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Alcwyn Caryni Evans 1828-1902

by E. Vernon Jones

Home ON Friday afternoon 14 March 1902 blinds were drawn and shutters raised throughout the town and rain fell incessantly while a funeral cortege made its way along Water Street to Carmarthen cemetery. Even so there were in the large procession a fair number of representatives of the public bodies of the district; defying the weather, they had come to bury one who had been possessed by an insatiable curiosity about his native town and county of Carmarthen in a life of almost seventy-four years, during which he had done much industrious research and assembled a vast amount of knowledge. In the coffin was the body of Alcwyn Caryni Evans, teacher, antiquary, genealogist and tavern-keeper.

About Alcwyn Evans there is not an abundance of biographical information; certainly nothing that can match the voluminous writings on local history that he left behind. He was born on 14 May 1828 the son of Evan Donard Evans1 (1796-1877), being the second of seven children. Of these children the first, a son, survived only a few weeks; the others were four daughters and a son.

Two of the daughters married schoolmasters, one at Morriston and the other at Dalston, London. The father, whose forbears sprang from Cellan, Cardiganshire before moving to Llanegwad and then to Brechfa in Carmnarthenshire, received a good education, for he went to school at Taunton and proceeded to Manchester College, York. Widely known as Evans of York, he first opened a school at Pontantwn in the parish of Llangendeirne in 1822, but soon moved it to Carmarthen, first in Wood's Row and later at the old Quaker meeting house in Lammas Street. He acquired more than a strictly local fame as a schoolmaster, for if it was not possible to send a boy to school at Bristol the next best thing in those days was to commit him to the care of Evans of York.

Alcwyn Evans married firstly Elizabeth Amelia Rees, daughter of John Morgan and widow of an innkeeper who kept the Castle Inn, Priory Street, Carmarthen; she died in 1867,2 leaving no issue. Secondly, he married in 1870 Mary (d. 1884), daughter of William Thomas, a Llandovery ropemaker; she was related to a Carmarthen ropemaker, Mr Charles, and claimed descent from Thomas Charles of Bala. Of this marriage there were two daughters, Marian Sophia and Eleonora Imogen. The former married Ernest Waters, a Carmarthen printer, who like his father, William Waters, was devoutly interested in local history, father and son having published histories relating to Llanstephan and district. Thus Alcwyn Evans's family circle was made up of teachers, ropemakers and local historians plus an innkeeper, his marriage to whom perhaps accounts for the fact Home that he took up this trade himself, having kept for a while the Castle, Priory Street and afterwards, for some years, the Bird in Hand, John Street. Precisely when he relinquished the licence of the latter is not known, but at the time of his death it was recorded that "many people who are not yet past middle age will remember him as the landlord of the Bird in Hand ".3 It is therefore possible that he gave up the house in consequence of his inheritance after his father's death in 1877. The Bird in Hand ceased to be a public house over fifty years ago, but the building, now a fish restaurant, still stands in an off-shoot south of the Market gates, though it will not survive much longer, for it is due to be demolished along with other properties to make way for the town-centre redevelopment scheme. The gilded carved sign that identified the house was removed to the County Museum.

Although he was buried by the Rev. T. R. Walters, vicar of St. David's, Carmarthen, Alcwyn Evans had been a Unitarian and there had been an intimate association with the profession of that doctrine in the town.4 In 1831 his father purchased the old Quaker meeting house in Lammas Street, which had been briefly used as a school during the preceding few years, first by one Marks and afterwards by William Johns. The building had been erected by the Quakers in 1746-8, largely through the exertions of Thomas Morgan, malster. Regular meetings there seem to have ceased by about 1820, after which it was used under lease for a few years by the Welsh Wesleyans while work was being done on their own premises. In the meantime, the Unitarian congregation got possession of the Chapel of the Dark Gate5 when the Baptists left in 1812 for their new chapel, Tabernacle, in Waterloo Terrace. But in 1832 their minister, John Palmer, a Radical who advocated parliamentary reform and founded The Welshman, had to flee the town and the Unitarians lost their chapel. From 1834 to 1849, by which year they had built themselves a chapel at Park y Velvet, the home of Evan Evans was the meeting place of the Unitarians. A record of 1793 tells us that this building was a "neat, pretty Meeting House";6 at the time of Alcwyn Evans's death it was to be described as the "quaint old Quaker meeting-house" and a "curiously constructed building ".7

Flourishing School
In his pedigree Alcwyn Evans gives no information about his own formal education, but that he was a pupil at his father's school might be a proper conclusion. His father, who was reputed to have wielded a heavy birch, had kept a flourishing school and it is not surprising that the son should have taken up the same profession to achieve, as it turned out, equal success and, additionally, win for himself a considerable reputation as a local historian in his native county. That his contemporaries held him in high regard for a profound knowledge of the academic disciplines which appealed to him is evident and most certainly he was much better qualified for his calling than the average private schoolmaster of his time. For very many years he kept a grammar school which was known as the Carmarthen Academy, a lot of his pupils being drawn from the farming community, though this was by no means the only field of recruitment. His first school was in a house that stood on the site now occupied by Lammas Street Congregational Chapel schoolroom, but after his father's death he transferred to the old Quaker house.8

As a teacher he was conscientious and ruled his class with firm, perhaps harsh, discipline; his partially withered arm, an insensitive baton which he could let fly unsuspected, was greatly feared as an instrument of chastisement. Refusing to suffer indifferent effort, he demanded and usually got the best from his pupils and many were grateful for the thorough tuition they received from him; not a few won success for themselves. One likes to think that his academy was in some way the successor to the grammar school that for a century and a half before its closure in 1845 had been attached to the old Carmarthen Academy that was to become known as the Presbyterian College. Until 1840 this latter academy, too, had been closely associated with the Lammas Street Chapel site and had been much influenced by the Unitarian doctrine.

Proficient in Latin and Greek, he also had command of Norman-French and was familiar with other languages, but his ability in this direction was excelled by that of his younger brother Bleddyn, who became master of eight languages and proficient in five others before he died at the age of twenty-two while still a student at Carmarthen Presbyterian College. Even so, Alcwyn Evans was linguistically well equipped, to pursue inquiry into the field of study dear to his heart. When a medieval effigy bearing a defaced and abbreviated inscription was uncovered in St Peter's Church, Carmarthen during the last century it was he who was at hand to identify and decipher the Norman-French.

Interest in local history must have commanded his attention from boyhood, for in his early twenties he had already made transcripts of records from the original 'Book of Ordinances' preserved in the common coffer of the borough of Carmarthen. The record's date from 1590 to 1765 and the transcripts are contained in a bound volume now along with others in the National Library of Wales. The cover bears the title 'The Records of the Corporate Borough of Carmarthen, during the reigns of Elizabeth, James I, Charles I, Oliver. Cromwell, Charles II, James II, William & Mary, Anne, George I, and George II. Ad verbum et literam transcripta, ex tabulis publicis ab Alcuino C. Evans'. By the time he was thirty he was well versed in the history of the town and county, as his personal and specially bound copy of Spurrell's The History of Carmarthen and Its Neighbourhood indicates. In this volume, too, a note in his own hand suggests his disappointment over the failure to acknowledge his provision of the list of Carmarthen's Recorders (incomplete, it is true) for that work. That he could be irascible is again confirmed by a note he made in his own leather-bound copy of Daniel-Thyssen's Royal Charters and Historical Documents relating to the Town and County of Carmarthen, which he edited and annotated. The note concerns Patent Roll 5th Edward III. A.D. 1331 Pant 3 memb. 2 relating to the Abbot and convent of Talley and states: I find this charter's translation, and even the notes, has been plagiarized, and transferred bodily by Long Price, Solr. of Talley, into his paper on Talley, and printed without acknowledgment by name in the pages of Archaeologia Cambrensis. Anno, 1879.

Gold Medallist
From the first he had undoubtedly dedicated himself to the collection of material concerning his native town and county. William Spurrell's History of Carmarthen and Its Neighbourhood had appeared in 1860 and Alcwyn Evans's annotated copy of that book tempts one to suspect that he had it in mind to write his own. The spur that urged him to give form to his collected material was the projected visit of the National Eisteddfod to Carmarthen in 1867. He decided to compete for the prize offered for the best History of Carmarthenshire and was successful, although his triumph was not indisputably complete. There was a rival whose entry was considered sufficiently meritorious to persuade the adjudicators, Archdeacon David Archard Williams and William Spurrell, to deduct five pound's from the prize money and award, it to the next best candidate. This seems to have been contrary to the original intention of the adjudicators, who by way of compensation allowed his manuscript to be returned to Alcwyn Evans. But he got the gold medal, which, with its blue ribbon, he is shown wearing in a portrait of himself and his wife painted in 1874 by Gwilym Rosa.9 Although it cannot be regarded as a history of the county, the manuscript, now in the National Library of Wales, is voluminous, having been supplemented and brought up to date during the remainder of his life. Regrettably, it was never published; in his late years he was to explain that it would not have sufficiently Compensated him for the labour and expense involved. A few years after his death the manuscript was deposited with the printer with a view to publication,10 but the project never materialised.

It is safe to assume that many of the objects of historical interest that came to light in the town and district during the second half of the nineteenth century ultimately found their way into the possession of Alcwyn Evans, with the result that he assembled what must have been almost a private museum. Prized among his possessions was a considerable collection of coins, though these were not all of local antiquarian interest; among them were contemporary coins, including, it is known, American gold dollars. In the bound volumes of papers which he left is one containing facsimiles of the autographs of the mayors of Carmarthen from the year 1400, the signatures of those who had held office during the last thirty years or so of his life being originals. Another of his possessions was, a silk ribbon used by Sir Richard Steele to tie his wig. This relic was recovered from Steele's tomb in St. Peter's Church, Carmarthen when it was opened in 1865 and was acquired by him some time afterwards. To a favoured few he would show a small bone which he used to say was nothing less than a bone from the body of Sir Rhys ap Thomas.11

His collections were dispersed after his death and only the bound volumes of manuscripts and papers survive as an entity, but some Carmarthen borough charter translations found their way into the County Museum, Carmarthen. The beautiful and, in many cases, carefully indexed volumes passed into the library of Sir Evan Davies Jones, Bart., of Pentower, Fishguard and in July 1939 they were purchased at Sotheby's of London on behalf of Alderman R. J. R. Loxdale, Castle Hill, Cardiganshire, who presented them to the National Library of Wales.12 His collected material on the Rebecca Riots was used by H, Tobit Evans in compiling a work on that subject. Coveted was his set of Archaeologia Cambrensis, complete from the beginning and containing copious notes of his own; a few years after his death these volumes were secured for the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society, purchase being made possible by the response of a number of persons to an appeal for the necessary money.13 But, sadly, many other miscellaneous papers have not survived.

Ready Tongue and Trenchant Pen
Alcwyn Evans was a man of medium height - about five feet eight or nine inches well-built and physically strong. He seems to have possessed a formidable dignity appropriate to a Victorian schoolmaster. His defective arm has already been referred to; one who remembers him describes it as a dead arm, but how this came about is not known. Yet it is clear that he was capable of wielding it in a swinging movement with menacing effect. Undoubtedly he was a tippler, but he does not emerge as a character the worse for drink and the habit does not appear to have seriously impaired his energy, as his manifest industry testifies. He could be cantankerous, even tyrannical, which he sometimes certainly was in his domestic domain, and he was not without his eccentricities. On the other hand, he was full of sociable instincts and in company he was always an attractive and genial personality, whose alert intellect, capacious memory and, ready tongue were sure stimulants in any conversation he shared. Whatever the truth about his character, there can be no doubt that he stood out among his fellows as a considerable figure of devoted energy within the context of his special interests.

His political outlook in one respect has a peculiar relevance to our own time. In his later years he was an uncompromising Liberal Unionist who refused to support any claim to home rule for Wales or Ireland; neither could he identify himself with the pan-Celtic movement of his time. For all that he was a Celt and nobody could deny his patriotism.14

An assessment of his work and scholarship will not be attempted here, but it can be said that during the second half of the nineteenth century he probably did more than any other to inquire into the antiquities of the town and county of Carmarthen. "The elaborate, exhaustive and most beautifully written MS. Books which he left behind him are marvels of skill and scholarship," was one verdict by a Carmarthen antiquary four years after his death. Said the same admirer, "Mr Evans was undoubtedly one of the few authorities to consult on pedigrees, ancient wills, documents and other references to the past history of the county."15 Nobody displeased him more than the slovenly student of the past and amateurish attempts to record historical data in the press or elsewhere were sure to invite a corrective response from his trenchant pen; yet nobody could be kinder towards the genuine seeker after truth or more generous in his readiness to recognise ability in others. Home Alcwyn Evans wrote extensively and tirelessly; pen and paper were indispensable to his life. He never failed to record the smallest scrap of information, however remotely connected with the county. This was perhaps his greatest merit, for he was a collector, annotator and investigator, an eclectic annalist rather than an analytical and interpretive historian. He wrote notes and comments everywhere; transcripts and translations abound in his works; and any worth-while book that lacked an index was given one by Alcwyn Evans in his own careful hand. Little wonder that the Carmarthen Literary and Scientific Institution, of which he was sometime secretary, found in him a most useful member, for he it was who catalogued the books in its library and the contents of its museum. This compelling urge to seek and, find, to trace and retrace, to follow the broad rivers to their concealed sources led him into the field of genealogy and heraldry; he delighted in compiling pedigrees and he worked out those of many of the ancient families of West compiling pedigrees and he worked out those of many of the ancient families of West Wales. Even so, almost nothing of his work was ever published. The only printed volume is The Royal Charters of Carmarthen, itself a collected reprint of a serialised version in Haul, the rest remains in his own hand, at its best as pleasing to read as anything a printer could devise, which is pehaps one reason why he prepared the rate-books of Carmarthen borough for some years.

The old Quaker meeting house where Alcwyn Evans and his father had kept school for fifty or sixty years lay within the angle of Lammas Street and the east side of Water Street. The place is approached through an alley leading into an area that seems remote from the commerce of the high street but a short distance away. Here he ended his days in seclusion, but still industriously devoted to his chosen task; after two years of uncertain health following an attack of jaundice he passed away quietly in the presence of his daughters and a few friends on Tuesday afternoon 11 March 1902. No one will now recognise the "quaint" and "curiously constructed" cottage; it has been much altered, if not rebuilt, and for many years the present building has been known to Carmarthen folk as The Retreat. The house now has a conventional appearance with a central door flanked by windows, but until Alcwyn Evans's death it remained for over a hundred and fifty years much as it had been built, except that the walls had been pierced to receive a few windows and a tiled roof constructed in place of the original thatch.

I wish to thank Mr Bleddyn Waters of Llanstephan for permission to reproduce the picture of his grandfather and for allowing me the use of Alcwyn Evans's personal copies of The Royal Charters of Carmarthen, and Spurrell's History of Carmarthen. I am further indebted to Mr Waters and his wife for their kindness to me while investigating the life of Alcwyn Evans. My thanks are also due to the editor, Mr D. F. Edmunds, for placing at my disposal the files of the Carmarthen Journal and The Welshman, from the obituary notices in which I have freely drawn; to Mr D. Emrys Williams, Assistant Keeper, Department of Manuscripts and Records, National Library of Wales for his help in extracting genealogical information; and to a number of older Carmarthen people with whom I have had helpful conversations.
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