Pantycelyn – how Aberystwyth’s most famous hall of residence came to be
This is definitely not the autobiography I have been urged to write (and probably will not). It refers to me simply because I was at the heart of the controversy which resulted in the foundation of Pantycelyn Hall of Residence in Aberystwyth and I need to refer to myself as part of the background; also since I am old and becoming forgetful I want to get it all down on paper before I lose all my marbles.
I was born in Carno in 1936, the eldest son of the congregational minister of Creigfryn and Llanwnog chapels. My father, Luther, came from a Welsh speaking family in Rhymney, Monmouthshire. He left school at 14 and trained as an electrician in the mines of Monmouthshire and Glamorganshire, but he had an ambition to be a minister, retrained and eventually was awarded a degree in English at UCW Cardiff. Despite his technical training he was not at all practical: he was an useless gardener and I suspect that by the time I was aware of my surroundings he no longer remembered how to wire an electrical plug. He has passed on that lack of technical nous to me. He was essentially an earnest humourless intellectual, interested in theology and the politics of the church, ambitious for his sons but not for himself and rather old fashioned.
My mother Megan also came from a Welsh-speaking family in Treharris. Her father (my grandfather and namesake Thomas Howells) was a saddler and treasurer of the Welsh congregational church in Treharris. That town however was already in the 1930s losing its Welsh and though my mother spoke both languages she was happier in English. And that was the language in which my parents usually spoke to one another.
Fortunately for my own bilingualism, Carno at that time was almost exclusively Welsh speaking. Monoglot English speakers were few and far between. However I had English- speaking friends: Maurice Milne- Redhead was one of my closest friends and one of our gang and I was befriended by Mr Corfield the owner of one of our corner shops who came from somewhere unknown to me over the linguistic border, which at that time was a short distance west of Caersws. I had the good fortune to attend the village school, the headmaster of which at that time was a Mr Thomas. I always spoke English, though it was fairly basic and my accent was very different from the accent I later acquired in public school.
Two anecdotes to illustrate the point. At about the end of the war, when I was about 8 years or so old, I encountered some English visitors on the road between my home and Creigfryn chapel. They asked me what was my father’s occupation and I replied that he was ‘a preacher’ (pregethwr). My mother was furious with me: she said my father was a minister and that she did all the preaching in the house (a joke which at the time I barely understood).
Then there was the occasion when Mrs Adams, the widow of the deceased village squire who lived in Plas Llysyn (later to become notorious as the leading drug manufacturing facility of the UK, featuring in Operation Julie) invited my brother and me to tea. She asked my brother would you like some more Jem in your sandwich and he replied that it was not called Jem but Jam.
Perhaps I should also mention that when I first attended prep school in England I did not understand anybody and was extremely homesick: there were no other Welsh speakers in school and I was forced to write home in English, a language in which I had never spoken or written to my parents.
I return to the village school, which was superb. We were taught (entirely in Welsh) a wide number of different subjects: as well as the three rs we were given a smattering of English, Latin and French, taught tonic sol-fa (which was a mystery to me and still is) and those of us who did not have an aptitude for intellectual subjects had a garden, a woodworking shed etc. As a result, I found when I went to prep school in England that my education was far in advance of the primary education of my English contemporaries.
I have a lot more to say but this is becoming the autobiography I did not intend. It suffices to say that eventually I settled down in my school in Surrey, became a proper little Englishman, lost some of my Welsh and never learned how to spell in Welsh. I re-acquired my Welsh in Cambridge, where contrary to my inclinations, I read law. Though I have now been a lawyer for over 60 years, the subject I really wanted to read was Modern Languages. By the time I applied to university I spoke fluent French but to be accepted for the Modern Language Tripos one had to have two languages. Neither Latin nor English nor Welsh counted as a modern language for the purpose of the Tripos but I had to specify some subject which would not lead to my being automatically refused admission. So I chose Law, intending as soon as I could to change to Modern Languages.
Being determined to acquire another language which would satisfy the University I chose to go into the army immediately after leaving school and before university. My cunning scheme was to do what some of my contemporaries had done: get myself admitted to learn Russian in the Intelligence Corps. Typical of the army however I was not given my choice: I was required to train as a radar operator in the Royal Artillery and without consulting me was eventually posted to Hong Kong. Little did they know of my lack of technical skills!
At that stage, my father, who was a very forceful interfering man, took matters under his wing, and without telling me wrote to our MP Megan Lloyd George (by then we were living in the Gwendraeth valley) and asked her to intervene and to get me posted to Germany instead. I never found out whether Cantonese or Mandarin would have been accepted as a modern language for the modern languages tripos, but German certainly was and I set about teaching myself German. I eventually received a bollocking from the commanding officer for interfering in military decisions – my father should have had the bollocking, not me- but I was eventually posted to Germany, and by dint of teaching myself passed my O level in the subject; but I did not feel confident that my German was good enough to change from law, to which eventually I became acclimatized.
So I stuck with law, and did quite well: I got a first in my last year together with a Queens’ College Foundation Scholarship. At that stage, I had another attempt to wriggle out of becoming a lawyer. I wanted by that time to qualify as a chartered accountant but because we were poor (like everyone else) I could not afford to maintain myself and my wife during articles and having received, without applying, an invitation from Professor Llewelfryn Davies to an assistant lectureship in the Law Department in Aberystwyth, I reluctantly agreed.
By that time my Welsh had recovered some of its fluency. I had a marvellous last year lodging in Westminster College (a Presbyterian theological college) where I came across numerous Welsh speakers who were instrumental in reviving my spoken Welsh. So a big thank you to John Tudor, Alwyn Roberts, Elfed ap Nefydd Roberts and lots of other members of Cymdeithas y Mabinogion, the University Welsh Society, of which I was elected chairman in my last year. However I am still as a result of my schooling in Surrey happier and more fluent in English than in Welsh: that is why I am writing this in English and not in Welsh.
Turning the pages on a little more quickly, I moved to Aberystwyth but after a few years became bored with teaching. By then I was stuck with the law but was attracted to practice rather than teaching. So together with my colleague David Marshall Evans I decided to sit the Bar Exams: anything better than teaching! To my surprise, I came first in order of merit in the exam and David came next. So we both decided to leave the teaching profession and to start practising at the Bar. He did his pupillage and later practised in his home town, Liverpool. I started in London, then moved to Swansea but eventually joined chambers in Cardiff and practised from there. David has unfortunately died; I shall miss him.
Then came another turn in the wheel. By that time Dr Thomas Parry had retired and Sir Goronwy Daniel had been appointed principal. Money from the government then became available and Sir Goronwy decided to spend some of it on appointing a second Professor of Law. He had the idea of appointing a practising lawyer to be the new professor, which is how I came to be appointed. My wife Monique was adamantly opposed to my accepting the invitation: she knew how I hated teaching. I was however reassured that I could continue my practice at the bar and so I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life and accepted the post.
UCW Aberystwyth at that time was a maelstrom of Englishness with a minority of Welshness, and probably still is: I have by now nothing at all to do with the Law Department or in fact the college. In my naivety I set about doing what I thought was necessary to make the college and in particular the Law Department more Welsh and the department more practical. So inter alia, I organized courses for the Bar and for magistrates, not to teach the participants Welsh but to persuade them that their Welsh was good enough to conduct cases in court in Welsh.
I also organized courses for interpreters (English to Welsh and vice versa). .My inaugural lecture was on the Court of Great Sessions and its abolition, but was in English, though I later struggled to re-write it in Welsh as a lecture at the Eisteddfod. I also organized lectures by Welsh speaking lawyers in the Department in Welsh and with the backing of the Welsh Books Council published the lectures in a series of paperback pamphlets.
I now come belatedly to the subject matter of this article. I forget the precise date save that it was when I was still Professor of Law at the college. The Welsh speaking students were by that time agitating for a hostel to be allocated as a Welsh speaking hostel. I cannot name names: I have forgotten them. Their plea was accepted with enthusiasm by Sir Goronwy Daviel who suggested that Pantycelyn Hall be allocated as a Welsh hostel. That was beyond my wildest dreams, but it immediately ran up against opposition from most (but not all) of the English-speaking staff.
The idea gained support from Professor Parrot, the professor of music, who so far as I am aware was English, but encountered bitter opposition from various non-Welsh speaking Welshmen including Professor Andrews, my colleague in the Law Department, and from Dr Marek, later MP for Wrexham, whose nationality is unknown to me. The opposition was so strong that Sir Goronwy began to think that he would have to abandon the idea but I for one, backed by a number of colleagues including my friend Tedi Millward, the great Alwyn Rees, and the professor of geography Professor Harold Carter was determined that the project should proceed to fruition.
As I saw the situation the Senate (dominated by the staff) was adamantly opposed to the project. The Council which had mostly lay members but also some staff members was an uncertain ally, but the Court which was a much larger body and had a large number of Welsh lay members I thought would be supportive. I heard however of a plot by the opposition to persuade the college that under the constitution of the college the Court had no say in the matter and that the wishes of the senate should prevail.
That forced me to resort again to the law. I formed the opposite view, that the Court’s powers under the constitution were absolute and unfettered. I thought that the opinion of more eminent counsel than I would be useful to canvass; so I sought the written opinions of two QCs, Mr Lewis John Davies QC, an old student of the college and a Welsh speaker, and Mr Michael Gibbon QC a non-Welsh speaker from Cardiff, both of them subsequently eminent judges. They both agreed with me! Neither of them charged me or the college a penny in fees. So I presented not only my opinion but also the written opinions of both QCs at a meeting of the Court at which the Court had to decide whether or not it had plenary powers. Professor Carter also spoke in support. The Court supported us.
I was however wary of what might happen at the meeting of the Court which had to be convened to pass a resolution in support of Sir Goronwy’s scheme. At that time the constitution of the college provided that anyone who contributed £50 to the coffers of the college would become a member of the Court for five years and that anyone who contributed £100 would become a member for 10 years. So in order to ensure that everything went to plan I organized a whip-round. I persuaded a number of wealthy friends (including myself) to contribute to the funds of the college but to do so by distributing their largesse to supporters of the scheme in £50 tranches.
If I remember correctly I donated £600 to the cause, distributed as gifts to various friends in tranches of £50, so gaining 12 votes for five years. Carwyn James was one of the new members and spoke eloquently in support of Sir Goronwy’s scheme. As a result, there was an overwhelming vote in favour of Sir Goronwy’s scheme, and Pantycelyn has been a Welsh medium hostel ever since.
I had nothing to do with the appointment of my old Cambridge friend John Davies as the first warden of Pantycelyn. I did not think that he was at all a suitable person to be appointed. I knew nothing then of his abilities as a historian but I thought him undisciplined, lacking gravitas and not a good example to the students who would eventually be under his care. I was in favour of appointing Elenid Williams, then a lecturer in the French Department and her husband who was a lecturer in physics. Elenid did not however want the post: her husband had lost his post in Aberystwyth when the physics department closed and he had found a post in his subject with CERN, somewhere on the continent. I know that they settled down in the Netherlands but Elenid has now returned to Wales, though we have lost touch.
There the saga of Pantycelyn ends, save for a few loose ends. I have read with interest what people say about the matter but most of it has been inaccurate. The last thing I recollect reading was that Alwyn D Rees was responsible for the foundation of the hostel. I was a great friend and admirer of Alwyn, but his contribution to the scheme was indirect as a mover and shaker of Welsh affairs at that time. His hands were full with running his department and editing Barn, which gave our machinations support; but he was never closely involved with the scheme.
The persons I recollect as having given me most support were Dr Tedi Millward, Professor Jac L Williams and Professor Carter. There were numerous Welsh members of staff in the college who I do not recollect giving me much support but refrained from outright hostility, amongst them Professor Graham Rees (professor of economics). There were also as I have hinted Welsh members of staff, most of them monoglot English speakers, who were very hostile. They included my fellow law professor John Andrews.
As a postscript I hope I may be forgiven for mentioning, since this is not meant to be an autobiography whatever it may look like, that I do not appear to have been forgiven by my opponents for my actions in promoting my native language in the college. By way of example when Sir Goronwy retired I was made redundant by the new principal, whose name I have forgotten. I had by then decided that I could not stand another year in the department as a colleague of John Andrews and I was about to give in my notice in order to return full time to the Bar when by good fortune the redundancy notice came and I was offered a lump sum gratuity of about £30,000, a lot of money in those days, which I promptly invested in the stock market, making myself a ton of money.
I was invited to become a professorial fellow but replied that I did not want to have anything to do with the Law Department or the college so long as John Andrews remained on the staff. Others appear to have taken umbrage also at my loyalty to the Welsh language. Rather to my amusement a recent article listing the history of the Law Department and the professors who graced its portals omits my name altogether despite the 13 years I spent there as professor and the 18 years I spent, in two stints, on the staff. It says more about the character of the person who wrote the article and his distortion of history than it does about me.
May I conclude by stating that the recent appointment as professor of law of one of my old students, Emyr Lewis, the son of one of my closest friends Kynric Lewis QC, has gladdened my heart. Emyr was an eminent solicitor and is also a chaired bard. At last the department has a professor of law of whom it can rightly be proud.
I expect great things of him. Possibly an inaugural lecture on a legal subject written in cynghanedd?
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Thank you Hywel for the article. I remember him well in Aber. If my memory serves me he was treasurer of the Ysgol Feithrin held at the Urdd Headquarters in Llanbadard Road. In the 60s my mother was the teacher and he would call at our home from time to time with a small cheque. I taught his daughter at the Ysgol Gymraeg in Aber and I remember his French wife well. One question to Hywel: Beth am gyfeiriad i’r erthygl wallus am hanes Adran y Gyfraith yn Aber? Diolch i Hywel am olrhan sefydlu Pantycelyn yn neuadd Gymraeg.. Roedd… Read more »
Strange petty behaviour from people we think would be above it, but the writer comes out of it very well indeed. Good!
I was introduced to this behaviour in the bio from Anthony Burgess, so not shocked. Waiting for the biography now…….
Diolch i chi am erthygl ddiddorol iawn. Thank you for a very interesting article. I was a child in Ceredigion in the 60/70s (2 year old in the 50s!) and knew Aberystwyth well. I asked my mother about ‘things’ and we had lived opposite the old students union, up by the castle. We soon moved to Penparcau and on my first day at reception/ junior school I discovered a different language called Saesneg! Apparently I was found sniffling in a corner by my new teacher and only cheered up when she spoke to me in Welsh. Later I was told… Read more »