Musical Rhondda

A Cultural History

Park Colliery ChoirPark Colliery Choir

Wales’s universal image as the “Land of Song” can be traced to the fusion of two easily discernible features of valley life in the mid to late 19th century – the strength of Nonconformity as a religious force and the frantic acceleration of the coal mining industry.

Valleys such as the Rhondda were penetrated indiscriminately by those early pioneers, exploiting their mineral resources and transforming the valley floor into a vast black Klondike. While its workforce endured the dangers of working underground in the most appalling conditions, the communities in which they lived were galvanised by a musical intensity the like of which had never been seen before. For more than a century the Rhondda was famous for more than just its outpouring of precious bituminous fuel, it was the heartland of a culture inspired by the sound of people united in song.

One of the 20th centuries most eminent Welsh composers, William Mattias, summed up the story of Rhondda choral music in Victorian times by saying, “The tradition of the 19th century Welsh choralism was as much a sociological as a musical phenomenon, arising out of the need of the people to express religious fervour or to rise above hardship and poverty through the means of choral singing. They are to be honoured for doing so. They and their leaders were in bond to their time in taking the only means open to them with results which were often inspiring.”

Before the colliery wheels began turning, there were few places of public worship in the Rhondda. A parish church stood in Ton Pentre; there was an Independent Chapel in Cymmer, Nebo Baptist in Ystrad and Libanus in Treherbert were the few places where singing, usually unaccompanied hymns sung in unison, were performed. By 1752 there was obviously an interest in the art of choral singing in Ystradyfodwg when John Harry Evans was paid £1 a year as the new chorus master of the parish. A mere 951 people occupied the valleys in 1851, which swelled to an astonishing 172,000 by 1924, and with this increase came the surge of interest in congregational singing. Chapels united in John Curwen’s ingenious tonic-solfa classes while Treherbert printer Isaac Jones showed his shrewd business sense as the first person in the valleys to print music in this simple method of musical notation.  

Rhondda was a melting pot of a whole range of music and within those long, monotonous terraces the universally popular image of the male voice choir first found its voice. It became a social feature for groups of men, showing passionate loyalty to the villages of their birth or adoption, to unite in song, usually under the conductorship of one of their own social class. Many of the early inhabitants of the Rhondda were men, migrating from the working centres of Merthyr and the Cynon valleys with their strong choral traditions.

Others came from the agricultural centres of the north and west where massed religious revivals had long-since swept the land, so it was no surprise that after a hard day’s shift underground, they congregated in the village pub at night and so the enjoyment of singing, to relieve themselves of the tensions of the day, was recognised. 

Although the Rhondda Fach did not musically develop to the same degree as the Fawr, choral singing spread rapidly throughout both valleys, usually resulting in the formation of the united town choirs and chapel choral societies, many of which grew to more than 300 voices. Rhondda grasped the concept of singing festivals, oratorios, cantatas and competitions in eisteddfodau which reached its climax in the national event every year. With a population density ten times the national average it was a haven of competitive gatherings where an eisteddfod marquee resembled a gladiatorial arena with reputations and village pride at stake. 

Royal Welsh Male ChoirRoyal Welsh Male Choir

The performances drew crowds that far exceeded any sporting event. At the National Eisteddfod in Swansea in 1891 a staggering 20,000 people were crammed into the pavilion. At the Welsh international rugby game in Newport a few months before only 8,000 turned out. 

This sudden rise in Welsh Choralism continues to enthrall and baffle historians. For a country whose musical heritage had largely been based on the solo voice and harp, from the mid 19th century right through until the First World War, this golden era of choral music significantly shaped the national identity of Wales.

Chapel life formed the basis for this heritage as the Methodist Revivals from the 18th century had made the singing of hymns an important part of public worship. It was from this point that Wales witnessed the growth of the popular cymanfa ganu, where local working-class communities united in song.

A Presbyterian Minister named John Roberts, or known as his bardic name of Ieuan Gwyllt, pioneered this movement with his desire to hold cymanfa ganu festivals not for entertainment purposes, but to raise the standard of worshipful singing. 

He worshipped in Aberdare and with a group of local congregational chapels created a Choral Union that published "Llyfr Tonau" in 1859, a more accessible solfa singing book which sold 25,000 copies almost immediately. In March 1861 he brought out his first edition of “Y Cerddor Cymreig”, a montly musical periodical. In addition to the articles and reports, each issue included a piece of classical choral music, with Welsh words, transposed to solfa. 

Griffiths Rhys JonesGriffiths Rhys Jones

By 1870 debates about Wales, its people, culture, religion, morality and role in the British Empire, were persistent. What was needed was a sudden injection of confidence in the insecure Welsh psyche and what better way to achieve this than through singing? The point of ignition was the Aberdare blacksmith Griffith Rhys Jones, or Caradog (1834-1897) when he led a conglomerate of South Wales choirs to compete and win the Thousand Guinea Trophy at Crystal Palace. However, the impact it had on the image of the Welsh was the true success of his Cor Mawr, as hysterical celebrations changed the way Wales was viewed by the outside world. 

Caradog came to Treorchy from Trecynon as a landlord of the Treorchy Hotel and a founder director of the Rhondda Brewery Company, and was already an established conductor of various choirs in his native Cynon Valley.

In 1872 the Crystal Palace Company in London announced the intention of holding a National Music Meeting. The Palace had been re-erected at Sydenham in south London after a brief period in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and had already gained a reputation as a fine auditorium for successive Handel Festivals from 1857 onwards. 

Willert Beale (1824-1874) was given the task of promoting a musical week to encourage massed choirs to participate in the competition in an effort to promote a deep national musical awareness. It was an idea Beale himself admitted came from the Welsh National Eisteddfod. The Adjudicator’s Panel included the foremost musicians in England, Julius Benedict, John Liptrot Hatton, Henry Leslie, Joseph Barnby and Arthur Sullivan. 

Wales responded to the opportunity by holding a mass meeting in The Temperance Hall, Aberdare, to decide on a plan of musical attack. As Conductor, Caradog created a 450-voice choir from throughout South Wales, holding weekly rehearsals in individual areas between Llanelli and Blaenavon. A specially chartered 18-carriage train transported the Choir to London where they performed “Men of Harlech” at Paddington Station to rapturous applause. The competition was certainly an event to remember. From the first note the volume and richness of the sound produced by Caradog’s “Cor Mawr” astounded the audience. When the Choir reportedly went out of tune Caradog yelled “listen to the band!” much to the annoyance of the professional orchestra and asked permission to start the item again, which was given. 

This was the first competitive representation of the Welsh nation beyond its boundaries, and it marked an unparalleled success. As he stepped off the train at Ystrad Station on a bright summer day in 1872, the welcome he received from a massed crowd of more than 5,000 admirers, was testimony to the respect he commanded throughout Wales. A state of euphoria swept the country as shop windows throughout every major town were emblazoned with pictures of his solemn face, accompanied by banners proclaiming "He Led Them To Victory." 

By 1873 the choir’s rehearsal schedule had restarted but this time they were considered a representation of all Welsh people. It was a fact that came sharply into focus when Caradog conducted one rehearsal in Pontypridd with a baton sent by the Welsh gold diggers of Australia. Ironmaster William Crawshay even allowed him use of his private orchestra and department store magnate James Howells presented him with an embroidered national flag. Despite taking 40 minutes to stage the choir, Caradog led his troops to another success as adjudicator Joseph Barnby proclaimed that the Welsh choir represented "the best in Europe." 

South Wales Choral Union CupSouth Wales Choral Union Cup

By the last quarter of the 19th century, Merthyr Tydfil and, to a degree, Aberdare claimed to be the capital of music in Wales, becoming renowned for its quantity of composers, conductors, choristers and bandsmen. With a proud son in composer Dr Joseph Parry (1841-1903) from Chapel Row, Merthyr was a hotbed of a whole range of musical activities. It was also the starting point for two of Wales’s most famous choral conductors, the fiery Dan Davies (1859-1930), better known as “Terrible Dan” due his volatile moods on and off stage and the much-loved Harry Evans who would eventually enjoy national fame as the conductor of the Liverpool Welsh Choral Union. 

However, all eyes were beginning to turn to the neighbouring valleys of the Rhondda and its people who were already making enormous strides in the eisteddfod. The 1860s saw the emerging growth of local eisteddfodau, with one of the first occurring in Dinas in 1862. By 1874 a Semi-National Eisteddfod was held in Tonypandy where Sir Joseph Barnby adjudicated. The growth of the Taff Vale Railway passenger service from Porth to Treherbert by 1863, and Porth to Maerdy in 1877, allowed an easy opportunity to mobilise these choral armies to compete in eisteddfodau further afield. 

Caradog himself conducted one of the first oratorio performances in the Rhondda with Louis Spohr’s “Last Judgement” in Treherbert in April 1871. The conductor David T. Prosser (1844-1904) or Eos Cynlais came from Ystradgynlais in the Swansea Valley to Treorchy as Precentor (or chorusmaster) of Bethlehem Chapel and founded the Rhondda Philharmonic Choir. 

 "Prosser Bach” took the 130 choristers from Rhondda and a further 70 from Merthyr to the Birkenhead National Eisteddfod in 1878 and although unsuccessful, ensured first prizes success at the National Eisteddfod of Merthyr in 1881 and Brecon in 1889. 

Taliesin Hopkins (1859-1906), from Mountain Ash, a former chorister in Caradog’s “Cor Mawr” settled in Cymmer, Porth as precentor of Capel y Cymmer and led a successful choir that won over a dozen major competitions from 1887 to 1891. The mixed Choir was placed second to the Rhondda Philharmonic in the Brecon National of 1889. In 1896 at the Llandudno National, Porth Male Choir (under Hopkins) and Moelwyn Male Choirs were placed joint first and shared the money and the prize. 

Another name to be remembered in Rhondda musical history during the Victorian era is that of Moses Owen Jones (1842-1908) of Caernarfonshire who lived his last 46 years in Treherbert, becoming Precentor at Carmel in 1868 and headteacher of the British School in the village. His United Choir of 160 voices gave the first complete performance of the “Messiah” for a Rhondda audience in the local Public Hall. Caradog actually played in the select orchestra made up largely of musicians from Bristol with Miss G. Williams of Treherbert at the piano.  His choir in all raised around £1,000 for charity. “M.O.”, who was the Secretary of the South Wales Branch of the Tonic Solfa Society, also established the 100-strong Treherbert Male Voice Party, later conducted by Howell Howells, and gained several first prizes at eisteddfodau throughout the country. 

Treherbert Male Voice PartyTreherbert Male Voice Party

Choral Societies were often enormous vocal combinations of anything between 150 and 400 voices. Treorchy and Maerdy were two of the most famous in the Rhondda, along with the Porth and District Choral Society which was formed by brothers Stanley and Tudor Williams in 1924 and won the National Eisteddfod in Treorchy four years later. It was from the Penygraig and District Choral Society that the Mid Rhondda Ladies Choir was formed after the majority of the male singers left to fight on foreign lands in the Second World War. Under the baton of Madam Florence Dallimore-Morris, the Choir went from strength to strength, winning the 1966 National Eisteddfod in Port Talbot under Kitty Parker. 

Operatic societies had also become a regular feature of Rhondda life, with some enjoying notable success such as the Pentre Operatic Society led by Madam Danford George and the Blaencwm-based Selsig Operatic Society formed in 1947 by W.J. Richards. However, one cannot deny that Victorian Rhondda was dominated by the male voice choir. During the last twenty years of the 19th century, two names continually dominated this genre, the Rhondda Glee Society and the Treorky Male Choir, spelt in its anglicised form.

Treorchy Choral SocietyTreorchy Choral Society

Although Caradog formed a male choir in the Treorchy Hotel in 1871, the first recorded existence of an established male voice combination in the town came in the summer of 1883 when a group of young men, all members of the Treorchy United Choir, decided to perform in a farewell party for one of the choristers who was emigrating to Australia.

They performed at a local eisteddfod in the Red Cow Hotel and won the sum of £1 for their performance of Dr Joseph Parry’s "Myfanwy". Rehearsing regularly in local public houses and open air venues the choir gradually gained a reputation for their high standards of performance, so much so that the Treorky Male Voice Choir, attracted the attention of William Thomas. A contemporary of Caradog’s, Thomas had performed in the Cor Mawr and came to Treorchy from neighbouring Mountain Ash as the chorusmaster of Noddfa Chapel and the Ystradyfodwg School Attendance Officer. 

Under the baton of this strict disciplinarian the choir gained national fame, claiming two first prizes at the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales and gradually winning the admiration of the local gentry and upper classes. However, their fame and competition success was not easy to come by and saw them come face to face with their rival giants of music making in the same valley. Treorky and the Rhondda Glee Society epitomised the perception of Wales’ tradition for cythraul y canu, the phrase used to describe the near-tribal warfare that existed between opposing choirs. 

Treorky and the Rhondda Glee Society of Ton Pentre existed in neighbouring villages, yet their competitive performances were greeted like two nations in armed combat. Choristers from both choirs often worked in the same colliery, or even lived in the same terraced streets, adding to the heightened tension.  It was not uncommon for the strained eisteddfod competitions to cause tempers to fray, resulting in large-scale fights breaking out in adjoining fields, only to be quelled by the constabulary.  Competitors were vindictive: big money was at stake in bets, law suits took place and sabotage was used on more than one occasion. Long before village rugby teams reached a position of prominence, it was the choirs who inspired villagers to turn out en masse to watch the "battle of the giants". In the Treorky versus Rhondda Glee scenario, they had ample opportunity.  

Noddfa ChapelNoddfa Chapel

However, it wasn’t only the organisations themselves that revelled in this animosity. The conductors could hardly be considered close friends either. Tom Stephens, like William Thomas, also grew up in the Cynon Valley and also sang in Caradog’s Cor Mawr. Yet that was where their similarities ended. Stephens couldn’t have been more different from Thomas since he was the landlord of the Blacksmith’s Arms in Treherbert. He moved to Ton Pentre as the precentor of Bethesda Independent Chapel and in 1877 became the first and only conductor of the Rhondda Glee Society, which won the Royal National Eisteddfod in Cardiff. 

Independently both choirs achieved national fame. The Treorky Choir, made up of 80 men in their twenties, twice claimed a Blue Riband at the

National Eisteddfod. The Rhondda Glee Society won the Royal National Eisteddfod of London in 1887 and two years later toured the Welsh settlements of the USA in a spectacular 140-concert tour. At the Royal National Eisteddfod of Brecon in 1889 the giants met for the first time on the competition stage. Treorky were victorious, claiming the £25 prize, with the Rhondda Glee in second place. 

A year later the two choirs came face to face at a competition in Porth which Treorky won and as they left the pavilion they were set upon by members of the Glee. The constabulary was called to the riot-like scene of bloody-faced choristers fighting in the streets. In an eisteddfod in Pontypridd the soloist with Treorky was recognised as a professional singer, an uproar ensued with Tom Stephen’s men heckling throughout the performance. It was only brought to an end when they marched around the back of the marquee, pulled out the ground pegs and the roof collapsed on the Treorky singers! 

The most fierce encounter was in 1893. During the previous four years they had competed against each other on 11 occasions with Treorky winning six times, the Glee Society twice and both choirs sharing the first prize three times. The Pontypridd Royal National Eisteddfod of 1893 was one of the most heated events because the winning choir was to be invited to travel to America and compete in the Chicago World Fair. The male voice choir competition generated tremendous interest with the test pieces "The War Horse" and "The Tyrol". The adjudicators were Caradog and Coleridge Taylor. At one stage Treorky was a point ahead with their performance of "The War Horse", but the Glee’s performance of "The Tyrol" clinched the first prize by two points. Apparently Tom Stephens had received first hand information about the yodelling techniques of the Tyrolean mountains from a brewery traveller who visited his pub. This piece of realism was the turning point in the event and earned them the transatlantic ticket. They went on to win the Chicago World Fair eisteddfod, but on their return they never competed again, yet their absence from the eisteddfod field did not signal the end of the rivalry. 

Treorky Male Choir received their greatest accolade in 1895 when they received the royal command performance to perform for Queen Victoria and members of the royal family plus guests at Windsor Castle. Tom Stephens demanded the postmaster was sacked on the spot because the telegram, from Her Majesty’s secretary Lord Edward Clinton, must have been delivered to the wrong choir! 

A month later Thomas became the recipient of a priceless bejewelled baton encrusted with diamonds, rubies and emeralds, as a token of gratitude from the Queen Empress. They returned to Wales to be greeted by a hero’s welcome, reminiscent of Caradog’s victory 20 years earlier. 

Tom Stephens and the Rhondda Glee Society eventually reached Windsor Castle in 1898 for a private concert as a consequence of prime minister Gladstone who was an admirer. Stephens was awarded a bejewelled pin from the Queen, but the choir did not receive the same recognition as Treorky. A member of the audience noted that the Glee Society members wore white gloves for the performance and were treated as professionals, whereas the Treorky wore "Sunday Best" and were treated as amateurs – winning the hearts of the audience. 

Royal Welsh Male Choir USA Tour 1909Royal Welsh Male Choir USA Tour 1909

Male voice choirs dominated the competition scene for decades and while the Rhondda Glee would shortly disband, the Treorky continued in another form, as a professional glee party of singers named the Royal Welsh Male Choir. Although a shadow of its former self William Thomas’s best twenty five singers toured the world with engagements in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and the USA. 

Their infamous 1907 tour of the United States saw Thomas lead 17 choristers, all of whom were unmarried miners, on a 66-concert tour in 64 days. 

The Choir existed for almost a century, making frequent tours and giving performances for various members of the Royal Family, including each of the successive monarchs in the 20th century. 

It is often difficult to distinguish the individual histories of so many male voice choirs in the Rhondda during this period. The plethora of male vocal ensembles were often short-term organisations that would combine to compete for a top prize in a local eisteddfod competition – this was especially the case during the 1920s depression when individual choristers were rewarded with a share of the winning coffers. There were some that survived the brunt of economic hardship and two World Wars, along with the growth of other forms of entertainment to grasp the attention of the possible chorister – from billiard halls and picture houses to the one great fear of many a conductor during the 1930s – the popularity of the “wireless”! 

Gelli and District Male Choir, better known as “Joe Jones’s Choir” enjoyed moderate success during the 1920s while the neighbouring Morgannwg Gleemen, formed in 1932 to compete in an eisteddfod at Bethany Church, Ystrad, would exist for over thirty years, with David Lukey as Conductor and Rhondda MP Will John as President.

The Clydach Male Voice Party, which won the first prize at the National Eisteddfod in Llanelli in 1930, disbanded during the Second World War only to reform in 1947 under the new guise of the Cambrian Colliery Choir. Colliery Choirs such as the Park Colliery, conducted by Arthur Morgan, enjoyed royal performances for both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York in the mid 1930s. 

Williamstown Male Choir 1911Williamstown Male Choir 1911

Of the larger male voice choirs, one of the most famous was that of Williamstown, formed by Ted Lewis during the Cambrian Colliery Strike of 1910 because miners had so much free time on their hands. The Choir remained a driving force in musical competitions for the next twenty years, dominating the scene both at local and national eisteddfod level. 

In the same vicinity Professor Tom Morgan established his Rhondda Welsh Male Glee Singers which also undertook tours of the USA and Canada during the early 1920s. In nearby Porth Rhys Evans established the Porth and Cymmer Male Voice Choir in 1886.

The Rhondda Fach of course was not without its male choirs. The Ferndale Labour Club Male Party was conducted by the eminent local conductor Tom Humphreys (1874-1955), who also formed the Blaenllechau Male Voice Choir and the Glynrhedynog Male Choir. Also in Ferndale the Imperial Glee Singers enjoyed widespread acclaim under the baton of Haydn Allen as winners of the male choir “second class” section in the 1949 and 1956 National Eisteddfodau. Eventually they became the Ferndale Male Party and performed for a further thirty years. In Ebenezer Chapel, Tylorstown, in February 1928 a small men’s concert party conducted by Alfred Morgan gained so much popularity that it continued under the name of Cor Meibion Morlais. Theophilus Thomas, the conductor of the Pontygwaith Mixed Choir, was the son of Joseph Thomas, who in the 1880s was Precentor at Blaencwm Baptist Church, Treherbert, and father of the eminent composer and conductor Mansel Thomas of Tylorstown, later Head of Music for BBC Wales and Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music.

While Treorchy proved the driving force in male voice choir singing from the Rhondda Fawr following the Second World War, it was their keen “rivals” of Pendyrus Male Choir from the Rhondda Fach that gained such acclaim twenty years earlier. Formed in May 1924 under the direction of the inimitable Arthur Duggan, a bakery salesman for the local Cooperative Society, whose dynamic and charismatic character led them to glory with first prizes at the National Eisteddfod in Caernarfon in 1937 and Rhyl in 1953. Pendyrus continued to flourish with Glynne Jones as conductor and enjoyed many overseas tours. 

The human voice was by far not the only “instrument” to flourish in the Rhondda during the Victorian and Edwardian era. A.A. Leeke of Trealaw formed the Mid Rhondda Orchestra in 1900 and two years later Percie Smith won the hearts and minds of local music lovers with his 33-piece Rhondda Orchestra. Born in Dover, Percie was the son-in-law of Rhondda’s first MP, William Abraham “Mabon” and became the deputy conductor and accompanist of Tom Stephen’s Rhondda Glee Society. He later took up the baton of the Pontypridd Orchestra which performed the first full orchestral concert in the Rhondda in 1902. He led a contingency of Rhondda musicians to the first prize at the Rhyl National Eisteddfod in 1904 and again in 1906 at Caernarfon. 

However, when it came to instrumentalists, the dominant force in working-class music making was that of the brass band. Rhondda had them in abundance, with a number achieving national and international acclaim. Beginning at the head of the Rhondda Fawr, the first brass band formed in the locality was the Glenrhondda Colliery Silver Band in 1890 and rehearsed in the Conservative Club on Station Road under Mr G. Dobbing. Later conducted by Evan Richards it was renamed Treherbert Silver Band and became Welsh Champions in 1948. 

Cory Band 1909Cory Band 1909

The Cwmparc Drum and Fife Temperance Band drew its members from the Parc and Dare Collieries and built up a healthy fund for instruments by imposing fines when members were found to be excessively drunk in one of the many local hostelries. They rehearsed at the Pengelli Coffee Tavern, paying John Thomas an annual salary of £12 for music lessons. Their first major win was at the local eisteddfod in Pontycymmer when they walked the twelve-mile round trip with their instruments tied to their backs. Later the band was renamed the Park and Dare and enjoyed a golden era under the bandmaster Haydn Bebb.

The Ton Temperance Band was formed in 1880. Colliery-owner Sir Clifford Cory was so impressed by their performance at the opening of the Colliery Library in Gelli in 1895 he employed the musical director of the Black Dyke Mills Band to further their training. The Cory Workmen’s Band became international champions, enjoying the first taste of major success under Major Arthur Kenney. 

Llwynypia and District Drum and Fife Band was formed in 1893 and twelve years later the Manager of the Glamorgan Colliery and well-known philanthropist, Archibald Hood, gave them an interest free loan of £530 to purchase new instruments. In 1907 they won the World Championships at the Ulster Hall in Belfast. 

The Tonypandy Silver Band was formed in 1941 from members of the town’s Drum and Fife, later to become the Mid Rhondda Band. In Porth the Lewis Merthyr Colliery also established its own prize-winning brass band while the Ynyshir and Wattstown Collieries formed their own brass ensemble with Captain Danny Lidell as musical director. 

Male voice choirs and brass bands have ensured the Rhondda is known worldwide for more than just its once-proud coal mining industry. They have established and strengthened a cultural tradition that has allowed them international renown. Today the Rhondda continues to boast some of the finest musical organisations in their individual fields, ensuring the “Valleys of Music and Song” will stand the test of time for generations to come. 

Amen to that. 

*With information provided from "The Valleys of Music & Song" (Prof. Gareth Williams) and "Rhondda Past, Present & Future" (John Haydn Davies)

(c) Copyright Dean Powell