Knowledge Transfer and Social Networks: European Learning and the Revolution in Welsh Victorian Scholarship

This project researches how European knowledge was transferred to Merthyr Tydfil in the 1840s and 1850s, especially the effect of local elite patronage and the role of the lower middle class in the process of modernizing Wales and its learning.

Thomas-Stephens-2At the heart of our investigation is the historian, Celtic scholar, cultural modernizer and social reformer Thomas Stephens (1821–75) of Merthyr Tydfil, who would not have been able to pursue his research or publish his magnum opus, Literature of the Kymry (1849), without the patronage of Lady Charlotte Guest and Lady Augusta Hall (Lady Llanover). Through them he gained access to eminent scholars of socially elevated standing, such as Baron Christian von Bunsen (the Prussian ambassador to the Court of Queen Victoria) and Friedrich Max Müller, Professor of Modern Languages at Oxford. The Guests sponsored the publication of Literature of the Kymry, whose international acclaim led Stephens to correspond with scholars like the Breton Vicomte Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué, and the Germans Albert Schulz and Karl Meyer.

Thomas Stephens never ceased to work as a cultural modernizer and social reformer nationally and locally. Throughout his life he strove to reinvent the eisteddfod as a modern institution, to standardize the Welsh orthography and to further the education of Welsh children. With the help of the Guests he campaigned for the founding of a public library in Merthyr Tydfil. He was one of the founders of its Board of Health and took a leading role in the construction of its Temperance Hall. He campaigned tirelessly for H. A. Bruce, the MP for Merthyr Tydfil between 1852 and 1868, and organized relief funds, as for the widows and children of the men killed at an explosion at the Crawshay Gethin Pit No. 2 in 1862.

The activities of Thomas Stephens are chronicled in c.600 letters, 63 manuscripts and contemporary periodicals at the National Library of Wales, and in archives further afield, in England and Germany. Our aim is to produce an anthology of the most significant letters and a critical study which will enable us to understand better the cultural connections between Europe, Wales and Merthyr Tydfil.

Relevant Publications

Adam Coward, ‘English Anglers, Welsh Salmon and Social Justice: The Politics of Conservation in Mid-Nineteenth Century Wales’, Welsh History Review, 27/4 (2015), 730–54

Marion Löffler (with Hywel Gethin Rhys), ‘Thomas Stephens and the Abergavenny Cymreigyddion: Letters from the Cambrian 1842–3’, National Library of Wales Journal (May 2009) <>

— ‘Thomas Stephens a Llythyru Cyhoeddus yng Nghymru Oes Fictoria’, Y Traethodydd, CLXV, no. 692 (Ionawr 2010), 35–49

— ‘Failed founder fathers and abandoned sources: Edward Williams, Thomas Stephens and the young J. E. Lloyd’, in Neil Evans and Huw Pryce (eds.), Writing a Small Nation's Past: Wales in Comparative Perspective, 1850-1950 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), pp. 67–81

Transcripts of letters to Thomas Stephens

National Library of Wales Manuscripts 964E i–ii and 965E i–ii contain over 400 letters donated in 1916. Between 2013 and 2016, Dr Adam Coward transcribed and edited most of the material and Dr Marion Löffler revised the collection, especially the Welsh letters. We are grateful to Dr Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan for her help with the letters in French. In the four volumes, the letters, numbered through from 1 to 385B, are mainly in alphabetical order, from the first, written by Scotsman Alex Anderson, to number 385B in the fourth volume, which had been sent to Stephens by William Wilde, father of Oscar Wilde. The remainder of 965E ii is taken up with miscellaneous material, such as visa, envelopes, some eisteddfod adjudications, and poetry. The transcripts have kept to the order of the material in the volumes. The transcripts are now available on-line: