Words by Gareth Rees and Emyr Rees

The town of Llanelli is usually synonymous with its tinplate history and renowned rugby following, but it is also home to one of Wales’ oldest judo clubs, the Sanshirokwai, which was founded by Steadman Davies MBE in 1958. The following is a brief history of Sanshirokwai from its humble beginnings in an old pigeon shed to the present purpose-built dojo where half the town have seemingly trained at one time or another.

Dojo 1: Sanshirokwai 1958 – The Shed, 16 Spring Field Terrace, Bwlch-y-Gwynt

Steadman Davies was born and raised at 16 Spring Field Terrace, Bwlch-y-Gwynt. As a young lad he attended Morfa Juniors and Coleshill Secondary Schools. At the age of fourteen he left school and went to work at the nearby Burry Box Works.

As an eighteen year old, Steadman was called up to the Army and saw active service in the Second World War, in India, China and Korea. It was during time spent in the Far East serving in the Lincolnshire Regiment that Steadman’s interest in martial arts was born. Steadman recognised that he had the good fortune to serve in these places for that very reason, and with hard training he mastered the skills and was able to bring them home to benefit us all.

After his demobilisation from military duty, Steadman returned to Spring Field Terrace quite enthusiastic about carrying on with the martial arts but was disappointed by the lack of local interest in this training. However in 1958, this was to change when Steadman was persuaded by Mal Guy and Alf Tovey to abandon his hydro glider project, the first of its kind to be built in the area and return to the training he loved. The next project became the conversion of the corrugated tin shed in the backyard of 16 Spring Field Terrace into Sanshirokwai Dojo No. 1.

There were some aspects of the construction however, which were to prove problematic, namely the top end of one side of the shed was completely open to the elements. If you consider that Bwlch-y-Gwynt literally translates into ‘Windy Gap’ you will appreciate what winter training conditions were like. In summer, the airy construction was welcome, given the oven like conditions inside the corrugated steel sheet accommodation. The total mat area was no more than 12ft x 12ft and bruised feet, after repeated impact with the side of the shed was a frequent source of pain and injury for those practicing. The mat area was little more than a bed of sawdust covered by a white sheet held down at the corners. In winter, illumination was provided by a paraffin storm lamp held by a third person standing at the side of the mat. But none of these handicaps were to deter those early pioneers.

Ann Street judo group, 1962

Dojo 2: Sanshirokwai 1962 – Ann Street

As student numbers visiting Spring Field Terrace continued to increase, Steadman came to realise that a more suitably spacious premises would be required. Then one day, Steadman was passing the old Saloam chapel in Ann Street. After pausing outside for a while, Steadman climbed in through a broken window and sat on the stage. ‘What a mess it was’ he thought to himself. A television aerial installation company had used the building and the present owner was the Communist Party. But Steadman overlooked the negative aspects that confronted the possibility of this becoming the new dojo for Sanshirokwai and saw a clear and positive vision. Whilst Steadman sat on the stage, Frankie, who lived next door to the old building came in offering a cup of tea.

Frankie also gave Steadman important details about the present owner’s identity. Steadman discovered that the owners had received offers of rent two or three times greater than his own limit. But Steadman was not deterred and after discussing his intended use for the building with the owners, they let the building for a peppercorn rent. Steadman then had a holiday and managed to complete several important construction jobs vital to adapting the building for training. These included a new window, porch to the side and converted changing rooms. With the new dojo on line, it was little time at all before the development of Judo players started to reach new heights. In March 1966 the first Annual Sanshirokwai Display was given in the Market Hall, Llanelli.

The programme showed the wide range of skills on show, and even compared to today’s offerings, there is unlikely to be any other Judo or Aikido Club in the UK that could match that feat. This was testimony to Steadman’s mastery of teaching and development of individual exponents of the arts. A further high point was the visit of the experienced Watanabe from Japan. For the coaching session Watanabe held in Wales, Steadman selected ten Sanshirokwai Judo players to attend. Watanabe, a highly technical Japanese Judo teacher, stopped the practice saying “No! No! No!” and then proceeded to select each of the ten Sanshirokwai players without realising their commonality, and asked that they show the remainder of the class how to practice Judo correctly. Whilst they practised, Watanabe exclaimed, “This is the way you practice Judo”. Steadman was quietly embarrassed. It was at Ann Street that Aikido started in earnest. The Judo players that received their instruction from Steadman at Ann Street also gained many notable Welsh and British medal success.

Dojo 3: Sanshirokwai 1974 – Old Castle Road

The success at Ann Street was apparent and in no time at all it became evident that an extension or new dojo would be required. Steadman found the site at Old Castle Road. The construction of the new Dojo was the biggest undertaking to date! It can only be classed as a ‘Fairytale’ which started as Steadman’s vision and later became a reality only through his immense dedication and perseverance. At that time Steadman worked for Isaac Jones, a reputable local building firm, during which he devoted his time to the construction of the new dojo. As a supportive employer Isaac Jones let Steadman have building materials which were paid for whenever it became affordable. One day two schoolgirls asked Steadman if they could help with the work. Steadman asked them to put one block in the barrow and wheel it to him. Whilst doing this, two immaculately dressed miners, whose children were swimming in the nearby pool, asked what was going on. Seeing the girls at work at the building site, they then took off their jackets and moved 20 tons of hard core into the foundations.

Construction of the Old Castle Road club, early 1970's

On another occasion a passer-by asked what was going on. Steadman explained only to find the passer-by, moments later, digging away behind him. Further recollections revealed the occasion when 500 blocks were delivered with 1000 more by mistake! The driver of the lorry returned and explained how he had wrongly delivered them. The driver asked Steadman to write down what he was building and said that he would report this to his boss. Days later, a letter from the boss was received, gifting the 1000 blocks as a donation to the Dojo.

At a later stage when the main building and window framing was in place a passer-by asked who would be installing the glazing. Steadman explained that this hadn’t been thought about at that stage, as they were at least a year away. A year later and following a knock on the same gentleman’s front door, the glass was all supplied and fitted at the kind gentleman’s expense. Two carpenters turned up looking for work, it was explained no payment could be afforded, but up they got and put the roof to the changing rooms up in a day – with no charge. A local company supplied the wiring at no charge and a young electrician wired the Dojo through his own goodwill. Two young lads, Peter and Terry who wanted help to speak English asked if they could be taught the language and learn carpentry skills at the same time. Steadman taught the young men to develop many woodworking skills which resulted in the panelling of the Dojo walls. The young men also learned to speak some English in the process.

Newaza randori at the Old Castle Road club, 1980's

The tatami (mats), were ordered from Japan and the first shipment into the UK was shared between a dojo in Croydon and Sanshirokwai. The tatami chosen were classical straw filled mats as used in the principal Japanese and Korean dojos. Breakfalling on this tatami was sometimes compared by visiting Judo and Aikido players to breakfalling on concrete. Many volunteers worked hard with Steadman on the new dojo to create what must have been at the time the finest dojo in the UK. We thank all those who contributed to this wonderful accomplishment and not forgetting the late Dai Terrazzo’s input.

In 1973 the Dojo was ready (with a limited mat area) for its first Judo classes, which were held on Saturdays. By 1974, Sanshirokwai was providing teaching and instruction in Yoga, Aikido and Judo. Many experienced ‘Ann Street’ stalwarts attended and passed on their knowledge and experience to a new generation of students. In Aikido, it was a regular occurrence to see more than 70 on the mat at that time. By the 1980’s the new Judo generation had developed into a formidable force – medals, medals and even more medals followed.

The Senior Dyfed Judo Team (mainly if not entirely made up of Sanshirokwai players) dominated the Welsh Team Championship Tournaments for more than a decade. Individual success seemed limitless with several students making the grade of the British Squad and also prolific medal takes in Welsh, British and Commonwealth circuits. The 1980s also saw Sanshirokwai represented through many Judo displays, which were always well received and served to demonstrate the depth of knowledge Steadman had given his students. In 1985, Sanshirokwai welcomed the Hobokken Judo club from Belgium. A weekend training session was followed by a team match and a victorious Sanshirokwai proudly received the elegant hand carved trophy.

Sanshirokwai members of the Dyfed Senior judo squad, 1991

The early 1990s saw the majority of the Dojo being refurbished with a new roof, windows and the original straw tatami replaced by a Japanese modern equivalent. The 1990s also saw Steadman receive the coveted Torch Trophy Trust Award in recognition for services to Aikido, Yoga and Judo over many years. The award was presented to him by HRH the Duke of Gloucester in London.

In 2002 Steadman Davies was awarded an MBE on St. David’s Day at Cardiff Castle by Prince Charles for his services to the martial arts and a large dinner was organised to celebrate his fantastic achievement with 150 friends and pupils present – and many more had there been space.

Steadman Davies after being awarded his MBE at Cardiff Castle, 2002

It was also around this time that the club’s success became not only limited to judo shiai contests but also judo kata competition, with members competing in the first ever European Kata Championships held in 2005 and notable success in many other kata competitions for years later.

Sadly in 2010, Steadman passed away at the age of 85, still coaching the classes right up until his passing, and even in his last year produced five Welsh champions as well as countless other medalists from contests throughout Britain. In 2015, the memory of Steadman was further honoured by the people of Llanelli, with the erection of a commemorative blue plaque in his memory at the site where Bwlch-y-Gwynt once stood.

The club continues to gain notable national as well as international contest success with numerous members in the Welsh squad team. For the club’s 60th anniversary in 2018, members of the club celebrated the milestone with a well-received display in Llanelli town centre with numerous students of all ages demonstrating their abilities to the public. Three members of the club even travelled to the other side of the globe to Tokyo, Japan at the beginning of this year and completed Kangeiko, the Kodokan’s rigorous 10-day mid-winter training course.

The successes and triumphs of the club would not have been possible without the tireless dedication of Steadman for over five decades and also to the club’s current coaches, players, parents and volunteers, to whom the club are enormously grateful.

Steadman’s fundamental philosophy was to always class every one of us the same by offering an equal opportunity regardless of status or ability. Steadman’s satisfaction was gained from seeing his students develop into mature, responsible people with high regard for discipline and respectability – the result of striving for the true purpose of judo as expounded by its founder Jigoro Kano; to perfect oneself and contribute positively to society.

Participants of the 60th Anniversary Display at Llanelli town centre

For further information please visit the club’s Facebook and Instagram pages or visit http://www.sanshirokwai.co.uk

If you would like your club to be featured don't hesitate to get in touch at either office@welshjudo.com or gina.paletta@welshjudo.com

Leave a Reply