How did the Society come about?

Geraint H. Jenkins

Page 5 of the Centenary address delivered at the Annual General Meeting of the Society, held at the Belle Vue Hotel, Aberystwyth, on 18 April 2009.

So much for the major founders. How did the Society come about and who were its members? From around the turn of the century George Eyre Evans had become deeply concerned about the loss or mutilation of valuable historical items within the county and of the pressing need to preserve and promote the iconic Cistercian site at Strata Florida. He knew full well that when the Cambrian Archaeological Association had visited the abbey in 1847 it had been identified as ‘the Westminster of Wales; the veneration of its hallowed character is inseparable from the glory of Wales’. The excavations subsequently undertaken by the archaeologist Stephen W Williams in 1887-8 had whetted the appetite for further investigations, especially since anecdotal evidence of cases of mutilation and theft at the site were mounting. On Whitsun eve 1901 a party of scholars, led by Evans and David Samuel, headmaster of Aberystwyth county school, made their way to Strata Florida to celebrate the seven hundredth anniversary of the opening of the abbey. In Evans’s words: ‘Everything seemed to conspire this day to make it a thoroughly memorable one. More than ever do I feel that I ought to pay more attention to the study of the Abbey’. Never one to make empty promises, Evans kept his word and laboured tirelessly to raise the public profile of the county’s most extraordinary historical site.

As a result, feverish enthusiasm was generated whenever large groups of visitors arrived. When the British Chautauqua adult education movement held its summer assembly in Aberystwyth in the summer of 1901, Evans took them on a rail excursion to Strata Florida where he spoke enchantingly on the rise, glory and fall of the abbey. The following week he led the Chautauquans to the historic country house of Nanteos to see the celebrated wooden healing cup which was believed to have been one of the most sacred relics held at Strata Florida and which had become, by virtue of its supposed curative function, a target for nibbling pilgrims. Doubtless inspired by this visit and by Evans’s zeal, Ethelwyn M Amery, a member of the Chautauqua movement, dubbed it the Holy Grail from which Jesus had drunk at the Last Supper and which Arthur’s knights had subsequently ‘so eagerly sought’. Evelyn Lewes used to maintain that Evans’s enthusiasm for such unique objects ‘had never been known to evaporate’ and the Unitarian minister clearly delighted in publicizing the remarkable properties and historical significance of the healing cup at Nanteos and its association with Strata Florida. ‘The longer I work at the history of this great Cistercian house’, he wrote in October 1905, ‘the more fascinating it becomes.’

As the Edwardian period unfolded George Eyre Evans increasingly wielded a powerful influence over developments at Strata Florida and was instrumental in fostering a growing desire to ensure that the remains were properly preserved and excavated more intensively. His activities behind the scenes reached a climax in the summer of 1909 when two county gatherings were held in swift succession at the abbey. The first, a public event advertised as ‘A Day at the Abbey’ (“The Westminster of Wales”), was held on 23 June. Around 350 people, half of whom were pupils from local schools, braved the heavy rain and the prospect of lengthy addresses by the Revd J Francis Lloyd, George Eyre Evans and Edmund Tyrrell-Green, none of whom was likely to tailor his presentation to the needs of the young scholars who had been dragooned by their masters. But the mood lightened considerably when the legendary Nanteos cup worked its magic once more. Evans had persuaded the Powell family of Nanteos to exhibit the Cup at the event and, to great astonishment and delight, when it was removed from its case and laid on a table in full public view a brilliant ray of sunshine broke through the clouds and the rain stopped. Other intriguing exhibits were also on show. At the abbey farm, Mynachlog Fawr, the tenant, Charles Arch, proudly displayed two carved stone heads, one of a shaven-crowned monk and the other of a greyhound, which had been discovered on the site during excavation work carried out by Stephen W Williams in 1887-8. Sir Edward Webley-Parry-Pryse of Gogerddan, a ‘venerable, genial baronet’, according to George Eyre Evans, presided over the proceedings and a public collection raised £5. 7s.10d. By the time the assembled dignitaries, speakers, guests and pupils had begun singing Hen Wlad fy Nhadau, the clouds had darkened again and rain was falling. Yet, the consensus was that the meeting had gone well and George Eyre Evans was especially delighted at its success. 

A month later, on 22 July, enthusiastic antiquaries and well-wishers once more assembled in large numbers at the abbey. The momentum was maintained as several speakers called for further investment in the site, and better weather prompted the throng to listen more astutely. In a particularly rousing address the Revd E J Davies of Capel Bangor maintained that the widespread desire to learn more about the Cistercian abbey and to raise funds to promote further excavations was part of a much wider national resurgence of interest in the history of Wales, not least in the critical significance of texts like Brut y Tywysogyon and the poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym, who was ‘sleeping his last sleep there’. The Tregaron Male Voice Choir sang creditably and was warmly applauded, especially by those who had tired of straining to hear the spoken word. Before everyone dispersed a key resolution was made, namely that the promoters of the event should seriously consider the feasibility of establishing a County Society whose remit would include safeguarding the archaeological, historical and literary heritage of Ceredigion. Four days later, on 26 July, Professor Tyrrell-Green chaired a meeting at Aberystwyth at which a motion, proposed by George Eyre Evans and seconded by the Revd J Francis Lloyd, to establish a body to be known as the Cardiganshire Antiquarian Society was passed with unanimous agreement. Sir Webley-Parry-Pryse was elected President, J Francis Lloyd became Secretary, and an executive committee was set up to drive the infant society forward by organizing a series of events and by inviting well-disposed people to part with five shillings per annum for the privilege of becoming members. The prospects were bright and the founders had every reason to be pleased with themselves.

During the course of the first year the recruitment drive proved a great success: 261 persons joined the Society, only thirty-two of whom were women. Among the luminaries were Sir John Williams, Sir John Rhŷs, Principal T Francis Roberts, the National Librarian John Ballinger, Captain G Fossett Roberts and Chief Constable Edward Williams. The gentry and the petit bourgeoisie were strongly represented, clergymen loomed especially large (far more so than their Nonconformist counterparts), and, according to Evelyn Lewes, the predominantly male majority were ‘bearded, spectacled, long-coated, clerical-hatted, elderly, and most serious-looking persons’, a judgement fully confirmed by early group photographs of the antiquarians on their travels. In her reminiscences Lewes also recalled that the wives, spinsters and nieces who joined the Society and who enjoyed dressing up for the social occasions, wore long skirts, impressive feather boas and extremely large hats, and also carried purses and thimbles in their pockets rather than powder and lipstick in handbags. Such people – bank managers, solicitors, traders, clergymen, together with their wives and unmarried daughters – had the funds, time and leisure to travel by train or car to meetings either on weekdays or at the weekend, and those who attended regularly became increasingly interested in familiarizing themselves with the richness of the past. Antiquaries are normally inquisitive and questioning people, drawn in particular to subjects shrouded in mystery, ready to venture to sites of compelling interest, and glad to sample generous hospitality. Our forebears were no exception.

In order to please new members and stimulate wider public awareness, the social and scholarly programme of the Society was swiftly implemented in its inaugural year. As early as 25 August a visit to the abbey at Talyllychau was arranged. Members caught the 8.10am train from Aberystwyth to Tregaron where four brakes picked them up and took them to the abbey where several addresses were made before the party proceeded to Edwinsford and to a concert at Alltymynydd sanatorium. A hectic day was rounded off with a dinner at the Black Lion, Lampeter, where the post-prandial proceedings included several rousing speeches and toasts, and a leisurely journey back to Aberystwyth. A month later, on 29 September, a much larger throng, nearly all of whom were gloriously hatted, traipsed across the immaculate lawns of Gogerddan where the President urged them to use their best efforts to preserve the ‘relics of a bye-gone age’, though without specifying whether that might include hard-pressed ancestral families like his. Despite the excellence of addresses by Tyrrell-Green and Professor Edward Anwyl, a jovial, barrel-bellied Celtic scholar who was idolized by the members and whose untimely death, at the age of forty-eight, in 1914 was a grievous blow to the Society, several members were seen to doze in the warm sunshine while seated in deckchairs or on the grass. In the evening the guest of honour at the Society’s first formal dinner, held at the Talbot Hotel, Aberystwyth, was Sir John Rhŷs who, having been placed to sit between the amply-proportioned Professor Anwyl and the equally gargantuan Chief Constable, likened the experience to that of the ass Isachar who, according to the scriptures, found himself ‘couching down between two burdens’. In an uncharacteristically amusing speech, Rhŷs expressed the hope that the Society would never ‘lapse into nothing’ and that its guardians would cherish and preserve the heritage of his native county.

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