Chris Arnot

A few samples of my work

Snapshots of history

Home on vacation in 1972, a photography student saw that the essence of his Welsh town was about to be torn apart by redevelopment. Now the social significance of his images has been recognised. Chris Arnot reports

The ghosts of Tommy Gravedigger, Billy Bricks and Dai Llewellyn seem to stalk the streets of Merthyr Tydfil when you walk them with photographer Robert Haines. For the record, Dai came third in the 1968 World Gurning Championships, Billy was a bricklayer locally, famous for his rendition of Tom Jones’s Delilah and, as the nickname suggests, Tommy buried the dead – many of them sent to an early grave by the conditions in which they worked in the mines or the iron works.

Haines’s film about Tommy Gravedigger was shown on BBC2 in 1974. But it is a series of photographs he took two years earlier that will come to light tomorrow when they are unveiled for the first time at Wolverhampton’s Light House gallery. A book is to follow next month.

The exhibition and book share the same title, Once Upon a Time in Wales. If that suggests something mythically divorced from current realities, then it fits perfectly. The black and white photographs belong to the last century. But, as Haines suggests, “some of the characters featured might have wandered in from the century before that”. An old woman with a black shawl over her head, weeping into a grubby handkerchief, might be waiting for news of a pit disaster in the 1870s. Mufflered men with gaunt faces peer out from under flat caps. Kettles boil on black-leaded ranges. An old man perches on his bed in a common lodging house, his worldly possessions in one bag.

This was 1972, remember. Haines, then 20, was a student of photographic arts at the University of Westminster, back in his native Merthyr for the vacation. “I could see that everything was changing,” he says. “There were major redevelopment plans for areas like Georgetown and Dowlais, with their warrens of ironworkers’ cottages. I wanted to record some of the characters because we’d never see their likes again. They were the unknown, the poor, with no voice.”

No public voice, anyway. There was no shortage of pub performers to sing, or, in some cases, recite Welsh poetry on an epic scale. “It was a very cultured place,” Haines says of his own area of Heolgerrig, a steep-sided village separated from the rest of the town by the main road to Cardiff. “The colliers believed strongly in education, which resulted in a mass exodus of sons and daughters in search of a better life.”

The student photographer could hardly have known that the social changes that he was keen to record were just beginning. Still to come was the 1984-85 miners’ strike and subsequent closure of the pits, the spread of shopping centres and retail parks, and the demise, in 1987, of the last foundry in town. So why have the pictures remained hidden all these years?

Haines, now 55, says: “Well, I tried them on a Welsh gallery at the time, and the curator wasn’t interested.” Then Haines went on to do other things, including television work and running a news agency with his former wife. “Only when I returned to fine art photography did I look at them again and think they might have some social significance,” he says.

Many of the subjects have been dead for years. Haines’s camera preserved them for posterity on the streets, in their homes, workplaces, social clubs or pubs. The Lamb, once the bustling hub of Merthyr, has long been demolished, and Ye Olde Express is now a Chinese restaurant, apparently closed for lunch. We peer through the pop-bottle windows, having driven down on a drizzly morning from the photographer’s current home in Great Malvern, Worcestershire. He points at a red-clothed table, laid up for four, and says: “That’s where I photographed the old lady weeping, the one in the black shawl.” Did she not mind? “She didn’t seem to. In most cases, the people in these pictures enjoyed having their photographs taken. It made them feel important.”

Political radicalism

Across the road from the restaurant, Merthyr’s imposing Victorian town hall stands empty, pizza boxes and empty cider cans clinging to the steps beyond padlocked iron gates. It was from this building’s balcony in 1900 that Kier Hardy was proclaimed the first Independent Labour MP in Britain. Here, too, Howard Winstone waved to cheering crowds after winning the world featherweight championship. Traditions of pugilism and political radicalism were forged in the heat of the iron works and the equally harsh conditions of the pits. Down at pavement level in 2008, a billboard reveals that the old town hall has been bought for “office and bistro space”.

Pictures of local boxers adorn the walls of the Station cafe, where Haines reacquaints himself with a beef and onion “steam” pie, heated up by one of the jets used by the many Italian immigrants to South Wales to put the froth in coffee before the coming of cappuccino bars. Francesco Viazzami, a sprightly octogenarian, greets the photographer warmly although he hasn’t been here for years. “You wouldn’t recognise the town,” the old man assures him. “There’s no industry any more. Where are all these people in the new houses working? Tesco, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“Cardiff more like,” interjects his son, Mario, and he’s probably right. The capital is 20 minutes away by road, and the four-bedroom and five-bedroom homes mushrooming on the hillsides above Merthyr are not paid for by supermarket wages.

It is difficult to tell how much of those hillsides is natural and how much is made up of greened-over colliery spoil. Only when we approach the lunar landscape above Dowlais can we see men in yellow jackets surveying exposed stretches of surface coal. Opencast mining is on the way back to help meet Britain’s increasingly diverse energy needs.

It seems unlikely, however, that the industry will support anything like the number of jobs it did when Job Haines, the photographer’s grandfather, ran small mines in the mountains around Heolgerrig and won a contract to supply the south Wales power stations.

He owned what was known as the Big House, a mansion built in 1881 by the splendidly named mine owner Christmas Evans. Robert Haines spent his first 11 years there, before the business collapsed. “The house was built on the site of a timber-framed property where poets and radical thinkers used to gather,” Haines reveals. “The Chartist leader Morgan Williams was born here, and the red flag was raised here for the first time in this country.”

Today, the mansion is the Heolgerrig Social Club and, like the Chinese restaurant in town, it is closed for lunch. In a window framed by chipped and peeling stonework is an advertisement for a cabaret disco offering the “definitive sound of the 80s”. Then a sudden wind whips through the litter-strewn trees at the side of the car park. The ghost of Christmas Evans, perhaps? What’s more certain is that the only flags unfurled by that gust are attached to a pole outside the show house on a nearby estate of new Barratt Homes.

· Once Upon a Time in Wales opens at the Light House media centre, Wolverhampton, tomorrow and runs until May 9. The book is published on April 24 by Dewi Lewis, price £14.99.

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