Tarmac and its Swansea connection

Family History with Charles Wilson-Watkins

Just for Fun. Here are two starters for 10. Who is Rebecca and what’s the connection between Dylan Thomas and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas? Also, what is the connection between Swansea and Radcliffe Road in Nottingham? There’s a Brucie bonus if you know the answers before reading the article! 

British roads cover more than 262,300 miles. The earliest roads were constructed by the Romans, when they invaded the UK, and were built primarily for military purposes. The majority of those roads have been lost, but a select few have been incorporated into the roads that we use today. 

After the Romans, it was from the Middle Ages to the 17th century that new roads were constructed. In the 17th century, travellers paid tolls for the upkeep of the road; these were authorised by the Highways Act 1663. This Act was replaced by the Turnpike Trust in 1706, which originated from individual Acts of Parliaments. These allowed trusts to collect road tolls, with the profits from the tolls being split between the shareholders and the costs of the maintaining of the road. Toll gates were built where the tolls were collected.

M1 Motorway under construction

Most of the road networks that we know today were developed during the 1950s and mid-60s. The first motorway, the Preston Bypass was opened during 1958. The following year saw the first major motorway, and the M1 opened. During the 1930s it was first proposed that a new road be built to connect London to South Wales. The first section, the Chiswick Flyover in London was opened in 1959, with further sections of the motorway, the M4, being opened during 1961, 1963, 1966 and finally being completed during 1996.

All these roads have one thing in common – they are laid with Tarmac. Swansea can boast a connection with this road substance. However, we will get to that a little later in the article.

During the turbulent period of 1839 – 1843, we can see what the effect the turnpike gates had around South Wales. At this time, the agricultural communities were in a dire situation; the bad weather of 1837/38 caused the farms to produce poor harvests, which affected the rising cost of butter and sheep. The following years the prices in the agricultural market fell, and Robert Peel’s government was blamed for cheap imported cattle and food stock.

To add insult to injury, the Turnpike Trusts, imposed extortionate tolls, on the toll gates, and during the 1830s a group of English toll-renters took over this region’s trusts.

Things came to a head during 1839, with the first appearance of ‘Rebecca’. The name ‘Rebecca‘ was that of the mythical leader. ‘She‘ had helpers like ‘Charlotte‘, ‘Nelly’ and ‘Miss Cromwell‘ and followers or daughters. The name came from the Bible, ‘And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, by thou the mother of thousands of millions and let thy seed possess the gate of those that hate them’ (Genesis 24 Verse 60). The toll gates were seen as the property of the gentry (‘those that hate them’) as they were often the trustees of the turnpikes. The gates became a symbol of many different discontents about the land and the church. The rioters wore women’s clothes and blackened their faces for disguise, but also perhaps to suggest the idea that women were entitled to act to defend their families. Normally respectable people may have felt that in disguise they were symbolising their community rather than breaking the law as an individual.

The riots began in Efailwen, Carmarthenshire; the early attacks were sporadic isolated outbursts, occurring around South Wales.

The Rebecca Riots concluded on 6th September 1843, when around 150-200 rioters attacked the Pontardulais gate, and several rioters were captured. The main trouble-makers were tried and convicted and transported to Australia. One of the JPs sitting in judgement was Lewis Llewellyn Dillwyn. It is his daughter, Amy, who wrote The Rebecca Rioter, 1880.

One rioter who slipped away on the night at Pontarddulais was Daniel Lewis. His grandson was journalist Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, who had a remarkable career as a journalist. In answer to the first question, what’s the connection between Dylan and Wynford? Wynford was taught English by D.J. Thomas, Dylan’s father, at Swansea Grammar School now known as Bishop Gore. Dylan wrote the screenplay for Rebecca’s Daughters in 1948, but it was 44 years before Karl Francis directed the film in 1992.

Here’s another little mystery for you to solve.

At one time there was a memorial plaque to David Vaughan Thomas – pictured left – (father of Wynford) on a house of the same name in Walter Road; it has disappeared. Anyone know where it is?

During the 1820s the Scottish engineer, John McAdam devised a process called “Macadamisation”, which was an economical method of constructing roads using single-sized crushed stones, laid on small angular stones in a shallow groove and then compacted thoroughly. A top layer of stone dust was used to bind the stones together. However, these roads were prone to rutting and generating creating dust. It wasn’t until 1901, that things changed. Enter Edgar Purnell Hooley.

I can hear you saying Edgar who? I was asked by Mr Philip Saunders, if I knew anything about Edgar Purnell Hooley (pictured left). Poor man seems to have been written out of Swansea history. Edgar was born in Swansea in 1860. At the time of the 1861 census, the 10-month old Edgar, son of Charles and Elizabeth Hooley resided at 58 Brunswick Street. By the 1871 census, the now widowed Elizabeth was living in Neath; her occupation is listed as Licensed Victualler, while Edgar now aged 10 was a scholar. It was in Neath that Edgar now a surveyor entered a business partnership with an architect named Francis Lean, forming Lean and Hooley – the business was dissolved in 1881.

1889 saw Edgar being appointed County Surveyor to Nottinghamshire County Council. It was during 1901, that Edgar whilst passing the tar works noticed that some tar had accidently spilt on the roadway, and in an attempt to reduce the mess gravel had been added. Seeing that the road was not so dusty, Edgar developed and patented Tarmac in 1902, registering Tar Macadam in 1903. With some further modifications with tar, Radcliffe Road was the first road to be tarmaced in the UK.

Picture Credit

The Welsh Rioters – The National Archives

Wynford Vaughan-Thomas – Wikipedia

David Vaughan Thomas Memorial, Vaughan Thomas House, Walter Road

Cross Section of a John McAdam Road, incorporating the Roman Road

Edgar Purnell Hooley – Wikipedia

Radcliffe Road, Nottingham


Contact Charles at swanseafamilyhistory@yahoo.co.uk

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