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' 

12 October 2017ss Main

The Sinking of a Skewen Ship

Sue Ware

One hundred years ago the SS Main sank after being fired on by German U boat UC75. The Main had found shelter from a storm in Luce Bay on the West coast of Scotland only to find the U boat had also sheltered there. The fate of the Main was sealed, she was not the only ship to be lost in the First World War but her connection to Skewen and to my family means that she has a special place in local history.

The S.S. Main belonged to The Main Colliery Company, one of the largest employers in the Skewen area during the early part of the 20th century. The ship was built in Glasgow in 1904 for use in the coal trade between Skewen, Ireland and Northern France. At the start of the First World War the Main was equipped with a gun on her quarterdeck and had two Royal Naval Reserve Gunners on board. Although she was registered in Cardiff she was a Skewen ship being loaded with coal from the Main collieries at Skewen Wharf. She had a crew of 13 at the time of her sinking.

My great grandfather Thomas Soderstrom came to live in Skewen with his wife Annie and their four children and was 1st Mate on the Main. He met Annie Davies in Swansea, she was from Landore, they married in 1900 and after spending many years sailing the world as a merchant seaman he chose to do shorter voyages so he could be near his family. Their first Skewen home was River View, Cardonnel Road. From there it was said that the family could see the ship coming back up the river bringing father home to the family. Thomas was originally from the Aland Islands in the Baltic and was Swedish, he became a naturalised British subject in 1913.



Thomas and Annie on thier Wedding Day


The Main was on her way back to Skewen from Belfast when she met with the U boat in Luce Bay on a stormy night in poor conditions. The captain had gone to his cabin and was awoken at 2.30 am on the 9th October 1917 when he heard shelling as if from a machine gun. He rushed up on deck and could see the submarine on the port side about 200 metres away. It became clear that the ship was sinking and the life boats were launched. The crew were able to get into one of the life boats but in the confusion it was not possible to ascertain if all hands were safe or not. Over the next hours the boat was washed over by the high seas and capsized on several occasions, each time one or more members of the crew were lost until only three were left. Eventually only the Captain, Robert McCorquodale was left alive. He survived 15 hours in the water and was eventually washed up on the Eastern shore of Luce Bay at Port William where he was found by some young boys.

The crew of the SS Main with Captain Robert McCorquodale central

The sinking had a devastating effect on Captain Mc Corquodale and in a letter to the secretary of the Main Company he wrote of his grief at 'the loss of all my crew and the good old ship Main.'

My great grandmother was left with her four young children to care for. She was presented with the original model made by the shipbuilders and the model was at her home at St. Johns Terrace for many years before she presented it to Coedffranc Parish Council in the 1950s and it can still be seen on display at the Carnegie Community Hall.

One of the strangest aspects of this story is that if you wanted to see the wreck of the Main, which sank off the coast of Scotland, you would have to dive off the coast of Norfolk close to the town of Cromer. The Main was salvaged in 1919 and brought to the small village of Drummore where people were allowed to view the ship for a small fee. This certainly is not something that would be considered to be appropriate today however the money collected was used to fund a memorial to the ship and her crew that is in the local cemetery. The salvaged ship was re named Marden and the ship worked until 1929 when it sank after being in a collision off the Norfolk coast. On this occasion there was again a crew of thirteen. They all survived.

The Main Colliery Company replaced the Main with a new ship, the Goodwill of Bristol and Robert McCorquodale was the first Captain. He died on board on the anniversary of the sinking of the Main a few years later.

After some years in decline The Main Colliery Company closed in 1928. Their collieries in the Skewen and surrounding areas had closed and it was the end of an era. Coal mining in the region was in decline and Skewen Wharf as we see it in many photographs of the period was no longer necessary.

My grandfather told me this story when I was very young. About Thomas Soderstrom the merchant seaman who came to Swansea on a sailing ship, who met Annie and settled here. He told me about the trip he took to France on the Main with his father and how he queued up with the rest of the crew to receive his ‘pay’ from Captain McCorquodale. When he went back to school he was the only person in the school, including the staff, who had ever been out of the country. The family became well known in Skewen and maybe their surname will be remembered by some.

The lives of all thirteen of the crew, men from England, Scotland, Latvia, Ireland, Norway, West Indies and India are remembered by us as those who died doing their job at a time of great risk and did not return. We remember them and the great loss suffered by all who knew and loved them.

Floral tribute to Thomas Soderstrom and the crew of the SS Main placed near the model at Carnegie Community Hall, Skewen to mark the centenary of the sinking.


01 October 2017Early Public Transport in Neath

The Windsor Omnibus Company


My father was born as Donato Simeone in the town of Fragneto Monforte, in the province of Benevento, Italy on the 29th of May 1890.  He travelled to the United Kingdom at the age of eight years old accompanied by two younger brothers and were fostered by an Italian family in Maesteg named Ullo.   Even though he was not a blood relation it was here that he acquired the name of Dai Ullo.

Some years later, along with his wife Elizabeth, he moved to Neath and began a small confectionary and tobacconist’s business at Stockham’s Corner whilst being employed as coal miner at a colliery in Aberdulais.


Walking to the colliery was quite a distance, so he purchased a large van to travel to work. Many workmates asked him to take them with him to work and gave him some pennies to cover costs.

He was then approached by T J Pearn & Sons Limited who had a furniture shop at 28-30 Briton Ferry Road, who asked him if he would be interested in using his van to deliver heavy goods for them.  This he did and, due to his mobility, he then secured a franchise to distribute sweets and cigarettes to various retail establishments.

Local folk requested that he take them on an outing, so he had a carpenter to cut windows in the sides of the van and bolt seats to its base, but fitted in such a way that they could be easily removed for deliveries and be replaced for carrying passengers.

Charabanc outing for the Blind of Neath and District

He lived at Windsor Road and it is here that the Windsor Omnibus Company came into being in 1920.  Maintenance was done at the Griffiths Buildings in Melyncryddan (now Peter Sadd’s carpet store).  As far as I know there is still an eight hundred gallon tank buried there, since all of the fuel needed was bought in bulk.

During the General Strike of 1926 his dedicated staff all reported for work, but he told every one of them not to become blacklegs.  Each week they all assembled at his home and had lunch with him, at the end of which each man went home with a ten shilling note in his pocket to make certain that their families did not go hungry.  Some names I can recall; Jack Seagar, Jim Seagar, Sydney Lewis, Mr Moody (who became Fire Officer of the Neath brigade).

The route of the bus started at the Bowens Arms Hotel, Skewen and terminated at the Travellers Rest, Briton Ferry and the return fare was 3d. (1.5p).  At that time there were several other companies operating in the area but the Windsor Company had the only licence to operate on the ‘old road’, the others had to share passengers on the ‘main road’.

Windsor Omnibus Company c.1920s

The family then moved to 30 London Road.  The main reason for this being that my father had plans to demolish houses 31 and 31A to build a garage enabling his fleet of coaches to enter via Rectory Road, be serviced and then exit by London Road.  Unfortunately, he passed away in 1936 aged just 46 years old before these plans came to fruition.  He was successful in being granted British Citizenship, his naturalization certificate being signed on 15th June 1931 in which he adopted the name of David Williams and had moved to 53 Windsor Road (now part of a tattoo parlour).  He was also influential in providing the shelters positioned at either end of the bus stand which in those days were furnished with seats both inside and outside for passenger comfort.


Naturalization Certificate for Donato Simeone aka David Williams

Windsor Omnibus Company billhead  

Soon after his death we received a call at the house by several pensioners who, unknown to them, made enquiries to his whereabouts for his absence was noticed.  When questioning these people it was discovered that he would appear every Thursday and give each pensioner a silver sixpence for their ‘liquid refreshment’.

When World War Two was declared in 1939 my mother was fearful of fuel shortages and the staff being called up to serve in the armed forces.  Therefore, she sold the business to the United Welsh Bus Company, who were amazed at the amount of private licences that the Windsor Omnibus Company had accumulated enabling passengers to be taken to all corners of the country.  

Compiled by K Tucker - October 2017       

01 September 2017Who goes there.....friend or foe?


Martyn Griffiths


“An enemy force ... landed on the Cardiganshire coast and was advancing rapidly, had been instructed to seize all bridge-heads in the area.  Only short notice was given to the troops in charge of the defence and the Civil Defence units similarly were turned out with little warning”.

This event actually happened and it got worse:

“Determined attacks were made on the Glynneath defences…..  “which held until, a fast moving enemy mobile column charged down the hill from the direction of Hirwaun and enabled the defences to eventually be overcome.”

The Resolven Platoons of the Home Guard were put under pressure whilst further down the valley, “a fierce onslaught had been launched on the Aberdulais defences….. following a protracted struggle numbers eventually prevailed but only after considerable casualties had been incurred.”

“Meanwhile the Neath defences were also being severely tested on their remaining flanks, and with the aid of a naval column, a small force crossed the river at Briton Ferry and attempted to join up with an enemy force from Port Talbot, which was presumed to have landed on Aberavon sands and was rapidly advancing upon Briton Ferry defences from the east.”

They were joined by a force from Clydach and “after suffering heavy casualties in Skewen, succeeded in advancing but were eventually held up by the Neath Works Companies on the outskirts of the town.  The Bryncoch Home Guards also greatly aided the defence by their strong opposition to large columns of enemy arriving from Gwaun-cae-gurwen and Pontardawe.”

The battle for Neath was in some doubt, especially when an enemy force from Cymmer seriously threatened the Cimla area “but the timely arrival of a friendly mobile column of well-trained and cheery Tommies eventually carried the day for the defence.”

The Battle of Neath lasted six hours and was reported in Neath Guardian on 10th October 1941.  It ended with a scrimmage at the Gnoll when enemy and friendly mobile columns collided.  The newspaper reported a few realistic bombs and explosives were used.  Prior to the battle “bombing and several fires, gas and H.E. incidents were reported” and all dealt with by the various authorities.

Captain Mainwaring would have been delighted.

Neath Home Guard at the Drill Hall

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