What's in a name?
The derivation of town, village and street names are always an intriguing and fascinating study and locally Skewen is no exception. Carole Wilsher explores this subject in her recently published book ‘Skewen Village Story - its origins and growth’ and has kindly agreed for the relevant information to be posted on this website for the benefit of a wider audience and as a source for local history researchers.
The name Skewen - its origin
Whenever I mentioned to friends that I was 'embroiled in' a Skewen history project, invariably the first question to me was "Where do you think the name 'Skewen' came from?" This seems to be the ideal place to investigate and consider various possibilities:
1. 'Scuen, Scuan or Skuen, a rivulet courses to the Nedd from its source under Drymmau Hill, passing beside the main road through the village to which it gives its name' writes D Rhys Phillips in his 'A History of the Vale of Neath' thus stating his opinion unequivocally.
2. Skuen - the above interpretation is obviously shared by the late Melville Richards (who was from Skewen), Professor of Welsh at Bangor University; he points out in 'Neath and District a Symposium' that early forms of the name 'Skewen' refer to the rivulet Skuen and he proceeds to examine the derivation of the word Skuen which, he says, might be Ynys + 'Cuen / Cufen' i.e. an island and a person's name with later only the 's' remaining from 'ynys' so 'Skuen'.
3. Scuan - this brook was, in days gone by, obviously rather important since it gave its name to two nearby areas - Gwern Scuan (Scuan Bog or Marsh / Swamp) in the hollow of Old Road and Pen Rhiw Scuan Farm - Top of Scuan Hill Farm. Both these are shown on the 1770 Neath Abbey Estate survey map. However, interestingly Pen Rhiw Scuan Farm was not on the 1831 Land Tax Record so it had disappeared by then presumably due to developments in the area.
4. Iskywen Brook - marked on 1601 Estate map. J Islwyn Davies suggests the name comprises ynys + cu + gwyn and gwyn mutates to wen, so Sgiwen is formed (The Neath Antiquarian Vol. 2)
5. Scuan - an internet definition suggests Scandinavian origin but I have found no evidence to suggest this.
6. Sger-wen - An interesting interpretation is given by Messrs Bailey and Gough in their book 'Skewen and District, a History.' An 1155 charter of William Earl of Warwick, which mentions 'Eskeyrhyrayth', is quoted; a connection is then made with quite a modern farm 'Cefn yr Esgyrn'' (earlier known as 'Cefn yr Esgyr' with a suggestion that 'Eskeyr' or 'Esgyr' might have been 'Esgair' - ridge) and a further point made that it is then a short logical step to 'Sger-wen' (white ridge) or Skewen.
7. Ysgawen - meaning elder (the tree / shrub). D Rhys Phillips points out that this is a more modern derivation. However, I remember asking my grandfather about the meaning of Skewen and his answer was, "from the Welsh Ysgawen - the elder tree".
8. Having considered the options, my own preference is for the stream / rivulet 'Scuan / Scuen / Skuen' explanation; the above points 1, 2 and 3, in my view, present strong evidence in favour of that conclusion. Also 'Rhiw Scuan' (no. 3 above), Skewen Hill explains the 1816 reference to Skewen Hill as a location before the village existed.
The districts and streets of Skewen
"The streets echo with footsteps from the past" - Carole Wilsher
As industrial landmarks of the past disappear, the street names of a city, town or village are precious links with its heritage.
A late twentieth century local council official guide states 'this tradition of using familiar names for newer developments continues' It was, therefore, rather surprising that the name Railway Terrace was changed to Brookville Drive for no apparent historical reason. The railway to which the former name relates still exists and had a connection with two other streets nearby whose names remain unchanged. These are Sidings Terrace and Station Road. A name change which connected with Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Alfred Russel Wallace would have maintained the historical link. Brunel was engineer of the line and Wallace the surveyor. The loss of the name Railway Terrace bestows an added significance upon Sidings Terrace since the sidings, as well as the railway itself, contributed positively to the dramatic growth of Mooretown.
Street names, then, are golden threads leading us back through time and they were very often significant in their era.
Skewen's names tend to fall into five broad categories: - Neath Abbey and the Monks; Traditional; Location; Landowners and Relatives; Welsh.
1. Neath Abbey and the Monks
Burrows Road - taken from the fact that this road (a mere track in the thirteenthth century) would have led to Crymlyn Burrows where the monks had probably established rabbit warrens.
Cwrt y Betws - cwrt means grange and Betws is 'bede' a house of prayer.
Cwrt y Clafdy - this was probably the site of an isolation hospital - clafdy means house of the sick.
These are generally the earliest names of the village, often religious where a chapel was situated on the street e.g. Bethlehem Road and Tabernacle Street.
Or the obvious such as: Old Road - the old turnpike road, New Road - the new turnpike road and High Street - the one furthest up the hill so the highest.
Others are patriotic, like: Queen's Road - which gives an idea of chronology as it was named after Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837.
Jubilee Crescent - this is later, and marks the silver jubilee of King George V in 1935.
Picton Road - is in honour of Major General Picton, Wellington's second-in-command at the Battle of Waterloo. Picton was killed in this battle in June 1815, and after his death, a letter from Wellington was found in his pocket empowering him to take command of the army in the event of Wellington himself being killed.
Brook Street - the brook from Caenant flowed along the New Road end of this street.
Foundry Row - is the site of a small foundry which closed in the late nineteenth century.
Railway Terrace - this street runs alongside the main railway line (as discussed above).
Sidings Terrace - these sidings were probably built on the first suitable site, considering the undulating terrain from Neath to Skewen. It would have been something of a challenge for the surveyor Alfred Russel Wallace (this is the correct spelling, as opposed to Russell). One opinion is that that an error was made in entering his name onto his Birth Certificate. An erudite study on this will be found at:
Wallace was extremely talented in many fields and is now recognized as having arrived at a theory of evolution both before and independently of Charles Darwin. Wallace, however, gave way to Darwin who had better social connections, and supported him in publishing 'On the Origin of Species'. Wallace lived in Neath during the 1840s.
Spring Gardens, Springfield - these names probably indicate the site of a spring. Water sources were extremely important as reliable piped water did not reach the locality until the 'Ystradfellte Scheme' in about 1914.
Station Road - this road was built after Skewen station was moved in 1910 from further west to a more central location just east of Station Road. This station was closed under the Beeching Act of 1963 and was removed totally. Much later the present station was constructed, which is just west of Station Road. The wooden bridge that was the original railway crossing in this area was located behind the building that is now Skewen Auto.
White Gates - In 1871 the New Neath Abbey Coal Company, who operated a dram road that ran down Skewen Incline and across New Road, was requested to install level crossing gates. These were painted white and hence gave their name to this location.
4. Landowners and their Relatives
While researching this section, I was struck by the changes in fashion - at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, it was obviously 'in vogue' for landowners to name streets after family members, whereas these days the custom seems to be for people naming their children after places. A landowner wished to personalise his area and also immortalise his name and the names of family members.
Charles Street - Charles (1852 -1928) was the grandson of George Tennant and son of Charles and Gertrude Tennant. He married Winifred in 1895.
Christopher Road - named after Charles and Winifred's eldest son Christopher b.1897 who was killed at Ypres in September 1918.
Coombes Road, Coombe-Tennant Avenue - Charles Tennant prefixed his surname with 'Coombe' as a gesture of respect to his godfather who had bequeathed him a small Devon estate.
Evelyn Road - after Eveleen sister of Charles and fifth child of Charles and Gertrude Tennant (1857-1937), she married the poet and philologist F W H Myers in 1880.
Serocold Avenue, Winifred Road - Winifred Serocold Coombe-Tennant (1874-1956), wife of Charles Coobe-Tennant. Note: misspelled as Serecold on signs and maps.
Stanley Road - Charles Coombe-Tennant's sister Dorothy (1855-1926) married H M Stanley in 1890. Denbigh-born Stanley was adopted by an American and took his name, later becoming a journalist. He went on many expeditions and is probably best remembered for his "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" remark. He died in 1904 and in 1907 Dorothy married Dr Henry Curtis, a Neath-born Harley Street surgeon.
Tennant Park - The land for this park was given by Mrs Winifred Coombe-Tennant in 1935 and its name recalls the whole Tennant family.
Ellen's Row - this street was named after John Newall Moore's wife, Ellen Elizabeth who died giving birth to their second child in 1883. Incidentally, John Newall Moore had an aunt who was also named Ellen Elizabeth.
Lucy Road - John Newall Moore's daughter born 1883.
Mooretown - the district was named after the landowner John Newall Moore.
Newall Road - Moore's mother's maiden name was Newall. His father Edward Ackland Moore married Charlotte Newall in 1843.
Bosworth Road - the Battle of Bosworth was fought in 1484 and an ancestor of the Dynevor family, Rhys ap Thomas, aided Henry VII's victory.
Cardonnel Road - the 6th Baron Dynevor's name was Arthur Cardonnel Rice.
Compton Road - Elizabeth Hoby married Henry Compton, who, with the Rice and Stanley families, became the first to be styled 'Lords of the Abbey'.
Dynevor Road - renamed after Lord Dynevor, originally the top part of this road had been called Coronation Road (after Edward VII's coronation).
Talbot Street - The grandson of Griffith Rice (1st generation 'Lord of the Abbey') married Cecil Talbot and their eldest son George Talbot Rice later became 3rd Baron Dynevor.
Villiers Road - Walter Fitz Uryan Rice, married the Earl of Jersey's eldest daughter Lady Margaret Villiers in 1898. He became 7th Baron Dynevor in 1911.
Jersey Marine - Lord Jersey owned a great deal of land in the area; after the 1783 Will of Lady Barbara Vernon, the Vernon Estate later became the Jersey Estate.
e. Various industrialists / industries / miscellaneous
Elba Crescent - it is a row of managers' houses built for the Elba Tinplate Works at King's Dock, Swansea. The Works opened in 1925.
Llandarcy - William Knox D'Arcy was the Australian millionaire who had been responsible for the successful search for oil in Persia. 'Llan' at first glance seems rather an inappropriate prefix as the present definition is 'site of a church' but the original meaning is 'a level space or an enclosure' although another dictionary definition refers to it as 'a village'.
Southall Avenue - Mr Southall was the General Manager at the Llandarcy Oil Refinery.
Francis Street - there is a possibility that it was named thus because a blacksmith David Francis was working in the area around 1850. However there was also a Frances Frances noted on the 1831 Land Tax Record as farming Wern Andrew Farm. Of course, spelling has been noted earlier as variable and Francis Francis (Ffranc, Wern Andrew) is noted in other documentation, he was a notable figure having given a plot of land for Bethlehem Chapel.
5. Welsh Names
These names often have a countryside feature as their focal point; not surprising really, since our ancestors lived much closer to nature than most of us do today. There is a school of thought which deprecates how far 'Modern Man' has moved away from his natural environment.
Caenant Terrace - 'cae' means field and 'nant' means brook or stream. A stream did flow through this area before it was piped; indeed in the early days of Horeb Chapel, several people were baptised in this stream.
Coedffranc - as with Scuan, I found various spellings - for example a 1582 Indenture granted a lease of 99 years for a 'parcel of land' (out of wasteground or forest) called Coyde Ffrance. The meaning seems to be generally accepted as 'French wood' after the French / Norman settlers. However, there is a possibility that 'Frank' refers to a man because on the Neath Abbey Survey map of 1770 there is land noted as 'Tir Frank' and not 'Tir y Frank' (Frank's land). In the 1894 logbook of Neath Abbey Infants' School, I also came across the variant 'Coed Frank'.
Crymlyn Road - Crymlyn brook forms the western boundary of Coedffranc parish and also Crymlyn Bog and Crymlyn Burrows are marked on maps. There are various possible derivations e.g. 'Crymu' means to bow (also a curve) and 'llyn' is lake; yet another alternative is 'Crymlin' - a bended knee (possibly associated with sun worship).
Cwmdu - 'cwm' is vale and 'du' means black or dark - possibly due to the presence of coal; Cwmdu brook and woods are shown on maps.
Drymmau Road - takes its name from the dominating feature Drymmau Hill, along whose slopes it runs.
Drymmau Hall - it is something of a local landmark since it overlooks the village and was built in 1884 by John Birch Paddon, who had bought the Drymmau Estate direct from Chancery. Paddon seems to have had no involvement in the development of Skewen as his attention was focussed further west - on Birchgrove.
Graig Road - 'Craig' means rock or crag.
Pal/Pale - I found this a really difficult puzzle to solve as a number of explanations did not really match the circumstances. One meaning which the eminent historian D Rhys Phillips suggested in 'A History of the Vale of Neath' was 'Puffin' and the Welsh Dictionary does indeed give this meaning; however, as an experienced bird-watcher, I knew that the habitat in that area was just as unsuitable 200-300 years ago, furthermore I have checked historical bird watching records and the nearest sighting of a puffin was off Worm's Head in 1848. Therefore I discarded the 'Puffin theory'.
'Tir y Pal' is marked on the 1770 Neath Abbey Estate Survey map as being near the River Neath and noted as belonging to the Copper Works; this area is where some of the earliest dwellings in Skewen were built. A second dictionary definition gave 'Pal' as a spade or shovel and I ruminated over this for a long while until someone who's far more fluent and experienced in Welsh than I, suggested 'palu' - to dig and then applied the word to the action of the river - digging out one bank and depositing silt on the opposite bank which is exactly what the River Neath does. It is a descriptive name, taken from nature and fits the landscape in that area. It seems a sensible explanation.
Moreover, language evolves and 'Pal' could easily have become 'Pale' (a stake or fence) since a river is a natural boundary and a connection could have been made with a fence boundary as the word 'Pal' became anglicised.
Pant y Sais - 'Pant' is hollow or valley and 'Sais', Englishman.
Pentre Ffynnon - 'Pentre'(f) means village and 'ffynnon', well or fountain, so quite literally 'Village of the Well'. There was a well in this area where some of the earliest dwellings in Skewen were built.
Pen yr Alley Avenue, Pen yr Heol - named after farms in the area - 'pen' meaning top or end of and 'heol' road.
Penbryn Road - Similarly 'bryn' is hill so top of the hill.
Penshannel - this was shown on both the 1838 and 1875 maps as 'Pant y shanol' and has obviously evolved to 'Penshannel' - top of the channel.
Wern Road - 'Gwern' means wet or boggy area, or swamp and the form is often 'Y Wern' - "the swamp" later becoming just 'Wern'.
Postscript: - My apologies for any omissions; There are two descriptive self-explanatory ones -Grove Lane and Woodland Road. Also I failed to obtain information on Caewathan, Graham's Terrace, Lonlas and Ormes Road and would greatly appreciate any relevant details on these.