Greening Swansea: a forgotten pioneer

November 1, 2019 0 Comments
William Thomas, by John Ernest Breun (1877) (detail)

Greening cities and towns, we might imagine, is a contemporary concern – a response to the realisation that we’re rapidly destroying the earth’s environment and depleting its non-human lifeforms.  Swansea has its share of green activists and agitators working to raise awareness and press for action. It would be fair to say, though, that those in control of local government and other strategic bodies in the city are very slow to understand the need to curb harmful practices, like the excessive use of private cars, and introduce measures like better bus services and cycle facilities, and reducing car parking spaces.

What we tend to forget is that transforming industrial towns and cities into greener and more liveable spaces is nothing new.  You could argue, certainly in the case of Swansea, that the first greening revolution began around 150 years ago, with the campaign to create public parks in the town.

If you’ve ever strolled through Victoria Park past the Patti Pavilion you’ve probably not paid much, if any, attention to a large bronze statue of a man standing in front of it.  After all, he’s just yet another worthy nineteenth century alderman, with extravagant mutton-chops and mayoral robes, standing on a tall granite pedestal.  But it’s worth reading the pedestal’s inscription:

William Thomas Esq., J.P.
of Lan
Mayor of this Borough
Pioneer – Champion
Public Spaces
Erected by Public Subscription

Statue of William Thomas

William Thomas was arguably one of Swansea’s greatest benefactors, who did as much for the health and well-being of its residents as any of the improvers who battled, against the apathy and inertia of most members of the Corporation, to create public services and improve the quality of life of ordinary people.

Thomas was born on 23 January 1816 and, like his father before him, was employed as agent for the Morris family (the Morrises of Morriston) between 1837 and 1843.  From 1833 he was a partner in the Millbrook Company of Landore, and from 1851 in the Landore Tinplate and Steel Company.  He belonged, therefore, to the new class of company owners in the now heavily industrialised lower Tawe valley.  Like many of them, he sought political advancement.  In 1871 he was elected to Swansea Town Council, finally retiring in 1894.  In 1877-78 he served as Mayor of Swansea, when his portrait was painted by an obscure artist from London, John Ernest Breun (you can see it in the current Swansea stories exhibition in the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery).  Thomas died in 1909.

William Thomas of Lan, by John Ernest Breun

There seems little that’s distinctive in this career.  But in 1874 William Thomas seems to have seen the light.  On 9 July in that year he gave a speech in which he promoted the idea of creating playgrounds and open spaces for public recreation.  According to a much later newspaper report (The South Walian, November 1896) this was the first such speech made in Wales.  It continued:

From that hour to the present the subject has been the nearest of all things to Mr Thomas’s heart; and the public parks and playgrounds in various parts of Swansea stand as an everlasting monument to the full and complete success of his life’s best humanitarian purpose.

It’s possible that Thomas’s enthusiasm arose from his awareness of recent developments in England.  In 1865 the Commons Preservation Society (now the Open Spaces Society) was set up.  The earliest conservation society in Britain, it fought to retain public land and ensure that ordinary people could enjoy access to it.  The Society was supported by liberals like Octavia Hill keen to blunt the worst effects of industrial growth, as well as by more radical activists, such as William Morris.  It was successful in its campaigning.  The Public Health Act of 1875 allowed local authorities to keep (and raise money for) land as public parks.

Capel Libanus, Morriston

Thomas’s next step was to announce, at the Christmas eisteddfod at Libanus chapel, Morriston, that he would offer prizes for the best essays, in English or Welsh, on ‘the desirability and advantages of recreation grounds for the working classes and poor children in Swansea’.  Before he published the eight essays received he wrote to local landowners to tell them about the ideas they contained.  One of them responded with a generous offer.  This was John Dillwyn Llewelyn of Penllergare, one of the most remarkable Swansea people of the time.  Llewelyn, prompted by his wife, Emma, said that he would donate to the city a 42-acre farm estate he owned at Cnap Llwyd, together with a sum of £1,000 to help convert the farmland into a public park.  Interestingly, the site was very close to Thomas’s home, Lan, in Trewyddfa Road (and to ‘Morris Castle’ or Castell Graig, the remains of workers’ tenements built by John Morris for his workers).

John Dillwyn Llewelyn

The location of what then became Parc Llewelyn appealed to Thomas.  It wasn’t situated in the more privileged suburbs of west Swansea, which enjoyed the shore of Swansea Bay and some existing parks, but lay above heavily industrialised areas, including Morriston, Landore, Plasmarl and Treboeth, with their large numbers of poorly housed workers and their families.  He could see that unregulated expansion of industry and industrial housing, together with the enclosure of previously common land, was depriving working people of the chance to enjoy public open spaces.

Parc Llewelyn was opened with great celebration in October 1878, during the mayoral year of William Thomas.  A public holiday was declared.  12,000 buns were given away to local children.  A grand banquet was eaten, and music played.  At night there was a firework display.  The Cambrian newspaper reported that the park

… is of large extent, and from it may be obtained extensive views and plenty of fresh air.  The park has been enclosed with a boundary planted with elm and a variety of other trees, which had to be selected to suit the climate and to resist the smoke which sometimes prevails.  From north to south the ground is traversed by a good wide carriage way, called the “Elm Avenue,” and from east to west by a similar drive, called the “Evergreen Oak Avenue,” each being planted with the trees indicated by the name.  There are many other meandering paths in various directions, and here and there are shrubberies, trees, parterres, &c &c.  It is intended to construct a maze and a good approach roadway from Landore.  When this is done, and when nature, improved by cultivation, has had a little time to put forth her beautifying energy, the Llewelyn Park will be a charming spot. At the present time it is everything that could be wished for the health and recreation of a large population, who are crowded in their works and houses, and who, after work, ought to have an outlet for play and health.

Parc Llewelyn

John Dillwyn Llewelyn has too ill to attend, but his son wanted to emphasise that this land was now inalienably the ‘people’s park’:

In order to keep the health of towns there must be reservoirs of pure water for them to drink, and reservoirs of pure oxygen to breathe.  A park was really such a reservoir of oxygen.  This place was now formally handed over to the people. and was their own legally, as it had been virtually theirs ever since his father had first spoken of it.  He had seen the reports which had been circulated of the various schools, clubs, and societies that had already used the park, that they did so “by kind permission of Mr. J. D. Llewelyn.” No, this was not quite accurate, and never could be accurate in the future, because the park was the people’s own, and in using it they need ask the kind permission of no one.

Victoria Park

Not content with the success of Parc Llewelyn, William Thomas went on to press for more parks across the town.  In October 1875 he persuaded the Council to appoint a committee to consider new sites.  In June 1887 Victoria Park was opened (part of it was taken in the 1930s for the building of the Guildhall), and St Helen’s secured as a recreation area.  By the early twentieth century other parks followed: Brymelyn, Brynmill, Jersey and St James’s Gardens.

In January 1905, three years before his death, William Thomas was interviewed by a reporter from The Cambrian, and looked back on his work:

When I started this question it appeared to be new to the country.  I owe it to the press for making it known to the world.  If the press had not taken it up, probably we should have heard nothing more about it.  About 30 years ago, when I was in the Council, I took this question up.  I was then manager and trustee of the British School at Morriston.  The children there had no more play ground than there was under the school; they had nowhere to go except the street to play and the gutter (which was a sewer).  I said at the time it was a confounded shame.  

Thomas was present at the unveiling of his statue in September 1906.  He was already ill, but gave a short speech of appreciation:

He said he had had his say for 32 years in the council, and he felt he had now nothing to say to them except to thank them from the very bottom of his heart.  To the mayor and the ex-mayor and all who had assisted he expressed his gratitude.  As for open spaces, they had still only 100 acres in the town—100 acres for 100,000 people, a mere flea bite.  There was a good deal yet to be done, and would be done.  The working man was now an intelligent and educated man.  In his (the speaker’s) time they were in darkness.  He did not want to set class against class, but there were too many brewers, lawyers, etc., in Parliament, and his idea was let those who had gone through the mill get in there.  There were great problems to be thrashed out. He only wished he could have his day over again.

There might be some irony in the fact that it was the owners of heavy industries who were responsible, often against much opposition, for measures to palliate the polluting effects of their activity.  But you can’t doubt that William Thomas was on the side of the angels.  His prolonged, single-minded campaign to preserve green spaces in Swansea, and make sure they belonged to the people who most needed them, was one we should remember – especially at a time when public services and collective solutions to social problems are under such sustained attack.

For more information on William Thomas see Tom Ridd, ‘Thomas y Lan’, Gower, vol. 15, 1962, p.61-66.  On Parc Llewelyn see Robert Skinner, ‘Parc Llewelyn: John Dillwyn Llewelyn’s people’s park’, Gower, vol. 57, 2006, p. 59-69.  More generally see J. Alun Owen, Swansea’s earliest open spaces: a study of Swansea’s parks and their promotors in the nineteenth century, Swansea: Swansea City Council, 1995.

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