A special conference is taking place today in Aberystwyth to celebrate the 90th birthday of a much loved historian, Ieuan Gwynedd Jones. Organised by Llafur, the Welsh People’s History Society, the conference at the National Library is focusing on Victorian Wales, the period that Professor Jones made his own.
Professor Geraint H. Jenkins, former Director of the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at Aberystwyth, will be delivering an appreciation of Ieuan Gwynedd Jones’s life and work, and there will be other lectures on different aspects of Victorian Wales. Ryland Wallace will be talking on Mere Slave Stuff: the Emancipation of Women in Victorian Wales; Russell Davies will consider The Happiness, Humour and Sexuality of the Welsh in the Age of Victoria; Paul O’Leary will address The Last Invasion of Wales: the Salvation Army and Street Religion in the 1870s and 1880s; while Richard Ireland’s topic is White Gloves and Blue Books: Community and Crime in 19th Century Wales.
Ieuan Gwynedd Jones was the first President of Llafur, which was founded in either 1970 or 1971, nobody seems quite sure of the precise date. In those days it was known as the Welsh Labour History Society and was remarkable for having such a high involvement of active trade unionists, especially from the South Wales NUM. Ieuan Gwynedd Jones did a great deal to inspire and nurture a new generation of historians who put Llafur on the map and contributed enormously to steering Wales through the turbulent years of the last quarter of the 20th Century.
They include Professor Merfyn Jones, now Vice Chancellor of Bangor University; Professor Hywel Francis, now MP for Aberafan; Sir Deian Hopkin, Vice Chancellor of London South Bank University 2001-09 and currently the chair of the Westminster Government’s Higher Education Engagement Board; Kim Howells who has just retired as MP for Pontypridd; John Davies, author of the Penguin Hanes Cymru /History of Wales; Professor Dai Smith, now chair of the Arts Council of Wales; and our own Peter Stead, cultural historian and Agenda columnist.
All were very much influenced by the cultured and scholarly but extremely modest Ieuan Gwynedd Jones who had a meticulous approach to research. He was born in the Rhondda in 1920, the son of a miner and a nurse, but shortly afterwards the family moved to Pyle and Ieuan later attended Bridgend Grammar School. However, his father became unemployed forcing Ieuan to leave school at 14 when he joined the merchant navy. After a few years illness forced him to find work on land, as a hospital nurse. When the Second World War broke out he became a railway signalman.
It was only after the war that as a mature student Ieaun Gwynedd Jones was able to begin an academic career. He gained entry to Swansea University where he took a first class degree and later an MA, transferring to Peterhouse College, Cambridge to take his PhD. In this period he was focusing on early modern history, studying the parliamentary history of Wales in the 17th Century.
In 1954 he returned to Swansea as a research fellow and, under the tutelage of the influential head of history in the University, the late Professor Glanmor Williams, he turned his attention to the life and politics of 19th Century Wales in which he became an acknowledged authority. He was promoted to lecturer in 1957 and then, in 1969, left to become the Sir John Williams Professor of Welsh History at Aberystwyth until his retirement in 1984. His great friend Glanmor Williams, who had encouraged him in this ambition, later wrote that his leaving Swansea “provoked a profound sense of loss and dismay among his colleagues”.
There is no ‘big book’ associated with Ieuan Gwynedd Jones’s career, unless you count Mid Victorian Wales: The Observers and the Observed (1992) which examines aspects of social change in Wales in the middle decades of the 19th Century. The central theme is how the Welsh people were perceived by others, how they saw themselves, and the cultural and political implications of these contrasting views. Central to its argument is the clash over the notorious ‘Blue Books’ Education Inquiry report of 1847, Brad y Llyfrau Gleision, which resulted in a significant politicisation of the people of Wales.
Other publications include The Religious Census of 1851 (two volumes, 1976 and 1981) and a collection of essays, Explorations and Explanations (1981). Generally Ieuan Gwynedd Jones’s contribution came in a voluminous number of essays and contributions to collections that have added immensely to our understanding of the background to modern Wales. His influence was demonstrated by the appearance in 1988 of the collection dedicated to him Politics and Society in Wales 1840-1922. Edited by Geraint H. Jenkins and J. Beverley Smith, the contributors include Glanmor Williams, John Davies, Paul O’Leary, Sian Rhiannon Williams, Christopher B. Turner, Russell Davies, Kenneth O. Morgan, Peter Stead, Neil Evans, Deian Hopkin and Philip Henry Jones. The list is demonstration in itself of the immense influence Ieuan Gwynedd Jones has wielded over historical scholarship in Wales during the past half century.