Thomas Rhys Davies, 1893 – 1962: Pacifist, Socialist, ‘Dadcu’

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By Huw Davies

I have very fond memories of Thomas Rhys Davies, my ‘Dadcu.’  He was born, one of eleven brothers and sisters on the 14th June, 1893, the son of Rees and Lucy Davies of Bryneithin, Heol Las, Ynysmeudwy, Pontardawe.  He died in 1962 on the 21 May, a few days after my sixth birthday.  At that time I had no idea of the sort of man he was and what strong political and religious beliefs he had.  Following a conversation with Vicky O’Dea, the Governor of Swansea Prison, I started to gather the following information about my grandfather.  A tribunal was held in Pontardawe according to the ‘Merthyr Pioneer’ on March 25th, 1916, where up to 60 local men were accused of being conscientious objectors on political or religious grounds. It was reported that Thomas Davies stated that he  ‘opposed war because he regarded it as wrong and immoral’.  The question was put to him ‘If a ruffian attacked your sister with a stick, would you defend her?’  He answered ‘I would defend her’.  In another report from Pontardawe on Saturday 23rd September, 1916, regarding Nun Nicholas, it was stated that he had said that there was a quotation by ‘Tom Davies of Ynismudo’ written on the wall of his cell in Cardiff prison which read as follows:  ‘Daw dydd o brysur bwyso ar grefydd cyn bo hir’ (Before too long the day of reckoning will come for religion).  This is the first line of a Welsh hymn by John Williams (Sain Tathan) – (1728-1806).  My grandfather said that the Church in Wales and the nonconformist chapels had turned their back on those who objected to the war.  Thanks to the efforts of the South Wales Miners’ Library, I was then able to find his full service record.  In the record it refers to ‘work of national importance’ at the Llanon Reservoir, Llanelli and the Kinmel Park, Training Camp.  It doesn’t look as if he did sign on or turn up so he was declared a deserter, and a warrant was issued for his capture by the civil police in Llandeilo and Pontardawe.  He was at some point a ‘guest’ at the Swansea or Maindy Barracks during the First World War because of his pacifist beliefs.  His stand today would not of course entail a prison sentence but at the time his socialist and religious beliefs were not commonly held.

The Military Service Act of 1916 introduced compulsory military service to Britain, but also allowed for applications to be made for exemption from the call-up.  This meant that men could appeal against army service on grounds of occupation, hardship, faith or moral belief.  A system of Military Service Tribunals was set up to assess each application and either turn it down or grant the successful applicant an exemption certificate.

Men who applied on grounds of morality or faith were termed “conscientious objectors”. They were generally unpopular with both the public and the authorities who saw them, at best, as unpatriotic shirkers and at worst as subversive revolutionaries. In practice, many were Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quakers or other Christian denominations, who simply saw the taking of life as wrong, while others objected to the war on political grounds.

Some 16,500 conscientious objectors obtained exemption certificates through the Military Service Tribunals, the majority taking up non-combatant duties or working in labour camps run by the Home Office. Those who failed to convince the tribunals were sent to fight in France, where 41 were sentenced to death for refusing to accept military discipline. Those who returned from France joined a total of 1,298 conscientious objectors, my grandfather Thomas included, who were already imprisoned for their views.  Of these a further 70 died in custody.

He probably went to Swansea Barracks sometime in 1916.  He shared a cell with the Welsh poet/pacifist Gwenallt – David James Jones (1899-1968), from the Wesley Terrace, Alltwen in Pontardawe.  Refusing to serve in the World War I, Gwenallt like Thomas combined elements of his Christian pacifism and International Socialism with his intense love of Cymru.  This feeling was intensified after Gwenallt visited the Irish “Gaeltacht”, where Irish customs and the Irish language were undergoing something of a revival in the early part of the century. In 1926 he won the Chair at the National Eisteddfod with his poem, “Y Mynach” (the Monk) and was again the winner in 1931.  However, a volume of short poems, “Ysgubau’r Awen” (Sheaves of the Muse), established his literary reputation. This was followed by “Eples” (Leaven), “Gwreiddiau” (Roots), “Cnoi Cil” (Pondering) and “Coed” (Wood or Trees), all published between 1939 and 1969 (the last one posthumously).

In some of his later lyrics, using raw, powerful language that deliberately avoided any sentimentality in expressing his religious and national themes, Gwenallt described Cymru as ‘putain fudr y stryd’ (a dirty street prostitute); its people he described as wolves “howling for the blood that redeemed us.”  His anger at the baleful effects of industry with its blackening of the valleys and its degradation of the workers (his father was killed in an industrial accident), should, however, not hide his accomplishments in uniting various elements of the historical experience of his country.  Industry was an integral part of modern Cymru, whether one liked it or not, consequently the poet had to deal with the spiritual crisis brought about by the loss of old, primarily rural values.  In Gwenallt’s vision, old Christianity was tempered with new Socialism; rural Carmarthen might have been restless in the chains that linked it to industrial Glamorgan, but the link was indissoluble and formed part of the fabric of modern Welsh life.

We were told that Gwenallt and my grandfather were transferred to other prisons (which I now know to be Wormwood Scrubs and/or Dartmoor) and that Thomas escaped from a work detail to the family farm in the Black Mountains.  As Alex Stuart, Archivist at Swansea Prison has pointed out, the move to alternative prison accommodation was to separate them from the enlisted soldiers who were prisoners at the establishment.

But what sort of man was my grandfather – my dadcu in his private, family life?  A letter written on December 14th 1961 gives some insight.  He wrote from Grove Road, Pontardawe:

Dear Valmai, Howard and Huw

God willing your mother and I will have been married 40 years on the 29th of this month.  There have been many ups and downs and many tribulations but on the whole very very happy years.  Also we have had the pleasure of bringing up four boys who have done well for themselves and above all have been good citizens.  We thought of having a party to celebrate but owing to my illness  and mother’s constant ministrations for me which has tested her strength, we are unable to do so, with the result I have decided to make this token gift of £5-0-0 and one to Huw so that you can celebrate the occasion in your own sweet way. 

With blessings and

fondest love,

Mam and Dad

My father speaks of a man full of character and love for the family.  He married Aylena May Evans at St. Peters, Pontardawe on the 29th December, 1921, with mamgu’s brother, John Lewis Evans, giving her away and with dadcu’s father, Rees, signing the register as witnesses.  The vicar at the ceremony was Joel J. Davies BD.  My father tells me that he added the Rhys to his name later on just on a whim.  They lived in Smithfield Road and then in Grove Road, Pontardawe.  Mamgu was from a family that for long periods would have been considered as the masters.  They lived in a large house in Cwmnantllwyd, Cilybebyll and owned various coalmining concerns.  But the frequent problems of flooding meant that many an enterprise went to the wall.  Mamgu was living in the working class Thomas Street in 1921 and her father, Lewis Griffith Evans, had died the previous year.  Her mother Margaret came from Glandwr, Swansea, the daughter of a shearer in the tin works.  Dadcu worked in the tinworks in Pontardawe as a steel sheet doubler for periods and also as a waterman, clearing the drains along the roads.  Work was scarce for the conscientious objectors, as they were the first to be laid off when work was short.  So, the marriage between church and nonconformity, relative affluence and the working class, service to country and socialist pacifism would have made for an interesting match.  Dadcu was also a card holding member of the Independent Labour Party, which would have added to the clash of backgrounds.  Despite this, the marriage must have been a ‘love match’ and one that lasted through ‘the ups and downs’.

His father, Rees, had offered him some money as a loan, at 3% interest, to build a house for the family in Grove Road just before World War II.  Amazingly he had already worked free of charge to build houses for his brothers and sisters at nearby Ynysmeudwy.  In fairness to my great grandfather he did cancel the debt in his will after his death in 1937!

During World War II, dadcu ran the black-market wartime bacon and ham business.  They had always kept saddleback pigs in the back garden and the trade was one of the best-kept secrets of the war, and was a supplement to the community’s ration books.  When it came to VE and VJ days, the family were kept safe indoors to avoid opening old wounds.

Dadcu was keen for the four boys, Mangwyn, Rhys, Howard and Aneurin to do well educationally.  When World War II came he made sure that the boys carried out essential war work, not following the path that he had taken during the First World War.  My father, Howard, consequently became a ‘Bevin-boy’ working a drift mine with the help of his trusty horse, Stalin and even led the homeguard in Pontardawe.  The stigma associated with the family of a pacifist was finally eradicated.  When my father went off to work on the family farm in the Black Mountains, he was promptly collected by dadcu to take up a position with Lloyds Bank in Clydach – a far better career option in his mind.

He would often come down to Caerdydd for the Welsh international matches.  Dressed in his bowler and best suit, he would start the day with a swift drink in the ‘Three Elms’ before catching the number 24 bus down to the Arms Park for the match.

He would take me up to the ‘comin’ (Whitchurch Common) on my three wheeler bicycle to give my mother a break from looking after my father and his brother, Mangwyn, who lived in Heol Gabriel with us.  Dadcu considered my mother to be the daughter for whom he and Mamgu had always wished.  My father tells me that during one of Dadcu’s visits, following some heavy rain, dadcu took me up to the ‘comin’ and I wandered off into the middle of a huge pool of water that had gathered following the deluge.  I was, of course, fine, as I sat of my three wheeler surrounded by water but unfortunately stuck in the mud.  Dadcu tried everything verbally to get me out but failed and in the end had to take his shoes and socks off to get me out of the pool.

In the months before his death, we as a family went down to Pontardawe regularly to visit Mamgu and Dadcu.  His bed had been brought downstairs to make fetching and carrying easier for Mamgu.  I would often ‘cwtsh up’ with Dadcu in bed and occasionally fall asleep next to him and be carried upstairs to my own bed by Dad.  Whenever I smell tobacco leaves from a tin, I remember being sent by Dadcu to get a fresh supply for him and being given some extra money for sweets.  Although I was so young when he died, I am glad to have such happy memories of my grandfather.  As an adult, I have come to understand and respect his idealism and willingness to endure so much for the sake of his religious and political principles.

   Huw is a History and Welsh History graduate of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.  As a teacher he became a Head of History before joining the BBC’s Education Department.  After a period as Head of Public Affairs with Heartbeat Wales / Curiad Calon Cymru and the Sports Council for Wales he worked in the private sector.  He also worked at Dyfed’s Education Department and Carmarthenshire College before working with Menter Iaith Rhondda Cynon Taf and the Local Authority.  Now retired he has a keen interest in genealogy and has a full programme of voluntary work, family and dog walking commitments.  Like his grandfather he is a passionate Welshman, Christian, and Pacifist.


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