Canon J.D. Jenkins

by Holman Hunt
By kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Jesus College, Oxford
Canon J.D. Jenkins
Canon J.D. Jenkins
Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heaven did a recompense as largely send
He gave to misery all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heaven (all he wished) a friend.No further seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose),The bosom of his Father and his God

The above lines, written by one of the first among English poets would almost tend to discourage us in the task we have undertaken in presenting to the public a short sketch of the life and character of the late John David Jenkins, Doctor in Divinity, Vicar of Aberdare. With a sublime philosophy, established on the homo- generous rule that one man is as good as another, the poet grasps the idea of human frailty, blended however, with the rich attributes of a pure heart and a virtuous life.


His mother, Maria, was first married to Thomas Dyke, a chemist at Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales, but he died in 1823. She subsequently married William David Jenkins, who is described in the registers as ‘druggist of Merthyr Tydfil village’. He is given elsewhere as a freeholder of Castellau Fach, in the parish of Llantrisant; the Jenkins’s claimed descent from Iestyn ap Gwrgant, prince of Glamorgan. Maria and William had three children, the eldest of whom was John David Jenkins, born on 30th January 1828. Unfortunately, his father died in 1834 when he was seven years of age, leaving his mother to raise a young family -as was so often the case in Wales, gentle birth did not always mean great wealth.


He was educated at Taliesin ab Iolo School, Merthyr, from there he went to Cowbridge Grammar School, and then his mind exhibited that marked turn which denoted his future career. The Rev. G. Arthur Jones, vicar of St. Mary’s, Cardiff, who was personally acquainted with the subject of this memoir for many years, says: “The testimony of those who were his schoolfellows is that his conduct and demeanour when at school were quite in harmony with the rest of his life, never fond of boisterous play, but amiable, modest, and gentle.” He was a notable book worm, and singularly apt at his studies. It requires no great effort of the imagination to summon up before one the small boy with the earnest eyes and the timid shrinking disposition. Little any one ever thought then that in that tender body burnt a spirit which no amount of temptation could quell, and that little Jenkins, the schoolboy, would one day take the highest degree in theology given in the University of his country.

His native abilities took him to Jesus College, Oxford, in 1846 when he was eighteen years old. As an undergraduate, he was sufficiently talented to come second for a new prize open to all members of the university the Pusey and Ellerton Hebrew Scholarship. It brought him into the limelight, because the great Dr Pusey gave him £10 towards buying books. Having taken his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1850, Jenkins was sufficiently well admired at Jesus to be elected to a full fellowship of the college in 1851. By the terms of its foundation, a King James 11 missionary fellow (for that was what he was) had ‘to go to sea in any of His Majesty’s fleets’. Jenkins was the last to hold such a fellowship, and one of the few to take its purpose seriously although Natal was distinctly better than a plantation.

During his career as a student he was a pattern to all the young men of his time, and was most exact in his religious duties. During this period he attended morning and evening service at the College Chapel daily, though by the college rules he was only required to attend seven times a week. The religious spirit he evinced also exhibited itself in a scrupulous adhesion to the rules of the prayer-book, observing Fridays and the forty days of lent as strict fast days, and attending the church of St Mary University (where  the University  sermons are preached and the Bampton lectures delivered,) every Sunday morning for early communion.

He also gained   ay Oxford M.A. 1852, B.D. 1859, and D.D. 1871. While at Oxford he became a good Hebrew scholar (and remained so throughout his life), and acquired a knowledge of Arabic, Chaldean, Syriac, Greek and Latin. In later years he possessed an admirably complete acquaintance with the modern language spoken if France, Italy, Spain, Germany and even with Zulu when he was in Natal.

He had to enter Holy Orders: in March 1851 he was ordained deacon, and a year later priest, by Samuel Wilberforce, the bishop of Oxford known as ‘Soapy Sam’ to his contemporaries, and accepted the curacy of St Paul’s Oxford, but very shortly resigned this charge, as it was a condition of the above fellowship, that clerks in holy orders should proceed at the direction of the Bishop of London, to one of the British plantations, and there ministerial as a clergyman of the Established Church of England.

By the late summer of 1852 Jenkins must have decided to abide by the full provision of his missionary fellowship, and go overseas. The Bishop of London directed him to serve in South Africa. He sailed on 15 October 1852, and he landed in November at Cape Town. He went to see the Bishop, Dr Robert Gray who sent him on to Natal to assist the Rev James Green at Pietermaritzburg. Leaving Cape Town on January 20th 1853, Jenkins reached Durban aboard the Sir Robert Peel, in the wake of so many other immigrants who had come ashore in the past few years. He must have reached Maritzburg just about on his twenty-fifth birthday.

John David Jenkins began his ministry at once with the garrison at Fort Napier. In a letter written on 23 April 1853, he told his half-brother, Dr Thomas Jones Dyke, at home in Merthyr Tydfil: ‘I say prayers to the troops before morning service; there are about 600 here’. Incidentally, this quotation of a mere fourteen words is all we have on record of what must have been a treasury of letters by Jenkins from early Natal. We are forced to reconstruct his ministry from other sources, as and where we can track them down. The regiment with which he worked was that old friend of the infant colony, Her Majesty’s 45th Regiment of Foot, later to become the Sherwood Foresters, with its territory in Nottinghamshire. The 45th (or two companies of it) built the original Fort Napier in August 1843.

He made it his business to know every man, woman, and child in the 45th Regiment and the battery of Field Artillery, exercising a boundless good influence over all of them. Mrs Devereux and he worked with the soldiers’ wives, persuading them to save money, to make and mend clothes for their children -‘instead of spending it in folly’, she said, ‘and, alas, in many cases drink’. Jenkins might help a half-drunken soldier get back into barracks unnoticed after lights out, but the next day ‘by loving remonstrance’ he would try to induce him to sign the pledge of total abstinence. After his first year of pastoral care at Fort Napier there was a sharp improvement in the order, cleanliness, and general bearing of those in married quarters. He was an honorary member of the officers’ mess (doubtless of the sergeants’ mess, also), and Major Devereux noted that when he was present ‘the most reckless of the officers would not use an expression that would have caused Mr Jenkins pain’. Flora Devereux put all these details in a letter to Dr Dyke, signing it ‘from one who liked and valued dear, good Mr Jenkins’.

Canon J.D. Jenkins with the officers of the 45th Regiment
Canon J.D. Jenkins with the officers of the 45th Regiment
(Photograph: Cape Archives C109/12)
Corroboration of this profile comes from an official District Order, dated 9 December 1858 at the adjutant’s office, Durban. It is nicely phrased: ‘The officiating Chaplain to the Garrison at Fort Napier, the Rev J.D. Jenkins, M.A., having obtained leave to return to England, the Commandant is desirous, before he embarks, to express his appreciation of his particular and kind attention to the sick and to the school-children, and his gratification at the valuable services he had performed for more than five years, with remarkable devotedness and indefatigable exertions, for the welfare of the troops, who, he feels certain, will be glad with him to wish the Rev J.D. Jenkins ‘Farewell, and every happiness’, and that they will long cherish his memory, and regret his absence’. Few of us, I am sure, could hope for a better testimonial to our work, whatever it may be.

There are one or two stories about his experiences in Natal. His duties on occasion took him away from Fort Napier. He visited the various outposts, riding on horseback with a sergeant’s guard, through what was described (in one obituary notice) as ‘miles of wild and desert country, fording rivers and streams, and undergoing all the exigencies of such an uncivilized country’. On one of these jaunts he was asleep in a rondavel one stormy night when it was struck by lightning; he was barely rescued from the flames, almost losing his life. On another occasion, he was at home late one evening when an urgent message was brought to him.

A soldier was dying at Durban, and had asked to speak with him. Jenkins at once set off on foot, staff in hand. He trudged through the night along the faint path, crossing streams and hearing cries of wild animals. Continuing the next day, towards evening he spotted a camp-fire that turned out to be a party of soldiers from Durban, then still 12 miles distant. Jenkins asked about their comrade, only to be told he had struggled out of his fever and was recovering. ‘Overtaxed nature gave way’, we are informed, and the faithful minister sank to the ground exhausted and fainting ‘a classic Victorian scene of morality and sentiment. Not surprisingly, we are told he learnt Zulu ‘for the better performance of his sacred ministrations among the natives’, as well as speaking ‘the form of Dutch used in Natal’.

Return to Britain

By then he was safely ensconced once more within the walls of Jesus College, Oxford. We are fortunate to have a vignette of him immediately after his return from Natal in 1859. It comes from the diary of a distinguished historian, John Richard Green, who was an undergraduate at Jesus and a close friend. ‘Yesterday afternoon; I walked over with Jenkins who has just returned from St George’s in the East (London), where he has been figuring in contest with the London mob. However he has come out un-singed and un-silenced and is chatty as ever on Despotism and the army. These hobbies are wearisome enough’, continues Green, ‘but one forgives much to a mind so amiable use the word in its strongest sense. He is always finding out some bright point in a character one is criticising (and justly), he knows the poor soldiers and beggars as well as the swells, and laughs at looks and stares at his beard because unconscious himself of sarcasm -he has no notion of it in others’. (We know he sported a long Nineveh black beard at that time). On another occasion Green says: ‘I was yesterday every hour with Jenkins, learning to laugh at him and like him more and more’. In 1859 Jenkins completed the exercises of his Bachelor of Divinity, the senior degree of the university. He also filled at different times the college offices of Dean and Junior Bursar.

He travelled extensively abroad each year to Italy, Spain, France, Germany and Austria, acquiring a speaking facility in all those languages. By his professional training he had a literary knowledge of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldaic, Syriac, and Arabic. True to his national birth-right he was of course Welsh-speaking. Scholarship took up much of his time, especially the history of the early Christian church. He read for the degree of Doctor of Divinity, which he took in 1871. The fruit of his research also began to appear in print: 1869 saw the publication of his book entitled The Age of the Martyrs, or The first three centuries of the work of the Church of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It was the first of a projected nine-volume history, and was translated into Welsh and published at Cardiff in 1890.

Aberdare 1869

By 1869 Jenkins wished to leave Oxford. He must have made a deliberate decision, because as a senior fellow of Jesus he could have had the pick of the rich English livings in the gift of the college. Instead he decided to become Vicar of Aberdare, in South Wales, in March 1870. It was in the patronage of his friend the third Marquess of Bute, who owned Cardiff docks and who often invited Jenkins to stay at Cardiff Castle. He was returning to the environment in which he had grown up, the turbulent new communities of industrial South Wales.

Aberdare had a growing population of 37 000, many of whom lived scattered in outlying districts, away from the town, wherever townships had sprung up alongside the collieries and ironworks. There was an ancient church of St John Baptist, dating from the twelfth century. When Jenkins arrived it was in a semi-ruinous state, and characteristically he succeeded in raising £900 to restore it to its original design. This was achieved between 1871 and 1874. The rapid increase in population also led to the building of four new churches; the chief one was St Elvan’s in the heart of the town, completed in 1852. It was proudly and unashamedly a piece of Victorian Gothic; by the time Jenkins appeared on the scene, alas, its fabric was in need of repair, and he bent his energies to raising £700 for that too.

Rev. Dr. Jenkins. He interested himself in everything calculated to promote the happiness of his fellow creatures The Friendly Societies in the locality felt the benefit of his advice and support, and not long ago presented him with a handsomely-prepared testimonial as to their appreciation of his intrinsic goodness. The Church in the parish flourished under his direct or indirect influence, but it was in acts of personal kindliness and charity that he delighted to excel. There are many anecdotes told of what he did in this direction, one or two, however, not very creditable to the recipients of his willing bounty. He met an old man one day who asked him for a shirt. “To ask was to receive” from the Canon, and the pair proceeded to the Vicarage. Here the Rev. Canon gave instructions for the beggar’s want to be supplied, but was informed that his stock of linen bad been exhausted in a similar way, with the exception of two, one of which he was then wearing, “No matter,” said the Canon, “give the poor man the other.”

The basic needs of the working people of his parish were actively championed by Jenkins. He had a particular affinity with the new class of railway workers, dating back to his days at St Paul’s, Oxford, the railway first coming in 1852 (having been kept at bay by the university for many years). When he returned to Jesus College he became much involved with the railway community at Jericho, supposedly scandalizing some of his colleagues by bringing whole families of railway workers to his college rooms for tea and buns. At Aberdare he took this much farther at a formal level. There were nearly 300 railwaymen in his charge, and he held services for them at 4.30 a.m. before they went to work on the early shift. Jenkins advised and helped the men when in dispute with their employers over conditions and wages. During the ‘Great Strike’ of 1872 he negotiated with the trade union leader Mundella, and was appointed arbitrator between masters and workmen.

Stain Glass donated by the Railways Maintenance at Aberdare, St Elvan’s Church Aberdare
Little wonder that in June 1872 he was asked to be vice-president of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. He became president the following year, and so remained to the time of his death, chairing their annual conferences, often in the shadow of threatened strike action. Jenkins became known as the Railwaymen’s Apostle. But he also supported the coalminers in their labour conflicts. He tried to make himself the go-between in the last miners’ strike before 1876, telling the colliers’ representatives ‘how he had pleaded their case in the drawing-rooms of irate employers’. No one can deny the inner conviction of Christian charitableness that drove him to contend for the social well-being of the working class.

Canon Jenkins was a leading light at the birth of the Welsh tradition for choral singing. He was a friend of Griffith Rhys Jones, known as Caradog, a local blacksmith who founded and conducted the South Wales Choral Union. In 1872 Jenkins was the elected president of the mixed choir when they went to the Crystal Palace in London, to compete at the first National Music Meeting. Although most of the singers were non-conformists, they were happy to have an Anglican as their head, and Jenkins must have enjoyed instructing them in the Latin passages of their choral pieces. He organized their journey from Aberdare to London by the Great Western Railway: they could not have been in better hands. He kept an eye on the younger members, ‘his genial face appearing at every carriage window at almost every station. He seemed to be known by every official on the railway’, who greeted him ‘as one greets a venerated friend’. At the G.W.R. headquarters, Swindon, the railwaymen presented him with a golden penholder.

Picture St Elvan’s Church
Picture St Elvan’s Church
Welsh Choral Union

Caradog’s men and women sang their way to victory, winning the trophy. Afterwards there was a royal reception for them on the lawns of Marlborough House. Such excitement! The Prince of Wales spoke at length with Caradog, the Princess of Wales (Alexandra) talked intently with Jenkins, their young daughters intrigued with the black and red stripes of his Doctor of Divinity robes. Jenkins reported afterwards how the future King Edward VII was surprised ‘to find people of such homely appearance possessing such artistic merit’. Caradog’s ‘Cor Mawr’ successfully retained the trophy in 1873, and was not challenged again for many years. He had rendered great services to the famous “Cor Mawr” of which he was president, and instructed them in the Latin passages they sang at the Crystal Palace in 1872 and 1873, accompanied by the Vicar.

Gradually as the winter of 1876 deepened, and the shadows of Autumn merged into the gloom of the darker season the frail body so long offered as a sacrifice to the purest of avocations, began to grow weaker and weaker. Sometime before the Rev. Canon laid himself down to rest the hand of Death was upon him the edict had gone forth, the task approached completion the well-known venerable figure with the whitening beard and the more confirmed stoop of the shoulders was seen less often, and one day he passed beneath the waving trees and amid the falling leaves of the vicarage for the last time.

On the 9th day of November, 1876, he quietly breathed his last, having been closely attended to the end by his two friends and relatives, Dr. Davies, of Aberdare, and Dr. T. J. Dyke, of Merthyr. The Rev. G. Arthur Jones says “Death has now released him from his great bodily sufferings and mental sorrows. He departed in full communion with the Church of which he was an ornament and a loving pastor. May he rest in peace, and may perpetual light shine upon him!” The sad event was viewed as a calamity by many, and the funeral, which took place on the 13th day, notwithstanding a constant down pour of rain, proved such a gathering that South Wales has never seen the like before.


Any public figure with a strong personal following would have an emotional act of remembrance and tribute at the church or chapel, and again more vigorously at the graveside. The interment of John David Jenkins was memorable, even by Welsh standards. A sense of public concern pervades the reports that record his fatal illness, in newspapers like the Western Mail. His health crumbled away in the summer of 1876, he became old-looking and frail, his beard white, and he had to subsist on a totally liquid diet. By the evening of Wednesday, 8 November 1876, he was unconscious, surrounded by friends and family; a reporter who called at the vicarage said of the stricken man that ‘his tenure of life is only a matter of a few hours’. He was still a few months short of his forty-ninth birthday.

Holy Communion was then celebrated by the Rev. G. Arthur Jones, of St. Mary’s, Cardiff, the clergy and a number of strangers being present; several of the latter were communicants. At about one o’clock the South Wales Choir assembled in the Weatheral Street Chapel (St Mair’s) kindly placed at their disposal, and on the arrival of Caradog preparations were made to practise the selection they were to sing at the grave. This was “I wrestle and pray,” from Bach’s passion music, and there were representatives from 10 out of the 11 branches which compose this choir of 500, viz., Aberdare, Llanelly, Swansea, Cwmavon, Maesteg, Mountain Ash, Merthyr, Dowlais, Pontypridd, Treherbert, and Tongwynlais. The Neath section was not represented, except by one or two stray members, as one of their number died recently, and was to be buried today. The choir altogether perhaps numbered around 150, and Caradog like a true leader, criticised their rendering of this difficult piece of music pretty freely before concluding the practice.

The funeral service began at St Elvan’s church at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, 15 November. In the words of the Western Mail reporter; the day ‘broke dark and gloomy over this stirring little metropolis’ in the Welsh valleys. It is easy to imagine the scene as the thousands of mourners made their way from the church: the brief day slipping away to darkness, with rain falling steadily from a low sky resting upon the bare hills, blotting out the memorable skyline of the Brecon Beacons. Just over two years later, had he lived so long, Jenkins would have shared the grief of the local community when so many of its sons died with the 24th Regiment at Isandlwana.

The procession was one of great length, and it would be hard to guess the total number. Probably this might estimate at some four or five thousand. As to the crowds which lined the route, Aberdare never contained so many people before, and five figures would not represent the enormous concourse so collected. Everywhere that the eye could reach was the heads, faces, and umbrellas, and occasionally the procession could hardly pass along the thoroughfares. Truly it may be said that there never was such a gathering in South Wales before, for although the rain continued to fall this did not deter the anxious onlookers. The sight, even, was not one to be soon forgotten: first coming a party of police, then the bright scarlet coats of a detachment of soldierly then, followed by a long string of more soberly attired town’s folk, the surplice choir and clergy, the hearse, the mourning coaches about nine in number, including the private carriages of Mr W. Thomas Lewis, of the Mardy, Dr. Davies, and others. On mounting the rise to the cemetery the mounds by the side of the road were thickly covered with spectators, and, the respect, with which they silently watched the cortege pass bore ample testimony of their good taste.

The cemetery gate was reached at last, and the Church choir, on entering “God’s Acre,” burst into song,” The Church’s one Foundation.” These and the South Wales choir filed off to the left, with the aid of the police and the volunteers, who helped to keep back the multitude. Here they occupied a mound overlooking the vaulted grave in which the remains of the beloved canon were about to be laid. On the arrival of the body the Rev. G. Arthur Jones read the funeral service at the grave, and it was lowered therein, covered with crosses and immortelles from the hands of Dr Dyke and Mr Simons, both of Merthyr. At the conclusion of the most solemn words, which were impressively delivered, the church choir sang, “To thee, to thee, dear country,” while the friends and parishioners of the deceased crowded round the grave. After a pause the first thrilling notes of “I wrestle and pray” were heard proceeding from the mound and although the difficulty of rendering a difficult piece of music from among a closely packed crowd, and from under umbrellas, must be apparent to anyone, the singing was something most affecting.

Grave of Canon Jenkins

Thus concluded the funeral of the Rev Canon Jenkins, of Aberdare. The untiring and self-denying devotion of a good man has, as is usual, brought its reward of earthly honour, but as to the future as compared with the past life of this scholar, missionary, and pastor, the words of Shakespeare are at least appropriate:-

Fear no more the heat o’th’ sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages,
Thou thy weary task hast done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.

His grave is marked by a red granite memorial cross, placed there by the workmen of the Great Western Railway and the Taff Vale Railway, ‘in loving remembrance’.

n Memoriam

The Railway Service Gazette, in concluding a moat touching article on the death of the President of the Society, says: We shall again see the presidential chair failed, but we cannot expect to get such a President as the one who has just been taken from us. Another President may have opponents, friends and supporters. He may be regarded by some with mistrust, aversion, or indifference; in others he may stir up active enmity; from some again he will no doubt receive the devotion of the lost partisan. Canon Jenkins appeared in none of these varied lights. It may, we think, be truly said that he was opposed by none, but respected, esteemed, and revered by all.”