Born in Pontardawe on 24th May 1888, Howel Lewis Lewis attended school at nearby Cwtwrch and at Ystalyfera Grammar School. He played rugby for both those schools, turning out for Cwmllynfell on occasion also. A wiry youngster, he was nevertheless fast, agile and possessed of great determination, a handy virtue in valleys rugby.
It was from Ystalyfera RFC that Howel Lewis came to the Swansea club and joined the three-quarter line of the second fifteen under the watchful eye of skipper Fred Rees, a great full-back in his day for Swansea, Glamorganshire and later on, Neath. Lewis joined a Swansea second string that also contained future Swansea outside-half Sid Jerram and three-quarter Haydn Evans both of who would play with Lewis in the ‘firsts’. Howel made his Swansea debut when the ‘seconds’ beat District side Danygraig RFC by a goal to nil on 13th November 1909. After just one more outing that month, a nil all draw with Hendy, he was drafted into an injury struck first fifteen, ironically against his birth town of Pontardawe. This was the first time the two clubs had played a first class match and Howel had a nervous debut in a fiery match where the referee had to be escorted off the Pontardawe pitch at the final whistle. It was a relatively easy win for Swansea and Howel Lewis was now playing alongside the club’s Welsh international half-backs Dickie Owen and Dick Jones, the “dancing dicks”.
He must have impressed the Swansea selectors as he was thrown into the big time just a week later when powerful West Country side Devonport Albion came to St Helen’s (11th Dec.) They were beaten by a goal and five tries to NIL and Lewis, put into space by Owen and Jones could now show his pace and vision and “cutting through beautifully, he put Haydn Evans over for a try, as pretty as it was well worked for.” ‘Abertawe’, the Cambrian’s correspondent singled the new backs Haydn Evans and Lewis out for praise, Lewis “in particular-who is the latest addition. He picked up cleverly- especially considering the conditions prevailing- and his running and kicking were admirable. His display, indeed, was brim-full of promise.” Lewis never looked back.
He held his first team place during 1910-11 under the continuing captaincy of Billy Trew. Lewis showed well in wins over Bridgend and Llanelli, getting his first try for Swansea’s senior team at Bridgend and scoring two more when Swansea travelled to Pontypool and took their ground record. When Swansea went to Bristol in December Lewis was on the score sheet again as the “All whites” crushed the West Country side by 31 points to NIL, their biggest ever home defeat. The Swansea team were down to thirteen players at one point of the no holds barred encounter. But Lewis and his three-quarter partners Phil Hopkins, Frank Williams and Haydn Evans were everywhere and “ran like the athletes they are”. Haydn Evans ended as top try scorer (28).
1911-12 was not such a successful season, but with the retirement of some of the older players like Dick Jones and with Billy Trew and Dickie Owen getting older, Lewis was able to stay a regular in the first fifteen which was skippered by Owen in his last season. The diminutive scrum half had a last hurrah at St Helen’s when he captained Wales in his 35th and final cap at St Helen’s in the win against Scotland on 3rd February 1912. International honours would soon be coming Howel Lewis’ way too.
Following on from a lacklustre season with only 19 wins from 15 matches, Billy Trew took the reins again for 1912-13 in what would be a memorable season for both Swansea and Howel Lewis. Billy Trew answered the call to captain the team and get them back to winning games the “Swansea way”. With Swansea AFC in its inaugural season at the Vetch Field down the road, it was encouraging to see £100 taken in season tickets at St Helen’s in a single day, such was Trew’s standing. The season began with a thumping win over Aberavon by ten tries, the pick of which involved Alf Thomas combining with Howel Lewis in a move that “brought the house down”. Wins over Gloucester and Cardiff followed. Newport were beaten after they themselves had conquered the mighty South African tourists, claiming the Springbok Head as the first to do so. A rough game saw Swansea achieve the double over Cardiff despite having three players knocked cold, Billy Trew among them. But it had not been all plain sailing for Lewis whose early form led to calls for him to be dropped from the first fifteen. Billy Trew knew that Howel Lewis was a talent that would flourish if given the chance and he defended him vigorously in the Sporting News. His faith in the young wing was to prove justified.
By the time the South Africans came to St Helen’s on Boxing Day Swansea were still unbeaten having won 13, drawn 3 but lost none. In atrocious, boggy conditions, with lashing rain and St Helen’s a series of pools, the Springboks were beaten by a D. J. Thomas try to nil in a rough match where Billy Trew marshalled his forced like an orchestra conductor and Howel Lewis stood out for his brave tackling and paid for it with some rough treatment. He was punched in the face by a South African player and on facing him, was doubled up with a blow to the stomach and had to retire for some time, before returning to the defence of the narrow 3 nil lead which was held to the end.
Swansea’s rich vein of form was rewarded with seven players representing Wales, Lewis among them. Howel gained his first Welsh cap against Scotland at Inverleith on 1st February 1913 in the 8 – 0 win. Another new cap that day was Lewis’ Swansea team mate Rev. Alban Davies, playing in a Welsh pack that would become known as the “terrible Eight” for the ferocity of their play. Swansea’s Billy Trew was captain. Lewis held his place in the next international against France at Parc des Princes on 27th February where a hard fought 11 – 8 win was recorded against an improving French team. Lewis’ Swansea team mates Rev. Alban Davies and Tom Williams both scored tries in what was Billy Trew’s last ever international. Howel Lewis grabbed his third Welsh cap as Ireland came to St Helen’s on 8th March and narrowly lost 13 – 16 to Wales at Swansea’s home ground, Dickie Lloyd missing a penalty kick that would have drawn it for Ireland. Swansea’s Bryn Lewis scored two superb tries, one from half-way. Jack Bancroft and Rev. Alban Davies were the other two Swansea players in the Welsh side. Swansea ended the season as Welsh Champions though the unbeaten record had fallen to Newport at the end of a rain soaked January. Only two matches had been lost from 37 played. Three-quarter Frank Williams was top try scorer with 17 but Howel Lewis was next with a respectable 12.
The last full season before the Great War saw Lewis serving under the captaincy of forward D. J. Thomas. With the new hope half-back pair of Sid Jerram and Dodger Owen being lured away by the professional game up north, Swansea’s fortunes changed again and just 25 games out of 38 were won. The club finished fourth in the Welsh table behind Champions Pontypool, Aberavon and Newport. But Lewis did win his fourth Welsh cap on 17th January 1914 when wales lost by a point to England at Twickenham. It was the only Welsh loss that season but Lewis did not make the team for the Scotland, France or Ireland games. In fact Lewis nearly scored against England, just missing the final touchdown before Willie Watts of Llanelli made sure of the points.
As the 1914-15 season approached, there was optimism that peace would prevail and a full round international fixtures with England, Scotland, Ireland and France were announced by the WFU in the newspapers. Swansea published a list of 38 fixtures for the season, including Maesteg at St Helen’s for the first time while Edinburgh University were to reappear on the fixture card after a long absence. Speculation about the captain for the coming season ended when Howel Lewis was selected while the players were on the annual trip to Port Eynon in late July. This was confirmed the following day at a committee meeting and forward Tom Morgan was to be his vice-captain. Many had expected jack Bancroft to have had the honour as senior player with nine seasons at the club. He felt being passed over keenly and this was reported in the Press. But it was all to prove academic as the Great War became a reality and Swansea, along with the other Welsh clubs, shelved their fixture list and led by example as they joined up to fight in a war that many thought would be over by Christmas.
Lewis, like many others from the club, joined up and he served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers rising to Lieutenant by 1916 when he returned to Swansea to get married in April. As luck would have it, an ANZAC team (Australian and New Zealand serving soldiers) was playing in Britain at the time and were invited to play a game in Swansea with proceeds to go to the Mayor of Swansea’s Fund for comforts for the boys with the colours. A West Wales side was got together to oppose them. All players would be chosen from those serving with the colours. Billy Trew was to be the point of contact for applicants. Howel Lewis was selected to captain the West Wales fifteen which included Jack Bancroft at full-back, Dai Williams in the three-quarters and Tom Williams in the pack. A crowd of 10,000 watch the game at St Helen’s which West wales won by 4 converted goals and a try (23pts) to a dropped goal and a try (7 pts).
When Swansea Rugby Club reconvened in 1919 Howel Lewis was again elected as captain of the first fifteen, a post he would now be able to fulfil. With the nation exhausted from the efforts of over four years of war, Lewis remit was to help re-establish regular first class rugby in the town. It had now to be taken into consideration that soccer had a large call on the limited recreational money of the sports enthusiasts in Swansea and fixtures were laid out carefully so as to overlap minimally with the association matches of the Swans. With players coming through such as Tom Parker, Dick Huxtable, Bert Palmer, Ben Beynon and Joe Rees, prospects were good though it took time for the crowds to return.
Although Llanelli won at St Helen’s for the first time in twenty-three years, Gloucester lost their unbeaten record to the “All Whites”. Leicester came to St Helen’s hoping to become the first English club to win there for twenty years. But a thrilling display by Swansea was topped by a winning Benny Beynon drop goal ten minutes from ‘time’. But form varied as Watsonians won at Swansea for the first time. But Beynon, Joe Rees and Tom Parker all wore the red of Wales against England at St Helen’s. Lewis himself struggled this season, possibly due to his war wounds and he missed a number of big games where his leadership was needed. More problems came when star half-back Benny Beynon left to play soccer at the Vetch field, another blow to the thin resources of the post-war first fifteen. The eventual record of that first season after the Great War was played 40, won 23, drawn 5, lost 12. Howel Lewis had to admit that his body was no longer able to take the stress of first class rugby and he retired from the game. Injuries to his thigh in 1918, where he was twice wounded, had taken their toll. But he had reached great heights before the war and played in the Swansea side that beat the Springboks in 1912 as well as gaining four Welsh caps. He would surely have had more had war not intervened. Howel Lewis worked as a coal merchant and later was director of the Brynhenllys Colliery that his family owned. He was always a popular player, especially among the valley clubs, which was possibly the reason he was selected as the first post-war captain of Swansea, with the anticipated reliance on district club players requiring his friendships, especially with the Swansea valley clubs he grew up near. Howel Lewis died aged 83 on 29th May 1971 in Surrey where he had moved to in later life.
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