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George Eyre Evans 1857-1939

In the league of indefatigable enquirers who have devoted their lives to the collection and recording of information that comes to the aid of researchers into local history George Eyre Evans must surely rank high. Born on 8 September 1857 at Colyton Parsonage in rural south Devon, he is yet another example of those fated to enter the world at a place far removed from the environment that would command a lifetime's interest.

In 1856, his father, David Lewis Evans (1813-1902), had married Ophelia Catherine, daughter of Capt. George Eyre Powell, RN of Colyton, the first child of the union being the future Carmarthenshire historian. From his mother George Eyre Evans learnt the values and habits of Victorian gentle-folk, an English legacy which was to fuse with a Welsh heritage; from his father, a scholar of no mean attainment, he doubtless derived that spirit of dedicated inquiry that was to serve him well in the fields of West Wales history, particularly in Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire.

His early education came to him via John Ashbridge's Carmarthen Collegiate School, the Queen Elizabeth Grammar Schhol in the same town and the celebrated Unitarian academy of Gwilym Marles at Llandysul. During this period his father was professor of Hebrew and Mathematics, an unlikely combination, at the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, an appointment he held with distinction from 1864 to 1874. The family's removal to Birkenhead resulted in young George's entry into the university of Liverpool from yet another school in that city. That he should be destined for the Unitarian ministry - his father was strong in that faith - is no surprise, and he embarked upon service to that cause by taking up the pastorate of the Church of St. Saviour at Whitchurch in Shropshire. Later he devoted many years of unpaid service to the Unitarian ministry at Aberystwyth, though in time he abandoned the style of Reverend.

During the many years he lived at Aberystwyth he delved into the history of Cardiganshire, upon which he expended thousands of written words, many of them in weekly articles in the local Press under the name of Philip Sidney, before transferring his interest to the neighbouring county, where, in 1906, he became secretary of the newly formed Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society and Field Club, an honorary appointment he held with scholarly devotion for the rest of his life, though this did not prevent him from sharing his unbounded enthusiasm in later helping to form a similar society in Cardiganshire. From the beginning he was inspired by an ambition to create a county museum, an institution which was to become an essential part of the cutural life of Carmarthen, where it was housed in Quay Street, and earned an enviable reputation which overspilled the county boundaries. There, in an upstairs sanctum, besieged by antiquarian books and specimens, he was to administer the affairs of the society, receive visitors in agreeable conversation and write down his notes whenever time allowed. In a corner gloom, during his last years, would often sit Ernest Vale Collier, all along a companion in the promotion of the society's welfare.

Already a member of the Cambrian Archaeological Association, he graduated to membership of its general committee in 1915 and was elected to its editorial board three years later. In 1910 he was appointed Inspecting Officer of the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthsire, an appointment he relinquished in 1928. By 1919 he was a member of the Court of Governors of University College, Aberystwyth and two years later he was elected to the Council of the National Museum of Wales. In 1924 he became a member of the Council of the National Library of Wales. All these appointments, just recognition of his worth, he filled with characteristic enthusiasm.

His was a life full of physical and mental activity, devoted to a labour of love that was its own reward. His travels all over Wales on behalf of the Ancient Monuments Board made him familiar with every pre-seventeenth century monument and site worthy of note. Additionally, his connection with the antiquarian societies of Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire urged him around those counties with enquiring eye and mind, all the time acquiring museum specimens, making field notes, examining historical sites, visiting houses where he could elicit information, never missing a church or its incumbent, and always admiring the countryside. He shunned transport, which he used only when necessary, preferring to walk whenever it was possible. By 1920 he was proud to claim that he had walked 21,000 miles,1 to which many more were added in the remaining years. He loved the open-air and weather never worsted him.

Perhaps it was this love of outdoor life that had some influence upon his decision to join the Scout movement. That he was already sixty-seven years of age was irrelevant; an active body and an alert mind were all that mattered. At seventy-five and more he wore his uniform as though it were the most natural thing to do, his shorts exposing weathered knees and limbs still sturdy. He delighted in the name of Sing Songs, a self-chosen sobriquet by which he was affectionately known throughout the movement in Wales and probably further afield. He became Commissioner for Carmarthenshire and Assistant Commissioner for Wales and was among those entitled to wear the Silver Wolf.

His patriotic loyalty was perhaps inspired by his proudly acknowledged grandfather, Capt. George Eyre Powell, who had served in the Royal Navy and was aboard HMS Heron when it brought home dispatches from St. Helena which gave news of Napoleon's death. A precious memento Powell took with him when he left this vessel was the Union Jack which had been flown on HMS. Virginie when Nelson's death was announced; he flew it frequently from HMS Victory, to which he was posted long after Nelson's time. This flag, George Eyre Evans, 'not having a single relative in consanguinity', presented to the Welsh Scout Council. On national occasions he flew a Union Jack from the mast outside his Carmarthen home on the Parade; at other times the mast boasted the Scout flag.

One of the many stories told about George Eyre Evans has been recorded by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, preeminent among archaeologists in his time, who has related at length the events which attended the funeral of a venerable aunt, the last of George Eyre's relatives. Never willing to miss an opportunity to add to his antiquarian knowledge, he seized upon the funeral journey from Devon to Woking as a means of exploring historic parts of southern England, only slight deviation, he perceived, being necessary to visit Sherborne Abbey, Stonehenge and other places. During these inspections the coffin was abandoned to the protection of the Union Jack, a gesture in honour of the fact that the deceased's father had been a naval officer. The belated arrival of the mud-spattered motor-hearse at Woking crematorium was confronted by a large public assembly, which George Eyre, unware that he had forestalled the stately cortege of famous statesman, viewed with deep satisfaction.2

Another story illustrates typical forthrightness. To one who had talked of his private collection with not a little pride, he blasted: 'You ought to be ashamed to say so. What becomes of a private collection after the collector's death? Thrown out, destroyed, lost. Lost, sir, lost to the great world of science. If I may say so, private collectors should be treated as distructive and dishonest people.' By way of appeasement, he promised this visitor to Carmarthen 'that if you submit anything of real interest to our excellent museum in this town - than which there is no better in the Principality, small I admit, small but good - then you will receive every attention and courtesy. I may add that some of the departments are under my special care.'3

Strangely, both these writers describe a small or little man; one wonders whether the passage of time tricked memory into reducing the stature of a picturesque personality. The present writer remembers a taller, more imposing figure, deep-chested and broad-shouldered, that commanded attention in any street scene. In his later years he strode from another age in a suit well-cut by a rural tailor from tweed that must have come from a Teifi-side mill, one suspected. Walking Carmarthen streets with a confident air, he invariably clutched to his breast a book or a wallet of written notes, the bountiful product of a fertile pen. Sometimes he carried a small attache-case covered with labels advertising his foreign travels. When other men had long forsaken the fashion, he still wore a close-cut beard which tapered to a tangled tuft. But by his last decades he had discarded knickerbockers and Norfolk jacket. Through gold-rimmed spectacles peered a pair of inquisitive eyes that scrutinised man and manuscript, book and relic with insatiable curiosity; a high pitched voice never shrank from uttering a decided opinion, nor tired of lecturing any group eager to learn something of the history that surrounded them in their daily lives; withal came enthusiasm that never grew stale with advancing years. Having seen eighty summers pass, he was belatedly admitted to the roll of Freeman of the town whose heritage he had done so much to cherish. Unmarried, he died on 9 November 1939, the last of his blood and an incongruous survival in an age that had lost the serenity of former times.

George Eyre Evans wrote prolifically, being a frequent contributor to the Transactions of the Cardigan-shire and Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Societies and Archaeologia Cambrensis among other journals, as well as the local Press, to which he sent regular notes, his manuscripts being instantly recognisable by the green ink which he favoured. Notable in the Carmarthenshire Transactions, for which he wrote countless articles, notes and reports, was a series concerning the history of the Quakers in Carmarthen. During his time as inspecting officer for the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments seven county volumes were published in respect of Wales, the Carmarthenshire volume, a treasure-chest of historical information, being very largely the work of George Eyre Evans. His published books include: A History of Renshaw Chapel, Liverpool (1887); Happy Hours of Work and Worship (1889); Whitchurch of Long Ago (1893); Record of the Provincial Assembly of Lancashire and Cheshire (1896); Vestiges of Protestant Dissent (1897); Colyton, a Chapter in the History of Devon (1898); The Midland Churches (1899); Antiquarian Notes (a private magazine, 1898-1906); Aberystwyth and its Court Leet (1902); Cardiganshire, A Personal Survey of some of its Antiquities (1903); Lampeter (1905); The Lloyd Letters, 1754-96, edited with notes (1908), a valuable record of religious life in Cardiganshire during the eighteenth century, as well as guides relating to Carmarthen and Lampeter.

His cremated remains lie near those of his father in the burial ground of the Unitarian chapel at Alltyplacca, not far from the waters of the Teifi which divide and yet unite the counties to which he so willingly devoted his talent.

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