Richard Burton - Childhood and Education

Childhood and Education

Richard Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins in the village of Pontrhydyfen, Neath Port Talbot, Wales. He grew up in a working class, Welsh-speaking household, the twelfth of thirteen children. His father, Richard Walter Jenkins, was a short, robust coal miner, a "twelve-pints-a-day man" who sometimes went off on drinking and gambling sprees for weeks. Burton later claimed, by family telling, that "He looked very much like me...That is, he was pockmarked, devious, and smiled a great deal when he was in trouble. He was, also, a man of extraordinary eloquence, tremendous passion, great violence."

Burton was less than two years old in 1927 when his mother, Edith Maude (née Thomas), died at the age of 43 after giving birth to her 13th child. His sister Cecilia and her husband Elfed took him into their Presbyterian mining family in nearby Port Talbot (an English-speaking steel town). Burton said later that his sister became "more mother to me than any mother could have ever been... I was immensely proud of her... she felt all tragedies except her own". Burton's father would occasionally visit the homes of his grown daughters but was otherwise absent. Also important in young Burton's life was Ifor (Ivor), the brother 19 years his senior. A miner and rugby player, Ifor "ruled the household with the proverbial firm hand".

Burton showed a talent for English and Welsh literature at grammar school, and demonstrated an excellent memory, though his consuming interest was sports – rugby (in fact famous Welsh centre Bleddyn Williams said in his autobiography that Burton could have gone far as a player), cricket, and table tennis He later said, "I would rather have played for Wales at Cardiff Arms Park than Hamlet at the Old Vic." He earned pocket money by running messages, hauling horse manure, and delivering newspapers. He started to smoke at the age of eight and drink regularly at twelve. Inspired by his schoolmaster, Philip H. Burton, he excelled in school productions, his first being The Apple Cart. Philip could not legally adopt Burton because their age difference was one year short of the minimum twenty years required. Burton early on displayed an excellent speaking and singing voice and won an Eisteddfod prize as a boy soprano.

Burton left school at sixteen for full-time work. He worked for the local wartime Co-operative committee, handing out supplies in exchange for coupons, but then considered other professions for his future, including boxing, religion and singing. When Burton joined the Port Talbot Squadron of the Air Training Corps as a cadet, he re-encountered Philip Burton, his former teacher, who was the commander. Richard also joined a youth drama group led by Leo Lloyd, a steel worker and avid amateur thespian, who taught him the fundamentals of acting.

Philip Burton, recognising Richard's talent, then adopted him as his ward and Richard returned to school, and, being older than most of the boys, he was very attractive to some of the girls. Philip Burton later said, "Richard was my son to all intents and purposes. I was committed to him." Philip Burton tutored his charge intensely in school subjects and also worked at developing the youth's acting voice, including outdoor voice drills which improved his projection.

In 1943, at the age of eighteen, Richard Burton (who had now taken his teacher's surname but would not change it by deed poll for several years), was allowed into Exeter College, Oxford, for a special term of six months study, made possible because he was an air force cadet obligated to later military service. He subsequently did serve in the RAF (1944–1947) as a navigator. Burton's eyesight was too poor for him to be considered pilot material.

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