A lonely group of graves near Tredegar are a reminder of Gwent's death in the time of cholera. Mike Buckingham reports on one man's mission to save them.

ON lonely, rain-swept hillsides and in corners of fields and gardens they lay, Gwent's republic of the dead.

Those whose graves are known and marked are clustered together on the edge of Tredegar's main cemetery as if privy to some hideous and guilty secret.

"There are 203 bodies in the cholera cemetery but I doubt if they represent half those who died in the middle of the 19th century" Bryan Rendell says thoughtfully.

"Much social stigma was attached to the disease which may be part of the reason why they are at some distance from the main cemetery.

"The disease was infectious, and they wanted the bodies well out of the way. People were reluctant even to bury them.

"You can still feel the sense of taboo that once hung around this place."

Bryan Rendell's house in Bulwark near Chepstow has not the faintest trace of morbidity or taboo.

The 74-year-old writer and local historian's home is bustling with projects, the latest of which is to persuade the local Great and Good that something must be done to protect Tredegar cholera cemetery from literal delapidation.

"I was born near where the stones stand and spent my childhood wandering the hills round about" he says.

"I went to Tredegar Grammar and although I was interested in history together with woodwork and the sciences I have to admit not taking any particular interest in the cemetery.

"That was to come later in life.

"After national service in the RAF and qualifying as a teacher at Caerleon I got a job near Newtown at Brynllywarch - the Hill of the High Priest - the name of which was enough to spark off my historical interest."

Bryan Rendell became fascinated by the cluster of stones keeping their lonely vigil at Cefn Golau whilst teaching at Brynmawr.

"I had already written four local history books and became spellbound by them as a subject.

"Just to be where the stones are, particularly on a day of low, dark clouds is a moving and slightly un-nerving experience particularly when you think of the little children who died.

"Asian cholera which came in by the South Wales ports and made its way up the Valleys at a time of high immigration from Ireland and Spain when living conditions were particularly grim.

"To give you some idea how the disease ravaged the Valleys in 1839 - the year of the Chartist rising - there were 13 deaths from cholera in Newport as against 160 in Merthyr Tydfil.

"Ten years later this has risen to an annual death toll of 209 in Newport and 396 in Cardiff to 1,692 in Merthyr and 203 in Tredegar."

In the rush to put a roof over the heads of Welsh and immigrant workers neeeded for the furnaces and mines adequate drainage and sewerage were all but ignored.

"With often 20 or more people in a house and a disease that thrives on unhygienic conditions it was hardly suprising thet the Valleys succumbed" Mr Rendell, a widowed father of three daughters says.

"As a boy I remember a doss house on the corner of Iron Street and Bridge Street in Tredegar where there was only straw on the floor for the tramps.

"Imagine what conditions would have been like a century before that."

Cholera and typhoid hit the Gwent valleys in several waves between the late 1830s and mid-1860s.

"There are official figures but the true number of deaths may never be known.

"People were buried secretly on the mountainside and even in gardens.

"But the stones which mark the final resting place of 203 should have a special meaning for us and should be protected.

"There was once a decorative iron railing around the graves which I would like to see re-instated. Over 150 years they have been worn by sheep and cattle rubbing against them.

"I have been told that this might cost £15,000 which does not seem a lot to secure such an important site."

As a trained teacher himself, Mr Rendell intends to stress the educational aspects.

"The cholera cemetery is testament to a crucial time in our history bound up with the Chartists, the industrial revolution and the coming of the canals and railways.

"They are worthy of protection for this alone.

"I am hoping a local history body will involve itself or that the stones' plight will come to the attention of the relevant Blaenau Gwent council committee, or both.

"I do not think the stones themselves should be prettied up. That would destroy much of the mood and meaning."

On some stones the names can still be made out.

Other graves have collapsed, the stone with which they were lined against pollution of the earth by the corpses open to the skies.

Many - perhaps most - of those who died in the great epidemics of the 19th century will never be known by name.

But from the bleak and remote last resting-place 203 may, if we are diligent, remain to speak of Gwent's piteous and cruel time of the cholera.