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December 2007
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Lecture programme

In November local artist Nora Lewis explained how she sets about creating her wonderful landscapes, prompted by photographs taken earlier.  Those of us without artistic skills could only marvel at her work.

Christmas Closure

The Museum will be open on Saturday 22nd December but will then close until Tuesday 8th January.

The January Newsletter will be available at the Museum, and on-line.

Annual Dinner

This will be on Friday 18th January at the Railway Inn, starting at 7 for 7.30pm.  Contact Roy Pickford (01633 213377) to order your ticket – all inclusive price £16.


The last year has been an exciting one for the Museum, with a few blips as well as highs!  This was all reported at the AGM which was well attended.  Members showed their confidence in the current management of the Museum by re-electing the same people to the Management Committee and re-electing the Directors who must stand down each year.   £5 annual subscription now due, please.

Christmas Bazaar

A big round of thanks to all those who collected, donated, sold, bought, made, baked, served and helped to make the bazaar a success, raising £600. Thanks also to those who helped at the Craft Fair raising £120.

Gwent County History Vol 2

This covers The Age of the Marcher Lords 1070-1536 and orders are now being taken.  Price £45 direct from University of Wales Press – 029 2049 6899 or call at the museum for more details.

Diary Dates

Frank Olding daytime lectures – please call at the Museum for details of the current series.

Wednesday 5th December1804 Ship’s Surgeon by Roger Morgan

Saturday 12th January 2008 Coalhouse Coffee Morning with one of the producers of the series

Friday 18th January 2008 – Annual Dinner, Railway Inn, Abertillery  £16

Wednesday 6th February 2008A Visit to Italy (films) by Harry Vagg

Wednesday 5th March 2008Mons on the March by Richie Rudd

Lectures start at 7.00pm in the Metropole Theatre, with teas and a chat downstairs in the Museum afterwards. Entry is £2 and the public are most welcome.

Fund raising November - £886

Local Voices

Hair Styles

When I was a small child, every night my hair was twisted into rags which produced a tumble of Shirley temple ringlets the next morning.  I don’t remember what happened when it rained.  Many years later when my own daughter was about thirteen, she asked why I had always tied a large bow of ribbon in her hair.  All I could say was that it was the fashion of the day, as was the Alice band.

I remember my mother wore her hair scraped back from her face and wound into a ball and secured at the nape of her neck with hairpins.  They called this the ‘bun’.  An aunt of mine used to divide her long hair in two and plait each one.  She then twisted the plait into a ring and pinned that close to her ear or over her ear.  I always thought it looked like ear phones.

Dyed hair was frowned upon in those days and the mark of a ‘loose’ woman.  Strong tea was permitted which when applied to grey hair toned it down a bit and the hair appeared more brownish.

Marcels was a short term style for creating waves.  This was done by heating tongs and resulted in a regiment of waves.  Perms lasted much longer but featured the same wavy lines on the hair.  One could even buy a curved hinged contraption which was placed over the crest of the wave to emphasise it especially when the original wave was ebbing a bit.

During the war years busy factory workers cut the top off old stockings and being slightly stretchy they pulled it over the head just above the ears.  They then tucked their hair into this stocking and created a continuous roll all around the head, a bit like a roll of black pudding.

Then came home perms and home dyes which with the liberation of women during the war were now acceptable.  One could buy any dye colour from pale platinum to darkest black – about 20 different colours altogether.  Next came the ‘beehive’; I often wondered what was inside.  Was it cotton wool or tissue paper?  What happened when you went to bed?  Of course with the modern older lady blue and lavender rinses were all the go.  Then came the period of lots of curls, then page boys, pony tails and eton crops.

We seem to have settled now for the natural look but there’s nothing really natural about it – an expensive cut and shampoo, conditioner, blow dry, back combing and straightening etc, which finally produce THE NATURAL LOOK.

Male styles too have moved from ‘short back and sides’ to skinhead, Mohican, pony tails, spikes or even fully shaved. 

What next? Full circle with powdered wigs?

The Roving Reporter

Coal House

This proved to be hugely popular, attracting more viewers than Eastenders. When the series ended, the BBC organised an evening at the Workmen’s Hall in Blaenavon  in order to thank the local people for their support and to provide an opportunity for people to ask questions of the families themselves and the people involved in bringing the programmes to our screens.  Roy Noble was also there; he explained that the series could not hope to completely replicate life in the 1920s but it could, and did, give us all a sense of how life was lived in those times and the hardships and uncertainties people suffered.  He also pointed out that the story was not peculiar to Blaenavon but was one that reflected life throughout the South Wales Valleys and the mining communities they supported and he offered that as perhaps the main reason for its popularity – it was a story that resonated with us today because it was a story of a past so many of us shared. Roy made the point that this was the message which came over time and again in the responses he and others had received in the programmes they had made with links to the Coal House series, including the radio programme broadcast from Abertillery (one of just a few towns selected for that particular purpose). It was clear from the enthusiasm of the local audience that the townspeople of Blaenavon had wholeheartedly given their support to the series and the Mayor ended the proceedings by presenting scrolls to each member of the three families which had taken part.  Scrolls were also presented to the butcher and greengrocer (who have become local celebrities) and to the mine owner Mr Blanford.  When the latter’s name was called it attracted pantomime boos which changed to resounding cheers when he walked down the aisle to receive his scroll.  It was a smashing evening.

I subsequently learnt from a friend that when the families left Stack Square they were taken to Pontypool Leisure Centre to shower and change into their normal clothes.  I am reliably informed that the families were extremely dirty and that Deborah really does talk all the time.

 One of the lead producers, Sian Price, is coming along to our coffee morning on 12th January to tell us something of the series, how it came about, how it was made etc.  In the meantime, you may be interested to know that a Coal House DVD will be available in February and that the series may be repeated on one of the other BBC channels next year.

Jen Price

Christmas Crackers

The first Christmas crackers, made in the 1850s by a London confectioner Tom Smith were called ‘Cosaques’.  The original name referred to the small explosive charge insider the cracker, known as the ‘snap’, which was said to sound like the whips used by the Cossacks as they drove their horses through Paris during the Franco-Prussian War.  How did the cracker come about?  Tom Smith had seen sugared almonds wrapped in coloured tissue paper on a visit to Paris and decided to add something similar to his own confectionery range in the run-up to Christmas 1847.  They did well but to stimulate trade for the New Year Smith began placing a small motto or rhyme inside, and subsequently added toys, novelties, and keepsakes. 

It is reported that Tom Smith was inspired to add a ‘snap’ by the crackles from throwing a log on a fire.  He experimented for two years before perfecting the snap comprising two pieces of card whose ends were coated with a small amount of explosive material and bound together, with the material being ignited by the friction produced when the two strips were pulled apart.  Smith used saltpetre but today’s manufacturers use silver formulate.  It is not clear when the first crackers went on sale but they were certainly around by the early 1860s when they were being marketed as ‘Bangs of Expectation’.

Another addition was the ‘scrap’ – a little cutout glued to the main body of the cracker.  The Victorians became fascinated with collecting them, hence the term ‘scrapbook’.

Jokes began to appear in the early 20th century.  Typical examples of today’s jokes are:

“What do solicitors wear to work?” – Law suits.

“Why did the banana go out with the prune?” – Because it couldn’t find a date.

Oh dear!  The jokes invariably generate groans but most people agree that crackers are fun and an essential part of Christmas.

Book News

Mr Cassini by Lloyd Jones is published by Seren and is a paperback priced £7.99.  It came out about a year ago and has received excellent reviews, being described as ‘a rollicking good tale, an enigmatic mystery, and a learned guide to a number of fascinating historical tales’.

A more recent publication, by Oxford University Press, is the Atlas of Wales, available in paperback at £8.99.  This is described as an accessible, clear atlas of the people, landscape and environment of Wales with informative sections on themes including landscape and climate.

Poet’s Corner


Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere,
Some one came, and kissed me there.

Tired  I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen and kissed me there.

Walter de la Mare

Christmas Diary 1870

Sunday, Christmas Day: As I lay awake praying in the early morning I thought I heard a sound of distant bells. It was an intense frost. I lay down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all round the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise, not particularly comforting to the naked thighs and loins, for the keen ice cut like broken glass. The ice water stung and scorched like fire. I had to collect the floating pieces of ice and pile them on a chair before I could use the sponge and then I had to thaw the sponge in my hands for it was a mass of ice. The morning was most brilliant. Walked to the Sunday School with Gibbins and the road sparkled with millions of rainbows, the seven colours gleaming in every glittering point of hoar frost. The Church was very cold in spite of two roaring stove fires. Mr V preached and went to Bettws.

An extract from the diary of Revd Francis Kilvert

Silent  Night

The words of the carol ‘Silent Night’ were written in 1818 by Father Joseph Mohr, who was the assistant pastor of the church of Saint Nicholas in Oberndorf in the Austrian Tyrol.  Late one afternoon, just before Christmas, Joseph Mohr was called out to bless a new born baby. As he walked home he thought of the child he had just visited and wondered, was it on a night of such peace and stillness that the holy babe was born? When he reached home he put his feelings into words.  A few days later he showed the poem to his friend Franz Gruber, the church choirmaster, and within an hour Franz had composed a simple tune around it. The church and everyone was delighted with it!


We have been so busy this year that Christmas arrived before we realised (much to my shame, who forgets Christmas and its meaning). Some of the displays in the museum remind us of past Christmases and what it meant to our ancestors.

Christmas in the trenches


One display in the museum reminds us of the 1st WW and the Christmas of 1914 which was marked by the troops on both sides with an unofficial armistice. First the troops started singing Christmas Carols, such as Silent Night, then the Germans put up decorated Christmas Trees and came out of their trenches into No Mans Land (the strip of land between the two opposing armies) wishing the Tommy's a merry Christmas.

They talked and exchanged presents; one British soldier was given a haircut by a German barber. A football match was arranged between the opposing sides which the Germans won. The British 12th Lancers were involved in this. 

The authorities on both sides were appalled at this and tried to stop the fraternisation but the men refused to continue to fight so a British Officer shot a German who was walking in No Mans Land. Orders were also given to fire on the men if they refused to fight




Museum Exhibit

Wood DollAnother object on display of which I have mentioned before is a doll lovingly carved out of a block of wood by a miner. This was put in his little girls stocking, who treasured the doll and donated it to the museum when she was in her 90s.

The Christmas present I remember the most was a Lead Casting Kit. This comprised of a mould with casting sand and tools. Pieces of lead pipe were cut up into a ladle which was held over the coal fire until the lead had melted, this was then poured into the mould that had been made in the sand. After the lead had cooled the mould was opened and the object was removed.

I mostly made lead soldiers and tanks, some of which can be seen in the museum. This activity was carried out in our kitchen; the moulds were placed on the scrub top table. On one occasion I got into trouble when I accidentally spilt a spot of molten lead onto the table which left a burn mark.

Toy Soldiers

What would health and safety have to say about this toy when today you cannot use toys with lead based paints!

The giving of presents originates for Christians from the Three Wise Men from the East bringing gifts to the Baby Jesus. Today we often find it hard to choose gifts for others, is this because we have so much already?

Bear Logo

All I want is peace! This is the true meaning of Christmas.

Merry Christmas

Don Bearcroft Curator


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