When celebrating the history of the world-famous hymn tune Cwm Rhondda we are also praising the great cultural heritage of Wales. Surely no other congregational hymn has been more closely associated with the land of its origin than Cwm Rhondda has with the Welsh. Whether we examine our country in the context of its universal image as the Land of Song or as the very heartland of a proud tradition of rugby football, it is impossible to ignore the impact this robust and striking melody has had on the Welsh psyche.
For more than a hundred years Cwm Rhondda has roused the passions as the very embodiment of hwyl in some of the world's largest concert halls and sporting arenas. From its rather inauspicious beginnings in a small valley chapel, Cwm Rhondda has developed into what is probably considered one of the world's most famous hymn tunes and closer to home could be regarded as almost a second national anthem for the country of its birth.
The background to the composition of the hymn stems from a time when those deacon-dominated nonconformist chapels were filled with the sound of four-part harmony singing and when coal was still king in the industrial valleys of south Wales. Simultaneously the growth of working-class music making can be traced to these two discernible features of valley life – the chapel and the colliery. Thrust together in these new communities of unplanned monotonous terraced homes clinging precariously on valley mountainsides, people found an escape from their harsh surroundings by expressing themselves through song. Despite the immense social deprivations of the Victorian era, the high infant mortality rate, the threat of colliery accidents, lengthy poverty-stricken strikes and unimaginable day-to-day hardships, communities were united in a musical intensity the likes of which we will never see again.
It was in such unique surroundings that John Hughes was born in Ivor Street, Dowlais on November 24th 1873, the eldest of seven sons and a daughter to Ellen (b 1885) and collier Evan Hughes (b 1851). Although in later years he was referred to as the eldest of six sons, it is probable two children died in infancy, namely Benjamin and Henry. In 1874 the young family moved to Hollybush, Tonteg in the parish of Llantwit Fardre. According to the 1901 National Census the children were named as John (colliery clerk), aged 26, David William (engineer) aged 22, Thomas Evan (railway clerk), aged 20, James (council clerk), aged 16, school children Benjamin, aged seven, Mary Ellen, aged 10, Henry, aged seven and five-year-old Alfred.
Their father became a deacon and precentor (or chorusmaster) at the nearby Salem Welsh Baptist Chapel, hardly surprising given his rich musical background. A talented singer and violinist, he had played in the string band of the Unitarian Church at Cefncoed and was obviously a great influence over his eldest son.
At the age of 12, John Hughes began work as a doorboy at the nearby Gelynog Colliery in the vicinity of Beddau before contracting typhoid in a local stream and being bedridden for lengthy periods of time. It marked the end of his time as doorboy, which may have come as a blessing given the fact that he worked in often dangerous conditions.
He was responsible for the opening and closing of the large doors along the underground roads that led to the coal face. The doors were an essential part of the mine ventilation system, helping to control the flow of air through the colliery workings. In later years he worked on the Barry railway and it was said that he was part of a well-known carriage full of singers and composers who travelled to work together on a daily basis, sharing their talents on board.
He remained in the coal industry for the remainder of his life, later becoming a clerk in the Traffic Department of the Great Western Colliery near Pontypridd. The colliery itself was only a short walk from the chapel where he would give the debut performance of his most famous composition.
During his childhood John showed an interest in music and after his father bought him a harmonium in Pontlottyn, which was delivered to Tonteg on a makeshift cart or “gambo”, his interest in musical composition increased. He was later introduced to Rhedynog Price G.T.S.C. of Cardiff who taught him theory and harmony lessons and assisted him in obtaining an Advanced Certificate from the tonic sol-fa college. Such building blocks in musical education proved an asset for the early development of this gifted young musician who flourished over the coming years. On August 16 th 1905, the 31-year-old composer married schoolteacher Hannah Maria David, the daughter of signalman Caradoc David at Salem Chapel and the couple had two children named Gwyn and Dilys. A lifelong member of Salem, John later succeeded his father as deacon and precentor and rapidly became an active member of the musical life of Pontypridd and its surrounding areas. He began composing hymn tunes specifically for the congregation of Temple Church on the Graig, Pontypridd and submitted hymns to the annual Sunday School Music Festivals in the market town.
In 1909, the rather modest and humble young man, received an illuminated address from the United Baptist Choirs of the district of Pontypridd thanking him for his work as the honorary secretary of their singing festivals. There are also glowing tributes to him as an organist, conductor and composer in the local press during this period. Many of these lesser-known hymns are now largely forgotten, but were indeed favourites among congregations the length and breadth of the country. Named after his own children, other relatives or favourite places, his vast collection of some forty to fifty Sunday School marches, children's song, folk tunes and congregational hymns included Frondeg, Darlun Fy Mam, Milwyr Seion, Yr Ysgol Sul, Moliant Plant, Y Sanctaidd Lu, O Argwlydd Fy Nuw, Bethlehem, Tonteg, Llanilltyd, Gweyn, Dilys, Danygraig, Ceridwen and Tregarth. The tunes were usually written in an exercise book at his home although varying reports suggest he used to chalk pieces of music on coal trucks in the colliery and invite fellow “musical miners” to offer their criticism of the work. If they approved then it was written on paper and sent to the committees of various music festivals. If they disapproved then the truck was shunted away, bearing music destined for obliteration by coal dust.
It was during the early part of September 1907 that John Hughes was approached by D.W.Thomas, the secretary, precentor, organist and leader of Capel Rhondda Welsh Baptist Chapel in Hopkinstown, Pontypridd. He invited the young musician and fellow organist with whom he enjoyed a close association, to compose a new hymn tune for a forthcoming Annual Cymanfa Ganu, or music festival, at Capel Rhondda. The event, which was due to be held on November 1 st 1907, would also coincide with the installation of a new pipe organ at the chapel. According to a rare handwritten letter by his wife, he came home late from work and told her of his meeting with D.W.Thomas. She explained, “My husband had to wait for inspiration before composing. Some weeks had passed when he went to service on a Sunday morning and when he came home he said, ‘I think I have it'.”
He spent the remainder of the day composing the piece on his upright piano at home, unusually missing the chapel services for the rest of that day and by bedtime it was completed. On the following day he visited Capel Rhondda and sought D.W. Thomas's approval for his new work with Mr Thomas's son playing the piece on the piano in the chapel. It is generally believed that he wrote the melody with the words of Guide Me Oh Thou Great Jehovah (or Redeemer) in mind. The original Welsh hymn was actually entitled Arglwydd Arwain Trwy'r Anialiwch , written by Wales's most prolific hymn writer William Williams (Pantycelyn) (1717- 1791) which first appeared in a hymnal published in 1745. A farmer's son from Cefn-y-Coed near Llandovery, he intended to be a doctor until hearing the charismatic preacher Howell Harris and later became recognised as one of the most important Methodist leaders of the century.
Pantycelyn's hymn is taken from the Biblical story in Exodus which describes the experience of God's people in their travel through the wilderness from the escape from slavery in Egypt to their final arrival forty years later in the land of Canaan. During this time their needs were supplied by God, including the daily supply of Manna. They were guided by a cloud by day and a fire by night. In 1771 another hymnal entitled Hymns on Various Subjects was published by Peter Williams (1723-1796) of Carmarthenshire. He was of no relation to Pantycelyn, but set about translating verses one, three and five of the original Arglwydd Arwain Trwy'r Anialiwch into English. It is this version, with its rousing “Bread of Heaven” refrain performed with striking effectiveness that we now most closely associate with John Hughes's original melody.
However, it appears that neither of these versions were actually performed on the first night in Capel Rhondda as John Hughes himself took his seat at the mighty organ. Instead the version that was written independently by Ann Griffiths (1776-1805) of Llanfihangel-yng-Ngwynfa, Montgomeryshire was more than likely used for the first performance. Like many of her generation, Ann Griffiths experienced a spiritual awakening under the influence of the Methodist Revival. She went on to write some of the most important hymns in the Welsh language, works which are regarded by many as masterpieces of European religious verse. It was her version, Wele'n Sefyll Rhwng y Myrtwydd that John Hughes adopted for that particular night. However, few can deny that following the passage of time it is still Peter Williams's translation of the William Williams Pantycelyn original that we associate with this melody.
Originally John Hughes's hymn was entitled Rhondda in honour of the chapel where it was first performed. However, within a year the eminent choral conductor Harry Evans (1873-1914) is believed to have renamed it. Mr Evans, also born in Dowlais in the same year as John Hughes, was probably the most famous Welsh conductor and composer of his time and had suggested using the tune in a Cymanfa Ganu in Liverpool in the early part of 1908, Quite simply he was of the opinion it could be confused with another hymn of the same name written by Moses Owen Jones (1842-1908) of Caernarfon, who moved to the Rhondda in 1862 as precentor of Carmel Chapel and founder conductor of the Treherbert Male Voice Choir. He also formed the Carmel Mixed Choir and they gave the first performance in the Rhondda of Handel's Messiah in September 1876. According to reports Mr Evans changed the name himself to Cwm Rhondda for the Liverpool Festival and wrote to John Hughes some days later to advise him that it was “for the best”. Other reports suggest that he advised the composer to rename it, with John Hughes deciding on Cwm Rhondda following the valley which began literally on the doorstep of Hopkinstown itself.
Whatever the method of renaming it was, John Hughes was quick to acknowledge the advice and although the original version of Rhondda was printed in tonic-solfa copies, it was renamed in 1908 to its present title of Cwm Rhondda. In May 1910 copies of Cwm Rhondda and some of his other hymn tunes were received by Queen Alexandra who wrote to him to thank him for the music and gradually its appeal spread far and wide, enjoying growing international appeal in both a religious, competitive and sporting setting.
However, the fact that it was performed as a secular item in certain circumstances, did nothing to please the Baptist movement. The Archdruid of the Gorsedd at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, Rev Elvet Lewis, pastor of King's Cross Tabernacle in London said the Welsh Baptist Hymnal should ban it altogether because it was so frequently being performed at “football matches and on charabancs”. Similarly the Rev D. Ivor Jones condemned the use of it in church services at a well publicised meeting of the Blaenavon Easter Vestry. It was undoubtedly becoming more of a firm favourite at sporting events than any other tune. During the 1920s newspaper reports claimed that Arsenal lost the cup at Swansea because of the impromptu performance of Cwm Rhondda by the spectators around the field! When the Welsh rugby team took on Ireland in Cardiff in 1924, the congregation of 50,000 sang it for the Prince of Wales.
On June 22 1918, which was Coronation Day, an Evensong Service was held at Westminster Abbey to aid of the Committee of the Welsh Prisoners of War National Fund. Attended by Her Majesty Queen Mary, David Lloyd George and members of the Royal Family, John Hughes was invited but declined the offer, and his chair was left vacant throughout the service. One report suggests he was too nervous to sit alongside such high-ranking individuals, while others claim he would not want to wear a top hat and frockcoat to the event as requested! However, the congregation was deeply moved by the hymn, so much so that many of the British elite wrote to the composer – not least of all the organist at the Abbey, E.S.Roper, to express his delight and admiration.
John Hughes was becoming a much sought-after conductor in his own right, particularly when it came to public performances of Cwm Rhondda . Although he often avoided publicity and preferred to remain rather modest in his work, he still undertook a number of high profile engagements. On May 18 th 1927 he conducted a choir of a dozen miners 159 yards below ground at the bottom of Pwllgwaun Colliery in Pontypridd, better known as “Dan's Muck Hole”. The concert, which included Cwm Rhondda and another popular hymn Y Delyn Aur , was actually broadcast by the old Welsh broadcasting station 5WA with B. Gregory Evans RCM accompanying the composer underground to conduct Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau at the end. The Western Mail newspaper remarked, “All the items were rendered with fervour and rich musical tone.”
When Prince George (later the Duke of Kent) was visiting the pit-head baths at Cwmparc near Treorchy, the day shift had congregated in the wash-room and conducted by Arthur Morgan sang Cwm Rhondda while splashing in the showers. At the Treorchy National Eisteddfod in 1928 David Lloyd George and his wife Megan arrived late due to a car accident, but were there to witness the most bizarre of incidents. The current Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was in attendance along with Eisteddfod Presidents Colonel Watres of Scranton, Pennsylvannia and the Rt Hon J.H.Thomas JP. Without warning members of the Communist Party, for which the Rhondda Fach and especially Maerdy was renowned, began waving flags and calling for “The Red Flag” to be performed on stage in the main marquee. Without hesitation the conductor W Morgan Evans avoided an incident by calling out “Let Mr Baldwin hear Cwm Rhondda!” as a way of reducing any unpleasant disharmony with the congregation of 20,000 quickly following his lead!
Personal letters to the composer illustrate how members of the armed forces had also taken the hymn tune to their hearts as it helped dispel homesickness. A letter from Colonel E. O. Scaiffe explained that the Royal Welch Fusiliers broke into song at Khartoum while another explained that the Welsh Territorials also sang it during the capture of Palestine. More notably it was also sung by the Royal Welch Fusiliers as they went into the slaughter at Mametz Wood on the Somme as a form of boosting morale amongst the troops. For many it was the last piece of music they heard. Many soldiers also visited Tonteg to tell him they had even heard the hymn sung in the trenches and that Germans were heard singing it across “no-man's land” on a still evening. When Dr Joseph Bowen took his Royal Welsh Gleemen on a tour of the United States they performed at Utah State Prison. At the time two black prisoners were awaiting execution and we asked what song they would like heard. They both requested Cwm Rhondda . It was composer Dr Daniel Protheroe who sent John Hughes frequent invitations to conduct singing festivals in the United States, although he declined each of the offers, preferring once more to avoid the glare of publicity.
During the early 1930s John Hughes accepted the invitation to conduct the hymn at a series of high-profile music festivals throughout south Wales which attracted congregations of tens of thousands of people. On June 22 nd 1930 the South Wales Echo organised a Music Festival at Roath Park Pavilion, Cardiff for an audience of 30,000 people conducted by Ronald Chivers with the Roath Temple Band. Such was its success that another was held at Ynysangharad War Memorial Park in Pontypridd with multiple eisteddfod winner Madam Jennie Ellis as soloist and W.Griffiths leading the 5 th Battalion of the Welch Regiment. Organised by the Parks Committee and the Pontypridd and District League of Christian Churches, B.Gregory Evans, the eminent conductor from Pontypridd and former assistant to Daniel Protheroe in Chicago, USA, conducted the festival.
Finally the third festival with John Hughes conducting Cwm Rhondda came at Beechwood Park in Newport, again organised by the South Wales Echo. Newport Musical Society led the singing with D.Brinley Williams as conductor, the Newport S.A. Bands played throughout and Robert Ivory was the tenor soloist. In a letter to the Echo Mr Hughes explained, “I am prepared to go with you to assist you in the work you are doing. It is to me a great privilege to have the opportunity. If the people will not sing praises, then we must take it to them. The effects will be far-reaching.”
In his working life John Hughes was disappointed when his shares in the Great Western Colliery were bought up for less than the face value and following the emergence of the Powell Dyffryn Company as its new owners he was transferred to manual work on the trucks. Having been ill for just a few days, although following a gradual deterioration in his health owing to working in the coal industry, he died at Tregarth on May 14 th 1932 aged just 58. On a cold and wet day Tonteg came to a standstill as hundreds of men donned their black bowler hats and they lined the streets to perform the hymn while Mr Hughes's body was carried into Salem Chapel for the funeral service. The impressive list of mourners included some of the most distinguished musicians in the south Wales area at the time, including founder conductor of Cor Meibion Pontypridd Gwilym T. Jones and conductor of the Llantrisant & District Choral Society Dr JCR Morgan along with the Trisant Lodge of Freemasons.
While few of his other works have so robustly stood the test of time, Cwm Rhondda's popularity continued to grow and has since been translated into almost eighty languages. In the USA it has several popular versions to the words Come Ye Saints Look Here and Wonder and also God of Grace and God of Glory. Although its roots remain deeply entrenched in places of worship throughout the world, nobody can deny its affection in the hearts of rugby football supporters, particularly those from Wales. Now performed with incredible fervour as an almost tribal chant in the great sporting arenas of the world, Cwm Rhondda's international appeal cannot be underestimated.
Cwm Rhondda was later sung to Ann Griffith's Welsh version in the 1941 Academy Award winning movie How Green Was My Valley , starring Maureen O'Hara and Walter Pidgeon and based on the novel by Richard Llewellyn from neighbouring Gilfach Goch. Ten years later and it was also sung to the words God of Grace and God of Glory in the soundtrack of the Humphrey Bogart film The African Queen. As one of the Royal Family's favourite hymns, in more recent years it was performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in September 1997 and at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in April 2002.
Surely no other hymn tune has enjoyed such international appeal and worldwide admiration as Cwm Rhondda . As we celebrate its centenary let us remember that it was here in Tonteg that John Hughes became inspired to write those first few notes that would later grow into a world-famous hymn. Today it has become renowned as an anthem of sporting arenas, congregational singing, male voice choir concerts and above all as the very epitome of all that is passionate, rousing and inspiring about the proud cultural heritage of Wales. Long may this continue.