- Alfred talks about his father arriving in the Rhondda from St Kitts in the West Indies.
- Alfred Lawes (b.1918/11/17; male, retired plumber)
- C900/13622 © BBC
Transcript for Maerdy
Anita: If I were to ask you who you are, what would you say?
Alfred: Who was I? Well, I’d say, mostly, I’m a boy from Maerdy, from the Rhondda. That’s who I am. The fact is that my father was a West Indian and my mother come from Cardiff doesn’t matter a thing in here in the Rhondda, because I’m Alfie Lawes of Maerdy, the Rhondda. That’s how they know me and that’s how I want them to know me. Where colour does not matter one iota.
Anita: How did your father get to the Rhondda, Alf?
Alfred: Ah now, that’s a, that’s a story in itself. Back in, uh, nineteen-twelve the, he’s on a ship, working on the ships coming into Cardiff. That was their home port, Cardiff, the, then, uh, he was a member of a seafarer’s union, like how everyone, all the sailors were, but they brought in coolie labour, cheap labour to take the coal from Cardiff. So naturally they all had the sack. Now my father and his friends, they said, “Well, we’ve been carrying coal all round the world and it comes from down there somewhere.” So this, they caught trains and came up. My father eventually ended up in Maerdy. There’s a funny story about that, because they got there and they were still sitting in a carriage, when, stationmaster comes in, “Hello, boyos,” see. “What you doing here, you’re a long way from home, like,” and, uh, “what are you?” “Oh, we come to work, to get the coal. Well, we’ve been carrying it around the world, but owing to the fact that they gone, they are anti-union, we’ve all had a strike and cheap labour been put on. But we’ve come to see if we can get the coal; dig it out.” “Best place for you to go is at that big building up there: Maerdy Hall. You see the men standing there, boys? Tell them and I’m sure they’ll fix you up.” And that’s where they went with their bags: up, not very far, up to Maerdy Hall, where the men — Maerdy Miners’ Workmen’s Hall — were standing around talking, discussing the views of the days, because there was plenty of work at then in the mine. And they said, “Good God, boys, look who’s come here then”, see, “what’re you doing here then, boys?” You must remember something: these were the first black faces they’d ever seen in, up in the valleys. If, uh, the nearest they’d ever seen one was occasionally if they went down to Cardiff. But here they were standing in front of them. So they told their story and when they came to the part about them being union members, “Right,” they said, “you want, you can work, you’ve come to the right place.”
And believe it or not each one of them — there was four, five I think — uh, were taken home, no questions asked, to be lodgers and to work down the pits with them in Maerdy. So you can just imagine, I should im, the surprise when dad come home there and, “Look, who’s that then?” standing behind him. “He’s our new lodger, he’s come, going to work with me in the pits tomorrow,” like that, the first time. But to my father it was something as he told me many a time he discussed it: going into a house there and it was accepted, unheard of, like, it, they were part of the family. But then when it came to such things as bathing in front of the fire at, they had to learn to bath in front of the fire. But the neighbours used to be in and out talking. And whoever came in, they grabbed the flannel to wash their back, didn’t ask questions, like that. It took a little while for them to get used to that, but they were taken in to Maerdy just as people; nothing more or less, they were judged not on their colour, but the fact they were men and were willing to work down the pit. And that was how my father came into a place called Wrgant, Wrgant Place, up in Maerdy. And that was his first home.
Anita: Have you got happy memories of growing up here? Was it easy
Anita: easy for you with
Alfred: Oh dear me.
Anita: a white mother and a black father.
Alfred: Oh. Now, after a while now, uh, they had to look for a place. My mother was down in Cardiff, so they found a cellar in, uh, Royal Cottages, where they went. And they were accepted in there and I was born there. But one thing you would: my father was ‘Daddy Lawes’, but my mother was ‘Bopa Lawes’. And that’s how they were known until the day they died, still as ‘Daddy Lawes’ and ‘Bopa Lawes’, and you can’t get any more, what shall I say, friendly or ac, accepted more, anything like that. Cause as you know, in Wales, I really, they all go to Bopas now. ‘Bopa Lawes’ has to look after when there, when there was, somebody was ill: “Go to ‘Bopa Lawes’!” And the same thing used to apply each time whether there was somebody getting born or they were dying. ”’Bopa Lawes’ — go to ‘Bopa Lawes’!” And she became known. My father was known affectionately as ‘Daddy Lawes’, because he used to tell the kids stories about the sea and things like that. And he used to sit around the, outside the house there and they, where there he’d tell them, many a time I’d see him there telling them stories. Some of them were fantasised, but they loved it, because there was somebody telling them stories. So we were accepted.
Commentary for Maerdy
It is surprising that relatively few Welsh words have passed into the English spoken in Wales, given the fact that the two languages have co-existed for centuries. However, Alfred here uses the Welsh word, bopa, meaning ‘aunty’, and many speakers in North Wales might use the Welsh word, nain, even when referring to their ‘grandma’ in English.
The Valleys accent
Alfred’s accent, however, is instantly recognisable as a Valleys accent. Listen, for instance, to the way he pronounces the vowel sounds in words in the following four sets:
- mostly, know, iota, home, coal, owing, told, no, going, oh, go and the Welsh loan-word bopa
- labour, take, came, stationmaster, place, faces, occasionally, taken, neighbours and became
- how, now, round, down, about, out, found, outside and house
- my, iota, nineteen-twelve, like, strike, miners, mine, right, five, surprise, fire, while, died, dying, outside and fantasised
These sounds can be heard among speakers of all ages in the Valleys and indeed unite many speakers across south-east Wales.
Alfred is also prone to H-dropping — the deletion of the initial <h> sound in words such as happy and house. This phenomenon first provoked comment in the eighteenth century and has historically been avoided by the middle classes. Nonetheless, it is a feature of popular speech that distinguishes speakers across the whole of England (apart from Tyneside and Northumberland) and Wales from those in Scotland, Ireland and indeed the rest of the English-speaking world, who retain their <h>’s. Listen, for instance, to the way Alfred pronounces the words home, how, Maerdy Hall, house and unheard of.
However, what is uniquely Welsh about Alfred’s pronunciation of <h> here is the insertion of a <y> sound at the start of the word here and in the phrase unheard of. This was at one time a feature of speech in England across much of the West Country and south-west Midlands, but it is much scarcer now other than among older speakers in rural areas. In Wales, however, it remains typical of speakers of all ages and for many speakers here the words ear, here, hear and year are all pronounced identically.