01 September 2019Neath and Adelina Patti - The Queen of Song

Neath and Adelina Patti

The Queen of Song

David Michael

courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery

This September marks 100 years since the death of Madame Adelina Patti of Craig-y-nos in the Swansea Valley. She was, to use an anachronistic phrase, an operatic superstar of the late Victorian age, a celebrity with an interesting private life and also an astute, independent woman with genuine charitable instincts. To mark the centenary the Neath Antiquarian Society has (as part of its annual lecture season) arranged a talk by Barry Evans the details of which appear at the end of this article.

Whilst Patti’s life is a vivid and compelling story, this article looks at some of the Neath links to that story in the light of a few items held by the Society at Neath Mechanics' Institute, Church Place, Neath.

So, what attracted an opera singer born in Madrid of Italian heritage and a citizen of France to the top end of the Swansea Valley? Well, the singer’s busy life appears to have awoken in her a desire for some tranquil and picturesque refuge; even if her partner, tenor Ernesto Nicolini, was more interested in fly fishing and country sports. Patti and Nicolini on their first visit to the locality stayed with Sir Hussey Vivian MP who told them of a coming up for sale which they might wish to take a look at.[1] The property in question was the neo Gothic castle that had been built by Captain Rice Davies Powell near to his ancestral home at Cae Bryn Melin bach, above Pen-y-Cae in the Swansea valley. 

Opinions differ on where that conversation took place. What is clear, however, is that Patti and Nicolini stayed at Cadoxton Lodge for a number of months in the second half of 1879 whilst initial work was carried out at her new home and that in September of that year she donated prize-money for a shooting competition held by the 15th Glamorgan Rifle Volunteers (Neath) at the Baglan firing range.[2]

After Patti purchased the property she set about an expansion programme which resulted in the grand Craig-y-nos castle that we see today. The work was carried out by a Neath builder and architect JC Rees. He had originally been engaged to add two wings to the property, stables and other buildings for a contract price of £4,250. The not unusual problems caused by builder’s estimates coupled with the changing requirements of a rich client were aggravated by the fact that the contract supervisor was removed halfway through the project.  This situation presented an enticing prospect for any passing lawyer. The eventual bill exceeded £14,000; Patti had stopped paying when invoices reached £8,435. The parties went to court with the case ending in arbitration.[3]

Whilst Madame Patti wanted a refuge from a busy life dictated by concert programmes and railway timetables, she still needed ready access to rail travel to pursue her career. This was probably how the main enduring link with Neath arose. Whilst there was rail access to the Swansea Valley from Swansea, the most direct route to the northernmost part in the County of Breconshire, was the Neath and Brecon Railway. Patti boarded the train above Craig-y-nos at a little hilltop halt called Penwyllt and travelled down the Dulais Valley to the Neath Low Level station at Cadoxton (near the site of the present Lidl store).  She is often reported as travelling in a special saloon coach furnished in a luxurious fashion which was shunted across to the Neath Great Western Railway station where it was coupled to the London train. Both the Midland Railway and GWR are said to have provided saloons for her use.  Incidentally, GWR Special Saloon 248 which today runs on the Bodmin and Wenford Railway is said to be one of those coaches.

Luxury was not only confined to the journey itself. Penwyllt can sometimes present a bleak prospect and a private waiting-room was constructed for the use of the visiting diva and her guests. These days the Neath Antiquarian Society collects records rather than artefacts, but it does hold at Mechanics' Institute something of an oddity with a connection to Patti. It is a section of the tiled floor of the waiting-room rescued in 1975 before the floor was cemented over.  

Amongst the NAS archive is a short letter of 17th December 1900 from Adelina Patti to a Mr Hart.[4] The letter enquires after Mr Hart’s health after his 'recent indisposition' and encloses a pearl and diamond cravat pin 'as a Christmas souvenir'. The Society holds the letter but not the cravat pin! Who was Hart and why the gift? There were no initials and no address either but, with the help of Lorna Crook the WGAS family history adviser, we are able to piece together the background. A man by the name of WA Hart was a prominent guest in January 1899 at the lavish celebrations at Brecon of the third marriage of Adelina Patti, this time to Baron Cederstrom, a Swedish aristocrat.[5] The link between Patti and Hart evidently endured since the Baron and Baroness (as Patti then was) attended Hart’s funeral in 1910.[6]

Newspaper obituaries for William John Albert Squire Hart tell an extraordinary story of a young booking clerk in Bath railway station who so impressed railway management that he was eventually appointed superintendent of Paddington station and then of the whole London district which stretched as far as Oxford. His job brought him into close contact not only with the Royal family as they travelled to and from Windsor Castle, but also other important international figures visitors and with that familiarity came recognition.  During his lifetime he had been presented with gifts from, amongst many others, Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, the German Kaiser, Grand Duke Michael the Czarevich and the Dowager Empress of Russia. He was also a Member of the Victorian Order. You can smile at this gilded list but it does indicate how well-respected he was. It is obvious that Patti was one of his respected customers and the relationship says something about her gift for friendship and generosity.[7]

Probably the most public indication of Patti’s links with Neath is that it was chosen as one of the venues for a series of well-publicised and well-received charity concerts. The concerts took place in Swansea, Brecon and Neath except for one year when the Swansea authorities reduced ticket prices without consulting the diva first – that year it went to Cardiff! Her early biographer, Klein explains that, when she was young, a tutor had discouraged her from singing without payment and, when she first came to Britain, she was inundated with requests to perform at benefit entertainments so she decided to say no to all.[8] As she settled into life at Craig-y-nos she seemed to become deeply attached to the area and when someone suggested a charity concert she agreed.  The first concert in Swansea was a great success and this success was repeated in Neath in 1890.

The Cambrian -  1st August 1890

Within the NAS archive at the Mechanics' Institute is the programme for the Neath concert beautifully printed by Whittington’s printers.[9] Newspapers  advertised the concert at the Gwyn Hall – reserved seats were  available at a guinea and half a guinea with a limited number of unreserved seats at five shillings[10]  Special railway excursion tickets were sold throughout south Wales and Neath made an effort to demonstrate that it could equal or outdo anything that Swansea or Brecon could offer. Patti and the other artists arrived from Craig-y-nos at the Neath Low Level Station which had been 'converted into a fernery' and cleared of other visitors. Patti was greeted by the Mayor of Neath, her friend Sir Hussey Vivian MP and ST Evans MP. The steps ascending from the station to road level had been covered in scarlet cloth. Seven carriages containing the party made their way to the Gwyn Hall through a dense cheering crowd. The town, in holiday mode for the concert, was decorated throughout and a large triumphal arch was erected over the Square. The Gwyn Hall (comparatively new at that time) was said to have looked its best, the Council Chamber was used as a cloakroom and the auditorium duly decorated with the motto, 'Heaven bless our Lady Bountiful' in white lettering.

The concert party exuded quality in every way; it was said that they were not 'make ups' and any one of them would have made the afternoon a success. The concert had been arranged by Wilhelm Ganz, reputedly Patti’s favourite accompanist who is said to have conducted all her charity concerts. It consisted of Madame Antoinette Sterling an acclaimed contralto with a 'rugged face' who rejected both low-cut dresses and corsets, Durwood Lely, 'of exquisite quality' said to be Patti’s favourite tenor, Signor Tito Mattei, composer and pianist 'dashing, brilliant and showy' and Marianne Eissler violin virtuoso of Brno (then in the Austrian Empire). She had the misfortune to break a string during the concert but was comforted by Patti as she returned to the stage. There were recitations by Hattie Harvey, an up-and-coming New York actress and Patti protégé.

Whatever quality was on show people had come to see Patti and she did not disappoint; her mere appearance was greeted by thunderous applause and it was some time before she could begin her first item from Donizetti, but the audience listened with rapt attention in 'deathlike – silence'. One reporter rhapsodised about – 'the charm of her face, the sparkle of her eye, the glitter of diamonds in her hair, the grace of her figure, her artistic poise, the thorough vivacity of her demeanour'.

The concert ended in formality with the presentation of illustrated addresses to Madame Patti by the Mayor and from a representative of the Rest Convalescent Home in Porthcawl. Ganz replied on behalf Patti saying that she had been deeply moved by the decorations in the streets, by the triumphal arches which had been erected and the 'loving and sympathetic inscriptions which they bore.' He gave his personal thanks and complemented the hall for its acoustic which he said was 'perfect' [11] [a judgement which might not be shared by people of today who remember the old Gwyn Hall before the recent rebuilding!]

It was one of those very rare days when everyone was pleased and everyone benefited. Madame Patti and her party were gratified and moved by the welcome they had received, the Neath audience were entranced and the town had put on a show worthy of its rivals. The charitable causes, which were the poor of Neath and of Craig-y-nos and the Rest convalescent home in Porthcawl, benefited to the tune of £800. Neath’s share of the money later went on the purchase of pretty basic items like food and coal. The Neath concert was repeated in later years with a similar response.

Patti took an active interest in development of local talent and it is well known that she had her own private theatre at Craig-y-nos. She readily accepted an offer by the Tonna Male Voice Party that they would visit her in Craig-y-nos to perform a short programme including a setting of 'The Wedding Ode' addressed to the Baron and Baroness by T Idris Jones of Melincryddan. The Tonna party were accompanied by the Mayor of Neath who congratulated her on her marriage to Baron Cederstrom.[12]

Neath’s connection to Patti continued during her lifetime and feelings of affection and respect for the lady of Craig-y-nos long outlived the singer herself. She was to die on 27th September 1919. The following month her embalmed body was loaded onto a special train by the loyal station staff at Penwyllt and taken down to Neath where it joined the London service. Eventually she was interred in Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris close to the grave of her favourite composer Rossini.[13]

Patti showed great affection for both Brecon and Swansea and she was adopted by all of Wales but the Neath links were strong. It is pleasing to reflect that it was the Neath Opera Group which revived the use of Patti’s private theatre at Craig-y-nos for operatic performances from the 1960s to the 1980s.[14]

[Mr Barry Evans will speak to Neath Antiquarian Society about Adelina Patti   on Monday 16th September at 7pm at the Old Town Hall, Neath. Entry is free for Members and costs £3 for non-members].


[1] Herman Klein  - The Reign of Patti (1920) p.230

[2] South Wales Daily News - 20th September 1879

[3] The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard - 13th August 1880

[4] NAS X 24/10

[5] Weekly Mail - 28th January 1899

[6] The Globe - 6th April 1910

[7] Windsor, Eton And Slough Express - 9th April 1910. (He is also said to have foiled an attempt by Fenians to bomb Paddington Station).

[8] Klein op.cit. p272-274

[9] NAS X 16/3

[10] The Cambrian -  1st August 1890

[11] The Cambrian - 8th August 1890, South Wales Daily News 8 August 1890 and Western Mail 8 August 1890

[12] Western Mail - 26th May 1899

[13] A single handwritten line amongst research notes deposited at the Neath Mechanics' Institute indicates that the body was embalmed by Morgan Morgan an undertaker and confectioner of Windsor Road, Neath although he did not handle the overall funeral arrangements.

[14] A collection of programmes for performances by the Neath Opera Group are held at Neath Mechanics' Institute.

01 August 2019Death at Glyn Clydach Curve

Death at Glyn Clydach Curve

Philip John

At the beginning of the 20th century the village of Bryncoch, near Neath, was centred on a main road and a few adjacent streets.  The main enterprise in the area at this time was the coal industry and just outside the village was the site of a large colliery (Bryncoch RFC now play their rugby on playing fields which were once the site of this colliery), being the No. 1 Pit of the Main Colliery Company Limited.  Originally the site of a Quaker owned pit, sank by the eminent engineer William Kirkhouse,[1] No. 1 Pit has been known by different names over the centuries.  In common with most mining endeavours of its time the site had a shocking safety record; the worst accident was in 1859 when 26 colliers lost their lives when water inundated the mine.[2]

Main Colliery Co. Ltd. - No.1 Pit

The Main Colliery Company Limited was formed with a capital of £100,000 in £10 shares following an agreement dated 1st May 1899 (made between the Dynevor Dyffryn and Neath Abbey United Collieries Company; its liquidators the Glamorganshire Banking Company and John Bicknell on behalf of the new Company).[3]  The new Company was registered on 13th June 1899 and among others properties took ownership of Main Colliery, Bryncoch.

On Thursday, 20th September 1906 a collision between a colliery locomotive and a trolley (both the property of the Main Colliery Company Limited, Bryncoch), cost the lives of three men.  Five other men escaped with nothing more than bruises while two more were injured, one severely and the other not so.   Even though the bodies of the men killed were found in a 'shocking condition', their mutilated remains were returned to their homes.  The men killed in this dreadful accident  were John Nicholls of New Rd, Skewen, aged 37, a labourer married with children; Thomas Brown of 13 Woodman Place, Skewen, aged 59, a labourer married with a grown-up family and John Dunn of Ashton's Lodging House, Neath, aged 67, a labourer and single man.  

It was not the overlooking of colliery rules that caused the deaths, but the customs and practices that the men were familiar with that were to seal their fate.  In this instance, the custom and practice was that when the last locomotive left with miners for Skewen the points at Dyffryn were 'turned' into Dyffryn siding.  With points so turned any trucks that might 'run wild' from the pit head would be diverted safely into the siding and not down the incline to Skewen.  Additionally, it was custom and practice to use a trolley at the end of a shift to take men down the incline to Skewen after the last engine had left with the miners.

On the day in question the regular colliery foreman was absent and an acting engine driver was in charge of the locomotive.  Charles Dobbs, a platelayer, was in charge in the absence of the regular foreman and William Lewis was the acting engine driver.  Not knowing if the locomotive was coming back to the pit, Dobbs sent an employee by the name of Phillips to find out.  When Phillips returned he said he didn’t know if it was coming back, as John Williams, the engine stoker (who was also the points-man), didn’t know if it was coming back either.  Phillips decided to put a trolley on the rails of the road for Skewen anyway, as the position of the points at Dyffryn siding (near the Vicarage) would tell them if the engine was coming back that night.  At the end of the shift Dobbs and nine others got into the trolley to go home since the points indicated to the men that the engine was not coming up again that night.    Meanwhile, at the Skewen end, Lewis was preparing to return to No.1 Pit where a mechanical engineer had been left behind.  As the trolley approached the 'Glyn Clydach Curve' Dobbs saw the engine coming and called out, "The engine's coming; for God's sake, jump off."   The ten men were so cramped in the trolley they could not all jump off at once.  The three men that died were in different parts of the trolley which was propelled forty yards backwards from the point of impact.  John Dunn, who had only started working for the Company that day, was run over by the locomotive and had his head nearly severed from his body.  Thomas Brown also suffered a severe head wound, but the injuries to Brown and John Nicholls were mainly to the lower part of the body.

Destination of trucks before continuing to the wharves (NAS-34-1-034)

Present at the Inquest at Skewen Police Station, were Mr Howel Cuthbertson, Coroner; Mr J Dyer Lewis, (His Majesty's Inspector of Mines) and Mr White, (assistant inspector).  Mr Matthew Arnold appeared for the relatives of the deceased and Mr Vaughan Price, General Manager, represented the Main Colliery Company Limited. 

Charles Dobbs was the first witness called.  He confirmed that they [the labourers] finished work about five o’clock and got into the trolley to go down to Skewen.  There were no written rules in connection with the working of the trolley.  Dobbs estimated the engine was about 50 yards away when he first saw it.  He applied the trolley brake and shouted to the men to jump off.  The next witness, who survived the collision unscathed, stated that he thought the trolley was travelling at about six or seven miles an hour.  The engine was coming up fast, steam was up but he did not know whether the steam was full on or not.  The Coroner confirmed that the witness did not hear an engine whistle before the crash.  When called Phillips confirmed he was sent by Dobbs to see if the engine was coming back.  As he was not sure if it was or not, then they would check the points at Dyffryn sidings.  He had also tried to stop the trolley with the brake sticks before he jumped.  William Lewis, the engine driver, stated that his mate turned the points at Dyffryn sidings but that it was not necessarily an indication that the engine was not coming back.  He would not have come back had it not been for the mechanical engineer.  Lewis was of the opinion that the train was travelling about six or seven miles per hour and that the trolley was only four yards away when he saw and shut off the steam and applied the engine brake.  Mr White questioned Lewis and queried that if he [Lewis] had applied the brake and the engine pulled up in twice its own length, then why was the trolley pushed nearly forty yards [twenty-five yards of which were on the rails[4]] and smashed to pieces?  Lewis did not answer.  Mr White then asked Lewis why it was he saw the trolley so much later than his mate.  Again there was no answer from Lewis.  When asked by Mr White if he should have blown the whistle when approaching the curve Lewis replied that it was not the custom to do so.  A verdict of Accidental Death with a recommendation to keep the engine’s whistle blowing when negotiating curves was the outcome of the Coroner’s Inquest.[5]

Dunn, Brown and Nicholls were buried the same time at Skewen Parish Church.  'The funerals were more largely attended than any other in the locality since the internment of the Cwrt Herbert victims.'

Mrs Susan Nicholls, widow of John Henry Nicholls, failed in her claim for £200 compensation from the Main Colliery Company.  The adjudicating Judge said “that the evidence did not support the allegations of negligence” and gave a verdict for the Main Colliery Company Limited.[6]

Location of 'Glyn Clydach Curve'

[1] The Cardiff Times – 19th September 1906

[2] The Cambrian – 28th September 1906

[3] The Cambrian – 17th May 1907

[4] South Wales Daily News – 20th June 1899

[5] The History of the Vale of Neath (1925) by D. Rhys Phillips.

[6] The Merthyr Telegraph and General Advertiser – 16th  April 1859

30 June 2019MARIO RAGGI

Who was Mario Raggi?

Keith Tucker

Asking this question would probably bring few positive replies from the inhabitants of Neath, yet many of us, both past and present, will have passed his name and some of us on a daily basis.

Mario Raggi (1821-1907) was born at Carrara, a city on the south western coast of Italy, famous for its white and blue grey high quality marble. Here he studied Art at the Academia della Belle Arti, firstly under Pietro Marchetti and later under Ferdinando Pellicia.  Having won all available prizes he went to Rome to further his studies. He further established himself as a sculptor of note leading to his busts being exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1878.  Following this he moved to England in 1880 setting up his North London workshop in Cumberland Market.

His work gained in popularity leading to him being awarded some major commissions for public commemorative memorials.  There are very many pieces of his work in existence, among the most well-known are;


Benjamin Disraeli sited at Parliament Square, London, W Ewart Gladstone at Albert Square, Manchester, Queen Victoria in Hong Kong, Sir Thomas Jackson in Hong Kong (the third Chief Manager of HSBC) and locally Henry Hussey Vivian, 1st Baron Swansea, now sited at St. Mary's Square, Swansea. With such prestigious commissions Mario Raggi became 'the' man to go to for a statue of quality.


Maybe it was the Vivian statue that influenced Neath's civic fathers to choose Raggi to immortalise Howel Gwyn. An appeal was launched by JTD Llewellyn to cover the £1.100 cost and contributions were received from the landed gentry, businessmen, clergy and the general public.  The appeal raised £655 (a shortage of £445) and a further appeal was made to the more affluent subscribers to make a further contribution. [D/D SB 4/1029].  The sculptors' finished work was cast by H Young & Co. who were described as 'England’s first major art-bronze founder of modern times', at their Pimlico foundry (the firm that although diversified, still exists).


The memorial complete with its plinth of polished grey granite was unveiled with due pomp and ceremony on the 26th September 1889.  Whether by design, or by a quirk of fate, in its original location, the pose struck by the bronze has Gwyn’s outstretched finger pointing towards his birthplace, which at that time, stood opposite.  The position of the statue caused controversy right from the start, since it was thought it would interfere with the passage of horse-drawn carriages. In 1960 when plans were well underway to build a Civic Centre at the Fairfield the executors of the Dyffryn Estate agreed that it would be unreasonable to hold the Council to covenants made over 70 years earlier considering that the Gwyn Hall would no longer serve its original purpose as the Municipal Buildings.  Although not a condition, the family suggested that the statue to Howel Gwyn be resited within the precincts of the Civic Centre with a plaque stating that the new building had taken the place of the Gwyn Hall as the Municipal Headquarters. [B/N L 1/3].  Yet it would stay at the Gwyn Hall forecourt until 1967 when the statue was moved to Victoria Gardens due to a proposed road-widening scheme that never happened.  The method of removal was unrefined by today’s standards, but it survived without breakage which is a testament to the quality of Young's casting.

Ironically, but not unusually for sculptors, Mario Raggi's own memorial is a plain slab at West Norwwod Cemetery in London.

So, in answer to the question - Mario Raggi is the sculptor who produced Neath's only commemorative public memorial of a civic leader.

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