A short history of Pontypridd

The story of Pontypridd, from iron and coal transportation to chain works and coal mines and the growth of the town, its famous people and sporting past to regeneration programmes and a fresh face to Ponty.

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Situated at the meeting point of the Taff and Rhondda rivers, Pontypridd is the gateway of the Cardiff valleys. Once described by the writer and novelist Gwyn Thomas as the ‘Damascus of the Valleys’, the town is famous not only as the birthplace of Tom Jones and the Welsh National Anthem Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, but also for its single-span arch bridge (from which Pontypridd draws its name) and the Brown Lennox Chainworks that made the anchors for Brunel’s great Victorian steamships.  

Pontypridd’s oldest landmark is known locally as the ‘Old Bridge’. Constructed in the middle of the eighteenth century by William Edwards, the bridge was Edwards’ fourth attempt at building a single-span footbridge across the river Taff. At 140ft, the Old Bridge was the longest single-span bridge in Britain when it opened in 1756 and remained so for until the 1790s. The entire enterprise had cost William Edwards over £1,150 (or the equivalent of £195,544 in today’s prices). Distinctive in its design with three different sized cylindrical holes on each side of the bridge, this has been the central image in the town’s identity ever since.

The Coming of Industry

As with many of the towns and villages of the South Wales Valleys, Pontypridd’s development is firmly linked to the industrial revolution. With the erection of iron works in Merthyr Tydfil, Dowlais and Hirwaun (near Aberdare) in the course of the second half of the eighteenth century, the necessity of transporting the manufactured product from the heads of the valleys transformed communities which lay along the route. The mid-point between Merthyr and Cardiff, Pontypridd benefitted significantly initially from the construction of a turnpike road in 1771 and subsequently from the Glamorganshire Canal and eventually the Taff Vale Railway.

Construction of the Glamorganshire Canal began in 1790 and several hundred men were employed as navvy labour to build it under the direction of Thomas Dadford. A combination of hard work – labourers worked twelve-hour days – and heavy drinking shifted earth and rock to carve out the course of the canal and to construct the embankments along its edge. Despite regular reports of violent behaviour amongst the workforce, the canal was completed between Merthyr and Pontypridd in May 1792 and opened through to Cardiff less than two years later in February 1794. At the time Pontypridd was a sparsely populated, rural area. Ten years later, the travel writer Benjamin Heath Malkin observed ‘the union of wildness with luxuriance’ which he found there.

For the most part, Pontypridd in the 1790s and early 1800s was a place to stop and have a drink along the journey from the iron towns to the docks in Cardiff. Pubs such as the Bunch of Grapes Inn which was built in around 1800 became a popular destination. Its position, alongside the canal, was however particularly fortuitous since less than twenty years later the Brown Lennox Chainworks were opened and would prove the catalyst to Pontypridd’s industrial transformation.

Construction began on the Chainworks in 1816 and was completed in 1818. Within six years, nearly a thousand tons of iron products were being carried along the canal from the Pontypridd works to the docks in Cardiff; by 1839, that figure had risen to 4,000 tons. The rapid growth of Brown Lennox and the industries which supplied it created thousands of jobs and brought many thousands of people to live and work in the once rural hamlet. 

King Coal

In addition to the vast amount of coal, iron, and other industrial products passing through Pontypridd via the turnpike, the canal, and the railway, the town was itself dominated by coal mining with pits in outlying villages such as Cilfynydd to ones closer to the centre of the town such as ‘Dan’s Muck Hole’ in Pwllgwaun and the Maritime Colliery in Maesycoed. The pits of Pontypridd were developed in two waves. The first came in the 1840s and 1850s with the sinking of the Maritime Colliery in 1841, Newbridge Colliery in 1844, Ty Mawr Colliery in 1848, and the Great Western Colliery in 1851. The second wave mirrored the great expansion of the Rhondda in 1870s and 1880s and was marked by the sinking of Dan’s Muck Hole and the Naval Colliery in Penygraig in 1875 and the Albion Colliery, Cilfynydd, in 1884. 

National Anthem & Cwm Rhondda

It is perhaps fitting that the two most famous songs to emerge from Pontypridd – Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and Cwm Rhondda connect the town’s sporting, religious, and linguistic traditions in ways that very few other aspects of popular culture are able to. Composed by Evan James and his son James in January 1856, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau was originally known as Glan Rhondda and, despite its now national importance, has lyrics which speak as much about the landscape of Pontypridd in the first half of the nineteenth century as the nation itself. Quickly popular, the song was published in the early 1860s having been performed at the National Eisteddfod of 1858 held in Llangollen. Its status as a national anthem was confirmed through its use at patriotic gatherings during the second half of the nineteenth century and, perhaps more significantly, when it was sung by the crowd at the 1905 rugby international between Wales and New Zealand. It was the first time an anthem had been sung in advance of the game and set a precedent which remains to this day.

Cwm Rhondda, on the other hand, has its origins in the chapel culture which developed in Wales during the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. First sung in 1907, the hymn was composed by John Hughes following a request by the leader of Capel Rhondda Welsh Baptist Chapel in Hopkinstown for a new hymn to play at a music festival arranged for November of that year. Ironically, given its original purpose, Cwm Rhondda gained its fame not as a chapel hymn but as a song sung at rugby matches and football matches by enthusiastic crowds. Reverend Elvet Lewis, the Archdruid from 1924-1928, even demanded it be banned from chapels because of its use in the football stadium. Today it is sung with gusto wherever Welsh rugby fans can be found, Cwm Rhondda (or Bread of Heaven as it is popularly known).

Sporting Life

The impact of Pontypridd on the sporting life of Wales far exceeds its relatively small population. The town’s rugby club, founded in 1876, was one of the original eleven clubs that met at the Castle Hotel in Neath in March 1881 to form the Welsh Football Union (from 1934 the Welsh Rugby Union). Edward Treharne, a 19-year-old Pontypridd forward, was even selected for the inaugural Welsh international side which faced England in the series of Home Nations matches the month before. That team was otherwise dominated by players from Cardiff RFC and Newport RFC.

In those early years of rugby in the Valleys, the game was largely played by young professionals: Treharne was a medical student, David Llewellyn, his brother Ack, and James and William Spickett were all solicitors. Eventually, it came to be dominated by working-class men such as Jack McKenzie who was a local policeman. For much of the twentieth century, as with most rugby teams in the Valleys, Pontypridd was very much a working-class rugby team playing in front of working-class crowds.

In the beginning, Pontypridd RFC played their matches on the Ynysangharad Fields and used the changing room facilities at the Butchers Arms on Taff Street. Then, in 1890, the decision was taken to make a ground of their own and the club moved to Taff Vale Park in Treforest which served as their home for the whole of the 1890s. Disputes with the owners of Taff Vale Park, who wanted to turn it into a multi-purpose sports venue, left the club playing on the cramped conditions of the People’s Park on Mill Street. A brief return to Taff Vale Park around 1905 was followed by several decades playing at Ynysangharad. Only in the 1970s, with the construction of the A470, did Pontypridd move to their present home at Sardis Road.

In the cricketing world, Pontypridd was the first town selected by Glamorgan County Cricket Club to host a first-class county game in Wales other than the traditional bases of Cardiff and Swansea. Ynysangharad Park, which opened on August Bank Holiday Monday 1923 played host to its first match on 3-6 July 1926 with Glamorgan taking on Derbyshire. Three years later, the opposition were South Africa. Ironically, Ynysangharad Park gained a reputation for being one of the wettest cricket grounds in Britain and by the early 1970s, the club’s patience had worn out. Nevertheless between 1926 and 1969, the county had played at least one county championship match at Pontypridd every year (save during the war). Aside from the Arms Park and Sophia Gardens in Cardiff and St Helen’s in Swansea, no other ground in Wales has had the same level of importance in the development of Welsh county cricket.

Boxing, the noble art, has (perhaps) the most special place in the history of Pontypridd, bringing the town world-class sporting glory which has been little replicated in other sports. As chapel denunciation of working-class passions shifted from rugby to boxing, the stakes grew higher and higher. Pick up a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and follow the story not of a fictional character but of a native of Pontypridd: Frederick Hall Thomas.

Born in 1886 to John Thomas, a local auctioneer, and Elizabeth Hall, the daughter of a Merthyr hotelier, Frederick Hall Thomas entered the changing world of the South Wales Coalfield comfortably middle-class. Off he went, then, to boarding school. Initially his schooling took place locally but after John Thomas’ death, Freddie was packed off to Long Ashton Public School in Bristol. His schooling, as with so much else in his later life, took the young Frederick Hall Thomas away from his home town and separated him from the lives of his peers including boxers such as Jimmy Wilde of Tylorstown, Frank Moody of Pontypridd, and Jim Driscoll of Cardiff.

During his childhood escapes to the rough-and-ready streets of the Graig, Frederick Hall Thomas had followed in the footsteps of his grandfather: a bare-knuckle fighter from the beginning of the nineteenth century when contests on the hilltops of Aberdare, Merthyr, and Rhymney were as brutal as boxing was noble. Scrapping in school, taking part in street gangs which patrolled and fiercely defended the districts of Pontypridd from outsiders, and sneaking a drink in the Bunch of Grapes were as much the background to Freddie Welsh as the glamour and hollow fakery of New York high society in the Jazz Age. Years later, the Graig was once again the focus of physical culture in Pontypridd with the formation of the Graig Athletic and Boxing Club at the Rose and Crown Hotel in 1920. Before and behind the fame and fortune which transformed Frederick Hall Thomas, the public-school educated, middle-class Pontypriddian into Freddie Welsh, world-champion boxer, American-Welshman, and working-class celebrity, was the proletarian world of the South Wales Coalfield.

In 1903, aged 16, Freddie left Pontypridd for Canada to take his chances in the booming Prairie Provinces of the Canadian West. Like many of his contemporaries, Freddie swallowed the inducements published week after week after week in the Pontypridd Observer, the Glamorgan Free Press, and the Rhondda Leader. His adventure in Canada was not overly successful although it was here that he became interested in body building and physical culture taking inspiration from Bernarr MacFadden. Nevertheless, homesick, he returned after just a year away. Soon finding himself ill-at-ease living at home, the 17 year old, bankrolled by his mother and the drinkers of the Bridge Inn, headed across the Atlantic once more.

Sailing from Liverpool to New York on the 29 June 1904 on the maiden voyage of the RMS Baltic, Freddie arrived at Ellis Island just as countless others before and after him.  Whilst living in America and struggling to find steady work, Freddie lived as a hobo riding the rails of the Dakotas before eventually being offered a job as a boxing instructor in New York. Sleeping in the gym where he worked and living off a salary of $1 a day, he found the ideal environment in which to pursue his interest in MacFadden’s doctrines. Boxing on the amateur circuit and struggling to make ends meet, Freddie eventually accepted inducements from his friends to turn professional in 1905. He was 19 years old.

Having secured a new job as an instructor in Philadelphia, Frederick Hall Thomas – now known by his stage name Freddie Welsh – made steady progress over the next two years through the boxing ranks in Philadelphia and eventually further afield in the United States. In 1907, Freddie Welsh returned to Britain having received word that his mother had fallen seriously ill. Returning by boat from New York, Welsh seized the opportunity to make his name as a fighter in his native land where he remained an unknown even amongst aficionados.

His first fight in Wales took place at the Park Gymnastic Club in Pontypridd on the April 17th; a display of talent rather than a true contest, Welsh fought three local opponents whose skills were no match for his own. A better test came a month later against Johnny Owens of Aberaman but Welsh’s physicality and American skills soon gave him the upper hand. The highlight of the tour to Britain took place at Pontypridd on 3 October 1907 when Welsh fought and defeated Gunnar Hart and Arthur Ellis on the same night. It would be three years until Welsh returned to his home town.

The summer of 1910 was a turbulent one: the uneasy calm before the storms, riots, and popular unrest of the autumn and winter. Freddie Welsh arrived in Cardiff on 19 June and was greeted by large crowds of supporters and admirers. In true celebrity fashion, open-topped cars had been arranged to transport Welsh along the road from Cardiff to Pontypridd. An estimated 80,000 people lined the streets to see the Prince of Pontypridd home again. 

As summer turned to autumn and the Cambrian Combine Dispute broke out in the Rhondda, the attention of many young men in Pontypridd and beyond turned to the forthcoming bout between Peerless Jim Driscoll and Freddie Welsh. Scheduled to take place on 20 December, Welsh spent the autumn months preparing at the gym above the Clarence Hotel in Station Square, Pontypridd. Training in front of packed audiences, Welsh charged a small entrance fee and donated the entire sum of money to the Pontypridd Cottage Hospital Appeal Fund. This gesture proved so successful that in the late 1920s, the Fund would regularly host boxing contests at Taff Vale Park in order to raise money to keep the Hospital running. These bouts, which featured another of Pontypridd’s boxing exports to America, Frank Moody, ensured that the Cottage Hospital survived the Great Depression which might otherwise have claimed it as yet another institutional victim of banker’s mayhem.

Freddie Welsh and Jim Driscoll met here at the American Roller Rink in Westgate Street, Cardiff. The building, which opened in 1908, was regularly used for political meetings, rink hockey, and by the locals to learn how to dance the waltz on a pair of roller skates. Five days before Christmas 1910, however, 10,000 people assembled at the Rink to watch Jim Driscoll and Freddie Welsh spar for a purse of £2,500. Welsh won on a foul having driven Driscoll to raged despair with his ducking and weaving. At the end of the bout, the crowd went wild with excitement: a swarm of people captured immediately by the press photographers.

In July 1914, Freddie Welsh became Lightweight Champion of the World, a title he retained until May 1917. Immediately having won in the United States, Welsh sailed for Britain and paraded his championship belt to the gathered crowds in Wales. ‘I am very glad to have brought the title back to Wales’, he said at an event in Merthyr Tydfil. Across the continent in Sarajevo, the assassin’s bullet set in train the series of declarations that plunged Europe, by early August, into the Great War. With the help of a friend in the White Star Line, Welsh and his family returned to the United States on the RMS Olympic. This decision attracted criticism from some quarters that Welsh had failed to join the British Army along with his fellow countrymen.

By 1914, of course, Freddie Welsh was more American than anything else – he spoke like an American, dressed like an American, and boxed as surely as an American. Eventually joining the United States Army as a Lieutenant in 1917, Welsh served at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C. helping to rehabilitate injured and disabled service personnel. Upon discharge in 1920, he had gained the rank of Captain.  In many ways, the outbreak of the Great War stands as the pivotal moment in Welsh’s career – both the high point and the fork in the road. In this regard, the most contemporary of Pontypridd’s historical figures mirrors closely the society from whence he came. In 1913, Welsh coal output hit record levels and the number of men employed in the coal industry and its ancillaries were equally at their peak. The slide to the bottom for Freddie Welsh and his native Pontypridd would be painful and torrid as the demands of keeping up earlier appearances took their toll. Freddie Welsh died aged 41 on 28 July 1927 and was discovered by a maid in the rundown New York hotel in which he lived out his days. Lying face down in his pyjamas and dressing gown, the doctor who came to record his death opined diagnosed a heart attack, the result of years of heavy drinking and living in poverty.

Going to the Dogs

In the late 1920s, Pontypridd became home to two of the three commercial sports which arrived in Britain in the interwar years: greyhound racing and speedway. The third, ice hockey, did not make its way to Wales until the 1980s. Pontypridd had two dog tracks – the first opened at Taff Vale Park in 1928 and second, a purpose-built greyhound stadium, opened at Hawthorn in March 1932. These sports, particularly greyhound racing, represented a significant investment of capital in the local area: the conversion of Taff Vale Park for racing cost around £25,000 and involved the laying of the track, improvements to the grandstand, and the purchase of kennels. This was in addition to new employment and the on-going demands for vets services, policing, and maintenance.

The arrival of speedway at Taff Vale Park in 1929 as a complement to the greyhound racing that began the year before also gave rise to new sporting heroes such as Tom Lougher. Most famous as a rider with the West Ham ‘Hammers’ in the early 1930s, Lougher made his name riding at his local track in Treforest. A skilful rider, he brought delight to the crowds at Taff Vale Park for a couple of years before speedway and greyhound racing in Pontypridd succumbed to the economic realities and difficulties of the Great Depression.

The Dark Side of Life in Victorian Pontypridd

Pontypridd’s position at the foot of the Taff and Rhondda valleys tended to give a cosmopolitan air befitting its status as a market town. Those things that chapel ministers railed against in their sermons on Sunday mornings such as drinking, boxing, and prostitution could all be found here. When Gladstone’s Liberal government banned drinking on a Sunday except in private clubs and for genuine travellers, the enterprising men of Rhondda townships such as Porth made their way on the train to Pontypridd Station where they found themselves in an area known as The Tumble. Twenty-first century pubs promote the quaint idea that The Tumble gained its name from the lumps of coal that fell off the tops of the drams as they made their journey to the Bute Docks in Cardiff. In reality, the name hints at a darker side of Victorian and Edwardian Pontypridd. 

For the least fortunate in society, particularly the elderly and those who found themselves out of work for long periods, the workhouse provided a form of welfare that has gained a negative mythology all of its own in large part because of the horror stories written by journalists and novelists such as Charles Dickens in the early days of the institution. Created as a result of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act (or New Poor Law), the workhouse was an institution designed to ensure that those in receipt of assistance were kept from being idle. Pontypridd Workhouse was erected in 1865 and cost £7,000. Originally a t-shaped building, by 1900 it had expanded greatly and provided sufficient space for over 300 inmates. The extended workhouse buildings survived until the 1960s and were part of the Graig Infirmary (later Dewi Sant Hospital).

Conclusion: Towards the Future

In the wake of colliery closures and deindustrialisation, Pontypridd came to symbolise the painful transition for many in the South Wales Valleys. From the nineteenth- and twentieth century with heavy industry as the core of the economy to a post-industrial, service-driven world in which the walk down the hill in hobnailed boots has been replaced by the daily commute alone in the car or on the bus and train into Cardiff and beyond. The post-war aspiration once evident in the Taff Vale Shopping Centre descended, by the 1980s and 1990s, into a run-down, smelly and dirty building that was avoided by local people and visitors alike.

Pontypridd, as with so much of the former coalfield, faces a great many challenges in the twenty-first century. Town-centre regeneration programmes and the renovation of historic buildings will provide the fresh face that is badly needed but cannot mask the greatest problem of all – finding new industries to replace those that, for a century and half, provided a purpose to the many thousands who made Pontypridd their home

Comments (3)

grankay's picture
I cannot seem to download the text of this document. Is it because it has to travel from Wales to America? I could download the pictures, which I very much appreciate. Can someone help me, please?
Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales's picture
Thanks for your comment & interest. Stories are not in a downloadable form unfortunately, but you could highlight the text (by running your cursor over it while holding down the left button on your mouse) and then right clicking and copying the highlighted text. You could then paste the text to a blank document. Please remember to acknowledge the copyright owner of anything you reuse for personal or research use (non-commercial), this article was written by Daryl Leeworthy, who is a native of Pontypridd. Each item (except some stories at the moment) on the site has copyright information. Good luck with your research and let us know if that works ok - Helen (Moderator). More on our terms of use are are the bottom on the page.
martyn williams GW0OUV's picture

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