Gresford – Bringing the lads up at last. An interview by Geoff Wilding.

BRINGING THE LADS UP AT LAST

Geoff Wilding interviews Catherine Hughes, playwright and author in March 1982

This year almost half a century after the Gresford Disasters, a monument to the 266 men who died in the mine in 1934 is to be unveiled close to the site of the old pithead. To mark the occasion, BBC will be repeating the radio drama “Dark Heritage” which was written by Garden Village housewife Catherine Hughes and which traces the life of one of the families left fatherless by the tragedy.

When first broadcast in March this year (1982), the BBC was inundated with letters and telephone calls from listeners throughout the British Isles who had been moved to tears by the poignancy of the play. It was subsequently short listed as a possible BBC entry for the Italia Radio Drama Award and Catherine become a rather reluctant overnight success.

“Dark Heritage” is however a combination of two of her poems which together underline the true cost in human suffering and misery which the mining of coal has exacted over the years. “I wrote the Gresford poem shortly after moving to Garden Village in 1964 “says Catherine” I could see the top of the winding gear of the mine from my bedroom window and was so haunted by the thought of the loved ones of those who’d lost their lives that I just had to put my feelings on paper, I wrote the second poem after the Aberfan tragedy in 1966. I have three children of my own and think that there couldn’t have been one parent anywhere who was not touched by the anguish of those who lost their children in that black slurry. Years later I came across the two poems again, just by chance and decided to link them into one narrative; I sent the resulting play to the BBC and that’s how “Dark Heritage” came to be produced.

Though her work is now being compared to that of the late Dylan Thomas, Catherine is in fact a Londoner, born in Streatham in 1922. She inherited her literary skill from her father, the late theologian William Prescott Upton and her human approach to life from her mother, Harriet Anne Carey, an ex-governess. “We weren’t well off by any means” she recalls but I had a marvelous childhood. Mum would take us for picnics to Tooting Bec Common and read the most wonderful stories to us, while Dad, when funds allowed would take us to the ‘gods’ at the Old Vic to see the theatrical greats of the day, actors like Laurence Olivier, Vivienne Leigh, Ralph Richardson and Edith Evans in plays by Shakespeare, Shaw and Wilde and I vividly remember Dame Edith delivering the famous ‘handbag’ line from “The Importance of being Ernest”. On other occasions he’d take us to the opera at Sadlers Wells and every Christmas to the panto at the Brixton Rep – the admission was nine pence for adults and five pence for children – we’d buy the libretto and live off it all winter!

My earliest interest in literature however was confined to comics like The Magnet, Gem or Bulls Eye but Dad didn’t seem to mind, he worked on the premise that if I read enough, one day I’d graduate to the better reading material to be found round our house and eventually I read everything from Swiss Family Robinson and Dickens to Edgar Wallace. I didn’t realise it at the time that while still a little tomboy on Tooting Bec Common, I was acquiring a taste for good literature and through Dad’s visitors, mainly men of the cloth from rabbis to priests, being exposed to religious discussion ”

Sadly, her father died when she was only fourteen, a casualty in a way of the First World War trenches and Catherine was forced to leave school early to earn her keep. She got a job at the Post Office Savings Bank Headquarters at West Kensington entering the2 ½% interest rates in the savings books but with the outbreak of war in 1939 escaped the tedium of the Post Office by joining the Land Army as a trainee tractor driver at Aylesbury “It’s funny how the war separated some people and brought others together” she smiles “One day a handsome young farm machinery inspector, Edward John Hughes (who I later discovered came from Coedpoeth) visited the field where I was busily de-bunging a plough full of rotting cabbages and dressed I might tell you in a most unglamorous old army gas cape! We were introduced and I proffered my rather squelchy hand to the clean suntanned stranger, we talked for a while about machinery and soon he became a regular visitor to the farm where I worked. I thought, he was only interested in my tractor but in fact he was coming to see me; after the war we married and in 1947 went out to Tanzania to farm on the ill-fated groundnuts scheme.

The scheme itself was marvellous on paper, but the rainfall in that part of Africa is so unpredictable that the project eventually failed. Our two eldest boys, Alan and Robert were born out in Africa on our isolated farm in the Kongwa Province and it was there in the evenings that I first began writing in earnest. When the day’s work was done and the children tucked up in bed, I’d sit out on the verandah with my little note pad and write little poems and later on descriptive pieces about life in that little corner of the world, sometimes I felt lonely and longed for the bustle of the London streets but I grew to love Africa and even today feel the lure of the Dark Continent.

One summer, while going on leave to England, the children and I was stuck in a shipping strike in Mombasa Harbour; unable to get away, we spent our enforced stay sightseeing and eventually discovered the impressive Fort Jesus and it was While being shown round the fort that our guide told me of the massacre which had taken place there in the seventeenth century, when the whole of the Portuguese Christian population had been slain by the followers of Islam.

The guide’s story obsessed me and eventually I began researching the events which culminated in the horrific bloodletting. As is often the case, the blame for the tragedy lay at the feet of one man who, through personal greed for power and wealth had destroyed a thriving and harmonious community. I’ve now dramatised this little known piece of history into a play and under the title of “Fort Jesus” it is to be produced by BBC next year (1983)

In 1954, following the failure of the groundnuts scheme, Catherine and her family returned to Britain, her husband had always wanted to come back to the North Wales area so they took over a 50-acre dairy farm at Ty Draw, near Mold where their youngest son Roger was born “Dairy farming was very hard work” remembers Catherine, but I still managed to find a few minutes here and there to write, sometimes the odd descriptive piece sometimes a little play for an eisteddfod or for Christmas at our local church.

Time was precious though so I always carried a pencil with me while working round the farm and if anything special came into my mind I’d quickly jot it down on a scrap of paper and pop it into my pocket, something I still do—the muse can be a fleeting visitor.

One day in 1964 my husband suffered a coronary which nearly killed him and we had to leave the farm that’s when we came to Garden Village. Thankfully he recovered, though it took a long time and now he works as a Field Officer for the Ministry of Agriculture. Now that our boys are all grown up I have much more time for writing, I get the washing, cleaning and ironing done and usually, while dinner is cooking get out the typewriter and set to work.

At the moment I’m writing a new play for actress Margaret John titled “The Barren Woman”, it was Margaret who played the schoolmistress so beautifully in “Dark Heritage” – she’s an actress who feels every line you write and is totally in sympathy with the character she’s playing. From the moment we met on the location: recording of the play in Coedpoeth last Autumn we got on like a house on fire and became firm friends! When “Dark Heritage” was first broadcast earlier this year, the response from listeners was amazing and I received loads of letters and ‘phone calls from kind people all over the country telling me how much the play had meant to them. It felt strange to me that I, an unknown housewife, was being feted in this way, however the most touching compliment I received came one morning when I was going to the shops.

An elderly man who was sitting on a bench called me over and told me that he had been a member of one of the rescue teams at Gresford, he’d heard my play and with tears in his eyes said “Thank you Catherine, you’ve brought the lads up at last” for once I couldn’t think of a sensible thing to say. I tried to smile and mumbled some sort of thanks but was so full up I had to go straight back home.

NO shopping was done that morning.

Interviewed and written by Geoff Wilding March 1982

Gresford
Catherine Hughes (right) with BBC Radio producer Jane Morgan at a preview of “Dark Heritage”. It was the first digital stereo recording for Radio 4 on location, the play was recorded mainly in Minera and Coedpoeth.
Gresford
Catherine Hughes, playwright and author pictured at home in Garden Village.