Many of us visit Aberdare to shop and for social purposes, but how well do we know it and observe as we walk around? This post reveals some of the history of Aberdare Town Centre, including relics and buildings you can still see today.
*Disclaimer* Please do not use this as a guide to visit and walk around Aberdare if you are not local to the area. If you do undertake this walk, you must adhere to social distancing regulations.
Until around 1800 Aberdare was a small village, the chief place of a poor agricultural parish, and the ‘very headquarters of solitude’ (B. H. Malkin, 1807). Its population in 1670 was estimated at 545 (Hearth Tax Assessments). It was however rich in minerals, and between 1757 and 1920s the local production of iron. and then coal was responsible for its rapid growth into a large and prosperous market town. The population of the parish at the first census of 1801 was 1,406 rising to 55,000 in 1921.
Starting at the library
This area in close proximity to St John Baptist, the parish church of Aberdare (Ca 1200), was the oldest inhabited part of Aberdare; here stood the original village and village green. The area was known as Green Fach (Small Green). It was the place of the market, a few inns, and a small row of almshouses built around 1720. These stood on the site of the library.
The village stocks were located in the churchyard,
In 1841 Green Fach was described as the most densely populated part of Aberdare, and in 1853, at the time of the Rammell Health Report, one of the worse quarters of the town.
The housing at Green Fach consisted of Green Street, Gadlys Row, Dare Place, Dare Street and Chapel Court. These streets contained a large number of houses, crowded together upon a very limited space. (Rammell)
Two fine non-conformist chapels stand in the area; Green Street Methodist Church built in 1841 and Siloa Congregational Chapel dating from 1844, both in the classical style. Siloa was the scene of one of the most turbulent incidents in the town’s history being the venue, in 1848, of a public meeting held to object to statements published in the Blue Books. Note the plaque attached to the façade of the building. This records that fifty-seven people left this valley to set up a Welsh colony in Patagonia, South America in 1865.
The large building which houses Bradley’s Coffee House was originally the market house and assembly rooms erected in 1832, and later used as municipal offices where meetings of the Board of Health were held. A third storey was subsequently added and after 1894 the Aberdare Urban District Council met there.
Proceed along Canon Street
Canon Street takes its name from the clerical Canons of Gloucester Cathedral whose Dean and Chapter had owned the land on which it stands since the Reformation.
The impressive Wedgwood blue building on the left is the Constitutional Club dating from 1894. Note the enormous open ironwork crown surmounting the building. It is a grade II listed building and once housed an Edwardian Music Hall, The Palace Theatre of Varieties, later re-named the Empire. The building has recently been restored and the original clock, long missing, replaced by a replica.
The stone chapel-like building on the right hand side of Canon Street is the Masonic Hall (1880). On the left, the now closed Trinity Presbyterian Church dates from 1867.
The large convenience store on the far side of the junction of Canon Street and Weatheral Street stands on the site of the recently demolished Temperance Hall built in 1858. It served as the town’s public hall and theatre with seating for 1,200 patrons. It was later re-named the New Theatre and Hippodrome, and finally the Palladium when it became a cinema in 1918.
Burton’s the outfitters, at the junction of Canon Street and Whitcombe Street was originally the Queen’s Hotel (1861-1923). Opposite you will see the Halifax Bank, these premises once housed one of Aberdare’s many printing offices – there Y Gwladgarwr (The Patriot), the Liberal Welsh language newspaper was printed (1858-1882) by Walter Lloyd. Other periodicals were also produced there.
Commercial Street and Market Street
The broad area fronting The Works, used to be known as the Welsh Harp Square, after the public house of that name.
It was the location of one of the town’s many Hansom cab stands.
The open river Dare, now culverted, was crossed by a bridge near this point. The bridge became known as the Welsh Harp Bridge and was once a focal point for ‘lounging, idle workmen’.
Proceed down Commercial Street
This short street was once the location of 15 public houses. Only one of the original hostelries now remains.
Commercial Street ended at the river Cynon once crossed with a dangerous wooden bridge called Cynon or Trap Bridge. This was replaced with a latticed iron one in 1853. There were two large pubs on the town side of the river crossing, the Commercial and the Iron Bridge.
The road to Abernant was the ancient (and only) road to Merthyr, crossing the desolate mountain and descending at Heolgerrig (Stony road).
At the town side of the pedestrian foot bridge crossing the by-pass, the river Dare can be seen joining the Cynon. This feature gives the town its name – Aberdare, the confluence, or mouth of the Dare.
Look up, and to your left you see the Valleys Line railway station to Cardiff. This was originally the Aberdare Station of the Vale of Neath Railway (opened September 1851) from Neath to Aberdare. The line was subsequently extended to Quakers Yard and Pontypool Road.
Walk along Duke Street
At the end of Commercial Street, turn right. The town bus station (left) stands on the site of the Taff Vale Railway station to Cardiff. The line opened in 1846 as the Aberdare Railway with its terminus near the iron bridge, Robertstown. The undertaking was immediately leased to the TVR. The station was known as Aberdare Low Level.
Turn right into Market Street
This short street has much to interest.
The first building on your left, now the New Market Tavern (previously The Cowbridge Arms) formed part of Aberdare’s Market complex, built in 1853; here in 1861 the very first National Eisteddfod of the modern era took place. A heritage blue plaque acknowledges the importance of this event.
Most of the old market was destroyed in a fire on 6th December. 1902, and replaced by the present covered building. A date stone records the date of reconstruction (1903).
The market had its own slaughter house, this has been converted into a range of shops. Little changed externally it stands directly opposite the market. The river Dare, culverted since 1871, flows directly behind it, and the river was a depository for the foul detritus of slaughtering.
The private park at the side of the market, shown as Cattle Yard on the above plan, was throughout the nineteenth century the venue for travelling theatres and other shows. It was used by the film pioneer, William Haggar, who toured the industrial valleys of south Wales with a portable bioscope exhibition (early cinema show), wintering in Aberdare.
In 1910 he set up a permanent booth there (Haggar’s, Royal Electric Bioscope) before opening, in 1915, a purpose built cinema, The Kosy Kinema opposite (now the betting shop). A plaque commemorating Haggar can be seen on the façade of the market.
This whole area was vibrant throughout the nineteenth century especially during the duration of the town’s annual April Fair.
The night club, Judges and Jurys, another of the town’s fine secular buildings, stands in Market Street. Built in classical style in 1914 as the new Magistrates’ Court, the date of building is shown in Roman numerals.
The Aberdare Leader was first printed at the Market Buildings, (now called Boot Chambers).
Leave Market Street
Turn right into Cardiff Street. Head towards the Cenotaph. On your right is the former Boot Hotel, once the finest of the town’s inns. This was the second hotel of that name (see below).
The Cenotaph stands at the foot of Victoria Square (Commercial Place until 1887). Located on an island the town’s war memorial was designed by F H Morley of Durham. Made of Dalbeattie granite it was put up in 1927. Resembling Lutyen’s national monument in London it originally memorialised the 800 men of the Aberdare Urban District Council who lost their lives in the First World War. No individual names are recorded on it, but there is a Book of Remembrance at the library. The cenotaph is not, contrary to general public belief, one of only two such named monuments in Great Britain.
Previously a Jubilee drinking fountain, the gift of Sir W T Lewis (Later Lord Merthyr) in 1897 occupied the site.
Turn for a moment into Bute Street
Almost immediately on the right is a tablet recording that it was visited by Queen Mary in 1912, who expressed a desire to see a ‘typical miner’s cottage’.
Back on Victoria Square
The three storey building, left, now Southern Fried Chicken, was another printing office, that of Josiah Thomas Jones, where Aberdare’s first English language newspaper, The Aberdare Times, was published and printed from 1861.
The square, which still retains its Victorian character, is dominated at each end by the former Boot and Black Lion Hotels. The earliest, the Black Lion was opened in 1811; it housed the town’s first mail office and was a posting house. In front of this once elegant and bustling hotel stands the statue of Griffith Rhys Jones, ‘Caradog’ by Sir William Goscombe John RA.
Caradog was the conductor of the famous South Wales Choral Union and perhaps epitomises Aberdare’s cultural heritage. Raised stone lettering on the façades of two of the buildings here recall the areas former prominence as one of ‘the’ shopping streets of the town. The Beehive and Compton House were large drapery establishment where sewing girls lived in. Quality shops such as these would have attracted the ‘carriage trade’.
Returning to the library
You pass St Elvan’s church with a spire that rises to 180 feet. This fine church, known as the ‘Cathedral of the Hills’, was built between 1851 and 1852. Its interior contains many finely carved ecclesiastical fittings, an impressive parish war memorial and Victorian stained glass of the highest quality. The bells, eight in number, belong to the town.
Wetherspoon’s was the site of the original Boot Hotel (Boot and Railway after the opening of the Taff Vale line to Aberdare in 1846). The present building was the post office.
The building next to it was St David’s Presbyterian Church. It once had a small steeple. The adjoining roadway leads to Rock Grounds. The present building of 1938 was originally a clinic and later the Council chamber and principal office of Cynon Valley Borough Council. It stands on the site of Rock Brewery, one of several breweries, serving the town. In the 1890s the brewery owner laid out Recreation Grounds to the right of the building, the facilities included a circus and Music Hall (The Empire).
The bust on the lawn in front of Rock Grounds is that of Keir Hardie, a founder of the Labour Party and former Member of Parliament for Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare. (1900-1915)
The course of the river Dare enters a culvert near Rock Grounds flowing underground through the centre of the town, reappearing to merge with the river Cynon at the foot bridge crossing the bypass.
An ancient corn mill stood on the site of the lower car park opposite Wetherspoon’s, when the corn mill closed it was replaced by a woollen mill. This in turn was converted to a boot, clog and shoe factory (Halewood’s). Both the corn and wool mills were powered by the river Dare.
The land of the upper car park has been home to cottages, a monumental mason and finally The Rex, an Art Deco cinema.
The natural stone monument, erected by the Cynon Valley History Society, on the St Elvan’s corner of the car park commemorates James James (Iago ap Ieuan) the composer of the Welsh National Anthem, who lived and died in Aberdare. He is buried at Aberdare cemetery.
The offices to the right of the stone, (Graeme John Ltd} was a druggist’s shop (opened 1826), owned by John Jones. The shop became known as Jones, Ceffyl Gwyn (White horse) after the famous image displayed in the window. This and other objects belonging to the business are on display at Cynon Valley Museum. The original curved stone steps, seen below, are still in place. The white horse indicated the shop provided veterinary remedies to the local farming community.
Return to the Library Square
You pass an elaborate milestone, this shows the distances to London, Cardiff, Neath and Brecon. It was set up by the Board of Health in 1860 close to the spot where Caradog’s statue now stands.
Back at the library look towards the higher level car park. This is the site of the Gadlys, or Victoria, pit opened by the Waynes in 1844 to supply ironstone and coal to their Gadlys ironworks. Substantial remains of this stand directly behind the present museum. The colliery headgear was still in place in the 1970’s.
This concludes the walk
When lockdown restrictions are lifted do walk the route yourself, and visit the museum to see related objects.
Geoffrey Evans, Cynon Valley Museum Volunteer, May 2020
- Wales’ Newspapers archive is available to browse online.
- RCT’s Library Service Archive is digitised and available to browse here.
- Once the Cynon Valley Museum reopens, many items relating to this walk are on display for you to view.
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