, I felt rather guilty. There was I, a mere dilettante with vague memories of the Cynon Valley Profile, in conversation with two stalwarts of the Cynon Valley History Society. They’re both published authors, with a proven track record of researching the bygone days of our valley. I knock out occasional blogs featuring photos of collapsing old buildings. There’s really no comparison, is there?
I also felt guilty because I haven’t done any work on the Street Names Project for weeks. Mainly it’s because I’ve been too miserable to really concentrate on it; it’s also because I didn’t seem to be making any real progress.
On the other hand, since finishing The Men Who Marched Away last autumn, Geoff has come up with loads of interesting material about the origins of our local street names, written pieces for Old Aberdare and the CVHS newspaper Hanes (Welsh for ‘history’, in case you’re wondering!), solved the mystery of Pont Salem, and spent time on his other interests.
Geoff once told me that he loved doing research, but wasn’t so keen on writing it up. That might be the reason why our unintended collaboration on The Men Who Marched Away worked so well. I was able to come at Geoff’s material from a detached perspective and impose some sort of structure on it. I tweaked some bits here and there, and suggested some changes which we carried through to the published version. We worked well together, and I still think the end result looks quite impressive (*modest cough*).
That was why I suggested we should combine forces for the Street Names Project. It was an idea that I’d been tinkering with for a while already. Unknown to me, Geoff had done a lot of the spadework. It seemed daft not to pool our resources.
That was months ago. Since then, I seem to have run out of steam. I think I’ve looked at every single book in Aberdare Library relating to the history of the Cynon Valley. I’ve made inroads into the electoral registers and census returns, and found some interesting snippets in the Aberdare Leader archives. I haven’t yet started delving into the mammoth archives of the W. W. Price Collection, to see what unexpected gems might lurk in there. But I still haven’t done much more than scratch the surface.
I was also worried by the page count, as I told you in The Extent of the Problem. Even when I was able to keep the content to the bare minimum, the document was growing like Topsy. And keeping things to a bare minimum is very difficult with a project like this.
Every so often, Geoff would find something of only tangential interest to the subject at hand. He’d email it to me and I’d have to gently kick it into the long grass, simply to try and maintain some sort of focus. After all, we’re primarily interested in why the streets have their names, and not in the people – however fascinating they may have been – who lived there a hundred years or more ago.
Mentioning notable inhabitants in passing is a nice idea in theory. The problem is that you can go too far with the ‘interesting, but not directly relevant’ approach. Here’s an example from our own shared experience:
The Men Who Marched Away has four pages of endnotes. It’s extraneous – but still interesting – material, not concerned with the servicemen whose lives Geoff was exploring. It would have been a shame to omit it entirely, so I suggested stripping those bits out of the main text and bundling them together at the end. Once Geoff saw the results of my potching handiwork, he agreed that it worked quite well.
However, you have to know where to draw the line. One of the soldiers commemorated on the Abercynon war memorial is Private T. G. Ewington. Thomas Gordon Ewington, formerly of 2 Vale View, Abercynon, served in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and was killed in France in May 1915, aged just eighteen.
Detail of Abercynon war memorial
Detail of Abercynon war memorial
We hadn’t intended to write much about the Abercynon memorial, apart from including it in the list of monuments which makes up one section of the book. After all, our main focus was the memorial in St Elvan’s Church. However, Pte. Ewington’s father, John Ewington, was the man at the centre of Taff Vale Railway Co v Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants [1901], a landmark case in British industrial relations.
When Geoff suggested mentioning this in the book, I warned him off immediately. There are nearly 150 Great War casualties listed on the Abercynon memorial. If the book had included some information about the Ewington case, it wouldn’t have been long before Geoff got a stroppy email from someone along the lines of, ‘My great-grand-uncle wasn’t in the war either, but he did such-and-such, and you didn’t mention him in your book!’
It seemed (to me, anyway) that mentioning the Ewington case – which had no bearing on his son’s fate in the Great War – would set a dangerous precedent. Much like the case itself, in fact. And once you’ve started going down this road, where do you stop? Do you include just famous people, or stretch the definition and include people with famous parents? Famous grandparents? Here’s another example. The poet Alun Lewis definitely merits a mention in the section on Cwmaman – if only to explain why there’s a sheltered housing complex called Cwrt Alun Lewis. However, do Kelly Jones and Richard Jones deserve to be included too? Of course, you could argue that they’re still alive, and we’d be justified in restricting the ‘famous people’ to those who are no longer with us. In that case, we’d be pretty much obliged to mention Stuart Cable, wouldn’t we?
The whole thing could very quickly get out of hand. I’d even have to mention Dad’s time on the council in the sentence on Economy Cottages (see A Little Economy) if push came to shove. I simply had to shout ‘Cut!’ at some point.
So there I was, stuck with a project which wasn’t going anywhere, and too much superfluous material to justify inclusion without opening several cans of worms.
In addition, as time went on, I found myself cross-referencing one street with another. The cross-references kept multiplying as single threads of research branched into networks. The chapter on Mountain Ash, where literally a few dozen streets are named in honour of Lord Aberdare, and his parents, and the members of his extended family, and even a bloody racehorse (I’m not making this up!), had become so complicated it was in danger of breaking down altogether.
The whole project was threatening to become dry and formal (at best), or an unreadable mess (at worst).
Late last night I decided on a new approach. On the one hand, I was unable to sleep. Nothing new there, of course. On the other hand, I was unable to listen to the excruciatingly unfunny wittering of Holly Byrne’s continuity fills during BBC 4Extra’s increasingly-mislabelled ‘Comedy’ Club. At about eleven o’clock I fired up the Netbook and opened the latest draft of the project, which had been sleeping for weeks. (At least one of us has managed to get some rest!)
As well as listing the streets in alphabetical order, district by district, I’d included some ‘themed blocks’ in separate boxes of text. (Have a look at the latest Chambers Biographical Dictionary for an idea of what they look like.) I’d already laid several of these out, using Geoff’s handwritten notes augmented by my own research. Here’s the entry for Maesydre in Aberdare, for instance:
In medieval times, the churches of Glamorganshire were administered by the Abbey of Tewkesbury. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the properties belonging to Tewkesbury were confiscated by the Crown. In 1541 they were granted to the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester Cathedral. The Anglican churches of Aberdare and the surrounding districts remained part of the Diocese of Gloucester until 1920, when the Church in Wales was disestablished.
In 1854 thirty acres of glebe land were leased out for houses, and the street names were chosen to mark its ownership by the diocese. Gloucester Street is self-explanatory, as is the Gloster Arms pub. Canon Street and Dean Street remind us that the Deans and Canons of Gloucester Cathedral were also rectors of Aberdare Parish during the Victorian period. Although few people live there today, in times past Canon Street would have boasted a substantial number of dwellings ‘above the shop’. Deans Court is a small group of flats off Dean Street.
The rest of the street names in Maesydre also reflect this connection to the diocese. Bankes Street honours Rev. Edward Bankes (c. 1795-1867), a Canon of Gloucester Cathedral. Weatheral Street is named after Ven. Henry Wetherell (1775-1857), Prebendary of Gloucester, Chaplain to the Duke of Kent, and Archdeacon of Hereford from 1825-52. Seymour Street commemorates Rev. Sir John Hobart Seymour (1800-1880), a Canon of Gloucester and Chaplain-in-Ordinary to Queen Victoria.
Hall Street takes its name from the surveyor of the land, who practiced in Cirencester; Whitcombe Street takes its name from the solicitor to the Chapter.
Another connection to the Anglican Church can be found on the sign of the Whitcombe pub. This was also known as the Hen And Chickens, a once popular symbol for ‘Mother Church and her brood’, i.e. the congregation.
When first built, Maesydre also included Weatheral Court and Gloucester Terrace. Both names have now disappeared from the street plans, as has Maesydre Old Houses, recorded in the 1861 census. We have been unable to ascertain the locations of two of these; however, Gloucester Terrace was the former name of the grand houses in Whitcombe Street, opposite the Gloster Arms.
In the Aberdare Leader of 1 December 1934, the local historian ‘Pendar’ (John Davies) quotes a letter outlining the development plans. Interestingly, not all of the suggestions were transferred to the finished layout. According to Pendar’s article, the main street was to be called Dean Street, rather than Canon Street. The original name for Pembroke Street was ‘Jeune Street’; Dr Francis Jeune (1806-1868) was Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, and a Canon of Gloucester before being appointed Bishop of Peterborough.
Last night, under the combined influence of Mirtazapine and Co-codamol, my fevered brain came up with a new approach to the Street Names Project: Why not do the whole book in that style?
As well as grouping ‘themed streets’ together, it would give us adequate scope to include some interesting sidelights on notable individuals. We’d be able to take our readers on a virtual tour of the Cynon Valley, area by area, exploring the past and putting it into a modern context.
I made good progress last night, cutting and pasting my original document to make a completely new layout. I think we’ve covered about two-thirds of Aberdare so far. I’ve got some waifs and strays which still need to be tied into the main structure. (Geoff’s just emailed me to confirm one piece of guesswork, so the Maesydre bit is pretty much complete.) I don’t know what we’re going to do with the ‘lost streets’ yet, but we’ve included a fair number in our outline.
It’s still got a long way to go, of course, but I think it’s much more accessible than my original plan. It also doesn’t occupy anything like the page count I was keeping an eye on a few months ago. LibreOffice will handle the indexing automatically, and we can make the text look pretty much how we’d like it to look in the finished book.
All this might be academic, though. It seems as though CVHS is undergoing some sort of upheaval under its new committee. Geoff told me that Colin Rees, who maintains their website from his home in Winchester, has come in for criticism over his approach. The content of Hanes has also come under fire. It made us wonder what had happened to editorial freedom. There was an extraordinary meeting on Wednesday night to discuss their future direction.
If all else fails, Geoff and I could always take the initiative. I bumped into Janis and Grace yesterday, while I was trying to find somewhere with half-decent Internet provision. Janis has gone down the self-publishing route, using a printer who distributes her books through Amazon. After they’ve both taken their cut, Janis gets to keep the rest of the money. It’s a possibility we might have to look into further down the line.
For the time being, though, it seems as though the Street Names Project is back on track. Just don’t hold your breath for a publication date…