Controversy, Cooperation, and Revolutionary Scholarship: The Correspondence of Thomas Stephens (1821–1875)

Thomas Stephens (1821–1875) was one of the most engaging and controversial scholars of nineteenth-century Wales. While many of his contemporaries regarded his scholarship as incendiary and iconoclastic, others recognised his extensive research and keen critical approach as revolutionising Welsh scholarship into a modern, critical field of enquiry. In a biographical sketch which prefaces the posthumously published second edition of his magnum opus, The Literature of the Kymry (1849, second edn 1876), B. T. Williams noted how Stephens, an amateur scholar and chemist in Merthyr Tydfil, became ‘general referee on all subjects relating to the Welsh language and antiquities’ as ‘[s]cholars from all quarters of Europe wrote to him for his views on disputed historical, philological, and antiquarian questions’. Indeed, he notes that ‘[t]he publication of this correspondence, if it could be got together – and there is no doubt that it could – would be welcomed by all Celtic scholars.’[1] Fortunately for ‘all Celtic scholars’, as well as for anyone interested in the history of Wales or the history of ideas, a critical anthology of this correspondence has now, a mere 144 years later, been ‘got together’ and published, as The Correspondence of Thomas Stephens: Revolutionising Welsh Scholarship in the Mid-Nineteenth Century Through Knowledge Exchange.[2]

Born in the Vale of Neath, Stephens moved to the rapidly growing industrial centre of Merthyr Tydfil in 1835 as apprentice to a chemist, David Morgan. On Morgan’s death in 1841, Stephens took over the business, which was to become the most prosperous chemist’s shop in Merthyr. However, Stephens’s early twenties were not filled merely with business, and from 1840 he also began competing, and winning, at eisteddfodau, quickly collecting prizes and praise for his scholarship. At the 1848 Abergavenny Cymreigyddion Eisteddfod, he won a prize sponsored by the Prince of Wales for the best essay on the ‘History of the Language and Literature of Wales, from the time of Gruffydd ap Cynan, and Merlin, to that of Syr Gruffydd Llwyd and Gwilym Ddu’. This essay was, with the encouragement, assistance, and guidance of people like Lady Augusta Hall (Gwenynen Gwent), a patron of Welsh culture and the inventor of the Welsh costume, and Lady Charlotte Guest, the translator of the Mabinogion and later iron master, published the following year as The Literature of the Kymry.

The first section of the anthology of his letters looks at his early success and the praise, guidance, and encouragement Stephens received from established Welsh scholars. The first letter is from the noted Welsh antiquarian and historian, Thomas Price (Carnhuanawc), who wrote, just having adjudicated on an essay by Stephens about salmon fishing, rebuking the younger scholar’s incendiary language. The letters in this section also show the patronage and guidance which Stephens received in the publication of Literature of the Kymry, particularly from the publisher William Rees, and in dedicating and presenting a copy of the book to a member of the royal family, from Charlotte Guest.

The most notable exchange of letters in this section are between Stephens and the elderly Welsh poet and antiquarian, Walter Davies (Gwallter Mechain). In these, the young Stephens asks Davies to review his new book, a task to which Davies initially agrees but then declines because of his poor health and old age. These letters take the form of a passing of the torch from one generation of Welsh scholarship to the next. They are also particularly engaging in their friendly and convivial tone: Stephens’s gentle teasing of Davies and Davies’s complaints about his companion, ‘heniant’ who will not let him undertake the work. However, it is also a bittersweet correspondence, as Stephens’s last letter goes unanswered – Davies died less than a month after Stephens’s last letter to him.

Stephens’s success invited enquiries, but it was also built on the exchange of information between Stephens and other scholars, especially Welsh scholars. The second section in the anthology focuses on this exchange of knowledge by looking at some of the enquiries and answers which were sent and received by Stephens. He exchanged letters with Ebenezer Thomas (Eben Fardd) about place names in Caernarfonshire, discussed the history of Caerphilly Castle with the antiquarian, engineer, and manager (later master) of Dowlais Ironworks, George T. Clark, and translated and interpreted a poem by Gwylim Tew for the Monmouthshire antiquarian Thomas Wakeman. Other letters communicated requests to view, transcribe, borrow, or obtain manuscripts and books, illustrating how scholars negotiated access to Welsh manuscripts in the period before the establishment of Wales’s national library, museum, or university. These letters show Stephens requesting copies of manuscripts from Charlotte Guest, while the Welsh historian and writer Jane Williams (Ysgafell), acting on the advice of Augusta Hall, asked Stephens for a copy of a poem. In particular, letters from W. W. E. Wynne to Stephens show the practicalities of accessing the immensely important Hengwrt-Peniarth collection of manuscripts.

The exchange of knowledge was not only within Wales as Stephens soon garnered an international reputation for his scholarship. The third and fourth sections of the anthology focus on his Irish and continental European correspondence, respectively. These sections show Stephens’s international influence as well as the networks of knowledge exchange which stretched between an amateur scholar in the south Wales valleys and some of the most notable minds of nineteenth-century Europe.

Stephens’s Irish correspondence began with a letter from a fellow Welshman who asked Stephens to weigh in on a dispute between Welsh and Irish scholars about the origins and purposes of cromlechs. Stephens was soon in contact with James Henthorn Todd, exchanging information about the Welsh and Irish language, medieval history, and poetry. Their exchange shifted to discussion of a medieval plague, a subject of interest to the surgeon and antiquarian William Wilde, to whom Todd later showed Stephens’s letters. Wilde then began to correspond with Stephens to inform his history of disease in Ireland, as well as providing introductions for Stephens to correspond with other prominent Irish scholars, namely Eugene O’Curry and John O’Donovan. This was not all of Stephens’s Irish correspondence, as he also exchanged information with the academic William Rushton and the architect and antiquarian Richard Rolt Brash, but this string of connections provides important insight into how reputation and introduction facilitated the international exchange of ideas in the nineteenth century.

Stephens’s reputation as a scholar spread across Europe, and, indeed, the globe. His correspondents mention discussing his work with prominent continental European scholars, such as Jacob Grimm and Leopold von Ranke, the father of modern historical studies. Similarly, correspondents also discussed other continental European scholars with Stephens, such as the linguists Johann Kaspar Zeuss and Franz Bopp and the legal scholar Ferdinand Walter.

Stephens corresponded directly with several major continental European thinkers. He discussed Welsh and Breton legendry with the Breton philologist Théodore Claude Henri, vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué. When the French historian Henri Martin visited Wales, La Villemarque supplied Martin with a letter of introduction to Stephens. Stephens introduced Martin to an eisteddfod at Aberdare, and on Henri’s return to France, began a correspondence on a range of topics related to Welsh, Irish, and Celtic history, religion, and legendry. Stephens’s fame on the continent was aided by the translation of Literature of the Kymry into German in 1864 by the German Arthurian scholar Albert Schulz (San Marte), with whom Stephens also corresponded. He also communicated with German scholars based in Britain, such as the linguist and royal librarian, Carl Meyer, and the Oxford philologist, Friedrich Max Müller.

This continental correspondence highlights the networks and connections between Welsh and wider European scholarship. These networks allowed the letter writers to exchange ideas on methodologies and approaches to scholarship, and both Welsh and non-Welsh correspondents commented on ‘Welsh’ (or ‘German’) scholarship as exhibiting particular characteristics or methodologies. It also allowed for an international comparative approach to scholarship, something which Stephens used to great advantage. Other scholars sought Welsh examples to augment their own study. The Swiss linguist Adolphe Pictet, wrote to Stephens about the names of Welsh rivers and their meaning to augment his survey of Celtic place names.

The final two sections of the anthology focus on the subjects for which Stephens was best known and most notorious, both in his own time and after: his determination to use his prodigious research skill and critical approach to scholarship to examine, and ultimately debunk, many of the cherished pseudo-historical figures and institutions cherished by his contemporaries. Or, as one later commentator characterised his approach: ‘Here is a popular tradition, let us go kill it’.

In Literature of the Kymry, Stephens warned the reader that ‘the daring spirit of modern criticism is about to lay violent hands upon the old household furniture of venerable tradition’. Accordingly, he subjected such cherished legends as the massacre of the Bards by Edward I to scrutiny and dismissal.[3] Following on from this, he turned his attention to many of the legendary characters, stories, and institutions who had been embellished, invented, or popularised by Iolo Morganwg and his nineteenth-century descendants, such as Hu Gadarn, Dyfynwal Moelmud, the bardic alphabet, and the bardic traditions of the Chair of Glamorgan. This daring, critical approach cost Stephens the approval of many of his contemporaries, but ensured his reputation as a ground-breaking and revolutionary historian. However, while Stephens was certainly a singular scholar the letters in this section show that he was not alone. Many of his correspondents both in Wales and abroad supported and praised Stephens essays and articles. These letters show the nature and tone of private conversations between these scholars, as they encouraged and enabled Stephens to dismantle the mythic history of Romantic Wales a generation before many of the characters and institutions were exposed as the forgeries of Iolo Morganwg.

The letters also show the lengths to which Stephens went to obtain the research necessary for such an approach, especially as his iconoclasm cost him the support of patrons. In one notable letter, Stephens asks Thomas Wakeman to obtain a copy of one of Iolo Morganwg’s manuscripts, then at Llanover, as Augusta Hall had refused him access: ‘her ladyship has a pique against me’.[4] Stephens also turned outside of Wales for assistance. This allowed him to employ an international and comparative approach to his subject. In researching Hu Gadarn, for example, Stephens was able to draw on examples from Breton folklore, French romances, and Irish legends researched and provided by international correspondents.

All of these traits are displayed in the correspondence surrounding Stephens’s best-known controversy, and the subject of the final section: the (non-)discovery of America by the twelfth-century Welsh prince, Madoc ap Owen Gwynedd. In 1858, a prize was offered on at the first ‘national’ eisteddfod at Llangollen for the best essay on Madoc’s discovery. This had been an important story in the early modern period, used to solidify a British claim to North America, and had come again to prominence from the late-eighteenth century, even sparking in the fateful voyage of John Evans up the Missouri in search of the Mandans. In a well-researched essay, Stephens proved that far from having discovered the New World, Madoc stayed at home and died in Wales. The essay split the judges and Stephens was denied the prize, causing outrage, public spectacle, and one of the most notable clashes between critical and romantic scholarship in nineteenth-century Wales. The results of his research were only published posthumously, in 1893.

Stephens’s correspondence related to the scandal and to the Madoc question shows the support, encouragement, and assistance he received and the efforts to which he went to critically examine the history of Wales. After the controversy at Llangollen, Stephens meticulously researched the history of Madoc further, chasing up a range of sources, and enlisting the assistance of researchers and librarians in Wales and England. He also wrote to Quakers he had known from boyhood to investigate any links with Quaker immigration from Wales to America. Like with his research into other quasi-historical legends, he did not limit his enquiries to Britain, writing to an American scholar at Yale to whom he had previously sent books, and, though him, receiving information from the American ethnologist, philologist, and historian, John R. Bartlett, who had also examined the Madoc question for an eisteddfodic essay.

In his initial public response to the judges’ decision not to award him the prize at Llangollen, Stephens characterised his approach to Welsh history:

‘His ambition … was to be the interpreter of the claims of the language and literature of the Principality to neighbouring and continental nations; he had hitherto done so to the best of his ability, and had the satisfaction to find that he was considered to be an honest exponent of well-founded claims; and he would still continue to urge strongly and persistently every merit honestly pertaining to the history or national character of the Kymry …; but he thought it lowered them as a people, to be arguing claims which they could not prove.’

As national myths and quasi-historical narratives are currently contentious subjects relative to nationalism and identity in Wales and Britain, Stephens’s work seems particularly relevant to our own times. The letters collected in this anthology show how these subjects were explored, investigated and debated in nineteenth-century Wales. They also reveal the wide networks of knowledge exchange which stretched across Wales and between Wales and the wider world, allowing a chemist and amateur scholar in Merthyr Tydfil to begin revolutionising the study of Welsh history.

The Correspondence of Thomas Stephens: Revolutionising Welsh Scholarship in the Mid-Nineteenth Century through Knowledge Exchange, edited, arranged, and with an introduction by Dr Adam N. Coward, and published by Celtic Studies Publications (2020).

[1] B. T. Williams, ‘The Life of Thomas Stephens’ in Thomas Stephens, The Literature of the Kymry, ed. by D. Silvan Evans, 2nd edn (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1876), p.xxvii.

[2] This publication is an outcome a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust and based at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies: ‘Knowledge Exchange and Social Networks: European Learning and the Revolution in Welsh Scholarship

[3] Stephens Literature of the Kymry (1849), pp. 343–45. The story was very popular in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Wales, Britain, and Europe, becoming symbolic of Romantic Wales and Romanticism in general, represented in the famous poem by Thomas Gray, art such as ‘The Bard’ by Thomas Jones, and a poem reportedly learned by heart by all Hungarian students.

[4] Coward (ed.) The Correspondence of Thomas Stephens, p. 54.

Some Thoughts on Wales, Wool and Slavery, and What It All ‘Means’

One of my favourite things is seeing British people see deer. They tend to get so very excited about the animals, whereas, as someone from the U.S. Midwest, most of my interaction with deer has been hoping they don’t run out in front of my car. It is one of the things which shows how someone’s familiarity with something really dictates how they react to it. The British, and especially Welsh, reaction to the history of slavery can be put in similar terms (hear me out here). There are a LOT of issues with the United States’ relationship with its slave-holding past, but unless you are a complete and utter weirdo, no one denies its existence. Even if you were brought up in the ‘War of Northern Aggression’ tradition, people might deny or downplay the scale, brutality, impact, importance or whatever of slavery or try to displace it with some white supremacist myth of ‘white slavery’, but I don’t think many people are ignorant of the fact that slavery was a thing which existed in the U.S.

Brits on the other hand seem to try their damnedest NOT to look at that past. There tends to be a lot of celebratory talk about abolishing slavery, but less acknowledgement that for it to be abolished it had to be a thing to begin with. It is always something which happened ‘over there’. A few months ago there was utter shock that the precursors of an institution based in the biggest slave port in eighteenth-century Britain may have had significant financial ties to the slave trade. I think that Wales can be seen as an even more particular case in this. The myth of Wales as an exploited and therefore benign colony of England, the myth of the ‘tolerant nation’, is so pervasive that when the Welsh public is forced to face aspects of its past which are contrary to that image, things can get polarised. Recently, part of the idea of the tolerant nation has been challenged by the ongoing commemoration of the 1919 race riots in Newport, Cardiff and Barry, with numerous news stories and events as well as a brilliant Twitter account, @1919RaceRiots, ‘live-tweeting’ the event. But (constructively-intended) questions have also been raised about how appropriate it is to focus on flashpoints as an offset to a pervasive popular historiography which ignores Wales’s involvement with nasty things like colonialism, racism and slavery.

Because there is also this great attempt (not restricted to Wales) to apportion blame or seek absolution, to break things down into opposed binaries of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, ‘racist’ or ‘tolerant’, ‘colonised’ or ‘coloniser’, which is not exactly helpful. This was very much in evidence in a Sunday morning interview on Radio Wales (from about 35:20). The interviewee was Prof Chris Evans, author of Slave Wales (2010). He was there to talk about the production of ‘Welsh plains’ or ‘Slave cloth’ a course fabric known locally as ‘webs’ which was produced in the areas around Dolgellau and Machynlleth throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries largely for export and used to, among other things, clothe enslaved people. Prof Evans did brilliantly in the interview, the interviewer on the other hand constantly sought to drill down to the moral meaning of the industry – ‘how should we feel about this?’ – to try to establish to what extent the Welsh were ‘implicated’ in slavery.

Of course, the history of Wales, like almost everywhere else, is deeply tied to the history of the transatlantic slave trade. And even if the specifics are not widely known, this should just be something which is logically true to most people, but sadly isn’t. Wales has a range of clear connections to slavery to choose from, not least of which is the amount of money from slave-worked plantations in the Caribbean which went into landed estates and industrial ventures back in Wales, notably Penrhyn Castle and the establishment of Penrhyn Slate Quarry. There’s even a Llanrhymney in Jamaica, the former plantation of Sir Henry Morgan (of privateering fame) who was born at Llanrhyney Hall to an offshoot of the Morgan family of Tredegar, and who became a prominent slaveholder and governor of Jamaica. Another Caribbean governor (this time of Trinidad), known for his brutality to enslaved people was Thomas Picton, the later hero of Waterloo who has a giant monument in Carmarthen.

The point is, if you are going to go around looking for someone to blame for Welsh connections to slavery, there are bigger fish to fry than poor farmers in Montgomeryshire and Merionethshire many of whom were using the supplementary income from weaving to survive in a profession threatened by enclosure, sky-rocketing corn prices and the ‘improving’ spirit in agricultural reform. That is not to say that it is not important for it to be better known and acknowledged, and it is great that it is getting more attention especially in a brilliant community-led research project. But while I would certainly not argue that it is a widely-known aspect of Welsh history, nor even one with which most Welsh historians are familiar, it isn’t like no one has looked at it before. J. Geraint Jenkins, that leading historian of Welsh rural life, gives the subject significant treatment within the context of the wider Welsh woollen industry in his seminal text, The Welsh Woollen Industry (1969), and it even found its place in Geraint H. Jenkins’s history of the long eighteenth century, The Foundations of Modern Wales, a foundational text for anyone working on the period. It’s even mentioned in the English Wikipedia article on the Welsh woollen industry (but disappointingly not in the Welsh, at the moment at least). But other works (even ones which really, really should’ve considered the subject) have not done so, and it does need more attention, albeit in a sensitive, well-researched and contextualised way which does not jerk from ‘Wales had nothing to do with slavery’ to ‘poor mid-Wales hill farmers should be disproportionally condemned for existing within the wider entangled economic history of the Atlantic world, in which slavery played a central role’.

Of course, the question which everyone comes back to is ‘but did they know?’ Were they wilfully complicit or just ignorant cogs in the machine, as if these two things are entirely mutually exclusive categories. The interviewer on Sunday’s Radio Wales programme focused on this, and Prof Evans’s response about modern exploitation of child labour, our passive knowledge of it and the fact that most people still buy and use products produced in that way, was a brilliant one. But okay, lets humour this for a minute: the answer, I think, is that it is entirely possible, even likely, that those producing Welsh plains knew, on some level, the market for their product. However, that knowledge did not expand their economic options in a way which meant that they could realistically eschew what was one of the most pervasive and accessible sources of income in impoverished areas. For one thing, the argument that is always trotted out, ‘oh, they would’ve been illiterate peasants’, is not persuasive when we are talking about the mid- to late-eighteenth century, a period in which Wales had high literacy levels thanks to the circulating schools of Griffith Jones Llanddowror. However, there are still significant questions about the availability of such information in Welsh and the level of transmission of this knowledge between languages.

Most contemporary sources for this subject are in English, but they are there, and they are pretty forthright in the fact that this cloth was being exported to clothe enslaved people (as well as the lower orders in parts of continental Europe and, for a period, Russian soldiers). This knowledge also does turn up in prominent places, such as in the section on Shrewsbury of Thomas Pennant’s best-selling Tour in Wales (1781) a work which formed the basis of many late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century people’s knowledge of Wales. Another source is Arthur Aikin’s Journal of a Tour Through North Wales and Part of Shropshire (1797). This is not exactly a work on everyone’s shelf, to be sure, but as he complains forcefully about the lack of record keeping in the industry, it seems that his knowledge was derived from local information and people involved in the industry, showing that some parties, at least, knew what they were about. Of course, on the other side, it is interesting that while these two non-local writers both openly discuss the use of Welsh plains to clothe enslaved people, that fact gets less notice in Montgomeryshire-born Walter Davies’s (Gwallter Mechain) General View of the Agriculture and Domestic Economy of North Wales, produced for the Agriculture Board in 1810. Still, the success and decline of the industry is pretty plain with regard to one market in particular, declining sharply during the American War of Independence when the slaveholding areas of the (former) empire were cut off and again during the Napoleonic Wars. Contemporaries might have picked up on the connection. An 1881 article in the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, written when the widespread production of Welsh plains was still within living memory, even noted that the Dolgellau web-making industry ‘began to dwindle immediately after the emancipation of the slaves in the West Indies, and by this time not a trace of it is left’.

Moreover, while for most of the early modern period the production of Welsh woollens was dominated by the monopoly of the Shrewsbury Drapers, necessarily removing the centre of sale, finishing and export a lengthy and arduous journey away from the production zone, this changed in the late-eighteenth century. The establishment of a woollen market at Welshpool and the undertaking of more finishing tasks within the production zone forced the Drapers to send agents, known as forestallers, into western Montgomeryshire and Merionethshire, visiting the local markets and even homes of the weavers. For two periods in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, some Welsh plains even began to be exported from Barmouth, including, in the latter period, some direct shipments to Charleston, South Carolina. Therefore, towards the end of the period in which Welsh plains were produced, a wider availability and accessibility of knowledge as well as more of the process, including export, happening closer to the production area makes it likely that even if Welsh producers of Welsh plains didn’t know exactly what was going on, they probably had a general idea.

But what does this really matter, at the end of the day, at least in the ill-advised exercise of assuaging guilt or apportioning blame? When looking at a situation in which the impoverished staved off economic ruin through providing a product which was sold to people who exploited and brutalised the enslaved, the answer isn’t to weigh up grievance and levels of exploitation to see who had it worse (spoiler alert: it was the enslaved people, always the enslaved people). Rather, the great worth of all of this – looking at Wales’s involvement in slavery, colonialism, racist violence, etc., etc. – is not to say ‘Welsh people are bad’, but rather to say that Welsh people can be both victim and abuser, or at least, as is more accurately the case here, contribute to a system which abuses (brutalises, exploits, kills, rapes, etc. etc.) others. The production of Welsh plains in Wales for sale to slaveholders is one aspect of the wider history of the Welsh woollen industry, not THE history of the Welsh woollen industry. But at the same time, it is an aspect which it is important to know and acknowledge. So, if I can offer an answer to the ‘how should we feel about this’ question, I think it needs to be felt in context, so that Wales is not seen as wholly damned, but neither is the nation and its people sanctified as infallible either.


Further Reading

Breaking from the norm, I’m only going to offer one suggestion here, Chris Evans’s brilliant Slave Wales (University of Wales Press, 2010). However, there are two awesome community projects going on at the moment of which I think everyone should be aware:

‘From Sheep to Sugar: Welsh Wool and Slavery’:


‘Colonial Countryside’:

Seriously, check them out, get involved, give them your support. And, if you haven’t done so, go read the Twitter feed for @1919RaceRiots.

‘Would You Kindly Direct Me to a Better Translation’: Languages in the Correspondence of Thomas Stephens (1821–1875)

Earlier this week, there was a lively debate between historians on Twitter over the benefits, importance and feasibility of language learning related to historical research skills and the myriad social, cultural and economic values and capital attached thereto. The point of this blogpost is not to reignite that debate, although there are certainly things to be said about the particular importance of that debate to Welsh historians (and historians of other minoritized language cultures) and also about the differences between language learning in the US and UK. No, the raison d’etre (if you will) behind this post is that I am back to editing the correspondence of Thomas Stephens, the nineteenth-century Merthyr Tydfil-based armature scholar who raised the hackles of his Welsh contemporaries by poking holes in cherished cultural myths, most famously the supposed discovery of America by Madoc ap Owain Gwynedd in the twelfth century.

A bust of Thomas Stephens (1821-1875) by the Welsh sculptor Joseph Edwards (1814-1882).

Transcribing Stephens’s correspondence is a linguistic challenge, as his collected letters contain missives in English, Welsh, German and French, with extended passages in Greek and Latin, and individual words and phrases in languages from Sanskrit to Cornish.[1] But it wasn’t the polyglottal nature of the letters which struck a particular cord (although it is part of the point), but rather this passage in particular in a letter from William Rushton, professor of History and English Literature at Queen’s College, Belfast, to Stephens, which came under my editing pen a few days after the debate had run its course:

it is in order to study the early history of Britain, that I have endeavoured to acquire the Welsh language. I can now read with some degree of comfort, but the colloquial part of the language gives me great trouble. I never had so much difficulty with any spoken language, arising principally from the fact that I have not been thrown among persons who could speak nothing but Welsh. But for literary purposes, this is not of much moment; and of this I am certain, that unless the English scholars lay aside their prejudices, they will be left far behind by the Germans. I have sent a long extract from “Das Alte Wales” by Ferdinand Walter of Bonn, to Ab Ithel for the Cambrian Journal; and that will afford a slight proof of what the Germans are doing. (NLW, MS. 965E, Letter 274)

There is a lot of familiar elements here: a stress on the importance of language learning both to read primary sources and in order to be au fait with international scholarship, and the perceived reluctance of English scholars in particular (or monoglot Anglophone more generally) to learn languages, especially the languages of their fellow inhabitants of the North Atlantic archipelago. But as well as it might have worked as an entry into the late-2018 fray, it is a passage which fits well with themes of language and transnational knowledge exchange within Stephens’s correspondence and wider nineteenth-century scholarly culture.

Being multi-lingual as a mark of scholarly cultural capital is of course not unique to the nineteenth century, but these ideas have a special relationship with nineteenth-century scholarship and the idea of the bearded, suited armchair scholar who collects languages like baseball cards. Naturally, many of these questions about the expectations of multilingualism and the accessibility of scholarship are tied into systems of privilege and class, just as they are today, but a simple look at the multilingual nature of many nineteenth-century works, particularly works on subjects which touched upon culture, history, literature, ethnology or philology shows how language learning was deeply tied to ideas of knowledge and expertise in the period. Just as earlier this week, the knowledge of tongues was even used as a shorthand judgement on a scholar’s authority.

Thomas Stephens is best known for his ground-breaking study The Literature of the Kymry (1849), the only major work to be published in his lifetime.

The nineteenth century was an era which excelled at the esoteric academic insult, and Thomas Stephens was a formidable combatant in this particular form of warfare. In 1842–43, he called out the leading lights in the Abergavenny Cymreigyddion Society so viciously (from behind the cover of a pseudonym) that Taliesin ab Iolo visited Stephens’s chemist’s shop to call him out in person. [2] If he gave as good as he got, he also received quite a bit. Throughout the 1850s, the Cambrian Journal hosted a series of letters entitled ‘Stephens versus Stephens’ where his new theories about established Welsh cultural myths were criticised with the use of his previous works, supposedly showing his hypocrisy. One opponent even went so far as to use the argument which Stephens had used to dismiss the existence mythical figures like Hu Gadarn to prove that Stephens was himself a myth! This seems to have been a favourite trope of insult in the period as it mirrors an attack on the ‘solar myth’ theory of the great German Oxford philologist and Stephens’s correspondent Friedrich Max Müller by a group of Oxford students who proved that Müller himself was a solar myth. To bring us back to language, one of Müller’s principle critics was Scottish polymath Andrew Lang, whose criticism was rebuked in a personal letter on 8 July 1897: ‘Still less could I understand why you should have attacked me … without learning Sanskrit, which is by no means so difficult as people imagine. You must have a rapier to fight a man who has a rapier, otherwise it becomes a row.’

Out in out insults are rarer in Stephens’s private correspondence, and there is a discussion to be had elsewhere about the politics of nineteenth-century debate in private and public correspondence and the selective nature of Stephens’s extant letters. Still, there are occasional comments on language abilities and their relationship with the authority or expertise of the scholar in question. For example, in 1851, W. Basil Jones advised Stephens to omit a mention of Wynne Ffoulkes from a forthcoming paper as ‘he is not a Welsh scholar’ before discussing his own limitations: ‘I could prove nothing from it, as I am a very poor Welsh scholar’ (NLW, MS. 964E, Letter 168). These were not statements about these men’s nationalities, but rather their ability to understand the Welsh language.

These statements speak to an expectation with regards to language learning, but also a straightforward realism about that expectation. Of course, the Welsh language was itself highly politically and culturally charged in this period, and the politics of the survival of Welsh cannot be excluded from discussions of the relationship of the Welsh language and the preservation of Welsh culture to contemporary Welsh scholarship (just as it can’t be excluded from that same discussion today). Still, even as scholars wrote to one another in the linguistic medium of their choice, recommending readings in a variety of tongues, there is still the implicit recognition that no one will be able to read everything, and assistance is often requested related to language.

Stephens’s Literature of the Kymry was translated into German in 1864 by the German Arthurian scholar Albert Schulz.

In 1840, Stephens wrote to his childhood teacher to request advice about obtaining a translation of Homer and on the best way of learning Greek (NLW. MS, 965E, Letter 389 (4)). Chronologically, this is just the first of many letters in Stephens’s correspondence which seek advice about learning languages, showing this to be an ongoing project of academic development for many nineteenth-century scholars. One of the last, dated 1874 also shows the internationalism of this issue and of Welsh scholarship [3]:

You are, perhaps surprized that I am writing to you ­–

The reason is that I have a colleague in the University of Halle, Germany who is eager to learn Breton, and at the same time to learn Welsh. he has asked me for the names of the best Welsh scholars will you please leave me your referral? (NLW, MS. 964E, Letter 33 (my translation)) [4]

Instead of learning languages (or while they were in the process of doing so), some scholars sought advice about translations or the content of untranslated works. In the 1850s, the Irish surgeon and antiquarian William Wilde, wrote to Stephens seeking his help with a work he was preparing on the history of pestilences and diseases in Ireland, which he hoped to enhance with Welsh sources: ‘I am profoundly ignorant of your Welsh Annals and would therefore ask you to put me in the way of procuring any Works which refer to them, that is, provided they are English or Latin as I do not know any Welsh Scholar here.’ (NLW, MS. 965E, 322b). In 1862, the English antiquarian Thomas Wright wrote that he was

but little acquainted with the Welsh language, and know its literature only through translations, and, though I find the Welsh version of the story of the Cort Mantel spoken of as not uncommon in MSS., I don’t know if it has ever been printed, and I fancy it has never been translated. Could you kindly give me any information about it, and the outline of the story as told in the Welsh version? (NLW, MS. 965E, Letter 369).

Later in the same letter and in subsequent letters, he went so far as to ask Stephens for a full edited transcription and translation of the relevant Welsh Triads related to the subject for inclusion in what would then be a collaborative work!

Other scholars sought estimations of the quality of others’ translations. In 1870, the Irish antiquarian Richard Brash wrote to Stephens to enquire about the translations of poems in Edward ‘Celtic’ Davies’s Celtic Researches (1804): ‘would you kindly inform me if I may depend upon the translations there given; if the original is of any authority; If the poem is of authority and that Davies’s translations are not safe quoting; would you kindly direct me to a better translation’ (NLW, MS. 964E, Letter 15). Stephens also engaged in language-based enquiries. Likely his first letter to an Irish scholar was to James Henthorn Todd in 1849 where he enquired about the word ‘crom’ (as in ‘cromlech’ about which there was a contemporary debate):

In the Dictionaries of O’Reilly, Vallancey, and Armstrong, the Dict. – Scoto-Celticism, and Shaws Analysis of the Gaelic, occur the words Crom, God, Cromchmach, a famous Irish idol, Cromthear, Cromleac. Now. I wish to know how these authorities are estimated in Ireland, and by such scholars as yourself, Dr. Petrie, and Mr ODonovan. In Welsh literature, and particularly in lexicography we have had an immense amount of quackery, but there are reasons to believe that a better spirit is about to prevail, and that our language and literature will henceforth be subjected to the test of a more scientific criticism. What has prevailed in Wales, appears also to have prevailed in Ireland; and now that more severe principles of study are being applied to antiquities, the fanciful etymologies of your old writers are getting into disrepute. With respect to General Vallancy you have said that such is the case; but are O’Reilly, and the Scotch Shaw, Armstrong, and the writers of the Dict. Scot. Celticism – also men of straw? (National Library of Ireland, MS. 2252, 23).

Stephens did not speak Gaelic, but he, like other scholars, was able to learn from those who did.

An example of Kurrentschrift from a 1905 book, image available from Wikicommons.

Like many Welshmen and -women of his age, Stephens was bilingual by the nature of his social class in a way which was not wholly dependent on his role as a scholar. Still, Stephens was a polyglot beyond Welsh and English. He received knowledge of Latin from his boyhood time at John Davies’s academy in Neath, and may have perused some knowledge of Ancient Greek, as discussed above. He also learned German from the 1840s, as his extensive notes on Johann Kaspar Zeuss’s Grammatica Celtica held in the National Library of Wales show. Still, he may have had difficulty reading Kurrentschrift as three copies of a letter from the German Arthurian scholar and translator of Stephens’s Literature of the Kymry (1849) into German Albert Schultz ‘San Marte’ exist: the original, a transcription into English longhand and a translation. He also may have been able to understand French, as the North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser for the Principality reported that when the French historian Henri Martin addressed the 1861 Aberdare Eisteddfod he did so ‘in the French language, which was translated into English by Mr. Stephens, of Merthyr’. Still, most of the letters which were written to Stephens in German and French have contemporary English translations, some of them by Stephens, but most of the French translations in a contemporary hand with Stephens’s annotations.

The correspondence of Thomas Stephens shows a wide range of language learning and linguistic knowledge exchange, demonstrating the rich, polyglottal nature of the cultures of knowledge in which he was involved. They illustrate the integral role of being multilingual and working within multilingual and international scholarly networks to Stephens’s scholarship, which had both a national and international reputation of being of the highest calibre. But it also shows the way in which scholars helped one another in the period with respect to their language skills. They ask for help and there seems to be an implicit acknowledgement that no one will know all languages and that there are barriers to language learning. Translations are requested or offered, and it is significant that the nineteenth-century also saw many translations of important Welsh texts, mostly notably Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion and the works produced by the Welsh Manuscript Society. It was a period in which being a polyglot was associated with, even demanded by, being a scholar, but it was also an age which sought great advancements in making works accessible.

There is also a need for caution here, as historians can too often end up comparing themselves negatively with their subjects, especially when those subjects are brilliant autodidacts who achieved success young and left an indelible mark on their field. However, it should also be noted that this brilliant autodidact who was notorious for working constantly, even sleeping in the bathtub surrounded by books (a situation with which some precariously employed young scholars may sadly identify), died after recurrent bouts of serious illness at the young age of 53, publishing only one major work in his lifetime. It is therefore important not to concentrate just on the examples offered by the letters about hard work and skills acquisition, but also other advice offered alongside them. In 1853, Stephens was warned by the publisher William Rees, ‘At the rate you have gained laurels at Abergavenny – there will soon be “no competition” – Proceed successfully, but mind your health. I was unable to attend the Eisteddfod in consequence of being under the hands of the Doctor.’ (NLW, MS. 965E, Letter 267c). This advice remained applicable and was given to Stephens throughout his life, as Brash stated in 1871,

When I did not receive an answer to my letter in course I surmised that you must be unwell and am indeed much concerned to find that it really was the case and under so severe a form Alas it is the penalty that men of zeal and enthusiasm in literary pursuits too often pay.  I sincerely hope that your health will improve if you never wrote another line you have done enough for fame and have left your mark in the history of Welsh literature. (NLW, MS. 964E, Letter 17)

An example and advice we should all bear in mind with respect to our own workload and the demands which we place on ourselves as scholars.


[1] As a note on language leaning, I should note that I don’t speak all these languages – I had Latin in college but it would take a good amount of review before I could decline anything, that Latin is the basis of my ability to work out French, I remember more fraternity names than actual Greek words, I speak German but nineteenth-century German palaeography ist etwas anders, and my Welsh when I began transcribing the letters was barely conversational. While that made things a challenge it wasn’t an insurmountable task and I am confident in my transcriptions even if I can’t translate them on the spot.

[2] See Marion Löffler and Hwyl Gethin Rhys, ‘Thomas Stephens and the Abergavenny Cymreigyddion: Letters from the Cambrian 1842–43’, National Library of Wales Journal, 4 (2009), 399–451.

[3] I have discussed some of that internationalism previously on this blog here and here.

[4]‘Yr ydy’ch, mi wn yn synu fy mod i yn ysgrifenu atoch –

Y rheswm yw fod genyf gyfaill yn University Halle Germany yn awyddus am ddysgu Llydawaeg, ac ar yr un fforydd am ddysgu Cymraeg. wedi gofyn imi am enwau ysgolheigion Cymraeg goreu a welwch chwi fod yn dda adael imi eich cyfeirio chwi?’


Further Reading

The main two collections of letters sent to Thomas Stephens which are held in the National Library of Wales, NLW, MSS 964E and 965E, have been transcribed and are freely available as PDFs from the National Library of Wales Archives website, here and here, respectively.

Restless Spirits and Hidden Treasure: A Common Welsh Ghost-Story

Last year, my wife bought me Mark Rees’s Welsh Ghosts: Tales from the Victorian Archives, with the words ‘you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it’. I confess myself not to be a fan. Sure, the stories are entertaining enough and he’s made some good selections, but Rees’s commentary and analysis are ill-informed at best, indicative of his four-secondary-source-long ‘bibliography’. Even the title makes little sense, as I’ve never seen Welsh Newspapers Online referred to as ‘the Victorian archive’ before. Because that is really the only merit to Rees’s book, that you don’t have to type ‘ghost’ or ‘apparition’ into the search bar yourself. Perhaps that is a little unfair, after all the book is meant to entertain, not inform, but, with the possible exception of the Victorian jokes at the end (even here Rees has remarked, clearly erroneously, that ‘Victorian humour has not aged well’), it is simply not my cup of tea. And what’s more, it does bug me that the ‘author’ is getting so much credit and publicity for a book he largely copied from others’ writings – especially when those others’ writings are from a free, open-access, online, public resource. It’s apparently even been adapted into a play!

A story from the South Wales Echo, 28 Oct. 1893, featured in Rees’s book. Click on the image to read the story at

A good example of Rees’s unfamiliarity with the subject matter can be found in his introduction to a story which he titles ‘Wisked away by a hideous apparition’, which can be found on pages 36–40. Rees prefaces the tale with the assertion that it ‘might seem a little far-fetched when compared to some of the other accounts in the book’. What follows is one of the most common tropes in Early Modern and early Modern Welsh ghost stories: the ghost who has hidden something in life and returns to ensure that it is disposed of. Granted the first report of the story (‘Strange Story from the Rhondda’, South Wales Echo, 28 Oct. 1893, p. 4), which Rees, as he does throughout ‘his’ book, copies largely verbatim, is a somewhat idiosyncratic rendition, confused by the omission of several key actions and instructions from the ghost in the victim’s statement to the journalist as reported in the paper. The final account which Rees provides for this story, again copied verbatim from the original work (‘The Rhondda Ghost’, Cardiff Times, 11 Nov. 1893, p. 3), gives the story in greater detail, identifying it firmly with this extremely commonplace trope. The spirit appeared to Mrs Downe and pulled her from her chair. At her husband’s urging, she attempted to ask the ghost its business when the apparition snatched her up and took her to a tŷ bach nearby. There, it instructed her, in Welsh, to retrieve something which had been hidden under a stone. Upon so doing, she was further transported to a pond around 200 yards from the house and where the ghost instructed her to throw the previously concealed object into the water. This task, and his ‘unfinished business’, concluded, the spirit told her he would haunt her no more.

Stories where a ghost is unable to rest because of some hidden object, usually metal or money, and departs after the hidden object is found and disposed of, usually in a body of water, was extremely common, and was recognised to be so at the time. Nor was magical transportation through the air an uncommon feature in such stories, and a round trip of a few hundred yards is nothing compared to a story related by Edmund Jones in his Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the Principality of Wales (1780) where a man is transported by a ghostly woman from Breconshire to Pennsylvania and back.

In his British Goblins (1880), Wirt Sikes noted that,

‘The majority of stories of this class [a ghost with unfinished business] turn on the subject of hidden treasures. The popular belief is that if a person die while any hoarded money – or indeed metal of any kind, were it nothing more than old iron – is still hidden secretly, the spirit of that person cannot rest. Its perturbation can only be relieved by finding a human hand to take the hidden metal, and throw it down the stream of a river. To throw it up the stream, will not do. The Ogmore is the favourite river for this purpose of lower Glamorganshire’ (p. 151).

Here, Sikes borrowed heavily from Charles Redwood, who, in his Vale of Glamorgan: Scenes and Tales Among the Welsh (1839) remarks through one of this characters:

‘Davey was now getting warm upon his subject [of ghosts], and continued, “The most remarkable case, however, uncle,” said he, “of the unrest of spirits, is where hoarders of money, or it is even said, those who have hidden any metal, were it only a piece of old iron, die while it is secreted. Never, here, it is said, do those spirits rest, until the hidden treasure be taken by a living hand, and thrown down the stream of the river Ogmore”’ (p. 43).

These instructions were evidently very specific as he relates that a tailor’s wife who lived at Llantwit, upon being informed by a ghostly visitor that a treasure was hidden in the house, concluded that it should remain there in her possession. However, because of the ghost’s persistent haunting she acquiesced to dispose of the hoard upon which she was swept up into the air and transported to the Ogmore. In her shock, she mistakenly threw the treasure up-stream rather than down and was punished by being hurled into a whirlwind.

The prominence of the use of Sikes, and through him Redwood, as a source for this motif by later authors is notable. However, even with the disproportionate attention given to accounts from a work specifically based in Glamorgan, the motif may have been particularly well-known in the south. T. Gwynn Jones relied heavily on Sikes in his section on the story-type in his Welsh Folklore and Folk Custom (1930) but also notes a story from Radnorshire and another from Aberthin, in the Vale of Glamorgan. John Ceredig Davies, in his Folk-lore of West and Mid-Wales (1911) also quotes Sikes’s preface to the account-type before describing a story told to him ‘an old man at Llansadwrn, Carmarthenshire’ about a weaver of that village who was supernaturally transported through the air to dispose of an iron chest in Llyn y Fan Fach (pp. 149–50).  W. Howell’s Cambrian Superstitions (1831) relates accounts of this type from Crwmlyn, Monmouthshire, Millencourt (near Neath), Glamorganshire, and Trelech, Breconshire.  As noted above, Edmund Jones also relates several stories of this type in his Relation of Apparitions of Spirits from Aberystruth, Monmouthshire and from near Ystradgynlais, Breconshire, as well as one occurring to a Carmarthen-born man who moves to Germany on supernatural instruction.

It should be noted, however, that Jones also records a similar account from the other end of the country – near Amlwch on Anglesey. This last account is somewhat idiosyncratic as it features a spirit in the shape of a greyhound which was trapped in an artificial circle. The spectral hound attacked a preacher twice as he passed by the spot of its imprisonment. Passing by a third time, he noticed that the dog was chained to the spot and, standing out of its reach, questioned it as to its unfinished business. The spirit had, when alive, intended to offer a silver groat to Elian Church, but instead secreted it under a stone. Instead of throwing the coin into the sea, however, the preacher locates it and applies it to its initial purpose, thus laying the ghost.

The difference between this story and the others is an interesting one, as in several tales of this type found in Elias Owen’s Welsh Folk-lore: A Collection of Folk-tales and Legends of North Wales (c.1887) the hidden treasures are not cast aside, but given where they will be used. A widower named John Hughes visited a farm house called Clwchdyrnog in Llanddeussant parish, Anglesey, which was at that time haunted, seeking to make a servant girl there the second Mrs Hughes. However, while he and the girl were together a spirit appeared to them and, upon Hughes questioning it, revealed that he should retrieve a treasure hidden on the south side of Ffynnon Wen which should be given to a nine-month-old child in the house, its rightful owner. This being done, the haunting ceased.

In another story, a poor old woman who was seeking shelter was put up in a grand room in Powis Castle, much to her bemusement (spoiler alert: it was because it was haunted). While reading her bible by firelight, a ghost appeared and, once she got up the courage to speak to it, bade her follow him into a small room where he revealed a hidden box and key. He instructed her to send the box to a certain earl in London. Accordingly, she aroused the household of Powis Castle and convinced them to accomplish this, after which the grateful earl provided for her for the rest of her days and the ghost troubled the castle no more.

The hidden treasure being used, either by the finder or the rightful owner, was not restricted to the north. Edmund Jones records one such story from his native Aberystruth parish, Monmouthshire, the very first account in Relations of Apparitions of Spirits in fact. Walter John Harry, a Quaker, moved into the house of the late Morgan Lewis, formerly a weaver by trade. One night, Lewis appeared to Harry, carrying a candle and wearing a white woollen cap. He revealed that he was haunting the house over ‘some Bottoms of Wool which he had hid in the wall’, instructing them to take them away. Jones notes:

‘’Tis like the poor man had indeed in an hour of temptation unjustly concealed these things of small value, and was now troubled for it, and chose that these bottoms of Wool should be of use to others rather than be of no use; tho’ he neither charged them to make use of them, nor forbid their doing so, but left it to their choice. Likely they made use of them, for why should they do otherwise?’ (p. 2).

Sixty-five pages later however, Jones describes why they should ‘do otherwise’, providing a rational for the destruction of hidden items:

‘Now one cannot hear of the useful mercies of God being thus destroyed, and made useless without some grief and anxiety, to know the reasons why the Spirits of those who have lived in the world do desire this thing, and God suffers it also to come to pass … And what reasons can there be, but that partly the Spirits of the dead, do it out of envy that others do enjoy what they are depriv’d of, and partly it may be, because they foresee that what they have gathered amiss, and used amiss, will be yet used amiss, it may be more used amiss; which will reflect upon themselves by way of punishment for providing means to make others more wicked and more miserable than otherwise they would have been.’ (p. 67).

Another story which features in Rees’s book, from The Cardiff Times, 11 Nov. 1893. Click on the image to read the story at

While this theological reason certainly reveals a likely internal cultural logic for the motif, it is also tempting to apply a functionalist reading to the stories as an injunction against miserliness. This is particularly interesting when viewed in conjunction with other economically-themed Welsh folk-motifs, such as the trope of fairy treasure disappearing or turning to leaves if its source is revealed to anyone else. The message here seems pretty clear, defining an acceptable attitude to money and wealth between miserly hoarding and boastful excess. Of course, we should avoid ‘explaining’ such stories down to their ‘function’, ridding them of their rich cultural specificity, but they nevertheless can provide useful insights into the values of those who believed in or related them.

The stories which Rees has collected and those which are discussed here were told at a time when there was a shifting relationship between workers, work and wealth, when conceptualisations of conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption were renegotiated within emergent class structures with new relationships with social and political power. It is therefore even more striking that he should find this extremely common motif to be ‘a little far-fetched when compared to some of the other accounts’. Was this particular trope so under-represented within newspaper accounts of ghosts and spirits, and if so why? Was it perhaps considered too commonplace to feature in the local press? Too ‘Welsh’? Was there a homogenising effect within the press on reported folk-cultures which was resistant to a particularly south Wales trope? Or is this simply Rees’s selection criteria making this account unusual, or else, have fewer newspaper editions with these types of stories survived (although the latter seems unlikely given the good representation of the south Wales press on Welsh Newspapers Online)? Sadly, the work raises more questions than it answers, and a much better analysis of ghost-lore in Welsh newspapers is needed to answer them.

Rambles and Studies of Welsh Folklore

The title of this blog implies travel – wandering up and down the highways and byways of Wales, collecting knowledge about its history, culture, and folklore – and it was in this sense that it was used by the U.S. Consul to Cardiff, Wirt Sikes, in his 1881 work. Sikes enjoyed a good wander, which he did both for leisure and vocation, travelling to the areas under his administrative authority to report back to the State Department and to gather knowledge for his publications. These, of course, included his British Goblins (1880), which discusses various ghosts, goblins, and fairies, information about which was gleaned from literature, previous folkloric studies, and his own travels and correspondence. In 1879, for instance, he wrote to the antiquarian, artist, and illustrator of British Goblins, T. H. Thomas (Arlunydd Penygarn) enquiring after the Pwcca’r Trwyn, a spirit which was supposed to have haunted a farmhouse in north-west Monmouthshrie: ‘Where does your Pwcca’r Trwyn friend live? The Trwyn Farm has long been on my slate as one of the next places I tramp to, as soon as we get pleasant weather. Are you ever a tramp?’ [1]

Travel as a methodology for folklore collection was nothing unusual. Travel literature has long been a source for folkloric beliefs, especially as they often contain ethnographic accounts of the population of the country or region through which the traveller journeys. This is intensified when the local population is presented as particularly foreign from the writer or assumed audience. In Wales, accounts of ghost and fairy beliefs, as well as local folk-practices, can be found in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travelogues which record what their authors felt were ‘quaint’, ‘rustic’, or ‘romantic’. The tendency to describe and ridicule Welsh folk beliefs was connected with the idea of the Welsh as a particularly ‘magical’ or ‘superstitious’ people, something Theophilis Jones writing in the Cambrian Register under the pseudonym of CYMRO in 1799, reacted strongly to.[2] However, the presentation of folkloric and supernatural stories in such travel literature goes back much further than eighteenth-century tours of Wales, the story of Elidyr’s visit to fairyland in Book 1, Ch. 8 of Geraldus Cambrensis’s Itenerarium Cambriae (1191) being a classic case in point. But the relationship between Welsh folklore and travel goes deeper than a collection methodology, and themes of travel appear throughout Welsh supernatural accounts and their presentation.

Travel offered the opportunity to meet new people and share news and stories, as the gathering of folkloric accounts through travel attests. It is no surprise therefore that travel was often used as a framing device for the presentation of supernatural stories. One of the best-known early modern Welsh texts concerning the supernatural is Robert Holland’s mid sixteenth-century dialogue Tydyr ag Ronw [Tudyr and Gronw], which was republished in several late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century editions of the hugely popular work Canwyll y Cymry [The Welshmen’s Candle]. There, it was retitled and explicitly described as an exchange of supernatural stories while travelling: ‘Ddau Gymro yn Taring, Ym Mhell o’i Gwlad, ac yn ymgyfwrdd ar fynydd, yn chwedleua am a welson ac a glywson ynghylch consurwyr, rheibwyr, dewiniaid a’r fath’ [Two Welshmen tarrying far from their country, and meeting on a mountain converse about what they have seen and heard regarding conjurers, witches, wizards, and the like]. This is an interesting framing devise considering that a large section of the text is told to Tudyr by Gronw while sitting by a Scottish fireplace! The title, therefore, consciously and purposefully focuses on a theme of travel, concentrating the reader’s attention on the main exchange of knowledge during the mountainside meeting rather than this more domestic setting.

‘The Old Woman of the Mountain’ by T. H. Thomas in Wirt Sikes, British Goblins (1880), Frontispiece.

Similarly, Charles Redwood’s later stylised collection of supernatural stories and local Glamorgan folk-life, The Vale of Glamorgan: Scenes and Tales Among the Welsh (1839), opens with several chapters which use the narrator and his nephew Davy travelling home at night as a narrative device in which they meet others on the road and discuss stories of goblins, ghosts, and other supernatural horrors. After a break wherein the narrator relates some choice practices of local interest, he and Davy decide to go for a grouse shoot which brings them to a tavern where they meet ‘Iolo the bard’, likely a characterisation of Iolo Morgannwg, who ‘had been wandering on some fantastic ramble’. Iolo tells them stories which he has experienced and encountered on his own travels, including being fairy-led by ‘goblin fire’ into the ‘valley of the glooms’ while out walking at night. Indeed, in The Vale of Glamorgan, by and large, supernatural stories are related when the narrator is travelling or outside his own community, while descriptions of local practices are not framed in this way.

The opportunity travel presented to gather new information also served to introduce supernatural elements within the accounts themselves. One case in point is the story where a Welsh traveller, usually a drover, travels to London with a hazel stick. He meets a man on London Bridge who asks him where he got his stick and aids him in accessing a cave, back in Wales, filled with treasures and sleeping warriors, usually either King Arthur and his men or Owain Glyndŵr and his men. The traveller is instructed not to touch a bell in the room, but if he does so the warriors will awake and ask whether the time has come, in which case he replies that it has not and the warriors return to their rest.[3]

Of course, the most salient connection between travel and supernatural folklore is the likelihood of encountering the supernatural whilst travelling. Travel took people outside of their community, traversing spatial and social boundaries and placing them within unfamiliar contexts. It was also, from the mid-eighteenth century, an increasingly common and relatable experience, as the proliferation of turnpiking from the late 1750s and the establishment of various stage and mail coaching routes led to wider improvement of transportation systems throughout Wales, albeit fostering conditions in which travel was increasingly segregated. Travel, however, remained a dangerous and arduous undertaking, especially at night or in bad weather, as travellers were vulnerable to assault, robbery, accident, or injury.

It was also beset with supernatural dangers, as fairies and other demonic encounters could be employed to explain a traveller’s misfortune or disappearance, or else demarcate liminal spaces and geographical areas wherein the supernatural was most likely to cause harm.[4] Stories wherein people are trapped dancing in fairy circles or in fairy land for a year and a day, or for much longer, returning only to die, were particularly common in Wales, and the accident is often told as occurring to travellers, especially those who are courting. As in other cultures, other spirits could act as inges fatui to lead travellers astray or into danger, while a night-time jaunt over a dark and desolate landscape was, as ever, a prime circumstance in which to encounter a ghost or evil spirit. Travellers also often encountered death portents, such as the cŵn annwn or corpse candles. W. Howells in Cambrian Superstitions (1831) tells that coach passengers on their way from Llandeilo to Carmarthen saw three corpse candles near Golden Grove which presaged the drowning of three men who attempted to cross a nearby stream in coracles not long thereafter.

‘Pwcca’ by T. H. Thomas, from Wirt Sikes, British Goblins (1880), p. 23

Written in the late eighteenth century, in a period in which travel was becoming increasingly commonplace and accessible, by an itinerant preacher, Edmund Jones’s accounts of the supernatural in his Geographical, Historical, and Religious Account of the Parish of Aberystruth (1779) and Apparitions of Spirits in the Principality of Wales (1780) feature travel prominently. Indeed, over a third of accounts in the latter work involve travel in some way, while fewer than a quarter occurred in the home. Jones’s tales, many of which have been related on this blog before (here, here, and here) see humble travellers led stray by ghostly grey ladies, attacked by hellish dogs, and terrified by great balls of fire. One, John ab John of Cwn-Celin in north-west Monmoutshire, is even attacked by a phantom coach – a clear connection with contemporary travel.

Jones and others also discuss involuntary supernatural travel: the transportation of people through the air by ghosts, fairies, or evil spirits. This happened to Jones’s own brother, who, admittedly during a night of drunken revelry, was transported from Breconshire to Newport and back. The most notable example of spiritual travel involved from a young man from Ystradgynlais, Breconshire, who was transported by the spirit of a woman to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In life, the woman had hidden two hundred pounds and the man was ordered to dispose of this in a body of water before returning. The journey took three days, a long time implying actual travel, but still a supernaturally short time for the late eighteenth century.

The nature of these supernatural connections with travel offer insight into cultural perceptions of transportation and the interconnectedness of social and geographical space within Welsh society. Wales has always been a difficult landscape though which to move, not just because of Lord Beeching and cuts to local bus services. The prominence of travel in late eighteenth-century accounts reflects the growing importance, accessibility, and necessity of travel in response to infrastructural and cultural change. It is likely no coincidence that the spirit in Jones’s account transported the young man to Philadelphia, a city with a prominent Welsh diaspora population, rather than New York or Boston. Similarly, in discussing the prominence of London Bridge in the story of Arthur’s/Glyndŵr’s cave, John Rhŷs noted:

London Bridge formerly loomed very large in the popular imagination as one of the chief wonders of London, itself the most wonderful city in the world. Such at any rate was the notion cherished as to London and London Bridge by the country people of Wales, even within my own memory (vol II, p. 466).

The idea of traveling to London, another major site of Welsh diaspora, to make your fortune was a real as well as a legendry one, and the point that the real treasure was in Wales all along should not be missed. Travel then was a cultural experience, and not just a practical or economic activity, and this is reflected in Welsh folklore, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries when Wales was itself experiencing a period of unprecedented infrastructural change.


[1] Wirt Sikes to T. H. Thomas, 4 January 1879, Cardiff Public Library MS. 2.1360. See also Christabel Hutchings, The Correspondence of Thomas Henry Thomas ‘Arlunydd Penygarn’ (Newport: South Wales Record Society, 2012), p. 69. For moray about the Pwcca’r Trwyn, see Adam N. Coward, ‘Edmund Jones and the Pwcca’r Trwyn’, Folklore, 126: 2 (Aug 2015), 177–95 (esp. 178–81),

[2] See Hywel M. Davies, ‘Wales in English Travel Writing 1791–8: The Welsh Critique of Theophilus Jones.’ Welsh History Review. 23:3 (2007) 65–93.

[3] See John Rhŷs, Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx (New York: Gordon Press, 1974 (org pub 1901)), vol. II, pp. 458–66; Elissa R. Henken, National Redeemer: Owain Glyndŵr in Welsh Tradition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), pp. 80–83.

[4] See Peter Narváez, ‘Newfoundland Berry Pickers “In the Fairies”: Maintaining Spatial, Temporal, and Moral Boundaries Through Legendry’, in Narváez (ed.) The Good People: New Fairylore Essays (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997), pp. 336–67.

‘Yuppification’ or ‘Historical Character’: Regenerating Cardiff Bay and St. Charles, MO

As this blogpost touches on issues related to work for my employer, I just want to take the opportunity to make it clear that the views expressed here (and elsewhere on this blog) are my views and not those of my employer. Nor are they the views which are brought to bear in the work which I undertake for my employer, in which I strive to maintain a high degree of professionalism and impartiality. Good? Clear? Now let’s get to the good stuff.

Modern Cardiff Bay.

With the Eisteddfod there this year I’ve been increasingly looking at this history of Cardiff Bay, particularly Butetown. I never went to the Bay much when I lived in Cardiff, usually only venturing down when I had company. It was all a bit too generic and expensive. I preferred to stick to the pubs of Roath – the Gower (now gone), the Roath Cottage (ditto), the Crwys, and the Albany. I was aware, because of my knowledge of the place’s history, that there were some grand buildings, but things like the Coal Exchange weren’t exactly worth visiting in the late naughties/early twenty-teens, and many still aren’t. What was there still to be seen? The Norwegian Church and the Peirhead building, fair enough, and the Senedd is always worth a look, but the focus remains on a concreated-over dock basin, a metal dome with two intermingling poems which aren’t the easiest to decipher (yes, I know that’s the point), and a steel and glass shopping/restaurant quarter – not exactly my scene.

Still, looking into it more, the processes by which the Bay has been transformed from a rich industrial built landscape with grand Victorian offices, humble workers’ homes, and huge warehouse into a modern conglomeration of chain restaurants and bars with a capitol building and a musical arts centre are in equal parts fascinating and frustrating. Looking at this process of regeneration, I necessarily view it through the experience of growing up in a town with its own regenerated downtown historic quarter – St. Charles, MO, USA. Comparisons between the two are interesting, particularly given their respective histories, approaches, and outcomes.

The muddy flats beyond Cardiff town remained undeveloped until after the increased industrialisation of the Valleys demanded the building of canals and the establishment of shipping south of the old Town Quay (near where the Tiny Rebel Bar at the end of Womanby Street is now). Some development occurred as the canal and shipping progressed southwards, but the history of Butetown and Cardiff Bay properly begin in 1839 with the establishment of the Bute (West) Docks. Further docks followed, such as the Bute East Dock (now Atlantic Warf), Roath Dock, and, finally, the massive Queen Alexandra Dock in 1907. These in turn prompted not only cranes, canals, railways, warehouses, and graving docks, but also shipbuilders, ship chandlers, pubs, hotels, shops, and houses. As the wealth pouring in grew to almost obscene proportions, many of the humbler dwellings, with their simple cottage or Georgian-esque architecture, were replaced by the ornate structures of the high Victorian, Edwardian, and 1920s and ’30s. For instance, Mount Stuart Square was originally constructed of the simpler two- and three-storey architecture which can still be seen in numbers 20–23 and numbers 58–59, but from the 1880s this was replaced by grander structures, with the original central green space filled by the massive Coal Exchange in 1884–5. However, despite the insane wealth flowing from the juggernaut that was coal in the early-twentieth century, the economy declined dramatically after the World Wars leading to widespread dereliction, but also the rich multiculturalism and nightlife of Tiger Bay (Hilling, 173–85).

Farmers Home on South Main St, St Charles

The first European to settle at St. Charles, MO, was the French-Canadian hunter Louis Blanchette who built a cabin for himself and his Native American wife on what is now South Main Street. The settlement, established under Spanish authority, was known as Les Petite Cotes until it was re-named San Carlos in 1791 in honour of St Charles Borromeo. The settlement persevered as an important point west of the Mississippi, passing into U.S. possession as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and serving as an embarkation point for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Afterwards, settlers from the Kentucky region moved into the area, expanding and reshaping the settlement, followed by German immigrants, especially after 1829 publication of Gottfried Duden’s Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America and the 1833 establishment of the Gießen Auswanderer Gesellschaft (Giessen Emigration Society) encouraged immigration to St. Charles County. When Missouri became a state in 1821, it was decided to build the capitol, Jefferson City, in the centre of the state. While this was being completed, the state government was based in the Peck Bros. store on Main Street, St Charles, from 1821 to 1826. The city of St. Charles continued to expand across the nineteenth century with the impressive brightly-coloured residences, with their verandas, porches, and turrets, throughout ‘Old Town’ St. Charles showing its prosperity. [1]

By the second half of the twentieth century, both Butetown and downtown St. Charles had fallen into decline and both set out to revitalise, with determined efforts to reinvigorate the economy through restoration of historic buildings or else new building projects. They were, of course, not alone in this as many other post-industrial and port cities on both sides of the pond sought to do the same thing, providing a model for emulation. In the United States, historic preservation and regeneration became a greater priority from the 1960s, with the greater availability of public funding and permission for historic rehabilitation and restoration schemes. In Missouri, a series of tools for regeneration were approved in the 1950s, when St. Charles used the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) to build the Parkridge Apartments in the 1950s (Elhmann, p. 602).

The LCRA was largely inactive in St. Charles until the late 1960s, however. Nor was St. Charles a particularly blighted area. Indeed it has been estimated that St. Charles County experienced $20m in residential and commercial building in 1965 alone, and from 1965 and 1985 it was one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S. (Elhmann, p. 585)  However, the city of St. Charles suffered slightly worse fortunes than the rest of the county, as much of the new building occurred ‘in the county’ (i.e. not in incorporated city limits) or in the newer cities such as St. Peters and O’Fallon. The city of St. Charles also had a general reluctance to compulsory annexation of new built-up areas until the 1970s. Unfortunately, this meant a decline in the commercial prospects of the city as shoppers increasingly forsook Main Street, St. Charles, for the new larger shopping districts, malls, and strip malls constructed off of I-70 or Highway 94 (Ibid, pp. 593–601).

the First State Capitol on Main Street, St. Charles. Note the new builds in a similar style.

In the 1960s, St. Charles decided to use its historical character as a corrective to this. Clay Street was remained ‘First Capitol Drive’ in 1965 to highlight the city’s claim to fame, and the First Capitol Building itself was renovated/rebuilt and reopened in 1970 (Ehlman, p. 602).  In 1966, City Council Ordinance No. 3362 established a ‘Historical Designation’ category for relevant structures, while Ordinance No. 3375 declared downtown to be the ‘St Charles Historic District’ and established a Board of Architectural Review to guide all future construction in the area. In 1967 an application was made for federal regeneration funds and a project was set out including the downtown area, riverfront, and historical district (Kramer and Snider, pp. 1–2). Work began in 1969 on the restoration / renovation of three properties, all on Main Street: the Western House, Farmers Tavern, and Stone Row, with many more structures throughout the area to follow (Memories of Main).

The vision for the area was largely laid out in 1977 in the Historic St. Charles First State Capitol Urban Renewal Project ‘Loan and Grant Application Appendix’. Buildings were classified under four categories – historically significant, architecturally compatible, aesthetically compatible, and noncompatible/substandard – and retained, renovated, restored, or demolished accordingly. Extensive architectural guidelines were produced governing both the restoration of buildings and new construction, to produce a more uniform architecture reflecting the areas historic character. The result is not that all buildings look the same – the ornate marble of the Masonic Lodge at the north end of South Main and the simple stone of Stone Row are definitely different – but newer, twentieth-century renovations to buildings were ‘corrected’ and new builds needed to be sympathetic. Newer buildings, such as petrol stations, were demolished, as were many of the surrounding industrial buildings which had grown up around the railway tracks – not just any historic vision, but a very particular one was in mind. The waterfront, which is very much in the floodplain, was transformed into Frontier Park, with the Historic Katy Depot restored and moved there in 1977 (Memories of Main).

Not all the changes have endured. North Main was transformed into a pedestrianised shopping district, which was fairly unpopular and did not last long. But today downtown St. Charles stands as an outstanding historic district with a wide draw for tourism as well as being a matter of local pride. South Main is populated with small antique, craft, and specialty shops, as well as restaurants, while North Main hosts much of the city’s nightlife, with several bars and nightclubs popular with locals and students at Lindenwood College, although there are currently efforts to curtail the bars. [2] While not pedestrianised, the area is highly pedestrian accessible with a rough brick street controlling and slowing traffic for the safety of visitors and residents.

For all these official efforts, however, the restoration of South Main Street in particular owes much more to the efforts of private citizens, in particular the artist Archie Scott, business and restaurant owner Donna Hafer, and tobacconist John Dengler. These individuals purchased and restored a great number of buildings throughout Main Street, encouraged and advised other home and business owners to do the same, and were vocal advocates to the restoration scheme in general. Because Main Street St. Charles would not have worked without the concerted efforts of residents and community support. The St. Charles Country Historical Society (est. 1956), whose archives are on South Main Street were also at the forefront, and the activities were also promoted in the newsletter the South Main Star. Festivals and events which have since become mainstays in the St. Charles calendar also owe their origins to this period and have served to cement the place of Main Street at the heart of the St. Charles community: The Festival of the Little Hills (originating in 1969 as part of the bicentennial celebrations), Christmas Traditions, and the Fourth of July celebrations on Main Street and in Frontier Park (Memories of Main).

Katy Depot in Frontier Park, St Charles.

The efforts to revive Cardiff Bay also kicked off in the second half of the twentieth century, but with more of a mixed attitude to historic preservation. Many of the grand Victorian buildings fell into increasing disuse and dereliction across the period and were subsequently demolished, such as Gloucester Chambers at the corner of Mount Stuart Square which was destroyed after the blizzard of 1982. Similarly, much of the industrial apparatus, being largely redundant, was disposed of. The southern end of the Glamorganshire Canal is a park while the Bute West Dock was filled in and built over. Cranes, warehouses, and railway tracks were all destroyed or ripped up to facilitate new builds.

One slight exception was the Bute East Dock, the area around which is now Atlantic Warf. Here, most of the railways, coal tips, warehouses, and other buildings have been removed, the Hills Dry Docks filled in a built over. But the warehouse at the northern end of the docks survived, being transformed into the office of an architectural firm in an award-winning conversion. The Spillers and Baker Factory became apartments (although their mill at the Roath Dock met a less kind fate) and the London and North Western Warehouse is now a hotel. And it is clear this type of conversion of an area was appreciated and viewed as a positive, being awarded the County Councils’ Centenary Award in 1989 (Hilling, 188).

This type of thinking did not extend across the Bay, however. In 1987, several buildings in the area of Bute Street, Bute Place, and Bute Crescent were demolished as part of the development of the Cardiff Bay Link Road. These included the Grade II-listed Mount Stuart Hotel, the 1890s Seamen’s Institute and All Souls Church, the National Union of Seamen’s Maritime Hall , and numbers 63–68 Bute Street.

It is somewhat ironic that it was also in 1987 that the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation (CBDC) was created to facilitate the rejuvenation of the area. Based on Mount Stuart Square, their ambitious plans are laid out in a 1990 ‘Inner Harbour Area Planning Brief, Final Report’ submitted to the CBDC by Benjamin Thompson & Associates, Inc. Their main objectives were to:

  • Develop an area in which people wanted to ‘live, work and play’
  • Have high standards of quality and design including historic restoration and the establishment of detailed architectural criteria
  • To better connect the Bay and the town
  • To promote a wide range of job opportunities through mixed of development
  • To provide housing for people across the socio-economic spectrum
  • And to achieve a reputation for excellence in regeneration.

Interestingly, these goals aren’t a huge distance from the Bute Estate’s original plans for Butetown, with a mix of residential, commercial, industrial, and administrative buildings (Hilling, 184). And what a plan it is. New housing would cater for the projected upscale market but also bore the existing local population in mind.  New businesses were to be attracted to the area, but locals were also to be encouraged to maintain a local feel through entrepreneurship. Indeed, benefits for the local community are highlighted throughout, with a stress on open public spaces, greenspace, accessibility to the waterfront, improved schools and community centres, and opportunities for employment and re-training all stressed. In terms of heritage, tourism, and entertainment, the Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum would play a key role, alongside a new science centre and opera house, with other projected venues including a water hall and aquarium. The plan for Mount Stuart Square was:

to retain in full the dense urban character that exists and has been strengthened with recent improvements [for instance, the work by the CBDC on their own offices at Baltic House] through the use of careful, simple detailing in paving, street furniture, and tree planting, but to enliven the area through the imaginative use of flood lighting. (4.1.1)

At the heart of it all was the waterfront, with the Cardiff Bay Barrage transforming the bay into a giant freshwater lake (which did happen) and the retention of the West Bute Dock Basin as a water-space surrounded by trees, complete with historic ship (which did not happen, it is now Roald Dahl Plass).

But just as a middle and upper class exodus from Butetown to the suburbs of the north in the late nineteenth century leading to a change of character, so to the CBDC’s vision did not exactly go to plan. Problems of funding, changes of government, and realities on the ground all conspired against it, as is clearly seen in the story of why the Wales Millennium Centre is not the Welsh National Opera House. However, there were also apparent changes in vision. The controversial closure of the Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum to make way for the shopping and restaurant centre Mermaid Quay is a fairly symbolic case in point. Reacting to the news of the closure, then MP for Cardiff North Rhodri Morgan was reported in the Independent as stating,

It beggars belief that we could have got into a situation where for the sake of having a row of upmarket shops, we have sacrificed the Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum. It is the ultimate step in the yuppification of Cardiff Bay. It extinguishes the memory of what made Wales such a powerful force in the industrialisation of the world for one and a half centuries. It is extremely ironic that not only have railways, mines and iron works been closed in Wales, but we have now closed the museum that commemorates them.

This is a massive and direct departure from the St. Charles approach. As Ann Watkins Hazelwood discussed in the 2013 documentary Memories of Main, in rejuvenation there was a careful and constant balancing act between preservation and commerce with both having to be reeled in somewhat in order to further the historic vision while still making it commercially viable. A focus on smaller, local businesses which fit the needs and character of the area has been essential to the success of Main Street, St. Charles, (and was a prominent aspect of the CBDC’s plan), in contrast to an approach which places emphasis on chain restaurants and stores at the expense of older buildings and local character and history.

The Roath Basin lock gates, a stone’s throw from the Senedd Building, have seen better days.

And there is some sense of an erasure of the history of Butetown throughout redevelopment, with many of the buildings allowed to continue into a state of dereliction and the removal rather than conversion of many industrial structures. Even the historic Coal Exchange had to be controversially saved by a private company through conversion into a hotel. However, more recently Cory’s Building on Bute Street is being converted into luxury flats, but with support of the Development Bank of Wales. Things like this are encouraging that there may be a future for such buildings and a new interest in sprucing up the historic area, but coming after years of neglect and demolition it is too late for a lot of structures.

Instead of the strict adherence to building in ‘historic’ styles like St. Charles, Cardiff Bay has focused on new buildings in innovative designs, forming a break with the high-Victorian ornamentation of the past. And to be perfectly fair, while I obviously have a preference for the St. Charles approach, there are good arguments on both sides, and from a purely aesthetic point of view the issue is largely a matter of taste. The loss of historic structures and the social and cultural histories they represent is more lamentable, but both the St. Charles and Cardiff approaches have consciously chosen a particular historical narrative to represent, both of which necessarily exclude other histories.

More crucial is how rejuvenation supports and suits the needs of the local community. Unfortunately, this is something I am less qualified to comment on: not being a member of the Cardiff / Tiger Bay community it is not exactly my place to say. But there are some things which do stand out, particularly the destruction of Butetown’s lower-income housing in the 1960s and ’70, and the loss of the nightclubs, music venues, and bars which made Tiger Bay famous, such as the Casablanca Club on Mount Stuart Square, now part of a car park. Whether those communities are now being well served by the chain restaurants and luxury flats which have been the focus of the redevelopment seems somewhat dubious.

Of course, it’s not like the St. Charles approach was without its detractors or victims. Writing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Daily Banner News, Fred L. Pratt condemned the plans. [3] In a letter to the Post-Dispatch on 14th September he derided the ‘cool $40,000’ needed to

create a tourist trap out of a handful of semi-historical old buildings on the waterfront, far removed from a nice residential area that has been gerrymandered into the plan to make a nice package. The people living in the area, over 500 families, were not consulted as to their wishes or needs and apparently will not be.

Similarly, on 30th September he sardonically mused

Since our part of town has been established as sub-standard, and by connotation its residents as well, doesn’t it seem strange that it is the city planners who are so enthusiastic about the something for nothing Urban Renewal grant instead of the slum dwellers themselves.

In 1972, a group of around thirty concerned citizens organised a meeting against the plans, most of them owners of properties facing compulsory purchase. The principle speaker at the meeting, attorney Larry Boschert, emphasised two main points: that the City’s financing for the project was unclear, but also that there was inadequate relocation housing for those who would be displaced by the project. [3]

The focus on revitalisation of the downtown area in a way which was overwhelmingly appealing to middle-class sensibilities, and the overwhelming ‘whiteness’ of the plan’s champions, also should be viewed in the context of St. Charles’s contemporary reluctance to allow the construction of social housing, a concern which was almost certainly racially charged. As late as 1973, Parkridge Apartments near Blanchett Park in St. Charles (admittedly built in the ‘50s by the LCRA) remained the only social housing in the county. The majority of residents there had been black since 1960, compounding the local perceived association between social housing and minorities. In that same year, social housing was so woefully inadequate throughout the county that it was estimated that 300 further units were badly needed. When the St John’s AME Church’s attempts to build multifamily housing was voted down by the city council, one resident was described in the Banner-News as opposing it as a ‘poor working man of the white race’ (Ehlmann, p. 556–57). The difference between the City’s desire and ability to revitalise a historical district and its capability in providing adequate social housing to the economically disadvantaged and minorities is striking. Nor is it an issue limited to the revitalisation of St. Charles, as the clearing of the residences and businesses of Wales’s oldest and richest multicultural community in Tiger Bay in the 1960s and ‘70s certainly attests.

The Cardiff Coal Exchange, now The Exchange Hotel.

Despite their different outcomes, both plans to rejuvenate historical districts have met with difficulties and major drawbacks, but neither has been wholly unsuccessful. While talk of a Welsh Venice were certainly both premature and hyperbolic, Cardiff Bay is a centre of commerce and government, even if it is also a stark illustration of inequality of wealth. But then, when was it not? Dockworkers, sailors, singers, and prostitutes lived within stones’ throws of monstrous nineteenth-century temples to Mammon across its history. Men once sat writing million pound cheques less than a mile from other men doing back-breaking physical labour for the same industry. However, Cardiff Bay has not, in my opinion (and this may be a bit of ‘hometown’ pride), achieved the same success in historical conservation, nor in creating the same type of community events, although it is to be hoped that the current Eisteddfod goes some way in changing that. Because for all the controversy and condemnation there is still community in Butetown, as there ever was, with institutions like the Butetown Community Centre and groups like Tiger Bay and the World eager to foster community spirit and share community stories.

At the end of the day, there are merits to both cities’ approaches, as well as drawbacks, and I think it might be good to see a bit more of St. Charles in Cardiff Bay, and maybe a bit more of Butetown in St. Charles.


[1] For the general history of St. Charles see Hollrah (ed.) History of St Charles County, Missouri (1765–1885) and Ehlman, Crossroads: A History of St. Charles County, Missouri.

[2] The St. Louis Post Dispatch has decided that being GDPR compliant (not stealing and selling your personal data) is just too much of a trouble and have blocked access to their website in Europe, meaning I am admittedly not well informed on this matter. More may be able to be seen here, (although I can’t actually read it, so I don’t know. Open news media, am I right).

[3] St. Charles County Historical Society Archives, MS 3782 LCRA, F2.


Further Reading:

In 2013, the St. Charles Country Historical Society Archives produced a wonderful documentary about the regeneration of South Main Street, entitled, Memories of Main, it is available for purchase from them (and they are brilliant people, so support them by purchasing one!).

The Glamorgan Archives have an excellent blog with many posts about various sites which formerly existed throughout the bay.

There is also information about hundreds of sites throughout Cardiff Bay on the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales’s resource, Coflein.

You can also check out Tiger Bay and the World for images and other resources.

Steve Ehlman, Crossroads: A History of St. Charles County, Missouri, Bicentennial Edition (St. Charles: 2011).

David Hilling, ‘Through Tiger Bay to Cardiff Bay – Changing Waterfront Environment’, Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1990)173–191.

Paul R. Hollrah (ed.) History of St Charles County, Missouri (1765–1885), (1997, originally published 1885)

Gerhrdt Kramer and Felix E. Snider, ‘Historic St. Charles First State Capitol Urban Renewal Project Mo. R-93, Part I Loan and Grant Application Appendix’ (Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority of the City of St Charles, Missouri: 1977). This document is currently being digitized.

Benjamin Thompson & Associates, Inc., ‘Inner Harbour Area Planning Brief, Final Report’ (Cardiff Bay Development Corporation: 1990)

I would particularly like to thank the staff and volunteers of the St. Charles Country Historical Society Archives for all their kind assistance. Seriously people, if you are from St. Charles (or even if you aren’t) support these guys!

The ‘Spiritual Botanology’ of Edmund Jones: Its Contents, Context, and Importance (4/4)

This is part four of four of a lecture originally delivered at the Annual General Meetings of the South Wales Record Society and the Glamorgan Historical Society, held at Glamorgan Archives on 12 May 2018. Part one can be read here.


The Spiritual Botanology, then, presents a wide range of valuable information, giving us a greater understanding of Jones’s theological philosophy and personal life, as well as a broad view of aspects of the social, cultural, and medical history of eighteenth-century Wales. However, the work is not only significant for the information it presents but also how it presents this information. Jones’s published works, his sermons excepted, each take different approaches to the presentation of information. As noted in its preface, Account of the Parish of Aberystruth is largely based on a questionnaire which was printed in the April 1755 Gentelman’s Magazine, with the information presented in different sections headed with titles such as ‘Of the Measure and Extent of the Parish’, ‘Of the Soil and Product of the Earth, Internal, and External’, and ‘Of the Population and Inhabitants of the Parish’ which largely follow the interests and phrasing of similar antiquarian questionnaires of the period. Of course, Jones has taken this pattern and made it, to some extent, his own, including sections such as one on the spiritual inferences derived from the geography of the parish and of course  his section ‘Of Apparitions, and Agencies of Spirits in the Parish of Aberystruth.’ Relation of Apparitions of Spirits is quite different. After an initial introduction, a massive list of personal accounts in presented, one after another, grouped together by geographical region following a ‘tour’ of Wales beginning in Aberystruth and travelling around western Monmouthshire, before heading to north Wales and travelling, county by county, back towards Monmouthshire. These are followed by several accounts from England. These accounts are interspersed with some commentary by Jones, but the work largely relies on the sheer weight of evidence from so many accounts to make its point rather than developing a clear narrative or argument across the work.

In contrast to both of these works, the Spiritual Botanology is written as a dialogue between two fictional people, Lucilius and Docilius: ‘The 10th day of May 1771 two men, who were acquaintance and relations; the one who shall be named Docilius, ie a teachable man: the other who shall be named Lucilius, a man of light and knowledge, and of a capacity, and aptness to instruct, met together; and after salutation had the following conversation’ (p. 41). This form reflects the work’s didactic purpose, as it was a popular narrative framing device among seventeenth- and eighteenth-century puritan, nonconformist, and revivalist writers, such as Morgan Llwyd’s Llyfr y Tri Aderyn (1653) and William Williams, Pantycelyn’s, Drws y Society Profiad (1777). It was also used by the English clergyman and writer James Hervey, to whom Jones refers several times in his work, in his Theron and Aspasio (1755), and, notably, by the only Renaissance demonologist to publish in Welsh, Richard Holland, in his Tudyr a Gronw (1593) which was republished in Stephen Hughes’s hugely popular Canwyll y Cymry from 1681. The dialogue allowed the message to be framed in a conversation between two actors, one of which was knowledgeable and stood in for the author, while the other stood in for the reader and presented anticipated questions, opinions, and objections to which the author’s character could respond, hopefully leading the readers’ character to learn a new lesson. Indeed, as the Spiritual Botanology progresses, Docilius takes a more active role in the conversation, offering new information and expanding on Lucilius’s theological arguments, clearly showing that, like Docilius, the reader too can actively participate in the religious analysis of the botanical world around them, once their eyes have been opened by Lucilius’s discourse.

It is not only the use of dialogue as a framing device in which the Spiritual Botanology differs in style from Jones’s other works, but also in its extensive use of poetry. Jones does use poetry in the Account of the Parish of Aberystruth to summarise his religious history of the parish and express his hopes for the future, but this is only two, four-line stanzas. In contrast, the Spiritual Botanology is largely written in poetry. While there is some variation, most of the sections follow the same pattern: a short introductory conversation in which the pair meet and briefly introduce the plant in front of them during which Docilius asks for Lucilius’s discourse on the plant. Lucilius then discusses the herb and its religious signification in blank verse followed by a short response in prose by Docilius. Lucilius then finishes by summering in rhyming stanzas before the two discuss what herb they will explore next. Occasionally, a section will warrant two sections of rhyming stanzas to properly celebrate the point, or else the subject may prove too unwieldy for blank verse and a mixture of prose and rhyming stanzas is employed instead. Towards the end of the book Docilius even tries his hand at the blank verse sections, reinforcing the lesson that the reader, too, can appreciate the wonders of God’s creation and speak about them.

Rather than just for literary effect, the poetry in the Spiritiual Botanology is, like the dialogue within which is it presented, adopted for its didactic merits. As Jones noted in another manuscript, ‘a little musick in the sound of words, may help to raise attention, and help remembrance of good things; and if so, it is useful, and should not be blamed, especially where a man’s gift, naturally leads him so to express himself’ (NLW MS 17054D, p. 280). Jones does not claim any natural gift for poetry, quite to the contrary his work is full of apologies for the deficiencies therein, and he insists throughout that the mnemonic not the euphonic is his goal. There are, however, two very interesting poems among the others, written in Welsh strict metre, or, as Jones refers to it,

that kind of rhime, sometimes usd with us in Wales, the first second and fourth line of wch end in a like sound, consisting each of seven syllables; the third line of eight syllables: and in the middle of the last line of the stanza, must be a word of a like sound with the last word of the third line; wch makes a very taking gingle in poetry, when the words run smooth: of wch we have a curious example in the Revd Mr Morgan Lloid of Wrexam’s poem upon the seven planets; and his elegy upon that great saint of North Wales, Morris William Powel (p. 64).

Jones’s association of the metre with a religious writer rather than a Welsh bard is telling, as it reinforced the message that his were, first and foremost, religious works and works about flowers or fairies, or even Welsh works, second. But his writings are, nevertheless, an important contribution to the canon of Welsh writing in English, presenting Anglophone works by a Welsh author of a particularly Welsh character long before Dylan Thomas was even thought of. This Welsh quality is often muted, as it is in the Spiritual Botanology, where Jones does not self-identify as Welsh with his authorial voice, but rather draws on Welsh words, examples, experiences, historical figures, and cultural touchpoints, not to purposefully be Welsh, but because he is Welsh. The voice which Jones uses and the subject matter on which he focuses throughout his works refers to a culture which was threatened by the tides of industrialisation which would transform his home after his death, but it is also one, nevertheless, which had something to say to the Wales which came after him – a humble Welsh nonconformist, truly one of y werin.

It is for this reason that, following the example of Thomas Rees and other Independent historians, as well as those folklorists who would begin to celebrate Welsh fairy stories, Jones became a popular subject across the nineteenth century, and his published works became a staple for those investigating the history of Welsh folklore, religion, and society. But not the Spiritual Botanology, which still remains little know or utilised. As I have shown over the course of these four blogposts, the Spiritual Botanology is an important work, giving us valuable insight into the history and culture of eighteenth-century Wales and the life of its author, as well as being an important contribution to our understanding of eighteenth-century Welsh writing in English. However, despite being in a highly-finished state, the Spiritual Botanology has remained in manuscript form, locked away in private collections before, through the kindness of William Haines, coming to rest at the Newport Public Library where it can still be seen today.

No doubt, when Haines left Jones’s manuscript, along with an equally impressive manuscript of sermons, to the library, he hoped that he was safeguarding them for the future, in a way in which they could be shared and enjoyed by all. Because the systems of public libraries throughout Wales is perhaps one of the greatest benefits of Victorian and Edwardian liberalism: the free (or at least ready) access of knowledge to all. However, those invaluable institutions are increasingly under threat, endangering the collections which they hold. Others here will know better than me the situation faced by another of Jones’s manuscripts, a rough draft of Relation of Apparitions of Spirits containing accounts which remained unpublished until 2003, which was held in the local studies collection of Cardiff Public Libraries, the fate of which is still uncertain. [1] Devastating budget cuts have made these manuscripts increasingly inaccessible, with the closure or reduction of services of libraries up and down the country, even threatening institutions like the National Library itself. This is why the work of the South Wales Record Society is so invaluable. Not only does publishing these works raise their profile and bring them to the attention of scholars, but it also helps to preserve them and make them accessible to everyone. The Spiritual Botanology, like so many other manuscripts, has so much to tell us about Wales’s past, especially about the lives and beliefs of the lower and middling sorts in south Wales just prior to heavy industrialisation. It is important to remember that this Welsh history, and not just the Welsh history which can easily be translated into tourism money, is in need of safeguarding too.


[1] Ongoing discussion at the general meetings at which this paper was delivered revealed that the manuscripts of the Local Studies collection held by Cardiff Library (including this rough draft of Relation of Apparitions of Spirits by Jones as well as important documents by and pertaining to Lady Augusta Hall of Llanover (Gwenynen Gwent), the publisher William Rees of Ton, and Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg), as well as the correspondence between of Wirt Sikes and T. H. Thomas (Arlunydd Penygarn) among many, many others) remain in a precarious position following the decision by Cardiff Council to defund the Local Studies services several years ago. The printed books in the collection have been moved to the new Heritage Library in Cathays, but not the manuscripts. The last time I consulted materials in the collection several were in desperate need of specialist conservation. The documents may still be viewed with special permission and by special arrangement. These were provisions which were in place a few years ago where I had to arrange several weeks in advance for a special appointment to see a letter by Thomas Stephens in a disused meeting room. Since the presentation of this paper, I have been in contact with a Cardiff councillor who has informed me that collection will be loaned to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.  This will hopefully safeguard the collection and make them accessible, albeit after a likely extensive cataloguing and conservation process. Still, it is deeply disappointing that Cardiff County Council has effectively abdicated its responsibility for the invaluable manuscripts in its care and that it has taken so long for this decision to take place and be effected. It should be noted that all of this frustrating and distressing episode has happened despite the considerable efforts by the excellent library staff (or what has been left of them after the cuts).


All citations from the Spiritual Botanology are from:

Edmund Jones, A Spiritual Botanology: Shewing What of God Appears in the Herbs of the Earth; Together with some of their Natural Virtues and Uses. ed. by Adam N. Coward. (Newport: South Wales Record Society, 2017).

Works Cited and Further Reading:

Anon., ‘The Rev. EDMUND JONES, late Minister of Ebenezer Chapel, near Pontipool, in the Parish of Trevathin, SouthWales’, Evangelical Magazine (1794), 177–85.

John Harvey (ed.), Appearance of Evil: Apparitions of Spirits in Wales (Cardiff:


Edmund Jones, A Geogrpahical, Historical, and Religious Account of the Parish of Aberystruth (Trevecka: 1779)

Edmund Jones, A Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the Principality of Wales ([Trevecka]: 1780).

Edgar Phillips, Edmund Jones ‘The Old Prophet’ (London: 1959).

Thomas Rees, History of Protestant Nonconformity in Wales, From its Rise in

1633 to the Present Time (London: 1861).

Alun Withey, Physick and the Family: Health, Medicine and Care in Wales 1600–

1750 (Manchester: 2011).

The Spiritual Botanology of Edmund Jones: Its Contents, Context, and Importance (3/4)

This is part three of four of a lecture originally delivered at the Annual General Meetings of the South Wales Record Society and the Glamorgan Historical Society, held at Glamorgan Archives on 12 May 2018. Part one can be read here.

As the reference to Davies’s Welsh Botanology (in the last segment) highlights, the Spiritual Botanology is not exactly the only source for Welsh plants and their uses in the eighteenth century. Indeed, Jones refers to many other works on botany and herbalism throughout the work, including authors like Rembert Dodoens, John Gerard, Casper Bauhine, John Parkinson, Thomas Johnson, Nicholas Culpeper, John Ray, William Salmon, Herman Boerhaave, Carl Linnaeus, and John Hill. Those who recognise their herbalists and botanists will notice some of the major early-modern mainstays like Culpeper, alongside more ‘modern’ authors such as Linnaeus, the ‘father of modern taxonomy’ and developer of binomial nomenclature. Much of this is ‘namedropping’, albeit rarely superfluously so, as the very well-read Jones wished to stress his authority on the subject by demonstrating his reading. However, Jones also acknowledged freely where he derived knowledge from published sources. In discussing crowfoot (a type of buttercup), he notes that ‘Culpepper saith, that he once knew it applyd to a pestilential rising that was fallen down, and it saved life beyond hope’, while Hill notes that ‘the two sides of a walnut shell being filled with the leaves of the hot, not the cold crowfoot, and applied to the temples, is a notable remedy for the headach’ (p. 179).

This reference to the ‘hot’, ‘cold’, ‘wet’, and ‘dry’ qualities of herbs may seem somewhat atavistic, or at least ‘rustic’ and ‘popular’ in comparison with other eighteenth-century naturalists. As part of my work for the ‘Curious Travellers’ project at the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies I am compiling a comprehensive ‘superlist’ of the correspondence of the naturalist and travel writer Thomas Pennant. This includes letters between Pennant and other naturalists like Carl Linnaeus, Joseph Banks, and James Edward Smith on subjects such as the fineries of taxonomy, new discoveries at home and abroad, the exchange of specimens, and the latest scientific publications. In short, the correspondence and the Spiritual Botanology, composed in (or sent to) the same country in roughly the same time period on similar subjects, appear to be radically different. However, Jones is not merely aware of these differences but also consciously addresses and responds to them, and the way in which he does so at the end of the second volume says much about his work: ‘These men … are to be commended for studying this part of God’s creation, though they do it with too little spirituality; and for their great abilities. They use these terms indeed for brevity’s sake, because they are most compendious, and expressive; But we want plainer language’ (p. 332). As with his comments about the unpopularity of herbal cures among polite commentators, Jones was aware of the wider discourse surrounding botany but adopted a different approach to the material. However, in contrast with his work on spirits he does not present his Spiritual Botanology as a corrective to or rebuttal of an Enlightenment project of reason and progress (although that theme does appear). Rather, Jones plays more the role of the intermediary or translator between the knowledge found in these newer works and his own readership, weighing up old and new ways of speaking about the subject, just as he also compares the different meanings and significations of English and Welsh terminology.

Jones does not rely on these learned authorities alone, however. Just like the Relation of Apparitions of Spirits stresses information obtained from local informants, so the Spiritual Botanology also includes local knowledge and uses of herbs. In discussion of the water hemlock he notes, ‘a neighbour of mine, who was often troubled with the wind cholick was advisd to take as much as a farthing would hold, of the dried root grated in small drink warm or hot; and he was soon curd. I never heard of this effect of the herb, either before or after, or that it is in any book’ (p. 271). As Alun Withey has shown in his excellent work Physick and the Family (2011), this was not unusual, as noting the attestation of friends, family, or even acquaintances as to a cure’s efficacy was a common way of adding weight to its recommendation. In this case, it helps to show how medical knowledge was transmitted and shared within communities and the complex economies of medical knowledge in eighteenth-century Wales, including both established and new authoritative printed accounts alongside the oral exchange of recommendations and, as with the Spiritual Botanology which was clearly intended to be read by others, the exchange of manuscripts.

More than just the recommendations of others, Jones also included cures used by his family and himself. The toothache cure involving masterwort which I mentioned in the previous section was used by his mother, who ‘having the rheum-toothache upon her so bad, that her whole face was swollen, and her pains great, was soon cured by this means’ (p. 112). The mallows helped to cure his wife, Mary, who once had a ‘dreadful fit of the stone Cholick; the stone having fallen to the neck of the bladder, and causing a total suppression of urine. She walked about the house, groaning, and praying to God for patience’. Soon after, a medicine was brought which was ‘to be taken every 3 hours in Mallow Tea. [Jones] craved a blessing upon it and in about 3 hours time, … she began to mend, and in 3 days time the stone was totally dissolved and voided in slime’ (pp. 68-69). In his discussion of whitlow-grass, Jones mentions properties and uses derived from published authorities, especially John Hill, but he also supports this with personal experience. Having ‘made a strong infusion of these herbs’ for no particular purpose they were soon used to effectively cure his wife’s sore throat (p. 136). Other experiences with plants were more inconsequential. He notes that marigolds would kill crickets, and that he used them to kill the insects which had infested his father’s house. He also writes twice about being affected in youth by the smell of meadowsweet mixed with water hemlock, and another time about stepping on wild thyme which caused him to ‘Turn back to view it, and to smell it again. / It detain’d me, refreshd, and cheerd my spirits, / More than wine’ (p. 130).

These accounts tell us about more than the qualities and uses of plants, but also about the lives and characters of historic people and communities. The majority of the plants discussed in Jones’s work are local, commonplace Welsh herbs, encountered throughout his community during his day-to-day life. The most prominent exceptions are the ‘African flower’ and the ‘Chinese aster flower’, both of which are included for their beauty and exoticism, the latter quality being reinforced through their naming. They are also both mentioned in connection with the gardens of the local politician and industrialist, John Hanbury of Pontypool Park. His discussion, therefore, shows the types of plants growing in the gardens of a prominent local industrialist family, within changing landscapes of improvement, especially one which would undergo further significant renovation early in the next century. They also, perhaps, speak to the ways in which exotic plants were used to signify social standing and difference from the surrounding community by a prominent family of an industrial background which was still relatively new to the area. At the same time, they illustrate the awareness of the nature, significance, and signification of those plants and of a gentrified landscape near Pontypool town centre by local people. It also illustrates another difference between Jones’s work and those of other prominent naturalists such as those connected with Linnaeus or Pennant. Whereas the latter undertook or were involved with expeditions of discovery, or else were sent accounts and even specimens of plants by their fellow naturalists, Jones, like most eighteenth-century Welsh people, experienced the botanical and zoological specimens of far-away lands only through his social betters, not from his equals, and only in a local setting, if at all.

Most of the personal stories, however, involve Jones’s immediate family. Jones including stories about his family is not unique to the Spiritual Botanology. Account of the Parish of Aberystruth includes a section with over thirty short biographies of local people. These included Jones’s own mother and father, as well as his mother’s sister. The same aunt is also mentioned earlier in the work where he describes walking with her when he had his own experience with the fairies. His brother is also mentioned in the section on spirits, magic, and fairies in Aberystruth parish, as during a hunting trip to Breconshire with his father’s landlord a local witch caused him to be supernaturally transported to Newport and back. While the anonymously-published Relation of Apparitions of Spirits does not have the same focus on Jones’s family, despite the dominance of personal, first-hand accounts by people Jones knew, there are a number of accounts about Edmund and Mary Jones’s supernatural experiences among the unpublished material in a rough draft of the work held (well, kind of) by Cardiff Libraries. These include several stories about Mary’s encounters with the devil while Jones was away from home preaching in north Wales.

Despite these other discussions of Jones’s personal life and his family, it can be argued that the Spiritual Botanology is Jones’s most personal work, mostly for his discussions of his wife. Mary died on 1 August 1770, and it is no exaggeration to state that this was one of the most important events in Edmund’s life. Indeed, an anonymous biographer of Edmund, writing the year after his death (1774) noted

What the good old man felt at the loss of such a wife, it is impossible for words to describe. Though she died twenty-five years before him, he scarcely ever mentioned her name but tears involuntarily flowed from his eyes. When contemplating the joys of heaven, he frequently anticipated the pleasing interview with her. “I would not,” he said, “for half of heaven but find her there” (p. 178)

But Edmund did not take a break from preaching after Mary’s death, instead focusing on the book of Job, a striking insight into his emotional state. He also preached from other texts equally bleak, such as the death of Rachel in Genesis, as well as from Ezekiel chapter 24, verses 15 to 18:

Also the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, behold, I take away from thee the desire of thine eyes with a stroke: yet neither shalt thou mourn nor weep, neither shall thy tears run down. Forbear to cry, make no mourning for the dead, bind the tire of thine head upon thee, and put on thy shoes upon thy feet, and cover not thy lips, and eat not the bread of men. So I spake unto the people in the morning: and at even my wife died; and I did in the morning as I was commanded (KJV),

a passage which particularly captures the idea of Edmund soldering on with his pastoral duties despite his grief. And it seems that pouring himself into his work helped him to cope with the loss of Mary as in his diary (NLW, MS. 7026A), after he noted new communicants, he wrote ‘so many received to commune [the] year of my dear spouses de[ath] to [fill?] up the breach’. It was an idea which endured, as he similarly remarked in the 1773 (NLW, MS. 7027A) list of new communicants: ‘The most and best about the time of the year that my dear spouse died as if God would still to fill up her place; & to shew his respect to his beloved child.’

It is in this period that the Spiritual Botanology was composed, perhaps as another distraction from or outlet for grief. It is clear from Jones’s diaries that he had been thinking of writing the Spiritual Botanology as early as 1768, when he composed a list of ‘The herbs I had as think some special asistance [sic] to write poetically upon’ (NLW, MS 7025A). Nor was his interest a passing fad, as his anonymous biographer (1794) noted that

Frequently, when walking in the garden or fields, would he stop and pluck a flower, decant upon its nature, apply it to the state of youth “how beauteous but how fading!” then point of the necessity of that divine grace, which alone can insure [sic] immortal beauty and eternal youth; and thus strive to lead them “from Nature up to Nature’s God” (p. 180),

a pretty close summation of the Spiritual Botanology’s themes and purposes.  It is unclear if Edmund began work in earnest on the Spiritual Botanology prior to Mary’s death, but if so, it is tempting to think that his interest in herbal medicine may have been piqued by some final illness or weakening of Mary and his desire to save her. Certainly she is never far from his thoughts during the work’s composition in c.1771­–1772. She is mentioned several times throughout the work, usually under the guise of the wife of ‘S.O.’ a local man who clearly represents Edmund himself in the text.

The most heartfelt and extended of these is under the heading ‘Of herbs and plants wch have a rough appearance, and are somewhat troublesome to Handle, yet are wholesome and useful’, dated 6 August 1771 – five days after the first anniversary of Mary’s death. In this passage, she is described as ‘strong, faithful and true’:

firm as a mountain, wch cannot be overturned: ever awake towards God, ever watchful and spiritual, strongly spiritual in her ways and conversation grieving much for the rawness, and unspirituality of others. Very admirable she was to those whom she thought to be truly holy, but was terrible to loose professors. And one of her great excellencies was that she was not meek, but rough to temptations; … Another of her excellencies was, her spiritual chastity towards God, (as I may call it) I mean she was no admirer of the creature, wch is spiritual idolatry; tho but little observed: But an admirer of God; else she had not been the excellent Christian she was (pp. 227-28).

This description closely corresponds with other descriptions of her in Jones’s writings and elsewhere. It is followed by a verse eulogising her which is similar to part of a poem written by Edmund and inscribed on Mary’s tombstone: ‘Who touch’d the sceptre, bore the rod / Of Evil thou shalt see no more;/ But endless mercies still in store’. Clearly, as he remarks, ‘Her husband still morns after her (p. 228).

Certainly, this passage, along with Edmund’s diaries, gives us unique insights into his emotional state and grieving process, as well as telling us much about Edmund and Mary’s relationship –­ a relationship which, thanks to the nineteenth-century nonconformist historian Thomas Rees, became legendary within Welsh nonconformity. But it also tells us a great deal about Mary herself, and the roles and expectations of women within eighteenth-century Welsh nonconformist communities. Accessing historical women’s lives, particularly the lives of women of the lower orders, can be difficult. Mary has, however, made a forceful impression on the historical record, if only through her husband. She was not, in contrast to other ministers’ wives, perceived or presented as a ‘mere helpmeet’, but rather a deeply spiritual woman with an outspoken and forceful personality. To have such an account of this remarkable woman, written by someone who knew her best, allows us invaluable access to her personal character which combines with the stories about her in local folklore and Jones’s unpublished supernatural writings to allow us a fuller vision of her life and personality.


Be sure to come back next week for the final instalment.


All citations from the Spiritual Botanology are from:

Edmund Jones, A Spiritual Botanology: Shewing What of God Appears in the Herbs of the Earth; Together with some of their Natural Virtues and Uses. ed. by Adam N. Coward. (Newport: South Wales Record Society, 2017).

Works Cited and Further Reading:

Anon., ‘The Rev. EDMUND JONES, late Minister of Ebenezer Chapel, near Pontipool, in the Parish of Trevathin, SouthWales’, Evangelical Magazine (1794), 177–85.

John Harvey (ed.), Appearance of Evil: Apparitions of Spirits in Wales (Cardiff:


Edmund Jones, A Geogrpahical, Historical, and Religious Account of the Parish of Aberystruth (Trevecka: 1779)

Edmund Jones, A Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the Principality of Wales ([Trevecka]: 1780).

Edgar Phillips, Edmund Jones ‘The Old Prophet’ (London: 1959).

Thomas Rees, History of Protestant Nonconformity inWales, From its Rise in

1633 to the Present Time (London: 1861).

Alun Withey, Physick and the Family: Health, Medicine and Care in Wales 1600–

1750 (Manchester: 2011).

The ‘Spiritual Botanology’ of Edmund Jones: Its Contents, Context, and Importance (2/4)

This is part two of four of a lecture originally delivered at the Annual General Meetings of the South Wales Record Society and the Glamorgan Historical Society, held at Glamorgan Archives on 12 May 2018. Part one can be read here.


Jones knew it was not only the theological arguments which had the potential to attract censure from critics, as herbal-lore and, particularly medical herbal-lore was also declining in fashion at the time. In his discussion of devil’s bit, he notes that

if [the] devil envies every useful herb, / There are 10000’s of them in the world to / Give him constant vexation; However / For his comfort and content, the modern / Physicians for the most part despise herbs (p. 318).

Of course, Jones was never ignorant of the controversy or derision his works invited from contemporary readers. Writing about ghosts, fairies, and magic decades after the decriminalisation of witchcraft but before the development of widespread interest in folklore, when the public opinion was largely against ‘credulity’ and ‘superstition’, Jones knew that his views were unfashionable and indeed justified his work on that very basis: ‘I avow that it is designed to prevent a kind of Infidelity which seems to spread much in the Kingdom, especially among the Gentry and Nobility, even the denial of the being of Spirits, and Apparitions’ (1780, pp. ii-iii).

Because of Jones’s willingness to engage with topics which were relatively unpopular among ‘polite’ authors, the survival of his works is of particular importance to historians of eighteenth-century Wales. All of Jones’s major non-sermon works – and I count the Spiritual Botanology alongside the Account of the Parish of Aberystruth and Relation of Apparitions of Spirits – provide unique and detailed access to aspects of eighteenth-century Welsh life. Relation of Apparitions of Spirits is the most apparent example of this, and, indeed, the work was almost lost. According to contemporary accounts, the book was already extremely hard to come by when it was ‘republished’, with some unfortunate alternations and omissions, in 1813. Indeed, the book’s scarcity was such that an apocryphal rumour of a ‘lost’ 1767 work on apparitions by Jones emerged in the second half of the nineteenth-century and has endured to this day. Even the author of British Goblins the U.S. Consul to Cardiff, Wirt Sikes, who utilised Jones extensively, was apparently ignorant of any edition but that of 1813! But thankfully for Welsh historians and folklorists Relations of Apparitions of Spirits has survived, as has, in a round-about way, additional unpublished material about apparitions by Jones, which was published in 2003 by John Harvey. [1] These materials, alongside accounts of fairies, spirits, and cunning-men in Account of the Parish of Aberystruth, constitute some of the best and only surviving accounts from eighteenth-century Wales. Crucially, these accounts are written from the perspective of a believer, and, Jones’s own considerable editorial licence notwithstanding, are treated with a sensitivity, respect, and even reverence absent from most accounts by contemporary antiquarians or, especially, English tourists. They also differ from contemporary or early-nineteenth-century accounts from Gothic and Romantic literature, as Jones presents his accounts as real events experienced by identified actors who he regards as highly credible informants. For these reasons, and for the rich and varied nature of its over seventy-five account, Relation of Apparitions of Spirits has been extremely heavily utilised by Welsh folklorists and historians during the over two centuries since its publication.

The Account of the Parish of Aberystruth also offers a window on a lost world, and in more than just its accounts of fairies and cunning-folk. The parish described by Jones was one which was on the brink of radical change. The Jones’s Aberystruth was one of around 150 houses with a total population which he estimated at less than 500. The economy was mostly agricultural with three iron and coal mines in the northern part of the parish. But as we all know this area was on the very precipice of change. Construction on the canals connecting north-west Monmouthshire with Newport in the south was begun in 1794, the year after Jones’s death. The radical increase in industrial activity which was already beginning at the end of Jones’s life, would not only transform the social, economic, and demographic nature of the area, but even its geography. Jones described the geography of his Aberystruth parish in meticulous detail, peppering his work with a plethora of place names. However, this is not the landscape represented by even the title maps of c.1840, much less the first edition OS map a few decades later. He also discusses the people of the parish, providing over thirty short biographies of local people of the lower and middling orders. This was as a supplement to a religious history of the parish, much of it a first-hand account of the eighteenth-century religious revival in which Jones was an integral actor.

The Spiritual Botanology provides similarly unique insights, principally into eighteenth-century Welsh herbal-lore and medical culture, but also into the community in which Jones lived and, importantly, his own family. The physical and aesthetic attributes of most of the herbs in the Spiritual Botanology are described, along with their particular properties, effects when touched, smelled, or ingested, and uses. Many of these uses are, naturally, medical, giving an insight into local and contemporary medical cultures. Masterwort was described as

good for most, or many cold diseases of the stomach, and belly, as hath been found by experience. Above all its a rare purger of the gums, stomach, and brain. Among all known herbs in the world, I think none comes up to it for this; but the Pellitory of Spain. The way of using it for this end is, either to chew the root, or leaves, or rather boil them in sharp small drink. Take a mouthful of the decoction, and hold it in the mouth 7 or 8 minutes, then spit it out, and take another mouthful and hold it as long, doing this 7 or 8 times. If they draw with a stick what they spit, they shall find it like the white of an egg. … The decoction in wch the herb has been boiled, may be used two or three times without fresh herbs, but it must be used warm each time. Perhaps the juice of it taken in brandy before the cold fit, might stop the ague (p. 112).

Of particular interest, however, are uses for herbs which were not medical in nature. Some of these are familiar, such as for food or seasoning (although these are intriguingly few in number), or for use in beer-making such as hops. Others are more unexpected. Rosemary remains green throughout the year and was therefore on hand

still ready to adorn, / And prevent the evil smell of dead bodies; /Wch other sweet, and sweeter smelling herbs too / Cannot do when they smell best, and strongest. / Tho by the ignorant the Rosemary-Smell, / Is mistaken for the smell of dead bodies; / And its good smell therefore reproached; / Saying they like not the smell of the Rosemary, / Because it smells like dead bodies; while the truth / Is, the ill savour of the corps mixing with / The smell of the herb, is a disparagement / to its good scent; and so while it lessens the loathsome / scent of the corps tis to the disgrace of its own odour. / The Rosemary hath its own good savour, / But the bad scent of the corps mixes with it, / And raises prejudice in the ignorant (p. 47).

Later he notes that the southernwood was ‘put together with the Rosemary upon / Dead bodies, both for an ornament on the shroud, / And to prevent the offensive scent of the dead; / For wch cause tis calld by some Llysieu’r corph’ (p. 199).

This last description shows another important set of information in the Spiritual Botanology, namely recording the local historic Welsh names, and more importantly nicknames, of herbs. This is one of the main aspects of the work which marks it as a Welsh work, as the setting of the work is at once intentionally vague but still easily identifiable as the area around Pontypool. Indeed, it is interesting that Jones notes that some names are idiomatic or local and the many of the names used by Jones can be contrasted with Hugh Davies’s better-known Welsh Botanology (1813), which focuses on Anglesey, to see near contemporary dialectical differences between north and south.


[1] This material, published in The Appearance of Evil (2003), was thought by Harvey to be from the apocryphal 1767 work but is instead from a rough draft of Relation of Apparitions of Sprits held in the Local Studies collection of Cardiff Central Library, MS. 2.249. Unfortunately, this invaluable manuscript is not exactly accessible or secure due to the decision by Cardiff Council to defund the collection several years ago. However, a Cardiff councillor has recently informed me that the collection will be moving to the National Library of Wales, which will hopefully safeguard it and make it accessible in the future.


Be sure to come back next week for part three.


All citations from the Spiritual Botanology are from:

Edmund Jones, A Spiritual Botanology: Shewing What of God Appears in the Herbs of the Earth; Together with some of their Natural Virtues and Uses. ed. by Adam N. Coward. (Newport: South Wales Record Society, 2017).

Works Cited and Further Reading:

Anon., ‘The Rev. EDMUND JONES, late Minister of Ebenezer Chapel, near Pontipool, in the Parish of Trevathin, SouthWales’, Evangelical Magazine (1794), 177–85.

John Harvey (ed.), Appearance of Evil: Apparitions of Spirits in Wales (Cardiff:


Edmund Jones, A Geogrpahical, Historical, and Religious Account of the Parish of Aberystruth (Trevecka: 1779)

Edmund Jones, A Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the Principality of Wales ([Trevecka]: 1780).

Edgar Phillips, Edmund Jones ‘The Old Prophet’ (London: 1959).

Thomas Rees, History of Protestant Nonconformity inWales, From its Rise in

1633 to the Present Time (London: 1861).

Alun Withey, Physick and the Family: Health, Medicine and Care in Wales 1600–

1750 (Manchester: 2011).

The ‘Spiritual Botanology’ of Edmund Jones: Its Contents, Context, and Importance (1/4)

This is part one of four of a lecture originally delivered at the Annual General Meetings of the South Wales Record Society and the Glamorgan Historical Society, held at Glamorgan Archives on 12 May 2018.

 The Spiritual Botanology by the Revd Edmund Jones makes an interesting and important, albeit unusual, addition to the South Wales Record Society’s impressive inventory of publications. The work is religious in nature, providing a window into the nonconformist theology of its author and his religious community, but it is also a work about plants, including their social, cultural, and medicinal uses in eighteenth-century south Wales. It is also a deeply personal work, containing information about the life and emotions of its author. Indeed, while the Spiritual Botanology differs greatly from Jones’s other published works, I would argue that it is a key to further understanding of them, and I hope that its publication will help to serve as a corrective to its lack of use by other historians and biographers of Edmund Jones. It is, however, a work which may require some explanation, certainly of its contents and nature, but also of its invaluable and multifaceted importance to historians of eighteenth-century south Wales.

Its author, the Revd Edmund Jones, Yr Hen Broffwyd’ of the Tranch, near Pontypool, is already known for his somewhat unusual writings, particularly his Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the Principality of Wales (1780) wherein he discusses over seventy-five accounts of ghosts, fairies, and evil spirits. Jones also discussed his own and others’ experiences with ghosts and fairies in his Geographical, Historical, and Religious Account of the Parish of Aberystruth (1779), alongside a detailed survey of the geography and history of that parish, as well as biographical sketches of its most religious inhabitants. The Spiritual Botanology predates both of these works, and, at first glance, appears to be far removed from them in subject matter and style, but, as I’ll discuss, it presents similar ideas, ideals, and themes, and provides insights in Jones’s other, later writing as well as his life and beliefs.

Edmund Jones was an Independent preacher. He began preaching in the 1720s at Penmaen in Aberystruth parish, where his parent’s worshipped and in 1740 established his own congregation at Ebenezer Chapel in Pontnewynedd. Jones was deeply involved in the eighteenth-century religious revival, forging relationships with prominent revivalists like George Whitefield, Howell Harris, and Lady Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntington. He even invited Harris to preach in Aberystruth parish in 1738, effecting, in Jones’s words ‘a great revival of religion which extended more or less to every Valley in the Parish’ (1779, p. 103) As part of his involvement in the religious revival, Jones preached across the length and breadth of Wales and the border counties of England, undertaking lengthy and punishing preaching circuits throughout his long life. In addition to being noted for this itinerancy, Jones was also noted for his penury, surviving on little more than £10 a year supplemented with the private benefices of others, and for his charity, with folk-stories recording how he would give the shirt off of his own back to those in need despite his own poverty. These aspects of Jones’s life reinforced his devotion and faith, reflecting the centrality of religion in Jones’s life.

This centrality is strongly reflected in all of Jones’s writings, indeed, it was their primary purpose. The Account of the Parish of Aberystruth makes the religious history and condition of the parish two of its main subjects, and even the section devoted to geography discusses the religious signification and symbolism of the parish’s landscape at great length. Similarly, Relation of Apparitions of Spirits was written for religious purposes: ‘to confute and to prevent the infidelity of denying the being and apparition of Spirits; which tends to Irreligion and Atheism’ (extended title). Jones was a fervent believer in the supernatural, which he saw as intimately related to religion – to deny the existence of spirits was to deny the spiritual existence of god. But the ghosts in Jones’s book do not just reinforce his religion through their mere being, but also reveal and demonstrate moral lessons as well as well as reflecting aspects of the realms from which they came, thus revealing divine and supernatural knowledge. In this way, both the mountains and valleys of Aberystruth parish, and the ghosts which haunted its inhabitants, illustrated religious messages, and Jones used them as subjects though which to preach those messages.

Before he did this with history, geography, and demonology in his published works, he did it with plants in a little-known manuscript, now in Newport Public Library. Indeed, perhaps the best summery of the logic which underlies this approach appears in the first lines of the Spiritual Botanology: ‘The grand part of knowledge are the word and works of Jehovah. His word declares, and his works shew what he is; so that the knowledge of his word alone is not complete without a knowledge of his works also; sought out of them that have pleasure therein … Much less is the knowledge of philosophy enough without the knowledge of divinity. Both together do best’ (p. 37). The work set out, first and foremost, to show ‘What of God appears in the Herbs of the Earth’. To do this, Jones discusses around two-hundred different plants, focusing on the spiritual messages they convey to those who are able to interpret their religious meanings. Each herb was therefore presented with its aesthetic and botanical qualities described before an interpretation of what those qualities signified about God, Christianity, or the Christian community, usually followed by a short discussion of its practical uses. Feaverfew, for example, is herb which is particularly efficacious in curing, as the name suggests, fevers. This led Jones to argue that

The Feaverfew in the garden properly represents such useful Christians in the Church of God, as have a disposition and gift to allay anger and contentions about worldly things, and party zeal in religion, wch are soul-feavers; and who in their disposition manner and character, bear analogy to the properties of the herb. (p. 94)

Conversely, poisonous herbs like deadly nightshade or water hemlock were illustrative of God’s justice, the effects of Original Sin, and the cursing of the earth for man’s sake, while their fewness, relative to the number of harmless and beneficial herbs, showed God’s mercy. In addition to these more abstract significations, they also represented erroneous men and doctrines ‘who are dangerous as serpents in spiritual societies’ (p. 231).

The lessons demonstrated by plants went beyond helpful and beautiful herbs standing in for God’s positive qualities and harmful herbs representing divine justice and spiritual threats. They also served as ‘jumping-off points’ for various abstract attributes of divinity which were not necessarily tied into any distinct attribute which was held by one herb in particular. Whitlow-grass gave Jones the opportunity to discuss how it, like all things, comes from the ‘Whole Godhead. From the essence, and agency / Of God: and from his high sovereignty’. Because of this, it is ‘not unworthy of God, of his agency, being /And glory. [and] Not unworthy of his other works’. This concept, of the herb not being unworthy amongst all of God’s creations was applicable within the herb itself:

Nor made he one part of this herb, any herb / Unworthy of another part; the root / Unworthy of the stalk rising from it. / The stalk of the branches, springing out of it. / The branches not unworthy of the leaves, flowers / And seed standing upon them; but perfectly / Fit for them (pp. 134–5).

Similarly, pilewort was used to illustrate that God appointed a herb’s colour, the common hemp nettle its parts, and spearmint its smell, and the centaury its taste, while the Chinese aster flower was used to show that no part of a herb was a disparagement to its other parts. Other herbs, such as speedwell, cornflower, and the male fern were used to show God’s wisdom, while lilies of the valley and sweet marjoram were representative of the ‘sweet-smelling’ of the saints after the resurrection.

One of the most intriguing themes in the work is one which, in some ways, is used to justify and reinforce the logic behind using herbs to represent divine or religious attributes. In discussing hyacinth, Jones notes that the flowers are formed like bells which ‘sound heavenly doctrine’. Indeed the ‘Jacinth [sic] bells give an eye-sound’ which speaks to

the eye of the body, eye of the soul, they shew / What of God is in it and about it, and ring / His praises; his power, wisdom and eternity / what else are the bells, these herb-bells good for, / But to commend their maker’ (p. 71).

Of the lilies of the valley’s signification he similarly remarks,

This is the musick wch these sweet-scented bells / Sound to the world, sound to the eye, well worthy / Of these white fragrant bells. A musick, ie a / Prophetic comfortable doctrine, well worthy / Of 10000 bells of gold to proclaim to the world’ (p. 204).

Blue bells, naturally, received the same treatment by Jones:

A bell made of the glorious colour of the / Heavens, wch makes this dry barren bank / Where it grows more respectable; For it bears / The heaven colourd bell; wch shews that man /When he flourishes in youth should be heavenly, / And bear a resemblance to the heavens above … This the Blue flower bell soundeth to the world, / And rises yearly to sound’ (p. 258).

However, Jones realises that this all may be a step too far for some readers, who may believe him to be ‘religious mad, and / An enthusiast to speak of a herb preaching’, but responds by basing his arguments firmly in scripture (ibid.).


Be sure to come back next week for part two.


All citations from the Spiritual Botanology are from:

Edmund Jones, A Spiritual Botanology: Shewing What of God Appears in the Herbs of the Earth; Together with some of their Natural Virtues and Uses. ed. by Adam N. Coward. (Newport: South Wales Record Society, 2017).

Works Cited and Further Reading:

Anon., ‘The Rev. EDMUND JONES, late Minister of Ebenezer Chapel, near Pontipool, in the Parish of Trevathin, SouthWales’, Evangelical Magazine (1794), 177–85.

John Harvey (ed.), Appearance of Evil: Apparitions of Spirits in Wales (Cardiff:


Edmund Jones, A Geogrpahical, Historical, and Religious Account of the Parish of Aberystruth (Trevecka: 1779)

Edmund Jones, A Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the Principality of Wales ([Trevecka]: 1780).

Edgar Phillips, Edmund Jones ‘The Old Prophet’ (London: 1959).

Thomas Rees, History of Protestant Nonconformity inWales, From its Rise in

1633 to the Present Time (London: 1861).

Alun Withey, Physick and the Family: Health, Medicine and Care in Wales 1600–

1750 (Manchester: 2011).