29 May 2017
The South Wales Choral Union

A Neath View

Peter Stevens

Nobody who has been to the Principality Stadium ‘cathedral of Rugby’ or the old Arms Park, Cardiff will forget the singing of the Welsh supporters. The sound of ‘bread of heaven’ (part of ‘Guide me O thou Great Jehovah’) ringing round the ground is almost worth the ticket price alone. There will probably be many in the crowd who claim to be related to the author of this hymn, William Williams. The Welsh are world famous for their singing but when did it come to the attention of those outside the Principality?

The most likely event was at the National Music Meeting at Crystal Palace in July 1872. In 1872 the Crystal Palace Company of London announced the intention of holding a National Music Meeting. The Palace had been re-erected at Sydenham in south London after a brief period in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and had already gained a reputation as a fine auditorium for successive Handel Festivals from 1857 onwards. Willert Beale was given the task of promoting a musical week to encourage massed choirs to participate in the competition in an effort to promote a deep national musical awareness. It was an idea Beale himself admitted came from the Welsh National Eisteddfod.

When the competition was announced, there was considerable excitement and a number of the towns joined together to form the South Wales Choral Union or Cor Mawr (big Choir). Wales responded to the opportunity by holding a mass meeting in The Temperance Hall, Aberdare, to decide on a plan of musical attack. 

The overall conductor was to be Griffith Rhys Jones (better known as ‘Caradog’) from Aberdare. He created a choir drawn from throughout South Wales, holding weekly rehearsals in individual areas between Llanelli and Blaenavon. The choir was some four hundred and fifty strong and mostly comprised of miners. To travel to London with accommodation for a few days was going to cost a large sum of money, particularly given the occupation of many of the choir; indeed The Times commented that the cost was over £1,400 1. Each town had a committee whose role was to raise money through subscriptions; the Committee of the Neath Division raised £73.8.6d. (£73.42½p) 2. This was from many individuals; with the biggest being £5 from the Mayor through to £1.6.3d (£1.31½p) from the workmen of the Neath Colliery in sums under five shillings (25p). There was little time to rehearse locally and the final rehearsal was on 1st July at Aberdare, which was hopefully better than the one at the Town Hall in Neath on the previous Friday, though the acoustics were not good there 3. The train departed on Tuesday 2nd July for London on the Great Western Railway who had ‘afforded the most liberal terms to members and excursionists’ 3. This must have been an enormous experience and event as most of those travelling would never have been outside Wales before.

The competition for the challenge prize, which was worth £1,000, took place on the Thursday in front of the judges Sir Steendale Bennett, Mr J Hullah & Mr Brindley Richards. A prize of £50 for the design of the cup was won by Mr J S Nicholl and Mr Owen Gibbons and a very fine design with decorative workmanship it is too. Reports seem to vary but the prize was the cup (as valued above) and a purse of 100 guineas, a not insubstantial sum in those days. Unfortunately the competition was uncontested and the prize was thus awarded to the South Wales Choral Union. However, The Illustrated London News reported that ‘the singing excited strong admiration and drew forth enthusiastic applause. The pieces performed were the chorus from Bach’s Passion music, ‘In tears of grief’, ‘Then round about’ (Samson), ‘The night is departing’ (Lobgesang), the ‘March of the Men of Harlech’ and Mr Brinley Richards’ ‘God Bless the Prince of Wales’ (in welsh) (sic). The choir numbers 500 voices, the rich and pure quality of which, especially in the soprano division, and the refinement of style displayed, were admirable in comparison with the best chorus-singing we have ever heard; and surprising when coming from a quarter in which such musical cultivation could scarcely be expected’ 4. I doubt the latter comment would be allowed today but it demonstrates the surprise at the quality and energy of the choir. The Times had been equally disparaging with its comment that ‘When it is remembered that this chorus is almost entirely drawn from the labouring classes of the principality, miners, colliers etc., their wives, daughters and relatives, we cannot but wonder at the excellence unattainable except through assiduous and contrived study’5. Fortunately the Times did say the choir ‘was one of the freshest, most powerful, best balanced, and musical body of voices to which we can remember at any time to have listened’ 5. On the Saturday the prizes were distributed.

It was, however, the response from the townsfolk back home that had the greatest impact. In today’s parlance it would be like the Welsh Rugby team winning the Rugby World Cup. A poster was produced with ‘South Wales Choral Union’ as the heading in large red letters


The main streets were spanned with evergreens, banners and flags, many of them with appropriate mottoes but most had a simple ‘Welcome Home’. Ships in the river were dressed in their bunting. The decorations were particularly profuse in Water Street by the residence of Joseph L Matthews, the leader of the Neath contingent and vice -president of the local Harmonic Society. Thousands had lined the streets despite the weather being unpleasant. The train duly arrived shortly after 7.30 that evening to an enthusiastic reception from a vociferous crowd. Following the Mayor’s public notice, the townsfolk joined the triumphful procession through the town to The Square. Here the Rector addressed the crowd saying that for the past 24 years he had been expecting and hoping for the success they were now celebrating. He had longed for such a day for Wales for they had long had to fight the prejudices of the country and even The Times had thundered forth against the eisteddfods of the nation and yet today it had thundered forth everything in their favour. The ‘March of the Men of Harlech’ was then sung by the choir with the immense crowd of over 5,000 taking up the chorus. The Mayor read the critique from The Times though regularly interrupted by cheers from the crowd. The Rev. John Matthews addressed the gathering in English and Welsh, followed by the Rev. Mills and Mr Millett. The proceedings were completed by a rousing rendition of ‘God bless the Prince of Wales’ and ‘God save the Queen’ and finally cheers for Caradog, the Mayor, the Rector and Wales 6. By the end of the evening, the Western Mail estimated there were more than 10,000 present at the celebrations 7.

The following July, The South Wales Choral Union duly returned for the second series of competitions as part of the National Music meetings, again at Crystal Palace. This time they were opposed by the Tonic Sol-Fa Association. Both choirs sang Bach’s motet, ‘I wrestle and pray’, ‘The Hallelujah Chorus’, the chorus ‘See what love’ from Mendelssohn’s ‘St Paul’ and ‘Come with torches’ from the same composer’s ‘Walpurgis Night’.  The South Wales Choir were again declared the winners with The Illustrated London News reporting ‘It cannot be denied that those of the Welsh choristers were in every way superior. In richness of tone, power without coarseness, energy, precision, and tone of intonation, the Cambrian singers fully maintained the high impression produced at their last year’s performance’ 8. The M.P for Merthyr Tydfil, Mr Richard Fothergill, was so pleased with what had been done that he intended to have a medal struck and presented to each member of the choir 9.

There was considerable interest in the Choir’s singing and they were invited by the Prince of Wales to sing for him on the following Monday. The 500 strong choir filed through the gates of Marlborough House at 4.00 and assembled on the lawn in front of the Prince’s residence in a semi-circle with the memorial cup in the centre. The weather duly changed and the sun at last came out. After half an hour, the Royal party arrived with the Prince & Princess of Wales and various distinguished guests, including Lady Churchill and the Countess Spencer. With Caradog conducting, they started with ‘God save the Queen’ followed by ‘Llwyn On’ (The Ash Grove); after ‘Let the hills resound’, the Prince was so entranced that he asked for a repeat and this was followed by ‘the March of the Men of Harlech’ and finished not surprisingly with ‘God bless the Prince of Wales’ 10.  Several of the gentleman were introduced to the Prince, who admired the cup. The Prince then thanked them for coming and their ‘beautiful music’ and wished them a good journey home.

The reception back home on Tuesday 15th July was even greater than the previous year. The Swansea & Glamorgan Herald reported ‘as in all places in the principality, a general feeling of satisfaction and joy pervades the town of Neath at the brilliant success….of which Union the town of Neath supplies one of the most prominent contingents’ 11. At Neath on the Monday, a public meeting was hastily held following a notice issued by the Mayor to decide how to welcome the choir on its return later that day. It was agreed that the Mayor and other officials, together with the clergy, ministers and principal inhabitants of the neighbourhood, should escort the contingent to Alderman Davies’ Schoolrooms where a banquet, provided by public subscription, would be laid on for their entertainment. Sub- committees were formed to carry out the details of the reception, procession, decorations etc with Mr Hutchins of the Queen’s Hotel being entrusted with the arrangements for the repast.

On the train’s arrival at Neath, the band played ‘Men of Harlech’, the bells rang out and the railway detonating signals were set off to provide an excellent substitute for the absence of cannon. After the congratulations, the procession set off with headed by the Mayor, Rector, Alderman Rowlands, Rev. J Matthews and Joseph L Matthews escorting the lady members of the Neath contingent followed by the rest of the Cor Mawr. The Swansea Herald records ‘it was the universal opinion that so large a concourse of people was never before witnessed in the good old town of Neath’ 11. The banquet started at 9.00 p.m. and was attended by about 170 people. After the food was cleared away, there were many toasts, among which Miss Brain sang ‘God bless the Prince of Wales’ with the whole choir joining in on the chorus. The next was the toast of the evening “The Neath contingent of the South Wales Choir” coupled with the names of Mr Joseph L Matthews and Mr C Old, who responded and spoke of the good reception they had received from Londoners but the home reception was astonishing and beyond all expectations. J H Rowland spoke of the origin of the Neath contingent. It had been the outcome of the local Harmonic Society and the Rector, Rev J Griffiths, as the Society’s President and founder, responded. He said that the outcome of Crystal Palace event was seen not just as ‘gaining a success but also of getting justice for Wales. For a long time Wales had been looked upon by the English with a feeling bordering on contempt, and when any reference was made in the papers to the social or musical gatherings of Wales something was always said that had a tendency to hurt the feelings of the Welsh, and lower their position among the nations of the world. But now the Welsh were able, by the efforts of such bands as the Neath contingent, to show that they were something else than a barbarous nation, and at the same time they cultivated an art, tended to elevate a nation’11. He then quoted from the Times ‘Considering its marvellous precision and its numbers, such a choir as the South Wales has seldom been heard in London’11.  This followed with the Rev John Matthews giving a toast to the ladies and speaking eloquently in Welsh and English. After a response by Mr Rowland Thomas, the proceedings finished.

The M.P. Mr Fothergill celebrated the event of the coming of age of his son, Richard Fothergill, junior, on 2nd September 1873 at Abernant Park, Aberdare by presenting a medal to each member of the Choir, who had participated in the 1873 victory 12.

On April 11th 1874, the Secretary of the National Music Meetings, Mr S Flood Page, announced that the 1874 meetings would be deferred for a year due to the practical difficulties of carrying out two such undertakings as the Handel Festival and the National Music Meeting during the same week 13. The Choir continued to give performances in Wales but never again on the national stage. Today the Memorial Cup is displayed in the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagan’s while the medallion issued by Mr Fothergill, M.P. can be seen on www.peoplescollection.wales/items/9608 and at the Cynon Valley Museum. I have not found any evidence of any photos that might have survived of the Choir or the 35 members from Neath, which included five ladies.  


  1. The Times 26th February 1873.
  2. The Western Mail 27th June 1872
  3. The Brecon Times 6th July 1872.
  4. The Illustrated London News 6th July 1872.
  5. The Times 8th July 1872.
  6. The Brecon County Times 13th July 1872.
  7. The Western Mail 10th July 1872.
  8. The Illustrated London News 19th July 1873.
  9. The Times 15th July 1873.
  10. The Brecon County Times 17th July 1873.
  11. The Swansea & Glamorgan Herald 16th July 1873.
  12. The Cardiff & Merthyr Guardian 6th September 1873.
  13. The Morning Post 14th April 1874.

Images - public domain, the author, RCT Library, Peoples Collection Wales.

© Peter Stevens 2017 stevens_peter@hotmail.co.uk

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