Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Thomas Hopkins: Welsh miner and renaissance man

Thomas Hopkins was something of a renaissance man --- despite the fact his formal academic education ended when he observed his 9th birthday and went to work in the coal mines of his native Welsh valley village, Cwmbach, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Glamorganshire.

He was 22 upon arrival during 1881 in old Cleveland, Lucas County, Iowa, to work in the mines of the Whitebreast Coal & Mining Co., and remained a pillar of the Lucas community for nearly 70 years --- until his death in 1948 at the age of 89.

Music, both vocal and instrumental, was his passion, as it was for many of the Welsh miners and their families in Lucas County and elsewhere. These new Iowans sang their hearts out in choral settings that ranged from churches and local choirs to the Welsh choral festivals that were a mainstay in the south of Iowa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many, including Thomas, were instrumentalists, too.

Reading the obituary that follows, I was interested to see the reference to his three diplomas from the Tonic Sol-fa College, something he considered to be quite important. 

Tonic sol-fa was a system of teaching singing and sight reading based on a "movable-do" system that was developed about 1850 in England by John Curwen. Tonic sol-fa emphasizes the relation of the notes to one another and to the tonic, or key note (do in major scales, la in minor scales). If the key changes, do (or la) shifts to a new pitch.  A special notation using the initial letters of each syllable was  utilized, similar in many was to what we know as shape-note singing, developed in England and America during the 18th century.

Although Curwen's Tonic Sol-fa College had a physical headquarters in London (above) after 1879, it functioned primarily as a huge and very efficient correspondence enterprise facilitated in villages across what is now the UK (and later in America) by the choral singing scholars --- like Thomas --- who completed its coursework and earned diplomas.

Thomas and his wife, Hannah, had four children, three of whom died young. Their only surviving child, Gwen, married Lester J. Ryun, but they had no children. So Thomas left no descendants to tell his stories, but he did leave behind a well-crafted obituary that tells a good deal of his story, published in The Chariton Leader of Sept. 14, 1948:


Thomas Hopkins, son of William and Gwen (Lloyd) Hopkins, was born in Cwmbach, South Wales, June 3, 1859, and departed this life at his home in Lucas, Iowa, on August 26, 1948, at the age of 89 years, two months and 23 days. He was the second child in a family of eight children, his mother dying when he was 15 years old. Three brothers and two sisters preceded her in death.

His schooling ended during the third grade as he went to work in the mines when nine years of age. But his desire for education and music was great and he would walk two miles every evening after work to help a time keeper or for choir practice.

He was in the choir that was selected to sing at the King's palace but he was unable to be there. He received his 3rd diploma from the Tonic Sal Fa (actually Tonic Sol-fa) College in June, 1880.

In 1875 his father married Mary Jones and later he came to America, arriving here almost a year before sending for his family. On July 7, 1880, Thomas and his sisters, Hannah and Mary, and his step-mother arrived in New York. They located at Shawnee, Ohio, where his father had work. Thomas stayed with them for three months but, not satisfied with his work there, he went to live with his step-sister, Ellen Bucknell, in Coal Creek, Indiana.

On March 7, 1881, he father was killed in the mines and Thomas again obtained work in Shawnee to be with his step-mother and sisters. In the fall of that year he decided to go to Missouri. While en route he learned of the work in Lucas, Iowa, and decided to come to Lucas instead, which was in October 1881, and he lived in the home of John Watkins in Old Cleveland. He remained in Lucas the rest of his life excepting the winter of 1891, at which time he was in Seymour, Iowa.

In July of 1882, he was married to Hannah Stone. To this union four children were born, William, who lived one year, Gwen, with whom he lived, and Stella and Arthur, who died in infancy.

He united with the Baptist church when a boy in Wales, but after coming to Lucas he became a member of the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, being baptized by Elder H. Stebbens in 1893 and remained a faithful member to the last.

He was always interested in community work. He was a member of the 16-piece orchestra after coming to Lucas of which N. F. Baker Sr. is the only living survivor. He was the leader of the miners band which was organized in 1902 and a 10-piece orchestra organized in 1903.

He was elected secretary of the school board in 1918 and served in that office for thirty years. He was elected town clerk in 1924 and served two years. Then being elected councilman where he again served two years. In 1928 he was re-elected town clerk which office he held until retiring in March of this year.

His wife departed this life June 10, 1939, his daughter Gwen and husband (Lester J. Ryun) making their home with him from that time. His sister, Mary Rennie, passed away May 6, 1948, in Canton, Ill.

He was a kind and devoted father and leaves to mourn his daughter and son-in-law, one sister-in-law, Mrs. George Watkins, one brother-in-law, Wm. B. Farley, and several nieces and nephews who were very dear to him, besides the innumerable friends and associates.

Funeral service, under the direction of Downs funeral home, were held Monday, August 30, 1948, at the L.D.S. church in Lucas at 2:30 p.m., Elder John Blackstock officiating. Prayer by Rev. Archie Beals, of Russell.

A quartette of Albert and Irene Baker, Anna Woods and Raymond Miller, of Lucas, a duet by Mr. and Mrs. Nobby Wilkinson, of Albia and a duet by Mrs. Leona Blackstock and Mrs. Josie Bietel, of Chariton, were beautifully rendered in tribute to him for his love of music. He was laid to rest by the side of his beloved wife in the Fry Hill cemetery.

1 comment:

Martha Popson said...

My grandfather, Richard Samuel, came to Cleveland (East Cleveland) along with his father Rhys Samuel and the rest of the family. Very Welsh. They later went to Hiteman in Monroe County. We enjoy your articles. Thanks. Martha Popson Knoxville, Iowa