A new memoir published this week paints a vivid picture of life in the South Wales Valleys during the 1930s, and evokes the strong community spirit of the valleys in that period.
In A Childhood in a Welsh Mining Valley, author and ex-Congregational Minister Vivian Jones recounts with great warmth his childhood in a working class family within the community of Garnant, a small mining village in Cwm Aman, Carmarthenshire.
In those inter-war years, times were hard, labour was back-breaking and money, leisure time and material luxuries were in very short supply, but it’s clear that what joys people did find were really valued. As well as hymn-singing and preaching festivals attended by multitudes, there was the fun of the annual chapel daytrip to the seaside, when elders let their hair down and rolled their trouser-legs up. There was the chance to devour classic adventure novels such as Robinson Crusoe and The Three Musketeers, bought as a series from the News Chronicle. And there was the local people’s love of the cinema whose construction they themselves had funded.
‘The raising of the Workmen’s Hall was a stunning political statement for its day, a statement made by the organised working men of the community. It was a statement about the shape of things to come, the direction of the community’s life, and the readiness and ability of the working men to guide it.’ explained Vivian Jones, ‘It was a statement all the more powerful for being made at a time of very, very great hardship for them. Paid for by Union funds put together by subscriptions from miners’ wages over time, it cost £12,000, in 1927 – just one year after the General Strike of 1926.’
‘The underlying theme of this autobiography is the seemingly understated pride in the integrity and decency of these people and their culture,’ said Professor Hywel Francis, formerly professor in adult continuing education at Swansea University ‘and it shines through the powerful descriptions of family, work and community life, which created strong bonds of fellowship and solidarity in an era long before the divisive and fractured consumer society of today.’
A wealth of lively and humorous anecdotes bring the detail of this time, place and culture vividly back to life. Vivian’s autobiography is also a graphic explanation of how his family, community and chapel roots in the Amman Valley in the rural Welsh-speaking anthracite coalfield of West Wales created his reflective outlook, what he calls ‘my basic philosophy for living’ which shaped what he went on to do in life. These were the origins of his ‘radical bent’, his emphasis on community spirit and his concern for individual integrity. From the little boy described in the book, Vivian Jones grew up to be Minister of several Congregational Churches in Wales before leading the Plymouth Church, Minneapolis, USA for 15 years and then retiring back to South Wales.
Vivian’s principal motivation in writing this autobiography originally was to give an account of his humble yet proud Welsh origins for his American congregation, which he served from 1980 until 1995. ‘Most of the immigrants to Minnesota came from Scandinavia. Coming from a background so different to the vast majority of them, it seemed fair to me that the congregation I served had a right to know something of the influences that had shaped the mind of the preacher they listened to graciously Sunday after Sunday, so I wrote this book,’ explained Vivian.
‘Now, years later, the book has resurfaced, and it seems to me that the contents might give to some Welsh people my age the pleasure it has given me of retrieved memories,’ explained Vivian. ‘I would also hope that it would give my children and grandchildren a more rounded view of where they have come from, and that it could help young Welsh people at large to understand a little better how completely the world of some of us has changed in our lifetime.’
‘These reminiscences will preserve for posterity a way of life – a thoroughly Welsh way of life, both in language and culture,’ added Huw Walters, formerly Head of the Bibliography of Wales Unit, National Library of Wales.
A Childhood in a Mining Valley by Vivian Jones (£12.99, Y Lolfa) is available now.