The tale of my operatic ancestor, tenor Robert Thomas
‘My father always used to tell me there were opera singers in the family’. So real-life story author Raymond Humphreys' mother always used to say... But how did his research compare to the family story?
We simply filed this information away along with the many other snippets that just had to fit in somewhere. And then one day, we decided to look into our family history.
Our first tentative steps
To begin with, my sister Mary Hughes and I made slow progress with researching our maternal ancestors, the Thomases. Like so many Glamorgan families, they had come to the area (originally Merthyr Tydfil, in their case) from Mid Wales. One intriguing fragment an elderly relative had been able to give us was that our great-grandfather, John Thomas, had fled from Brecon to Merthyr Tydfil ‘because he had half-killed a man who had caught him poaching’.
A stroke of good fortune
Eventually, through sheer good fortune as much as anything else, we came across someone who had been a neighbour of a hitherto unknown branch of our Thomas family, which had settled in Cardiff. We found that this line was descended from one of John’s two brothers. Initially, we couldn’t discover a great deal more than that. But our informant was able to add that he ‘thought the family came from Trecastle’. This is a village between Brecon to the east and Llandovery to the west on the A40 trunk road.
This was the vital clue. With further research, and a lot of help from members of the Powys Family History Society and others, we eventually put the story together. Or, to be more precise, we started to put the story together. For there is a long way to go – there always is with family history – and there have been and will be some difficult problems to solve during the journey.
Building on that 'vital clue'
Still, at least we had the family roots placed in the Trecastle area and could add a bit of colour to the story. Slowly, we accumulated background information. Old maps, photographs, monumental inscriptions and various documents came to hand. We were able to establish that John’s grandfather had been born in the parish of Myddfai in Carmarthenshire. Despite the name, this is located not far away, just on the other side of Mynydd Myddfai. He’d crossed the mountain and county boundary to find a living as a farmer and a wife in the western part of Breconshire.
Treading the paths they trod
As long ago as 1987 we were able to visit the farm he tenanted, called Pwll Uchaf (‘Highest Pool’), plus a nearby smallholding in which some of his descendants had lived later in the 19th century. Sadly, Pwll Uchaf was in ruinous condition. The farmlands, actually located near the hamlet of Cwmwysg and the headwaters of the River Usk a few miles south-west of Trecastle, had by that date been incorporated with the neighbouring Pwll Isaf (‘Lowest Pool’).
Still, the setting was a splendidly remote and rural part of The Brecon Beacons. Walking on the green hillsides, it was possible to see the sights and to hear the sounds (sheep, not traffic) our ancestors had known so long before. It really was like stepping back in time.
A hereditary curse
We went on to find out more about the family. Before his son had reached his sixth birthday, John’s father, Rees Thomas, had died of a hereditary kidney disease. This has been a curse for at least the four generations prior to my own. Fortunately, it avoided my mother’s line and those of two of her three siblings and now seems to have disappeared altogether. As the eldest son, John may well have been poaching for fish to help feed the family before the incident which led to his sudden removal to South Wales. The headwaters of the River Usk, a fine salmon water, ran below their former farmhouse – by then, after the father’s death, the family had been forced to relocate to a more modest abode.
Searching the wider family
Some years after the poaching incident. John’s younger brother, also named Rees Thomas, went south in his turn. Initially, he became a coalminer like his brother and lodged at the same address in Merthyr Tydfil. Later still, Rees moved to Cardiff, where he was a steelworker. We were able to find some of his descendants in the city and discovered something of their lives.
Mrs Dilys Jones, a then Trecastle resident with impressive local knowledge, gave us many leads in the Cwmwysg area. Mary kept in touch with her and we’ve been grateful for what she was able to tell us. But we couldn’t believe our luck one day when she suddenly recalled something that led us to the singer of our mother’s story. Mrs Jones remembered, back in the 1950s, buying a record with local connections. As good fortune would have it, she was able to find the record, still in its original cover.
Mary borrowed it and we were able to hear Robert Thomas, tenor, released by Cwaliton Records of Pontardawe in 1957 singing some popular songs. The record blurb talked about his Trecastle origins, among other things. The recording was a bit crackly, but it was a pleasure to be able so unexpectedly to hear the voice of a family legend. A fine voice it was, too.
Robert really was an opera singer
The story doesn’t stop there. We found out more about Robert Thomas. His musical training, under bassist Norman Allin with the Royal Academy of Music, had been interrupted by WW2, during which he served with the Royal Navy, but he still went on to become, in 1950, a Principal Tenor with Sadler’s Wells and then sang with the D’Oyly Carte Opera company. Among his later musical achievements he sang opposite Rae Woodland with the BBC Chorus and Concert Orchestra in the production of Glamorous Night. The music was written by Ivor Novello and first performed in London in 1935 but Robert Thomas is named as one of the co-librettists in the 1969 production.
Our Trecastle correspondent was able to turn up a letter written in 1958 by Robert Thomas from his then home in Kew, Surrey. In this he apologised for the incorrect information on the record cover. Cwaliton had stated that he’d been born in Trecastle, whereas he’d been born in Cardiff and it was his grandfather who’d come from the area. In fact he, Mary and I can trace our ancestry to the Rees Thomas who’d farmed Pwll Uchaf, dying at the age of only thirty in 1865.
Meanwhile, I was contacted by the renowned Welsh artist Aneurin Jones about something I’d written after our 1987 visit to Pwll Uchaf. Aneurin had spent his childhood in the farmhouse – he’d been born in the Hydfer Valley, about three miles away – and felt a strong attachment to it. His paintings of Welsh rural life are greatly admired. Unsurprisingly, many of these take Pwll Uchaf as their subject and Aneurin gave me permission to include a picture of this with other paintings on my website. He also arranged for me to see Pwll Uchaf again in 2007.
I have made a cassette tape and CD recording of Robert Thomas’s 1957 record, and added one track, Nirvana, to my website. I have also been contacted by a retired opera singer, John Frere Perry, from Hong Kong, who’d found this. I was surprised when he told me Robert Thomas had been his mentor at the start of his own musical career and was pleased to be able to send him a CD version of the 1957 record.
I await further surprises! These links will take you to some of the things I’ve mentioned.
- Robert Thomas sings Nirvana https://www.benybont.org/nirvana
- Aneurin Jones’ paintings https://www.benybont.org/the-visual-arts
- The visit in 1987 https://www.benybont.org/pwll-uchaf
Find out more about 'Real-life story' author, Raymond Humphreys, from his website: www.benybont.org/