"Two He-Bears in a Cage": Henry Lewis and Saunders Lewis at Swansea, 1921-1937
Author: Prys Morgan
It seemed to start so well; it could have turned out so differently. The young professor of Welsh at Swansea, Henry Lewis (1889-1968), only appointed in 1921, seemed a perfect choice, since he was a native of Ynystawe, of a typical Welsh Nonconformist Radical family, who would be likely to embed the new College into the local community. He was primarily a linguistic scholar, a Celtic philologist with a special interest in Welsh syntax, and a graduate of Cardiff, where, after gallant service during the Great War, he returned as a lecturer in Celtic from 1918. There he came under the influence of his professor, W.J. Gruffydd, who replaced the ‘Celtic’ of the title of his department to ‘Welsh’, and pioneered a combined course of language with the new element of literature. Henry in Swansea followed the then revolutionary example of Gruffydd in delivering all lectures in Welsh. Henry quickly realised in Swansea that, running the department single-handed, he would need a literary specialist, and thought he had found the perfect candidate in the young Saunders Lewis (1893-1985), who, although born in Wallasey, was brought up in what was in fact a large Welsh-speaking community on the Wirral and Merseyside. He studied English at Liverpool University from 1911 to 1914, then served in the Somme and Salonika in the Great War, returning to Liverpool to complete his studies under Oliver Elton and Lascelles Abercrombie in 1919 to 1920, gaining a first in English. He was already known to have a passion for Welsh literature, since he had been researching during 1920 and 1921 at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Henry approached Saunders, who was then working as a librarian in Bridgend, persuading him to try for the post in Swansea’s Welsh department. He did not heed the warning signs until it was too late. As Saunders would have said, cherchez la femme.
Saunders Lewis, when a student, had fallen in love with fellow-student Margaret Gilcriest. She came from a Liverpool Protestant Irish family, but had become an enthusiast for Irish nationalism, and converted to Roman Catholicism. After gaining a degree in Geography at Liverpool in 1914, she became a geography teacher in Workington. Saunders, deeply moved and attracted by her new beliefs, had to hide them from his own family, who were from the upper crust of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism. His father Lodwig Lewis (from Gorslas, Carmarthenshire) was a Calvinist minister in Wallasey, Cheshire, before moving to minister the Calvinist chapel of Crug Glas (Greenhill) just north of Swansea High Street Station. Saunders was given his name in fact after Dr David Saunders, a Swansea Calvinist minister. As far as Henry Lewis (a staunch Welsh Congregationalist deacon and Sunday School teacher at Hebron Chapel, Clydach) was concerned, Saunders was probably as much of a nonconformist as himself, and so all would be well. Saunders wrote to Margaret ‘My Prof is very decent and leaves me free to arrange the literature course much as I please, as he does all the philology; so it’s a happy arrangement. He knows no literature, I no philology – Jack Sprat and his wife’. Saunders admitted to her that he nearly failed to get the Swansea job because he had openly shown sympathy for Sinn Fein at the appointment board. ‘At least I promise you that students who pass through my classes will be soundly inoculated with good Sinn Fein principles! Did I tell you that at my interview I nearly lost the post because of that?’ At first, all went swimmingly, and Saunders reported to Margaret about Henry: ‘As for my own professor, he treats me with real kindness, and we are great friends. It was he who first asked me to come here’.
In some ways, the two men had a good deal in common. Saunders had been in the South Wales Borderers, Henry in the Welsh Guards and then the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and had been wounded. Both were vigorous ‘chalk and talk’ lecturers, and Saunders dutifully followed Henry’s example of taking extra-mural classes. Henry’s lectures to his class at Brynaman formed the basis for his guide to the development of the Welsh language (Datblygiad yr Iaith Gymraeg, 1931). Henry had an unshakeable belief in the duty of university staff to go to extension classes to teach Y Werin (the common folk), and later became chairman of Coleg Harlech, the Welsh adult education college. Saunders even in his first months in Swansea tried out his Sinn Fein ideas in talks to organizations such as the Rotary Club. All such talks were eagerly reported in the local press, and he found himself criticized for inciting young people to disloyalty to the Crown. The public also noted that he joined protest groups to prevent the drowning of the Ceiriog Valley to create a reservoir for the Borough of Warrington. At the National Eisteddfod in Mold in 1923, Saunders gave a talk to a proto-nationalist society Cymdeithas y Tair G in which he argued for the creation of a paramilitary force of Welsh volunteers on the Irish model. It was attended by Henry Lewis and Ernest Hughes, Swansea’s professor of history. The Western Mail of 15 August attacked University College Swansea for permitting a member of staff to preach such disloyal opinions - Henry must have begun to wonder what sort of firebrand he had appointed. By October 1923 Saunders was finding himself attacked for his sympathy for the Irish and by implication his interest in Catholicism. The South Wales Daily News called Saunders a Welsh Mussolini. He complained to Margaret that he was in Swansea in ‘the middle of Philistine Nonconformity’, and felt able to admit to her that, as far as he was concerned, Labour was the very Devil, because in its sweep right across south Wales, it was destroying language, nationality and traditions; ‘I look on this part as lost to Welsh civilization’. He feared that his Catholic wife-to-be would not be acceptable in Swansea, a place he admitted to her he did not really like, and thought he might try for another job, say, in Exeter, where he would be free to be himself. His Calvinist father and aunt (living now in Hanover Street, Swansea) were eventually forced to accept the state of affairs, and on 31 July 1924 Saunders and Margaret were married in the Catholic Church at Workington, and the young couple found an agreeable house in, St Peter’s Road, Newton in the Mumbles. Married life did not have the effect of reining in Saunders’s headstrong spirit, but made him ever bolder in turning his back on the respectable Victorian middle-class Nonconformist culture of his pre-war childhood and youth.
The National Eisteddfod revisited the north in August 1925 and it was in Pwllheli that Saunders and some close friends founded Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru (now Plaid Cymru), and by 1926 was elected its President, and found himself appointed the editor of its journal Y Ddraig Goch. Working for the new party, writing a great deal of articles for the paper and going around addressing public meetings took up an inordinate amount of Saunders’ time. By this time, Henry had grown more and more impatient with his young protégé, and suspicious of his activities. The gulf between them grew wider, although it should be recalled that the young Henry while a young soldier, had published an article in the journal Y Beirniad in 1916 calling for a new Welsh Movement after the war should end, with the Welsh language at its heart.
While Saunders sprang from a fairly comfortable middle-class urban background, had been to a private school, had been alienated from his Nonconformist background by a liberating and even exhilarating experience of being in the trenches, and sought new certainties in nationalism and Catholicism, Henry still lived within a stone’s throw of his family’s home at Ynystawe, worshipped with childhood friends at Hebron every Sunday, and stuck close to the late Victorian Welsh 'Lib-lab’ Radicalism of his pre-war experience, with the ‘Lab’ element gradually coming to the fore. His war experiences only deepened his desire to preserve the Welshness of the Gwerin or working-class communities of his bro, his native heath. It must have been almost impossible for him to hold back from reprimanding his young lecturer for his reckless and foolhardy plunge into politics, because Henry was a man with a sharp tongue and a violently uncontrollable temper. He inherited these traits from his mother, Sarah Lewis, Sera’r Felin, daughter of the miller of Ynystawe mill beside the Swansea Canal, and deeply feared as the legendary village scold. Henry married Gladys Thomas, the daughter of a well-known choirmaster from Treorci – from the archetypal Welsh gwerin background again – and she told the present writer that when her husband exploded with rage at some telephone call, she would grab the telephone from him saying ‘Harri, paid siarad yn dy nwyd!’(Henry, don’t talk in anger!). His fellow deacons in Hebron lived in fear and trembling when he did not get his own way, and he would nurse grievances against his fellow professors over decades - it is said that he quarrelled with Mary Williams, Professor of French – and a keen Welsh patriot. A third member of staff was appointed in 1927, Stephen J. Williams (1896-1992), a native of Ystradgynlais, and a Welsh Congregationalist like Henry, and although he tended to sympathize with Saunders, such was his calm temper, kindly disposition, and tactfulness, that he was able to keep the peace somehow between the two snapping snarling bears in the departmental cage.
It has been said that Saunders was only really interested in teaching the ablest students, and that he would cut lectures. The parents of the present writer attended his lectures and said that he was most eloquent, every bit as incisive and clear as Henry, but that sometimes his emotion would get the better of him, as for example, in lecturing on the Catholic exile, Dr Gruffudd Robert of Milan (confessor of St Charles Borromeo) and his Welsh grammar of 1567, and he would quiver with such emotion that he would abandon his lecture early and leave. The notes of Saunders’s lectures the present writer has inherited seem crystal clear, textbook examples of how to teach students of any ability level, with three headings each subdivided into three subheadings and a conclusion, almost in the manner of the proverbial Tri Phen (Three Heads) of the Calvinist Welsh sermon. Some of the students may have felt suspicious of Saunders’s tendency to hold clandestine meetings of nationalists in various corners of the college, to try to build up a cadre of revolutionaries. Most of the students were from a chapel background and, although Saunders was received into the Catholic Church as late as 1932, he was even in the mid-twenties ostentatiously receiving instruction during the lunch breaks, walking around Dr Mockeridge’s neat little botany beds in front of Singleton Abbey with a Roman priest.
It would be an understatement to say that Henry and Saunders were ‘good haters’, but it is surprising that Henry did not take steps to discipline or control his overweening enfant terrible of a lecturer. However, Henry himself was a busy producer of articles , texts and books throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and he was well aware that his young lecturer’s flow of articles and books were constantly attracting attention in the Welsh press, drawing attention to the industry and liveliness of his department. Of course, Welsh was a new subject in the 1920s and all four Welsh departments of the University of Wales produced a great many seminal articles and books in this period. However, one is driven to the opinion that in Swansea Henry and Saunders eyed each other with the macho rivalry of two he-bears in a cage, which caused both men to outdo each other in publications.
Henry started in 1921 to publish editions of medieval Welsh texts, such as Chwedleu Seith Doethyon Rufein ‘The Seven Wise Men of Rome’(1925), Delw y Byd (Image of the World) in 1928, an anthology of religious poems in 1931, a collection of the poems of fourteenth-century bards such as Iolo Goch (1935), an index of Welsh poetry in manuscripts (with Elizabeth Louis Jones) (1928), a grammar of middle Breton (1927), a grammar of middle Cornish (1928), and he gave extensive help to Holger Pedersen of Copenhagen University to revise his famous comparative grammar of the Celtic languages, and published A Concise Comparative Celtic Grammar in 1937. Henry had met late in 1919 Ifor Leslie Evans (later Principal of Aberystwyth) working in an exporting office in Swansea and they started Cyfres y Werin, a series of translations of foreign classics by such authors as De Maupassant and Gogol, and then, after the establishment of the University of Wales Press, Henry was an editor of Cyfres y Brifysgol a’r Werin, publishing handbooks on history and economics, Henry himself contributing his history of the development of Welsh in 1931. Henry at the same time contributed a series of articles on grammar, syntax and philology to journals such as The Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies. ‘Stakhanovite’ had not yet been coined, but it describes Henry’s frenzied activity in these years.
Saunders was not to be outdone. He wouldn’t just publish; he would publish with ‘attitude’. Before coming to Swansea, he had in 1921 published a play, The Eve of Saint John, then in 1922 his play in Welsh, Gwaed yr Uchelwyr, emphasised aristocratic values and ancient lineage. A School of Welsh Augustans, which appeared in 1924, was a pioneering study of eighteenth-century Welsh writers, based upon his researches for his MA at Liverpool University, and in the same year he produced a translation of Molière, Doctor er ei Waethaf, then his Introduction to Contemporary Welsh Literature came in 1926. His next work Williams Pantycelyn (1927), which analysed the eighteenth-century Methodist writer William Williams in the light of Freudian psychoanalysis, was meant to cause a rumpus, and the young enfant terrible was attacked on all sides. He then in 1929 produced the first of several critical studies of Victorian writers, showing how the popular poet John Ceiriog Hughes was warped by the philistine values of Welsh Nonconformity, Ceiriog: Yr Artist yn Philistia; I. In 1930 he deliberately set out to shock everything which Henry and his society stood for, by writing a novel, Monica, about sex and adultery in suburban villas, such as those in St Peter’s Road above Caswell. Henry happened to meet the present writer’s mother in Cardiff soon after it was published, and warned her to burn any copy she came across: ‘It’s the filthiest book ever to appear in Welsh!’ In 1931, Saunders published a study of a Victorian poet who was an Anglican, Ieuan Glan Geirionydd, and the following year in 1932 published Braslun o Hanes Llenyddiaeth Gymraeg hyd 1535, a sketch of the history of Welsh literature up to 1535, where he transformed the medieval texts edited carefully for Welsh language study by Henry and his friends, showing how they illuminated ancient Welsh heroic society, the culture of Welsh princely courts and lastly, the late medieval manorial civilization of the Welsh gentry patrons of the bards up to the coming of the ‘calamitous’ age of the Acts of Union and Protestantism. In 1936, there appeared his Daniel Owen: Yr Artist yn Philistia: II, which showed how the novelist Daniel Owen, like Ceiriog, had been curbed and stunted by Nonconformist Philistinism.
Although Saunders had set out deliberately to outrage the Welsh public, he succeeded in making a whole generation see Welsh literature as subject in itself, not just a series of texts that showed the development of syntax and vocabulary. It is difficult to avoid the feeling that, in attacking the values of Welsh Radical Nonconformity, Saunders was not also deliberately and gleefully waving a red rag at a bull, Henry, his own professor. The last of the books that must be mentioned is Buchedd Garmon: Mair Fadlen published in 1937, the first part a play in blank verse about St Garmon’s defeat of the Pelagian Heresy, the second a poem on St Mary Magdalen, both tributes to his conversion to Catholicism. By the time the book appeared, Saunders had been a prisoner for nine months in Wormwood Scrubs, and was able to hear the play broadcast on 2 March 1937 only by permission of the prison governor.
How had such a tragedy come about, and why did Henry not lift a finger to prevent it? It must be noted that in the short intervals between writing his books, Saunders was busy as President of the infant party, Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru, and editor of its newspaper, writing pamphlets and articles and addressing public meetings. He was drawn more and more into concerning himself with public issues such as the Slump and the terrible unemployment crisis, helping to organize food kitchens at Gwernllwyn House, Dowlais, for the families of the unemployed. In 1936 he came to the view that his party should make a stand on a specifically Welsh issue, and led a protest against the Air Ministry’s plan to establish a training school for bomber pilots at Penyberth , Penrhos near Pwllheli. Several places in England, such as Abbotsbury in Dorset, had successfully combatted such plans, Abbotsbury because of its swannery, but the government decided it would no longer listen to such nimbyism, and demolished the ancient house of Penyberth, which had been the home of a Catholic recusant family, one of whom, Robert Gwyn, had been a prolific Catholic writer in Welsh, to make way for the new bombing school.
A storm of protest broke out across Wales, and the University’s Guild of Graduates, of which Henry Lewis was then Warden, decided to join the protest. Henry wrote in March 1936 to the Bangor history professors, John Edward Lloyd and R.T. Jenkins, asking them to write a report on Penyberth, but both claimed they were simply too busy to do anything. Saunders, who had not forgotten his Sinn Fein dreams during his courtship days with Margaret Gilcriest, decided secretly to take direct action. With his friends D.J. Williams, a Welsh author and teacher from Fishguard and Lewis Valentine, a Baptist minister in Llandudno, and with the help of some other shadowy conspirators, they decided to burn down some sheds on the bombing school in the early hours of the morning of 8 September 1936. They regarded the whole thing as a symbolic protest and turned themselves in to the local police immediately. Saunders later told Margaret that on 11 September 1936 he returned to Swansea from Pwllheli and was called by the Principal of Swansea and told to desist from any teaching. Saunders refused. He told the Principal he was willing to talk to the members of Council who had asked the Principal to gag him. The three were bound over to appear at the Caernarfon Winter Assizes 13 October 1936, the courthouse being surrounded by an immense throng of supporters. The three pleaded Not Guilty. The jury failed to agree on a verdict, and the three were released. On 18 October, when Saunders returned to Swansea he gave three lectures at the College, and the Principal immediately suspended him, telling him that Swansea’s Charter made it practically certain that he would be dismissed. The case was now transferred to the Old Bailey in London, where it was heard on 19 January 1937. This was a highly unusual move, but the authorities probably felt that they would not be able to find a jury in Wales prepared to convict. In the event the jury at the Old Bailey found the three guilty and the judge sentenced them to nine months imprisonment at Wormwood Scrubs. The Council at Swansea College suspended Saunders from his post when the trial began on 19 January, and when he went to prison his contract with the College was brought to an end.
There was a storm of protest from right across the political spectrum. There were letters from individuals, and petitions of protest from groups such as the adult education classes, the nonconformist ministers of Llanelli, as well as predictable protests from nationalist groups. The student body at Swansea was divided, and when a student strike was proposed, only a minority voted in favour. The teaching staff were also divided: Stephen Williams strongly supported Saunders and so did the Englishman and High Tory Archie Richardson (Professor of Mathematics), a larger-than-life ‘character’ whom Saunders admired above all other colleagues at Swansea. However, several colleagues of Saunders of that period told the present writer that Saunders never courted popularity, and in fact was cordially disliked by some. Herbert Hill (Classics Department) told the present writer that he was having a morning coffee in the Senior Common Room in Singleton Abbey when a distinguished science professor came up to Saunders, saying that he had read in the paper about his recent lecture at an extra-mural class on the supreme importance of Welsh medieval culture, and asked Saunders whether he really believed that Dafydd ap Gwilym was as great as Dante? Saunders got up saying ‘That’s the sort of stupid bloody question you get from some idiot in a W.E.A. class!’ and walked out, leaving everybody in the Common Room aghast.
The Saunders affair caused a deep rift between the College Council, which was dominated by industrialists and manufacturers, and the Swansea Borough Council, which was dominated by Labour, and the College Council deeply resented the pro-Saunders advocacy of Alderman Percy Morris, which they regarded as Labour interference. Morris’s meddling and all the bothersome petitions were brushed aside by the Council in March 1937, any appeal to hold a special College Court of Governors was rejected, and since Saunders’s post had in effect been rendered vacant by his absence in prison, Henry went ahead to appoint (without any public advertisement) a replacement lecturer. This was one of his own research students, Melville Richards, already a research assistant lecturer, who later went on to become head of the departments of Welsh at Liverpool and (eventually) at Bangor. Saunders wrote to Margaret from Wormwood Scrubs in March to say that he was reconciled to his fate, but in his letter to her in May he said he was sorry for poor Stephen Williams who, he felt, would forgo any promotion or encouragement because of his support. He told her that the role played by Henry Lewis had been especially ugly.
The three (Saunders, Valentine and D.J. Williams) were released in September 1937, and were welcomed by large crowds at meetings in Swansea and Caernarfon. D.J. Williams was immediately able to return to his work as a teacher at the County School in Fishguard and Lewis Valentine was welcomed back to his ministry by his congregation in Llandudno. For Saunders, there was no return to Swansea. He was helped to survive from 1938 to 1940 by devoted friends, for a short time even training him to be a hill-farmer in Cardiganshire, before he was appointed by the Carmelite Order to teach Welsh at their school in Aberystwyth and then at a Catholic school near Llandeilo from 1940 to 1952. In his disillusionment, he retired from the Presidency of Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru in 1939, but that did not help to heal the rift in Welsh cultural circles caused by the Bombing School Affair and indeed the Saunders Affair at Swansea. When Ernest Evans the MP for the University of Wales resigned his seat, on being appointed a judge, in the ensuing bye-election, the head of Cardiff’s department of Welsh, W.J. Gruffydd, stood successfully as a Liberal (though he had until recently been a member of Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru), and was opposed unsuccessfully by Saunders. Gruffydd was eventually succeeded as Professor Welsh in Cardiff by one of Saunders’s closest friends and allies, Professor Griffith John Williams, and when one of his lecturers, T.J. Morgan, was appointed in 1951 the Registrar of the University of Wales, the vacancy at Cardiff was filled by none other than Saunders Lewis. Henry was furious, regarding the appointment as a personal betrayal. Although Saunders devoted himself in the main from the 1940s onwards to a very productive literary career, the rifts and divisions in Welsh circles lasted for several decades.
It had started so well. However, it had turned into a bitter tragedy, with two fierce bears biting and scratching each other in the Singleton cage, with the small world of Welsh studies torn by internecine warfare, just at the time when the subject was emerging as a proud university discipline. Yet in a curious paradoxical way the battle also had amazingly positive results, it had been a productive or creative sort of evil, for the macho rivalry of Henry and Saunders also produced seminal academic works which went a long way to create Welsh as an academic discipline – in many ways, Saunders could be credited with having created the subject of ‘Welsh Literature’ – in less than two decades. It surely ought to be a matter of some significance in Swansea today that a tiny College department had played such a dramatic part in the story.
 For Henry Lewis, see The Dictionary of Welsh Biography, 1941-1970, pp 62-3; for a bibilography of his works by D. Ellis Evans, see Journal of the Welsh Bibliographical Society, x, 144-52; Ifor Rees (ed.), Bro a Bywyd: Gwyr Llên Cwm Tawe (Barddas, 1995), pp 29-38; Meic Stephens (ed.), Companion to the Literature of Wales (Cardiff, 1986), s.n. ‘ Lewis, Henry’.
 The literature on Saunders Lewis is extensive; see Pennar Davies (ed.), Saunders Lewis: Ei Feddwl a’i Waith (Dinbych, 1950); A.R. Jones and Gwyn Thomas ( eds), Presenting Saunders Lewis (Cardiff, 1973); Meic Stephens (ed.), Companion to the Literature of Wales (Cardiff, 1986), s.n. ‘Lewis, Saunders’; Mair Saunders (ed.), Bro a Bywyd: Saunders Lewis , 1893-1985), (Barddas, 1987); D.Tecwyn Lloyd, John Saunders Lewis: Y Gyfrol Gyntaf (Dinbych, 1988); Bruce Griffiths, Writers of Wales: Saunders Lewis (Cardiff, 1979).
 Dictionary of Welsh Biography (London, 1959), s.n. ‘Saunders, David’.
 Mair Saunders Jones, Ned Thomas, Harri Pritchard-Jones (eds.), Saunders Lewis: Letters to Margaret Gilcriest [henceforth Letters], (Cardiff, 1993), pp. 494-5.
 Letters, p. 496.
 Ben Bowen Thomas, ‘Henry Lewis: Gwerinwr, Cymro’, in National Library of Wales Journal, xvii (2) (Winter, 1971), 121-35.
 Letters, p.502.
 Letters, p. 516.
 Ben Bowen Thomas, art. cit., pp. 127-8.
 The present writer heard Saunders relate that he had agreed with an old comrade he met in Cardiff who said to him ‘But Sandy, those were the happiest days of our lives!’.
 For the Department of Welsh, the University College of Swansea, and the University of Wales in this period, see David Dykes, The University College of Swansea: an Illustrated History (Stroud, 1992), and J. Gwynn Williams, The University of Wales, 1893-1939 (Cardiff, 1997), esp. p. 261 et seq.
 Mair Saunders, Bro a Bywyd: Saunders Lewis, p. 46.
 For the protest in its context, see K.O. Morgan, Wales in British Politics, 1868-1922 (Cardiff, 1963), pp 286, 302-3; and K.O. Morgan, Rebirth of a Nation: Wales, 1880-1980 (Oxford and Cardiff, 1981), pp. 254-7.
 Letters, p.611.
 Letters, p.588.
 Ivor Thomas Rees, Welsh Hustings 1887-2004 (Swansea, 2005), p.180. Prys Morgan, The University of Wales, 1939-1993 (Cardiff, 1997), pp. 30-33.
 Ned Thomas, The Welsh Extremist: A Culture in Crisis (London, 1971), chapter on ‘Saunders Lewis’, pp. 52-63.
 The present writer has been to some extent reliant on his own recollections of the antagonists in the story, as well as those of his parents, Professor and Mrs T.J. Morgan, who were students of Henry and Saunders in the 1920s, and, for Henry’s Ynystawe background, on the recollections of his great-aunts, born around 1860, who were neighbours and contemporaries of Henry’s parents. The papers of T.J. Morgan have been given to Swansea University Archives.