Looking back, it is funny how standing out in one’s impressions of the past are little corners of local history, which examined overall, count for little. Buildings come into this category, large and small, elegant and humble. Every person can recall some building that has remained with them since childhood. Here are a few of my memories.
In the vicinity of Alexandra Road were a number of structures that stood out like a sore thumb, two of these being religious buildings. Trinity Chapel was a modest stone built affair, yet having about it an air of serenity. It was not an important place, yet was known by many. Sadly it was one of the first buildings to be flattened in the blitz which struck the town. On the other hand, Alexandra Road Chapel, a short distance away, met its demise not by falling bombs, but by the need for its removal to allow a road to be widened. This was a nice family church, ornate in its architecture, the epitome of Victoriana in its heyday. But a price for progress had to be paid, even chapels not being immune.
High Street Arcade linked Alexandra Road to High Street, a convenient short cut for shoppers. It comprised rows of small shops on the ground level. Overhead, running the entire length of the arcade, was a balcony, which led off into small offices. The entire collection was surmounted by a glass cover. The diversity of trades packed into this small area appeared phenomenal, ranging from music shops to jewellers, sweets to drapery and toys to art ware. It was a place where shop changes were always taking place and always attracted plenty of passing trade. Here again, despite extensive damage, it survived the war, but, alas, not peace.
One of the major buildings on High Street was the Mackworth Hotel, a place of luxury and dressed-up waiting staff. They had, in addition to numerous bedrooms, a first class restaurant, dance hall, billiard saloon and often afternoon tea was served amidst potted plants, to the lilting music of a string quartet. To dine at the Mackworth was an experience. To become a regular patron was to have arrived in the social scene of Swansea.
By contrast, stuck in Belle Vue Street, long swallowed up, was a decrepit second hand book shop run by Mr Beer. You could spend hours rummaging amongst his stock for all forms of literature. It might not have been as big as Ralph’s book shop, but it was always a useful place to shelter in the rain.
The Ragged School, at the rear of the Central police Station, still stands, seldom used now, except for church services. At one time, as the name suggests, it was one of the social welfare establishments that the wealthy of the town liked to patronise with gifts of money, helping as it did the poor and underprivileged. It was used as a church, a school, a feeding kitchen, boys club and for many other activities, having long outlasted the benefactors who helped to keep it solvent.
A far different kettle of fish was the Music Hall pub in Union Street, always a raucous, noisy establishment in the evening. I recall it, not as one old enough to frequent its premises, but rather for its kaleidoscope of colour and movement going in and out of the door. Roughly dressed men in cloth caps and tatty suits, swells in evening dress or snappy sports outfits, the Music Hall catered for them all. Indeed, it was often shouted out by conductors on trams and buses as they approached the union Street junction, “Albert Hall, Music Hall, all get out” – how strange the things that stick in the mind.
Tawe Lodge, despite its massive face lift and new hospital name, looks as austere today as it did when I passed it daily on my way to school. Then it was very much a last haven for the poor, the down and outs, a home for those flung on to the streets. It is a stern, forbidding looking building. Years ago, its dark green painted walls, a strong smell of disinfectant, and hard wooden furniture epitomised it as the workhouse it originally was. It is a constant reminder to me of how hard life could be for those unfortunates, who fell on desperate times, thankfully few of these stone edifices remains today.
Finally, a building that has been built and rebuilt over the years, but still manages to retain some of its past characteristics – Swansea Market. The market of the 1930s was demolished by incendiary bombs, indeed at one point in the war years; it had a temporary home above the United Welsh bus garage. Later the present day structure was erected.
The old market was a jumble of stalls, huddled together as if to keep warm, offering little in the way of hygiene and sanitation. Butchers stalls ran around the main walls of the building, a motley assortment of other stalls occupying the interior. The Gower cockle women and produce sellers had spaces on the ground and up and down the narrow alleys would trundle, endlessly, barrow after barrow carrying all forms of goods. At weekends, the market would remain open until 8 or 9 o’clock. Late on Saturday nights, many of the meat and produce stalls would sell off their wares cheaply, because, little, if any, refrigeration was available for storage. At Christmas time, a hazy aroma of fruit would intermingle with that of fish and meat, the scent floating heavenwards until it collided with the massive dome shaped glass roof. The market place was no easy way to make a living. Working long hours, in overcrowded conditions, in an atmosphere in which the workers sweltered in hot summer weather and froze on cold winter days. It was hardly conducive to good health, but the shoppers loved it.
The market was the pride of Swansea. Many placed it in front of the large fashion houses of Ben Evans, David Evans and Lewis Lewis. It was earthy, congested, dirty, smelly and highly competitive – you never knew what your next visit would bring forth.
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