Tape recorded interview
Oral history: Reminiscences of Longtown Eisteddfod
Reminiscences of Longtown Eisteddfod by Muriel Watkins
We started the Eisteddfod in 1934 – this will be about our 65th year. There was nothing before we started, nowhere to hold this event. Nowhere. We used to have a concert, perhaps, in the old school, but there wasn’t much seating accommodation. When the suggestion was put to us about this Eisteddfod, I thought ‘a wonderful idea’. Something to do, you know. We were living on the border of Wales, and the Baptist minister, Mr Winfred Davies, came from Wales. He suggested it, and everyone seemed to catch on and be keen. You can imagine, at 18 or 19 years of age, you wouldn’t wait to do things later on, you would think to yourself ‘Ah, wait a minute, can I do it?’ At that time I thought it was wonderful, and everyone else did.
Our first problem was where we would hold it. The Chapel wasn’t big enough. We were very strong at one time – the Chapel would accommodate 150 people. My father used to say, ‘Well, come along’ – when we were children – ‘if you don’t come along you won’t get a seat’. People used to go, with no television and radio in those days. When we talked about the Eisteddfod, people said ‘Where are we going to hold it?’ We thought for a long time, and then I said, ‘Well, there’s the waterworks down there’. People seemed to think we could never hold it there, and would we get permission because it belonged to Mr Montague Harris. He used to live down where Dr Brierley lives now. My father had gone to school with him and knew him – they used to be boys together. My father said, ‘You go and ask him’, and I did. Would he give us permission to use it? – ‘Yes, my dear’. That was all I needed. You can imagine where you were worried and didn’t know where this thing was going to be, and then you were told you could have this – even the waterworks!
The water bottling factory had been going on some years before. If there was any money, Mr Harris would have a go at it. He got the water from the mountain, and then bottled it in small bottles, smaller than pop bottles or milk bottles today. There used to be a tank at the castle here. It used to be very, very dangerous – sometimes I used to be afraid the children playing around the lid on the top of it could get dislodged and I used to be really worried about the children going up there because they could be down in this water, and they used to like to play up at the castle. But they filled that in afterwards. Not many local people bought the water. People had their own wells, and people weren’t wealthy round here at that time. All they would have, perhaps, was a little bit of ground. They would make do with this bit of ground, perhaps they would keep a pig, perhaps a couple of sheep and poultry, and perhaps a cow if they could. They had produce in their garden, and would make do that way. And they would have their own well or spring. We used to have to go down and carry water from the dip-well. This well here served the terrace row, the corner house, and the Jessamine, and the cottage where Mr Monger lives, and Baines cottages – these few houses round here. Then you would go on somewhere else and you would find another well. I have carried water from the well, and I’m 84 now. We’ve had the water pipes many, many years now. I had running water when my children were young, a tap just outside in the back. Mrs Lane, Hayden’s mother – she lived at the Green Cottage – every year she used to go and scrub this well. Oh, it used to be beautiful, and the water from there was so pure.
I don’t know if Mr Montague Harris built the hall. It would definitely have been there in 1920. We used to pass by it and were not particularly interested as children. No one seemed to take much notice of it – it was just there, and everyone was familiar with it. Eventually no one much used the building. If we hadn’t used the hall, someone else might have knocked on the idea, or goodness knows what might have happened – it would have deteriorated by now. The building was all locked up before we opened it.
Oh dear, what we had to do. More than a dozen of us went down. We had our brooms, our mops, our dusters, our floorcloths and everything you can imagine. When we opened the door there was water running everywhere, broken bottles, the floor was like the old fashioned floors, sort of cobbled. The windows you couldn’t see out of because of cobwebs. But we started, and by the end of the day things were looking a little bit better. We had several days there. We didn’t have to replace anything, we just cleaned it. The windows were cracked, but we had to make the best of a bad job. There was a big pillar in the centre, or may have been two, and someone said, ‘That’s going to be a little bit awkward’, but we overcame that sort of thing. We had got somewhere to hold the event. One of our deacons made the platform. We had to have seating accommodation – we got all that from the old Cwm Chapel just off the Craswall road. We borrowed every seat in the chapel. We needed other things besides chairs – anything we could have we borrowed. There were these old metal boilers, round ones – those were the only form of heating. A couple of those were in there, and they looked rather ugly, but we didn’t have to think about things like that, because we wanted somewhere where we could hold this event.
Eventually the Parish Council took over the hall. They had the idea that other things could be held there. Mr Alex Johnson lent the money – I think there’s a tablet to him in the hall – and then the Parish Council took over. We were always trying to better it – we got up several concerts and different things to provide money to try and improve it. It took a lot of work. Eventually the old stones were moved out, and today it’s quite a comfortable little place. Mrs Whitehead has done so much for the hall, she’s had grants and things like that, and also Mr Burson. We used to have to provide things, to get up the money, perhaps we would make eighty or a hundred pounds on a concert.
We had programmes out, and all different events for the children, and some for the adults. I think we had several choirs come down from the hills. They were keen to come, coachloads they would come in. We were there sometimes till one, half past one, in the morning. Someone said to me last night at Chapel, ‘We didn’t finish till ten past eleven last night’. I said, ‘That was early, my dear’. We didn’t used to finish sometimes till half past one. John Owen y Fenny used to be with the Marches Eisteddfods – he lived in Abergavenny and we even had him out here. He was so pleased to think we were having an Eisteddfod, because we’re on the border of Wales, look. He was very helpful. He was a wonderful man. He used to preside over the affair. We had presidents, and then of course we had to have adjudicators. We had them from off, and we used to have to pay them.
We used to have songs for the children under 7, and another for 7 to 11, another class for 11 to 14 and then on up. We used to have lots of entries. The other day Mrs Pritchard of the Bryn was telling me that the night before there was not one local entry in singing, reciting, playing the piano, duets or anything of that, not one. Not all our entrants were local, they used to come from Wales as well, but at least some of the children were local. Some would probably go in for the cooking side of it, or perhaps drawing. They would come and bring their drawings, which were in the programme.
We used to have a set piece. Now it’s all own selection, which isn’t quite so good. It doesn’t give the adjudicator quite the same chance. We had a number of teams in the entries. Of course we couldn’t have time for them all to go up and stand on the platform. So down at Treheath there was a deacon and his mother and his wife, and they used to allow them to go down there. They had a piano – he was the old minister to the Chapel – and the adjudicator could go down with them and hear them all, perhaps, and whichever he picked out, perhaps three or four of them to go on the platform, he would just choose the best. The same with the recitation, the adjudicator would go down with them for a little while, while something else was going on. We kept things going. Perhaps some music while he would be judging the piano solos or something like that. It was a great honour to be on the platform.
We had to hire a piano, from the music shop in Abergavenny, Haines and Co, and have it brought out. I had to arrange all those things. We had a treasurer and I did the secretary work. And then we used to have little prize bags made, little square bags with a ribbon attached to go round their necks, and each child who won a prize would have a prize bag. And I think they thought more of the prize bags than they thought of the money – they would have 20 pence or something in them. Not many today are left making the prize bags, but Mrs Maggie Powell still does – her eyesight is almost gone but she always makes prize bags. Lots of people don’t bother today, but people used to be keen. One would say, ‘I’ll make a dozen’, and another, ‘We’ll make some’. They had first, second and third prize and a consolation prize. All the young children had a prize bag, perhaps a little 5p in it. They thought so much of that. You would see them walking round the hall, proud to have a bag. And it encouraged them to come again next year.
People used to send their children to music lessons then, and Mrs Peggy Watkins had a lot of pupils. How much better than watching some of this television. Children knew how to play then. She had lots of pupils, and used to train them and work so hard for the Eisteddfod. There’s a cup given in her memory today. The children with the most points get to keep it for one year. She lived up at Craswall, and would have perhaps twenty pupils. The children used to go there, and she was very well arranged. She used to bring her pupils, and it did so much to keep them interested. At that time it was just the piano we had – today of course they have different instruments. A lady with a harp comes today – she provided a lot of entries for the Eisteddfod this year. She’s been coming about three years, and she brings her pupils with her. They come from Hereford. This is the only Eisteddfod round here – there may be one in Kington, where there used to be one.
At two o’clock it starts and they have an hour’s break, perhaps at about five, and then start off for the evening session. Sometimes, if some of the afternoon isn’t finished they bring a couple of items over into the evening. Up to last year we only charged fifty pence to go in, and nothing for children. Now they charge a pound for the adults, and the children go in free. So it’s not extortionate. They went in at two o’clock the other day, some of the people, and they stayed there till eleven. Well, if you got tired, you could go home when you wanted to. If you only wanted to listen to a couple of items in the evening, you could come then. They charged for refreshments, perhaps five pence for a cup of tea and five pence for a piece of cake, or ten pence perhaps for a sandwich.
In the interval, they used to lay on tea up here at the Chapel. The more privileged people, we went down to Treheath. Mrs Williams – she was connected with the Chapel – used to provide the most beautiful tea at Treheath. It was all laid out with her best silver, her white tablecloth – it was lovely. Mrs Williams used to say to me, ‘Bring your little girl down with you’, and she was among all the adults. My daughter was saying to Mr Monger about it on Saturday, she used to have a pretty cup and saucer and little plate which was really plastic. The rest of course it was china, but she thought she was very privileged, she thought ‘I must be special’. She must have been a child of about four or five.
We had an interval of an hour or so, and then we went down there. Mrs Williams so looked forward to it – she loved to get her best china out, and her white tablecloth. She would have about twelve people, or maybe more. There would be an accompanist, and the secretary and treasurer, and at least three adjudicators – that would be six – and anyone else official. Perhaps there would be two presidents, one for the afternoon and one for the evening. All went down there, and perhaps the minister. The others came up to the Chapel for cups of tea. They had the loan at one time, of what is a house now opposite the vicarage – the old stables. And then at one time when it was empty, where Lacy cottage is. Mr Warren Lewis owned it – he used to be at the Post Office – and I had the pleasure of asking him could we use that for tea. ‘Oh yes, yes, you can use it.’ We used to have teas there a little nearer than coming up to the Chapel. That was for the people watching and taking part.
People would walk, they would think nothing of walking. If they had a car, they would bring a few with them. As the years proceeded, as things began to improve, most of the farmers had cars. There used to be horses and traps in the village. There is in fact a stable at the Chapel now. They wanted to use it for some other purpose – but no, we suggested. They’ve got the stalls there where the horses used to be tied. They cleaned it out not so long ago. They were going to knock these stalls down. My daughter said, ‘You mustn’t do that, we must keep it’. You mustn’t destroy things like that. They used to take the horses out of the traps, I think they could have four or five there, and bring them perhaps a little bit of hay to munch away with while we were in service.
I always remember people coming from the hills, and down just over the fields they went for a walk during the interval, to a patch where Mr Harris had some of his narcissus. There was a little fence round them, and of course local people knew they belonged to him, but they went down and spotted these flowers over the fence. And they were coming back to the hall with bunches of flowers. Oh, we didn’t know what to think nor what to say. And they were so pleased with these flowers. Dear, dear, we didn’t know where to look when they brought them in the hall, with Mr Harris allowing us the hall, and them coming in and taking his flowers.
Another amusing incident – for taking the money in they used to have an old hen house. Two people used to sit in there and take the money as the people came in. There was a little fastenment on it, and someone went up and fastened it in and took this henhouse into the middle of the road. Only someone saw them, and released the men. I said it wasn’t a very nice experience was it, to be stuck in the middle of the road.
We went on for some years, but then there was lack of interest and one thing and another. It was difficult in the war years with the blackout, and after the war with the petrol. We had about seventeen or eighteen years before this short period when it lapsed for six or seven years, and people used to say ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have an Eisteddfod again’. But those sort of people weren’t the ones who wanted to come and help. We always used to have our Eisteddfod on the Easter Saturday, and at Newton school they always had a little ‘competitive meeting’ as they called it, on Easter Monday. People used to go to both of these events, and they became very popular. Then Newton school was closed and sold, and eventually they couldn’t have their competitive meeting. After a while, Mrs Jones – mother of Mr Brian Jones – wrote to me and said ‘Look here, we’ve got money left over from our competitive meeting’. Of course, when we started, the Baptist Chapel provided the funds. There were lots of expenses – for the prizes, paying the adjudicators, hiring the piano, printing expenses for the programmes. Eventually Mrs Jones said to me ‘Couldn’t we start the Eisteddfod again – would you start it’. So I thought about it for a while, and thought ‘Why not?’ So we started it again, and it’s gone on from year to year since then. That was in about the 1950s. I carried on until about 4 or 5 years ago. Then I thought to myself, ‘Well, it’s time for someone else to take on’, and I hoped they would. Mrs Ruth Prichard – we’ve always been very close – she carried on, and she’s doing a wonderful job with it.
At one time we thought perhaps it would be better to have it in the autumn. We tried it one year I think, but that was no success. Of course, we had to think of the lambing, at about Easter. So they altered it to May. They’ve been having it on the first Saturday in May for some years. That date suits people, really – the lambing is over and the evenings are coming out. At Easter there are other things happening. It’s all worked out for the best I think.
The only thing now, instead of what it used to be, is it’s not so competitive. It’s all selection now. Of course there were more children in this area then. We always tried to interest them, take the programmes to school, and encourage the school teachers. Any child can now choose their own recitation. There’s not really an excuse now – they learn poems in school, don’t they? Years ago, children didn’t have this television, not in every home. And they perhaps had more time to think about a recitation, or to sit down at the piano and practice. And to sing. Mrs Peggy Watkins used to train them to sing whatever little piece we had chosen.
At first there was not a link with the Church. They used to come along perhaps. Now things are so different. Now, Mr Monger and Mr Rodgers work together – we have this Festival of Praise, and we all join together then. That’s what it should be, unity. We’re serving the same God. As the vicars came along they began to be more open and would accept other Churches. In the Eisteddfod, mostly we were Chapel people at that time running the affair. Anyone could come and enter, and they did. There was that little bit of feeling at the start – keep away from that. That was their belief. It was the old tradition, but things are so different now, and I’m glad they are. Mr Monger, he’s been when they had the Father Ignatius service at Capel y Fin. He said he’s at home as much in one Church as another. It doesn’t matter where, if he can help out, he’s there. And that’s how it’s come to most of the vicars. Nowadays they all go together. I went to Ewyas Harold some years ago with Mr and Mrs Monger and there were people from Belmont Abbey taking part, people from the Church over there, people from the Chapel, the Methodists, and they all joined together.
Afterwards, when the Eisteddfod started again it was more of a united effort because there were Methodists over there at Newton who had been helping us. When Mrs Jones started they had quite a bit of money in the funds, so nothing has been needed from the Baptist Chapel since. This fund has kept going. They had no use for it, and they put it in to keep the Eisteddfod going, and we would help. So we were a joint affair with them. ‘Longtown and District’, that’s how we put it now.
Compiled from interviews with Muriel Watkins by Nina Wedell, May 1999