Libraries Gave Us Power: Rhondda’s respect for literature
Continuing our series written by John Geraint, author of ‘The Great Welsh Auntie Novel’, and one of Wales’s most experienced documentary-makers. ‘John On The Rhondda’ is based on John Geraint’s popular Rhondda Radio talks and podcasts.
One of the loudest concerts I ever filmed was in… The Library. Yes, The Library. Far from the hush normally associated with dusty reading rooms and shelf after shelf of books catalogued according to the Dewey Decimal System, this gig rocked. But it was in ‘The Library’ – that’s what we called the old Miners’ Institute on Llwynypia Road, Tonypandy.
By the time I was filming there in the 1980s, for a BBC TV show with Treorchy band Peruvian Hipsters, the building was essentially a club, popular with young people for discos and parties.
But to my mind – and according to the interview I did with lead guitarist Nigel Buckland – the group played that night in the spirit of the old Miners’ Libraries, the Hipsters’ call-and-response rock ballads echoing with a message of communal solidarity and the hope of better things to come for the youth of the valley.
The Library: I’ve got to think carefully about how I say that word. What comes natural to me is to say ‘li-bury’, and I have to make an effort to remember that the word has two ‘r’s in it, and it’s supposed to be pronounced ‘library’.
But I’m pretty sure that most of the people I grew up with said ‘li-bury’ and that includes someone I know who spent a whole career as a librarian in the Rhondda, so there!
Knowledge is power
However you say it, ‘Libraries gave us power’, or so said another Welsh band, Manic Street Preachers. The opening line of the Manics’ signature hit A Design for Life was inspired by the inscription above the entrance to the Pillgwenlly library in Newport: ‘Knowledge is Power’.
The phrase conjures up the mission of the scores of Miners’ Institutes right across the coalfield that put education at the heart of Welsh working-class life. These were social spaces that offered the prospect not just individual self-improvement, but the enrichment of communal life for everyone.
The Institute libraries were the ‘miners’ universities’ or what historian Dai Smith called the ‘brains of the coalfield’. They broadened minds and expanded horizons, fired imaginations and gave readers a glimpse of a life beyond the toil and hardship of their daily lives, a vision of a better world.
From the very start, these Miners’ Libraries, self-funded by the colliers themselves, were so important and so valued by the people who used them, that their autonomy was jealously guarded.
In 1903, over in the Cynon Valley, the Aberdare Leader reported that the people of Penrhiwceiber had turned down an offer of £700 from the wealthy American industrialist Andrew Carnegie to help establish a public library in the area. Penrhiwceiber already had a splendid library at its Miners’ Institute.
The community didn’t see why it should give up its independence and they should pay twice over for a library service in their council rates, or indeed be beholden to man whose handouts were frequently regarded as ‘blood money’.
All of this was before Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s determination to build a country ‘fit for heroes’ after the trauma of the First World War led to a Public Libraries Act. That Act made county councils responsible for providing public libraries.
But such was the popularity and quality of the twenty-one Miners Institute libraries in the Rhondda, that it wasn’t until the late 1930s, and only after long-drawn-out and often very bitter negotiations, that it was finally agreed that the Rhondda Borough Council should adopt the Public Library Act and, even then, they began by using thirteen of the Institutes to loan out books.
The Miners’ Institute libraries were superbly well stocked. The one Cymmer had 8,000 titles and the 1903 catalogue of the Maerdy library listed books in Welsh and English on subjects ranging from Law, Medicine and Science to poultry-keeping and folklore.
Sixty different magazine and newspaper titles were available – just as well the Library stayed open until 11 o’clock at night.
If you’re looking for any further evidence of the huge impact the Libraries made, turn to the pages of the pioneering travel writer H. V. Morton.
Henry Morton made his name as a journalist covering the opening of Tutankhamun’s Tomb. In 1932, he published his famous book In Search of Wales. In it, he writes…
‘At a street corner in Tonypandy I heard two young miners discussing Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. I know this was exceptional, but it is significant; and it is true. It will not seem out of the way to anyone who knows South Wales… Smith’s bookshop in Cardiff… recently delivered a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, which cost £45 to the Workmen’s Institute at Ton-yr-efail. This £45 was saved by miners in twopences! And they followed it up by saving £39 for the Encyclopaedia Britannica!’
Travelling the length of the Rhondda during the Depression, Henry Morton refers to it as ‘Heartbreak Valley’. But his admiration for the intellect of the working-class people he meets grows and grows…
“I have met miners,’ he writes, ‘whose culture and gift of self-expression seem to me nothing short of miraculous. These men know how to think.”
One of the colliers Morton talks to explains to him how it’s books that liberate the intelligence and the imaginations of men who spend all their working lives underground: “Think what reading means to an active mind that is locked away in the dark for hours every day! Why in mid-Rhondda there are 40,000 books a month in circulation from four libraries…”
Appetite for reading
Forty thousand books! What an amazing statistic. During those years of hunger, the appetite for reading shown by the people of ‘Heartbreak Valley’ is astounding.
After the Second World War, the Borough Council opened branch libraries for its 25,000 registered readers up and down the Rhondda. Thomas and Evans gifted the Lucania buildings for the Porth branch, and in 1950, Caersalem Chapel in Tonypandy was converted into a library, and it was from there that I borrowed my first books in the 1960s.
From my earliest years, I was always a keen reader; but I wonder how much more I would have appreciated the works of Enid Blyton and then Isaac Asimov, Agatha Christie and J.R.R. Tolkien on the shelves of Tonypandy Library, had I known what a proud tradition of respect for reading those shelves represented.
The books I borrowed were free of charge – so long as I remembered to return them in time. Did that make them less valuable in my eyes? You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, as I’ve said before – so let’s hope that we learn to cherish and protect our public libraries as well as our other public services before they’re taken away from us.
As the mines shut, so did the Miners’ Institutes, or they became just social clubs like the one where I filmed the Hipsters’ gig.
Now it’s the South Wales Miners’ Library in Swansea which houses the printed books and pamphlets of more than sixty Institutes and Welfare Halls from across the coalfield.
The Miners’ Library also has sound recordings, videos and posters, and a wonderful collection of the banners of the Miners’ Lodges.
It’s an educational resource in the best traditions of the old Miners’ Institutes – I’ve drawn on its expertise and its treasures many times for the documentaries I’ve made about our shared history.
Because of what it represents as much as what it is, it deserves to engage us and excite us just as much as most thrilling concert we’ve ever had the privilege to attend, no matter where that was.
I’d like to say ‘diolch yn fawr’ to Hywel Matthews of the Treorchy Public Library who couldn’t have been more helpful in searching out some of the material I’ve used in this article.
All episodes of the ‘John On The Rhondda’ podcast are available here
John Geraint’s debut in fiction, ‘The Great Welsh Auntie Novel’, is available from all good bookshops, or directly from Cambria Books
You can find the rest of John’s writing on Nation.Cymru by following his link on this map
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Having been brought up in Blackwood and worked in Caerphilly Borough the obvious joy that the library staff derived from that line never failed to delight me. Even better, local boys, Manic Street Preachers gave the library service the right to use their lyrics to “Design for Life”.
If libraries gave us power then that power is being taken back. The number of libraries are disappearing faster than the disappearing of the number of Welsh speakers. How many people borrow Welsh language books? The Classics are being hidden away in some secret burial chamber to be replaced with more ‘suitable’ books.
Talking of Classics…the irony of a publisher that publishes the Classics…will Roald Dahl ever be printed as one of those Modern Penguin Classics?