12 January 2018Appeals for Money - Martyn Griffiths

One can hardly walk thorough the street without being 'approached' and asked to part with any small change you may have for the benefit of charity be it from a homeless person or a collector on the behalf of both local and national good causes.  Additionally, there are appeals for cash via junk mail and through all of the visial media formats. Indeed, the most popular of these 'Children in Need' is determined each year to exceed its previous level and this year achieved £60 million.

Martyn Griffiths throws light on appeals made in the past and unuearths the generosity of some of our forefathers. 




Today we raise money for all sorts of things by appeals to the public.  Natural disasters, terrorist bombings, Children in Need, etc., etc., all have raised phenomenal sums due to coverage in the media.

In days gone by one might think that national and international appeals were less successful.  Perhaps they did not produce the flood of money that goes to good causes today, but nevertheless the number of appeals and the funds raised are quite surprising.


The Wars with France

1803        An appeal was made to raise funds for the defence of Swansea Harbour and coast.  In particular the aim was to purchase four six-pounders (field guns) with carriages and appendages, to be placed on the hills commanding the harbor under the direction of the Commander of the Sea Fencibles.  (This organization continued to exist until 1810.) Although this was ostensibly for the benefit of Swansea, many notable Neath gentry subscribed to the cause.

1806       The French Wars which had been going for more than ten years, engendered a Patriotic Fund.  The town of Neath led by the portreeve, James Coke, raised £79.15s.6d for a fund for the relief of seamen, soldiers and the widows and orphans and relatives of those in His Majesty’s service.  The chief subscribers were John Nathaniel Miers Esq. who gave 10 guineas (about £830 today), along with Matthew Gwyn Esq.  and Rees Williams (Aberpergwm) who both gave 5 guineas.

1813       This particular fund was for the relief of Russian sufferers or as stated more grandly, ‘To grant pecuniary advantage to the Russians is, under existing circumstances, to contribute to the commerce of the British Empire, and to the restoration of the liberties of Europe.’  The French, led by Napoleon, had invaded Russia in June 1812 and although beaten back eventually by the harsh winter, the Russian peasantry suffered huge hardships.  Neath Corporation, Henry Grant and his son Henry J. Grant each laid out 10 guineas and J. Herbert Lloyd (Cilybebyll), Edward Hawkins (Court Herbert), Thomas Walker (Cadoxton House) and William Gwyn donated 5 guineas each.

1814       German Relief.  Similar to the above a national fund was set up for the relief of German families suffering from the results of the continuous wars.  The Neath Corporation led the way with ten guineas, matched by Henry J. Grant who pointed out that this was ‘exclusive of his subscription in London.’

1815       The Waterloo Fund had a great deal of support from Neath and there exists a long list of subscribers, headed by Neath Corporation at 10 guineas and Mrs. Williams of Dyffryn at 5 guineas.

Local Building Work

1792-1800    The river bridge at Neath was stated to be in a dangerous condition as early as 1675 and some repair work had been done to keep the route open, but it was not until the 1790s that the bridge was rebuilt.  The cost was paid for by public subscription but, spiraling costs meant that in total three appeals for public funding were made before the bridge could be completed.

New bridge at Neath by Rowlandson. The Croft is to the right of the picture.

The river bridge at Neath was stated to be in a dangerous condition as early as 1675 and some repair work had been done to keep the route open, but it was not until the 1790s that the bridge was rebuilt.  The cost was paid for by public subscription but, spiraling costs meant that in total three appeals for public funding were made before the bridge could be completed.

1819       The need for a new town hall was getting ever more urgent with increasing trade.  The Guild Hall in High Street (now Old Market Street) was no longer fit for purpose.  A fund was set up and the Corporation put forward the grand sum of £1000 (£78,000 today) which was supplemented by many generous donations headed by Henry J. Grant, the Earl of Jersey and the Trustees of the Margam Estate giving £300 each, James Coke, John Edwards MP, the Marquis of Bute and Dumfries, William Williams of Aberpergwm, L.W.Dillwyn on behalf of the Penllergaer Estate and Capel Hanbury Leigh each gave £100.

1821       The entrance to the port of Neath, which had always been considered difficult or even dangerous, had improvements made through money raised by subscription.

Other Funds

1822       There were acute food shortages in Ireland during 1822 caused by rain damage to the potato crop.  Around a million people, particularly in Connacht and west Munster, had to depend on government aid.

A society was formed in London calling itself ‘The British and Irish Ladies’ Association for improving the condition of female peasantry in Ireland.   “The pleas for funds stated that those rescued from famine were now in danger of perishing from ‘the lingering death of cold and nakedness and their attendant diseases”.   The report went on to state that out of a family of four or five, only one can be clothed, and that women go about to procure food for their children with no covering but a rag or an old sack.  A meeting in Neath Town Hall (which would then have been the Guild Hall) in October 1822 raised £18 for the cause being the third such monies raised.  For this sum they procured a new spinning-wheel and 12 checked aprons. They also sought to buy coarse coloured Welsh flannel petticoats and strong calico shifts for the women and bed-gowns and shifts for the children.

1826       Money was raised at Neath Abbey Ironworks for the relief of distressed manufacturers.  This depression was as a result of a bank crash the previous year caused by speculation on the stock market in speculative investments in Latin America.

1823   Money being raised in Swansea and Neath for the relief of distressed Greeks.  The Greek War of Independence started in 1821 and went on until 1832.  Events such as the massacre at Chios in 1822 when 25,000 people were killed and even more sold into slavery, incensed the rest of Europe.

1836       One of the strangest public subscriptions was for the first Neath Borough Police Force.  In 1835 the first committee to be formed in the Town Council was the Watch Committee.  Its sole purpose was to establish and to maintain a police force in the borough.  They appointed David Prothero as the first constable on a salary of £52 a year.  When this was reported back to the full council they were appalled and tried to negotiate a lower salary.  This failed and they then decided to raise the money by public subscription with any deficit being taken out of the gas lighting fund.

1854       Patriotic Fund.  The huge loss of life in the Crimean War led to another Patriotic Fund being set up to supply relief to and support for relatives dependent on the fallen.  £45 was raised at the meeting when the fund was opened.


The above list is not exhaustive but it serves to show that raising money for worthy causes is a phenomenon that has been around for centuries.



04 November 2017You Never Know!

There are a good many visitors to the Neath Antiquarian archive at the Neath Mechanics' Institute whose prime line of research is connected with finding out more about their own particular family genealogy.  Through census returns, maps documents and sometimes photographs they are able to unravel a fascinating trail. 

One such person could not believe her luck when a chance meeting at the NMI suddenly broadened the horizon of her reserches.  She relates this event in her own words which the Society has pleasure in posting below.

Could this happen to YOU there is only one way to find out - COME ALONG AND VISIT our friendly archive.


A Chance overhearing ….. and where it  led!

In October 2016, on one of my infrequent calls to Neath Archives, I was viewing a large map, but was aware of someone quietly studying a book at the same table, who, I consequentially discovered, was also on an occasional visit.

A few minutes later, Robert Davies, the current Chairman of Neath Antiquarian Society, approached the man with the book and spoke to him. “Hello, Leighton. What are you looking at today, then?” Hearing his reply was unavoidable. I heard mention of ‘Thomas family of Dyffryn Arms’. Thinking this too good an opportunity to miss, (I thought – well, I can only be wrong and what would be the harm in a moment’s embarrassment?) I said, “Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing. Did any of those Thomases marry into the Duncans?”

He stood up immediately and declared, “I’m Leighton and I’m descended from Mary Duncan and John Thomas.” I couldn’t quite claim the same, but we were certainly related. My mother still carries the name Duncan as her middle name. Mary was the older sister of my great grandfather Thomas Duncan. Their father – also Thomas – was the gardener and farm bailiff of Howel and Ellen Gwyn. When the Gwyns moved to their new home at Dyffryn House in 1854, the Duncans went with them.

Once the introductions were over, I said to Leighton, “You know, next year we have a big anniversary. The Duncans will have been in this area for exactly two centuries. We should mark it, shouldn’t we?” He agreed that it would be a good idea.

Before we knew it, July had come around. I had an email from Leighton, prompting a start on our proposed ‘clan gathering’ which we agreed should be on 21st September, if at all possible, two hundred years to the day when little Robert Duncan was baptised at St. Mary’s Church, Llansawel. (We knew that they must have arrived very recently in this area as the baby had been born in ‘Bristol, Somersetshire’, while his parents Robert and Ann were en-route from Honiton, Devon where Ann had been born and where they had married in September 1814.) For many years the family lived at ‘Shelone’, while Robert was employed as a gardener at Vernon House, later moving to Baglan House, where he worked for Howel Gwyn. As his name suggests, Robert Duncan Senior was a Scotsman – unfortunately he died suddenly (in the kitchen of Baglan House) just ten months before the 1851 Census, leaving us tantalisingly close to discovering his birthplace c. 1788. A name such as his in Scotland is all too common. Ann lived for another 25 years, by which time she was into her eighties, ending her days at ‘Baglan Lower’.

Over the first eleven years of their lives in Briton Ferry, Robert and Ann had four more children – Ann, Isabella, William and Thomas. Tragically, William drowned aged seven while playing with other children in Mr Ritson’s yard in July 1831. He was buried in the family plot, which is very close to the church door. (William Ritson was the contractor who built the local docks for Brunel).  Those familiar with Briton Ferry will know of Ritson Street.

William Duncan’s four siblings all married and had large families, so there could potentially be many descendants in this area alone, apart from further afield.

Leighton and I both gauged interest among our known cousins and contacts through Ancestry and decided that it would be well worth having a gathering even if we ended up with a handful of people. Revd. Wendy readily agreed to our having access to St. Mary’s Church. She would be away, but we would be taken care of by two stalwarts of the parish, Aileen and Gordon Willis, who welcomed us with warmth and patience.

In the event, we had about twenty five people in the church (including spouses). Some were local, but we also had people who had travelled from Pontypridd, Newport, Cwmbran, Pembrokeshire, Bristol and Oxfordshire. Several others sent apologies because of work or family commitments. Most of those present were of the Thomas line, but we did have a group who were descendants of Isabella.

To my astonishment, one of those who walked through the church door was Christine, a first cousin of Leighton’s, who had been in the same year as me at secondary school. We had not met since leaving school forty years ago and had not an inkling in those days that we were related.

Appropriately, we were all able to gather around the ancient font – believed to date from the thirteenth century – over which our ancestors had been baptised. There we shared the story of those ‘first’ Duncans and Leighton laid out the family tree scroll which he had painstakingly put together. It was just as well that St. Mary’s were able to provide us with a long table! Those present were able to find known ancestors and to trace the line as far as possible – to their own names and beyond in some cases.

On leaving the church, we assembled at the grave for a photograph and to leave a basket of heather (an appropriate Scottish emblem) on the stone. This was placed by Adrian Pattinson, a great-great-great-grandson of Robert and Ann Duncan. Adrian, my second cousin, was someone I had never expected to meet. I certainly knew his name – back in the 1940s, while a toddler, he had stayed for a short time at my grandparents’ home in Neath with his parents, visiting from Newry. (Adrian’s father and his siblings were born in Skewen – he carried with him copies of the census. The family first lived in Burrows Road and later moved to Coombes Street (now called Coombes Road). His uncle, Thomas Lewis Pattinson, has his name on the memorial obelisk on the lawn at Carnegie Hall as well as on a plaque at the Gnoll gates. A member of the Royal Welch Regiment, Lewis lost his life in Holland in September 1944, aged 31.)

We then left St. Mary’s and made our way to share a meal together at the Bagle Brook, passing a few places along the Old Road route which held ancestral links, such as Thorney Road and Swan Road. Again, we were well catered for by the restaurant and the staff who draped our home-made tartan bunting near our table. (The Duncan crest has the motto ‘Savour the Moment’ which we much preferred to the other, which is ‘Disce Pati’ which means ‘Learn to Suffer’!) At the appropriate time, the waitress brought along our large celebration cake which we enjoyed together and were able to share with relatives unable to attend. Each household was able to take away a section of the bunting as a memento of our celebration together.  We also took up a collection for St. Mary’s Church in appreciation for the hospitality shown to us.

This was an event which I never expected to be part of, much less to be involved in organising. As a result, many of those who attended have broadened or deepened their network of contacts. It was  a special pleasure to return to Neath Archives and to say to Robert Davies, “Thank you so much for asking that question almost a year ago and opening a window of opportunity for a number of people. But for you, this event would not have happened!” Was this chance or design? I am convinced of the latter.

Sandra Davies, September 2017



26 October 2017Ernest Rollings

Whilst one local hero of the First World War has been immortalised following the refurbishment of one of Neath's iconic buildings, here is news of the 'other' man who by his action altered the outcome of that conflict.

Ernest Rollings is to be featured in a display mounted by the South Wales Police Museum.  The exhibition will run from 1st November to 2nd February 2018 and will be situated in the Firing Line Museum within Cardiff Castle.

The NAS archive has material regarding Rollings and an article on the subject may also be read within the NAS publication 'Keeping the Past Alive' 

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