Merthyr, more than a temporary abode

The time has come to add Merthyr Tydfil to the list of significant places in the family’s history. So far I have tended to treat it as a place that great great grandfather Levy Watkins arrived at in the 1850s, married his wife Phoebe Griffiths, worked for a while and then moved on to the Rhondda, where the Welsh side of the family developed.

But the place is worth a bit more attention than that. It was, after all, the biggest town in Wales for much of the nineteenth century, and probably the largest iron-making town in the world for half of that time {1}. And it was home to the Griffiths family before sisters Ann, Mary and Ruth headed off to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (and Elizabeth off to New Zealand) {2}.

The Griffiths family was in Merthyr by 1812, as 3 x great grandfather David G was born there according to census records. The earliest proof of residence is a fragment of a marriage certificate for 1831 between David Griffiths and Grace James (the surnames fall off the scrap of paper but that is a likely inference). The Griffiths are at Castle Square in 1851/61 and later in Brecon Road.

Plymouth Street

Eldest daughter Phoebe is at 20 Chapel Street (Pentre Bach?) with husband Levy Watkins by 1861, but the pair have moved to 81 Plymouth Street by late 1868, when her father dies. It is likely that the Watkins stay there until leaving for Tonypandy, between 1875 and 1881.

This newspaper cutting, dated October 1977, presumably from the South Wales Echo, features a photo of 63-73 Plymouth Street. Number 81 might have been similar, but a description of the historic landscape of the area describes it as ‘ribbon development’, which I would take to mean mixed building styles {1}.

Local newspaper article from 1977 on old housing in Merthyr.

The Old Merthyr Tydfil website has a better copy of the photo on its Plymouth Street page.

David Griffiths was an iron roller, quite possibly at the Plymouth Ironworks  – maybe the factory near Plymouth Street.

The leaving of Merthyr

Phoebe was the first child to leave the area, but by no means the last. It appears possible that all her surviving siblings left for abroad in the early 1880s. See Cracking a family myth for more.

The Ancestry site has now highlighted a 1900 USA census record which could be for brother William in Cleveland, Ohio, working as an iron roller. His wife is Jane, both are from Wales and married 33 years. A matching couple are in Merthyr for 1871 and 1881 – possible 1867 marriage giving Jane’s maiden name as Davies (great!). Unfortunately they don’t have any children, so no descendants who might know more {3}.

It is increasingly obvious that ancestors on all sides moved with alacrity to where the action was – abandoning declining areas for new industries elsewhere (the initial move from the countryside to major towns such as Norwich or Merthyr), going to where the old ones were now thriving (such as in America) or where pay and prospects were better (such as London). Perhaps they would scorn the sentimentality behind much family history research.

Ebenezer Chapel and mystery connections

The Ebenezer Baptist Chapel in Plymouth Street was in existence by 1836 {1} and a marriage certificate from here for 1865 is reproduced below. A mystery as to how this couple’s marriage related to Watkins/Griffiths is waiting to be solved.

How might John Phillips and Susanna Evans, married 1865 Ebenezer Chapel Merthyr, fit into the family history?

This does however offer an explanation for family burials in unconsecrated ground – ground consecrated by the Church of Wales presumably was not wanted by/available to dissenters.

The earliest burial receipt in the family papers, at Cefn Coed cemetery like the others, is for Thomas Harris in January 1865. The person paying is David Griffiths. Although the receipt has 3 Castle Square as the address, this Harris must be the family’s lodger at 4 Castle Square in the 1851/61 census, born about 1803 and a puddler at the iron works. But surely he was not just a lodger – why keep the burial receipt, or even pay?

Oddly there are five Thomas Harris death registrations for Merthyr Tydfil in the January to March quarter of 1865, none the rest of the year (but it was a large district then).


1. The Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust website had (to summer 2017?) pages on ‘Historic Landscape Characterisation Merthyr Tydfil’ and ‘Plymouth Street Area’. Info may still be there, in the Southeast Wales Industrial Ironworks Landscapes section, probably.

2. See Cracking a family myth, and comment below.

3. At 1910, William Griffiths is possibly living with the family of his niece Grace Griffiths (nee Price) in Wilkes-Barre (see Note 2). So maybe that branch could have information. It would certainly be a neat tie up for the Griffiths siblings.

4. Merthyr Tydfil has been added to the South Wales page, where any further references will be added.

2 thoughts on “Merthyr, more than a temporary abode

  1. I am a gt gt granddaughter of Margaret Griffiths. Margaret’s sister Elizabeth did indeed marry Rees Hughes and they emigrated to NZ. They were childless, but they brought Margaret’s daughter Phoebe Williams with them to NZ as Margaret died shortly after childbirth. Phoebe was actually born in Treforest on 30 Dec1870. She was listed as Phoebe Hughes on the 1881 Census but was actually Phoebe Williams. It also states she was born in Morriston Swansea which we now know is incorrect. We assume that Elizabeth and Rees assumed adoption of Phoebe, but Phoebe’s NZ marriage certificate states her parents as William and Margaret Williams nee Griffiths. To further complicate things, Phoebe married Rees Hughes’s nephew – Hugh Hughes, so of course she then officially became Phobe Hughes!

    Hope this is helpful. I certainly enjoyed reading the above details. Didn’t know anything of the US emigration.

  2. Brilliant to hear from you Jenny, and your info is a great help. I can now add Margaret to the family tree with confidence, and sort out Phoebe’s record.

    Nice to see your Hellrich/Easytree website as well ( I’ll drop you a direct line too.

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