I’ve always liked to research and learn new and interesting facts, so it was a great pleasure to be seconded to my current post, which is Project Officer for the Children’s Dictionary of Welsh Biography. In September last year The National Library of Wales received funding from the Welsh Government to deliver a project that would produce Welsh biographies for a younger audience, and here is a little background to the venture.
The main aim of the project is to adapt some of the content of The Dictionary of Welsh Biography, in order to create articles that are easier for children to understand and use. This work includes shortening and simplifying biographies for 100 prominent Welsh people, in Welsh and English, and the conditions of the grant require that at least half of them be women, and at least 10% of them from under-represented minorities, in order to ensure equality and diversity.
During the last three months I’ve been busy selecting leading Welsh historical figures who I think will be relevant to the education and interests of young users, and creating a summary of the highlights in the careers and lives of these individuals. Of course, it’s impossible to predict exactly who will be in demand, but the list includes a variety of occupations, backgrounds, gender, periods and regions. The work can be very challenging, since the vast majority of the 5,000 or so articles in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography relate to white men. I had to search diligently to find those women and individuals from underrepresented minorities who have contributed significantly to various fields in Wales. Nevertheless, with the assistance of the Dictionary of Welsh Biography staff, we are on track to achieve the project’s objectives.
Although adapting and simplifying the content of the Dictionary of Welsh Biography is my main responsibility, there is a second part to the project. It was agreed in the initial application submitted to the Welsh Government that we would invite schools from all parts of Wales to become partners in the project by producing short films on notable Welsh individuals from their areas. Ten schools were chosen to represent different regions along the length and breadth of Wales, and we liaised with them, providing the necessary equipment and technical support required to finalise the work.
It is expected that the films will be completed by the summer holidays, ready for translation and subtitling. The articles and films will be placed on a website which is being produced especially for the project, and we hope that this will go live in October of this year: famouspeople.wales.
In May 2022 however the Library, with generous assistance from the Friends of the National Libraries, purchased at auction two items relating to Jones’s famous war poem In Parenthesis, namely a proof copy of the completed work and a draft radio script.
Jones was a veteran of the Western Front, having seen action with the 38th (Welsh) Division on the Somme and at Ypres. He was wounded in the leg during the attack on Mametz Wood on 10-11 July 1916 and his active service was ended by a bout of trench fever in February 1918.
Following the War he made his name as an artist and engraver. In about 1928, however, he began work on In Parenthesis, which became an epic poem recounting his wartime experiences, culminating in the Mametz Wood offensive. It is also dense with allusions to Welsh and English history and literature and Scripture. Its composition took him a decade and numerous drafts and was interrupted by a severe mental breakdown.
NLW MS 24193B
The first of our new acquisitions, an uncorrected proof copy of the book, dates from early 1937, when the poem was being prepared for the press. The other existing copies of the proofs are heavily emended and corrected; the new volume is ‘clean’, complete and bound and is inscribed on the front cover with the date ‘June 10, 1937’, the day of the book’s publication party.
On publication In Parenthesis was an immediate success and won the 1938 Hawthornden Prize. It was adapted for radio by Douglas Cleverdon but transmission was postponed twice, in 1939 and 1942, on account of the War. The third attempt went ahead on the Third Programme on 19 November 1946, with Dylan Thomas and Richard Burton among the cast. This had a pre-recorded introduction from David Jones and the second item acquired by the Library is a three page manuscript draft – probably the final draft – of this introduction. It contains numerous deletions and corrections but in essence it is very close to the script Jones recorded.
NLW MS 24194E
Both items have now been fully catalogued and, like the rest of his archive, are available to be read in the Library’s reading room. The proof copy and the radio introduction are now NLW MS 24193B and NLW MS 24194E respectively.
There are many things which we take for granted in modern life – watching television programmes and listening to radio programmes and podcasts being some of them. The internet has made it easier to access many broadcast platforms, with social media driving comments and news. Few people in 1923 would have predicted that a local radio station broadcasting around Cardiff would grow to become a national institution at the centre of Welsh life. In 2023, the BBC in Wales celebrates its centenary, and what better way to mark this important historical milestone than to establish the Wales Broadcast Archive at the National Library of Wales.
Radio rules – the BBC begins broadcasting in Wales on 13 February 1923
Some may not know that the BBC began as a commercial company backed by Guglielmo Marconi, the famous pioneer of wireless broadcasting. It wasn’t until 1927 that the British Broadcasting Corporation was set up as a public service broadcaster with a Royal Charter to ‘inform, educate and entertain’. In the 1920s the technology was primitive and few people could afford their own wireless set which cost £7 (the equivalent of £334 today) and the 10 shillings radio licence fee (£23 today). However, radio became very popular with 2.5m licences issued by 1928 as coverage spread across the UK. The early radio pioneers had to experiment to find out what worked and the choice of programmes was very limited. However, at 5pm on 13 February 1923, only four months after the launch of the London station, 2LO, the British Broadcasting Company began broadcasting from Studio 5WA in 19 Castle Street, Cardiff.
At 9.30pm, Mostyn Thomas sang the folk song ‘Dafydd y Garreg Wen’. Fifty years later, he recalled that “I hardly had any time to practice, which made me extremely nervous, as in those days microphones weren’t simple things to use… but we simply had to be ready, the start time had been advertised in all the newspapers”. The programmes were only available within a 20-mile radius of the studio in Cardiff, and then Swansea in December 1924.
In the 1930s the BBC increased the number of transmitters and as a result, in 1937 it launched an all Wales radio service. The previous South Wales and the West service received many complaints from listeners in both Wales and England and people in Mid and North Wales couldn’t listen at all. The historian John Davies suggested that the first all Wales BBC radio service was an important moment in Wales being seen as a distinct nation.
The opening of the Bangor studio managed by the legendary Sam Jones in 1935 led to new Welsh language programmes during the Second World War when radio was used to keep up morale. Home grown talent such as Triawd y Coleg with Meredydd Evans (who later became the Head of BBC Light Entertainment in Wales) became national stars in Noson Lawen. The BBC Light Entertainment Unit moved from London to Bangor between 1941 to 1943 to avoid the Blitz, broadcasting popular shows including ITMA starring Tommy Handley, a radio super star of the time. In the 1950s, children’s programmes were broadcast between 5pm and 6pm with ‘SOS Galw Gari Tryfan’ by the Rev Idwal Jones proving to be hugely popular as a Welsh language equivalent of ‘Dick Barton – special agent’.
In 1945 for the first time, people in Wales could buy a Welsh version of the popular Radio Times which listed BBC programmes.
Radio has a competitor
Although mechanical television sets first appeared in 1929 with experiments by John Logie Baird, the BBC didn’t launch a television service until 1936 – with breaks between programmes to rest the eyes of viewers! This service closed down during the war years but in 1946, television was back – although not everywhere. It took time to build new transmitters and to grow an audience who were more used to listening to the radio. Television needed to attract new audiences and live outside broadcasts such as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 encouraged people to buy television sets. It wasn’t until the Wenvoe transmitter opened on 15 August 1952 that people in South Wales could watch television for the first time, paying a licence fee of £2 (around £46 today).
Television in Wales in the 1950s struggled with a lack of coverage and mainly relied on programmes produced in London, as the BBC now competed with commercial television. The first commercial channel in Wales, Television Wales and the West (TWW), began broadcasting in 1958 in South East Wales. Appearing on the opening night were well-known Welsh stars Donald Houston, Stanley Baker and Harry Secombe. The BBC in Wales now needed to produce television content attractive to a Welsh audience.
‘Good Evening, here is the news in Wales today’
But it was in 1964 that television really took off with the beginning of BBC Cymru Wales as a separate service – although only 12 hours of additional programmes were produced with 7 hours in Welsh and 5 hours in English.
The 1960s was a time of social and political change in Wales. The BBC had a responsibility to broadcast the latest news but providing television news programmes in Wales hadn’t been done before. ‘Heddiw’ began in 1961 as a news magazine programme reporting national and international news in Welsh for the first time on television. Several famous broadcasters including Owen Edwards, Robin Jones and Hywel Gwynfryn presented the news. In 1962 ‘Wales Today’ started, sharing the slot with Points West for South West England as there was only one transmitter. That’s why the new BBC Cymru Wales service was so important. When presenter Brian Hoey spoke to viewers in October 1964, it was to Welsh viewers.
Bringing news stories to the screen was very difficult in the 1960s – everything was live, there were no autocues or computers, and the camera films were negative until they were broadcast live on the screen. No wonder the Radio Times warned viewers that ‘it may occasionally be untidy’! Yet over the years, presenters such as Brian Hoey who provided harrowing reports from the Aberfan disaster in 1966, David Parry-Jones, Sara Edwards and Jamie Owen became household names. People all over Wales now tuned in every night for the news and often stayed to be entertained by home grown programmes. Television was here to stay.
Dr Ywain Tomos
Interpretation Officer for the Wales Broadcast Archive
The papers of the senior civil servant Sir Guildhaume Myrddin-Evans came to the Library in 2019, but thanks to the pandemic, it was only last summer that I had the opportunity to organise and catalogue them.
Sir Guildhaume had a very interesting and successful career. After he was injured in the First World War he went to work for Lloyd George and became a specialist on labour matters, serving in the Ministry of Labour and National Service, and representing the British Government on the International Labour Organisation. This gave him the opportunity to travel, make interesting international contacts and witness the occasional political spat.
Sir Guildhaume was a member of the governing body of the International Labour Organization at the time of the petroleum conference in Caracas, Venezuela, in April 1955. Although the representatives of employers and governments supported the bid to hold the conference there, representatives of trade unions had objected because of the treatment of union officials, including the imprisonment of a number of them, by the military government there which had come to power in a coup d’état in 1948. During the opening session the representative of the unions from the Netherlands, Mr Vermeulen, gave a speech drawing attention to the rights of workers in the country and a number of union leaders who were in prison. The response of the Venezuelan government was to send officers of the security forces to his hotel to escort him to the airport and to send him out of the country.
Sir Guildhaume Myrddin-Evans Papers, D3/4
When the other representatives of the unions heard about this, they agreed not to take part in the main conference until he was allowed to come back and because of the International Labour Organisation’s constitution of the, the conference could not go ahead. Vermeulen spent over a week in Curacao while Sir Guildhaume and other officials tried to find some kind of resolution but despite suggested compromises and high level negotiations they were unable to broker an agreement that was acceptable to both Mr Vermeulen and the Venezuelan authorities.
Sir Guildhaume Myrddin-Evans Papers, D3/1
Despite Sir Guildhaume’s efforts to persuade the authorities otherwise, Venezuela temporarily pulled out of the International Labour Organization but it seems that indirectly at least, the whole affair did have the effect that Mr Vermeulen and the union officials had been hoping for. In a letter from Sir Guildhaume to the British delegation in Geneva on 31 May he was able to report that a number of union officers had been released from prison adding in typical civil servant understatement:
“I like to think that I might have some partial responsibility for this happy result”.
The full story can be found in Sir Guildhaume Myrddin-Evans Papers Series D3.
2022 was a busy year for the Library’s archivists. The easing of covid restrictions meant that they were able to spend the whole year cataloguing archives in earnest as well as undertaking their other responsibilities, so many more catalogues were produced than in the previous two years.
Here is a taste of the catalogues that were completed in 2022. Work continues on other catalogues as ever, including some substantial and important new archives and also small additions to existing catalogues. Details of recently catalogued manuscripts in the NLW MSS and NLW ex series will appear in another blog.
King John’s Abergavenny charter. There was a blog about the charter soon after we purchased it, and a more detailed article about it has also been published recently: D. J. Moore, ‘Abergavenny and Dunwallesland: a 1209 charter of king John’ in The Monmouthshire Antiquary: Proceedings of the Monmouthshire Antiquarian Association XXXVII (2022), 5-13
Papers of Sir Guildhaume Myrddin-Evans (1894-1964), a senior civil servant, industrial relations expert and British representative to the International Labour Organisation, including records relating to the Local Government Commission for Wales, as well as a diplomatic spat in Venezuela with the ILO.
Administrative papers of the Aberystwyth, Pontypridd and Cardiff branches of Welsh Women’s Aid, referring to many issues affecting women and their children who use the service including domestic violence, social welfare and the law.
During the 1980s computer boom, a number of new companies emerged that began creating hardware for the general public. Previously, cost and size was a prohibiting factor, but with computers getting smaller and cheaper to manufacture, a new dawn for tech enthusiasts arose. One of these new companies was named Dragon Data, which was set up in the early 80s in South Wales by the toy company Mattoy.
They had some success with their Dragon 32 and Dragon 64 computers, but life would be short for this Dragon. Technical limitations meant that it would eventually trail behind its competitors, such as Sinclair and Commodore and the company began to struggle. During the mid-80s the company was purchased by Eurohand S.A. which then relocated its base to Spain. In 1987, the original company and name was finally discontinued following bankruptcy.
The National Library holds a number of titles that relate to the Dragon computer (see the photograph). Many of which dive deep into how to program using the machine.
Even though the Dragon’s life was short, its legacy and name lived on. Many social media creators on outlets such as Youtube display their detailed research of the company.
Duncan Smeed. 1983. Inside the Dragon.
George Knight. 1983. Learning to use the Dragon 32 Computer.
Keith Brain. 1984. Advanced sound & graphics for the Dragon computer: including machine code subroutine.
Keith Brain. 1984. Artificial intelligence on the Dragon computer: Make your micro think.
Keith Brain. 1984. Dragon 32 games master: Learn how to write your own top level games.
Tim Hartnell. 1984. Giant book of games for your Dragon.
Tim Langdell. 1982. 35 programs for the Dragon 32.
One of the books purchased recently for our rare book collections is Experiments and observations made in Britain, in order to obtain a rule for measuring heights with the barometer. The author was Colonel William Roy (1726-1790), surveyor and founder of the Ordnance Survey. The report was originally published in the Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society in 1777, but the copy we have bought was published separately by J. Nichols the following year.
The experiments described in the report were carried out in various locations, including Schiehallion in Scotland and Snowdon in Wales. As well as descriptions of the experiments, the book includes tables of the measurements and maps of the mountains where they were made. It provides important evidence of the contribution of north Wales to scientific developments in the eighteenth century.
Steed of winter who the pale men carry.
Who are those that squire you?
Slow and ceaseless, yard by yard, house by house, and door by door.’
(Torchwood, episode 57, 21 December 2021)
This began as a chance conversation in the corridor; I was inspired by the Mari Lwyd because of Aberystwyth’s own procession and because I’m interested in the hybridisation of folktales and religion.
Two Mari Lwyds on the Prom, Aberystwyth, January 2022. Photo: Rasma Bertz
My interest in finding out whether the Grey Mare came from a time when two Popes celebrated the medieval Feast of the Ass – built on the foundation of Blessed Mary; the important role of the donkey leading to, and present at, the birth of Christ; the flight into Egypt and later, as transport for Jesus to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, will have to wait for another day.
Likewise, confirming the origin of the Mari (in the words of artist Robert Alwyn Hughes) as ‘a figure of ritual significance for a pagan fertility [tradition] …celebrating the Celtic Goddess Rhiannon.’
Instead, a ballad by Vernon Watkins became my focus because after reading it, I was haunted for days. That kind of impression cannot be ignored. But first: what is the Mari Lwyd?
She appears to be the love child of a Wassail and a Mummer’s rite – an intimidating horse skull, decorated and originally carried by six men (named like Morris-dancers with one fiddler) from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night or Hen Galan, the Welsh New Year on 13 January by the Julian calendar.
If the Mari knocks on your door, you must be quick-witted and sing back verses to prevent the mare from entering. Inevitably the host loses, and once inside, food and drink are provided.
The first item I found in the archives was a 1930 composition for timpani titled ‘The Prelude to the Ballad of the Mari Llwyd [sic]’ by Daniel Jones. There are two other references to the same title, and until the various publication dates are ordered, it is easy to assume that this piece was written to accompany the 1958 TV adaptation of Vernon Watkin’s 1941 poem ‘The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd’ by Douglas Cleverdon.
As a timpanist, I had to look at the sheet music. There is an addendum which reveals it to be ‘music for approaching and retreating footsteps’, but the mystery remains as to why it was written and if there was ever more than just a prelude!
Of Vernon Watkins, there is much more available: the original drafts of the ballad (NLW MS 21263E) and two versions of the TV script (NLW MS 22841), one with initials for each actor reciting the verses. Notes identify the Living as William Squire, Rachel Thomas, Haydn Jones, Jeffrey Segal and William Eedle, while the Dead were voiced by Aubrey Richards and Basil Jones.
Watkins, described by his close friend Dylan Thomas as ‘the most profound…Welshman writing poems in English’ was a codebreaker in WWII. In fact, he was stationed at Bletchley Park when he wrote this ballad, a fact that possibly explains his vivid geographical imagery – a homesickness maybe; also, the way in which Watkins turns perspective inside out.
Echoing the use of the Mari Lwyd as an archetype for the Blessed Mary, darker imagery is used for the holy, while light represents elements of society that we usually deem less reputable i.e., the outcasts, sinners and blasphemous.
Watkins wrote that ‘the singers came every year to my father’s house; and listening to them at midnight, I found myself imagining a horse’s skull decked with ribbons, followed and surrounded by all kinds of drunken claims and holy deceptions.’
To me, this hearkens more to the Celtic Samhain, but ‘the last breath of the year is their threshold, the moment of supreme forgiveness, confusion and understanding, the profane and sacred moment impossible to realize while the clock hands divide the Living from the Dead’ emphasises the evocativeness of this Welsh tradition.
In a signed document, Watkins added lines to be spoken by unseen figures in the wings as a prequel to the prologue in the dramatized version. This strophe/antistrophe begins: ‘Come to me, Mother of God: in an hour the Old Year ends.’ and ends: ‘The beggar is holy within this hour, the inner and culprit divine, even as I bolt the door on those hands, the handcuffs fall upon mine.’
Watkins weaves a thread of social consciousness throughout his ballad, just as he uses call and response – like the verse exchange on the doorstep – to contrast religious against secular concerns:
‘And the chattering speech of skull and spade
beckon the banished poor.
[Refrain] Sinner and saint, sinner and saint
A horse’s head in the frost.
Conscience counts the cost.’
A sinister refrain: ‘Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Hark at the hands of the Clock’ is used to switch the verses between earthly locations and pursuits with biblical imagery – stanza 23: ‘Starving we come from Gruffydd Bryn’ also mentions Felinfoel beer versus stanza 27: ‘for she knows all from the birth of the Flood’.
We are taken to Harlech’s bitter coast with Living reply:
‘White horses need white horse’s food:
We cannot feed a ghost.
Cast your Lwyd to the white spray’s crest
That pounds and rides the air.
Why should we break our lucky feast
For the braying of a mare?’
And to Hebron, Dolgellau, Kidwelly – ‘we bring from Cader Idris, and those ancient valleys, Mari of your sorrows, Queen of the starry fillies…’ – a continued overlay of sacred and profane.
Once the reader is aware of distinction between living and dead, the call and response becomes even clearer: the ghostly Mari’s duet professing to be holy, the living residents declaring her drunken and malicious.
‘Mari Lwyd, Lwyd Mari:
A sacred thing
Betrayed are the living, betrayed the dead
All are confused by a horse’s head.’
Out of all the items in the catalogue – including songbooks, arrangements of the Blessed Mary carol, and song and dance tune collections, Vernon Watkins’ ballad had the greatest effect on me personally, especially in emphasising the battle for the return of the Light at this time of year.
With the World Cup in Qatar on the horizon, it’s worth remembering that the National Library holds a number of World Cup and football-related items that the general public can read, view and enjoy when they visit the Library.
The Qatar World Cup is only the second time Wales have qualified for the competition, our only previous qualification being the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. The Library holds a number of items from that World Cup campaign, including programmes from the games, Football Association of Wales reports on qualification and the tournament itself, and for Swedish language readers the official book of the tournament, published in Sweden shortly after the tournament. We also hold a number of biographies published after the tournament by key players such as John Charles, Cliff Jones and Jack Kelsey. You can also find newspaper reports of the games and of the build-up to the competition in the newspapers collection.
The Library also holds more recent works associated with the Welsh football team and the World Cup, including paintings of team members by Owain Fôn Williams, recent national team match programmes, biographies of leading Welsh footballers, books on the history of the Wales football team and books on the history of the World Cup. For those of us who enjoyed collecting Panini stickers in our youth, the Library also holds a recently published facsimile of completed Panini sticker albums from each World Cup from 1970 onwards.
So, in between watching the games and supporting your national team, why not take some time out to visit the Library and explore some of the materials related to the competition held in its collections. A selection of items will be on display at the Library during the World Cup period and our collections can be browsed online (discover.library.wales) and in the Reading Room.
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.