A People’s Park: Memory, Miners and pre-Welfare in the South Wales Coalfield.

Dr Daryl Leeworthy, CHPHM member and Lecturer in Public History at the University of Huddersfield, weaves personal memory, research practice and historical revisionism into a consideration of the importance of leisure, recreation and sport to the health politics of the early twentieth century South Wales labour movement.

Growing up in the South Wales Coalfield in the early 1990s, the decaying remnants of the industry that once sustained the local economy (and more besides) were all around me. My primary school had been paid for by miners subscriptions (something we were told by suitably proud teachers at a very young age), the miner’s institute still stood at the bottom of the road where the red telephone box was that we used to ring my grandparents from until BT installed a phone inside the house (a technical marvel), and my secondary school was built on the site of the Albion Colliery in Cilfynydd where 290 men and boys died in an horrific explosion in 1894. Of all the disasters in Welsh mining history, only that of nearby Senghenydd was worse. Even the cottage hospital situated on the mountainside overlooking Pontypridd, which has now been turned into a hospice, and where my mum spent her last few days, was funded primarily by a grant from local branches of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. Education, health, and, as my PhD demonstrates, recreation, were all intimately linked to the coal mining industry and to the miners themselves.

 Albion Colliery

The Albion Colliery, c. 1900.

 When I came to write my recent book, Fields of Play: The Sporting Heritage of Wales, which was published in the gap between the Olympics and Paralympics of London 2012, I started with a memory. Not of a glorious contest at the Arms Park in Cardiff, although there are plenty of those throughout history, not that I’m biased or anything! Rather, of a school trip when I was seven years old. It wasn’t a trip of great distance, instead it took my year 3 comrades and I across the road from our school to the local park, known to us as the ‘Green Park’ – the other one in the village is known as ‘The Rec’ but I’ll get to that another time. My teacher, Mr Allen, had decided one afternoon to get us out of the classroom and give us a history lesson outdoors. We reached the park, having observed the newly learned ‘how to cross the road safely’ rules, of course, and we were gathered on the hillside to look down the valley towards Pontypridd. ‘Look children’, said Mr Allen, ‘this is where you come from, and this is why it’s special’. He then pointed out the opposite hillside where the Lady Windsor Colliery had been just five years earlier. He pointed out the Darren Ddu Colliery where men such as Cliff Protheroe had worked. He pointed out the Co-op buildings, the institute, and our school. All ‘from the miners’, he said. And then he pointed to the ground. ‘Here, children, is something really special, your own park’. Aged seven, none of us really understood what he meant, we just wanted to play on the swings. But nearly twenty years later, I knew exactly.

DSCF0623

The ‘Green Park’, Ynysybwl

For the Green Park was a people’s park. Not one of those Victorian edifices that have more in common with a garden centre than a place for play, far from it, this was a genuine people’s park owned by the people, inspired by the people. It was miner’s welfare before the Miner’s Welfare Fund even existed. Okay, it might not look much, but its history reveals a major emphasis on health and recreation amongst the miners of South Wales. In fact, its provision formed the basis of the 1912 municipal election battle between the existing Liberal councillor and the local Independent Labour Party branch secretary, which the latter lost by a mere handful of votes. So much, I thought, when writing my PhD, for the uninterest of the Labour Party towards sport and recreation that other historians wrote about in their books and articles. They were wrong, William H. May of the Ynysybwl ILP told me so in his campaign speeches!

An isolated case, I hear you cry, surely those distinguished historians of the Labour Party and Labour movement can’t be wrong? Like Huw Morgan, off out of the valley I went – how green it was, how green – and down into Pontypridd. On comes the microfilm reader, up pops the minute book of the Pontypridd Trades and Labour Council. A traditional kind of politics, real unions and stuff! Oh, except that within just a few weeks of forming in 1897, there they are discussing the need for a park and a swimming pool for the town. Ooops! Perhaps it’s just this bit of the coalfield, I thought, we’re a bit of a funny bunch up here – Bolshie. So I try my luck in the Rhondda. And there again, in Maerdy – that Little Moscow of later years – one finds a small recreation ground wedged on a patch of land behind the police station. A legacy of the labour movement? It’s hard to tell since the records are more than a bit incomplete but it’s there that in the mid-1920s the local Communist Party football team formed and proceeded to beat all in sight. The local press weren’t too impressed with the politics but loved the quality of their play. ‘Leave the revolution alone lads’, they suggested. Alright, I thought, I best get out of Glamorgan then – so off I go to Tredegar. Now I know what you’re thinking, the home of Aneurin Bevan … they’re gonna be more for the politics than the soccer, right? It seems not.

In fact, right across the South Wales Coalfield from the 1890s onwards the Labour movement began agitating for a new kind of society, one that did provide recreation facilities for ordinary people. It’s a movement that exemplified what I called in my PhD thesis a ‘democratic-voluntarist’ approach to the provision of essential public services, rather like the miner’s medical insurance schemes that have been more frequently discussed. This is an idea I came to following advice from my friend and colleague Alun Burge, whose work on Welsh co-operatives is essential reading, when he prompted me part-way through my PhD to think again about the ‘natural’ relationship between the Labour movement (all three pillars, as Alun often reminds me) and the state. If I ultimately concluded that the Depression convinced the Labour Party that municipalism – the state – was the way forward, both in recreation and in healthcare provision, I was just as convinced that in the absence of the Depression the landscape of the British state would look rather different today. It’s all bound up in the politics of public recreation after the First World War. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.

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