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  • Lawrence Bailey

It’s a good idea to learn from history

You might have noticed that I have an interest in history.

So I’m fortunate, as you’ll find in many parts of Swansea, that my locality is rich in local heritage. That means you don’t have to dig too far to uncover a few insights.

I first got the bug in the late 1970’s when an extended absence from work left me with some free time. Thus I found myself in the old Central Library in Alexandra Road with a half-formed plan to research local history.

No sooner had I mentioned this to the staff, than I was nearly buried in piles of weighty bounded volumes containing maps, records and parish notices. Nothing digital in those days, let me tell you.

Anyway, my eye was caught by a reference to Scott’s Pit, the old engine house and landmark located in Heol Las and dating back to the early industrial revolution.

Among the papers were diaries and even copies of correspondence dated 1815 between the engineer William Kirkhouse (who was also the supervising engineer of the Tenant Canal) and pit owner Charles Henry Smith, incumbent of Gwernllywnchwyth Mansion but residing at that time at Grey’s Inn, London.

It was fascinating to read those contemporary notes and it didn’t take long to realise the influence of the choices made upon modern day street names, road layouts, buildings and even a pub.

Research is a bit easier now. There are some amazing free software packages, such as the service provided by the National Library of Scotland, which enables side-by-side comparisons between Victorian maps and how things look today.

If you prefer personalised accounts there are also a few excellent social media groups on Facebook like “So You Think You Know Swansea (SYTYKS)” and “Swansea History Society”.

I’d recommend both for a good dose of nostalgia. Be warned though that it won’t be long before someone laments the loss of Castle Gardens or the Mumbles Train.

If the city of today looks nothing like the town of a hundred years ago then that’s because stuff happens. Each generation looks at things from a different perspective, either through preference or expediency.

It was Swansea’s industrial prowess that was both its making and its undoing. The wealth which transformed a small seaport at the mouth of the Tawe into a municipal and commercial hub came at a price. Heavy industry ravaged the landscape and left a toxic legacy that took over half a century to remove. Railways that provided new mobility also created demarcations that cut us off from the waterfront.

The hugely important contribution that the docks made to our prosperity also made it a wartime target that resulted in the collateral damage of the Blitz.

Our history defines us. At least that’s what I said eight years ago as I sat in the editors office and shared my opinions about Swansea’s future.

“Great”, he said. “Why don’t you write about it and I’ll print it” – which is more or less how this column got started.

Nothing since then has changed my view that we should have a realistic grasp on how we all got here before we decide where we go next - if only to make sure that we don’t keep going round in circles.

More important though is that we’re still very much a collection of communities and that our respective histories have helped shape what we are today. It would be a pity if we forgot that.


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