A Brief History of the Cymmrodorion By the President, Professor Emeritus Prys Morgan
The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion celebrated its quarter-millenium in 2001, because it was officially founded in London in 1751. But it’s important to recall that it grew out of an earlier society, the Most Honourable and Loyal Society of Antient Britons founded in 1715. This was an association of London Welshmen who organised the annual St David’s Day Dinner in London, and to help the families of London Welsh people in distress, especially by sustaining a charity school for their children, first in Clerkenwell, then Gray’s Inn Lane. The school ( which eventually became a girls’ school) moved to Ashford in Middlesex in 1857, eventually closing in 2009. The ‘loyal’ title was meant to emphasise to the new Hanoverian dynasty that the Welsh were not as rebellious as the Scots of the 1715 Rebellion, while the ‘ Antient ‘part of the title was needed, because ‘British’ was increasingly adopted after the Union of 1707 to refer to the United Kingdom in stead of meaning ‘ Welsh’.
Welsh people continued to pour into London – Wales having no capital, and few towns – and by 1750 many felt a need for a focus for meetings more frequent than an annual dinner on 1 March, and some for discussions on history and other matters Welsh..The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion in 1751 has always been seen as the brainchild of the three Morris brothers, William, customs officer of Holyhead, Richard, Clerk of the Navy Office in Whitehall, who lived all his life in London, dying here in 1779, and Lewis, who spent much of his life in Cardiganshire as surveyor of the royal mines, and who was the leading light of the Welsh cultural revival of the mid-eighteenth century.The rules of the society were formulated in 1753 and published in 1755, the Welsh translation being provided by the great poet Goronwy Owen.
The aims of the society were three-fold, first social and benevolent – holding frequent dinners where collections could be taken to help the Welsh charity school or any London Welsh people in distress – and second, literary and antiquarian – that is, holding discussions on Welsh history and literature, and helping to publish Welsh books -, and third, giving a lead to the Welsh at home, who lacked any kind of secular institutions.
It was probably Lewis who devised the title Cymmrodorion which was formed from ‘cyn-frodorion’ or ‘earliest natives’, to signify the unique role of the Welsh linking modern Great Britain with the ancient Britons who had occupied the island for millenia before the coming of the Saxons, implying that the Welsh should be held in high regard for holding the key to the earliest history of Britain.
Richard Morris was the president until his death in 1779, when he was succceded by Sir Watkin Lewes, who was a busy MP and Lord Mayor of London. There was also a grand Chief President, William Vaughan of Corsygedol, MP for Merioneth, succeeded in 1775 by Sir Watkin Williams Wynn of Wynnstay. The society continued to hold meetings and to attract members, but once the first generation of founders had died away, the initial spark seemed to die, and the society was wound up in 1787.
The Gwyneddigion Society had been founded as an offshoot of the Cymmrodorion in 1770, to provide a forum for the London Welsh who were finding the Cymmrodorion meetings rather too grand, too antiquarian, insufficiently Welsh, and lacking in musical entertainment. The life and soul of the Gwyneddigion was Owen Jones ‘ Owain Myfyr’ a successful leather merchant. By the 1780s they became much more of a forum for political discussions, they succeeded in publishing several ground-breaking books on Wedlsh literature, such as the edition of the poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym in 1789, and the three-vulume compendium of ancient Welsh literature, the Myvyrian Archaiology ( 1801-7), and established the eisteddfod in its modern form by patronizing three eisteddfodau in Wales in 1789. They also maintained a journal Y Greal from 1805 to 1807.
The Gwyneddigion in turn spawned new offshoots in London, the Caradogion Society from 1790 to 1798, in which the English language formed a more important role and which gave much time to political debate; and in 1794 the Cymreigyddion Society, which was founded by radicals such as Jac Glan y Gors, and which appealed to a wide membership of ordinary people, where the debates were all in Welsh. It was difficult to hold meetings during the long years of the Napoleonic Wars, but once peace returned in 1815, various other Welsh societies sprang up in London, such as the Ofyddion, the Canorion, the Gomerians , St David’s Society , Undeb Cymry, and Ymofynwyr Cymreigyddawl – this last society was a reaction to the eighteenth-century conviviality of the earlier societies, and refused atheistical members and eschewed tavern meetings. More important in many ways was the fact that back home in Wales, people were setting up their own societies in imitation of the Cymmrodorion, and demanding the restoration of the original society.
One of the offshoots of the Gwyneddigion in the 1790s was the Gorsedd of Bards of the Isle of Britain thought up by Edward Williams ‘Iolo Morganwg’ around 1790, who organized its first meetings in 1792 on Primrose Hill. Iolo returned to Wales and held several meetings of the Gorsedd all over Wales, and after a lapse during the wars, held them again after 1815. The holding of eisteddfodau had also lapsed in the same period, and groups of poets and antiquarians all over Wales got together in 1818-9 to found ‘Cambrian Societies’ . In the Carmarthen Eisteddfod of 1819 the revived eisteddfod cooperated for the first time with Iolo Morganwg’s Gorsedd of Bards. In June 1819 a meeting was held at Lord Dynevor’s London residence to found a ‘ London Cambrian Society’, and in 1820 W.J. Rees, Vicar of Cascob worked for six weeks in London Welsh circles to bring them together to form a revived Cymmrodorion Society or Metropolitan Cambrian Institution. The ‘ Second Cymmrodorion’ lasted from 1820 to 1843, and had many distinguished members such as Walter Scott, Robert Southey, Thomas Love Peacock, published regular Transactions from 1822, instituted the custom of granting medals – the original was designed by Flaxman – and it is they who adoptred the present motto of the Honourable Society. Cared doeth yr encilion ‘ let the wise love antiquities’, which had first appeared on the titlepage of the Myvyrian Archaiology.
They helped the eisteddfodau, but did not give the leadership expected in pulling the whole eisteddfod movement together. One of the unfulfilled aims of the original Cymmrodorion had been to have a Welsh church in London, and this was at last achieved by the second Cymmrodorion in 1843 with the purchase of St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place (the predecessor of St Benet’s).
London Welsh life had rapidly changed by the 1840s: Welsh chapels had sprung up even before the Cymmrodorion had purchased a Welsh church, and the old convivial gatherings with a great deal of musical junketings, were going out of fashion: the Gwyneddigion fell on hard times by the late 1830s, the Cymmrodorion ended in 1843, and the Cymreigyddion faded in the 1850s. It was said at the time that the Cambrian Archaeological Association was founded – in Wales, not London – in 1846 as a reaction to the failure of the Cymmrodorion. In one of the Cymreigyddion meetings steps were taken, led by Sir Hugh Owen, to found a society for the diffusion of useful knowledge in Wales. It was a time when the Welsh were struggling to deal with building chapels and schools and developing heavy industry throughout Wales. This was also the period when the Welsh were widely criticized for dwelling too much upon their past, their early history and ancient language, in the wake of the anti-Welsh animadversions of the Blue Books on Welsh Education, in 1847.. The Welsh held a series of national eisteddfodau from 1858 to 1868 and it is striking that Hugh Owen in this period should establish a Social Science Section where the eistreddfod could discuss the current problems of Wales.
There was a gap of exactly twenty years between the end of the ‘ Second Cymmrodorion’ and the restoration of the society in 1873, and one or two attempts were made to establish some sort of replacement society: John Williams ‘ Ab Ithel’ founded a Cambrian Institution in London in 1855. By 1870 there was a growing awareness in Wales itself that while Wales was changing rapidly, it looked to the London Welsh in vain for help and guidance. After the 1868 election, Wales was represented by far more self-consciously Welsh members, and Hugh Owen and his associates were responsible for opening a University College of Wales at Aberystwyth in 1872. Several Welsh people asked for the restoration of a learned antiquarian society in London at the Porthmadog Eisteddfod 1872 and that of Mold 1873, one of its purposes being the reordering of the national eisteddfod. By a lucky chance there was in London a Musical Prize Fund Committee set up to help the South Wales Choral Union to compete at the Crystal Palace festival, which had a considerable amount of unspent moneys. Hugh Owen and his friend John Griffith’ Y Gohebydd’ persuaded the committee to use the moneys to found a new Cymmrodorion: Gohebydd took this idea in 1873 to Mold and convinced the Welsh there that this was the society everyone was looking for. The Cymmrodorion Society was accordingly revived in London in November 1873, and has had an unbroken existence since then.
Sir Hugh Owen was chairman, the then Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn was President, and the treasurer J.H. Puleston , who was responsible for founding the St David’s Day service at St Paul’s Cathedral. The present pattern was laid down in the 1870s of having meetings in London and at a ‘ Cymmrodorion Section’ at the national eisteddfod, the society fulfilling one of its aims, by linking itself to the new National Eisteddfod Association, the eisteddfod meetings being usually devoted to the discussion of current Welsh national needs, many meetings being the forum for suggesting the foundation of national institutions such as the National Library , National Museum,both founded in 1907, The Welsh Folk Song Society founded in 1906, The Welsh Bibliographical Society in 1907, The Council for the Preservation of Rural Wales, suggested at a meeting in 1923 and actually founded in 1927, and many others down the years.
The pattern of publication was laid down also in the 1870s, with Y Cymmrodor being published from 1875 onwards. In addition since 1893 we have had the annual Transactions of the society, which was the chief scholarly journal for Welsh history and antiquities until the establishment of The Welsh History Review in 1960. The Cymmrodorion Record Series also began in the 1890s to publish important Welsh historical sources. From 1887 until his death in 1934 Sir Vincent Evans was the society’s secretary, and it is a measure of his superhuman energy that he not only ran the Nation al Eisteddfod Association but also looked after all the publications of the society.
One of the members of the Cymmrodorion Council was the sculptor Joseph Edwards, who was asked to design a new Cymmrodorion medal, the first of which was awarded in 1883 to the aged William Rees ‘Gwilym Hiraethog’. Gwilym Hiraethog had in 1828 been awarded the medal of the Cymmrodorion for an essay on the Lowland Hundred or Cantre’r Gwaelod, but the tradition was now created, which is followed up to the present day, of awarding a medal for a lifetime’s service to Wales. In 1951 at the two hundredth anniversary of the society, two ceremonies were held to give medals to HRH Princess Elizabeth, and to Saunders Lewis. These medals are granted every few years, the most recent ( at the time of writing) are to Archbishop Rowan Williams, at a meeting in Lambeth Palace in 2008, and to the historian Lord Morgan of Aberdyfi at a meeting at the House of Lords in 2009.
After the death of Sir Vincent Evans in 1934 the secretaryship was filled for thirty years by Sir J. C. Cecil-Williams, who set himself the task of raising the membership from a mere three hundred or so in the 1930s, to over 2200 by 1951, persuading everybody of note in Wales and among the London Welsh to become members, and indeed attracting members from overseas. Several meetings were held in Wales in 1951, and in the same year a monument to Dafydd ap Gwilym was unveiled on the walls of Strata Florida Abbey, all of which helped to make the society’s presence felt in Wales.
Cecil-Williams and the Council continued the tradition of the society from the time of Hugh Owen in acting as a pressure group for changes in Wales, sometimes acting informally , and sometimes sending delegations to the government, as in 1952, to demand better recognition for Wales on such things as postage stamps, coinage and to obtain an official Welsh flag. At other times the society has sent memoranda to committees and commissions on behalf of the Welsh people, for example the Pilkington Committee on the future of broadcasting in Britain, or the Hughes-Parry Committee on the status of the Welsh Language, and indeed in 1973 the society’s secretary Ben Jones, was appointed by the government to the chair of the Welsh Language Council. In 1984 the society intervened successfully to put pressure on government to reverse its decision to move the Plant Breeding Station from Gogerddan, Aberystwyth, to the Thames Valley, and in 2000 the society sent an influential report to the Welsh Affairs Committee of the House of Commons on the promotion of the interests of Wales overseas.
The society has continued to produce its Transactions, an unusual annual publication in the sense that they provide a forum for articles on public affairs and history and literature, in both English and Welsh.The editor of the Transactions for fifteen years up to 2009 was Dr Peter R. Roberts of the University of Kent, and at the time of writing in 2009 it is Professor Helen Fulton of Swansea University. It was felt for many years that there was no index to the society’s publications, but in 1990 Gareth Haulfryn Williams ( son of J. Haulfryn Williams who had been secretary of the society up to his death in 1980) compiled an index to the volumnes of Y Cymmrodor and the Transactions from 1878 to 1982, which is a most useful tool for all Welsh scholars. Y Cymmrodor as a series came to an end with the publiccation in 1951 of the History of the Cymmrodorion by Helen Ramage and R.T. Jenkins, which was published as part of the two hundredth anniversary of the society. Before the second world war the society planned another unusual publication, a dictionary of national biography. The name Y Bywgraffiadur was suggested for it by Sir Thomas Parry-Williams, who had been president of the society from 1960 to 1969, just before its publication (in Welsh) in 1953.The editor was Professor R.T. Jenkins. An English-language version was published as The Dictionary of Welsh Biography in 1959. Y Bywgraffiadur only covered biographies up to the year 1940, so there have been supplemental volumes published by the society in 1990 and 1997, bringing biographies up to 1970. The editors of these volumes were E.D. Jones, the National Librarian, and his successor as National Librarian Dr B.F. Roberts, and Dr Roberts has undertaken the task of keeping the biographical files up to date, but the Society has decided that the most effective method of publishing them is on-line.
In 2001 the society reached yet another milestone in its history, its quarter-millenium, celebrated by a special reception at St James’s Palace, with an opportunity for members to meet their new royal patron HRH The Prince of Wales. It was also the occasion of Professor Emrys Jones handing over the presidency of the society to Professor Sir Rees Davies of All Souls College, Oxford. The occasion was also marked by a celebratory volume edited by the president, Professor Emrys Jones The Welsh in London. Because of the tragic death of Sir Rees in 2005, Professor Prys Morgan of Swansea (who had been the society’s editor from 1977 to 1987) was elected president, and uniquely in Cymmrodorion history, his inaugural presidential address in 2006 was televised as part of the series of programmes (partly devised by Professor Emrys Jones) on ‘ The Welsh in London’. He has also been given the task of putting a sketch of ther society’s history on the website, a medium unimaginable to our founders such as Lewis Morris, or even our more recent officers such as Sir Vincent Evans and Sir John Cecil-Williams, but had they known of such a medium of publicity, they would have welcomed it, we can be sure.