The ‘Life of John Evans (John y Gwas)’
A Talk by Peter Hughes Griffiths on Wednesday May 22nd, 2019 on the ‘Life of John Evans (John y Gwas)’ at the John y Gwas Public House, Felindre.
The first memory I have of John y Gwas was to see him standing in the doorway of his pub The New Shop Inn, Felindre, (also called The Alsop) on new year’s day, listening to the children of the village singing and wishing him a ‘Happy New Year.’ I was one of those children, and I remember him going into his waistcoat pocket and handing me that new year’s shiny threepenny bit. How could this man get a new year’s coin to give out on the first day of the year surprised us all as kids. So, this John y Gwas created an early impression on me as a child.
SAM OWENS’ WILL
But, this John y Gwas had played a part in another aspect of my life which was unknown to me – and I was only three years old.
I lived in Llwynbedw on the edge of the village, and living in a single room next door but one was the well known local poet Samuel Owens. He was a very old, poor and shy individual who kept to himself, and it was my mother, more or less, who looked after him in his frailness.
I have here his original will. (Show and read the will). And it was John Evans (John y Gwas) of the New Shop Inn, Felindre who was the only signed witness to the will in which Samuel Owens left everything to myself and my sister Beti. We only had one thing from the will – which was the Chair of Soar Eisteddfod 1910 - because my mother had to sell his very few belongings to pay for his funeral. The chair was kept at our home and later in my home in Carmarthen before I prestented it to the National Woollen Museum in Drefach for an exhibition on Local Eisteddfodau as part of the ‘Story Fawr Drefach Felindre’ project.
My mother was also a close friend of Elizabeth, or Leisa as she was known, the second wife of John y Gwas, as they were both from the Trelech area.
So, when John y Gwas died on November 15th 1958 I was 18 years old at that time, and had lived since a small boy during the time spent by John y Gwas and wife Leisa at The New Shop Inn. As a young man I remember him well, but there are one or two others even who knew him better – Alan Campden is one!
WHO WAS THIS JOHN Y GWAS?
JOHN WILLIAM EVANS was born at Tŷ Hwnt, Aberbanc, Henllan on the !st of November 1877. He was a ‘Pupil Teacher’ at Penboyr School in the care of the Headmaster Daniel Jenkins. He was ‘Assistant Master’ at Hendy School Pontarddulais and at Brynmawr until September 1899.
Then on April 30th 1900 he stared as a teacher at Aberbanc Primary School and was there as an ‘Uncertificated Assistant Teacher’ for 36 years and 9 months, retiring on January 19th 1937. He was given a Testimonial of £22.71 shillings.
John Evans had married Mary Jane Davies on the 11th October 1924 receiving a ‘Silver Ink Stand’ as a wedding gift by the School on January 1st 1925. Note that he was 48 years old when he got married. His wife Mary Jane died on 31st May 1935, ten years after their marriage when she was 74 years old (born 28th November 1860). She was therefore 17 years oldar than John Evans her husband. She was buried on 4th June 1935 at St Llawddog Churchyard, Penboyr, and John was 58 years old by then.
I noted that he retired as a teacher at Aberbanc School on January 19th 1937 when he was 60 years old. He then remarried on the 23rd May 1937 to Miss Elizabeth Davies from the Trelech area at St Teilo Church in the Parish of Trelech a’r Betws – at the age of 60.
It seems that it was at this time that both came to keep the New Shop Inn in Felindre, although we now know that well before then he was a popular individual and very much involved in Welsh culture – Welsh poetry, Welsh writing, a historian and author and a local councillor.
He was aged 60 when he married Leisa and he spent 20 years or more at The Alsop, and his pub became known as ‘John y Gwas’. He lived here until his death on 15th November 1958 when he was 81 years old. He was also buried at Penboyr Churchyard.
During the summer of 1958, just before his death, I remember well going with Aled Parcnest my friend to a ‘Poets Evening’ in Henllan Hall and arranged by the late Dan Lyn James. The compere for the evening was John y Gwas. He was there enjoying the company of many famous Welsh bards – The Cilie Family, T Llew Jones, Dic and Tydfor and others. Isfoel was the adjudicator of the tasks set on the spot for the bards. The set title for the ‘englyn’ was ‘John y Gwas. I can still remember the last two lines of that four line poem they composed – as it refers to John’s white hair and as a publican.
“Ei wallt neis sydd fel eisin
Hwn yw’r jawl a ranna’r jin”
(Translated : His hair is nice like icing/ He’s the chap that serves the gin”.
Within a few months of that evening in Henllan John y Gwas had died. I had left for Trinity Collage Carmarthen that September. Was that the last time I saw John y Gwas? If so, I saw him at his best as a compere, full of humour, delighting the audience with his own style of presenting on stage. That aspect of Welsh culture was his main interest in life.
HIS TIME AT THE NEW SHOP INN or ALSOP
During his time at the New Shop Inn he became a local councillor – firstly on Newcastle Emlyn Rural Council 1940-46, and then in 1951 elected to represent the Parishes of Llangeler and Penboyr on Carmarthenshire County Council – and I again remember him well – if you saw Councillor John Evans wearing his bowler hat, he was on his way to Carmarhen for a meeting or an other important appointment. He would journey with Gwyn Parcnest or by the Western Welsh bus service. He never owned a car. During this time he became Chair of Governors at what was then the new Emlyn School in Newcastle Emlyn, and also at Llandysul Grammar School, and a Member of The Court of Governors at Swansea University.
For years he contributed to the ‘Carmarthen Journal’ with his weekly column ‘Dwy Ochr Teifi’.
John Evans was a dedicated churchman and had researched and collected vast information about churches and their history – especially in South Ceredigion, which also included autobiographies on all the vicars. He was Church Warden at St. Llawddog Church, Penboyr for a long period of time.
I think that Leisa his wife did carry on for some time at the New Shop Inn after his death, and I heard a story that Leslie Baker Jones , who lived next door in LLainffald, noticed one morning smoke raising from the back yard of the pub. He went to look and saw that they were starting to burn off John y Gwas’ papers and documents. According to what I heard, Leslie Baker Jones rushed over to stop them. We thank him so much for that good deed as he then arranged for all his papers and collections to be transferred to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.
Some three years ago I went to the National Library to see what exactly was there in relation to John y Gwas. It gave me so much pleasure to see two large cardboard boxes full of copy books, excercise books and a variety of paper materials. On each box was printed :
“Manuscripts and Papers of John Evans (John y Gwas). Donated May 1961 (two years following his death) by Mrs Irene Williams per DL Baker Jones (un catalogued).”
And I was the first to open these boxes since 1961, and I spent two full days going through the contents and came to appreciate the importance of this special individual John y Gwas in relation to the history of Drefach Felindre.
[Soon afterwards Mr John Jenkins of 15, Maes afallen, Bow St. Ceredigion went through these two boxes researching for the book “Aberbanc Ein Bore Bach” ‘The history of Aberbanc School 1848 – 2016.’ He has a chapter and a photograph in that book – “The Diaries of John y Gwas” listing the activities of John y Gwas during his long period as a teacher in the school.]
THE CONTENT OF THE TWO BOXES AT THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF WALES
The first notable thing I noticed was that he had kept an unbroken weekly diary from the 26th of October 1912, in 12 thick ‘copy books’ until the 9th of November 1958, six days before his death on the 15th of November 1958. This is such an important record as it gives us a factual picture of the community life of Aberbanc and Henllan, and of Drefach Felindre and surrounding districts in those days.
He started writing his own Autobiography when only 35 years old in an ‘Invernell Excercise Book’, but did not continue with his life history from then onwards.
It is worth noting (from his early autobiagraphy) that he was using his ‘non de plume’ John y Gwas well before he was 35 years old.
Using a ‘non de plume’ was, and still is something quite common when competing or writing in Welsh. It is obvious that John Evans kept using ‘John y Gwas’ as his non de plume. He used it as his bardic name, when writing articles and later on in his community work. He liked the idea that he was the ‘servant of the people’ – especially as a councillor and his willingness to help with all local activities.
He was known to more people as John y Gwas than as John Evans.
From reading the content of both boxes it is evident that he had a great desire to compete and enjoyed competing at eisteddfodau in the poetry and literary section. He also wrote articles regularly for Welsh magazines.
He includes a long list of the prizes and awards he won for his compositions and literary work. He notes his article in ‘Yr Haul’ in 1903 on Newcastle Emlyn.
He wrote in the ‘Llan,’ the Church magazine as ‘John y Gwas’ and also in the ‘Tivy Side’, the ‘Welsh Gazette’ and the ‘Carmarthen Journal’.
In 1912 he published the history of Soar Chapel.
He lists all the chairs he had won at eisteddfodau, and a long list of eisteddfodau he had adjudicated in the recitation and literary sections.
He compered eisteddfodau and concerts and a variety of evenings.
One of his major works was to write on the Famous Vicars of Cardiganshire - all this before he had reached the age of 35 as everything is recorded in his autobiography up until then.
The two boxes are full of ‘copy and excercise books’ in his own handwriting.
I have listed the content of each of these books on the website of ‘Stori Fawr Drefach Felindre’ under the ‘History of John y Gwas.’
Here are some examples only:
Blue Copy Book : Drefach Felindre and District Appeal for a war time siren to warn the people during the Second World War – 2nd August 1940.
Small Red and Blue Books : Adjudications at various eisteddfodau eg Brongest Eisteddfod 28th November 1922.
Copy of a lecture presented by John y Gwas in Neuadd y Ddraig Goch, Felindre which included a report on the first ‘mule’ to be installed at Llwynbedw Woolen Factory in 1850.
He mentions John Adams of Dolwyon Woollen Factory, as a member of his family became president of the United States of America,
He had a collection of what is written on gravestones, naming each graveyard, in a small black book and records also 271 englynion (Welsh verses) on gravestones.
John y Gwas was the unofficial name on the New Shop Inn during his lifetime spent at the pub in the village of Felindre and it is so satisfying to see that it is now the permanent official name.
Who decided on this and when?
We praise whoever made it officially ‘Tafarn John y Gwas’ so that the present and future generations can appreciate that this pub has been named after one of the leading individuals in the history of this village.
I can’t but imagine tonight that John y Gwas would be delighted, as he sat by his old fire place, listening to me relating to you his life story. If he is not here in person – I can guarantee you that his spirit is here and very much alive in the area.
John y Gwas never thought that – that little boy he gave that new year’s threepenny bit to on new years day while standing in the doorway of his pub would be tonight, 70 years later, praising his achievements in life, and proud to do so. He would have liked that!
That’s who John y Gwas was!