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Memories of WWI in Bryncoch

A hand-written set of reminiscences about village life in Bryncoch at the time of the First World War came to light in 2014, the year when the centenary of the war’s outbreak was commemorated. Situated on the northern outskirts of Neath, Bryncoch was then a small, rural community whose main employer was the Main Colliery Company. The author is believed to be Charles Gunthorpe Reynolds born in 1910 who, in writing of his schooldays from 1914 -1924, incidentally provides an insight into life on the home front. Found by Huw Pudner amongst family papers and transcribed by Neath Antiquarian Society Honorary Librarian Virginia Jones, the following edited extracts have been compiled by Jeffrey Griffiths.

Horse power at this time really meant horse power and, except for the railways and a few steam-driven wagons, horses were used for almost all forms of transport. All the horses at the Plough and Harrow farm and from other local farms were commandeered by the Army. Up to a dozen or more horses could be seen on the road on their way to Neath with a mounted officer behind and foot soldiers walking in front to control the animals.

In 1914 an aeroplane appeared in the sky at Bryncoch and landed in a field, stopping there for a week or so. This caused much excitement - no doubt this was the first time that most villagers had ever seen a plane in flight and they flocked to see this new wonder machine.

I recall when the wooden pit head structure at the ‘Old Pit’ went on fire in 1914. The weather had been very hot and dry and the massive wooden structure which supported the winding gear went up in flames. The woodwork had been well tarred for many decades and this fuelled the flames providing the biggest bonfire ever seen at Bryncoch, much to the delight of the children. 

The first half of my 9 years at Tynyrheol [now called Blaenhonddan] school were spent during the First World War and we children suffered many privations. Food was desperately in short supply and what little was available was of a very poor quality. Our basic food was boiled swedes and potatoes. Swedes were plentiful but potatoes were very scarce as most of them went to France for the British Army. The bread was practically inedible, brownish/black in colour and thoroughly unpalatable. No butter was readily available except for a few ounces. One had to go to Neath and queue up at the Maypole [a popular grocery chain store of the time]. The allowance would be 2 ounces and often, after queuing for an hour, by the time you reached the shop door, a notice would go up ‘Sold Out!’ To make the bread somewhat more palatable we had ‘Tickler’s Jam’ which we believed was made of plum and apple with some sawdust thrown in to appear like raspberry seeds. Sugar was almost unobtainable and the only sweetener available was saccharin tablets - awful stuff!  Our diet consisted of porridge oats which had to be boiled for many hours in a double saucepan and sufficient was prepared to last a week. The porridge would be left on the kitchen range hobs and portions eaten every day, usually for breakfast. Salt or treacle would be added - it was mostly salt or a little milk as treacle was very scarce. Very little milk was drunk in my young days although it was only 2 pence a pint. Tuberculosis was rampant in the villages and milk - untreated in those days - was considered to be the main cause of the disease. Cooked dinner was a once a week meal on Sundays. For the rest of the week the fare would be very meagre indeed - toasted bread or fried bread with margarine looking like axle grease and tasting awful. A popular Welsh dish which went by the name of ‘Shyncyn’ [siencyn?] was on the menu very often consisting of pieces of bread cut up and put into a basin with hot water with some sugar plus a spoonful of skimmed, condensed milk. Any kind of nourishing food at this time was almost unavailable but there was a Black Market for those who had the money. But, since most families were on the poverty line, we all literally starved. Calling at the house of one of my school mates one day I saw the family, consisting of 5 or 6 children, having a meal at a bare table of just bread covered with ‘Ally Sloper’s Sauce’, a flagon of which could be bought for a few pence. We boys at Tynyrheol School were a hungry lot and if one boy brought an apple to school to be eaten at playtime we would crowd around him all shouting ‘Stump!’. This meant that, after the boy had devoured the apple down to the stump, the boy who shouted ‘stump’ first would then be the possessor and it would be eaten with relish until only the seeds would remain.

Children’s ailments were very common, especially at winter time. Whooping cough was common, mostly with the younger girls. The boys would suffer from ringworm, boils, carbuncles and the common head cold was almost a perpetual ailment in winter time and continuous sniffling would be heard in the classrooms, much to the annoyance of the teachers. Handkerchiefs to blow our noses were almost unknown and the general practice was to wipe one’s nose in the sleeves of our jerseys, which was the usual garment worn by boys. The nearest doctor to the village lived in Skewen but, apart from serious accidents or ailments, his services were rarely called upon. The villagers would doctor themselves by means of all sorts of salves, herbs etc., mostly gathered in the fields or hedgerows, used either raw or boiled into concoctions or brews. 1918-1919 saw the coming of a new plague, the ‘Spanish Flu’. Adults and children were all struck down and there were many deaths in the village. It was not uncommon for two persons from the same household to be buried on the same day. The fever struck suddenly and many schoolchildren were affected. 

In August 1918 the Welsh National Eisteddfod was held at Neath and the schoolchildren went to see Lloyd George arriving at Neath Railway Station. The Station yard was crowded with people and Lloyd George was put standing on the roof of a taxi cab delivering a speech. It was still war time and he urged the people to work harder because the Germans had just launched a massive attack. He said he would make the country a land fit for heroes to live in. After the war was over there was much discontent and the returning soldiers could not get work. The cynics would say that one had to be a hero to live in the country, such was the state of affairs at the time. I can still see Lloyd George with his long, flowing mane of white hair and black cloak draped over his shoulders and hear his powerful voice.


Jeffrey L Griffiths

The author would like to place on record his thanks to Huw Pudner and Mrs Virginia Jones.

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