Sir Isambard Owen 1850-1927

Picture of Isambard Owen

Less Work for Wales
By Sir Thomas Hughes

The pursuit of parallels, both literary and biographical (there are many of each kind), is always an intriguing quest, although I confess to a preference for those of the latter variety. One contemplates the careers of two men who became eminent in widely different spheres, each of whom for some apparently inscrutable reason has suddenly developed some new interest, trod some new path, essayed some fresh endeavour which he has pursued so tirelessly as to base on its achievement an enduring claim to the gratitude of posterity.

As a Welshman, I am ever on the scent of parallels that have borne fruit in our national life. The adventure is alike to that tracing the broad waters of the Severn and the Wye back from the Bristol Channel: to their hidden sources, side by side high upon on Welsh foot-hills, beneath the brow of Plumlumon.

Eureka! I have just hit on a real find – in the careers of George Borrow and Isambard Owen.

Striking Parallel

To every good Welshman the name of Borrow is a household word, as the author of “Wild Wales.” David Lloyd George, be mean judge of such matters, has pronounced it to be the best book on Wales ever written! Borrow was born in Celtic Cornwall, had lived all his life in England and was over 50 years when he wrote his book. To what hidden source can we trace the sudden urge to cross Offa’s Dyke; to enshrine the beauties of the scenery and the poetry of Wales? When he was in England, his father married his wife and his father’s groom Evan Llwyd, a true Cymro alike in name and spirit, had taught the lad the rudiments of Welsh, and had fired his soul with the romance of Wales and her people.

So with Owen: Born in Celtic Gwent, resident always England. When he was a schoolboy at Gloucester, his father’s head clerk, an enthusiastic Welshman named Thomas Thomas, had captured his imagination by long talks to him of Welsh history and folk-lore, and had “awakened in him a love for the land of his birth and fanned the flames of patriotism lit in his heart.”

Hats off! – to Evan Llwyd and Thomas Thomas.

Romance in a Name

Owen was born in December, 1850, at Chepstow where his father William George Owen, a Caernarvonshire man, was the engaged in engineering work on the construction of Isambard Brunel’s notable tubular bridge that spans the Wye near to the town. So fervent was Owen’s hero-worship of his eminent chief he named his boy Isambard. It is a coincidence that Wales’s “poet preacher,” Thomas Jones, the father of Isambard Owen’s comrade in manhood, had given his boy the yet more uncommon name Viriamu in memory of his hero, John Williams, of Erromanga, the missionary martyr “Viriamu” having been the native of South Sea Islanders’ best attempt at pronouncing Williams.

On the completion of the railway work ar Chepstow the family removed to Gloucester. Here the lad went to the college school attached to the Cathedral and thence to Rossall School, rounding off his collegiate career, in 1872, at Downing College, Cambridge, by an Honours degree in Natural Science.

In the Service of Healing

Having adopted the career of Medicine, Owen became a student at St. George’s Hospital, London. In 1876 he graduated (M.B.), and later became, in turn a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) and a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (F.R.C.P.).

In the 1880’s he set up his ‘lares et penates,’ in the West End of London where he speedily built up an increasingly lucrative consultative practice. Although thus busily occupied, his heart remained true to his beloved St. George’s. He had continued to serve on the honorary staff of the Hospital and had been appointed Dean of the Medical Faculty. This onerous post he continued to hold and to adorn for 21 years. It is not too much to say that throughout this long period Owen was, in all but name, Director of the great London Hospital.

“Call of the Blood”

Thus, in the middle ‘eighties, Owen had become a Londoner, with a great career before him as a successful Mayfair consultant, and in discharge of tremendously responsible administrative duties at St. George’s.

But the “call of the blood” became clamant. He was a Welshman by race ad birth! In his heart from early boyhood had lain dormant a passion for the Land of his Fathers (at the age of eleven he had composed a heroic poem on Wales). How could he best serve his Country! Fortunately, the avenue of service lay at his door. The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion had taken on a new lease of life. Here lay his opportunity, and he seized it with both hands. From his membership of that great Society sprang the movement for a Welsh University that ten years later reached its happy consummation. To Isambard Owen and Viriamu Jones, more than to any other men, Wales owes her University.

Owen’s London friends were aghast at his quixotism in imperilling his career by giving himself to the cause of higher education in Wales, but Owen was a patriot and the “call of the blood” was not to be denied. Without thought of himself, this brilliant young London physician resolutely set aside all his rosy prospects and set his face like a flint to serve his dear Land. I can recall no finer act of pure unselfish patriotism by any great Welshman I have known.

Two Welshmen and Their Country

The Fates were propitious. Wales was shaking off her lethargy. Throughout the land the feeling had been growing that the time was ripe for a great forward movement. The Welsh Intermediate Education Act had received the Royal assent. Young Viriamu Jones had been appointed to the Principalship of the South Wales University College. In his heart also burned a lambent flame of patriotism, with a passion for the cause of higher education. He and Owen; already close friends, made the great resolve not to rest until Wales had secured a University of her own! Their widely differing mental powers, devoted to a common aim, constituted a perfect combination of equipment for the task that lay before them.

I am inclined to think that Jones’s mind was the more original, the more alert in conceiving and visualising the mighty project of a Welsh University. Probably he possessed the nimbler brain. On the other hand, Owen was a consummate tactician, and a meticulously accurate draughtsman.

Jones sped, swift as an arrow, toward the mark – Owen always could see two moves ahead. The two friends set their wise young heads together, and as the outcome of many scores of hours of intensive work succeeded in hammering out the rough draft of a scheme that was submitted for consideration by a National conference; of the representatives of Welsh University Colleges of Joint Education Committees (created by the Intermediate Education Act) and of other public and educational authorities.

At this conference held at Shrewsbury in 1891, Jones and Owen were the leading spirits. Their scheme was approved in principle, and they were appointed on the committee set up to draft the character. To Owen was wisely entrusted the onerous task of being the actual draughtsman.

Charter for a Nation

Early on 1893 the Conference again assembled. The draft charter was adopted, and referred to the Welsh Colleges, County Councils, and Intermediate Education Committees, and commended to the Nation. The fact that the draft ran the gauntlet of all these critical bodies in surely a tribute to the skill and adroitness of its draughtsman.

Thus, the trim little barque slid safely down the launching slips, but many shoals and rapids lay in her course. At this critical juncture Owen and Viriamu Jones were joined, on the quarter-deck, by two other eminent Welshmen – Lord Aberdare and Tom Ellis – whose consummate knowledge and experience of parliamentary procedure, and of the mysterious functions of that awesome and amorphous body known as the Privy Council, were of priceless value to the two young pioneers. Thanks to these four great sons of Wales, all the perils of the voyage were surmounted and port safely reached, in August 1893, when the Charter passed through both Houses of Parliament, and received Royal assent.

Tireless Still

Now – surely Owen might well have regarded his labour of love accomplished and felt himself freed to return to his sorely neglected practice and to the work that lay so near his heart at St. George’s. No! There still remained spade work to be done, and Owen was not the man to shirk it. The University statues needed careful drafting, and the University itself ser on its way. To these comparatively humdrum tasks he gave himself without stint. The statues were the outcome of his astute brain and his and his untiring hand. In addition, he volunteered his services as hon. secretary pending the appointment of University registrar. When all was ready the Council met, Lord Aberdare was, of course, appointed Chancellor, while Owen’s outstanding services were fittingly recognised by his being elected, by acclamation, Senior Deputy Chancellor. Alas! Within a few short weeks death had robbed the University of its veteran Chancellor, and Wales of her noble son.

Royal Recognition

The late King Edward (then Prince of Wales), who graciously assumed the Chancellorship until his accession to the Throne, was in his return succeeded in the office by the new Prince of Wales (now King George). Thus, it became Owen’s happy function to install two successive heirs to the Throne in the Chair of the University. All the elaborate details of these stately ceremonials, at Aberystwyth in 1896, and at Caernarvon in 1902, were under his own personal supervision, and were carried out with meticulous care and impressive dignity. King Edward at his coronation hastened to confer on his Deputy Chancellor the thoroughly well-deserved honour of knighthood.

The tenure of the Chancellorship by Royalty, inevitably devolved on Owen’s shoulders the entire duties and responsibilities of the high office, during a period of prime importance. Meanwhile he had lost his loyal comrade Viriamu Jones, who had shared his burden in service of the University as Junior Deputy Chancellor until is untimely death in 1901. Owen manfully carried on, remaining at his post although he well knew it involved the imperilment of his livelihood; but Wales could not spare him!

More Pioneering

Ultimately, in 1904, this pressing personal problem was solved by Owen’s call to the Principalship of Armstrong College, Newcastle. He reluctantly abandoned his medical career, and during the remainder of his life this wise master-builder devoted himself exclusively to high administrative educational pioneer work on the Tyne and later at the newly born University of Bristol, to the Principalship of which he was appointed in 1907.

While at Newcastle he continued to serve the Welsh University, but his absorbing duties at Bristol enforced the severance of his official tie with Wales, and the dropping of the Pilot who had steered her barque with such uncanny skill.

Wales First Always

The jewel in Owen’s diadem in his magnificent service to the Welsh University but other, gems cluster about it. He was one of the founders, and for many years president, of the Welsh Language Society, of which “Defynnog” was the indefatigable secretary for upwards of a quarter of a century. Along with the late Sir John Williams and other Welsh stalwarts he rendered yeoman service in the initiation of the anti-tuberculosis campaign which (thanks to princely gifts of £200,000 by the Llandinam family) materialised in the formation of the Welsh National Memorial Association. He took a leading part in the proceeding of the Royal Commission on Welsh Education, and in the earliest stages of the scheme for the Welsh School of Medicine.

Happy Marriage

Owen was threatening to become a confirmed bachelor. He did not succumb to Cupid’s darts until comparatively late in life. His marriage with Miss Ethel Holland Thomas was a singularly happy one. Lady Owen not only shared to her full husband’s love for all things Welsh, but in addition she both spoke and read Welsh fluently. Owen already had more than a nodding acquaintance with “yr hen Iaith;” ere long Welsh had become the language of the hearth, and when Heaven’s gifts of two daughters blessed the union, the girls received good Welsh names – Haulwen and Hedydd

Indomitable Spirit

In physique Owen was wiry rather than robust. All his life long he was a victim to bouts of racking headaches, yet with dogged determination he bent himself to spells of exhausting mental work. His spirit was indomitable. After a heavy day’s professional work, in his consulting room, and in his sanctum at St. George’s Hospital, he would sit up half the night, drafting new clauses for the Charter of the Welsh University.

His versatility was amazing. While a lad, with the run of the engineering shop at Gloucester, he had become expert in drawing, and in the use of tools. He always carried about with him a little bag of tools; he would mend a window sash, or pick a stubborn lock, or do “running repairs” to a motor-car with the skill of a craftsman. He had also developed his early bent for drawing. In the last year of his life he painted exquisite little water-colours of beauty spots in the Alps.


He was courtly in bearing with great charm of manner, yet wonderfully tenacious in purpose. He was the mailed fist in the velvet gloves. He possessed that sure clue to genius, the “infinite capacity for taking pains.”

There was nothing blatant about his patriotism, but he was tireless in effort, and some of his finest work was done out of the limelight. When he died suddenly of heart-failure while on a visit to his daughter in Paris 1927, he had enriched Wales by gifts of a noble example, and long years of quiet service.


I am old enough to recall a time when in all this dear land of ours there was no such thing as compulsory education, no Board or Council School, no Intermediate School, no County School, no University College, no University!

Boys and girls of Wales! You enjoy the ripe fruits of a golden harvest, garnered for you by patient ploughing and harrowing and sowing, the toil and the travail of Isambard Owen and men of his like; great Welshmen of my generation. “As you enter on your heritage, fail not to bring your garlands of gratitude to their imperishable memory!”

Returns to Serve His Native Land
Vigorous Plea for the Welsh Language
October 1922

Sir Isambard Owen visited Treherbert on Wednesday for the purpose of attending the annual meeting of the Welsh Language Society, of which he is the president, and of which Mr. David James (Defynnog) is the secretary.

At the close of this meeting a “Western Mail” representative solicited Sir Isambard Owen’s views on the subject of the teaching of Welsh in schools.

Some years have elapsed since the distinguished scholar relinquished his position as Senior vice-chancellor of the University of Wales to become the vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, but he has kept closely in touch all the time with the Welsh language movement, and all patriotic Welshmen interested in that subject will read with refreshing interest Sir Isambard’s present-day views on a matter of real national importance.

“Now that I have retired for the vice-chancellorship of the University of Bristol,” said Sir Isambard, “I hope to see a little more education in Wales, but what services I can render depends to a great extent on circumstances. This movement has always had my heartiest support and sympathy and been a subject of great interest to me from the beginning, and I am very glad to see that the principal of it has become so firmly established in Welsh educational tradition. But there is a good deal of work to be done before the system of using Welsh in education can be put on a thoroughly satisfactory footing.”

Scarcity of Welsh Teachers

“One great difficulty,” continued Sir Isambard, “is to find a supply of teachers who are fully qualified to teach Welsh. A large number of teachers can speak Welsh, but to speak it and teach it satisfactorily are not quite the same thing. The training colleges have taken the matter up to a great extent, but their difficulty, I understand, is they don’t get a sufficient supply of students who have gone through a proper course of Welsh in the secondary schools. They have not the firm foundation to build upon. Therefore, it will be more and more important that the local authorities should look after the teaching of Welsh in the secondary schools and see that it is satisfactorily carried out and that as far as possible they get competent teachers. In a good many schools I gather, it is very well done.”

The Language more Virile than ever

“I don’t think many people can doubt,” added Sir Isambard, “the wisdom of the reform we brought about a generation ago to give the national language its proper place in schools. I see no reason to suppose that the Welsh language is any nearer to its dissolution than it was 30 or 40 years ago. On the contrary I think its life rests even on a firmer basis now than it did then. It is quite true that there are fewer people in Wales now who cannot speak English, but I think it will be found there are more people in Wales today who can do speak Welsh than there were then.”

“As I pointed out many years ago, it may be an early matter to uproot a language that is merely a spoken language, but a language that is being made the vehicle of a literature and is associated and is bound up with a multitude of associations arising from literary culture has a very firm hold on the national mind and is not likely to be easily renounced.”

The Value of Bilingualism

“I have always regarded it myself as fortunate for Wales that circumstances have given her two languages. The value of language in education is nowadays insufficiently appreciated. To me language stands at the very root of all sound education and the principles of language cannot be acquired without two languages to compare and contrast. Where two languages come into the possession of the young from their cradles upward the raw material of the schoolmaster’s work is ready to his hand. Whatever disadvantage may be thought to arise from the habitual use of two languages in a country is, I believe, amply compensated by the increased intelligence which the possession of those languages gives and by the good foundation which that possession lays for future systematic education.

A Sympathetic Department

“It is gratifying to know,” continued Sir Isambard, “that Governmental influence is with us today instead of being against us. Both Sir Alfred Davies, and the inspectors who serve under him are in full sympathy with the objects of the society.”

“On the whole, we may say that we have the cordial support of the greater number of local authorities. The one enemy to be dreaded is apathy. It will not do to take it for granted that once a principle is admitted everything else follows. The development of education in Wales on proper lines will for some time to come need careful watching and much individual interest.”

Inspiration of the Eisteddfod

Asked whether he thought the National Eisteddfod could play a useful part in support of the movement, Sir Isambard replied: “I think the Eisteddfod acts as a useful inspiration to the whole movement, but how far a loose institution of that kind can influence a course of systematic education is another matter.”

“The University of Wales certainly imbibed the new ideas in its infancy and has done its best to carry them out. The amount of work already done by the university upon Welsh philology is far greater than most people have any idea of. Welsh has from the first been an avenue to the highest honours that the university can give, and even to substantial emoluments for research work.

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