Thomas Stephens of Merthyr Tydfil

Posted on 29 October 2015
Dr Adam Coward, Dr Marion Löffler & Alan Vaughan Hughes

Dr Adam Coward, Dr Marion Löffler and Alan Vaughan Hughes

On the 24th of October, a new exhibition on the 19th Century scholar Thomas Stephens opened at the Summers Rooms in the National Library of Wales (NLW).

Entitled Correspondent, Historian, Reformer: Thomas Stephens of Merthyr Tydfil, the exhibition was jointly organized by the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies (CAWCS) and NLW, and its opening formed part of an international conference organized by Dr Marion Löffler of CAWCS.

Since November 2014, Dr Löffler has been leading a Leverhulme-funded research project at the Centre entitled Knowledge Transfer and Social Networks: European Learning and the Revolution in Welsh Victorian Scholarship which is exploring the life, times and European connections of the historian and social reformer Thomas Stephens of Merthyr Tydfil. This conference and exhibition opening was a high-point of Dr Löffler’s research project and was attended by local historians, like former curator of Ceredigion Museum Michael Freeman, members of the public, and international scholars attending from Hungary, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland and Scotland.

Thomas Stephens (1821–75) a pharmacist by profession, became one of Wales’s most innovative 19th Century scholars, social reformers and cultural critics. Over 500 letters written to him from all corners of the world, as well as numerous essays in manuscript and newspaper articles by him, are held at the National Library of Wales.

Stephens was one of the first Welshmen to apply the critical approach to historical sources developed in Prussia, and his 1849 volume The Literature of the Kymry was the first scientific study of medieval Welsh literature. For his critical examination of Welsh history and its sources Stephens was admired by modern scholars throughout Europe, while for those who clung to romantic notions of Welshness, he became a controversial figure. Throughout his life, Stephens strove to modernize Welsh society and culture, helping to set up the public library, temperance hall and health board of Merthyr Tydfil, campaigning for state-schools education, and criticizing over-romantic eisteddfod competitions. All these areas of his activity are featured in the exhibition.

Speaking about the exhibition Dr Löffler, pictured with Alan Vaughan Hughes, the National Library’s Head of Access and Public Programmes and project colleague Dr Adam Coward, Research Fellow at the Centre, said:

“I am delighted that this co-operative effort between the National Library of Wales and the University of Wales Celtic Research Centre to highlight the achievements of a Welshman from industrial south Wales has produced such an outstanding and attractive result. I would like to thank the curators Nia Wyn Dafydd and Mari-Elin Jones for the stunning text panels and facsimiles included in the exhibition.”

The exhibition features not only letters by European scholars and expatriate Welshman, Stephens’s essays and notes, but also stunningly beautiful objects like the inkhorn Stephens won as a prize at an eisteddfod in 1840, when he was only 19 years old.

The exhibition can be viewed at the Summers Room of the National Library until the first week of December 2015.

Early in 2016, as part of a co-operation between CAWCS, NLW and Merthyr Tydfil Libraries, the exhibition will travel to Merthyr Tydfil Central Library, enabling the public of south Wales and Merthyr Tydfil to gain close access to the life and work of one of its great sons. 

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