MEMORIES OF ANNIE MARGARET CASSON (NEE REES)
I was born at Gilfach Cottages, Cwm Nant -y-Groes, nr Abertillery, Monmouthshire, South Wales on 1st Feb 1915, second child of Albert Rees (son of Emily Hancorn ) and Blodwyn Rees (nee Simmonds). I have no memory of the cottages so presume I must have been fairly small when we moved to Upper Arael St. in the mining village of Six Bells.
My slightly built Dad wasn’t a strong man, he worked in the coalmines and used to come home, black and exhausted after long gruelling shifts. Whatever time of day or night it was, he’d get the old tin bath off the yard wall and screened by towels on the clothes maiden, bathed in it in front of the fire. Only then would he sit and eat his meal. Dad’s health deteriorated after heart attacks, so Mum had her hands full with three children under 5 and a sick husband to nurse. In those days you didn’t get proper sick pay, so many weeks when he was too ill to work, there was no wage coming in. Despite the fact things were really difficult at that time, Mum was proud, too proud to allow us to take any help from “the parish”. She skimped and saved, mended and worked all the hours God sent, to make sure we just about coped overall. As my father’s health didn’t recover enough to continue with deep mining and whilst he was off sick, he managed to continue his studies for pit exams to enable him to work in management above ground. I can remember the brown envelopes used to come regularly from Bennet’s College.
The little house we lived in in Upper Arael St. was one in a long row of terraces at the bottom of the mountainside. I can remember in summer picking whimberries (the local word for bilberries) for pies and wild watercress which we would take home for Mum to add to meals. I don’t remember us having any bought toys. Everything was made within the family from wood or scraps of material or anything else that was available. Most of our clothes were bought at chapel jumble sales and meticulously revamped and kept immaculate by Mum.
When we were a little bit older, out of financial necessity, my mother converted the front room into a little shop selling provisions, sweets and icecream. She used to make the icecream herself. I remember one day she was panicking that the milk which had to be scalded, had caught slightly in the pan, very very slightly burning. She literally couldn’t afford for a whole batch to be ruined. It had taken on a flavour which could vaguely be likened to almonds, so she advertised it as almond icecream and held her breath. Luckily, lots of people liked it and so she was asked to make it like that again. She didn’t though because it was too risky that it would overburn and be inedible. Many of the provisions for the shop had to be bought in bulk, weighed and then repackaged into smaller amounts for resale and I have recollections too of we children peeling endless small onions ready for Mum to pickle and sell and of selling home grown bunches of mint, door to door in the surrounding area.
Dad contributed as best he could when he was well enough, by keeping rabbits in a shed next to the outside toilet. He started off with standard rabbits for the table, but also kept some Blue Beverens for their fur. He kept them immaculately, just as he did the chickens, also for the table. I remember one of the things we had to do, was collect any broken bits of pottery we came across. These were hammered down to make grit which was fed to the chickens to help toughen the shells of their eggs. Without these meat and egg sources and the vegetables he grew in the allotment, I don’t know how we would have coped. That was one thing, we never had empty tummies and what we didn’t consume, got sold in the shop.
What we children didn’t know at the time was that my mother although very refined and as sharp as a razor mentally, couldn’t read or write very well. These days her struggle to get letters the right way round and to unjumble the puzzling squiggles in front of her eyes would have been recognized immediately as dyslexia but in her youth there was no such thing and it was to her nothing less than an unbearable shame which she managed to keep from everybody except my father. As a child she became increasingly scared of school because she found the reading impossible and although her mother ensured sister Maggie went, she didn’t force Blodwyn and often was complicit in hiding her under the stairs when the school “kid catcher” called -- saying she was away at an aunties. This suited my Mum and my grandmother apparently made the absolute most of her daughter staying off by keeping her enormously busy in the house. We children didn’t find out Mum couldn’t read until we were adults, so good was her cover up and her ways of compensating. She developed a phenomenal memory, so there was little that needed to be committed to writing and how she managed to deal with the shop reps, orders and suchlike, I will never know, but cope she did. I remember too that she would only have to hear a song once and she would be able to sing it, word perfect throughout, straight away. I remember we used to have the Perry’s piano in our house, as her daughters weren’t interested and sometimes Aunt Maud, Dad’s cousin, would come and play it on a Saturday. Mum and Dad used to sing together a lot and Mum knew all the words to everything !
My mother’s lack of confidence in her reading ability probably explains why she was so absolutely insistant that I missed as little school as possible. Despite being born a healthy 10lb baby, following a serious illness as a 2/3 year old, I was a small sickly child (one with an anaemic, weak constitution Mum was told). Some of my worst memories included the embarrassment of being carried to school on occasions, wrapped in a shawl because I was too weak to walk. The embarrassment was compounded because I had circulation problems and Mum used to swathe my legs in putties, the army issue khaki strips of material used by soldiers to keep their legs warm in the first world war. (Probably obtained via Dad’s brother Edgar who was a soldier)
Being off frequently, sometimes just too unwell even to be carried, meant that I fell well behind with the arithmetic lessons. Less able pupils had desks at the back of the room, so when I was there that’s where I sat, about as far from the only heat source, the open fire, as you could possibly get. I can remember being so numbed with cold during the winter months that I could barely think, let alone do schoolwork. My saving grace according to nasty Mr Phillips (we had a nice Mr Phillips as well) although he couldn’t imagine why, given my apparent maths inability, was that I was surprisingly good at English for a “nincompoop”. (his word) This teacher wasn’t above harshly rapping even the coldest of clenched knuckles with his cane when he was angered by anything. I remember a boy in our class, a small puny little lad belonging to the Protheroe family who used to have to deliver papers for his family’s shop before school. He would often come in a bit late and would get severely caned for his trouble, on one occasion fainting with fear beforehand. The two girls I was friendly with at school were Thursa and Dora Phipps.
I can visualize parts of Arael Rd school quite well. The classroom I was in had a tiered floor and I remember well the dread of each step down from the back of the room to the front if the teacher called you out. Looking back, the actual position of the school would be considered a nightmare now. It was positioned similarly to the school in Aberfan with the retaining wall for an ever growing slag heap just a couple of yards from the infant’s playground. The area was called Warm Turn and the school overlooked the pit entrance. Close by passed the huge bucket type containers full of slag. One would go up the conveyor full, another would come down empty. From time to time the boys would jump up and grab onto one of the buckets for a free ride for a few yards. I remember one day a boy called Birchall did it, got entangled in the machinery and had his leg torn off. What a difference between the dangers children were exposed to then and the “no conkers” policies they have today.
There were 3 shops in Arael St. A second sweetshop (owned by the Poulsons) about 10 doors up from ours in Upper Arael St., their daughter was a teacher at the school, and a bigger more purpose built general shop/house at the bottom of Lower Arael St. owned by “Grandma” Perry, a friend of my mother’s and run by her son Arthur. One of his assistants used to collect cylinders of gas from the railway station by horse and cart. These were to make the flavoured fizzy drinks my mother sold in the shop. I remember a fairly large glass globe half full of water called a vantas. Mum had a little yellow duck floating in it to amuse and attract the children. This globe was attached to the cylinder which pumped gas into the water. The flavourings sarsperilla, strawberry, orange and lemonade came in sticks. Mum would have to add water to these to make up batches of the flavour concentrate which was stored in bottles where a wire contraption held the ceramic and rubber stopper sealed down. The customer would then get a measure of their chosen flavour in the glass provided, top it up with fizzy water from the vantas and drink the contents on the spot. The glass would then be washed and re-used.
I remember other little things too about the shop, like Mr Saye who came in as a traveller for Berry’s sweets and Mrs Picken from Richmond St. who came in regularly wearing a gold necklace which fascinated me, a little figure of a man depicted in gold and ebony. Her daughter was called Annie like me and her husband was in charge of the ambulance station. We used to talk to him sometimes as we passed on the way to school. I was very impressed, I remember, when Mrs Picken told us that both her brothers were university lecturers at Bangor.
We used to sell unpasteurized milk too but people round there didn’t drink it in the quantities they do today. It was used exclusively for a dash in their tea, so customers would never buy more than a quarter or half pint at the most, decanted from our big jugs into their various containers. Each evening the cream was taken from the left over milk, the milk scalded and sold more cheaply the next day as skimmed milk. The cream was always given to me in an effort to build me up - Ugh! To this day I cant abide greasy food. When we children did jobs at home, (the one I remember well was polishing the brass stair rods) Mum or Dad would give us a penny which of course we would go and spend in the other sweet shop. It was no fun choosing from our own.
I don’t remember Larry the lamb but we have a photo of him with my older brother Edgar. My mother used to tell us how Dad found Larry as a tiny sickly stray. No-one claimed him so he took him home and Larry was fed his bottle at the same time as Edgar got his. Apparently Larry stayed until he was adult following Mum around all over the place. I think probably Dad let the lamb stay thinking it would provide meat at a later date, but in the end neither of them could bring themselves to sell Larry to the butcher and he went off to a farm as a wool sheep.
The other animals I remember were my father’s Airdale dogs. These lived outside in purpose built kennels and Dad sold the odd litter of puppies which contributed to the household income. The ones he kept long term were Pat and her son Bruce. These were trained by my father to police standards. In fact the police wanted to buy Bruce but my father wouldn’t sell.
My father’s health improved a bit eventually but not enough to return below at the mines. All the time he was studying for his pit exams, he was still applying for other jobs as really he hated everything to do with the mines and one day he was fortunate enough to be offered a job as an insurance agent. You used to have to “buy a book” in those days and Dad had no money for that, but the previous owner of the book had sadly committed suicide and the book had been run down and was in a shocking muddle. Refuge Assurance agreed Dad could have the book for free providing he sorted it out and built the round up. When my sister Nora was born, she was his first customer.
When I was somewhere around 13 we moved to Powell St., Abertillery. This was easier for my brother Lionel to get to Grammar school and gave Dad a better chance of increasing his insurance round. Powell St. was past all the shops in Abertillery and the Infant/Junior school was at the top of the road. Two sisters who lived opposite us were teachers there and because my youngest sister Nora was such an inquisitive bright little thing, they regularly used to take her with them to join in the infants class one of them taught, long before the normal age she should have started school. I remember at this house my Dad had enough money to buy a camera and he turned the pantry into his dark room when he needed to make negatives, although he sent them off to be printed. Sadly most of the family’s earliest photo collection was stolen on a train trip in the 50s.
I never met my paternal grandparents. Dad’s mother Emily Hancorn died when he was only seven. He told us that he had been made to go and say goodbye to her body. That must have affected him deeply because he always insisted that none of his children were ever to see him once he had died. His body went directly to Cambridge University for research as he had requested. After Emily’s death, 7 year old Albert was sent to live with his paternal grandparents because his father had started drinking very heavily and couldn’t cope.
My great grandfather David Rees had been involved with the planning of Bethany Chapel in Six Bells and later became a church elder. I’ve not seen it but I’ve been told that a stone somewhere on the chapel wall bears his name. Albert thought the world of his grandfather, who although a miner, was apparently a mild mannered, kind and refined type of man. Dad lived in fear though of the sharp Welsh speaking tongue of his grandmother who resented him being there and made his life miserable. (My Dad didn’t speak Welsh which didn’t help) As soon as his father died when Albert was 14, he got digs away from his grandparents and took a job in the mines.
From age 7-14 though, he had done well at school becoming head boy in his last year. Jinny Gatfield was head girl. Jinny’s parents had enough money for her to stay on in education and she was upset that her friend Albert (my father) had to leave to get work because she thought they would both go on and be teachers. Some years later, Jinny was a teacher at the junior school my brother Lionel and sister Phyl attended and according to them, they were always reminded they had a clever Dad to emulate! They didn’t disappoint, both, to the great pride of my parents won Governers’ scholarships to Grammar school and did well. They were the main brains out of all Albert and Blodwyn’s children. Lionel particularly was extremely clever, despite the fact he had been born prematurely at 7 months. I remember Mum saying his fingernails weren’t even formed. He wasn’t expected to live, but in those days the “treatment” was to papoose babies up completely to keep them warm and prevent them from expending too much energy and hope for the best. Luckily it worked. Although he wasn’t fond of sports, I can remember him telling us the football/rugby chant for the Grammar School -- “Who killed Piker, Blood and Webby? What for? Beer! Baccy! Bread! Yah!!”
Dad’s sister Peggy (christened Margaret Catherine) when Emily died was sent to live happily with a Hancorn Aunt in Hereford where she married a Scotsman James Wilson. When this auntie died she gave Peggy her inherited family bible and 4 forks. The forks had the initials MJH elaborately inscribed on them, presumably from a Hancorn table where there had been considerably more wealth. Two of these forks came to me. I don’t know who in the family was left the other two forks or the bible.
My father’s elder brother Edgar was in and out of our lives when I was younger. I don’t know whether he actually married, but late in life he settled in the home of his landlady and they had a child, Elsie. In earlier days he used to turn up and stay with us from time to time when he was between jobs. I can remember his gun being propped up in the corner. He had been shot in the heels in the First World War, which doesn’t sound good, but in fact was the result of saving his colleagues lives in France and earned him the Military Medal for gallantry. He was in hospital for over a year and begged them not to take off his gangrenous leg. He signed himself out in the end and came back to Mum and Dad’s where Mum nursed his wound intensively and saved the leg.
I left school when I was 14 and had various little jobs in and around Abertillery, mostly sweet shops and similar. I worked at one large sweet shop in Church St., Abertillery where we needed 3 girls on a Saturday night to cope with the demand for chocs and sweets from folk on their way to the cinema lower down the valley. One of the girls was the local councillors daughter. The two main stores in Abertillery were Bon Marche and a posh shop called Pontlottyn. This latter shop, a clothing store, was a very prestigious place to work. You would only get in if you were well spoken and well dressed and had enough money to pay them 5 shillings a week whilst they trained you properly as a salesperson! Imagine that now! The attraction was that it enabled you to have an edge when applying for other jobs in the future, jobs which of course were hard to find. Job shortages meant you couldn’t really stay at home if you wanted to get on. So when I was nearly 18 I moved up to Preston to live with Aunt Peggy, my father’s sister. She was a nice but very precise lady who liked everything just so and was as strict with me as you could possibly imagine. No way was I allowed to go out with boys! I was around 21 before I had my first proper date without a chaperone. When I returned to Wales the family had moved to Blenheim Rd. back in Six Bells but this time higher up the valley where my Dad had aspired to live originally.
It wasn’t long before the war started. My sister Nora wa still at school. A lot of children had been evacuated from the cities to the countryside. Nora came home from school begging my Mum for a Polish girl to be allowed to stay with them as her original family couldn’t keep her any longer. Lucia moved in and shared a room with Nora. Later in the war a Polish pilot Bruno Uram lived with our family. He adored my mother and father. He had no family of his own and “adopted” them calling them Mum and Dad. Towards the end of the war he went missing, presumed dead. Mum believed from hints in a final letter to them that he had volunteered as a suicide bomber. He was posthumously awarded the highest Polish military honour you could get. This medal was accepted on his behalf by Mum and Dad.
Lionel had left school with good results and taken an office job in a knitting needle factory in Redditch, that being the only work available at the time and was bored out of his mind because he wasn’t being stretched. He wanted to join the RAF as a pilot but was rejected on eyesight grounds. The war then came along and I was in the WAAF. My commanding officer was dealing with the interviews for a trainee to go into the field of a new technology which included radar, then a very new concept. I begged him to allow my brother to take the aptitude exam. I remember him saying patronizingly that it was a VERY difficult exam designed for what would now be called “high flyers”. To please me I think or maybe to prove his point the allowed Lionel to take the test. My CO went in halfway through and just as he predicted, Lionel was gazing into space, chewing his pencil. His smug attitude changed when he realized Lionel had not only finished but had obtained top marks! He was accepted into this very new specialized field and became a Royal Engineer!
My brother Edgar had inherited his passion for horses from my mother. She loved them although strangely she had a phobia and could never bring herself to touch the fur of any animal. Anyway, Edgar managed to secure a position with the cavalry. He was posted to Egypt and his job was to ride out to the outlying villages in search of rebel guns. Sadly he was eventually made a prisoner of war in a concentration camp and his health after the war was never fully recovered. When he came out of the concentration camp he brought with him an exquisite intricate embroidery he had done of his regiments badge, on a cotton handkerchief. I spent the war in the WAAF at various bases across the country in recruitment. One of my jobs for about 8 months involved escorting girls across the Irish Sea from Belfast to England. Luckily I had excellent sea legs - I needed them! After the was I returned to my old job in the Civil Service. My sister Phyl was also in the WAAF with me.
Mum was very involved with the chapel all the time she was in the valley (although I don’t remember her going much to services although she sent us to Sunday school.) During the war when the government were encouraging people to grow their own vegetables, they had campaign posters of Timothy Turnip and Potato Pete. I remember she made beautiful 1ft high dolls based on these characters which were offered as a prize at a chapel fair.
My mother’s side of the family
My Mum Blodwyn was pretty with very dark hair and notably deep blue eyes, unassuming, gentle and compliant like her father. Her sister Maggie was quite striking, very blonde and I particularly remember how stiffly she would walk down our road with her nose in the air. She had inherited more of my grandmother’s personality and traits.
Mum was 13 when she first worked for the Arthur Edwin Patey and his wife Laura (nee Weare)who ran the Coach and Horses pub in Chapel Road, Six Bells, generally helping out during Mrs Patey’s pregnancy and taking care of baby Donald whilst he was small. Later on, she took over cooking for them after their cook walked out one day. Nearby lived Mr Patey’s brother who later went on to marry his brother’s widow, an eye opener in those days! Mum was very impressed when in later years I told her that I’d seen “young Donald Patey” taking part in a religious discussion on TV.
My paternal grandparents Annie (nee Lewis) and Gomer Simmonds lived opposite us in Arael St. and Mum’s sister Maggie next door to them. Apparently there had been strained contact with them during the first few years of my parents marriage, but by the time I was old enough to be aware, despite their close proximity, there had ceased to be contact with them altogether, so we children never experienced grandparents as such. Maggie too ignored us, hence the walking down the street nose upturned. I never really knew what had caused the rift. Annie Lewis’s family was from Scranton, Pennsylvania. They had a fruit farm growing peaches. Apparently great grandfather Lewis was drinking heavily, so great grandmother (also called Annie) dumped his belongings where he used to drink and never saw him again. Annie Lewis left on her own kept a gun to deter intruders and apparently wounded one. Later in life the government wanted her land for the railroad to be built. They offered her compensation money which she refused as too little. The case went to court and she acted for herself and ended up getting a more lucrative offer which she accepted.
Gomer Simmonds had a brother in Abersychen and one in America. Gomer and Annie used to go across to Scranton to visit him, Gomer seeking casual work at the mines there. Over the years they made a number of trips and eventually my mother’s brothers Joseph and Edwin ended up remaining there I believe but Harry came home to live in Wales. Born in Scranton, my Mum took her first steps at 9 months old on board the ship on the final trip back.
I was married straight after the war to my beloved William Casson and we had a daughter. Life was put into perspective when I had three breast cancer operations not long after her birth. No dainty stitching, neat scars, reconstructive surgery or counselling sixty years ago, it was all basic stuff, but here I am still at 93. I mention this incident in my life only so that it might encourage any descendants in a similar position reading this to see that cancer is by no means always the winner.