‘The Curse’ of Ethel Street, Melincryddan

Paul Richards, Neath Antiquarian Society, 2024



Ethel Street, Melincryddan was built during 1896-1900 principally to house the workers of local industries. It quickly developed a bad reputation and stigma due to the high degree of lawlessness alongside significant deprivation. Prior to WW2, in time such frequent reports somewhat subsided although resurfaced in a different form in the 1990s although through the subsequent perseverance of the street inhabitants it has since gained a true community spirit.

This article details the early development of Ethel Street and some of its inhabitants principally from its construction up to circa 1939 by using analyses of building plans, censuses, the 1939 Register, Electoral Registers and period newspaper reports. Whilst these outcomes in Ethel Street were probably not exceptional of the time, the reputation was certainly a matter of concern for local magistrates.

Construction of Ethel Street

As shown in fig.1 the area which surrounds the current Ethel Street was at one time bounded by Briton Ferry Road - Chemical Works Road (now named D.C. Griffiths Way) - Railway Line - Marshfield Road; note that circa 1862 Marshfield Road was actually a tramway linking Briton Ferry Road to the railway line and at that time this enclosed area had no distinguishing features. However, by 1877, fig.1a a brickfield with clay pits had been established utilising the abundant clay deposits and a series of ponds were constructed to facilitate production. A path can be seen bisecting the area between the head of Lombard Street and Chemical Works Road.

By the time of the 1897 survey (taken for the 1900 OS map), fig.1b the Cambrian Pottery was in operation, being located in the area marked ‘139’ in fig.1a. By that time, 11-or-so Ethel Street houses had been built. The demarcation line between the pottery and the adjacent land ran parallel to the railway line towards Chemical Works Road and ceased at what was originally the small waterway seen in fig.1a – the path of this waterway would become the continuation of Marshfield Road, fig.1b. If the demarcation line is continued it is seen to be the boundary at the rear of what became Ethel Street and was the boundary of Marshfield Road, figs.1c-d. The building of Ethel Street was completed by 1901 as indicated in the census of that year with habitation from numbers 1-37. Numbering began from the Marshfield Road end. It is likely the odd numbered houses nearer the railway line were not continued up to Chemical Works Road, as on the other side, despite the terrain being similar, as the small block of land of the ‘missing’ area was owned by the ‘Melyn Tinplate Company’ who also owned the large area between the rear of Ethel Street and the railway line. The whole of this land clearly delineated in figs.1c-d was later established as a factory site by the “Wales & Monmouthshire Industrial Estates Ltd’ circa 1946 and eventually opened in 1949 as ‘D.S. Smith Ltd.’, a company launched by David Solomon Smith in 1940, and since known locally as the “Cardboard Factory”.

All Ethel Street houses would almost certainly have been constructed in a similar style to that of Marshfield Road premises, described in Council minutes as ’... of stone and brick opening to the pavement in front roadway with bounded backyard areas.’ Unlike the adjacent Cecil Street where all houses were very similar, Ethel Street had a few anomalies to accommodate a kink in the road and the boundary line at the rear as shown in fig.2a-b.

Downstairs floors would be laid with flagstones. There were 3 bedrooms upstairs, downstairs featuring, from the front, a parlour, living-room and scullery. At the rear of the scullery under a lean-to would be a pantry/larder and coal store, while outside at the rear of the garden would be the lavatory with drain to the sewer, and a store for the coal fire ashes. Some designs simply had a living-room and kitchen downstairs with a scullery off the kitchen, with a lean-to comprising a lavatory and coal store immediately behind the scullery.

The Ethel Street numbering system remains to this day with odd numbers 1-33 on the railway side with evens 2-34 plus 35-37 on the same side extending up to Chemical Works Road. Both sides had a rear lane, the evens side via an opening in Cecil Street continuing up to and around no.37 emerging at the top of the street. The lane sat below the road level of Chemical Works Road. The lane behind the odds began between the rear of Marshfield Road and No.1 Ethel Street continuing up to behind no.33 where it reached a dead-end. Fig.2c shows an area at the rear of Nos.1&3 which was not part of their property. In 1903 Charles Pike submitted plans for a stable in that area - a person of the same name was registered at no.33 in 1904. It is not known if the stable was built, although the area remained as a separate entity.

Note that in 1955 at least 5 houses in the Marshfield Road section below Ethel Street railway-side were issued with demolition orders as they were considered dangerous and unfit for habitation, the owners being unable to maintain the properties due to their financial situation. It may be assumed that the condition of properties in Ethel Street would not be far behind and this is indeed the memory of the author in the 1960s at which time Council grants were thankfully being offered to improve the living conditions i.e. inside bathroom with lavatory and upgraded downstairs floors.

Life in Ethel Street

A local man, John S. Mill wrote of his own experiences from starting work in 1908 at the ‘Galv’ i.e. ‘Neath Steel Sheet & Galvanising Co. Ltd’, which was established in 1896  - “...particularly in and around the Galv, Melyn and Eagle Works many children without shoes or stockings because many parents didn’t have the money to buy any, and was the reason for many children missing a great deal of schooling...Many of the houses in either Ethel or Cecil Street were built for the ‘Galv’ to house their employees, mostly the Staffordshire mill men (Staffies) who came down to start the mills in its early days and whose descendants still live in the town today. They were hardworking and hard drinking men...” The reference to Staffordshire employees is borne-out by the 1901 and 1911 censuses, although the inhabitants were generally more ‘local’ by the 1921 census.

The movement of families/lodgers was very fluid in the beginning of the 20th century no doubt due to a combination of factors including employment and of course the lack of employment with commensurate inability to pay rent, the vast majority of occupants unable to buy their own property, although this would gradually change.

As seen in table 1 the number of inhabitants per household was significant. There were up to 326 persons living in Ethel Street during 1911 with the maximum number of occupants in one house reaching 17 during 1921, often there being 2 families plus their extended family in the premises where more than 7 lived. Generally there were at least 8 people per household with 27 of the 37 houses having more than 7 residents. The numbers reduced somewhat by 1939 possibly as other premises became more available and affordable. As aforementioned, each house would typically hold at least two families, but there would sometimes also be a lodger(s). The overall picture meant that every occupant would need to use the single outside lavatory and kitchen facilities thereby necessitating anyone making use of these facilities passing-through the downstairs living-room. It would not have been peaceful for whoever was renting that room and, as in table 1, may have meant significant intrusion.

Ethel Street held a high degree of notoriety for many years. Up to 20 related press reports/prosecutions per annum were made over the period 1898-1939 albeit with up to 10 per annum being more typical. These were of course only those being reported due to prosecution and may not have been the full complement. Some inhabitants featured more regularly than others, for a range of reasons, usually drunkenness, swearing, assault, theft, cruelty, child neglect, abusive and/or obscene behaviour, threatening, gambling, beer buying/selling, fraud/forgery, causing damage, aiding and abetting, committing an indecent act, illegal trading, trespass, wife desertion, unpaid family maintenance, etc. Note that these misdemeanours were not restricted to the men, women very often being prosecuted for similar offences, also children, with the accused sometimes alongside or prosecuted when having the issue with other family members. Other prosecutions which may seem strange today included that of attempted suicide, wasting water, lying on grass in Victoria Gardens, littering, absent from work without giving notice, taking possession of a stray dog, selling coal in the street.

The frequency and nature of many of these incidents probably reflect the reason why Ethel Street gained such a fearsome reputation. It was reported (Evening Express, 18/8/1908) that Alderman E.S. Phillips stated ‘...it was quite time that some drastic measures were taken in connection with the curse in Ethel-Street and Cecil-Street.’ Also during his time on the bench he claimed that ‘...half the cases came from the neighbourhood indicated.’ This was also reflected in the upbringing of the children where Neath Borough Education Committee were documented (Cambria Daily Leader, 29/1/1913) as considering how to ‘...make the children of Ethel-street and Cecil-street go to school like other children in the town.’

An example of the poor living conditions was from late 1909 (The Cambrian, 17/12/1909) where an inquest into the death of a woman in labour revealed in that ‘...there was nothing in the house to eat...no saucepan to boil the water.’ Further, ‘The coroner also dealt with the overcrowding in Ethel-Street, and it was full time that the Town Council took steps to put a stop to four or five families living in one house.’ A tongue-in-cheek comment was made (Herald of Wales and Monmouthshire Recorder, 16/9/1916) where a subscriber gave his address as ‘The Dustbin Mansion, Back of Ethel-street’.  Typically, householders would be evicted for not paying rent, there were a number of incidents where children/adults would be burned or suffer death by fire, also that where it was considered ignorance caused the premature death of a child. The relatively high degree of child neglect was reported (The Cardiff Times, 21/11/1908) where an incident was described ‘...house in a filthy condition...only furniture consisted of a broken chair and a bedstead with a straw mattress without bedclothes.’ Also, that an undeclared baby was ‘...lying in an old perambulator, covered up with rags.’ A separate account (The Cambrian, 20/11/1908) described the three children as undernourished and that there was ‘...practically no food, but a bottle containing beer.’

Whilst the foregoing paints a very sad picture of Ethel Street notwithstanding fatal incidents of accidental poisoning and horse/vehicle/coalmining accidents and incidents it was not always totally inhabited by miscreants. Serving their country in the First World War, Private J. Williams of 6th Welsh was reported killed (Herald of Wales and Monmouthshire Recorder, 16/10/1915) while Private Gideon Knight, Cheshire Regiment was wounded (Cambria Daily Leader, 24/4/1918). Subsequently, Ivor Davies who had joined the International Brigade in Spain during 1937 was among those reported captured by Franco’s army the following year. His cousin from Elias Street had already been killed the previous year (The Guardian, 8/4/1938).  An established ‘old’ boxer Walter ‘Darkie’ Thomas was given a benefit night (Guardian, 16/12/1932) and it appears Ethel Street had its own football team in the late 1930s named the ‘Paragon Stars’. A match was reported (The Guardian, 4/11/1938) with many local names mentioned and a reference to the next match bus leaving from the ‘Paragon Hut, Ethel Street’.

Despite the misgivings above, some occupants remained in Ethel Street for virtually their whole lifetime. Many of the surnames featured in the censuses of 1901/1911/1921 plus particularly the 1939 Register will be well-known not just to those with memories of Ethel Street but also of the Melincryddan more generally. While the list below is not exhaustive and  covers a number of families of the same surname it represents families who remained in the same property for a few years at least or moved around Ethel Street and its neighbourhood over the period 1898-1939 (and later):- Griffiths, Matthews, Taylor, Randall, Clarke, Harris, Dodd, Nicholas, Youatt, Knight, Gilbert, Nicholas, Ware, Savage, Shea, Francis, Summers, Taylor, Venables, Green, Eynon, Morgan, Richards, Jenkins, Egan, Williams, Chappell, Hulonce, Allen, Jenkins, Lewis, Parker, Hale, Scanlon, Norris, Rees, Davies, Williams, Price, Singleton, Cuff, Hodgetts, Harrison, Edmonds, Diamond, Watkins, Harries, Bowen, Thomas, Arnold, Bowen, Mort, Mellin, Hyde, Vincent, Gwilliam, Wall, Moody, Morris, Tamplin, Reilly, Clifford, Hughes, Park, Mainwaring, Summers, Fry, Alford, Pike, Jefford, Roach, Foley, John, Booth, Cronin, Jefford, Riley, Derrick, Hodge, Blackmore, Llewellyn, Jaynes, Bendle, Sheppard, Silvey.

Some of the ‘characters’ from Ethel Street in the later pre-WW2 period were ‘Pimpo’ (Sidney Singleton, No.33) and one of the best local comedians, Joe Richards (No.21) who is surely worthy of his own article. A memory of Pimpo told by my late uncle was that he would regularly eat a bag of crisps. Not unusual in itself but he would eat the crisps and the bag!


Final Comments

My own memories while growing-up in Ethel Street in the 1960s and 1970s was of a relatively content group of people, generally not poor but certainly not with money to spare and only the occasional vehicle present in the street. Tin baths and mangles were still in use, bicycles were made from parts, not bought complete and new. Owners would be proud of their house and regularly clean not just the inside but the outside as well although the former reputation of Ethel Street would still be told by residents, somewhat proudly, of ‘police only patrolling in pairs’ in days-gone-by.

The atmosphere was to change for the worse during the 1990s and into the early 2000s with the influx of many undesirable tenants with issues predominantly including drug-related incidents. The situation has since been dramatically improved by the actions of the more longstanding residents themselves as seen by searching and viewing on ‘YouTube’ the “Mini F.A.Ns Ethel Street Film” – i.e. Friend and Neighbours Alliance, from 2011, with the street once more establishing a proper community and having a spirit which must be the envy of many similar areas. The revival outlined in the film has, through the hard work of the residents, been maintained to this day.


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