Dylan Thomas his life and New Quay
Dylan Thomas lived in Ceredigion at 'Majoda', New
Quay in 1944 - 45 and 'Plas Gelli' near Talsarn between 1941 and 1943. In
May 2007 a film about Dylan Thomas based on the period he lived in New Quay was
being made in the town.
Although Dylan Thomas only lived for a short time during the second world war in New Quay, it is widely believed that many colourful local residents in the town became the basis of his characters in his most widely acclaimed work 'Under Milk Wood'.
Dylan Thomas' roots lie deep in south west Wales - Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire - now known as Ceredigion. These are counties to which he was irresistibly drawn throughout his life. He lived in many places in his short life including London, Kent and Sussex, but returned to West Wales to produce his most compelling and memorable works - most notably Ceredigion where his various stays in New Quay and Talsarn were among the most productive of his writing career.
Thomas is remembered by most for his final play
'Under Milk Wood'. Started in New Quay and partially written at Southleigh
near Oxford, then finally completed in New York minutes before its first
public performance, 'Under Milk Wood' has stimulated a long-running debate
as to which town is the model for 'Llareggub'. Local Author David Thomas
notes that many of the characters (from New Quay) were written in long
before Dylan Thomas ever visited Laugharne. He has clearly established a
strong case for New Quay being the model for 'Llareggub' while the name
'Under Milk Wood' is probably taken from the farm called 'Wernllaeth' where
Dylan was taken by his good friend, the Aberaeron vet Tommy Herbert. Dylan
and Caitlin's daughter Aeronwy was named after the river Aeron which flows
through the Aeron valley to Aberaeron , and about which Dylan said was: 'the
most precious place in the world'.
Thomas' Grandfather was a guard 'Thomas the Guard' on the Great Western Railways and lived in Johnstown, on the edge of Carmarthen. His Father, David John Thomas, was educated at Aberystwyth University where he gained a first in English after winning a scholarship in1895. He later became a senior English Master at Swansea Grammar School where he is remembered as being strict and blessed with a deep and sonorous speaking voice. D. J. Thomas wanted to be a poet, and felt that teaching was very much a waste of his talents. In her book 'Caitlin', Dylan's wife describes him as : '..the most unhappy man I have ever met and it showed in his face. He was unhappy with his life. It was exactly the kind of life that he had hoped not to have, and by the end he could feel himself sinking back into the very existence he had sought to escape'. Dylan's Mother was Florence Hannah Williams - born on the Llanstephan peninsula just across the water from Laugharne where her son and his wife were to live later.
Dylan Marlais Thomas was born on October 27, 1914, in the upstairs front bedroom of his parents newly built house at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea. Behind the house ran an alley and across the road was Cwmdonkin Park. The name Dylan is taken from the "Mabinogion", a collection of mediaeval Welsh stories. His middle name Marlais is the name of a stream near the birthplace of his great uncle, the Preacher and Bard Gwylim Marles Thomas. The Rev Thomas ministered to the Unitarian Chapel at Llwyn Rhydowen near Llandyssul from 1860.
is said to have been inspired by the leafy glades and shady paths of Cwmdonkin
park. In his radio broadcast ‘Reminiscences of Childhood’ he speaks about the
importance of the park and its significance in his early life. He describes it
as:....…"A world within the world of the sea town… full of terrors and
treasures…a country just born and always changing….and that park grew up with
me….In that small, iron-railed universe of rockery, gravel-path, playbank,
bowling-green, bandstand reservoir, chrysanthemum garden, …..in the grass one
must keep off, I endured, with pleasure, the first agonies of unrequited love,
the first slow boiling in the belly of a bad poem, the strutting and
raven-locked self-dramatization of what, at that time seemed incurable
He also wrote, 'The Hunchback in the Park' about a
character observed there in his youth. Two of the seven verses are below.
The Hunchback in the park
A solitary mister
Propped between trees and water
From the opening of the garden lock
Until the Sunday sombre bell at dark
Eating bread from a newspaper
Drinking water from the chained cup
That the children filled with gravel
In the fountain basin where I sailed my ship
Slept at night in a dog kennel
But nobody chained him up.
The fountain is still there in the park (left). But the chained tin drinking cup is now long gone.
Thomas' summer holidays as a child were at the Carmarthenshire dairy farm of his mother's sister, Ann Jones, and her husband, Jim at Llangain. The Farm 'Fern Hill' - see photo on left - was the subject of the poem of the same name. Without doubt these were pleasant times, for as he writes:
'And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
Dylan attended a private school at 22 Mirador Crescent, in the Uplands area of Swansea where he was taught by a Mrs. Hole. He describes the experience as "the lonely schoolroom where only the sometimes tearful wicked sat over undone sums or to repent a little crime". At the Swansea Grammar school, which he attended from 1925-1931, Thomas studied little other than English. He left the school at the age of sixteen and found a job on the staff of the South Wales Daily Post where he was a proof reader for more than a year before becoming a junior reporter.
Unfortunately, he found the many pubs of Swansea much more to his liking than work and here, in the Uplands Tavern and other pubs, he developed his love of alcohol that was ultimately to prematurely end his life. Of beer, he wrote: ……"I liked the taste of beer, its live white lather, its brass-bright depths, the sudden world through the wet brown walls of the glass, the tilted rush to the lips and the slow swallowing down to the lapping belly, the salt on the tongue, the foam at the corners."
His work as a reporter in Swansea was short lived.
In December 1932, he left the paper and joined an amateur dramatic group,
Swansea's Little Theatre. He also joined a local writers' circle and began to
write poetry seriously. He had a number of poems published between 1932 and 1933
in the 'Poets Corner' of the London Sunday Referee. His first poem to be
published outside Wales however, was "And death shall have no Dominion" in the
New English Weekly.
In 1933, Thomas went to London for the first time and stayed with his sister Nancy. He published "That Sanity be kept" in the Sunday Referee. This was read by Pamela Hansford Johnson, another budding poet who contacted Thomas, so beginning their platonic relationship. In February 1934, on his second visit to the capital, he stayed with her. In December of that same year, his first book '18 Poems' was published. Throughout his stay in London, Thomas continued his drinking. He wrote in 1936 "When I do come to town, bang go my plans in a horrid alcoholic explosion that scatters all my good intentions like bits of limbs and clothes over the doorsteps and into the saloon bars of the tawdriest pubs in London". In July,1936 he also published the collection '25 Poems'.
For a while he lived in a basement flat at 54
Delancey Street in London. There was a caravan at the end of the garden there
and it was here that he went to seek creativity. Thomas liked to get away from
others to write. The London caravan was Thomas' precursor to the 'Apple House'
at Llanina Mansion near New Quay, the caravan at Southleigh, Oxfordshire and
finally the writing shed near the 'Boathouse' at Laugharne.
It was in London, at the 'Wheatsheaf' pub in Charlotte Street in April 1936, where Thomas met his wife to be, the dancer Caitlin Macnamara. For both Dylan and Caitlin, their meeting in the 'Wheatsheaf' was love at first sight. Later that day, they booked into the Eiffel Tower Hotel where Caitlin rather cheekily charged the room to the painter Augustus John for whom she was both model and occasional lover - after he had forced himself upon her following a modeling session. Dylan and Caitlin continued drinking by day and returning to the Hotel for five or six nights - apparently without eating!
During their first year, Dylan and Caitlin were sometimes together and sometimes apart. It was while visiting friends in Cornwall that they decided to get married. They stayed in Wyn Henderson's cottage at Polgigga and in Mousehole. They married on 11th, July 1937 at Penzance Registry Office having postponed the wedding twice as they had drunk the money put aside for that purpose. Thomas wrote that they were: `with no money, no prospect of money, no attendant friends or relatives, and in complete happiness. After a honeymoon at the 'Lobster Pot', Wyn Henderson's restaurant in Mousehole, they rented a studio from the painter Max Chapman at Newlyn. The Ship Inn (left) at Mousehole in Cornwall was a favourite watering hole for Dylan Thomas when he stayed there in 1937. There is still a corner of the bar called 'Dylan's Corner'.
In September 1937, Thomas and Caitlin stayed with
Dylan's parents in Bishopston, Swansea - they had moved from Cwmdonkin Drive
after his Father's retirement from teaching at Swansea Grammar School to a
smaller house. This was Caitlin's first meeting with his family. Later, in the
winter of 1937 - 38, they lived with Caitlin's Mother at the family home 'Blashford'
near Ringwood in Hampshire. They are shown here at 'Blashford'.
In April 1938, Dylan and Caitlin visited the writer
Richard Hughes who lived at Castle House in Laugharne and who was enjoying
success with his book, 'High wind in Jamaica'. Here Hughes allowed Dylan to
write in the gazebo topping the ramparts of Laugharne Castle next to his house
(photo on left). Soon afterwards , they found a place of their own nearby.
'Eros' was a small two bedroom fisherman's cottage
with no bathroom and an outside toilet on Gosport Street (photo on right). Dylan
and Caitlin disliked the cottage intensely. 'Eros' was not only small but
primitive, so they soon moved to a larger house, 'Sea View' just behind the
castle at Laugharne where they lived from 1938 to 1941, and where Thomas wrote
'The Map of Love' and 'A Saint about to fall'.
When Dylan and Caitlin lived there, 'Sea View' was whitewashed and very much standing alone. When this photo was taken (June 2007) it was in dire need of renovation and was up for sale by auction. On January 30th, 1939, their son Llewellyn Edouard Thomas was born. At Sea View, where they paid seven shillings and sixpence a week in rent, their landlord was Tudor Williams, brother of the landlord of Brown's Hotel, where Dylan spent much of his time.
Eventually, pressure from various creditors caused Thomas and Caitlin to leave Laugharne and to stay in Caitlin's family home at Blashford. They returned to Sea View for a short time in 1940 when Thomas gained exemption from active service at Llandeilo, the Army doctors diagnosing him as an acute asthmatic - this after Thomas had consumed a large quantity of beer and spirits the previous evening in Brown's hotel!
In the summer of 1940, the family stayed at 'The Maltings' at Marshfield in Gloucestershire, with John Davenport.
In 1941, Thomas and Caitlin moved to Plas Gelli at Talsarn in Cardiganshire, along with Vera Phillips (later Killick), her Sister and her Mother, Margaret Phillips. At this time he also kept a studio flat in Manresa Road, London as he was intermittently working on wartime propaganda films. The couple left their son Llewelyn with Caitlin's Mother at Blashford where he stayed until 1949. Their second child, a daughter named Aeronwy (Aeron) Bryn Thomas was born in March 1942. During his time in London, Thomas took some part in more than a hundred BBC radio programmes. While at Plas Gelli, Dylan Thomas would stay from time to time at the Castle Hotel at Lampeter where he knew the landlord Edward Evans.
Dylan Thomas moved to New Quay in September 1944,
eager to escape from both the war and from London. After staying for a while in
Bosham in Sussex and then at Beaconsfield with his friend Donald Taylor, he
moved to the little bungalow called 'Majoda' just along the coast road which
branches off the B4342 opposite the Cambrian Hotel.
In May 2007 'Majoda' was re-created in its original form as a film set in the field beside the existing house - see photo on left ( courtesy of Roger Bryan of Plas Llanina ).
He rented 'Majoda' for just one pound a week, describing it as 'this wood and asbestos pagoda', and 'a shack at the edge of the cliff, where my children hop like fleas in a box.' The house was draughty and cold, but had a wonderful view across New Quay Bay (view at top of page) to the town 'cliff-perched' across the water. At Majoda he found creative inspiration after a dry period. In New Quay too he found characters who would later be immortalised in 'Under Milk Wood'.
He brought with him to New Quay his wife Caitlin,
his newly born daughter, Aeronwy and his son, Llewelyn, who had previously been
living with Caitlin's mother in Ringwood in Hampshire. From Majoda, Thomas could
walk along Brongwyn Lane (now partly lost to the sea) into New Quay where his
favourite pub was the Black Lion run by his friend 'Jack Pat'.
also wrote the radio scripts 'Quite early one morning' and 'Memories of
Christmas' here - the former apparently after an early morning walk through the
town and along the cliff path where he would have seen this view of New Quay.
Other works completed during his time in New Quay were the poems, 'Vision and
Prayer', 'Holy Spring', 'Poem in October', 'Fern Hill', and 'a Refusal to Mourn
the Death by Fire of A Child in London'.
The Thomas' nearest neighbours at the time were
William and Vera Killick who lived at a house called 'Ffynnon Feddyg' a hundred
yards from 'Majoda'. Vera was formerly Vera Williams, a close neighbour of
Thomas when he was at school in Swansea and with whom Dylan and Caitlin had
previously stayed at Talsarn.
In March, 1945, in the Black Lion at New Quay, Killick was rude to a Russian Secretary who had been sent by Donald Taylor at Gryphon Films to help Dylan. A scuffle ensued and Dylan and other men present threw Killick out of the pub. Killick continued drinking at another pub and later that night after returning home, took a machine gun and a hand grenade and repeatedly fired at 'Majoda' while the Thomases were still inside. At the Lampeter Assizes in June, the commando Captain Killick was cleared of attempted murder and returned to duties. This story was featured in the Sunday scandal sheets and soon thereafter Dylan and Caitlin Thomas and their children left New Quay.
Before moving to Majoda, Thomas was familiar with the New Quay area and had visited a number of times earlier. During the 1930s Dylan would visit his Aunt and Cousin in New Quay. His great Uncle Gwilym Marles was a local minister and a well known poet.
Locally he stayed temporarily between New Quay and Cei Bach at Plas Llanina - also known as the Llanina Mansion, then owned by Lord Howard de Walden, a patron of the arts.
There is more information about Plas Llanina on the Llanarth History page HERE.
De Walden gave Thomas fifty pounds and allowed him
to write in the 'Apple House' at the bottom of the garden.
De Walden had been introduced to Thomas by Caitlin's former lover, the painter Augustus John.
The Apple House (left) at Llanina is now roofless although the walls remain virtually intact. Its cool basement would have been used to store the apples from the orchard in the walled garden at Plas Llanina.
The Author David Thomas, in his recently published book 'Dylan Thomas, A Farm, Two Mansions and a Bungalow', has put together a convincing case that New Quay is the inspiration of Thomas's Llareggub (read it backwards!). Details of the 'Dylan Thomas Trail' - take the visitor to a number of locations identified as models for locales in the fictional Llareggub. In 1947 the family lived at South Leigh in Oxfordshire at 'The Manor House' - bought for them by Margaret Taylor as well as keeping a small flat at Wentworth Studios, Manresa Road in London. Thomas went abroad for the first time to Italy where he started to write a major ( never completed) work . The first part, entitled `In Country Sleep´ was completed in Italy. Two more parts were eventually completed, but the fourth was never started.
Laugharne though, remained Thomas' spiritual home
and it was to here he returned once again in May 1948, where he and his family
moved to the Boathouse at Laugharne , Thomas' final home. The Boathouse was
purchased for Thomas by Mrs. Margaret Taylor for £2,500 in April 1949 when she
arranged for Mains electricity to be installed. He immediately rented a house
'The Pelican' - now known as 'Pelican House' opposite 'Brown's Hotel' for his
parents, where they lived from 1949 to 1953. It was in this house that his
father died and where the funeral was held.
Just as in the caravan in London, and in the 'Apple
House' at Plas Llanina, New Quay, Dylan Thomas preferred to be away on his own
to write. At the Boathouse, the garage - elevated on props on the steep hillside
above the sea, became his 'writing shed'.
The photo on the left shows the inside of the writing shed as left by Dylan Thomas.
The Boat House is perched on the edge of the hill
above the estuary of the river Taf. From the house, there is a panoramic view
across the 'Heron priested shore' that undoubtedly was a great inspiration as he
writes in 'Poem in October':
....Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall....
Thomas had for some time wanted to emigrate to the United States and in 1949 was offered a lecture tour by John Malcolm Brinnin. This was to be the beginning of the end for Thomas. He described Manhattan as: "this Titanic dream world, soaring Babylon, everything monstrously rich and strange," and promptly found solace in its bars.
Thomas' second trip to the United States began on 20th January, 1952 when he boarded the 'Queen Mary' with Caitlin. However, they argued loudly and publicly, returning with little to show for their time abroad.
At the end of 1952, Thomas' Father died - prompting the poem 'Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night'. Soon afterwards, Thomas' sister Nancy also died. Various audio recordings of Thomas reading his own work have survived including 'Do not go gentle'. These confirm the reports of his 'deep and sonorous' voice. However, it is clear that his lengthy association with broadcasters of the day and his early drama experiences, influenced his tone, accent and delivery. There is no trace of a local accent - or of any regional accent in these recordings.
Thomas arrived in New York for his third tour on the 21st April, 1953 when he was completing 'Under Milk Wood'. The World Premiere of which was on May 3rd, 1953, in the Fogg Museum at Harvard.
Thomas' debts were increasing and the Bailiffs were threatening him. His health was also deteriorating at this time. He was suffering blackouts regularly and was advised by his Doctor to stop drinking. The only way out of debt seemed to be another American lecture tour.
Thomas' final tour of America began on the 19th October 1953. Thomas was to direct the rehearsals of 'Under Milk Wood' with a full cast. Although he was not in good health, he was to take the part of narrator again as he had on May 13th in New York. On November 3rd he attended a party, but returned early to his hotel. Unable to sleep, he left his room for a drink - in his own words eighteen straight whiskeys. The next morning he was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital where he lapsed into a coma for five days, dying on November 9th 1953. Caitlin notes in her book: "Dylan had this rather odd view that all the best poets died young and that he himself would never make forty, and there were times when he almost seemed to live his life by that"
Dylan's death however, was probably not only a result of the over-consumption of alcohol. He is thought to have had problems with blood sugar balance, he is known to have not eaten properly for several days prior to this death and the Doctor who treated him injected him on two occasions with both cortisone and morphine. A tragic combination of events brought a premature end to the life of one of Wales' most celebrated writers and poets.
He was returned to Wales and was buried in Laugharne.
©2003 Rod Attrill