The Rhymney Valley, which forms the ancient border between Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, is very important in the history of the Foster family in Wales. Many members of the family spent their lives in its towns and villages, and this page looks at the valley they would have known so well and the particular locations in which they lived and worked.

 

A 6-mile portion of the Rhymney Valley, with locations noted where several generations of the Foster family lived.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The valley, a glacier-gouged scar carrying the Rhymney River down to the coast, branches off from the coastal plain, and is the next-but-one valley eastwards from the Taff Valley containing Merthyr Tydfil. Like its neighbours, the valley was originally heavily wooded and sparsely populated. When the Romans came, they built fortifications on the ridge where the Taff and Rhymney Valleys meet the plain, and then replaced the earthworks and wooden pallisades with a stone fort in 103AD.

 

A model of the Roman fort
 
 
 

After the Romans left the valley, it - in common with the surrounding area - became subject to sporadic predatory raids by Saxons and Picts, but was relatively undisturbed by outsiders until the arrival of the Normans. The area had been given to a Robert Fitz-Hamon after the Conquest, and he in turn had granted large tracts of the country to various Norman settlers. Towards the end of the 11th Century, these settlers attempted to extend their lands, and were met with stiff resistance from the indigenous Welsh, who defeated them in several minor engagements. The Normans sent for very considerable reinforcements from England to finish the matter, then returned to the fray. The Welsh retreated, luring the unsuspecting Normans into the Rhymney Valley, then - sweeping down from the surrounding mountains - slaughtered them wholesale. The Normans, like the Romans before them, had learnt that whilst they ruled the area, and were relatively safe in their forts and castles on the coastal plain, they should take great care when venturing into the Valleys!

Caerphilly Castle, at the southern end of the valley, was founded by the Normans in 1271, and is the largest castle in Britain after Windsor Castle

 
 

This uneasy relationship in the valley between larger landholders and the general population continued for several centuries, without notable incident, until 1801, when the Union Iron Company established their iron works at the head of the valley. Other iron-works quickly opened - mainly to supply the military during the Napoleonic Wars - and the work available brought a steadily increasing influx of iron-workers and coal-miners into the valley. The need for iron rails to build the burgeoning railway networks in Europe and America extended the boom for several decades, but when demand eased off the landowners turned to exporting coal to maintain profits. Their ambitions in this respect were greatly assisted by an Admiralty report in 1851 that declared South Wales steam coal to be the best available.

It was against this background that our Foster ancestors first came into the valley during the 1860s in the form of Lewis and Harriet Foster and family, who moved from their previous location in Abercarn, Monmouthshire. Their first home in the Rhymney Valley was in a hamlet called Craig Rhymney, a small mining community adjacent to Tirphil on the main road through the valley.

Craig Rhymney, with Tirphil behind it (Photograph by Kev Griffin)

 
 

The Rhymney Railway which ran close by to Craig Rhymney had recently been extended to Cardiff and was heavily utilised to transport the valley's mineral wealth down to the expanding Cardiff Docks for export world-wide. Over time, the railway carried more and more passenger traffic, and with Tirphil Station only a few minutes walk away, the family would have had increasing access to other communities in the valley and beyond.

Tirphil Station (Photograph by Roger Geach)

 
 
 

As the years went by, the children of Lewis and Harriet married and took houses nearby - either in Tirphil, Troedrhiwfuwch, or Pontlottyn. During the 1880s and 90s there were at least six Foster-connected families, with more than 30 members, living within a two-mile stretch of the Rhymney Valley.

 

TROEDRHIWFUWCH

Troedrhiwfuwch - meaning 'cattle (enclosure) at the foot of a hill' - was a village between Tirphil and Pontlotty in which some important Foster ancestors lived and worked. It was subsequently threatened by landslips in the hills above, and eventually had to be abandoned. Because so little appears to be known today about the village and the people who lived there, a separate page has been accorded it on this website, and a few publicly available facts recorded there.

 

Winter on the River Rhymney at Troedrhiwfuwch (Photograph by Martin Evans)

 

 

PONTLOTTYN

No one is really sure of the meaning of the village's name, although at least half a dozen theories have been put forward - 'Lot's Bridge', and 'Pauper's Bridge', among them.

Whatever the etymology, this was never a particularly pretty village. It had one function, and one function only - to provide accommodation for those working in the nearby collieries and ironworks. The surrounding countryside however was majestic, with towering hills and the River Rhymney gliding by. The village itself consisted of a dozen or so streets of neat, terraced houses - and Merchant Street where most shopping was done.

Modern passengers arriving at Pontlottyn Station. Many of our ancestors lived in the streets off to the right of the road outside the station

 

During the period in which our family lived there, the person who owned the land on which Pontlottyn was built was very anti alcohol, and the building of any establishment that served alcohol was strictly forbidden in the village. He seems to have been pretty sure that he had everything covered, but one enterprising soul soon discovered that the landlord did not in fact own the 'unusable' land directly under the railway arches - that had been sold freehold to the railway company. A little negotiation later, and with the railway company happy to accept rent for worthless property,' The Railway Inn' appeared under the arches. It consisted of three buildings joined by a narrow corridor, and was to stand here for around a hundred years - presumably as a constant irritant to the landowner.

The Railway Inn, Pontlottyn

 

As mentioned elsewhere, beer was an important commodity in the 19th Century, due to the unsafe nature of water near any area of population. A brewery was accordingly established in the valley, and was very successful, becoming the largest in Wales. It grew by the acquisition of other breweries, and was eventually itself acquired by Whitbread to become Whitbread (Wales) Limited, still a successful company today. It was doubtless this local brewery that supplied Pontlottyn's sole pub.

A frequent visitor and performer at the Railway Inn - whilst still a child - was Petula Clark, who lived for a time in Pontlottyn with her Welsh mother's family, which was descended from a long line of local iron and coal miners. Petula went on to become a huge child star, hosting her own radio show at the age of 11 - and in a long subsequent career making more than 1,000 recordings, and selling over 68 million records. Her biggest hit was probably 'Downtown' which went to Number 1 all over the world, including America. She apparently remembers her time in Pontlottyn with great affection, recalling how she would be lifted up onto a table in the Railway Inn so that she could be seen and heard better by the customers. (Of course, we shouldn't get the wrong impression of her childhood - she didn't just sing in the Railway Inn, but was more often to be found singing in school concerts and at the local chapel!)

The soul was not, however, neglected in Pontlottyn, with at least 8 chapels - from the Bethel English Baptist Chapel, through the Mount Zion Primitive Methodist Chapel, to the Nazareth Welsh Congregational Chapel. Between them they cared for both their English and Welsh-speaking flocks from the early 1800s onwards. In 1870 Pontlottyn became a Parish in its own right, served by the new Parish Church dedicated to St. Tyfaelog.

 

The church was founded by the Rev'd Gilbert Harries, Rector of Gelligaer, in 1863, on land donated by the Williams family, and holds a congregation of 500 souls. The exterior is relatively plain, but the interior is quite beautiful, earning the church the informal title of 'Cathedral of the Rhymney Valley'. A small chapel in the north-west nave commemorates the church of St. Teilo Troedrhiwfuwch, which closed in 1985.

 

 

In the early part of the 20th Century, a number of family members - including the direct ancestors of today's family - relocated to Bargoed, some six miles down the valley, where a large colliery was opened in 1901.

 

BARGOED (meaning 'Border')

For centuries the village of Aberbargoed, and its adjacent hamlet Charlestown, had quietly provided a focal point for local farmers. Straddling the River Rhymney - a traditional border between counties - one half of the village was in Glamorgan, and the other in Monmouthshire. With a population of around 350 souls, it contained boot-makers, butchers, grocers, beer retailers, etc. - enough to provide the everyday needs of the area's farmers.

The coming of the railway however, in 1858, changed the villager's lives forever. For one thing the railway company decided that the name of the new station in the Glamorgan side of the village should be Bargoed and that was what the town that eventually grew around it came to be called. The name Aberbargoed was retained by the less busy part of the village on the Monmouthshire side.

Bargoed

 

 For 40 years the trains mainly rumbled through, carrying the mineral wealth of the upper parts of the valley down to the sea and the docks at Cardiff - but in 1903 the first coal was raised from the new Bargoed Colliery, and the area became a major coal-producing region. On 23 April, 1909, a world record was set when over 4,000 tons of coal were raised in a single ten-hour shift. With the enormous productivity of the colliery - by now the largest in the Rhymney Valley - came unparalleled prosperity for the town. Department-stores, cinemas, schools, and numerous chapels all sprang up, and the population grew more than fifty-fold.

It was from this Bargoed that Tom Foster, the father of Ivor, Michael, Jill, and Ray, set out for England - and it was to Bargoed that those of us who visited the Welsh side of the family travelled, until contact with them was lost on the death of Tom in 1947.

 

A postcard sent by Elizabeth, Tom Foster's married sister, from Bargoed in 1927. She has marked the location of her home with a cross.

 

 

Unfortunately, the high demand for coal during two world wars eventually slackened - and over the following decades the town went into terminal decline. In 1977 the colliery finally closed, leaving Europe's largest spoil-heap and a town suffering from major unemployment. Much the same was happening throughout the rest of the valley - and South Wales in general - leaving a shattered economy, a devastated environment, and a bitterly disillusioned people.

The task of rebuilding lives and the environment has been enormous but light is appearing at the end of the tunnel. Clean high-tech industries have started to enter the valley. Colliery sites have been reclaimed and planted, many - like Bargoed Colliery - being turned into beautiful parks teeming with wildlife. The Rhymney River is once again running clean, and tourists are starting to visit, to enjoy the often stunning scenery. The Rhymney Valley will certainly recover in time, but it will be a long, difficult journey, and the people of the valley deserve every encouragement in their efforts.