Archdeacon John Griffiths

Portrait of John Griffiths

Picture courtesy of Aberystwyth University

Death of Archdeacon Griffiths
Wales loses a distinguished churchman
An ardent patriot and Nationalist
Pioneer of Welsh Higher Education
John Griffiths (1820 – 1897)

Glamorganshire, and, indeed the whole of Wales, were plunged into mourning on Wednesday when it became known that the Venerable Archdeacon Griffiths, of Llandaff, had passed away. Ever since last January the venerable archdeacon had been indisposed, although he had had periods in which he seemed to enjoy excellent health. In January last, in his seventy-seventh year, he resigned the rector-ship of Neath and Llantwit, his successor being the Rev. Frederick Arnold Evans. Archdeacon Griffiths remained in Neath until a couple of weeks before the Jubilee celebrations, and then his health was such that his medical advisers Dr. Lewis, of Neath, and Dr. Griffiths, of Swansea recommended a change. The invalid, therefore, with his wife, who is a sister of Mr. R. P. Morgan, solicitor, Neath, proceeded to Dolygwartheg, in Cardiganshire, which was the former home of the archdeacon. There, amid the peaceful sylvan scenes, he seemed to recover somewhat, and, upon his return to Neath a short time back, he was in better health. However, about a fortnight ago, pneumonia set in, and the venerable clergyman gradually became weaker, and passed away as stated early on Wednesday morning at his residence, Aelybryn House, Neath, in the presence of his wife and other relatives.

Biographical sketch

In the Church in Wales there is no lack of men famous for their learning, their moral and spiritual power, their devotion to duty, their undoubted patriotism, and even their gift of eloquence, nor are such men confined to any particular diocese or to one of the two provinces into which Wales is geographically divided. They are met with whether they be looked for in Bangor or St, Asaph, in St. David’s or in Llandaff. But our readers will probably agree with us in saying that, of all the good end gifted men whom the Welsh Church can boast, there was no one who enjoyed the esteem, the respect, the confidence, in fine, the affection, of the Welsh people in such a. marked degree as did the Ven. John Griffiths, rector of Neath and archdeacon of Llandaff, whose death it becomes our sorrowful duty to record today. It goes without saying that the archdeacon was a staunch supporter of the Church of which he was such a distinguished ornament. He loved her as a child loves its mother. It was the Church of his baptism, of his ancestors, and. what was of great importance in his sight, it was the ancient Church of Wales, the Church to which Dewi the Saint, and Teilo, and Dyfrig, and Illtyd, and other early Christian pioneers in Wales had ministered. With characteristic playfulness, the archdeacon would on certain occasions remind his hearers that he was a native of that part of Dyfed in which Dewi first saw the light at Llan Ddewi Aber Arth, on the Cardiganshire coast, a spot which overlooks Cardigan Bay, and peers in the direction of Ireland, the scene of St. Patrick’s labours as “into the dim and distant future.” It was there, one of the healthiest and most peaceful spots in the three kingdoms, and one which still bears not a few of the footprints of its first Christian Apostle, that John Griffiths was born early in the century. Of the yeomanry class, his parents were in easy, not to say affluent, circumstances, and, like a good many more of their class in Wales, and especially in Cardiganshire, determined that “John” should be brought up to the Church. St. David’s College had not been established as yet, but its foundation was the one event talked of in Cardiganshire and the Diocese of St. David. Bishop Burgess had already taken steps with a view to the accomplishment of his favourite idea, but the scheme was delayed, and it was not until John Griffiths was fairly in his teens that the good bishop was able to put his plans into operation. Cardiganshire in those days was not what it is today, a land flowing with the milk and honey of education.

National schools were not in existence, and board schools had not been dreamt of by the most enthusiastic educationalist. But the county did not even then grope in darkness. There was Ystrad Meirig in the north, with its famous school founded by the patriotic liberality of Edward Richard. In Mid Cardiganshire an equally famous institution, the Lampeter Grammar School, flourished, and, like its sister school in the north, was an excellent nursery for the learned professions. Lower down, in the secluded valley of the Clettwr, there was another centre of learning, of which the celebrated David Davies of Castell Hywel was the head, while similar institutions flourished at Newcastle Emlyn and Cardigan. So that even in those early days the sacred lamp of knowledge was kept burning even in remotest Cardiganshire. The Church was at a low ebb The Nonconformist was in the land, young, strong, and full of hope and energy. Chapels sprang up here, there, and everywhere. But the pastors and masters of the Church slumbered and slept. True, there were some bright exceptions, but, speaking generally, the clergy of those days were a worthless race. However, the night had travelled far and the dawn of a brighter day was about to appear on the horizon. At last it did appear: St. David’s College was founded, and brought new life and a new hope to the Church. Hitherto Welsh Churchmen in St. David’s and Llandaff had entered the Church either through Oxford and Cambridge or one of the Welsh grammar schools which held the bishop’s license for that purpose. St David’s College revolutionised matters, diverted scores of promising young men from the older universities, and became now the recognised institution in the two Southern dioceses at least, whither ordination candidates resorted. It was to Lampeter John Griffiths went, and. judging by the date given in Crockford’s 1838, he must have been one of the earliest alumni. Of his collegiate career there is not much to record. Tradition has it that he was “sent down” for three months for some slight breach of college regulations. Possibly it was a revolt of his irrepressible Welsh nature against the Anglicising influences then in vogue at Lampeter. However, ecclesiastical chroniclers tell us that he was a First Class Man of St. David’s. Not being of canonical age, is ordination was deferred, and he became headmaster of the Cardigan Grammar School, whence he was ordained in 1843 by the Bishop of Llandaff, his first curacy being Aberystwyth, a parish about as far as he could get from his native Cardiganshire.

Here he remained for about a twelvemonth, and, on receiving priest’s orders he was appointed to the perpetual curacy of Nantyglo, where practically he was his own vicar. Once having come to Llandaff he determined never again to leave. It became the scene of his future labours and his triumphs from a ministerial point of view though in other respects he might have exclaimed, with John Wesley, “All the world my parish”, all the Welsh world, at least. Fifty years ago John Griffiths must have been looked upon as a rising man in the Church a man whose light was too strong to hide under a bushel. Hence promotion to him came from the east and from the west. From being perpetual curate of Nantyglo, where he remained for a brief two years, he was appointed to the rectory of Llansannor, and afterwards to the vicarage of Mary Hill, in the Vale of Glamorgan. Seven years after, however (1355), he reached the zenith of his parochial promotion, and was appointed rector of Neath, whence his name travelled to the remotest corners of the Principality, and to many a place in England.

As rector of Neath he must have found much favour in the eyes of his bishop, for lie was appointed to several prominent posts in the diocese, was surrogate and rural dean, became canon and archdeacon of Llandaff, and was appointed Welsh examiner and chaplain to the bishop. A man brimful of life and energy, he was capable of any exertion, and yearned for as much work to do as the Church or the public cared to cut out for him. During the forty odd years he was at Neath he was a most potent factor in the life of the town. Some time ago there appeared in the “Western Mail” a brief account of the great work he did there during a ministry of forty years. It was a most creditable record, and only showed how busy the archdeacon had been, not only in building up the material but also the spiritual Zion. He was a rare worker. A man of tact and excellent common sense, he knew how to enlist the sympathy and co-operation of others. He filled his parish, as the Welsh saying has it. During his long ministerial career at Neath there were from, time to time in the town several eminent Nonconformist ministers, but their light paled immediately “The Rector” came on the scene. A man of fine presence, of courteous and even courtly bearing, brimming over with geniality, and with a tongue which was “as the pen of a ready writer” both in Welsh and English, he was always well received everywhere, and every- where made his impression. He was a born leader could not, if he tried, keep in the background. By Churchmen and Nonconformists, by rich and poor, by the learned and by the ignorant, alike the Rector of Neath was respected and admired and appreciated, for all knew his sterling worth and all believed in the many excellent good qualities of the man.

The Church in Wales has not fully realised the value of Archdeacon Griffiths. It is not too much to say that he did more than any man of his time to popularise it among the masses. As we have already stated, he was a staunch and sterling Churchman, and always bore in mind his duty to the Church of which he was a minister. But his Churchmanship was broad and comprehensive, and of a kind that surfeited not Welsh Nonconformists, however bitter against the Establishment they might be. He was essentially of a conciliatory nature, and the services he rendered to his Church and nation as a peacemaker and peace bearer are incalculable. Welshmen of all grades and of all creeds simply loved him, and were never tired of speaking of him, for he filled their ideal of a national man. This in reality he was, and during the last forty years no man m Wales was more so. He was one of the first I to lend his powerful aid to the movement in favour of Welsh higher education, a movement which has culminated in the formation of the three university colleges and the Welsh University. When the movement was as yet unpopular the Rector of Neath pleaded its cause on the platform and in the press as few men could have. It was only those who were behind the scenes that knew how much he did and sacrificed in more ways than one on behalf of the college at Aberystwyth and that again established at Cardiff. He was a true and steadfast patriot, a Welsh Nationalist of the purest and highest type. He had no selfish ends to seek, and did everything solely with a view t-o the advancement of his countrymen. A thorough master of English himself, he was anxious that hi, countrymen should also be able to speak the language. But he was equally anxious that the language they thus acquired should not be, a. mere patois, an intolerable jargon, but intelligible speech of all educated people. It was on this ground that the Rector of Neath cast his powerful aegis over the Society for the Utilisation of the Welsh Language in the struggling days of its youth. Even on the platform of the Church Congress at Cardiff, in 1889, Archdeacon Griffiths in no apologetic manner defended his countrymen and his language before; he assembled talent of the Church of England. His words were memorable. “Of late years, said he.” Wales has awoke to the fact that its traditional system of school training has failed in its professed object of planting a knowledge of English in every village of the country, and if the ineffable temporal blessing, of a knowledge of that world-wide tongue are to be conferred, as we heartily desire they should, on our Welsh children, the Welsh scholastic system must re-trace its steps, and commence again the rational course it should never have deviated from, of cherishing first the faculty in the form in which it is most readily at hand. One by one the leading authorities of Wales have acceded to the modern views. The educational conference at Shrewsbury, the Royal Commission, the Education Department, in turn have given in their adhesion, and a scheme of education, essentially similar to that laid down by the Welsh Utilisation Society, is now permissible in any school in Wales.” These words were the words of a patriot, and a brave one. But we must not overlook one further aspect of his patriotism-his patronage of the Eisteddfod. In these days our national institution is strong and flourishing, and patronised by peasant and prince. But we should not forget that the Eisteddfod has passed through troublous times, and many years ago was deserted by those who might have lent it a helping hand. The Rector of Neath, however, was not one of those who turned his back on the institution. In fair weather and in foul he stood nobly, and even heroically, by it, and went out of his way to rescue it from m its difficulties. Probably not a National Eisteddfod has been held during the last 50 years that the archdeacon did not attend. For many years his venerable form lent a charm and a picturesqueness to the Gorsedd that formed one of its chief attractions. Often did he speak from the Eisteddfod platform, and when he did it was a sight such as the gods delighted in. As a powerful and popular preacher he was eloquent. As the advocate of some cherished cause in a diocesan gathering he was persuasive. At Church conferences he would pour a flood of rhetoric on the audience. But it was not on such occasions as those that the archdeacon reached his highest flights. It was at the Eisteddfod all the vials of his eloquence, filled to overflowing, burst upon the throng. Doubtless, he was one of the finest platform speakers Wales has seen for many a long day.

He simply reveled in Welsh life, and to the end loved to visit the scenes of his boy hood, in his native Cardiganshire. In summer-time, when he gave himself a holiday, he used to drive from Neath to Aberaeron, through scenes with which he had been long familiar, and one of his chief pleasures on those occasions would be to meet a face he knew and have a chat “am yr hen amser gynt.”

Reminiscences by “Morien”

Our little country of Wales has not for many a day heard a sadder piece of news than that the Ven. Archdeacon John Griffiths, of Llandaff, and late rector of Neath, “Rector Castell Nedd,” as so long he fondly liked to be called has crossed that bourne whence no traveler returns. The sad tidings will cause many lips to quiver and many eyes to be filled with tokens of an overflowing heart. Many will cry in spirit the words of Elisha when he beheld Elijah ascending in a whirlwind in a chariot and horses of fire to Heaven, “My Father, my Father, the chariots of Israel and the horse-men thereof!” The sorrow of the Church of Wales will be shared to-day most deeply by the entire Nonconformity of Wales. Archdeacon John Griffiths was a national possession, and all classes of the people of Wales loved him as a genuine son of Cambria, and not merely a son of the venerable Church of the earlier Britons. He was so hale, his mind so clear, and his frame when I last saw him was so full of the buoyancy of strong manhood, that it is difficult to realise that he is gone from us forever. The Welsh people of South Wales regarded him as the grandest Churchman of all Wales. Added to a fine figure and a dignified carriage, he was endowed with that indefinable something which forcibly attracted. He was a Churchman every inch of him, but he was also so much like an Apostle that his Christianity was not limited by geographical boundaries. Like the great Jones, rector of Llangan, he regarded the mountains and valleys as consecrated to Divine worship. I recollect him once speaking to me of the two Joshuas, the evangelists who had then recently started preaching in the streets of Neath. “They were marching along the street,” he said, “at the head of a great procession. I went into a shop, and one of them stopped opposite the shop and began to preach. I listened, and was soon under the spell of his Christian oratory. I said to myself, ‘If this is your way, I am with you, Joshua,’ and I joined him in the street.” His sympathies were as wide as the children of men, and in the great religious gatherings of the people of Wales he seemed to behold the ancient British Church in full activity, and called Dissenters. A lonely little chapel at the foot of a mountain was in his eyes a Christian sheep- fold, built because the Philistines had invaded the land. He believed the Good Shepherd loved the little sheepfold on the margin of a forest quite as much as He did the great cathedral with its pealing organ and its gorgeous ritual.

It was his well-known broad sympathies with everything in Wales, both sacred and secular, participating of the national sentiment that so greatly endeared him to the entire people of Wales. It will be, however, a sore reflection on the history of the Church of Wales in our time that Archdeacon John Griffiths had not been elevated to the highest position of dignity at the disposal of the Church authorities. He has now received his great reward. He has ascended “o’r dyrus anialwch i’r beraidd Baradwys i fyw.”

The first time I beheld him was in the summer of 1863. I had just returned home from Bath, after spending five years there, and, hearing that an eisteddfod was to be held at Bridgend on Monday, I crossed Gellirhaidd Mountain, and then went down Rhiw-y-Ceiliog to Pencoed, and was soon at Bridgend Town-hall. The place was thronged. The chairman was the Rector of Neath. He was then black-haired. On his right sat Caroline, Countess of Dunraven, and a party from Dunraven Castle. The opening address of the president was one of the most delightful things I ever heard. Its subject were the aspirations of young Welsh people in the fields of literature and music, with most telling sketches of the difficulties in their way. Be it remembered, Wales had not then any higher grade schools and the university college at Aberystwyth had not been thought of, except, probably, by Sir Hugh Owen and Mr. Henry Richard, M.P. I have always thought that the masterly, aye, thrilling, eloquence such as that displayed on that occasion by the Rev. John Griffiths and by other gifted sons of Gwalia on similar occasions was the voice of awakened Wales to the disgraceful disadvantages the people of Wales had laboured under ever since their own great universities of Llantwit Major and Bangor Iscoed were robbed and destroyed, and their endowments carried away to enrich Tewkesbury Abbey and other places, which were sufficiently rich already. Not long ago I was speaking to Archdeacon Griffiths, on the way back from the funeral of the late Mr. Daniel Owen, Ash Hall, about the said Bridgend Eisteddfod, where I had first seen him. To amuse him, I recited portions of his address and imitated his manner while speaking, which he did alternately in English and Welsh. He looked at me earnestly, and said, “And you were there? Many friends have died since then.”

One of the most interesting things in the history of Archdeacon Griffiths was the way he and the present Dean Howell, St. David’s, first became acquainted with each other. The following is the story which Archdeacon Griffiths related to me with his own lips while coming together across the mountains from Eglwyswyno. By the way, I recollect that we sat on a bank on the mountains, and, to my great amusement, he pulled out of his pocket an intensely black short clay pipe. I was already charging my pipe, but the wind was strong, and the difficulty of firing was very great. He pulled off his official hat and gave it me to hold while he lit the match and the pipe in it. I cried out, “That hat has a fire in it at last!” We both laughed heartily, and went on puffing, if not in honour of St. Gwyno, to our own enjoyment. “I was,” said he, “the incumbent of St. Mary Hill, near Coy-church, and another church, I think he said either Llangan or Llansannor.” I had heard that Mr. John Howell’s eldest son was called ‘Llawdden,’ and that he was a pwt o brydydd. His father was a considerable freeholder, but was a strict Calvinistic Methodist, and the county treasurer of that denomination. He was himself a good poet, and had himself a bardic nom de plume. But he had laid his harp on one side, and had devoted himself to the Calvinistic Methodists and to making money. One day when not very far from St. Mary Hill Church I saw ‘Llawdden,’ the son of Bryn-y- ced Din and Tyn-y-Caea, ploughing with horses in a field between the church and Tre y Rhos village. I directed my footsteps towards him, and soon came upon young Cincinnatus. I hailed him, and he stopped the team.” I interpolated that the story reminded me of Elijah coming suddenly upon Elisha while similarly occupied. The archdeacon went on to say, I asked Llawdden’” all the conversation was carried on between them in Welsh” whether it was true he composed Welsh verses. “I attempt it occasionally,” was the modest reply, and added, I have had some of my English efforts accepted by Eliza Cook, who has published them in her magazine.’ The horses were unharnessed-they did not burn them and the horses, as Elijah and Elisha did with the oxen, &c.—and the two proceeded to the farmhouse. The clergyman and “Llawdden” soon became bosom friends, and the young prophet of Tyn-y-Caea soon entered upon his distinguished clerical career. Is he not to-day one of the glories of the Church in Wales? An ancient nation answers in the affirmative. I must here add that so great was young “Llawdden’s” love for the immortal Nine Muses that it is a tradition in the locality among farmers that the plough and the horses were occasionally seen at rest while the Welsh inspired ploughman was sitting, sitting until his father came upon him, engaged in reading among the aromatic flowers of the hedgerow.

Archdeacon Griffiths was one of the great fosterers of the eisteddfod in the villages of Wales, and he frequently presided over the gatherings in all sorts of places. I recollect him telling that” on one occasion he was journeying in North Wales on his holidays when he met a stranger going to a large eisteddfod in one of the towns. He himself afterwards proceeded to the same eisteddfod, and on reaching the place he saw the stranger in question on the platform, and he then ascertained that he was a great German scholar on a visit to the eisteddfod. The archdeacon was dressed as a tourist, but the moment he was recognised by the leaders of the gathering and the people he was compelled to mount the platform and to deliver an address. He was in the hwyl, and the effect of his address was very great. Both the German and himself had preserved strict incognito, and were both now much amused at meeting again, this time in the courts of Cariadwen.

The Funeral

Today (Saturday) the body of the late Archdeacon Griffiths will be interred in Henfynwy Churchyard, near Aberaeron, Cardiganshire, where the deceased’s first wife was buried. The nearest railway station is Lampeter, which is twelve miles distant. The bod accompanied by the mourners, will leave Neath at six a.m. on Saturday. If those who purpose attending the funeral will communicate with Mr. J. Fear Davies, he will make arrangements for conveyances from Lampeter.

The Late Archdeacon Griffiths
Western Mail Monday December 1898

A very handsome brass memorial tablet has been prepared for erection in Llandaff Cathedral to the memory of the late Archdeacon Griffiths. Judged as a work if art the tablet is remarkable for design and for workmanship, considering the latter either in respect of its colour, enamelling, its engraving, or of the casting, whilst in one respect (viz. the fact that a great deal of the ornamentation stands out in relief) it is unique. When fixed in the cathedral it will present a bold, handsome appearance in a massive piece of work, the design is so harmonious that it is at the same time, extremely neat and chaste.

A Celtic spirit runs through the whole design, for the outlines are adapted from ancient manuscripts, and an ornamental initial cross id from the old pre-Roman crosses and memorial stones of Wales. The border panels are broken into sections, each one of which contains a different interlacing pattern that must have cost both the designer and the engraver a great deal of trouble and care.

These stand in relief, and are both quaint and handsome, whilst the corner pieces are arranged in exquisite keeping. The outside of each panel is filled in with red and black enamel. At the top are the Crest and arms of the late archdeacon, filled in with enamel in the proper heraldic colours. Under an arched head-line ornament is fixed a bust of the late archdeacon, cast in gun-mental, standing out in the form of a medallion, which adds considerably to the general effect of the whole tablet.

At the centre of the bottom line are the Bishop of Llandaff’s Crest and arms, also filled in with enamel in ecclesiastical red. The designer was Mr C.B. Fowler. F.R.I.B.A., and engraving, moulding, casting and enamelling were carried out by Mr John Williams of the Castle Arcade, Cardiff –and “Morien” may find some interest in the fact that the work of making the memorial tablet for such a famous Welsh as the archdeacon had been entrusted to the grandson of “Gwilym Morganwg” one of the bards attending the great Cardiff Eisteddfod of 1834.

The inscription on the tablet as follows:-

Sacred to the Memory
Venble John Griffiths B.D.
Archdeacon of Llandaff
Canon Residentiary, 1888-97
Curate of Aberystruth, 1843-44
Vicar of Nantyglo, 1844-1846
Rector of Llansannor, 1846-55
Vicar of St Mary Hill, 1848+55
Rector of Neath with Llantwit 1855-96
R.D. of Croneath Upper Deanery, 1873-77,
Chaplain to Bishop Ollivant, 1875-82
Preb. Of St Dubricius in Llandaff Cathedral
Domestic and Welsh Examining Chaplain to
The Bishop of Llandaff 1883-97

He died at Neath on September 1st 1897, and was buried in the churchyard of his native parish, Henfynyw, near Aberaeron Cardingshire. A true Welsh patriot and nationalist, and one of the most eloquent preachers and public speakers of his day.

The tablet is now on view in Mr Williams’s office window, in the Castle Arcade Cardiff, and will be erected in the cathedral during next week.

“Gwyn ei Fyd” (Blessed is he)

This tablet is erected by Mrs Crawshay Bailey and her daughters, Mrs Gordon Canning and Mrs Curre, as a token of deep respect and regard for his memory.

The plaque was destroyed in World War II

Picture of plaque

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