A Mining Village
Treorchy - A Town Of Music & Song
Despite the remarks by broadcaster Michael Aspel that Treorchy was a town named after its famous male voice choir, there is of course truth in the fact that it was thanks to the musical heritage of the town that it achieved world notoriety.
As with the rest of the Rhondda Valleys, Treorchy was originally an agricultural area but with the discovery of coal it became a densely populated industrial town. The first deep mine in Treorchy was sunk in the 1860s by David Davies of Llandinam, owner of the Ocean Coal Company. The town rapidly grew around the coal mining industry during the late 19th and early 20th century, but by the end of the twentieth century all the local pits had closed creating an economic downturn in the community.
The village of Treorchy apparently takes its name from the stream that flows from the mountainside above the village into the River Rhondda. On the 1875 Ordnance Survey map, the stream is referred to as ‘Nant Orky'. Gorchi possibly comes from the welsh word Gorchwy, suggesting a stream marking a boundary. Prior to industrialisation the Tithe maps of the area show an unpopulated area of scattered farmhouses, such as Abergorchwy, Tile-du, and Glyn Coli. The area was predominantly meadows, pastures and woodland and farmed by tenant farmers such as Walter Edwards, Llewellyn Lewis and Mary Evans.
Much of the land, in common with most of the Rhondda at that time, was owned by one of the great families of Glamorgan with much of Treorchy coming under the domain of the Marquis of Bute Estate. However in the 1850s the nature of the area began to change with the beginning of the exploitation of the Upper Rhondda's coal seams. This process was begun in 1855 with the opening of the Tylecoch Colliery by Messr John Carr, Morrison and Company. Due to many difficulties faced by the geological positioning of the mine, it was sold in 1865 to Thomas Jones of Cardiff, although its life was indeed shortlived. Somewhat more enterprising was the opening of the Abergorchy and Glyncoli Levels in 1859 and 1860.
The Abergorchy Colliery was sunk in 1865 by George Insole. Additionally the opening of the Parc and the Dare collieries in the nearby village of Cwmparc led to the expansion of Treorchy with thousands of immigrants flooding into the area in search of work, largely from north and west Wales.
Originally Abergorchy level was bought by Insole in June 1862 for £7,000 from Houghty Huxon, the former manager of the Bute Merthyr Colliery and in 1865 he sank the deeper seams which commenced production later that year.
The colliery was sold in 1874 to Burnyear, Brown and Company from Liverpool who sank the shaft even deeper to produce 220,000 tons of “black gold” with its workforce of over 1,900 men.
The Ocean Coal Company purchased the pit in 1926, but due to geological problems was forced to close in April 1938.
Hundreds of new homes were built to cater for this influx, as well as a plethora of chapels to answer the new population’s religious needs such as Ramah, Gosen and Bethlehem. Dominating its religious community was that of the mighty Noddfa Chapel, one of the largest in South Wales and undoubtedly any dedicated worshipper was worthy of employment in the Ocean Coal Company should he wish it.
Pentwyn Hospital was opened nearby where Dr Fergus Armstrong held sway for decades. Public houses – including The Stag, Prince of Wales, Red Cow, Cardiff Arms (the first home of the town’s rugby football team) and several workmen’s institutes and shops also opened their welcoming doors the length of High and Bute Street and by 1900 Treorchy was a major economic and social centre within the Rhondda.
In 1928 Treorchy was also the venue chosen for the most prestigious event in the Welsh cultural calendar, that of the Royal National Eisteddfod, the only time it has ever been held in the Rhondda. It also boasted a fine rugby football club, formed in 1886. Within five years Treorchy RFC was a strong voice in the Welsh Football Union and were playing in the Rhondda Division.
The Parc and Dare Theatre hosted numerous local amateur plays, musicals, operas etc. as well as professional ones from all over the world. Built originally as a Workingmen's Library and Institute, this imposing building was first opened in March 1895 at a cost of £4,000. It was financed by the workers of the Park and the Dare Collieries, through the first Mineworkers Trade Association. Miners pledged a penny out of every pound they earned to finance its building and upkeep, a great commitment when you realise average wages were less than two pounds per week. In 1913 the original Station Street site was enlarged with the addition of the Theatre to the structure, designed by Merthyr-born architect Jacob Rees.
The original plan for the theatre was as a major music hall venue. However by the time of its completion it was obvious to its management committee that music hall had had its heyday and that the future lay with the new ‘moving pictures'. Thus the Parc and Dare Theatre began its life as a cinema, with the addition of live performances from local dramatic companies as well as hosting prestigious annual semi- national Eisteddfodau.
The 1926 general strike had a severe effect on the Parc and Dare. Miners no longer had an income with which to support the hall, and having enough food on the table became such
a greater priority than culture and entertainment. As such the hall faced bankruptcy and the miners were forced to sell 99% of their shares to the Ocean Coal Company.
In 1930 the Parc and Dare screened the first ‘talkie' picture, "Broadway Melody", and crowds flocked from miles around to witness this new phenomenon. Post nationalisation the Parc and Dare Lodge of the National Union of Mineworkers re-purchased the hall at a cost of £35,000. With the advent of television and the decline of the local mining industry the theatre underwent a period of decline, making its closure almost inevitable. However the management of the hall donated it to the local authority, the Rhondda Borough Council, in 1975. Since that time the local authority has spent large amounts of money making it a thriving cinema, theatre and concert hall and a valuable part of the Valley's cultural landscape.
With the decline of mining in the 20th century Treorchy was better placed than many of the other villages in the Rhondda. Unlike many of their neighbouring comunities Treorchy hosted a number of other industries, most notably the factories of companies such as Polikoff's, a clothing manufacturer, as well as a factory of the corporate giant EMI, and also T.C.Jones.. As such the desolation some villages underwent with the cessation of large scale mining operations, and the hardships and unemployment this entailed, were in some measure avoided in Treorchy, although sadly the 21st century would see the end of much of this industry.
(c) Copyright Dean Powell