The Bridgend Boys and the Machine Gun

On 25 July 1919, the pupils of Penybont Council Boys’ School attended a meeting held at the Bridgend Town Hall to commemorate the ending of the First World War. Centre stage was a captured German Maxim Gun and one of the Penybont pupils, Edwin James Cuming, aged 9, delivered the following speech:

Dear Friends and citizens of the town of Bridgend, – This is a happy day for us and I have been chosen to tell you about this gun. Penybont Boys’ is the only school in the district, and I believe in South Wales that had been given a gun by His Majesty’s Government. In this we are greatly honoured. The gun is a light German Maxim gun and was captured from the Bosches. It has been presented to our school as a reward for the work of the scholars during Tank Week, and also in connection with the War Savings Campaign. We are proud that we have been able to bring this additional honour to the town of Bridgend, and that the boys of Penybont Boys’ School are showing themselves worthy sons of the Empire (Glamorgan Gazette, 1 Aug 1919)

The log book for Penybont Boys’ school, kept by the Headmaster, John G Jenkins, provides further detail:

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This afternoon the School had a Victory and Peace Celebration of its own in order to show the people the captured German Machine Gun which had been presented to the School by the Government for the meritorious work which had been done by the school in collecting over £4000 in War Savings Cert during the Bridgend Tank Week. Many of the boys dressed in fancy costumes. They paraded the town and dismissed in front of the Town Hall after the delivery of two or three speeches and singing of several patriotic songs (Penybont Boys’ School, log book, 25 Jul 1919, EM10/11 p.499)

The raising of £4000 amounted to approximately £12 per pupil – a massive sum in 1919. In addition, the money raised for Tank Week was just one element of the work undertaken by the Penybont Boys during the war years. John Jenkins’ log book, held at the Glamorgan Archives, records the remarkable effort made by the boys and staff of the Penybont Boys’ School from August 1914 onwards to raise money and support the war effort.

In August 1914 Penybont Boys’ School had 330 pupils. The school was run by the Headmaster supported by only 6 assistants. Each of the teachers, including the Headmaster, would have led classes of at least 40 pupils and often more when staff were absent. In addition, the fabric of the school was not in good repair. A School Inspection report from earlier in the 1914 tells us:

The recommendations of the 1909 report with regard to classroom accommodation, direct access to the playground, heating and the provision of hoppers for the lower sections of the windows have still to be carried out… The two small classrooms are still habitually overcrowded. Several windows panes were broken at the time of the visit (Penybont Boys’ School,, log book, 24 Apr 1914, EM10/11 pp.365-68).

Yet Penybont Boys’ School was clearly a very well run school. Average attendance was 90% and the Inspection report for 1914 noted:

The Department is staffed with energetic teachersA very good scheme of work has been planned and under the able supervision of the Master, who himself takes a full share in teaching, is soundly carried out (Penybont Boys’ School, log book, 24 Apr 1914, EM10/11 pp.365).

John Jenkins was a very experienced Headmaster. Born in Maesteg, he was 57 in 1914 and had been Headmaster of Bridgend Boys’ School for over 30 years. He was also a noted figure in the local community as Chair of the Bridgend Urban District Council and a deacon of the English Congregational Church in Bridgend. At the outbreak of war there is no doubt that he decided that his school would play its full part in supporting in the local war effort and the boys of Penybont School certainly rose to the challenge.

One of the earliest appeals was launched by the Prince of Wales to provide relief for the families of servicemen. In August 1914 Penybont was already struggling to cope with the immediate impact of the war on staffing:

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We resumed duties after the summer holidays under the shadow of the terrible war which has broken out between Germany and Austria on one side and England, France and Russia on the other. This has already disorganised my staff as Mr. Brown has rejoined the colours and Mr B J Jones who had been appointed to succeed Mr Morgan has failed to take up his engagement. We had only four teachers this morning to teach seven classes… (Penybont Boys’ School, log book, 31 Aug 1914, EM10/11 p.379)

Although in some instances teachers had to cope with classes of 70, the school responded magnificently to the call to raise money for the Prince of Wales’ Fund. The Glamorgan Gazette listed every week the donations made by the school from September 1914 onwards. Several months later John Jenkins noted:

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Ever since the week ending Sept 4th   my boys have subscribed weekly to some military fund or other. Up to Nov. 13th the school, including the staff, had collected a sum of £7 19s 8d and sent it to the Prince of Wales Fund. From then on to Dec 17th another sum of £2 7s 2d has been subscribed. With this money we purchased 50 shilling boxes of cigarettes and sent them to our Old Boys stationed in Scotland with the Welsh Cyclist Corps. Besides cigarettes we sent a parcel of splendid woollen mufflers and chocolates. Serg. Major Miles, to whom we sent the goods, sent a very warm letter of thanks from himself and the Old Boys for their happy Christmas box (Penybont Boys’ School, log book, 26 Feb 1915, EM10/11 p.387).

The good work undertaken by the boys was not limited to raising money. To cope with the number of wounded from France and further afield, the Red Cross set up hospitals across Glamorgan. Penybont Boys’ School immediately adopted the Red Cross Hospital established at Merthyrmawr Road and from 1915 onwards sent regular deliveries of food and supplies for the servicemen.

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This week we have sent our second consignment of gifts to the Red Cross Military Hospital in Merthyrmawr Road. The boys were asked to bring eggs and fruit and they responded very well. Over 100 eggs were sent to the Hospital besides a large quantity of apples, oranges, bananas, chocolates and cigarettes. About 20 eggs were also sent to the Cottage Hospital. Cordial letters of thanks were sent to the boys by the two matrons of the respective hospitals. Last week we sent nearly 40 eggs and a large basket of fruit (Penybont Boys’ School, log book, 1 Apr 1915, EM10/11 p.389-90)

John Jenkins, as a former member of the famous Cor Caradoc, was also well known for his love of music. Under his leadership the Penybont Boys’ school choir took a leading role in local concerts organised to raise money throughout the war.

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My boys took part in a Concert last Wednesday night in the Town Hall. A section of the St I and II sang ‘Till the boys come home’ and a large section of St V, VI, VII sang Sullivan’s ‘Lost Chord’. There will be a repeat performance tonight. The proceeds of the two concerts will be devoted to the support of Queen Mary’s Guild (Penybont Boys’ School, log book, 21 Jan 1916, EM10/11 p.415)

Performances were not limited to choral works. As the Glamorgan Gazette recorded, the Penybont boys often included a dramatic rendition of the scene before Agincourt from Shakespeare’s Henry V. The scene was obviously a great favourite and was repeated on St David’s Day when the boys marched through the streets of Bridgend and performed for parents and the townspeople on the steps of the Town Hall.

In fact there were very few fund raising activities where the Penybont boys did not shine, including their contribution to the many Flag Days held in Bridgend. The Glamorgan Gazette reported on 5 March 1915 that the Penybont boys had raised £2 5s 9d and …scarcely a person passed through any of the main thoroughfares without having a flag pinned on them.

From 1917 onwards schools were asked to set up a War Savings Society to promote the purchase of War Bonds. In 1918 a number of Tanks toured South Wales as part of a national campaign to encourage local communities to purchase bonds. The arrival of the Tank, Egbert, in Bridgend, in June 1918 was possibly the boys’ finest hour.

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The tank ‘Egbert’ paid a visit to our town on Tuesday and Wednesday, 18th and 19th inst. The huge sum of £230,500 was invested in the tank by the people of Bridgend and the surrounding district. As the population of the town is now only about 7,500 the above sum represents a sum per head of head of over £30 one of the best contributions in the Kingdom. The proceedings in front of the Town Hall where the tank was stationed were characterised by great enthusiasm and patriotic fervour. The Choir of our school occupied the stage in front of the tank on two occasions and sang numerous patriotic and national songs, to the evident pleasure of the great assemblage, which completely filled the square. Our School Assoc’, The Penybont Boys’ War Savings Association invested in the tank on Wed afternoon the comparatively large sum of £2,100, representing a sum of £2,800 in War Certificates. This placed our school easily on top of all the schools in the town and district whether elementary or secondary and had I believe made a record for the schools of the whole County of Glamorgan (Penybont Boys’ School, log book, 21 Jun 1918, EM10/11 pp.473-4)

The Penybont School also had its share of ‘war heroes’. In July 1917 John Jenkins recorded:

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The father of one of my old boys who is at the front visited me today and gave me the gratifying news that his son – Charlie Lawrence of Newcastle has been awarded the D.C.M for distinguished conduct ‘In the Field’. The other day the townspeople presented another of my Old Boys with a gold watch for winning the Military Medal. The presentation meeting was held in the Town Hall Square and I had the honour of presiding over the meeting and of presenting the hero with the watch. The Old Boy’s name is Corporal Fred Quinlan of South Street. Another of my Old Boys who has won a Military Medal is Harry Bushnell, now living in Treorchy; and yet another is Frank Howells, Nolton St, who has been awarded the Military Medal, and it is rumoured that he has been recommended for a VC. My own son also, T Steve Jenkins has recently received a Commission at the Front ‘for meritorious Service in the Field’ (Penybont Boys’ School, log book, 20 Jul 1917, EM10/11 pp.451-2)

However, there was also news of losses from the Front in France:

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News has been received, that unfortunately it is officially confirmed of the death of two of my old scholars in the field of battle viz Willie Davis, Oldcastle and Edwin Thomas …. Other Old Boys who have fallen were Fred Thomas, Arthur Palmer and John Fitzgerald (Penybont Boys’ School, log book, 29 May 1916, EM10/11 p.422).

It is not surprising, therefore, that John Jenkins and the boys threw themselves into the celebrations at the end of the war with gusto.

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News of the Great Armistice with the belligerent nations in the Great War came this morning about 11 o’clock. I immediately organised a procession of the boys thro’ the principal streets of the town, headed by their school banner. We cheered the King, Lloyd George, Foch, Haig and Beatty, and sang ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ in front of the Town Hall, and then returned to school. Half holiday in the afternoon. Staff and children and most of the townspeople half delirious with joy (Penybont Boys’ School, log book, 11 Nov 1918, EM10/11 pp.481-2)

The school was reopened he following day …with a very poor attendance. It might have been expected that this drew the boys’ war time work to an end. However, there was still much to be done not just in welcoming the troops home but also in continuing to raise money, through Bonds, to pay for the war. The War Savings campaign, therefore, continued without a break in the immediate post war years. The schools that sold the most Bonds in Bridgend were promised additional holidays. In January 1919 the John Jenkins noted.

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Mr Preece, the Manager’s Clerk has written to tell me that my school has won a half holiday for collecting the next highest amount per head in war Savings Certificates during the month of December. The holiday will be taken next Friday afternoon the 31 inst. (Penybont Boys’ School, log book, 24 Jan 1919, EM10/11 p.488).

The boys also continued to support a range of local events. For example, on 27 December 1918, the Glamorgan Gazette reported on a concert held at the cinema in Bridgend to raise money for the Bridgend Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Reception Fund. Amongst a number of performers:

The Penybont Boys’ Choir (conducted by Mr J G Jenkins) again created a very favourable impression, singing in perfect time and with clear enunciation and the sweetest harmony – quite suggestive of a trained cathedral choir (Glamorgan Gazette, 27 Dec 1918)

It was probably this ongoing work that led to the ‘queer request’ noted in John Jenkins’ log book from the Education Department …for particulars of any special work done by the school during the period of the war (Penybont Boys’ School, log book, 27 Mar 1919, EM10/11 p.493). This request was the springboard for the War Office’s decision to present the school with the Maxim gun as a reward for its efforts.

The log book tells the story of a remarkable school and a remarkable Headmaster. Penybont Boys’ School operated in difficult circumstances. Throughout the War, the Headmaster continued to make regular appeals for contributions to his ‘Boot Fund’ so that there poorest pupils could be provided with shoes (Penybont Boys’ School, log book, 22 Feb 1918, EM10/11 p465). Yet those who had so little gave an enormous amount to support the war effort . Dr Abel Jones on behalf of the National War Savings Committee for the County of Glamorgan wrote to John Jenkins in June 1918:

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I must congratulate you and your staff and children very heartily upon the excellent contribution you made to the Tank visit last week. I shall be very glad if you will convey to them my congratulations. I have not heard of any other school in the County doing so well (Penybont Boys’ School, log book, 28 Jun 1918, EM10/11 p.475)

The log book does not tell us what became of the Maxim gun. If you know what happened to it please let us know so that we can add it to the above account.

The above material has been taken from the log book of a school in the Bridgend District. Similar stories can be found in the records of schools across Glamorgan for 1914-18. If you want to find out more about the impact of the war on school life in your area and across Glamorgan you can access summaries of the school log books for each local authority area on the Glamorgan Archives website www.glamarchives.gov.uk. You can also access many of the newspapers produced in Wales in 1914-18, including the material from the Glamorgan Gazette quoted above, at http://newspapers.library.wales/. This website from the National Library of Wales provides free online access to newspapers produced in Wales.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

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