Amongst the collection at Glamorgan Archives there is a selection of original playbills produced for the Theatre Royal, Cardiff, in the late 19th century. Situated on the corner of Wood Street and St Mary Street, a site later occupied by the Prince of Wales Theatre, the Theatre Royal was built in 1878. In its pomp it held up to 2000 people in an opulent auditorium upholstered with red velvet. Over a period of 10 years, from 1885 and 1895, the playbills detail an array of productions held at the theatre, from the annual pantomime to performances of the D’Oyly Carte’s opera company. They are now available to view on online – just go to the Glamorgan Archives website www.glamarchives.gov.uk, select the option headed ‘Collection’ and search for ‘Theatre Royal’. The references will start with the prefix D452. Select and click on one of the playbill references and you should find a digital copy of the playbill at the bottom of the page. Often brightly coloured they list, in some detail, the acts performing at the theatre. In addition, they often include arrangements, such as special trains, put on to lure people from across South Wales to the performances in Cardiff.
If you look carefully at a number of the playbills from 1888 onwards you will see references to performances on ‘Mabon’s Day’. It is one of the few references that you will see in the Archives to a long lost holiday enjoyed by many across South Wales. Mabon’s Day was the first Monday of every month. It was the product of an agreement between the trade unions and the coal owners that the mines be closed on the first Monday of the month and the day be declared a holiday. The arrangement was largely credited to William Abraham, widely known by his bardic name of Gwilym Mabon. Born in 1842 in Cwmafan, Abraham worked in local collieries and tinplate works from the age of 10. A trade union member and a veteran of many disputes with the coal owners, Abraham was elected as the Member of Parliament for the Rhondda in 1885. Thirteen years later, in 1898, he became the first President of the South Wales Miners’ Federation.
It was Abraham who led the successful campaign for Mabon’s Day, first celebrated in 1888. His argument was that work in the collieries was so physically exhausting that miners had little time or energy for other activities and, in particular, further education and the arts. For ten years Mabon’s day was celebrated across South Wales. The Theatre Royal was one of many that vied to attract miners and their families by putting on special performances on a Monday.
If you take a look at the playbills produced for the annual Pantomime from 1890 to 1892 they all contain special performances for Mabon’s Day on the first Monday of January and February. In most cases this meant two performances during the day and special trains put on, with an opportunity to buy theatre and rail tickets at stations on the Taff Vale and Rhymney lines. It seems that Tom Leamore, champion clog dancer, starring in ‘Pretty Little Red Riding Hood’ and the ballet of 50 ladies featured in ‘Merrie Little Dick Whittington and his Cat’ were guaranteed to draw in the crowds on Mabon’s Day. What is less clear is just how many made a similar journey to watch the D’Oyly Carte company’s production of the ‘Gondoliers or the King of Barataria’ on Monday 7 July 1890.
By 1899 Mabon’s Day had been abandoned. Some said, possibly harshly, that the miners preferred the pubs and theatres to the classroom and the museum. The fact of the matter was that it was seen by mine owners as a day’s production lost. The loss of Mabon’s Day was just one of the consequences of the settlement that ended the lock out imposed by the colliery owners during the miners’ strike of 1898. One product of the strike was the recognition of the need to improve union organisation with the creation of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. However, this came too late for Mabon’s Day. In later years, some claimed, tongue in cheek, that taking an unauthorised day off work was ‘taking one for Mabon’. I doubt that Mabon would have approved.
Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer