‘WE HAD TO CARRY WATER UP IN BUCKETS’
Memories of one of the most isolated ‘slums’ in Wales
O N JUNE 2, 1953, 20 million people across the UK huddled around TV sets to see the Queen’s coronation. For the people living in two terraces at the top of a Blaenau Gwent mountain, however, such an image couldn’t be further away from reality.
Living without electricity and even running water, residents of Upper and Lower Mount Pleasant were experiencing conditions that for most had been consigned to history – but which would continue for them for many years to come.
This is the story of some the most isolated “slums” in the South Wales Valleys, and the families and communities who lived there.
In 1954 12-year-old Joyce Stradling and her family arrived at their new home in Upper Mount Pleasant.
The row, no more than eight houses long, looked down on the towns below – Georgetown in Tredegar on one side and Ebbw Vale on the other.
Walking up the steep, narrow track, the only neighbours in sight were those living further down in the smaller yet equally primitive Lower Mount Pleasant.
For the family of four it was a world away from their previous home in London that had boasted the modern conveniences of the time.
“We came from London straight to Mount Pleasant. My father had to move because he suffered from bad health, he had bad legs from the war and where we lived you would have to climb a lot of stairs,” said Joyce, now 76. “We went from one extreme to another. It was a big learning curve.
“At the time my mother went to meet the woman who owned the house and she showed it her when it was quite late. She didn’t realise there weren’t any amenities as quite often there would be times when you couldn’t use them at night.
“It wasn’t until when she moved in that she realised how bad it was there.”
One of the biggest challenges for Joyce and her family was adapting to the walk down the mountain each day to get supplies.
With no roads or street lights, trekking back up in the dark was an equally challenging affair.
She said: “Walking up the hill all the way was terribly hard, especially in winter. I used to go out at nights to go to cafes with the juke boxes and had to go all the way up in the dark.
“We used to have a grocer and they would deliver once a week so you would have to wait until Saturday. It was an effort just to go out, if you wanted to go to the shop you would have to go all the way down as there was only a little corner shop in Georgetown.”
With no water pipes within the house, one communal tap was fitted at the end of each row. In reality, however, problems with the taps at both Upper or Lower Mount Pleasant meant a trip further down the mountain was necessary.
Joyce, now a grandmother-of-five and a great-grandmother-of-seven, said: “There was no water pipe, so you would have to go down to the Rock House below to get water.
“You had to carry it up in buckets. That was my father’s job as soon as he came back from work. My brother and I would help him carry it up.
“We had to rely on a gas boiler to boil the clothes and you had to use the boiler for the bath.”
With only gas light, candles and the occasional battery-powered radio, for those growing up on the row entertainment came in the form of the neighbours around you and the fields on either side.
Joyce, whose father worked in Ebbw Vale Steelworks and her mother on the buses, said: “We were on the end of the row and we would see all the men go past to go the steelworks, t they would all sing.
“The children on t the row used to c come and go and p play together. My neighbour had a lovely voice and we used to hear him rehearsing in the h house before he went to the Catholic church. He didn’t have the confidence to go o on the stage.
“We loved it, it was a hard life but there were happy t times. Then, when we moved away we thought it was luxury to have a bathroom and turn on the tap and there would be water.”
Today, little information exists on the origins of Mount Pleasant.
For college teacher Robert Southall, his fascination with the relatively unknown location started by listening to his uncle Derek’s tales growing up on the “street at the top of the mountain”.
Together the pair began to map its story, Derek telling his memories and Robert, an experienced researcher, uncovering the street’s background.
Now, three years after Derek’s death in 2015, his nephew has finally published the finished product.
Robert, 54, said: “I think Mount Pleasant was probably built by the Sirhowy Company in order to provide accommodation for iron miners in the 1840s and ’50s. Why they were built on the top of the mountain rather than the side, I don’t know, perhaps the land on the side was better for agriculture.”
In 1936 Robert’s uncle Derek Southall was born in Mount Pleasant soon after his parents and grandparents moved to the terrace.
One of three children to his mother Evelyn and dad Arthur, Derek lived alongside his siblings, parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents in the small, stone houses.
Robert, a politics and sociology teacher at Coleg Gwent Crosskeys, said: “It was amazing how they lived. My grandmother had a little room on the side of the house and her son must have had a little room upstairs.”
Rather than focus on the hardships the street faced, however, for Derek memories of growing up on the side on the mountain focused on simpler things – the best of all being left to his imagination in the vast countryside.
Robert said: “He would talk about being sent on errands, visiting other grandparents in Tredegar and fetching and carrying as the eldest child would.
“Things were harder but they were just used to living like that and were happier for it. Their sense of isolation was completely different to how it would be perceived now. One of the great parts of living there was that you could go to the cinema in Tredegar or Ebbw Vale, they were both about the same distance.
“It was a vibrant community, the men worked together and the children would play together. All the women would go to each other’s house “They even had a cricket team.” As time went on, however, the simplicity of mountain-top life couldn’t compete with the advances of modern technology.
As the 1960s went on the council issued a compulsory purchase order on the houses at Mount Pleasant, leaving people with no choice but to leave before their former homes were demolished.
Robert said: “It must have been condemned at some point and gradually people there were moved away. In the 1960s a lot more council houses were going up, so there was no need for Mount Pleasant.
“The Labour council wanted to get rid of slums and they would have considered any houses without electricity and water as slums.”
Today no remnants can be seen of the former Mount Pleasant. Driving from Tredegar over the top of the hill, it would be easy to pass the grassy patch of land without a moment’s thought.
For some, however, it will always be an important part of a family history stretching back over centuries.
Robert and Derek’s book The Street at the Top of the Mountain is available on Amazon and in Cotton’s News Agents, Tredegar.
Robert Southall will also give a talk about the publication at Oxford House in Risca on December 7.
Arthur Southall with his son Geoffrey One of the isolated terraces, which had no running water or electricity
Derek’s mother and father, Evelyn and Arthur, with their grandson David