William Aubrey Williams “Gwilym Gwent” 1834-1891

Picture of William Aubrey Williams

William Aubrey Williams was, of born of humble parents in a humble cottage near the iron works   on Old Tredegar in 1834. He was a singer in the parish church of Rhymney at the age of nine years, his uncle Rhys Williams, being the precentor. Gwilym was a child of nature, and found no delight save in emptying his soul of its treasures of music. He was one of the finest examples of the self-made and self-taught man that Wales has ever produced.

When we recall his limited opportunities and scanty privileges we are thrilled by his matchless courage, dogged perseverance and unique achievement, for he was deprived of the care and love of a mother when only three years old, and was compelled to earn his livelihood at eight years of age. In those young and tender years he had to be taken by the hand to the scene of his labours by kind and sympathetic friends, especially on dark mornings.

Three other towns can also lay claim to a share of his young life, namely, Rhymney, Cwmbach (Aberdare), and Blaenavon, before he emigrated to work in the coal mines of Wilkes-Barre and Plymouth, Pennsylvania, where is body rests under a monument erected by the Cymry of America in 1895.

Gwilym Gwent in Aberdare

Thanks to Mr. John James “Iago Fwyaf,” Teilo House, Aberdare, a correspondent has obtained some interesting reminiscences of the versatile musician Gwilym Gwent, while he resided at Aberdare, as well as a photograph which we produce. He composed his popular glees “Yr Haf,” and “Y Ganwyn,” and others while engaged as a collier at Cwmbach. Gwilym Gwent was born as indicated by his assumed name, in Monmouthshire, came to Aberdare in 1862, being then 28 years of age and found work at Lletty-Shenkin Colliery, where Mr James, who had come from Carmarthenshire a year or so earlier.

Gwilym had already won some fame as a musician, but it was while at Cwmbach that he composed the glees and other musical compositions which have made his name so well-known in Wales and among the Welsh people of America. There were at Aberdare at the time some excellent musicians who gave Gwilym great assistance in various ways. Among these were the late Caradog as well as Caradog’s father-in-law, the manager of Lletty-Shenkin Colliery at that time. All these as well as James, himself, although he was too modest to mention it, aided Gwilym in many ways.

Another able musician then residing in Aberdare was Dr Denning, the organist of the Tabernacle English Congregational Church, to whom the famed Welsh minister, Dr Llewellyn Bevan of Australia, once referred as the ablest organist he had ever met. It was Mr James who introduced Gwilym as a musical composer to Dr Denning and got him to play over “Yr Haf” in order to get his opinion on it. The three met at the Castle Hotel, Aberdare which was then kept by Mr T.H. Jones, afterwards of the Abergwawr Brewery, who was himself a well-known musician in his days.

The Castle Hotel was the only licensed house in Aberdare at that time that had a pianoforte in it, and it was there one evening that Dr Denning first played over the air of “Yr Haf.” Having played parts of it over again and again, Dr Denning said: “There is something very grand in this.” And, thus encouraged, the work was completed much of the score being written as the inspiration came, while he  worked underground, on a piece of slate, or even on the shovel or curling box. The copyright of “Yr Haf” and “Y Gwanwyn” were subsequently sold to the late Ieuan Gwyllt, who published both of them in “Y Cerddor,” which he edited at the time.

This is not intended (proceeds our correspondent) as a biography pf Gwilym, but merely as a few brief reminiscences of his life at Aberdare. He emigrated to the United States in 1872 and was engaged there in colliery operations. It was while at Aberdare he married a daughter of one David Jenkins, of Cwmbach, and died in Pennsylvania, twenty years ago. A fine monument to his memory in the cemetery there was built by the Welshmen of America. It was around this monument that Madame Thomas’s ladies’ choir sang on their visit to Plymouth a few years ago.

Picture of The Castle Hotel

The Castle Hotel

His Contemporaries

Three other lads saw the light of day in the same valley about the same time:

In 1831 Dr Aaron Davies, late of Pontlottyn, who served his day and generation with rare and uncompromising fidelity to principle;

In 1833 William Thomas (Islwyn), who was very early in life became the idol of the Welsh people, as poet, preacher, and hymn writer, and whose immortal hymn of:


Gwel uwchlaw cymylau amser
O fy enaid gwel y tir


See above the clouds of time
O my soul sees the land

Will be sung when the last Welsh pilgrim will be taking his homeward flight!

Eisteddfod Victories

Brynmawr Eisteddfod – The Brynmawr Temperance Cymrodorion 08.01.1859

The Brynmawr Temperance Cymrodorion held their first Eisteddfod on Monday last, at Rehoboth Independent Chapel. The first meeting commenced at half- past ten in the forenoon, the Rev. William Jenkins in the chair.

Duet, “Heber;” prize awarded to Messrs. William Evans, and William Williams, (Gwilym Gwent), of Rhymney

Aberystwyth Eisteddfod 23.09.1865

For the next prize, being £5, offered for the best three glees, or part songs, to Welsh words, there were 27 compositions sent in. Three were successful competitors, amongst which only one appeared, Mr Williams, Gwent (taking two prizes,) who was invested by Mrs Lewis Lloyd, Nantgwyllt.

Mr Ambrose Lloyd stated that 15 had competed for the prize of £2 2s, for the best Duet, suitable for two female (soprano) voices. The best was “Brython,” whose real name did not transpire

Dr Davies the conductor; announced that the successful candidate for the best Duet, who was not present on the previous day to receive the prize, was Gwilym Gwent, of Brynmawr, who now came forward, and was invested by Lady Lloyd, Bronwydd.

Cymreigyddion Eisteddfod Bethesda 09.03.1867

The meetings of the above Eisteddfod came off at 2 and 6 p.m., on Friday last, when the large Market Hall was crowded throughout. The president of the afternoon meeting was the Rev D. Thomas, M.A., St. Ann’s, and of the evening meeting the Rev. Rowland Williams (Hwfa Mon), both of whom delivered eloquent opening addresses. The Rev. E. Stephen (Tanymarian); capitally acted as conductor.

The following awards were made by Tanymarian, in Music, viz., the duet, “John and Jane,” divided between Isalaw, Bangor, and Gwilym Gwent; the Melody, “Sion Rhys,” Daniel Owens, Llanfairfechan; the best Anthem, Gwilym Gwent; R Roberts. Esq, judged Evan J. Williams of Buarth-y-Berain, and Owen J. Owen, Llanfairfechan, worthy of a prize for singing a duet.

Picture of Music Score

Blaenavon the long-talked of Eisteddfod 11.07.1868

The Eisteddfod commenced about 11 a.m. Mr. E. Kennard, Esq., the managing director of the works presided, and around him were all the agents and a goodly number of the “gems of creation.” The celebrated Llew Llwyfo, whose very appearance before any Welsh audience is a guarantee that a feast of wit and humour is in store, was the adjudicator upon recitations, poetry, and essays, and Mr. Davies, “Eos Rhondda,” was the musical judge. Mr. Phillips, of Maindee, having delivered a short address, the competition for the best singing of the duet “Fy Nhad,” from Gwilym Gwent’s cantata, took place. The prize offered was £1 1s. Thirteen competitors had sent in their names to compete, but five only came forward. Their singing upon the whole was very good. The prize was awarded to John Parry and David Gunter.

The judge next delivered his adjudication upon the prize glees which he had received. Eight composers had sent in their compositions, and four of them, he said, would be a credit to any nation. The one he had considered worthy of the prize, £2 2s; was as good a piece of composition as he had ever seen.

The victor was Mr. Williams (Gwilym Gwent); he was invested amid great cheers by Mrs. Paton. A competition for £7 7s, next took place for the glee party who would best render the glee “The Bells,” by Gwilym Gwent. Mr. Owen’s choir, from Newport, first san”, and then the Blaenavon choir, Gwilym Gwent the author of the glee, himself conducting, which was considered very unfair by the Newport people.

Then came the most exciting part of the programme: the prize of £22, with a medal, valuer £3 3s, for the conductor, offered for the best singing of The Heavens are belling,” from The Creation.” The Newport and Blaenavon choirs were the only competitors. The Newport sang first, accompanied by Miss Pritchard on the piano. The Blaenavon, conducted by Gwilym Gwent, was accompanied by a full string band, selected from Pontypool, Abersychan, Blaenavon, Blaina, and Beaufort. Of course the effect with 100 singers was very different. The judge said the competition was not fair, and both ought to have had the same accompaniment. Blaenavon of course gained the prize. An excellent concert was given in the evening.

Brecon Eisteddfod 21.01.1871 – Various Compositions

For the best essay (in Welsh): on the “Present War between France and Prussia;” (given by the Hon. Major Morgan, M.P.), £2 2s. Seven compositions. Best, Mr. D. J. Rowlands, Brecon.

For the poem (in Welsh) on “Creulondeb” (Cruelty), (given by Colonel Pearce, K.H.), £1. Four compositions. Best, D. Evans, Cwm Wysg.

For the best englyn (stanza) on “Ofergoeledd (Superstition),” 2s. 6d, fifteen compositions. Best, signed Tyrdd y Graig.

For the best glee on any words the competitors may select (given by the Hon. Major Morgan, M.P.), £1 10s; Six compositions. Best, Gwilym Gwent; a second prize, of 10s, was given to Mr. H. Mills, Pontypridd.

The national Eisteddfod Carnarvon 23.08.1877

The prize of five guineas was awarded to W.A. Williams (Gwilym Gwent), for the best trio for soprano, tenor, and bass. There were three competitors sent in.

Funeral of “Gwilym Gwent” 18.07.1891

The Wilkesbarre (Pa.) Record of July 7 contains a touching account of the funeral obsequies Mr W. A. Williams, “Gwilym Gwent,” the distinguished Welsh composer. We take the following from our contemporary’s account:

“Yesterday was a day of mourning in Plymouth. The stores were empty, the Welsh residents by the hundred sauntered on Vine Street, and the general topic of conversation was the death of the noted composer, the late Gwilym Gwent. At 1.50 o’clock yesterday afternoon nearly 2,000 people had assembled to pay their last tribute of respect at the residence of the deceased. The pall-bearers and the family and near relatives filed the little household. The services at the residence consisted of prayer by Rev John Hague, of Plymouth, and a song. The remains were then taken up by the following pall bearers who were all intimate friends William W. Thomas, John W. Davies, Thomas W. Williams, Thomas P. Thomas, Henry G. Williams, and J. Parson Price, of New York.

The United Welsh Choir of Plymouth, 400 strong, song that old Welsh hymn, “Bydd Myrdd o Rhyfeddodau,” The cortege then slowly moved, followed by 2,000 or more people with the choir leading and the Plymouth brass band. The choir sang on the way (in the old Welsh custom) Yn “y Dyfroedo Mawr a’r Tonau” (In the Deep and Mighty Waters), the band also playing the ‘Dead March’ from Saul. The streets for the whole distance were lined with spectators. The remains were taken to the Welsh Congregational Church, where the friends were given a last opportunity to view them. On the breast of the deceased was one of the medals he had received for successfully conducting a choir singing ‘The Heavens are Telling,’ at the Aberavon eisteddfod in 1868. Beside it was a floral pillow and a floral lyre, the gift of the Choral Society and the Calcott’s Glee Society.

Rev John Hague read a Scripture lesson from Job 14, after which Rev. W. J. Day, pastor of the Presbyterian Church, offered prayer. Brief remarks were made by Revs John G. Evans (Gwarwrfryn) and John Hague, who spoke impressively, basing their remarks on the consolation afforded to those who die in Christ, and members of His church. Some of the remarks were somewhat unusual on such occasions, touching upon the question whether a person who died outside the pale of the church can be saved. J. Parson Price, of New York, a pall-bearer, was asked to give an address. He eulogised his friend, and said that Gwilym Gwent, before he could have written such beautiful anthems and songs of praise, must have been inspired from on high, and been a Christian. He concluded his remarks by pointing down to the casket, saying: “Gwilym Gwent, thou hast left us;” again raising his hand and pointing upward: “The gates of heaven have been opened for thee, Amen.”

The United Choir then sang “Ar for tymhestalog teithio rwyf.”

After viewing the remains the pall-bearers placed the casket in the hearse, and it moved slowly away, followed by a line of carriages a half-mile long. It was preceded by hundreds of singers and the Plymouth Brass Band. The band played a dead march, and the vocalists sang Bydd Myrdd o Rhyfeddodau (the Resurrection Hymn). When the cortege reached Vine Street, the singers formed opposite lines and stood with uncovered heads while the cortege passed on to Wilkesbarre. The choir took the steamboats Wilkesbarre and Marshland, which landed just five minutes ahead of the funeral cortege from Plymouth.

The choirs were formed in front of the music-hall, and preceded the hearse and carriages, singing “Bydd Myrdd o Rhyfeddodau” all the way up to North Street. At the cemetery gate the choir stood in lines of two each side’ of the driveway and sang “We shall Meet Beyond the River” while the hearse passed.

At the grave the choir again stood on the slope above the grave, and the audience gathered around the grave, near the family and relatives.

Rev. John G. Evans announced the verse of the Welsh hymn, “Os Gwelir fi Bechadur,” after which he delivered an impressive prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer Anthem (by G. Mark Evans) was sung by the Gwent Glee Society, and tears came from hundreds of eyes. The body was finally lowered into the grave by the pall bearers while scarcely a sound was heard, and now all that is mortal of the noted Welsh composer is hidden from his friends for ever. The benediction by Rev Mr Evans concluded the services.

On the coffin prize medals captured by Gwilym Gwent were exhibited. They were a silver medal for leading a choir success fully at Aberavon, Wales, at the eisteddfod in 1868; a silver prize medal for a composition. won at the Aberdare Eisteddfod in 1859; a silver prize medal for a composition, won at the Bethesda Eisteddfod, Carnarvonshire, in 1859 a silver prize medal, won at Carnarvonshire Eisteddfod in 1857 for a composition silver medal, won at the Llanerchymedd Eisteddfod in 1871, for a composition silver medal for a composition, won at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, held at Carnarvon in 1877.

The following musicians and bards were at the funeral: John H. Powell, of Scranton; William D. Evans, of Carbondale; Benjamin Griffiths, of Hyde Park; J. Parson Price, of New York T. Cilcennin Evans, of Nanticoke; Gwilym Morlais, of Nanticoke David W. Thomas, of Nanticoke; Madoc Thomas, of Nanticoke; David E. Davis, of Nanticoke Jenkin Jones, of Nanticoke; Richard Roberts, of Duryea J L. D. Powell, of Scranton and others.

Inspector G. M. Williams received $5 from G. T. Matthias, of New York, who, although he did not know the Welsh composer, loved his sublime music. It was to buy a wreath to place upon his casket, but arrived too late. It will be now placed as a nucleus towards a monument fund.

Picture of Gwilym Gwent's grave, Hollenback Cemetery

Gwilym Gwent, also known as William Aubrey Williams, Hollenback Cemetery

Proposed monument to Gwilym Gwent (from our American Correspondent)

After the funeral of “Gwilym Gwent” a number of his Pennsylvanian friends met and decided to take immediate steps to erect a handsome monument over his grave. The chair was taken by the deceased musician’s friend, Mr. Thomas C. Evans (Cilcennin). There were present altogether some sixty persons, all of whom were friends and men of eisteddfodic tastes. It was unanimously resolved to erect a monument, the first step to be taken by the Calcott Glee Society of Plymouth. It is suggested that an eisteddfod should be held to raise funds for the monument; that it should be called the “Gwilym Gwent” Monument. An Eisteddfod should be held, and that the compositions to be sung should consist of the deceased’s works. It was also suggested that choirs in Wales, who have so often sang the deceased’s joyous glees, should hold a similar eisteddfod, and that the profits should be devoted to the American monument fund. A public meeting has been called, when preliminary steps will be inaugurated. The idea of a “Gwilym Gwent” Eisteddfod, I may observe on passant, is not new.

Some three years ago when the Rhondda prize singers were in Wilkes-Barre, Mr. Tom Stephens, the director of the party, stated that his choir had a scheme in mind. It was their idea to hold an eisteddfod whereat should be sung only “Gwilym Gwent’s” compositions, and to invite “Gwilym Gwent” to Wales to be present on the occasion.

Testimony of the Editors of the ‘Cerddor’

‘The Cerddor’ for August contains interesting notices of the late “Gwilym Gwent” by Mr. Emlyn Evans, and Mr. D. Jenkins, Mus. Bac. That two of our leading musical authors bear such high testimony to the genius of the deceased composer is a fact which should be widely known.

Mr. Emlyn Evans says: “Although Wales has lost nearly all the musical men who served her during the first half of the present century, yet most of these who followed the children of the Eisteddfod have been wonderfully spired. But now there is one loop of the chain gone, one chair on the hearth of son is vacant, and we who are left; are obliged to write the late ‘Gwilym Gwent’ over our dear, guileless, and tainted friend, I heard the news of his death at the Bridgend Eisteddfod, and it was in connection with the Eisteddfod that, I first became acquainted with his name and genius; and the friendship formed then has remained true to the end. It was at the Carmarthen Eisteddfod of 1847 that I first made his acquaintance, the first meeting I attended, when I made the acquaintance of several musical friends.”

“I was living in England, and five years afterwards our friend went to America. We never met afterwards in the flesh, but often on the field of competition as judges and competitor, and whichever way the scale of justice turned our friendship remained unimpaired. A more guileless and unselfish person never lived and yet he gave his opinion freely nod without ambiguity, and in few sentences. For popularity and productiveness he was the best that I know of. The late Mr. J. D. James published more, but I doubt if he wrote as much. But there is unspeakable difference in the matter. ‘Gwilym,’ it is true, repeated himself often; lie was also slovenly and faulty at limes; but his productions rose far above life host of compositions that reached the Eisteddfod. Some of his pieces are among the best that we possess, such as ‘Cymru Gynt,’ ‘Yr Haf,’ ’Y Gwanwyn,’ ‘Y Ffrwd,’ ‘Y Clychau,’ Yr Afonig,’ &c. He excelled in song; his muse was too light for the anthem, but in song he took first, place. I do not know his early history.”

“He first became into the public view in 1859 at the musical and temperance eisteddfod, Aberdare, and for many years no one was more successful in winning prices. He married Miss Cecilia Jenkins, of Cwmbach, Aberdare, in 1872, who died a few months ago. If there are any who wish to point their fingers at the failings of a man who never did them or anybody else any harm, I cannot do better than say, in the words of Thackeray, ‘The pavement of life is strewed with orange peel: and who has not slipped on the flags?’”

Dr. David Jenkins writes of the deceased as follows: “The first and only time I met him in this country was at the Brecon Eisteddfod of 1871, when he amended the platform to receive a prize for a song. When his name was announced I followed him from the platform and afterwards to the hall in order to have a good look at him, He appeared from his dress like a gamekeeper, for Its wore a velvet coat and held a big staff in his hand, a dress totally unsuited to his mild and guileless countenance. I led a party at that eisteddfod competing for a prize on his spirited song, ‘Mae’r Nos yn Dod,’ and great was our desire to see the author and to know his opinion of the performance but he was absent when the competition took place. My admiration of him was unbounded. Twelve years afterwards I met him at Plymouth, in the United States. He never referred to his works unless someone drew his attention to them. He said but little, and smiled pleasantly when a good story was told in his presence. He agreed that if I sent him a copy of my ‘David and Goliath’ he would give me his photograph. He handed me two, saying, ‘Un I Emlyn ac un tithau,’ (The portrait appears in the Cerddor) I saw him once more at the Hyde Park Eisteddfod, where he led the Plymouth Choir in the chief competition. He preferred competing to adjudicating, and it is probable that no one in Wales has be more successful. The probability is that he would not have written so much but for the desire to obtain prizes, which is a great pity, He had no ambition, and cannot be regarded as a model for young musicians to imitate. On the other hand, his absolute unselfishness was much to be admired. He displayed no talent for anything but music, and was indifferent about worldly success. He wrote when the spirit was upon him, and sometimes when short of money. An occasional sentence might be seen on a door which he kept in the coal pit and on scraps of paper, non when he went home and washed himself he would copy them and place them in order and often re-mould the, He was greatly beloved by musical Welshmen in Britain and America. His place at the works was often kept for him when others would have been discharged. There is no author In Wale, more popular, and, notwithstanding his imperfections and carelessness, he had lifted the old country to greater eminence by his works, which can be compared any day with those of Englishmen.”

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