This and the following page take a more laid-back look at the area our Foster ancestors came from, without reference to the industrial activities that took place there. What did they do to entertain themselves and what was the natural environment in which it all took place?

In the days prior to cinemas, radio and television, what diversions were available in the Valleys for our forebear’s entertainment?

As today, pubs constituted a major part of after-work entertainment and socialising. Despite the Temperance Society’s strenuous efforts, pubs flourished in the Valleys. Not only was mining hard and thirsty work, but beer was generally safer to drink than water. (This was not particular to the mining communities of the Valleys, as - due to the unsophisticated sewage disposal techniques of the 18th and early 19th Centuries - the situation was much the same in London and any other heavily populated area of the time.)

From the middle of the 19th Century, travelling theatre companies became common – generally setting up their portable theatres near to pubs. Admission was reasonably cheap, and the entertainment varied – from melodrama to comedy, and usually with a few songs thrown in. Although portable, these theatres could be huge, sometimes able to accommodate 2,000 paying customers, and were transported around on carts or railway wagons. As well as the actual theatre - which could be a large tent, or numerous wooden walls with a canvas top – there were costumes, scenery, living quarters for the players, cooking facilities, etc., but all could be assembled or stowed away within one day. The travelling theatres would often time their visits to coincide with a local fair or horse-race meeting, when people would travel in from all over the surrounding countryside.

As larger halls and buildings were erected in towns of the area, light-travelling groups of actors began staging plays in them and competing with the portable theatre companies, whose owners were increasingly forced to visit smaller and smaller towns and villages that did not yet have large buildings. As well as the decreasing financial viability of these venues, the companies also faced increasing opposition from religious groups who claimed that proceedings were not well enough regulated, and that audiences were often rowdy. License applications to erect portable theatres started to be routinely opposed by church bodies, and these combined challenges eventually resulted in the portable theatre company’s slow decline and inevitable extinction.

But by 1875 the majority of the valley towns had at least one hall suitable for the staging of plays, and some had purpose-built theatres. In Merthyr, due to demand, the Temperance Hall was enlarged to cater for audiences of four thousand people - and operas were staged there as well as plays and dioramas.

Between the portable theatres, the travelling players, and finally the permanent playhouses, there was plenty for our ancestors to see, and hopefully they were able to enjoy an occasional night out.

Boxing was a popular sport which attracted large audiences, and the Valleys produced a number of very successful professionals. Running – especially sprint meets - and handball had many participants and fans, but it was Rugby that really caught the public imagination. During the 1870s many Rugby clubs were founded, and in 1881 the Welsh Rugby Union was formed, playing its first International (against England) the same year. The clubs were very well supported, and the sport suited the tough nature of the miners in the Valleys, who contributed many members of the national team. Later, Football was to become equally popular.

Brass Bands
Brass bands seem to be a curiously British form of entertainment and were as popular with performers - for the associated social life - as they were for audiences. Contests were frequently held where bands would enter from all around the county, or even the country. Some of the contests held in Bellvue, Manchester would attract audiences of up to 70,000. In the Valleys too they became very popular, and a Brass (or Silver) Band was to be found at most collieries. As there was a certain amount of prestige attached to a contest-winning Band, the colliery owners started funding them, and even offering inducements - such as particularly good jobs - to musicians from other parts of the country to play in them. The Cyfarthfa Brass Band of Merthyr Tydfil - founded in 1838 - was such a Band, and consequently won the great national contest at London’s Crystal Palace in 1860. 
The Bands generally played works of the great composers of the day and - because the majority of concerts and contests were held in the open air - there was no admission charge, making this high quality music freely available to all who wished to hear it.

Some Entertainment notables (and others) born in the Valleys.

As well as our ancestors – who were obviously the most talented and best looking of South Wales’ inhabitants – there were other, lesser, mortals born at different times in the immediate area:

Tom Jones – one of the greatest ever voices.
Anthony Hopkins – a great actor who became even more famous as Hannibal Lector in ‘Silence of the Lambs’.
Richard Burton – wonderful actor, and frequent husband of Elizabeth Taylor.
Charlotte Church – another beautiful voice from the Valleys.
Ivor Novello – not too well known now, but extremely famous as an actor, singer and songwriter in his heyday. He not only gave the world the phrase “Me Tarzan, you Jane”, but also the prestigious Ivor Novello Award for song-writing which is still competed for today.
Jeremy Northam played the part of Novello in the Oscar-winning 2001 film ‘Gosford Park’. The soundtrack contained a number of Novello compositions.
Paul Whitehouse – of ‘The Fast Show’ fame.
Stanley Baker – star of many films but most notably with Michael Caine in ‘Zulu’
Griffith J. Griffith – “Never heard of him” you say, but we all know the HOLLYWOOD sign in the hills above Los Angeles, and it stands in one of the world’s largest municipal parks - the 4,210 acre Griffith Park - which he donated to the city.
Shakin’ Stevens – 80s rock star.
Shirley Bassey – a great entertainer who counts amongst her many hits the theme songs to no less than three of the James Bond movies.
Laura Ashley – doyenne of the fabric scene in the 1960s and beyond.
Roald Dahl – author of many books, and also of the TV series, ‘Tales of the Unexpected’.
And my all-time favourite, Tommy Cooper, one of the funniest men ever.

All of the above were born within 25 miles of each other in The Valleys and environs.