The history behind the pavilions

The Pavilion has been the focal point of the Eisteddfod Maes for over 150 years.

At the end of 2015 the Eisteddfod announced that a brand new pavilion would be on the Maes from 2016 onwards, taking the place of the iconic Pink Pavilion.  This attracted much coverage in the press and media, and is an opportunity for us to take a look at the history of the early pavilions.

By now, the Pavilion is an iconic symbol of the National Eisteddfod and is now seen as an integral part of the Maes and Welsh culture. In 1861, at the time of the first Eisteddfod in its current form, the Pavilion – or teyrnbabell as it was called during the period - suffered an unfortunate fate, as reported in the North Wales Chronicle, dated 24 August that year:

“ A spacious marquee with seats to contain 6000 people had been specially created for the occasion on Hirwaun Common, near the town, at an expense of several hundreds of pounds. But on Sunday last, during the prevalence of a strong westerly gale, the noble structure , with the proofing and supports, was completely destroyed, and the whole expensive decorations exposed to the merciless storm, which was at its height about one o’ clock the same day. The scene of the debris was most discouraging to those who had bestowed so much attention upon the building, and their hopes for a time entirely disappeared. However, the patriotic spirit of the promoters was not in the least daunted and theu at once employed a large force to convey the materials to the Market Hall, where it was decided the meeting should take place.”

And Eisteddfod pavilions enjoyed considerable coverage over the following years, with detailed and interesting descriptions of these unusual buildings which would be different every year . Sometimes the Eisteddfod would be held in a tent-like building and then during other years it would be held in wooden structures of varying shapes and sizes. The design of the Pavilion was in the hands of the local committee who also organised the Eisteddfod itself.

In 1868, the North Wales Chronicle described the Pavilion at Ruthin, noting, “The Pavilion was a very substantial structure, and admirably adapted for the purpose for which it was intended. In form it was not unlike a church, with a broad lofty nave, and aisles on each side, a large platform and raised seats behind for the choir occupying the east end. It was 156 feet long by 110 feet wide, and capable of comfortably accommodating an assemblage of 5000. So far as the builder, Mr Jones of Rhyl, is concerned, he deserves every credit for his share in the work. The decoration, however, was meagre. The timber rafters afforded a good opportunity for display, but beyond a few lines of evergreens, very little was attempted.”

1872’s Eisteddfod was held in Porthmadog, and there were some problems with the site of the Pavilion during the weeks before the event. These problems were caused by the Eisteddfod’s age-old enemy – the weather. The North Wales Chronicle states, “The first tent was raised in a somewhat exposed situation, and on a damp site; but a storm which took place about two weeks ago made it evident that its position was not the very best which could be chosen, and like men of business the committee decided to move it at once to its present position, though that change cost them something like £30. We highly congratulate them on their good sense, for the site previously fixed upon was one of the most objectionable that could have been chosen, its recommendation being that it was a compromise between the advocates respectively of Portmadoc and Tremadoc as the site of the eisteddfod.”

So it was impossible to escape from the elements even in the nineteenth century, and even today, organisers hope for good weather during the last few weeks of July, and during the first week of August of course.

The weather worried the Western Mail’s reporter on 3 September 1888, when looking forward to the Wrexham Eisteddfod. His report says, “In the evenings, the pavilion will be lighted with gas. The structure seems to be a substantial one, and likely to protect the audience if the weather should be unfavourable. I do not like to prophecy too positively on matters of that kind. I did so once – at Denbigh – and my prophecy was not verified for the rain came in and deluged, especially the reporters’ quarters. Better things are hoped for here, and it is whispered that as an extra precaution, an old gentleman who takes great interest in the proceedings has been praying for fine weather, but I cannot vouch for the truth of the assertion.”

The description of the Pavilion itself, written by ‘Our Special Reporter’ is particularly interesting and gives uis a clear idea of how the building would have looked that year, and it was very different to the Pavilion a few miles away at Ruthin twenty years before. “The pavilion in which the eisteddfod is to be held is a really magnificent structure erected in the Grove Park at a cost of about £600. It is of circular form with a semi-circular wooden roof over the platform and reserved seats. It is, I am informed, expected to hold between 7000 and 9000, and a very striking feature of the preliminaries is the fact that nearly the whole of the 700 reserved seats have already been booked.”

It is also worth quoting the ‘Our Special Reporter’s next paragraph, as it not only describes the interior of the Pavilion, but is also a wonderful example of the journalistic style of the period:

“ The pavilion is decorated with mottoes, and the ‘Cof am a fu’ tablets are fixed one on each side of the platform. To the left is ‘Adgof uwch Anghof’ – Beirdd Eisteddfod Gwrecsam 1876 (the bards of the Wrexham National Eisteddfod of 1876), ‘Ceiriog’, ‘Mynyddog’, Andreas o Fon’, Owen Gethin Jones, ‘Tegerin’, ‘Taliesin o Eifion’, ‘Ioan Pedr’, ‘Y Thesbiad’, ‘Y Gohebydd’ – a formidable list of bards and literati who were present at the last gathering in this town, but who have since passed through the valley of the shadows to the bourne whence no traveller returns.”

Bangor was home to the Eisteddfod in 1890, and Y Genedl Gymreig has a long report about the Pavilion in their edition on 27 August that year. The Eisteddfod had been held at Bangor in 1874, and the 1890 committee had followed the same design for the Pavilion, “nas gallasent wneuthur dim yn well na mabwysiadu yr hen gynlluniau a’u heangu.” (“as they could do no better than to adopt the old designs and develop them.”)

“Perthyn i’r adeilad y fath ragoriaethau fel nas gallwn roddi canmoliaeth ormodol iddo ef a’r adeiladydd poblogaidd, Mr Evan Williams, Garth, yr hwn sydd wedi gwneyd gwaith nas gellid ei deilyngach. Pan y dywedwn fod y babell yn 180 troedfedd o hyd a 160 o led, gwelir ei bod bron yn ysgwar. Amcangyfrifir fod ynddi le i 7500 o bersonau mewn oed neu 8000 o gynulleidfa gymysg eistedd yn gysurus. Y mae prif span y to yn 90 troedfedd o hyd, tra mae spans y ddwy ochr yn 35 troedfedd yr un. Amhosibl fyddai cael llwyfan ar well cynllun; a chredwn mai barn pawb a welant y modd gorphenedig mae y rhan hwn o’r adeilad wedi ei gario allan fydd mai gresyn fydd ei ddymchwelyd wedi yr elo yr Eisteddfod trosodd.”

(“The building was so excellent that one could not lavish enough praise on it and on the popular builder, Mr Evan Williams, Garth, whose work could not have been worthier. When we say that the building is 180 foot long and 160 foot wide, you see that it is almost a square. It is estimated that it holds 7500 adults or a mixed audience of up to 8000 comfortably. The main span of the roof is 90 feet long, whilst the two sides span for 35 foot each. It would have been impossible to have a better designed stage, and are sure that everyone who experiences the finished work on this part of the building agrees that it would be sad to see it demolished it once the Eisteddfod is over.”)

But the pavilion was demolished and the Eisteddfod’s tour around Wales continued, alternating between north and south Wales. The following Eisteddfod was held in Swansea, and the 1891 festival was a troubled event for a number of reasons. We will hear about one of the causes of the troubles – the miners – in another article, but the old enemy, the weather, was blamed for a number of the problems at that year’s Eisteddfod.

Y Genedl Gymreig, (26 August 1891) reports the unfortunate events:

“Yr oedd yr elfenau fel pe wedi ymgynghreirio ynghyd i gadw pobl draw o’r cyfarfodydd, ac i ddinystrio eu clydwch a’u cysur wedi iddynt dd’od. Yr oedd y gwynt a’r glaw megus wedi penderfynu gwneyd sport o’r babell. Fe ddichon nad oedd y babell lawn can gadarnhad ag y dylasai fod. Ond rywfodd, pan godir adeilad nad oes ond wythnos o bridles arno, fe geisir ei wneyd yn y modd rhataf. Yr un ydyw y natur ddynol yn Abertawe ac yn rhywle arall. Cydymdeimlwn o eigion calon â’r pwyllgor yn y brofedigaeth hon o’r eiddynt. Er eu mwyn hwy ac er mwyn yr Eisteddfod gofid nid bychan i ni oedd fod clerc y tywydd mor ddidostur. Torcalonus iawn oedd deall fod un foneddiges wedi syrthio yn aberth i gynddaredd yr elfenau.”

(“The elements were as though they were working together to keep people away from the meetings and to destroy their enjoyment when they’d arrived. The wind and the rain had decided to make fun of the building, and the building must have not been quite as strong as it should be. But somehow, a building which is only leased for a week’s use is put together as cheaply as possible. Human nature is the same in Swansea as it is anywhere else. We sympathise with the local committee from the bottom of our hearts in light of their bereavement. For their sake and for the sake of the Eisteddfod, we regret that the clerk of the weather was so merciless. It was heartbreaking to understand that one woman had fallen as a sacrifice to the madness of the elements.” )

In another report, Baner ac Amserau Cymru (26 August 1891) stated that:

“Chwerwder wermodaidd yw adgof ei diwrnod cyntaf; a sonir y rhawg am farwolaeth adfydus Mrs Matilda Williams, o Henffordd, pa bryd bynag y sonir am Eisteddfod Abertawe.”

(“It is with the bitterness of wormwood that we remember the first day; and for a long time people will talk of the miserable death of Mrs Matilda Williams of Haverfordwest, whenever he Swansea Eisteddfod is mentioned.” )

Other details are sketchy, but suffice to say that something went wrong with the Pavilion that year, and Mrs Matilda Williams lost her life during the week. Two years later and the Eisteddfod returned to south Wales, and to Pontypridd for the first time in the history of the modern Eisteddfod. The pavilion had a mixed reaction from Baner ac Amserau Cymru:

“Am y babell, yn mae genym air o ganmoliaeth, a gair o gondemniad hefyd, i’w ddywedyd ynglŷn â hi. Dyma y babell fwyaf a wnaed ar gyfer unrhyw Eisteddfod erioed. Nid ydyw Pafiliwn Caernarfon ond pitw bychanaidd o’r gyferbynu â chruglwyth anferth pabell Pont-y-pridd. Yr oedd ei gwneuthuriad yn gadarn. Daliai ddwfr hefyd; a da oedd hyny, pan y dechreuodd cerhyntoedd gwlaw ddisgyn arni. O bossibl, mai ei hanfantais fwyaf oedd ei mawredd. Gan ba feirniaid y mae cloch a fedrai gyrhaedd pen draw y fath adeilad? Ac i ba arweinydd erioed y rhoddwyd udgorn i beri clywed ei seiniau yn y fath eithafoedd? Nid ydyw hyd yn oed MABON ei hun yn ei feddu – na CHYNONFARDD chwaith , gyda’r holl lywodraeth ddihafal sydd ganddo ar ei lais. Ond y mae’n rhaid addef, ac y mae yn bleser genym wneyd hyny, fod hon yn babell ardderchog o ran gwneuthuriad a chyfleuderau, ac yn anrhydedd i’r pwyllgor, a’r eisteddfod. Ei mawredd, meddwn etto, oedd ei hanfantais.”

(“Regarding the building, we have a word of praise and also a word of condemnation. This is the largest pavilion created for any Eisteddfod. The Pavilion at Caernarfon is nothing more than a meagre small thing compared to the huge pile of pavilion in Pont-y-pridd. It was well made. It was also watertight; and this was a good thing when the the rain started pounding down. Its greatest weakness, possibly, was its size. Which adjudicator has a bell which could reach the back of such a building? And has any conductor ever been given trumpets which can be heard in such extremes? Not even MABON himself has this ability – or CYNONFARDD either, with the unrivalled control of his voice. But we must say, and it is a pleasure to do so, that this is a wonderfully made building, and is an honour to the committee and the Eisteddfod. Its size, we reiterate, was its weakness.” )

But we must close with the following paragraph, also from Baner ac Amserau Cymru:

“Yr ydym yn hyderus y bydd pwyllgorau adeiladu pebyll eisteddfodol y dyfodol yn wyliadwrus i wneyd un peth arall tyr anghofiodd pwyllgor Pont-y-pridd ei wneyd; sef gosod adran bendant yn eu cyttundeb yn gwahardd pob gweithio ar y Sabbath arnynt. Gan nad beth ydyw y syniad cyfandirol am sancteiddrwydd dydd Duw, ni ddieddy Cymru mo hono, beth bynag; ac os goddefir ef, y mae’n sicr o fod yn hoel yn arch yr hen sefydliad. Cymmered pwyllgor Llanelli afael yn yr awgrym hwn…”

(“We are confident that the Eisteddfod pavilion building committees of the future will be cautious to do something forgotten by the Pont-y-pridd committee, which was to place a clear section in their contract banning all work on the Sabbath. The Welsh will not put up with the foreign idea on the sanctity of God’s day, and if we do allow work on the Sabbath, it is sure to be the nail in the coffin of the old establishment. Let the committee at Llanelli take note of this suggestion.” )

So the pavilions of the nineteenth century were very different – some of them tents and others quite sturdy buildings, and the old enemy – the weather – caused problems regularly. The pavilion during this period would hold up to 8,000 or 9,000 people, and during the early years of the twentieth century, the Pavilion became even larger, to hold audiences of 12,000-15,000, who would flock to the Eisteddfod, especially during David Lloyd George’s tenure as Day President on the Thursday.