NEWS & MEMBERS ARTICLES
03 August 2022The Abbey Mill
THE ABBEY MILL
Martyn J Griffiths
An iron forge and rolling mill was erected in the cwm of the river Clydach at Neath Abbey in 1825 and this same building was later used as a woollen mill before becoming a clothing factory. The building is accessed via the lane which leads off to the left immediately after the railway viaduct on Taillwyd Road, Neath Abbey.
Coflein comments that it was built on the site of a late seventeenth century copper works but that building was further up-stream. Their description of the building and its usage is interesting,
'It is constructed of Pennant sandstone, with ashlar dressings, under a pitched slate roof supported on cast and wrought iron trusses. The south-west elevation was originally a series of arches, but these have been filled in and rendered over. The works was powered by a waterwheel on its north-east side, fed from a dam built across the head of the Clydach Falls. In the 1870s it was converted to a woollen mill, which may be when the arches were blocked. One of the doorways has a keystone bearing the date 1825.'
D Rhys Phillips1 states that the building was erected by Joshua Prosser who was employed by the company as a master mason. However, the descendants of Joshua Prosser say that he was never employed at the Neath Abbey Works. They claim that it was another of their ancestors, David Owen that was the master builder who constructed the forge.
Power for the mill was supplied by a 20 ton mill-wheel. Water for this was piped, directly from the waterfall, around the back of the mill building where a leet took the water past the wheel and under the road before returning to the river. Boards were fixed across the top of the waterfall to create a pool and to regulate the water. Every year these boards were removed for cleaning and maintenance work. The pool, known as Pwll Du, made an ideal place for local youngsters to swim.
There is some evidence that there were in fact two water wheels. The second, smaller wheel appears on a photograph of a 1906 painting which shows a wheel on the river-side of the complex. A local resident has investigated further and what he found seems to confirm this siting.
The mill is a Grade 2 Listed Building but suffered severe fire damage in the late 1990s. In 2004 there was an attempt to obtain planning permission for a private house on the site but this failed due to local opposition, the historical importance of the building plus difficulties concerning access. The Royal Commission for Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales commented that 'South Wales pioneered the use of large span iron roofs internationally and Neath Abbey Mill roof is one of the best surviving examples.'
Photo - Robert Davies
The waterfall near the woollen mills. The sandy floored pool above was known as Pwll Du
The woollen mill is said to have been established in about 18722 by a man named Lewis. The curator of Drefach woollen mills museum claims that the mill at Neath Abbey was established by an Edward Lewis. Although several Lewis’s were connected with the mill, there is no reference of ownership prior to 1877 when James Reynolds was facing liquidation.
The Furniture Gazette 1877, Volume 7
The Reynolds family continued to do business from the Cwmpandy mill and it is more than likely that, in order to recover from their financial difficulties, the Abbey mill was sold on at this time. [Cwmpandy mill was near Eaglesbush].
In May 1882 Edward Lewis was one of six people (including Hopkin Morgan) who attended a council meeting and objected to the establishment of a flannel fair in the town as they believed it would affect their trade materially. Their objection was upheld.
In Kelly’s 1884 directory Edward Lewis is shown as running both the Abbey mills in Neath Abbey and the Dyffryn mills in Glynneath. He lived in London Road and was originally from Carmarthen. On the 1881 census he is recorded as a woollen cloth manufacturer employing 20 men and 23 women. However, he was not a son of John Lewis and was only 24 years of age at this time.
In January 1885 he was noted as supplying blankets and flannels for distribution amongst the poor of Ystradgynlais.
A clue as to what became of one of the Lewis brothers of the Abbey mill was found in a press report dated March 1917 when a Lieutenant Lewis of the Canadian Field Force, serving as a private in the RFA was made a presentation at Vint’s Palace. It was reported that he was the son of the late proprietor of the Neath Abbey Mills. Unfortunately, his first name is not given so he may have been a son of Edward [who disappears from census returns after 1881], or of his brother who, at the moment, remains anonymous.
Wilson’s Directory of 1885 shows a John Lewis of Neath Abbey woollen mills. He was originally from Llannewydd, near Carmarthen and died in 1890 at the age of 73. His son George, worked with him as a weaver and later settled in the town as an insurance agent. One of the executors of John Lewis’ will was Hopkin Morgan; his successor at the Abbey Mills. There does not appear to be any family connection between John Lewis and the previous Lewis brothers.
Sale of the Neath Abbey Mills October 1888 by Lewis Brothers (the auctioneers, not the owners)
The next owners were Hopkin and John Morgan. They were the sons of Morgan Morgan who ran the Victoria Woollen Mill in Wind Street, Neath. His sons had taken over the business by 1873. By the end of the 1880s their main business was in Neath Abbey although they continued to run the mill in Wind Street and had outlets for their trade at a draper’s shop in Wind Street and a stall in the market. They produced flannel for shirts, underwear and stockings for industrial workers as well as petticoats, shawls and blankets.
In 1919/1920 the mill was sold to Alfred Mark Maisey and partner, Cardiff drapers. He did not seem to have the necessary industrial experience to continue to run the mill and went bankrupt in 1927. The woollen mill was disposed of but he continued to run a flannel shirt factory in the upper part of the building, although he now had to buy in his raw material as opposed to producing it himself.
Maisey was a Londoner and was sentenced to two years imprisonment during World War 1 as a conscientious objector, though he was released early to carry out work of national importance in Wakefield. In Neath he settled in Penywern Road. By 1946 he was employing more than 60 women producing shirts and overalls etc. for industrial workers. He retired around 1952 and died five years later at his home, Carey Hall. After the demise of the woollen mill the whole of the site was taken over by Histon Overalls who continued producing garments until the late 1990s.
Mark Maisey was well known in Neath where he was President of the Rotary Club in 1954, vice-president of the Golf Club and had links to many other organisations.
Photo: Yvonne Carter
The ladies of the sewing factory around 1960
William Griffith Jones, a North Walian, rented the woollen mill in 1927 and bought it by 1933. He had previously worked at Dyffryn mill in Port Talbot. In 1947 the mill at Neath Abbey employed 5 girls and 3 men, producing blankets, shawls and knitting yarns. There was a contract to supply 100 shawls a year to the crown agent for colonies, for the Basuto Leper Colony in South Africa.
The 1946 Neath Abbey Estate sale describes the main factory building as containing – Spinning Room, Weaving Shed, Press and Stock Room on the ground floor; Carding Room, Stock Room, Cutting Room and Sewing Room above. There was also a Boiler House, Stoke House with Drying Room over, lean-to Dye Shed, lean-to Press Room and Oil Store; and a portable corrugated iron canteen building.
By 1967 the mill was employing 4 people in addition to the mill owner and his son. It continued to operate until 1974, and a few years later the machinery was bought by Swansea Museums and displayed in Swansea Industrial Museum until in 2000 the machinery was dispersed to several other sites. Mr. Griff Jones, the son of WG Jones [who only retired in 1970] was the last person associated with the running of the mill. The looms are now at the Gower Heritage Centre and the large carding engine is in daily operation at the National Woollen Mill Centre at Drefach.
Under Mr. Jones the mill sourced its wool from British suppliers through the British Wool Marketing Board, and also from New Zealand. It obtained black wool the mill mostly from Northern Spain. Woven blankets were sent to the Elland Finishing Company in Yorkshire to be finished off; and shawls were sent to Cefn Coed Hospital in Swansea where it was part of the occupational therapy for patients to attach the fringes by hand.4
By the 1960s electricity, which had previously been generated from the waterfall, came from the National Grid and similarly, mains water was being used as opposed to diversions from the River Clydach. Dyes, previously made at the mill, were being bought from Imperial Chemical Industries.5
video still - Syd Johnson
William Griffith Jones at the loom 1967
The closure of the mill was due mainly to increases in the price of wool, competition from synthetic products and the popularity of continental quilts.6 Raw wool which had cost 25 pence per pound a few years earlier now cost 80 pence. At the end, only blankets, shawls and weaving yarns for art students were being made there, though some products were exported as far as the United States and Japan. The mill was described as 'the last of its kind' in Glamorgan and Monmouthshire to manufacture from raw wool to the finished product.
Walter Grimes 1998 (National Trust)
A reconstruction of the woollen mill at Neath Abbey
The former woollen mills used as a clothing factory
Photo: Martyn Griffiths
The woollen mills in 2017 after a serious fire and years of neglect
The council discussed7 preserving the Woollen Mills along with building a tidal barrage, but sadly that came to nothing.
1. History of the Vale of Neath - D Rhys Phillips (1952) - [the author had his information from David William Prosser, a grandson of Joseph Prosser, but it was DW.’s maternal grandfather who was master mason in Neath Abbey].
2. Coflein suggests 1870, but Peoples’ Collection Wales states 1873.
3. History of the Vale of Neath - D Rhys Phillips (1952)
4. The Neath Abbey Woollen Mills, Anne Morgans, Hanes, June 2019.
5. The Neath Abbey Woollen Mills, Anne Morgans, Hanes, June 2019.
6. Neath Guardian 10th May 1974
7. Neath Guardian 9th August 1974
02 July 2022Murder in the Market?
Arthur Lewis, Market Manager, complained in May 1936 that some stall owners were not using their tables on Wednesdays and Saturdays as they alleged that trade was bad. Arthur Lewis tended to watch costings closely and objected to proposals for such innovations as neon signs, but did support the installation of glass doors on the side entrances in Green Street. It seems that Arthur Lewis had gained the nickname of 'Daddy Loo Loo' as when he emptied the penny slots in the ladies’ toilets, he would often drop the coins and local lads would scramble to pick them up. Loo Loo might have come from a shortening of his surname coupled with loo being a euphemism for toilet.
However, his story is not a happy one; he was attacked in the market in the early hours of Sunday 23rd May 1937 by an intruder who also stole his keys. In spite of tying Mr Lewis up and beating him about the head with an enamel jug the attacker was unable to learn which were the keys to the office and safe which contained the takings. Thus frustrated, after taking two books of postage stamps from Mr Lewis' pockets, the intruder left the building. Miss Emily Madden, housekeeper to Mr Lewis concerned that her employer had not returned home, went to the market and found him in a seriously injured state.1 A few days after receiving medical treatment he returned home.
Just over a week later the bunch of keys were discovered by Thomas Owen of Penydre whilst he was cutting the grass of St. Thomas' churchyard. Whilst a number of keys were missing, those to the office and the safe were still attached.2 Although he had made an initial recovery, Mr Lewis' health deteriorated and two months later he died. He had been Market Manager for 36 years. Suspecting that this had resulted from the injuries he had suffered in the assault an inquest was ordered. Dr Trevor Walters stated the cause of death to be from Myocarditis and arteriole sclerosis [the condition had probably been exacerbated by the attack]. Because there was no evidence to prove that the intruder had a felonious intent, the Coroner directed a verdict of manslaughter by person or persons unknown.3
Despite the outcome of the inquest, the story was elaborated in the memories of later managers and persisted to be referred to as a 'murder'.
Although the actual perpetrator was never apprehended, bizarrely the police were sent a diary by a 23 year old seaman, Leonard Ward Davies in which he confessed to the crime. Sometime later he further sent the police a letter in which he admitted that the statements he made were false. Being a resident of Limehouse, London he was tried and sentenced at the Old Bailey to six months imprisonment for 'effecting a public mischief' on 7th September 1937.4
This was adapted from a longer piece on Neath Market by the late Caroline Wheeler which will be published in The Neath Antiquarian Vol.4 in 2023.
1. Western Mail - 24th May 1937
2.Neath Guardian - 4th June 1937
3. Western Mail - 26th July 1937
4. Neath Guardian - 10th September 1937
03 June 2022Travellers Tales - Briton Ferry
Martyn J Griffiths
Briton Ferry was regarded as one of the most beautiful spots in South Wales. Tourists, artists and writers came there to breathe in the serenity, the green exuberance of the countryside and the picturesque scene set by the River Neath and its little boats. This was all to disappear with the development of an iron works, docks, and many other industrial concerns, but in the early years of the nineteenth century it was indeed a place that would fit onto most visitors’ itinerary for a touring destination.
All the travellers commented on the luxurious countryside. They may not have been enamoured with the house of Lord Vernon, but the beauty of his estate was undisputed. Even nearby Warren Hill where once stood an ancient Celtic fort, was wooded in oak and beech trees at this time.
The artist, John Thomas Barber, visited in 1803 and commented:
'The extensive plantations spread over several bold hills westward of the Neath river, whose broad translucid stream here emerges in a fine sweep between high woody banks, partly broken into naked cliffs, and soon unites with the sea.
From a delightful shady walk independent over the stream, we branched off into an 'alley green' that led us up a steep hill covered with large trees and tangled underwood: the ascent was judiciously traced where several bare craigs projecting from the soil formed an apposite contrast to the luxuriant verdure that prevailed around. On gaining the summit the charms of Briton Ferry disclosed themselves in an ample theatre of Sylvan grace of more than common beauty…………'
There were numerous walks and drives set out in the grounds and Sir Thomas Gery Cullum, travelling through in 1811, said:
'The tide was at its height and the scenery about this spot is quite delightful, the walks being most judiciously planned through the rocks which are well wooded, with every now and then an opening to the sea, or the busy scenes of the wharfs where the greatest activity prevails at full tide.'
Whilst the majority of tourists were walkers, Sir Thomas would have travelled by coach with a minimal amount of foot travel, especially so as he was about 70 years of age at the time of his tour.
Cullum wrote that the climate was almost sub-tropical with sweet Bays and Portugal Laurel growing to prodigious size.
Sir Thomas Gery Cullum (1741-1831) 7th Baronet of Hardwick House, Suffolk
Writing about the area many years later, Henry Butterworth said that Briton Ferry
'….has been called a fairy region, a delightful place, 'where nature and art seem to act as rivals, but where in truth are cooperating to spread before the eyes of the observe, scenes of the most- bewitching enchantment.' In this favoured spot, the myrtle, magnolia, strawberry-tree, and other tender exotics 'will grow luxuriantly in the open air,” as they do in the mild and beneficent climate of South Devon.'
Very few travellers commented on the ferry itself. One of those was Mary Ann Coare from Kent who wrote in about 1830:
'The river at the passage is 3 miles over. They charged 2/6 for taking the ferry down to the boat which is a great imposition; 12 shillings for taking the carriage and 9d. each for Passengers.'
Colonel Greville at Briton Ferry by Julius Caesar Ibbetson
All visitors, whether tourists, writers, artists or workmen, needed a place to slake their thirst and Briton Ferry had its own small inn.
Sir TG Cullum briefly mentions having a 'frugal repast' there in 1811. Ten years later the Reverend Robert Hassell Newell also made a brief referral:
'Here is a good inn, much improved of later years and kept up, probably, by summer parties from Neath and Swansea.'
Newell scoured the area looking for the best places from which sketches of the picturesque could be drawn. For the best view of Briton Ferry, he advocated crossing to the other side of the river and picked a spot near Earl’s Wood.
References to this hostelry are always shown as, ‘the inn’ and a name is never revealed. However, D Rhys Phillips comments that this was later the Vernon Tavern and later still the Vernon Hotel, which was situated at the bottom of Warren Hill. He adds that about 1726-1734 it was kept by Catherine Lloyd, the leader of the notorious women smugglers of Briton Ferry.
The highway from Aberavon to Neath passed through the estate so there were a few derogatory comments made about both that irregularity and the structure of the house. All seem to be in agreement with Dr. Roberston, an early visitor who, in 1799, said, 'neither the structure of the house, nor its situation, correspond perfectly with the beauty of the grounds.' Barber commented that the house was 'a very ordinary building.'
Whilst most agreed on the stunning beauty of the area, Millicent Bant, a Lady’s companion, (1808), was singularly not impressed by the mansion, commenting that it was, 'not worth notice, grounds in very bad order, but picturesque and pretty on the banks of the river.'
Sir Thomas Gery Cullum (1811) was particularly put out:
'The grounds about Lord Vernon’s are by no means extensive, and small as they are, they are intersected by the High Road, being obliged to cross over the road before we had completed the circuit of the grounds.'
The botanist, Thomas Martyn (1801), was one of the few tourists who lauded the nature of the road, but then he was not a landowner like Sir Thomas who was probably averse to the peasants wandering over his property:
'A beautiful and picturesque spot. Lord Vernon has a seat here delightfully situated. The road taking a serpentine direction gives a different aspect at every turn, this constant variation of the scene increases the beauty of it, and which I think must have been much heightened had it been high water at the time and the day not so far advanced.'
We hear precious little about the people who lived in the small village and who worked the estate but Charles Shephard junior, writing in the Gentleman’s Magazine gives this account in 1796 of one festivity:
'Several of the Welsh peasantry had assembled at the ferry house, and they passed the whole night in singing and dancing. I found that the occasion of this merry and sociable wake was, the reapers having cleared away the whole of his lordship’s wheat were now regaling themselves with the fruit of their labors. It was, indeed, curious to see the dancing of these honest rustics, with their rural musician playing on the flute.'
The Neath canal reached Giants’ Grave in 1799 but was not extended into Briton Ferry until 1825 (Coflein), the extension being built by Lord Jersey without an Act of Parliament. This date varies according to which authority you read. There were a number of extensions from Giants’ Grave, starting about 1815 and it did not reach its final terminus until 1842.
As early as 1798 the Reverend Richard Warner of Bath could see the end of the picturesque Ferry and the coming industrialisation:
'…..much of the enchantment that depends upon the rural quiet and sequestered appearance of Briton Ferry, was likely soon to be destroyed, by the introduction of a canal to the village.'
The Sandys brothers, William and Sampson, who were members of a London legal family, walked through Glamorgan in October 1819 and commented:
'The landscape at the Ferry is very rich and picturesque but the effect is certainly lessened by the canal which forms too regular a line to associate with the rest of the picture.'
The only lengthy ‘straight section’ of the canal in the vicinity of Britton Ferry would appear to be the section between Metal Box and the ‘Landfill Site Bridge’ approaching Giant’s Grave – which incorporated part of the line of the former Penrhiwtyn Canal (constructed sometime between 1790 & 1795).
The Village Church by Thomas Horner (National Museum of Wales)
At the heart of the whole picturesque scene that was Briton Ferry was the church of St. Mary’s, which lay close to the mansion of Lord Vernon. The church was described in Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Wales (1833) as 'a neat structure sixty feet long and twenty wide.' Thomas Stringer wrote:
'The church yard is in a situation wholly secluded from the town; possessing all that sacred quietude which ought to distinguish the sanctuaries of the dead. It is shaded and overhung by the pensile branches of tall lime trees.'
The poet Mason was a frequent visitor to Baglan House and he noted:
'One peculiarity remains in some of the inscriptions in this church-yard which I have not found elsewhere; that of recording not only the years and months, but the days the deceased have lived. It was usual amongst the Romans, but has in general been dropped in modern times.'
It was believed, wrongly, for many years to be the inspiration for Grey’s Elegy in a Churchyard, but it was certainly the topic in ‘Elegy in a Churchyard in South Wales’ by the Rev. W Mason (1787).
Two whiten’d flint stones mark the feet and head.
While these between full many a simple flow’r,
Pansy, and Pink, with languid beauty smile;
The Primrose opening at the twilight hour,
And velvet tufts of fragrant Chamomile.
The poet William Mason (1724-1797)
Dressing the graves with flowers was said to be a purely Welsh custom though ‘Eliza’ writing in 1800 was not impressed with the general scene:
'….adorning the graves of their deceased friends with various kinds of shrubs & flowers, most of the green sods were thus decorated & they have a pleasing appearance, but otherwise the place was not worthy of much attention.'
The artist and writer, John George Wood (1813) commented on the prevalence of this practice:
'The custom prevails throughout south Wales, to a certain extent; but perhaps is nowhere practiced as in this neighbourhood'
William Daniell, a landscape and marine artist, wrote in 1814:
'None but sweet-scented flowers are planted on the graves; and no others are considered as emblematical of goodness: but the turnsole, African marigold, or some other memorials of iniquity, are sometimes insidiously introduced among the pinks and roses, by a piqued neighbour, in expression of contempt for the deceased or his surviving relations.'
He also added that the custom was dying out, partly because the horses of the clergy were eating the flowers!
The graves were whitened with lime every holiday. There are many descriptions of the plants on the graves and other floral tributes. Amongst the plants spoken of were:
The turnsole, African marigold, pinks and roses (white rose on the grave of a virgin and red rose on graves of persons distinguished for kindness, benevolence and other social virtues… Black’s Picturesque Guide 1858), tulip, carnation, peony and various shrubs, blue veronica, lavender, sweet marjoram, southernwood and rosemary (most common) and London Pride
The church was demolished and rebuilt 1891-2 although the ancient tower was retained. The population had grown enormously over the previous fifty years, hence the need for more seating capacity, but a commentator said that the new building looked disproportionate with the small tower looking as though it was being devoured whole by the enormous nave.
The beautiful picturesque nature of Briton Ferry had long gone by that time and The Handbook of Neath, written in 1852, tells of its passing:
'The grand old wood on the lordly hill has been felled and given place to a modern plantation. The churchyard is stripped of its trees; the quiet old inn in whose large upper room, with windows at each end, it was so pleasant to refresh ourselves after a long ramble, is now lost in a mass of buildings connected with the Works of the Briton Ferry Iron Company, and the scattered village, with its sweet gardens, is converted into a closely built irregular, and singularly ugly but industrious Township, abounding in shops, and supporting three Dissenting meeting houses.'
1787 Elegy in a Churchyard in South Wales, Rev. William Mason
1796 A Tour Through Wales – Gentleman’s Magazine, Charles Shephard junior
1799 Journal (NLW MS 11790A), Dr. Robertson
1800 Private collection, Eliza
1801 Diary (NLW MS 1340C), Thomas Martyn
1803 A Tour throughout South Wales and Monmouthshire, John Thomas Barber
1808 Diary of South Wales (Essex R. O. Ref D/D Fr F4), Millicent Bant and Lady Wilson
1811 Journals (NLW), Sir Thomas Gery Cullum
1813 The Principal Rivers of Wales illustrated, J. G. Wood
1814 Picturesque Voyage round Great Britain, William Daniell
1819 A Tour Through Wales (NLW File 393C), William and Sampson Sandys
1819 Welsh Excursions, Thomas Stringer
1821 Letters on the Scenery of Wales, Rev. Robert Hassell Newell
1830 Diary of a Tour in the West Country and Wales, Mary Ann Coare
1833 Topographical Dictionary of Wales, Samuel Lewis
1858 Picturesque Guide Through North and South Wales and Monmouthshire, Black
1887 Glamorgan Antiquities - Old Welsh Graveyard Customs, Henry Butterworth
1898 Reminiscences of Briton Ferry and Baglan, E. Humphreys
1929 The History of the Vale of Neath, D. Rhys Phillips
With thanks to Dr. Gareth W Hughes of the Neath & Tennant Canals Trust.