They left their valley homes and headed north with hope in their heart – but little idea of how they would be living off the land on the flatlands of Sealand.
But for the unemployed miners of the Rhondda and their families, a new life in North Wales offered the chance to escape grinding poverty 80 years ago, so they jumped at enlisting for the smallholdings established by the Welsh Land Settlement Society at Sealand Manor.
Amid the Depression-hit 1930s it also gave them an opportunity to live in ‘modern’ housing in a garden village with running water and indoor toilets, luxuries deprived them in their former terraced homes in the valley coalfields.
They were pioneers and settlers who moved over 160 miles to take up a house and job in Flintshire as part of a remarkable scheme of social engineering designed to aid the long-term unemployed – the co-operative at Sealand was one of five sites, with the others established in South Wales.
Now the personal stories of the settlers are being retold in loving detail by Roland Ward, who recalls growing up among South Walian accents and a “exceptional community spirit”.
Unlike most of the new residents of the co-operative scheme, Roland’s grandparents, Bert and Kit Jones, were from Flintshire who moved a short distance from Pentre to their new house at North Green, with Roland’s mother, Margaret, and her two siblings.
Roland, who was born on the settlement, has compiled a blog to gather the stories, memories and photographs of the descendants of the original settlers to show what life was like at Sealand Manor in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
“I think they showed great bravery because there were other settlements nearer to home in South Wales, so to move 150 miles away was quite a feat,” he says. “But what I try to get across [in the blog] is the utter desperation they were feeling at the time because the Great Depression had left the valley towns littered with idle men.
“It was a battle to stay alive and
people were being kicked out of their houses because they weren’t able to pay their rent.”
The Welsh Land Settlement movement was given impetus by Captain Geoffrey Crawshay, a Liberal politician, and Labour exchanges were approached and applicants vetted to see if they had it in them to take up the rigours of sharecroppping out in the countryside.
Work started on the settlement at Sealand in 1937 with 80 houses built around a central green – the street names North, South, East and West Green survive to this day – while three farms were merged together to form an 850-acre co-operative, whose profits were shared by workers.
“Crawshay wanted young people with families who were looking for a roof over their heads and people who could live in a fresh air environment,” explains Roland, 67. “At the old manor house the piggery was turned into a dormitory for them while they trained in the fields.
“But the land at Sealand was in quite a state and in the early days of the settlement they needed to use their agricultural nous to get the best yields from the land.
“They were market gardeners growing cabbages, potatoes and cauliflowers. There were glass houses near to Garden City where a thousand tonnes of tomatoes was grown.”
While heavy industry and the growing towns of Deeside were nearby, the Welsh Land Settlement was something of a place apart with its focus on growing vegetables which were sold on at markets in Chester, Wrexham and Liverpool. The settlers organised their own sport and entertainment and there was a Sunday School and events held by the Welsh League of Youth/Urdd.
While it proved to be a hard working life in the fields of the settlement – the co-operative is said to have only been profitable during the war – there were home comforts beyond their dreams.
“My mum told me how wonderful it was to have hot water and to be able to jump in a bath when back in my granddad’s miner’s cottage in Pentre they relied on a tin bath,” Roland adds.
“The houses in all the Welsh Land Settlement communities were built to a similar design by a Cardiff architect with three bedrooms, a downstairs bathroom and they had back gardens which were full of fresh vegetables like the fields they were cultivating.
“It was a little community and they stuck together – there may have been a bit of animosity from the locals but it wasn’t a major thing. There was an exceptional community spirit there which was something they brought from their mining villages.”
Roland’s cousin, Brenda Hughes, who was also brought up on the settlement, still lives at Sealand. He often visits during trips from his home in Raglan near Monmouth to watch Liverpool FC.
But Roland has spent his adult life in South Wales after his father, Tom, got a foreman’s job at Llanwern Steelworks – a move tinged with some irony as his family made the reverse trip the South Walian settlers had made 25 years earlier.
His research, which has taken him to Flintshire’s Records and Archives Office, formed the basis of a book Something must be done… A History of the Welsh Land Settlement Society, which took its title from the words uttered by King Edward VIII when he witnessed the closure of the Dowlais steelworks.
After flooding hampered the harvests of the late 1950s, WLS Sealand was eventually wound up and the leases of the homes at Sealand Manor passed
into the hands of Hawarden Rural District Council. But the memories of those “co-operative” times live on with the families of the original settlers.
l A talk Roland gave at St Bartholomew’s Church in Sealand three years ago was well attended and he is always on the lookout for contributions for his blog at wlssealand.wordpress.com
See full story in the Chester Leader