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Wales and the Oxford DNB: writing the biography of a ‘non-historic’ nation

By Chris Williams

 
Friedrich Engels once dismissed the Welsh, amongst others, as a ‘non-historic’ people, destined to be absorbed into the grander story of the English nation-state. Much of the subsequent history of Wales has proven him wrong, at least on that point, but carving out a distinct niche for the written history has always been a challenge.

Welsh historians have traditionally hovered between either going their own way (we’ve had a respectable journal—The Welsh History Review—for more than half a century, and a monograph series—Studies in Welsh History—for over thirty years) and running the risk of ghettoization, or trying to gain an audience for their work in British or European contexts and occasionally being patronized as ‘parochial’.

Historical biography has presented similar difficulties. To many Welsh scholars the original, Victorian edition of the Dictionary of National Biography reeked of the English establishment, and given that most were either socialists or Welsh nationalists (or both) this was not something to be welcomed.

The rival Bywgraffiadur Cymreig/Dictionary of Welsh Biography (first published in 1953) was a never fully satisfactory alternative—only once being brought up to date (from 1940 to 1970, in 2001). Its great strengths were its entries on male preachers and littérateurs. Women, trade unionists, even businessmen, were few and far between. Aneurin Bevan is alleged to have stated that ‘biography is fiction’ and, allegedly or not, many agreed with him.

More recently, however, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography  has been offering biographers manqués opportunities to refine their craft, and has aimed to broaden the remit of the old DNB, not least through embracing the explosion of interest in social and gender history.

The latest Oxford DNB update looks to Wales with the addition of new entries on 45 men and women who’ve shaped modern Welsh history, and who join more than 3200 others already in the dictionary with a close association with Wales. As an advisory editor for this update I was excited to help frame the selection of these 45 individuals and fascinated to discuss, with ODNB staff and my fellow adviser Professor Gareth Williams (no relation—there are a lot of us Williamses) who should (or should not) go in to the new edition. It was a horizon-expanding experience—I guess a good dozen of those who have been included were people I was but dimly aware of, if at all.

I wrote two entries myself, on the cartoonist J. M. Staniforth (1863-1921) and on the military hero, landowner, and politician Godfrey Charles Morgan, Viscount Tredegar (1831-1913). In the process I discovered a connection between the two—Staniforth had illustrated a volume on The Wit and Wisdom of Lord Tredegar (the Encyclopedia of Wales suggests, rather unfairly, that this proved Tredegar ‘was not over-endowed with either’).

But much of my role consisted of reading and reviewing the entries supplied by others. In doing that it became evident that the picture of Welsh society being prosopographically generated was much more varied than the conventional stereotypes of politicians, Nonconformists, and rugby heroes.

Politicians there are, of course, but the archetypal career trajectory of Ness Edwards (1897-1968: miner, trade union leader, Labour MP, and minister under Clement Attlee) can be counterbalanced by that of Rose Davies (1882-1958), teacher and first woman member (and later chairman) of Glamorgan County Council, mother to five and a pioneer in areas of maternity, birth control, and education.

No rugby players feature in this new update, though we did include the famous sports writer J. B. G. Thomas (1917-97) who reported on the game. He is complemented by two very different Welsh sporting heroes: Arthur Linton (1868-96) and Jimmy Michael (1875-1904; pictured above)—two Aberaman boys from neighbouring streets who became world-class cyclists in the 1890s, both of whom died in their late twenties amidst rumours of performance-enhancing drugs.

The representation of Wales’s musical heritage is a similar mix of the standard and the unorthodox. Dan Davies (1859-1930) acquired a military aura as the ‘Wellington of choral singing’ for his leadership of champion choirs in Merthyr and Dowlais. A very different performer was Donald Peers (1909-73), whose ‘In a Shady Nook by a Babbling Brook’ brought him fame in the 1940s (and is today on YouTube).

But if I wished to pick just one subject whose life reminds us of the essential difference of the past, and of how we, as professional historians, too easily simplify and package our history for ease of understanding and consumption, then it would be ‘Owen Rhoscomyl’ (1863-1919).

Born as Robert Scowfield Mills in Lancashire, his connection with Wales was the romantic tales he was told as a child by his maternal grandmother who hailed from Flintshire. After early years as a cowboy and prospector in the USA he enjoyed a sojourn in the ranks of the Royal Dragoons before settling in Conwy in the 1890s.

Mills adopted Wales, travelling to fight in South Africa in 1899 under the Cymricized alias Arthur Owen Vaughan. He won a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and married a Boer woman whose relatives were fighting the British, before returning to Wales to write history and act as impresario of the National Pageant of Wales in 1909.

The First World War saw him serve with the Northumberland Fusiliers and be awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He died in London in 1919 but was buried in Rhyl, a virtual pauper. The story of this fascinating life, which usurps normal expectations of national allegiance and Welsh national characteristics, is told by Professor John S. Ellis of the University of Michigan (Flint). Biography can sometimes be better than fiction.

Chris Williams is Professor of Welsh History at Swansea University, and is one of the advisory editors who worked on this ODNB update. The latest update to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography adds over 100 new biographies between the 11th and 20th centuries, including notable figures in modern Welsh history.

Image credit: Rhondda Cynon Taf Libraries photographic archives

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