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Fury of Past Time: A Life of Gwyn Thomas

29 Oct 2022 5 minute read
Fury of Past Time is published by Parthian Books

As Daryl Leeworthy’s masterly biography of the great Welsh writer Gwyn Thomas is published Nation.Cymru is delighted to present this extract which portrays the troubled place and times in which Thomas grew up.

A Masterpiece of Absurdity

During the ‘long, idle, beautifully lit summer of 1926,’ with its ‘illusion of paradise,’ Gwyn celebrated his thirteenth birthday.

The pit wheels were silent, the great pit-head chimneys no longer belched their fumes into the air, and there was no longer the ever-present danger of death or injury underground.

‘The silence was sweet,’ he recalled half a century later, ‘people sang in ways they’d never sang before and it was, in a way, to the mind of the wondering child the beginning of a new age.’

Two months earlier, at the start of May, all work had ceased in the valley in support of the General Strike.


After nine days, only the miners were left carrying the banner of industrial action: they remained locked out of the collieries until the autumn.

Out of this ‘enchanted moment,’ he continued, ‘came this incredible phenomenon, one of the strangest things that I have ever seen happen on this earth: the bands.’

He meant the marching jazz bands of men, women and children dressed up in often outlandish home-made costumes, tea cosies on their heads, with their music played on marching drums and the gazooka.

Its sound, like air blown across a comb, wispy but insistent. It had all ‘emerged from one of the most sombre, dangerous moments in our past … [and] one of the most decisive wounds in our social experience.’

Porth held its first major carnival of the summer on 8 July, two days after Gwyn’s birthday.

Thousands of people were in attendance at Bronwydd Park, drawn in part by the exhibition game of baseball by two visiting teams from Cardiff, with jazz bands and other carnival contests all judged by a panel chaired by the wife of the local Labour MP, David Watts Morgan.

The events grew in size throughout July and August so that by September there were even bigger crowds, even bigger sporting events (including a game between Cardiff City and a Pick of the Rhondda XI), and substantial contests featuring dozens of bands: sixty in Porth Carnival alone.

The purpose of the community carnivals was not simply to entertain, nor even were they designed to defuse the potentially violent situation as anger mixed with frustration, although they did just that, but rather they were the best, collective way of raising money for the community’s distress fund.

There was a fund for each township of the Rhondda. Collectively their resources paid for the food and drink at the communal soup kitchens, paid for the supplies to sustain the boot repair centres, paid for children’s clothes and other essential items, and kept debt and rent collectors at bay – at least for a time.


The industrial conflict which had sparked the General Strike and the miners’ lockout was accompanied by a social conflict whose battlegrounds were everywhere.

In school ‘every class witnessed a bijou but solemnly bitter civil war.’

On the one side, the sons of miners like Gwyn himself; on the other, ‘the sons of tradesmen and other people not affected by the fight’ who were ‘malignantly opposed to the whole business.’

Nor was this ‘civil war’ entirely limited to the schoolboys themselves, as Gwyn recalled in a series of articles entitled ‘Growing Up in Meadow Prospect’ written for Punch in the early 1960s.


This was a quasi-fictional representation of Gwyn’s childhood, with events and locations pulled out of Porth and Cymmer and into the world of Meadow Prospect and the Windy Way.

Part four, ‘Explosion Point,’ was set during 1926 and explored one of Gwyn’s scholastic nemeses: ‘Mr Thurlow,’ the junior chemistry master at Rhondda County School, ‘a High Churchman [and] an austere traditionalist.’

Hardly the sort of figure who would take kindly to Gwyn’s joining in with the processions and demonstrations where ‘the banners were infinite’ and international as well as local in their messages of solidarity.

‘There were demands for the release of imprisoned Radicals the world over and we had a long list. Some would be well-known like Tom Mooney, Sacco, Vanzetti. Others might be local boys currently in the County Keep for railing at some or other aspect of the Establishment in public.’


The 1926 General Strike and lockout was the second of the two great strikes of the 1920s which Gwyn lived through as a child, and which brought the curtain down on the old Rhondda.

The lockout of 1921 began in mid-April and ended a matter of days before Gwyn’s eighth birthday.

‘We were idle until the beginning of July,’ recalled Will Paynter, at the time a young miner employed at Cymmer Colliery, ‘then went back into the pits having accepted big reductions in wages.’ The experience was to ‘lead to a decisive change’ in Paynter’s life.

Money was already becoming scarce.

‘The restraint upon progress which the present economic conditions have imposed has been most severely felt,’ recorded the Rhondda’s medical officer of health, Dr J. D. Jenkins, in the spring of 1921.

By the end of December 1925, more than seven thousand families across the Rhondda were being sustained by welfare payments from the Board of Guardians, at an annual cost of nearly three hundred and fifty thousand pounds.

The good times which were the hallmark of Edwardian Rhondda, when front rooms of terraced houses had been decked with family photographs and doily-covered pianos, the objects of pride and prosperity and status, were over.

Fury of Past Time: A Life of Gwyn Thomas by Daryl Leeworthy is published by Parthian. It is available from all good bookshops or you can buy a copy here.

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