Exodus 1 - From The Rhondda To The Calder (Mid-1800s)

After much prompting, a historical fiction reconstruction of a journey to Kathmandu

Dec. 8, 2018, 9:06 a.m. Published in Magazine Issue: VOL 12 No.09, December 07, 2018 (Mansir. 21, 2075) Online Register Number: DOI 584/074-75

‘Castleford is a mucky hole, full of stinking pits’, a Victorian lady travelling through the town observed. She also observed that it could have no more than 7,000 souls all eagerly awaiting the new labour that would come with expansion of the coal-mining industry. They would sell the newcomers their wares and rent out their extra space, if they had any, to families coming from Scotland and particularly from the Rhondda Valley in Wales.

Our Victorian lady couldn't have known that a pre-industrial age had had a better opinion. Travel writers had written about the idyllic views across its waving bean fields. The two rivers that met there flowed into the breath-taking scenery of Airedale and Calderdale, a beauty that even the woollen mills set against the slopes of their valleys couldn't diminish. There had been an important Roman fort at Castleford and a Viking village too. Less 'mucky' times had been witnessed by the fair Castleford lasses, about whose beauty folk songs had been written.

“Castleford lasses need be fair

They wash in the Calder

and bathe in the Aire.

The town was a mere half a day or less on foot to the village of Kippax (nowadays 15-20 minutes by car) and between the two places lay Mary Panel Hill, named after the last witch in England to be burned; and she was burned in Kippax. This was an event that was re-enacted yearly by the village and legends grew up around the festival and Mary Panel herself. In the 20th century youths riding up and down Mary Panel Hill on their bicycles would claim to have seen her in the shadows, or even to have spoken to a strange old woman who seemed witchlike. Had the towns and villages ever had enough public revenue for serious archaeology, the area would have enriched the history of Northern Britain enormously. Not far from Kippax lies Sherburne in Elmet, erstwhile kingdom of Bruce Bloodaxe, and I needn’t spell out what he was famous for!

Castleford had had opencast coalmines since Roman times, and in times before everyone had a vote and power was concentrated in the hands of a few, they provided a convenient place to send those people who had displeased the ruling elite by opposing the actions of their ‘class’ or refusing to ‘swear the oath’ or go to church on Sundays, along with their families. There they could settle anonymously without disrupting the fluid conscience of the newly emerging empire, as none of the observers or writers of the time found Castleford to have anything to attract them–so who cared from where these earlier miners and their families originated? The exception to all these careless journalists was Daniel Defoe who describes walking through the bean fields of Castleford in a location that later became Beancroft Road. One positive outcome of all this is that Castleford folks inherited a questioning, sceptical perspective about the ‘powers that be.’ They also inherited a staunch position on equality summed up in what is, by now, a well-established maxim in the area:

“I’m no better than you

but tha’s no better than me.”

By the mid 1800s the urge of private owners, among whom one could count some of England's noted aristocrats, to exploit black gold, or coal, at least possible cost had led to the degradation of what had once been, notwithstanding the opencast blots on its wider landscape, an attractive market town surrounded by pleasant farming villages. The boom came when the most prominent among those aristocrats discovered that large tracts of his property had rich underground coal seams. This, followed by the invention of the steam engine and the building of the railways in a splurge of grandeur (that only the Victorians could justify against the incipient poverty of many of the towns and villages that became accessible by rail) led to a boom in the coalfields that needed increasing numbers of souls prepared to work themselves to death for a marginal prosperity over those who still worked on the farms.

From the men, women and children who came there to earn a crust from the mines from a variety of places, a culture was to grow; a culture that was based on a strong sense of community and on the supremacy of ‘king coal.’ In addition to the mines there were coke ovens to provide efficient fuel for the iron foundries and steel making and for making pottery. Castleford became a centre for glass manufacturing and some remains of it still appear in antique road shows and suchlike. At one time quite a lucrative trade existed between Castleford and Soviet Russia where the requirement of the comrades for slightly below standard drinking glasses was enormous–owing, no doubt, to the joyous Russian tendency to smash their glasses after each toast: an aristocratic tendency if ever there was one! Yet, despite the satanic mills of industry and those black holes that led into the bowels of the earth, people could still walk a short distance and see woodlands and wetlands full of wild life —attractions for poachers— and, if you wanted to make a day of it, the moorlands.

Billy Williams was a little more than seven years' old when, crouched outside his parents dishevelled stone shed — for a shed was all it was, a coal miner's shed—he realized his father was dying. He clung to the gaunt hillside that overlooked the Welsh mining village where he had been born, because he knew they couldn't stay.

Billy knew nothing of grandparents or cousins, aunts or uncles. His parents had been little more than children themselves when, forbidden to see each other by both families, they had run away together from some impoverished mountain farming village: they had been quickly made legal by the local minister after Billy had been born. No parent had been there to approve, but they had received the approval of God in the glowering guise of the minister.

Billy's Dad had a wonderful voice, all the miners said so. Billy was seven and he already knew his letters. Somehow everyone had put Billy's easy grasp of letters down to Dafyd Williams' wonderful singing voice. He didn't want Billy to go down the pit and had sent him to the village school almost from the time he could walk. Every pay day Billy's Da put the money away first for the school. Billy's Mam only worked the surface; his Da would only allow that. Underground, Dafyd held, was no place for a woman; at least not his woman.

Da had always dreamed of better days; and then his back had been broken in a cave-in. It wasn't just his back, his lungs had given out, and Billy knew he wouldn't last long now: young though he was he'd seen enough miners' deaths to know that this was one of them. What would Mam do now?

Mam, or Emma, a slight dark twenty-two year old couldn't think beyond Dafyd, her beautiful boy. They ran away after finding out she was pregnant. She'd been 15 and her lover 17. The coalmines in the Rhondda had been their only means of survival. As she sat by Dafyd's bed, Emma Williams wondered what would happen to her and her bairn[i]. The pit owners had no time for widows: they couldn't 'turn out' enough to merit their wages. It was just charity to employ them, or so they said. Then there was Billy, such a bright lad. He could go a long way, but how now with Dafyd shortly to leave them?

Exodus 2: A Change of scenery

Billy watched through eyes burning with tears as the minister closed his Da's eyes.

"Try and keep on with the letters," had been Dafyd's last words to his son.

He had been twenty-four and illiterate, but determined his son would be something, someone—not a coal miner, not down a black hole where you breathed coal dust into your lungs.

The women with Emma held her tightly as she moaned and shook uncontrollably almost. Billy crouched away into the corner of the cold room that he had known as home since his birth. The minister patted his head before he left:

"Your Da had the best voice in the choir," he said.

After sleeping in snatches through the days in which arrangements were made and carried out to commit Dafyd to another hole in the ground, Billy thought he had the reality of their situation, but he had to get it drummed into his Mam's head. Pit top workers didn't get 'cottages' as the stone shacks were euphemistically called. Either they'd have to work underground or get out. When he put it to her, she said,

"You're not to work, Billy. Your Da said you had to go to school."

But the boy had swiftly become a man — a small man, but commanding.

"School's over Mam, there's nothing for us here. The Joneses and Evans are leaving next week and I think we should go."

"Go where, do what?"

"To Yorkshire, Mam, to the mines; they have new mines and better pay there."

"But I've no experience underground."

"I'll work underground "…. She let out a cry of protest, a call of anguish for Dafyd's lost dream.

"Shush Mam, I will make Da's dream come true, I swear."

They walked —they walked the whole bloody way! Not for them the luxury of the new steam engines: they were the kind of people who clawed the fuel needed for them from the belly of the earth, but couldn’t afford to ride in them. They weren't dressed for such a ride anyway, even if they had had the money. Oh, a horse and cart or two passed by, but there were no free lifts for the dishevelled spectacle they presented. They walked together with other families, sharing what they had and sleeping together in the ditches for warmth. Most of the other families were leaving the Rhondda to find work in the Yorkshire coalfields. They weren't leaving happily: Wales was, after all, the land of their fathers. But it could no longer feed them. There were Evanses and Joneses, besides Billy and his Mam, coming from their village. On the way they were joined by Rossers, Thomases and Bebbs who were leaving the pastures because the mountain sheep had so little meat to give, the value they brought didn't translate favourably against the long hours spent on the cold hillsides raising them.

Emma found it odd that out of all those grown men and women walking with them out of the Rhondda; men and women who were older than she with children who were already seasoned miners; it was her Billy who led—a seven-year old piece of fire urging them all on.

They never begged. They worked a few days at menial jobs, labouring on farms and such like. They put together enough to walk on with a little left to find a place to live once they got to Castleford. That's where they were heading, Castleford, and they had no idea what it was like. They just knew it had rich coal seams and not enough people to work them.

"They all belong to a lord somebody or other. Mebbe, seeing as it's Yorkshire, mebbe he kept sheep before they found coal on his land."

They laughed at their own joke, but it wasn't really funny. It wasn't funny because, in that winter of depression, it was hunger that drove people on. The mid-1800s might be remembered in glowing terms in memoirs of the Raj in India, or by those lauding the great battles of the empire to overcome its enemies, but many were hungry. It was no coincidence that when they sang to lighten the journey, one of their hymns of choice was the ‘Cwm** Rhondda’:

'Guide me oh thou great Jehovah, o'er this waste and barren land.

I am weak but thou art mighty, lead me by thy steadfast hand.

Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me now and ever more.'

The chorus was the favourite because they had faith, these Welsh villagers, that the Almighty would feed them. All that is but Billy, he knew in whose hands his destiny lay. He had no more use for Jehovah. Da had sung so beautifully for God and where was Da now?

But it was hunger, this great hunger that led to the movement of the people of Britain from farm to mine and factory shed. This great hunger was to change Britain forever. Billy Williams might have lost his faith in Jehovah, but later he was still to sing in the choir of one of Castleford's biggest Methodist churches. It led him to the adult school, to workers' rights, to starting a union and, as an elder, joining the movers and shakers in forming the first-ever political party for workers. Billy lived through crises and changes. As a teenager he heard first-hand from Irish refugees about their sufferings in the potato famine. He learned to read and, until it closed down, he practised by reading the Northern Star, the Chartist newspaper published in nearby Leeds. The Bill banning the use of children under ten down coal mines never affected Billy. (Most Bills like that were ignored unless an inspection was due; and who is going to inspect a private coal mine owned by one of the powerful of England?)

Billy was filled with a fire in the pit of his belly, a fire of the sense of injustice to the working classes; because he knew that his labour had value, value beyond the meagre wages he took home. His legs were bowed from childhood from ‘trapping and tramming’ and pushing the coal carts along the rough rail tracks under the earth. It didn't stop him as a man assaulting the coal face, and it didn't diminish the honour given to him by his fellow miners for making them into a cohesive community with the strength to bargain themselves out of being mere 'beasts in a hole'. When he died he was eighty, much older than the age at which most of his brother miners had died, he died knowing he had placed a footstep in the small plot of earth that was Castleford that would never be erased, even if his name was forgotten.

But Billy never forgot his Da. With pride he listened to his daughters singing with the same honeyed tones passed on through him from Dafyd. Their voices brought out a groundswell of emotion: it was what was left in him of the Rhondda!

Exodus 3: A change in status for Billy and his DNA travels on

Decades later, and in the year after his wife's death, Billy gave his youngest and favourite child, Emma, in marriage to a Needham; a son of one of the oldest established families of Castleford, a scion of one of those erstwhile aristocratic families fallen from grace in the time of Charles IInd. He was doubtful about whether she would be happy or not, but as it turned out she was. He never lived to see the 3rd Emma down the line. He died just after the commencement of the Second World War. In all his long years Billy Williams left Castleford once, to go to the establishment of the Labour Representation Committee that was later to become the Labour Party.

The third Emma would travel to places he had never heard of, back to the mountains; not the Welsh mountains though, much beyond them. He didn't realise, but his progeny and their progeny knew, that Billy had been a small, unseen, but significant cog in the changes that came to the impoverished, archaic social order that had creaked along in Britain for the best part of a millennium, resisting revolution and reform, often through the brute force born of a concrete Victorian righteousness; the conviction of sincere hypocrisy. His progeny carried parts of him in their genes and, in some senses, he never left them; but Billy hadn't known that would be his destiny when he urged his bereaved mother out of the stone hovel clinging to a hillside in the Rhondda.

Exodus 4: the third Emma (1945)

Emma couldn’t have been so old when the Second World War ended, but she remembered it as if it was yesterday. It was as if a dark curtain had been lifted from the face of Britain, and indeed it had! Householders were able to take down their blackout curtains and board up the air-raid shelters. The bombsites would remain cordoned off for some time until the sappers had gone over them. Once that was over though, they became adventure playgrounds for town and city kids. On the way home from school they'd play on the cracked paving stones, "If you tread on a nick, you marry a brick: if you tread on a line you marry a swine." The air-raid shelters became places to hide when playing ‘kick-off can’ or I draw a ‘snake on the hooligan's back’.

Most memorable of all was the Victory Party, every neighbourhood had one. It was, after all, the end of that feeling of oppression that had governed their world for over five long years. The housewives of each neighbourhood had scrubbed the pavements extra clean that day and lined their edges with an extra scouring of yellow ochre. Years later Emma was to remark how no amount of attention from an automatic cleaning truck could make the pavements of Yorkshire quite as clean as those women had: a breed now passed out of memory along with home-baked bread and starched linen.

As for Emma, well for once the whole family, both sides, had clubbed together and made her an angel outfit. It appeared overnight, as soon as rumours of the armistice were underway, Nana sewing and Granny bringing the materials to sew: the tinsel for the crown and the silver dusted cardboard star. For a day Emma was an angel, and wouldn't succumb to temptation to wipe jam on the dress. For after all, what was the victory fare but potted paste sandwiches, jam sandwiches and jelly, with tea sweetened by glucose powder. But it tasted like ambrosia.

"Not a time," Emma heard her mother remark to a friend," to remember the poor blighters like us on the other side who probably didn't want this war any more than we did."

"They backed the wrong horse," a male voice had interjected, to which the friend replied,

"People of our class don't get to back any horse, we're just cannon fodder."

'It'll change now," the man said," now we'll be a classless society-there's no choice."

"Hmph," Emma's mother retorted, "Let's try giving women equal wages first, because nobody's going to get back into the kitchen just because the war's over."

'Education, "a voice murmured, "That's the clue."

Emma never saw the owner of the voice, but the words stayed with her throughout her lifetime, and looking back through her years the veracity of the statement rang true throughout everything she had played a part in or witnessed. Education became for Emma the unfinished business not only in her life but in the lives of all the children she ever met. It was a beginning and it continues still!

  • This is a description of the beginnings of the coal-mining communities of the North of England, now long gone. The town is an actual town and Billy existed and so did his family, but not by those names. One of the few pieces I have written with a background outside Asia, it was written after a particularly savage verbal harangue from an Indian matron about how the English became rich on the backs of ‘her ‘ people. Wounded feelings flow away when one writes, so it has never been published. Today, as so many young Nepalis leave to make a decent living, it seems the right time to publish it. Bairn means child and the
  • W in cwm is pronounced as a’u’.

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