The era of Penny Readings had its birth in Fochriw at the National School in December 1866 when the first of a series of such meetings was held fortnightly on a Monday presided over by the Reverend D. Davies. Penny Readings had developed in the area through the efforts of Canon William Evans, the very popular incumbent of St David's Church, Rhymney, whose enthusiasm and foresight were to lead to the triangle of Rhymney, Fochriw and Pontlottyn.
In their original form Penny Readings were meant to attract people away from the evils of the public houses by introducing them to an alternative form of entertainment which, it was hoped would whet their appetites and draw them to a chapel environment.
Held in public houses, earlier readings were often comical affairs with a competitive go-as-you-please atmosphere and very often developing into farcical proportions. Emphasis was later placed on culture, poetry, musical presentation and hymn singing and this was to lead to centres of cultural arts and learning being established away from the public house atmosphere.
By the latter half of the 1800's Penny Readings had become synonymous with the Eisteddfod Fach, the small eisteddfod, competitive and with an educational content that continued to enhance the outlook of its followers.
Penny Readings in Fochriw were strictly conducted in the Welsh language for many years after other villages had begun to include English additions to their agenda. So widespread had the readings become in the neighbourhood that it became possible for people to attend one every evening of the week, if they so wished, by short visits to Rhymney, Pontlottyn and Fochriw.
Readings, in turn, provided schooling experience for those who were later to find fame in literary and musical fields.
Newspaper Reports on Penny Readings
“Merthyr Express” 9 December 1865
The Vochriw Our friends here have determined upon trying a course of Penny Readings, and without much a-do, inaugurated the series. They deserve to be successful, and we trust that the many celebrities here will occasionally lend them a helping hand. The proceedings were nearly entirely in Welsh. The attendance and success of the first “essay” was very encouraging.
Vochrhiw Penny Readings The first of a series of Penny Readings was held at the National School, on Thursday week. This proved a decided success. The Rev. T. L. Davies presided as chairman, and after a short and appropriate address, the Misses Edwards and Thomas, and Messrs. Thomas and Williams sang “Llwyn On” and “Ar hyd y nos,” followed by a reading in English, by the Rev. H. Lewis. Mr. W. Richards sang “Rhyn Mind,” after which the chairman read a Welsh dialogue, entitled “Morgan a Shan,” which kept the audience in convulsions of laughter. Mr. J. W. Thomas and party then sang “Gwenith Gwin,” which was highly appreciated by the audience; Mr. Jones followed with a reading “The Gypsy in the thorn bush.” Mr. J. W. Thomas, who was in capital voice, then sang “Ellen Bayne,” followed by Miss Thomas singing “O peidwch a dweid wrth fy nghariad,” and a duet by the Misses Edwards and Thomas, “Goddess Diana,” all of which were vociferously encored. Master D. Evans then recited “The little sweep,” followed by a duet by the Misses Edwards and Thomas, and a trio “Farmer’s girls,” by the Misses Edwards and Thomas and Mr. J. W. Thomas, which was loudly encored, the choruses being taken up by the audience. The National Anthem was then sung, and the