Founders of our Society

Geraint H. Jenkins

Page 2 of the Centenary address delivered at the Annual General Meeting of the Society, held at the Belle Vue Hotel, Aberystwyth, on 18 April 2009.

By a curious quirk of fate, none of those whom I consider to be the three major founders of our Society was born in Wales, let alone in Ceredigion. One was born in Devon, another at Westminster, and the third in Nova Scotia. Each of them, however, set down roots in the county and displayed untiring commitment in addressing the task of safeguarding its heritage at a time of rapid change. The principal founder was unquestionably the Revd George Eyre Evans, the eldest son of Ophelia Catherine Powell (daughter of Captain George Eyre Powell RN, whose father had served on Nelson’s flagship) and the Revd David Lewis Evans, a native of Llanybydder, both of whom were living in Colyton, Devon, when George was born (as he later recorded in minute detail in one of his autobiographical albums) on Tuesday, 8 September 1857, at 4.25 am. When his father was appointed Professor of Hebrew and Mathematics at the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, in 1864, the whole family decamped to Wales. His mother died of pyaemia in 1866, but George was a resilient child who gained confidence and knowledge by attending Gwilym Marles’s famous academy at Llandysul. He began to read voraciously and develop wide-ranging interests which took him from Wales. He became a clerk with a company of cotton brokers in Bootle and then served for eight years as minister of the Unitarian church at Whitchurch in Shropshire before returning to Wales and settling in Aberystwyth at the turn of the century, living first at Binswood in Llanbadarn Road and then at Tŷ Tringad in Piercefield Lane, Penparcau.

Evans was a cartoonist’s dream: with his white hair, pointed beard, single-breasted Norfolk jacket and thumb-stick, he was an instantly recognized figure. Although he looked like an eccentric English gentleman, his heart was very much in Wales and his mind teemed with progressive plans. As Sir Mortimer Wheeler rather sardonically put it: ‘Ideas were always occurring to George; his little brain never lagged on its spiral course.’ Evans roamed the streets of Aberystwyth in search of people to interrogate and gossip with, committe-men to chivvy, and good causes to support and promote. Not everyone of course responded enthusiastically to this persistent gadfly and indolent councillors would often scuttle down alleys whenever he hailed them from afar. He ruffled the feathers of trinitarians in the town by establishing a Unitarian cause, which met in New Street from 1906 onwards and which he served as its unsalaried minister for twenty-six years. With some exaggeration, Goronwy Rees once maintained that Aberystwyth was ‘a theocratic society, ruled by priests and elders’, and by failing to bow to the Calvinist majority Evans was an attractive alternative to those of a more liberal and tolerant disposition. Puritans in the town raised critical eyebrows when he began holding physical fitness classes (complete with clubs, cutlasses and dumb-bells) for young men and were scandalized when his most gifted protégé, David Ivon Jones, converted from Calvinistic Methodism to Communism. Undeterred by spiteful comments, Evans wished his disciple well as he set off on an extraordinary odyssey which took him to New Zealand, South Africa and Russia: 

Follow the gleam lad, come what may
Whatever the world and folks may say.

Wonderfully eccentric and unpredictable, George Eyre Evans stood out from the crowd. An inveterate name-dropper, he loved to be photographed and showered with attention. Entries in his diaries were written in green ink and his perorations in the pulpit and public meetings were eloquently long-winded. Living off his private income, he had time on his hands to raise funds for benevolent causes, for a new town library, and for several reading rooms, including ‘Y Darllenfa’ in Penparcau. From 1899 to 1905 he wrote a weekly column under the pen name ‘Philip Sidney’ for the Welsh Gazette. Several columns were entitled ‘On Tramp Again’, for Evans’s main preoccupation was investigating the antiquities of Ceredigion and familiarizing himself with the heritage of its rural and urban communities. A tireless footslogger, he often embarked on exhausting walking tours of the county, during which he shamelessly pried into every nook and cranny within parish churches and Nonconformist chapels in his quest for forgotten or neglected artefacts, manuscripts, books and anything of literary and historical value which caught his eye. En route he often used to interrogate shepherds on Pumlumon, share anecdotes with old salts in Cardigan harbour, and chuckle at the gallows humour of gravediggers in Llanbadarn churchyard. Whenever he visited the home of the self-taught antiquary David Davies (Dafydd y Gof) in Lampeter, his eyes would gleam as he handled fragments of early urns, bullets from Cromwellian times, transcripts of poems, and a mass of curiosities and memorabilia. Details of everything which he saw or discovered on his travels were meticulously recorded by Evans and his home teemed with antiquarian material, transcripts and photographs of considerable importance. He was so devoted to the past and its antiquities that David Ivon Jones reckoned that the only fitting demise for his mentor would be for a cromlech to land on his head.

Before coming to Aberystwyth George Eyre Evans had already made a name for himself as a prolific author of works relating to the history of Protestant Dissent, but thereafter he devoted most of his time to recording the history of the antiquities of Ceredigion. Bringing unknown or long-forgotten archaeological and historical treasures into the public consciousness gave him great satisfaction and delight. He was so excited when he found in the county offices a dusty bundle of documents, ‘tied up in a skin with a leathern boot lace’, which turned out to be presentments of the Aberystwyth court leet for the period from 1690 to 1900, that he likened the experience to discovering Excalibur. With the financial assistance of 309 eager subscribers, each of whom parted with a shilling, he published Aberystwyth and its Court Leet in 1902. Nor did he neglect historical traditions relating to the south of the county. His volume entitled Lampeter, published in 1905, was supported by well-wishers whose names stretched to twelve pages of text. Evans gratefully recorded his irredeemable debt to those who had supplied him with invaluable data, including ‘bishop and printer, college principals and aged cottage folks by their peat fires, lord of the manor and mayor of the borough, road-side workers and one quaintly attired and oft times flower-decked woman walking thereon’. He was evidently a man of great charm and few could bring themselves to turn him away.

His tour de force, however, was Cardiganshire: A Personal Survey of some of its Antiquities, Chapels, Churches, Fonts, Plate, and Registers (1903), a chunky volume which ran to 316 pages and was largely funded by 320 subscribers who constituted a veritable Who’s Who of the county. Evans left no stone unturned in his quest for subscribers, some of whom may have been surprised to discover that the author, without their prior knowledge, had seized the opportunity to prick their consciences or chide them for their dilatoriness. The Revd Daniel Harries Davies, vicar of Mwnt and Y Ferwig, was referred to as one ‘to whom the eyes of Cardiganshire are expectantly turned for a history of his two parishes. May such come speedily’, while Thomas Davies of Compton House, Aberaeron, was singled out as the ideal man to ‘give us the story of Tyglyn and Monachty’. Evans’s preface, in which he recounted (writing in the third person) his epic journeys through the county, bore no trace of false modesty:

He has systematically toured through it on foot,- the only way properly to view the land – from north to south, from east to west; that he has seen probably every parochial register and vestry-book in its confines; that he has visited all the churches, and earliest chapels therein; that he has handled well nigh all the sacramental plate in the churches, as also the oldest in the chapels; and that he has lost no opportunity which presented itself to him of interviewing aged inhabitants.

In fact the entire volume is a lasting testament to the author’s irrepressible, almost boyish, enthusiasm and curiosity, his unrivalled ability to elicit information from people from all walks of life, and his stamina in covering long distances on foot. He himself clearly derived great personal pleasure from visiting, for instance, the ruined church at Llanfairtrefhelygen since it gave him the opportunity to spend time in the tiniest parish in the county and the one, in his view, with the most strikingly beautiful name. At Llangeitho he savoured the moment when he held the silver cup which Daniel Rowland had used at communion services, and he cherished the experience of seeing the moon rise ‘in silent beauty from the battlements of Tregaron church tower’. A sentient, humane man, habitually alive to the pleasures of nature as well as the enchantments of the historical record, George Eyre Evans taught the people of this county to delve into the past with pride and precision, and to respect all archaeological and antiquarian material which came to light. Most of all, he taught them to seek ways and means of preserving their heritage and to understand that this could only be achieved by institutional means.

As early as 1901 George Eyre Evans had broached the possibility of establishing a historical society to protect the county’s treasures and promote a wider awareness of its annals. On 1 April of that year he spent the best part of a day with L J M Bebb, Principal of St David’s College, Lampeter, admiring the wild flowers on Pen Dinas and the panoramic views from the summit. Part of the conversation was devoted to conservation issues and in his diary that evening Evans wrote: ‘Talked over the possibilities of a probable life etc. of a “Cardiganshire Historical Society”.’ Thereafter, during his gruelling tramps through the county he became convinced that only a properly constituted historical society could preserve swiftly-vanishing artefacts and traditions, and also promote local knowledge by publishing a journal. ‘Why should not Cardigan’, he declared in 1903, ‘be the first county to own its Historical Society?’ In the event, six years elapsed before the opportunity came to propose a motion to an ad hoc meeting of gentlemen and clergymen, held on 26 July 1909, that the time was ripe to establish a Cardiganshire Antiquarian Society. Once this had been done, Evans served the Society outstandingly well, notably in the post-war years when his reputation as Principal Inspecting Officer of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales was at its peak. On his retirement he moved to Carmarthen in 1928 where, ever the maverick, he became Deputy Scout Commissioner for Wales and styled himself ‘Sing Songs’. Our Society’s debt to him was further enhanced by the self-discipline which enabled him to record a good deal of the Society’s activities in his diaries, as well as in several albums of photographs and transcripts, the bulk of which was bequeathed to the National Library of Wales following his death in 1938. Characteristically, he took steps to ensure that each deposit included the following stern injunction: ‘Deposited therein by the Rev George Eyre Evans, with the prayer that Almighty God may deal as seems to Him fit with any person, committee, or government, who shall remove this book from Aberystwyth. Let such read for their comfort St Matthew xxiii.33 [‘Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?’]. All the evidence suggests that this colourful, larger-than-life bachelor left an indelible impression on the Cardis of his day. His love of the past, genius for friendship, ceaseless activities and public-spiritedness made him, without any doubt, the architect of our Society.

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