Richard Walter Jenkins was destined to rise from his Welsh roots to world fame as the actor Richard Burton. But first he had to endure the hard-scrabble life of Pontrhydyfen, Wales.
The toddler lived only two years in the family home before his mother died and he was trundled off to live with his sister Cecilia and her husband. One of the new hiking trails commemorating Burton’s life wends through his birthplace village of Pontrhydyfen, while the other heads five miles south to Taibach on the sea.
Taibach is where you can really trace the development of a brilliant young man. Here’s his sister Cis’s house, there’s the Carnegie Library where he would plow through three books every couple of days.
With her new husband, Cis, 20 years Rich’s senior, was quick to take in the toddler when Edith Jenkins died—out of doctors’ “sheer neglect,” Burton wrote bitterly years later. They built a religious, English-speaking home where Rich would also practice his Welsh. He was grateful to Cis the rest of his life.
A cold, hard life in South Wales
But nothing was easy. “We are short of coal,” the teen wrote in 1940 during the most severe frost in 45 years. “Very cold.”
Decades later, shooting a film in Yugoslavia, Burton flashed back to Cis’ house. “I was back in my cold damp childhood without even the prospect of a fire to light, and leap and dance of burning anthracite. I shudder to be reminded of anything that happened to me before the age of about thirty and though I had a fantastically happy childhood I don’t want to be reminded of Caradoc Street…”
The working-class child did well in school and sports, skilled enough at rugby union to go pro if the war hadn’t interfered.
He spent every Sunday in chapel, the Noddfa on Station Road. He learned to play the organ and often sang and recited.
Later, however, the man seems to have left the boy behind. “I wish I could believe in a God of some kind,” he wrote in 1969, “but I simply cannot. My intelligence is too muscular and my imagination stops at the horizon.”
A hard-working kid headed to the movies
Yet he never abandoned his childhood work ethos. He delivered newspapers, then sold the old papers as fish-and-chips wrappers. He even dodged angry farmers on the hillsides above Taibach to gather manure and sell it as garden fertilizer.
He spent the money on clothes and cinema tickets. Could he have imagined as he watched Humphrey Bogart in “Oklahoma Kid” they would one day be friends? Or as he watched “Four Feathers” he would later work alongside Ralph Richardson?
A ravenous reader wearing a path to the Carnegie
And there was always time for the Carnegie Library on Station Street. “My ‘first love’ (God how many times have I read that?) is not the stage. It is a book with lovely words in it.” By 18, he estimated “I’d read and sometimes learned by heart half the world’s classics.”
Such a mind didn’t escape the teachers’ notice. After Rich completed Eastern Primary School, he passed the exam to go to Port Talbot Secondary School.
Rich records his first mention of Philip Burton, the mentor who would change his life, on Feb. 6, 1940: “Had a fine afternoon especially with Burton who talked about Astronomy.”
A mentor helps Burton find his voice—and name
English teacher Philip Burton was a well-educated man who had seen his plays published and his work dramatized on BBC radio.
He recognized Jenkins’ talent and cast him in a 1941 school production of George Bernard Shaw’s “The Apple Cart.” “[Burton] told me to modulate my voice a little more so I sounded like a gangster,” the teenager wrote, “not an American who has been educated.”
In March 1943, when a room opened up in Burton’s lodgings on Connaught Street, Taibach, Jenkins moved in. In December 1943, he became Burton’s ward and took his surname.
Burton introduced his protégé to theater contacts, and by the 1943-4 season, Richard Burton debuted in Liverpool and London. Soon he was playing Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon and London’s Old Vic.
He headed to Hollywood in 1952, and began the multi-dimensional career he became famous for: radio, TV, film and stage. He wrote throughout, sometimes book chapters or magazine articles and, on and off, his diaries.
In a 1970 entry, he confided a rare philosophical glimpse: “I love the world and shall be reluctant to leave it but if I take it seriously I shall go mad. I must regard it all as a vast cosmic joke.”
When you go
This is a DIY tour, best done by rental car or with a Swansea-based driver guide. Swansea’s easy to reach by direct rail service from London: BritRail.
For more information: Swansea and Wales.
Download the Birthplace Trail and the Childhood Trail.