This blog post is tremendously overdue (as in, the draft tells me it was saved two months ago). But then, that is what moving city (hi Liverpool!) and job will do to a person, or to me at any rate. Still, waxing lyrical about the National Library of Wales and their archives was always going to happen at some future point, for how could it not?! If you haven’t been, then head for Aber(ystwyth). I promise you it won’t disappoint (there’s curry with half and half for £6.50 for a start – take that, British Library!).
I went to the NLW to look at their holdings on particular mutual improvement and literary societies. Unsurprisingly, they are extensive, and this could be but an initial reconnaissance mission.
Beyond its incredible collections, what should recommend the NLW to you? Well, it’s beautiful, for starters. The building is – as all good libraries should be – a physical manifestation of respect for knowledge. Inside there are lots of deep-pile red carpets and bookcases with glass windows and brass fittings, but I wasn’t sure about photographing indoors/got distracted by books and manuscripts very quickly.
A further quick two points to attract all library users to the NLW: the registration process is quick, easy and provides you with a handsome membership card; the staff are incredibly friendly. The library is a bilingual institution and the staff’s ability to switch between English and Cymraeg on a patron-to-patron basis really impressive. I’m learning Welsh (badly, and at the pace of an early 2000s Peugeot 206) so it was great to sit amid the language and pick out the few words and phrases I could.
Right, to the manuscripts! I’ve split them into the separate societies for clarity, but also to give a sense of how widespread and popular the mutual improvement movement was. If you’ve already read this blog then you’ll know my interest in mutual improvement and literary societies in C19th Wales: think local people gathering together on a weekly basis, in the evening, after work, voluntarily, all for the purpose of increased knowledge on a v a r i e t y of topics. Yes, that breadth of variety.
Kerry Mutual Improvement Association
You might think, as I did, that ‘Kerry’ sounds more Irish than Welsh. Well, the village of Kerry (or Ceri) in Powys is certainly smaller than County Kerry, but it’s a thriving community today as much as it appears to have been in the late C19th. Also, based on photographic evidence, it’s beautiful.
The NLW holds the Kerry MIA Minute Book 1898-1906, but the Association clearly predated 1898 since the first entry mentions asking ‘all old members to join’. This dedicated society met up almost every week, to hear papers and participate in debates on all sorts of topics. One thing which Kerry MIA demonstrates is how responsive mutual improvement and literary societies were to the political events of their time: on 14th November 1899, a paper was given on ‘The War in Transvaal’, referring to the beginning of what we know as the Second Boer War (fought between the British Empire and two Boer states, one of which was the Republic of Transvaal). Impressively, the MIA of a village in Powys, Wales, are hearing about and discussing a war which was less than a month old (war broke out on 11th October).
There is a marvellous mixture of the historically specific and the timeless in the topics the Association discuss. The MIA certainly responds to the advent of new technologies: on 17th December 1902 they ask ‘Should Motor Cars superseed [sic] Horse Carriages[?]’, having tackled ‘The possibilities of Electricity’ two weeks earlier. Meanwhile, other debates continue today: ‘Should Vaccination be made Compulsary [sic]’ they asked in February 1902, and while we might no longer sing about vaccination (cue a link to my friend’s podcast about anti-vax songs from and a discussion of the C19th Anti-Vaccination Movement), only last month were we offered expert advice on how to talk to vaccine sceptics. Kerry MIA also reflects the continued concerns of a small community: there’s a poignancy to the fact that the paper on 18th December 1900 considered ‘why the young people flock to the large towns from Rural Districts’.
The Kerry MIA also provided me with some new favourite phrasing: to ‘get up’ a topic or subject. The number of times that the minute book reports the speaker ‘got up’ their paper or lecture well took me by surprise. I wonder if students would like essay feedback on how well they ‘got up’ the given topic – it has a nice sense of pride but straightforwardly expressed, and recognises the physical structuring that goes into leading an audience through an argument.
Like the impromptu speaking Treforest Mutual Improvement Society had (of which I wrote in a previous blog post) Kerry MIA also subjected members to ‘impromptu speeches’ with topics quite literally pulled from a hat. While I’ve no doubt that this technique improves one’s public speaking no end, I have to admit that the breadth of subject-matter – from ‘Should Butter Making be more adopted in this county?’ all the way to ‘Should England put pressure on the Sultan of Turkey to stop the massacres of Christians in Macedonia?’ – makes me wholly grateful I myself have not faced the challenge…
Inaugural Address to Catherine [sic] Street Literary Society (1886)
Other records are not entire books, or sheaves of letters, but one lecture text. This is true of this beauty. CathArine Street, Liverpool, is one I know well, but this particular record is in the NLW as part of the Calvinistic Methodist archive. Rev. Griffith Ellis, who delivered the lecture, was born in Wales, educated in Oxford, and ultimately became a pastor at a chapel in Bootle, North Liverpool, hence the ease with which he could address a Liverpool-based society. In neatly-written hand across the pages of an exercise book is the full text of the inaugural address Griffith Ellis offered to members on 9th October 1886.
His topic was ‘Literary or Debating Societies as Means of Culture’, precisely one of the queries that haunts my research. As Laura and I were at pains to point out in Episode 3 of LitSciPod, ‘How Many Cultures?’, Ellis warns that ‘This word “Culture” has forbidding associations’. You’re telling me, mate! Much as with the Boer War paper of Kerry MIA, what interests me most about this is how big national debates are filtering down to the (street) level of regional societies, because – and the word ‘culture’ may have already given it away – Ellis is discussing Matthew Arnold’s ‘Culture and Anarchy’ (the 1875 book version). However, while Arnold’s text remains studied and debated today, Ellis uses another contemporary theory of culture to criticise “the pretentious theory of Mr. M. Arnold” – Principal Shairp’s Culture and Religion.
Now it’s probably my failing that I hadn’t previously heard of John Campbell Shairp, but his writings on culture didn’t get quite the same foothold as Arnold’s. Shairp was Oxford’s Professor of Poetry a mere decade after Arnold retired from the title! (Yes, I’m feeling increasingly embarrassed by my ignorance). Ellis quotes Shairp at length, arguing that religion and culture are intrinsically linked (and that you can’t have the latter without the former). Through Shairp, Ellis criticises both the “scientific theory” of culture (represented by Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog and Arnold’s adversary in any literature or science debate) and the “literary theory of culture” (represented by Arnold). Now perhaps you’ll say it’s unsurprising that a C19th pastor should aver
“I think it will be admitted by all of us here that the truest culture cannot be attained apart from religion and without giving to religion the first place. And the existence of this Society is in some way a recognition of this truth. This is a Literary Society in connection with a Christian Church.”
But what I find fascinating is the use of an inaugural address to debate what culture might mean; to seek to explicate three contemporary views of ‘culture’ from men of great standing; and to do this all at so local a level. Having thought deeply about the society, Ellis sums up what the mutual improvement or literary society of the C19th offered its members:
“The information gained on any subject will be of value in life. But in addition to the knowledge acquaired [sic] there is the training to be obtained in public speaking. And there is in addition to both the advantage of contact with our fellows, the formation of a bond of sympathy with these who are our neighbours.”
The most crushing thing (and any writer will feel this pang) is that at the very top of the first page, after penning the entire lecture – and presumably delivering it – Griffith Ellis has written ‘A Mistake It was a Temperance Address that was wanted’. So this astonishing piece of work was felt to be ‘A Mistake’, though I receive it as anything but.
Portmadoc Literary and Debating Society
The NLW has the Minute and General Account Book of the Portmadoc Literary & Debating Society (and yes they do spell it like that), with an initial date of ‘Nov. 25th 1878’. Now this society has attracted more attention than some because a certain Mr Lloyd George (yes, that Lloyd George) was not only a member but – as is evident from consulting the registers – a regularly attending member and sometime debate participant!
While the Society settled on the title of ‘Literary & Debating Society’, the account of its formation notes that ‘A few gentlemen met at the British school on the 13th of November […] to consider whether a Debating or a Mutual Improvement Society could be formed’. This is why it’s impossible to study the mutual improvement movement without close consideration of those like-minded societies who used titles not bearing either word!
Much like other societies I’ve written about, Portmadoc debates not only subjects of national contemporary relevance (such as on 25th April 1881 when they debated “That Transvaal war and the terms of peace. Were they honorable to England[?]”, and the First Boer War had only ended on 23rd March), but topics of particular concern for Wales as a nation in its own right. “Ought the Welsh to be preserved as a spoken language?” ran a debate of February 1879, with minutes making it clear that “On Division, there were 22 for the affirmative, 6 for the negative and 1 neutral.” March 1880 saw them asking “Has the Eisteddfod benefitted Wales?”. Again, the affirmatives carry it, but interestingly there are loose papers with notes from the same question being debated in 1886 when one member comments ‘why take it to Liverpool or London – ought to be kept to Wales’ (the Eisteddfod was held in Liverpool in 1884, and was set for London in 1887) and Robinson apparently ‘suggested introduction of games so as to render this more like the Olympic games’! I’m now imagining athletic poetry readings…
Of interest for the Piston, Pen & Press project, the Minute and General Account Book not only records attendance and year-on-year membership figures, but the members’ professions (often by dint of not providing a personal address). While the society starts when ‘a few gentlemen’ meet, and the early lists include a fair few solicitors and bankers, by the third and fourth sessions we see members from ‘Steam Flour Mills’, ‘Steam Saw Mills’, ‘Festg Rway Station’ ‘Cambrian Rway (goods dept)’ or simply ‘Builder’, ‘Timber Merchant’. The societies allowed different orders of society to intermingle and, of most interest for me, for the working classes to reach upwards through self-improvement.
Myllin Literary and Debating Society
Finally, I had *that archival moment* when you hold what you’ve been looking for, and it is genuinely hard to hold back the tears. Thanks to Dr Lauren Weiss’s incredible doctoral research, I knew that some societies created handwritten magazines, autograph manuscripts which were passed by hand member to member. I spoke at the 2019 RSVP Conference about these magazines this summer, and I’m having to hold myself back from waxing too lyrical about these astonishing artefacts…
The first issue is from February 1898, and by ‘issue’, I mean exercise book into which someone has transcribed all of the articles. The title page (carefully decorated in inkpen to resemble a title page though on the first page of lined paper) details four transcribers, so this was separately copied out four times. Indeed, the NLW holds the copies of Issue for both Division 1 and Division 4. To explain the divisions, I turn to the note I found at the back of the magazine, once the pagination had ended:
The Circulation of the Magazine.In order to facilitate the distribution of the Magazinethe Society has been divided into four divisions,and through each of these divisions one copyof the current number of the Magazine willcirculate.To accomplish this successfully,the Committee requests a strict observanceof the following rules.Rules.
- No person shall retain a copy during
circulation, for a longer period than
- Each person is to pass the copy on to
the person whose name directly
succeeds his or her own in the
With Division 1 having 12 names, and Division 4 11, we can estimate an overall circulation – and thus membership – of 44 people (or ‘Myllinites’ as they later call themselves!). The difficulties inherent in setting up and sustaining a magazine are clear when in issue 3, the editor details the previous two attempts to set up a magazine (both failures).
The content of these magazines varies: there are creative pieces (poems as well as prose), updates on the local schools, the history of the local area, competition-winning essays and more. While some articles are of a literary bent (one memorable one taking a pop at Browning for “the horrible incongruity of some of his rhymes”), others are more scientific, with an essay on ‘Influenza’ explaining the work of germs within the body (though in the most delightfully descriptive of ways).
Although Arnold is not mentioned by name, the currency of the culture debate was still high in 1898, since one of the long essays in issue 3 takes ‘Culture’ as its topic. This time, culture is split into three strands: Culture of the Body, Culture of the Mind and the Culture of the Heart. There may be some influence of Shairp in this last, since this is a cultivation of the intellect that also serves the divine. Again, it shows how mutual improvement and literary societies were partaking of a climate of ideas, which may have begun circulating at a national level via universities and the national press, but which filtered down to individual local societies.
The magazine continues, by the way. By number 4, it’s a typewritten affair (for which I’m sure the transcribers were truly grateful!). There’s a gap in the NLW’s holdings, but by number 10 in April 1901, it’s printed with two columns of text, accompanying drawings and available at a price of 2d (suggesting a much increased circulation than the original issues.
Ala Road Literary Society
This society is a lesson in audacity! The NLW holds the Ala Road Literary Society Letter Book 1895-99, so you can read the replies they got, as well as who they were writing to. From the first few letters, it became clear that they were writing to the great and the good of literary London asking for donations to their burgeoning library (all good mutual improvement and literary societies have one), some with greater success than others. In an effort to bolster the Society, they also wrote to people offering them Honorary Membership of the Society, and yes they did ask the Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin, whose secretary declined on his behalf for fear of “giv[ing] umbrage to other societies”.
The best way to demonstrate the unbridled optimism with which the Ala Road Literary Society sought connections is to give you my archival notes verbatim for a few sentences:
On headed paper from 10, Downing Street, Whitehall. S.W. July 15th 1896. Arthur James Balfour writes a HW letter declining honorary memb. This is pre-PMship but he’s Leader of the House and First Lord of the TreasuryOMG they try again! July 28th 1896 Ar James Balfour has to decline AGAIN noting that ‘For were I to become a member of one Literary Society outside the districts with which I am directly connected, it would be difficult, or impossible, for me, – without making invidious selections, – to refuse to join similar Societies in any part of the Kingdom’
I can only hope you enjoy this as much as I! So who was writing all of these letters? A Ivor Parry, who also edited The Pwllheli Home Messenger, the magazine of the Ala Road Presbyterian Church. Rather wonderfully, people who didn’t respond positively might meet with the wrath of the Welsh press: The London Kelt in December 1895 drips with disdain over novelist Allen Upward’s response to being asked to send one of his books to the Society. The paper notes “We should never think of referring to the man were it not for the fact that over 6.000 of the intelligent voters of Merthyr Tydvil, recorded their votes for him at the General Election” (Upward stood as a Lib-Lab candidate for Merthyr in 1895). Upward writes to ask for the denomination of the Ala Road chapel in which the Society meets since as a Baptist, “I could not possibly send my works to a Congregational Society, far less to a Wesleyan one.” It’s up to you which side you come down on: that of the soliciting literary society (Parry also wrote to the descendants of several writers as well, including Rosettis and Quiller Couchs), or the put-upon solicitee, but The London Kelt is adamant:
“We deeply regret that such contemptible bigotry should prevail in any denomination.”
So there you have it: toes dipped into some regional C19th societies and their activities, and a display of the wealth of information the NLW holds. All of this learning about people learning makes me want to learn even more… About them, about whatever there is available to me to learn. Members of C19th mutual improvement and literary societies are inspiring in their aspirations for knowledge!