Map Page
Page Index
What's New
Contact Us


Dowlais Male Voice Choir

Dowlais, Merthyr Tydfil


Dowlais Iron Works and Male Voice Choir

By Carl Llewellyn


Before the Iron Works were established in Dowlais there was no distinct name to the locality, the Welsh name Dowlais is unique, it’s not duplicated in any other part of Wales. One interpretation, “Dow” is derived from “Ddu” the Welsh word for black and “Lais” refers to the sound of rivulet hence “Black rivulet”, probably the name originated as a result of the Iron industry in the area which caused the rivulet to change its crystal appearance, to a polluted black murky colour, as a result of coal and Iron waste. The interpretation favoured by Dowlais choristers refers to two local streams, merging, to create the concept of “Two voices, blending” as one.


The following narrative is a short synopsis of the choir’s history and its close association, firstly with Dowlais Iron Work and secondly with GKN.


This is an historical account of the formation of male choral singing in the locality of Dowlais, from its initial formation to the present day. With development of the iron and coal industries associated with the Iron works and collieries at Dowlais made famous since 1767 by John Guest from Broseley in Staffordshire, by 1845 Dowlais Iron Works became the biggest ironworks in the world employing 8800 employees. Men and women throughout Wales and England heard of the opportunities to earn a higher wage than the pittance they were being paid as agricultural workers where poverty was a way of life,


The Welsh have always been renowned for their singing, whenever there is a group of Welshmen or women congregate together for social interaction, there is usually a cord struck followed by an outburst of song. With the influx of emigrants to Dowlais in the seventeenth century and the dangerous and harsh working conditions they endured, three activities gave the working classes opportunities to escape from their oppressed environment, the imbibing of alcohol, sporting activities or associating themselves with religious fraternities which embraced hymn singing. Singing was one of those leisure activities that a helped alleviate the drudgery of every day life. In the mid 1800’s. Dowlais was like the Klondike, in the early establishment of the community, it encapsulated a collection of people from all parts of the


United Kingdom and beyond, with such a high density of population those who shared a passion for in choral singing would usually attend a chapel or church, these spiritual places promoted the choral activity, where children were taught the rudiments of tonic Sol-fa through a modulator.


One tradition of the Welsh is to complete at festivals of literature and music called an Eisteddfod, which dates back to the 12th century. Due to the amount of small choirs in Dowlais at that period Eisteddfods were organsied frequently to give opportunities to choirs to strive for excellence among choral competitors.  


In Dowlais in the 1890’s there was an abundance of choirs representing various organisations. A particularly good example of this is the Merthyr Valley iron town with the district of Dowlais produced between 1880-1900 the Dowlais Glee Party, the Dowlais Harmonic Society, the Dowlais Choral Society, the Dowlais Philharmonic, the Dowlais Choral Un­ion, Dowlais and Merthyr United, the Dowlais Temperance Union. The two prominent mixed choirs in existence were “The Dowlais Temperance Choir” and “The Dowlais Philharmonic Society” the latter originating in 1893. Male Voice Choirs in the area were not so prominent in Dowlais, resulting in few male choral groups in existence.


One such Male Voice Choir singing group was formed in the early 1890’s; its conductor was Mr William James, formed to enter the Eisteddfod at Abergavenny. Mr. Thomas Evans (Gwent House) a local philanthropist was approached and accepted the position to be the president of the Male Voice Choir.


In 1894 there was a formation of another Male Voice Choir under the direction Mr John Davies, Alma Street, resolved to enter the competition at the Treorchy Eisteddfod. By 1897 the Male Voice Glee Society led by Mr Williams James disbanded, leaving the remaining Male Voice Party under their leadership of Mr. John Davies to carry on the male voice tradition.


In1899 the renowned local musician Harry Evans F.R.C.O., conductor of Dowlais Philharmonic Society had rendered a number of concert successes. Mr Evans was persuaded after some contemplation to enter a male voice


choir for competition at the 1900 Liverpool National Eisteddfod. With Harry Evan’ distinguished reputation as a conductor and musician; it was a foregone conclusion only choristers with quality voices who could also read Sol-fa or old notation would be considered. When it came to voice tests only the crème de la crème were accepted. Such was the calibre of the choristers; their musical backgrounds were chapel presenters, soloists, church and chapel organists, and local choir conductors. Such was the level of singing the choir soon gained a reputation as being a prestigious organisation. Lord Wimborne was invited to become President of the Dowlais Male Voice Party he expressed his pleasure in accepting the position.     


Ivor Bertie Guest, 1st Baron Wimborne (1835-1914), was the son of Sir John Josiah and  Lady Charlotte Guest, and an uncle-by-marriage of Winston Churchill. His middle name Bertie came from his mother's family, the Earls of Abingdon


At one rehearsal Lord Wimborne addressed the choristers expressing  delight with the singing and further more hoped they would be successful at Liverpool, part singing, more than any other form of vocal music appealed to him and he had been very much struck by their rendition of the difficult sections. His lordship, in conversation with Mr. Harry Evans complimented the conductor upon the high state of the proficiency of the party.


After a triumphant win at the 1900 Liverpool National Eisteddfod, the choir gained high status in the male voice arena. By 1903 with adjudications and offers for a guest conductor, Harry Evans handed the baton of the Male Voice Choir to Mr W.J. Watkins one of his prodigies, who had been the choir’s accompanist.    


By 1906 Mr Harry Evans F.R.C.O. was invited to Liverpool to become the conductor of the Liverpool Welsh Union Choral Society. He also accepted the position of organist for the Great George Street English Congregational Church in Liverpool which as long been recognised as the Tabernacle of the Liverpool City. 


In 1909 the Male Voice Choir completed at the Welsh national Eisteddfod in London, and successfully gained victory and won first prize, by 1910 the choir had disbanded.    


In the same year the Dowlais Philharmonic Male Voice Choir disbanded, left the name “Dowlais Male Voice Choir” in a state of Nirvana. As one fraternity dies another is reborn, as was the case with Cor Meibion Penywern, another male choir in the principality, founded by seventeen young men of the local Congregational Chapel. Evan Thomas “Alaw Morlais”, a native of Penywern, was appointed the conductor. Evan Thomas was employed as collier in one of the collieries owned by the Messrs Guest, Keen, and Nettlefolds, Ltd.  


When King George and Queen Mary visited the Dowlais Steel Works in June 1912, an invitation by Messrs Guest, Keen, and Nettlefolds, Ltd., was extended to the Penywern Male Voice Choir to take part in celebrating the visit of their Majesties.


In August 1914 Mr Tudor Davies M.E., came to Dowlais as deputy agent, after he appointed to the management of Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds, Ltd. When Mr. Howell R. Jones became general manager of the firm early in 1915, Mr. Davies was made chief agent of the Dowlais collieries. With his advent to the town he took an active interest in its welfare, and subsequently was invited to become president of the Penywern Male Voice Choir in 1914.


In the 1920’s a decision was made by the committee of Cor Meibion Penywern to rename the choir, “Dowlais Voice Male Choir”. The original title did not give a true representation of the area where the members resided; also the name associated a link with a reputable male chorus from a bygone era


1921 the choir were invited by Messers Guest, Keen, and Nettlefold Ltd., to a function at Cardiff given in honour of the Iron and Steel Trades Institute.

For many years inception of this choir Mr. Howell R. Jones J.P. general manager had taken an exceptionally kindly interest in the choir, and representatives to him from time to time had always been met with greatest courtesy. 


He had grated the choir many privileges, such as the Guest Memorial Hall when it became at the disposal of the Choir with electricity and heating free of charge.


One of the choir’s patrons was Merthyr Tydfil born Mr. H. Seymour Berry (later became Lord Buckland) he became part of the management board of Guest, Keen and Nettlefold in 1920 and became its chairman 1927, at a rehearsal in 1921 he made a presentation of a valuable addition to the choir, a new piano at the Guest Testimonial Library.


From its inception 1910 until the 1930’s the choir became a fierce competitor, its continuous winning at Eisteddfods and competitions made other choirs tremble at the name of Dowlais, even Dylan Thomas the famous Welsh poet had known of the Dowlais Male Choir and made reference to them in one of his works “How are the tenor in Dowlais” 


Due to the depression of the 1920’s numbers dwindled with choristers leaving the choir to seek work in the UK and abroad depleted the membership, thankfully the choir managed to survive until 1939, when war was declared between Great Britain and Germany a number of choristers were conscripted into the armed services, the choir became in a state of Nirvana for a couple of years but reformed themselves as Glee party between 1941-46.


It was nearly forty five years since the present Dowlais Male Choir was formed. The original meeting was made up of employees of the Messers Guest, Keen, and Nettlefold Ltd who’d formerly been members of the disbanded Guest Keen Glee Party under the baton of Elwyn Morgan in the 1950’s. One of prominent activists responsible for its formation was Des Kelly an employee of Messers Guest, Keen, and Nettlefold Ltd who planted the seed among his fellow work colleagues who’d previously been choristers in the Guest Keen Glee party, with Des’s pursuit in finding if any of his work colleagues were interested in forming a male voice choir there seemed to have been a favourable response to his endeavours.


A meeting was arranged on Wednesday October 27th 1965 at the Guest Keen Memorial Club. Thirteen men employed by Messers Guest, Keen, and Nettlefold Ltd turned up, these are the men who are known to have attended the first meeting, Des Kelly, Meurig Price, John Francis, Ron Pope, Arfon Price, Austin Adams, Les Williams, Mostyn Davies, Bernard Barrett, Edgar Hughes, Tom Kinsey, and Adrian Newman. All those present were obviously disappointed with such a poor response but the low numbers did not deter those present; a proposal was made to hold another meeting to see if anymore-prospective members would be interested. At the subsequent meeting twenty-five men appeared, this was rather more encouraging, and that meeting it was decided make an announcement, by displaying some coloured posters, the first rehearsal of the "Newly formed male voice choir" would take place in the Guest Keen Memorial Club on Wednesday 10th November.


It was decided to invite Mr. Cyril Tasker, Manager of Guest, Keen, & Nettlefolds to become the choir’s first President. In later years other Managers, Mr Philip Green and Mr John Owen became Vice Presidents

The choir went from strength to strength and achieved first prize in the National Eisteddfod in Ruthin. Some of the original members are still active members of the current choir


Through the ages a majority of male voice choristers living in Dowlais were  employed  by, firstly the Dowlais Iron Works and subsequently GKN whether they worked in the Steel works, the surrounding collieries, or companies offices.


GKN and Dowlais Male Choir continued their association and the choir has appreciated the sponsorship and support of GKN over the years, and were privileged and delighted to be invited to participate in the celebration of 250 years of Guest Keen & Nettlefolds.


First Dowlais Male Voice Choir - 1900

(Photograph Courtesy of Carl Llewellyn)


The Second Dowlais Male Voice Choir Called The "Dowlais and Penywern Male Choir" - 1922

(Photograph Courtesy of Carl Llewellyn)


Dowlais Male Voice Choir - 1987/1988c

(Photograph Courtesy of Joyce Sergeant)


Dowlais Male Voice Choir - 1986

(Photograph Courtesy of Joyce Sergeant)


Do you have any photographs or information relating to Dowlais Male Voice Choir, Merthyr Tydfil?

If so, please contact us, by clicking the 'Contact Us' button.


To Dowlais: Page 1