Syd Morgan has published an article about Stuart Neale, Plaid Cymru Candidate in Gwent
Syd Morgan Article > Linc
Syd Morgan has published an article about Stuart Neale, Plaid Cymru Candidate in Gwent
Syd Morgan Article > Linc
Elwyn Roberts, the anchor man of Plaid Cymru throughout much of the twentieth century, was the topic of the Plaid history society’s 2017 annual Eisteddfod lecture. For all his apparent solid background in bank management, Elwyn Roberts was a committed and determined nationalist who put love of Wales before his professional career.
His work for Wales was described by former Plaid leader Dafydd Wigley, historian Gwynn Matthews and Elwyn’s successor as party general secretary Dafydd Williams. You can read the full text of their lectures and listen to a recording the session in the Societies’ tent in the 2017 National Eisteddfod in Ynys Môn.
Memories of Elwyn Roberts
Translation of the Address by Dafydd Wigley to the Plaid Cymru History Society,
Eisteddfod Ynys Môn; August, 2017
It is a pleasure to open this meeting to commemorate Elwyn Roberts, one of Plaid Cymru’s stalwarts, and appropriate that we should gather here on the Eisteddfod field in Anglesey, Ynys Môn, as he was also twice the organiser of the National Eisteddfod. For decades he lived in Bodorgan, although his roots were in Abergynolwyn, Meirionnydd. He was someone whose influence was to be felt throughout Wales.
As a nation we have cause not only to respect Elwyn’s memory but also to carry on the contribution which he made, as an inspiration to a new generation to roll up its sleeves and complete his heartfelt ambition. He was a practical nationalist who believed that victory would grow from a foundation of political organisation – through harnessing human and financial resources in the service of our nation’s highest goals.
I pondered whether I could do justice to this subject, wondering whether I really knew Elwyn Roberts. Perhaps many who worked with him would admit similar feelings, because Elwyn, as well as being a national figure and a political heavyweight, was also a very private man.
Elwyn was one of half a dozen who had a substantial influence on me personally, drawing me – from a young age – to work for Plaid Cymru. The other national influences were Gwynfor Evans and Saunders Lewis; locally in Gwynedd Dafydd Orwig and Wmffra Roberts; and of my own generation, the late and beloved Phil Williams. It is worth noting that among these three were the sons of slate quarrymen – Dafydd Orwig, Wmffra and, yes, Elwyn Roberts.
Elwyn was the son of Evan Gwernol Roberts, a quarryman in Abergynolwyn; his mother, Mabel, was headmistress of an infants’ school. Abergynolwyn was so important to him that his autobiography turned into a volume of history about Abergynolwyn – he never spoke about himself! Thus he takes pleasure in the book that it was through the endeavours of Plaid Cymru in the 70s that quarrymen at long last won the right to dust disease compensation.
Elwyn was born in 1905, and was a child of his generation. The shadow of the first world war rested heavily upon him, as did the revolution in Ireland and the depression in the heavy industries. He had no university education – indeed, he had little regard for the education he received in Tywyn grammar school, which for him was far too English. After leaving school he went to work in the bank, where he would remain for a quarter of a century, first in Blaenau Ffestiniog, then Bethesda – two quarrying communities – and later Llandudno, rising to the position of deputy manager at scarcely thirty years of age.
He could have risen to the heights in the world of banking, but the future of Wales was more important to him than career or wealth. He joined the National Party in its early days; at the age of twenty-one, he set up the Blaenau Ffestiniog branch – the biggest branch throughout the whole of Wales. Then, as throughout his career, he worked strenuously in the background, leaving others to enjoy the limelight.
When war came in 1939, Elwyn refused to enlist in the armed forces, basing his action on nationalism rather than pacifism. He refused to recognise the right of the English state to compel him to fight for it. One of the Tribunal members asked him “You are standing as a Welshman, are you?”. Elwyn answered, with his withering humour, and his totally contemptuous view of the English establishment, “No, as a Chinaman!” He was ordered to work as a rat catcher in the Corwen area.
During the war – at the instigation of Saunders Lewis and J.E. Daniel – the “Committee for the Defence of Welsh Culture” was set up – in the words of Gwynfor Evans, “the most important national movement that worked for Wales during the war”. Rallies were organised throughout Wales, and the most successful of all these took place at Colwyn Bay. Gwynfor enquired who was responsible for attracting such a crowd. He was told that a young bank clerk had achieved this miraculous turnout. This was the first time that Gwynfor met Elwyn; and a partnership was forged that would influence the future of our nation.
The bank must have thought highly of him, because despite his fervent nationalism he was able to return to the bank before the end of the war. When Gwynfor stood for Merioneth in the 1945 election, he requested the bank to release Elwyn to work as organiser; and the bank agreed! Rhys Evans, in his biography of Gwynfor talks of Elwyn starring as election agent – and I quote – “for his proverbial toughness”.
Elwyn returned to the bank after the election; but his organisational ability was now well known, and he received an invitation to work as the organiser of the Colwyn Bay National Eisteddfod, 1947 – getting the bank to release him once again! He was headhunted once more to work as organiser for the National Eisteddfod at Llanrwst in 1951. This time he did not return to the bank, and was appointed by Plaid Cymru as its Gwynedd organiser and Director of Finance.
Another call came – to organise the cross party Parliament for Wales campaign. When Elwyn took over, the campaign had been running for two years but had attracted only a few hundred names. Elwyn took up the reins with his characteristic dedication, and succeeded in raising the number of signatories to over a quarter of a million. This led to S.O. Davies MP presenting a Parliament for Wales Bill in Westminster in 1956.
In 1958, Elwyn organised a successful tour of the United States by Gwynfor Evans. Gwynfor took part in a broadcast seen by twenty million people; he was warmly welcomed by John L Lewis, the leader of the United Mineworkers of America; and Elwyn organised an invitation for Gwynfor to meet President Eisenhower – only for the British Embassy to obstruct it.
Other requests flowed in. When the television company Teledu Cymru hit financial difficulties in 1962, it was to Elwyn that the call came, and he succeeded in raising investments for the venture, the equivalent of £1 million in today’s money. Fund raising was one of Elwyn’s strengths: it was he, later on, who persuaded a wealthy businessman to employ Gwynfor as a consultant between 1970 and 1974, after losing Carmarthen – and when Gwynfor, to all intents and purposes, was financially on the rocks.
Elwyn was drawn into the battle to save the Clywedog valley from being drowned, and he devised a scheme for hundreds of people to buy a square yard of ground in the valley, so as to frustrate Birmingham Corporation – a scheme which unfortunately failed because of defective legal advice.
In 1964 Elwyn was appointed General Secretary of Plaid Cymru. He accepted the post – at a time of great difficulty for the party – on condition that he could work from the Bangor office.
It is fair to say that not everyone within the party could respond positively to Elwyn’s personality, to his “proverbial toughness” nor to the sort of “traditional” nationalism that he represented; nor to his conservative orthodoxy from the standpoint of handling money. A great deal has been written about the tension between Emrys Roberts, who until 1964 worked as Plaid Cymru’s General Secretary in the Cardiff office, and Elwyn Roberts, the party’s finance director,who worked from the Bangor office. I could personally see great virtues in both of them, and they each contributed much to the success of Plaid Cymru in their different ways.
Elwyn played a key role in a number of campaigns, including the Carmarthen by-election in 1966, where he worked with the Agent, Cyril Jones. Elwyn ensured the resources to carry the day. And it was Elwyn who had the privilege of telling Gwynfor, as he arrived at the count, that he had won!
Elwyn Roberts held the post of General Secretary of Plaid Cymru through the most incredible period in its history – the by-elections in Carmarthen, Rhondda West in 1967, Caerffili in 1968, and through the frenzy of the Investiture in 1969, before retirement in 1971. Immediately after retiring – as though he had not already done enough for Plaid Cymru, Elwyn took over the unpaid post of National Treasurer of the party.
As part of this job, he set about organising fund raising through nosweithiau llawen and pop concerts – Tribannau Pop! I cannot imagine anyone less likely than Elwyn, in his grey top coat, his hat and his briefcase, as organiser of rock ‘n roll events in the 70s . But he raised thousands of pounds for the cause, and it was he who laid the financial foundations for the elections of 1974 when Plaid won three seats in Westminster.
Perhaps election organisation created a wish to take part in politics himself, because soon after retirement he was elected as County Councillor in Ynys Môn, and then to the new council of Gwynedd in 1973. He remained as a councillor until 1985 – playing a prominent role in improving the economy of Gwynedd.
I first met Elwyn in 1962. I was a student in Manchester and had just joined Plaid Cymru. During one university holiday, I attended a meeting of Caernarfon branch in the People’s Café – on the Maes in the town. Elwyn was speaking there and I mention in my book “O ddifri” how he entered in a purposeful way with a bulging brief-case. He had come, not to talk niceties, still less to socialise, but rather to give us directions. He was the one who set the agenda and the priorities, like some Soviet Commissar.
Soon afterwards, I called in his office in Bangor and that was an experience. He organised the work like a machine and was complete master of everything and everyone as I am sure Nans Couch – Nans Gruffydd as she was then – could testify from personal experience.
Elwyn had little time for fools – and he made that pretty clear. But if he saw that someone had a contribution to make to the national movement, then nothing was too much trouble for him. He decided fairly soon that I had something to offer – and he took a great interest in everything I would do for a number of years.
He was behind my appointment to work as organiser for the Caernarfon constituency from June to October 1964, after I graduated and before I started work, a period leading up to the general election of 1964. Earlier he had suggested that – after graduation – I should look for a job in the South Wales Valleys to get to know Wales better. When he heard that I wanted to go to work with the Ford Motor Company in Dagenham, for a while he was disgusted – apparently I had angered him because he thought I would vanish from the party and from Welsh politics, as was the story of so many young men at that time.
His fears were confirmed after he and Wmffra Roberts sought to persuade me to stand in Caernarfon in the general election of March 1966. I flatly refused to consider anything of the kind – after all I was just twenty-two years old, and it was far too early for me. But Elwyn had planted the idea in my mind that I should prepare myself for such a possibility in the future.
When I saw Elwyn in Carmarthen on the last Saturday before the 1966 by-election, his attitude towards me remained frosty, to say the least. He sent me out canvassing with scarcely a word – I was really in his “bad books”! But when I returned to report the substantial support in the town, he had thawed. He said that this was the response throughout the constituency – and lowering his voice, in case anyone should hear, he whispered “I think Gwynfor’s going to win”.
In the wake of the by-election, a number of us – Phil Williams, Dafydd Williams, Eurfyl ap Gwilym, Gareth Morgan Jones, Rod Evans and others – set about forming the Plaid Cymru Research Group – to assist Gwynfor with aspects of his parliamentary work, and to prepare an Economic Plan for Wales. This pleased Elwyn enormously – and without any persuasion he provided a budget of some fifty pounds a month to enable us to rent a very small office and employ a part time typist.
Having failed to get me to contest Caernarfon, Elwyn persuaded the Meirionnydd Rhanbarth Committee to invite me to stand there in the 1970 election, although I was living in London and working for the Mars company in Slough. Elwyn provided practical support for me from the party’s national resources.
By 1972 I had returned to live in Wales, working for the Hoover company in Merthyr and had been elected to Merthyr council – it was as if Elwyn’s long -term plan for me had at last been pushed through as he had intended. When I was elected for Caernarfon, he once more gave me every support as he did when I stood to succeed Gwynfor as President.
Yet although Elwyn proved such a mainstay of support for me, and considered me to be something of a protégé, I cannot claim to have really known him – only once did I call at his home in Bodorgan – just to collect some papers – and I hardly ever had any conversation with his wife Nansi. Such a person was Elwyn; and there was no alternative but accept him for what he was – because nothing would change him. He was like the rock of ages, consistent, firm, genuine and completely dedicated to Wales.
It is right that today we should remember his life, because Plaid Cymru and our nation are greatly in his debt: Elwyn Roberts, “Y graig safadwy drwy dymhestloedd” – “The rock that stands firm through the tempests”; the sort of rock that is hiddden under the surface of the land, but which is so vital if we are to build the future of our nation on firm foundations. Thank you for listening and thanks for his life.
Elwyn the Man
Reminiscences by Gwynn Matthews
I am grateful for the invitation to share my memories of Elwyn, and to Dafydd Wigley for the notable portrait he gave us. Who could add to that picture of Elwyn as a national figure? I am not going to attempt to do so – what I am going to do is speak of Elwyn the man – the man so many people have found it difficult to penetrate below the outer skin.
I first met Elwyn in 1961. I was a schoolboy at the time, and the circumstances of our meeting were not of the happiest, for I had received a summons to appear before him at a Pwyllgor Rhanbarth!
I had set up a school branch of Plaid Cymru at Denbigh Grammar School early in the sixties. We would meet during the dinner break in various classrooms unbeknown to the staff. This was possible because I wore a ‘Prefect’ badge (enabling me to allow pupils into the building) – but the trouble was that teachers were able to come by, open the door and enquire “What’s going on here, then?” If the teacher was English, I could just say, “Oh, it’s the Welsh Society, Sir”. And that would be fine. Once, the Religious Education teacher came and asked me if I was conducting a prayer meeting – and I regret to have to tell you that I said that I was!
In fact, there was a risk that we would be caught, but eventually we were allowed to use the Plaid office in town. However, someone complained that children were coming and going to and from the office and causing a commotion. So, I was summoned to give an account of myself and my fellow pupils before none other than Mr Elwyn Roberts.
Those of you who knew Elwyn can imagine what it felt like to appear before him! I fully understood – you can’t waffle with him. But, in fact, he found in our favour and said that we were free to use the office from then on.
Some years later, in 1968, as Dafydd Williams said, I was appointed a member of Plaid staff. I had my interview in Pwllheli following Robyn Lewis’s adoption meeting. Elwyn approached me at the end of the rally – “Right” he said, “I want you to help me fill the car boot with these pamphlets.” As I filled the boot, he asked me questions. When I had filled the boot, he said, “You’ve got the job”. That was the shortest interview of my life.
As Dafydd Wigley has said, he was a private man. And I would say that he was really a shy man. Maybe, he had a facade that shy people often adopt which gives the impression that they are less warm than they truly are. Basically, Elwyn was a warm person.
And as Dafydd Wigley has commented, when he did have some leisure time, he did not write about himself but about his native locality – the community that gave him his values. [Wrth Odre Cadair Idris] He writes about his childhood, and one sentence is quite a surprise. He refers to his school, and to a teacher of whom he was very fond, Mr Fielding. Mr Fielding’s family had come from the Netherlands, but he spoke Welsh.
And this is the sentence that struck me as unexpected: “I recall some of the lessons in arithmetic, although I hated the subject.” Says he, the conjurer with figures! The man who could conjure money from the air – and he hated arithmetic! He states that Welsh and local history were much more to his taste. Yes, love of patrimony was the foundation for his patriotism, and as Dafydd Wigley has described it, slightly old world patriotism. I would agree – his values were those of a Nonconformist Welsh-speaking Wales.
I recall that at a conference in the early seventies one of the Rhondda branches had proposed a motion calling on Plaid to set up licensed clubs. Only two speakers’ cards had been submitted – proposer and seconder. Elwyn came up to me and said, “Gwynn, you must speak!” I had not intended to speak but he insisted, “You must speak against this! Good heavens, what do you think the supporters of Goronwy Roberts, the great teetotaller, will make of this in Arfon if we pass this motion?”. And so it was that I had to speak, with two minutes’ notice, against setting up licensed clubs. The motion failed, but not because of anything I said!
Another aspect of his Nonconformist values was his pacifism. I know that it was as a nationalist that he objected to doing military service, but he could well have done so as a pacifist too.
I remember one occasion during the run-up to the Investiture when the late ROF Wynne (Garthewin) had expressed an allegedly ambiguous attitude concerning the use of violence in struggles for national freedom. A fairly prominent Plaid member spoke up in defence of ROF Wynne. Elwyn was incensed. “Him! Him of all people! If he saw a real gun, he’d wet himself!”
Elwyn could get quite cross, that has to be admitted. I remember returning from an Eisteddfod where Elwyn had been very cross with one of the party’s most faithful workers, Nans Jones. (I’m bound to say that, of the staff, it was Nans Jones who seemed to irritate Elwyn most often.) When Elwyn had gone to Y Ddraig Goch stand (in the days when political parties were banned from the Maes) what did he see under the table but copies of JE Jones’s gardening book [JE was a former Plaid General Secretary]. What Nans had been doing when she saw anyone who knew JE approach was to offer them the gardening book – rather than party literature! “And in any case”, said Elwyn, “when did JE ever find time to do gardening?”
Elwyn had been a National Eisteddfod organiser twice. [Llanrwst Eisteddfod, 1951, was one of them] One Monday he arranged for Cynan to come to Llanrwst to inspect the Gorsedd Circle as the architects had been arranging the stones in the order stipulated for them (before the advent of plastic stones – i.e. real rocks) the previous week. However, over the weekend the farmer had allowed bullocks to graze on the site. And here are Elwyn’s words, “Do you know what, the bullocks were lifting their tails against the stones – Cynan was enraged! ‘Don’t you realize’, said Cynan, ‘that those atones are sacred?’” It was clear from his expression as he told the story that Elwyn had a sense of the absurd.
One day we were discussing cars. Among the jobs that Elwyn had done was selling second hand cars. I’m sure he was a good one – he had the knack of parting people from their money – as he did many years later as Plaid’s Treasurer! He sold cars for a businessman from Colwyn Bay, Mr Bill Knowles.
Bill Knowles was quite a character, a prominent Tory, and he became Mayor of Colwyn Bay. (As it happens, during the sixties he joined Plaid Cymru, and served as chairman of Denbigh Pwyllgor Rhanbarth.) Coming back to our chat, Elwyn said, “Gwynn, if ever the radiator of your car leaks, I know how to settle it. You need to pour a packet of pepper into it, and that will seal it – something Bill Knowles taught me!” Second hand car salesmen do not always have a good reputation, but if you asked me would I buy a second car from Elwyn I would answer, “Yes, oh yes!”
I think that he could sometimes be over cautious – two small examples. A research group, under Dewi Watcyn Powell I believe, had prepared a constitution for a free Wales (for which a conference was held at the Temple of Peace for its adoption). One point that was raised was what to call the Crown’s representative. ‘Viceroy’ was out of the question, and there was a feeling that ‘Governor-General’ was too imperialist. So they suggested ‘First Citizen’. Elwyn thought that too elitist for Plaid.
“Can you think, Gwynn, of another title for the head of something?”
“Well, the ceremonial head of a University is called a Chancellor,” I said.
“Yes, I like it – Chancellor of Wales,”
“Come to think of it,” I said, “that is what the prime minister of Germany is called”.
“Good heavens – we can’t have that! Just think what the Daily Post would make of it!”
So, ‘First Citizen’ it was!
One day, I recall, we were discussing family life, I suppose, and he discovered that I was an Anglican. He felt he needed to explain something to me.
Those days every political party was invited to some place of worship on the Sunday before their conference. It had been arranged in advance, of course, who would extend the invitation.
“I must admit that I have never sought an invitation to attend a church service [i.e. as distinct from a chapel service], and I should explain why. The reason is that a church service includes a prayer for the Queen, and I’m afraid of some hothead walking out during the service – what would the papers make of that?”
Yes, over cautious, sometimes, perhaps.
But what are the lasting impressions of him? Discipline, tenacity and integrity.
Discipline – personal discipline, work discipline. If you pulled your weight, Elwyn would not be slow to express appreciation. But if he was disappointed, he would let it be known! I disappointed him once – I failed my driving test. “Damn you!”
Tenacity – perseverance in the face of difficulties. I remember summer 1969 (the summer of the Investiture) – it was a frightfully difficult period – and one of Elwyn’s main fears was that the Summer Raffle would fail! The Summer Raffle was important – it funded our wages – but Elwyn kept his nerve.
Finally, and supremely, integrity. A genuine man. I have worked for a number of people – some of them very good people – but I retain the highest respect, on account of his unsparing dedication, for Elwyn.
A tribute by Dafydd Williams
I got to know Elwyn Roberts after joining Plaid Cymru’s staff – supposedly for just twelve months – almost half a century ago, in December 1967. I had met him already on a number of occasions in the party conference and Summer School, as well as one never to be forgotten day shortly before the Carmarthen by-election in 1966. But it was in Plaid Cymru’s office in Pendre, Bangor that I saw the man himself at his daily work. He would be there without fail every morning, and usually would be hard at it well after the clock on the wall told us it was time to be going home.
It was an exciting time. In the wake of the Carmarthen by-election, and Rhondda West the following year, and with Gwynfor in the House of Commons, new members were flocking in, and the aim was to channel that growth into an effective pattern of branches and constituency organisations. As General Secretary and Chief Organiser – that was his job title – Elwyn Roberts had the job of dealing with all the issues that accompanied that rapid growth, and a steady stream of callers who would drop in.
I soon came to see that it took someone of exceptional talent, experience and character to occupy that key role. Someone who would keep the ship on course whatever the weather. And there was no doubt that Elwyn Roberts was that person. Of course he worked in the background. Although he was fully capable of addressing councils or conferences if need be, the public stage was not his natural environment.
I still have a vivid picture of him, at his desk in his sports jacket – it wasn’t often that he took that off – and a handkerchief neatly folded in his top pocket. Working with him at that time in Bangor was a young woman from the Llŷn peninsula, Nans Gruffydd – by now Nans Couch. Nans is unable to be with us today because of family duties, but I am very grateful for her recollections.
This is how Nans recalls Elwyn Roberts: “He was definitely one of my heroes in Plaid Cymru and it was a privilege to work with him. Elwyn was someone who went the second mile – a tireless worker who gave up his career in the bank in order to serve his nation. He was the strongest influence on me … working with Elwyn was better than any college”.
Elwyn was fond of his tea. Just about every hour in the afternoon, it seemed, both of us would hear his voice from the back room: “Is there something warm in the teapot?” And – cue a confession! – it was Nans who would put her work to one side and prepare another pot of tea. This was 1967, remember!
Of course, long before either Nans or I came on the scene, Elwyn had already given decades of his life to Wales and Plaid Cymru – and through times of great difficulty. For example:
And there is no way I can relate all his work in raising funds to keep Plaid Cymru from going bankrupt – time after time and in all sorts of ways. No wonder that in Rhys Evans’ magisterial biography of Gwynfor Evans he gets 45 mentions.
In 1971, and quite unexpectedly, I became the successor to this unique figure in the history of Plaid Cymru, following a walk on the prom in Aberystwyth with Gwynfor, but that is another story! How on earth could I hope to fill his shoes? I knew there was no way I could imitate him.
But fortunately for me and the party, if Elwyn was retiring as General Secretary, his contribution to Plaid Cymru was far from being over. In the same year, his was elected as party Treasurer – a post he had in reality been doing for years. And, however much some of you may doubt it, thanks to his hard graft in an improved political atmosphere Plaid’s financial situation markedly improved.
He went on to carve out a whole new career as an elected member of Gwynedd County Council representing Bodorgan here in Anglesey and holding a number of public posts – among them the Development Corporation for Wales and Gwynedd Health Authority.
I was fortunate enough to call at his home a number of times – a bungalow named Peniarth on the corner of a small rural lane in the village of Bodorgan, with a grouted roof in the style familiar in Anglesey (I heard a lot about ‘grouting’!) and an immaculate interior. I was sure of a warm welcome and every kindness from Elwyn and his wife Nansi – it is sad to think that Elwyn spent the last years of his wife without her lively company.
I learnt of his death when I phoned Gwerfyl in the national office the day before his funeral while on holiday with my parents in Scotland, and unable to get back in time for his funeral. It was a comfort to visit his last resting place in Abergynolwyn a few months later.
I would like to end with an appeal. There is a real need to set down the history of this unique hero – the banker who became organiser of a national movement. The raw material is ready – volume upon volume of his papers in the National Library, and no shortage of red ink! It is a story worth telling – a subject worthy of a PhD and a book to follow. What about it, you historians?
For my generation, and the younger generation, the story of Elwyn Roberts is an inspiration – and a challenge. The success of Plaid Cymru today, whatever the difficulties, stem from the seeds planted by Elwyn and his contemporaries.
It is difficult to believe that his time came to an end nearly a decade before our country won the battle to secure its own national assembly. He would have been overjoyed – and would have given anything to played his part in that victory. We give thanks for his life and his work.
The Plaid Cymru History Society is pleased to publish an extended version of the 2017 Spring Conference lecture delivered on Friday 3 March by D. Hywel Davies.
Entitled ‘DJ and Noëlle: Shaping the Blaid’, the lecture examines the role of Dr DJ Davies and Dr Noëlle Davies, who both exerted a strong influence on the development of Plaid Cymru.
Hywel Davies graduated in International Politics at University College, Aberystwyth and was a Research Student at University College, Cardiff. He is a former editor of the Merthyr Express and was also a television journalist and producer/director with HTV/ITV Wales and Nant Films. His book ‘The Welsh Nationalist Party, 1925-1945: A Call to Nationhood’ remains a classic text on the foundation and early decades of Plaid Cymru.
‘DJ and Noëlle: Shaping the Blaid’ – by Hywel Davies. A lecture to the Plaid Cymru History Society – Newport, Gwent, March 3, 2017
When I was 21, not so long ago, only some 51 years, I took a degree in International Politics at Aberystwyth. That’s what I wanted to do. I had already been a member of Plaid Cymru for several years – signed up by J E Jones no less. Living in Nantymoel in mid Glamorgan, I had attended Sixth Form at Ogmore Vale Grammar School. I regarded Ogmore, sited near the Wyndham Colliery, as somewhat of a finishing school. Previously, during my family’s extended and very pleasant sojourn in Denbighshire, I had enjoyed country and coast as a pupil at the linguistically pioneering Brynhyfryd Bilateral School at Ruthin followed by Eirias Park Grammar School, at Colwyn Bay. With its mere 352 pupils in what was still a coal mining valley, Ogmore Vale Grammar School was very different. But it would attain a A⃰ rating when a school contemporary of mine, Lyn Davies of Nantymoel, won Gold in the long jump at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. I don’t think it’s pushing our small school’s quality too far by adding that, in 1961, Ogmore School Debating Society voted in favour of a motion that I presented before them calling for Welsh self-government.
I happily explain, as background to that famous victory, that Ted Merriman was already a very active Plaid campaigner in the Ogmore Valley, and that the sounds of Radio Free Wales were echoing from Nantymoel to Ogmore Vale. With my parents, I had arrived in the Valley from Colwyn Bay where, in the General Election of 1959, someone had pushed a copy of the Welsh Nation through our letterbox in Hillside Road. When I saw that Gwynfor Evans was to give a speech in support of Plaid’s Westminster candidate, Dr Dafydd Alun Jones, at a local cafe, I made sure I was there and was greatly inspired. For teenage me, that was it!
Rapid immersion in the hot-house Bridgend Branch of Plaid Cymru provided a parallel education in politics – with often super-heated discussions being led in a pub upper room by people such as Ted, Ron Dawe and Pedr Lewis. “Local politics,” Ted Merriman once informed me as we distributed leaflets in Gilfach Goch, “is all about ball and chain.” Seeing my mystification, Ted, the future County Councillor, emphasised the campaigner’s golden rule never to ignore people’s basic problems such as malfunctioning old-style toilets.
But as a Sixth Former, my eyes were for higher things. I had seen that Aberystwyth had a very distinguished Department of International Politics. It was at Aber that the first Chair in that subject at any university had been endowed – by League of Nations supporter and former MP David Davies of Llandinam in 1919. As you see, there was a much higher quality of David Davieses in politics in those days! My firm conviction as an 18-year-old that a self-governing Wales should be a full member of international institutions meant that there was only one university I wanted to go to.
Having arrived in Aber in 1962, Plaid Cymru activities took up a great deal of my time. But I also gained a degree. Not only that, but the International Politics department, to my surprise, suggested I should follow on by studying for an MSc by researching and writing a thesis on the Welsh Nationalist Party from its founding in 1925 to 1945.
I leapt at that opportunity. I later came to know that some academic historians doubted there would be sufficient material to justify such research. But one visit to the Plaid Cymru archive at the National Library of Wales showed me I had a very busy time ahead of me. It would prove challenging not only in terms of the number of large storage boxes that awaited my attention on the quiet NatLib shelves, but because their contents were entirely without a schedule or much order.
Despite my Plaid Cymru membership, I came to the job of tackling this material with a fairly unbiased mind. I had not studied enough Welsh language and literature, for example, to fully appreciate the standing of Saunders Lewis – though the response to his 1962 BBC radio lecture on the Future of the Welsh language had left me in little doubt of that; I had not studied Welsh history sufficiently to be aware of early devolutionary movements, though my own reading rapidly helped in that regard; nor did my Maesteg family have a long Plaid Cymru pedigree, none at all in fact.
So, I began my journey reading a wide variety of material including personal letters – hand-written, of course – signed by what I came to know as the ‘big names’ such as Saunders Lewis, DJ Williams, Kate Roberts, Lewis Valentine and Iorwerth Peate. But I also came across two names that meant nothing at all to me.
The first name was that of H.R. Jones, from slate-quarrying Caernarfonshire. HR was the first secretary of the Welsh Nationalist Party from its official launch in 1925. From a working class background, untrammelled by higher education and inspired by the example of Ireland, HR, I learnt very quickly, had a brightly burning vision of a free Wales. Indeed, H.R. Jones’s activities had been among the most significant in the crystallisation of the new specifically Welsh political party. I particularly noted Saunders Lewis’s generous comment at H.R.’s death from TB in 1930, aged only 30, in which he described HR as ‘the true founder of the Welsh National Party.’
From an ex-quarryman, to an ex-collier. The second new name for me was ‘DJ Davies’. Yes, another ‘DJ’ to deal with, and also from Shir Gar. But this was David James Davies rather than David John Williams. And his name came at the end of letters written in English! DJ Davies soon stood out for me, not only because he communicated with the party in English, but because of a life experience which was very different to that of other leading nationalists at the time. It stood out also because of the clarity and range of his ideas as to how the infant party should develop. He was a young man who had already done a lot of studying and thinking about the need for a Welsh nationalist party, before any such party was established.
Many of you will be familiar with Dr Ceinwen Thomas’s biography of DJ Davies in her valuable collection of his articles published by the Blaid in 1958 under the title of Towards Welsh Freedom. Ceinwen had worked closely with DJ and and his Irish wife, Noëlle, at their home, Pantybeiliau, near Gilwern in Breconshire. Other personal notes were made by the Breton nationalist Yann Fouere who had enjoyed his stay with DJ and Noëlle for a period in 1946 which included a Plaid Ysgol Haf in Abergavenny. Yann said that DJ walked and talked him near to exhaustion on the slopes of Mynydd Llangynidr explaining coal mining techniques.
DJ had been born in 1893 near Carmel not far from Cross Hands. He followed his father by becoming a boy collier at Cross Hands and then worked underground with his elder brother at Bedlinog. His father, Thomas Davies, was from Carmarthenshire but had been a miner in the Rhondda before returning to Cross Hands. His mother, Elen Williams, who died when DJ was 14, was from Ferndale in the Rhondda Fach. So DJ Davies was born into a typical Welsh mining family, and was apparently set for a future in the mines of southern Wales. But in 1912, in a remarkable grasping at a different life, this lively and ambitious lad, aged only 19, decided to apply for the American Dream – and he had a really good shot at it.
DJ later enjoyed claiming that he visited 47 of the 48 American states during the seven years he spent in the United States, causing major financial losses to American railroad companies by taking to the hobo habit of travelling unannounced and undetected! His main source of employment, again, was underground as a collier. He specialised in operating coal-cutting machines in several states from Pennsylvania to Washington State. He founded a colliery company, the Northwestern Coal and Coke Co at Steamboat Springs, Colorado – nowadays proud of its image as ‘a gem of a ski resort’ – and, on one occasion, was trapped underground under a rock fall for 10 hours. By the way, as a trainee geologist, DJ also called in at China and Japan to check how dreams were going there. As if all this wasn’t enough excitement, DJ was also a boxer. Not the odd fight here and there to spice up his CV – but 40 bouts as a prize fighter. DJ also continued his efforts to improve his own education, having previously attended evening classes in Wales. He spent two short periods of study at the University of Washington at Seattle and at Colorado State University at Pueblo, and followed a correspondence course in mining with the Universal Mining School in Cardiff. He also attended lectures on physical fitness by the famous ‘Father of Physical Culture’, Bernard MacFadden, in his New York institute. And, yes, it’s said he even learnt to fly.
Dr Ceinwen Thomas tells us that DJ – a popular Plaid Summer School raconteur – insisted that in the seven years he spent in the USA he had lived the equivalent of 50. You will give that claim even more credence when you hear that, in addition to the above, DJ also learned to fly and, in 1918, in time for America’s hurried intervention in the Great War, joined the American Navy. He was trained at the naval yard in Charleston, South Carolina, and made his mark there too, writing rollicking nautical verses for the Naval Dockyard magazine Afloat and Ashore. I have noticed that a fellow naval trainee was contributing funny illustrations for that magazine at the same time. They surely met and perhaps collaborated. That young man was Norman Rockwell. He, of course, became one of America’s most popular artists, a true household name.
On the high seas, DJ served as a mechanic but, in view of his extra qualifications, was also put in charge of physical fitness on every ship on which he served. As I noted earlier, DJ had had a lucky escape in a colliery accident while in America; he was lucky in his wartime experience as well. In 1918, he escaped unscathed from a US battleship that was sunk by a German mine in the North Sea, though he and other crew members spent several days in an open boat before being rescued. With war pressures at an end in 1919, by which time he was serving as a mechanic on an American warship in the Mediterranean, we learn that DJ had found time to consider the world of politics. From that American warship he wrote a letter home to his sister declaring that he had become a socialist, convinced of the centrality of the class struggle in politics.
Returning to Wales while on leave from the US navy in 1919, DJ went back to work underground at Cross Hands. While there he was badly injured in an accident which ended his coal mining career. Following that, in 1920, he was discharged from the US Navy having attained the rank of Mechanic 1st Class. Aged 27, DJ’s remarkable American saga was at and end and he settled back in Wales, though no longer employed as a coal miner. (I should note that I have not seen any reference to DJ gaining other employment at this time. He may have been eligible both for a United States Military Pension following his naval service and for Disablement Compensation resulting from his injury at Cross Hands colliery, but I have seen no confirmation that this was the case.)
Now able to put political ideas to the fore, he teamed up with other socialists in Ammanford where, we are told, he worked enthusiastically alongside leading Labour activist Jim Griffiths. Jim Griffiths was appointed Labour’s agent for Llanelli in 1922 – later becoming MP for Llanelli and, eventually, as a committed Welsh devolutionist, the first Secretary of State for Wales. So, in the early 1920s, the siren call of Labour must have been strong for DJ, too.
But DJ, like Jim, was still studying hard. Jim Griffiths chose the classic route through Central Labour College in London, educational HQ of British socialism. Providentially, however, in 1924 DJ broke the bonds, travelling to Denmark to become a student at the International People’s College at Elsinore. Providentially personally certainly for DJ because it was there that he met a young Irish woman, by the name of Noëlle Ffrench.
The names of DJ and Noëlle would become inextricably entwined. In my view, no one can talk about DJ Davies without talking, too, about Noëlle – “Y ddihafal Ddr Noëlle,” as DJ Williams described her, ‘the peerless Noëlle’!
Noëlle was raised at Bushy Park House near the village of Mount-Talbot in County Roscommon not too far from Galway. On the current Mount Talbot village Facebook page there is a note with a photo of Bushy Park House in 1919 which has a valuable reference to Noëlle and her links with one of the tragic heroes of the Irish fight for freedom. The note reads: ‘Two daughters, Noëlle and Rosamund, lived in the house at this time with their parents Tom and Georgina. Noëlle was an accomplished poet and knew General Michael Collins personally, she wrote 3 unpublished poems about him after his death at Béal na mBláth and was a regular visitor to his grave in Glasnevin. Words in Irish commemorating the formation of the Irish Free State were carved into a beech tree by Rosamund and Noëlle on the 6th of December 1921, it is still visible today alongside the original avenue. They were both very strong, intelligent and open minded women who are remembered with fondness in the area.’ Noëlle was the scholar of the family. A graduate of the University of Dublin, she won the Vice-Chancellor’s Prize in English and Modern Languages as a Literary Scholar in 1921. So, a Literary Scholar – and also a committed Irish nationalist now celebrating her country’s self-government.
I greatly enjoyed visiting Noëlle in 1978, at her home in Greystones on the coast near Dublin. ‘Dai’ was how she warmly referred to DJ in our conversation. Her meeting with ‘Dai’ in Denmark created a scholarly, creative and determined Welsh-Irish partnership that would make a central contribution to the development and growth of the Welsh national movement.
So, Denmark proved providential personally for DJ – and Noëlle! And providential for Wales, too. This, because at Elsinore DJ was won over by the philosophy of the Danish Folk High School movement created by Bishop Nicholas Grundtvig in the 19th Century. With Denmark under pressure from Germany, Grudtvig had argued that a healthy sense of nationood and nationality was essential to creating resilient and civilised political systems based not on competition through either internal class struggle or international power politics but on co-operation. His schools declared as their – to help people have ‘a simple, active, cheerful life on earth.’ Hearing DJ was Welsh, one of the Danish Folk High School headmasters, Gronald Nielsen, famously told him: “Your country is ruled by England. Your duty, young man, is plain. You must go back and work to make her free.” Thankfully, DJ was already disposed to agree.
Dr Ceinwen Thomas tells us in December 1924, during further study in Denmark, DJ sent a letter home to friends in Llandybie in which he presents his new vision for Wales, avoiding class conflict. The central idea now was co-operation – within and between nations. She quotes his letter:
“The great point is how can little Wales benefit from the idea. I’ll tell you. We must ask the Englishmen to give back our national home, and the sooner we do this the better. Your see, we cannot develop the right kind of patriotism whilst we are in bondage … To cry for good internationalism is just to put the cart before the horse once more. For if internationalism means anything at all it must mean co-operation between nations, and you cannot have co-operative internationalism based on competitive nationalism. You must make the various nations co-operative first, and to do this, every nation must have absolute freedom or at least Home Rule … Welshmen should shout from the hilltops for the return of their nationality.”
This, remember, was written before the national establishment of the Welsh Nationalist Party in Pwllheli in August 1925.
Noëlle and ‘Dai’ enthusiastically embraced the co-operative theme themselves when they married in 1925. The other ‘DJ’ (D.J. Williams) said their marriage “was one of those marriages arranged in heaven and blessed on earth.” They then moved to Wales, to Aberystwyth where they enrolled as students, and where, providentially again, was located the office of the new Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru / The Welsh Nationalist Party.
At the University College, DJ sailed through his studies. He gained a BA (Hons) in Economics in 1928; an MA (Econ.) in 1930, and a Ph.D. (Agri.Econ) in 1931. His thesis on The Economy of South Wales before 1800 was published by the University of Wales Press in 1933. But not DJ alone: Noëlle also gained a PhD at Aber in 1931.
But they hadn’t just been working for their doctorates. Over the same period, imbued with Scandinavian inspiration, they began their vigorous contribution to the infant Welsh Nationalist Party in what would prove to be four particular areas – to clarify its political objective, to develop a coherent socio-economic philosophy, to press for an increase in its use of English, and to have its central office relocated to the populous south east of Wales.
With regard, first of all, to a political aim – when Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru was established in 1925, it had no clear vision. From 1926 to 1930 no mention of self-government of any kind was included on party membership forms. Indeed, there was a heated row between Saunders Lewis and HR Jones on the topic of ‘independence’ and ‘republicanism’, both of which Saunders rejected. In 1927, DJ had his first article translated into Welsh for publication in the party’s monthly Welsh language journal Y Ddraig Goch launched the previous year. Our 34-year old economics student, with experience of American industry and society, and of Welsh Labour political activitism, looked at the question from a practical rather than a theoretical standpoint:
As yet even advocates of self-government are far from unanimous on the subject, he said. Let us try to determine, therefore, what sort of self-government is likely to be best suited to Welsh economic conditions and at the same time provide the nation with maximum economic and political rights.
The choice, Davies argued, was between devolution within Britain and Dominion Status within the British Empire as it was still known until 1931. The crux of the matter, he said, was freedom in policy making. Any system which did not allow Wales to carry out social or educational experiments would not be acceptable:
Unless national aspirations are given complete freedom of expression, declared DJ, the Welsh national character is denied adequate expression in the material sphere, and political sovereignty is essential if this freedom is to be achieved. For that reason, Devolution cannot satisfy our national aspirations.
Devolution would not provide Wales with the necessary control over revenue, he claimed; only political sovereignty could do so.
DJ Davies argued the party should adopt as its aim Dominion Status on the pattern of the Irish Free State which had been established in 1922. This would entail full control over trade, finance, taxation, economic resources and so forth – and also acceptance of the British Crown. He made his proposal in 1927. But it wasn’t confirmed by the Nationalist Party’s Executive Committe, its sole policy making body, until a committee of Welsh legal experts in London announced they agreed with Davies in August 1930. It headed a new list of Welsh Nationalist party objectives from February 1931.
But, DJ Davies, like Saunders Lewis, also bore in mind the need for a higher national authority, specifically accepting the notion of limited sovereignty.
Under present world conditions, he wrote, it is also essential to recognise the supreme sovereignty of the League of Nations: to avoid strife between self-governing nations.
DJ Davies also made a centrally important contribution to the development of the National Party’s socio-economic policy. Established during the turbulent Twenties, the party was inevitably drawn into suggesting what shape a new Wales should take. Two prominent figures during the formation of the party, Saunders Lewis and Ambrose Bebb, turned to history to find guidelines for what they considered might be a ‘nationalist’ style in economics. Ambrose Bebb fiercely rejected the socialist class analysis in a manner clearly directed at the Labour party:
We are as indebted to the blood of the aristocracy as we are to the energy and toil of the workers … It was not one class that shaped our destiny, but every one.
Saunders Lewis, too, looked back to what he regarded as a golden age in14th Century Wales in which he saw a population of small property-owning families sustaining a vigorous cultural life. Having initially seen the new pre-formation Nationalist group as a conservative movement, Saunders Lewis declared in 1926 that capitalism was ‘one of the chief enemies of nationalism’, dividing and impoverishing the nation. So, as he looked ahead to the elimination of ‘major’ capitalists, he argued for the distribution of ownerhsip and wealth –
It is appropriate for the majority of the workers of the nation also to be capitalists. That alone suits the dignity and contentment of man. That alone can ensure freedom for him, so that he will be master of himself. The majority of citizens should be … small capitalists, owners of land, factories, or quarries.
But, for DJ Davies, the question was not a theoretical one, but the practical one of how a Welsh Parliament might improve the lives of the people of Wales in the bleak 1920s and desperate ‘30s. He looked at the issue first of all from the point of view of a Labour government which he expected to be elected by the free people of Wales. A socialist government of Wales, he envisioned, would seek to tackle the economic reconstruction of the country through the centralist nationalisation of the banking system, of land, coal mines and industry in general.
But DJ counter-argued that a better way ahead would be provided by a decentralist form of socialism on the Guild Socialist model. Decentralisation and co-operative structures became his major themes. Democracy itself could be enhanced, and costs cut by transferring powers to local government. In industry, he argued, decentralised control in a small national community would provide individuals with a greater sense of self-esteem.
The closer the economic factor is brought to the individual, said DJ, the more easily it can be controlled, a fact which explains the success of co-operation. There is a far greater stimulus to individual enterprise and interest and co-operation in public affairs in a small nation, in which each individual feels that he counts for something, than in a large state in which the individual is lost in the mass.
Greatly expanding on the pioneering early-century work of ET John MP in analysing the Welsh economy, DJ and Noëlle Davies provided a detailed critique of British government economic policy and prepared an economic policy blueprint for a future Welsh National Government. These ideas were brought together in the The Economics of Welsh Self-Government, the Nationalist party’s first English-language pamphlet published in 1931 in the throes of the Great Depression. Wales’s industrial base, so overly dependent on heavy industry, would be diversified by Welsh Government intervention, road and rail links would be developed between north and south Wales aiming to create a national economy, and Welsh water resources would be developed for the benefit of Wales, not for ‘big English cities.’ Anti-imperialist and anti- big business, the pamphlet called for the creation of industrial and agricultural workers’ cooperatives to start pulling Wales out of depression. The key to successful reconstruction, said DJ, lay in those twin principles of co-operation and decentralisation:
The ideal form of ownership and management is no doubt the co-operative one, he argued, since this is the form that permits the fullest human development of the working man and that encourages individual initiative together with a sense of responsibility and solidarity.
He contrasted such an attitude with those of capitalism and laissez-faire individualism which, he said, were ‘devoid of the element of common control and common purpose’. But he also rejected state socialism in which ‘the voluntary initiative and personal responsibility of the individual tend to be ignored.’ The workers of a self-governing Wales, he declared, should not remain ‘wage slaves.’
Davies’ further exhortations on the co-operative theme had their effect during the Welsh Nationalist Party’s Brynmawr summer school of 1932 when it was resolved that ‘the only way of bringing Wales out of its present problems is by establishing a state based on co-operation.’ The resolution was confirmed by the party’s executive committee as the Nationalist Party’s official economic policy – though it was never a condition of party membership as were support for Dominion Status and League of Nations membership.
So the contribution of DJ and Noëlle to the development of both the political and the socio-economic policies of the Nationalist Party was absolutely central. It should, however, be noted that their ideas would mesh with ideals that Saunders Lewis, who became a Roman Catholic in 1932, would bring from the Papal Encyclical ‘Rerum Novarum’ on ‘The Condition of the Working Classes’.
It should also be noted, however, that a younger generation of socialists who emerged in the Nationalist Party late in the 1930s disagreed, pressing for a more orthodox, Labour-style, adoption of state nationalisation and state centralism as the way forward. The party’s Swansea conference of 1938, however, backed the economic policies of ‘co-operation and widespread private property.’
A change in position did come in relation to international trade policy. In 1931 DJ Davies stressed that a self-governing Wales should not go against ‘economic trends’ by establishing tariff barriers. Though Wales would be a customs unit, he did not anticipate departing from what he described as ‘our Free Trade tradition’: tariffs would be retained for the sake of revenue; assistance to home industries would be given through legislative measures. This changed considerably after Britain left the Gold Standard in September 1931 with the election of a National Government, the abandonment of Free Trade and the growth of protectionism. A different argument was now advanced by DJ Davies:
“What happens when two countries are linked together by Free Trade is that the stronger country promptly begins exploiting the weaker,” he wrote. “To protect the nation from international financial jugglery and periods of depression, Wales must be made as self-supporting as possible.”
DJ Davies and the party now argued for increased autarky, self-suffiency – seeking the end of the dominance of international finance and the creation of a national economy for Wales ‘on the basis of its own home market.’ Increased self-sufficiency by states, he argued, would mean that the export trade would eventually be governed by the ‘economics of indispensability’ – by which he meant trade in goods that could not be produced locally. This, he argued, would provide ‘greater security for the individual and the community’ rather than ‘the economics of cut-throat competition’.
Party Vice-President Prof J.E.Daniel supported this new stance in a very succinct statement:
“Of all things that should not be free, trade is one. It is a thing to be organised and disciplined or it will turn society upside down.”
That eventuality is one with which we, of course, are very familiar with abandoned former industrial communities throughout the western world.
But though they were so committed to the Nationalist Party’s policy development, DJ and Noëlle had not forgotten their Danish Folk High School inspiration. In 1931, they had moved to a large country house called Pantybeiliau, beautifully located between Depression-ravaged Brynmawr and the Usk valley village of Gilwern. There, with Dr Ceinwen Thomas as their assistant, they planned to establish a Welsh Folk High School for young unemployed men and women on the Danish model. The curriculum included world history and literature as well as Welsh economic, social and cultural life, allied to country walks, sports and crafts of various kinds. Essential to the financial viability of the project was continued government unemployment assistance for the students. There was much celebration when that was confirmed in 1934 and the school’s first term was hailed as a promising success. Sadly, Ministry of Labour support for students was soon withdrawn and DJ and Noëlle had to abandon their ambitious Welsh Folk High School project in 1935. It must have been a huge personal disappointment for them. Certainly it robbed Wales of an exciting departure from our long England- and empire-dominated education system.
Pantybeiliau nevertheless became in effect a pioneer Research Department for the National Party. DJ and Noëlle produced several impressively researched and persuasively written books and pamphlets and led popular discussions at Plaid Summer Schools. Having seen them in action, Yann Fouere said of them: “D.J. was abrupt, straightforward, whilst Noëlle was gentleness and patience itself. The former would be carried away by a flood of ideas falling over each other.”
As well as their contribution to the formulation of political and socio-economic objectives, DJ also argued for the party to start using more English and for its national office to be moved to the more populous southern industrial areas.
DJ was a Welsh speaker, and a strong advocate of the language and culture, but his bitterly anti-Welsh primary school education left him unable to write in Welsh. The party having published his The Economics of Welsh Self-government in 1931 – its first English language pamphlet – DJ now pressed that the party’s monthly Welsh language journal, Y Ddraig Goch, established in 1926, should at least be published in a bilingual format or also be available in English.
‘The best guarantee for the future of the Welsh language,’ he said, ‘is the speedy victory of the Nationalist Party; and the issue of Y Ddraig Goch in English is an essential first step towards bringing that about, since it is one of the surest means of enlisting the support of the industrial workers of South Wales, without whose backing our movement can never become a nationalist movement in the full sense of the term.’
But the Welsh Nationalist Party had been created by Welsh speakers who valued this new, political arena in which Welsh had been the sole medium of communication. So the proposal to publish a journal in English, caused a good deal of friction. Nevertheless, the monthly English-language Welsh Nationalist was launched in 1932. Several prominent members resigned, but DJ Davies continued to seek even greater use of English. This is how he wrote to JE Jones in July 1934:
“… As we are going on now as a political movement it seems to me that we are creating a very wide division between the Welsh and the English-speaking Welsh. As things are I am sure we are not making any real progress at all but just waddling in the mud, gaining a little one day only to lose it the next.”
The Welsh Nationalist survived and an English booklet by DJ and Noëlle – the strongly argued Can Wales Afford Self-government? – was published in August 1939 with others in English following. English joined Welsh for the first time in a Welsh Nationalist Party conference in 1941.
And fourthly, DJ fought for the party to move its national office in order to identify itself more clearly with the population balance of Wales. Initially located in Aberystwyth, the office had in 1929 been moved to Caernarfon which DJ referred to disparagingly as the ‘tail-end of Wales’. He gave JEJones and the Plaid’s officers another warning:
There is no future for ‘y Blaid’ without the English-speaking Welshman and a half-hearted policy to meet him half-way will prove useless.’
It was a battle DJ Davies won. In 1944, he presided over the opening of a new Plaid Cymru office in Cardiff. And in 1946, JE Jones left Caernarfon heading south to Plaid’s new HQ in 8 Queen Street. Though on the fringe of the party’s inner leadership circle, DJ and Noëlle, more than anyone, had worked tirelessly to show how self-government was essential to meet the economic and social problems of Wales. The parliamentary by-elections and general election of 1945 seemed to confirm that the Blaid had a degree of support in those very parts of Wales which DJ felt had been ignored. In 1945, too, Gwynfor became Plaid President. With Saunders Lewis having withdrawn from politics, and the word ‘nationalism’ now set aside, Plaid Cymru was emerging.
With tremendous energy and commitment, DJ and Noëlle provided the Blaid with a rich legacy of deeply researched and carefully argued writings on the Welsh political, economic and social situation. And in doing so, along with others such as Saunders Lewis, they always placed Wales within an international context, stressing the rights and dignity of all humanity as the basis for creating democratic, co-operative, decentralised communities in a world of nations co-operating within higher institutions such as the League of Nations and then the United Nations. DJ died in October 1956.
Towards the end of my years as a producer / director with ITV Cymru/Wales, I was lucky enough to work on a series called Your Century. Initially intended as a Millenium reflection of the 20th Century experience of some six Welsh towns, it proved so popular that we produced 10 series portraying lives in some 60 towns. The programmes were presented by our own Dr John Davies. We tried hard to give a bit of a boost particularly for our industrial areas through John’s end of programme pieces-to-camera. The pattern was – “Despite the difficulties of…. dah dah dah dah … Nevertheless, the advantages of … dah dah dah dah … give reason for confidence in the future.” But more often than not we knew our optimism was very weakly based.
DJ Davies would not have been surprised by the worsening financial and economic problems affecting our nation and many parts of the world, particularly since the 1970s and 80s. He would say that this had to be the result if we depended on competition rather than co-operation, if we put private profit before the common good, if we put undemocratic global corporations before communities, money before morality. Dare we be more specific about how he would react, with such vast changes having occurred in the 60 years since DJ’s death, and continuing at such an increasing pace? Just a few thoughts …
He would have been furious to hear Milton Friedman promoting monetarism and the maximisation of personal wealth.
He would have welcomed efforts to solidify European peace and re-balance plundered economies through the co-operative efforts of the European Economic Community and Union.
He would have danced with all of us at the creation of the Welsh National Assembly, while lambasting its paucity of powers and the failure of Welsh Labour to rise to the challenge of securing its role.
He would have thrown up his arms in disgust at the way in which bank and stock market profiteers got away with the 2008 Financial Collapse caused by their quick-profit schemes.
He would have said, “Told you so!” as free market Global Corporations abandoned entire communities, moving production to cheap labour factories with freedom to pollute.
At the narrow vote to turn our backs on our European Union neighbours, he surely would have exclaimed – “Never have so many poor people and poor communities been duped by so few immensely wealthy individuals!”
He would have been appalled at the disregard for workers’ rights entailed by the Gig economy and would have reminded us passionately of the need to boost our co-operative sector.
Faced with our vast inequality of personal wealth and social opportunity, he would agree with French economist Thomas Picketty that the super rich should be heavily taxed – as they were until Reagonomics – to facilitate the re-distribution of wealth and the re-building of healthy local economies.
And at the new evidence of interference through clandestine mass social media systems, he would demand a rapid response to re-establish the integrity of our democratic voting processes.
DJ Davies died in 1956. He didn’t see Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, heralding the movement to safeguard the environmental balance of the only planet we have. Neverthelss, I’m convinced he would say how essential it is that countries co-operate in face of the threat of Global Warming.
In one of his letters to JE Jones regarding the need to communicate effectively with non-Welsh speakers as well as Welsh speakers, DJ Davies added this, and I draw your attention to his final phrase:
We must somehow reconcile our approach to these two wide differences in our population very soon or else the opportunity will be lost when political democracy will have gone out of existence in Europe – we will have 8 – 10 years left to “play” with again.
DJ wrote those words in 1934. He saw what was coming. Hitler had just come to power. Now the extreme right is on the move again, immensely empowered by mass social media deception – in the US, in the UK and other European countries. DJ’s words are a warning. The undermining of democracy and disregard for human rights, the dismissiveness of global capitalism regarding rooted communities, the growth of militarism with weapons of mass slaughter, the pressure of private companies on public services, devastating environmental destruction, all echoe his concerns. The stakes are much higher now than in the days of DJ and Noëlle. I’m sure they would insist, however, that Wales can yet be part of the solution and not constantly the victim of the problem – but that Plaid Cymru’s success remains essential to that eventuality.
To end on a happier note – despite being saddened by the current plight of Wales, DJ and Noëlle would have been encouraged to hear that the United Nations has declared that the happiest country in the world for 2017 is Denmark, where they met and were so inspired.
“Wales!” they would say, “Pay attention!”
You can read it here >> Newsletter
The Birth of Wales the Nation
The first ever National Eisteddfod lecture to be organised by the Plaid Cymru History Society focused on the life of Gwynfor Evans and took place on 6 August 2012. It was delivered by Peter Hughes Griffiths, Plaid Cymru’s council group leader on Carmarthenshire County Council who served Gwynfor and Plaid Cymru as full-time organiser in the county. An extended version was given in Carmarthen on Friday 5 October as the Enid Jones memorial lecture. The Society is grateful to Peter for permission to reproduce the lecture on our website and to Councillor Alun Lenny for his kind help in supplying the photographs. This text has been translated from Welsh by Dafydd Williams.
Gwynfor Richard Evans was born on 1 September 1912 – one hundred years ago – in Y Goedwig, Somerset Road, Barry in the Vale of Glamorgan, the son of Dan and Catherine Evans and brother of Alcwyn and Ceridwen. After studying his life, reading extensively about him and getting to know him personally – the only conclusion we and future historians I am sure can draw is this: How could one human being achieve so much during his life – politically, yes – but also in so many other fields – and all of this for the sake of Wales. Gwynfor Evans was special, and a person completely dedicated to his country, as far as I know, uniquely in our nation’s recent history. There is that one estimate he travelled over a million and a quarter miles during his life – for the sake of Wales. And according to Graham Jones of the National Library – “Gwynfor’s collection is the biggest collection the Library possesses, and it is still far from complete.” In his biography of Gwynfor, the author Rhys Evans records that in 1989 he published his millionth word in his eleventh book. He went on to publish a number of books after that, all this quite apart from the hundreds and hundreds of articles he wrote in Welsh and English for the Plaid newspapers, Y Ddraig Goch and the Welsh Nation, as well as the endless weekly statements, leaflets and pamphlets – all of them in the age of the typewriter – where he acknowledges that his wife Rhiannon would do all the hard work for him. This was the era of the power of the printed word, a time when people read extensively, before the arrival of radio and television. Dr Pennar Davies said that his name is an integral part of the reawakening of Wales in the twentieth century, while to quote his biographer Rhys Evans once more – “It was Gwynfor who created the ‘national movement… Gwynfor was also the founder of the Parliament for Wales campaign … There is now a lasting memorial to that organisation in Cardiff Bay – It is the Assembly, the unmistakable symbol, for better or worse, of the desire of the people of Wale to live as a democratic nation.”
The opening sentence of the Welsh Academy’s Encyclopaedia of Wales describes him in this way: “The greatest patriot of 20th-century Wales, his dedication to his country did much to transform the national prospects of the Welsh people”. He received the Fellowship of a number of our colleges as well as serving as President of the Day in the National Eisteddfod more often than any other person in our time. Capel y Tabernacl in Barry was spiritual home for the entire family, with Gwynfor’s mother and father playing leading roles and his grandfather the Reverend Ben Evans its first minister. His father was a deacon and conductor of the mixed choir of over a hundred voices that performed the major oratorios on a regular basis. In the year 2,000 a new stained glass window was unveiled to honour the lives of Dan and Catherine, who set up well known, flourishing businesses in Barry town. Gwynfor attended Barry Grammar School where he captained the school’s cricket and hockey teams, and was selected to play in the Welsh Schools Cricket Team in 1930. Then it was off to University College, Aberystwyth and a law degree – and selection to play in the college cricket and hockey teams once more.
While in University, there took place two events that would have a strong influence on his later life – the first: “I would marvel at the dedication of the young men and women who sold Y Ddraig Goch on the streets of Aberystwyth – Gwenant Davies, Eic Davies and others.” And secondly – “but one day he saw a yellow coloured pamphlet outside a bookshop in Aberystwyth – The Economics of Welsh Self Government by DJ Davies. This booklet removed all kinds of doubt, and in the summer of 1934 he approached Cassie Davies in Barry and joined the national party.” At the time Cassie Davies was a member of staff at Barry College and in her book Hwb i’r Galon she recalls – “And this was the time that a remarkably good-looking young man from Barry, wearing an Aberystwyth college blazer, began to call to talk about this new party and ask to join it.” Gwynfor then went to Oxford University where he set up a party branch and became secretary of the famous Cymdeithas Dafydd ap Gwilym. He graduated there in 1936. Although he was to send an article from Oxford for his old school’s magazine, parts of which appeared in the Western Mail, it was in January 1937 that he published his first full article in Y Ddraig Goch, dealing with the establishment of the St Athan camp, and in the Plaid Cymru Summer School in Bala the same year he proposed a motion calling for official status for the Welsh language. And guess what – 400,000 signatures were collected in support of the proposal before the Second World War put paid to that effort. So you can see that Gwynfor had already made his first major strides in what was to be his life’s work – for the sake of Wales. He became a member of Plaid Cymru’s national executive in 1937 and within six years, in 1943, he was chosen as party vice-president. Then on 1 August 1945 in the Llangollen conference (five days before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima) he was elected as President of Plaid Cymru at the age of just 32, the start of his great lifetime mission – he would remain president and leader for the next 36 years.
In the meantime he had married his lifelong partner Rhiannon and was living in Wernellyn, Llangadog where he launched a market garden venture. I like his description of how he fell for Rhiannon. In his autobiography Bywyd Cymro, available in English as For the Sake of Wales, Gwynfor describes how he called on Rhiannon’s parents in Cardiff – “I have to confess that my heart lost a beat the moment Rhiannon walked into the room. On seeing her again two months later amid the beauty of a summer’s day at Islaw’r Dref dressed in a very short light frock – beach wear no doubt – the boy from Barry fell head over heels in love!” They were married on St David’s Day 1941, and Pennar Davies says in his book that if heaven had ever arranged marriages this was surely one it had done well: “And the contribution of Rhiannon Evans to the work of her husband cannot be overestimated.” Gwynfor contested his first Parliamentary election in Meirionydd in 1945. He led the Llyn y Fan protest on New Year’s Day 1947 and that in Abergeirw in 1948 and was elected a member of the University Court’s Guild of Graduates and of the Welsh Independents the same year, as well as serving as Welsh Secretary of the Celtic League in the Colwyn Bay National Eisteddfod as early as 1947, when he was 34. It is evident that by the end of the 1940s Gwynfor Evans had established himself as a national leader with wide support among his people.
Gwynfor was elected to Carmarthenshire County Council in 1949 and was a County Councillor for 25 years. The 1956 County Council elections produced an interesting result, with 29 Independent councillors, 29 Labour and 2 Plaid Cymru. Plaid Cymru held the balance, and stranger still both Plaid councillors bore the name Gwynfor Evans – Gwynfor Evans of Betws, Ammanford and Gwynfor Evans, Llangadog. Gwynfor Evans, Betws took the county council to the High Court in London for failing to provide nomination papers in Welsh – and won his case, leading significantly to the establishment of the Hughes Parry Committee in 1963 to investigate the legal status of the Welsh language. In 1949 Gwynfor led Plaid Cymru’s most ambitious Rally ever – 4,000 people came to Machynlleth to call for a Parliament for Wales, and after Gwynfor’s speech one correspondent concluded that the accolade of Wales’ leading orator should be awarded to Gwynfor rather than Aneurin Bevan. There followed further Parliament for Wales rallies in Blaenau Ffestiniog in 1950 and then the great rally in Cardiff in 1953, with a quarter of a million people signing a petition presented to the House of Commons. Gwynfor fought Meirionydd in the 1950 General Election, the Aberdare by-election in 1954 and Meirionnydd again in 1955 and 1959. And what about the fight for Tryweryn? A rally in Bala in 1956 – “No sooner had Mr Gwynfor Evans got to his feet to speak than the thousands in the great marquee stood up to welcome him and give him prolonged applause.” And in his book Bywyd Cymro Gwynfor said– “And except for the Parliament for Wales campaign, Tryweryn was the most important of all our campaigns.” Gwynfor’s leadership during that battle have been recorded in detail and the deputations to Liverpool and so on are historical events. Gwynfor wrote – “The Welsh had been as united as ever any nation could be. Their opinion was completely ignored. The state of democracy in Wales was exposed.”
A young woman – Jennie Eirian Davies, married to a minister in Brynaman – stood as Plaid Cymru’s first candidate in Carmarthen in the General Election of 1955 and again in a by-election in 1957. Dewi Thomas writes about her in a book of tribute to her – “Her tireless dedication and brilliant talent in the fifties opened the door for Gwynfor’s success in the great victory in Carmarthen later on.” Indeed Jennie Eirian herself said after the 1957 election – “The Blaid will win this seat within 10 years.” That happened in 1966 – within 9 years! Where should I begin with Gwynfor’s victory in the 1966 by-election? That story deserves a lecture in its own right. You will get that in 2016 when we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the victory! All I wish to say tonight is that the fact that result took place changes the political history of Wales for ever. Gwasg y Dryw brought out a record of Gwynfor speaking after his victory, calling on his country to will a full life and the means of creating it, a Welsh government. Today that government exists. We are on the way to securing a comprehensive Welsh government, Gwynfor’s full vision. Think about him going to London and the House of Commons and entering the lion’s den – “As he showed me round the tea rooms, Emrys Hughes pointed to the Welsh table, saying, ‘I wouldn’t sit there if I were you ’– ‘Your name is mud there.’ Goronwy Roberts used to pass me in the corridor without looking at me. It may be difficult for some readers to recall how vicious George Thomas could be. He was extremely set in his anti-Welsh sentiment. He was the very scourge of Welsh nationalism and the Welsh language.”
That was the environment Gwynfor entered, but he took advantage of that imperial establishment to fight for Wales and call for self-government. Things like this – With the support of Plaid Cymru’s Research Group, he came to the conclusion that the best tactic was to wage a guerrilla war and ask numberless questions about the situation of Wales. Gwynfor’s question would drive the civil service crazy: by the end of the first year he had asked over 600 questions, all of them published together with their answers in three volumes –the Black Books of Carmarthen. Then the party set out Plaid Cymru’s case to the Royal Commission on the Commission in 1969. Losing Carmarthen in 1970 – after the Investiture, direct action by Cymdeithas yr Iaith and the FWA (if such a thing existed!). Then losing by just 3 votes in March 1974 and scoring a sweeping victory in October 1974. At half past three in the morning a crowd of 3,000 were on Nott Square to hear the result and that Gwynfor had taken 23,325 votes. This was the only seat that Labour lost anywhere in the United Kingdom that night. So back to London, but this time with the two Dafydds for company! His working day would often commence at nine o’clock in the morning and carry on into the early hours of the following morning. This was a crucial period for making the case for assemblies for Wales and Scotland – there were three nationalist MPs from Wales as well as seven from Scotland. The Government’s majority over the other parties was only three. Gwynfor said – “Here was the most hopeful political situation I had ever encountered”. The Government was compelled to yield to the pressure for parliaments for Wales and Scotland – and this marked the beginning of a long and difficult journey which has now taken place, much more so in Scotland than in Wales! The Labour Party took care to ensure that the devolution referendum in Wales and Scotland faced barriers so that it was impossible for the Yes vote to succeed. We remember Neil Kinnock and others in the Labour Party campaigning strongly against their party’s own policy and getting every facility to do so. The outcome was the Na vote in the 1979 Assembly referendum in Wales. Rhys Evans says – “Gwynfor experienced many highs and lows in his career, but this was the nadir. For him and his generation of nationalists, the referendum was more than a ballot on the administration of Wales; the referendum was a vote on the spiritual and existential question of whether Wales existed. He was devastated, not knowing which made him feel more sick … Welsh toadyism or Labour deceit and corruption.”
He lost the General Election that followed the Referendum because of publication of a BBC opinion poll days before the election that predicted that Gwynfor would come a poor third. In my personal opinion all this had been arranged by the ‘establishment’ to get rid of Gwynfor from the House of Commons. In fact, the BBC admitted following a detailed review of the company that carried out the opinion poll that were unacceptably far from the mark! Gwynfor’s response was – if he had won that election, with his health as it was at the time, he would no longer be in the land of the living! And then in 1981 after 36 years as President of Plaid Cymru Gwynfor stepped down from the helm in the Conference in Carmarthen. That is a quick sketch of the work and impact of Gwynfor in the field of politics. It was a very profound impact, and we would never be where we are today but for Gwynfor having accomplished so much. His political success is now acknowledged by everyone. A very very special man. But what is truly remarkable about this man is that he accomplished so much side by side with his political career. And what I want to do now is give you a taste of those accomplishments, and remind you of the other tremendous pioneering roles he played. And where should I begin?
Gwynfor would almost invariably begin every speech with a history lesson. It didn’t matter where, or what was the occasion, the history of Wales was part of the message. He believed it was very important that we as a people should get to know our history. He campaigned to teach Welsh history in our schools – at a time when that was virtually non-existent, and he set about writing and publishing books, and encouraging others to do the same – “Gwynfor’s aim throughout his life was to awaken national consciousness through imbuing people with the history of Wales, restoring their memory and strengthening their desire to live.” (Dr Geraint Jenkins) He wrote history classics –Hanes Cymru/ History of Wales, through the South Wales Echo. Then Aros Mae, Seiri Cenedl y Cymry and Land of My Fathers. Picture him setting out on Christmas Day 1970 to write the first two pages of notes for Aros Mae! It was on sale within 7 months, with the first edition selling fast and a second edition soon in hand. Elin Garlick set about a translation into English, entitled Land of My Fathers. Three reprints were to follow and the publishers Tŷ John Penry commented– “this was the best seller of all the books we have published.” His other historical classic is Seiri Cenedl y Cymry, available in English as Welsh Nation Builders, portraits of the history of 65 men and women who contributed in different ways to the building and development of our nation. Think of all the research work needed to write historical studies and get the facts right! Gwynfor was a prolific author – of some 30 books in total – as well as pamphlets, leaflets and numerous books, in Welsh and English. He told me once of his intention to write one more book based on all his travelling around Wales – a study of Welsh chip shops as he had eaten in so many of them as he criss-crossed the country!
THE CHRISTIAN AND PACIFIST
We heard the Reverend Beti Wyn James and Mererid Hopwood assessing the significance of Gwynfor’s contribution in these two fields in the memorial service held in Capel y Priordy on Sunday 2 September. So I shall just summarise some of the main features. Gwynfor was a teacher in the young people’s Sunday School in his chapel, Providence Llangadog, for many years, and what is special id this – wherever he had been on the Saturday night – he would almost always return for his Sunday School class the following day. Read the full chapter about Gwynfor the Pacifist in the book by Pennar Davies – it gives us a comprehensive and detailed picture of the depth of his thinking and his faith.
He was brought up in a Christian family in Barry where his grandfather The Reverend Ben Evans was the first Minister of Capel y Tabernacl. His uncle Idris (his father’s brother) was also a minister and a first-class preacher. Gwynfor became Chairman of the Union of Welsh Independent Churches when he was just forty-two years of age. No-one as young as that had ever been elected before. And his son Guto was also President of the Union in recent times. It is important to recall that in his maiden speech in the House of Commons Gwynfor based his hopes for Wales on the Christian values of its heritage. He occupied a number of positions in the Independents’ organisation and he also played a key role in setting up Tŷ John Penry and its administration. His Christianity was always practical. “I am first a pacifist and then a nationalist” were Gwynfor’s words when given an unconditional discharge after appearing before a military Tribunal in Carmarthen in 1940. After writing his first article about St Athan in 1937 he came under the influence of his great hero George M LL Davies, becoming Secretary of Heddychwyr Cymru, the Welsh peace pledge movement and responsible for its tent in the Cardiff National Eisteddfod in 1938. Throughout his life he led protests and spoke in peace rallies – Swansea Rally in 1940, the great rally to defend Epynt where 400 people were turned out of their homes, the Abergeirw rally of 1948 and Trawsfynydd in 1951, with its celebrated photograph – all of these against the War Office grabbing Welsh land. The Peace Pledge Union was indebted to him for his support and leadership and Gwynfor published a number of booklets and pamphlets such as They Cry Wolf and Wales Against Conscription. Then, in 1973, he delivered his famous lecture in the Temple of Peace, Cardiff – Non-violent Nationalism. He was just as supportive of CND as well, and spoke most strongly time and time against the Vietnam War, offering himself as a human shield in Hanoi in 1968 – but his group were refused admission – nevertheless the act as typical of a man who could not stand by and watch such slaughter. Dafydd Elis Thomas says of him in one of the Peace Pledge Union’s newsletters: “This great soul was born in the most violent century in the history of the world. In the darkness of the warlike twentieth century his life was a beacon.”
FIGHTING FOR THE LANGUAGE
Gwynfor played a vital role in the campaign to secure a radio service for Wales – in 1939 the BBC removed programmes about Wales completely. In the National Eisteddfod in Llandybie in 1944 Gwynfor gave a lecture to a packed chapel on Radio In Wales. The lecture was published in Welsh and in English and 10,000 copies were sold! Gwynfor argued for devolution in the field of broadcasting, and to cut another long story short – this was successful and he was elected as a member of the BBC’s Welsh Advisory Committee in 1946. Although it would be a long battle, BBC Wales together with Radio Cymru and Radio Wales were secured later on.
By the mid 1950s Gwynfor could also see that the arrival of television also meant a revolutionary change in the system of communications that posed a major threat to the Welsh language and culture. He pressed the idea of Welsh television, but the government did nothing to help, and he did not succeed in fulfilling his aim. Gwynfor made an important Commons speech in 1969, calling specifically on the government to establish a Welsh Channel, and you know about that campaign in the 1970s. The story of the campaign to ensure the setting up of S4C is one that will always be associated with Gwynfor and his intention to fast after the Tory Government broke its pledge – that story would be another lecture as later this month we mark the 30th anniversary of broadcasting on C. Apart from the non-stop leadership Gwynfor provided for every aspect of the language struggle, there was his campaign for a Welsh language College. He became a member of the University Court and in 1951 he proposed setting up a Welsh College, with a committee set up to consider the idea. Everyone was opposed apart from Gwynfor, who again in 1953 prepared a detailed memorandum showing the need for this type of college. He carried on the struggle in following years – another campaign in 1973 and then in 1986 when addressing the first Welsh language graduation ceremony organised by the Welsh Students Union in Aberystwyth. He showed great determination and unswerving drive – and by now the Welsh College exists, with its administrative centre in Y Llwyfan here in Carmarthen. THE FAMILY MAN “He would never tell us or our children – ‘go away, I’m too busy, and he never waved a finger at us to chastise us. His patience with the children was limitless.” Those are the words of his daughter Meinir. The family moved from Wernellyn to Talar Wen in 1953 – “Talar Wen was my father’s wedding present, postponed for fifteen years” said Gwynfor. “Everything used to build the house was from Wales and Rhiannon’s brother Dewi Prys designed it.”
They had seven children and in response to a journalist Gwynfor said that his favourite Biblical saying was – “Be fruitful and multiply and fill … the earth”. He loved playing with the children – and dressing up as Auntie Jini, fooling the grandchildren into believing she was a half sister from America. He also loved walking with the children, and his favourite place was y Garn Goch – the mountain where his ash was scattered and where a memorial stone stands at the foot of the hillside. Like his father, Gwynfor was musical and liked to play the piano. According to his brother Alcwyn, Gwynfor would tend to go to the piano when he faced pressure, and when playing he would be able to relax. Gwynfor and Rhiannon moved to another Talar Wen in Pencarreg near Llanybydder in the summer of 1984 when he retired. A big farewell supper was held in Llangadog hall for the community to pay tribute to a couple who did so much for the Welsh traditions of the area for a period of 45 years. When 17 Plaid Cymru members were elected to the first National Assembly in 1999 they all came to Pencarreg to see Gwynfor and Rhiannon. Other visitors included Winnie Ewing with Rhodri, Cynog and Roy Llywelyn. On the day before Gwynfor celebrated his 90th birthday a piece about him was carried in the Western Mail. He headline read – ‘Pacifist giant of Welsh culture whose place in history is secured – Wales celebrates 90 years of Gwynfor’. “Gwynfor Evans has been described as ‘one of the greatest souls of the 20th century. Alongside Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan he is one of the last century’s three greatest Welsh politicians. But he arguably stands alone and ahead of them all in the measure of his influence and is one of the few people from any era recognised solely by their Christian name. “Gwynfor’s place in history is secure, and not just through his achievements and influence but his public acclaim. He was chosen by readers of Wales on Sunday as Millennium Icon ahead of Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan, voted Welsh Person of the Millennium ahead of Owain Glyndŵr by readers of Y Cymro and was reader’s choice in the Western Mail’s Person of the Millennium Award. They were popular endorsements of the greatest living Welshman of the 20th century.” Gwynfor appeared in public for the last time at the 2,000 National Eisteddfod in Llanelli, where he received the Worldwide Welsh Award for a lifetime’s work for Wales. The ceremony was full of emotion, with a packed pavilion honouring this very special man. And to conclude, I would like to quote Professor Geraint Jenkins in his address to the Gymanfa Ganu we held in Capel Heol Awst to mark Gwynfor’s life soon after he died. This is what he said – “Set about praising and publicly honouring Gwynfor’s name by erecting a fitting monument to him. What better place could there be to place a fitting memorial than here in Carmarthen, where he experience his big moment on 14 July 1966 so that your children and your children’s children can come here to admire one of the great figures of our nation.” And as you know that work is now in hand, with the intention of realising a monument by 2,016, the fiftieth anniversary of his great victory in 1966. Gwynfor Richard Evans died on Thursday morning 21 April 2005 at the age of 92 in his home in Talar Wen, Pencarreg. Rhys Evans says: “Gwynfor wanted to return to Garn Goch, to the soil, the land of Wales where his politics had taken root. Nevertheless, as his ashes blow in the wind, his legacy survives.” And Dr Geraint Jenkins says: “His aim was to build a nation that was free, responsible and confident, by restoring the memory of its people and strengthening its will to live – and we should remember him as ‘Llusernwr y canrifoedd coll’, the illuminator of the lost centuries. Time after time Gwynfor was there to stand in the breach – his life reflected the history of Wales 1940 on. The foundation of Gwynfor’s life was his Christianity and his pacifism.” The last sentences in Rhys Evans’ substantial volume are: “No one did more than Gwynfor in the twentieth century. It is not the Welsh-speaking Christian Wales that Gwynfor dreamed of, but it is still Wales. Wales, the nation he loved with such passion, has survived, despite it all.”
Peter Hughes Griffiths
During the annual conference in Llandudno in September 2011, the Plaid Cymru History Society organised a meeting to commemorate the life of JE Jones, who served as party General Secretary between 1930 and 1962. This is the address by the Chair of the society and one of his successors in the post, Dafydd Williams.
One of the earliest photographs from Plaid Cymru’s archives shows a group of people gathered at the 1927 Summer School at Llangollen. At the end of the front row is a young man with curly hair, his face full of energy and enthusiasm. Naturally I never knew the strong, young JE Jones who delighted in day-long expeditions across the mountains of Wales. By the time I met him in the mid 1960s, his robust good health had left him – a consequence, some said, of his incessant overwork for the cause of Wales. But his spirit and dedication to his country were as strong as ever.
John Edward Jones was born in December 1905. That meant he was ten years or so younger than Saunders Lewis and Lewis Valentine, and unlike them part of the generation that escaped the horrors of the First World War. His childhood home lay near the village of Melin-y-Wig, a hilly district about seven miles from Corwen and ten from Ruthin, the stamping ground of Owain Glyndŵr.
From the high ground behind the family farm, Hafoty Fawr, a clear day would give you a 360-degree view of the mountainous heartland of Gwynedd, Clwyd and Powys, which he describes in a lyrical passage in his important book Tros Gymru: JE a’r Blaid – half autobiography, half history of Plaid’s first forty years. It would be fair to describe JE as a patriot from his earliest days, drawing inspiration from the mountains of his birthplace: in fact he describes himself as ‘Mab y Mynydd’, the son of the mountain.
Before he had reached his first birthday, JE’s father died; but somehow his mother kept the family farm going with the help of her family, JE’s two brothers in particular, both of whom left school at 14 years of age. JE himself was to tread a very different path, despite his deep attachment the rhythm of agricultural life and the rural culture of Melin-y-Wig, with all its concerts and eisteddfodau. He won his way to Bala Boys Grammar School, Ysgol Tŷ Tomen, staying in Bala during the week. For all that Bala was a solidly Welsh-speaking area, everything in the school was in English. Was it this that fired up his lifelong support for Wales and the Welsh language? He tells the story of how he and a friend intervened to prevent a teacher picking on one of their fellow pupils who spoke little English – and succeeded in putting a stop to it. Then during the summer holidays in August 1923, after delivering eggs and butter to the village shop, he read a newspaper account of the meeting in Mold of a new movement with the odd title of ‘The Three Gs’, an acronym for y Gymdeithas Genedlaethol Gymreig, the Welsh National Society. This was one of the three groups that later came together to form Plaid Cymru; and a year or so later JE was to join it, as a first year university student at Bangor, where he studied Welsh, English and Mathematics, which he described as a “somewhat unusual combination”.
JE Jones – Architect of Plaid Cymru in his office in Caernarfon
Soon after, he heard reports of the launch of Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru in Pwllheli, and in October 1926 he attended a Plaid meeting in Caernarfon, filling in a membership form there and then. The forms were collected by HR Jones, a thin young man with a pale complexion: little did JE know that in a few years’ time he would be taking his place as Plaid Cymru’s general secretary. Within a month, a Plaid branch had been set up in the college in Bangor, with JE as secretary; by the summer it had nearly 80 members. JE stood as the party’s candidate in a mock election in November 1927 – and after a barnstorming campaign, he won! Could this have been Plaid’s first ever election victory? “I learnt then,” he was to say, “that it was easier to win over intelligent English people than a number of servile Welsh individuals.”[ii]
Once his University days were over, it was time to look for work. With a depression already looming, he applied for a teaching post in east London – and got it, one of four appointments out of 60 candidates. It seems most of the interview was spent discussing self-government for Wales! In no time at all, he had become secretary of Plaid Cymru’s London branch, although he also found time to play football for London Welsh Second XI and tennis during the summer.
Then came a decisive turning point in the young teacher’s life. After a long illness, HR Jones, the main driving force behind the foundation of Plaid Cymru, died. Despite fears about being able to afford it, the party leaders decided that a full-time successor had to be appointed. JE, together with a friend, the Guardian journalist
Gwilym Williams, decided they would both apply – using exactly the same wording, and giving each other’s name as a reference! JE was appointed – to a post he loved: “I was Secretary and Organiser of the movement for Welsh freedom from December 1930 until May 1962, when the old heart said it could take no more.”[iii]
It is interesting to compare the two Jones, HR a JE. One footnote, perhaps trivial but worth noting, is this: both of them succeeded in restoring the traditional names of their home communities; from Nasareth to Deiniolen in the case of HR, Cynfal to Melin-y-Wig in the case of JE. There was certainly a strong similarity in one aspect of their characters – an unswerving devotion to the cause of Wales and the Welsh language, and a vision of their country as taking its place among the world’s fully fledged nations. To which we can add the readiness to work without stop. I am grateful to Dewi Rhys, JE’s son, for these recollections of his father (my translation): “He was never idle. He would be on his feet about 5 every morning – either on the little typewriter, or in the greenhouse where he would ‘relax’ by transplanting hundreds of small plants, with the garden a sea of colour every summer. He was delighted to hear people making complimentary comments about the garden as they passed by. Even on holiday, he wasn’t idle. He would write diaries and bind them together as book after we came home.”[iv] Such commentaries were to form the basis for Tro i’r Swistir, the book he later wrote about their visits to Switzerland.
But the differences between the two are also revealing. As ever, JE is full of praise for his predecessor but he could not but observe the fact that party branches and rhanbarth organisations had languished and ceased to exist during HR’s illness: “To all intents, I was obliged to rebuild Plaid Cymru all over again.”[v] Plaid’s principal historian, D Hywel Davies, goes further, describing HR in these terms: “a restless visionary, longing for vigorous action on behalf of Wales rather than a desk role”. By contrast, JE “though prepared for radical action, was blessed with a painstaking nature more fitted to the task of careful organisational planning”.[vi] Hywel Davies also points to JE’s background as a University graduate and qualified teacher, concluding that this made him more comfortable among the membership Plaid was attracting.
JE took up his post on 1 December 1930, working from a small office in Caernarfon adjacent to the Pendref hotel where he took lodgings. What followed was a 32-year ‘stretch’ in which he became the lynch pin of party activity. JE soon established himself as the centre of communication and information for the party; and Plaid Cymru became noted for the quality and quantity of its publications. In the first four years of existence, it had published just one substantial pamphlet, Saunders Lewis’ Principles of Nationalism. Once JE took up the reins of office, Plaid began producing a steady stream of literature. It is worth noting that this output included several solid works on economic policy – including The Economics of Welsh Self-Government by Dr DJ Davies (July 1931) and two by Saunders Lewis – The Case for a Welsh National Development Council (1933) and Local Authorities and Welsh Industry (1934). These publications, supplemented Y Ddraig Goch, which slightly preceded the foundation of Plaid Cymru, and its English-language counterpart, Welsh Nationalist, set up in 1932.
The emphasis was very much on selling and sales campaigns rather than giving away; although JE developed the habit of what he called ‘meithrin tawel’ (quiet cultivation), sending the latest publication with a friendly covering letter to a selected range of prominent people – the artist Augustus John was one he said joined the party as a result.[vii] I recall (to my shame) Gwynfor Evans pointing frequently to the relative dearth of Plaid publications during the 1970s and 1980s by comparison with JE’s term of office.
Then there is PR. While persuading others to produce detailed publications, JE himself was master of collecting the telling quote and the killer fact, which he described as ‘bwledi’ – bullets. This led on naturally to press communications, in which he proved expert – both in crafting press statements and cultivating journalists. I like his restrained critique of some of his fellow Nationalists in this area: “I found one of the most difficult things, in the early years, was to educate our local officials – secretaries or correspondents – to write ‘effective pieces’ for the Press and to develop friendly relations with journalists. But that came, over time.”[viii] JE could have taught 21st century spin doctors a trick or two: his advice on using the Press remains as true today as ever, for all the changes brought by the age of the internet, Facebook and Twitter.
One early priority was building the party, from the tiny handful he inherited in 1930. This proved painfully slow, although JE set about the task in his typically systematic way, moving from county to county, badgering members to establish county committees and in due course branches. Saunders Lewis was characteristically acerbic about the rate of progress: at the end of 1935, after praising JE’s work, he asked: “But where are his disciples? An organiser of the same calibre in every Rhanbarth Committee would transform the course of Plaid Cymru.”[ix]
Here it’s worth recalling some home truths. Plaid Cymru was still small. It was also (in terms of the age of its members) overwhelmingly young. Because it was small and young it was also poor, very poor. This partly explains how few elections it fought – one Parliamentary seat in 1929, two in 1931 (Caernarfon county and the University of Wales), back down to one in 1935. By the way, 1935 was the first election for Plaid to use canvassing – a technique JE adapted from his contacts with parties in Denmark, Ireland and England. Local elections contested were also few and far between. Perhaps poverty isn’t the whole truth – the indefatigable DJ Williams complained bitterly at the lack of fighting spirit, describing Carmarthenshire county committee as “a dead body”.[x] This was 1935!
One technique JE pioneered to tackle Plaid’s financial problems was the St David’s Day Fund, based on the experiences of Fianna Fáil. The first appeal, in 1934, raised the princely sum of £250! Building party membership and funding went hand in hand with fighting campaigns – on a whole range of topics. Just one example – shortly after taking up his post JE launched a campaign to popularise use of the Welsh flag in place of the ubiquitous Union Jack. The first target was Caernarfon castle, whose Constable was none other than David Lloyd George. His opening gambit was typically modest, scarcely capable of rejection – simply equal status for the two flags on St David’s Day. A letter forwarded by Lloyd George to the Minister in London elicited a contemptuously negative response – just what JE was after of course. He promptly published it!
On St David’s Day 1932, clad top to toe in motor cycle gear, JE paid his sixpence and made his way to the top of the Eagle Tower, joined by three other conspirators, including Lloyd George’s nephew, WRP George. There they lowered the Union Jack, raised the Ddraig Goch and then stapled the ropes to the flagpole – JE’s planning of course included a hammer and staples in his rucksack. The spectacle of a large red dragon flag on the tower prompted cheers and a quick rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau from a crowd below; although the local constabulary soon appeared, and before long the Union Jack was back in its place. Later in the day, however, and quite independently, a group of Plaid students from Bangor showed up on the back of a lorry. They too got up to the Eagle Tower and succeeded in smuggling out the offending Union Jack, which met an unfortunate fate on the Maes.
The following St David’s Day saw a government U-turn. A large Draig Goch was raised as high as the Union Jack, and the ceremony was performed by none other than David Lloyd-George. Soon afterwards, the Welsh flag would fly from all government buildings on 1 March; and JE saw to it that party branches pressed the local authorities to follow suit. He then arranged production of more flags, selling them at a tidy profit.
Other campaigns involved moves to raise the status of the Welsh language – for example, shaming the Post Office into accepting prepaid envelopes with Welsh place names – building up to the successful drive to ensure Welsh language programmes on the BBC. A common theme in all these endeavours – and many more – was careful planning and a holistic approach – never missing out on an opportunity for good PR. This care was evident than during the burning of the Penyberth bombing school in September 1936, an operation remarkable for its secrecy and meticulous attention to detail. This included a spy – the young Alaw Non Rees, who from her upstairs window in Llanbedrog kept tabs on how much timber had arrived on site.
JE was one of seven people who played a direct role in the operation – he walked part of the way back to Caernarfon along the railway to avoid detection. The following morning in his lodgings he received a letter from Saunders Lewis – apologising for not informing him about the burning! It was of course an alibi – the Plaid leaders could not afford to have their office closed down and their organiser behind bars at such a crucial moment. JE remained free to organise nationwide protests. Dewi Rhys recalls seeing the bundles of telegrams of support sent to the Penyberth Three – Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and DJ Williams – telegrams that JE had organised: by law they had to be delivered, even during a High Court trail, helping to maximise the impression of public support.[xi] He also arranged what I believe must still rank as the biggest ever party rally – a crowd of 12,000 welcomed the Penyberth Three back to Caernarfon from Wormwood Scrubs.
Penyberth and the two High Court trials that followed proved a pre-War high water mark for Plaid Cymru. JE argues that much of the new support the party won was dissipated by opposition to the coronation of George VI, a decision taken during Saunders Lewis’ prison sentence and a rare spell of sick leave for himself. Opponents also saw Lewis’ conversion to Catholicism as a chance to smear Plaid with the taint of fascism. The outbreak of War posed a huge challenge – even a mortal threat to the party’s existence, as Saunders Lewis openly admitted at the time. Yet somehow Plaid Cymru carried on, and even grew in influence as the war went on. The party hit back at its detractors with vigour and confidence. It resisted conscription, JE facing six separate courts and tribunals over three years, and doing so with some style. And it fought tooth and nail to save 40,000 acres of land in the Epynt range from seizure as a Ministry of War firing range. So in April 1940, JE found himself walking the mountains again, visiting every farm endangered; but London had its way.
Planning post-War election strategy – the SNP’s first MP Dr Robert McIntyre joins Plaid leaders in 1945
From 1942 the tide was clearly turning in the party’s favour. A by-election for the University of Wales seat saw Saunders Lewis take 23 per cent of the vote: JE notes (with satisfaction) that he was described as ‘cunning’ for his role as the “assiduous, astute and untiring agent”.[xii] And he had another reason to be happy. In 1940 he had married Olwen Roberts, secretary of the Caernarfon rhanbarth, the ceremony performed by Lewis Valentine. Two children, Angharad and Dewi Rhys, were to follow.
By 1945, Plaid Cymru emerged stronger than ever. For the first time it could lay some claim to be an all-Wales party, fighting seven seats in the general election. In the summer it chose a new leader, the 33-year-old Gwynfor Evans, and he and JE were to form a cohesive team for the next decade and a half. In fact, says Hywel Davies, it is from 1945 rather than 1925 than Plaid can be regarded as a political party, albeit still a party in embryo.[xiii]
Once again it fought a Ministry of War land grab, this time in Trawsfynydd, Meirionnydd and this time successfully. Again JE provided organisational flair: the police and army were outwitted by a diversionary group while the main protest used back lanes to stage a two-day blockade. By 1950 Plaid Cymru was fully engaged in the Parliament for Wales campaign and JE organised a series of rallies which would be held annually for a quarter of a century. The 1953 rally was one of the biggest seen in Cardiff. Unusually he took the chair – but his real input was planning and implementation. The build-up included a relay of torch bearers running from the Owain Glyndŵr Parliament House in Machynlleth to Sophia Gardens: JE ensured the speeches and messages went on long enough for the ensuing procession to be seen by crowds leaving Cardiff Arms Park.[xiv] He was also involved in the defence of the Tryweryn valley although by now he had more assistance.
JE chairs the 1953 Parliament for Wales rally in Sophia Gardens, Cardiff
Of course JE Jones was not without his critics. Some felt that someone of his background could not relate to the industrial, non-Welsh-speaking communities of south-east and north-east Wales. I think his track record shows otherwise. Tros Gymru is full of references to the need to appeal to those who do not speak Welsh. JE supported the move of the party’s office from Caernarfon to Cardiff in 1946 – in fact he personally located premises in 8 Queen Street. Dewi Rhys recalls that the official opening took place on 1 March, the day of his birth, with his father trying to be in two places at the same time – as usual![xv] His work enabled Plaid Cymru to spread its wings in the south after the war. For his part JE always showed a great reluctance to criticise fellow Nationalists. Here is one rare example: after praising the leadership of Saunders Lewis, he allowed himself this one comment: “But he did develop a tendency towards a mistaken prejudice sometimes against certain types of people; for example, he could suggest, about someone quite as courageous as himself, that pacifism was cowardice.”[xvi] The ‘someone’, of course, has to be Gwynfor Evans.
Leading the Parliament for Wales campaign procession
Others felt he was too close to the party elite; especially at times of strain within the ranks, as for example during the Tryweryn campaign. By 1950, the now ex-president Saunders Lewis was privately critical of what he called JE’s ‘parchusrwydd’, respectability, which he contrasted unfavourably with the militant tactics of the Welsh Republicans.[xvii] But JE was by his nature a loyalist, committed to supporting Plaid Cymru and its chosen leadership through thick and thin, whatever that might demand. He had proved himself more than ready for radical action: his willingness during the war years to oppose conscription as a nationalist and face prison demonstrates that. The ‘respectability’ of which Saunders Lewis complained was that of Plaid Cymru rather than JE: it reflected the determination of Gwynfor Evans to put post-War Plaid on course to be a truly all-Wales party rather than a nationalist pressure group.
Looking back, what is striking is JE’s willingness and ability to continue at his post, for all the problems and pressure Plaid Cymru faced. Could the party have held together during the 1930s, the 40s and the 50s without JE at the helm? Perhaps, but I find it hard to imagine how. His tombstone in Melin-y-Wig bears the dedication ‘JE Jones, Pensaer Plaid Cymru’ – a fitting tribute to the architect of Wales’ national movement.
JE Jones (1905-1970) is buried in the cemetery opposite the chapel in Melin-y-Wig, Denbighshire. A plaque on the wall of the former village school he attended also commemorates his life.
 JE Jones, Tros Gymru: JE a’r Blaid. (Gwasg John Penry, Abertawe, 1970), p.37.
[ii] Ibid, p.40
[iii] Ibid, p70
[iv] Ebost i’r awdur gan Dr Dewi Rhys, Tudweiliog, Mis Medi 2011.
[v] JE Jones, Tros Gymru: JE a’r Blaid, p.97.
[vi] D Hywel Davies, The Welsh Nationalist Party 1925-1945: A Call to Nationhood (University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1983), p.187.
[vii] JE Jones, Tros Gymru: JE a’r Blaid, p.88.
[viii] Ibid, p.95.
[ix] Ibid, p.113.
[x] D Hywel Davies, The Welsh Nationalist Party, p.204.
[xi] Email to the author by Dr Dewi Rhys, Tudweiliog, September 2011.
[xii] JE Jones, Tros Gymru: JE a’r Blaid, p.276.
[xiii] D Hywel Davies, The Welsh Nationalist Party, p.268.
[xiv] JE Jones, Tros Gymru: JE a’r Blaid. p 307.
[xv]Email to the author by Dr Dewi Rhys, Tudweiliog, September 2011.
[xvi] JE Jones, Tros Gymru: JE a’r Blaid, p.155.
[xvii] Emyr Hywel (Editor), Annwyl D.J. Llythyrau D.J., Saunders, a Kate. (Y Lolfa, Talybont, Ceredigion, 2007), p.182.
PLAID CYMRU HISTORY SOCIETY, MARCH 25, 2011
[TRANSLATION FROM WELSH]
IN THE BEGINNING …
By D.Hywel Davies B.A., M.Sc.(Econ.)
AS is appropriate for the inaugural meeting of the Plaid Cymru History Society, I wish to take you back to the earliest period in the history of the formation of the movement. But not to the famous event that was held in Pwllheli in 1925 but to another one held in Caernarfon in 1924. I’m afraid that I can’t offer a much more exciting location: the Maesgwyn Temperance Hotel was the place arranged in Pwllheli; the Queen’s Café is the best that I can offer you in Caernarfon.
It is Saturday night the twentieth of September, 1924, and quite a number of people from Caernarfon and district are walking in the direction of the Queen’s Café in the old heart of the town. It has been a year of political excitement – namely the formation of a British Government for the first time by the new Labour Party under the leadership of Ramsay Macdonald back in January. It’s a minority Government, and the talk is that there will be another General Election pretty soon. David Lloyd George has no worries about that. Caernarfon Borough is solidly behind him – and it’s certain that he is conspiring how to regain the keys to Number 10 sometime in the future. But the Labour Party is now on the rise having already achieved the status of the second party in the only Parliament they had at that time.
Britain is not the topic of conversation of those heading for the Queen’s Café tonight. Wales is the topic. The politics of Wales. A Wales without a national political body. A Wales without a nationalist movement. A Wales without sub-branches of the British parties to recognise its national status. A Wales without the Red Dragon on the towers of Caernarfon Castle.
But there is some Welsh political context. Specifically, because of its previous history as the main spokesperson for Wales at Westminster, the failure of the Liberal Party as a body to raise once more the question of devolution. The most recent development was a religious matter. The Church of England in Wales was disestablished as a part of the British state church. In its place, in 1921, the Church in Wales was established as an independent Welsh church. But with that religious devolution, it was as if the breezes had disappeared from the sails of Welsh political devolution. But not entirely.
A number of conferences were held between 1918 and 1922 to discuss devolution. They were arranged by a handful of individual Liberal Members of Parliament who invited representatives of local councils and other movements. There was very little response to the first conference that was held in Llandrindod Wells. It was agreed that ‘self-government’ would be beneficial for Wales but without it being defined. Not having received an invitation to this conference, the new Labour Party saw the whole thing as a Liberal ruse aimed at hanging on to the votes of Welsh patriots. The Labourites of south Wales declared their support for home rule in 1918 as did the North Wales Labour League in 1924. Nevertheless, as was stated by the important Labour figure David Thomas, who supported devolution, the real battle was that between labour and capital.
The most successful conference was that in 1919, again in Llandrindod Wells. It was enthusiastically agreed to call for ‘full local autonomy’, again without definition. And a Welsh Secretary of State was called for though with a smaller majority following a heated debate. The Western Mail described the agreement that was reached as ‘something in the nature of a miracle … [though it] left the question very much where it found it.’
Not much more light was provided when a small group of Liberal Members of Parliament asked the Prime Minister – the old nationalist David Lloyd George – in 1920 to create a Secretary for Wales. “Go for the big thing!” he replied, but nobody understood that. A measure was proposed by David Matthews, the Liberal MP for Swansea East, in 1921 calling again for a Secretary of State for Wales, but no one was paying attention. There were other things on the minds of the leaders of the central Liberal Party. The Labour Party in particular.
By now the Welsh inspiration was diminishing quickly. The final conference of this series was held in Shrewsbury in 1922 – ironically enough on the day of the signing of the Royal Assent for the creation of the Irish Free State. There was scant support. The few who were present failed even to support Murray Macdonald MP’s private measure, The Government of Scotland and Wales, which called for federal devolution. The Welsh Outlook magazine commented, ‘The futile Shrewsbury Conference on March 31st last and the ridiculous debate which followed it in the House of Commons on April 18th, marked the nadir of the Welsh Home Rule movement, and only a small remnant of those who supported it escaped pessimism and despair.’ Murray Macdonald’s measure failed. It was the end of an era. Devolution disappeared at Westminster.
No. Those Welsh patriots who were closing in on their cups of tea at the Queen’s Café did not have much reason for hope. But, with the enthusiasm that has been central to our movement, they would surely have responded. “Hold on! There’s an excellent group of students who have raised a great nationalist furore at Aberystwyth fairly recently. And in Bangor – there’s a student society there – The Tair G society – which is full of Welsh enthusiasm. And there’s the scholar Saunders Lewis who has kicked a hornet’s nest to annoy the respectable, hypocritical Welsh. Yes, there is hope!”
Ready to welcome them in the Queen’s Café was 24 year old H.R.Jones, a quarryman who had had to become a travelling salesman due to poor health. H.R. was from the village of Ebenezer – though he was leading a campaign at the time to bring Deiniolen back as its name. It was he who had arranged tonight’s meeting on the much greater topic of the nation’s future. H.R.Jones had been sending letter after letter to everyone he knew as patriots – far and wide, prominent and less well known. Come, he said, to set in motion an independent Welsh nationalist political movement.
H.R. was a shy man, a quiet man. But he was boiling with frustration. It was yet another conference that had particularly upset him. This one had been held during the summer by one of the small patriotic movements that were emerging briefly and disappearing like fireflies as Welsh enthusiasts sought the way forward: Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society) – the first with that name; Urdd y Delyn (The Order of the Harp) – a foretaste of Urdd Gobaith Cymru; the enthusiastic Lady Mallt Williams of St Dogmael’s Byddin Cymru (Army of Wales) – not a weapon in sight despite its name; Undeb y Ddraig Goch (The Union of the Red Dragon) in Liverpool; Lloyd George’s brother William’s Cymdeithas Cymru Well (The Better Wales Society). This time it was Byddin yr Iaith (The Language Army) which had held its annual meeting in Llandrindod Wells. Despite its threatening title, there was nothing military about Byddin yr Iaith: members were to wear the movement’s badge, to speak Welsh as often as possible in places such as post offices and train stations, and to demand official status for the Welsh language. During the conference, another tiny movement with a big name – the Home Rule Section of the League of Welsh Nationalists – had held their own meeting. There were speeches. An appeal was issued.
H.R. was furious. He sent even more letters. It was raining H.R. letters in Wales! The Rev J.Seymour Rees was glad to receive one in Treorci. D.J.Williams was pleased when his arrived in Fishguard. Iorwerth C.Peate was delighted, though he would have a few questions. So H.R. went ahead to organise his meeting in the Queen’s Café with the aim of ‘establishing a society for young home rulers.’
It was also true that the academic and conservative Saunders Lewis – a conservative with a small ‘c’ but a pretty big ‘C’ as well! – had caused consternation only a year earlier due to a speech he gave at the National Eisteddfod in Mold. He shook long-winded patriots by calling for the establishment of camps to teach discipline. But remember that this was Lieutenant John Saunders Lewis talking, one who had served in the trenches during the Great War and who had been injured. He stated: ‘Our condition cannot be saved by a conference but by discipline and obedience. Do not seek a conference in which all the chatterboxes of Wales can deliver useless speeches, but next year form a battalion and a Welsh camp, and every Welshman who wishes to serve his country to come there to drill together for a fortnight and obey military orders so that they work together quietly and without argument, everyone prepared to obey and to be punished if he does not do so. And do this for five years, without chatter. Drilling without weapons, and so openly and without breaking the law of any country, but by this preparing ourselves to accept laws and leadership by Welshmen. If we had a hundred or fifty or only twenty in the first year to do so, this would be Wales’ most important movement since the days of Glyndŵr. I am perfectly serious’.
It was necessary for Lewis to add that last sentence. Welsh nationalists were not supposed to talk like this. But that was the kind of frustration that was to be found among the younger generation. Saunders Lewis’ particular response was unique, foreign, and he was flayed. ‘Naked stupidity,’ said the weekly Darian newspaper in the southern Valleys of his plan. ‘The most stupid of reactionaries’ was the response of the Western Mail. ‘Hotheads who propose to give the undergraduates of the Welsh colleges military training in holiday camps!’ said the South Wales News.
The only one to express similar ideas was Ambrose Bebb, Lewis’ friend and another conservative with a small ‘c’ which had larger implications. Bebb had moved on from Aberystwyth to study and lecture at the Sorbonne university in Paris. There, Bebb came under the influence of the right wing movement of Charles Maurras. He, too, was inspired to express the need for social discipline under strong political leadership in an article he wrote in 1923. With more rhetoric than reason, Bebb succeeded in linking the names of Lenin and Mussolini as the kinds of heroes that the Welsh should consider. Very quickly, Saunders Lewis and Bebb were being known as Sinn Féin people.
So, with the weak devolutionary conferences of the Liberals having failed, the new Labour Party gaining in strength, along with the inflammatory declarations of Lewis and Bebb, the Queen’s Café crowd had a quite a lot on their plates.
And there they are arriving at the Queen’s. Among the youngsters is Gwilym R.Jones, who would later become Editor of the important weekly newspaper Y Faner. This is how he described the assembly: ‘There were some forty of us in the meeting. There were teachers, quarrymen, ministers, a doctor – and one pale salesman,’ namely H.R.Jones himself. ‘This salesman had brought together the meeting, but he said very little. Nervous, inarticulate, bungling. He wanted an “army” to defend Wales and the language.’ In an effort to have a person of status at the helm, the patriotic doctor, Dr Lloyd Owen of Cricieth, chaired the meeting. But H.R. was the catalyst for the event.
H.R.Jones was considered an expert on the history of Ireland. It must be remembered that the bloody Irish struggle to achieve freedom from the bonds of London was the background to all the home rule discussions in Wales following the end of the Great War. According to his friends, H.R.’s view was that similar radical action, including violence, was also needed to promote the cause of Welsh nationalism. Gwilym R.Jones would later quote him stating categorically, “We will never awaken a nation that has been sleeping without sacrificing more. We must suffer … blood must be spilt. Our movement is too tame, and we are too cowardly.”
Saunders Lewis would say of him, “H.R. was the only one in our midst to whom one could imagine Michael Collins giving a post, one who could not be shocked nor frightened, one who would do anything, without caring about the consequences, if that would bring the freedom of Wales closer.”
With all of this in the background, Dr Lloyd Owen declared from the chair that though perhaps a ‘militant attitude’could be welcomed to the new nationalist movement, there would be no place for ‘violence.’ His comment was supported by at least one other who roundly criticised any suggestion of what was described by him as ‘Russian or Irish methods.’But one of H.R.’s associates, Evan Alwyn Owen, argued in return that ‘introducing a little Sinn Féin’ to the movement could be helpful. Another friend, the journalist Gwilym Williams, went as far as declaring that he supported ‘marching with guns’ and that he agreed with ‘the philosophy of [Patrick] Pearse.’
No further light was shed in the Queen’s that night, however, on the question of methods. Neither was there detailed agreement regarding what kind of home rule would be of benefit to Wales. Nevertheless, it was agreed to establish a new movement. Reflecting the feeling that what was essential was a completely committed society, it was decided to name it ‘Byddin Ymreolwyr Cymru’ (the Welsh Home Rulers’ Army) and to adopt an oath of loyalty that might ensure organisational effectiveness. The emphasis, however, was on political methods. In a note for the press, H.R.Jones said, ‘We aim for home rule today not in the ruins of the United Kingdom but through arguing rationally for our rights. We, the oldest nation in Europe, demand a Parliament and a home, by which will be organised a way for our nation to develop its life along Welsh lines.’
The fact that the Queen’s Café meeting was a public event meant that the press had plenty of material with which to be critical. The North Wales Chronicle was scathing: ‘Those present,’ it said, ‘outnumbered the famous tailors of Tooley Street, but, like the latter, their ambition has brought a touch of comedy into a movement which has as much attraction for faddists as a lamp light has for moths.’
The local Herald Cymraeg was more disappointed than aggressive: ‘The meeting of home rulers of the district that was held in Caernarfon on the Saturday before last was of no help to the movement; rather to the contrary. It was entirely irresponsible and childish. It is a great shame to move ahead with such an important movement without proper preparation, and without ensuring influential speakers.’
‘Childsplay,’ complained the Darian in the south.
Gwilym R.Jones referred to what he described as bungling. Nevertheless, a meeting was held, and a public meeting at that. Being so open – inviting people to the Queen’s Café – was a very different kind of procedure to that of another nationalist movement which had been established at the start of the same year. That was created by Saunders Lewis, Ambrose Bebb and Gruffudd John and Elisabeth Williams in Penarth, in the privacy of the Williams family home. Very few knew about it because it was a secret movement. Y Mudiad Cymreig (the Welsh Movement) was the name whispered quietly among its handful of supporters. Their aim was to remain secret for an indefinite period. That would not prove difficult because they decided to use Breiz Atao, the paper of the Breton nationalist movement, as the prime medium for their ideas. Gruffudd John Williams later said, ‘The French and Breton turned many people away.’ At least the Welsh Home Rulers’ Army had made it into the headlines in the press, and, as is claimed, all publicity is good publicity.
The Queen’s Café, however, was a process not an event. H.R.Jones had set in motion an activity that would be of central importance in the development of our national movement. There was a great deal of discussion regarding the first night at the Queen’s. The problem was that there had been no clear agreement on objectives. Indeed, the Welsh Home Rulers’ Army almost came to an end, just another small, short-lived society. Some argued in favour of merging with the Bangor university student movement, namely the Tair G (the Welsh Nationalist Society). But this was opposed by the Home Rulers’ treasurer, Evan Alwyn Owen. Evan’s aim, like that of H.R., was to establish an independent nationalist party. It was agreed to meet again at the Queen’s Café on December 20 to discuss matters further. On that occasion, Evan proposed that the title Welsh Home Rulers’ Army should be dropped in favour of Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru – the Welsh National or Nationalist Party. He said that this party should raise funds, adopt parliamentary candidates, cooperate with nationalists in Scotland, and declare that Welsh membership of the League of Nations was its objective. And so it was agreed. Three months after it was established, the Welsh Home Rulers’ Army disappeared being reconstituted immediately as the Welsh National/ist Party. The place of the Queen’s Café was safe, well fairly safe, in the history books.
The Rev Lewis Valentine M.A., a Baptist minister, was chosen as President of the new National/ist Party and H.R.Jones, of course, became its Secretary. H.R. proceeded at once to try to attract more patriots from all parts of the land to join the Blaid Genedlaethol. It appears that he had heard something of the existence of the shy Mudiad Cymreig in the south, and Saunders Lewis duly received one of his letters. Wasting no time, the small, new, independent Plaid Genedlaethol began with its activities which were entirely political in nature. The Blaid protested against the Government’s aim to split up the Central Welsh Board of Education and to close the regional office of the Department of Pensions in Cardiff; it called for Welsh speaking judges for the courts of north Wales; politicians were contacted calling on them to support Welsh home rule. Central to the new Plaid was the idea that the government of Wales should be organised with the nation as its basis and that the Welsh language should be accorded respect. Specifically with regard to linguistic considerations, the pioneering fact was that Welsh was the language of this new political party, formed as it was in Caernarfon. It was through the Welsh language that it was established and began its campaigning.
Central to everything now was the need to expand membership and to place the Blaid on a national footing. The discussions between H.R.Jones and Saunders Lewis were all-important in that process. It was no easy matter to deal with Saunders Lewis. At this early stage, he insisted on a full clarification with regard to two fields of policy in particular before agreeing to join the Nationalist Party, namely regarding the status of the Welsh language and the mode of political action.With regard to language status, Lewis agreed that ‘Gorfodi’r Gymraeg’ [trans. Welsh being made compulsory] should be the language policy, as H.R.Jones had noted, but he insisted that this had to mean that Welsh would be the administrative language of local councils, and the language of schools. With regard to the nature of political action, Saunders Lewis also agreed with the aim of ‘Breaking every link with the political parties of England and Wales.’ But he went further. He insisted as well that all links should also be broken with the ‘English Parliament’ through a declaration that the Blaid would choose to work solely through the local councils of Wales. ‘Nothing will ever come to Wales through the Parliament of England,’ he said, ‘Now, if you fully adopt these two principles, I will join with you immediately.’
H.R.Jones was not one to delay. Before Saunders Lewis received a response, there was a leaflet in his hand declaring that he was already vice-president of the new party. A furious Lewis demanded an explanation. But to his friends in the secret Mudiad Cymreig, he soon stated his satisfaction that all their ideas had been accepted. They could work like a‘bloc national’ – in Saunders’ French – within the new party that had appeared so unexpectedly, so ensuring that it kept to their principles. ‘As you see,’ he said, ‘without them knowing, they are all members of our movement.’
One other matter remained. Saunders Lewis insisted that a meeting should be held to place the Blaid Genedlaethol on a national basis. The Queen’s Café, Caernarfon, had performed the inaugural miracle. Saunders Lewis would comment, ‘I believe it correct to say that H.R.Jones established the Welsh Nationalist Party.’ H.R. now went ahead to arrange a small, private meeting for seven* representatives to meet at the Maesgwyn Temperance Hotel, Pwllheli, during the National Eisteddfod of August 1925. But that’s another story.
*Only six made it to the Pwllheli meeting, D.J.Williams having missed his train.