Tom Stephens 1856 – 1906

Tom Stephens
Tom Stephens was born in Brynamman on February 25th 1856 and sixteen months later the family moved to Aberdare. The Stephens family were not known for their musical prowess, yet Tom was a gifted scholar at Ysgol y Comin where schoolmaster Dan Isaac Davies recognised his immense potential. A gifted violinist, Tom read and studied avidly, while taking every opportunity to watch choirs perform at local eisteddfodau where he observed the methods of singing and conducting.
Caradog, the Trecynon blacksmith who later became landlord of the Treorchy Hotel, influenced his musical technique more than anyone else.

In fact it was Caradog who appointed him as one of the alto singers in Aberdare Choral Union when Tom was a boy working in the local colliery. After Caradog retired and Rhys Evans took up his mantle, Tom was his deputy and continued to develop his craft.

It was his musical prowess that led him to accept a position as precentor (or chorus-master) to Bethesda Chapel in Ton Pentre in 1877. At the same time Rhondda Glee Society was being formed by schoolmaster Rees Jones and James Thomas, originally of Llandysul. Together they approached Tom to become Conductor, recognising his musical accomplishment as the Conductor of the Aberdare Glee Society, Aberdare Temperance Bank and the Mid Rhondda Choral Union. He was also the deputy of the Sylvia Opera Company and trained the Santiago Choirs during the Cardiff Exhibition some years later.

For the next few years his training and mastery over the Rhondda Glee Society continued to bear fruit. In 1881 the Glee Society entered the male voice competition at Aberdare, beating the immortal Danny Davies and other capable musical leaders of his generation. Two years later in 1883 the year Treorky Male Choir was formed the performance of the victorious Rhondda Glee Society at the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff, led to a revolution in their particular style of singing, attracting thousands of spectators. At long last the male voice choir contest became the rage, with the largest prizes attracting larger crowds and competitors.
Treorchy Hotel
Treorchy Hotel (Picture Courtesy of RCTCBC)
Over the coming years the list of first-prizes for the Glee Society increased, with major wins at Aberdare, Merthyr, Porth, Pentre and Treharris. By 1887 the membership had increased to forty and that year they shared the first prize at the National Eisteddfod, held in London, with the Huddersfield Choir. Incredibly in 1889 the party toured the Welsh settlements of the United States of America for months on end, but according to reports returned “somewhat disorganised and a long period of readjustment took place until Stephens could pull them together again”. If truth be told, they returned virtually bankrupt and entered numerous competitions in an effort to recover their financial losses. It was a new golden era for them with 15 successive wins and only three defeats in the next two years.

The 1889 National Eisteddfod at Brecon marked the start of the bitter rivalry between the Rhondda Glee Society and Treorky Male Choir that occupied the Welsh music scene for a decade. During their next encounter the constabulary was called to the riot-like scene of bloody-faced choristers fighting in the streets. In an eisteddfod in Porth, adjudicated by Mr D.W. Lewis, the test piece was Dr Joseph Parry’s “The Pilgrims.” Treorchy was disappointed at not securing the services of Gwilym Thomas from Ynyshir, to perform a solo in this arrangement.

A few days before the competition Treorky’s William Thomas secured the services of famous Welsh operatic baritone David Thomas Ffrangcon Davies (1855-1918), but the welcome he received at the competition was anything but friendly. Recognising the professional singer on stage (which was unacceptable in an amateur competition), an uproar ensued with Tom Stephen’s men heckling throughout the performance. Mr Davies, raising his hand to the audience announced, “I see you object to a professional singing this solo. I am very sorry and did not know there would be an objection. But if the adjudicator awards me the prize for the solo performance, I will not take it. Let it go to the next best, if I happen to be best which I very much doubt.”  Eventually there was silence and the audience sat spellbound at his remarkable voice, breaking into rapturous applause and cheers when he concluded. The Treorky Male Choir did indeed win the first prize, causing heightened animosity amongst the rival male choirs.

At the 1891 Royal National Eisteddfod in Swansea the test pieces were “The Destruction of Gaza” by Laurent De Rille (with its remarkable eight-part harmony) and Dr Parry’s “The Pilgrims.” A total of twelve male choirs competed including the Port Talbot Male Party, Rhondda Glee Society, Pontycymmer Glee Party, Glantawe Glee Society, Cynon Glee Party, Myrddin Male Party, Treherbert Male Party, Treorky Male Society (as it was named!), Rhondda Fach Glee Society, Cynon Valley United Glee, Brynamman United Glee and Llanelli Philharmonic Party.

Treorky came a creditable second behind the Pontycymmer Male Choir who won “£30, a gold medal and books to the value of £5.” The following year they also lost the National Eisteddfod in Rhyl where none other than Dr Joseph Parry himself led the adjudication panel.

The year of 1893 marked Treorky’s most important musical competition to date and also marked yet another fierce encounter with the Rhondda Glee Society. During the previous four years they had competed against each other on 11 occasions with Treorky winning six times, the Glee Society twice and both choirs sharing the first prize three times.

On one occasion a competition was brought to an abrupt end when the Glee marched around the back of the marquee, pulled out the ground pegs and the roof collapsed on the Treorky singers!

The Pontypridd Royal National Eisteddfod of 1893 was one of the most heated events because the winning choir was to be invited to travel to America and compete in the Chicago World Fair. The male voice choir competition generated tremendous interest with the test pieces “The War House” and “The Tyrol”.  Five male voice choirs competed including Treorky and the Rhondda Glee, Porth & Cymmer, Caernarvon and Maesteg. The adjudicators were Caradog himself and the eminent English composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor. At one stage Treorky was a point ahead with their performance of “The War Horse”, but the Glee’s performance of “The Tyrol” clinched the first prize by two points. Apparently Tom Stephens had received first-hand information about the yodelling techniques of the Tyrolean mountains from a brewery traveller who visited his pub. This piece of realism was the turning point in the event and earned them the transatlantic ticket. They went on to win the Chicago World Fair eisteddfod against Choirs from Ireland, Italy and Holland, but on their return they never competed again, yet their absence from the eisteddfod field did not signal the end of the rivalry.

On White-Monday 1895 Treorky Male Choir enjoyed a memorable victory at the Caerphilly eisteddfod on the test piece “The Druids” by Dr Joseph Parry. The chief adjudicator, Dr Roland Rogers of Bangor, announced, “We could not find one single fault from beginning to end of the performance.” It was a remark that gave them the confidence to enter the Royal National Eisteddfod in Llanelli later that year.

Llanelli was a memorable National Eisteddfod. Treorky “showed such a unity of discipline, vocal riches and inspiration”, that three of the four judges, Sir Joseph Barnby, Dr Joseph Parry, David Jenkins and R.C. Jenkins independently had each written the word “Wonderful”, after Treorky’s performance.

Although retired from the competitive arena, the Rhondda Glee Society, with 54 eisteddfod choral prizes to their name, heightened the rivalry with Treorky still further. Treorky had long-since been favourites of the Dunraven family, who, following the Llanelli victory, contacted the Royal Household, suggesting Queen Victoria herself should hear the Welsh miners for herself. The royal seal was finally set when the news was received by the Queen’s Private Secretary, Lord Edward Clinton, “Mr Thomas, 70 Dumfries Street, Treorchy. The Queen has decided to hear Welsh Choir on Wednesday twenty seventh. Please communicate with me as to any arrangements you wish made.”

The news of the Royal Command Performance, which was to be held at Windsor Castle on November 29th 1895, resulted in remarkable newspaper coverage throughout the entire country. A circular was then issued throughout the Rhondda, reading: “Her Majesty the Queen has been pleased to allow the Choir to sing before her in Windsor Castle in the course of the next month and to give a selection of Welsh Airs to Welsh words. It is generally felt that the Choir, by its matchless singing and marvellous success, has conferred honour upon Wales.”

A major fundraising effort began with the Vicar of Ystradyfodwg appointed chair. An active working committee was elected with W.P. Thomas, the Secretary of the Ocean Coal Company, appointed secretary to the committee and E.H. Davies as treasurer. Weeks of fundraising and rehearsals dominated the Treorky Male Choir as they prepared for the royal concert. The rehearsal room was filled every night with visitors who came to hear the musical ambassadors before they embarked on their royal journey. Treorky Male Choir had achieved greater fame than any previous Welsh Choir of its kind.

William Thomas was regarded as a national hero. The invitation to sing before the Queen marked an important milestone not only in choral history, but in Welsh history. He was inundated with letters of congratulations, honorary titles, certificates and even poetry was written in celebration of his success. Tom Stephens and his men at the Rhondda Glee Society were furious. In fact, Tom went so far as to accuse the telegraphic office of sending the invitation to sing for the Queen to the wrong choir and that such a grave error had deprived his choir from of privilege. Tom went to the national press with the story, demanding the resignation of the Treorchy postmaster no less!

During their previous visit to Chicago in 1893, the Welsh exiles assembled at a massed concert and asked Tom Stephens and the Choir to convey to Prime Minister Mr Ewart Gladstone, an address of thanks for the part he took to meet the demands of the Welsh people to create a national university.

Rhondda MP William Abraham, (who coincidentally was the President of the Treorky Choir) introduced Tom Stephens to Mr Gladstone in a reception at the House of Commons, and the Liberal Prime Minister said his Choir should sing for the Queen and negotiations began. Sadly the Queen was at Cannes so the initial concert was postponed.

Rhondda Glee Society
Rhondda Glee Society 
Shortly afterwards Gladstone retired and during Lord Roseberry’s premiership Mabon reminded the Prime Minister of the promise, resulting in the Controller of the Household making arrangements. But once again these were scuppered with the death of the Duke of Clarence, the Prince of Battenberg and that of Sir Hugh Ponsonby. Major Walter Quinn took up the suggestion again and finally on January 25 th 1898 – more than two years since Treorky’s visit – an official letter came from Quinn inviting them to appear at Windsor. It was closely followed by a telegram from Sir Walter Parratt, the Queen’s Organist, directing them to appear in evening dress – and not “Sunday Best” as had been Treorky’s way.

While Treorky had taken Dr Joseph Parry as their guest of honour to Windsor, Tom Stephens invited his good friend Eos Dar, the famous Pennillion Singer and multiple-winner at the National Eisteddfod of Wales. Ironically enough, six members of the Glee Society had previously sang with Treorky and appeared with them before the Queen in 1895.

Mr D. Jones sat at the grand piano and Percie Smith was sat at the American organ. Punctually at 10pm the bells chimed and the doors opened into the hall. The Ladies and Gentlemen of the Household, with Lord Edward Clinton, Controller of the Household appearing to signal the Queen’s approach. They all rose to the majestic strains of the National Anthem. The Queen, bent over, walked slowly. Her right hand was resting on a stick, her left holding her Indian attendant. Dressed in black with a flowing white head dress, the Queen sat with her daughter, the Princess of Battenburg to her right, with a Lady in Waiting to her left. The Queen smiled as they performed “God Bless the Prince of Wales” in English and Welsh, which was followed by “The Little Church” (Beckker) and “Comrades in Arms” by Adolphe Adams.

The Western Mail journalist Morien, who had also accompanied Treorky on their Royal Command, observed, “Other items were sung without any special incident except that as the choristers proceeded they gained in confidence. There was a fine rendering of Annabelle Lee to the words of Edgar Allan Poe and music by Dr Joseph Parry.” According to reports the “The Pilgrims Chorus”, with soloist David Jones of Cilfynydd and “Huntsmen’s Chorus” was especially well received followed by “Day And Night”and “Men of Harlech” when “the choristers were at their very best”. Berleur’s “Hues of the Day” followed with a solo and chorus of “matchless beauty”. While “Y Tyrol gave them admirable opportunity to display versatility and musicality of the chorus and soloist Ambroise Thomas which proved to be one of the best of the evening.”

A t this point Tom Stephens was called upon. The Queen said, “Your choir sang magnificently.”
“I am delighted”, he responded, “That Your Majesty is pleased with their efforts.
“Are they all professionals?” she asked
“No Your Majesty. Three fourths of them are colliers. We have but one professional, Mr D Jones and even he, Your Majesty, has been brought up in the mines and worked underground until the last two or three years when he won a scholarship and entered the Academy.”
“You surprise me.”

Princess Battenburg said, “That singing is really most beautiful.”
Her Majesty added, “I’m sure you wouldn’t mind singing the Men of Harlech one more time?”
“With pleasure Your Majesty”, he replied.

The Choir launched into Gounod’s “Soldier’s Chorus”, “Italian Salad” and then “Men of Harlech” where the rafters resounded to “Cymru Fo Am Byth”. The choristers performed “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” next while the last item on the programme was Rhys Lewis’s Welsh version of “God Save The Queen” with solos and chorus. “The Cymric fire was there in beautiful blend with the rich and sonorous intonation for which welsh singers are known.”

Following the performance the Choir resumed their seats. Her Majesty “gave gracious inclinations of the head towards her Welsh subjects. She placed an item in the hands of Mr Mutcher, her German librarian and he gave it to Tom Stephens, saying, “Her Majesty has wished me on her behalf to ask your acceptance of this gift”. The item was a precious gold scarf pin, glittering with precious diamonds and rubies with the VRI crest in the centre.

Tom Stephens was asked to visit the Queen at her private apartments. Led by Lord Clinton, the conductor was approached by Her Majesty who said, “I should like you to write your name in my autograph birthday book. Now take your time. Take your time, there is no hurry.” Trembling he wrote “Tom Stephens, Windsor Castle, February 22nd 1898”

On the Choir’s arrival in the Rhondda they were again treated to a hero’s welcome, as had their rival singers. In Pentre the streets were decorated with streamers, flags and Japanese lanterns. The streets were “thronged with an immense crowd” carrying torches and lights. A procession was led by Tom Stephens in a trap accompanied by Mr E.H. Davies JP and Mr D Richards (grocer) who had been in charge of the local celebrations. The entourage was followed by the Cory and the Pentre Volunteer Brass Band while 200 people walked four abreast behind. The splendid spectacle led through the village to Treorchy where the “Choir was cheered vociferously as the procession wound its way to Treorchy, the home of the other male choir party who were accorded similar royal honours a few years ago”.

At Stag Square they turned back and reached Cory Workmen’s Hall where Tom Stephens appeared at a window on the second floor. With a muffler around his neck and suffering from a cold, he thanked them all “Diolch yn fawr iawn I chwi I gyd” before the crowd sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”. The Choir then sang “Men of Harlech”, “God Save the Queen” and “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” to the enthusiastic crowd.

Tom Stephens died eight years later and by which time the Rhondda Glee Society had disbanded. He was buried on January 29th 1906 in Aberdare where a choir of 500 voices were led under the direction of his old friend, Eos Dar. His obituary remembered him for the kindness and support of all musical organisations in which he became involved. As a competitor he had been very successful, had followed the careers of Caradog and Joseph Parry, and above all was a “great believer in Welsh music who always wanted to promote the music of his country.”

Tom Stephens “Touching scenes at the funeral” 3/10/1906

Aberdare claimed Tom Stephens at his birth, and Monday gave to him his grave. He lies now in the same peaceful God’s-acre as Telynog and Caradog, two musical geniuses who were equally famed in their day as the universally beloved Tom Stephens.

A dark, gloomy day befitted -the closing scenes in the life of one whose death in the hey-day of his manhood is mourned by the whole nation, and the sadness of the last farewell at the graveside was so painfully intense as to harmonise with the tragedy of a great life cut short. The thought of Tom Stephens in his grave is depressing, but it was the only thought that one carried away with him from the cemetery at Aberdare on Monday afternoon. A more melancholy procession of people than that which followed his body to the graveside on this dreary, dismal day has never been seen even at a Welsh funeral, and the marvel is that so many could have given expression to their feelings even in the mellow, plaintive music which gives each unique distinctiveness and character to the hymnology of Wales, and so marvellously reflects the temperament of her people.

And yet, paradoxical as it may seem, it was only this profundity of feeling that made it possible to give so much soul and such a weird, thrilling effect to the singing. It was very beautiful, but very sad. Poor Tom Stephens, with his infinite tenderness of heart, would have been the first to break down under its spell had he but heard it.

The plain oak coffin in which all that remained of the brilliant choir conductor was enclosed was carried from his home Derwen Deg (Fair-Oak), Llantwit Fardre, to Church Village Station by some of his old friends and neighbours, and Judge Gwilym Williams, who was a great friend and admirer of Tom Stephens, placed his private carriage at the convenience of the grief stricken family.

A short service was conducted at the home before the removal of the coffin by the Revs W. Lloyd and Thomas Richards and the venerable vicar of the parish, the Rev John Jenkins, who repeated a Collect, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Grace. On the way to the station the members of the united choir sang, in obedience to one of the last requests of the deceased the beautiful old Welsh Hymn.

“At Orsedd Gras
Mia af I ddweyd fy nghwyn;
Bydd im’, O Dduw
Yn Dad a Cheidwas mwyn;
O cadw fi
O rwydau gelyn cas,
Dan gysgod nawdd
Dy annherfynol ras.”
From Church Village Station the coffin was conveyed by special train to Aberdare, where many hundreds of mourners assembled together, with the members of the united choirs of the district. They were marshalled into professional order by Eos Dar and Mr G.B. Jones and a choir of 500 voices, the two lifelong friends of the departed. Eos Dar was assisted by Messrs. W. J. Evans, D. Jones and David Phillips, and the veteran Gwyn Alaw directed the singing.

The coffin was placed in a hearse covered with beautiful wreaths sent by members of the family, the Rhondda Glee Society (which the deceased had so often led to great and historic triumphs),the Rhondda Lodges of the R.A.O.B., the Caerphilly Male Voice Choir, Mt Llewellyn, Ty Draw, Trealaw; the Rhondda Brewery Company, and ap Caradog, Pontypridd.

The chief mourners were the Misses Bessie, Margaret, and Gwenllian Stephens (daughters), Mr Gwilym Stephens and Master Caradoc Stephens (sons), and Mrs Dan Rees (sister).

All along the route of the procession, from the railway station to the cemetery, the blinds were drawn every house and every shop window was shuttered. Aberdare was a town in mourning. The funeral procession was a mile or more in length, and the most prominent musicians in South Wales were present.

Singing to the tune of “Lausanne” the mournful Welsh hymn:

“Daeth yr awr im’ ddianc adre’
Draw I gyrhaedd pob rhyw gur,
Gwelaf dorf o’m hen gyfeillion,
Draw ar lan u Ganaan bur.”
The procession moved slowly on, and the singing of this hymn was succeeded by that of “Hapus Dyrfa” to the tune of “St Garmon”, “Diddanwch pen y daith” to “Crugybar,”  “Fy Nhad sydd wrth y llyw,” and “Cymundeb a Duw.”

Assembling at the graveside the scene was heartrending. Tom Stephens’s children were beside themselves as they looked through their tears at his body being lowered into the earth. The younger of the two boys, Caradog, and the little girl, Gwenllian could not be consoled. “Oh, dada, dada” was their cry, and it pierced every heart and moistened every eye. They were just old enough to realise their loss, and young enough to feel, as only children in the purity of their innocence can feel this one terrible grief of a lifetime, It was only with the greatest restraint that those in charge of the service could proceed with their sad duties.

The brass plate on the coffin bore the simple inscription, “Tom Stephens; died January 24th, 1906, aged 50.” The burial service of the R.A.O.B. of which the deceased was a loyal and prominent member, was read by the Rev Morgan Powell (Vicar of Aberaman), and while the prayer was being offered , R.A.O.B. members present, who wore white gloves and carried leaves of evergreen in their button-holes, formed a semi-circle, and with crossed arms clasped each other’s hands. To many this was a novel spectacle, and there was a touch if pathos in the act of throwing the evergreen leaves into the grave. And earnest address full of moving eloquence, was delivered by the Rev D. Silyn Evans, Siloa Chapel, Aberdare, and a brief affectionate appreciation was spoken by Mr Tom Price, the well-known musician of Merthyr, who claimed for Tom Stephens the right to be ranked as one of the geniuses of Wales. The Rev J. Griffiths (Aberdare) having prayed fervently for the Divine consolation for the bereaved orphans, the service closed with the singing of the Welsh version of “Lead kindly Light” to the tune of Sandon.

Then followed the most painful scene of all. The two youngest children, crying loudly on the brink of the grave, would not come away, Their young souls were in anguish, and people hurried away beyond hearing distance of the piteous cries of “Dada, dada!” finally both had to be carried into the mourning-coach and driven away with their brother and sisters, who unfortunately have been left un-provided for. But surely, they will not want? Not the children of Tom Stephens.

The grave of Tom Stephens is not marked with any stone. The grave is front of the red granite slab at Aberdare cemetery
The grave of Tom Stephens is not marked with any stone. The grave is front of the red granite slab at Aberdare cemetery