Thanks to new funding through the Anti-Racist Wales Action Plan, the Dictionary of Welsh Biography (DWB) is undertaking a new project to enhance the quality and range of its contents. Over this year and the next, the Diversity Project will particularly focus on ethnicity and gender equality in newly commissioned articles to improve the representation of Wales’s diverse history.
New names to be added
We will update, correct and rewrite existing articles. We will also commission new articles about previously overlooked people. The DWB has already published a list of names in need of an article. Since the start of the project, we have identified further historical people from all walks of life.
Rufus Elster Fennell (1887–1974)
Among the names newly included on our list is US-born Rufus Elster Fennell (1887–1974). As a witness of the 1919 Race Riots in Cardiff, he was arrested by the police. After his release, he called out the south Wales police’s racial prejudice and brutality in dealing with the riots. A decade later, he took a turn as an actor for stage and film, sharing the screen with Paul Robeson in Jericho. Eventually, Fennel returned to the US where he died in a care home in 1874.
Peter Jones, Kahkewāquonāby (1802-1856)
Searching through the Library’s Portrait Archive on Wikimedia Commons, we encountered the picture of Kahkewāquonāby (1802-1856) who later took the name Peter Jones. Of mixed Welsh and native American parentage, Jones was raised by his mother in the culture, religion and language of the Mississauga Ojibwa.
As a teenager, he joined his estranged father and eventually became a Methodist missionary. As a trusted community leader, Jones later represented the political interests of the Mississaugas before the Canadian government. He visited Britain on three separate occasions to raise funds for his work. While his journey never took him into Wales, the Welsh newspapers enthusiastically reported about his public lectures.
Where are the women?
It is more difficult to trace the biographies of historical women because in the past their lives and achievements were often overlooked and so went unrecorded. However, we have identified several women whose life we want to commemorate through articles in the DWB. Among them are Jamaican-born Justina Jeffreys (1787-1869) later of Glandyfi Castle, the Aberystwyth student Irish de Freytas (1896-1989) who became the first woman to practise law in the Caribbean, or Mahala Davis, the first Black person to sing in Welsh on television in the 1960s.
Support our work
As ever, this selection is just the tip of the iceberg and we greatly rely on people’s knowledge and enthusiasm in helping the DWB grow, expand and properly reflect the diversity of Wales. Our list of names is now publicly available on the website of the DWB. If you notice a missing name or would like to write an article about the people we have identified already, please get in touch.
Niall Griffiths burst onto the literary scene with his first novel, Grits, in 2000. Set in the Aberystwyth area, it explores life on the disadvantaged and desperate peripheries of society. Its themes of drugs, sex and crime and its heavy use of vernacular speech quickly drew comparisons with the Scottish writer Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting).
Griffiths is an important, powerful and fascinating voice in his own right, however, as can be seen in the 22 boxes of his papers that have recently been catalogued at the Library. They comprise notes, drafts, research materials, journals, correspondence, administrative papers and ephemera covering every aspect of his literary life, including all of his novels up to Broken Ghost (2019) as well as his poetry, short stories and other prose writing, radio and film plays, articles for periodicals, reviews of work by other writers, interviews, workshops, festivals, academic papers, publications relating to his work, and much more.
Although born and raised in Liverpool with a fierce loyalty to the city, and having lived in Australia for three years from the age of 12, Niall Griffiths is a distinctively Welsh author. Wales provides the setting for much of his work, and he has lived most of his life near Aberystwyth. This is perhaps not surprising, since it was from his Welsh family and from the Rhondda writer Ron Berry that he first learned the importance of language, story and authenticity. His two guidebooks, Real Aberystwyth and Real Liverpool, were both published in Wales, and his novel Stump (2003) was adjudged Book of the Year by both the Welsh Books Council and the Arts Council of Wales. Griffiths traces his affinity with the Welsh hills to the time he spent in Snowdonia on a young offenders course during his teens, and he has attributed the fiery, unruly and often spiritual nature of his work to his Celtic roots.
Griffiths has lived the life he describes in Grits: partying, doing unskilled work and just about surviving on the breadline. His characters are often searching for fulfilment, and many of them are victims of poverty – troubled individuals who are trying to make the best of a hostile world which magnifies their flaws – while his rural and urban landscapes resonate with the jarring juxtaposition of beauty and brutality. Griffiths portrays all of this graphically and with profound empathy and conviction, and the same perspective informs much of his other writing.
In portraying members of society whose voices are rarely heard, Griffiths is very conscious of the relationship between language and politics. Many of his books are written in dialect, with phonetic transcriptions of accents (and liberal profanity), and he draws on a deep knowledge of literature to give his characters an epic quality. His intense and poetic writing style has attracted great admiration and commercial success, but some readers and critics have found it alienating.
Not that Niall Griffiths is concerned about literary and academic critics. He began writing when he was very young, driven by an unidentified urge, and although he left school at 15 he came to understand the importance of education – and also its limitations. Returning to his studies, he got as far as starting a PhD in poetry at Aberystwyth, but then became disillusioned; he later said that he felt he needed to unlearn a lot of his academic education. His work has since earned him an honorary professorial chair at Wolverhampton University.
The combination of curiosity, passion, erudition, financial insecurity and dissolute living is evident throughout the archive, both in its content and in its arrangement. As well as the extensive research that Griffiths has done on a wide range of subjects, his papers reveal his candid views on many personal, creative, professional, social, political and philosophical matters. He is deeply interested in concepts of identity, and also literary history and the experience, craft and meaning of life as a writer, as well as travel and many other topics, not least football and in particular Liverpool FC.
Take a look at the newly catalogued Niall Griffiths Papers to see why he has been – and still is – in demand as a contributor to literary publications and events in many countries around the world.
During National Eisteddfod week I had the privilege of giving a talk at the Science and Technology Village on the scientific treasures to be found amongst the Library’s collections. That talk presented 27 scientific treasures dating from the 11th through to the 20th century offering a taste of the type of science-related material held by the Library. This blog will introduce you to four of these items, focusing on some key science-related printed works from the Library’s print collections.
We begin with one of the most significant books in the development of scientific thought, Galileo’s Dialogo di Galileo Galilei…: sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo Tolemaico, e Copernaico (1632). Making a critical case for the Copernican theory that the earth revolved around the sun, Galileo’s work takes the form of a dialogue between two philosophers, Saliviati, representing Galileo’s views and the Copernican hypothesis, and Simplicio, representing the Ptolemaic view backed by the Catholic Church, and a neutral layman, Sagredo. The publication of this book led to Galileo’s trial for heresy, his house arrest for the rest of his life, and the book being placed on the Index of Prohibited Books from 1633 until 1835. The Library’s copy is the first edition published in Florence in 1632.
The next two works bring us to Wales and are representative of Welsh-language works on science in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The first, Edward Mills’ Y Darluniadur Anianyddol (1850), is one of a number of popular science books published during the mid-19th century. Mills (1802-1865) travelled across Wales lecturing on astronomy and built a 66 foot orrery, described as one of the ‘wonders of the age’. Mills and his son were responsible for the woodcuts in the Darluniadur.
The second, is Y Gwyddonydd, the pioneering Welsh-language scientific journal published by the University of Wales Press between 1963 and 1996. The journal featured academic papers, articles, reviews and news on scientific subjects. Dr Gwyn Chambers, one of the journal’s founders, noted that Y Gwyddonydd “has proved the suitability of the Welsh language to discuss scientific subjects of all kinds, and that in a completely natural way.” All issues of Y Gwyddonydd can be viewed on the Welsh Journals Online website through this link.
The final item brings us to the present day and to the urgent need to act in the face of the worsening climate emergency facing the planet. Co-edited by the Welsh scientist, John Theodore Houghton, the Climate Change report published by the International Panel on Climate Change in 1990, was one of the early scientific publications warning us of the scale of the challenge we now face in relation to anthropogenic climate change.
This is just a taste of the scientific works held in the Library’s printed collections, we also hold important works by Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, Robert Hooke, works by Welsh scientists such as William Robert Grove. Lewis Weston Dillwyn, Eirwen Gwynn and Donald Davies, and a recently discovered first edition of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. There’s much more to discover, so why not call up to the Library to search through the scientific works in our collections?
The Archives and Records Association UK & Ireland (ARA) Annual Conference was this year held in Belfast from the 30 August to 1 September. During the conference two members of National Library of Wales staff received recognition for their hard work in the Archives sector.
The Distinguished Service in Archives Award was presented to Sally McInnes, Head of Unique and Contemporary Content. Sally qualified as an archivist in 1988 and came to work at the Library in 1989, and has been here ever since! Sally has worked at all levels to help facilitate archives preservation and access, becoming Head of Collection Care in 2010 and Head of Unique and Contemporary Content in 2015. Sally saw the Library’s archives and special collections through significant challenges, including a fire in 2013 and more recently the Covid-19 pandemic, in addition to securing Archive Service Accreditation for the Library and championing Digital Preservation.
Sally has made an amazing contribution to both the collection and preservation of archives here at the Library and also across the wider archives profession, and we’re sure you will join us in wishing her congratulations.
Congratulations are also in order for Conservation Assistant Julian Evans, who received his Certificate in Archive Conservation. Julian began his ARA Archive Conservation Training at NLW in 2019, working on many different techniques and collections including bookbinding, paper conservation, cleaning, and repair. Julian now begins his career as a fully qualified Archives Conservator, helping to preserve essential skills for archives conservation in the future.
Recent work carried out on the legacy data of the National Library’s fiction collection unearthed several publications from the Romanian born author Hymen Kaner. These publications were flagged due to being published in Llandudno. With very few full catalogue records available for Kaner’s publications, it fell on one of our librarians to ensure that these records were fully catalogued and included within the National Bibliography of Wales.
Through compiling this process, an interesting story arose, of an immigrant Romanian family arriving in Great Britain, firstly to London, then subsequently to Llandudno. At some point Kaner set up a book publishing press in Llandudno, predominantly to publish Kaner’s own work, although works by other authors were also published there. It is unclear how successful this venture became, but the fact that several short story collections, including ‘Ordeal by moonlight’, ‘Hot Swag!’, and ‘Fire watchers night’, were all published commercially and are now within the Library’s collection shows that Kaner had some success.
For a more in-depth look at the author’s history, this website is recommended, which was written by Laurence Worms of Ash Rare Books:
Last week the National Health Service celebrated its 75th anniversary. It is interesting to note that a rare first edition of the book ‘Diseases of the Hip, Knee and Ankle Joint and their treatment by a new and efficient method’ authored by the surgeon Hugh Owen Thomas and published in 1875, was bought by the Library last year. The book was published by T. Dobb of Liverpool and bears the author’s signature on the title page.
Hugh Owen Thomas was born in Anglesey in 1834. He first trained as a surgeon with his uncle, Dr Owen Roberts at St. Asaph in North Wales for four years, then studied medicine at Edinburgh and University College, London. He developed into a successful orthopaedic surgeon and brace-maker in Liverpool and wrote widely on the treatment of fractures using the pioneering methods that he developed. This is one of Thomas’s earliest publications, most of which were printed in very small numbers for the purpose of presentation to his friends. He made no effort to promote or publicise the book and it is believed that he destroyed all undistributed copies.
At least three of the basic scientific precepts of fracture therapy are due to Thomas. First is the importance of enforced and uninterrupted rest for the patient. Secondly is the adverse effect of forcing a contracted joint and thirdly is the importance of stimulating the circulation within the immobilized limb during the healing period.
The surgical methods described in the book are still used today and this has enabled many more patients to be treated successfully, avoiding defective healing of limbs after fractures, and succeeding in significantly reducing the number of amputations.
This book was published seventy-three years before the founding of the NHS. It offers a glimpse to the availability of medical care to the general population before state provision. There are regular references to the cost of treatments and that their availability depends on the wealth of the patient.
It is interesting to note that Thomas reports treatment methods used by surgeons throughout the world. He evaluates these different approaches critically and seeks to improve on them when devising his own techniques. He also includes a number of case studies which shows that he carefully considers the successes and failures of his techniques when educating other surgeons.
Hugh Owen Thomas certainly made a significant contribution to the advancement of surgical methods over many decades.
I recently had a very pleasant task as a volunteer, which was to listen to records of Ben Bach singing folk songs and try to transcribe them. Ben was a native of Mathry in Pembrokeshire – Ben Phillips to give him his real name, but he was known as ‘Ben Bach’. He had a lovely and clear voice and sang in the Pembrokeshire dialect and was famous, apparently, for having a bit of fun with his audience.
It was necessary to preserve the dialect when transcribing, which was a challenge at times – a few ‘dishgled o dê’ and ‘dwêd da thre‘. About thirty songs – a lovely little one about the cuckoo that was long in coming – “oerwynt y gaeaf a’m cadwodd yn ôl” (“the cold of winter that kept me back”); a Welsh version of ‘Deuddeg Dydd o’r Gwyliau‘ (‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’); some sad songs, some funny, love songs and some ballads. I was in fits of laughter while listening to ‘Y Ladi Fowr Benfelen’ with its very suspicious double entendres!
My favorite song was ‘Pentre Mathri Lân’ Ben sang to the tune ‘Johnny Comes Marching Home’, which describes many Mathry residents in a humorous way, for example:
“Ma Jo siop ardderchog yn i le, hwrê, hwrê,
Yn gwerthu shwgwr, sebon a thê, hwrê, hwrê,
Sim raid i chi dalu am fîsh ne ddou
Ond diwedd i gân yw ‘pei yp mei boi’.
Hip hip hwrê-i, pentre Mathri lân.”
Apparently the intention of the transcription was for school children in Pembrokeshire to learn some of the songs – so that the words and the dialect are memorized and kept by the next generation – an excellent idea! I’m sure Ben Bach would love it.
The Mabinogion are a collection of twelve Middle Welsh tales. They were translated into English in the 19th century by Lady Charlotte Guest, daughter of the ninth Earl of Lindsey, who was born in Lincolnshire but became interested in the literature and traditions of Wales after marrying Sir Josiah John Guest, master of the Dowlais ironworks.
Eleven of the tales are taken from the Red Book of Hergest, one of the most important mediaeval Welsh manuscripts. They consist of the four branches of the Mabinogi, namely Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed, Branwen ferch Llŷr, Manawydan fab Llŷr, and Math fab Mathonwy, as well as three Arthurian romances and four independent tales. Charlotte Guest was helped in the translation by John Jones (Tegid) and Thomas Price (Carnhuanawc). The Welsh texts were printed with the translations, and the volumes include facsimiles of parts of the original manuscripts.
The translation was published in seven parts between 1838 and 1849, to be bound in three volumes. The Library has recently purchased a very rare copy of the seven original parts; only one other copy is known in an institutional library. The set purchased is the author’s own copy, with her bookplate inside the covers, showing her coat of arms and her name after marrying for the second time, Lady Charlotte Schreiber.
These rare volumes are an important addition to the National Library’s extensive collection of Arthurian books.
Paul Robeson will always be closely associated to Wales. Even in modern times, there have been several books written about his ties, covering his meetings with Aneurin Bevan, his frequent appearances at Welsh festivals, to his political activities and support for the Welsh miners. Music has also been influenced, with Welsh rockers the Manic Street Preachers singing about his political exile from America in their song ‘Let Robeson Sing’ from their 2001 album ‘Know your Enemy’.
Robeson’s connection can be felt most deeply in the 1940s movie ‘The Proud Valley’, which saw Robeson’s character David Goliath visit Wales for employment. The villagers initial had misgivings, but David was soon welcomed into their community through song and his heroic endeavors.
To fully explore Robeson’s connections to Wales would require months of in-depth research, but even with a brief synopsis, the overall outcome will always be the same. To remember Paul Robeson.
A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.
Due to the more personal nature of blogs it is the Library's policy to publish postings in the original language only. An equal number of blog posts are published in both Welsh and English, but they are not the same postings. For a translation of the blog readers may wish to try facilities such as Google Translate.