Mary Jones & John Powell, Banwen


Mary Jones (1851-) and John Powell (1853-1893)

Mary Jones married John Powell at the Register Office in Neath on 20th December 1873.  He is recorded resident at Camnant farm, she at Corslwyn-Coch (her father William’s home).     This is not the same residence as the separate, but quite nearby, “Camnant House” as also shown in 1871 for David Jeffreys.   In 1841, the farm was recorded as “Tir Bach y Camnant”, meaning roughly “Little land by the Camnant” – the Camnant is a local stream and tributary of the Neath.

John Powell’s father, Howell, was from Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire and arrived here sometime before 1861.  In 1851 he was at Rhydffossdu (in the locality).    Chris Evans (1977) wrote that “John did not care for the name Tirbach so he changed its name to Camnant after the stream on whose banks it stood”.  However, all the 1851 to 1871 censuses had already simply recorded the name as “Camnant” so perhaps the change had occurred earlier.  Evans goes on to state that John Powell had three sons – David, John and William – who all worked in the Onllwyn Collieries; however the available records do not confirm these children.  Evans also writes that John Powell was “a natural poet and when his brother Howell was killed at his place of employment, he wrote the following poem:

O’i ieuengawl hoen angle hedd-a i dygodd

   O’I degwith i orwedd

Ow y boen ei roi mewn bed.

   Mo ruing mwy yo aimed

Aeth Mowell i dawwldir-I ganu

   Yn gynnar o’i cafur

Niach a’I Delyn uwch ei fod

   O fewn hedd Calfaria

Chwery gerdd uwch ei gur

   Ei orien olaf wiria-ei fod

O fewnhedd yr Iean da

   Yn hollol cadd ei wella”

“From the vigour and tranquility of youth, he was       

    taken to lie

O the pain to place him in a grave

Howell went to a quiet land to sing

Prematurely from his accident.

The harp sounds in the peace of Calvary

A bitter song about his pain

At the last in the good peace he was totally

   healed.”

I am grateful to Elaine Parry for the translation, which is literal only to elicit meaning only: no attempt has obviously been made to match the style or cadence of the original, traditional Welsh verse form.


A record does in this case exist, however, of the death of his brother Howell Rees Powell in February 1876 (cause and location as yet unknown), aged 29.

IMG 1823

Gravestone in Onllwyn Municipal Cemetery, for Howell Powell, John Powell’s presumed brother  Photo by G. Jones, 2014

This Camnant farm directly adjoins Toncastell farm, where we have seen the above Richard Jones and Mary Benjamin had recently started married life.  So the young John Powell was living next door to his future brother-in-law, and indeed not at all far from his future wife.  His occupation at marriage is recorded as Engine Driver, most probably in the context of a colliery where the engines were stationary machines, “driving” the coal dram backwards and forwards - drams were small purpose-built wagons in which the coal was loaded to be brought to the surface.  dram or tram: the word for a small coal wagon varied from area to area; in this area, tram was generally mutated to dram.

Like some of her siblings, Mary Jones, now Powell, moved in with her in-laws, to the Powell family back at Camnant farm, living next door to her brother Richard, also living with his in-laws, the Benjamin family.

These two families are shown together on the 1881 census:

1881 Census for England and Wales: Neath Higher


By 1891, however, any residual link the family may have had or felt with farming or smallholding was broken with the move to “Back Row”, Onllwyn.   By 1891, Camnant farm was occupied by a Morgan and Hannah Jones (no relationship established).  In November of that year, the farm was put up for sale, as part of the Ynisarwed estate.  Interestingly, the farm is referred to in the particulars as “Tir Bach”.

The advertisement is from “The Cambrian” newspaper of  November 13, 1891 and firstly clears up a detail for us:  amongst the farms for sale is “Tir Bach” and while this seems to have been the official name of the property, it was certainly referred to elsewhere – e.g. on the 1891 census in the same as “Camnant” and under which title Morgan and Hannah Jones are recorded in this census.   More generally, the advertisement throws our Jones family into some relief: as we have seen, the family was local and grew up originally on these and other local farmsteads – we have already seen how William Jones lived and brought up most of his family at Ynysdomlydd, here also for sale.  But they never owned any of these properties and moved from farm to farm as tenants until just about this point - when most of them are to be found, industrialised and “urbanised”, to the extent possible in this area, in the growing village centres of Onllwyn, Coelbren and Banwen. 

 

Front & Back Row, Onllwyn, probably 1930s-1940s

This area is very different to most of the other south Welsh mining valleys, those characterised by deep mines sunk in narrow valleys, with the familiar and seemingly endless rows of workers’ terraces cut in to both the valley floors and sometimes precariously along their slopes.   The mines here were located on  the plateau at the heads of three valleys, at the shallower edge of the coalfield, and there was thus no need for such concentrated building.  There were also not the sheer numbers of workers involved as in some of the other larger valleys.  Nonetheless, this was still small-scale urbanisation, not, for example, on the horrific scale of nearby Merthyr Tydfil, for example, but nevertheless an anathema to what had been before.  Onllwyn suffered a rash of various hastily constructed workers’ Rows and Terraces at different points in its history; practically all, including Front and Back Row shown here (1960s, source WT Davies), have now been demolished.  

These first two Front and Back rows were erected in the early 1840s by John Williams, local ironmaster, to house an increasingly immigrant work force, including at some point many Irish.  They were known locally simply as “Y Tai” (the houses), sometimes the Yellow Houses, and were of very simple construction, two up two down, no kitchen or bathroom, with water from a standpipe in the street.  Lavatories for Front Row were reached in their gardens, across the street.   Various censuses show shocking levels of over crowding; indeed in 1901 we see the full force of familial need and obligation visible with ten people squashed in to Mary Powell’s house at 15 Back Row:

 

Mary Powell had lost her husband John in 1893 – the cause of his relatively young death at the age of 41 is as yet unknown - so she is shown as Widow, head of the household.  Her five children, some adult, are still resident.  Also in this house are her widowed brother, John and his three young children.  Ten years later, the situation is no better at 45, Roman Road, Banwen, whence Mary moved by 1911 and is now aged 60.    She still has three grown-up children living with her, three unrelated young male boarders, all miners, and her widowed sister, Ann Jeffreys.   The photograph below shows the size of these houses. This, though, was not at all an uncommon situation: many working families took in at least one boarder – usually young men starting out, from outside the area (two of Mary’s in 1911 were born in Merthyr).  Widows could support themselves by developing their houses as boarding establishments with no fear of a “bedroom tax” in these very overcrowded days.  Young colliers might have shared beds as one did a night shift and the other a day.

The strangely desolate Roman Road, Banwen, today, looking north away from the Maesmarchog Colliery site. With no more colliery workings behind the camera at the top of the road, the street’s rationale now appears lost.   Photo by G. Jones, 2014


Children of Mary Jones and John Powell:

 

William Powell (1880-) married Lizzie Williams

Howell Powell (1883-)

Eleanor Powell (1885-)

Gwenllian Powell (1886-)

Sarah Powell (1887-)

 

Back to William Jones’ children

© (the written content and authorial photographs) Gareth Jones 2015-19