Our Founding Fathers and Mothers: The Cardiganshire Antiquarians

Geraint H. Jenkins

  • This is an expanded version of the centenary address delivered at the Annual General Meeting of the Society, held at the Belle Vue Hotel, Aberystwyth, on 18 April 2009. Mr Richard Suggett, Vice-Chairman of the Society, chaired the lecture and the speaker was introduced by Professor Emeritus Ieuan Gwynedd Jones, President of the Society. The lecture is dedicated to Mr Dafydd Morris Jones in recognition of his sterling service to the Society.

It was a great honour to be invited to give this centenary address and I should like to record my gratitude to the Society for providing me with the opportunity. Centenaries are currently all the rage in this part of the world: the National Library of Wales celebrated its centenary in 2007, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales did likewise in 2008, and this is our turn to complete the triple crown. I’m deeply aware of the privilege of following in the footsteps of two distinguished scholars who delivered anniversary lectures to this Society on auspicious occasions in the past. Fifty years ago Professor E G Bowen, vice-chairman of the Society, gave the jubilee lecture at the Annual General Meeting in Aberystwyth on the theme ‘From Antiquarianism to Archaeology in Cardiganshire, 1909-1959’.The Gregynog Professor of Geography and Anthropology at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, Bowen was one of the most lively and distinctive professorial figures in Wales in his day. A born communicator, he could lecture on a wide range of topics and convey both his learning and his enthusiasm for the subject at hand to people from all walks of life. Hugely in demand as a speaker, he was the natural choice to chart the progress of the Society over its first fifty years. In 1984 the Society celebrated its seventy-fifth birthday by inviting Professor Ieuan Gwynedd Jones, the Sir John Williams Professor of Welsh History at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, and chairman of the Society, to mark the occasion by delivering a lecture on ‘The County and its History, 1909-1984’, in which he argued, with characteristic eloquence, that ‘the county of Cardiganshire as a historical entity exists only in its history’. Currently in his eighty-ninth year and serving as our President, Professor Jones continues to promote the Society’s work with steadfast zeal and our debt to this much-loved remembrancer is immeasurable.

This presentation falls into three parts. The first part sets the scene by providing a Brief conspectus of Edwardian society in Ceredigion; the second focuses on the principal founders of the Society, notably the Revd George Eyre Evans, whose vision of an active and vigorous antiquarian society in this county remained undimmed during the formative years; while the third is devoted to the social and scholarly activities of members of the Society in its early pre-war years.

Edwardian Wales was an exuberant, progressive and hopeful society. It still somehow manages to conjure up images of long, hot summers and the excitement provoked by innovation and change. Britannia ruled the waves and no one banged the patriotic drum more loudly than the king, Edward VII, a genial, cigar-smoking, rotund figure who was often warmly referred to as ‘Good Old Teddy’. His popularity in this county stemmed from his visit to Aberystwyth in 1896 when, as Prince of Wales and heir apparent, he was installed as Chancellor of the University of Wales, a joyous occasion which O M Edwards described as ‘a Red Letter Day’ in the history of Wales. Thousands packed the streets to welcome Prince Edward and their sense of joy was both genuine and spontaneous. The prince returned to mid-Wales, this time as King Edward VII, in 1904 to open the spectacular dam and reservoir in the Elan Valley, where he once more charmed his hosts. He was sixty-eight when this Society was founded in 1909 and his taste for the extravagant and the grandiose was reflected in the National Pageant of Wales, held with much pomp and circumstance in the shadow of Cardiff Castle in August and, two years later, the Investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon. Those blessed with good eyesight will have noticed a statue of Edward VII on the parapet of Ceredigion Museum, and he was so popular in these parts that anecdotes about his bear-like size and rumbustiousness did the rounds for many years after his death. Showing loyalty to king and country was more or less axiomatic during this imperial high noon and our forebears were well used to spectacular ceremonies, parades and flag-waving. When C F G Masterman published a forensic examination of the condition of Edwardian society in 1909, he described Britain as a land ‘full of energy and promise’.

In 1911 Ceredigion, or Cardiganshire as it was known then, was a county of 80,769 people, over 91 per cent of whom could speak Welsh. Indeed, a third of its population spoke only Welsh and the native tongue, with its coveted local dialect, was so deeply woven into the fabric of life in rural communities that the English language was unable to exercise any major erosive influence. The Welsh language was inextricably associated with religious worship. Three-quarters of worshippers in the county frequented Nonconformist chapels and many of them were still moved by the spirit of revivalism which had animated the great Methodist evangelist Daniel Rowland at Llangeitho in the mid-eighteenth century. ‘Bend me! Bend me! Bend us!’ was the plaintive cry of the revivalist preacher Evan Roberts at Blaenannerch in the summer of 1904 as the last great spiritual revival broke out in the south of the county before spreading to many other parts of Wales. The emotional intensity – singing, praying and wailing, as well as a variety of bizarre prostations and contortions – not only provided spiritual sustenance for old and new believers but also enhanced the historical reputation of the county as a fount of profound religious renewal. 

In the world of politics the majority had long thrown in its lot with the Liberal cause and had revelled in the landslide of 1906, even though its sitting member, Vaughan Davies of Tan-y-bwlch, later Baron Ystwyth, was hardly a ball of fire, especially when compared with the greatest and most dynamic of Welsh Liberal leaders, David Lloyd George, whose social programme and People’s Budget in 1909 had turned him into a popular hero. ‘God bless that Lloyd George’ was a common cry among pensioners and George Eyre Evans was deeply moved when he witnessed a solemn procession of old people drawing their first pensions in Aberystwyth in December 1909: ‘the right thing has been done at last; done to ease, be it never so little, the burden of straitened old age in this country of ever progressing humanity’. Yet the rapid growth of the Labour party in industrial communities elsewhere in Wales was not replicated in Ceredigion. The radical new socialism represented by the likes of Keir Hardie found little purchase and socio-economic power still rested with the upper classes who showed no interest in reforming the House of Lords or promoting the cause of universal suffrage. On the other hand, the mechanization of agriculture, the extension of the rail network and the introduction of motor cars and taxis were helping to broaden the horizons of people who had previously lived sheltered lives and also to deepen their experiences, however unpalatable, of modernization. Recreational and cultural amenities had developed swiftly in holiday resorts like Aberystwyth whose reputation as the ‘Biarritz of Wales’ meant that no one would have registered surprise had they encountered ‘the Crown Prince of Prussia cycling in knickerbockers down [the] Prom’.

None the less, under the surface of this seemingly exuberant society, cracks were beginning to open even as plans were being laid to establish our Society. The ancestral estates of Ceredigion were threatened by the prospect of insolvency, maritime trade had virtually collapsed, and the much-vaunted religious revival of 1904-5 now bore all the hallmarks of ‘the consumptive’s flush of death’. Caradoc Evans, soon to become the county’s most controversial writer, would shortly expose what he called the ‘secret sins’ of society and heap ridicule on the priest-caste of hypocritical brutes who drew a blind eye to sexual misdemeanours within chapel life and to incontestable evidence of social deprivation. Thousands of rural cottages in the county were damp, verminous hovels, with no running water or drainage. Tuberculosis was rampant and the county’s children were notorious for their defective eyesight and rotten teeth. In the background loomed the dreaded workhouse. While the rich could still afford to arrange balls, garden parties and sumptuous teas, the ‘have-nots’ struggled to make ends meet. We might as well concede at the outset that our Society at its inception was not an inclusive institution. It was an assembly of well-to-do, leisured people who lived well, ate well and lived longer than those who stood on the lower rungs of society. Conscious that the socio-economic fabric of the county was in the process of probably irrevocable change, the ‘haves’ sought refuge in the past. As they strived to cope with the disintegration of age-old ways of life and at the same time express their confidence in the power of the historical traditions of the county, they made it possible to establish the Cardiganshire Antiquarian Society or, as it was called in Welsh-speaking circles, Cymdeithas Hynafiaethol Sir Aberteifi.

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