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01 September 2019
Neath 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.

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