Blog - Collections

Black Music at the National Library of Wales

Collections - Posted 29-10-2021

Over the years the Screen and Sound Archive at the National Library of Wales have worked hard to ensure that all genres of music in Wales are represented in our collections. Here Dan Griffiths tells us about some of the Black Music held in our collections:

Dylan Thomas in the Libraries Electronic Resources

Collections - Posted 26-10-2021

One of the most famous Welshmen of the 20th century, Dylan Thomas, was born on this day in 1914. As today would have been his 107th birthday, I thought I’d delve into the Library’s collection of electronic resources to see what I could find about one of our most important poets.

Where best to start than this comprehensive entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. This gives an insight into his upbringing and education, and discusses his development as a poet, his rise to fame and his notorious behaviour which led to his untimely death at the age of 39:

Thomas was undoubtedly one of Swansea’s most famous sons, and this World Literature Today article from JSTOR walks us through the many locations in this ‘ugly, lovely town’ that are associated with him:

Under Milk Wood is probably Thomas’ most famous work, originally conceived as a play for radio. Shortly after its premiere on BBC Radio, it won the Prix Italia best for literary/dramatic programme. Due to its huge success, it was quickly adapted for stage and screen. This article from Critical Studies in Television (Sage Journals) analyses the transformation into these physical mediums, and whether they were as successful:

Following on from this article, I found a gushing Daily Mail review of the first complete UK performance of Under Milk Wood, held at London’s Old Vic in 1954. In the review, found in Gale Primary Sources, the reviewer states that he found the play in print to be an “unwieldy mass of adjectives”. It’s clear that the cast, which included his compatriot Richard Burton and Dame Sybil Thorndike, helped raise the play to another level. “On the stage, the magic of these eight voices set the ears ablaze with his verbal fireworks.” A gust of Wicked Welsh fun indeed!!

What better way to end than to leave you with this collection of quotes taken from Chambers Dictionary of Great Quotations, available via Credo Reference. They include quotes from Thomas’ various works, as well as a number of famous personal quotes:


Paul Jackson
Legal Deposit, Electronic and Acquisitions Librarian

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Billy Boston and the forgotten heroes of Welsh rugby

Collections - Posted 21-10-2021

Billy Boston is one of the most talented and successful Welsh rugby players of all time, yet for many years his achievements were hardly recognised in Wales. His career is a great sporting story, and one that deserves to be told.

Billy was born in Butetown, Cardiff, in 1934, and became a rugby star in the 1950s and 1960s. His mother came from Cardiff’s Irish community, and his father was a black merchant seaman from Sierra Leone. As a boy, Billy played Rugby Union for Cardiff Internationals Athletic Club (CIACS), a club that reflected the multiracial nature of the Cardiff docklands. He was an exceptionally talented winger, with great speed, strength, balance and footballing intelligence, as well as a devastating sidestep. Billy played for Wales at Youth level, but his dream was to play for Cardiff, and perhaps one day for Wales. There was no doubt that he was good enough.

Billy never got the opportunity to fulfil his dream of playing for his beloved Cardiff RFC; the same was true of Johnny Freeman and Colin Dixon, other black players who went on from CIACS to have very successful careers in Rugby League. Further, no black player was selected to represent Wales at full international level in Rugby Union until the 1980s.

A bitter division had grown up between Rugby Union and Rugby League after they had split in 1895 – Union was an amateur game, while League was professional. Professionalism was banned in Union, and players who went to the north of England to play League – or who even spoke to a League scout – were ostracised. Union was strictly amateur, and the hypocrisy and the stigma remained until the game became professional in 1995. However, generations of Welsh rugby players – many of them black – found employment in Rugby League, especially at times when Wales was struggling economically.

When he was approached by the Rugby League club Wigan in 1953, Billy Boston did not want to go north and his mother refused their £1,000 offer. Billy would sign for £3,000 and no less. The Bostons hoped and expected this to put Wigan off, but the club was prepared to pay exceptional money for an exceptional player, and so the 19-year old Billy signed a League contract. Having done so, he knew that his dream of playing Union for Cardiff and Wales could never be realised. That night, he wept and could not sleep.

Billy made an immediate impact at Wigan, and became a League legend during his career there, which ended in 1968. He played wing, but unusually he could play centre or fly half just as well. He became less agile towards the end his career, but he kept his pace and developed his size and muscle and a powerful hand-off. He was the complete Rugby League threequarter, and he was often unstoppable.

The year after he signed for Wigan, he was selected to represent Great Britain, and his career statistics speak for themselves: a club record of 478 tries in 487 appearances (110 more than any other Wigan player in history); numerous domestic trophies; 30 international tries in 31 Test matches; a Great Britain tour record for tries scored in Australia; the first GB player to score 4 tries in a match against New Zealand; and a World Cup win in 1960. By the time he retired from Rugby League in 1970, Billy had scored 572 career tries in 562 appearances – only the winger Brian Bevan from Australia has ever scored more.

The people of Wigan embraced Billy as one of their own, not just because of his success on the field but because he was a team player who was both humble and approachable. Billy felt at home in Wigan, and ran a pub near the club ground when his playing days were over; he never came back to live in Wales. The population of Wigan was almost entirely white, but the rugby club had long been cosmopolitan and multiracial in outlook, as had Rugby League in general, and players came in from all over the world. Unfortunately, however, Billy did still experience racial discrimination, most notably when Great Britain played several matches in South Africa after the 1957 World Cup. The South Africans told Billy – who was already unwilling to take part in this leg of the tour because of apartheid, and was now carrying an injury – that his skin colour meant that he could not stay in the same hotel as the rest of the squad, and that he could not visit their hotel or play in any of the games. Billy rejected these terms. The GB team went to South Africa without him.

Ever since his early days at Wigan, Billy Boston has been revered in Rugby League. There are statues of him at Wembley and in Wigan, where one of the club’s stands is named after him, and he was one of the original members of both the Rugby League Hall of Fame and the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame. The city of Cardiff is also now recognising Billy’s achievements, and fortunately this has occurred during his lifetime. In December 2020, it was announced that there will be a statue depicting Billy Boston and two other Rugby League legends who came from the Cardiff docks area, Clive Sullivan and Gus Risman.

The Union game, however, has been very slow to recognise many of the Welsh players who have achieved great things in Rugby League. They include some of the greatest players in either code, but while their achievements in Rugby League are celebrated in the north of England, this has usually not been the case in Wales. They are forgotten heroes of Welsh rugby.

Although the story of Billy Boston and others can be discovered here in the Library using collections such as our, printed books and newspaper collections or some of the External E-resources that we subscribe to, we’re keen to develop collections relating to areas of Welsh life that are of national importance but have nevertheless been under represented, whether they relate to race, Rugby League or anything else. If you are able to help us with this, please get in touch.

Dr David Moore (Archivist)

40th Anniversary of Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement

Collections - Posted 11-10-2021

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement, an influential pressure group whose members campaigned vigorously across Wales for an end to racism and the apartheid system in South Africa.  The group was originally a regional branch of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) but separated in 1981 adopting the name ‘The Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement (WAAM).’

Local groups and branches supporting the AAM had been active in Wales, based primarily in Cardiff, Newport and Swansea.  They realised greater support could be achieved with a clear Welsh identity. The newly-formed group was active throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, campaigning for international action to help bring apartheid to an end.

In 2008, the archives of WAAM were deposited here through Hanef Bhamjee, one of its founding members and long-term Secretary. These extensive records reflect the Movement’s aims, aspirations and activities.  They include records of the group’s committees, correspondence with companies, public officials, politicians and individuals reflecting all aspects of WAAM’s activities. There is also a fascinating collection of newsletters, publicity material and ephemera, much of it unique.

The bulk of material documents WAAM’s campaigning activities. These campaigns included opposing rugby and cricket tours of South Africa, UK trade with South Africa and an end to nuclear and military collaboration.  Sustained campaigning was conducted for the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners and included in the collection is the printed Order of Ceremony when Mandela was made Freeman of the Borough of Islwyn in 1986.

WAAM was dissolved in1994 following the first democratic elections in South Africa and its assets were transferred to ACTSA Wales, which continues to campaign and work for peace and democracy in Southern Africa.

WAAM Archive –

Lorena Troughton

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The Ivor Novello Archives

Collections / Exhibitions / music - Posted 04-10-2021

The Library recently acquired the papers of W. Macqueen-Pope (Popie) which relate to ‘Ivor: The Story of an Achievement‘, his biography of Ivor Novello, published by W. H. Allen, 1951. This important group of papers gives and insight into the life and popularity of the Welsh actor and composer Ivor Novello (1893-1951) who became one of the most popular entertainers of the first half of the 20th century. The papers include correspondence between Ivor Novello and Macqueen-Pope, but mainly comprise eulogies and reminiscences, from actors, socialites and those working in the arts, following Ivor’s death in 1951. Evidence of Novello’s popularity can be found amongst the letters sent to by Macqueen-Pope of those expressing an interest in an ‘Ivor Novello Fellowship’.

The papers have been catalogued and are available here: W. Macqueen-Pope (Ivor Novello) Papers (GB 0210 MACPOP)

Items on display in our current exhibition (2021) include correspondence (W. Macqueen-Pope file 1), financial papers (file 12/1) and signed programme (file 13); and a signed publicity photograph (NLW Ex 2980). The papers compliment other items relating to Ivor Novello and his mother, the singer, teacher and conductor Clara Novello Davies (1861-1943) in the Library’s collections.


Here is a list of the main collections of material relating to Ivor Novello at the National Library. Further information on our archives catalogue here

  • NLW MS 23204D.

Ivor Novello papers, 1932-1983. Papers relating to David Ivor Davies (Ivor Novello, 1893-1951), composer, actor and playwright, comprising an autograph extract from his play I Lived With You (London, 1932) (ff. 1-6); letters, 1979-1982, from associates of Ivor Novello, …. photographs of the Welsh National Opera’s production of ‘Dear Ivor’, 1983 (ff. 23-4); together with a copy of a memorial tribute to Ivor Novello and theatre programmes, 1933-45, of productions of his works.

  • NLW MS 23696E.

Ivor Novello letters, 1908-1955 (mostly 1938-1955) Seven letters and two telegrams, 1939-1950, from the composer, actor and playwright, Ivor Novello, to Dorothy and Evelyn Wright, containing mainly personal news (ff. 1-13); together with additional personal papers, 1908-1955, compiled by the Wrights, including twelve letters to them from Lloyd Williams, Novello’s secretary, [?1940]-[?1944] (ff. 5, 14-19 verso), actors Peter Graves, 1951-1955 (ff. 22-24 verso), Leslie Henson, 1942 (f. 25), and Barry Sinclair, 1943 (f. 26), and Neville Chamberlain, 1938 (ff. 20-21); also included are a memorial tribute to Ivor Novello, 1951 (ff. 27-28 verso), photographs of him and his associates, [1910s]-[1940s] (ff. 29-34), and press cuttings, 1939-1951 (ff. 39-46). The collection contains references to theatrical productions at Johannesburg, 1947 (f. 8), the Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth, [1940] (f. 14), the Palace Theatre, Manchester, [?1941] (f. 15), and the Adelphi Theatre, London, 1943 (f. 18).

  • NLW MS 24041D. Angus McBean, photographer Studio visitors book, 1949-1968, 1987 includes songwriter Ivor Novello (f. 11).
  • Dr Terence Rees Papers P3/4. Also P3/10 . Scrapbook, press cuttings, programmes and periodicals, 1925-1988, relating to the life and work of Ivor Novello. Also an obituary.
  • D. R. Davies Collection (Aberdare) of Drama . Scrap Books, 3/1, 52, 27/2 and 4/3 . Contains articles on Ivor Novello and his mother, Madame Clara Novello Davies.
  • Maxwell Fraser Papers, H/24. (and O/129). Volume of cuttings re Ivor Novello, 1944-70. And a paragraph on Ivor Novello.
  • Selwyn Jones Papers 2. Biographical material relating to Welsh musicians, including Ivor Novello .
  • NLW ex 2404. Papers relating to Ivor Novello, and his funeral 1951-2004.
  • NLW ex 2540. Madam Esther Cooper-Jones papers, 1911-2005, including certificates and concert programmes, biographical material, letters from Clara Novello Davies, her tutor, and newspaper cuttings relating to her son Ivor Novello.
  • Welsh National Opera Records, P1/29. And P2/47. ‘Dear Ivor’ production, 1982-1983.
  • Portraits: The portrait of Ivor Novello by Margaret Lindsay Williams 1888-1960 is displayed in our current exhibition Framed works of art collection MY20 and there is another Oil on canvas 1924 by Emile Vere Smith Framed works collection CD01.

Nia Mai Daniel
The Welsh Music Archive


Welsh Conservative Grassroots

Collections - Posted 27-09-2021

The Conservatives have been Wales’ second largest party for most of the last century, whether measured by share of the vote, the number of MPs elected and latterly the number of Assembly Members or Members of the Senedd. While exact figures are not easy to come by, it’s also likely that they would have been the second largest party in terms of grassroots members.

The Conservative Party in Wales has however, arguably been the subject of less study than Labour, the Liberals and Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, especially in the case of the members and grassroots activists who pounded the pavements, stuffed envelopes and raised funds to fight elections. This group was the subject of a fascinating online session given by Dr Sam Blaxland, lecturer, historian and member of the Welsh Political Archive’s advisory committee.



Sam has spent many hours researching the records of local Conservative associations in Wales to understand the foot soldiers of the Conservative Party in Wales at the National Library of Wales and gave a fascinating insight into the sometimes stereotypical and sometimes surprising attitudes of the party members. These ranged from mixed views on race, traditional attitudes on law and order to quite surprising views on Sunday trading.

While association records contained details for discussions on policy, there was also a surprising amount relating to fund raising and social activities. As well as organising fetes, carnivals and balls, local associations such as the Monmouth Unionist Association arranged trips to places as far afield as London, Spain and the Netherlands. It was also interesting to see the prominent role played by women in at grassroots level.

We had an interesting discussion with questions and comments by members of the audience and touched on a number of issues around the changing way people have engaged with politics, the demographics of Conservative support and the role that oral history projects can play in filling in the gaps in official records.

If you missed the event, you can watch the video on the Library’s Facebook page.


Rob Phillips
The Welsh Political Archive

Another Black Book

Collections / Digitisation - Posted 20-09-2021

This year marks the centenary of the publication by J. Gwenogvryn Evans of his monochrome facsimile of the contents of the Black Book of Chirk (notwithstanding the 1909 imprinted on the title-page!). Through the generosity of a patron, and to mark the occasion, the National Library has published new digital images of the manuscript on our website.

This manuscript – Peniarth 29 – was once believed to be the earliest written in Welsh. Today, it is regarded as among the earliest, sharing a birthdate, as it were, with another Black Book, the rather more famous one from Carmarthen. Both were produced in the mid-thirteenth century, one in the South, and the other in North Wales.

The Chirk manuscript was written in Welsh, on parchment, by six scribes, in regular and professional style, although their familiarity with written Welsh may not have been fluent.

The volume contains legal texts relating to the king and his court, according to the ‘Venedotian’ or ‘Iorwerth’ code, associated with Gwynedd. The ‘king’ is a native ruler, one such as the young Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, known as ‘the last native Prince of Wales’, whose influence was becoming apparent at the time when the manuscript was written. Following the Law of the Court (reminiscent of those fine images in Peniarth 28, a contemporary Latin law manuscript), the scribes record laws that were relevant to ordinary inhabitants, including elements such as the values of wild and tame animals. A summary, text and translation is available on the Cyfraith Hywel website.

The manuscript also contains non-legal additions, such as proverbs, and Dafydd Benfras’s elegy on the death of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great) in 1240, harking back perhaps to the ‘golden age’ of native law in the Gwynedd tradition.

But why is the volume associated with Chirk, in Denbighshire? The contents suggest affiliation with medieval North Wales, and by 1615, it was owned by John Edwards of Plas Newydd, Chirk, a scholar and recusant who lost many belongings by sequestration before his death in 1625. Llanstephan MS 68 is a copy of the manuscript, made by Francis Tate whilst the Black Book was owned by Edwards. Subsequently, probably via John Jones of Gellilyfdy, it became part of Robert Vaughan’s library at Hengwrt, and on the upper part of page 114 is part of his ornate inscription identifying the work as ‘Y llyfr du or Waun’ (the Black Book of Chirk).

The original black covers are long gone, but the remains of the binding leaves survive at the end of the manuscript.

Having already digitised the Black Book of Carmarthen (Peniarth 1) and the Black Book of Basingwerk (NLW MS 7006D), how many more black books remain to be discovered?


Maredudd ap Huw
Curator of Manuscripts

The end of the Glyn Dŵr rebellion

Collections - Posted 06-09-2021

In September 2000, the Library opened an exhibition to mark the 600th anniversary of Owain Glyn Dŵr’s proclamation as prince of Wales and the beginning of his rebellion against Henry IV and the English crown. Now, in 2021, it is 600 years since the last act of that rebellion: the acceptance of a royal pardon from Henry V by Owain’s son, Maredudd, in 1421.

Not much is known of Maredudd’s life. He is said to have been one of six sons of Owain (Peniarth MS 59), all of whom fought in the rebellion (NLW MS 2021B [Panton MS 53]), and Maredudd emerged as the main leader of the revolt from 1412. Support was now waning, however, and successes were few. In the years that followed, Maredudd and his father were reduced to living on the run in remote forests and moorlands, according to the chronicler Adam of Usk, and their prospects appeared bleak. Maredudd’s mother, Margaret Hanmer, his brother Gruffudd and his sister Catrin – Owain’s wife and children – had all been captured by royal forces and kept as hostages for several years, and they had then been left to die of starvation in custody when they were no longer considered useful. Nothing is known of the other brothers, except that they all seem to have died before Owain himself.

Owain was offered a royal pardon in 1415, but did not accept it, and he was not mentioned when further pardons were offered to Maredudd in 1416 and 1417. It appears that Owain had died in the meantime. Maredudd rejected the pardons offered to him and continued to hold out in Meirionnydd and Arfon, seeking help from the Scots and fugitive English Lollards as well as Welsh rebels. This revival of the revolt is likely to have been connected with French scheming against the English at the Council of Constance, but it did not last. By 1421, Maredudd had run out of options. He was offered a pardon in April of that year and accepted it, very likely because his supporters had had enough. The rebellion always depended upon local communities, officials and clerics as much as upon great landlords and military leaders, and all of these groups were involved in taking important decisions. In order to ease the final reconciliation, Maredudd’s pardon stated that he had not followed his father’s malice after Owain’s death, but had dwelt peaceably among the king’s subjects. In truth, the Welsh rebellion had lasted more than 20 years.

Maredudd’s pardon is not in the Library’s collections – it is kept with the Crown Patent Rolls at The National Archives in London (C 66, 9 Hen. V) – but there are a number of other pardons from the revolt in our collections, and they illustrate some of the complex story of the period (Gogerddan Estate Records JAA1/7; Chirk Castle F 9877; Elwes Papers 68; Wynnstay (1945 deposit) GX3, GX4, GX5, GX6 and GX8; Bettisfield Estate Records 202; Penrice and Margam Estate Records 243). Throughout the revolt, many of the rebels’ decisions were driven by local considerations rather than the national picture, and many Welshmen found it expedient to submit or change sides when circumstances required it. In some cases, rebels submitted at times when Glyn Dŵr controlled almost the whole of Wales, or within months of the Pennal letter which outlined his vision of an independent Wales, while others held out as late as 1420. Their motivations are often not clear to us, but this is gradually changing as historians delve deeper into the complex local networks of loyalties, rivalries and personal and community interests. There were major royal campaigns in 1403, and the rebellion suffered regular and significant military reverses from 1405 onwards, but this rarely tells the whole story behind Welsh submissions. Self-interest was often a key factor. While it was always made clear to the rebels that their rebellion had been treasonous, most of them were reinstated to their former status and possessions. At Cydweli in 1413, Henry Dwn took this a step further by taking advantage of his restoration as a royal official to fine his tenants for failing to support him while he had been in rebellion.

By 1413, Henry V was keen to offer pardons in Wales so that he could concentrate on his war in France. Many former rebels fought alongside him at Agincourt, including another Maredudd ab Owain who had been sheriff of Cardiganshire and had also held Aberystwyth for Glyn Dŵr. One man who was not among them was Maredudd ab Owain ap Gruffudd – the son of Glyn Dŵr. We do not know what became of him after he was pardoned in 1421.

The granting of pardons was one of the clearest assertions of royal authority and power, and as such it was treated with the utmost solemnity. The king’s administration was beginning to record many of its activities in vernacular English by the early fifteenth century, but all of the pardons in our collections were written in Latin.

The Library has a large collection of popular and academic books about Owain and his revolt, with significant recent additions including Dyddiau olaf Owain Glyndŵr by Professor Gruffydd Aled Williams (2015) and The rise and fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr: England, France and the Welsh Rebellion in the Lste Middle Ages by Gideon Brough (2017). There is still much that we do not know about the revolt, but many of the answers may lie in libraries and archives throughout Britain and Europe, not least within our own collections, especially our manuscripts of Welsh poetry.


Dr David Moore (Archivist)

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Mervyn Burtch and the Great Wine Gum Robbery

Collections / music - Posted 31-08-2021

Born in Ystrad Mynach in the Rhymney Valley, Mervyn Burtch (1929-2015) was a teacher and composer whose work embraced a wide range of genres including opera, concertos, string quartets, works for brass bands, and choral pieces. During a career spanning some sixty years he produced and arranged some 650 works, a significant proportion of which were written for community groups, children and friends. He was an early member of the Guild for Promotion of Welsh Music.

Mervyn Burtch attended the Lewis Grammar School at Pengam where he was taught music by David Wynne (1900-1983), one of Wales’s most significant composers. He studied at the University College Cardiff, and later secured the position of Head of Music at Lewis School for Girls. In 1979 he joining the staff at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff (now the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama). He was made a Fellow of the College following his retirement in 1989, and awarded the M.B.E in 2003 for his services to music and education in Wales and work as President of KidsOp.

As Director of the Welsh College of Music and Drama Schools’ Opera Programme, he produced such works as The Pied Piper and Alice in Wonderland, others had fantastic titles such as the The Dragon of Abercwmgoch; Percy the Martian; The Great Wine Gum Robbery; and Fred Fish and the Weather Bureau. Some of his most significant works were his Concertos and the cycle of seventeen string quartets which he composed during the period 1985 and 2013.

He married his wife Rita Jones when he was 74. Following a long illness, on 12 May 2015, Mervyn Burtch died aged of 85. His Funeral service was held at Thornhill Crematorium, Cardiff on May 27. The Mervyn Burtch Trust was created with the sole purpose of Educating and promotion of the appreciation of the public in the music of Mervyn Burtch and the education of the public in the life of Mervyn Burtch.

His manuscript scores were transferred by his widow to the Welsh Music Archive at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth in 2019 and a catalogue of these 27 boxes can be found here: Mervyn Burtch Music Manuscripts. There are also papers relating to Mervyn Burtch in the archives of Daniel Jones, Alun Lewis, Peter Reynolds and Alun Hoddinott at the National Library.

Many of the instrumental parts scores (manuscript and copies) are held at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Follow this link for information on the Archives of Welsh composers held at the National Library of Wales.


Robert Evans
The Welsh Music Archive Project Officer



Wales and the slave trade

Collections - Posted 23-08-2021

The transatlantic slave trade, which flourished between the 17th century and the 19th century, affected Wales in ways that are still not fully appreciated. It left its mark not only on the merchants, sailors, plantation owners and estate workers who were directly involved in it, but also on the rest of Welsh industry, commerce, society and daily life. Wales was known for its iron, wool and copper, all of which were often made into items that were traded for slaves or used in the slave ships and plantations, while the cotton and tobacco that were widely consumed at all levels of society in Wales were produced by slaves.

Evidence of the slave trade and its impact can be found in many of the Library’s collections, especially the archives of landed estates that owned slave plantations. Sometimes the references are clear, but often we need to scratch the surface before we can see the full picture. Work by historians such as Professor Chris Evans (Slave Wales: the Welsh and Atlantic slavery 1660-1850; University of Wales Press, 2010) has helped to uncover the story, but there is a lot still to be discovered in the archives. As UNESCO marks the International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition on August 23, we take a look at some of the material relating to the slave trade in the Library’s collections.

The slave trade within the British empire was carried on across the world, from the East Indies to the Americas, and many Welsh people were involved in it. UNESCO emphasises the importance of the transatlantic trade because of its far-reaching impact on race relations today, so the focus of this blog is on the West Indies. Our collections also contain a wealth of information about the slave trade in other parts of the world.

From the beginning, many contemporary references to the slave trade were heavily coded by those involved in it. In 1692, for example, a joint stock company trading in Africa and the West Indies referred only to its ‘interests’ there (Tredegar Estate Records MSS and Docs 122); this was the time when the Royal African Company was at its height, monopolising the English and Welsh trade in African slaves – a statue of its Deputy Governor, Edward Colston, was famously pushed into the harbour in Bristol in 2020. Outwardly, and throughout the period, title deeds and financial transactions concerning plantations in places such as Montserrat, St Kitts and Dominica gave the impression that the properties were no different from manors in Gloucestershire or Monmouthshire (Gogerddan Estate Records MC2/1; Penty Park Estate Records 28; Nassau Senior Papers E714), and correspondence from the sugar plantations in Nevis and St Kitts often made very little if any mention of the presence of slaves (Bodrhyddan Estate Papers 58/1-143).

Similarly, letters from Navy officials to Charles Hayes, the Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company, mentioned French protests about British encroachments on their trade at Senegal in the mid-18th century without being explicit about what that trade was (Gogerddan Estate Papers GCB1/1). Even apparently innocent hydrographical charts of the West Indies, such as that drawn up by Joseph Smith Speer in 1774, conceal the dark reality of the world of slavery in which they were created (Aston Hall Estate Records 3503). At the same time, colonialists such as the Ottley family took great pride in their position as Establishment figures in Antigua, St Vincent, Grenada and other parts of the British West Indies (Ottley Family (Additional) Papers 1).

Slavery is far from invisible in the archives, however. A letter to Charles Hayes from William Slawman in 1747 openly invited him to engage in the supply of slaves from Gambia to Buenos Aires (Gogerddan Estate Papers GCB1/1), and sales of slaves were recorded (Nassau Senior Papers E732). Slaves were generally listed as possessions alongside livestock and mineral deposits in inventories and agreements (Peniarth Estate Records DK2), and Richard Swarton’s estate in Jamaica in the 1760s consisted mostly of slaves (Slebech Estate Records 3328-33). In 1785, William Knox of Slebech was party to the purchase of 100 slaves at a price of £54 10s. (NLW Deeds 1948); these slaves had already been taken from Georgia to Jamaica, and they were now to be delivered to South Carolina. The agents who conducted this business kept journals (Nassau Senior Papers E814) and sometimes recorded information about the health of slaves, but only in relation to how well they could work (Slebech Estate Records 8342-440). They saw slaves merely as financial assets, and complained about inflated prices and the difficulty of obtaining ‘seasoned slaves’ (Nassau Senior Papers E51, E64, E4).

The slavers were well aware that their rule was based on force, and they made it clear that they expected ‘runaway slaves’ to be suppressed (Nassau Senior Papers E74). West Indian planters and merchants petitioned the British government with their concerns when tensions between slaves and planters escalated in 1791 (Slebech Estate Records 11532-41) – a successful slave revolt a few months later in the French colony of Saint-Domingue eventually led to the establishment of the free state of Haiti – and the owners’ fears grew stronger during Britain’s wars with revolutionary France (Glansevern Estate Records 1010). When slaves in the West Indies first became free, it was through their own bloody struggle with European colonists.

There was always opposition in Wales to the slave trade, but it made little difference until the end of the 18th century. By that time, meetings calling for abolition, such as the one at Usk in 1792, were becoming more common (Tredegar Estate Records 64/346). Edward Williams or Iolo Morganwg was known for his strong opposition to the trade; not only did he speak, read and write on the subject, he also refused to sell his literary work to those whom he knew to be supporters of the trade in Bristol (Iolo Morganwg and Taliesin ab Iolo Manuscripts and Papers NLW MS 21282E/359, NLW MS 21396E/17, NLW MS 21392F/29, NLW MS 21400C/24-24a). His opinions were not shared by everyone, however. Many of the Welsh gentry and their agents had invested extensively in the plantations, and they argued that abolition would ruin the economy of Liverpool and other ports (Harpton Court Estate Records 2073).

The slave trade in the British empire was abolished in 1807, but slavery still persisted, and in some circumstances slaves could still be bought and sold. In October 1810, for example, Major General Thomas Picton – at that time fighting in Portugal with Wellington – made an agreement with members of the Delaforest family for the conveyance of plantations, buildings, implements, slaves, horses, mules and other effects in Trinidad, which had become a British colony in 1797 (Picton Family Records 19). Picton, a wealthy landowner who later became M.P. for Pembroke Boroughs, was well known for his cruelty and arbitrary brutality, especially to slaves, and he had been found guilty of approving the torture of a young girl called Luisa Calderón (who was not a slave) in Trinidad in 1801, but he had appealed against the conviction on a technicality and the case was never resolved. For many years he was best remembered for his part in the Peninsular war and his death at Waterloo, and a monument was erected in tribute to him in Carmarthen. There has recently been a campaign to remove it.

The cruel treatment of slaves in Jamaica was still being commented on in 1815 (Nassau Senior Papers E136), and the Royal Navy in the West Indies had to act against piracy and the slave trade – which the government now considered to be closely related – for years after that (Penralley Papers 219). The attention of abolitionists was now turning towards slavery itself, not only in the British empire but in the United States of America and elsewhere. The campaigners in Wales included the Independent minister Samuel Roberts (‘S.R.’) (NLW MS 9523A), but the most prominent individual in the Library’s collections is Thomas Clarkson, who travelled extensively for the Anti-Slavery Society (NLW MS 14984A) and dedicated his life to the cause, sometimes at great personal risk. It was Clarkson who galvanised the movement for abolition in Britain in the 1780s by collecting testimonies from sailors, which he knew would reveal not only the terrible conditions faced by crew members on board slave ships but also the treatment of the slaves themselves. Some of those Bristol and Liverpool sailors were Welsh.

These are just a few of the more easily accessible items in our collections. Many hidden stories still lie buried in the archives, waiting to be unearthed.

Wales’s involvement in slavery did not begin with the transatlantic trade. Medieval Welsh law – of which there are several manuscripts in the Library, such as Peniarth MS 28 – routinely took slaves for granted as a category of society, while narrative sources such as Brut y Tywysogyon (Peniarth MS 20) and Vita Griffini filii Conani (Peniarth MS 434E) tell of Vikings from Ireland taking people in Wales into slavery. Even the seventh-century lullaby Pais Dinogad, which is written in the voice of a woman singing to her child, refers to their eight slaves (‘wythgeith’) singing along with them (NLW Llyfr Aneirin, Cardiff MS 2.81).

Nor is the slave trade yet a thing of the past. In 2007 and 2008, as part of the Everywhere In Chains community project, Women in Jazz conducted a series of workshops in south Wales to raise awareness of human slavery and trafficking both in the past and in the modern world (Jazz Heritage Wales / Women’s Archive Wales 4/9). We hope that such additions to our collections will not be necessary in the future.

Dr David Moore (Archivist)



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