History of St Margaret’s R.C. School Aberdare

It is possible to separate the growth of this school from that of the Church of St Joseph. In 1853 there were about 300 Roman Catholics in the town with a further 200 in Hirwaun, and it seems obvious that these were Irish immigrants either coming here directly from Ireland, or via Merthyr, to find work in the Iron and Coal industries, with a very small minority of local Catholics.

The Church was erected in 1868 and it was surely the vision of father Dawson, the parish priest, having built the church, to begin a school. Meanwhile, lessons of a kind were taking place in the back of the church, but under what conditions, how many children, and by whom, we have no record.

It took another 9 years before the dream was to be realised, by which time Father Dawson had been replaced, first by Father Limpens. A Belgian, the only priest of this parish ever to be buried at Aberdare Cemetery, then by Father Ryan, and in 1877, Father Armand Hamelin a “genial little cure,” arrived at St Joseph’s.

The church already built, Father Hamelin had dreams of building a large convent and in 1877 he wasted no time in drawing up an agreement between himself and the Mother Superior of the Community of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, based at Homerton, London, (and the approval of his Bishop) as follows:-

  • The community undertakes to teach the Catholic Elementary Schools at Aberdare, Mountain Ash and Hirwaun and to provide a sufficient number of certificated and other teachers for the requirement of the Elementary Education act and to provide all requirements necessary to obtain the annual Government Capitation grant, which grant as well as school-pence (such fees?, as were collected from the children) and all other resources of School account revenue should be the property of the Mission (i.e. the Church).
  • The Community undertakes to provide at least two English speaking sisters, who, as well as assisting in the Schools, should also, as far as possible, visit the poor and sick at their homes in the three Districts mentioned. The number of sisters must not be more than three, but may be increased in the future according to the wants of the Mission, as may be agreed upon.
  • The Community undertake the Religious Instruction of the children and the Sisters will aid in all mission work. Also, if wanted, they will undertake all kinds of instructions, night-schools, industrial schools, etc., in connection with the Mission.
  • The Sister shall make no collection whatever amongst the people, Catholic or Protestant, for their own benefit, or without the approval of the Priest, and, if anything be offered them on account of their services:-
    1. It be money from the Catholics, there shall be an account of the same to the Priest and it shall be counted as part of their salary;
    2. If it be an offering in kind either from Catholics or Protestants, they shall give no account for it;
    3. If it be money from Protestant, they shall give no account for it.
  • All offerings received from benevolent friends shall be accounted for in the Book of the Community, if the money be for the poor or some good purpose.
  • The Sisters shall give their services gratis to the poor and sick whom they may be called to attend, Catholics or Protestants, but by no means will they be obliged  to attend:
  • Confined women until the end of their confinement;
  • Cases of syphilitic disease.
  • The Sisters are under the jurisdiction and authority of the Bishop, in spirituals and temporals, who will delegate to the incumbent of the Mission such authority.
  • The central and ordinary residence of the sisters shall be at Aberdare, but the sisters intended for Mountain Ash and Hirwaun shall reside at either of these places whenever their services are required there, namely for ; Mass, Catechisms and Benediction.
  • The Reverend Armand Hamelin, on his part, shall give to the Community of sisters, thirty three pounds per year, and for each Sister certificated or uncertificated, to be paid quarterly, with which they shall provide for their food and clothing.
  • He shall also provide for the sisters a suitable home with all the necessary furniture for the schools and for the house itself, not including what they require for their personal use, of which furniture an inventory shall be made from the beginning, to which shall be added all new furniture that may come in to the house. This furniture shall remain the property of the Mission, which undertakes to renew and repair it, when necessary. The Sisters, however, shall be bound to take all due care of the furniture and fixings of the house or houses and if there be any destruction of loss through negligence, the Sisters shall be responsible.
  • The Mission shall also pay the Poor Rates and taxes charged upon the Sisters’ House and supply them with gas, fuel and water both for their own use and for the schools.
  • The Mission will repay the sisters the money they spend for their journeys to Mountain Ash and Hirwaun but when they have a house built of their own at those places, the Sisters will have no claim for journey expenses.
  • If any Sister shall fall sick, she shall be cared for on the expense of the Mission and, if any be infirm or unable to do her work she shall continue living in the house, provided she was at least 10 years at the Mission and was not over forty-five years old when she came first. In this case, another sister shall be sent to do the work and shall receive the salary instead of the infirm, who shall receive nothing.
  • If it should come to pass that any Sister should die, she shall be buried in the Catholic Cemetery at Aberdare on the expense of the Mission, and the priest shall say three masses for the repose of her soul.
  • The Reverend Armand Hamelin shall repay the journey expenses from London (second class) for each Sister newly come or changed on his demand. But, of any Sister be removed by will of the Reverend Mother, the journey expenses shall be on her own charge.
  • The present agreement shall terminate with six months’ notice on either side. The journey expenses back to London shall be charged to the party who gives notice, and in the case of dissolution of the agreement, the Sisters shall deliver back to the Mission all their furniture, according to the last inventory.
  • If any difficulty arise between the parties as to the fulfilment of the present agreement, it shall be settled by the Bishop in whose name the agreement is made.

At Aberdare on October 21st 1877
Armand Hamelin

J S Brown OSB
Bishop of Newport and Minevia
October 26th 1877.

Then in May 1878, he lost no time in applying to the Aberdare Education Committee for a grant towards the provision of a large room 75ft x 30ft (the building was as yet still under construction) when sufficient sums had been secured. This application was passed to the Aberdare School Board seeking their observations.

The Clerk of the Board in reply, informed the Education Department that:

“The Roman Catholic Schools were not in a complete state; there was no provision for th separate sexes; no closets; and there was in any case, ample school accommodation for the needs of all children in the district. It would be advisable for an Inspector to visit the school in person.”

Stubbornly Father Hamelin persisted and in December 1878, the Education Department recommended to the Aberdare School Board that a grant be made annually to the Roman Catholic School.

The School Board directed its clerk to reply and continue to protest against such a grant being made because as previously observed “there was already ample school accommodation in the district” and the Board would not take any steps to compel any children to attend the Catholic School.

But in spite of their hostile attitude, the grant was approved and Father Hamelin had won his case.

So, in December 1878, the pupils of the Catholic School, who until then had been taught in the church in Monk Street, were directed to the present building in Elizabeth Street, the school being fully recognised by the Education Department.

The three story building known now as the Old School, was built in red brick, having Gothic style arched windows and doors, an impressive sight towering over the small cottages around, and the foundry below Nant Row. There were gardens, green grass in the present bottom yard, fruit trees and shrubs.

The first step in Father Hamelin’s marathon plan had been taken; the school had been built within the surrounding walls. It now remained to proceed with the building of the convent.

Added to this, as he was in sole charge of the three districts, he had plans to build Catholic chapels at Hirwaun and Mountain Ash, with the educational and spiritual needs of his ever-increasing flock being met by these worthy sisters.

As yet, however, in 1878 the sisters had not arrived, and the first headmistress of this new school was a Miss Kiley. She was succeeded in 1880 by a Mrs Benton who seemed to have left in the same year. Then a Miss Barry took over the headship.

Still in 1880, Father Hamelin must have been very pleased to welcome the nursing sisters from Homerton, London, who had come to run the new Bute Hospital, but he was still without his teaching nuns whom he had planned to receive form the same order (The Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary).

1882 was a sad year for poor Father Hamelin. Having taken of far too much he completely overstretched himself physically and financially. His convent was never to be. Entirely without money and deeply in debt, living in a bare Presbytery and having reached his crisis point, he was moved on by his superiors.

In five years, however, this tireless man had left us his wonderful legacy, the foundation of the school. He could leave with honour in that respect, despite his financial shortcomings.

He was replaced by Father James O’Reilly, who took over the parish in 1882, a young priest of 26 who proved to be a charismatic character, in hindsight, an obvious miracle worker. He remained in Aberdare for 28 years, during which time he was able to raise money and clear the debts.

A Miss Crowley became next headmistress in 1882 and remained until 1885, when at long last the teaching nuns arrived from London to join their nursing sisters.

The school was placed in the very capable hands of Sister Gonzaga, who remained there for over 25 years doing wonderful work. A plaque in her honour is in place in the Sacred Heart Altar of the Church.

Eventually the school, erected by Father Hamelin was found unsuitable by HM Inspectors and in 1908, Father O’Reilly decided to build a new school utilising, for the purpose, the convent foundations laid by Father Hamelin. For this school he was fortunate enough to obtain free, the services of Mr G. Kenshole (architect and High Constable).

The new school adjoining the old was opened in 1911 by Bishop Hedley who remarked that the people would do well to make the most of their priest while they had him. Meaning of those words became manifest when in March 1911, Father Hamelin O’Reilly, after a district pastorate of nearly 30 years, was removed from the parish to become Bishop’s secretary and later Vicar General, Canon of the Chapter, and Domestic Prelate to His Holiness the Pope, thereby receiving his reward for a lifetime of hard work in Aberdare, and changing his title by which he had been known for so long locally, namely Father O’Reilly VG. He left Aberdare for Brecon aged 56 and died in 1927 aged 71.

11th January 1911, Aberdare Leader Report

“The new Roman Catholic Schools at Aberdare were opened on Wednesday. The opening ceremony was performed by Bishop Hedley of Newport, with a gold key, the gift of the builders. Also present were the Reverend Father O’Reilly, parish priest, headmistress Sister Gonzaga, and other Reverend gentlemen. Also Mr Kenshole, High Constable, Mr J.W. Hurst, Frank Williams, William Eschle, T Roderick, Mrs Davies (Aberdare Education Committee); Councillors W. Thomas, T. Walter Williams and T. Lewis, J.P.

Bishop Hedley congratulated Father O’Reilly on his success, which must have cost him much anxiety and labour. He was glad to announce that the building was now free from debt. He wished to congratulate the Catholic Community in Aberdare on the Catholic spirit they were showing and complimented the architect and contractors on the excellent building erected.

The High Constable proposed a vote of thanks to Bishop Hedley and remarked that Father O’Reilly was a strenuous worker not only in his own flock, but in the Poor Law (where he had been elected onto the board) and other circles. The High Constable believed that eventually all sectarian differences would be wiped away.

Councillor W. Thomas seconded the vote of thanks and said that the Education Committee were prepared to all they could to further the interests of St Margaret’s. He was pleased to observe the bond of sympathy between Sister Gonzaga and her pupils.

Father O’ Reilly wished specifically to thank his own people and others for their generous aid towards erecting the school.

The new school is a pretty building erected by Messrs. John Morgan & Sons Ltd. (Building Yard in Pendarren Street, behind the Church) at a cost of £1.700, Mr G Kenshole was the architect.”

At this period, industry in the Valley was at his height and money more readily available.

Sister Gonzaga and Father O’Reilly must have been proud indeed to witness the opening of the new school. There were three large, high class rooms, light and airy, leading off a corridor, each classroom separated by folding wooden and glass partitions. The large hall, which could be made from these class rooms, was extensively used by school and parish in the years to come, with parties, dances and whist drives in the 1930’s and by the Youth Club in the 1940’s.

In 1915, Sister Gonzaga retired to her convent and died there at Chigwell on 2nd June 1922. Her family name was Margaret Cleary.

That same year a Miss Donoghue became head and apparently (from first-hand information from an ex-pupil’s memories) began a reign of terror! She appears to have a real martinet, who used the cane mercilessly and was at one time taken to Court.

In 1913, Miss Isabella Dickson took up post as an Infant teacher at the school under Sister Gonzaga. She remained at the school for 25 years. Much respected and loved, she was a wonderfully efficient Infants teacher. I was very privileged to have been taught my first lessons by this lady during the last 3 years of her career. She never became head but was under the headship of, firstly Sister Gonzaga, then Miss Donoghue, then Miss Casey in 1921.

Miss Casey, a tiny lady always in black, was, although very strict, an excellent head. In the last year is so the staff, however, suffered badly as she was undergoing a mental breakdown and in 1937 she retired. Miss Dickinson held the fort until January 1938 when Mr Tom Hogan from Cardiff was appointed head.

An excellent organiser, Mr Hogan’s main task lay in making suitable arrangements for the hundreds of evacuees from Birmingham, Cardiff and London, who were flooding in and out during the war from 1939-1945. The top storeys of the school, which had only been used for  parish social purposes, when then put into use as classrooms and continued to do so until the present time, in spite of having been deemed unsuitable in 1910!

His was a mammoth task carried out most efficiently. He found time, however, to marry one of his staff, one of our most popular teachers, Miss Norah Duffy, and in 1948 they left with their family to Brighton.

The next head was Mr Martin Mansfield, staying until 1956 when a Mr Tom Riley came, remaining at his post for 23 happy and successful years.

Mr Riley was to witness the school’s ceasing to be an all-age school (Infants to Seniors) when Bishop Hedley High School was opened in Merthyr in 1967 and our ’11-plus’ pupils were given the benefit of a Comprehensive School Education.

During Mr Riley’s headship he was ably assisted for 20 years by Mr Jack Foley as deputy head, a very popular teacher and colleague, he encouraged the winning of many cups in the Valley Football Competitions over the years. He retired eventually owing to ill-health and died in 1995. He will always be happily remembered as “a great character” and is still sadly missed.

Mrs K Reddy followed as the next head and, in turn, was followed by Mr Allan Cowhig.

The present head, Mrs Mary Lloyd will have the happy and significant task of leading the pupils to their long awaited and deserved new St Margaret’s School at Ty-Fry in June 1997.

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