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Arthur Mee, 1860-1926

As is so often the case among those who examine the history of their environment, Arthur Mee was not a native of the place whose past he loved to delve into. He wrote about Llanelli and Carmarthenshire, but was born in Aberdeen on 21st October 1860 the son of George Samuel Mee and Elizabeth, the daughter of James Phillips, a Pembrokeshire farmer. The father was a brilliant student at Glasgow University, which he was obliged to leave prematurely through overwork to become the pastor of a Baptist Church at Aberdeen. After leaving the ministry to take up a career in journalism George Mee edited the Bradford Observer briefly before settling in Llanelli as editor and part proprietor of the South Wales Press.

Arthur Mee, who was sixteen when his father died, had been intended for the medical profession, but, as he himself confessed, he "saved many lives by becoming a journalist". He learnt his profession in Llanelli, but he left in 1892 for Cardiff to join the Western Mail, which he served in several capacities for the rest of his life, contributing to its columns on many topics, often under the pen-name Idris. He married Claudia, daughter of David Thomas of Llanelli, in 1888.

Although he is now remembered as an amateur historian concerned in particular to preserve the heritage of the town of his up-bringing, it was an interest in astronomy that probably commanded his greatest attention outside the demands of his work-a-day life. He was a keen observer of celestial phenomena from his youth, contributed to journals concerned with that science and became a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and its French counterpart. Among his published works was Observational Astronomy, a useful guide in its time, which ran into a second edition.

He was a man of many interests, which included an aptitude for languages. His obituary records that he "mastered the Welsh language" and was "a French, Latin and Greek scholar", and a devotee of Esperanto. But next to astronomy his abiding interest was Welsh antiquities, to use his own description. As a young man he took an active part in the life of Llanelli and was secretary of its Debating Society for some years. He became a mine of information about the town and in 1888 he published Llanelly Parish Church, Its History and Records, with Notes Relating to the Town, (South Wales Press, Llanelly), pp. lxxii, plus pp. 109. Although it was criticised for its inadequacies at the time (Archaeologia Cambrensis 1888, p. 362), it was nevertheless a pioneering attempt to present something of the town's history to his fellows. Much of the material was incorporated in Old Llanelly, by John Innes (Cardiff 1902).

In 1889 he started Carmarthenshire Notes, the purpose of which he expressed in his first editorial by saying he felt "strongly that something should be done for Carmarthenshire akin to what has long been done for many counties in England, and for at least one in Wales, viz. the establishment of a repository where correspondents possessing scraps of curious information may place the same for the benefit of the public and posterity. How much priceless material has passed and is passing away for ever!" Although there never was a flood of such correspondents, this laudable sentiment sustained the publication, which appeared in periodical parts, through three annual volumes (1889, 1890 and 1891) until his departure from Llanelli in 1892. One suspects that had he remained Carmarthenshire Notes would have continued to flourish, but in that year he left to join the editorial staff of the Western Mail in Cardiff.

But the links were not broken, and when the Transactions of the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society appeared early in the following century he at once became a contributor and continued to send items to the next ten volumes until 1916. In one of these contributions in Vol. IV of the Transactions for 1908, the tercentenary of the invention of the telescope he pointed out that some of the earliest astronomical observations ever effected with the telescope were made in Carmarthenshire and drew attention to the work of Sir William Lower of Treventy, south-east of St. Clears, and John Protheroe of Nantyrhebog, near Sarnau in the early years of the seventeenth century. Major Francis Jones has acknowledged that the credit for noting Protheroe's contribution to science belongs to Arthur Mee (vide 'The Squires of Hawksbrook', Trans. Hon. Soc. Cymmr., 1937, p. 344).

When he was about sixty Arthur Mee embarked upon a task which had never been successfully undertaken before. The result was the publication of Who's Who in Wales in 1921. Mee was the editor and in the foreword he wrote: "Whatever the imperfections of the volume now offered to the public, it is, at any rate in one respect, unique. Several schemes have at one time or another been projected to do for Wales what has long been done by Messrs. Black's 'Who's Who' and similar publications for the British world at large. Not one of these schemes has fructified, and the present work, therefore, occupies the position of being the first actual Who's Who in Wales". Sadly, unlike the counterpart it strove to emulate, it never became the subject of regular revision to provide a contemporary dictionary of living notabilities; yet it remains a valuable record of its time and will long continue to be a source of reference.

Arthur Mee died suddenly of heart failure at his home in Llanishen, Cardiff on the evening of Friday, 15th January 1926 after a normal day's work at the wordy trade he had pursued with distinction, marked by unflagging attention to detail, for almost half a century. He was sixty-five years of age. A man of small stature and earnest countenance, he had a large heart full of kindness and encouragement, and possessed a sense of humour and geniality which made him an endearing personality. In his later years he was required to explain all too often that he was not the Arthur Mee who edited the Children's Encyclopaedia, a confusion of identity which he seems to have suffered with good humour. He described himself as a Christian, but allied himself to no church, and politics he had none.

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