David Michael

Gnoll Estate Bond Certificate

Without access to banks and building societies and before the modern welfare state, how did working people of Neath guard against ill-health and accidents and avoid the indignity of the Workhouse and a pauper burial? The answer is that they set up their own benefit clubs and friendly societies to provide self-insurance. Extraordinary as it may seem to us now, those clubs and societies met in the many public houses of the town.

Previous generations might have received parish benefit at home but, after the reform of the Poor Law in 1834, the likely outcome for the sick or injured at work was destitution, loss of home, break up of family and, ultimately, admission to the workhouse with everything that entailed.

The central financial function of the friendly society was simplicity itself; the members paid a subscription to the society while they were working, on the basis that, if they were unable to work in the future through sickness or unemployment, then, in return, the society would pay them a weekly benefit by way of relief.

In the early years of friendly society development, the whole thing centred on a box.  Money received in subscriptions was deposited in the box and drawn out as necessary to pay benefit; the societies were known as 'box clubs' and when a member received that benefit he was said to be 'on the box'. It was box clubs like the Britannia Friendly Society of the Bull public house in Water Street that the mining overman Jeffery Jeffries was referring to when he told the Children’s Employment Commission in 1842-

‘Most of the men subscribe to a benefit society held at the Bull in Neath, and when an accident occurs they are allowed about 7s a week.  I subscribe to the society myself; there are about 140 members’.

Not all assets were held in ready cash.  Before the development of the local banking system some societies deposited money with the Gnoll Estate. From 1775 to 1781, ten societies lodged sums of money with the Gnoll estate ranging from £20 up to £200.   In the years 1793-97, the estate took deposits of £100 a time at 4 per cent interest from the Amiable Society of Women, the Black Cock, Coal Miners and White Hart societies, the Young Bucks and Faithful Friends, all secured by bonds.  Sometimes these investments ran on for decades. Copies of the bonds are held in the Neath Antiquarian Society archive at the Neath Mechanics' Institute under reference numbers NAS Gn/E 20/25-30 and the investments are recorded in the Gnoll Estate accounts. Later in the 19th century the societies lodged money with the banking system, granted loans backed by mortgages and even acquired property themselves.

Throughout the period societies continue to meet in public houses and, in the early days, members were required by club rules to contribute toward the purchase of beer which would be drunk on club nights. One of the earlier clubs, the True Nelsons, required members to pay 10 pence to the box and two pence to the club which would have paid for beer. The clubs may have had free use of clubrooms but were expected to reimburse the landlord in 'wet rent', that is, by the purchase of a certain amount of beer. Although these practices   diminished over the years, they continued to attract criticism from the temperance cause.

The regular lodge night was the private face of the friendly society, but the anniversary or annual feast increasingly became its public face.  The celebration took place on the anniversary of the formation of the club or lodge. It was its 'birthday' and the culmination of its year. The press sometimes called these events 'demonstrations' and they were indeed a public opportunity for the societies to demonstrate the strength of their membership and its respectability. Hundreds of friendly society members turned out for these processions clad in colourful regalia, bearing banners showing the symbols of their order and very often accompanied by brass bands.

Broadly speaking, the development of the Neath societies had followed the general pattern with some Welsh and some more specifically local features. Up until the mid -1830s all of the Neath societies had been local and independent, but the later century came to be dominated by ‘affiliated’ orders organised on a national or sometimes a regional basis. The affiliated orders first arrived at Neath in 1835 with the formation of the Caractacus Lodge, number 934 of the Oddfellows of the Manchester Unity.  By 1839 the lodge was meeting in the King’s Head, New Street, which was a respectable house popular with many friendly societies. The Oddfellows were followed by a Welsh order known as the Ivorites, by the Foresters and the Alfreds.

So, what kind of people were friendly society members?  There is only a very limited answer to this question as full membership lists are rare and it had been thought that none survived for Neath. However, in 2018 an account and contribution book for the Prince of Wales Lodge was donated to the Neath Antiquarian Society. Research has confirmed that this society was affiliated to the Independent Order of Loyal Alfreds; it met at the Prince of Wales public house which once stood in in Bridge Street. The book, which is found under reference NAS Z 105/1 contains lists of members from the 1860s and details the benefits paid for sickness and of child funeral costs - it will provide much valuable material for future research.

Friendly societies went into steep decline following the development of the modern welfare state in the 20th century. The last surviving Oddfellows Lodge in the Neath area appears to have been the Friend in Need Lodge which met the Dulais Rock public house Aberdulais from 1859 to 1980. Material relating to the Friend in Need Lodge can be found under reference NAS Odd 1–5. The papers of the Lily of the West Lodge at Glynneath can also be found at the Mechanics' Institute under reference NAS Z 70 1-7.



While looking for visual material to illustrate a talk on the subject, the author was asked by an NAS member whether he could identify a mystery ceremonial sash which had been handed down to her family; was it a piece of friendly society regalia and, if so, which friendly society did it relate to? Although the sash bore symbols which were similar to other friendly societies and those used in Freemasonry nothing on the Internet seem to be a complete match. Enquiries were made with various museums and eventually photographs of the sash were circulated amongst curators of collections relating to social history. One of the curators saw similarities with photographs of societies elsewhere that enabled us to link it to The National United Order of Free Gardeners. The letters PGHE on the shield denote the biblical rivers said to have flowed out of Eden - Pison, Gihan, Hidekkel (Tigris) and Euphrates - Adam after all was the first Gardener. The Order came to the Neath area in 1893 and achieved some substantial growth within lodges in Neath, Crynant, Resolven and Tonna. In fact the order held its national conference at the Gwyn Hall in Neath in 1896 and a local man David Matthew Parry Evans was installed as Grand Master, which we can think of as the national chair, in 1910.

South Wales Daily News - 22nd May 1896

The author would be happy to assist other historians who wish to research the history of friendly societies in their own area. Briton Ferry, Skewen, the Dulais Valley and the Vale of Neath all had substantial friendly societies and research in these areas will further develop our understanding of these important organisations.


19 February 2019American Troops Fighting in Neath



Photo courtesy of Paul Townsend - Flickr

Seventy five years ago fighting broke out in the streets of Neath when black American soldiers came face to face with their white counterparts.  This was not the only racial disturbance in the town or indeed in the county.  Forty four clashes between white and black American troops were recorded in Britain between November 1943 and February 1944 alone!

The first GI's landed in Britain in January 1942 and by the end of the War about three million US soldiers had passed through the country.  Amongst them it is estimated that there were around 100,000 black American troops and they were segregated in Britain as, of course, they already were in America. 

Figures vary but it is believed that at the start of the war the British black population was something above 20,000, most of who lived in London.  It should not therefore come as a surprise that the arrival of five times as many black Americans would create something of a cultural shock to the local population.

The 398th Engineer General Service Regiment set foot in Britain 1st August 1943 and on 15th April the following year they moved from their base in the West Country to Porthcawl where they set up camps at Kenfig Hill and Queen’s Field.  There they undertook more basic combat training.  This area was the headquarters for exercises in port construction.  The unit finally crossed the Channel on 1st August 1944.

The 3916th Quartermaster Gasoline Supply Company of black American soldiers arrived in Port Talbot in July 1943. 


Both American units worked hard and played hard, some commenting that it was like a holiday with nearby attractions such as Coney Beach.    Occasionally, these troops would travel as far afield as the town of Neath.

The altercation described below was not mentioned in the press but a full account was given by the Chief Constable to the Neath Watch Committee.

[These minute books at the Mechanics Institute are a mine of information for any activity in the Borough from 1922 onwards].

“A disturbance arose in Neath on the evening of the 1st May 1944 when coloured soldiers of the United States Army attacked a white American.  This led to an affray in which about 50 coloured troops and about 45 white troops were involved and which broke out at about 11 p.m..

The coloured troops (all attached to the 3916 QM Gasoline Supply Coy., United States Army, stationed at Port Talbot) ran amok.  During the affray two white members of the American Forces (from the 398th Engineers, United States Army, stationed at Porthcawl) received injuries which were attended to by the Police.

Four coloured soldiers were detained by the police but were released later as nothing could be proved.

D.C. Morgan (Edgar Morgan) received a stab wound in the rump, two inches deep and one of my uniformed officers, P.S. Roberts (Hugh Roberts) received a badly bruised leg.  Great difficulty was experienced in controlling the disturbance even with the assistance of several members of the United States Military Police from Swansea.”

This was far from the end of such disturbances.   At 10.30 p.m. on 23rd June 1945 a dance was taking place at the Mackworth Dance Hall which was above Burton’s store in Green Street.  British servicemen took exception to the presence of black American troops and a general challenge to a fight was made.  The Americans left the building, trying to avoid trouble, but were followed by the British troops and other drunken civilians.  A general fight ensued and the Americans ended up being taken to Townhill for their own safety before being returned to barracks near Swansea.  One British serviceman alleged that he had been injured by a knife carried by one of the Americans but there was no other corroborating evidence.  The consequence was that a request was made that Neath be placed out of bounds for American black troops.

The above proves that there is nothing new under the sun.  Nearly 250 years earlier when Mackworth brought immigrant workers to the Mera in order to work the mines the locals abused them calling them, “Shouting, black, offensive, dust creating, apple stealing, window breaking coal-carriers.”  Oh how we make strangers welcome!!


Just three days after the Mackworth Dance Hall altercation yet another incident occurred in the town.  P.C. Owen met with two black American soldiers emerging from a hostelry the worse for wear.  They were aggressive, obviously under the influence and using abusive and insulting language.  A British soldier tried to help the policeman and a general melee broke out as a result of which a pane of glass in a shop door was smashed and the policeman suffered several blows to the face and body and a wrenched thumb.  The most incensed American was arrested whilst the other was taken to the Police Station for his own safety.  Both were returned to their units under escort.

10 January 2019The Cambrian Pottery

Workers at the Cambrian Pottery proudly display their products

Thanks go to our friends on the social media sites and in particular to Mark Lemon for his billheads which have confirmed the previous held opinions relating to the image.

It is not uncommon to find evidence of pottery related businesses anywhere in the country where a supply of clay can be found close by either from river environs or from mining activities and Neath was no exception.

John Brooks Taylor was of the second generation of a family that had moved from Devon seeking employment due to the early 19th century industrial expansion of Neath.

Following education at Alderman Davies' school he was indentured as an apprentice to Thomas Andrews (Mayor of Neath 1868), who as well as having general and furnishing businesses in New Street and Green Street, operated kilns manufacturing pottery and bricks at Millands.

Such was Taylor's ambition that on completion of his apprenticeship he established his own manufactory at Marshfield Road in 1882, where pottery goods of all types were made for a number of years.

It was popular in those days to reinforce a Welsh or local connection and thus (derived from Cambria and Cambrensis) he used the name of Cambrian Brick, Tile & Pottery Works (this is not to be confused with the Cambrian Pottery at Swansea which made fine china and porcelain, even though it has a Cadoxton connection).

The clay used was obtained from shallow pits in the Cwrt Sart area.  Digging for the clay resulted in the discovery of several items of archaeological interest such as a Roman Milestone (now at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff), a paved Roman road, animal remains and fossilised trees and ferns.

The pottery closed sometime after the end of World War One when the supply of local clay ran out. However, John Brooks Taylor had other brick and pottery interests operating in Eaglesbush Valley, Melincourt Valley and at Cwmdu, Skewen. 

22 December 2018The Good Doctor of Aberdulais


Danygraig House stood on the right hand side of the entrance to what is now the National Trust property in Aberdulais.  It was built for the chief cashier of the Aberdulais Tinworks and was leased by Doctor Prell from about 1912.  When he died in 1950 his successor, Dr. Norman Thomas, rented the house and bought it from the Ynysygerwn Estate a couple of years later.  He later sold it to Neath Borough Council who demolished the property in 1978.

The doctor’s surgery was on the opposite side of the entrance and had previously been a schoolroom.  Today it is the tea-room for the National Trust.

Doctor Prell came to Neath sometime around 1902, having previously been engaged as house surgeon at St. Mark’s Hospital, London.  He was born in Sheffield the son of Johann Lorenz Prell (later known as John Lawrence Prell) and Susan Forrest.  His father had come to Britain from Bavaria where he had studied at Leipzig University.  He spoke six languages – German, French, Spanish, English, Russian and Italian and is believed to have found work in the Manchester area as an assistant teacher around 1860.  He then found employment as the foreign correspondent for the steel cutlery producing firm of Mason and Gamble in Sheffield.  He earned a good living there but tried to branch out on his own and made the disastrous decision to sever his connection with Mason and Gamble.  In 1877 he went bankrupt and was obliged to return to Germany to look for work as a teacher.  He was not heard of again.

His wife, Susan, was left with three daughters and a young son, all under 14 years of age.  Her widowed mother joined the family and supplemented their income, whilst Susan found work first as a toy dealer and then a stationer.  Her mother’s help enabled her to pay the 2d a week for each of her children to attend St. George’s School in the town.

The dogged spirit of his mother and grandmother enabled John Philip Prell to go to medical school and eventually qualify as a surgeon. He qualified MRCS and LRCP in February 1902 and was soon based in Aberdulais , operating from the surgery next to his home.  He married a Tonna woman, Irene Griffiths, in 1912 though it is strange that the marriage took place in London.  Her father worked in the tinworks and was a deacon of Nazareth Chapel in Tonna.  At Christmas he would conduct choirs of  hymn-singers outside his home.

The Tea Rooms at Aberdulais, formerly the doctor’s surgery and before that a schoolroom for the tinplate works.

The newspapers are full of records of gory events attended by Dr. Prell.  Headlines such as, ‘Aberdulais Man Roasted Alive’, ‘Fell on his Head’ and ‘Child in a Lime Kiln’, tell of the busy and uncomfortable life of Neath’s premier doctor.

During the Great War both he and his wife were active on the Home Front.  Mrs Prell was part of the Tonna Working Party for Soldiers and Sailors, making useful articles of clothing for serving men.

Dr. Prell volunteered through the Red Cross in August 1915 as a Medical Officer based at Cwrt Sart Hospital.  He would meet convoys of soldiers arriving at Cwrt Sart Station and ensure their safe passage to the hospital for treatment.  Apart from his medical responsibilities he was also instrumental in training people for such duties.

Dr. Prell was often spotted doing his rounds in his pony and trap.  He always wore plus-fours and was a popular, efficient and effective physician who seems to have had an amiable disposition.  Apparently his favourite dish was jugged hare.  Mrs. Prell was perhaps not so welcoming.  She insisted that the girls in service with her called her ma’am, would check the lengths of their dresses and insist that they wear a different dress in the afternoon.

Doctor Prell died in September 1950 and was buried at St. Catwg’s Church, Cadoxton, his small grave standing almost opposite the main church doorway.   

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