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History of the Choir

Over one hundred years old and busier than ever. Blaenavon Male Voice Choir has been an institution in the town for a century and is celebrating in 2010. A quick rummage through the archives and the story starts to unwind. The choir has a lot to tell, as with most male voice choirs it is full of ageing choristers bursting to tell a story. They have freely given up their snippets of paper cuttings and photographs so as we are able to establish the history of the choir.

Blaenavon had well-established Male Voice Parties as early as 1870s. There is no record of activity between the years 1893 and 1910, and it can be assumed that between those years the choirs disbanded.

In 1910 the present choir was formed. The first conductor was Evan Williams, father of Nesta Williams of the B.B.C. North region. Evan Williams, possessor of a fine voice, was taught at the London College of music. He had moved to Blaenavon as a tailor for the Co-operative Society. The assistant conductor was Bryn Hughes, who conducted the church choir at Ebenezer, Blaenavon. The accompanist in 1910 was Gordon Williams, who was then only 17. He died at an early age, and his successor was Joe Morgan, (Professor Joseph Morgan Cardiff). During his partnership with the party he was winner at the National Eisteddfod of the pianoforte competition, and to commemorate his success a concert was given by the party in 1920 at the workmen's hall.

During 1921 the Rogers brothers and Tom Williams, son of the conductor, emigrated to New Zealand. Ernie Rogers eventually became principal tenor in a cathedral choir and Tom Williams also made a name for himself as a baritone. The First World War years were spent entertaining the wounded troops, and frequent visits were made to St. Woolo's Hospital, Newport. Evan Williams' conductor- ship came to an end in 1924 with his death. Such was their affection for him that many members never felt quite the same Interest In the party for many years after.

The party now came under the baton of Edgar Gunter, brother of Frank Gunter. The former was a noted musician in both adjudicating and teaching. Tom Lewis, who was an officer of the party for some thirty years, and many other former members well recalled a work performed under Mr. Gunter in the Workmen's Hall called "The Flooded Mine." This was presented in 1925, and included a live pony and coal trams on the stage. The entombed miner was Bert Hughes, and his boy, Eddie Hobbs, then a boy soprano and later a member of Blaenavon council. The hauler was Arthur Hutchins, and the horse belonged to Phil Jones, generally known as "Long town." An entry in the account book for that year shows an item for "transport of trams"

At that time the party numbered well over a hundred. One of the notable successes in competition was at Abergavenny, where they sang by candlelight and beat the then-famous Cardiff Splott Choir for a prize of £30, in those days a considerable sum.

It is interesting now to note that in the twenties some members of the party received "sick pay" from the party funds. This appears to have been some sort of payment made selectively to members in distress. We note, too, that a fine was imposed upon those members arriving late for rehearsal, and the doorkeeper was Miles Leek. Members paid for their own copies of each piece of music. A women's section was formed in 1930 to help with the social activities of the organisation. For a short period in the thirties the party were conducted by Herbert Williams, of Penarth. He used to travel twice weekly from Penarth. Competition appears to have been particularly keen in the period between the wars. Some members recalled that at a competition at Beaufort rivalry between Garndiffaith and Blaenavon reached such a point that during the competition while Blaenavon were on the stage members from the rival choir switched off the lights. In retaliation Blaenavon members locked a considerable number of the Garndiffaith choir in an anteroom so that they were unable to take part in the competition. There has been many a laugh concerning this incident. The Garndiffaith choir conductor was Daff Evans.

After the war

Following the war years - the party experienced a lean time in the late forties, and early fifties. At that time the actual membership of the choir dropped to as low as 16. In 1945/46 the choir was under the musical directorship of Tom Howells in 1947 Charlie Styles took over and was followed by Mr David Pye. Those left fought tooth and nail to keep the party in existence. The few members left felt that they were getting nowhere, and finally found themselves without a conductor. It looked an almost impossible task to find a conductor for an almost nonexistent party. While discussing the matter in general terms with Mr. A. R. Walters, a piano tuner, the latter suggested that the officers might approach a young woman by the name of Jean Williams. She had already made a name for herself as an excellent soprano soloist, having won a large number of eisteddfod prizes. She had, at that time, no experience of conducting, and the thought of conducting a male voice choir she has said almost terrified her. Following a number of interviews with the party officers, she was eventually persuaded to "have a go." In 1954 Jean Williams became the conductor of the Blaenavon Male Voice Party.

The Jean Williams Years

And so began a successful period in the history of the choir. Many old members were persuaded to return, and new members were recruited. Since this time it has been a story of continuous progress. It would be true to say that Jean Williams succeeded in imparting much of her musical ability to the choir. It is significant that after some years she married one of the officers who was associated with the interviews preceding her appointment, Mr. Hedley Styles.

The success of the choir quite overshadowed anything the earlier choir experienced. Older members talked of Evan Williams' conductorship as a memorable period In the history, but even they admitted that their present day organisation had greater ability.

Since the 50s the choir has travelled widely not just throughout Wales having entered all the major eisteddfodau in Wales with no small measure of success. Two visits have been paid to the International Eisteddfod at Llangollen. Having been adjudged the best Welsh choir on their first visit, they were invited to represent Wales at the Saturday evening festival concert, the following year. One visit was paid to the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales when it was held at Ebbw Vale. They were placed third. On their first visit to the Miners' Eisteddfod at Porthcawl they gained first prize, and have since rarely been placed lower than third in this hotly contested competition.

In 1961 the choir visited the Cork International Festival. Contacts were established and other tours followed. The choir has toured extensively representing their country where ever they go. In 1963 Norway, 1975 Hungary, 1987 and 1989 and 1998 Coutras, 1993 South Carolina, 1996 and 2004 California, 2000 North America and Canada, 2007 Fuengirola Spain

Jean Williams was a hard act to follow and when she hung up the baton the choir had brief periods under the guidance of Mr Walford Hutchings (now with Pontnewynydd Male Voice) In 1984 Rodger Appleby was appointed Musical Director. Rodger had a great deal of experience with Male Voice Choir spending 14 years with Caerphilly Male Voice prior to joining Blaenavon. Rodger left in 1988 and that brings us to the modern day choir as now with Gareth Whitcombe at the helm.