Amgueddfa Blog: Industry & Transport

A few years ago the chemical works BP Baglan Bay called me and said they were clearing out the offices as the site was closing and would I like to see if the museum wanted any objects for our Modern Industry collection?

I couldn’t wait to go and have a look, and as there was quite a lot to go through I took our museum van in the hope of a few accessions.

There were lots of photographs, some in frames, some big aerial photos too. There were overalls, hats and jackets with logos on them – just the sort of things that tell a great story when exhibited for displays.

There were tools specific to the industry and other bits and pieces like signs and gauges.

I loaded a few things in the van to take back to the museum so I could go through them to decide what we would like to keep and what should be returned.

But as I was about to leave they called me back and asked if I wanted the paintings? I hadn’t noticed these as they were covered in bubble wrap and stood against a wall.

One of the paintings was quite big, about 4’6”x 6’ (1.5 x 2.1m) and I couldn’t see the subject for the wrapping. The other was much smaller about 2’ x 2’6” (0.6 x 0.76m). I was told the bigger one was an oil painting of Baglan Bay at Night and the smaller one a watercolour of a power station. I put them in the van, got the paperwork signed and left for our stores in Nantgarw where I could spread things out and examine them properly.

About a week went by and I still hadn’t looked at the paintings as I had been going through all the other objects first.

When I did take the bubble wrap off I was really surprised by the quality of both paintings. The oil painting was really striking and the BP staff had told me that it had hung in the office since the 1960s.

I looked for a painter’s signature and then the real surprise hit me! In the bottom corner was ‘Vicari’.

Bells rang deep in my head, where did I know that name from? A quick internet search answered that. The richest living artist in the world. The official Gulf War artist. Artist to the Saudi Royal family. And born in Port Talbot. This fitted my collecting policy perfectly, being an industrial scene in Wales painted by a Welsh artist. The only snag from my point of view was that it could be quite valuable and BP might want to keep it.

I contacted them straight away and told them about the artist and its possible value. One of their directors, David, called me and told me that they were happy it would be going to the National Museum of Wales and he couldn’t think of a better place for it.  This generosity meant that we could save a national treasure for future generations.

So far we had treated the painting as if it were a genuine ‘Vicari’, but was it really?

I contacted the ‘Vicari’ website and sent them an image of our painting asking them if they could confirm if Andrew had painted it.

I checked my email every day. No replies. How else could we confirm this if they didn’t get back to us?

One sunny morning about three weeks later my phone rang. I could tell from the number it was someone in France calling. This was not unusual as we have many visits from French schools and as my schoolboy French is just about good enough to get by, my number was very often given to schools as a contact.

After answering with who I was, a deep, rich voice said:

‘Ah, Andrew here, I hear you’ve found the lost Vicari’

I couldn’t believe it! Andrew Vicari calling me from his home in France! To say I was flabbergasted is an understatement!

Andrew told me he had painted Baglan in the early 1960s and was really glad of the commission at the time (when he wasn’t so well known). We spoke for about half an hour about all sorts of things and he went on to tell me an incredible  story from 1966.

Andrew had painted a picture that was to be auctioned for the Aberfan Disaster Appeal and went along to the auction in Cardiff. Before it got underway, two burly men approached Andrew and said someone needed to talk to him in private. He was shown to a room and waiting there were two more men in sharp suits, looking a bit ‘dodgy’ (his words). These two told him they wanted to buy the painting, and asked how much did he want for it? He told them that it wasn’t his to sell as he’d given to the appeal and it was out of his hands. They kept on that they wanted it and he needed to get it for them. They were getting more and more insistent. After repeating that he couldn’t a number of times, they finally left, to Andrew’s relief.

It turned out that they were the Kray twins! He laughed ‘I’m one of the few people to have said ‘no’ to the Kray twins and lived to tell the tale!’

He told me that he was very happy his painting was going to be in the National collection and that he would do anything for Wales!

We never had the chance to speak again; sadly Andrew died in Swansea, in 2016 aged 84. It’s lovely that we have such incredible paintings to remember him by.

This story happened in 2009 and the painting has been in our stores in Nantgarw where is has been conserved and a new glazed frame made. We’ve been waiting for a chance to exhibit it and finally it will happen.

You can see the painting as part of an Andrew Vicari exhibition from 13th July to 3rd November 2019 at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea.

Charles designed, and built a monoplane around 1906, taught himself to fly and flew the plane between 1907 and 1910. Although no photographic evidence of this exists, the Charles Horace Watkins Monoplane Special, now better known as the ‘Robin Goch’ or ‘Red Robin’ has a strong claim to be the first aeroplane to fly in Wales.

Charles lived in Cardiff and his workshop can still be found a stone’s throw from Cardiff University. It was here he built the plane making use of everyday parts that he converted for his needs. For instance, a kitchen chair for the pilot’s seat; a brass domestic light switch on the dashboard; an egg timer as a navigation aid; a ball bearing in a cradle to tell if the plane was flying level and two weights dangling on string under the aircraft, one 20 feet long and one 10 feet long so he knew how far off the ground he was when landing!     

 

In 2010 I interviewed two brothers, Michael and Sean Gomez, whose family lived next door to Mr Watkins. The brothers, who were in their 70s, remembered Charles fondly and told me many tales of what it was like in the 1950s for two young boys growing up next door to the ‘great inventor’. Here is an extract of my conversation with them.

He always had time for us and he was always trying to do something new (he would have been in his late 60s at this time). We were fascinated going there, the projects he was working on seemed totally out of this world, and quite possibly one was! He showed us a mock-up of a flying saucer he’d built. When we asked him how it would fly he replied “It’s top secret!” We couldn’t tell if he meant it or whether he was working on a secret project as the saucer seemed to work on the same principle as a hovercraft with fans providing downward thrust and other fans along the sides for direction.

He was very interested in project ‘ZETA’ – obtaining energy from water (Zero Energy Thermonuclear Reactor). He had diagrams all over his walls and said he was being consulted on this and also the Concorde project.

He was always inventing something every time we met him. During the war he came up with an idea to deflect headlights of cars down to just in front of the vehicle. This was tested by South Wales Police on behalf of the MoD.

One thing that stands out about his workshop is that he had about thirty cuckoo clocks and Westminster chiming clocks. He would faithfully wind them up every day and when it came to the hour they all went off at slightly different times! You had this cacophony of sound!

He lived with his sister who was profoundly deaf so he came up with an idea whereby if the doorbell was pushed a beam of light went all the way to the end of the hall where it reflected off various mirrors until it reached the kitchen so his sister could see it!

He invented a machine from which he made most of his money. In those days spectacle frames were made of tortoiseshell and being relatively brittle, typically they would snap just behind the hinge. So, I remember in his middle room he had hundreds of cardboard boxes containing the arms of these glasses.

He’d invented some sort of ultra-sound machine. He’d put the two arms of the specs into this tiny machine and he’d bring the nozzle down on it. The machine had lots of coils of wires and all sorts of strange things and it hummed and buzzed. And ‘hey presto’ when it came out you couldn’t see where the join was – it was seamless. Of course ultrasonic welding is quite common now for welding plastics.

He had spectacles from opticians from all over the country and he made a tremendous amount of money from it. I remember seeing a pile of white five pound notes on his table just tied up with string. It seemed to me as a boy quite a lot, but in reality was probably only a couple of thousand (pounds) still a lot of money then though. He didn’t believe in banks! I don’t think he had a bank account, he kept all his money at home.

He also had a radio, that he built himself, which could receive American radio stations. This was quite something at that time. He took it apart one day and let me have a look at it and it had about fifteen valves!

He didn’t show the monoplane to anyone, although we nagged constantly to see it. Then one day he told us if we came round on Saturday we could see it. The amazing thing was that this man had a plane in his garage when most people didn’t have cars!

He had the prop hanging up on the wall and we asked him where he got it from because at that time you couldn’t just get one from anywhere? He told us he’d carved it himself out of a piece of sapele. When we asked how he knew the shape to make it he replied “Well one just knows these things you see”

We questioned him about how he learned to fly and he said “I just taught myself. I wasn’t worried about getting it up, but I was worried about getting it back down!”

From the conversations that I had with him, I developed the opinion that the plane really did fly. If it had not I think Mr Watkins would have been more evasive with his answers and he certainly wasn’t evasive in any way.

When we asked him what he was going to do with it he said that he’d like to leave it to the nation.

“I had an American sniffing around, said he wanted to buy it. Offered me several hundred pounds for it. I told him to bugger off!”

 

For me Charles represents a generation filled with explorers, scientists and inventors who were making new discoveries on a daily basis. They were at the birth of an age, of which we are still a part, when people have seen massive technological changes in their lives. I do wonder sometimes where we would be without people like Charles Horace Watkins, the great inventor!

Don’t know what to get the children for Christmas this year? How about a little inspiration from the museum collections. Some of these items are going to be on display in the new galleries at St Fagans National Museum of History in the autumn of 2018.

Miniature toy sewing machine

Accession No: F82.51.63

Got any budding sewers in your family? This lovely little sewing machine belonged to Margaret Eckley of Sully who played with it as a child in the 1930s. It is hand operated and decorated with an image of Little Red Riding Hood. It comes with an instruction manual too.

 

Set of toy soldiers

Accession No: 56.313.134 – 154

You could try the classic set of toy soldiers? These came from Brecon. Did they march all the way? They were donated to the museum in the 1950s and probably belonged to the donor’s children, who were born in the 1890s.

 

Corgi Toy Tractor

Accession No: F00.27.9

You could try the ever popular Corgi toy range. This tractor was played with in Cardiff in the 1950s – 1960s.

 

Welsh Costume Doll

Accession No: 30.316

This doll dressed in traditional Welsh costume was played with in the middle of the 19th century. She must have been a treasured item, she was in the donor’s family for eighty years. To see more Welsh costume dolls visit the People’s Collection Wales website.

 

Lego Christmas set

Accession No: 2000.194/1

Would Christmas be complete without Lego? Here’s Father Christmas with his sleigh made in the Lego factory in Wrexham.

These objects are not on display at the moment, but you’ll soon be able to see them on our website along with many of our Art, Archaeology, Industrial and Social & Cultural History collections. Thanks to the players of People’s Postcode Lottery for support with this ongoing work.

If there is a specific object you want to see at any of our museums, check that it’s on display first, and if it’s not, you can always make an appointment to view it.

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Forget Raindrops on roses, you can keep your whiskers on kittens…

With such varied collections that we have in the museum I can’t help noticing some fabulous objects.

Thanks to players of People’s Postcode Lottery, we have had funding so we can enhance records and add images for you to view in Collections Online, soon you’ll be able to search the museum catalogue and discover your own favourite things.

These are a few of my favourites:

Image in chalk pastel on paper of Welsh rugby player scoring a try against the All Blacks

The Try that Beat the All Blacks by Frank Gillett (1874 – 1927)

What a fabulous picture this is! (I may be a little biased). This picture shows the first ever test match between the Wales and New Zealand rugby teams in 1905. Wales won 3 – 0 (a try was only worth 3 points in those days rather than 5 points as it is now).

Seated figurine of a mouse holding a disc

Roman copper alloy figurine of a mouse

This lovely little mouse (only 3cm high) was found in Loughor, or Leucarum as the Romans knew it. Is it nibbling some cheese, or has it found a biscuit somewhere?

Locomotive painted bright yellow and black

Electric locomotive

It might look like something from Thunderbirds, but this is an electric locomotive used in Glamorgan Haematite Iron Ore Mine (Llanharry Iron Ore Mine) from the 1960s. These locomotives replaced the use of horses for haulage in the mine.

Section of blue damask fabric with intricate silver thread embroidery.

Detail of the silver thread embroidery on the court mantua. 

This shows detail of a dress from the 1720s. This is a very grand court dress (known as a mantua) which would have been worn for presentation at court by Lady Rachel Morgan the wife of Sir William Morgan of Tredegar House. Just look at the incredibly detailed embroidered silver thread on silk damask. The best thing about it I think, is that it was altered during the 19th century by one of Lady Rachel’s descendants, probably to wear as fancy dress! The dress will be on display in the new galleries at St Fagans National Museum of History in the autumn of 2018.

Jug with a cut out trellis-like design of circles and lozenges at the top, with a ring around neck from which protrude three bulbous spouts.

Puzzle jug made by the Cambrian Pottery c. 1800

What’s the puzzle about this puzzle jug? Try and pour from it, and you’ll end up with beer all over the place. To find out how these were made, and importantly, how you’d use it, check out this video by the V&A museum.

If you want to see more of the collections you can explore online or come and visit one of our museums. Not all of our items are on display, so before you make a special trip to see something specific, check that it’s on display first.

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Over the last few months we have added some interesting objects to the collections. As usual this month I’d like to share with you some of these, to illustrate the range of objects collected for the industry & transport collections at Amgueddfa Cymru.

Illustrated here is a debenture for The Western Counties and South Wales Telephone Company, Limited. Dated 6th May 1889. This company was formed in 1884, a few months after liberation of telephone regulations made regional networks feasible for the first time in the UK. It was one of the seven regional telephone companies that covered the UK in the 1880s and early 1890s prior to the National Telephone Co. Ltd. achieving UK-wide dominance. By 1888 the south Wales portion of its network extended from Cardiff and Newport, westwards to Swansea and Llanelli, with some connections to valleys towns – connecting all the major industrial and urban centres of the south Wales coastal belt.

This Western Mail Ltd., Cardiff, employees' Roll of Honour, 1914-1918, was almost certainly displayed in the company’s main offices in Cardiff. It lists the names of 152 men who served during the First World War, with the names of those who died picked out in gold. The roll of honour joins an important collection of objects related to Welsh industry and the First World War. These items plus others from the National collection can be viewed on this online database

We are not sure exactley why this fretwork of 'The Lord's Prayer' was made. It was however, made by Llewelyn Richards, a haulier at Lewis Merthyr Colliery. 

This brass object is a 'Turnip', and was used to protect a miner’s watch whilst he was working underground. It was used at Oakdale Colliery, and was donated along with an MSA self-rescuer, c.1989. Self rescuers such as these are still used at Big Pit National Coal Museum where they are part of the safety equipment given to visitors on the underground tour. These objects were both collected as part of St. Fagans Oakdale Workmen’s Institute re-interpretation project. You can find out more about this here.

We have acquired a few objects relating to the Mathews family. This oval shaped brass twist box has an inscription on the lid that reads ‘D.MATHEWS / GORSEINON 1897’. It belonged to David John Mathews, who was born on 7 July 1891 in Gorseinon. He died on 8 September 1959 of lobar pneumonia following massive pneumoconiosis at the West Wales Isolation Hospital in Upper Tumble. Coal miners were unable to smoke underground for fear of causing an explosion, so many chewed tobacco, and twist boxes such as this one were used to hold this chewing tobacco. They are usually oval in shape, made of brass and have an inscription on the lid (such as this example), although there are variations on this. A large collection of twist boxes can be seen on display at Big Pit National Coal Museum.

Along with the twist box, the Museum was also donated a photograph and newspaper cutting relating to the death of Ifor Mathews who was tragically killed in an accident at Great Mountain Colliery in 1936. Ifor Mathews had played rugby for Neath, Swansea, Carmarthen 'Quins', Llandebie, Penygroes and Cefnithin. The photograph was taken about 1926, and shows him wearing a rugby shirt. Can anyone identify the club?

Finally, this photograph shows a blacksmith with a horse, and dated from the early 20th century. The photograph was probably taken at a slate quarry in north Wales, possibly in the Blaenau Ffestiniog area. Can anyone help confirm or identify the location? 

   

Mark Etheridge
Curator: Industry & Transport
Follow us on Twitter - @IndustryACNMW