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An Ogmore Vale Pioneer or an Orphan boy who “made good”


John Williams, or as he became known in his later years, “Alderman John Williams”, was born in 1848, and lived his early years on Penrhiwangen Farm near Aberaman House, in the Cynon Valley. His portrait (shown below) was painted circa. 1885, and copies were sold at five shillings each, throughout the Ogmore and Garw valleys, to raise funds for the Baptist Church. He would appear to have been a formidable individual!!

Family legend always insisted, that he had been orphaned, in the last great smallpox epidemic in South Wales in 1857. However, a more detailed research revealed that his father, Jenkin Williams, a tenant farmer, died of typhus in 1858, leaving John, brothers Tom and William and sisters Anne, Elizabeth, and Margaret, without a family breadwinner. By 1861, the family farm had been merged with the neighbouring farm of Mr. Rosser, the friend who had been in attendance at his death.

Following the tragedy, the children were cared for by relatives, some at Horc farm, Treherbert. Tom stayed farming in Bettws; William emigrated to Australia at the age of 15 in 1871 to farm in Queensland; and John on his 14th birthday became apprenticed to a prospering grocer, Mr. Lewis Jones, in Bell Street, Trecynon. Lewis Jones had moved to Trecynon from Cefncoed Merthyr in 1853, and opened a general store there at a time when the Cynon Valley was beginning its rapid expansion.

We can only speculate at this time what had been the previous connection between the Williams’ at Aberaman and the Jones’ at Trecynon, but the acceptance of young John as an apprentice, turned out to be extremely fortunate for all concerned.

The ongoing commercial success of Lewis Jones may be partly judged by the family portrait taken at his Golden wedding celebration at Park Street, Aberdare in 1897 (see appendix). The house is still standing and a comparison with a recent photograph, shows it to be in remarkably good condition.

John Williams also continued to prosper, and in 1870 he married his boss’s second daughter, Gwenllian. In those days the custom was to be married in ones best clothes (not a special wedding dress) and we are fortunate to have a wedding photograph with the bridegroom looking particularly pleased with life in general.

He immediately started his own business in Aberdare, but in 1871, no doubt with considerable help from his father-in-law, he moved to Tynewydd (now Ogmore Vale) and stayed periodically in the Ogmore Valley Hotel whilst he supervised the building of his own house and shops in what was to become “Commercial Street”.

“Aberdare House”, Commercial Street became the fIrst major store available to the expanding mining community other than the Wyndham mine shop at Nantydrus. The timing of his move to Tynewydd was excellent and must have been made with considerable forethought and planning. The Wyndham main shaft had been sunk by the Brogden family to service their Ironworks in Tondu, but the Ocean colliery had yet to be developed by the legendary David Davies (the Ocean), in 1873.

Pre 1872, the Valley was very sparsely populated. A summary of the 1871 census return reads:

Nantymoel farmhouse; Nantymoel row; Nantydrus row; Wyndham hut row: shop; Fronwen; Nantydrus farmhouse; Tynewydd farmhouse and cottages; Tynewydd rows; Caedu level pas; Straethog cottages; Pwllypant; Llestcwmllorog; Pentrabaily; and Pantyrawel.

The living conditions must have been very hard. The only way in and out of the valley was either by foot or horseback. The railway was there to service the collieries and the coke ovens but passenger trains would not be scheduled until the 1880’s.

The 1877 edition of the Ordnance survey map shows how rapidly development was taking place at that time. It would be interesting to speculate the effect on the Valley if our Victorian forebears had enjoyed today’s planning procedures! In five years or less, the Valley acquired at least six hundred houses, five chapels, three schools and at least three more hotel/pubs. Although the survey was published in 1877, a large part of the actual survey work (if one looks closely at the individual maps) was done in 1874/5, so the rate of building was even greater than at first sight

By the 1880’s, business was thriving, and money earned in those days was immediately reinvested in building property to meet the continuous demand for accommodation (it would be interesting to find out when the first bank branch was opened in the valley!) First, Commercial Street was built, followed by River Street, then over the years he continued to invest by taking “pieces of the action”, in the High Street, Walters Road, Meadow Street, Corbett Street and Dunraven Terrace.

At the end of the century he owned at least 42 properties (see appendix). Unfortunately they were of course all leasehold and though he entailed them to his family, the rent restriction act, in the days prior to leasehold reform, resulted in his legacy being much diminished!

The photograph below shows “Aberdare House” with the Commercial Street premises in 1894 with the “Alderman” standing modestly in the shop doorway with his eldest son kneeling with the dog, and his youngest boy on the horse.

By the mid 1880’s, John Williams had a firmly established business, and was able to turn his considerable energies to civic and community matters.

He had a very strong Baptist background and upbringing, and before the Welsh Baptist Chapel was built in Commercial Street in 1876, he, with others, underwent a public baptism in the River Ogmore at the spot where the “Workmens’ Hall” was later to be built. We find by searching the contemporary literature, that he seemed to be involved in very many fund raising activities for the chapel.

A magnificent set of pewter communion plate, jug, and cups, was presented to the Chapel in August 1877 by his wife, and very proudly inscribed as being donated by Mrs. J. Williams – Grocer. The trade of “Grocer” was obviously something to be proud of in the community at that time. After being deconsecrated and restored, the chapel now functions as a choral and community centre, and the communion service in question (see appendix) was returned to his grand-daughter, who his still living in “Aberdare House”.

Following the premature death of his eldest daughter in the mid 70’s, and with the nearest consecrated ground then being in Blackmill, he was instrumental in forming the Ogmore Burial Board, becoming its Chairman, and arranging the purchase of the land for Pwll-y-pant Cemetery.

After featuring prominently in various ratepayers meetings, John Williams was elected the very first Chairman of the Llangeinor School Board in 1886. He was passionately involved in the quest to improve educational standards, and promoted the building of new schools in the Parish. At the ceremonial opening of the first new school in Blaengarw in 1888, he was presented with a ceremonial silver key (see appendix). The Tynewydd and Ogmore Valley Chamber of Trade was established in 1886 of which he was a founder member.

His involvement in the political scene was illustrated by his chairing a meeting in Tynewydd in 1886, when “Mabon” (Mr. William Abrahams M.P.) was the guest speaker, and was apparently the first sitting M.P. to visit the valley.

The proceedings were magnificently reported in the Central Glamorgan Gazette of the day, and stand rereading today. The subject of the “Irish Question” and the suggestions for devolved government makes one wonder what we have been doing for the last one hundred and ten years!

In 1888, John Williams was elected foreman of the jury at the inquest held after the tragic explosion at the Aber Colliery. The details of the findings are interesting in that the Jury led by the foreman, insisted on bringing in a verdict of negligence (contrary to the coroner’s suggestion), and which resulted in certain colliery officials being committed to trial! That same year he was elected President of the newly formed Cymrodorion Society.

In 1889, he was elected as the very first County Councillor for the Ogmore Valley. The reporting of the election in the Central Glamorgan Gazette is again a masterly bit of prose. I like in particular:

“Mr Williams was then drawn around the district in a trap, and received everywhere with great enthusiasm – A large number of workmen showed a disinclination to return to work that day, and kept up the excitement till late in the evening, by singing snatches of election ditties”.

Full details of the complete results were printed in the Western Mail of Jan. 19th, 1889, but the Gazette of Jan. 25th makes much more interesting reading.

He eventually served on the Council for threee years as a Councillor, and then a further six years as an Alderman, retiring from the Council in 1898.

I feel, however, that John Williams’ greatest achievement was to establish the “Ogmore Electric Light Company” in 1890, and to effect the introduction of electric light to the Valley in 1891.

One must bear in mind that this predated the use of electricity for public lighting in Cardiff, Bridgend and Swansea, by a number of years! The detailed reporting of the inauguration ceremonies in the Central Glamorgan Gazette, of Nov. 25th and Dec. 23rd and the Western Mail of Dec. 20th, 1892, makes fascinating reading.

The lights were switched on in Ogmore Vale and in Nantymoel simultaneously by the chairman and vice-chairman’s wives. The first demonstration of the new technology, was at a bazaar at Tynewydd School on Monday, July 20th, 1891, which was held in aid of the building fund for Bethlehem Baptist Chapel (again reported in detail by the local press).

It appears that the engineer in charge of the demonstration, was the same man who was ultimately to be responsible for the main lighting installation in the valley. It would seem that the businessman Williams achieved his aim of attracting future investors to the fledgling company at the same time as drumming up funds for the Chapel.

The Gazette reported:

“In the evening the place was illuminated by electric light, the apparatus for providing the same being supplied by Mr. Wilson of Aberdare. The Tynewydd Brass Band played several selections of music as also did Miss Cassie Rees on the pianoforte. Great praise is due to Councillor J. Williams for the energetic part he and his co-deacons have taken in connection with the movement”.

Who said business and religion do not mix, and bearing in mind that J. Williams originally came from Trecynon, the Aberdare connection is interesting.

Comments made at the inauguration ceremony regarding “a great deal of opposition from different quarters that has been successfully surmounted”, leads one to speculate on the battles that had to be fought and won to achieve this success! The report of the A.G.M. of the Bridgend Gas and Water Co. of March 1892 gives some indication, when the Chairman, whilst attempting to justify the gas price increase, spent a large part of his time trying to persuade his audience that electricity would never be an attractive alternative and would never catch on!!!

The Ogmore and Garw Local Board had been debating since 1888, means of lighting the valleys, and in 1889 had erected more than a hundred cast iron posts with glass domes for that purpose. Having erected the posts, the Board then appeared to be unable to make up its mind as to which lighting medium to use. After more than twelve months the posts were being vandalised and were still not in use. In August 29th, 1890, the Central Glamorgan Gazette published the following verse!

Why all these posts about the street
Lay down aside, or get complete
Is there no gin, or gas, or oil
To light the lamps of Nantymoel?

The possible choices of illuminant are interesting, and may reflect the comparative price levels at that time.

John Williams in a family portrait taken in 1898, with his wife, three sons, surviving daughters, and son in-law, with four grandchildren. The quality of the photograph and the detail is quite remarkable.

“Alderman” Williams retired from his Ogmore Vale grocery and millinery business in 1903 and moved to live in “Apsley House” Bridgend, although he retained his position as Chairman of the Ogmore Valley Electric Light Company. He was also Vice Chairman of the Ogmore Valley Water Company for many years. He continued to devote much of his time to his beloved Baptist Church, and was a deacon and for years the Financial Secretary to the Welsh Baptist movement.

He celebrated his golden wedding anniversary on September 22nd, 1920, an event that was well publicised in the press at that time. He died after a very short illness in 1922, and was buried in Pwllypant Cemetery in Ogmore Vale. A feature of his funeral, was the journey of the funeral cortege, by train to Ogmore, after a service at his Bridgend house followed by a well attended grave-side ceremony.

The first verse of the “Emynau” published for the mourners’ use at the graveside ceremony is worth repeating here.

Mae ‘nghyfeillion adre’n myned
O fy mlaen, o un, i un,
Gan fy ngadael yn amddifad,
Fel pererin wrtho’i hun

He was both an orphan, and a “pilgrim”, but was also, a true pioneer of his time.

Appendix to: “An Ogmore Vale Pioneer” comprising photographs and contemporary newspaper accounts

The quality of some of the photographs is quite remarkable for the time. We are quite certain that the 1897 Golden Wedding group and the family portrait of 1898 were both the work of John Jenkin Williams, J W’s eldest son. He was a very keen amateur photographer in his day, and is standing on the left hand side of the family portrait where he would have seemed to have slipped back into the picture after actuating the time release.

As a small boy I can remember looking at some hundreds of large glass slides, now unfortunately lost to us, which he had taken of Ogmore Vale at the turn of the century

W. T. J. Davies, J. W.’s great grandson

Above: Lewis and Gwenllian Jones` Golden Wedding at 10 Park Lane 1897
10 Park Lane in 1997
The Silver Ceremonial Key presented to the Chairman of the Llangeinor School Board Mr. John Williams to celebrate the opening of the first new school in 1888. The side with the logo reads: Llangeinor School Board 1886. The reverse side reads: presented to John Williams Esq.
The Baptist Church communion service. Inscription reads: Presented by Mrs. J. Williams -Grocer to Bethlehem Baptist Church. Tynewydd Aug. 5th. 1877
Some of the properties built by John WilIiams and administered by the trustees to his estate in 1959. (Note the controlled rents and the level of annual rates; repairs of course were the responsibility of the landlord).

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