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Edwards, Sir Owen Morganlocked

(1858–1920)
  • Gareth Elwyn Jones

Sir Owen Morgan Edwards (1858–1920)

by Bassano, 1916

Edwards, Sir Owen Morgan (1858–1920), literary scholar and educationist, was born on 26 December 1858 at Coed y Pry, Llanuwchllyn, Merioneth. He was the eldest of four sons of Owen Edwards, a tenant farmer, and Elizabeth (Beti), née Jones, a farmer's daughter. The family's material circumstances were poor but the home, chapel, and community environments were rich in their literary and spiritual impact. Edwards wrote later in lyrical terms of the beauty of the locality and his father's influence in initiating him into the lore of the countryside. He always found inspiration and consolation in nature. Welsh was the language of the home, and its religion Calvinistic Methodist, yet from about the age of nine Edwards attended the local Anglican (National Society) school, Ysgol y Llan. His experience of being forced to speak nothing but English, and consequent punishments when he lapsed, have become part of Welsh folklore. After a change of teacher he became a pupil teacher at the school. In 1874 he went to the grammar school in Bala for two terms, and thence to the theological college in Bala in 1875. Here he devoted himself to mastering a wide range of English literature in a punishing regime of work which included widespread preaching engagements. In 1880 Edwards was received into the ministry of the Calvinistic Methodist church, though with misgivings. In the same year he entered the University College at Aberystwyth. His studies included English literature, history, philosophy, and modern languages, and he became convinced of the centrality of the Welsh language in the life of the nation. The puritan ethic of extreme hard work continued to drive his subsequent studies for a London degree. He graduated with a pass degree in 1883.

In 1883 Edwards left Wales, not to return professionally for nearly a quarter of a century. He went first to Glasgow University (1883–4) where he made a reputation as a literary scholar. At the second attempt he entered Balliol College, Oxford, in the autumn of 1884, and was elected to a Brackenbury scholarship. Benjamin Jowett regarded him as the outstanding Welshman in the university. He won the Stanhope (1886), Lothian (1887), and Arnold (1888) prizes and in 1887 he graduated with first class honours in history. In 1887 and 1888 he travelled widely in Europe. In 1888 he decided not to enter the regular ministry and taught for several Oxford colleges. Having failed to win a fellowship of All Souls, he was elected to a fellowship in history at Lincoln College, Oxford, in 1889.

In 1897 Edwards applied for the post of chief inspector of schools in Wales under the Central Welsh Board, the body responsible for the new intermediate schools established under the 1889 Intermediate Education Act. The significance of his failure to be appointed, both for himself and for Welsh education, was much exaggerated subsequently. His committee work included a report to the committee of the privy council on education in 1892 which advocated the establishment of a University of Wales, and he became the first warden of the university's Guild of Graduates. In 1899, while still a fellow of Lincoln College, he succeeded Tom Ellis as Liberal MP for Merioneth but resigned the seat in 1900, having made little impact. In 1907 he returned to Wales as chief inspector of schools under the newly created Welsh department of the Board of Education. In this post he had the opportunity (within the considerable constraints imposed by the board's officials and by examining systems, as well as by the rivalry of the Central Welsh Board) to develop his philosophy of education. He had a Wordsworthian affinity with the natural environment and adapted Ruskin's belief in the moral dimension of craft labour to a Welsh context. This led him to attempt to counteract the lack of imaginative teaching and the excessive emphasis on examinations in the schools of Wales. He stressed the importance of Welsh language, history, and geography, as well as the centrality of craft subjects, to individuals and communities. He was one of the few original thinkers in the history of state education in Wales, linking a belief in child-centred education to the special circumstances of Wales.

Edwards was elected to an honorary fellowship of Lincoln College in 1908. From 1914 he strongly supported the war effort in his journals and from 1916 took an active part in recruiting soldiers from Merioneth. In the same year he was appointed to the royal commission on university education in Wales. He was knighted in 1916.

Edwards's cultural Welsh nationalism developed in the 1880s. In 1886 he and six other distinguished Welsh scholars founded the Dafydd ap Gwilym Society in Oxford to foster the language and culture of Wales. His own mission to provide reading material in limpid, accessible, elegant Welsh for the children and his idealized common folk or ‘gwerin’ of Wales (who, for him, were the backbone of the nation) began with books recording his continental journeys in 1887 and 1888. These constituted the early part of a phenomenal literary output, as author and editor, in which Edwards's beautifully crafted Welsh gave fresh impetus and appeal to the language which was central to his mission to counteract the Anglicization of Wales. In 1889 he became joint editor of Cymru Fydd, giving it a more literary emphasis in contrast to its previously political bent, but the journal ceased publication in 1890. He sought to foster the traditions, history, and literature of Wales for all classes and religious affiliations in a monthly journal, Cymru, which he founded in 1891 and edited until his death. In 1892 this journal was complemented by Cymru'r Plant, a monthly for the children of Wales, which had similar objectives. Its fare of illustrations, stories, legends, practical information, nature study, science, and history provided a variety of secular material for children in Welsh for the first time. An English-language periodical, Wales, launched in 1894, lasted only three years. The following year he launched the literary quarterly Y Llenor, published until 1898. In 1897 he began publishing another monthly, Heddyw, concerned with current issues in Wales, but it survived less than a year.

In the same decade Edwards produced a prodigious output of books, including the famous Cartrefi Cymru (1896). This unrelenting schedule continued after 1900, starting with the Cyfres y Fil series which aimed to make the Welsh classics in poetry and prose accessible to the ordinary reader, and a clutch of books arising from childhood memories and his journeys around Wales. His historical approach was, similarly, to eulogize the peasantry of Wales, as in his Wales, published in 1901.

In 1891 Edwards married Ellen (Elin) Davies, daughter of Evan Davies, a Llanuwchllyn farmer. Her death in April 1919 provoked grief and guilt in her widower, who had always been prone to sporadic bouts of ill health. He died at Neuadd Wen, Llanuwchllyn, Merioneth, on 16 May 1920. His first son, Owen ab Owen, born in 1892, died at the age of five. In 1895 his second son, Ifan ab Owen Edwards (1895–1970), eventual founder of the Welsh youth movement, Urdd Gobaith Cymru, was born, and in 1898 a daughter, Hâf (d. 1965), who married Sir David Hughes Parry.

Sources

  • H. W. Davies, O. M. Edwards (1988)
  • H. W. Davies, ed., Llythyrau Syr O. M. Edwards ac Elin Edwards, 1887–1920 (1991)
  • H. Davies, ‘Divisions’, Planet, 76 (1989), 76–81
  • G. E. Jones, ‘Those who can, teach’, Planet, 76 (1989), 82–7
  • W. J. Gruffydd, Owen Morgan Edwards: Cofiant, Cyfrol I, 1858–83 (1937)
  • G. E. Jones, Controls and conflicts in Welsh secondary education, 1889–1944 (1982)
  • J. L. Williams, Owen Morgan Edwards, 1858–1920 (1959)
  • G. A. Jones, Bywyd a gwaith Owen Morgan Edwards, 1858–1920 (1958)
  • R. G. Jones, Owen M. Edwards (1962)
  • E. G. Millward, ‘O. M. Edwards’, Y traddodiad rhyddiaith yn yr ugeinfed ganrif, ed. G. Bowen (1976)
  • W. L. Lloyd, ‘Owen M. Edwards (1858–1920)’, Pioneers of Welsh education (1964)
  • J. G. Williams, The University of Wales, 1893–1939 (1997)

Archives

  • NL Wales, literary papers and collections; papers
  • NL Wales, letters
  • NL Wales, letters to D. R. Daniels
  • NL Wales, letters to Davies family, Ruabon
  • NL Wales, letters to I. T. Davies
  • NL Wales, letters to T. E. Ellis
  • NL Wales, letters incl. to Annie Hughes-Griffiths and to Peter Hughes-Griffiths
  • NL Wales, corresp. with Sir John Herbert Lewis
  • NL Wales, letters to Owen Griffith Owen (Alafon)
  • NL Wales, letters to Evan Rees (Dyfed)
  • U. Lpool, letters to Richard Griffith

Likenesses

  • Bassano, photograph, 1916, NPG [see illus.]
  • portrait, NL Wales

Wealth at Death

£17,512 0s. 8d.: administration with will, 12 Aug 1920, CGPLA Eng. & Wales