Côr Meibion Dowlais Male Choir

A Brief History

The Choir can trace its roots back to the late 1800s and continued until the 1950s. At some points,  the Choir boasted over 100 members, but towards the 50s, it was much reduced and could be described more as a “Glee Party,” which eventually disbanded.

The present Choir was re-formed in 1965 by 13 men keen to see a revival of choral music in Dowlais, and that number rose to 120, reflecting the enthusiasm of the early days. Today the number of choristers registered is 45 and we are constantly looking to recruit new members, to ensure that the Welsh choral tradition lives on.

Over the years, the Choir has traveled extensively to many countries, including America, Canada, Northern Cyprus, Holland, France, Bulgaria, Ireland and Italy.

It has won the National Eisteddfod and represented Wales twice at the International Celtic Festival in Lorient Brittany. Its travels have seen the Choir sing in some very prestigious venues including: Massey Hall Toronto, Bercy Stadium and Champs Elyse Paris, the Millennium Stadium, Millennium Hall and St David’s Hall Cardiff, Birmingham Symphony Hall, Bellapais Abbey Cyprus, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Science Museum as well as the world-renowned Royal Albert Hall. We also believe we are unique in having had a taped recording of the Choir taken into space by Canadian born astronaut Daffydd Rhys Williams in 1998, on his sixteen day mission aboard space shuttle Columbia, which orbited the earth 256 times covering 6.3 million miles.

The Choir has made a number of television appearances and sung with a variety of famous names including Bryn Terfel, Katherine Jenkins, Haley Westenra, Donny Osmond, Wynne Evans, Rebecca Evans, Peter Karrie, (widely considered to be one of the best at portraying the role of Phantom in Phantom of the Opera) and Jason Howard, an ex-Dowlais Choir member, who in addition to his many opera roles in many parts of the world, most recently took the lead role in South Pacific at the Barbican Theatre London and continued on a nationwide tour of the UK. Peter and Jason both hailed from Merthyr Tydfil. The Choir also had the honour of performing for and before Diana Princess of Wales. In 2010, the Choir had the privilege of singing for HRH The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall when they attended the Armed Forces Day in Cardiff.

Côr Meibion Dowlais Male Choir.

D T Davies Awards For Young Musicians

In an effort to support young musicians in the Borough of Merthyr Tydfil, the Choir presents an award annually. The award of £100 is in memory of the first conductor of the reformed choir.

For more information about this award: click here

 

The Choir Display at Cyfarthfa Castle Museum

The Choir has a permanent display of artifacts from its history – along with a CD  of its voices to enjoy (and copies to buy) – at Cyfarthfa Castle Museum.

For more information on the display: click here

Weddings

The Choir is available to sing at weddings, subject to availability. We sing for half an hour before the ceremony, sing the congregational hymns with the guests and if requested we will sing during the signing of the register. We would also be available to sing at the reception.

Please contact Keith on 01685 388230 or email keith.morgan26@btinternet.com.

Dowlais History

Before the Iron Works were established in Dowlais there was no distinct name to the locality. The Welsh name “Dowlais” is unique: it is not duplicated in any other part of Wales. One interpretation, “Dow” is derived from “Ddu,” the Welsh word for black and “Lais” refers to the sound of rivulet, hence “Black rivulet.” Probably the name originated as a result of the Iron industry in the area, which caused the rivulet to change its crystal appearance to a polluted black murky colour, as a result of coal and iron waste. The interpretation favoured by Dowlais choristers refers to two local streams merging, to create the concept of “Two voices, blending” as one.

The following narrative is a short synopsis of the Choir’s history and its close association, firstly with Dowlais Iron Works and secondly with GKN.

This is an historical account of the formation of male choral singing in the locality of Dowlais, from its initial formation to the present day. With development of the iron and coal industries associated with the Iron works and collieries at Dowlais made famous since 1767 by John Guest from Broseley in Staffordshire, by 1845 Dowlais Iron Works was the biggest ironworks in the world, employing 8800 employees. Men and women throughout Wales and England heard of the opportunities to earn a higher wage than the pittance they were being paid as agricultural workers where poverty was a way of life.

The Welsh have always been renowned for their singing: whenever a group of Welsh men or women congregate together for social interaction, there is usually a cord struck, followed by an outburst of song. With the influx of immigrants to Dowlais in the seventeenth century and the dangerous and harsh working conditions they endured, three activities gave the working classes opportunities to escape from their oppressed environment: the imbibing of alcohol, sporting activities or associating themselves with religious fraternities which embraced hymn singing. Singing was one of those leisure activities that helped alleviate the drudgery of everyday life. In the mid-1800s, Dowlais was like the Klondike. In the early establishment of the community, it encapsulated a collection of people from all parts of the United Kingdom and beyond, with such a high density of population that those who shared a passion for choral singing would usually attend a chapel or church, as these spiritual places promoted the choral activity, where children were taught the rudiments of tonic Sol-fa through a modulator.

One tradition of the Welsh is to complete at festivals of literature and music called an Eisteddfod, which dates back to the 12th century. Due to the number of small choirs in Dowlais at that period, Eisteddfods were organised frequently, giving opportunities to choirs to strive for excellence among choral competitors.

In Dowlais in the 1890’s there was an abundance of choirs representing various organisations. A particularly good example of this is the Merthyr Valley iron town, where the district of Dowlais produced between 1880-1900 the Dowlais Glee Party, the Dowlais Harmonic Society, the Dowlais Choral Society, the Dowlais Philharmonic, the Dowlais Choral Un­ion, Dowlais and Merthyr United, and the Dowlais Temperance Union. The two prominent mixed choirs in existence were “The Dowlais Temperance Choir” and “The Dowlais Philharmonic Society” – the latter originating in 1893. Male Voice Choirs in the area were not so prominent in Dowlais, resulting in few male choral groups in existence.

One such Male Voice Choir was formed in the early 1890s; its conductor was Mr William James, and it was formed to enter the Eisteddfod at Abergavenny. Mr. Thomas Evans (Gwent House), a local philanthropist, was approached and accepted the position as president of the Male Voice Choir.

In 1894, another Male Voice Choir was formed under the direction Mr John Davies (Alma Street), and resolved to enter the competition at the Treorchy Eisteddfod. By 1897 the Male Voice Glee Society led by Mr Williams James had disbanded, leaving the remaining Male Voice Party under the leadership of Mr. John Davies to carry on the male voice tradition.

In1899, the renowned local musician Harry Evans F.R.C.O., conductor of Dowlais Philharmonic Society, had rendered a number of concert successes. Mr Evans was persuaded after some contemplation to enter a male voice choir for competition at the 1900 Liverpool National Eisteddfod. With Harry Evans’ distinguished reputation as a conductor and musician, it was a foregone conclusion that only choristers with quality voices who could also read Sol-fa or old notation would be considered. When it came to voice tests, only the crème de la crème were accepted. Such was the calibre of the choristers; their musical backgrounds were chapel presenters, soloists, church and chapel organists, and local choir conductors. Such was the level of singing, the choir soon gained a reputation as being a prestigious organisation. Lord Wimborne was invited to become President of the Dowlais Male Voice Party, and he expressed his pleasure in accepting the position.

Ivor Bertie Guest, 1st Baron Wimborne (1835-1914), was the son of Sir John Josiah and  Lady Charlotte Guest, and an uncle by marriage of Winston Churchill. His middle name Bertie came from his mother’s family, the Earls of Abingdon.

At one rehearsal, Lord Wimborne addressed the choristers, expressing  delight with the singing and furthermore said he hoped they would be successful at Liverpool. Part singing, more than any other form of vocal music, appealed to him and he had been very much struck by their rendition of the difficult sections. His lordship, in conversation with Mr Harry Evans, complimented the conductor upon the high state of the proficiency of the party.

After a triumphant win at the 1900 Liverpool National Eisteddfod, the choir gained high status in the male voice arena. By 1903, with adjudications and offers for a guest conductor, Harry Evans handed the baton of the Male Voice Choir to Mr W.J. Watkins, one of his prodigies, who had been the choir’s accompanist.

By 1906, Mr Harry Evans F.R.C.O. was invited to Liverpool to become the conductor of the Liverpool Welsh Union Choral Society. He also accepted the position of organist for the Great George Street English Congregational Church in Liverpool, which has long been recognised as the Tabernacle of the Liverpool City.

In 1909, the Male Voice Choir completed at the Welsh national Eisteddfod in London, gained victory and won first prize, but by 1910 the choir had disbanded.

In the same year, the Dowlais Philharmonic Male Voice Choir disbanded, leaving the name “Dowlais Male Voice Choir” in a state of Nirvana. As one fraternity dies, another is reborn, as was the case with Cor Meibion Penywern, another male choir in the principality, founded by seventeen young men of the local Congregational Chapel. Evan Thomas “Alaw Morlais”, a native of Penywern, was appointed the conductor. Evan Thomas was employed as a collier in one of the collieries owned by the Messrs Guest, Keen, and Nettlefolds, Ltd.

When King George and Queen Mary visited the Dowlais Steel Works in June 1912, an invitation by Messrs Guest, Keen, and Nettlefolds, Ltd., was extended to the Penywern Male Voice Choir to take part in celebrating the visit of their Majesties.

In August 1914 Mr Tudor Davies M.E., came to Dowlais as deputy agent, after he appointed to the management of Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds, Ltd. When Mr. Howell R. Jones became general manager of the firm early in 1915, Mr. Davies was made chief agent of the Dowlais collieries. With his advent to the town he took an active interest in its welfare, and subsequently was invited to become president of the Penywern Male Voice Choir in 1914.

In the 1920s a decision was made by the committee of Cor Meibion Penywern to rename the choir, “Dowlais Voice Male Choir”. The original title did not give a true representation of the area where the members resided; also the name associated a link with a reputable male chorus from a bygone era.

In 1921 the choir were invited by Messers Guest, Keen, and Nettlefold Ltd., to a function at Cardiff given in honour of the Iron and Steel Trades Institute. For many years, inception of this choir Mr. Howell R. Jones J.P. general manager had taken an exceptionally kindly interest in the choir, and representations to him from time to time had always been met with greatest courtesy.

He had granted the choir many privileges, such as the Guest Memorial Hall, when it became at the disposal of the Choir with electricity and heating free of charge.

One of the choir’s patrons was Merthyr Tydfil-born Mr. H. Seymour Berry (later Lord Buckland). He became part of the management board of Guest, Keen and Nettlefold in 1920 and became its chairman in 1927. At a rehearsal in 1921, he made a presentation of a valuable addition to the choir, a new piano at the Guest Testimonial Library.

From its inception 1910 until the 1930s, the choir became a fierce competitor: its continuous winning at Eisteddfods and competitions made other choirs tremble at the name of Dowlais. Even Dylan Thomas, the famous Welsh poet, knew of the Dowlais Male Choir and made reference to it in one of his best-known works, Under Milk Wood – “How’s the tenors in Dowlais?”

Due to the depression of the 1920s, numbers dwindled, with choristers leaving the choir to seek work in the UK and abroad depleting the membership. Thankfully, the choir managed to survive until 1939: when war was declared between Great Britain and Germany a number of choristers were conscripted into the armed services, and the choir entered a state of Nirvana for a couple of years before reforming itself as a Glee Party between 1941-46.

It was nearly forty five years since the present Dowlais Male Choir was formed. The original meeting was made up of employees of the Messrs Guest, Keen, and Nettlefold Ltd who’d formerly been members of the disbanded Guest Keen Glee Party under the baton of Elwyn Morgan in the 1950s. One of the prominent activists responsible for its formation was Des Kelly, an employee of Messrs Guest, Keen, and Nettlefold Ltd, who planted the seed among his work colleagues who’d previously been choristers in the Guest Keen Glee party. Des’s pursuit in finding out if any of his work colleagues were interested in forming a male voice choir there was met with a favourable response to his endeavours.

A meeting was arranged on Wednesday October 27th 1965 at the Guest Keen Memorial Club. Thirteen men employed by Messrs Guest, Keen, and Nettlefold Ltd turned up, these are the men who are known to have attended the first meeting, Des Kelly, Meurig Price, John Francis, Ron Pope, Arfon Price, Austin Adams, Les Williams, Mostyn Davies, Bernard Barrett, Edgar Hughes, Tom Kinsey, and Adrian Newman. All those present were obviously disappointed with such a poor response but the low numbers did not deter those present; a proposal was made to hold another meeting to see if any more prospective members would be interested. At the subsequent meeting twenty-five men appeared, which was rather more encouraging, and at that meeting it was decided make an announcement, by displaying some coloured posters, the first rehearsal of the “newly formed male voice choir” would take place in the Guest Keen Memorial Club on Wednesday 10th November.

It was decided to invite Mr. Cyril Tasker, Manager of Guest, Keen, & Nettlefolds to become the Choir’s first President. In later years other managers, Mr Philip Green and Mr John Owen, became Vice Presidents

The Choir went from strength to strength and achieved first prize in the National Eisteddfod in Ruthin. Some of the original members are still active members of the current Choir.

Through the ages, a majority of male voice choristers living in Dowlais were  employed  by firstly the Dowlais Iron Works and subsequently GKN, whether they worked in the steel works, the surrounding collieries, or companies offices.

GKN and Dowlais Male Choir continued their association and the choir has appreciated the sponsorship and support of GKN over the years, and were privileged and delighted to be invited to participate in the celebration of 250 years of Guest Keen & Nettlefolds.

 

Literary Overtures

Chorister Carl Llewellyn has written three articles on the history, the sound and the international reputation of the Dowlais Male Choir. Enjoy them here.

The Old and the New

The Dowlais Sound

The World and the Dowlais Male Choir.

 

Market Square Pipe Organ

By Carl Llewellyn

Every rehearsal the choir faces a pipe organ. Not many of the choristers will know its origin or who were its generous benefactors. Mr and Mrs. J.M. Berry, a former Mayor and Mayoress of Merthyr Tydfil were active members of Market Square English Independent Chapel. For his dedication and hard work for the cause Mr. J.M. Berry was elected a deacon of Market Square English Independent Chapel. Mr and Mrs. J.M. Berry’s three sons Seymour, William, and Gomer’s religious inclinations were nurtured through parental and chapel influence. Through hard work and a keen sense of ambition the three Berry brothers were honoured with peerages, each in his own right. Henry Seymour Berry became Lord Buckland through his involvement with the coal and steel industry, Gomer James Berry and William Ewart Berry had careers in the newspaper industries. They were titled Lord Kemsley and Lord Camrose, who went on to own the Sunday Times, the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph and 14 regional titles. Viscount Camrose was also the founder of the Cardiff-based Western Mail and South Wales Echo.

In the strikes of the 1920’s when the country was going through the depression years, the old Dowlais Male Voice Choir desperately needed a new piano. The choir funds did not amount to the cost of a new piano due to a poor financial situation therefore it was at this period Mr. H. Seymour Berry, who had not yet received his peerage, donated £100 to the old Dowlais Male Voice Choir towards a new piano. On March 12th 1921 at the Guest Testimonial Library he presented his musical tribute to the choir and in his speech Mr. H. Seymour Berry said he was glad that during these times of adversity the choir had kept together, and that there was nothing like music to sooth the soul and drive dull care away, with hope for better times industrially. Up until his death on the 23rd May 1928 Lord Buckland had taken a keen interest in the choral activities of Dowlais Male choir.

Through the 1920’s and 30’s the Berry Lordships were generous benefactors and supported many local organisations and charities. Their affinity with Merthyr could be equated in the same phrase used by Dr. Joseph Parry, “Bachgen Bach o’r Ferthyr Erioed, Erioed”, “I’m boy from Merthyr for ever and ever”. These men certainly proved their affection for the town by their actions; one such donation was in 1937, the coronation year of George VI, and to mark the occasion Lord Kemsley and his brother Lord Camrose gave a coronation mug to each child residing in the County Borough of Merthyr Tydfil.

In 1938 Market Square Chapel celebrated its centenary; one of the appreciative gifts to the chapel was the installation of a new pipe organ. The occasion of the gift was in memory of Alderman Mr. J.M. Berry J.P., and his wife Mrs Berry. Their three sons Lord Buckland, Lord Kemsley and Lord Camrose shared their parent’s affection for the church of their boyhood days. Lord Kemsley and Lord Camrose proved their fondness in a practical way, and their gift stimulated members of the church at that time to fresh activity, in those difficult times. The centenary celebrations began February 26th 1938 when the dedication of the organ was the pinnacle of the celebrations. Dr. G.T. Thalben-Ball, organist of the Temple Church, was invited to give a short recital; it was his gesture of sympathy with chapel members and the town’s long struggle against unemployment at that period.
Before the original chapel was demolished, to make way for the St Tydfil’s shopping centre, the organ was transferred to the present chapel. It’s the only chapel in Merthyr where the chapel was built to house the organ.