I WENT TO SOUTH WALES AND SAW
By PETER THOMPSON.
I WENT TO SOUTH WALES TO SEE WHAT DISTRESSED AREA MEANT IN TERMS OF PEOPLE, HOUSES, FOOD. CLOTHES. I SAW.
In Dowlais the pavements were piled three or four feet with snow because the Council could not afford to have it cleared; almost all the shops were closed down and the road was filled with pot holes... .
Nine persons in two rooms, strips of carpet for bedding, open sewers by the road, rooms dripping with moisture, these were conditions in Clydach, small Breconshire village . . . down Rhondda Valley were huge R.A.F. recruiting posters, endless streets of small houses, men grey in the face: sheep wandered among the houses. . . .
One unemployed man said poverty wasn't as had as it had been, another told of the way Means Test officials spied all the time on his home, forced him to destroy chickens that had been given to him. . . . the people are patient or apathetic. . . . many of them take no more interest in things about them. . . . men walk in the hills and mountains that surround their towns in order to get away from the shabbiness of their homes. . . . Edward VIII said : " Something will be done " . . . the Welsh people are still waiting. . . private societies and individuals do their best to administer palliatives. „ . . it is not enough.
I got off the 'bus at Maerdy, at the head of the small Rhondda Valley, and then I wished I hadn't.
It had been exhilarating coming over the hills from Aberdare. The land was bare, but scooped out and piled up in curves so that it was not monotonous to eyes used to the straight lines and restrictions of streets. There was snow on the road. We drove fast with the snow spurting up from our wheels.
Clouds were high and one could Bee far away. There were men in dark overcoats walking on the hills. One hardly saw them though. The 'bus passed so quickly.
But now the 'bus had gone and one could see men in the main street of Maerdy—men like the men on the hills. Their faces were a very light grey-pearl colour. But the metaphor was a blasphemy in Maerdy.
One could still see far away—for the road was high on the slope of the valley—but though there were hills in the distance, the block trestles and wheels of pithead machinery and streets of small houses were at their base, and on their summit were slag heaps.
" Milk for Spain " in Rhondda
Streets behind the high road at Maerdy were made of black stubble. The houses, in long unbroken terraces, were of dark grey stone. There were no gardens, and the streets were empty.
Along the high road sheep wandered and in the plots where buildings had been they looked for grass. Many of the shops were empty and falling into disrepair.
I walked through Maerdy on pavements fouled with slush and coal dust, and down through the whole of this Rhondda Valley. All the way were the squat terraces of slateroofed houses, close to the road.
There was no gap in this strip of Civilisation, but at intervals along the road notices gave a particular part of the Civilisation a particular name.
Whoever named the part next to Maerdy had a perverted sense of fun, for this part was called Ferndale. Generally, however, the place names were as dreary as the places: Wattstown, Tylorstown, Hopkinstown, Porth.
There were few things but the name
to distinguish these places. Ferndale had a large number of shops still trading: Tyiorstown had a shop window filled with appeals to save the children of Spain: "Milk is a child's first necessity—Help to send Milk to Spain." Some of Tylorstown's children looked as if they had missed that first necessity.
" Not So Bad," Says Unemployed Man
The gaunt l3ethels and Slone, the cinemas with the paint on their walls tlecicered, the dark muddle of buildings at pitheads, the rows of houses were endlessly repeated all down the road from Maerdy to Pontypridd. Fortunately, the road had many hills and corners.
On nearly every advertisement hoarding there were big R.A.F. recruiting posters. I came to resent the aggressively healthy flying officer who grinned upon Rhonnda. There. were Keep Ft posters also in this valley. But these were few.
On the road from Pontypridd to Merthyr Tydfil I fell in with a young unemployed man who was walking with his dog. A Sealyham it was. "A fine bitch it is," he said, " she was given to me and I haven't exploited her. I haven't tried to make money out of her."
He had been employed on a coal tip. But for three years he had not had work. Yet he said: "Poverty round here isn't as bad as it was, everyone's got something at least. We're not so badly off."
But when I got to Merthyr and went up the hill to Dowlais, I wondered at what he had said. All the shops, except a couple of sweet shops and a grocer's with windows filled with tinned foods, had been abandoned. Boards had been nailed across the windows and the doors were rotting.
The pavements were impassable because snow was piled three or four feet high all the way along. The main road was full of pot-holes and the open deck trams, which rattled along the road, lurched at sharp angles. The side roads were rubble.
In this place of almost total unemployment, no repairs can be done, for the local council does not dare to add
another penny to the fantastically overloaded rates.
It seems little use writing much about Dowlais. The desolation of the place ha e been described touchingly in the popular Press, for it was in Dowlais that Edward VIII made one of the most famous last remarks: "Something will be done."
But nothing has been done.
We have a new King who has not seen Dowlais; and Mr Baldwin has a peerage—also a fund for refugees.
The Dowlais steel furnaces rot, the Dowlais people rot, and the financiers and industrialists who raised up Dowlais and afterwards destroyed it are busily financing and industrialising in other parts of the country; in other parts of the world.
Dowlais did at least get into the news. Clydach never has been and probably never will be in the news.
It is a small village near Brynmawr— home of Peter Scott's Family Subsistence Farms.
Carpet Strips for Bedding
In one of the many two-roomed houses In this village there lives a man and his wife with their three children. The youngest child is a baby of less than two months. It was born during the cold spell just before Christmas, and the manner of its birth is interesting. The mother was in labour in the top room of the cottage. There was no fire, and there was not enough bedding either. The district nurse found her prostrate with cold.
The nurse asked the neighbours for bedding, but they had only strips of carpet to give. So the husband and the nurse between them carried the mother down to the ground floor room where a fire had been made, dismantled the bed
and took it piece by piece down the stairs, out of the back door and into the ground floor room by the front door, for the house was too small for the parts of the bed to go into the ground floor room direct.
They just managed to get the bed set up before the woman gave birth.
The next day the family applied to the Means Test official for bedding and for clothes for the mother and child. Bedding and clothes were given—but on the condition that they were paid for at the rate of a shilling a week, stopped from unemployment benefit. In another two-roomed house there were a man and his wife and seven children. Two beds pushed together just fitted into the first-floor room. The last birth took place when all the other children were in the house—some of them in the bedroom.
Open Sewerage Gutters
Most of the houses are saturated, for they are built right against earth banks. All the dampness in the soil soaks into the house.
In one house I saw the floor of the
pantry covered with water and there were great patches of dampness in the sitting room, though this room had the pantry and another room between it and the back—for this was a larger house than most.
Hardly any of the cottages have lavatories—one has to be shared by a row of six to ten cottages. Sewerage is carried Into fields by open gutters at the side of the road.
The rents in this village average 5s, a week for two-roomed cottages and 85. 6d. for four-roomed cottages.
One of the people who has lived in one of these four-roomed cottages for over ten years told roe: "For four square miles around there's not more houses than you can count on your fingers twice that are fit for habitation,' But houses and the bugs that crowd In their walls are not the only trials for the people—there are the Means Test officials.
I met an ex-serviceman who had been out of work for some years. He lived with his wife and child in a cottage that was a pleasant exception to those described above.
Twice recently he has had his dole stopped and has had to walk five miles to another Labour Exchange and prove, after rigorous cross-examination that he has had no work, money or goods given him, before he was able to get food for his family.
The Chicken House Spies
Someone recently gave him nine chickens. That was all right because nine Is the limit of chicken ownership granted by the State to the unemployed. Even so that fabulous generosity can only endure so long as you sell neither the eggs nor the chickens.
This man's chickens, however, begot chicks—and so of course the chicks had to die, for the Means Tug official had been carefully spying oo the chicken house.
But they don't limit apy.ng to chicken houses, they spy on every activity of the man on the dole.
They intrude upon his home, ask endlose questions to all the members of his family about the most intimate details of the family life. Any odd job that a man on the dole gets is never of benefit to him, for the amount he earns Is always promptly deducted from his dole.
On the previous evening I had been talking to a man in a pub in Aberdare. He was a. member of the local Conservative Club. He told me that a friend of his, newly married, had for a long time been without regular work. The Unemployment Assistance Board allowed the man and his wife only 7s. ficl. a week, for the man during his luckier days had been thrifty enough to buy a £400 house.
" You've Got a Cheek I"
Another acquaintance of the Conservative Club member somewhat unwisely applied for relief when wearing a gold watch and chain.
The watch had been given the man by his father, who had won it 40 years ago when playing in an Aberdare football team. But of course Means Test officials are not sentimental.
Said an official when the man asked for relief : "And you've still got that watch? You've got a cheek asking us for help."
It is an ugly irony that the Welsh and English people should have to pay some millions each year to keep the Means Test official employed in his degrading task of keeping the hungry and the idle hungry and idle, in saving pennies and sixpences for the State so that it may waste money on futile Keep Fit advertisements.
But the whole system in which £1,500,000 can be flung to the gun manufacturer without a murmur whilst the total ingenuity of a humourless bureaucracy is devoted to prevent an unemployed man (husband and father in the full strength of his life) gaining a sixpence or a chicken more than his minute dole is so fantastically mad as to be comic were the valleys of Usk and Rhondda valleys in a dream.
Opera for Sixpence
But they are a reality—four hours from Paddington.
Life still endures in the valleys; but only because death is an older bogey than the Means Test officials.
Down in Aberdare the streets had been full of people and the shops brightly lit. There were notices about the town of a visit by the International Opera Company to the Workmen's Hall. Prices are from 6d. to is. 6d. Rigoletto, Maritang, Faust, Carmen, were to be performed.
The pavements were in fairly good condition—unlike the pavements at Rhondda and Merthyr, where they were broken and uneven.
I had said to my Conservative friend that the town looked almost prosperous. He agreed but added: " All the same we've got 12,000 unemployed. Quite a lot for a small town."
Yet. Aberdare is cheerful by day also.
There is no rubbish in the streets. Some of the shops need fresh paint, but their windows are full of goods. There are great hills all around the town, and the stone houses fit the olive colour of the hills. were there more interesting places of amusement than two or three shabby cinemas, Aberdare could become a very good holiday centre. Perhaps a campaign by the G.W.R. might work the transformation.
Welsh Nationalists' Dinner Clubs
There is one political party which is doing something tangible to help the unemployed. This is the Welsh Nationalist Party (possibly the first " nationalist " party in the world to understand and practise the Catholic attitude to nationalism, which teaches that true nationalism is concerned first In believing one's own country is good In itself but not in believing that it is better than all other countries), which is a growing force among the Welsh people. The Nationalist Party runs dinner clubs for the unemployed. On the day before dole is due, the day when the unemployed man's larder is usually empty, members of the party—unless they happen to be unemployed themselves—go without the principal meal of the day and give its equivalent in money to a central fund which provides the dinners for the unemployed.
On the outskirts of Swansea there is such a club. A doctor has charge of it.
Swansea itself is as bright as any thriving provincial town, and its main streets are as characterless, except for the Women who carry their babies by wrapping shawls tightly around themselves and their children.
There is an opulent civic centre at Swansea, rivalled by one in Cardiff. But the brightness does not extend far beyond Swansea's centre.
Places on the outskirts have been struck mortally by depression. There are only old people and children living in some of these places. Football teams have gone out of existence, youths' clubs have been abandoned.
Duke Charges 7s. 6d. per Acre of Slag
The Welsh are generous and strong people. The calamity under which they struggle in the South has been thrown upon them by landlords, financiers, industrialists, most of them foreign to Wales or without any idea of responsibility to Wales. The financiers and industrialists have gone. and Dowlais is the witness of their going. The landlord still remains and is able to cripple any effort that. the people make to abandon the pits and furnaces and draw their food from the land.
The Duke of Beaufort extorts 7s. 6d. for an acre of coal tip, which is utterly useless, unless a man has the patience and guts to cover a slag with a deep layer of earth.
At Brynmawr they have done this. They have carried earth to the hill top, and after much harsh work they have made some of the black waste land productive.
But even to cut coal from a tip you must first pay the Duke sixpence, though your labour is long and the stuff you get for it of no use to the mine owner.
So long as the landlord, financier and industrialist form the trinity before which the Government is prostrate, the problems of South Wales have little chance of solution.