Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins Jr. on 10 November 1925 in a house at 2 Dan-y-bont in Pontrhydyfen, Glamorgan, Wales. He was the twelfth of thirteen children born to Richard Walter Jenkins Sr. (1876–1957), and Edith Maude Jenkins (née Thomas; 1883–1927). Jenkins Sr., called Daddy Ni by the family, was a coal miner, while his mother worked as a barmaid at a pub called the Miner's Arms, which was also the place where she met and married her husband. According to biographer Melvyn Bragg, Richard is quoted saying that Daddy Ni was a "twelve-pints-a-day man" who sometimes went off on drinking and gambling sprees for weeks, and that "he looked very much like me". He remembered his mother to be "a very strong woman" and "a religious soul with fair hair and a beautiful face".
The Miner's Arms at Pontrhydyfen where Richard Burton's parents met and married.
Richard was barely two years old when his mother died on 31 October, six days after the birth of Graham, the family's thirteenth child. Edith's death was a result of postpartum infections; Richard believed it occurred due to "hygiene neglect". According to biographer Michael Munn, Edith "was fastidiously clean", but that her exposure to the dust from the coal mines resulted in her death. Following Edith's death, Richard's elder sister Cecilia, whom he affectionately addressed as "Cis", and her husband Elfed James, also a miner, took him under their care. Richard lived with Cis, Elfed and their two daughters, Marian and Rhianon, in their three bedroom terraced cottage on 73 Caradoc Street, Taibach, a suburban district in Port Talbot, which Bragg describes as "a tough steel town, English-speaking, grind and grime".
Richard remained forever grateful and loving to Cis throughout his life, later going on to say: "When my mother died she, my sister, had become my mother, and more mother to me than any mother could ever have been ... I was immensely proud of her ... she felt all tragedies except her own." Daddy Ni would occasionally visit the homes of his grown daughters but was otherwise absent. Another important figure in Richard's early life was Ifor, his brother, 19 years his senior. A miner and rugby union player, Ifor "ruled the household with the proverbial firm hand". He was also responsible for nurturing a passion for rugby in young Richard. Although Richard also played cricket, tennis, and table tennis, biographer Bragg notes rugby union football to be his greatest interest. On rugby, Richard said he "would rather have played for Wales at Cardiff Arms Park than Hamlet at The Old Vic". The Welsh rugby union centre, Bleddyn Williams believed Richard "had distinct possibilities as a player".
From the age of five to eight, Richard was educated at the Eastern Primary School while he attended the Boys' segment of the same school from eight to twelve years old. He took a scholarship exam for admission into Port Talbot Secondary School in March 1937 and passed it. Biographer Hollis Alpert notes that both Daddy Ni and Ifor considered Richard's education to be "of paramount importance" and planned to send him to the University of Oxford. Richard became the first member of his family to go to secondary school. He displayed an excellent speaking and singing voice since childhood, even winning an eisteddfod prize as a boy soprano. During his tenure at Port Talbot Secondary School,[a] Richard also showed immense interest in reading poetry as well as English and Welsh literature. He earned pocket money by running messages, hauling horse manure, and delivering newspapers.
The Philip Burton years
Richard was bolstered by winning the Eisteddfod Prize and wanted to repeat his success. He chose to sing Sir Arthur Sullivan's "Orpheus with his Lute" (1866), which biographer Alpert thought "a difficult composition". He requested the help of his schoolmaster, Philip Burton,[b] but his voice cracked during their practice sessions. This incident marked the beginning of his association with Philip. Philip later recalled, "His voice was tough to begin with but with constant practice it became memorably beautiful." Richard made his first foray into theatre with a minor role in his school's production of the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw's The Apple Cart. He decided to leave school by the end of 1941 and work as a miner as Elfed was not fit due to illness. He worked for the local wartime Co-operative committee, handing out supplies in exchange for coupons. He also simultaneously considered other professions for his future, including boxing, religion and singing. It was also during this period that Richard took up smoking and drinking despite being underage.
One day in 1964 when Richard [Burton] was playing in Hamlet on Broadway, he and I were interviewed jointly in a private corner of an Eighth Avenue bar and restaurant much frequented by theatre people. We had a live audience of one, Richard's wife, Elizabeth Taylor. One of the questions aimed at me was, "How did you come to adopt him?" [...] Richard jumped in with "He didn't adopt me; I adopted him." There was much truth in that. He needed me, and, as I realised later, he set out to get me.
Philip Burton in his 1992 autobiography Richard & Philip: The Burtons : a Book of Memories.
When he joined the Port Talbot Squadron 499 of the Air Training Corps section of the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a cadet, he re-encountered Philip, who was the squadron commander. He also joined the Taibach Youth Center, a youth drama group founded by Meredith Jones[c] and led by Leo Lloyd, a steel worker and avid amateur thespian, who taught him the fundamentals of acting. Richard played the role of an escaped convict in Lloyd's play, The Bishop's Candlesticks, an adaptation of a section of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. The entire play did not have any dialogues, but Alpert noted that Richard "mimed his role". Philip gave him a part in a radio documentary/adaptation of his play for BBC Radio, Youth at the Helm (1942). Seeing the talent Richard possessed, both Jones and Philip re-admitted him to school on 5 October 1942.[d] Philip called Richard "my son to all intents and purposes. I was committed to him." Philip 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. Richard called the experience "the most hardworking and painful period" in his life.
In autumn of 1943, Philip planned to adopt Richard, but was not able to do so as he was 20 days too young to be 21 years older than his ward, a legal requirement. As a result, Richard became Philip's legal ward and changed his surname to "Richard Burton", after Philip's own surname, by means of deed poll, which Richard's father accepted. It was also in 1943 that Richard qualified for admission into a University after excelling in the School Certificate Examination. Philip requested Richard to study at Exeter College, Oxford as a part of a six-month scholarship program offered by the RAF for qualified cadets prior to active service.