Christmas Bazaar – no date yet but can you please get busy with your arts and crafts!
Peggy Bearcroft, Chairwoman - On behalf of the Museum Society I would like to welcome you and thank you all for coming to the reopening of the Museum. It is a very exciting and emotional day for the Society. It is the culmination of 11 years hard work. We have had many setbacks and disappointments along the way, but we were determined never to give up. Looking at the Museum now I am sure everyone who has been involved will feel it has all been worthwhile.
I’d like to give a special welcome to the Mayor of Blaenau Gwent CBC Ainsley Morgan, Leader of Blaenau Gwent CBC Cllr John Hopkins, Deputy Leader Cllr Nigel Daniels, Cllr Cheryl Morris, Representatives from the Community Council Chairperson Barbara Baldwin and Mrs Marion Roberts. I’d also like to give a special welcome to Sir Richard Hanbury Tension. Sir Richard has been the Society’s President and loyal supporter from the outset, and will officially open the Museum later this morning.
When it came to thanks I didn’t know where to start because we have had so much help from so many people, but I feel as a Society we should say a big thank you to the Heritage Lottery Fund for making all this possible. We are particularly pleased to see Martin Buckeridge and Ruth Waycott from HLF with us today. Martin was the first person we went to for advice back in 1996 when he was Curator of Pontypool Museum, so I feel it is fitting for you to be with us today.
Next I would like to thank Deputy Leader of Blaenau Gwent Councillor Nigel Daniels whose help and support has been invaluable to the Museum, since we started this project back in 1996. Can I also thank Council officers David Watkins, Richard Hughes, Walter Syrett and Frank Olding who represent many other officers and workers from many departments in the Borough. Frank Olding as you all know has been the Museum’s Curatorial Advisor for most of the last eleven years and we would not be where we are today without Frank’s help.
We are pleased to see Jane Henderson here. Jane was conservation officer at the Council of Museums in Wales and along with colleagues started us on the road to success. We are pleased to see Carol Whittaker, Development Officer representing CyMAL. CyMAL is the new governing body for museums, archives and libraries in Wales and is a division of the Welsh Assembly Government. We thank everybody at CyMAL for their help and support.
Can I also thank Communities First for all their help with the opening including the buffet.
I could go on thanking people but if I say everyone here has helped in one way or another to make the Museum the success it is today and on behalf of the Society I would like to thank you all.
Don Bearcroft, Curator – As Curator and Project Administrator I have been asked to say a few words about the Museum and the new design. The Museum Society was founded in 1964; the first museum was opened in the Abertillery Library in 1972. I was elected Curator in 1991, (it went downhill from there on). If you want to learn more about our early history you can buy a booklet in our shop for the modest price of £1.
We are here today to celebrate the opening of the refurbishment by the Heritage Lottery Grant. This project started 11 years ago in 1996 when due to local government reorganisation we had to vacate our home in the library as it was required for other purposes. We were not very happy about the move although Councillor Nigel Daniels told us they would help us in any way they could. Most of us including myself thought of it as an eviction, but without that move we would not have had the incentive to strive for this museum that we have today. Nigel proved to be a man of his word and the Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council has provided us with help and advice from their officers and practical help from the Leisure Department whenever we have asked.
However it has been a long road, it has been said of me that “If I didn’t have any bad luck I wouldn’t have any luck at all”. And this seems to have followed me into the Society as looking back over this period anything that could go wrong did go wrong! A few weeks after the notification to move out of the library our Chairman Mr Ralph Robinson was tragically killed in a car accident. Fortunately for us Peggy stepped into the breach. It is a tribute to our committee and members at that time that we were more determined to have a new museum, despite all the setbacks our motto became – Keep your head down and keep going. It was the support we had from far and wide that helped us during these times, or is it as Frank Olding has said, “You’re just too stubborn”.
Our fundraising for the matching funding for our HLF grant which was successful has been an inspiration to others with similar projects in mind. The new design chosen by the committee was an interpretive design, a museum with cases integrated into settings which tell the story of the artefacts in them. The priority is for young people with the older generation still in mind, and text being part of the displays with more available for the serious academic student. All this has been achieved by the designer Alan Morgan of Riveting Designs who was awarded the contract and was chosen by the committee because of his innovative modern design while still keeping the ethos of our old museum. Alan is a very talented man but he is also a shy modest person who never does openings, but he has promised to pop in some time this morning.
There are other features in the museum that were not in the design but were ideas done by the Council for me. Walter Syrett asked me if there was anything they could do for us. I don’t like to ask I replied, No he said but you’re going to anyway. So I gave him a list. Walter not only looks like Clark Kent but he also carries out impossible tasks. I have to mention two of his workers Rob and Pete; most of their work is unseen except for the theatre box which they set up over the entrance porch using the original wrought ironwork from the theatre. We have all heard the music hall jokes about council workmen but this is definitely not true of those who have worked in this museum. They work with an enthusiasm matching our own. Perhaps it’s catching.
We have had a number of talented people working on the museum design, Alan Morgan of course but also the artist Geraint Derbyshire who painted the murals, and Panico Theodosius who sculpted the quoin stone and also did restoration work on the marble counter for the Express café.
We must not forget our own volunteers who worked on moving the artefacts, opened and closed the museum for the contractors plus a million and one other jobs that were required before, during and after the refit, Roy Pickford, Bob Pitt and Bernard Hill. These last two are also avoiding the limelight.
As regards to the future the new museum has already had requests for school visits not only by local schools but from schools further a field as well as from visitors from away. We look forward to working on projects with Susan upstairs as well as Rachel from Communities First.
Now that this project is completed other projects are in the pipeline, one the marble counter from the Italian Express café has been restored via a grant from CyMAL. This could be expanded with original round tables in an appropriate setting. There are two other areas which I have discussed with Alan Morgan. That’s one thing we are never short of – ideas.
Abertillery & District museum is a voluntary and independent museum run and supported by the people of our valleys, a ‘Community Museum’ with the emphasis on having local people at hand as guides to enrich the museum experience with their own knowledge and experience of life in the locality. We are truly a people’s museum and thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund we now have a unique museum that we can all be proud of.
The W.G. Vowles Organ
The W.G. Vowles Organ at St Michael’s Church in Abertillery was dedicated on 21st December 1910, and was a gift of J. Edgar Webb, the brewery owner of Aberbeeg, in memory of his parents. The fact is that Edgar Webb had wanted to donate an organ to Christchurch, Aberbeeg (largely built with Webb money) but the then incumbent had disapproved of the way the money had been made! The great Hiram Smythe Rees, Vicar of Abertillery, had no such issues (sensible man!) and it has been known as the ‘beer organ’ ever since.
Vowles are known for the robustness of their instruments, but not for the quality of their action (the means by which the playing on the console opens and closes pipes in the organ), and by the 1950s the organ was in a poor state. With much volunteer labour, including a younger version of our present organist Lyndon Stephens, the many yards of small-bore lead piping were replaced with electric wiring by Michael Davies of the then Gavenny Organ Company, and when the console itself expired in the 1990s, a second-hand one was acquired.
Apart from the initial installation 97 years ago, all work since has been done ‘on the cheap’, and with the generosity and hard work of people working for love rather than money. It is a tribute to the original workmanship that the organ pipes, along with the wooden and leather parts, are largely original, but they are now showing their age. Though ‘Bertha’ probably sounds better today than for very many years, she has become a fragile old lady, in need of a rebuild.
Thanks to Glenys Lee for this article by Patrick Coleman.
The Express Café Abertillery
As told to me by a Ty’r Graig School pal from Brynithel, who became one of the highest-ranking police officers in Wales and later Chief of Security at Cardiff Airport.
‘Whilst a policeman at Abertillery, it was customary as a pair to be welcomed at the Express Café for a cup of tea. One night duty the pair of us were in the café for such a break and were amazed when we came out by the number of fire engines at the top of Church Street. The Working Men’s Institute with its famous swimming pool had been severely damaged by fire whilst we were enjoying our cup of tea, without our knowledge.’
The Grand Re-opening of our refurbished museum thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund was a success. Reports from those present gave resounding thumbs up for the new museum design. There were of course people who were unable to attend due to work commitments and personal reasons; some came for the open day.
As I started my speech I could see in my minds eye other faces, faces of people who helped and supported us over the past eleven years and sadly did not live to see the fruits of their labours.
It was an emotional day and I new if I were to mention even one of them I would not have been able to continue. Now I can mention a few out of the many, if I mentioned them all it would take a whole newsletter!
The first person who comes to everyone's mind and who is badly missed even now when there is a museum function is Barbara Bevan.
There are many others such as Arthur Smith, Colin Morgan, the list seams endless. We owe them a debt of gratitude for all their labours, it is my own belief that they are aware of our success and how we feel about them.
The open day was another successful day; all agreed that our museum is unique. It was the faces of the children lighting up when they used the interactive exhibits that told everything.
The first children to see the museum were the four that together with their mother Gwen made the sound recording for the air-raid shelter.
Unfortunately when Alan was adjusting the sound he inadvertently wiped the tape, so they had to come a few days later to record again. They loved doing it! Children up to the age of 80 have enjoyed trying on the different period hats in the, "who am I" section and excavating in the archaeological dig.
As for the serious text great interest is shown in the Cruciform and Circular keeps excavated by Trevor Lewis in the 1920s.
The text in the information points is being read. A friend who worked with me at Six Bells Colliery was seen on his hands and knees in the mining gallery reading the text. He was mistaken for one of the figures which is not surprising as they are so lifelike.
The visitors of all ages during the first week have been more than we expected. We are now looking forward to the new school term and school visits, also we will be working on projects with Susanne in the Metropole and Rachael with Communities First.
Has the struggle over the last eleven years been worth it? What do you think?
Don Bearcroft curator.
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