Powell’s Tillery Miner’s Institute – A History

The First Reading Rooms at Abertillery in 1856.
Long before Mr Thomas Wilde Powell came to the valley, education was at the forefront of the long-term planning for the town’s workforce by the industrialists. One of these who pushed for education was Sir Thomas Phillips, he fought for the Welsh language and worked closely with Messrs T. P. & D. Price (Penybont Colliery owners) along with Mr John Conway (Abertillery Tin Works proprietor) on setting up the first reading rooms at Abertillery in 1856.

They later had support from Mr James Brown (Blaina and Cwmcelyn Iron Works owner and brother of Mr Thomas Brown – Cwmtillery Colliery founder). They rented a room from Mr Hiley close to where the arcade is today and filled it with books, papers of the day and other periodicals. They only leased the room for a short period whilst they awaited on a permanent room at the newly planned National Schools connected to St Michaels Church in High Street, Abertillery (where the main bus stops are today).

Sir Thomas Phillips.
Sir Thomas Phillips was born at Ynys-y-Garth near the Clydach Iron Works, near Brynmawr, Brecknockshire. He became the Mayor of Newport in 1838 and was caught up in the battle at the Westgate Hotel at Newport during the Chartists uprising in 1839. He later came to Abertillery, and as mentioned above, worked with the proprietors of the various industries to establish a reading room in the area and to help educate the workforce and people of Abertillery.

The Powell’s Tillery years and the Workmen’s Hall and Reading Room.
In 1882 Mr Thomas Wilde Powell took over the Penybont Tillery Colliery from Mr Basil Jayne & Co and formed the Powell’s Tillery Steam Coal Co. Mr Powell’s first commitment was to give as a gift, to the workmen, a hall with a library and reading room. Mr Powell arranged to have the Tillery Street Workmen’s Hall and Reading Room built and paid for at his own expense. 

The Tillery Street Workmen’s Hall and Reading Rooms.
On Saturday 12th of January 1884, the Tillery Street Workmen’s Hall and Reading Room was officially opened. The Workmen’s Hall and Reading Room building was on Tillery St, Abertillery, it cost between £700-£800 to erect and was capable of holding 300 people. The hall was in use throughout the 1880’s and 1890’s though as the community grew and more workmen and their families came to the area this building became too small for its purpose and a much larger premises was required.

The Abertillery Reading Room.
There was a reading room at Abertillery according to the 1891 census, it was located close to the Railway Inn and Waun Wern Terrace, Blaina Road near Bridge Street. The 1891 census shows that Mr James Francis, born 1827 at Ponthir was resident and listed as caretaker, he lived there with his wife Margaret, born 1834 at Pontypool and son James, born 1861 at Glamorgan. Very little is known of this library.

The New Powell’s Tillery Steam Coal Co Institute Proposal.
In 1896 Mr Powell of the Powell’s Tillery Steam Coal Co arranged to have a large institute built, one which would also house a gymnasium and swimming pool.

In 1897 the Powell’s Tillery Steam Coal Co sold the old Workmen’s Hall and Reading Room on Tillery St. The company sold it to the Abertillery District Council for £800, it was intended to be used as a courthouse and the council arranged for the company to purchase land at the junction of Division Street and Powell Street to build the new institute. The money the company paid for the land off the council was given back to them as a donation towards the new institute building fund. The building of the new institute went ahead and was finished in early 1898 though sadly Mr T. W. Powell died before its completion. The gymnasium and swimming pool projects were deferred until later dates

The New Powell’s Tillery Steam Coal Co Ltd Division Street, Powell Street.
On the Monday 4th of April 1898, the Powell’s Tillery Institute was officially opened. The opening ceremony was presided over by both Mr Thomas Edmund Powell (Chairman of Powell’s Tillery Steam Coal Co) son of Mr T. W. Powell the late owner and his sister Lady Christiana Herringham nee Powell. Lady Herringham the daughter of Mr T. W Powell was presented with a gold key for the ceremony with which she officially opened the institute. Many of the dignitaries of Abertillery were at the opening of the new institute and afterwards a luncheon was held at the National Schools, Abertillery, which were highly decorated for the function.

Description of the Building.
The building was made of the Powell’s Tillery Company’s buff faced bricks, pilasters, moulded cornices and other dressings in Llantarnum red faced bricks. In the basement there was a heating chamber, the ground floor two billiard tables and raised seating for spectators a public reading room and library with toilets. On a mezzanine floor there were two slipper baths for the ladies on the entrance to Division St. On the 1st floor were three committee rooms which could have been converted into one big room for large gatherings capable of holding over 200 people, a smoke room lavatories and slipper baths for the gentlemen. The top floor was for the caretakers use only. The conditions of membership were as follows – Outside members subscriptions were sixpence per month. Baths non-members 4d. outside members 3d. Billiard’s game of (50) 2d. game of (100) 4d. Plans for the gymnasium had been forwarded but not yet been decided on when the work will proceed.

The Contractor and Architect.
The Contractor was Mr J. Davies from Newport. The Architect was Mr F. R. Bates of Newport.

The Gymnasium.
In March 1902 the new Powell’s Tillery Institute’s Gymnasium (as seen attached to the institute) was officially opened by Dr H. A. Powell (Chairman of Powell’s Tillery Steam Coal Co) the son of Mr T. W. Powell. Sadly, his brother Mr Thomas Edmund Powell previous chairman passed away before the gymnasium was completed. Mr H. A. Powell was presented with a gold key by the architect Mr F. R. Bates with which to open the new building. 

Description of the Building.
The gymnasium was built at a cost of £2,500. It was 80′ foot by 38′ feet, and at a height of 32′ feet, with an entrance lobby and a ticket office with a fireproof staircase. There were changing rooms for the ladies and gentlemen.

Mr William Dunlop Essex.
The instructor at the gymnasium was Mr William Dunlop Essex. Mr Essex was from the Scots Guards.

The Gymnastics Team.
In 1903 a gymnastics team was formed at the institute gymnasium, the team were mostly made up of miners who worked in the surrounding collieries. The team went on to become one of the best competitive teams in the country, they achieved so much in their short history. The following is a link to their story – Powell’s Tillery Gymnastics Team – Story.

The New Wing Installation.
In June 1908 the Powell’s Tillery Steam Coal Co decided to add a new wing to the institute. The institute had become such a success it was deemed necessary to expand the building. The new wing costing £1,600 housed a larger billiard room and reading library. The new billiard room was 50′ feet by 40′ feet with space for six tables and a raised platform for viewing spectators. Above this billiard room was the reading room, the same size as below, with pitch-pine newspaper stands and magazine tables etc. The room also had an open ceiling giving plenty of ventilation. Provision had been made in the original building for a lending library which was fitted with bookcases capable of holding 2,000 volumes.

The opening ceremony was presided over by Mr James Price (Chairman of the Committee) also attended by Mr William Stewart (Managing Director of Powell’s Tillery) and Mr F. R. Bates (Architect of Newport). Mr Turner (Building Secretary). After the formality of the speeches, Mr Price was presented a gold key suitably inscribed for the occasion by the Architect with which he officially opened the new wing. 

The Contractor and Architect.
The contractor of the new wing was Mr Smith of Kidderminster. Mr Phillips was the clerk of the works. The construction was carried out under the plans of Mr F. R. Bates who acted as architect.

The International Gymnastics Tournament.
On Saturday 1st of May 1909, for the first time in history an International Gymnastics Tournament was held at Powell’s Tillery Gymnasium, Abertillery. The contest was between England, Scotland and Wales. Mr C. V. Sederman (Wales) cleared the highest jump of the contest by clearing 5′ feet 2″ inches. The highest rope climb was by Mr W. Fergus (Scotland) at 18 yards. England won the competition easily with a score of 282 points, Scotland second with 253 and one sixth points, Wales third with 214 points.

The Swimming Pool.
On Monday 5th of September 1910, the Powell’s Tillery Swimming Pool was officially opened. The opening ceremony was conducted by Dr H. A. Powell (Managing Director) of Powell’s Tillery Steam Coal Co, also present were Mr W. Stewart J.P. the managing director, Mr W. Brace M.P. Mrs Stewart and Miss Stewart, among others. Mr W. Beddoe Rees of Cardiff prepared the necessary plans and Mr A. J. Colborne of Swindon was the contractor, Messrs Bradford and Co did the engineering work. It had a gallery on three sides, the pool was 60′ feet by 22′ feet, hot and cold shower baths, a diving stage, springboard and other up-to-date appliances.

Description of the Swimming Pool.
The water was heated by steam from two upright boilers, the building was also centrally heated by the same means, there was also a steam laundry in the basement. Because of the scarcity of water in the area at this time there was a filtration plant installed by the Turn Over Filter Company of Belfast. The walls and floor of the bath were lined with white glazes bricks inlaid with green and white mosaic tiles. A special feature was the addition of collapsible dressing boxes. During the winter months the pool would be covered by a movable boarded floor and a platform will be erected for the use of concerts etc. After the opening ceremony and speeches, the committee had a special tea put on for them at the Ebenezer, Abertillery.

The Contractor and Architect.
The contractor of the swimming pool was Mr A. J. Colborne of Swindon. The architect was Mr W. Beddoe Rees of Cardiff. Messrs Bradford and Co did the engineering work.

Powell’s Tillery Steam Coal Co – Swimming
(More information to come).

The Powell’s Tillery Steam Coal Co – Water Polo Team.
(More information to come).

Position for Supervisor at the Institute 1936.
In July 1936 members voted for a supervisor Powell’s Tillery Institute and the nominations and votes cast were as follows – Mr Absolom Meek of the Cwmtillery Lodge – 388 votes. Mr Ivor Jenkins of the Cwmtillery Lodge – 325 votes. Mr George Wallace of the Cwmtillery Lodge – 240 votes. Mr Roy Jones of the Tillery Lodge – 233 votes. Mr James Jones of the Rose Heyworth Lodge – 176 votes and Mr Arthur Atkins of the Cwmtillery Lodge – 121 votes. Mr Absolom Meek of the Cwmtillery Lodge took the vote and became supervisor, it was stated that Mr Meek was the checkweigher at the colliery and at one time been a member of the Monmouthshire County Council.  

Information From the South Wales Gazette, Friday 2nd of March 1951.
On Friday 2nd of March 1951, just a few weeks before the devastating fire, the South Wales Gazette ran a story on the history of the institute titled “Salute to the Stute”. It was said that in 1919 the Rose Heyworth and Cwmtillery Collieries joined the Powell’s Tillery Institute and began subscribing to the building and its facilities (This cannot be verified at the moment). The Arrael Griffin – Six Bells Colliery joined in 1955 and contributed during the time of the rebuilding of the institute. (This cannot be verified at the moment).

It was stated that it was a term of contract at the Vivian Colliery (part of the Powell’s Tillery combine) that a man could not be employed there unless he was a member of the institute. Other members were voluntary, colliery members paid 3d. per week, outside members paid 1d. although old aged pensioners were classed as honorary members and allowed in free.

Every Wednesday and Saturday nights Whist Drives were held and on Friday’s “Old Tyme Dancing”. Swimming between the months of May and September. There were eight billiard tables in the games room and in the gymnasium top of the bill wrestling bouts were held once a fortnight. In 1951 the total membership was two thousand.

The various organisations that used the institute – The Trade Council. The British Legion (Women’s Section). The Townswomen’s Guild. The Ladies Orpheus and Male Orpheus. The Chess Club. The Divisional Labour Party and the Abertillery and Cwmtillery Colliery Lodges. The Labour and Trade Unions organisations made history at the institute by producing leaders who had won national fame, including Mr William Brace, Mr George Daggar and the Rt. Hon Ness Edwards M.P.

The Management, Committee and Officers of the old Powell’s Tillery Institute in 1951.
The management, committee and officers of the old institute in 1951 were as follows – Mr Fred Baker (Manager, Secretary and Treasurer): Mr Stan Williams (Baths Superintendent): Trustees – Messrs Alderman J. Snellgrove; L. Harries; C. Thorne and G. Wilcox: Committee – Messrs W. A. Gibson; S. Tucker and E. White (Cwmtillery Colliery Delegates): Messrs F. T. Mason; E. Ennis and L. Strickland (Vivian Colliery Delegates): A. Strickland (Six Bells Colliery Delegate): B. York (Clerical Union Delegate): C. Burrows (North Celynen Colliery Delegate): T. J. Farr (Rose Heyworth Colliery Delegate) and A. E. Prosser (Outside Members Delegate):

Last Concerts and Performances Held at the Old Powell’s Tillery Institute.
On Saturday 14th of April 1951, the institute was the venue for a series of free-style wrestling shows. Man Mountain Benny, the bearded giant from California and Phil Siki the heavyweight champion of the word performed at the institute. Man Mountain Benny beat Phil Siki in the contest.

On Sunday evening the 15th of April 1951, the night before the fire, the last concert was held at the institute. It was given by the Abertillery Orpheus Male Choir and the Blaina Silver Band. The band under Mr John Probert opened the concert with the march “Black Night” and continued with excerpts from “Maritana” “Slavonic Rhapsody” by Friedman and finally “The Cossack” by Rimmer. The choir conducted by Madam Edmunds-James L.R.A.M., M.R.S.T., was reported to have delighted the audience with renderings of the “Fishermen of England”, “Come to the Fair”, “Poet and Peasant” overture and “Carry Me Back to the Green Pastures”. Guest artistes were Miss Marlene Fisher and Mr J. Barrett:

The Fire at the Powell’s Tillery Institute.
In the early hours of Monday morning 16th of April 1951, a fire broke out at the Powell’s Tillery Institute, it began in the gymnasium, the swimming baths building which had a wooden flooring covering the pool so that the building could be used as a gymnasium and as a concert venue.

The alarm was given by Mr Harry Simons of Alma Street, Abertillery saw the flames from his bedroom window and phoned the fire station at 2.30am. Families around the area of the institute were asked to evacuate their homes as there was a danger the flames would have spread to the neighbouring premises. Superintendent Lewis Moore and Inspector W. Davidson were in charge of the police during the emergency evacuation. The outbreak was first tackled by two units of the Abertillery Fire Service, who were later assisted by fire fighters from Abercarn, Ebbw Vale and Blaina. At four o’clock they were relieved by units from Pontnewydd, Blaenavon and Risca. Chief Officer C. Thomas assisted by Divisional Officer A. L. Thomas was in charge of the first operations and later Divisional Officer E. Davies took charge.

The fire caused extensive irreparable damage to the building, over 1,000 books were destroyed. It was also reported that bound volumes of Hansards dating back to 1850 and over 200 reference volumes were also destroyed in the fire. 

The Abertillery Central Club, the Liberal.
During the upheaval and aftermath of the destructive fire at the institute, the committee at the Abertillery Central Club, known as the Liberal gave permission for the management and committee etc of the institute to use their building’s assembly rooms as a headquarters for future meetings.

The Rebuilding Scheme.
In August 1953 the Abertillery Institute Committee accepted a tender of £36,000 for the rebuilding of the institute. The £36,000 did not include the restoration of the swimming baths but the new building was designed with the aim of an ultimate extension which in the future will include indoor facilities for water sports. The new building, originally known as Powell’s Tillery Institute took the new name of the Abertillery Workmen’s Welfare Institute.

The New Abertillery Workmen’s Welfare Institute.
In August 1955 work on the newly constructed Abertillery Institute – now known as the Abertillery Workmen’s Welfare Institute, was completed. Credit for the reconstruction was said to have been shared by the following – Mr Emrys Davies (Regional Coal Industry Welfare Organiser) who had conducted the proceedings throughout, Mr Fred Baker (Institute Secretary) Mr Edward White (Chairman) and the members of the Institute Committee.

The Opening Ceremony of the New Abertillery Workmen’s Welfare Institute.
On Saturday 27th of August 1955, the new Abertillery Miners Welfare Institute was officially opened. The opening ceremony (as seen right) was presided over by Councillor Mrs Ursula Verrier J.P. (Chairman of the Abertillery Council) accompanied by Mr H. J. Williams (Clerk of the Council) and Mr Edward White. Those present were as follows – Sir Hubert Houldsworth (Chairman of the National Coal Board); Lady Houldsworth; Mr Will Paynter (President of the National Union of Mineworkers); Mr Arthur Horner (Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers); Mr A. Lyndsay (Chairman of the South Western Divisional Welfare Committee); Mr D. J. Skidmore M.E. (Area General Manager of the National Coal Board); The Rt. Hon Mr Ness Edwards M.P.; Mr C. P. Jones M.E. (Manager of the Arrael Griffin Colliery); Mr Tom Eacott (Chairman of the Arrael Griffin Lodge); Alderman Obadiah Evans J.P. (Chairman of the Monmouthshire County Council); Mr Fred Baker (Secretary of the Institute); Mr W. C. Meredith; Mr W. Adams (Councillor); Mr W. J. Jones J.P.; Mr Harold Finch M.P.; Mrs Ursula Verrier J.P. (Chairman of the Abertillery Council); Mr Reginald Powell; Mr A. Brewer; Mr Emrys Davies; Mr Fred Mason; Mr J. Hathaway and Mr H. J. Williams (Clerk of the Abertillery Council):

Sir Hubert Houldsworth and Mr Arthur Horner acknowledged the civic welcome and performed the opening ceremony by opening the two doors of the new Institute simultaneously and leading the way into the building.

Contributors to the New Abertillery Workmen’s Welfare Institute Fund.
The main contributors to the new institute fund were as follows – Cwmtillery Lodge £1,000. Rose Heyworth Lodge £250. Arrael Griffin Lodge (Not then members of the institute) gave £50. The Vivian Colliery Lodge gave the residue of their disposal funds. Many other organisations contributed generously among them the Tredegar Workmen’s Institute who gave £100, also the Lady Windsor Workmen’s Institute who generously donated towards the fund.

The New Abertillery Workmen’s Welfare Institute Trustees and Committee.
Mr I. West; Mr G. Wallace; Mr C. P. Jones M.E. (Manager of the Arrael Griffin Colliery); Mr Fred Baker (Secretary); Mr E. White (Chairman); Mr F. Mason (Vice Chairman); Mr T. H. Wallace M.E.; Mr H. Morgan; Mr C. Burroughs; Mr M. Churchill; Mr W. Axford; Mr Tom Mytton (County Councillor); Mr W. Adams (Councillor); Mr J. Hathaway; Mr G. Dix; Mr T. Eacott; Mr E. Jones; Mr J. Tippins; Mr A. Prosser; Mr S. Cooper; Mr W. C. Meredith and Mr R. Everly:

The Main Entrance Mosaic.
Later a specially commissioned mosaic was placed above the main entrance onto Powell Street showing mining scenes with a center piece of a phoenix rising from the ashes. The latter was portraying the new institute rising from the flames of the old. It is said that the artist Adam Kossowski created the mosaic above the main entrance at the institute.

The New Institute and the Local Collieries
The institute (as seen above left) was later used by the miners of the Cwmtillery, Rose Heyworth and Six Bells Collieries and as the headquarters for the latter two collieries during the Miners Strike of 1985-85. It was in constant use at that time as a soup kitchen and food distribution centre for the miners and their families. It was also used as a bingo hall with sessions held a few times per week.

In about 2016 all activity in the institute ceased and the building was put up for sale.

Points of Interest –
Mr Thomas Wilde Powell, 1818-1897.

In 1882 Mr Thomas Wilde Powell took over the Penybont Tillery Colliery at Penybont and formed the Powell’s Tillery Steam Coal Co. Mr Thomas Wilde Powell was a solicitor, philanthropist, banker, broker and art collector, he lived at Piccards Rough, Guildford, Surrey, England. His wife was Mary Elizabeth Powell nee Marten.

In 1884, shortly after coming to Abertillery, Mr Powell paid for the construction of the Tillery Workmen’s Hall and Reading Room, Tillery Street, Abertillery.

Mr Powell was also instrumental in the construction the Powell’s Tillery Institute at Division Street Abertillery, built in April 1898, though he sadly died in January 1897 just before its completion.

Mr T. W. Powell had an estate in Western Australia and left a personal estate that was valued at £195,508. 5s. 9d. the equivalent to £11,407,763,03 in today’s money. At the time of his death Mr Powell was in the company of Heseltine, Powell & Co Stockbrokers.

Mr Thomas Wilde Powell’s Children.
Mr Charles Marten Powell.
Mr Charles Marten Powell, son, a surgeon.

Mr Thomas Edmund Powell.
Mr Thomas Edmund Powell, son, a stockbroker. Mr T. E. Powell later became the director of Powell’s Tillery Steam Coal Co from the time of his father death in 1897. Mr Powell opened the Powell’s Tillery Institute along with his sister Christiana Herringham in 1898. Mr Thomas Edmund Powell died in 1901.

Mr Herbert A. Powell.
Mr Herbert A. Powell, son, a doctor. Mr Herbert A. Powell took over the directorship of the Powell’s Tillery Steam Coal Co after the death of his brother Mr T. E. Powell 1901. Mr H. A. Powell opened the Tillery Institute Gymnasium, Abertillery in 1902, he was presented with a gold key by the architect with which to open the gymnasium.

Lady Christiana Herringham nee Powell.
Lady Christiana Herringham, nee Powell, daughter, (1852-1929). In 1880 Christiana Powell married Physician Sir Wilmot Parker Herringham K.C.M.G. C.B. (1855-1936).

Lady Christiana Herringham was a prominent painter. In 1898 Christiana opened the Powell’s Tillery Institute, Abertillery, along with her brother Mr Thomas Edmund Powell, she was presented with a golden key by the architect with which to open the institute.

Mrs Mary Elizabeth Turner nee Powell.
Mrs Mary Elizabeth Turner nee Powell, daughter. Mary Elizabeth was married to Mr Hugh Thackeray Turner (Architect, China Painter) – Their daughter Miss Ruth Turner married Mr George Leigh-Mallory (Mountain Climber).

Mr Powell’s other children were –
Miss Eleanor Grace Powell.
Miss Rosamond Powell.
Miss Agnes Powell.
Miss Theodora Powell.

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