William Griffiths was born in Carmarthenshire in about 1836. His father Thomas, a weaver by trade, with his mother Hannah had moved from Carmarthen to the parish of Llangyndeyrn to work at the Drysgeirch woolen mill, and by 1841 they were living in a little cottage called Pandy in Felindre (Velindre), about a mile from the main village. During the census of that year William was four years old with six brothers and sisters. It's unclear where the youngest five were born as the years between 1829 and 1841 are a mystery, no record in parish registers of births and baptisms have been found yet. But by 1851 William, now 13, had moved to live with his father's brother Richard, a miller in Llanelli. He went to school in Llanelli and eventually needed to find work. The railhead had reached Carmarthen town by 1850, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel was recruiting men throughout Wales and beyond to become 'Navigators' or Navies, labourers to build his railway. William worked on the railways, possibly as a labourer, in spite of being able to read and write; several of his books have survived and all have the same inscription written in a fine copper-plate: 'William Griffiths, his book'. Thanks to the barbaric Education Act of 1870 and the enthusiastic use of corporal punishment and the "Welsh Not" (in an attempt to eradicate all traces of the Welsh language), almost all written work was in English and this in spite of over ninety percent of Welsh people being monoglot Welsh speakers. One such book is: 'Gems Of Welsh Melody' a selection of Welsh songs , with the lyrics printed in both Welsh and English under the staff notation. The inscription reads:
Another is 'The Storm Of Tiberias' an oratorio by the Reverend E. Stephen, again with the lyrics printed in both Welsh and English under the four part harmony. The inscription reads:
In pencil, written in the same hand is:
In 1862 William would have been twenty-five and in 1864, twenty-seven. The significance of September 1st is not known, a coincidence perhaps, a birthday treat or maybe as the annual fair in Neath took place on this date, perhaps the beginnings of a yearly visit to buy books. William was obviously a cultured man, able to read and write both Welsh and English; he also read music in staff notation and tonic sol-fa. Choral music was to be a lifelong passion for him, as we shall see.
We know that in the census of 1861 he was lodging at Mynydd Bychan Cottages with a David Griffiths (no relation) near Pontrhydyfen. Brunel was charged with engineering the South Wales Mineral Railway up through the Afan valley. Pontrhydyfen eventually became a junction between the Rhondda and Swansea Bay Railway line in the Afan valley and the Port Talbot Railway line running down the Palenna valley from Tonmawr. Huge works of engineering were carried out in the area; the red brick built viaduct at Oakwood, or Penycae as it was known then was not completed until 1897. Hundreds of men were billeted in the neighborhood. Within six years of purchasing the above book William was a married man. He had met a local girl from Cwm Ifan Bach, Mary John. They married in the Oakwood chapel of ease of the parish of Margam on the17th of December 1870. The witnesses were William John, possibly Mary's father, and a Thomas Thomas. They made their home in Penycae Row, Oakwood which was to become Oakwood Row. 'The Row', as it was known, was a single unit of thirty back to back two-up and two-down houses, in what was then open fields. By the time of their wedding William had become a collier, in a work force of hundreds at the time. The whole of the Afan valley, like so many other valleys in South Wales, was one huge and growing colliery.
Their first child was born in about 1872, Thomas Griffiths was named after his grandfather, Thomas the weaver, and his great-great-grandfather, Thomas the Yeoman from, Llandyfeilog. By the census of 1881 there were six children: Thomas, David, Hannah, William, Mary Ann and John. The four older children would have attended Oakwood school in Tai Isha. It was built in 1860 and would remain open until the new primary school was built in 1907. The old school even had an infants class and photographs of the young scholars still exist. The schoolmaster was a Mr. Roberts who was known to be particularly zealous in enforcing the bizarre and unforgivable rule which prohibited any child speaking their own language. He was well known for using corporal punishment, beating with a cane, on any child heard speaking a word of Welsh.
The chapels were not under the control of the British government's education policy and they continued to offer Welsh education to all ages, not only in Bible studies but more in general topics, not least numeracy, literacy and tonic sol-fa. The Griffiths' family attended Jerusalem, the Calvinistic Methodist chapel in the main part of Pontrhydyfen.; this meant leaving Oakwood by crossing the 'Bont Fawr' (Big Bridge). This huge structure was built in1825 and served initially as a tramway viaduct and then as an aqueduct, supplying water to the iron furnaces below Tai Isha. Jerusalem was built in 1826 to replace Gyfylchi, an old meeting house up high in the hills above Pontrhydyfen. It was enlarged in 1845 and totally rebuilt in 1876. It was one of many chapels that served the growing community. This was a time of great religious activity; by the Revival of 1909 Jerusalem Sunday School had forty teachers and 350 scholars!
William and his growing family eventually moved to Cwm Ifan Bach, to a larger house on the opposite side of the Afan valley to where the railway station stood. There were more children, Richard and Catherine; sadly Mary Ann had died as an infant and is buried with her parents at the cemetery on the steep hillside next to Jerusalem. William pursued his passion for music; he was choirmaster for several musical groups in the valley. He would also teach tonic sol-fa, and had a portable pump organ with which he could accompany the songsters. He is known to have led a 'glee party' in Glyncorrwg, so music could also be fun, as well as serious for him.
His love of music and choral music was inherited by his children. Thomas was a choirmaster and a Licentiate of the School of Tonic Sol-fa, and led the singing at Jerusalem at a time when it was taken seriously. John taught piano, was a choirmaster and became organist at Bethany chapel, Port Talbot; he was awarded a mahogany metronome in recognition of his services in 1931; he then left for London and was organist in Waltham Green Methodist Chapel . Richard was a fine musician and choirmaster who also taught piano; he was organist at Jerusalem. He also was a published composer. David never married and lived in Glynorrwg. Hannah married (William Charles) and became Hannah Charles; she stayed at Cwm Ifan Bach and cared for her parents until the end of their days. Catherine was a wild spirit. She found her way to London and met and married Victor Valogne in 1917. Victor was a french speaking Londoner, whose father and grandfather were clock and watch makers. Victor was an importer of french clocks and had a shop in Regent Street. He had business interests back in France and would travel back and forth between London and Saint Cloud, Paris. During the second World War, he was visiting the French capital when the Germans were invading. He was unable to escape, but he may have succeeded in boarding one of the last vessels to sail out of St. Nazaire. There is some family anecdotal information that says that Victor went down with the 'Lancastria' after it was dive bombed with over 5,000 people aboard. Many were saved, but Victor, if he was aboard, was not one of them. Catherine remained in London with her daughter, Margaritte and never returned to Wales. Victor disappeared from all records.
With most of their children still living near them, Mary and William retired to Cwm Ifan Bach. There they spent the remainder of their days in a valley that had been torn from its sleepy existence by the discovery of coal beneath its green hills. This was the golden era of the Welsh coalfield, the golden era of Welsh religious life and one of the high points for Welsh cultural life. William had lived through one of the most exciting times to affect South Wales and had traveled the road that led from its pre-industrial past in rural Carmarthenshire to the modern industrial future that King Coal promised. Not only that, William did it in style, he went by train!