Discover, Collect and Preserve

Geraint H. Jenkins

Page 6 of the Centenary address delivered at the Annual General Meeting of the Society, held at the Belle Vue Hotel, Aberystwyth, on 18 April 2009.

One of the main aims of the Society from the outset was to discover, collect and preserve as many of the county’s most precious relics and to do so by establishing a county museum as swiftly as possible. For a variety of complex reasons this aspiration remained unrealized until Ceredigion Museum opened its doors in Aberystwyth in 1972. A grasping Leviathan in the form of the National Museum of Wales had been established in Cardiff in 1907 and Professor Tyrrell-Green expressed his great sorrow and anger when a very fine Bronze Age burial urn from Abermeurig was spirited away to Cardiff. Likewise, it was feared that the recently-founded Carmarthen Museum, another likely poacher of Ceredigion’s treasures, was ready to pounce whenever the opportunity arose. George Eyre Evans had split loyalties on this issue, having been instrumental in setting up the latter repository and to which he remained deeply attached for the rest of his life. In the circumstances the founding members of the Society needed to be extremely vigilant against individual cases of vandalism and also be alive to the possibility that rare items might, by fair or foul means, find their way into the collections of museums outside the county. Conservation issues were therefore to the fore on 3 November 1909 when members set off by train from Aberystwyth to Lampeter, where they were warmly greeted by Professor Tyrrell-Green, the mayor of Lampeter and members of the corporation in full regalia. To their surprise, they were marched briskly in procession from the railway station to the town hall where an exhibition of local antiquities had been mounted. The occasion was tailor-made for George Eyre Evans and, with characteristic seriousness and gaiety of spirit, he lucidly explained the significance of rare items like a pair of spectacles and a smelling bottle owned by Daniel Rowland, the last letter written by Sir Herbert Lloyd, the infamous squire of nearby Peterwell, before his unlamented demise, and a fine collection of African trophies which reflected Britain’s imperial high noon. It was on occasions such as these that Evans’s passionate eloquence passed into folklore. Following a hearty lunch at the College, great powers of concentration were required to cope with three lengthy addresses in the afternoon.

As might be expected, the Society was not without its critics. The founders were clearly aware that the ‘haves’, rather than the ‘have nots’, provided the backbone of the membership and that, as one irate correspondent complained, it was in danger of becoming ‘a mere picnic club’ for toffs. Cries of elitism were probably justified, even though George Eyre Evans was at least one leading figure who never lost the common touch. Half-hearted efforts were made to widen the net. These included dispatching to schools in the county illustrations and charts depicting inscribed stones and implements discovered within the county. In 1910 pupils were also encouraged to submit essays in Welsh or English on ‘The History of Wales 450-660’, a daunting task for such inexperienced writers, but it proved a valuable early exercise for Griffith John Williams of Cellan who, writing under the pseudonym ‘Pryderi ap Pwyll’, won the Welsh-language prize, an achievement which may well have helped to set him on the road to a distinguished professorial career. Young people and even children were made welcome at an open-air meeting held at Cae Sgwâr, Aberaeron, in August 1911, but there was so much clamour that several of the four invited speakers (who admittedly made no concessions to the young interlopers!) could barely be heard. One speaker had such a faint voice that one wag was heard to ask: ‘Who was the gentleman who read the paper to himself?’ There is no doubt that the Society made considerable demands on its hardy band of supporters. When an excursion by train arrived at Pencader to visit the castle in December 1911, five speakers were lined up, some of whom spoke at great length despite the cold weather. There was never any serious possibility that large numbers would join these excursions, but the occasions nonetheless nurtured a sense of camaraderie and deepened the historical knowledge of people who had been deprived of their local and national history for so long.

Another important initial aim of the Society was to organize properly funded and supervized archaeological excavations. Apart from Strata Florida, the other obvious venue was the Roman site at Llanio Isaf. It bears repeating that very little reliable archaeological excavations had been carried out in the county in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Notwithstanding Stephen W Williams’s exceptionally fruitful forays at Strata Florida, there was little to catch the eye. There was no Welsh counterpart to the invaluable Victorian County History of England and archaeology at that time was still a capricious business which attracted more than its share of bungling busybodies. George Eyre Evans was nobody’s fool but, for all his ebullience, he was not, at least by modern standards, properly equipped to undertake rigorous excavations. His approach was largely cultural and historical, as one might expect from an antiquarian, and he was especially concerned about salvaging rather than analysing museum pieces. But it is to his credit that he kept the site at Strata Florida constantly in the public mind and that he was also fully aware of the potential significance of the Roman remains at Llanio Isaf. He organized trial excavations at the site and, when the Society visited Llanddewibrefi church and the Quaker burial ground at Werndriw on 11 May 1910, he made sure that even wheezing members walked a full mile to witness progress at Llanio Isaf and to listen to an address by Willis Bund in which he argued that there was no substitute for systematic and technically sophisticated excavations at key archaeological sites in the county and elsewhere. A month earlier George Eyre Evans had been appointed the first Principal Inspecting Officer of the newly-founded Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and Monmouthshire. It should not be presumed, however, that the scholarly standards of the Commission at that time were anywhere near as high as they are in our day. Evans and others like him were simply prisoners of their age, and the scathing comments of Sir Mortimer Wheeler about archaeological work in pre-war Wales and the immediate post-war period opened many wounds. 

Finally, the founders saw the need for an annual volume devoted to the Society’s activities. Successive Transactions during the first four years included scholarly articles in English and Welsh, notes and queries, short reviews, correspondence, and a review of the year’s events. Professor Tyrrell-Green took on the editorship and, under his wise guidance, the journal gathered strength until the outbreak of the Great War forced the Society to suspend its operations during the hostilities. Yet, in the post-war years the members regrouped, resumed their activities, and by 1925 the Society could boast a record number of 330 members. Fittingly, too, the new generation of leaders remained mindful of the heroic labours of the founders. When John Humphreys Davies, Principal of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, was elected Chairman of the Society in 1922, he paid a warm tribute to them and in particular to the inspirational work of George Eyre Evans, the man ‘who had done more for the history of Cardiganshire than any other living person’.

On this day of rejoicing, we salute the achievements of our forebears and vow to continue to draw strength from their selfless readiness to renew and sustain the cultural heritage of our beloved county.

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