Visit six homes along a terrace and explore how their rooms, furniture and objects change from 1805 to 1985. If you enjoy the tour, come to St Fagans National Museum of History and visit the real thing.
Outside the Houses
This terrace is originally from Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales. It was built around 1795 by the ironmaster Richard Crawshay to house his ironworkers. By 1850 the iron boom was past its peak, and coal mining was beginning to replace it as the largest employer.
Most men on the terrace continued to be employed in the coal mines until the 1960s. In the 1970s unemployment rose and people moved out of the houses, leaving many empty. A flood in 1979 led to the last residents leaving.
It was moved to St Fagans National Museum of History and opened in 1987.
Houses through time
You can see the front of the cottages, separated from their gardens by a narrow yard known as a ‘bailey’. From left to right they are displayed as they may have looked in 1805, 1855, 1895, 1925, 1955 and 1985.
There were two terraces with a total of 29 houses at the original Rhyd-y-car site.
The gardens were narrow, but long and would be important to the people who lived here. They were used for growing a variety of vegetables and nearly every resident would have kept a pig. This was fed on any waste from the house and was an important source of meat for the family.
By 1895 the houses had toilets in the garden, shared with their next door neighbor. Before that the houses had no toilets. A tin bath is hanging on the side of the toilet wall. People would wash themselves in this bath in front of the fire inside the house.
The coal used for fires was kept in a coal shed in the front garden. The sheds were big enough to keep enough coal to last for a few weeks.
This cottage is furnished as the home of a young family who moved from west Wales to work in the iron ore mine. Iron workers were at the top of the working class. The houses had to be good enough to attract workers to serve in Crawshay’s company.
Each house contains a living room with a bedroom above.
At the back is a small pantry, where the cooking equipment and food were kept, and a bedroom. The houses were better than the farm cottages were used to living in. The lack of fresh air and no toilets would have been nothing new to them.
The hand-made oak furniture comes from west Wales. It would have been given to a young couple as wedding presents. The iron ore miners belonged to the upper working class, and could afford to buy luxury goods.
The fire was used for cooking, heating water and drying clothes. Food would be cooked in a pot above the fire. Most of the baking would have been done on the bakestone, the flat round piece of iron to the left of the fire. On the fireplace is an iron kettle for boiling water.
To get to the upstairs bedroom there is a steep circular staircase next to the fireplace. The small door is to a cupboard under the stairs. The upstairs bedroom was where the children slept. The parents slept in the small bedroom downstairs.
Wooden bowls and plates
In 1805 working class people used wooden bowls, plates and spoons to prepare and eat their food. These would have been brought with them from the country.
By 1855, housing in Merthyr was not good enough to cope with overcrowding. A lack of toilets and piped water let to outbreaks of cholera in 1849 and 1854. Six residents from Rhyd-y-car died in the outbreaks.
A newspaper article about Merthyr in 1849-51 commented how the streets were ‘in a state of disgusting filth’. To prevent further outbreaks a communal water pump was added to Rhyd-y-car. In 1855, this cottage was the home of Margaret Rosser, a 48-year-old widow, and her children.
Her husband William had been an ironstone miner, but her 19 year old son, John worked as a coal miner.
By 1855, people were beginning to use pewter plates and china jugs rather than wooden plates and bowls. Pewter is a type of metal.
China ornaments and paintings
Despite the poor state of Merthyr streets a lot of effort was made to keep the inside of houses clean and tidy. Residents used decorations such as china ornaments and paintings.
The fireplace now had a small oven, but the bakestone was still used for some types of baking. Meat was roasted by hanging it from a clockwork spit, in front of the fire. In 1851, a large communal oven was built at the end of each terrace and used for baking bread.
Christianity would have played a big part of most people’s lives. This china plate is decorated with a phrase from the Bible: ‘Thou God Seest Me’. Another plaque decorated with ‘God is love’ hangs above a door.
By 1895 the houses were out-dated and cramped. According to the 1891 Census 14 of the 29 houses had five or more occupants. This was the home of William Richards, originally from Pembrokeshire. His wife and daughter had been born in Merthyr. William was a railway signalman.
Railways were very important to the coal industry and Rhyd-y-car was now surrounded by railways. Coal mining was the main employer for the local men. William’s daughter had to go to school as law made it compulsory for children aged 5 - 11 years old.
Fireplace and Bed Warmer
The fireplace was used for cooking food, heating water, drying clothes and bathing in front of. Hanging to the left of the fireplace is a bed warmer. The metal pan would be filled with river stones heated by the fire and placed under the covers of a bed to warm it up.
Window and Oil Lamp
The houses had sliding sash windows so they could let fresh air in without having to open the door. In front of the window is an oil lamp which was now used to provide light. Candles were still used but oil lamps were safer and provided more light that could also be controlled.
Textile Furniture Coverings
The textiles in this house give it a cosy but cluttered appearance, typical of the Victorian period. The wooden bench and chairs have cushions. The table-legs are protected from knocks and scratches by the material covering them.
Mass-produced Wooden Furniture
Furniture became more affordable because of mass-production, such as this decorated sideboard. This would be sold at affordable prices in the local shops in Merthyr.
In 1925 the best furniture was placed on the side facing the door so it would be seen through the open door. This was known as the ‘best side’. This half of the room also has a lino flooring to cover the flag stones instead of rag mats.
In 1925, the walls in the main room were covered in wallpaper rather than painted. The fireplace was still used for cooking. The houses now had running water so they no longer had to go to the communal water pump to collect water.
Pigeon Racing Clock
This clock was used for timing racing pigeons. Pigeon racing was a popular hobby in 1925. A specially trained racing pigeon at a set distance from your home and timing how long it took them to return home.
Photography was invented in the 1800s but was expensive. By 1925 photography had become cheaper. Family photographs were common in working class houses and were used to decorate the walls.
First World War Memorial and medals
This framed photograph is a memorial to a soldier who died in the War. Above it are his war medals. Around 32,000 men from Wales died in the War. Families all over Wales would have had personal memorials like this to a lost relative.
This is a removable beam in the ceiling and floor boards in the room above. It was big enough to move large pieces of furniture upstairs, and to bring dead bodies down from the bedroom. Without the coffin drop this would not be possible as the staircase was narrow and steep.
The houses were condemned by the local authority in 1935 but families continued to live there until the late 1970s. By 1955 some improvements had been made such as retiling the roofs with slate tiles and adding an electricity supply.
The back of the house was now a kitchenette and child’s room and the main bedroom was upstairs. Most people still worked in the coal mines but the number of people working new factories nearby was increasing.
Black and white Television
TV was invented in the 1920s, but most homes didn’t have one until the 1950s. Many bought TVs to watch Queen Elizabeth ll’s coronation, televised in 1953. TV screens were black and white and a big magnifying glass was used in front of the small screen to make the image bigger.
It wasn’t common for houses to have electricity in Wales until after the Second World War. By 1955, houses had light bulbs which gave a brighter, longer lasting light. Unlike modern energy saving light bulbs these would get very hot.
The living room in the house was kept for special occasions such as family gatherings. It had the nicest furniture, such as the fully padded armchair.
Even though the fireplace dates from 1795 it is no longer used for cooking but to heat the house on cold days.
1955 Living Shed
Large living sheds were built in the gardens as the houses were very small. These were used during the daytime as a living and work room. It provided extra room to carry out house work such as food preparation, cooking and washing.
Behind the living shed is the toilet and an Anderson Air Raid Shelter. During the Second World War the iron Anderson shelters were put up in gardens throughout south Wales. Later, they were re-used as garden sheds.
Fireplace and Washing Boiler
This has an oven, and all the cooking would have taken place here. They would still wash in a tin bath in front of the fire. On top of the fire is a washing boiler which would have been used to boil dirty clothes. By 1955, the family also had a Hoover electric washing machine.
Washboard and washing tub
Washing by hand was still common and was not very different to how it would have been done 150 years earlier in the 1805 house. For poorer families without a washing machine it could take a whole day to wash the household’s clothes.
Radios were very popular even when people had a TV. At this time the BBC was the only station in the UK. However a pirate station called Radio Luxembourg was able to broadcast new music illegally. This station had a big influence on British teenage culture.
In 1979 the last residents left Rhyd-y-car. In the 1980s, most of the houses were demolished but these 6 were offered to St Fagans museum. In 1985 many people had lost their jobs in the area due to the closing of coal mines and local factories.
The house has been improved up to 1980s standards. Modern roof tiles replaced slate tiles, metal window frames replaced wooden ones, plastic rainwater pipes replaced metal ones, new doors have been fitted.
In 1985 this was a modern color TV. Most households only had one TV and the choice of 4 channels. Video tape players could be used to play videos on their TV. People could now watch the latest films in their house.
Fish and Chips
Fish and chips have been a classic British meal since the late 1800s. By the 1980s, eating in front of the TV was a popular alternative to eating an evening meal at the dining table.
This fireplace is typical of a 1980s house. It’s used to keep the house warm and the decorative surround gives a rustic feel. The china ornaments on the mantelpiece are a traditional form of decoration that dates from over 130 years earlier.
By 1985 the TV had become the focal point of the living room and chairs were arranged so the whole family could watch TV together.
The back of the house has been converted from a kitchenette and bedroom into a kitchen. It has been fitted out with modern electrical appliances you would expect to see in kitchens today.
These made cooking much quicker and easier than it had been in the previous decades. The dining table is in the kitchen, allowing more space for relaxing in the living room. The house has plumbing and hot water so there is no need to heat water on the fire.
As the house is still very small a bath has been added to the kitchen instead of adding a bathroom to the house. The bath has a wooden cover which can be used as a table when the bath is not in use. This would have made a nice change to washing in a tin bath in front of the fire
Microwave ovens use microwave radiation to heat up the food and were first invented in the late 1940s. The first ones were nearly 1.8m tall and very expensive. By the 1980s they were common in kitchens as they were affordable and much smaller.
Electric washing machines were first invented in the 1900s. Automatic washing machines, like this one, were not common in homes until the 1970s. It no longer took a day to hand-wash clothes.
They could now just be loaded into the machine and left to wash, saving a lot of time and effort.
Electric fridges for homes were first invented in 1914 but were very expensive. By the 1960s fridges were an essential part of the kitchen. They allowed fresh food such as dairy, meat and vegetables to be kept for much longer. People no longer had to go shopping every day.