Who was Nancy Thomas? | Part 1
The Dylan Thomas Centre’s Katie Bowman begins a series of blogs about Dylan’s older sister, Nancy.
I have always enjoyed researching Dylan, discovering more about the man behind the poetry and reading about his relationships with family members, friends and colleagues. Some of my favorite anecdotes about Dylan have involved his older sister, Nancy, and this prompted me to want to look more closely at her life and character. This has proved something of a challenge as, naturally, much of the source material focuses upon Dylan and, as the regularity of their connection waned, so does the information on her. However, this only served to intrigue me further and, not to be deterred, I decided to collate the documentation available and try and discover as much as I could about Dylan’s only sibling.
Nancy Marles Thomas was born on the 2nd September 1906. At the time the family were living in rented accommodation in Cromwell Street, near to Swansea Grammar School. When Florence became pregnant with Dylan, they bought the newly built 5 Cwmdonkin Drive. Nancy was to occupy the middle bedroom. When Florence went in to labour, the same midwife who had helped deliver Nancy, Gillian Jones, helped deliver Dylan. At the time of Dylan’s birth Nancy was ill in bed with measles. In Dylan Remembered Volume One, Addie Elliot, the assisting midwife at Dylan’s birth, recalled how Nancy used to dote on Dylan when he was little, always willing to play games with him and described her as ‘the most charming child I ever met.’ Doris Fulleylove, a childhood friend, said Nancy would refer to him as ‘Baby’ when he was little. The earliest known surviving letter of Dylan’s was written in 1926 to Nancy, while she was staying in Blaen Cwm Cottages, Carmarthenshire. A copy of it is on display in our Dylan Thomas Exhibition; it is full of inside jokes, puns and word play.
However, there were indications from an early age that Dylan would perhaps be a trying little brother to have. While at Mrs Hole’s school in Mirador Cresent, Nancy performed in an excerpt from Macbeth, playing one of the three witches. Dylan allegedly planted a stink bomb in the cauldron, disrupting the performance. Gwevril Dawkins, who used to babysit Dylan with Nancy when the Thomases went out, recalled the five year old Dylan being ‘an absolute tartar, an appalling boy.’
After attending Mrs Hole’s school, Nancy went on to Swansea High School and there appear to be parallels between her academic life and Dylan’s. For example, she was said to have excelled at English but not been very inclined with other subjects. Her friend Eileen Llewellyn Jones attributed this to her lack of attendance – she was frequently absent due to coughs, colds and bronchitis. Florence had a very real fear that her children would contract tuberculosis. In his biography of Dylan Thomas, Andrew Lycett documents that in 1922-3 Nancy was off school for two terms having contracted a blood disorder which meant any cut she received could potentially turn septic.
Nancy loved acting and was regarded has having a talent for it. The elocution lessons she took from Gwen James certainly would have assisted her. Eileen Llewellyn Jones recalled Nancy having ‘a tremendous sense of humour’ and excelling at mimicry, apparently getting ‘into trouble for mimicking mistresses.’ She would act in the school plays and was a very active participant in the reading circle they held in the upper forms, where they would meet once a fortnight to read plays. She and her friends formed a reading circle of their own outside of school and would meet at each other’s houses on a Saturday night. After she left school in 1925 this group would continue. In Dylan Thomas the Actor, Heather Holt stipulates that Nancy considered a career in acting at one point. Her mother was concerned about her weak constitution, and medical opinion advised her against such a path. However, this did not stop her participating in a number of amateur productions.
In 1928 Dylan and Dan Jones decided to launch a journal called The Era. The end product was eight pages long, with Dylan and Dan as editors. Nancy is listed as one of the contributors, described therein as ‘well known in society and acting circles’. Nancy worked in a shop but certainly still had ambitions for her acting. The following year, 1929, was to provide her with opportunities that expanded her horizons in a number of ways, and this will be the subject of part two.
Katie Bowman, Dylan Thomas Centre
This post is also available in: Welsh