When Swansea was a town



To know Swansea in the 1930s, long before it attained the grand status of a city, was to know a township of crowded, multi-styled buildings flanking main roads and narrow streets, where cobbled stone was much in evidence, and pavements a nesting place for water in wet weather, where at weekends in particular, it showed off its multitude of features. The flamboyant nature of a Friday or Saturday night giving way to the austere pattern of Sunday, where for many, especially non-churchgoers, time hibernated.

The town was a mixture of old and new, tram cars competing with buses. Horse drawn vehicles still much in evidence, vying with motorised transport. There were sailing ships in the docks, the trains were powered by monster steam engines and the much lamented Mumbles Train swayed and rolled on its journey along the sea front towards Mumbles.

Shops became ablaze with light in the winter evenings, oil lamps, gas light and electric glow, providing a variety of illumination, illustrating the wealth of goods waiting to be purchased, if you had the money. It was a town bulging at the seams at holiday times, a vast influx of valley people descending like all devouring locusts, to cart away to the mountainside those things which small townships and villages could not supply.
On the main streets paraded well groomed men of wealth and substance, ladies flaunting their fashionable finery, jostling with those from the poorer quarters. Men wore traditional flat caps and frequently mufflers, womenfolk with shawls draped across their shoulders. It was a hybrid populace, their class status clearly defined. The chatter from shoppers, allied with the noise of slowly moving transport, the clank clank of tram cars, the strident sound of motor horns, all seemed to reverberate around the closely packed thoroughfare, the hustle and bustle of a thriving town at work and play.
This was a time when most knew their station in life, falling into one of four main categories. There were the wealthy or nobs, generally comprising those born with the proverbial silver spoon in the mouth, or owners of the many industrial works within the area, residing in the large Victorian houses, in or around the town centre, or the more fashionable districts of Langland and Caswell.

The upper middle class comprised members of the professions, such as solicitors, doctors, surgeons and leading merchants, who employed many of the working population in menial capacities. These two categories were the people who ruled the town, whose influence shaped the policies and destinies of the remaining classes. The wealth was in their hands, and, except for the occasional foray of donating towards some charitable cause, there it remained.

The lower middle class were the small business men and white collar workers. The office managers, chief clerks, book-keepers, local council officials, school teachers etc., who spent their working hours in a clean, if not over paid job, and who remained loyal and obedient to their masters. There was also the working class, those who carried out a host of dirty jobs. The unskilled element of navvies, shop assistants, labourers in the local copper works, the foundries, coal mines, tinplate works and numerous other occupations where dirt and grime ruled, where working hours were long, where wages were low.

In this society, most knew their stations. Some, especially, when times were particularly hard, slipped further down the social ladder, almost to oblivion. Few managed the long climb into a higher stratum. The days when a man’s entire future could be changed with the forecasting of correct teams on a football coupon and winning a fortune were yet to come. For the ordinary people of the working community, there was a continual battle to remain solvent and keep one’s family clothed and fed. For these, the niceties of life were enmeshed in pipe dreams; the world of luxurious indulgence was for those more worthy of it. For the workers of the world it was survival that counted.

But one thing that was far more in evidence among the ordinary people than now, was the fostering and development of their sense of community spirit, when the none too well off would help those even less prosperous, where helping hands in times of adversity and distress were frequently given. Of course, not everyone fell into this category, but, on reflection, the spirit of friendliness was far greater than it is today. The escapades of youngsters caught stealing apples, breaking windows or causing other minor disturbances was rewarded with a clout across the head or ticking off from upset parents, maybe even the forfeiture of one’s few pence pocket money. The mindless, senseless hooliganism of the 1980s rarely loomed, except in drunken brawls. Old people did not live in a world of constant fear of darkness and possible muggings. Crime existed alright, but it never appeared, on an ordinary level, to be tinged with the sadistic overtones so prevalent today.

Policemen walked the streets, by day and night, many known personally by local residents. Not for them the comfort and insularity of the Panda car. They were part of the community and they knew it. Looking back, it is so easy to recall the good points and forget the bad. Did the sun shine all through each passing summer of childhood days? If it didn’t, the weather certainly seemed more reliable than now. On reflection, one wonders why it took so long for so many radical social changes to evolve, many due in no small way as a result of the last war.

Gone are the workhouses, where despair was the only companion. Gone are over-crowded classrooms with their tiny two-seater desks and swish canes for misdemeanours. Standards of hygiene and sanitation have improved to a vast extent, although pollution of our bays and coastline still exists. No Longer is it considered a luxury to have a bathroom or indoor toilet, or electric light. Today, the unemployed, aided by supporting social services organisations, can at least survive. Leisure time activities are abundant in a variety of spheres and interests have diversified out of all proportion.
But, in the march of progress, we always have to pay some price, maybe for some, a small one. The decline in church and chapel going is considerable – many rarely frequenting places of worship unless a wedding or christening beckons. Moral standards, sadly, have fallen away, with the past respect shown towards sex fast vanishing. Good manners and simple common courtesies belong, in the main, to the older generation, for the youth of the 80s it is shamefully neglected.

The changes brought about in almost half a century confound the imagination. The world has been brought into our living rooms at the touch of a television button. Average wages topping the one hundred pounds a week mark. Men landing on the moon, bombs capable of destroying a civilisation in an instant and aeroplanes travelling around the world at ever increasing speed. The world relentlessly provides never-ending change. The pity is that in the process we have to take what is given, the bad with the good. If we could only harness the best of the past and the pick of the present, we should be on the right road to Utopia. Alas, this cannot be the case, so those old enough to have undergone the experience of yesteryear and today, have only their own judgement to decide whether society is infinitely better now than then.

Who knows? – in twenty or thirty years hence, the younger members of this modern generation might express the same thoughts. Was life better in the 80s than at the start of the 21st century? Maybe the final analysis, looking backwards, represents a sad farewell to the passing of youth and the years, a flimsy attempt to slow down, if only for a little while, the inevitability of old age and all it brings.

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