Hilary Barrett interview with John Watkins, who worked at the house from 1950 -1956

In 1950, at the age of 15, John Watkins started a 5 year Apprenticeship as a Maintenance Fitter in the Tredegar Park Workshops which were situated in the Home Farm complex of the Tredegar Estate. He completed his apprenticeship and worked on the estate until 1956.

He had been born and brought up in Pencarne Cottages, Coedkernew. A tenanted cottage on the Tredegar Estate.  The cottage had no electricity, running water or indoor toilet. A family of frogs lived in the well in the garden. His mother cooked on a black lead grate and candles and oil lamps were in use to light the cottage. John shared a bedroom with his brother and grandfather. The rent on the cottage was 3s 6p a week.

His father ran his own business building farm carts but had previously worked on the estate and had driven the first estate lorry – a Morris Commercial vehicle which operated out of the Tredegar Estate Rhiwderin workshops. This lorry conveyed workers to undertake repair work on the estate farms.

The iron work for Johns’ fathers carts was undertaken by the Tredegar Estate blacksmiths. It was on an occasion that Johns father was visiting the workshops that they mentioned they needed an apprentice in the blacksmith and fitting shop. John was taken on to learn his trades.

There were 2 adult engineers and 3 apprentices in the workshops who undertook all maintenance work within Tredegar House and the outlying buildings and grounds.

He worked a 46 ½ hour week, including Saturday mornings. 8am to 5pm (30 mins lunch with no other breaks during the day). He had one weeks holiday a year and earned 9 old pence per hour in the first year. In 1956 when he left estate employment John was earning 3s an hour.

 All members of the engineering staff worked in the blacksmiths forge and did all the forge work apart from shoeing the one horse that was left on the estate. There was a shoeing iron, 3 anvils and bellows (which were later replaced by a big blower which fed the three forges). The workshop was situated in the buildings now occupied by Isca Woodcrafts.

John had to turn his hand to any remedial or new work that was needed and remembers how Tredegar House was left bare after the building and contents were sold in 1951. He was then part of the conversion team installing plumbing and electrical wiring and turning rooms into classrooms.

He states the nuns were “pretty good to us” “although the boarders were warned to keep away from me after I had taken some for a ride on my motorbike in my lunch break”!

“Nothing changed” on the estate when the nuns took over.  “The farm was still working in the 1950’s and possibly for another 20 years, after which there a was compulsory purchase order for part of the grounds for the building of the new Duffryn school”. “The gardeners were also kept on in employment by the convent”.

There was a rick yard and a poultry farm in front of the estate workshop (with thatched roofs) and John remembers, when food was still under rationing, locking the chickens in their shed until they had lain an egg for his dinner.

Potatoes grown on the estate were stored within clamps in the rick yard area and sold in sacks to local shops. Local labourers picked the potatoes in season.

“In the orchard behind the workshops were lovely fruit trees. Pear trees grew up the walls. “

There was an Apple House in the kitchen gardens used for storing all the ripe apples.

Where the car park now exists was the sports ground for staff, overlooked by two sports pavilions, and surrounded by chestnut trees. After the war when there was no timber available to be purchased these pavilions were dismantled and the wood used for repairs in the house

The open sheds over looking the sports ground housed the farm equipment – tractors and combines.

During WW11 John remembers American Forces being billeted in corrugated iron Nissan huts built on the sports ground. “There were military vehicles parked all over estate land, around the lake and as far as the eye could see. There were sentries posted at the entrance to the estate. The forces were being prepared for the Normandy Landings and there were men sleeping in vehicles. Along Forge Lane were French and Canadian troops, with tanks and tank carriers. Behind the walls were stacked cans and cans of petrol”.

John remembers one day during that time when 5 small planes circled over the area and came into land alongside his cottage. American jeeps came to meet the passengers and took them away to Tredegar House where they were negotiating the Normandy Landings. Sentries were left on duty to guard the planes. Johns’ parents allowed the sentries to sleep on the floor of their cottage. John remembers the cocoa the soldiers provided.

One morning John when walked to school and the area was like a ghost town – the forces had all left for the beginning of the Allied Invasion.

After the war the “War Agriculture” set up base in the Nissan huts. This was a government led initiative which hired out plant to farmers for ploughing, hay making and seeding to grow food during the rationing years. Johns’ boss bought a big charging system to charge batteries for the “War Ag”. One of Johns’ jobs was to use a small valve charger in the workshop to charge radio batteries for the local residents.

After the war the Nissan huts were also used to provide housing for demobbed soldiers and those without housing.

In the fields opposite the estate worked Italian and German prisoners of war. They were very clever people and would barter for pieces of clean board to use when making willow baskets. They would also take 2 shilling and half crown pieces and tap the metal out to make “nice rings”. “One German blacksmith prisoner made the farmer many unbelievable things”.

In the 1950s, when there was still running water to the mill, the engineers attempted (but failed) to get the old Mill machinery working. They did however repair the laundry machinery for the convent. “The washing tubs were like half beer barrels, it was so long since they were in use they were leaking and had rusted bands. They had to be re banded with new bands made in the workshop”. “We made flat strips on the anvil and measured and riveted them together, fitted them and then took the barrels to the lake to soak and swell them”.

“There was also a big ironing machine which went back and forth. It was full of bricks to weigh it down”. “There was a Bendix paddle operated washing machine which had an open motor on the side and open gears driving it it”. “There were lots of people working in the laundry”.

John describes a bell with a rope pull over the porch of the Brewhouse. There were servants quarters downstairs in the Brewhouse and a games room upstairs in the Morgan room, with table tennis and a snooker table.

The weigh bridge outside of Brians House was not working in the 1950’s.

The Barrett family lived in Home Farm cottage.

The Carpenters shop was situated at the end of the Great Barn. He made the cart wheels which were then taken to the engineers shop for banding on the large metal circle which lay outside the workshop, but now lies outside of the Great Barn doors. The carpenters shop business eventually

became private and did work for local schools as well as Tredegar House. Bert Marsh was the Head Carpenter. “He was a fine carpenter with an unbelievable tool chest”.

Next to the carpenters shop, the last door at the end of the Great Barn was Alan Rees’ cart shed. “Alan was quite a character and lived in the Lodge at one time”- “Alan moved anything with his cart and took ashes away from the boiler house. He sold cigarettes and wheeled and dealed out of his shed”.

Horse drawn sleighs hung from beams in the barn next to Alans’ shed. They were still there after the house sale but the rest of the house was bare.

There were Indian canoes and a gondola on the lake and on the side of the lake, now grown over, was a “massive fire pump incase of fire in the house”. It worked the emergency points – around the outside of the courtyard were red boxes with stand pipes and fire fighting equipment. 

Upstairs in the stables there are carved names on the walls and there are also names scratched on the lead weights of the window sashes in the Nursery wing. (The sash cords were renewed in the early 1950s  – when John and his team also added their names).

During WW11 a 2 metre flat walkway was built around the chimneys to enable fire watching duties and John describes massive tube like structures for sliding down in an emergency from the upstairs rooms. In the 1950’s the estate had very large wind up fire escape ladders, used for undertaking repairs to the roof. These ladders had to be taken apart, with wheels taken off, to get them into the inner courtyard.

The main water tank on the roof was lined with lead and soldered. Galvanised tanks were later put inside this tank. There was a big cast iron boiler in the cellar which was taken apart in the 1950’s

The chandelier over the main staircase was re wired in the 1950’s. The chandelier was put on a trolley and taken to the workshop. It was originally manufactured to be used with candles and it proved a difficult task to thread the wires through the parts.

John states two of his jobs on a Saturday were to run the fire pump by the lake and to wind up the stable clock. This mechanism was on weights, with a big handle to pull the weights up. He also remembers walking through Cleppa Park Woods to the water reservoir to take  daily meter readings at the Filter House. He had to clean the filters and fill up the chlorine jar, which pumped chlorine into the water supply to purify it. This supply served the whole Tredegar Park Estate and surrounding areas, almost as far as Castleton.

John describes a big culvert running under the courtyard (big enough to crawl into). This became blocked in the convent days and had to be cleared – the nuns were cutting up telephone directories for use as toilet paper!

In the kitchen gardens was a sub station to provide electricity for the house – with the electricity cables entering via the back door. When there was a big event on in the House the engineers had to increase the electrical voltage by pulling out the trip switches. All electricity lines were open copper and dead birds would be found on the ground where they had perched on these wires.

John states Evan Morgan was “Nutty as a fruit cake”. He travelled in a chauffeur driven Humber Snipe car but the the family also possessed a French made Hotchkiss car and 2 Rolls Royce. During the war, when no petrol could be obtained, the Rolls were put up for sale for £25 each.

The hunting lodges were situated behind the stud farm in Church Lane Coedkernew. The stud farm was farmed by the Harris family.

There were two lodges off the Forge Lane entrance to the Tredegar estate. Tom David (footman) and his wife lived in one lodge and slept in the other. Every morning, on his way to school John observed Mrs David emptying the contents of their chamber pots into Tredegar House lake.

John also recalls passing “The Lodge” (a cottage located on the A48 opposite the present Greggs bakery). It was lived in by Jack Vaughan and his wife. John states ‘he was always dressed in top and tails – it frightened the life out of us as he looked like an undertaker”.

 There was a footpath to Ruperra castle directly from the gamekeepers cottage.

Tredegar House Engineering staff remembered by John Watkins

George King – Chief Engineer

Charles King (bosses son) was a trained engineer on the estate. He was 35 and had been in the army.

Bryn Phugh – Engineer. Left to go into the services. Became a police inspector.

Derek Street – Apprentice. Was killed in the forces.

Gwyn Bistow – Apprentice. ?lived in Tredegar Street Rhewderin

Jack Sidneys – WW11 veteran

Lionel Short – worked in workshop

Dorothy ……… worked in the engineering office. Had a cockney sort of accent

Other Estate workers

Allan Rees – Handyman/carter.

……. Allen – Head Gardener

Goff Rees – Gardener. Lived in Marshfield when retired. Father of Goff Rees

Oliver Seymour – Gardener

(John remembers the gardeners being permanently bent over when walking. There was no petrol for machinery, they had to dig the large gardens by hand.)

Bert Marsh – Head carpenter

Phyllis Short – worked in kitchen in Evan Morgans time. Sister of Lionel Short

J O Cullimore ran Home Farm,  his son Pat Cullimore then took over. He moved to Greg farm Forge Lane.

Courtney Williams – Land Agent for Tredegar Estate. Collected rents each month.

Copyright © 2012 Friends of Tredegar House