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Welsh figures who shaped history to be added to Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

13 Apr 2023 3 minute read
The Honest Bookshop’ in Hay on Wye – Photo: Nexxo. Inset left – James Cellan Jones, Photo: The British Entertainment History Project. Inset right – Garfield Davies, Photo: Nicholson PA.

Prominent Welsh figures who have shaped history will be added to the latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Garfield Davies, Richard Booth, and James Cellan Jones are among 247 contemporary figures who died in the year 2019 and will be added to the updated version which has been published today.

The Oxford DNB is the national record of people who have shaped British history, worldwide, from prehistory to the year 2019.

From April 2023 the dictionary includes biographies of 64,820 individuals, written by over 14,000 contributors.

Garfield Davies, Baron Davies of Coity (1935-2019), was born in Coity near Bridgend into a mining family – his great-grandfather earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest-known career spent underground.

Davies became a full-time official and later general secretary of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers.

During the 1980s and 1990s, he fought a rearguard action against Sunday trading and succeeded in limiting the hours that large shops could open.

Bookselling entrepreneur and showman Richard Booth (1938-2019) will also be included in the latest edition for his contribution in helping make Hay-on-Wye the world capital for second-hand books.

Booth also bought the town’s castle, and proclaimed himself king, issuing (at a price) passports and dukedoms proclaiming: “I feel that I should demean myself as no Royal person has ever done before and make myself Chairman of the Wales Tourist Board”.

He also said: “Having handled thousands of books on Wales, met hundreds of experts and spent fifty years travelling around the country, I am far better qualified than any official candidate”.

His offer was sadly declined.

Swansea-born James Cellan Jones (1931-2019) joined the BBC as a call-boy and worked his way up the studio drama hierarchy.


He directed seven episodes of ‘The Forsyte Saga’ and spent three years as the BBC’s head of plays commissioning ground-breaking works such as ‘Scum’, subsequently banned by BBC1’s controller,.

As a freelancer, he directed the seven-part ‘Fortunes of War’ (1987), which brought together Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.

Among others who died in 2019, Magenta Devine (1957-2019) will also be included for her work as a publicist for rock groups which led to her big break into television as a presenter on BBC Wales’s Juice, a pop programme.

Newport-born biochemist Ruth van Heyningen (1917-2019) researched the composition of sweat collected from exercising conscripted miners for her DPhil thesis, but later worked in the new field of ophthalmic biochemistry becoming an expert on cataract formation.

Crop modeller and plant physiologist John Sheehy (1942-2019) was brought up in Newport and will also be included in the newest edition of the Oxford DNB for his significant contributions to understanding photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation in grasses and legumes.

The latest edition of Oxford DNB is available here.

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