02 February 2021This was no Fool's Gambit!



Martyn J Grifrfiths


Chess demographics have changed dramatically over the years.  In the latter half of the nineteenth century it was a game for the middle classes with clerics, lawyers and doctors conspicuous in each and every chess club.  Most were middle-aged and it was rare indeed to see anyone less than 20 years of age entering a chess club.  A century later and teenagers were the norm with most of the star players being under 40 years of age.


The class of player changed in late Victorian and Edwardian times and coincided with the advent of workingmen’s clubs.  The club at Blaina shocked the establishment in 1906 when they won the South Wales Championships with a team consisting solely of miners.  Their success even made the national press.

A 'club' was founded in 1862 at the Neath Mechanics’ Institute.  This was not a chess club in the modern sense since it was a meeting of people for various activities, which included chess.  A local dignitary commented that he was, "pleased to see that so many young men attended the Institution, which had the effect of keeping them from frequenting public-houses and giving them healthy and recreative amusement."  The Chess Club at the Neath Mechanics' Institute was run alongside an Elocution Class and Penny Readings.  There is no evidence of links with other clubs and the 1862 'club' appears to have been short-lived. 

For the remainder of the nineteenth century there is very little mention of the game in Neath, although, it was probably played in the houses of the well-to-do at least.  In the 1890s several newspapers made the odd comment about chess, or the lack of it in Neath.  The Cambrian noted that chess was being played in the Working Men’s Club, the Conservative Club and the Liberal Club, though this was not competitive chess. In December 1905 a William Gardener of Leeds held a 'séance' in Skewen, playing draughts whilst blindfolded against 14 locals.  The newspaper was happy to compare this to simultaneous chess displays.


There is no fixed date for the formation of a club in the town but one was meeting by 1906 in the Constitutional Club as the British Master, Francis Lee, gave a display there that year drawing three of his games and beating ten others.

Two years later the German world champion, Emanuel Lasker, toured South Wales giving displays of simultaneous chess.  On a club visit his opponents would be seated on the outside of tables and the master would stroll around the inside, making one move at a board before moving on to the next.  Sometimes large numbers would form the opposition but at Neath he was faced with only 20 opponents.  During his 1908 tour he visited five clubs and only lost three of the ninety three games played.

He arrived at Neath on Friday 28th February 1908.  We are not privy to the exact nature of his display in the town, but usually he gave a short talk on some aspect of the game before commencing play.  The whole display would last about three hours but occasionally was known to run on endlessly.  At one exhibition given by an earlier world champion in Cardiff proceedings were halted at 3 am with one game still outstanding!  Lasker would chat quite happily with his opponents and made many witty remarks as he went the rounds.

The leading light at the Neath Club was a relic of Victorian times, William Jones, aged 54, of Tynyrheol, a local magistrate and member of the landed gentry.

Their other star player was Hugh James, aged 40. He hailed from Essex and was Chief Clerk of Great Western Railway.  He was a member of the newly re-formed Neath chess club in 1952 when, at the age of 85, he was regarded as the ‘father of Neath chess’ and claimed to have drawn with both Lasker and Blackburne in simultaneous displays. (Joseph Henry Blackburne was a British chess player who had the nickname 'The Black Death' and dominated the British scene during the latter part of the nineteenth century).

Joseph Henry Blackburne at the Imperial Chess Club, London -      image courtesy of Michael Clapman, Ipswich

Other club members were all working men; WH Massey, manager of the Neath branch of WH Smith; Frederick Cook, a china salesman and auctioneer; Parry Evans a dentist etc..  Several worked on the railway or in local banks.

In order to test the World Champion, guest players were invited from other clubs and several Llanelli players made the journey to Neath.  Lasker’s only loss was to Harry Samuel of Llanelli and he also drew three of his 20 games.  The drawn games were against William Jones and William Massey of the Neath club and SH Bevan of Llanelli. 

Lasker giving a simultaneous display in 1920        -      image courtesy of Michael Clapman, Ipswich 

Since 1952 there have been four chess clubs in and around Neath.  The Neath club founded 1952 (now defunct), Castell Nedd club founded 1978, Nidum Club, 1992, and Briton Ferry Club, 2004 (which closed its doors in 2020).  Several Grandmasters have given similar displays during that time, but to date no other world champion at chess has visited the town.

31 December 2020STORM


Martyn J Griffiths

Considering the fact that one of the main topics of conversation when greeting someone is to discuss the weather, precious little has been written about the great storms, floods and even earthquakes that have historically affected our fore-fathers.  We can remember Michael Fish’s storm of 1987 but how does that compare with storms of earlier times? On looking at some of the past weather phenomena there can be no doubt that even the destruction of 1987 was mild by many standards.

Data exists relating to the damage caused by many storms and we are often told how would-be conquerors of these islands were thwarted by adverse weather conditions and how the mighty Spanish Armada fell foul of some of the worst weather in living memory.  Did these huge storms affect the people of Neath?  Certainly, many of them were local to a particular part of the country, perhaps confined to the East coast or to the Bristol Channel.  Which then were the storms that would have affected the good people of Neath?

Perhaps the earliest record is of a storm in about 1316 which caused the closure of the mediaeval port of Kenfig.  Further storms in 1344 and 1480 completely buried the former Roman coast road.

The biggest flood to affect south Wales was undoubtedly that of 1607 which is today believed to have been the end result of a tsunami (Archaeology in the Severn Estuary, Prof. Simon Haslett and Dr. Ted Bryant. 2003).  The surge which swept up the bottle-neck of the River Severn resulted in the flooding of Gwent in particular to the height of a church tower.  This flood must have had a great effect, albeit to a lesser extent, on people living near the River Neath and its estuary.

                                                                                             Wikimedia commons[1]

A contemporary depiction of the 1607 flood which affected the whole of the Bristol Channel and in particular the Gwent levels.  The church church is thought to be St Mary's at Nash, near Newport.

1703 STORM

Daniel Defoe witnessed this particular storm and wrote, 'No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it.  No storm since the Universal Deluge was like this, either in its violence or its duration.' He further described the storm as 'the tempest that destroyed woods and forests all over England.'

This storm hit the west coast of Britain on Thursday, 25th November around the entrance to the Bristol Channel.  Affecting the whole of south Wales before moving across the country, we do not know its effect in Neath but a witness in Chepstow commented on the devastation there.  When the storm was over it was reckoned that 5,700 vessels had been sunk with a minimum 8,000 lives lost.  Four thousand trees were uprooted in the New Forest alone which rather puts into perspective Michael Fish’s storm.

                                                         wikimedia commons[2]

 The Great Storm of 1703 


This had started on Monday, 31st August.  By the time the storm died down on the Wednesday it had left a trail of destruction from Pembrokeshire to Newport.  In the Port Talbot steel works 'cranes had been toppled as if they were made from children’s building blocks.'  Naturally trees were uprooted, roofs ripped off buildings and train lines closed by falling debris.  Winds of up to 90 mph were experienced and at sea waves nearly 60 feet high caused havoc.  The Tenby lifeboatmen rowed for six hours to rescue the distressed crew of the Helwick lightship.  The four-masted barque, the SS Amazon, tried to ride out the gale but her cables snapped and she was driven ashore near Margam and 21 of the crew were drowned.  There were just eight survivors.


The wreck of the Amazon on Margam Sands


The full-rigged ship Verajean on passage from Cardiff to Mollendo was driven onto the rocks and wrecked at Rhoose Point but without loss of life.

People's Collection Wales VOG01630

1916 STORM

On the morning of Wednesday, 26th July the weather was fine enough to allow hay-making to take place in the Ystrafellte area.  Farmers were at work in their shirt-sleeves and there was no suggestion of what was to come.

About mid-day clouds began to gather and a fierce storm erupted between 1 pm and 3 pm.  The keeper of the Ystrafellte Reservoir had the rare experience of witnessing a waterspout.  The downpour was so violent that one old resident sheltering near the bridge at Castell Mellte reckoned that the river had risen three feet above any level he had seen in over 40 years.  Two wide streams were seen rolling down the side of Fan Llia 'red like blood' with a deal of noise.  Another observer saw what looked like a solid sheet of water descending the eastern face of Fan Lia.

Strangely, within a few miles no rainfall was experienced and the town of Neath remained dry although there was great alarm at the discolouration of the river, people fearing that a dam had burst.


Of course there were many other huge storms such as the one which sank the Royal Charter, a steam clipper which was wrecked off the beach of Porth Alerth in Dulas Bay on the northeast coast of Anglesey on 26 October 1859; but whilst that devastated the west coast of Wales it did not sweep up the Bristol Channel.

The flash storm of November 1929 swept away part of the retaining wall of the Cwm Clydach dam, which resulted in the cottages at Cwm Felin being flooded to a depth of three to four feet (this event features in The Neath Antiquarian Vol.1 p.88).  Many Neath people will recall more recent times when incessant rainfall has flooded the streets of the town; but whenever the wind picks up and storm clouds gather, remember those great storms of the past, and be thankful that today we can sit safe and dry in our homes and watch the worst the weather can throw at us - on the television.


[1] Cropped image from the title Page of an 1884 reprint of 'A true report of certaine wonderfull ouerflowings of Waters, now lately in Summerset-shire, Norfolke and other places of England..', originally printed in London 1607.

[2] 'The Great Storm November 26 1703 Wherein Rear Admiral Beaumont was lost on the Goodwin Sands... Beaumont's Squadron of Observation off Dunkerque'. No.25.






30 November 2020Roll up to the Big Attraction!



Whilst working the Gnoll Estate collieries at Kymle an interesting fossil was found among the coal measures on 17th January 1851.  At the time it was believed to be that of a gigantic serpent that must have slithered over the surface of the primeval swamp at the dawn of time.

Such was the excitement created by this find that it was placed on public display at the Neath Town Hall.  The three day exhibition heralded it as 'One of the Wonders of Nature' and it was endorsed by 'Gentlemen of great Geological Acquirements' who agreed that from the perfect scales and twist of the body that the specimen measuring eight feet and three inches long by seven inches wide must be without question a FOSSIL SERPENT!

Interestingly the prices charged for admission to this spectacle are a snapshot of how the different levels of society were regarded and was doubtless contrived to encourage the maximum number of visitors from the educated elite to the plain curious by levying prices to suit all pockets. At the top end Ladies and Gentlemen [upper class] were charged one shilling; Tradesmen [middle class] had to pay six pence, whilst the remaining [lower class] Working Class had to part with, no doubt, a hard earned three pence.

The poster produced to advertise the event is a further reflection of the craft of the printer and compositor, being a perfect example of the effective use of typefaces of varying size and style for maximum impact in conveying information.

Quite what happened to the specimen after the exhibition closed has never been established. What is known is that the serpent myth would be short lived and shattered by the truth of the matter when it was declared that the 'serpent' was, in fact, a fossilised tree called a Lepidodendron   and were commonly found in the coal measures of south Wales.[1]

Was this just the case of a few wide boys seizing the opportunity to put on a 'sideshow' and generally conning the public?

What is surprising is that evidence of fossilised trees is recorded two years earlier in 1849 by Frederick Moses, a Neath mining engineer, in his Treatise of the coalfield of South Wales.

The most perfect specimen of a fossil tree the author has ever seen, was discovered by his father, the late Mr. Moses Moses, mining and civil engineer. It was met with in the under plane of a bed of shale, reposing on a seam of coal. Though great precaution was observed in its removal, it nevertheless received considerable injury, but it was afterwards refitted and a drawing made of it. There appeared a difficulty in identifying its species, but it seemed to have a stronger resemblance to a young poplar than any other known tree or plant, fossilized or otherwise. The lepidodendron is met with in great abundance in some localities, but we never saw them in such profusion as in an open cutting on the South Wales Railway, near the town of Neath, one of which (the lepidodendron Sternbergii) when measured with a tape line, was found to reach the enormous length of one hundred feet. This is, we believe, the largest that has ever been discovered in this country, or probably in any other and those who may wish to see this gigantic specimen, may be gratified with a view of about thirty feet of it, imbedded in a rock on the north side of a railway cutting to the back of Court Herbert, at a distance of about one hundred yards from the entrance and within one mile of the town of Neath. The interior of this fossil is a hard compact sandstone, somewhat finer in its granulation than the rock in which it is imbedded and the bark or cuticle slightly tinged with a dark glistening bituminous matter. The calamites and sigillaria are also very prevalent, some of which have come under our notice in a state of good preservation.

The section of fossilised tree trunk referred to in the above report

Another local example is cited in the 1868 edition of the National Gazetteer of Great Britain & Ireland,

'Ystradgynlais ……………… and other antiquities including erect fossil trees of the class Siggilaria discovered by Sir W Logan in the river bed.'

Fossils have been found in coal measures globally; those in the Neath area include Glynneath and Ynysarwed.

Some seventy five years after the Gnoll discovery, the Neath example is mentioned in an article published in the Western  Mail in February 1926 written by Dr FJ North, who was keeper of Geology at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. In the article he mentions that he was keen to locate the Neath specimen [he may have considered it superior to the one that was already held at Cardiff].

Dr F J North (Keeper of Geology at the National Museum of Wales (third from left)

 was the chief guest at the 3rd Annual Dinner of the Neath Antiquarian Society.

Scientific facts about Neath’s Mistaken Fossil Serpent

The name Lepidodendron comes from the Greek lepido, scale, and dendron, tree.

Now known as scale trees, they were a now extinct genus of primitive, vascular, arborescent (tree-like) plant related to the lycopsids (club mosses). They were part of the coal forest flora, sometimes reaching heights of over 30 metres (100 ft) and with trunks often over 1 m (3.3 ft) in diameter.  They thrived during the Carboniferous Period (about 360 to 286 million years ago).


Fossilised examples

The closely packed diamond-shaped leaf scars left on the trunk and stems as the plant grew provide some of the most interesting and common fossils in Carboniferous shales and accompanying coal deposits. These fossils look much like tire tracks or alligator skin.

Lepidodendron has been likened to a giant herb. The trunks produced little wood, being mostly soft tissues. Most structural support came from a thick, bark-like region. This region remained around the trunk as a rigid layer that grew thicker, but did not flake off like that of most modern trees. As the tree grew, the leaf cushions expanded to accommodate the increasing width of the trunk.  They likely lived in the wettest parts of the coal swamps that existed during the Carboniferous period. They grew in dense stands, likely having as many as 1000 to 2000 giant clubmosses per hectare. This would have been possible because they did not branch until fully grown and would have spent much of their lives as unbranched poles.

In popular culture of the nineteenth century, due to the reptilian look of the diamond-shaped leaf scar pattern, the petrified trunks of Lepidodendron were frequently exhibited at fairgrounds by amateurs as giant fossil lizards or snakes.


NAS/Ph/61/4/023 & 49/7/001

Poster - NAS Z 9/5

Glen Taylor Notebooks - NAS/GAT

National Gazetteer of Great Britain & Ireland - (1868)

Treatise of the coalfield of South Wales - Frederick Moses, Neath - (18490

Life Before Man - Zdenek V Spinar, illustrated by Zdenek Burian  - (1972)

The American Cyclopaedia Vol.3 - George Ripley And Charles A Dana - (1873)





[1] Lepidodendrons  are now known as Scale Trees - The Independent Feb 2007

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