Snippets of History – February 2019

There was a good turn-out once again for our annual selection of short talks on February 21st 2019.

Oriel Mostyn, Llandudno

The first was by Jane Matthews, engagement manager of Oriel Mostyn. Jane gave us a whirlwind tour through the history of this fabulous building on Vaughan Street, Llandudno, starting with its foundation in 1901 under the auspices of Lady Augusta Mostyn. Lady Augusta was a great supporter of local arts, including the Gwynedd Ladies Art Society who had outgrown the Conwy Cockpit and, being disqualified from the Royal Cambrian because of their gender, were seeking new premises. They exhibited at Oriel Mostyn from 1901-1903, and Jane has succeeded in tracking down original art and letters associated with members of the group.

Jane Matthews, Oriel Mostyn Llandudno

The gallery was the venue for ‘Art, Science and Technical Classes’ in the very early 20th century – as well as the expected art courses, classes were held for subjects as diverse as shorthand, French, building construction and metal embossing. This fulfilled Lady Augusta’s wish to involve and benefit the local community; she presided over the arrangements, along with a selection of Llandudno’s leading lights. Lectures were given, including by members of the Llandudno and District Field Club such as Harry Thomas, who lectured on marine biology and was also the gardener of fellow Field Club member G.A. Humphreys – the architect of Oriel Mostyn.

During WW1, the main gallery space became a drill hall, and during WW2 it was used by the American Red Cross as a ‘Donut Dugout’, providing home comforts for American soldiers. After the war, Vincent Wagstaff took over the space as a piano showroom, which became Rushworths in the 1970s. In 1979, Oriel Mostyn reopened as a gallery, fortunately with many original features still intact.

Jane’s research has uncovered many fascinating interlocking stories, and she will hopefully return to tell us more – watch this space!

Batchelors’ Baby

The next talk was by Adrian Hughes, military historian and owner of the Home Front Museum on New Street, Llandudno. His subject was Bachelors’ Baby, the tragic story of an American Liberator bomber which crashed in the hills above Penmaenmawr on 7th January 1944, minutes after taking off from RAF Valley.

The Liberator was a four-engine heavy bomber made by Consolidated and capable of carrying a heavy payload – a long way. It holds the record as the world’s most produced bomber in military aircraft history. In November 1943, Pilot Adrian ‘Ace’ Shultz and his crew of nine took possession of a Liberator that they nicknamed ‘Bachelors’ Baby’, because all ten airmen were single. Days before leaving, the crew adopted a six-week-old black and white fox terrier which they called Booster after the Liberator plane’s superchargers.

On 15th December 1943 Bachelors’ Baby taxied down the runway at Morrison Field in Florida. Her ultimate destination was Britain and to join the hundreds of American bombers taking part in the war in Europe. To get here the crew – about whom Adrian provided poignant biographical details – took the Southern Air Route taking in Puerto Rico, Brazil, crossing the Atlantic to Dakar in West Africa, then onto Morocco and finally to RAF Valley on Anglesey, arriving in the first week of January 1944.

On 7th January at 1.45 in the afternoon, Bachelors’ Baby left Valley heading east to RAF Watton, Norfolk. She had only been airborne for minutes, and after crossing the flat plain of Anglesey and the Menai Straits, did not gain enough altitude; after clipping the roof of Plas Heulog, a large country house above Llanfairfechan, she crashed, coming to rest at the foot of a hill called Moelfre, and burst into flames. The amount of ordnance on board led to an inferno and it is remarkable that any of the crew survived; three had died on impact. Quarrymen, farmers and villagers carried the injured survivors to houses from where they were taken to the C & A Hospital; two more of the crew died soon after.

Memorial to “Bachelors’ Baby”

In 1980, a memorial plaque to the five airmen who lost their lives in the crash, along with their canine mascot Booster, was unveiled at the crash site but by last year the plaque was looking tired after nearly 40 years on that windswept hillside. In a joint collaboration between the Home Front Museum, Penmaenmawr Museum and the Snowdonia National Park the memorial plaque was restored and replaced. On the 75th anniversary of the accident, a small service was held at the crash site and a wreath placed on the newly refurbished plaque.

National Eisteddfod – Conwy County 2019

The final talk was a romp through local connections to the National Eisteddfod with Trystan Lewis, whose wide-ranging interest in and knowledge of music qualify him for his role as choirmaster and chairman of the executive committee of the Conwy National Eisteddfod 2019, which will be held in Llanrwst this year. Trystan began with an overview of the Eisteddfod’s foundation in its present form by the infamous Iolo Morganwg, whose opium habit fuelled his over-active imagination. He forged documents purporting to link the druids of the 1st century with a romantic tradition of Eisteddfodau – a view which was swallowed wholesale by the Victorian gentry. The Gorsedd of bards which he founded also had close attachments to Freemasonry, and altogether it was a rather inauspicious start.

There is much debate as to when the first National Eisteddfod was held, but it was firmly established by the time it reached Llandudno in 1864. When it was held there again in 1896, a pavilion holding a staggering 18,000 people was erected between the Tabernacle Chapel and Llywelyn Avenue. The choirmaster was Dr Roland Rogers, who had been sacked as organist of Bangor Cathedral for entering a nonconformist chapel to give an organ lesson – he was reinstated on condition that he never set foot in a Welsh chapel again (a condition he secretly circumvented).

During the early years, adjudication of choral competitions was contentious and sometimes led to open fighting. The National Eisteddfod had visited Colwyn Bay in 1910, but by the time it returned to Old Colwyn in 1941 the fighting was on a different front. In fact, the venue was kept secret that year for fear of reprisals, and competitions were broadcast on the radio instead. The Eisteddfod revisited Colwyn Bay in 1947, and then Llanrwst in 1951 – with an impressive line-up including the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the world-renowned pianist Solomon. However, Solomon was less than impressed when he discovered that the instrument provided for him was a Wagstaff upright piano! He refused to play, but luckily a grand piano was procured from Garth Celyn in Betws-y-Coed, and brought via tractor and trailer for the evening performance.

Several members of the audience remember the 1963 Llandudno Eisteddfod, visited by the Queen. She was escorted by the former head of Mostyn Secondary Modern, Ffowc Williams, who was by now both choirmaster and chair of the National Eisteddfod, as Trystan is now. Williams’s escort skills were somewhat unconventional – he walked on the red carpet, and the Queen walked alongside on the grass!

In 1989, the Eisteddfod was held in Llanrwst and, like this year, was chaired by a Deganwy man – O.M. Roberts, headmaster of Ysgol Deganwy and then of Ysgol Maelgwn. Also like this year, it will be held on one of the wettest fields in the county: let’s hope we have the scorching weather which graced Abergele’s turn at hosting in 1995.

Trystan accepting cheque from HDG

The evening ended with the presentation of a cheque to Trystan for £266 towards the Eisteddfod, raised by the History of Deganwy Group over the last 8 months.

And as for the first Eisteddfod – anyone from Deganwy knows that this was held in the 6th century on the Vardre at the court of Maelgwn Gwynedd!

Lucinda Smith

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