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Iolo Morganwg and the Rees family of Gelligron

W J Phillips, National Library of Wales journal. 1965, Winter Volume XIV/2.

Extracted onto the pages of GENUKI with the kind permission of the National Library of Wales

This is a complete extract of this article by Gareth Hicks  (Feb 2003)


It was inevitable that the remarkable Rees family of Gelligron near Pontardawe with their background of religious unorthodoxy, their avid interest in Welsh scholarship and their munificence, should attract Iolo Morganwg into their sphere of acquaintances. An examination of the relationship between the bard and the members of this family will reveal much regarding the character of Iolo himself, and perhaps explain how his contemporaries were misled by his many deceptions and his spurious claims to scholarship.

Josiah Rees was the second son of the Rev. Owen Rees of Clun-pentan near Llandovery and Mary his wife. Owen Rees was ordained minister to a congregation of Protestant Dissenters at Pentre Ty Gwyn on 9 March 1742. Morgan Williams' diary records the baptism of Owen Rees' first son on 22 July 1743, with a note that the child 'troubled with ye gripes' 1  died within a month. The same diarist also records the birth of Josiah Rees on 2 October 1744. In 1756 Owen Rees became a minister to the dissenters meeting at Hen Dy Cwrdd, Aberdare, and his son Josiah received his early education at Solomon Harries' school in Swansea and then proceeded to the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen. In 1767, he was ordained minister of Gelli-onnen, a chapel standing on the bare moorland above Pontardawe and he took up residence at Gelli-gron. During his ministry, 1767-1804, he led his flock at Gellionnen through the stages of Arminianism to Arianism and eventually to Unitarianism. This religious unorthodoxy in itself would ultimately have brought Josiah Rees into contact with Iolo Morganwg, but even before the foundation of the Unitarian Society, we can surmise, that Josiah Rees' literary and antiquarian interests had attracted the attention of Iolo.

It is highly probable that Josiah Rees was acquainted with many manuscript collectors in South Wales, and it is almost certain that he was friendly with Morgan Llywelyn of Neath, the possessor of a vast collection seen by Iolo in 1770. Furthermore, it is more than likely that the 'curious collection' of manuscripts known to the editor of the Cambrian Register 2  and in the possession of Josiah Rees, was in fact Morgan Llywelyn's collection acquired by Josiah Rees on the collector's death in 1777. This affinity of interest would possibly have drawn Iolo and Josiah Rees together, but it is the launching of the first serious attempt at publishing a Welsh magazine 'Trysorfa Gwybodaeth' or 'Eurgrawn Cymraeg' which provides us with real documentary evidence of any contact between them. The first issue of this magazine appeared in 1770, and the part played by Josiah Rees in its publication has until the last few years been a matter of controversy. It is not necessary here......

............ to discuss the attempts to ascribe the editorship of the magazine to Peter Williams, but merely to mention that in the collection of Mr. Iolo Aneurin Williams 3  there is a letter sent by Josiah Rees to Iolo Morganwg thanking him for some 'englynion' to be published in the 'Eurgrawn'. Professor G. J. Williams saw in this ample evidence to support the view that Josiah Rees was the actual editor. 4

Although there is no direct evidence, it may be assumed that Iolo during his early peregrinations would have chosen to call at Gelligron. Towards the beginning of the last century, however, the chapel at Gellionnen became an important centre of Unitarianism in South Wales. In October 1802, it was chosen as the venue for a meeting to discuss proposals for the establishment of an Unitarian Society in South Wales. Josiah Rees was instrumental in calling this meeting, and he urged David Davies of Neath to ensure that Iolo Morganwg would be present. In a letter of invitation to Iolo, Davies indicates that Josiah Rees is not convinced of the wisdom of publishing proposals for the establishment of such a Society.

'He (J.R.) is of the opinion that it is by no means advisable to publish proposals of the establishment of an Unitarian Society. But he will be happy to see you and as many friends of rational religion as can attend the meeting'. 5

Obviously Josiah Rees' doubts and fears were allayed during the course of this meeting, and he, like so many of his contemporaries, succumbed to the arguments of Iolo Morganwg, and Proposals for the establishment of the Society were published containing the names of the Rees family. 6

After Josiah Rees' death in 1804, his son Thomas did, for a brief period, accept the ministry at Gellionnen, and the chapel still retained an important place in the development of Unitarianism in South Wales. In 1805 David Davies again writes to Iolo, whom he regards as being the founder of the Unitarian Society, and appeals to him to attend important meetings at Gelligron and at Gellionnen.

'Next Wednesday and Thursday there is a meeting of ministers to be holden at Gellionnen. It is the sincere wish and entreaty of Mr. Rees as well as myself and all your brethren that you attend on Thursday at least, as the Committee meet at Gelligron on that day. We cannot dispense with your Patronage, we claim it from you as our father.' 7

Although it is clear that Iolo Morganwg and Josiah Rees had a community of interest, the evidence relating to this affinity is on the whole scanty. There is ample evidence, however, that the ties of friendship were retained and strengthened by Josiah Rees' sons. Details of the Rees family are to be secured in the copious album compiled by Richard Rees of Alltycham, 8 and also in the Gellionnen Register at...............

................. the Public Records Office. By his first wife Catherine, Josiah Rees had one daughter, and by his second wife Mary, the daughter of Thomas Jones of Pen-y-glog, Carmarthen, ten children. His sons exhibited in their lives many of the remarkable qualities of their father, but we are primarily concerned with the relationship between three of these, Owen, Thomas and Richard, and Iolo Morganwg.

Owen Rees was born in 1770, and while in his early twenties was apprenticed to William Browne, a bookseller of Bristol. In 1795, 'at the special solicitation of ... Thomas Norton Longman Esq.'   9  he moved to London. Thomas Longman was an eminent bookseller and publisher of Paternoster Row, and intent upon enlarging his business he took in Rees as a partner in 1799. 10  In the same year, they acquired the firm of Joseph Cottle in Bristol, and this is especially interesting because Cottle had in 1798 published the Lyrical Ballads of Coleridge and Wordsworth. At the time this was considered a worthless asset, and the copyright was restored to Cottle, who in turn presented it to Wordsworth. This incident must have brought the partners into contact with the poets, and in 1800, Coleridge submits to the firm proposals for the publication of Wallenstein and Wordsworth entrusts to them the publication of his own Lyrical Ballads'. Southey also came to Paternoster Row and arranged for the partners to publish Thalaba and the Destroyer and other works followed including Madoc. In 1802, the firm assumed part responsibility for the influential Edinburgh Review, and Sir Walter Scott also comes within the compass of the firm's activities. In the 1820 edition of the Lay of the Last Minstrel an account is given of Owen Rees' visit to Scotland to conclude terms for its publication. The partners also paid Thomas Moore 3,000 for the publication rights of Lalla Rookh and also published some works by Byron.

Owen Rees was, therefore, acquainted with many of the most prominent literary figures of the metropolis, and his house became the meeting place for many of these persons. During his stays in London, Iolo Morganwg was another frequent visitor to Paternoster Row. Owen Rees describes his impact upon this circle:

'He frequented a literary meeting which was held in our house on Saturday evenings, and he was the wonder of every one who conversed with him, by the acuteness of his observations; and some literary gentlemen of considerable reputation invited him to their houses, particularly the late elegant minded Mr. George Ellis, Editor of the Specimens of the Old British Poets and Romances, and the friend of Mr. Canning'. 11

Is it too much to conjecture that Iolo became acquainted with Southey, a friend of Owen Rees, at such a meeting, and so earn a mention in the poem 'Madoc'.

The firm of Longman and Rees contributed much to the London Welsh Society of the day, and it was responsible for the publication ....................

.................. of the Myvyrian Archaiology, and William Owen Pughe's Dictionary. The publication of the Myvyrian proved to be a fiasco, and the firm suffered a financial loss as a result. Dr. John Jones attributed the failure thus:

'The avarice of the projector, however, was too great, and the scheme proved abortive for by advertising the work at one guinea per volume, a price too exorbitant to meet with purchasers, the eyes of the trade were opened ... and with the exception of eight or ten copies, the whole of the impression was laid to rot in the warehouses of Longman and Rees.' 12

This failure had a profound effect on the relationship between Iolo and Owain Myfyr, and he now complains bitterly of not having been adequately recompensed for his labours in connection with the Myvyrian. In a fit of pique he also attacks the methods of research used by his fellow labourer William Owen Pughe, and he bitterly opposes Pughe's insistence on including the 'absurd fables of the darker ages which are obviously falsehoods of the darkest hue ... such are the fictions of Geoffrey of Monmouth'. 13 An account of the quarrel is given in a letter written by Thomas Rees to John Britton.

'The Bard and Owen Pughe were at one time very good friends especially in their early alliance with Owen Jones in collecting for publication the Ancient Welsh Manuscripts . . . But - --some disagreement took place during the process of printing and he complains; I know not how justly of not having been remunerated for his services. His disagreement with Owen Pughe - --of whom and Owen Jones, he speaks with respect and gratitude in the preface to his poems was, I apprehend wholly of a literary character . . . They differed first in the selection of the documents which they would print. The scrupulous Bard of Glamorgan objected to give currency and permanence by means of the press to ancient compositions pretending to be historical, which were in fact almost entirely of fictitious narratives and gross and extravagant fables.' 14

In the light of Professor G. J. Williams' researches we are able to see here the complete duplicity of Iolo's character, and the manner in which he managed to deceive his contemporaries and to portray himself as a scholar of integrity. His castigations of Pughe's orthography were also severe, and in this he was completely justified.

'These eminent Welsh Antiquaries and critics disagreed most widely on the subject of philology ... The most approved standard of Welsh orthography since the discovery of the art of printing, is that adopted in an admirable translation of the Scriptures --- Williams evidently wished this standard to be followed as far as was practicable ... but Owen Pughe --- supported apparently by the patron Owen Jones --- had other views. He formed a system of orthography, but also introduced a great change in the alphabet itself ... These changes greatly displeased Williams.'

Typical of Iolo's polemical outbursts against Pughe, is the following in a letter to Dr. Thomas Rees.

'In his Dictionary and Grammar, he has introduced into a most horrid cacophony of pronunciation, a most barbarous orthography.' 15

The quarrel with Owain Myfyr and Pughe, and the subsequent loss of Myfyr's patronage, added to the penury of Iolo's existence. His mendicity now draws him nearer to the Rees family, and they prove to be generous benefactors. On a number of occasions Iolo had been assisted by the Literary Fund established by David Williams, but in his own inimitable fashion he had succeeded in arousing the ire of the committee administering this fund. Iolo had apparently informed Thomas Longman of his financial straits, and the letter was passed on to Owen Rees. In an effort to placate the members of the committee, Rees wrote to John Britton seeking his assistance.

'Poor Edward Williams, the Welsh Bard, has inclosed this under cover to Mr. Longman. If you can be the means of procuring him any money it will be of real service to him. I believe he formerly gave offence to some of the gentlemen of the Committee, but I am sure they will forget this to do the poor man an act of charity.' 16

The Rees brothers had themselves subscribed generously towards the bard's financial wellbeing. In an effort to offset the effects of the Myvyrian fiasco, Richard Rees had persuaded a number of prominent people including Owen Rees, Thomas Longman and Benjamin Malkin to contribute an annual sum in order to assist Iolo. William Owen Pughe refers to this plan in a letter written to Iolo.

'Mr. Richard Rees told me of the agreeable news of a plan concerted by your friends of which Mr. Malkin was to be the ostensible agent in London; and which before now that they have been able to accomplish; and which will render the old quarrel between Myvyr and you of less consequence.' 17

After some years, however, this scheme fell into abeyance, and Owen Rees writing to J. Britton states:

'Mr. Longman, Dr. Malkin, myself and a few others used to subscribe a guinea a year each of us in aid of his support, but for what reason I know not, this money has not been collected of late.' 18

Owen Rees was also anxious to reconcile the bard with Owen Myfyr, and in a letter to Iolo he states:

'I prevailed upon Mr. Owen Jones to allow me to send you a copy of the third volume of the Archaiology free from any charge.' 19

He adds,

'I am happy to find you are pursuing your literary associations, and I shall be happy to see any portions or wholes you can favour me with ... You may freely command me as to any aid it may be in my power to render you with respect to yourself.' 20

In spite of the generosity of the Rees family towards Iolo Morganwg, on a professional level their dealings with the bard were far from happy. Spurred on by the success of his brother Owen, Richard Rees had come.....................

.................. to London in 1796 and also embarked upon a career in publishing. In 1808, he set up in partnership as a publisher in Plymouth, and the following year he wrote to Iolo Morganwg seeking his cooperation in a grandiose venture for the publication of a 'History of Wales'. In a letter to Iolo he states:

'I have a Wish to publish a History of Wales ---and as I know that you are a living Chronicler of the principality, I am very anxious that you should undertake it and devote the whole or the greatest part of your time to it. From the huge Mass of Papers that you must have by you, I conceive that with the assistance of a person to transcribe for you, which office your son might perform better than anybody else---you might finish it in twelve months.' 21

Rees was prepared to supply all the necessary books of reference such as Hoare's Giraldus, Pennant's works, Speed's maps, and would in addition procure all the engravings. Bearing in mind Iolo's bitter complaints against Owain Myfyr, he deals in detail with the matter of payment for the work. Iolo is asked to fix a price for all his manuscripts, and in addition the publishers promise to pay a certain sum monthly during the course of the work, and the remainder to be paid at its completion. The work was to be published under the patronage of the Prince of Wales and Sir W. W. Wynne, and it is stressed that the author would also have an interest in the publication. Indeed, Richard Rees is so certain that Iolo Morganwg will accept such a remunerative offer as this, that he even sends him a draft copy of the prospectus.

The History of Wales, by Edward Williams B.B.D.

In which (or will be) incorporated the History of the Ancient British Bards - being the result of forty years laborious investigation and study during which the author has consulted upwards of Five Hundred original manuscripts in the Welsh Language --- and has had recourse to all the authentic records relative to Wales that are known to be in existence ---and availed himself of the friendly assistance of the most able Welsh Antiquarians among whom he is proud to mention the name of William Owen Pughe, a gentleman whose knowledge of the Welsh Antiquities (to say nothing of his other qualifications) is not surpassed, if equalled, by any of this kingdom.
The author is a native of Wales and has resided the greater part of his life in the principality. There is no object worthy of the notice of the antiquarian, which he has not repeatedly surveyed and studied, and he trusts that this local knowledge of the Country is such as to enable him to throw a light over the transactions of former ages (and anything else that Mr. Williams can think of).
The work will form three very large Volumes in quarto --- price to subscribers -  and to non subscribers -   and will be embellished with engravings of many various remains of Antiquity, never before published and a new Map of the Principality. Also portraits of eminent individuals and armorial bearings of the principal families.' 22

Such is Rees' enthusiasm for the work, that he offers to pay Iolo's fare by ship to Ilfracombe, and thence by coach to Plymouth. His pre-suppositions were, however, misconceived, for although the original ........................

 .......................... offer was made on 22 August 1809, he is forced to write the following note on the 6th of November in the same year.

'Such a long period has now elapsed since I wrote to you, that I have given up all hopes of hearing from you in answer to my letter. I am totally at a loss to account for my not hearing, unless there was any part that could have given you offence.' 23

Richard Rees had sadly underestimated the extent of the 'bard's' animosity towards Pughe, and also his extreme reluctance to cooperate with any other researchers. It was typical of his nature that he was prepared to show discourtesy to one who had previously assisted him, and to forgo financial gain in order to satisfy and prolong a fit of pique. In a letter, written to Dr. Thomas Rees, he gives his reasons for failing to comply with Richard Rees' request:

'He (R.R.) wrote to me some years ago, wishing to engage me to assist in preparing a complete History of Wales in which he intended that William Owen should have a hand. I am determined never to write in conjunction with any man whatever, and least of all with Wm. Owen, who has (with his hobbyhorsisms), absolutely ruined everything he ever took in hand ... It was the proposal that he should be engaged in the intended History of Wales that made me decline having anything to do with it and to withold my MSS.' 24

The late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century witnessed a prolific outpouring of travel and tourist books. In 1801, Edward Brayley and John Britton formed a partnership and commenced publication of a series entitled The Beauties of England and Wales, or original delineations, topographical, historical and descriptive of each county. Thomas Rees, after a brief period in his father's stead at Gellionnen, followed his brothers to London, and in 1807 he became minister at Newington Green Chapel. He became avidly interested in antiquarian pursuits, and his work earned for him a number of honours, including a fellowship of the Society of Arts and the degree of Ll.D., Glasgow. It is not surprising, therefore, that he was asked to undertake the authorship of the Beauties of South Wales after the death of the Rev. John Evans. Undeterred by his brother's experience a few years earlier, he decided to seek the assistance of Iolo Morganwg, and on 3 October 1813, Taliesin writes to his father 'requesting assistance for Mr. Thos. Rees' work relating to Wales.' 25

A meeting was arranged between lolo and Thomas Rees at the Bear Inn in Cowbridge. After a 'good dinner' the project was discussed, and after Rees had been assured of the 'bard's' full cooperation, each set off to complete his allotted task. Unfortunately, however, the vacillating nature of Iolo's promises was again to become evident, and he failed to provide any worthwhile information. According to Dr. Thomas Rees.

'He had great stores of information relating to the entire subject, but the difficulty I found was to get him into a practical mood to put the information into an available state.' 26

In all fairness to Iolo it must be said, however, that the inordinate haste with which Thomas Rees wished to complete the book in order to meet the demands of the publishers did create a real difficulty. Having had the collection of Theophilus Jones at his disposal for Breconshire, he had anticipated that Iolo could just as easily provide him with material for Glamorganshire. In his reference to Theophilus Jones' work the bard is vitriolic in the extreme, and the following extracts are typical of his polemical outbursts.

... it is a mere mixen of low buffoonery ... low irony, vulgar witticisms, coxcombical sarcasms, and ignorance.' 27

and again

' ... so much ignorance, self conceit and buffoonery never before met together in any attempt at writing history.' 28

In the subsequent correspondence between Iolo Morganwg and Dr. Thomas Rees, the bard appears as a scrupulous and discerning researcher intent on preserving historical accuracy and unwilling to reveal part knowledge. He frequently appeals to Rees to delay the publication of his book in order that he may provide him with authentic information, and he constantly emphasises the magnitude of the work involved in examining the Welsh manuscripts. In a letter to the Rev. D. Davies of Neath, he states:

'Let me know whether Mr. Rees can defer Glamorgan for a while; he may in the meantime go on with Radnorshire ... Camden evinced laborious research and ingenuity in his Brittania, so has Chalmers in his Caledonia, but I fear we shall not in this age, if ever, see such labour, learning, research and general abilities united in a Cambria.' 29

Unable to wait for Iolo's contributions, and under extreme pressure from his publishers, Thomas Rees completed his volume on The Beauties of South Wales and submitted it for publication in 1815. Rees had, apparently, complained of Iolo's failure to furnish him with any information in a letter to David Davies of Neath. This letter was shown to the bard who naturally took umbrage, and penned a long letter to Thomas Rees in reply. In his own defence he states:

'I really intended to furnish you with everything that lay in my power, and for that purpose have been turning over my MSS collections making references to MS and page for the purpose of enabling me with the greatest possible facility to bring relevant passages together of comparing and properly arranging them for you.' 30

He emphasises the fact that these manuscripts are in a state of great confusion, and that the task of arranging them will be an immense one. Criticism is levelled at those who believe that it is an easy matter to extract pertinent historical data at will, and he condemns the authors................

....................of popular tourist books, who, after a brief acquaintance with manuscript material, write what they purport to be the historical truth. Referring to the Beauties he says,

'You certainly never imagined that such accounts or information as you wished to obtain were written in indelible characters on the very face of the County so that you might everywhere have read them as you ran. No Sir, Historical Truth is in its acquisition not to be obtained but with great Labour where nothing has been previously done.'

He attacks the literary pretensions of such writers as Fenton, describing their books as 'husks only fit for feeding a herd of swine' and he exhorts Thomas Rees to refrain from following them and from becoming merely a 'bookseller's hireling'. Once again, Iolo Morganwg seems to emerge as a person dedicated to historical truth and painstaking research, and in all fairness it must be stated that he appears to have undertaken a great deal of work with a view to assisting the author of the Beauties.

'I have been able to collect histories and anecdotes not hitherto known, I have visited remains of antiquity such as Druidical circles, altars (cromlechau), rocking stones etc. I have conceived that such things might have been of some use to you. My idea of your publication 'The Beauties of England and Wales' was that it was to consist of the Beauties (i.e. the most interesting parts) of History, of Topography etc. I know of no other beauties, unless we may make use of such terms as the beauties of imagination, of blind conjecture, of dreaming, in short of mere humbug.'

In another letter to Thomas Rees dated 3 May, 1813, he pursues the same theme,

'I do not include tourists amongst those who have pretended to write Welsh History, it is sufficient for them to give the history of their own travels, and of their own observations and ideas. These things have nothing or very little to do with ancient history.' 31

The failure of Iolo to contribute anything towards the proposed work by Richard Rees and towards Dr. Thomas Rees' book does not appear to have provoked any overt animosity from the Rees family. There appears some subdued criticism in the Beauties, although there is no direct reference to Iolo.

'When I entered upon this work, I felt authorized in calculating upon much aid from various friends in the Principality, whom I knew to well qualified to furnish information, both of a general and local nature, illustrative of the History, Antiquities and Topography of the Country; but my expectations in this respect have in several instances resulted in disappointment.' 32

The brothers seem to have regarded Iolo's inconsistency and vacillation as being unfortunate but inevitable traits in the character of an undoubted genius. Like most of their contemporaries they had implicit faith in his erudition and integrity. While fully aware of his volatile nature and ...................

................... his irascibility, they were so full of admiration for his scholastic prowess, that they regarded these faults as mere peccadilloes. We must not blame them too much for accepting Iolo's theories without question, for in his relations with the Rees family it is evident that his supreme plausibility was an important factor in his genius for deception. In his letters he emerges as a sedulous researcher inveighing against the lackadaisical methods adopted by the historians of his day, and yet a man prone to fits of pique, jealousy and pettiness. An intellectual schizophrenic projecting an image of integrity while indulging in fantasies and purveying these as truth to his gullible contemporaries. Some, of course, doubted the veracity of his work e.g., Edward Davies, author of the Mythology and Rites of the British Druids (1809), but in his letters to the Rees family we see how Iolo Morganwg was able to hoax a society voracious for scholarship.

W. J. PHILLIPS

Aberystwyth              

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