Marian Phillips (1916-2013) – Peacetime student and wartime lecturer

Authors: Eirlys Mair Barker and Philip Henry Jones

That’s the Welsh for you – no sooner do they meet than they set up a secret society


Marian Phillips described herself in the 1960s as ‘the sheltered product of a middle-class, Puritanical, Welsh-speaking home in a small industrial village’.[1] She was born on 24 July 1916 in Upper Brynaman, Carmarthenshire, the eldest of three children, to parents steeped in Welsh nonconformity and with aspirations for their children’s future. Neither of her parents had enjoyed a full secondary education, let alone had a chance of higher education, but they, like their own parents, believed in the power of education as a means of escaping the endless manual labour that trapped so many of their peers. The new college at Swansea enabled Marian and her younger brother Edmor to gain a university education locally and, after obtaining postgraduate degrees, to become university lecturers themselves.

Marian’s mother, May Morris, became a teacher in Peniel in rural Carmarthenshire through the pupil-teacher system. Although life in industrial Wales could be hard, witnessing the squalor and poverty of rural life left her with a lasting distaste for the countryside, and she was glad to return to teach in the relative civilization of Brynaman. For more than two generations, her ancestors had been skilled workers in the tinplate industry in the Cydweli and Llanelli area. The hot-pack method of tinplate manufacture was very reliant on skilled craftsmen, who tended to move around to occupy key positions as new works were established. Many of these artisans came from areas where the Welsh Baptists were numerous.

While May’s mother, Mary Jones, knew little English, her father, Evan Morris, had a middle-class and imperial outlook, naming his children after characters in English novels. After working in Llangennech, Ystalyfera, and elsewhere, by 1872 he had moved to Brynaman to help establish the new tinplate works which G. B. Strick was adding to the Amman Iron Company. As a skilled craftsman – trained by his father, Isaac Morris, as soon as he began to work at the age of 9 – he could venture upon home ownership, and through a building society he and a cousin built a fairly substantial semi-detached stone house in Upper Brynaman. Like many tinplate workers’ houses this had an extensive garden with a pigsty at the far end. Evan was of a scholarly disposition, but deprived of the opportunities enjoyed by his college-educated cousin, Silas Morris, principal of the Baptist College in Bangor, had to educate himself by reading extensively. His large library of Welsh books naturally contained a great deal of theology, mainly controversial tracts supporting the Baptists. It also included imaginative works, particularly volumes by local poets such as Watcyn Wyn. Described in his obituary as being of a kind and affable disposition and detesting controversies of all kinds, in his youth he had been ‘a keen politician of pronounced progressive views’.[2] Public activities were curtailed by his failing health, which forced him to move from the well-paid but gruelling occupation of rollerman to the equally skilled but less physically demanding job of shearer. As an uncompromising Baptist, Evan was determined not to be married in an Anglican Church. In 1879 he ensured that Siloam, the new Welsh Baptist chapel in Brynaman where he was a deacon, paid the necessary three guineas to be licensed to conduct marriages and even postponed his own wedding.

The other grandfather, Edward Phillips, had been born at Aberdulais in the Neath valley three weeks before the death of his father. Although his early life was a struggle his strength and skill eventually led to his being employed as a rollerman. He became a Baptist on his marriage to Ann Samuel of Brynaman and in 1877 was elected deacon and announcer at Siloam. Unlike the scholarly Evan Morris, he was a dyn cyhoeddus, a man who enjoyed being on a platform, and was a great orator at political meetings. Although considered radical to the bone, his was an older kind of individualistic radicalism - he was never tempted by socialism but acted on several occasions as local agent for Liberal candidates. He was an enthusiastic member of the Tinplate Workers' Union, and a friend of John Hopkins John, its Swansea area representative. He revelled in his Welsh background, giving his children Welsh names, participating enthusiastically in local eisteddfodau, and always being ready to contribute impromptu verses. Both grandfathers died comparatively young, each at the age of 66, as a result of unremitting physical labour. Evan Morris died  early in 1919, and Marian remembered the day her Tadcu Phillips died in 1920, just before her fourth birthday. For one of them the doctor could find no specific cause of death, simply saying that his body was ‘worn out’.

Edward’s second son, Gwilym Phillips, was truly gifted and had hoped to win a scholarship to Llandeilo Grammar School, but his ability became a barrier to his dream of an academic career. Like his elder brother Ifor, who had been withdrawn from school aged thirteen to embark on a successful career with the Great Western Railway, Gwilym was taken out of school at the age of twelve to become an office boy at the Glynbeudy tinplate works, Brynaman. Although his headmaster implored his father to keep him in school, it seemed a sensible career choice to Edward, since it was safer and more profitable than labouring in the works. Gwilym studied assiduously, teaching himself book-keeping, business practices, shorthand and typing, and reading voraciously and widely. Throughout his life he would read any book he encountered in English or Welsh. Despite two attempts to enlist, a heart murmur and working in a reserved industry kept him out of the Great War. At Glynbeudy his responsibilities increased so that by 1917 he was earning £164 a year. His salary had enabled him to marry in July 1915 and to buy shares – unfortunately in Russian concerns such as the Lena Goldfields and Baku oil companies, which were subsequently expropriated by the Bolsheviks. His competence – and possibly a feeling that he was undervalued at Glynbeudy – led to his becoming manager of the Phoenix Tinplate Works in Lower Cwm-twrch in 1920. He remained in that position until the works entered voluntary liquidation in 1949, though production had ceased in 1939, and the premises, like many others, were used for storage by the Ministry of Supply. As manager he was one of the wealthier men of the valley, so he could afford, for instance, to run a car. But he lived in a tied house and was always aware that his own prosperity – and that of many inhabitants of Cwm-twrch – was precarious and depended on his keeping the works open. This meant keeping production costs to a minimum and scouring the European market for cheap steel. He also knew that in the longer term the labour-intensive hand-mill system would have to give way to the continuous strip process pioneered in the USA.


While a gifted English child from a comparable background might well have been sent to a private school, Marian went to a nearby state school at Gurnos. Family tradition meant that she had to attend a non-denominational school since both her grandparents had been strongly opposed, as Liberals and as Baptists, to the 1902 Balfour Education Act, which allowed ratepayers’ money to be used to support Church of England schools. The road which ran down the Twrch valley came to a dead end some distance beyond her old home, so that each day she had to walk to school along a path following the railway to Gurnos. The path was a lonely one and passed by goods sidings where, it was commonly believed, tramps would spend the night, so the pupils tended to walk to school together or even run along the path. Unfortunately Marian’s mother would over-dress her and she frequently had her hair ribbons tweaked or stolen by other pupils en route.[4] Much more worrying was the General Strike of 1926. While labour relations in tinplate works were normally good, if paternalistic, the children of coalminers often adopted the militant attitudes of their parents, and some of them told Marian during the strike that the colliers were coming ‘over the hill’ that night to burn down her home and those of other managers. At first she was too terrified to tell her parents of the threat but after she had informed them her father took her out as night fell to show her that no fires could be seen. A feeling of not belonging, ‘ddim yn perthyn’, drove her further into the world of books. Her love of reading led to permanent damage to her eyesight as a result of surreptitiously reading with a torch under the covers of her bed while suffering from measles. More positively, her father encouraged her reading by buying her books in English and Welsh from Morgan & Higgs’s bookshop on his frequent business trips to Swansea. Early favourites were Teulu Bach Nantoer by Moelona and Gwilym a Benni Bach by W. Llewelyn Williams. A favourite English book was Anne of Green Gables, a novel portraying the academic career of a gifted girl. But perhaps most important of all was the monthly Cymru’r Plant under the editorship of Ifan ab Owen Edwards from 1922 onwards. Edwards used the periodical to establish a Welsh youth movement, Urdd Gobaith Cymru Fach. Marian was an early member – her membership certificate (unfortunately undated) bears the ‘Cymru Fach’ wording which was dropped in favour of ‘Cymru’ by the end of the 1920s. The Urdd provided a welcome counter to the Tory jingoism of Empire Day, a major event in the school calendar in the 1920s when, as Marian remembered, all pupils had to salute the union flag. This early experience of hegemonic imperialism was to provide her with a useful benchmark when studying the problems of nations without a state in Central Europe.

From primary school she proceeded to Maesydderwen Grammar School in Ystradgynlais, where she shone academically and passed her ‘Higher’ examinations a year early. She was greatly influenced by several teachers, especially the headmaster, W. Ernest Rees, and the English teacher, subsequently headmaster, Seth Owen. Owen gave her a lasting love for English poetry, particularly for some of Matthew Arnold’s gloomier works, ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ being a particular favourite. Her interest in French literature was encouraged by a young French teacher, Gwyneth Jenkins, who became a lifetime friend. As she wished to study German, a subject not offered at her school, it was arranged she should attend classes in that subject at the rival County School at Ystalyfera in Glamorgan. Strangely enough Marian never mentioned to her children the most exciting event in Maesydderwen’s early history, the fire which totally devastated the school buildings in February 1932. On the other hand she was fond of reminiscing that there was so little teaching space that music classes had to be held in the school kitchens.


In 1932, her father and headmaster petitioned for her, then aged fifteen, to be allowed to enter the University College of Swansea. Although French had been a favourite subject at school, one encounter with the formidable Mary Williams convinced Marian that she would not be studying it at Swansea, and so during her first two years she studied History, Philosophy, German, and English. All her lectures were in the jerry-built splendour of Singleton Abbey, which also contained the library, presided over by the redoubtable Miss Olive Busby. As a first-year history student she attended the famous course on European history from the fall of Rome delivered by Professor Ernest Hughes, a rhetorical tour de force packed with quotations treasured by generations of Swansea students: ‘the impregnable city of Ravenna’, ‘the ravaging hordes of barbarians’, and enlivened by the occasional joke: ‘unfortunately, Charles the Bald did not die without heirs’. An ardent Welsh patriot, Hughes insisted that lectures on Welsh history were compulsory for all history undergraduates. However, because of his lack of research experience in the field he felt it best entrusted to experts, initially to Nesta Jones, who had gained her MA on the Norman lordship of Glamorgan, and then to her successor, Glyn Roberts.

Because of her youth, Marian spent her first year at Beck Hall, where some thirty women students were cloistered under the eagle eye of a warden a good fifteen-minutes’ walk from Singleton Abbey. Living in Beck Hall was again an indication of Marian’s relatively privileged background since the extra expense of residence at a time of economic depression sometimes made it difficult to fill the hall. But it was not altogether a happy experience and in later years Marian expressed a marked distaste for communal life. She was shocked when her school friend and co-digger Doreen died suddenly from viral meningitis during the Christmas vacation, an event which she frequently recalled. Indeed, she never really recovered from that abrupt reminder of the fragility of life. Her unhappiness deepened a few months later when her father’s elder brother, Ifor, died unexpectedly following a routine operation. Marian never forgave the warden of Beck Hall for what she – rightly or wrongly – perceived as an insensitive action in forbidding her from attending the funeral. Her father came to Swansea to insist that she attended it. For the next two years, unless her father gave her a lift on one of his business trips to Swansea, she commuted daily from Cwm-twrch by bus. The University was largely to serve the needs of the local community, so virtually all its students commuted each day, a process greatly facilitated by the rapid expansion of bus services during the inter-war years. However, commuting restricted Marian’s social life in college, and her poor eyesight ruled out any serious participation in sports.

Her papers, now at the Swansea University Archives, show that she was an extremely conscientious student. She always took such meticulous notes of lectures that one can recreate their style as well as content from these transcripts. The history faculty, especially Professor E. Ernest Hughes and Dr W. Norton Medlicott, were inspiring teachers and caring mentors who became life-long friends. Ernest Hughes’s emphasis on extra-mural lecturing, often in Welsh, set an example of community engagement which she was later to follow. The European scope of Medlicott’s teaching also exercised a powerful influence on her. Indeed, it was he who finally prompted Marian’s decision to become a historian.[5] His field provided her with the background to the current political climate as she considered the impact of the Treaty of Versailles on her world. In 1935 at the age of eighteen, she earned her BA with First-class Honours in History and was awarded the Gladstone Memorial Prize. With Medlicott’s support, she also received a research studentship from the college of £200 a year, a sum worth over £10,000 in today’s value.

A.E. Heath, the foundation professor of Philosophy, was a man of wide cultural interests who tried to broaden the horizons of his students. To this end he lent Marian a copy of James Joyce’s then-banned book, Ulysses, wrapped up in brown paper to look like a text book, so that she could read it on the bus. Heath had hoped that Marian would stay on for a fourth year as an undergraduate to gain double honours in Philosophy rather than immediately commencing research in history, and even travelled up to Cwm-twrch to argue the case with her father, who replied that ‘when Marian makes up her mind to do something, there’s no point arguing with her.’

German Studies

During her undergraduate years, Marian expanded her world view through travel and new friendships. Since she planned to research German diplomatic history she studied German with Medlicott’s future wife, Dr Dorothy Coveney, who greatly extended her appreciation of German culture, especially literature and classical music. In the summer of 1934 Marian visited Germany for the first time. Although predictably dismissive of the accommodation provided by German youth hostels, she was enraptured by sites such as Neuschwanstein Castle. She also met her Stuttgart pen-friend, Erika Niemeyer who provided her with first-hand insights into German political attitudes. When Marian asked Erika why her grandfather, an old-fashioned German nationalist who still worshiped the Kaiser and even more so Paul von Hindenburg, no longer went to mass, she replied that he had ceased to do so after a photograph of Hitler had appeared on the altar. Despite the cultural gains, this experience of Germany was a troubling one for Marian. She was dismayed by the virulent tone and aggressive content of German newspapers and horrified to see a swaggering group of SA Brownshirts (Sturmabteilung) marching and singing and subsequently behaving so raucously in a café that she and her friend thought it best to take out their British passports and place them on the table. A concert in Oberammergau concluded with the Nazi salute which she thought shocking in that locale. Marian found it difficult to reconcile what she had just observed and had read in the German papers with the popular myth of a downtrodden nation, poorly treated by the Great Powers in the Treaty of Versailles.

On holiday in Bournemouth in 1935 she became acquainted with Richard and Else Brandt, recent Jewish refugees from Berlin, writing 'With that connection those nameless millions became real personal problems to me. History was no longer a subject I had studied successfully, I was caught up in it and henceforth became inextricably and passionately involved in the German and Central European drama of the 30s. I was shocked at the apparent indifference and the real ignorance of my compatriots to the plight of the Jews and the real nature of Nazism – forgetting that I myself had not been so very different from them not so long ago.[6]'

This was indeed a turning point in her life. The current international situation and Medlicott’s influence decided her to pursue her master’s degree in nineteenth-century European history and diplomacy. Medlicott met her in London and explained to her the complexities of the Public Record Office, the Institute of Historical Research, and the British Museum, and introduced her to key historians and archivists, especially R. W. Seton-Watson, who had supervised Medlicott’s own doctoral dissertation.

To improve Marian’s German, the Brandts arranged for her to stay with German exiles in London, Dr and Frau Simons. The Simons’s Austrian maid, Grete, became a friend and taught her the nuances of Viennese German, and her kitchen became a haven from the rigours of the more formal life upstairs. She made lasting friendships with several of the Simons’s other students, especially Paul Geiger, a young Jewish refugee from Vienna who was there to improve his English. This connection subsequently opened many doors for her in Vienna.

Her first research visit to Vienna was in the summer of 1936. Vienna, an imperial capital for many centuries, was inhabited by people of widely differing nationalities, religions, and cultures. It was comparatively easy to gain access to the Austrian National Library, but since the State Archive Office was housed in the Chancellery on the Ballhaus Platz, where the former Chancellor Dollfuss had been assassinated in 1934, security was very tight. Every day Marian had to pass between two rows of armed sentries who loudly clicked their heels to salute her. At first she was terrified, but soon came to realise that they were just country boys who thought their ostentatious display was a great joke. Austrian bureaucracy lived up to its Kafkaesque image. Although Marian’s papers were in order and the Archivist had known for weeks that she was coming, the Third Secretary at the British embassy had to confirm her identity and – ironically, since the Archivist subsequently revealed himself to be an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler – state officially that she was not a Nazi. Since the Archives claimed it would take four days to process this information, Marian decided to take a steamer trip along the Danube to Budapest where she visited the opera and first encountered night-clubs with Gipsy music. It was all very different from Cwm-twrch! She also met Hungarians who denounced bitterly the territorial losses imposed on Hungary by the treaty of Trianon, and expressed their desire to regain these lands. Marian was later to say that hearing at first hand views which differed so widely from received opinion in Britain helped make her a better historian.

As one of his many kindnesses, Seton–Watson had arranged for her to stay as a paying guest in a grand apartment near the Archive owned by Frau Melanie Rotter, the cultured widow of a renowned Chemistry professor. Frau Rotter had studied at the Paris Conservatoire in pre-war days and had played her violin – a precious Amati – at the Imperial Court of Austria in the presence of the Emperor Franz Joseph. The Amati was confiscated by the Nazis as part of their Kristallnacht ‘reparations’, but her precious piano, a Bösendorfer, was given by the Nazis to her maid as compensation for her having to work for a ‘dirty Jew’. She returned it to the family after the war. Frau Rotter would converse with Marian in classical German, reminiscing about composers whom she had known such as Mahler and Richard Strauss. Often in the evenings, she and her two children would put on an impromptu concert. Although Jewish, the Rotter family was so assimilated that Marian only realised they were so towards the end of her stay when the family vanished to attend Temple to celebrate the Jewish new year. Geiger had also contacted his family, fairly recent arrivals in the city from the now Polish parts of the empire, who made her welcome and showed her a different, more working-class, side of life in Vienna’s Jewish quarter. These were lasting friendships, although very many of her acquaintances and their relatives were soon to be murdered as part of Hitler’s  ‘Final Solution’. Non-Jewish acquaintances survived because of their acceptance of Nazi rule following the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Hitler’s Germany in March 1938.[7]

On her return to Swansea, she completed her Master’s thesis, ‘The European Powers and the Occupation of Egypt’, which drew on French- as well as German-language sources. She found her viva, where she was told that her bibliography was ‘ostentatious in its thoroughness’, to be ‘rather gruelling’, but Glyn Roberts informed her she had nailed it ‘with distinction, bach’.[8] The degree ceremony took place in Cardiff on 17 July 1937, a week before her twenty-first birthday. She was recommended for a University of Wales Fellowship and spent the summer of 1937 again at Frau Rotter’s flat in Vienna, combining a holiday with her search for a PhD topic. On this trip she once again met her friend Erika. Their friendship survived the war years and they were to meet again in the 1950s and 60s.

Back in London, Marian settled happily into a routine which combined research and cultural activities. Her diaries are filled with accounts of visiting museums and art galleries, attending concerts, and frequenting the cinema. At the same time she kept in touch with her Welsh roots. She had transferred her membership in 1936 to the Welsh Baptist chapel in Castle Street which, with its range of cultural and social activities, became her home from home. Since her life turned around Jewish refugees, Castle Street, and Welsh research students, she was later to claim that in London she spoke more Welsh and German than English. Her circle of Welsh friends, mostly research fellows working like her in the British Museum library, included Emyr Gwyn Jones, later Librarian of UCNW Bangor, and David Jenkins, later Librarian of the National Library of Wales. Two others, Goronwy O. Roberts and J. Gwyn Griffith, represented two political paths open to young Welsh people in the 1930s who were disenchanted with traditional Liberalism. Roberts, who became Labour MP for Caernarfonshire in 1945, had been one of the founders of Mudiad Gwerin, a Welsh left-wing pressure group, while J. Gwyn Griffith was a zealous supporter of Plaid Cymru. He even gave her a year’s subscription to the party’s newspaper Y Ddraig Goch. She found the paper – and the ethos of Plaid Cymru, tainted by what she believed to be the anti-Semitism of Saunders Lewis – wholly unsympathetic and told Griffith so in no uncertain terms. Although the subscription was not renewed, copies of the Ddraig Goch continued to be sent to her until the early years of the war. Her characteristic response in a letter asking the office to discontinue sending it was that it was a pity that at a time of paper rationing scarce paper was wasted on such a publication. But she owed Griffith a great debt since, as she later wrote, he had inspired her to write in Welsh, ‘so that his influence was important and lasting’.[9]

Marian decided to pursue a University of London PhD under the guidance of Seton-Watson, professor at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies examining the ‘Question of nationalities in the Austrian Empire, 1848-1867’. Thanks to Seton-Watson’s connections she encountered many prominent figures such as Jan Masaryk, former Czech ambassador to Britain, who had resigned in September 1938 in protest against the German annexation of the Sudetenland. She never forgot hearing him give a piano recital. Following his mysterious ‘suicide’ in March 1948 she was convinced that he had been murdered by Soviet agents. By 1938, her academic life was centred on two seminars at the Institute of Historical Research focussed on central Europe, one led by Seton-Watson, and the other by the German exile, Veit Valentin, whose particular area of interest was the revolutions of 1848. Members of these seminars included the Hungarian Domokos Kosáry, H. Gordon Skilling, Winifred Taffs, C. V. Wedgwood, and Ruth Horowitz.[10] Although Marian had arranged to return to Vienna in May 1938 it was made clear to her following the Anschluss that she could not do so. Seton-Watson’s ‘advocacy of downtrodden Slav peoples and his modest humanity’ meant that his students were denied entry to archives in Austria.[11] She considered changing the scope of her dissertation so that she might continue her research in London and possibly in archives in Prague, but that also became impossible following the Munich Agreement.

As war approached, Marian found herself increasingly at odds with many of her academic colleagues who registered as conscientious objectors. She was torn on the issue of war. Because of her personal experience she had early on realized the danger and horrors of the Hitler regime, and sought by means of lectures in Wales and writings in the Welsh-language press to alert people to the peril of Nazism. She could not conceive of any peaceful way of stopping the persecution of Jews and the expansion of Nazism, and did not believe a satisfactory solution could be reached through the appeasement policy of the British government. Marian, C. V. Wedgwood, and Horowitz found a special bond in their religious beliefs, however varied, and were active in organisations aiding those Jewish refugees already in Britain, and also in seeking asylum for more Jews. She translated for refugees, especially those from Austria as she could cope with the Wienerisch dialect of the Viennese. She also spent much time at Bloomsbury House, the former Palace Hotel in Bloomsbury Street, which in early 1939 became a centre for refugee organizations to work together and a clearing house for finding employment for refugees. It was particularly involved in organizing the Kindertransport, the evacuation of Jewish children from Germany. Through Bloomsbury House she personally arranged the requisite sponsors and British work permits for many of her Jewish friends and their families. Ruth Horowitz had successfully asked Gwilym Phillips to guarantee her fifteen-year old brother’s admittance to the UK on his way to Palestine; however, their father, a rabbi, never recovered from the injuries he sustained in his synagogue during Kristallnacht, the night of 9-10 November 1938, and died on his way to Britain after being expelled from Germany.[12] When war was finally declared, Marian found ‘it was a dreadful thing to say but there is an element of relief in the fact that the international situation is being faced up to at last’.[13] She had been outspoken in her anti-Nazi views but once war broke out she ceased this activity, not wanting to be regarded as a government propagandist, turning her attention instead to aiding refugees and supporting the war effort however she could.

Teaching in Swansea

By the summer of 1939 Marian’s academic path was so unclear that she considered applying for a teaching post in a Welsh secondary school. Everything changed suddenly on 3 October 1939, when she was offered a post as a temporary assistant lecturer covering the teaching responsibilities of Glyn Roberts, the first Swansea staff member to leave for war duties. Professor Hughes explained the situation to her, then took her to meet the principal, C. A. Edwards, and Professor Henry Lewis. She was overwhelmed by this offer: ‘all shake hands with me as if I were doing them a favour. The answer to my deepest desire – but can [I] do it? At such short notice?’[14] The salary of £300 a year was acceptable, but the post was not pensionable, the expectation being that Roberts would return to his lectureship once the war was over.

At about the same time, her personal life changed. She met Dr John Henry Jones, lecturer in the Classics Department, at the Medlicotts’ home. They instantly ‘clicked’ and both broke into Welsh, prompting Medlicott to remark, ‘That’s the Welsh for you – no sooner do they meet than they set up a secret society’. They were soon seeing a great deal of each other. She even took him to meet her family in early December 1939. He was a graduate of the University College of Wales, Bangor, the only child of an impoverished widow, Jane Griffith Jones, from Llangefni, Anglesey. An asthmatic boy, he had read extensively while his mother laboured long hours at her sewing business. He, too, had been inspired by outstanding teachers at his primary and secondary schools to work his way through college by winning scholarships. After obtaining his MA from Bangor, in July 1938 he gained his PhD from the University of London for a dissertation on the Roman polymath Varro. He had been at Swansea since 1937, while Marian was mostly in London.

When Marian began teaching in Swansea, she delivered nine lectures a week, mostly on Welsh history, to large classes. She spent her first months in college frantically preparing lectures to deliver to students who were nearly all older than her and fond of practical jokes, ‘hide the lecturer’s gas-mask’ being a particular favourite. Conditions became increasingly cramped as departments lost lecture rooms to establishments evacuated to Swansea. When Medlicott left for war duty in 1941, his European history lectures were added to her load. She felt rather aggrieved that having paid her £300 to do the job of one lecturer, Swansea now expected her to do the work of a second lecturer for the same salary. Another grievance was the exclusion of women from the Senior Common Room - Swansea was a pioneer in accepting women, even married women, as academics. Professor Mary Williams of the French Department was, in fact, the first woman to be appointed to a chair in Britain, and by 1939 there were seven female lecturers, two full professors, and Miss Busby, the college librarian, who now presided over a new purpose-built library.[15] But despite their eminence, they were confined to the Women’s Common Room, later described by Glanmor Williams as a ‘particularly dark and pokey little cubby hole’.[16] When, after the War, women were finally admitted to the Men’s Senior Common Room, Principal Edwards looked in once and never entered the room again. What did unnerve Marian was that on the day Hitler was overrunning Holland a large ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster appeared on the women’s noticeboard. As she put it, ‘if the academic Amazons of Singleton needed such instruction, the plight of the country was desperate indeed.’[17]

As well as the endless grind of teaching and marking, war duties ate into Marian’s time. She played her part in fire-watching at the college and served as an air-raid warden back home in Cwm-twrch. Not everyone there took this responsibility so seriously: she recollects a weary collier friend going to bed while officially on duty, but taking care to wear his uniform so that his family could claim he had died on active service were he to be killed in a bombing raid. Cwm-twrch took its share of evacuee children, but Marian had already arranged for the Brandts’ daughter and nephew to come as evacuees to her parents’ home. From June 1940 onwards Swansea became the target of German bombs. As the raids intensified Marian was never sure whether she would arrive at the college, be able to give her lectures, whether an air-raid warning would disrupt teaching, or whether she could travel home.[18] The town was particularly hard hit in February 1941: the three nights of February 19 to 21 are remembered to this day as the Swansea Blitz. The College at Singleton was spared but much of the city centre was destroyed. Marian remembered one day waving from the bus to a woman cleaning her front door step and on the following day, seeing the same woman outside the ruins of her terraced home.

The war also hastened the romance with ‘Dr Jones, Classics’. After a summer of long walks in Gower, he took her to the Freshers’ Dance on 12 October 1940 which, she said, was ‘tantamount to an official engagement’.[19] Her parents were not initially enthusiastic as John was seven years older, thinking it might be wiser to wait until the war was over and Marian had completed her doctorate. By April 1941 John could no longer gain deferment from war work as the only son of a widow and by 13 July Marian’s parents finally gave their blessing to the marriage. The College agreed that Marian could remain in post after marriage. In order to gain the necessary residential status to be married in Swansea Marian stayed with her friend Dr Annie (Nancy) Owen, a lecturer in education in Swansea, at her home on Sketty Road. When the air-raid warning sounded they would head for the Anderson shelter in the back garden, but it was so damp and miserable there that they ultimately resorted to hiding under the kitchen table during air raids, listening to the sound of anti-aircraft shell fragments tinkling down upon the roof. The wedding took place at Bethesda Welsh Baptist Chapel in Swansea on 6 September 1941, a location which ensured everybody could return home before black-out. The honeymoon was in Lampeter, perceived as a safe rural location and the farthest they could travel before black-out began. The first night of the honeymoon was, ironically, the only night during the war that bombs fell in Cardiganshire.

John and his mother had been renting Y Wern in Gowerton, and this became the young couple’s first married home. When John’s mother, increasingly distressed by the air raids and homesick for Anglesey, retreated to Llangefni in May 1942, Marian returned to Cwm-twrch, commuting daily by bus to college as did her brother Edmor, who had commenced a degree in metallurgy in September 1940. While there were few air raids after February 1943, alarms were frequent, and far too many hours had to be spent in the cellars of Singleton instead of its lecture rooms. Her recollections of teaching at this time were of working hard and feeling tired, despite the reduction in numbers of able-bodied male students. As well as producing and delivering her lectures she supervised graduate students since, following Medlicott’s departure, she and Hughes constituted the entire History Department. She also spent her summers marking for the Central Welsh Board, ‘wearisome work, taking three weeks to a month of working every day and all day. It was hardly worth the effort, but once more, it was largely a matter of doing one’s duty in wartime, and I managed it for three years.’[20] She also marked scripts for the University of London. Perhaps the greatest aid to carrying on was the cinema, Swansea’s Plaza, which had miraculously survived the attentions of the Luftwaffe and provided precious hours of escapism and welcome warmth.

Three weeks after the wedding, John was called up for Intelligence work, first to Bedford and then, like many classicists, to Bletchley Park. Here he worked in Hut 3, turning the raw decrypts produced by Hut 6 personnel, including Swansea colleagues Melville Richards and Angus McIntosh, into useable intelligence. Hut 3 also created cover stories inventing plausible sources of intelligence to conceal the fact that Enigma had been broken. The work entailed long, stressful hours in cramped and smoky conditions and was driven by a sense of urgency and responsibility for ensuring that information that could save lives was passed on in time. He initially shared lodgings with Melville Richards, who spent his spare time writing a Welsh spy-thriller. Marian spent very many hours travelling by slow wartime trains to meet John in Bedford or London, using the journeys to prepare lectures or managing at last to read War and Peace. In London, she regularly met family members and old friends such as the Medlicotts, Ruth Horowitz, and the Brandts, and more recent refugees such as Frau Rotter and her daughter.

After War

By the early spring of 1944 when Allied victory at last appeared likely John and Marian could finally plan a future together. It would not be in Swansea, since on 18 August 1943 John had been appointed Director of Education for Cardiganshire, the post being reserved for him until he was released from war service. However Marian was tied to Swansea as long as Ernest Hughes remained in post since she had promised that she would not leave until he retired – because of his poor eyesight he relied heavily on her for the daily running of the department, much as he had earlier relied on Nesta Jones. Finally he decided to retire at the end of the spring term of 1944. This was a momentous occasion for her and for the Swansea History department, truly the end of an era. Although, or perhaps because, both pre-war lecturers, Roberts and Medlicott had applied for the chair, an outsider, David B. Quinn of Queen’s University, Belfast, was appointed. On 12 November 1944 she went to the college for the last time as a member of staff. She was leaving with ‘surprisingly few regrets. I’d kept my word to Ernest that I wouldn’t leave while he was still there. Now this young man from Aber, Glanmor Williams will take over Welsh History.’[21] The next day, her new life in Aberystwyth was to begin.

John finally heard on 19 September 1944 that he had been released from war work to take up the post of Director of Education. After the hardships and separations of wartime, they both wished to establish a family in a Welsh community and to promote education, especially in the Welsh language. He shared her ‘deep love of my own country, Wales … and was keenly aware of the perils Welsh culture faced when the (post-war) emphasis was first and foremost on the British aspect of nationality.’[22] The reform of state education under the 1944 Education Act (the Butler Act) provided an exciting opportunity for John. Cardiganshire, one of the poorest of Welsh counties, was both a challenge and a chance to develop further education in a way that protected and encouraged education in the Welsh language.

Life in Aberystwyth, where elderly ladies were still calling and leaving visiting cards with one corner turned up, was in sharp contrast to war-battered Swansea. Things began well: they bought a large Edwardian house, and John’s mother returned to live with them. A son, Philip, arrived in October 1945, and a daughter, Eirlys, in February 1948. The couple developed a circle of young friends, mostly academic couples like themselves, ready to establish careers and families in a Welsh setting. Although one of these couples, John Robert Jones of the Philosophy department at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, and his wife, Julia, moved to Swansea in 1952, the families remained firm friends.

In the spring of 1951 John was diagnosed with tuberculosis, still considered a lethal disease, and spent the better part of two years in sanatoria, first at Talgarth and then at Sully. Fortunately the newly developed triple drug therapy brought about a recovery, but his health remained a source of concern for the remainder of his working life. During his illness Ceredigion not only kept him in post but paid his full salary, deepening his debt to Ceredigion’s councillors. Whenever he was subsequently tempted to return to academia he felt that he was bound to the county. For Marian, these were dark years as she looked after an ageing mother-in-law and two young children, and had no real career of her own.

In July 1965, the day after her forty-ninth birthday, Marian wrote in her diary of ‘such a sense of despair and failure after such a bright beginning to my life.’[23] Two applications for lectureships at Aberystwyth had been unsuccessful, partly because her kind of diplomatic and imperial history was no longer in vogue, and partly because of a reluctance to give a married woman what was perceived to be a post that should go to a male bread-winner, another indication of how backward Aberystwyth was compared with Swansea. Despite that, her professional life was far from over and the bulk of her publications lay ahead. Her mother in law had died in 1955, and as the children grew older she was free to return to research and writing. One of the main attractions of Aberystwyth was the National Library of Wales, and its Reading Room became her haven. She wrote several scholarly reviews for Y Traethodydd and Yr Efrydydd, and, following the example of Ernest Hughes, began to teach extra-mural classes in Welsh History, initially at Derwenlas, Montgomeryshire. She continued her extra-mural teaching for some twenty-five years. She was also active in the local branches of the United Nations Association and of the Historical Association, serving as the latter’s president in 1967.

A new departure was writing short stories in Welsh, many based on family lore gleaned from her grandmothers. In 1954, her story ‘Gollyngdod’ was joint winner of the short-story prize at the National Eisteddfod in Ystradgynlais. The positive comments of the adjudicator D. J. Williams encouraged her to continue writing such stories. They initially appeared under the pseudonym Deinys Woodward (combining the names of two great-grandmothers), but a collection was published under her own name in 1995 as Ffynhonnau Doe.

History Again

By the mid-1960s she enjoyed more free time as her children left for college, both reading history. From the mid-1950s onwards she combined her interest in central European and Welsh history by investigating Welsh reactions to the Hungarian uprisings of 1848. This led her to the papers of the scholarly county court judge A. J. Johnes of Garthmyl, who had organized a campaign to support the Hungarians and denounce Austrian atrocities. She published a scholarly edition of his letters in the National Library of Wales Journal for 1957-8, followed by a substantial addendum in 1965. A lecture outlining Johnes’s career and significance was delivered to the Powisland Club in March 1963 and was subsequently published in Montgomeryshire Collections. There followed a lecture delivered in 1968 to the Cymmrodorion Society in London chaired by Glanmor Williams, her successor in Swansea, on ‘Wales and Hungary’. This was published in the society’s Transactions.[24] A detailed analysis of the motivations of supporters of Hungary in one town was published in the 1978 number of Ceredigion under the title ‘Hungarian sufferings: an Aberystwyth public meeting in 1850’.[25] Recognition of this work came from the Royal Historical Society, which made her an Associate in 1977 and a Fellow in February 1978. In retrospect this was a second golden age. As she wrote to her daughter in 1983, ‘your father used to dump me at the door of the Nat Lib every morning – I felt I had the best of both worlds – home, family, and my own private way of life for which I’d been specifically trained.’ John’s health remained good enough for them to travel abroad, visiting Paris, Germany, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia (where they noted ominous signs of the communal hatred that would later lead to a bloody conflict), and to the United States where their daughter now lived.

Religion always remained important to both Marian and John. Although brought up as a Wesleyan he was baptised in Castle Street in 1942. During the war years when it was often impossible to attend Welsh-language services they found solace in the quietness of Quaker meetings. Although Marian and John became members of Bethel, Aberystwyth’s Welsh Baptist chapel, both continued to attend the Quaker meeting in Aberystwyth and jointly prepared a Welsh translation of a pamphlet, The Essentials of Quakerism, which was published in 1964.[26] Despite the attractions of Quakerism, the Welsh Baptist heritage proved too strong for Marian to progress from active attender to member. Indeed, in 1987 she became one of Bethel’s first two women deacons.

The full strength of this heritage was expressed in her first book, which blended religion, social history, and family history. Her father had started to compile a history of Siloam, Brynaman, but following his death the responsibility for finishing the work fell on Marian. In May 1971, she gave a presentation at Siloam’s centennial celebrations, and Hanes Siloam, Brynaman appeared in 1972. This was far more than a simple chronicle of a particular chapel as she placed its history in the context of the local society and culture of this corner of industrial south-west Wales.[27]

Much of the 1970s was devoted to a project that combined the pair’s interests, a history of Europe in Welsh for Welsh-language secondary schools. Hanes Ewrop 1815-1871 was published in 1982 with John (who had been compelled to retire early because of ill-health in 1972) acting as indexer and proof reader. He had encouraged her and rejoiced in this extension of Welsh-language education.[28] She might sometimes become disheartened, but ‘though [he] was physically the weaker, he was always immeasurably stronger in mind & spirit.’[29] The following year, she was contacted by BBC Cymru to comment on the so-called Hitler Diaries, that had been initially endorsed by Hugh Trevor-Roper. John was very proud that his wife was possibly the first historian on any channel to suggest the diaries were spurious and also question any relevance they might have even if genuine.[30]

The early eighties were a difficult time as John’s health continued to deteriorate so that he became housebound and in need of constant attention. The regular letters to her daughter often contained Marian’s reminiscences about studying and teaching history and emphasised the consolation that she still found in research. When a recently widowed friend went on a shopping spree, she could understand her need for distraction, but for herself found that ‘Bismarck does the trick, not that I like the man, but I can concentrate my mind on something which does not involve my emotions’. In 1982, Marian wrote that ‘I am now getting back to the pattern of my youth, when History was the be all & the end all of my life! It’s almost a question of finding my identity once more, & is a great consolation, now that physical movement is limited’.

John Henry Jones died in Aberystwyth on 17 October 1985. For Marian his death marked the end of an academic partnership. She felt it her duty and pleasure to see a collection of his poems and translations made available and facilitated their publication in 1991 under the title Cardi o Fôn, the bardic name he assumed when the National Eisteddfod’s Gorsedd awarded him its highest honour in 1982.[31] She also continued to work on a second volume of her Hanes Ewrop, despite the lack of funding for its publication following a change in the secondary school curriculum. As always in times of uncertainty, she turned to her writing: ‘My work really is my greatest source of happiness now, it gives me back my own identity, but it is a treasure laid down in early years and I am reaping the interest now.’ Twenty months after John’s death, she was ‘not really afraid of being alone as long as I can immerse myself in work. The hard days are those when the work is boring and I’ve no understanding better-half who can change my mood and who can help me untangle the difficulties of the work by talking about it.’[32]

One of the close friends who helped her over this difficult time was Julia, widow of J. R. Jones, professor of Philosophy at Swansea. After reminiscing about the old days they decided to travel to Vienna in 1987, over half a century after Marian’s first visit. Although Marian felt some trepidation before the visit, once there she could recall her time as the young, impressionable student experiencing Vienna at a crucial point in its history. Julia proved the ideal companion with her lively interest in people, history, and current events. Following the visit she asked Marian many questions about the people they had met as well as those who were present only in Marian’s memory and what began as a series of letters became, at Julia’s suggestion, the book Annwyl Julia (1996), depicting Vienna in the Thirties and the impact of Nazism and Communism on individuals and communities. This is arguably the most significant of all her publications and as a testimony of how the Holocaust overtook named individuals deserves to be translated into English.

Foremost in her memories were the fates of her Jewish friends. Marian’s closest Viennese friends, Paul Geiger’s relatives, had been lucky to get British work permits. His parents and sister, Thekla, were among the lucky ones, though their British work permits were for menial domestic positions. Fortunately the synagogue in Swansea aided Thekla to attain the status of Friendly Alien which permitted her to do work commensurate with her abilities. Thekla’s husband, Felix, however, had felt unable to leave his aging parents and relatives. After the war, Marian used the Red Cross and the influence of the Member of Parliament for the University of Wales, W. J. Gruffydd, to try to trace Felix and his relatives.[33] She finally heard that he had died near Minsk in 1945 in obscure circumstances. His parents and other relatives, and the elderly Rotter aunts, had all been killed in concentration camps.

Marian and Julia also visited Budapest, where Marian met once again Domokos Kosáry, a fellow member of those University of London seminars of so long ago. After adventures worthy of a thriller, including a period in prison after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, under a more liberal reformist regime he had become president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The link with Kosáry had already been restored through Neville C. Masterman, a lecturer in history in Swansea. Kosáry was particularly interested in John’s translation of a Magyar poem, A Walesi Bárdok, relating the purported massacre of Welsh bards by Edward 1, which had been written in 1856 by János Arany to stir up Hungarian national feeling against Austria.

By the later 1990s, the fall of communism and the opening up of eastern Europe made Annwyl Julia particularly relevant and led to requests for talks and radio interviews.[34] It was also a time for reminiscences. She was contacted to write an article about her wartime experiences for Parachutes and Petticoats: Welsh women writing on the Second World War (1992). Similar memories appeared in a chapter in Iancs, Conshis a Spam: Atgofion Menywod o’r Ail Ryfel Byd (2002). Both chapters are filled with memories of lecturing at Swansea in wartime.

In 1996, she was invited to lecture to the Oxford-Hungarian Society at Brasenose College, Oxford on the topic ‘Wales and Hungary’. Through her son she had met R. J. W. Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford and an expert in Central Europe. Bob and his Hungarian-born wife, Kati, became firm friends. He was always encouraging and almost replaced Medlicott, who had died in 1987, as someone with whom she could discuss history, historians, and current events in eastern Europe.

With advancing age, she became increasingly torn between writing ‘real’ academic history, and writing her memoirs. She drafted some segments about her family background, but they remain in manuscript. She still wrote scholarly reviews for Barn and Y Traethodydd and articles and obituaries for publications such as the Baptist Seren Cymru, Y Casglwr, and Aberystwyth’s local paper, Yr Angor. She also gave talks to organizations such as the British Federation of University Women and Merched Y Wawr and continued to support organizations which promoted Welsh writing and culture, such as Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion, Honno (of which she was a founder-member), Amgueddfa Ceredigion, and the Ceredigion Historical Society.

Marian celebrated her ninetieth birthday in July 2006 with her siblings and children. Hitherto she had retained her interest in international affairs and politics, reading widely and viewing Newsnight every evening. Thereafter, her health and eyesight deteriorated rapidly. She died in March 2013 after a long and eventful life at a nursing home near Llanybydder, just a few miles from the farm, Esgair Living, at Rhydycymerau where her Morris grandmother had been born.



Much of the above is based on Marian’s reminiscences as recalled by her children. Her daughter has a large collection of her letters and autobiographical fragments. References to these have been limited to where a precise date is important.

Dr. Eirlys M. Barker received her PhD in American History from the College of William and Mary in Virginia and graduated with a BA Honours degree in History from the then University of Wales, Cardiff.  She is now retired after teaching American and Women’s History for Old Dominion University and Thomas Nelson Community College in Virginia.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
After graduating from Cambridge and gaining librarianship qualifications Philip Henry Jones lectured at Aberystwyth University. His main research interest is the history of the Welsh language book trade during the long nineteenth century.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         


[1] Manuscript of her speech at Richard Brandt’s eightieth birthday, 1964, in Eirlys Mair Barker’s collection.

[2] Obituary, Amman Valley Chronicle, 27 February 1919.

[3] Marian Henry Jones, Hanes Siloam Brynaman (Llandysul: Gwasg Gomer, 1972), p. 37.

[4] Marian Henry Jones, ‘Ddim yn Perthyn,’ in Ffynhonnau Doe (Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion, 1995).

[5] Marian Henry Jones, Annwyl Julia (Llandysul: Gwasg Gomer, 1996), p. 38.

[6] Brandt speech, 1964.

[7] Jones, Annwyl Julia, pp. 42-8.

[8] Marian Henry Jones diary summaries, 23 July 1937.

[9] Marian Henry Jones diary summaries, 22 September 1939. ‘Felly bydd ei ddylanwad yn bwysig a pharhaol’.

[10] R. J. W. Evans, ‘Domokos Kosáry and his London Circle, 1938-9’, in M. Ferch and M. Ormos (eds), Hommage à Kosáry Domokos (Budapest: Széchenyi Irodalmi és Muvészeti Akadémia, 2009), pp. 177-88.

[11] R. J. W. Evans, ‘Marian Henry Jones as historian,’ tribute delivered at her memorial service, 25 May 2013.

[12] Copy of letter Marian Henry Jones to Menachem Horovitz, 2000.

[13] Marian Henry Jones, diary summaries, 3 September 1939.

[14] Marian Henry Jones, diary Summaries, 3 October 1939.

[15] Marian Henry Jones, ‘Keep calm and carry on’, in Leigh Verrill-Rhys and Deidre Beddoe (eds), Parachutes and Petticoats: Welsh women writing on the Second World War (Bridgend: Honno, 1992), p. 64.

[15] Marian Henry Jones, ‘Keep calm and carry on’, in Leigh Verrill-Rhys and Deidre Beddoe (eds), Parachutes and Petticoats: Welsh women writing on the Second World War (Bridgend: Honno, 1992), p. 64.

[16] Glanmor Williams, A Life (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002), p. 85.

[17] Jones, ‘Keep calm and carry on’, p. 64.

[18] Marian Henry Jones, ‘Dyheu Amser Rhyfel’, in Leigh Verill-Rhys (ed), Iancs, Conshis a Spam: Atgofion Menywod o’r Ail Ryfel Byd (Llandybïe: Honno, 2002), pp. 66-7.

[19] Marian Henry Jones diary summaries, 12 October 1940.

[20] Marian Henry Jones unpublished autobiographical fragment.

[21] Marian Henry Jones diary summaries, 12 November 1944.

[22] Jones, ‘Keep calm and carry on’, p. 63.

[23] Marian Henry Jones, diary summaries, 25 July 1965.

[24] Marian Henry Jones, ‘Wales and Hungary’, Transactions of the Honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion, 1968, 7-27.

[25] Marian Henry Jones, ‘Hungarian sufferings: an Aberystwyth public meeting in 1850’, Ceredigion, Journal of the Ceredigion Antiquarian Society, 8(3) (1976-9), 310-19.

[26] John Henry Jones and Marian Henry Jones, Hanfodion Ffydd y Crynwyr (London: Friends Home Service Committee, 1964).

[27] Marian Henry Jones, Hanes Siloam Brynaman (Llandysul: Gomer, 1972).

[28] Marian Henry Jones, Hanes Ewrop 1815-1871 (Caerdydd: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1982), p. xiii.

[29] Marian Henry Jones to Eirlys Mair Barker, 15 March 1986.

[30] John Henry Jones and Marian Henry Jones to Eirlys Mair Barker, 16 May 1983.

[31] John Henry Jones, Cardi o Fôn: detholion o gerddi a throsiadau, gol. Gareth Alban Davies (Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion, 1991), p. 38. Marian was herself awarded the wisg wen in 1984.

[32] Marian Henry Jones to Eirlys Mair Barker, 30 January 1987 and 2 September 1987.

[33] Marian Henry Jones, Annwyl Julia, p. 78.

[34] For example a Radio Ceredigion talk about Bosnia in 1993.

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