The Rhondda Valley or just the Rhondda in Glamorgan is the valley of the River Rhondda. It is a heavily urbanised valley, a former coal mining valley with about 60,000 inhabitants in its towns and villages, all pressed along the deep course of the valley.
The valley is made up of two valleys, the larger Rhondda Fawr valley and the smaller Rhondda Fach valley, named from their respective tributary branches of the Rive Rhondda. Both the singular term 'Rhondda Valley' and the plural 'Rhondda Valleys' are commonly used.
The Rhondda Valley is most notable for its historical link to the coal mining industry which was at its peak between 1840-1925. The Rhondda Valleys were home to a strong early nonconformist Christian movement which manifested itself in the baptist chapels which moulded Rhondda values in the 19th and early 20th century. Rhondda is also famous for strong masculine cultural ties within a social community which expressed itself outside industry in the form of male voice choirs, sport and politics.
- Blaencwm, a district of Treherbert.
- Clydach Vale
- Dinas Rhondda
- Porth, which sees itself as the unofficial capital of the Rhondda
- Ton Pentre
- Ystrad Rhondda
The villages of the Rhondda Fach are:
- Blaenllechau a district of Ferndale.
In the early Middle Ages, Glynrhondda was a commote of the cantref of Penychen in the kingdom of Morgannwg, a sparsely populated agricultural area. The spelling of the commote varied widely, and the Cardiff Records shows the various spellings: Rhoddeni (1203), Rotheni (1213), Glyn Rhoddni (1268), Glenrotheney (1314), Glynroddne (1314), Glynroddney (1348), Glynrotheney (1440), Glynrothnei (1567), Glynrhoddeney (1591), Glynronthey (1666)
Many sources state the meaning of Rhondda as 'noisy', though this is a simplified translation without research. Sir Ifor Williams, in his work Enwau Lleoedd, suggests that the first syllable rhwadd is a form of the Welsh adrawdd or adrodd, as in 'recite, relate, recount'; the suggestion is that the river is speaking aloud, a comparison to the English expression 'a babbling brook'.
Residents of either valley rarely use the terms 'Rhondda Fach' or 'Rhondda Fawr', referring instead to 'The Rhondda', or their specific village when relevant. Locals tend to refer to "The Rhondda" with the definite article, despite its non-usage on sign posts and maps.
A famous hymn tune is named "Cwm Rhondda" from this valley. To Cwm Rhondda is sung the hymn "Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer", and in its original Welsh version, Arglwydd, arwain trwy'r anialwch ("Lord, guide me through the wilderness").
The words of Arglwydd, arwain trwy'r anialwch were written by William Williams, but the hymn tune was written by John Hughes (1873 –1932) who at age 12 began work in Glynn Colliery in Llantwit Fardre and later became a clerk at the Great Western Colliery in Pontypridd where he worked for over 40 years. He served as a deacon and leader of the congregational singing in Salem Baptist Chapel in Llantwit Fardre. The first version of the tune, called "Rhondda" was written in 1905 for the hymn festival in Pontypridd, during the enthusiasm of the 1904–1905 Welsh Revival. The present form was developed for the inauguration of the organ at Capel Rhondda, in Hopkinstown in the Rhondda Valley, in 1907. Hughes himself played the organ at this performance, using the English translation of Williams's words. The name was changed from "Rhondda" to "Cwm Rhondda" by Harry Evans of Dowlais, to avoid confusion with another tune by M O Jones.
The earliest evidence of the presence of man in these upper areas of Glamorgan was discovered in 1963 at Craig y Llyn; a small chipped stone tool found from the early Mesolithic period. Many other Mesolithic items have been discovered in the Rhondda, predominantly in the upper areas around Blaenrhondda, Blaencwm and Maerdy, items relating to hunting, fishing and foraging. The earliest structural relic is at Cefn Glas near the watershed of the Rhondda Fach river where are found the remains of a rectangular hut with traces of drystone wall foundations and postholes, carbon dated as late Neolithic.
Several Bronze Age cairns and cists have been discovered throughout the length of both valleys. The best example of a round-cairn was found at Crug yr Afan, near the summit of Graig Fawr, west of Cwmparc, known tongue-oin-cheek as the 'Rhondda Stonehenge' consisting of 10 upright stones no more than 2 feet in height encircling a central cist. All the cairns found within the Rhondda are located on high ground, many on ridgeways, and may have been used as waypoints. In 1912 a hoard of 24 late Bronze Age weapons and tools was discovered during construction work at the Llyn Fawr reservoir, at the source of the Rhondda Fawr.
The most definite example of a Roman site in the area is found above Blaenllechau in Ferndale. The settlement is one of a group of earthworks and indicates the presence of the Roman army during the 1st century AD. It was thought to be a military site or marching camp.
At the coming of the Normans, the Rhondda was the commote of Glynrhondda in the Penychen Cantref, a narrow strip running between modern day Glyn Neath and the coast between Cardiff and Aberthaw. There are but few signs of habitation from these early days. Maerdy in the Rhondda Fach has been proposed as a maerdref or "mayor's village", mainly on the strength of the name, but the village did not survive past the Middle Ages.
The Norman conquest or Glamorgan began in the late 11th century under Robert Fitzhamon and later Gilbert de Clare, but Glynrhondda was held by native princes until conquered by Richard de Clare, 6th Earl of Hertford in 1247.
This earliest Christian monument located in the Rhondda is the shrine of St Mary at Penrhys whose holy well was mentioned by Rhisiart ap Rhys in the 15th century.
Modern, pre-industrial Rhondda: 1550—1850
In the mid-16th century the Rhondda was known as the Vale of Rotheney, belonging to the large but sparsely inhabited parish of Ystradyfodwg; 'St Tyfodwg's Vale'. Throughout the post-Mediæval period the Rhondda was a heavily wooded area and its main economic staple was the rearing of sheep, horses and cattle. The cartographer John Speed described that the rearing of cattle was the "best means unto wealth that the Shire doth afford". Crops were grown in the lower part of the Rhondda on narrow meadows adjoining the riversides, though during the Napoleonic Wars scarce supplies forced the cultivation of the upland areas such as Carn-y-wiwer and Penrhys. Merrick would describe the diet of the upland inhabitants as consisting of "bread made of wheat...and ale and bear" and over two hundred years later Benjamin Malkin showed how little the diet had changed when he wrote that the people still ate "Oatmeal bread, with a relish of miserable cheese; and the beer, where they have any, is worse than none".
In the 17th century enclosure began in earnest and by the 19th century most of the Rhondda farms and estates were owned by absentee landlords, such as the Marquis of Bute, Earl of Dunraven, Crawshay Bailey of Merthyr and the De Winton family of Brecon.
Industrial Rhondda 1850—1945
The South Wales coalfield is the largest continuous coalfield in Britain, extending some 70 miles from Pontypool in the east to St Brides Bay in the west, covering almost 1,000 square miles, taking in the majority of Glamorgan, and the entirety of the Rhondda. Although neighbouring areas such as Merthyr and Aberdare had already sunk coal mines, it was not until Walter Coffin initiated the Dinas Lower Colliery in 1812 that coal was first exported from the Rhondda Valleys on any sort of commercial scale. This coal was originally taken by packhorse, before the extension of Dr Griffiths' private tramline, to Pontypridd and then by the Glamorganshire Canal to the port at Cardiff. The lack of any transportation links was one of the main problems that curtailed exploitation of the Rhondda Valley coal fields, along with the belief that the coalfields beneath the valley were thought to be too deep for economic working. It was therefore seen as an expensive risk and deterred anyone looking for a quick profit. The exploration of the Rhondda was undertaken by the Bute Trustees, agents of the third Marquess of Bute, who not only owned large tracts of valley farmland but also the Cardiff Docks which would export the coal. The trustees sank the Bute Merthyr Colliery in October 1851, at the top of the Rhondda Fawr in what would become Treherbert. The Bute Merthyr began producing coal in 1855, the first working steam coal colliery in the Rhondda.
In conjunction with the sinking of the first colliery at the head of the Rhondda, the second issue of transportation was being tackled at the same time with the extension of the Taff Vale Railway (TVR) line. After Royal Assent was given to construct the railway in 1836, the original line was laid from Cardiff to Abercynon, and by 1841 a branch was opened to link Cardiff with Dinas via Pontypridd. This would allow easier and faster transportation for Walter Coffin's Dinas mine, an unsurprising addition considering Coffin was a director of the TVR. In 1849 the TVR had extended into the Rhondda Fach and by 1856 the railway had reached the furthest areas of both the Fach and Fawr valleys at Maerdy and Treherbert. For the first time the Rhondda Valley was connected by a major transportation route to the rest of Wales and the exploitation of its coalfields could begin.
By 1893 there were more than 75 collieries within the Rhondda Valleys, most were initially owned by a small group of private individuals until the end of thr nineteenth century, when companies began buying up the existing collieries and exploiting economies of scale and spreading of risk. Companies included the Davies's Ocean Coal Company, Archibald Hood's Glamorgan Coal Company and David Davis & Son. In 1913 it was recorded that the Rhondda Valley's output was 9.6 million tons.
During the early to mid-19th century the Rhondda Valleys were inhabited by small farming settlements, but the mines filled the valley with men and new villages, workers flooding in from across Great Britain and Ireland, if fewer of the latter.
At the start of the First World War, the economic prospects in Glamorgan were good. Although production fell after the 1913 high, demand was still strong enough to push the coalfields to their limit. In February 1917 coal mining came under government control and demand increased as the war intensified, ensuring a market for sufficient supplies of coal. After the war the picture began to change. Initially the British coal industry was buoyed by a series of fortuitous economic events, such as the American coal miners' strike, and by 1924, unemployment for miners was below the national average, but the Great Depression struck, and the Rhondda experienced a massive upturn in unemployment. In 1926 the Trades Union Congress called a general strike in defence of the miners who had been locked out following A J Cook's call 'not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day'. The TUC called off the strike just nine days later, without resolving the miners' cut in wages, but in the Rhondda the miners stayed on strike for a further seven months until they were starved into surrendering. The Rhondda saw many schemes set up by miners to aid their plight, such as soup kitchens and fêtes and 'joy' days to support them; while in Maerdy the local miners set up a rationing system. By the time the miners returned to work there was little desire for further action through strikes, which saw a decline in the popularity of 'The Fed' and greater emphasis on solving problems through political and parliamentary means.
By 1932 the long-term unemployment figure in the Rhondda was recorded at 63%, and in Ferndale the unemployment figure for adult males rose as high as 72.85%. Between 1924 and 1939, 50,000 people left the Rhondda. During this time life was difficult for communities built solely around a singular industry, especially as most families were on a single wage.
The start of the Second World War saw a complete turnaround in the employment figures, and by 1944 unemployment figures in the Rhondda ranged from 1% in Treorchy to 3.7% at Tonypandy.
After the War
The coal mining industry of the Rhondda was artificially buoyed throughout the war years, though there were expectations of a return to the pre-1939 industrial collapse after the end of the Second World War. Amongst miners if not mine owners, there was a sense of salvation when the government announced the nationalisation of the British coal mines in 1947, but little changed for the miners, changing from one employer to another, and the following decades saw a continual reduction in the output from the Rhondda mines. From 15,000 miners in 1947, Rhondda had just a single pit within the valleys producing coal in 1984, at Maerdy. The decline in the mining of coal after Second World War was a country wide issue, but South Wales and Rhondda were affected to a higher degree than other areas of Britain. Of the few industries that were still reliant on coal, the demand was for quality coals, especially coking coal which was required by the steel industry. Fifty percent of Glamorgan coal was now supplied to steelworks, with the second biggest market being domestic heating, for which the 'smokeless' coal of the Rhondda became important after the Clean Air Act. As demand fell though from both sectors, the miners were laid off.
Government bodies funded and subsidized external businesses to locate new ventures within the valleys to replace the vanishing heavy industries. After the end of the Second World War, 23 companies were set up in the Rhondda Valleys, eighteen of them sponsored by the Board of Trade. Most companies had periods of growth and collapse, notably Thorn EMI in the 1970s and Burberry in the 2000s.
The Rhondda Heritage Park, a museum commemorating Rhondda's industrial past, is situated just south of Porth in the former Lewis Merthyr Colliery in the small former mining village of Trehafod.
Political activism in the Rhondda has a deep link with trade unions and the socialist movement but was initially slow to develop. In the 1870s the Amalgamated Association of Miners won support, but was destroyed by employer hostility. The Cambrian Miners' Association was more successful and the creation of the South Wales Miners' Federation after the 1898 coal strike, gave the South Wales miners a reputation for militancy, in which the Rhondda Valley played its part. As part of the Redistribution Act of 1885, the Rhondda was granted its first seat in Parliament which was won by left wing Liberal William Abraham, who was notably the only working-class member elected in Wales. Socialism and syndicalism ideals grew throughout the 20th century and industrial struggle reached a crescendo in the 1910-11 Tonypandy Riots. A year later Tonypandy saw the publication of Noah Ablett's pamphlet The Miners' Next Step. Tonypandy was at the centre of further public disorder when, on 11 June 1936 at Dewinton Field, large crowds clashed at the open-air address by Tommy Moran, propaganda officer of the British Union of Fascists. The crowd, recorded as between 2,000 and 6,000 strong, turned violent and police were forced to protect Moran's Blackshirt bodyguard. Seven local people were arrested.
The Rhondda also has a strong history of communist sympathy, with the Rhondda Socialist Society being a key element in the coalition that founded the Communist Party of Great Britain. By 1936 there were seven Communists on the Rhondda Urban District Council and was publishing its own Communist newspaper The Vanguard. In the 1930s Maerdy became such a hotspot of Communist support it was known as Little Moscow producing left wing activists such as Merthyr-born Arthur Horner and Marxist writer Lewis Jones. The Rhondda miners were also active in socialist activities outside the valleys. In the 1920s and 1930s the Rhondda and the surrounding valleys provided the principal support of some of the largest hunger marches, while in 1936 more Rhondda Federation members were serving in Spain as part of the International Brigades than the total number of volunteers from all the coalfields outside Wales.
For the majority of its history the area now recognised as the Rhondda Valley was an exclusively Welsh speaking area. It was only in the early 20th century that English began to supplant Welsh as the first language of social intercourse. In 1803, the historian Benjamin Heath Malkin mentioned while travelling through Ystradyfodwg, that he had only met one person with whom he could talk, and then with the help of an interpreter. This situation was repeated with John George Wood, who on his visit to the area complained of the awkwardness of understanding the particular dialects and idioms used by the native speakers, which were on times difficult for other Welsh speakers to understand. This dialect was once called 'tafodiaith gwŷr y Gloran' ('the dialect of the men of Gloran').
As the industrialisation of the valleys began there was little shift in the use of Welsh as a first language. Immigrants to the valleys included Welsh-speakers and English-speakers, and classrooms discouraged Welsh. In 1901 35.4% of Rhondda workers spoke only English but by 1911 this had risen to 43.1%, and the trend accelerated in the twentieth century.
Though the population of the Rhondda was embracing English as its first language, during the 1940s a literary and intellectual movement formed in the Rhondda that would produce an influential group of Welsh language writers. Formed during the Second World War by Egyptologist J Gwyn Griffiths and his German wife Käte Bosse-Griffiths, the group was known as the Cadwgan Circle (Cylch Cadwgan), and met at the Griffiths' house in Pentre. The Welsh writers who made up the movement included Pennar Davies, Rhydwen Williams, James Kitchener Davies and Gareth Alban Davies.
The Rhondda has hosted the National Eisteddfod on only one occasion, in 1928 at Treorchy. The Gorsedd stones that were placed to commemorate the event still stand on the Maindy hillside overlooking Treorchy and Cwmparc. In 1947 Treorchy held the Youth Eisteddfod.
Rhondda had a strong tradition of communal activity, exemplified by workmen's halls, miners' institutes and trade unions. Miners began to contribute to the building and running of institutes - such as the Parc and Dare Hall in Treorchy - from the 1890s onwards, and they were centres of both entertainment and self-improvement with billiards halls, libraries and reading rooms.
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