A recently-discovered archive of 1950s photographs of the places Dylan Thomas wove into his work is the basis of a new book, Ugly, Lovely – Dylan Thomas’s Swansea and Carmarthenshire of the 1950s in Pictures (Parthian Books). Its editor, Hilly Janes, describes how she discovered them in an old cardboard box…
They must have made an intriguing pair. Two sensibly-dressed middle-aged ladies, prowling around some of Swansea’s less salubrious areas with a camera. Ethel Ross, a college lecturer, and her colleague Beti Havard-Jones, were on a mission to photograph many of the places that featured in Dylan Thomas’s work, before they changed too much.
It was September 3rd 1957, less than four years since his tragic death in New York, aged 39. They drove in Ethel’s little black Ford car from the docks in the industrial east, to Cwmdonkin Drive in the Uplands, where Dylan grew up. They also headed west to the Llansteffan peninsula where he spent many childhood holidays, and to Laugharne, where he lived briefly before the Second World War with his young wife and family, and from 1949, when he wrote some of his best-loved poems in his shed overlooking the beautiful Taff estuary.
Ethel was my aunt – Aunty Eff – Ethel being too much of a tongue twister for a small child. A lecturer in education at Swansea Training College, she was as familiar with the streets of her hometown as Dylan Thomas was himself. She mounted their haul of 40 pictures on A4 lined paper, captioned them with an appropriate quotation and the title of the work it appeared in, and assembled them in a ring binder. It came to light as I was sorting through a cardboard box that had been in storage since she died in 1994, part of the research for my 2014 biography of the poet The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas.
The collection is a poignant reminder of the ‘ugly, lovely’ town that Dylan left when he set off on his final, fatal, reading tour of the USA in October 1953. Many of his places, like 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, remain intact, while others are unrecognisable – his beloved Ferguson’s sweetshop in the Uplands is now a hearing-aid centre. Others, like the old Evening Post offices where he worked as a junior reporter, are no longer there at all.
Ethel had been well acquainted with the man and his work since the 1930s. ‘I came across Dylan in several places as the town was bursting with all kinds of cultural and political groups,’ she recalled. They met again at Swansea’s lively and ambitious amateur Little Theatre company, where they were both members – this is how she came by Dylan’s schoolboy comedy sketch Lunch at Mussolini’s, which is published in Ugly, Lovely more or less for the first time, along with her account of his theatrical career.
Later she got to know Dylan as a family friend when her sister, Mary, married the artist Alfred Janes, one of the so-called ‘Kardomah Boys’ or ‘the morning young lounge lizards’ as Dylan described them, who met at the Kardomah cafe for intellectual combat, gossip and a good deal of banter.
Ethel, a reserved character, preferred to save her dry wit for her writing. ‘I used to watch the group…from the Baltic Cafe
When war drew their promising careers to a halt, the lounge lizards scattered far and wide – Dylan to London, where he scripted films for the government’s propaganda arm and became a popular BBC broadcaster. But if he was back in Swansea, the news spread quickly, and meetings would be hastily convened in the town’s many pubs, where ‘tales of literary London were swapped for the imbecilities of life in the forces,’ Ethel recalled. Sometimes Dylan’s high jinks raised an eyebrow, but on other occasions, when small talk was about family and friends, he could be ‘perfectly ordinary’.
In the 1950s Ethel moved with the Janes family to rambling Nicholaston Hall in Gower. The day before Dylan left for his final tour of the US in October 1953, Fred drove the 40 miles to Laugharne to see him. ‘He came back full of misgivings and stories of recurring blackouts. Dylan was much disturbed and felt that, for the sake of the money, he must go,’ Ethel wrote.
‘News of his collapse arrived all too soon from New York’, she continued, ‘and a few days later, of his death’. Ethel wrote to Florence Thomas, Dylan’s mother, to invite her to a tribute at his old grammar school. She was not well enough to attend, but she later came for what was the first of several annual stays at Nicholaston Hall, until her death in 1958. She had lost not just Dylan, but her husband and daughter Nancy in the space of a year, and relished this taste of family life and the chance to see Dylan’s old friends, who came to visit her.
Ethel talked at length to Florence about Dylan, and recorded some of their conversations. These became the basis of a dramatic monologue, Florence Thomas Talking, which was performed when the Little Theatre opened in new premises in 1983, renamed the Dylan Thomas Theatre.
Ethel died in 1994, still in touch with friends she had made through the theatre and Dylan Thomas. As she wrote in her booklet about his time on the Swansea stage: ‘Many people knew him better than I, but I am grateful for the quickened atmosphere and sense of fun he spread at the kind of gathering at which I met him. Though of course I could not fail to be aware of the other side, I think I saw the best of him and so remember him.’
Hilly Janes is a writer, editor and a journalism lecturer at the University of the Arts London and University of the Creative Arts.
Featured image – a 1964 pen-and ink portrait of Dylan Thomas by Alfred Janes. Owned by the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, City & County of Swansea.
© Alfred Janes Estate.