It started with a penny a week from each miners’ pay packet to fund £6,600 – and an institute with over a century of history was born.
In 1908 the miners of Newbridge built the institute which included a billiard hall and reading room, from which many of the workers learned to read, often while waiting for their chance on the billiard table.
Ten years later dreams of a greater project were realised as men returning from the First World War set in motion the construction of a cinema and art-deco ballroom that became the envy of The Valleys and a host to names such as Tom Jones and the Manic Street Preachers.
Howard Stone, Chair of Trustees at Newbridge Memo, explained: “When the men returned in 1918 they wanted to build a suitable memorial to the 75 boys who didn’t come back.
“Most memorials were a monument or room but they raised £10,000 for a project that started as plans for a gym and swimming pool but turned into a cinema and ballroom for the whole community, for the men who died and men who served.”
It served the community well from 1925 before it became symbolic of the decline of mining communities, with the cinema closing in 1972.
The closure of the two pits in Newbridge, Celynen North and South, seemed to also mark the end of the institute that had served as the strike headquarters for the miners in 1984.
Howard Stone, who has spearheaded the £5.6m regeneration of the institute and refurbishment of the memorial hall, said the group of miners who owned the building split in the years following as they searched for alternative jobs.
The building was taken over by a group of townspeople, resulting in its closure on 2003, with the threat of sale or demolition.
But action had to be taken to save the Grade II listed building, to reward the sacrifice from the miners’ pockets and ultimately protect a memorial to 75 local men who died on the battlefield.
Howard said: “We brought it to the attention of the MP at the time, Don Touhig, and a meeting was called which 300 people attended.
“I suggested we return it to its original use as part of the community on the condition it did not become a political project.”
Howard’s interest in the project is personal as well as communal.
The 74-year-old, born in Newbridge, worked as a colliery blacksmith for six years. His father mined Celynen South the year the Memo opened and later became chairman of its members’ group.
The fate of the building took another turn in 2004 when supporters were approached by the BBC, who had seen the building on the register of risk. This resulted in it coming runner-up in the broadcaster’s restoration series.
The community was deflated – a win would have seen the memorial restored to its former glory with great publicity and, more importantly, BBC money and architectural expertise.
Howard’s attitude was “we started the project without the BBC and we’ll go on without them” and he found inspiration from the Cwmaman Institute Renovation Project.
Funding was initially turned down by the local authority and Heritage Lottery Fund but Howard did not give up.
He said: “I invited the council over and as soon as they came into the building their attitude changed. From then on everyone realised it was a worthy project.
“We managed to persuade all the funding bodies and it’s now one of the most prestigious projects in Wales.”
The first stage of the project saw the opening of Newbridge Memo last summer which boasts a library, in debt to the original reading room, a function room, meeting rooms and will soon be the home of a Gwent Police hot-desk.
Community groups meet there regularly and the Memo hosts gigs, quiz nights and table top sales.
More prestigious visitors await the completion of the auditorium to its original art-deco glory.
The trustees are in talks with the National Theatre and National Opera Wales and there are rumours it could be opened by prince Charles, who visited the site in 2006.
There is still a lot of work to be done after large setbacks, such as when extremely wet weather caused damp problems this winter.
However, Howard hopes the building will be officially opened on September 26 with a showcase of local talent followed by the British Legion Poppy Concert on September 27.
The whole re-development is to be the subject of a heritage film, scripted by the town’s Keiron Self, and a memorial garden will hopefully be opened by Simon Weston.
The garden will feature a statue of a book naming those from Newbridge who died in World War One, alongside names of famous battles from the war on its spine.
Howard feels the Memo is returning to its original aim and said: “It is all for the benefit of future generations. We still need more volunteers to help with events, training to become technical volunteers and hopefully this will all lead to employment opportunities.”
• Newbridge Memo is looking for relations of miners who witnessed the 1876 Prince of Wales mining disaster at Abercarn Colliery. They want someone with historic links to the disaster to unveil a painting in the hall commemorating the tragedy.
The work was painted by local artist Ron Guy. For information contact Newbridge Memo on 01495 243252.