European learning and the revolution in Welsh Victorian scholarship

How did an unschooled amateur from south Wales go on to win international acclaim for his work, which was to revolutionise nineteenth-century Welsh scholarship? Dr Marion Löffler explains how her research project will trace the social and knowledge networks behind the intriguing career and correspondence of Thomas Stephens.

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A bust of Thomas Stephens made of him posthumously and inlcuded as a frontispiece to the second (1876) edition of The Literature of the Kymry.

Picture early Victorian Merthyr Tydfil: an industrial frontier community, lined by slums, enveloped in smoke, riven by social unrest, and bereft of the most basic civic institutions. Yet in his pharmacy at 113 Merthyr High Street, the young, unschooled amateur, Thomas Stephens, writes Literature of the Kymry, a critical history which would go on to lay the foundations of modern Welsh learning. Composed as a prize essay for a cultural competition sponsored by Lady Augusta Hall of nearby Llanover, Literature of the Kymry was published in 1849 through the patronage of Lady Charlotte Guest, wife of Merthyr Tydfil’s leading iron master, John Josiah Guest. It was an intriguing and astonishing meeting of unlikely circumstances and outcomes.

And this was only the beginning. By the time Thomas Stephens died in 1875, aged only fifty-three, he had toured Europe and Ireland and was an acclaimed scholar with a network of correspondents in England, Germany, France, and Ireland. Literature of the Kymry had been translated into German, and Stephens’s further monographs and articles had fired the controversies by which Welsh and Celtic scholarship was moving from a romantic to a modern research paradigm.

Stephens left behind an archive, now at the National Library of Wales, which includes nearly six hundred letters, sixty-three unpublished essays, and even his German exercise books. Encountering it for the first time, two things struck me. His manuscripts still have the smell of his pharmacy, where he catered for the sick by day, and pursued his research upstairs by night. Second, the notes in his essays and the letters he received show that his achievements rested on communication well beyond Wales. His correspondents included the Oxford don, Max Müller; the French folklorist, Hersart de la Villemarqué; and German philologists like Albert Schulz and Karl Meyer. Among the contacts brokered by Lady Augusta (wife of Benjamin ‘Big Ben’ Hall) was the historian and philologist Baron Christian von Bunsen, Prussian ambassador to the court of Queen Victoria. Stephens’s footnotes referred to men like Barthold George Niebuhr, another Prussian statesman and leading historian, who was also both a friend of and co-author with Bunsen. Here was an unschooled amateur who with the help of two main patrons reached the pinnacle of his field and succeeded in revolutionising learning in his country.

The material contained in these archives raises questions as to how a poor chemist’s apprentice was able to become an internationally acclaimed scholar. It highlights the importance of the financial and social patronage of local upper classes—here exerted by two influential women—for success and social mobility. The archives enlighten us as to how ideas and knowledge travelled in early Victorian Europe, from Prussia’s developed university system and caste of professionals, to Wales, a marginal region whose university would not be founded until 1893.

Over the next two years this research project grant from the Leverhulme Trust will enable us to pursue these questions and find answers. A research assistant will research and analyse the correspondence at the National Library of Wales. This frees me to be able to hunt for letters from Thomas Stephens at the Bodleian Library, Oxford; the German Staatsbibliothek in Berlin; and in archives in south Wales, Brandenburg, and Ireland; to study the newspapers of the time; and to scan Stephens’s unpublished essays in pursuit of new connections. We will make the most important letters accessible to the public, and by means of a monograph, a workshop and an exhibition, we hope to lay open the hidden personal and European history behind the astonishing revolution of Welsh learning in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Dr Marion Löffler
University of Wales