Category Archives: Aberystwyth University

Son of a preacher man, Thomas Charles Edwards, first Principal of University College of Wales, Aberystwyth

As an AberForward trainee, I have been tasked with conducting research into the university’s Institutional Archive, a collection of papers and photographs dating from as far back as 1824. One example of the resources contained in the Institutional Archive is the collection of correspondencePicture - T. C. Edwards - 1 from the first two Principals of the College. For the past week, I have been reading through the letters of the first Principal, which provide an insight into events in the College’s early years, from the point of view of the man in charge.

That man was Thomas Charles Edwards, a Calvinistic Methodist minister and preacher who in 1872 was elected the first Principal of Aberystwyth College, the first University College in Wales. The College had a shaky start, facing many trials in the decades following its foundation, and Edwards’ personal responses to these can be traced through his correspondence from that period.

One striking example can be found in a letter dated 30th of June, 1883, which hints that the very survival of the college may be in doubt. T. C. Edwards shows his resolve to push on “as if it [the college] were destined to survive its present difficulties.”

Letter - 30 June, 1883 - extract 1At this time, student morale was at an all-time low with some inclined to go to Liverpool or Owen’s college (Manchester), believing that those who remained in Aberystwyth would “languish and die slowly.” Understandably, most of the Principal’s letter concerns the question of how best to convince the students, and the rest of the country, that this was not the case.

Letter - 30 June, 1883 - extract 2

Letter - 30 June, 1883 - extract 3

Surprisingly, despite his steadfastness in rallying the College during these hard times, the Principal himself was considered one of the greatest causes of difficulty for the institution. This was apparently due to the demands placed on his time by his commitment to preaching. Again, we can get a sense of Edwards’ personal feelings on this matter in the correspondence, from a letter he wrote on the 10th of October, 1884. From reading the letter, it is clear that, at that time, the Principal felt inclined, albeit reluctantly, to offer his resignation to the College Council. One member of the Council was pushing to have ministers excluded from occupying the post of Principal and the Cambrian News had even published an article on the subject, claiming that his preaching had been the greatest difficulty that the College had had to contend with. However, in the event, we know that the Principal was not forced to resign on this occasion and went on to hold the post of Principal until 1891 when he resigned voluntarily, partly for health reasons and partly to follow in his father’s footsteps as head of Bala theological College.Letter - 10 Oct, 1884 - extract 1


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Never Judge a Book By Its Covers!

Whilst cataloguing books from the Old College Library we came upon a couple of pamphlets which, as you can see from the pictures below, might not have warranted a second glance. Stained, frayed at the edges, and faded by the years, they could have easily been overlooked. Appearances can be deceptive though, and a closer inspection of these two fragile books revealed their true worth.

Uncle TomIt would appear that they are one of the two earliest translations into Welsh of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This abridged translation by Y Lefiad (a pseudonym of William Williams) was published in Abertawy in 1853 just one year after the very first printing in Boston.  They are scarce items and from our preliminary research we have only been able to locate one other copy and that is just of Volume Two.
These are rare and important works then. They may be a little frayed around the edges but as Shakespeare reminds us in The Merchant of Venice, “not all that glisters is gold”, and their worth is reflected by the fact that they are now housed safely in the Rare Book Room of the Hugh Owen Library.

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Thomas Gywnn Jones 1871-1949

We have recently catalogued a small collection of Irish-Gaelic books that were donated to the University by T. Gwynn Jones, a former member of the Welsh Department at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth and holder of the Gregynog Chair of Welsh Literature from 1919 until his retirement in 1937. The collection reflects Jones’s interest in Celtic languages and his long-standing affinity with Ireland, cemented by three visits there in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

There were some really interesting finds amongst the collection including this 1922 edition of what we understand to be the first (partial) translation of Don Quixote into any Celtic language by Peadar Ua Laoghaire (Peter O’Leary).

Don Quixote T.G.J.

Also in the collection is a signed 1943 edition of: Danta eagsamla agus beanla cunta onta ag Dubglas de h-ide (Miscellaneous poems translated into English by Douglas Hyde). Hyde was the first President of Ireland, serving between 1938 and 1945 and there are a number of his books in the collection.
Other titles from the T. Gwynn Jones collection include:

Oċt sgéalta ó Ċoillte Máġaċ. An Craoiḃín Aoiḃinn; do scríoḃ ó ḃéal Tomáis Uí Ċaṫasaiġ.

Aḃráin ġráḋa ċúige Ċonnaċt / ar n-a gcruinniuġaḋ agus ar n-a ḃfoillsiuġaḋ de’n ċéad uair le Duḃglas De h-Íde (an Craoiḃín Aoiḃinn) ; ar n-a gcur amaċ anois arís agus tuilleaḋ aḃrán leó.

An gráḋ agus an ġruaim / Seosaṁ mac Grianna do scríoḃ.

Sgealta a fili na Romha

T.G.J. SignatureFurther titles from the collection can be found by searching for T. Gwynn Jones in Primo and looking for: T Jones (Thomas Gwynn), 1871-1949 former owner, in the listings. Look out for his signature in the books.

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Felix Mendelssohn

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, born in Hamburg 1809, became one of the most influential composers and conductors of the early Romantic period. A talented pianist and organist he is also regarded by some as one of the most brilliant and skilled composers of classical music. Some critics go so far as to name him the 19th century equivalent of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Mendelssohn appeared destined for a fascinating career from an extremely early age, being recognised by tutors and parents alike as a musical prodigy. His composing and pianist skills quickly grew and he began to achieve great acclaim across Germany. This in turn ignited a spark and revived the work of other composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach.

Portrait of Mendelssohn by the English miniaturist James Warren Childe (1778–1862), 1839.

Portrait of Mendelssohn by the English miniaturist James Warren Childe (1778–1862), 1839.

Mendelssohn’s fame was not however confined to the people of Germany, as many of his major works such as the Scottish Symphony and the overture The Hebrides debuted in Britain, which he visited ten times during his life. The 1830s and early 1840s heralded years of increasing popularity for Mendelssohn. In 1842 he even performed private concerts for Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, who both greatly admired his work. The following year he founded one of the most prestigious music institutions in Germany – the Leipzig Conservatoire (now the University of Music and Theatre Leipzig). His work included numerous symphonies, concerti, oratorios, piano and chamber music, most notably of which, his Overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His Songs Without Words are regarded as his most famous solo piano compositions.

Mendelssohn’s final years of life were sadly ones of great tragedy. Between 1835 and 1847 the loss of his father, mother and sister generated a tremendously depressive state of mind which saw his health deteriorate rapidly. He passed away later in 1847. It is widely believed that the height of his success had yet to be achieved, with events of his later life labelling him ‘the tortured artist’.

 His Letters

Through the generosity and kind donations of Sir Hugh Owen and George Powell, Aberystwyth University now owns a selection of letters and scores, composed by Mendelssohn himself. The letters span from 1832 – 1847, covering a large portion of his life, and have given birth to new and previously unknown information concerning several features of his activities and career.

Mendelssohn letter No. 1 - entailing social engagements in Paris (1832).

Mendelssohn letter No. 1 – entailing social engagements in Paris (1832).

The university holds seventeen letters in total, which had been written to a variety of correspondents. Social engagements, concert life, his own creative work, as well as requests and recommendations, are but some of the areas discussed. In 2014 the letters underwent a restoration thanks to a generous grant from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust and CyMAL. This in turn has enabled accessibility for future generations to study and research.


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Professor Hermann Ethé

As we noted in this blog on 11 December 2013, material from the Hugh Owen Archives and Special Collections were digitised last year and included in the Welsh Experience of the First World War project based at the National Library of Wales: This year we shall be adding to our Special Collections website articles that place these materials in their historical context.


Ethé (on the left with beard) with other members of staff of the University College of Wales Aberystwyth.

The first article concerning Professor Hermann Ethé, Professor of Oriental Languages at the University College of Wales Aberystwyth at the start of the First World War, and the local campaign to have him removed from the University, is now on the Special Collections pages:

We are very grateful to Christopher T. Husbands, Emeritus Reader at the London School of Economics and Political Sociology, for allowing us to reproduce the Hermann Ethé section from his much larger study, German-/Austrian-origin Professors of German in British universities during the First World War: the lessons of four case studies.

Hermann Ethe plaque

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Iceland’s Grey Goose Laws


Title page of the 1829 publication

The ‘Grágás’ is the name given to a collection of laws dating from the Icelandic Commonwealth period (between 980 and 1262).  These were originally oral laws, a third of which would be recited at each annual meeting of the Alþingi – the Iceland national parliament – over a three year period.  In 1117 were they written down,  but by the Middle Ages they still only existed in two (sometimes contradictory) manuscript fragments.  The laws of the Icelandic Commonwealth were being described as the ‘Grey Goose Laws’  by the 16th century – possibly because the original manuscripts were written with goose-feather quills or bound in goose skin.

The complete laws can be categorised into six main sections:

  • Christian Laws
  • Assembly Procedures
  • Treatment of Homicide
  • The Wergild Ring List
  • The Lawspeaker’s Section
  • The Law Council Section

At Aberystwyth we have an early complete volume of the Grágás laws, published (not on anything goose-related) in 1829 with an introduction and notes by the Danish lawyer and academic J.F.W. Schlegel (1765-1836).  Schlegel was a professor of jurisprudence at Copenhagen University from 1800, and was the first person in Denmark to study and then teach the philosophy of Kant (in relation to natural law).

This volume also includes a bookplate that tells us a little about its provenance:




This tells us that the volume was previously in the private library of Friedrich August Ferdinand Breymann (1798-1863), Supreme Court Judge of Wolfenbüttel in Germany.  When he died, this volume, along with over 4700 others, were bequeathed to the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel.



Frontispiece of the 1829 publication.


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Early Icelandic literature: a selection of books from the library collection of George Powell, Nanteos.

From amongst the many interesting materials in Aberystwyth University’s Rare Book Room, we’ve chosen some about countries Way Up North for this blog post.  To be more accurate, about Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland.  You may wonder, why would materials like these end up in Aberystwyth of all places?   The answer to a certain extent lies in the eclectic interests of a certain George Ernest John Powell, and his generous donations.

In my will, therefore, I had left to your University – as well as being quite the worthiest and most intelligent corporate body in my dear but benighted town – all I possessed ‘of bigotry and virtue’ – Letter from GP to Principal T C Edwards, 4.iv.1879

George Powell of Nanteos (1842-1882) came from a family of local dignitaries and landowners, growing up at the Nanteos mansion quite near the benighted Aberystwyth.  He eventually took over the estate and became High Sheriff of Cardigan, but before that he spent most of his adult life in London, Paris, and travelling widely elsewhere.  A detailed biography has been by compiled by the School of Art, where much of his collection is kept.

One part of the world he visited was Iceland, and like many Victorian travellers he developed a special interest in this isolated country of rugged landscapes and a romantic history preserved in sagas over centuries.  He took Icelandic lessons from Eiríkur Magnússon (a scholar and librarian at Cambridge University), and provided financial support to the Icelandic nationalist writer Jón Árnusson.  At that time Iceland was still a Danish dependency, and ancient sagas as well as folk history provided the inspiration for a strong nationalist movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Saga þess haloflega Herra Olafs Tryggvasonar Noregs Kongs – published by Jone Snorrasone, 1689.


iceland image 2

Little is known about the 10th century Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason, but this saga describes him (sometimes forcibly) converting the Norse to Christianity.  In the 12th century a monk at the Þingeyrar monastery in Iceland, Oddr Snorrasson, wrote a Latin biography of the historic king – that original text no longer survives, but the work was translated into Old Norse and copies of that still exist.  From this title page we can see that it comes from George Powell’s collection.

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The Johnson Shakespeare

April 2014 means Happy 450th Birthday to Shakespeare. Will you be seeing the Information Services Players channelling Lear, raging at the next great storm to hit Aber?  Or finding forbidden love, leaning out of balconies, and it all ending tragically?  Well watch this space! (I have been asked to clarify that this will probably not actually happen…bah, spoilsports!).

Nevertheless, we would still like to present one of our greatest Library treasures to celebrate the occasion. This is the 1747 Bishop Warburton edition of Shakespeare, used by Dr. Samuel Johnson in the preparation of his Dictionary.  The volumes will be on display on Level D, in addition to an earlier 1725 collection by Pope and some famous forgeries of plays that William Ireland tried to pass off as ‘lost works’ by Shakespeare on Level F.


The Warburton edition of Shakespeare (1747)…’restored from the Blunders of the first Editors, and the Interpolations of the two Last’

After being approached by a group of publishers in 1746, Johnson (and a number of assistants for the copying work) took 9 years to complete the task – in a biography of Johnson, the dictionary is described as:

“easily ranking as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever performed by one individual who laboured under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time” (from Samuel Johnson, Walter Bate 1977).

This copy of Warburton’s collected Shakespeare is filled with notes by Johnson, as he found examples of words to use in the dictionary – more than from any other work.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary today, the first evidence of 1,582 new words in the English language come from Shakespeare, as well as the evidence of 7,956 words used with new meanings.  His completely new words included admired, ghost, and leap-frog, and nobody would be saying that the world was their oyster, or that there was method in their madness without him.

Johnson Shakespeare 2

‘Richard III’ with Johnson’s annotations.

Johnson’s friend Sir John Hawkins described the scene during the process of collecting examples for the dictionary:

“The books he used for this purpose were what he had in his own collection, a copious but a miserably ragged one, and all such as he could borrow; which latter, if ever they came back to those that lent them, were so defaced as to be scarce worth owning.” (from Life of Samuel Johnson, 1787).

These unique volumes passed from Johnson to the  Shakespeare scholar George Stevens in 1785.  They came into the possession of scholar and serious bibliophile Richard Heber (whose libraries in Britain and abroad supposedly contained over 150,000 volumes), and at some point were also owned by a Major Charles Thoyts (whose book-plates are in all 8 volumes – the sale of his library is recorded in a Sotheby’s auction catalogue from 1815) .  In 1862 they were acquired by George Powell of Nanteos for 15 guineas, and were then left to the University.

Johnson Shakespeare owners

Written notes and book-plates showing previous owners.

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The Librarian Connection

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings….Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances.

– from ‘The Library of Babel‘ by Jorge Luis Borges.

Here at Aberystwyth University there have always been librarians, assisting students and staff to find what they’re looking for and ensuring that all the resources needed for teaching, learning and research are available.  The latest rare book display at the Thomas Parry Library includes a number of volumes and papers owned by the University that are associated with famous historical librarians.

Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire (1677) with notes by Henry Ellis


Henry Ellis  became Principal Librarian of the British Museum in 1805, and remained in that position until 1856 – he was an accomplished antiquarian and scholar.  His assistant, and direct successor in the post at the British Museum was Anthony Panizzi, who doubled the number of books (making the collection the largest library in the world) and push through many reforms.  

Ellis had previously argued against some of these reforms in a parliamentary committee – he stated that if the museum were not closed for three weeks in the autumn, the place would positively become unwholesome, and that to open on Saturdays would be a mistake as that was when the most mischievous part of the population was abroad (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).   This copy of Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire was owned by Ellis during his time as a student at St John’s College, Oxford in the 1790’s.

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Sir Isaac Newton

At the Hugh Owen Library there is a collection of rare volumes relating to the famous physicist and mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton. These include an early edition (1721) of Newton’s own Opticks in which he overturned the accepted theory of the time – that ‘pure’ light from the sun was white or colourless. Through analyses of light’s behaviour through prisms, he proved that just the opposite was true, and that light is composed of seven different colours. Also on display is a 1760 edition of his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica – a seminal work laying out in mathematical terms the laws of motion and an account of universal gravitation.   

isaac newton 4

We also hold a copy of Bernhard Varen’s Geographia Generalis, a 1672 edition that Newton published himself – in it Varen discusses the general principles of geography as a scientific subject using the knowledge of the time. This includes mathematical facts about the dimensions and motions of the earth, as well as their practical applications in navigation and map-making.

isaac newton 2

Recently a book from Newton’s own library has come to light. This is William Baxter’s Glossarium Antiquitatum, published 1719, and acquired when Newton was Master of the Mint – later bookplates indicate that this volume was in Newton’s possession when he died.

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