David N Thomas - writer/researcher

From Tin to Paraffin: the story of

Thomas Brothers the Oil,

Pontardulais        

                                     

 When my first book on Dylan Thomas was published, it was dedicated to the Pontardulais Paraffin Gang. This is an account of that gang; it can be seen as a part of the social history of one family, though it might also be of interest as a brief footnote in the economic history of a thriving industrial community.

 It is also a story of a family business pockmarked with early, and sometimes tragic, deaths. It begins in Llanelli, takes in Cardiganshire, Northumberland, Yorkshire, and then Illinois, before finishing up in Vancouver with a tale about a man and his coffins, the 1948 Eisteddfod chair and the vexed question about who really owns Manhattan. Not to mention rugby legend Cliff Morgan and TV’s Martyn Lewis, as well as the bankrupt local businessman who ended up masquerading as a Wing Commander – and went to prison for it.

 But at the heart of the story is Pontardulais, known always just as the Bont, a village/town some eight miles west of Swansea that sits sniffily at the end of the M4, just before Pont Abraham services. For more on its history, go to Wikipedia and, afterwards, for a good deal more, try the following website:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/southwest/sites/pontarddulais/pages/history_2.shtml

 But the Gang’s story, of course, is also about a substance called paraffin (aka kerosene). Its manufacture and industrial uses, as well as its recreational use in events such as fire-breathing, are described well enough on Wikipedia.

 It was an essential commodity in most households until the late 1950s, especially in rural areas. It was used by many to heat and light their homes, as well as for cooking. But its days were numbered and in time it was gradually replaced by electricity and mains gas, as it itself had earlier replaced coal in many homes.

 Paraffin had been been on sale in the Bont since at least the latter half of the 19th century. It was sold by ironmongers, and sometimes by grocers, as it was by Anne Williams, who in 1901 had a shop on Bolgoed Street. Then, a few years later, an Oakfield Street man, Elias Thomas, set up in business as an oil dealer. Later, the firm became known as Thomas Brothers the Oil and it became a major supplier of paraffin and hardware in the area.

 Elias and his wife, Anne, had been born and brought up in Llanelli, as had their parents before them. When Elias was 11, he was working in a local tinplate works as a scrapboy, and living with his parents at 2, Dafen Row, Llanelli. At the time of the 1881 census, he was a rollerman in the tinplate works, and had moved to 9, Tynybonau in the Bont, with Anne, whom he had married in 1876, and their two young children.

  By 1891, the family were in Oakfield Street, and Elias, now 41, was still working as a rollerman, with a family of eight children to support. But it was a young man’s job and ten years later, at the 1901 census, he was in reduced circumstances, working as a labourer in the tinworks. Four of his sons were also in the tinplate works with him – William John and David Isaac were behinders, Richard Morris worked on the cold roll and Edward Daniel was a striker (blacksmith).[i] For an explanation of these tinplating jobs, such as behinder, doubler and rollerman, go to http://www.kidwellyindustrialmuseum.co.uk/tinplate.asp   

 A few years later, Elias started selling oil to the colliers for use in their lamps. Come the 1911 census, the embryonic Thomas Brothers was now in business at 9, Oakfield Street (later re-numbered as 22), with Elias listed as an oil dealer, helped by his son Arthur who was an oil hawker. The other children still at home were my grandfather David Isaac, now a furnaceman in the tinworks, Morris working there as a brickman, Edgar, a boot repairer and Maria Catherine, a dressmaker, and always known as May.

 

 

1911 census

 

 

 

 

 

9, (22) Oakfield Street

Pontardulais

 

 

 

THOMAS, Elias

Head

Married

M

62

1849

Oil Dealer

Carmarthen Llanelly

 

 

THOMAS, Ann

Wife

Married
35 years

F

60

1851

 

Carmarthen Llanelly

 

THOMAS, Dd Isaac

Son

Single

M

26

1885

Tinworker - Furnaceman

Carmarthen Hendy

 

 

THOMAS, Morris

Son

Single

M

24

1887

Brickman - Mixer

Carmarthen Hendy

 

 

THOMAS, Arthur

Son

Single

M

22

1889

Hawker - Oil

Carmarthen Hendy

 

 

THOMAS, Edgar

Son

Single

M

20

1891

Boot Repairer

Glamorgan Pontardulais

 

 

THOMAS, May

Daughter

Single

F

18

1893

Dressmaker

Glamorgan Pontardulais

 

 

 

 In the years since the 1901 census, Elias had been shrewd enough to capitalise on the changes happening in the Bont. He would have seen for himself the new people moving in - between 1901 and 1921, the population doubled to some 12,000. New houses were being built for them, and paraffin could compete with gas to provide heating and lighting.[ii] And perhaps Elias thought the omens were good when, in 1902, the Valor brand of paraffin heaters was launched. 

 The move into selling oil door-to-door, and not just from a shop, was essential. Many people would have been unable to carry a can of paraffin home from a shop, or been reluctant to do so. Hawking oil was the obvious answer. Elias’ son, Arthur, took up the job, going round the streets ringing his handbell to attract customers. But in 1915, he died, just twenty-six years old. It seems that at around this point, David Isaac and Richard Morris left the tinplate works, and moved into oil with their father, though they might well have stayed in the works until 1919 in order to avoid conscription. Certainly, by Elias’ death in 1924, David Isaac had entered the business because he was described as a hawker in the Probate papers (which listed Elias’ real and personal estate at £819).

 The business was established as Thomas Brothers Oils Ltd, with Morris and David Isaac as the active partners selling the oil house-to-house, together with Edward Daniel who was largely a sleeping partner, turning up on leave from police duties to help out with repairs and maintenance. The business was still based at  22, Oakfield Street, where the front downstairs was a shop, selling paraffin and a range of household goods such as paint, parazone, wallpaper etc. The horses and carts that took these goods around the Bont, and to neighbouring farms, were kept in the large yard at the rear of the house. Here, too, was the Thomas Brothers office, as well as the storage sheds where items such as parazone were bottled from large carboys that were encased in straw.

 It appears that Morris and David Isaac had little or no competition at this time; Kelly’s 1926 directory lists the Thomases as the only oil merchants in the Bont. But would it continue to be a viable business? Although mains gas and electricity could be expected to make inroads, there would still be a demand for paraffin. It was cheaper, and many homes that had gas and electricity kept their paraffin heaters in case of interruptions in supply (electricity) or a fall in quality (gas).

 Coal was cheaply available in and around the Bont, and free to the colliers, but families getting up to start an early shift welcomed an instant source of heat, such as paraffin. For many women, paraffin heaters in the home eased their burden of domestic drudgery. And whilst keeping coal fires going throughout the day in winter could be economical, paraffin heaters were much cheaper to run at other times of the year when just short bursts of heat were required. 

 Public buildings such as village and church halls still generally used paraffin heaters, as did a good number of shops. What’s more, homes in rural areas and in small villages still had only paraffin for heat and lighting. Paraffin cookers with ovens also became more available during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Many were still in daily use in the 1950s. They were cheap to buy and run, and homes in rural areas now had, for the first time, a heat source for cooking that they could control and adjust.                                  

 So when the American company, Aladdin Industries, opened up in Greenford in 1919 to feed the UK demand for paraffin lamps and heaters, many would have thought that the Thomas Brothers’ future was rosy, even pink.         

 On the domestic side, Edgar and May stayed on at 22, Oakfield Street, whilst Morris and his family lived at no. 10, before moving to Upper Mill. Edgar became manager of the Co-op shoe shop on St Teilo Street. Later, his three brothers gave him shares in the business and a job in the office. Thomas Brothers was now a partnership of four.

 David Isaac, his wife Tabitha and their three children lived at 11, Oakfield, and ran the oil and hardware shop at 68, St Teilo Street, on the corner with New Road, which had taken the place of the one at 22, Oakfield Street.

 By the end of the 1930s, the business operated three delivery lorries and two horse and carts. The lorries considerably expanded the area around Pontardulais that could be served, including Cross Hands, Tumble, Llangennech and Penllegaer.

 But it wasn’t just to be an interest of the brothers. Their sister, May, and her husband Jack Evans, opened up a second shop on St Teilo Street, on the corner with Cambrian Place, which was later run by Morris’ daughter, Vera, and her husband Eifion Jones. Both shops sold similar items: domestic hardware such as china, cleaning materials, paints, wallpaper and galvanised goods. But the Cambrian Place shop tended more to specialise in “fancy goods”, such as ornaments, cutlery and glass and giftware. It was generally known as the Gift Shop.

 Nevertheless, there was still an element of competition between the two shops, which was inevitably mixed up with sister-in-law tensions between Tabitha and May. There was also  competition from other shops in the Bont; from White’s the ironmongers, for example, and from the wallpaper and decorating shop of Alf and Bal Williams, which was only a few doors down from  the shop at no. 68.

 Alf and Bal were cousins and were both related to Dylan Thomas, who also had a number of other relatives in the Bont. There’s a lot more on his associations with the Bont at  https://sites.google.com/site/dylanthomaspontardulais

  David Isaac Thomas died on July 22 1948 on the operating table at Swansea hospital, just 63 years old, and it made the front page of the Llwchwr Gazette, as it announced the “Death of Well-Known Businessman”. His son, Gwynne Thomas, took over his oil rounds and the shop.

A year later, Morris Thomas became ill and his son-in-law, Eifion Jones, took over his rounds, although his heart had been set on entering the Church.

 Morris died in 1951. Two years later, Edgar Thomas decided it was time to divide the business. Eifion and Vera Jones bought up Morris’ oil rounds and their firm was known as Thomas and Company; a few years later, they also took on May and Jack’s shop.

 Gwynne and his wife Kathleen continued with the oil rounds and the shop at No. 68 that had been David Isaac’s responsibility until his death, and that business continued as Thomas Bros Oils Ltd. 

 By now, the volume of sales had contracted, partly because war-time restrictions on the purchase of paraffin were still in place, and remained so into the early 1950s. On the other hand, there were new opportunities, including the council housing estates in the area that had been built in the period after WW2, some of which were remote from the gas main.

 Thomas Bros largely sold Esso Blue but national television advertising campaigns for Shell/BP’s Aladdin (“Ring for Pink”) helped to boost local sales of all brands:

I've got a cold house/ Why don't you heat it?/ My heater's empty – I think/ Why don't you fill it then?/ I'm out of paraffin/ Here's the answer then, ring for Pink/ Can I afford it?/Most economical! Only one penny, per hour/ Now can you tell me, who will deliver it? Ring this number, right now

There was still a lot going for paraffin, not least that it was much cheaper than gas or electricity. There was also a good deal of worry in the Bont about the safety of gas, after a leak in November 1947 killed the Gopa chapel minister in his sleep, and his wife as well.  

 On the downside, electricity was being promoted as cleaner than either gas or paraffin; there were also worries about health (paraffin produced large amounts of water vapour) and safety (in a draught, the heaters could flare up and start a fire).

 With an uncertain future for paraffin, and even for the notion of delivered goods, diversification was needed and so part of the shop at 68, St Teilo Street became a lending library.

 Gwynne Thomas also bought a tanker, and built huge storage tanks in Harries’ yard behind 11, Oakfield Street so that he could deliver TVO (tractor vapourising oil) to the farms in the area. Gwynne also rented the out-buildings of the Wheatsheaf pub, which he used to bottle parazone.

 Gwynne’s drivers would pick up their leather cash bag each morning with the day’s float. After stocking up with goods and parazone, they would head off on the day’s round, still using a handbell to alert customers that they were in the street. Each evening, they would return to 68, St Teilo Street to have the day’s takings counted.

 The business was also assisted by voluntary labour: Gwynne’s mother, Tabitha, often helped out in the shop, whilst his sons were largely responsible, in the late 1950s, for bottling up the parazone, siphoning it from the carboys with a long rubber tube. They also helped out on the Saturday delivery rounds.

 Nationally, television and newspaper advertising continued apace in an attempt to halt the slowdown in paraffin sales. Esso Blue’s popular TV adverts featured Joe, the tongue-tied Esso Blue paraffin salesman, who called himself the 'Esso Blee Dooler'. Joe was created in 1958, but he came too late to save Gwynne Thomas’ ailing business. 

 He was not a natural businessman; he was both careless and extravagant with money and too generous with customers who owed it. Profit margins were thin: there were two employees to pay, rents to the Wheatsheaf and Mr Harries, as well as bank loans to pay off. Gwynne Thomas was was also a dab hand at drinking away the takings in the Wheatsheaf, in Evan and Mair Delbridge’s back kitchen. Above all, he spent too much time on politics.

 His ambitions can be charted through the pages of the Llwchwr Gazette. By 1947, he was already a secretary of one of the Labour Party’s Divisional Committees and was chosen in that year to second the vote of  thanks at the celebration, in the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea, of D. J. Grenfell’s twenty-five years as an MP.

 The following year, Gwynne was presiding over meetings of the Pontardulais Trade and Labour Council. He was elected a district councillor in April 1948 and the following month he was warden of the WEA summer school, and was instrumental in setting up the Pontardulais WEA Centre. In 1949, when he was just twenty-nine years old, he became acting chair of the district council’s Housing and Estates Committee.

 He continued to be heavily involved in the Labour Party, and was spending less and less time on the business, as well as with his family. He was also spending more and more money: cars were bought, and expensive holidays taken, Sunday lunches booked at country hotels, the best rooms reserved at Party conferences, the oldest malts bought for Nye and Jenny.

 Other factors inevitably intruded: he had at least one affair, and Kathleen retaliated with one of her own. She decided to leave, and take her two children to America to join her parents, a plan that was soon dropped. None of this helped the business, nor did the discovery that the van driver had been siphoning off money from the takings.

 Gwynne clung to his dreams that politics not paraffin were his future. He still nourished his hopes that he might succeed David Grenfell as the Gower constituency MP. He was bitterly disappointed when Ifor Davies took over the seat in 1959, and this was the point at which his own life went badly downhill. Just a year later, political disappointment was followed by commercial failure as his business went bankrupt.

 In 1960, Gwynne Thomas moved to Baglan, Port Talbot, and did a brief spell in the steelworks before going down with cirrhosis of the liver and starting an affair with a hospital doctor. This was not quite the fresh start that his wife, Kathleen, had expected but she kept the boat afloat, working as an operator at the Neath telephone exchange.

 Three years later, in July 1963, she was killed in a car crash outside Brecon. A young driver coming the other way lost control of his car. Kathleen was thrown out into the road. She was buried in St Teilo’s, Pontardulais. Her bearers included a county councillor and a publican, as if to represent all that had gone wrong with her life in her last years in the Bont.

 In October 1964, Gwynne married again, to Isobel Davies of Gwalia Crescent, Gorseinon. She worked as a secretary in the district council offices there. Chased by creditors, they moved to London and Brighton in the late 1960s, where he masqueraded as a Wing Commander, staying in a number of expensive hotels without paying the bill. It landed them both in prison. On release, the poacher turned gamekeeper: Gwynne’s first job was managing a hotel in Bayswater but it lasted only a few months. They eventually ended up in Butlins in Pwllheli, working in the personnel office, advising staff about drinking, pregnancies and VD.

 When the business at 68, St Teilo Street folded in 1960, Eifion and Vera bought up Gwynne’s oil rounds, and added them to their own. The shop closed. It was the beginning of the end for Thomas Brothers: May died in 1970 and Edgar in 1973 and 22, Oakfield Street was eventually sold. Eifion and Vera carried on with the Cambrian Place shop and their oil rounds until Eifion started theological training at Llandaff College. The shop and rounds were then sold in 1983 and Eifion took up the post of curate at Llanbadarn Fawr. A year later, Vera died from cancer.  

The Thomas oil business had lasted for a major part of the twentieth century. But how did it begin? In truth, there was no single beginning, just several stories. Here are some of them.

 From Tinplate to Oil: Elias' Story

 Elias and Anne Thomas had nine children. The profile of their seven sons reveals both musical talent as well as the wish to ‘get on’ in life; all seven moved out of heavy manual work into the professions and/or retail:

 

  1. Thomas 1878-1951 m. Margaret Roderick. Thomas was born in the Bont, where he played the organ at Hope chapel and was a friend of Dr David Vaughan Thomas. After his marriage in 1899, he and Margaret lived in Ammanford. He was a railway signalman but later became a full-time professional pianist and musical director at the Picture Coliseum, Ammanford, and then at the Palace Theatre and Poole’s Picturedrome. He was also the organist at Watcyn Wyn’s Gwynfryn Chapel. There were four children: William Elias, David Evan (chief geologist, Tasmanian govt.), Percy Roderick (non-conformist minister) and Eddie, who used to work for Thomas Bros but after a quarrel left to set up his own oil business in Ammanford. [Margaret Roderick’s parents were William and Margaret Roderick (b.1824 and 1839 respect.), who died in Ammanford in 1904 and 1914. Their parents and grandparents came from the Llandovery/Talley/ Cilycwm area.] 
  2. Alice 1879-1962 m. William James. Seven children, including Bessie (a nurse), Elwyn, Haydn (a prison officer), Ronnie, Arthur and Alice, known as Lala, who married Arthur Thomas, a nephew of rugby international Cliff Morgan. 
  3. William John 1881-1954 m. Mary Hopkins. A behinder in the tinplate works in 1901 in the Bont and then a draper in Aberystwyth. One daughter, Joan, a doctor.  
  4. Edward Daniel 1883-1958. m. Hester Lewis. A striker in the tinplate works in 1901, and then a policeman, rising to Inspector by 1924. A partner in Thomas Bros. Lived in Swansea. Five children: Marion (a nurse), John /Jack (a police superindentent in Bradford), Gwyneth, Gwilym (inspector, Scotland Yard, Special Branch) and Ellis, a civil engineer. Martyn Lewis, the former television newsreader, is related to this part of the family, through Hester/Hettie Lewis . 
  5. David Isaac, 1885-1948 m. Tabitha Nicholas, 1893-1989. He was a behinder and furnaceman in the tinplate works (1901 and 1911), then an oil roundsman and shopkeeper, and a partner in Thomas Bros. He was District Officer of a friendly society, The Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds, and distributed benefits from his home at 11, Oakfield Street in the Bont – he had held the post for 34 years. Active in the Chamber of Trade and the Conservative Club. Played the piano but only at home. Three children, Gwynne, Nancy and Margaret.  
  6. Richard Morris 1886-1951. m. Elizabeth Anne France (Lizzie) of Aberystwyth in 1913, daughter of Catherine Stephens and Hiram France – for more on Lizzie see the following Note.[iii] Morris and Lizzie lived in Oakfield Street and ‘Riverside’, Upper Mill. Morris worked in the tinplate works on the cold roll in 1901, and as a brickman at 1911, then an oil roundsman and partner in Thomas Bros. Bought and rented out property, such as 38, Glanyrafon Road. Played the organ at St Teilo’s church. He also played in a dance band to make money. Five children: three who died as infants, Arthur who died as a young boy with appendicitis, and Vera, b.1923, who married Eifion Jones of the Hendy, the son of Sarah Ann and David John Jones, a tinplate worker. Eifion and Vera’s  daughter, Christine, married Ralph Manly. Vera died in 1984 from cancer, at the young age of 61. Eifion later married Beryl Roderick-Jones (nee Davies) of the Fforest. 
  7. Arthur Joseph 1889-1915. Oil Hawker. Died of TB, age 26. 
  8.  Edgar 1890-1970 unmarried. A boot repairer, then manager of the Coop shoe shop in the Bont. He left to work in the Thomas Bros office, also a partner in the business. He, too, played the piano in a dance band. Edgar also bought and rented out properties in the Bont such as 36, Oakfield and Cheriton, up near the Fountain. He maintained a 35-year engagement to a teacher, Annie Davies of Merthyr Tydfil and he travelled every weekend to see her. They were still engaged at her death. Lived at 22, Oakfield Street with his sister, May, and her husband, Jack.    
  9. Maria Catherine (May) 1892-1970 m. John Jenkin Evans of Aberaeron in 1932. ‘Jack’ Evans came to the Bont with a group of Aberaeron men to work in Clayton tinplate works; he later worked as a driver for Thomas Bros. He died in 1963. They lived in Pontardulais, at 22, Oakfield Street. No children.   Jack Evans was the grandson of Jane and John Jones, a bookseller of 33, Alban Square, Aberaeron. John Jones was famous for his music teaching and in 1907 he was presented with a cheque for a £100 in recognition  of his services to musical education. He was also choir master at Holy Trinity church in the town. He died in 1923, aged 92. It’s said that over  1000 mourners gathered in the Square Field. Jack was also the brother-in-law of J. A. W. Hubbard, coal merchant and haulier of Aberaeron and also related through Hubbard to Tommy Herbert, the Aberaeron vet, and a friend of the poet, Dylan Thomas. See the following Note for more on all this.[iv]

 Rooted in Glamorganshire they were, but the Oakfield Street Clan thus had an important “Cardiganshire connection”. Not only had May married an Aberaeron man, but her brother Morris had married a woman from Aberystwyth. Another brother, William John, opened up a draper’s shop in Aberystwyth. The route from Pontardulais to the Cardiganshire coast was well-worn by the Thomas families and their children, up until the late 1950s. Likewise, Jack Evans’ niece, Beryl Hubbard of Aberaeron, spent many of her school holidays staying with May, Jack and Edgar in Oakfield Street. She is still in touch today (2010) with David Isaac’s daughter, Margaret, and his grandson, David, who himself lives in Ciliau Aeron, a few miles up river from Aberaeron.

On Boxing Day, 1914, Elias and Anne Thomas felt sufficiently optimistic to come together with their children for a group photograph - see the photo gallery; only Morris seems to show any signs of doubt and anxiety. His face is troubled, as he seems to stare away into the future. Behind him, his brother Arthur is just a few months from death, as is his mother Anne – they both died in 1915. There was yet more to come for Morris: three of his children died as infants, and his son, also named Arthur, died at 11 in 1928.  

  From Coal to Oil: Tabitha’s Story

 Tabitha, like May, was a formidable presence within the family and within Thomas Bros as a whole. She was born in 1893 in Gorseinon, the daughter of John and Margaret Nicholas. Her story seems to start in the soil of Llanon and Llanedi but it moves quickly underground to coal and then back again to the topsoil of Gorseinon: her two grandfathers were colliers, as was her father, but in later life he also ran a smallholding and a shop.

 David and Sarah Edwards, Llanedi,                          David and Margaret Williams, farmer    

    ↓                                                                                     ↓

 Isaac Edwards, Llanedi,     married 13.7.1847       Sarah Williams b.1824

       ↓                                                                       ↓

 Margaret b.1848 m. 1868 Henry Thomas          Thomas (Vancouver)         and eight others[v]

      ↓                                

 Margaret b.1868 m.1893 John Nicholas, a collier from the Rhondda, and the son of a collier.

     ↓                                                                      

Tabitha b.1893 m 1918 David Isaac Thomas       Ceinwen  Elvina     Idwal     Sarah       Lucy

 

Highlight = siblings. All the above taken from birth and marriage certificates, and census returns.

 So what do we know of these people?

 David and Margaret Williams nee Evan, b.1782 and 1781, married on December 30 1805. They farmed Tirbach, and had at least ten children.  

 David and Sarah Edwards. David was born in Llanfynydd in 1788. They were married on December 11 1810.

 Isaac and Sarah Edwards, b.1820 and 1824. According to the census, he was born in Llanfynydd. At the time of his marriage to Sarah in 1847, he was a labourer, living at Cwmgellisilved, Llanedi. Just a few months later (November 14 1847) at the birth of their daughter, Margaret, he gave his occupation as Farmer, and the 1851 census has him farming thirteen acres at Castell Whudd (?), Llanon. From 1861 onwards, they were in Llanedi, at “Greynor”, farming 56 acres.

 When their son Thomas was born in October 1862, Isaac was a farmer at Greynor Ucha farm, Llanedi. But from 1871 onwards, the name of their farm was given as Greynor Isaf.

 Margaret Edwards. On February 15 1868, she married Henry Thomas in Penyrheol, Gorseinion. He had been born in Llandeilo Talybont in 1846, and she in 1848. Henry was a labourer at the time of the marriage, and he was the son of John Thomas, also a labourer. By the birth of their daughter Margaret Thomas, on March 4 1868 at Penyrheol, he was a collier, as he still was in 1881. Margaret and Henry had four other children besides Margaret: Edgar, John, William and Sarah.

 Margaret Thomas. Born in 1868, she married John Nicholas in 1891, a collier who had been born in Treorchy in 1867. He was the son of Edward Nicholas b.1837 in Llanfabon, Treharris, also a collier, and his wife Elizabeth. At the 1881 census, Edward and family were living in Ystradyfodwg (the Rhondda), with John and two other children, Richard, a collier, and Keturah, their daughter.

 At the 1901 and 1911 censuses, Margaret and John Nicholas were living at Frampton Road in Gorseinon. John, now 42, was still a collier but he and Margaret were also running a smallholding, as well as a shop in the front room of their house – by 1914, Kelly’s trade directory was listing John as a shopkeeper, as they were Elias Thomas in the Bont. Four years later, the families would be joined in marriage.

 John and Margaret Nicholas had eight children:

  • Tabitha b.1893.  
  • Idwal b1895 m. (1) Rosie Rees and had Keri who married Eileen (2) Gladys and had Byron.
  • Elvina 1899-1916
  • Ceinwen b1900, single, no children, a nurse.
  • Sarah 1903-1929.  
  • Lucy b.1908, m. Emrys, and had Anne b.1944. Emrys worked in Trostre steelworks, Llanelli.  
  • two infants who died at six months

 Tabitha won a county scholarship to Gowerton Girls Grammar School - she came second in the competition but was the first girl. Tragically, she was withdrawn from the school to help out in the Frampton Road shop. At the 1911 census, she was aged 18, not at work yet, and still living with her parents and five siblings.

 Sometime after, she started as a shop assistant in White Bros, the ironmongers, in Pontardulais and also went into service for the White family at their house on the upper part of Caecerrig Road. This was probably when she met David Isaac Thomas, perhaps when he called at the house with his horse and cart to deliver oil.

 On April 6 1918, Tabitha and David Isaac were married and had three children, Gwynne, Nancy and Margaret:

 Gwynne, 1920-1988, went to Gowerton Grammar, though he actually spent more time at Tass Harries’ billiard rooms, from where he graduated with honours. He served in the RAF during WW2 as a mess steward at the Service Flying Training School in Medicine Hat, Canada. It gave him the chance to spend time with his Greynor relatives in Vancouver, Thomas Edwards and his family.

 In 1944, Gwynne married Kathleen Briggs, and they moved into the top end of Oakfield Street, before moving to 38, Glanyrafon Road. After Kathleen’s death in 1963, he married Isobel Davies of Gorseinon. They lived in Gorseinon, Llangefni, Menai bridge and Bangor, where Gwynne died in 1988 from two alcohol-related diseases, cirrhosis and pancreatitis, with bowel cancer thrown in for good measure. Isobel died a few years later.

 Nancy, 1922-2000, attended Gwendraeth and Gowerton Grammar schools. She worked in Bowen Rees the chemist in Pontardulais, and then did a pharmacy course at the Apothecary Hall in Cardiff. She returned to the Bont to work in a doctor’s surgery. She married Doug Roberts, the youngest son of Arthur Roberts and Agnes Bessent of Llanelli – see the following Note.[vi]  Nancy and Doug moved to Margam and Baglan, Port Talbot, where Doug worked in the offices of the steelworks and Nancy as a dental nurse. Doug was a long-standing member of the town’s male voice choir, as well as the operatic society. After retirement, he performed locally as a compere and comedian.

 Margaret b.1926. After Gowerton Grammar, she trained at Barry Teachers’ Training College. She then worked as a teacher and Headteacher. She married another teacher, Roy Barton, the son of Kathleen Barton and Tom Lamb – see the following Note.[vii] Roy also became a Headteacher and later worked as a statistician for a firm of City commodity brokers. Margaret and Roy lived in Hornchurch, Corby, Germany, Harlow, Reading and Burghfield Common.

 Nancy and Margaret were never really involved in the running of Thomas Bros, not least because they had moved away from the Bont. But in the dying days of the business, they each contributed a sizeable sum of money to help keep their brother in business.

 Nancy m. Doug Roberts.    Gwynne  m. Kathleen Briggs.    Margaret m. Roy Barton

          ↓                                              ↓                                              ↓

   Kay.....Mark             David Nicholas.....Kitson Nicholas         Jennifer.........Simon

   ................. = siblings

 

  • David Nicholas married (1) Elizabeth Ellis, daughter of Stuart and Margaret Ellis of Penarth and had Daniel and Siân.  (2) Stephanie Krayer, daughter of Gus and Rene Krayer of Gant’s Hill, Essex.   Daniel married Wendy Hayes, and had Daisy Miranda and Florence Lily.    Siân married Peter Hurst and had Seren Berry and Rosie Celyn.
  • Kitson Nicholas b. December 29 1947 d. 1992, aged just 45, as a result of a lifetime of alcohol abuse that had begun after his mother’s death. He worked as a labourer in the Port Talbot steelworks, then as an able seaman in the navy, until invalidated out. He married Betty May Smith, who ran the Britton Farmhouse pub in Gillingham. They later worked as stewards in a club in the south-east. Their daughter, Catherine, married Malcolm Alan Sargent and had Callum James. After his short marriage to Betty, Kit went to live in Bangor near his father, where he remained until his death, spending much of the last years of his life in a wheelchair.
  •  Kay, married (1) David Stevens and had Jeremy. (2) Tom Wyatt
  • Mark, who died as a baby
  • Jennifer, married Eddie Cheng and had Oliver, Joanna and Alexandra 
  • Simon, married Susan Grogan and had Timothy, Amanda and Jonathan

From Soil to Coffins: Thomas Edwards’ Story

 Thomas Edwards was born in 1862 at Greynor Uchaf, the son of Isaac and Sarah Edwards – see above. As a young man, he decided to emigrate to Canada. He worked as a carpenter in Vancouver, but also bought land and built houses for sale. He moved into undertaking, opening several funeral parlours across the city, becoming a wealthy man in the process. Googling him brings up a number of websites that describe his charitable work and his contribution to the Welsh society in Vancouver.

 On June 27 1898, Thomas married Margaret Davies 1864-1951, who was from Llangyfelach.They had five children:  

  1. Sarah Jane b.1899, who married Alexander Hutchison. Their daughter, Anne Bosch b.1931, is still in touch today (2010)
  2. Isaac, later John, b.1900 married Annabel Mckenzie and had Suzanne .
  3. Ethel who married Cecil Budd and had Gillian, Jennifer and Sinclair
  4. Mary who married John Braim and had Margaret
  5. Majory who married John McDonald and had Wendy and Barbara

 Gwynne Thomas the Oil visited the family in late 1941, on leave from his posting at Medicine Hat. He stayed for thirteen days, and told them he was training to be a pilot. His mother’s grandmother, Margaret, was Thomas Edwards’ sister, and in her letter of thanks to him for his hospitality to Gwynne, Tabitha recalled Thomas’ own letters to her mother and grandmother written about his early years in Vancouver: “I can well remember the very special privilege granted to me to read them. This invariably was on a wet day, when she gave me permission to go upstairs to open her trunk and dive down the bottom to get the letters.”

 Thomas had always been interested in the “Manhattan claim” of various Edwards families. He is thought to have contributed to a number of the early legal investigations into whether the descendents of an 18th C. Welsh pirate, Robert Edwards, are the rightful owners of Manhattan.

 Thomas Edwards last visited Wales in 1948 to present the bardic chair to the Bridgend National Eisteddod; the chair had been paid for by the Welsh community in Vancouver, and Thomas also contributed to the prize money. He arrived at Swansea railway station on July 22, the day that David Isaac Thomas died.

 Thomas’ granddaughter, Anne aged 17, was with him and her diary for September 1948 records visits to Greynor and to a farm in Pantyfynnon, as well as to Pontardulais relatives. Anne stayed  a day and a night in 11, Oakfield Street with Tabitha; presciently, the diary notes the seeds of the collapse of the oil business:

 “After tea, Gwynne got going on politics...and I came away with five books on British

            Govt., including 2 Hansards.”

 From Coal to Oil: Kathleen’s Story

 

 

 Kathleen Mary Briggs married Gwynne Thomas the Oil on April 4 1944 in Cardiff. They had met late in the war, presumably at the St Athans air base, just outside Cardiff. She would prove to be another woman who would keep Thomas Bros going. She ran the shop at 68, St Teilo Street, organised the float for the van driver in the morning and counted the takings in the evening, as well as running the house and bringing up two children. Annual stock-taking was usually her responsibility, as was ordering goods. She was, said a sister-in-law, a strong woman and, as events turned out, she needed to be.

 But to begin with, some in the Bont would have wondered how this English girl from Northumberland with the soft Geordie accent would settle in a town of tinplaters and colliers. But she, too, was all metal and coal. Her father, James Briggs, had been an iron and steel merchant in his younger days, taking over a business run by his father before him. Kathleen had also been brought up close to the mining communities of Northumberland

Jane Robinson Scott: Kathleen’s mother’s family

 This was definitely the coaling side of her family: Kathleen’s maternal grandfather, and his father before him, were coal merchants, whilst her other maternal great-grandfather had been a collier.

 Robert b.1841 and Mary Nuttall b.1842                John b.1835 and Jane Scott b.1837

coal miner                                                               publican and coal merchant

 ↓                                                                                       ↓                                 

Mary Nuttall b.1875     married  1896           Alexander Scott b.1862, coal merchant

  ↓                                                    ↓                                              ↓             

John Scott b.1897                  Jane Robinson Scott b.1899          Alexander Scott b.1900  

 

Jane Robinson Scott   married December 1919    James Kitson Briggs b.1893

         ↓                                                           ↓                       ↓

  Kathleen Mary Briggs        plus                Muriel    and         John       

b. June 11 1922 in Whitley Bay                       

 

At the 1881 census, Robert and Mary Nuttall were living with their daughter Mary and five siblings in Chapel Row, Bedlington, Northumberland. Not only was Robert a collier, but so were two of his sons. He was still working in the mines ten years later, but he was now in the extensive coalfields of Cowpen, Blyth.

 There was more prosperity on the other side of the family tree. John and Jane Scott were living in Apple Tree Cottage, Jesmond in 1881. He had six men in employment in his coal business, and was running a pub as well. By 1901, their son Alexander was running the business, and it was a growing concern, so much so that by 1910 it was listed in trade directories as having four telephone lines. Alexander and Mary were living in Newcastle, with their three children, as well as one of the Nuttall family working as a servant. 

 By 1911, Alexander and family had moved out to the seaside suburbs of Whitley Bay (40, North Parade) and it was to Whitley Bay that their granddaughter, Kathleen, and her children went on summer holidays from the Bont, spending much of their time on the rides in the Spanish City fairground.

 The coal business seems then to have been run by Mary and Alexander’s son, John, who was Kathleen’s uncle. It was incorporated as a company in 1935, and moved into haulage as well as coal, and became established as John Scott and Sons (Coal Merchants and Hauliers) Ltd, Newcastle on Tyne, with premises at various dates in New Bridge Street, Oxford Street, Stepney Lane, Grantham Road, St Anne's Yard, Beamish Street and Albany Court in Monarch Road. It finished trading in 1995.

 James Kitson Briggs: Kathleen’s father’s family

 If Kathleen’s maternal family were Newcastle, then her father’s side were very much Leeds, specifically Hunslet, and the men worked in glass, metal and railways. There were no family holidays in Hunslet for Kathleen and her children in the 1950s!

                                                                                     Thomas b.1795 and Mary Kitson b.1796

                                                                                     farmer, 5 acres        

                                                                                                 ↓                                                                                                                          

 Benjamin b.1815 and Rebecca Briggs b.1818           Thomas b.1833 and Eliza Kitson b.1833

Crown glass blower >>watchman                               locomotive engine maker>> enginesmith

      ↓                                                                                     ↓

Benjamin Briggs b.1852            married 1875           Christiana Kitson b.1855

forgeman >>metal broker

          ↓

James Kitson Briggs b.1893 in Hunslet, married Jane Robinson Scott b.1899

              ↓                                                                                                

Kathleen Mary Briggs b.1922   married Gwynne Nicholas Thomas b.1920                                 

 

Ben and Rebecca Briggs lived in Mushroom Place, Hunslet and then, by 1861, in 3, Maltby Place. Their son, Benjamin, went into the metal industries, as did three of his brothers, and he remained in Hunslet after his marriage to Christiana, living in 8, Maltby Place and then, by 1901 and until at least 1923, in 6, Bessbrook Street, right next to the railway lines.

 Thomas and Mary Kitson were in Tolson Street, Leeds, in 1851, when their son Thomas was a locomotive engine maker.

 By 1861, Thomas was in 1, Dewsbury Road, Hunslet, with his wife, Eliza, and he was now an enginesmith (he was blind at the 1881 census and unemployed, living at 21, Milner Grove). Their daughter, Christiana, married Benjamin Briggs.

 Christiana and Benjamin’s son, ‘Jim’ Kitson Briggs, described himself as an iron and steel merchant on his marriage certificate in 1919 but for much of his life he wandered from job to job and place to place. The first move came quickly. Just eight months after his daughter, Kathleen, was born, Jim sailed for America on the SS Carmania, bound for New York, where he arrived on February 13 1923. He then set off for Bloomington, Illinois, where his sister Ethel Green and her husband Harry lived. He got a job as a labourer and by April, he was applying for citizenship.[viii]

 Jim was joined in September by Jane and Kathleen, who left Southampton with 1,326 other passengers on the Berengaria, with their fares paid by Jane’s father, Alexander. Assuring immigration officials that they were not polygamists or anarchists, and had no intention of using force to overthrow the US government, they set off for Illinois in search of Jim. But this was not a good time to be in America; the country had only just emerged from the recession of 1920-21, unemployment was high and the Great Depression was around the corner. Immigrant workers like Jim were not welcome, as the country still struggled to find jobs for the troops who had come home from the 1914-19 war. 

 By 1930, they were back in Tynemouth, where their second daughter, Muriel, was born. Then came John, born in Haltwhistle, yet another change of scenery. “They moved twenty times in thirty years of marriage”, was a comment often heard in the wider family. They ran the Drunken Duck in Ambleside, and then moved to a nearby farm, and bred boxer dogs. Their  final move was back to America in the late 1940s, taking their two children, Muriel and John, with them to Seal Beach in California.

 In 1963, Jane and Jim decided to return home to the UK. As they were crossing the Atlantic on the SS Himalaya, they were called to the Captain’s quarters, where they were told that their daughter, Kathleen, had been killed. They did not reach Pontardulais in time for the funeral.

 They returned to California. After Jim’s death in the 1960s, Jane married again, to an American veteran who, it was said, was the only surviving serviceman to have served in four American wars: the Spanish-American, WW1, WW2 and Korea. Muriel married a submariner who died in his submarine off the coast of Japan. She then married a soldier and settled in Carolina. John became a doctor in California and married Ginette (?) and had two daughters.

  

  Notes

 [i]

 

1901 Census

 

THOMAS, Elias

Head

Married

M

51

1850

Labourer In Tin Works

Llanelly
Carmarthenshire

 

 

THOMAS, Ann

Wife

Married

F

50

1851

 

Llanelly
Carmarthenshire

 

 

THOMAS, Alice

Daughter

Single

F

21

1880

 

Pontardulais
Glamorganshire

 

 

THOMAS, William J

Son

Single

M

19

1882

Tin Plater (Behinder)

Pontardulais
Glamorganshire

 

 

THOMAS, Edward D

Son

Single

M

18

1883

Striker (Blacksmith)

Llanedy
Carmarthenshire

 

 

THOMAS, David J

Son

Single

M

16

1885

Tin Plater (Behinder)

Llanedy
Carmarthenshire

 

 

THOMAS, Richd M

Son

 

M

14

1887

Tin Plater Cold Roll

Llanedy
Carmarthenshire

 

 

THOMAS, Arthur J

Son

 

M

12

1889

 

Llanedy
Carmarthenshire

 

 

THOMAS, Edgar

Son

 

M

10

1891

 

Pontardulais
Glamorganshire

 

 

THOMAS, Maria C

Daughter

 

F

8

1893

 

Pontardulais
Glamorganshire

 

 

 

 The eldest son, Thomas, had left home by the 1901 census.

 [ii] The Bont gasworks had opened in 1877 and, according to Denver Evans’ history of the Bont, most of the village had gas street lighting by 1896. There was a Pontardulais Gas Company in 1884 and it was still going strong in the 1940s. The Bont  probably got electricity early because of its industry. Kelly's 1895 directory for South Wales says that an electric company was formed in the town in 1894. The fact that gas and electric main lines were being laid soon after these dates does not mean that many homes had them - they would have  supplied businesses first, as well as street lighting.

 Most homes would not have switched to electricity until after the arrival of the national grid in 1933, which started to bring prices down. However, gas was particularly cheap compared to electricity in South Wales, because of the abundant coal supplies, so poorer households might have stuck with gas, and paraffin, for longer. 11, Oakfield Street was wired for electricity in the mid-1930s.

 [iii] Lizzie was born on June 4 1889 in Lancashire, the daughter of Catherine Stephens of Aberystwyth and Hiram France, a stone mason, of Dewsbury. Catherine was the daughter of an Aberystwyth shoemaker, William Stephens and his wife Anne. Her brother, John David Stephens b.1866, entered the Post Office and later became Postmaster in the town. We can see Lizzie’s progress through census returns: in 1901 at the age of 12 she was a domestic servant in Manchester. In 1911, she was in service in Pontardulais, working as a housemaid at Ffosyrefail House, the home of the manager of the chemical works. In between, she lived with her uncle J D Stephens in Aberystwyth and went to the National School there. Hiram died in 1900, and Catherine in 1924. In his later years, J D Stephens lived with Lizzie and her family in Pontardulais.

 [iv] John Jenkin Evans was the grandson of  John Jones b.1833, a bookseller of Alban Square, Aberaeron, and his wife, Jane. John and Jane had nine children: Evan Phillip, John Richard, Daniel, Elizabeth, David, Ann, Jane, Moses Roderick and Kate.

 (a) Jane married Daniel Evans, and had Jonathan, Richard, Aeron, Walter Roderick, Jennie and John Jenkin (who married May Thomas of the Bont). Jennie married J.A.W. Hubbard, haulier and coal merchant. They had several children, including Beryl b.1926 (who married John Lewis) and Victor b. 1925, known widely in Aberaeron as Vic Hubbard.  J.A.W. Hubbard, known as Willie, was a first cousin to Tommy Herbert’s mother, Mildred. Tommy Herbert’s friendship with Dylan Thomas is described in Dylan Thomas: A Farm, Two Mansions and a Bungalow by D N Thomas, Seren, 2000.

 (b) John Richard’s daughter, Jane Anne, was a first cousin to John Jenkin Evans. She married John Cecil Davies; they had a son Keith, who in turn had a son Kevin, who lived in Ciliau Aeron. Both Keith and Kevin ran the Alban Square newsagent’s. 

                                   

     John and Jane Jones had:                            

               

John Richard>>?, Evan Phillip, Daniel, Elizabeth,  Jane>> Daniel Evans, David, Ann, Kate, Roderick

           ↓                                                                      ↓          ↓                

  Jane Anne>> John Cecil Davies       W. Hubbard<<Jennie,     John Jenkin>> May Thomas                                                

              ↓                                                  ↓      ↓

            Keith                                           Beryl, Vic and others

              ↓

           Kevin         

 <<< >>>> =married

                                                                               

The information for this note came from Beryl Lewis nee Hubbard, as well as from census returns.

 [v] The other eight children were: Sarah, Ann, David, William, Mary, John, Henry and Daniel.

 [vi] Arthur James Roberts was the manager of the steelworks in Llanelli. I think, from FreeBMD, that he was born in Swansea in 1878. From the 1881 census, I think that he was the son of David and Emily Roberts, of Clase, Llangyfelach. He was an engine driver in the steelworks, born in Flintshire in 1847. She had been born in Llangyfelach. This can be checked this by getting Arthur’s marriage certificate.

 Arthur married Agnes Bessent (sic) in Swansea in the December quarter, 1900. Agnes was the daughter of Mary b.1852 and George Charles Bessant (sic) b.1850 of New Road, Loughor (1881). He was a “steelman”, born in Gloucester. Mary was born on the Gower in, says the 1891 census, Rhossili. She is identified as Maria Thomas at her marriage to George in Swansea in 1872.  In 1891, they are still in Loughor, and he is described as a Hammerman in the steel trade. He was the son of Jeremiah and Loveday Bessant of Great Badminton, Gloucester; Jeremiah was a blacksmith, as was George at the age of 9 in the 1861 census. (This could be further confirmed by getting George’s birth certificate from Gloucester C.C. registry office, quoting December quarter 1851, Chipping Sodbury, 11, 230, and his parents’ names. His marriage certificate would also give his father’s name: from Swansea registry office, December quarter 1872, 11a, 1117. This should confirm that Maria is indeed the Mary who is George’s wife on the census returns. There is only one marriage for a George Charles Bessant in the whole of the UK from 1837 onwards and it is this one at Swansea in 1872.)

 Arthur and Agnes had Clarissa (Ruby) who ran a craft shop; Mary Louisa (May) who married Rev Sid Morris, vicar of Pontardulais and, later, Gorseinon; Donald, a metal dealer; Sidney George, an architect; Emily (Leigh); Arthur, pensions officer Port Talbot steelworks; and Douglas Wyman, born 1919.

 [vii] Nellie Kathleen Barton b.1893, West Ham, was the daughter of William and Jessie Barton of West Ham. William was a police constable, born in West Ham. Jessie was Jessie Arkley Morrison from Forfar (1891 and 1901 censuses), whose family had moved to London, living in Stoke Newington, where her father was a meat salesman (1881). William and Jessie were married in 1883 in Fulham.

 The full name of Roy Barton’s father, Tom, was Alfred Tom Lamb. He was  born in 1877, the son of Alexander F. Lamb and his wife Theresa, of Leyton. Alexander was a publisher’s printer (1881, 1891 and 1901 censuses) and they had six children. By 1901, Tom Lamb is a printer’s foreman. Tom died, aged 39, when Kathleen was three months pregnant with Roy. She married again, to Wally Saul.