Bert, Chapter 1
Updated: Jul 4
Minutes of the Baltimore Preacher’s Meeting re the Death of Bert Constance
“The news of the unexpected death of the Reverend Bert Constance came as a great shock to all of us. He had joined with his usual zest in the Christmas celebrations and, after the morning meal on Saturday, when seated in the living room of his home, he was suddenly stricken. He soon lost consciousness and, despite all that love and skill could do, passed on Tuesday morning into the presence of Him whose birthday he had just celebrated.”
I never knew my grandfather. He died in 1941, nine years before I was born. He was a beloved father to my dad and Dad’s one sister, my Aunt Jean, and his unsmiling image always adorned at least one wall of our home. Unlike Caesar, if there was any evil that he had ever committed, it certainly did not live after him. Not in our house at least. He was perfect in every way in my family’s memory. My mom was a bit more objective in the telling which I’ll cover later.
So, his identity has always been mysterious to me. What are the details of his life story? This son of Wales who came to the US by way of Canada and started our family in America is as important a link to our history as there is, but who was Bert Constance?
He was born on April 22, 1886, in Tredegar, Monmouthshire. Isolated in the upper Sirhowy Valley of South Wales, Tredegar is synonymous with the industrial revolution in Great Britain. First iron and then coal dominated its development. In 1797 Samuel Homfry and partners founded the Tredegar Iron and Coal Works. At the time of the founding, the town had a population of 1,132 but by 1881, Tredegar was a community of 34,685.
When Bert was born, Queen Victoria was on the throne and Gladstone was Prime Minister. John Phillips Jones, called “The Prince of Centres,” was born the same year in Pontypool and would go on to star for both the local club and the Welsh National Rugby team. Rugby was and is the national religion in Wales.
Bert’s father was Israel Constance, an Englishman who was a train driver for the London and North Western Railway (see Choo Choo Train blog post). His mother was Alice Ann Howells of Tredegar. He had two brothers, Ivor, and Haydn, and two sisters, Lena, and Elizabeth. (see Ich Dien blog post for Ivor’s story)
Speaking of mystery, an interesting side note about Elizabeth. Bert was the eldest child and Elizabeth was closest to him in age. She was born in 1891 when Bert was 5 years old. In 1912, Elizabeth married William John Williams and they had two daughters, Mary Gwyneth Williams, and Evelyn May Williams. Elizabeth died in 1915 when giving birth to Evelyn May. She was only 23 years old.
Not until I started doing genealogy did any current member of my Welsh family know that they had an Aunt Elizabeth. It is as though Elizabeth Ann Constance was either rejected or completely forgotten by the family. But why?
Her mother had died in 1911, one year before she was married. At the time of her death, her brother Bert had already emigrated to the US. Two years after her death the family was devastated by the death of brother Ivor in Flanders Fields.
Yes, Elizabeth had married into another family. Upon her death, her husband did remarry. But while Mary Gwyneth moved to England at some point in her life, Evelyn May lived her whole life in Tredegar, married William Price and died in 2000 at the age of 85. She grew up in proximity to her first cousins, probably even attended school with them. But neither her name nor her memory were recorded on the hearts of her family.
Her husband William John Williams grew up on the same “terrace” as my family, in fact right across the street. He worked on the railway according to the Census. Did he not get along with Elizabeth’s father, Israel? Did the families have a neighborhood falling out? We will probably never know, so the mystery of Elizabeth lives on.
A Young Coal Miner
In the Census of 1901, we learn two facts about my grandfather. First, the family called him “Bertie” to such a degree that is how he is named on the written register. If you were paying close attention to the motion picture, The King’s Speech, you learned that Prince Albert, son of Queen Victoria was always called "Bertie” by his family and by the British Press. Is this just a coincidence or was Bert’s boyhood nickname attributable to the Welsh imitating the name of the future King George VI? Alas, my grandfather was already tagged Bertie in the 1891 Census and Prince Albert of York wasn’t born until 1895.
Second, we learn that at 14 years of age Bert had already completed his formal secondary education and was working as a colliery laborer in (probably) the Bedwellty Colliery. The ominous parenthetical note attached to his occupation on the census is “(below)” meaning that he labored underground in the mine.
I speculate that this was the mine where he worked due to two facts. It would have been the closest and largest working mine to Tredegar in 1901 and was accessible by daily rail transportation. Bedwellty was owned by Tredegar Iron and Coal Works and was an infamous colliery in that it was the site of the explosion of 1865 that took the lives of 27 men and boys ranging in age from 58 to 12 years of age. Twenty more were severely injured meaning that 94% of the men working that day were impacted by the blast. Most of the casualties were from the Georgetown neighborhood of Tredegar. Twenty years later Georgetown would become home to the Constance family.
The Coal Mining Lectures
As an aside: my grandfather’s firsthand knowledge of coal mining would help supplement the family income years later during the Great Depression.
Prior to 1929 churches were increasing their charity work in America and their generosity had grown into an insurance policy for the social fabric. However, by 1933 church budgets were in drastic decline and religious institutions couldn’t sustain themselves let alone the poor. My dad said that in those years their family relied on clothing hand-me-downs from parishioners and a very basic diet to get by.
Reverend Bert Constance, armed with his knowledge of coal mining and a set of glass lantern slides, lectured at the exclusive gentlemen’s clubs of Baltimore in those years. Even in the depths of the Depression, the clubs survived and had enough cash flow to pay a preacher with a beautiful Welsh accent and an illustrated talk. We still have the slides and some of the fliers that Bert had printed to advertise his little show.
Faith of our Fathers
But what was the source of Bert Constance’s faith journey? What lead him to the pulpit?
Bert’s family belonged to the Harcourt Terrace Wesleyan Methodist Church and from an early age he attended “chapel” as the nonconformist places of worship were called to distinguish from the Established Church. This chapel was built in 1825 as an English language Wesleyan chapel for people coming in to work at the Tredegar Ironworks. Yes, English language. In 1825 Welsh was the dominant language in Tredegar as is still the case in some communities in west and north Wales.
The Welsh Revival
Bert’s dear friend Reverend William Lewis, the author of the Minutes that I quote to begin this blog, adds a very key fact that for the first time connects Bert’s conversion from follower to leader of the faith. It was the Welsh Revival. In his words again,
“The years 1904 and 1905 will never be forgotten by those who saw and felt the influence of the Welsh Revival. The Revival swept over our communities like a prairie fire. It was then that Bert Constance came to know Christ as his personal Savior; it was then he ‘saw the Lord,’ felt his touch, and heard his call to preach the Gospel.”
The 1904-1905 Welsh Revival was the largest Christian revival in Wales during the 20th century. It was one of the most dramatic in terms of its effect on the population, and swept the rest of Britain, Scandinavia, parts of Europe, North America, the mission fields of India and the Orient, Africa, and Latin America.
The Welsh Revival has been described not as an isolated religious movement, but as very much a part of Britain's modernization. It began in late 1904 under the leadership of Evan Roberts, a 26-year-old former collier and minister in training. The revival lasted less than a year, but in that time 100,000 people were converted in Wales.
Unlike earlier religious revivals based on powerful preaching, this revival relied primarily on music and on alleged supernatural phenomena exemplified by the visions of Evan Roberts.
As stated by one observer, “the revival is born along upon billowing waves of sacred song. It is to other revivals what the Italian opera is to the ordinary theater. It is the singing not the preaching that is the instrument which is most efficacious in striking the hearts of men.”
Another states, “three fourths of the meeting consists of singing. No one uses a hymn book. No one gives out a hymn. The last person to control the meeting in any way is Mr. Evan Roberts. People pray and sing, give testimony, and exhort as the spirit moves them.”
The singing part of the revival is so very Welsh.
A line from the 1941 Oscar-winning adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s novel How Green Was My Valley, a story about a Welsh mining community at the turn of the 20th century, reads: “Singing is in my people as sight is in the eye”. And this is true; the Welsh grow up singing in school, at parties, in church. They compete in the National Eisteddfod, the largest festival of competitive poetry and music in Europe established in 1861 but tracing its origins back to the Middle Ages. Eisteddfod literally means chair, which was the prize given to the best poet each year.
The Welsh sing like no other. An English visitor to the revival observed: “When these Welshmen sing, they sing the words like men who believe them. They abandoned themselves to their singing. We (the English) sing as though we thought it would not be respectable to be heard by the man next to us. No choir did I say? It was all choir and hymns. I stood and listened in wonder and amazement as the congregation on that night sang hymn after hymn, long hymns sung through without hymn books.”
I experienced this as a young man when I accompanied my dad to a Welsh service at Rehoboth Chapel in Delta, PA, just over the Maryland state line. After the service we stayed for an impromptu “sing song” as they called it. People just called out hymn numbers and the crowd joyfully united in song. If you’ve never experienced Welsh singing you must understand that it is rarely in unison...almost always in three- or four-part harmony.
My grandfather would have experienced the revival at work as well as at chapel. This prairie fire of faith went below ground as well as above. Miners carried their Bibles with them and sang the hymns as they walked to the pit and throughout the workday. As a direct consequence of the movement, pubs throughout Wales began to close for lack of business and it is said that the Yuletide of 1904 was the first true Christmas for many children of that generation. You see, father’s paycheck wasn’t going into the pub till, but was available for presents and a true Christmas feast.
My favorite consequence was the confusion of the pit ponies. These poor horses spent their lives underground, pulling coal carts and performing other tasks. They were driven and directed by loud blasphemous commands and physical abuse of the miners. It is said that the revival cleaned up the language and habits of the colliers to such a degree that the ponies were confused by the gentility of their reborn masters.
To be continued next week. College in England, across the ocean, The Titanic, Nova Scotia, Maryland ministry.