Mike’s father came back from the Second World War in 1946, when Mike was eight. He had been away so long that Mike didn’t remember him. This story shows the impact of that conflict on a generation of children who missed out for many years on having a father. The images showing a child’s hand on an adult’s, and the silhouettes of a father and son together, are particularly poignant.
Mike’s mother worked at a munitions-filling factory at Glascoed near Pontypool, a salient reminder of the shifts that the two world wars wrought on the lives women in south Wales and beyond. There is a touch of the archetypal ‘Welsh Mam’ about Mike’s recollection of his mum; of the matriarch who makes decisions for the family. From what Mike says here, she got fed up having his father hanging round the house after the war and was instrumental in his accepting a posting to the Royal Artillery Barracks in London. Mike’s exclamation ‘Oh my god, what a place’ speaks volumes about how alien that English metropolis seemed to a boy brought up in the valleys of Blaenau Gwent.
Hazel’s recollections of growing up in Brynithel sound idyllic; a far cry from the more controlled experiences of childhood common today. The images that accompany that part of Hazel’s story evoke the freedom that she had amidst the beauty of the area. The fact that her aunt lived next door shows how tight-knit communities in Blaenau Gwent often were, particularly before the industrial decline of the 1980s. Abertillery, which Hazel mentions, was one of the region’s coal-producing powerhouses and the railway that her father worked on would have been primarily for shipping coal rather than transporting passengers. Whilst her brother and sister continued in education, Hazel had to leave school at 14 and earn money for her family. This seems shocking today, but it was not until 1972 that the school-leaving age was raised to 16.
Hazel describes holidays to Plymouth where people would crowd round her family, fascinated by their Welsh accents. Accent often acts as a badge of who you are and where you are from. That comes through strongly when Hazel recalls her father, who migrated to south Wales from Plymouth in the 1920s but never lost his accent. It is because of the way he talked, rather than where he was from per say, that Hazel says ‘he wasn’t as Welsh as me’.
In this film Hazel describes the time she spent in the armed forces, working in an army mail depot in York. She was one of 640,000 women in military service by the closing stages of the Second World War. Over 80% of working-age women were by that point in paid employment, with most of those jobs relating in some way to the war effort. After the war ended, however, both the government and the trade unions (which were controlled by men) encouraged those women to make way for the returning soldiers and sailors and return to traditional domestic roles.
Hazel remembers her time in York as a very social and enjoyable experience, and the pictures selected to accompany that part of her story show how closely the women who staffed such facilities worked together. There is no sense that Hazel felt out of place as a Welshwoman in Yorkshire. The war tended to bolster a sense of shared Britishness in the face of adversity, making identities like Welsh or English seem temporarily less important.
Here Fred recalls one of his proudest moments. Some 50 years earlier he played in a game of football between Bridgend and Victoria (an area of Newport, about 20 miles south of Ebbw Vale). His corner kick was nodded in by another player who, amazingly enough, later lived in Llys Glyncoed at the same time as Fred. The fact that their paths crossed again some five decades later speaks to the strong attachment that many people living in the Gwent valleys feel for the region, often spending most of their lives in the same area.
Fred kept the football from that game and showed it to his erstwhile teammate when they met again many years on. This highlights the importance of objects as focal points for memory. Such keepsakes are the physical mementos of our own histories; the pegs upon which we hang the episodes and incidents that make up the stories of our lives.
Despite wanting to work in an office after leaving school, Norma ended up in a shop. But this was no ordinary shop; it was a Co-op department store where standards were high and applicants had to pass an exam to be employed. Working in the shoe department, Norma recalls the ‘need to have a thick skin’. That was certainly the case when doing fittings for some the customers she mentions.
Norma also recalls how she had to stop working after she got married. This was because of the ‘marriage bar’, whereby married women were not allowed to work. Instead, they were expected to have children and be financially dependent on their husbands. The marriage bar was a widespread practise rather than a law; indeed, it actually contravened the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. The fact that this law was almost never enforced says a lot about attitudes at the time. Even Norma has some sympathy with such views, explaining that younger women (by implication single) needed the work more than she did.
Here Norma remembers some of the fashions from her teenage years during the 1950s. The arguments she had with her mum about whether her clothes were too revealing will be familiar to many mothers and daughters today. The notion that jeans were ‘too common’, meanwhile, says a lot about notions of respectability and the importance of appearances in post-war Blaenau Gwent.
Norma’s recollections also reflect wider changes that were happening in the post-war years. Jeans became an emblem of youth culture after James Dean wore them in the iconic movie Rebel without a Cause (1955). Winkle pickers, meanwhile, were associated with rock ‘n’ roll music. Until the Second World War, chapel-going had been a lynchpin of community and a mainstay of Welshness in the south Wales Valleys. In the 1950s, however, the growing popularity of American music and cinema coincided with declining rates of chapel attendance amongst the young. Many parents perceived this as a challenge to the traditions and values around which their local communities were organised.
This page is part of the Blaenau Gwent REACH online exhibition.