Opened by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter in 1995, the Dylan Thomas Centre is now nearing its twentieth year as Tŷ Llên: home to all things literary and cultural for the city and county of Swansea.
As we are in the centenary year of Dylan Thomas’s birth, the Uplands area of Swansea, which is not more than a few miles from the maritime quarter’s ‘house of literature’, it is an opportune moment to look back at the history of the building that accommodates the only permanent exhibition dedicated to Wales’s premiere poet, Dylan Thomas, and simultaneously provides a platform for new and established writers.
While the centre has housed the exhibition ‘Dylan Thomas: Man and Myth’ for nearly twenty years, the building itself has a longer history, dating back to the 19th century.
Starting its life as the town’s Guildhall in 1829, the Old Guildhall (as it is known) looked quite different to today. Built by Thomas Bowen, between 1825-1829, from designs by architect John Collingwood, the building originally had sweeping grand staircases either side of the main entrance and the building housed court rooms and smaller offices.
Beautiful as the structure was, the doubling in size of the borough through the Municipal Corporations Act (1835) meant that the building could not function to the capacity needed. Thus the decision was made to enlarge the site in 1848, with the newer version of the Guildhall completed in 1852 by William Richards to plans by architect Thomas Taylor.
As well as a more spacious building, the façade was embellished and the courtyard to the front contained a statue of the MP and industrialist John Henry Vivian, as well as two Russian canons captured during the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War.
The building functioned as the Guildhall until 1934 when the decision was taken to build an entirely new civic centre (which includes the Brangwyn Hall) near Sandfields and St Helen’s cricket ground.
The Many Faces of the Dylan Thomas Centre
From its inception as the local town hall, through its long period as Swansea’s municipal Guildhall, to its role as Tŷ Llên, the grand Victorian building has had many roles and many different occupants.
In the late 1930s, after the re-location of Swansea’s administrative centre to its new location, the Old Guildhall became a place of education and training. Its first role was as a juvenile employment centre; briefly interrupted when the building was requisitioned by the army for recruitment purposes during the Second World War.
From 1949 to 1969 the building returned to its former role in education: one section of the Old Guildhall was occupied by the Youth Employment Bureau and another part of the building became Swansea Technical School. Later, the space would house the College of Further Education (1960-1971) and was finally the annexe to Dynevor School (1970-1982) until the building closed in 1982.
In the ten plus years that the building stood uninhabited, time and neglect meant that renovations and refurbishments were much needed to restore the graffiti-covered, derelict building which was, in its heyday, described as the grandest civic structure in town.
Today: Tŷ Llên – ‘House of Literature’
Re-opening its doors to the city of Swansea in 1995 as Tŷ Llên (‘the house of literature’), the centre was the major venue for the UK Year of Literature and was opened by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter – himself a fan of Dylan Thomas’s work.
Today the centre continues to operate as home to the literature and arts programme for the city, with a busy and thriving calendar of events. It also houses the only permanent exhibition on Dylan Thomas.
Over the years, the year round events programme and Festival have attracted famous names such as Carol Ann Duffy, Gillian Clarke, Sir George Martin, Alexei Sayle, Rowan Williams, Andrew Motion, Germaine Greer, Sarah Waters, Simon Armitage and Paul Durcan, to name a few, as well as some ‘home-grown’ Swansea talents.
Alongside the festivals, the centre has a yearly programme of events, houses the Young Writers’ Squad – a workshop for aspiring writers still at school – and is one of the venues which showcases Fluellen Theatre Company’s work.
The centre’s commitment to literature and arts education means that the centre’s literature officer often gives talks on Dylan Thomas’s work and life to local groups, schools, as well as visitors who visit the exhibition.
The Dylan Thomas Centre – Building Timeline
1825 – 1829 Work begins to build Swansea’s Guildhall in the Martime Quarter
1848 The Guildhall officially opens
1907 Building of a new Guildhall considered but not proceeded with
1914 Birth of Dylan Thomas
1919 Guildhall is the venue for victory marches by returning regiments
1928 Guildhall deemed too small. Decision taken to build a new one
1930-2 Construction of Juvenile Employment Centre as an annex
1934 Guildhall ceases to be the centre of local government in Swansea, but continues as Juvenile Employment Centre. The current Guildhall opens
1939 Old Guildhall commandeered for naval purposes
1939 Junior Instruction Centre for Boys
1948 Centenary of the Old Guildhall
1949 Old Guildhall houses the Secondary Technical School (Co-educational)
1953 Death of Dylan Thomas
1954 Technical School becomes a ‘boys only’ school
1947-1960 Secondary Technical School Youth Employment Bureau
1960 Boys’ Technical School Closed. Replaced by Technical College
1970 Technical College moves to Tycoch. Old Guildhall becomes an annexe for Dynevor Comprehensive
1960-1971 College of Further Education
1982 Dynevor annexe closes. Building is uninhabited
1993 Swansea is chosen to host the UK Year of Literature and Writing in 1995 and the building is refurbished
1995 Year of Literature – Tŷ Llên / The Dylan Thomas Centre opened by former US President Jimmy Carter. A year round programme of events continues beyond the Year of Literature and a permanent Dylan Thomas Exhibition is developed
1998 First Dylan Thomas Festival. It’s now an annual event, held between Dylan’s birthday, 27 October, and the date of his death, 9 November
2001 New Dylan Thomas Exhibition opens at the Centre. Visitors from all over the world come to Swansea: over 70 different countries are represented in the Visitor Books
2013 Year round programme of arts events continues. Those who have appeared at the Dylan Thomas Centre in recent years include Carol Ann Duffy, Sir George Martin, Rowan Williams, Alexei Sayle, Don Paterson, Gillian Clarke, Owen Sheers, Russell T Davies, Simon Armitage, Brian Turner and Cerys Matthews
2014 The Dylan Thomas Centre is the hub for the year’s Dylan Thomas Centenary Celebrations