The Master of Pen y Bryn [Gŵr Pen y Bryn]

Davies, E. Tegla

Subtitled ‘A Story from the Period of the Tithe War’ (referring to a public campaign, with riotous interludes, in the late nineteenth century against enforced contributions to the Anglican clergy in Wales by its largely Nonconformist non-Anglican population) this is not, however, the dramatic account of rebellion and national struggle one might expect. Rather it is a morality tale centred on the lives of two men, John Williams ‘Master of Pen y Bryn’ and his adversary, Hughes, and seems to represent a shift from a worldview of rule-book Protestantism and chapel morality to a Romantic view of Natural Beauty and Love as inspiration for redemption and moral regeneration. As Marcus Aurelius put it well before the Christian age: ‘overcoming the obstacle to a task becomes the task’. The ‘task’ here is the overcoming of petty anger and vengefulness and the resultant improvement of the soul or character. But it is not the bleeding Jesus on the cross that inspires the morally improving protagonist Hughes but a vision of romantic and erotic bliss, a lovely scene of young love, the young love that Hughes himself largely missed out on when young.

Edward Tegla Davies (a Wesleyan minister and a prolific essayist), aside from his moral and theological preoccupations, had a clever way with words, on a mature wife for example: ‘Jane Williams had been pretty once, and a few solitary traces of that beauty were still etched in some lines of the face, just as a few green branches are left here and there to break the monochrome of the winter landscape’.

There’s a wry humour too at local pomposities, especially at the expense of the ‘Master of Pen y Bryn’ himself, a tenant farmer, a vain fool if ever there was one, who is contrasted with such as the Mathew Thomases (a farm labourer), simple, very poor God-fearers who sit by their grate upon a ‘hearthrug’ printed HENRY TATE AND SON, SUGAR REFINERS.

Unfortunately for the great ‘Master’, who launches himself on a career as a beacon of the anti-tithes campaign, he lives in a gossipy goldfish bowl of a place where every piece of maladroit or mischievous behaviour is noted and commented on. However, right on the brink of public shaming (he has in fact betrayed the tithe rebels) he is saved by a vision of love given to the man who judges him — Hughes — and who could easily visit a public reckoning on him. It is a suitably religious kind of denouement, about a conflict between outward and inner rectitude not much in fashion today perhaps, but along the way Davies gives us an interesting picture of the life of farmers in north Wales during this time. There is something of a sub-plot involving lamb-molesting

sheepdogs, which, like the moral quandaries of mid-century Wesleyanism, perhaps fails to make us catch fire today. However, without a doubt Davies was an excellent, critical observer of rather circumscribed provincial types, even if he descends to a rather exhortatory tone in the last few chapters. RK


The Rev. T. Cefnllech Roberts was one of life’s tragic souls. When he was born, Welsh life was full of romance; Wales was awakening to the dawn of her youth, and its light shone on her face. Ministers of the gospel had long fought her battles, till they became heroes in her eyes, bathed in a supernatural aura. At that time, offerings were cast at their feet like the palms at the feet of their Master, and there was great rejoicing when one of them came on a passing visit to the country districts. Many lads were dazzled by this charisma, and longed to enter their world. One of these lads was the one who later became the Rev. T. Cefnllech Roberts. By the time he had joined their ranks the glory had vanished; the minister’s glamour had become an actor’s royal regalia in the hard light of day.

His parents had never had the honour of giving a minister a night’s lodging, and their relationship with him was that of people who gazed at a monarch from afar. They never dared imagine that one of their children could become a minister, but their cup would be overowing if this should happen. They could not conceive of greater bliss. They respected ministers so much that even a slip of a lad, a lay preacher on trial, would get endless adulation from them when he dropped in for a bite. In return they would get the honour of feeding a lay preacher on trial. This was the atmosphere the Rev. T. Cefnllech Roberts was brought up in, and faith in preachers was kindled in him early; and faith in his country, which seemed to blossom under their ministry. And his ideal was to be a Welsh minister, preaching the eternal gospel in a musical burst of Welsh hwyl*, and proclaiming the rights of his country amid enthusiasm and hand-clapping and feet-stamping. He tried out his talents a great deal on many congregations of stones and many ocks of sheep on the mountain. In this way he became acquainted, early in his career, with two rather unpleasant types of audience, the immovable and the mindless. The stones gazed stoically and contemptuously at him, and the sheep looked bewildered, as if they could not understand a word.

When he began to preach his soul was on re, and like every young preacher he thought that before long he could inspire the land with ardour for the pure and the elevated, and that multitudes would throng to the Saviour under his ministry. He mercilessly condemned all manner of sin, thinking that he would only have to condemn and the land would awaken, be afraid, and become converted. It was then he learnt the phrases that became a part of him: that the dawn was rising in Wales, shackles were being cast away, the yoke of oppression was being broken, the mountains were bursting into song, the trees were applauding for joy — in anticipation of this event.

It was to Llanalun that he
rst went as a minister. In Llanalun, at the beginning of autumn, they had a fair they called Dung Fair, an ancient institution. In the rst half of the day they had an animal market and in the second they had fun. People would then indulge frantically in play and dance and drunkenness and ghting. The minister imagined devils sniggering and angels weeping when the fun and games were over when he watched the horde of wayfarers staggering home, and among them an occasional couple who would not get home at all that night.

The Rev. T. Cefnllech Roberts, with the curiosity of a new minister, went to investigate the fair, and he was shocked to the core. He left the place with all the visions of his youth hovering around him, calling him to action; their voices were like a cry from the promised land. And he decided to act, to banish such vanity from the land. The next day he went to his fellow ministers in the area, old men who had lived there a long time. One of them intimated to him, kindly, that it was a great thing to be young… 50–51