Tag 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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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: http://cymru1914.org/. 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: http://www.aber.ac.uk/en/is/collections/special-collections/ww1/.

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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William Dowsing

A recent library discovery is a copy of Richard Rogers’ Commentary upon the Whole Book of Judges (1615) which was extensively indexed and annotated by the Civil War iconoclast William Dowsing (1596 – 1668).   A devout Puritan, land-owning farmer, and soldier, he had his own library of religious texts – his earliest recorded book purchases were some illegal separatist works printed in the Netherlands and smuggled into England.

In March 1643, at the beginning of the Civil War, Dowsing wrote an angry letter to a local Puritan preacher complaining about the “blasphemous crucifixes, all superstitious pictures and reliques of popery” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – ODNB) he saw around the town and university of Cambridge. Opinions like this must have brought him into favour with the authorities at the time, as he had been appointed Provost-Marshall of the Parliamentary armies in the east of England.

Dowsing was directed by his superior, the Earl of Manchester, to act as ‘Commissioner for the destruction of monuments of idolatry and superstition’.  In the role he proceeded to carry out a Parliamentary ordinance recorded in the Journal of the House of Commons from 26th August 1643, “concerning the taking away of all superstitious and idolatrous Monuments out of all Collegiate, Cathedral Churches, and other Parish Churches and Chapels”.

He took this undertaking seriously – he and his deputies (all of whom were his own neighbours or relatives) visited the chapels of all sixteen Cambridge colleges, and recorded visits to eighty-two other parishes in Cambridgeshire.  They also visited over 147 parishes in Suffolk.

On these visits they concentrated on levelling chancels, removing altar rails, removing inscriptions on tombs or in glass, and breaking “all representations in glass, wood, or stone of the persons of the Trinity or of the heavenly host” (ODNB).  Later they moved on to organs as well.  He made recordings of most of the actions in a journal (available to read online), including this entry from Peterhouse College chapel, Cambridge:

“1. Peter-House. We went to Peter-house, 1643, December 21, with officers and soldiers, and in the presence of Mr. Hanscott, Mr. Wilson, the President Mr. Francis, Mr. Maxey, and other Fellows, Dec. 20, and 23.  We pulled down two mighty great angells, with wings, and divers other angells, and the 4 Evangelists, and Peter, with his keies on the chappell door and about a hundred chirubims and angells, and divers superstitious letters in gold.”

and the entry for the parish church in Madingley, Cambridgeshire:

“133. March 6 …There was 31 pictures superstitious, and Christ on the cross and two thieves by him, and Christ and the Virgin Mary in another window, a Christ in the steeple window. Ordered the steps to be levelled and 14 cherubim in wood to be taken down…”

Dowsing spent many hours reading and indexing Rogers’ book – 2 hours a night over two months and 16 pages every evening. One annotation on the evils of long hair notes that Judge Popham at Bury Assizes in the late 16th century ordered a member of the Grand Jury to have his hair shorn, since it was a disgrace to Queen Elizabeth!



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Gleaning From a Denbigh Grocer

Back in the 1890’s Thomas Roberts, a grocer and provision dealer from Denbigh, presented the University with two 16th century Bibles, one being a New Testament published by Christopher Barker in 1589 and the other a “Breeches Bible”, so called from the translation of Genesis ch3 v7.   Whilst these are interesting in themselves they also demonstrate the variety of historical evidence provided by such volumes, ranging from the marking of particular texts, annotated family trees, and bookmarks on tithe disputes, to binders waste taken from earlier printed volumes. It is likely that these bibles were donated to the University by Thomas Roberts in response to an appeal which went out from Principal T F Roberts in 1897. (Another Denbigh trader, E. T. Jones, Ironmonger, presented a series of 1820 pamphlets from the radical publisher William Hone around the same time). The 1589 New Testament was produced by William Fulke, the Master of Pembroke College Cambridge, as part of his confutation of the Rheims New Testament which had been produced by English Catholics.

Roberts Bible

The other volume is a copy of the Breeches Bible which has also been dated to 1589. Family bibles were often used to record births and deaths of successive generations and the Breeches Bible includes an interesting set of annotations for the Davies and Lloyd families from the 1680’s and 1690’s. The Fulke New Testament had obviously been well studied over the years with numerous page turnings marking significant texts. The volume also included a watch paper from Robert Jones, a Ruthin watchmaker of the early 19th century, and a short pamphlet setting out arguments against tithes. Although the binding is fragile there is some binders waste from an earlier black letter printed volume.

Breeches Bible title page

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Christmas drama performances from the 1890s

For December the Special Collections display on Level F in the Hugh Owen Library takes a look back to the 1890s and the early years of the Aberystwyth University Dramatic Society.

A dramtic scene from Much ado about nothing set against back drio of trees, 4 cast members are shown in a variety of poses.

A scene from Much Ado About Nothing 1893

The display is made up of a variety of photos and copies of the college magazine, giving a glimpse into the history of the university and the local area.

The display includes some academic staff from the early years of the University in dramatic garb, including Profs Ainsworth Davies who co-wrote the College Song Edward Edwards and Herman Ethe.

Two pictures, the left shows Edward Edwards from a scene in The Rivals he is in costume and dramatically grasping his head. The picture on the right show the cast of The Rivals shown is a mixture of staff and students in costume. They are arranged in two tiers, some standing some sitting.

Left – Edward Ewards from a scene in The Rivals 1897.
Right – The cast of The Rivals 1897.

Bill Hines the Collection Curator who arranges these displays writes;  In the early years of the College performances by the Dramatic Society formed a rare bonding opportunity in the restricted social round for academics and students, both male and female! The College Magazine gave a full write up to these performances and we are lucky to hold a series of photographs from plays such as “The Rivals” and “The Librarian”.

12 of the cast members from The Librarian from 1894. The picture shows a mixture of female and male staff and students in costume, they are arranged in two tiers some sitting and others standing.

The cast of The Librarian from 1894.

Other displays currently on show include one on Alfred Russel Wallace the evolutionary theorist on Level D of the Hugh Owen Library and in the Thomas Parry Library there is a collection of beautiful horn books.

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Launch of the Welsh experience of the First World War digital archive

On Thursday 28 November the digital archive, The Welsh Experience of the First World War, was launched at The College Merthyr Tydfil by John Griffiths AM, Welsh Government Minister for Culture and Sport and Huw Lewis AM, the Welsh Government Minister for Education and Skills.

The Welsh Experience of the First World War was developed as a collaborative initiative led by The National Library of Wales, in partnership with the Archives and Special Collections of Aberystwyth University; Bangor University; Cardiff University; Swansea University; the University of Wales Trinity St David; BBC Cymru Wales, The People’s Collection, Wales, and archives and local records offices that are part of ARCW, and the Archives and Records Council of Wales. The project was funded by a grant from the Jisc e-Content programme as part of their work in support of education and research, and through support from the partner organisations.

Elgan Davies (Aberystwyth University), Elizabeth Bennett (Swansea University), Sian Williams (South Wales Miners' Library) and Professor Lorna Hughes (National Library of Wales)

Elgan Davies (Aberystwyth University), Elizabeth Bennett (Swansea University), Sian Williams (South Wales Miners’ Library) and Professor Lorna Hughes (National Library of Wales)

As part of the launch Dr Paul O’Leary of the Department of History and Welsh History, Aberystwyth University, spoke of how he had used the resource to prepare an online exhibition, ‘The First World War and the Industrial Valleys’. Dr O’Leary has said, “It would have taken many years in the archives to find these resources and bring them together in a way that demonstrates the impact of the First World War on south Wales. Having the digital archive freely available will be of tremendous benefit for research and teaching”.

Dr Paul O’Leary (Department of History and Welsh History, Aberystwyth University)

Dr Paul O’Leary (Department of History and Welsh History, Aberystwyth University)

Material from the Hugh Owen Archives and Special Collections that have been digitised includes The Dragon (1914-1918); Y Wawr (1913-1917); the Ifor Leslie Evans papers; In Ruhleben Camp; material relating to Professor Hermann Ethé; and photographs of military training and lists of casualties and honours.

During 2014 we intend placing on our Special Collections website articles that place these materials in their historical context.


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