Rees, William [pseud. Gwilym Hiraethog] (18021883), Congregational minister and writer, was born on 8 November 1802 at a farmhouse called Chwibren-isaf, near Llansannan, Denbighshire. The village lies at the foot of a mountain known as Hiraethog, from which Rees took his bardic name. He was the second son of David Rees, a farmer, and his wife, Anne. was his elder brother.
At the age of three William lost the sight of his right eye by smallpox. He received very little formal education and only attended the village school kept by John Jones at Llansannan, during the winter months. From an early age he was employed as a shepherd, but he continued to study in his leisure time. At the age of twenty he devoted himself to Welsh poetry, and under the guidance of Robert ap Dafydd of Cilfach Lwyd, he mastered the rules of Welsh strict-metre poetry, and began writing his own poems. At the Brecon eisteddfod in 1826 he was awarded first prize for a cywydd on the battle of Trafalgar, and at the Denbigh eisteddfod two years later another prize-winning cywydd secured his reputation as a poet of note.
Although Rees's parents had brought him up as a Calvinistic Methodist, he joined the Independents in 1828. A dispute within the local Methodist church following the expulsion of a member, had led to the departure of a handful of the congregation, including Rees. The subsequent establishment of an Independent cause in Llansannan proved a turning point in his career. In 1829 he began to preach, and in 1831 he became pastor of the small Congregational church at Mostyn, Flintshire, where he was ordained on 20 April 1832. In February 1837 he removed to Swan Lane, Denbigh, where he established himself as a popular Welsh preacher. In May 1843 he succeeded his close friend William Williams of Wern (17811840) at the Tabernacle Church, Great Crosshall Street, Liverpool. In 1853 he moved, with part of his congregation, to Salem Chapel, Brownlow Hill, and in 1867 this chapel was elaborately rebuilt in Grove Street.
Rees held ministerial office in Liverpool for thirty-two years, during which he played a leading role in political and educational movements in the city. But he exercised a still more powerful influence on the politics, poetry, and literature of Wales. His eloquence made him one of the greatest Welsh preachers and popular lecturers of his time. In politics he was a staunch Liberal and in 1843 he established, with John Jones, of Castle Street, Liverpool, the first successful Welsh Liberal newspaper, Yr Amserau, which he edited until 1853. Its success was largely due to the series of letters written by him in the dialect of his home county under the cognomen of Yr Hen Ffarmwr (the Old Farmer). The letters dealt with current political and religious issues, such as the corn laws and education. Although inspired by English radicalism, the ideas espoused in Yr Amserau (amalgamated in 1859 with Y Faner) contributed greatly towards the awakening of a distinctly Welsh, radical movement, providing an important mouthpiece for the exponents of Liberal politics. Rees was a great supporter of Italian and Hungarian nationalist causes and corresponded for some time with Mazzini. He also strongly advocated the abolition of slavery in his book, Aelwyd f'ewythr Robert (1853). As a prominent public orator and lecturer, he was frequently given the opportunity to speak publicly on a wide range of political, religious, literary, and scientific subjects. Rees's literary versatility was remarkable: in prose he appeared as biographer, novelist, journalist, religious writer, and dramatist. As a poet and hymn writer his works were voluminous: several collections, in both free and strict metre, were published. His longest poetic publication was an epic poem, called Emmanuel, published in two volumes (1861, 1867). His religious works include a catechism, Y cyfarwyddwr (1833), and several expositions and commentaries. The extent of his reputation was displayed in 1866, when both Marietta University, Ohio, and Amherst College, Massachusetts, honoured him with DD degrees.
Rees married Ann Edwards of Waunddeilen, Nantglyn, in 1823; she died in February 1874 and the following year Rees retired from the ministry and settled with one of his daughters at Chester. Active to the last he continued to write and, on occasion, preach. He was awarded the first medal of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion in 1882, but he did not live to receive it formally. He died on 8 November 1883 at Chester, and was buried in Smithdown Road cemetery, Liverpool, on 13 November.
R. A. Johnson, rev. Mari A. Williams
E. Rees, Memoir of William Rees Hiraethog, ed. H. E. Lewis (1915) · T. Roberts and D. Roberts, Cofiant y Parch. W. Rees (1893) · T. Rees and J. Thomas, Hanes eglwysi annibynol Cymru, 5 (1891) · DWB · D. Adams, The Revd W. Rees, Welsh religious leaders in the Victorian era, ed. J. Vyrnwy Morgan (1905) · T. E. Davies, Cyfraniad William Rees (Gwilym Hiraethog) i Fywyd a Llen ei Gyfnod, MA diss., U. Wales, 1931 · Cadran, Hiraethog, Y Geninen, 25 (1907), 2636 · Y Gwyddoniadur, 2nd edn (1896) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1884)
NL Wales, letters and papers
U. Lpool L., Sydney Jones Library, notebooks | NL Wales, Daniel MSS
NL Wales, letters to Lewis Edwards
NL Wales, W. J. Gruffydd MSS
NL Wales, NLW MSS
NL Wales, letters to Ebenezer Thomas
H. Hughes, lithograph, 1847, NL Wales · McFarlane & Erskine, etching, c.1875, NL Wales · J. D. Mercier, oils, 1877, U. Wales, Aberystwyth · J. Cochran, engraving (after photograph), NL Wales · Hill, engraving (after photograph), NL Wales · G. J. Stoddart, engraving (after photograph by G. W. Webster), NL Wales · J. Thomas, photograph, NL Wales · W. Williams, portrait, NL Wales · photograph, repro. in Vyrnwy Morgan, ed., Welsh religious leaders · portraits, repro. in Rees, Memoir of William Rees Hiraethog
Wealth at death
£3597 11s. 4d.: administration, 22 Feb 1884, CGPLA Eng. & Wales