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The Story of Elgiva and Alan Thomas

Elgiva & Alan Thomas lived in Morawelon, St Hilary

AlanElgivaThomas  Elgiva died on 14 January 2017, aged 97 - mother of Guy and Alicia, grandmother of Sebastian and Llewelyn

Elgiva’s Story

I attended Cowbridge Girls High School in the 1930s. There were boarders as well as day girls, with the boarders sleeping in the ‘upstairs section’ next to the matron’s room. The headmistress had her office and sitting room downstairs.

Our headmistress Miss Bennett Jones ‘Benny’ was quite unusual. She kept a pet monkey, which wore a little jacket and hat, made – as rumour would have it – by the girls who did needlework. The monkey was allowed to roam everywhere, and spent quite a lot of time in the boarders’ dining room, where the day girls had lunch. Once I was standing near a radiator in the room. I had been given a pen and pencil set for my birthday, and had the pen clipped onto my gymslip. The monkey, on the window, pinched my pen from my gymslip and climbed up onto the window again, so I went into my form room, got the board pointer and tried to use it to dislodge the monkey so I could get my pen. The monkey slid down the pointer end bit my hand; the bite in time went septic. My parents protested and so Benny got rid of the monkey. It is said that she took it to Bristol Zoo; some of the more malicious girls suggested that she went to visit it once a fortnight.

Benny cycled to Maendy chapel regularly, and – another eccentricity – used to take her bicycle into one of the pews in case anyone stole it. Benny’s sister was a Mrs Crystal, the proprietor of a tea room called the Copper Kettle in the Castle Arcade in Cardiff. Whenever there was any form outing to the theatre we were compelled to have tea in the Copper Kettle – always ‘sawdust cake’, bread with a semblance of a scrape of margarine, no jam and weak tea. For this, in 1931 we were expected to pay two shillings. ‘Whatever are you having, for that amount of money? My mother asked. ‘Is it for one, of for the whole form?

One day Benny decided that the school was to have a radiogram. We all had to donate 2s/6d, a considerable sum in those days, and I can remember two occasions when we were allowed to listen to it. The biggest girls in my form had to push it into the hall from the headmistress’s office – and we heard Louis Casson and Sybil Thorndike reciting a scene from Macbeth and, by contrast, Paul Robeson singing ‘Go and ring dem bells’.

When I started school, the uniform for junior girls was blouses and gymslips, with skirts for the senior girls, but it soon changed to blue and white gingham dresses with white cuffs and collars. In summer we had speckled straw hats and later, panamas with the school hatband. We also had to wear Burberry cots, with scarves and gloves in winter. If, for any reason we went into town – such as the Bear field to play hockey, or when the boarders went to tea on Sunday in Nurse Rymer’s café – we always walked in crocodile, and always wore gloves. The boarders had a grey uniform.

I took school lunch with the boarders when I started school, but I could not tolerate it, so then I ate my sandwiches in the kitchen. Benny would come around with a board pointer to check if we were sitting upright – if not, she would poke us firmly in the back with the pointer. She made sure of our table manners – and if a girl held her knife as if it were a pen, she would ask ‘are you signing your name on your meat?’

During the whole time I was in school, the most severe punishment possible was a conduct mark. I never remember anyone getting one, but order marks flew about, especially from Miss Marks, the maths teacher. She would bite and push out her lower lip when she became enraged. Miss Williams, English, was very severe and had no sense of humour. She wore big owl like spectacles. Miss Gunter was very erudite about Cowbridge. She was so enamoured of the geography of Cowbridge that she used to claim that there were more meanders in the river Thaw than in the Mississippi, and we got the impression that Mount Ida was higher that Kanchenjunga! She taught history very well, and made people interested, but in the first form Benny taught us and it was she who fired my imagination. She was a very good teacher.

May Brown had a good sense of humour. She never became really cross, and would laugh things off. She taught Welsh, Latin in the first form, and music. She was lovely, and had no favourites – she was very pleasant, and had time for everybody. Miss Powell, who taught Latin, was in digs with my aunt and uncle next door to the Railway Inn (in part of what used to be Basils). We got on well with her; she treated us as equals. Miss Morgan, teacher of cookery and needlework, also had a mature attitude. When the girls who did cookery had finished the morning’s cooking the boarders would rush to the door to ask if there were any left-overs. Burnt, or uncooked they be scoffed down by the boarders. That room had coal fired ovens; sometimes it was so hot you could hardly enter the room.

Mrs Phillips, the gym teacher, was about seven feet high with Junoesque legs like tree trunks. I was no good at gym – I could never jump over the horse. Soon afterwards, Mrs Phillips was replaced by Miss Phillips who was physically the complete opposite – string thin, quite small, with a very loud voice and commanding personality.

Finally, the peripatetic music and singing teacher Miss Miles. She came to us twice a week – I don’t know if she was able to go elsewhere after taking us! She was meek and timid, the last thing you want with schoolgirls. I am ashamed to think we gave her a terrible time; we would sing the wrong tune to the words or the wrong words to the tune, and she would go red in the face.

At break times we would walk round the tennis courts and along the perimeter of the school, perhaps more than once. In our final year we were able to sit on the wrought iron seats near the tennis courts, and I remember the power of telling any juniors who were sitting there to move off!

Looking back I enjoyed my schooldays. I was very happy at Cowbridge High School

Alan’s Story

Husband of Elgiva, brother of Hubert, attended Cowbridge Grammar school. He was a chartered quantity surveyor.

I was born in Great House, Llanblethian but we moved to Penyrhoel Farm, Llysworney – the farm of my mother’s family – when I was four years old.

I went to the village school in Llysworney where we had a dedicated school mistress, Miss Grant. It was such a small school that there was only one other teacher. Miss Grant was a disciplinarian – she could cane like nobody’s business, on the hands only – but she was ahead of her time in getting us aware of our environment and in organising outings. On half days – given for good attendance or some such reason – we would go the local beaches where she would get us to play cricket, and she would play too even though she had some problems with her leg. At least once a year she would get the ‘Wick Charabanc’ from Mr Williams of Wick to tale us on outings to Bristol Zoo or other faraway places. She also helped organise the village Christmas party, always a memorable occasion.

One particular village event which I remember was the Silver Jubilee celebrations for King George V in 1935. The function was held in Nash Manor. There was dancing around the maypole, and I was chosen to propose the toast to King & Queen. It was a great carnival; I was dressed as an Arab sheikh – Hubert helped me dress up – and all the village took part.

Llysworney show was another big event of the year. It was a very successful little show, mainly horticultural, with marquees for flowers and for vegetables, and other tents too. There was also horse riding and jumping competitions, and a brass band used to play. It was held on our farm, on the field known as Penyrhoel Ten Acres.

In the village, there was a small shop-cum-post office opposite the Carne Arms which I remember. My cousin, William Thomas Moorhead and I would sometimes go in before school and buy five Woodbines for 2d. These we would share, two and a half each, and smoke the half before school. On one occasion Miss Grant was bending over me to check what I had written when she smelled the smoke on my breath, and she wrote to my father to let him know what was going on. However, my father was a heavy smoker himself and so I don’t think he said much to us. My grandfather’s reaction was worse, at least when we’d said in the shop ‘Grandpa will pay’ – and of course, when checking the bill he found us out straight away, as he didn’t smoke Woodbines.

As our school was Church in Wales every Saint’s Day we went to church. The parson was Dr Llewellyn, the vicar of Llysworney and Llandow (the grandfather of Dr David Owen MP). He was a lovely man who had been blind since his boyhood, as a result of playing dog and catty, we were told. He used to come to school frequently, and found his way without difficulty, even though Llysworney School was not the easiest place to get to. We were always sent to assist him, but he was very independent and did not want help.

We played a lot of the usual games – spinning tops, hopscotch and hoops. If we didn’t have a metal hoop we would sometimes use tyres. I remember on one occasion when I was suing a tyre down the road, it ran away from me and landed with a thump in the door of the Care Arms. Mrs Howell rushed out – not well pleased!

In 1934, they started laying the water mains from Llysworney past our farm. One day, on my way to Sunday school, I passed the compressor which was standing idle because it was the weekend. There were bigger boys playing around it, fiddling with the starting handle. On my return from Sunday school, there was nobody around the machine so I gave it one idle turn of the starting handle – and it started! What was I to do? The machine was all locked up and so could not be stopped. I ran round it frantically and then ran home, where the family were sitting round the table having tea. I joined them but from my house I could hear the noise of the machine and so I left the table and ran off into the fields. Eventually I returned to hear my mother talking to PC Cosslett, who was winding her up in terms of the potential dangers of starting up the machine. What annoyed my mother however, was that the foreman of the water main gang, who lived in the village, had reported me – and yet a few weeks earlier he had come to my father for help writing a letter! Even though all I got was a ticking off from the policeman, for many weeks I had to endure the calls of the men ‘come and help us start it Alan’ as I passed them on my way to school.

Another memory of Llysworney was of the small field we called Gypsey’s Acre. On this piece of land belonging to my grandfather, behind the church – there are two or three houses built on it now – three of my uncles, all bachelors, lived in three caravans. One was a real gypsy caravan, all brass and glass, whilst the others were more utilitarian.

When my father died in 1938 my mother had Bronudd built on the Nash corner and we moved there. By then I was a day boy at the Grammar School (I think I was the third boy from the village school to pass the eleven-plus examination) and travelled in by bus.

When war broke out in 1939 I was still at school. For the first few months of the war Cowbridge was a garrison town. Large numbers of territorials were mobilised and billeted in the town. Every available public building was commandeered: the Town Hall, the first floor of the cinema (which contained a large dance hall and sundry rooms), whist the cinema continued to function below, and the Grammar school’s new dining hall and gymnasium. The school buildings had only been opened the year before, providing day boys with proper dining facilities and a first class gym. As pupils we had been made to take care of the wood block floors (we had to change into gym shoes whenever we entered the building, be it for lunch or gym) and suddenly it was invaded by soldiers in army boots, and the polished surface rapidly became pock marked with stud marks.

RAF station St Athan was opened in 1938, so Cowbridge was used to the sight of airmen in blue uniform, the first airmen at St Athan wearing a type of breeches. (RAF Llandow was opened about 1940). The headquarters for the army however, was the Duke of Wellington Inn, and the entrance was protected with a sand-bagged porch jutting out onto the pavement. The town echoed to the sound of troops marching about during the day, often singing marching songs: ‘roll out the barrel’ being very popular. The sound of bugle calls rang out, ‘reveille’ in the morning and ‘the last post’ at night.

There were also soldiers stationed in small units in the countryside around the town, manning searchlights. I remember one of them who, not being used to the country, shot a cow that he heard moving behind a hedge.

In school, we carried on as normally as possible, but rugby fixtures were cancelled for the first team and we played the army in some soccer matches. The Bear Field (where the Leisure Centre is now) was at that time also one of the school’s playing fields. Whilst the army was in Cowbridge this was used by the military, so we were allowed to use the town pitch in the Athletic ground.

The blackout was a problem in the evenings as all windows had to be covered with thick black material to prevent the showing of any light. All street lights were extinguished and this again caused a problem at night, especially with the sand-bagged enclosures protruding onto the pavement. It gave one an uncomfortable experience to walk into a wall of sand bags.

The soldiers departed as quickly as they arrived, and by the end of the year they had gone.

One of the wartime themes that was encouraged was ‘Digging for Victory’ in which people were urged to grow as much vegetable produce as possible. The school responded to this: the produce was used in its own kitchen, thus saving money! Seniors were put to dig up all the ground around the gym and dining hall and plant cabbages and potatoes. The wok was supervised by Mr Penny, the school gardener. The work was carried out in what would have been those school periods devoted to none-academic subjects such as woodwork.

After Dunkirk, the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers), the forerunner of the Home Guard, was formed. It consisted mainly of elderly men and young boys. I joined straight away, when I was in school, and I always carried my arm band in my pocket. When an air raid warning went all the pupils were supposed to take cover in safe rooms, which had been reinforced with timbers to give some protection. I used to slip out of school and report to our armoury, which at the time was at the Town Hall, collect a rifle and a bandolier of ammunition and, along with other members of the LDV, man the road blocks which were at the main entrances of the town.

The road blocks were on the Cardiff road at the railway bridge, on the Aberthin road near the High School, and up at the Darren. These road blocks were manned every night by a platoon of six to eight men. During an air raid warning, all vehicles and pedestrians were stopped and identity cards had to be produced. In the blackout it was quite a risky business stopping vehicles, especially on the Cardiff road as the vehicles were coming downhill, with very limited lights. They were stopped by the guard swinging a hurricane lamp. We would even inspect all the passengers in the buses. This proved to be very difficult with a rifle slung over one’s shoulder. The barricades were constructed of all sorts of material, and the one on the Aberthin road included an old horse – drawn stage coach in which the guards often took shelter during poor weather. There were also posts and Penllyn and St Hilary.

The first bombs dropped in the Cowbridge area were on Staling Down. They came down at night and, because of the rocky surface of the ground, they made quite an impact and a number of houses suffered minor damage. The only other bombs dropped in Cowbridge were across the railway line behind the High School; these were fire bombs and did no damage as they landed on open ground.

Later on the guards were withdrawn from the road blocks and were billeted in the Town Hall. You can imagine the noise with about twenty to thirty men trying to sleep on the floor of the hall. During an air raid warning a patrol would be sent out. I think the reason was to watch out for paratroopers. The Town Hall was a very busy place; as well as being the HQ of the Home Guard, as it was by then known, the Red Cross ambulance had a unit stationed in the Mayor’s Parlour. The air raid wardens were in another room downstairs and of course the fire brigade with their engine was also in what is now the kitchen of the Lesser Hall. Bill Brown, who was a self - appointed sergeant major as well as being the caretaker to the Town Hall, was quite a character. He had all the bearing of a sergeant major, wore a fine waxed moustache and carried a cane under his arm. During the time the home guard was in the Town Hall Bill Brown used to get up every morning and come up to dismiss the guard. He would be immaculately turned out, yet without his false teeth.

The next move for the home guard was up to a building where JB builder’s merchants now have their office. The nightly guard was then down to a unit of about six men and a sergeant. These evening guard duties always finished at five o’clock in the morning.

Another character was the CO, Reg Williams the Chemist. He was a captain, and Captain Mainwaring of Dad’s Army was the personification of Reg. He was very enthusiastic and devoted a great deal of his time to the home guard. Whenever the air raid warning went, Captain Williams could be seen emerging from the chemist’s shop, strapping on a hug revolver around his waist.

We were expected to attend a parade one evening a week, and on Sunday mornings. We drilled, learned about weapons, went on exercises and all the other things necessary to train us for fighting the Germans in the event of an invasion. We practised firing our weapons down at the army range in Porthcawl and also at the old butts near the river at Llandough Mill. We were quite well equipped – not as it was usually depicted with pikes and poles. I had my own rifle from very early on and before I left to join the RAF (I was a sergeant by then) I had a Sten sub-machine gun.

The ATC unit in school under the command of Mr ‘Taffy’ Hughes was not formed until after I left; they apparently had a miniature rifle range in the roof of the Old Hall, but that is another story.


The above accounts have been taken from Cowbridge & District Remembered 1900-1950, Cowbridge Record Society (2002)