Mem­o­ries of one of the most iso­lated ‘slums’ in Wales

Wales On Sunday - - NEWS - ANNA LEWIS Re­porter anna.lewis@waleson­line.co.uk

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

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