Alexander Cordell was one of Wales’ most prolific writers who took his inspiration from the people and places of South Wales, and in particular the town of Blaenafon.
Cordell recognised earlier than many that the Blaenavon’s industrial legacy could be seen in the landscape. One of the world’s largest ever ironworks operated in what now seems just another small valley town. Yet Blaenavon used to be a town of international importance in the industrial revolution. Welsh coal was transported all over the world and Welsh iron was used for railways everywhere. And it was not only the produce of the earth which left Wales. Cordell’s later books show how Welsh men took their skills and knowledge of iron working and mining out of Wales all over the world.
Blaenavon is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and after Cordell’s death Torfaen County Borough Council saved from his writing room, his desk, typewriter and fragments of manuscripts. These items are now displayed at the Blaenafon Heritage & Cordell Museum in the Old Town Hall. Some of Cordell’s personal possessions are also on display, with information panels about the author’s life and writing. There is a collection of Cordell’s reference books and the front covers from all his books including foreign language versions of Rape of the Fair Country.Visit the town for a glimpse of Wales’ rich industrial heritage, and buy a Cordell book for a real insight into how people used to live.
The Blaenafon Heritage & Cordell Museum is run by volunteers from the Community Heritage Group. Newport Library also has some of his manuscripts. Appointments must be made before viewing (01633 842962)
Wales’ answer to historical drama-queen Catherine Cookson is Alexander Cordell – yet he wasn’t even Welsh. Cordell was born in Sri Lanka in 1914, as George Alexander Graber. Although his Grandmother was Welsh, his lifelong love affair with Wales and Welsh history happened only accidentally, when he was sent to Anglesey to recuperate during World War II. He moved with his wife to Abergavenny, and later to North Wales. Cordell granted fictional posterity to the South Wales valleys in his bestseller trilogy about the Mortymer family. Set in the industrial revolution, the stories show the struggle against poverty for normal working class families living with the pollution belched from the coal and iron works. The first book, Rape of the Fair Country begins the story in 1826 in Blaenavon and is followed by The Hosts of Rebecca about the Rebecca riots, set in rural Carmarthenshire. Song of the Earth in the Vale of Neath, Aberdare and Merthyr Tydfil concludes the saga. Yet there was more – in 1985 Cordell responded to fans by penning a prequel to the trilogy: This Proud and Savage Land.
Other Cordell books set in Wales are: The Fire People about Merthyr Tydfil’s 1831 uprising and Land of My Fathers also set in Merthyr. This Sweet & Bitter Earth is played out in the Rhondda and Aber Valleys and This Proud & Savage Land is in Carmarthenshire and Blaenavon. Maesteg and Swansea are the backdrop for Land of Heart’s Desire and Beloved Exile is back in Blaenavon and Carmarthenshire. Each of his books shows a different aspect of life in South Wales, from the industrial revolution to the turmoil of the early 20th Century.
Cordell became a writer from necessity. He said: “Every time Rosina needed a new coat, I would sit down and write a short story.” His wife would have plenty of coats when Rape of The Fair Country became an international success.
George Alexander Graber died walking near Llangollen’s horseshoe pass in 1997. He is buried in Abergavenny.
Today, there are leaflets detailing guided walks featuring prominent book locations. Tour one takes the walker around Blaenavon, Blaenau Gwent and Monmouthshire for the Rape of the Fair Country trail. The second Song of the Earth tour is in the Vale of Neath and Aberdare, with Rhondda and Caerphilly highlighting locations for This Sweet and Bitter Earth in trail three. Merthyr Tydfil is the subject of the last trail for The Fire People. From your holiday cottage in the Swansea valley you can tour some of the locations featured in Cordell’s books. We are only ten minutes drive from the Vale of Neath, and Merthyr Tydfil is a pleasant drive across the valleys.