I recall as a boy visiting my grandfather’s house in New Inn, Pontypool and being enchanted by a painting prominently displayed above the fireplace. The image was of a racing pigeon, handwritten on the canvass were the words 'QUARRY QUEEN’, 1st Ripon, Pontypool Club, 1954. Bred and Raced by Mr J Hughes. The image has resonated throughout the years and today remains in my possession – treasured, a constant reminder, exhibited prominently on my living room wall. So what makes this painting so important to me personally? Well he was my Grandfather and I cannot ignore the sentiment involved, but hidden in the paint of this picture is a message that remains to this day.
Around 1910 John Hughes came with his father, brothers and sister from the Shropshire hills to South Wales, to the eastern valley in search of a new life. It had been a difficult time; his mother had died at the age of 37, devastated by the loss, father moved the remaining family, walking over 100 miles to Pontypool to make a fresh start. Through family contacts they found a place to stay, unfortunately there wasn’t enough room for the boy in his father’s house, consequently John age 12yrs was farmed-out to a distant cousin, a person he'd never met, to work the land. Displaced, living in a household through obligation not choice, a family who were poor with little food to feed an additional mouth, John felt unwanted and so took to the hills to trap rabbits to allay hunger. Not wanting to return home he'd wander alone on the mountain, in winter ‘pissing’ on his hands to stay warm and outside. Pontypool in those days was an ugly, vibrant, dangerous place, a heavy industrial landscape where coal mines and steelworks dominated the valley and its people. John was between 13 and 14 when he started his first real job in the mines, taking care of the pit ponies. At the age of 15, John went to work at Tirpentwys Colliery where he spent the majority of his working life digging for coal with a pick and shovel, deep underground in an anthracite coal seam, barely a foot deep. After the shift ended, the lift would bring the miners to the surface - then they would see daylight. There were no pit head baths so John went home black from the coal dust to wash in old tin bath. Mining remained his life until he retired through ill health – coal dust choked his lungs and ultimately black lung disease took his life.
Throughout childhood I spent a great deal of time listening to my grandfather’s stories. He remains a larger than life character, a hero to the present, and his thoughts and ideals echo through me to this day. I particularly recall running my fingers over his near bald head and feeling a prominent ridge that ran front to back and east to west on his skull. During an explosion in the mine the coal had fallen in and cracked his head like a walnut – they took him home from the mine and laid him out on the kitchen table to die!
The keeping of racing pigeons was a popular hobby among coal miners. John had a loft in the back garden and from here he would rear young birds to race. Pigeon racing is a sport in which specially bred and trained pigeons are released from specific locations. They then race back to their home lofts. As a member of the local pigeon fanciers club John would spend many non-working hours talking birds with other pigeon fancying friends. Quarry Queen remained his special bird – to him she was the stuff of legend – so much so – a commemorative picture was commissioned as a prize by the artist T.H Edwards. I have since discovered via a BBC documentary that racing pigeon painters is an art form in itself
John Hughes never ventured far; Cardiff remained an exotic distant location. Holidays were a trip on a steamboat on the lake in Roath-Park. Gloucester, through the Forest of Dean appeared like a journey into Outer Space. Never in his lifetime did he go abroad – everywhere outside of the valley appeared foreign.
What John lacked in miles above ground, he made up for in his imagination. Quarry Queen would be his eyes on the world, fly the depth and breadth of the land, what she saw, he said, she relayed back to her master. This mythical bird gave to my grandfather an enormous amount of pleasure. I suppose to him Quarry Queen represented a life elsewhere, a world away from the grim reality of life underground. Quarry Queen represented freedom – perhaps a yearning for what might have been.
|QUARRY QUEEN (1st) Bred and Raced by Mr J Hughes|