T. E. NICHOLAS
'NICHOLAS OF GLAIS'
THE PEOPLE'S CHAMPION
T E Nicholas, 'Nicholas of Glais', 1879-1971, as a young man
The popular image today of the preacher and the politician, and one that in most cases is sadly deserved, is not a flattering one. When we see and hear the dull, self-serving politicians and ecclesiastics on our television screens (we rarely see them in the flesh any more) we quickly forget that it was probably a passioniate idealism that once propelled them into the church and debating chamber, at least in the beginning. And our low opinion is soon confirmed when we see many perhaps most soon abandon both passion and idealism once entrenched in the comfort and security of what can be extremely pleasant lifestyles. But then ambition has always policed the antics of the dreamers in our midst, wary lest they get out of hand, and start practising themselves what they preach to others.
Especially the politicians, who now see themselves less as inspirational leaders or champions of the poor and dispossessed, and more as managers of Team Britain, or Britain Plc, or whatever gobbledegook is fashionable at the time. Gone now seems to be what, if anything, once inspired them to take up cudgels on behalf of the huddled masses.
Today in 2003, we have the curious case of an Archbishop of Canterbury (from the nearby Swansea valley) sounding more like a politician than the Prime Minister who, in turn, more resembles a trendy young vicar than a head of government, albeit a somewhat sanctimonious vicar twitching to drop bombs on brown skinned babies in an illegal war against Iraq. "Suffer the little children to come unto me", reportedly said Christ, himself a brown skinned man from the Middle East, (Mark, chapter 10, verse 14), but does Blair need to interpret the word 'suffer' so literally?
So where today are the larger than life public figures, the tub thumpers and soap box orators, the fire and brimstone breathing preachers, and the rest of the old style rabble rousers whose mission was to change the world, not merely profit from it?
It would appear we'll have to journey backwards in time to find them, as none can be seen today. One such figure we'll encounter in that dim and distant past is T E Nicholas, or 'Nicholas of Glais' as he became known, after his ten years as minister of Sion Chapel, Glais, in the Swansea valley. But he has an important connection with Ammanford, too, spending three years here studying at the Gwynfryn Academy on College Street (the street itself is named after the College). In later years Nicholas himself reiterated how important this phase of his long life had been (he died in 1971 at the age of 91):
"Around the turn of this century he decided to enter the ministry and he received his three-year training for this at the Gwynfryn Academy, Ammanford, under Watcyn Wyn (Watkin Hezekiah Williams) and Gwili (John Jenkins). He was to claim in the twilight of his life that he hadn't seen any new developments in theology since his instruction under those two 'great men', that the religion of the New Testament is for the uneducated man and that Watcyn Wyn had opened his eyes to how excellent the simple doctrine of the Gospels really was" (David W Howell: Nicholas of Glais: The People's Champion', Clydach Historical Society,1991, Booklet, 49 pp. See below for this biography in full)
(see 'Gwynfryn School, College Street' in the 'History' section of this web site and 'Watcyn Wyn' in the 'People section.)
Gwynfryn Academy, Ammanford, where T E Nicholas studied for three years
Although he moved away from Ammanford after his days at Gwynfryn he continued to return to the area for the purpose of public speaking engagements, including visits to the 'White House', a centre for young radical coal miners from 1913 to 1922. (see 'The White House' in the 'History' section of this website).
The following is a biography of T E Nicholas, written by David H Howell and published in 1991 for the Clydach Historical Society. It traces quite an extraordinary journey, from a Pembrokeshire hill farm, to Chapel preacher, dentist, poet, polemicist but always the fire-brand pacifist, socialist and communist who was persecuted for his beliefs by both the church authorities and the state. It was Nicholas y Glais who delivered the funeral service for the founder of the Labour Party, James Keir Hardie, at his death in 1915, but who had left the Labour Party himself because of its support for the slaughter of the First World War.
Nicholas of Glais in old age.
This age-old conflict between religious belief and war is not new however it is as old as religion and war themselves and today's sabre rattling by armchair generals like Bush and Blair is sadly only its latest manifestation. Our story of the pacifist Christian minister 'Nicholas of Glais' is a timely reminder that so-called Christians like Blair and Bush interpret their faith to suit themselves, not forgetting the sinister military and corporate interests that stand behind their public posturings. Nothing seems to have changed at all since the time of Nicholas of Glais, even though modern conflicts they don't even call them wars any more have become television events, brought to us in the comfort of our own homes. Today's on-screen wars more resemble a computer game, with flashing lights and muffled sounds in the background, all of which serve to de-sanitise the realities of the blood and screams and carnage that are happening in the distance, well out of sight of the compliant journalists in their designer battle fatigues who report it for us. Oh yes, and well out of sight of the viewers as well, who are served up the official interpretation instead, almost as a side-dish to their TV dinners.
On the cosy relationship between religion and war we'll leave the final word to Nicholas of Glais, in one of the sonnets written while he was in Swansea and Brixton prisons for his anti-war activities.
....AND WHEN YOU PRAY AND PRAY
And when you pray and pray I cannot listen,
Your silky hands, so steeped in blood, I dread,
From holy altar's, easeful shade I hasten
When on the upward steps I hear your tread.
You dress your mealy words in subtle clothing,
You bless the dogs of war with priestly cant,
I loathe you with an everlasting loathing,
Arch-hypocrite and royal sycophant.
Humanity in need can wait no longer,
And you like foolish mummer on bent knee
The blood and fat of ox won't feed my hunger
While untold corpses litter hill and lea.
Your paws are red with blood, you fleshy knave,
Who panting runs with beast of primal cave.
Translation made for this web site.
© www.ammanfordtown.org.uk, 2003
NICHOLAS OF GLAIS
THE PEOPLE'S CHAMPION
David W. Howell
T. E. Nicholas was one of the great 'characters' of twentieth-century Wales. From his boyhood days spent on the lovely Preseli hills of Pembrokeshire, down to the end of his life, he was a radical, a thorn in the flesh of the political and religious establishment, employing his considerable literary talents and oratorical gifts, expressed in his native Welsh tongue, in championing the downtrodden Welsh worker in both the industrial valleys of South Wales and the rural hamlets and villages of Cardiganshire and North Pembrokeshire. Much of the shaping of this impressive man's outlook took place while serving as a Minister of the Gospel at Glais between 1904 and 1914: it was here that he gained a reputation for holding revolutionary views and for speaking out for the disadvantaged in society. It is fitting therefore that the neighbouring historical society of Clydach should publish this booklet in honour of the memory of one of the Swansea Valley's most colourful and arresting characters. (David W Howell).
THE PEOPLE'S CHAMPION
DAVID W. HOWELL
1...... His Early Upbringing and Training for the Ministry
2 ..... His Years at Glais, 1904-1914
3 ..... The War Years, Pacifist and Organiser
........ of Rural Workers Trades Unions
4...... Nicholas: Communist and Anti-Fascist
5 ..... His Religion and Poetry
6 ..... Conclusions
7 ......Translations of Prison Sonnets
1. His Early Upbringing and Training for the Ministry
Thomas Evan Nicholas was born on 6 October 1879 at Blaunwaun Felen in Llanfyrnach parish, north Pembrokeshire, but before he was a year old his parents moved to a neighbouring small farm called Llety at the top end of the parish high up on the Preseli Mountains. It was in this lovely spot that he spent his youth. Like most of the farmers of this hilly area of thin soils, his parents were poor and, from a material standpoint, lived a threadbare existence, his father having to supplement his meagre income from the farm by working as a stone mason. Only forty years earlier farmers from these very hills had risen up against their awful poverty in the Rebecca riots.
He attended the local village school at Hermon which was situated at the lower end of Llanfyrnach parish. He and two or three others would walk down from the hills each morning to attend the school and while there this little group kept very much to themselves, the rest of the children coming from a different community and network of associations. Not only were they apart from other children; their teachers, as in other Welsh schools, teaching through the medium of English, largely ignored the educational needs of these monoglot Welsh children from the hills. So it was that Nicholas had but a scant education there and his early valuable instruction, which included learning English, came in the home and his Sunday school.
Indeed, he was brought up in a culturally rich environment. As was not uncommon in Welsh rural communities, his family had split denominational allegiance; whereas his father worshipped at the Baptist chapel in Hermon, the rest of the family attended Antioch Independent chapel, Crymmych. His parents' main reading interests lay in the Bible and the hymn book and towards the end of his life he was to recall to one interviewer: "How my mother knew hymns. When I think of my childhood in a Pembrokeshire cottage, the voice of my hymn-singing mother fills it." He was also taught as a youth by the close-knit, face-to-face community in which he grew up. In particular, he was deeply influenced by religious arguments in the Sunday school, by his listening as a boy to adults arguing in the communal gathering of the haymaking over what political material they had read in Thomas Gee's newspaper, Y Faner, as well as over last Sunday's sermon, and by such arguments at the nearby Glogue slate quarry.
Thomas Gee's paper would have been brimming with censure of 'alien' Welsh landlords and their high rents and of Church of England clergy and their tithe exactions. Indeed, anti-tithe disturbances were to rage in the vicinity of Crymmych in 1891; the hated tithe-agent, Robert Lewis, was attacked by a crowd in Crymmych Square on 19 June and, having escaped to the railway station, only the intervention of Rev. John Evans of Antioch chapel attended we have seen, by Nicholas was to prevent the angry pursuing crowd from physically attacking him. Was Nicholas, we are left to ponder, a member of the anti-tithe disturbance? Nicholas at this stage of his life, like his nonconformist friends and community, was naturally a nonconformist radical in his political outlook. That he early developed radical attitudes is to be seen from his writing a disparaging poem about the vicar of the nearby village of Eglwyswrw. His uncalculating outspokenness was throughout his career to land him in trouble, and on this occasion the controversy the poem caused in the district led to his dismissal from his job which he had taken upon leaving school as a messenger boy for a shop and the Swan Pub, two miles outside Crymmych towards Trefdraeth.
His upbringing in this kind of rural community was also to sow the seeds of his later commitment to socialism. For, as we have hinted, the poverty of the small farmers meant that it was necessary both for neighbouring groups of farmers to co-operate among themselves in peak farming periods and for cottagers to help at harvest in return for being granted small potato plots in the neighbouring farmers' fields. Nicholas was indeed to claim late in his life how the harvest period was the happiest time he could recall, how he would sit in the hay listening to those around him singing, reciting stories and, we have seen, debating religious subjects. This communal togetherness was later to become an ideal for Nicholas; he saw great virtue in a neighbourly society, people co-operating for the good of one another rather than competing.
Nicholas was to leave Pembrokeshire in 1897 to take up work in Treherbert in the Rhondda but we know nothing of this episode in his life except that his stay there was a short one. Around the turn of this century he decided to enter the ministry and he received his three-year training for this at the Gwynfryn Academy, Ammanford, under Watcyn Wyn (Watkin Hezekiah Williams) and Gwili John Jenkins). He was to claim in the twilight of his life that he hadn't seen any new developments in theology since his instruction under those two 'great men', that the religion of the New Testament is for the uneducated man and that Watcyn Wyn had opened his eyes to how excellent the simple doctrine of the Gospels really was. Both Watcyn Wyn and Gwili were also influential in steering him towards Socialism; Gwili was himself active in the I.L.P. movement in 1909 and was being mentioned in December of that year as a possible candidate to fight the next east Carmarthenshire parliamentary election. In 1901 Nicholas became ordained into the Independent Ministry at Horeb, Llandeilo. The following year he married Mary Alys Hopkins and sometime during 1903, after increasingly strained relations with the more staid section of his congregation owing to his pronounced radical views and also rumours of a romantic entanglement, he left for America to minister to Dodgeville Welsh Congregational Church.
2. His Years at Glais, 1904-1914
On 20 June 1904 the deacons of Capel Sion, Glais, wrote to Dodgeville inviting Nicholas to become minister of their chapel. There were ten of them, by name William Lewis, Edward Evans, Daniel Maddock, David Thomas, Esaiah Lewis, Thomas Gregory, Isaac Gregory, Thomas T. Davies, David Howells and William David Rees. The aforementioned Thomas Gregory once told the late Professor T. J. Morgan, who was baptised by Nicholas, of how the latter came to Glais. Another of the deacons, the said William Lewis, a well-to-do local farmer, was in the habit of attending Crymmych fair. On one occasion in 1904 he met Nicholas' father there and on account of Sion then being without a minister he asked after the son, for he had been impressed upon earlier hearing him preach at Sion as a student preacher. He was told that Nicholas was then in America, but the father nevertheless urged Lewis to invite him to minister at Glais as he did not care for his son being so far from home. This came to pass, but not without difficulty. At the initial meeting at Sion Chapel, on 3 May, 1904, two names were proposed, those of Nicholas and of Sam Jones of Gorseinon, a student at Carmarthen College, and Nicholas emerged as the overwhelming preference on the part of the members, but, owing to some irregularity occurring, a second meeting had perforce to be gone through at Mynyddbach.
Nicholas was to minister at Glais until 1914 and, owing to his habit of signing articles he wrote in the Genhinen as 'Niclas Glais' during his stay in the village, henceforth to the end of his days he was to be known as Nicholas y Glais. His years as minister of Capel Sion saw his reputation grow as a powerful preacher in the Welsh tongue of progressive theological views and as a propagandist through the medium of Welsh of the Independent Labour Party. While the earlier influences of, first, his upbringing in a farming community dependent upon co-operation and, second, the teachings of Watcyn Wyn and Gwili, had provided the seed-bed, a number of influences made themselves felt while at Glais which clinched his commitment to socialism.
He was very popular among the coalminers and other workers in the village and his becoming familiar with their poverty and harsh working and living conditions heightened his concern for the lot of the downtrodden. Work was uncertain for the fifty or so men working in the Sisters Pit in the village belonging to the Lewis Graigola Colliery Company; thus there was a dispute in the summer of 1905 when the men were given twenty-eight days notice by the Company to terminate work and, later, between October 1909 and March 1910, colliers at the pit were on short time work. Worse was to follow, the stoppage of the colliery in winter 1911 leading to migration of men formerly employed there while, at the same time, men were out on dispute at the Tyryfron colliery and work was irregular at the Llwyndu colliery. There was also an acute housing shortage in the village between 1907 and 1910 owing to the extension of the Mond Nickel Works, and, moreover, in 1910 the local Medical Officer of Health pointed to the prevalence of infectious diseases at Glais. While Nicholas was popular with miners whose cause he championed, predictably Evan Lewis, the Welsh-speaking mine owner and dominant figure in the village disapproved of him.
Another important influence on his political thinking and Christian outlook in these years at Glais was the person of Keir Hardie. The two became friends, so much so that Nicholas was to preach the sermon at Hardie's burial service in 1915 to a packed Siloah Chapel, Aberdare; a sermon woven about the highly appropriate New Testament text, 'I came to set fire to the Earth'. The starting point in the relationship lay in the New Theology of R. J. Campbell. Nicholas, along with certain other ministers across the South Wales coalfield, had come to adopt the social gospel enunciated by Campbell, who claimed that his New Theology movement was 'the religious articulation of the social movement' and that the Labour Party was indeed itself a Church in the original sense of the word signifying the coming together of those intent upon bringing about the Kingdom of God. Campbell, in his attempt at making the Christian message relevant to the needs of an industrial society found a kindred spirit in Keir Hardie, whose presentation of Socialism was attractively in the form of a high moral challenge, a religious crusade against injustice and oppression. The two campaigned together for the I.L.P. [Independent Labour Party]. The aforementioned, significantly young, nonconformist ministers in south Wales who preached the social gospel embraced I.L.P. teachings; for them, in Dr. K. O. Morgan's words, 'Hardie served as a living symbol of the validity of the "new theology", and they (as also R. J. Campbell) were lively campaigners in his two successfully-fought parliamentary contests at Merthyr in 1910. Prominent among these young ministers who rallied to Hardie's I.L.P. standard were the Rev. Rhondda Williams (Union Church, Brighton), the Rev. D. G. Rees (Bridgend); the Rev. Cynnog Williams (Aberdare), the Rev. James Nicholas (Moriah, Tonypandy), and our hero the Rev. Thomas Nicholas.
As the Rev. D. Ben Rees has shown, Nicholas' thinking was further influenced in the direction of socialism by his reading of Robert Owen, the Co-operative Utopianist, and the less well-known socialist R. J. Derfel (1824 1905), who was conveniently to summarise his whole philosophy in the pages of Llais Llafur in December 1905. Nicholas was to espouse the beliefs held dear by Derfel, namely, the brotherhood of man, peace and righteousness, equality and nationalisation of land, a world rid of poverty, prisons and royal families, a world free from competition and exploitation.
These Christian and socialist convictions, which for him were interlinked and wholly compatible, were to see him very active in the pulpit, on the platform and in the press during his ten years at Glais. Within the chapel itself he soon gained renown for his distinctive brand of preaching which emphasised the social relevance and implications of the Gospel; indeed by autumn 1906 his preaching in the Welsh language was said to be full of power, so much so that up to half his time was being spent away from Glais preaching at 'big meetings', ('cyrddau mawr'). He also promoted the eisteddfod within his chapel at Glais, 'chair' eisteddfodau becoming annual events there from 1904 onwards. Competitors came from quite far afield, so that in 1908, if the boys' under-fourteen solo was won by Glynne Gwilym of Glais, the contralto solo went to Rachel Jones of Ammanford, the soprano solo to Edith Thomas of Morriston, the tenor solo to J. Stephens of Bonymaen and the bass solo to D. Davies of Alltwen. The choral competitions of this year saw Loughor and Gendros take first and second prize respectively. Competitions for rock boring and timbering were also features of these annual events. The chapel, too, had a juvenile choir; in 1908 at a meeting presided over by Nicholas it gave a rendering of a cantata 'Plant y Nefoedd' ('Children of Heaven'). Nicholas was himself an active competitor in the literary competitions of many eisteddfodau within south Wales coalfield society during these years. He thus won the literature prize in his own chapel's eisteddfod of 1905, during summer 1908 he won the prize chair for the poem on 'Medelwyr Duw', (God's Reapers) at the Pont Neath Vaughan eisteddfod; in 1910 he won the chair at the Mountain Ash Easter Monday eisteddfod and in early 1911 he won chairs at Newcastle Emlyn and Glanamman. His poetry had a socialist message and in this way by 1910 he was popularly known as 'Bardd y Werin', ('the People's Bard'). His own poetry was also being recited at competitive meetings: thus at the eisteddfod held at Capel Seion Ystalyfera, in January 1911 the recitation competition was based on 'Y werin yn deffro' ('the people awaken') from his 'Salmau'r Werin' (the People's Psalms).
Nicholas was also making, his mark both within Glais and further afield, as a powerful propagandist in the Welsh language of the newly emerging I.L.P. Movement, which was making significant headway within the towns and villages of the south Wales coalfield even if Lib-Labism was to hold on to its sway in the parliamentary constituencies down to the First World War. Within Glais itself, Nicholas and Gwilym Jenkins were co-founders of an I.L.P. branch in Station Road some time before autumn 1906. In 1910 the branch had eleven members, six of whom belonged to the Thomas family of the village. From 1909 a series of outdoor meetings were held in the summer months. Prominent speakers in the Socialist movement in the village were Aneurin Rees, James Thomas and, of course, Nicholas himself, who for instance, addressed the Socialist institute on 24 November 1909 on 'Tu ar Euraidd Oes', ('Towards the Golden Age') an excellent address reported Llais Llafur though there 'was none too strong an attendance'.
The latter observation should help us to keep the Socialist cause in the village at this time in its proper perspective. It was a lively, culturally rich community within which politics played but a part. Its rugby team satisfied and promoted village pride and assertiveness, Llais Llafur commenting in its issue for 22 January 1910: 'A football match of almost national importance was played on the Glais ground on Saturday, when the Village Boys defeated a team from Clydach by a try to nil'. In addition, the village boasted an active chapel life, eisteddfodau, choral singing from the Glais United Choir and the Sion Juvenile Choir, ambulance classes, evening classes for girls, the Mutual Improvement Society, whist drives and outings. Electric light came to Glais at the beginning of 1910 and Llais Llafur commented significantly on 4 December 1909: 'During the last few years no subject has aroused so much interest in Glais as the question of the lighting arrangements. Politics, trades unionism and temperance reform have all been set aside in favour of this burning question'. (author's italics).
Nicholas and his Socialist comrades in the village were, of course, part of a wider movement. Occasionally, Edward Black, I.L.P. organiser, would visit the Glais institute. Aneurin Rees and James Thomas both spoke in other districts on behalf of the movement, but most active in this respect was Nicholas; he was a frequent speaker in Welsh at other I.L.P. branches in the Swansea valley such as those at Ystalyfera and Ystradgynlais and he became a prominent figure in the Ystalyfera branch of the Gower Labour Party. He undoubtedly played a crucial role in making the I.L.P. organisation so well-organised in the Swansea Valley compared with other Welsh areas. It was at a gathering of Socialists and Labourites at Ystalyfera in early 1911 that Nicholas, in a speech congratulating his I.L.P. friend, the Rev. W. D. Roderick on his marriage, drew attention to the humane concerns of the Welsh poets. Both he and Roderick, he announced, had been students of Watcyn W yn, 'one of the greatest democrats of his day'. There followed a tribute to the aspirations of the Welsh poets, aspirations which were, he claimed, enshrined in the I.L.P. Movement Twm o'r Nant had envisaged the coming of the golden age, Ellis Wynne in his vision had only seen the wealthy and the idler in the pit, Dewi Wyn had sung about the needs of the workman, and others, too, like Owain Gwynedd, Islwyn, and Watcyn Wyn had all appreciated the need for amelioration of the people's condition.
His influence spread further afield through his becoming, at Keir Hardie's request, editor of the Welsh column of Hardie's l.L.P newspaper, The Merthyr Pioneer, which involved his contributing a weekly article for over ten years. Likewise, a series of articles he wrote in the Welsh periodical, the Genhinen, shortly before 1914 in response to a number of anti-Labour articles in the same journal by W.F. Phillips, B.A., B.D., disseminated his views. Essentially, Phillips claimed that Socialism and Christianity were incompatible. In reply, Nicholas urged that he saw no point in Christ coming to earth in human form were it not as a command by God for man to build a heaven on earth. God himself could not get rid of slums, poverty and drunkeness since social reorganization must be undertaken by man. As for the accusation by Phillips that Labour held meetings on Sunday, Nicholas retorted that if Labour principles were not worth preaching on a Sunday they were not worth preaching at all. (That he connived in this is instanced in Professor T.J. Morgan's recollection of an open air sermon given by Keir Hardie at Ystalyfera on a Sunday on 'No Landlords in Heaven', on which occasion Capel Sion Sunday school finished early to allow members to attend the meeting). In one of these articles in the Genhinen, entitled 'Pam mae'r werin yn dlawd?' ('Why are the working class poor?'), Nicholas provided statistics of low wages and infant mortality among the working class as well as details of slum dwellings and he compared these with the cost of maintaining the army and the royal family. His anger was directed at the politicians and theologians who glibly asserted it was all part of God's plan, that rich and poor must always exist: 'But I reject the god that arranges this, I denounce him as an oppressor, I challenge him as he is unjust. The God of capitalism and kings, the God of priests and Popes, "he is not God".'
In particular, the articles in the Genhinen led to invitations to go to north Wales, for the highly literate and cultured quarry workers there had taken to reading and discussing them during their lunch breaks arid sought to hear him lecture and preach to them. The upshot was that he was rarely at home at Glais on two consecutive Sundays, an absence which led to complaints among his congregation. A compromise was reached whereby Nicholas started to preach in Capel Sion on Thursday evenings, services which, he was to reflect in old age, became more popular than prayer meetings.
Nicholas left Glais in early 1914 for south Cardiganshire to minister to the Congregational chapels at Llangybi, near Lampeter, and Llanddewi Brefi, whose deacons had issued an invitation to him on 1 December, 1913. He stuck by his decision to leave despite unanimous resolutions by his congregation at Glais on two successive Sundays asking him to stay on at the chapel. Capel Sion met on Christmas day, 1913 to discuss Nicholas' decision and it was agreed that an acknowledgment should be made in the form of a gift. A month later the chapel met again and accepted the offer of one of his bardic chairs made by Nicholas at the meeting. Although the parting was therefore cordial enough, as he hinted at his farewell address, he had nevertheless upset some of his congregation over his active involvement in the I.L.P . cause and his inclusion of its ideals in his preaching, and, as War approached, for his preaching Pacifism, which was an article of faith for those supporting Keir Hardie and the I.L.P.
He gave his farewell address on Sunday evening, 11 January 1914, when the chapel was crowded with members of his own congregation and visitors from neighbouring chapels in the Swansea Valley. Reviewing his ten years at Glais, he stated that there were two sides to the work he had done, a negative and a positive one. On the negative side, he had not dwelt much on Hell and the future life, but on the positive side he had given most of his emphasis to the social problems which demanded amelioration. He believed the Church existed to look after men and women, not creeds, and he felt strongly the Church should deal with the material as well as the spiritual side of life. Acknowledging that whilst many of his congregation had not seen eye to eye with his point of view when he first came amongst them, rightly supposing him to be a revolutionary, he felt that the majority of his flock had come round to his way of thinking. Llais Llafur, looking back over his time in the village, commented: 'During the ten years he has resided in the Swansea Valley he has inspired hundreds if not thousands with a wider and nobler outlook on life. He has been and is the most revolutionary of revolutionaries, and his strength as a lecturer is only equalled by the strong appeal he makes as a preacher'. If Nicholas' views were too radical for some of his congregation and he was to leave Glais under a cloud, yet he was to retain throughout his days a strong affection for Capel Sion, so much so that in his will he left £100 to the chapel.
3. The War Years: Pacifist and Organiser a/Rural Workers' Trades Unions
Before he had properly settled in his new ministry in Cardiganshire, war broke out. Nicholas immediately threw himself into promoting the cause of pacifism and it is an interesting fact that the leading Welsh pacifist during the years 1914-18, Dr. Thomas Rees, Principal of the Congregationalist College at Bangor, was born in a cottage not a quarter of a mile from Nicholas' home in Llety, north Pembrokeshire. For lorwerth Peate, as a boy during the First World War, 'the Peace Movement in Wales implied two names: T. E. Nicholas and Principal Thomas Rees'. Nicholas was a particularly forceful antiwar campaigner, for he combined an objection to shedding blood with detestation, as a Marxist, of the capitalist system, which he saw as the overriding reason for the outbreak of war. He was much later to recall in conversation with John Griffiths of Swansea how in Cardiganshire in 1914: 'Not one public figure....including ministers was a Pacifist. I travelled a lot through Wales talking about peace and correcting some of the deceitful remarks that were being made about the cause of the War'. His commitment to Pacifism was expressed in the pulpit, on the platform and in the press, and he organised the No-Conscription Fellowship in Cardiganshire. Such was his voicing of Pacifist principles within Cardiganshire that one scornful lady of the manor, Winifred Inglis-Jones of Derry Ormond, busily wrote on 22 November 1917 to Mrs. Drummond of the Patriotic W omen's Party asking her if she could do anything to help 'to get a most objectionable and dangerous man in this neighbourhood put away for a bit', and reminding her of how on her stay at Derry Ormond in 1915 'I spoke to you and Colonel Hunter about him. He was then openly preaching sedition at his chapel and abusing our King and doing all in his power to stop recruiting'. She went on to inform Mrs. Drummond that during the following two years since that visit and a warning received from the authorities he had been quieter within his own chapel even though he had been actively preaching in many other areas of Wales. At the time of writing, however, he was once again busily campaigning in the neighbourhood, defending the conscientious objector. In her opinion, his pacifist views were a source of irritation to the 'better thinking portion' of his congregation, but they were undoubtedly proving attractive to others, especially the young. She voiced her frustration at how his acting as a local dentist as well as a preacher meant that local people, grateful for his professional services, were unwilling to report on his worst utterances, speeches which, moreover, she could not understand at first hand owing to her want of Welsh.
At the beginning of January 1918 Nicholas as a minister of religion received a circular from the National War Aims Committee requesting him to engage his congregation on a certain appointed Sunday in a 'Day of Prayer' to the 'Lord of Hosts' for his blessing on the war effort. He refused to join in this nationwide supplication on a number of grounds. First, he could not join in the hymns suggested: 'Lead us, Heavenly Father, Lead Us' would be a blasphemy, he replied, 'unless we admit that he is the Father of all nations. I believe in the Universal Fatherhood of God; and I cannot ask his blessing on the destruction of my fellow men'. Again, the hymn '0 God our help in ages past' was suggested, 'yet you ask us to put our trust in strong battalions, and in machine guns, and tanks! It cannot be done. The instruments of hell cannot further the Kingdom of God in the world'. His second objection to joining in a Day of Prayer in his chapel was that he could not support the war aims; they arrange, he declared, to destroy the German state and, for him, the way of Peace did not lie that way. He finished his reply in a typically blunt uncompromising declaration of his position:
"I cannot subscribe to a single item set forth in your letter; and I think it is only right that you should know that. When I think of Mesopotamia and the Dardanelles and Ireland, I cannot admit that God has been with us. When I think of the treatment meted out to the Conscientious Objectors, and to the Peace Workers, I cannot ask the Father of all men to bless the methods of the country. I believe that Germany did as much as any country to avoid the war in 1914; and I know that Germany has done more than any country to bring the war to an end. I feel it my duty to let you know that the desire for peace is very strong; and the churches have seen their mistake in committing themselves to the War Aims of the War Cabinet without knowing what those alms were."
On the appointed Sunday, instead of doing what he was told, he preached on the theme of brotherly love, and not to hate each other as all were God's children.
He was also active in promoting the pacifist cause in the mining communities of south Wales both from the pulpit and on the platform. On one occasion during the war he was one of two preachers at a 'big meeting' in Moriah Chapel, Bedlinog, and the service turned out to be sensational. His fellow preacher, a Professor Williams, preached first and in his sermon supported the war and the cause of the Allies. Nicholas, following, observed how Professor Williams had been talking a lot about people getting drunk on beer and contending that this was destroying the world. He, for his part, would talk on people getting drunk on blood, and, according to Edgar Evans, 'he made a terrific sermon on the terrible consequences of the war and how people were applauding this terrible murder and sacrifice that was being made'. The upshot was 'a most unusual scene in the course of the sermon, a kind of debate between the two preachers, and finally a challenge from Nicholas that he was prepared to debate in public on this subject any time, anywhere'. The result was that Moriah chapel was blacklisted in the Congregational Union for a number of years.
Nicholas spoke often in Glamorgan at I.L.P. meetings during 1918. Dr. Deian Hopkin has unearthed from the Home Office files a transcript of one such speech (delivered in Welsh) made at an I.L.P. meeting at the Grand Theatre, Aberaman, on Sunday evening, 29 September 1918. The speeches of both Nicholas and his fellow speaker, W. C. Anderson, M.P., were preceded by an opening hymn 'When wilt thou save the people' and by musical items rendered by the I.L.P. Glee Party. Then Nicholas, to loud applause, stood up to speak. He pleaded for a better world for ordinary people and pointed to the government's failure to make improvements. 'When the Government were asked to make grants for the better education of the children, they said the country could not afford it, but when it came to war, millions of money is being spent every day'. He went on to urge that 'the workmen should make their own salvation and demand their share in the world. The land and the wealth of the country has been shared, but only amongst a few, and we want the workers to have their share. What is happening today on the battlefields of Europe is the work of the Kaisers of all countries and the method of diplomacy in this country, but Keir Hardie has felt the hand of God, and he came to see a better world'. The way that prayers on behalf of the war were being offered up to God in the churches was later attacked: 'Our means of worshipping God is very sinful, we ask Him to save us here and destroy our enemies, but we are all God's children'. Pacifism and Socialist thinking were intermingled throughout the speech, adding up to a powerful denunciation of the government of the country, 'who do not value men'.
In the afternoon of that same day, Sunday, 29 September 1918, Nicholas and Anderson had been engaged to speak at an I.L.P. Meeting in Mountain Ash. However, the whole affair was a fiasco from start to abrupt finish, owing to the noisy interruptions and obstruction of discharged soldiers who kept up a barrage of questions to Anderson both before he could begin his speech and during its curtailed duration of twenty minutes. Such abuse as 'You would let the Germans come here', and 'Get these conscientious objectors off the stage, or else we will come down and do it' were hurled at him and, upon the mood of the audience turning ugly, the meeting was closed. Nicholas made no attempt to speak; amongst the various comments shouted at him upon entering the hall, was 'Get your whiskers cut, don't rob the barber'.
Of course, Nicholas was just one of a band of pacifists who addressed meetings, and, as David Egan indicates, there were many forms of pacifism in vogue at this time. Both' outsiders' like Ramsay MacDonald, Bertrand Russell, the Snowdens and Sylvia Pankhurst (of which lady, Nicholas was to speak very highly later in May 1920 to R. Page Arnot), and more local pacifist speakers many miners' leaders as Noah Ablett, Arthur Cook, James Winstone and Arthur Horner, preached pacifism amongst the industrial communities of south Wales in the war years. Yet, as Dr. Hopkin cautions, for all the support for pacifism amongst certain sections of the south Wales population from 1917 'a more vigorous and revolutionary pacifism' which Nicholas himself helped to propagate most of the population here as elsewhere in Wales supported the war. In this instance, as in all his crusades, Nicholas stood up for what he believed to be right, didn't compromise and was prepared to incur unpopularity and abuse in the pursuit of truth as he saw it.
The authorities were baying for his blood. In Cardiganshire, 1918 saw him being prosecuted under the Defence of the Realm Act before the Lampeter magistrates for his comments after a sermon he preached in his own chapel; despite a fuss made in the court he managed to get the case dismissed by claiming that what offensive remarks he had made comprised a quotation from Philip Gibbs. After leaving the precincts of the court, a man said to him 'You must not do that again Mr. Nicholas', whereupon the latter pulled the Chronicle out of his pocket to demonstrate how he had only told the truth. But to no avail, for the worldly reply came back 'but it does not pay to say the truth sometimes'.
We have seen, too, how Winifred Inglis-Jones had written to the Patriotic Women's Party in late November 1917, a letter which was forwarded to the Home Office by Captain Lionel Lindsay as just one piece of evidence in his anxiety as Chief Constable of Glamorgan to get Nicholas prosecuted. His earlier attempt to prosecute Nicholas for what he judged to be 'a most disloyal' speech made at Keir Hardie's Memorial Service on 10 October 1915 had been refused permission by the Attorney-General on the very grounds that the offending remarks were made at a religious service to honour the memory of a well-known person who was a socialist and opposed to war. Besides the Inglis-Jones evidence submitted by Captain Lindsay to the Home Office in November 1917 of activities in Cardiganshire, Lindsay also sent to the Special Branch in October 1918 a dossier on Nicholas together with transcripts of several of his speeches to pacifist meetings in Glamorgan in 1918, wherein he purported to find in the abuse directed at Lloyd George and the King 'an individual who has not sufficient talent to be Chairman of a Parish Council' and in the thinly veiled criticism of the whole capitalist order evidence of sedition. But in the case of Nicholas as of other objectionables in Lindsay's eyes like Arthur Cook, the Home Office declined to act, believing only worse industrial turmoil would result from prosecution.
Nicholas was a fervent I.L.P. crusader from 1905 down to the time of his joining the Communist Party in 1920 and the fact that he wrote and spoke in the Welsh language was an added advantage, for often in its contest with Liberalism the latter had deliberately spread its message through the Welsh language and thus appealed to nationalist sentiment in a way that was denied any non-Welsh-speaking I.L.P. campaigner. Without doubt, he belonged to a crusade that had tremendous influence upon the mining communities of south Wales at this time. Thus articles written on 'The Mind of the Miner' and published in 1916 in The Welsh Outlook observed how the propaganda work of the I.L.P. 'has undoubtedly had a profound effect in moulding the opinion of the young miners' and claimed that the movement had largely come to take the place of the old Liberal-Labourism (Lib-Labism) by this time. The chief followers were the young unmarried men, as yet, in 1916, without parliamentary votes, and so in terms of parliamentary elections the real influence of the I.L.P. was understated. Indeed, the actual membership of the movement, claimed the writer in 1916, under-represented its true influence, for although its numerical strength in south Wales was no more than 10,000, the fact that they comprised the most active and the most intelligent members of the South Wales Miners' Federation lodges and carried the socialist message into every meeting of their trade union meant that strong measures were being adopted against employers. And this meant that there was 'in south Wales today a bitter and ever increasing hostility between coalowners and men'.
While ministering to his two congregations at Llangybi and Llanddewi Brefi Nicholas was also involved in organising trade unions among the farm labourers of north Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire and the lead miners of north Cardiganshire. As farmers' profits increased over the war years with the rise in prices for farm produce, agricultural labourers grew resentful that their wages were not being raised to take account of the increase in the cost of living. E. Lima Jones of Aberaeron incurred the opprobrium of the farmers of Cardiganshire for referring to them in a meeting of the county education committee in early August 1917 as 'the locusts of the country'. He was later to explain in the pages of The Welsh Gazette how he was stung into making this remark by the claims made at the meeting that farmers were an oppressed and disadvantaged group within the community:
"Whatever may have been the social grievances of farmers in pre-war days it is ludicrous at the present time to suggest that they are imposed upon. At a time when suffering is prevalent, I maintain that as a class they have endured least. On the contrary they have cause for congratulations in that the war has brought them more material gain than they enjoyed in normal times. Whether profiteering is justifiable is not my task to argue."
Edgar Chappell of Ystalyfera, himself an I.L.P. supporter and a comrade of Nicholas in their work for the movement in the Swansea Valley in the years before 1914, commented in May 1918 in his official capacity as an investigator into the condition of the Welsh rural labourer upon the meanness of the Cardiganshire farmers in keeping farm labourers' wages very low; conduct, he pointed out, which incurred the resentment not only of the farm labourers but of the wider rural community. Doubtless, Chappell would have been in touch with Nicholas in the course of investigating the condition of the farm labourer in Cardiganshire.
Another complaint frequently heard in rural areas was that the farmers' children were in a better position to be able to stay at home, so that farmers, on the whole, had not experienced the amount of grief felt at the death of sons fighting at the front as was endured by other sectors of the community. Farmers were accused of selfishly electing themselves onto war tribunals so as to shelter their kith and kin. Resentment was also felt amongst Cardiganshire labourers over the allegation that farmers were sending labourers to the front and were pulling their own sons (the real beneficiaries among the rural population of the intermediate education which had come to Wales since 1889) from the shops, the banks and the schools, often in towns, to fill the reserved occupations at home.
For all these reasons labourers were in a mood to combine against their employers in autumn 1917. But an immediate spark was needed, and this was forthcoming in the form of the Corn Production Act of August 1917, which among other things made provision for the setting up of Wages Boards and District Committees for the regulation of wages of farm labourers. The minimum wage for able-bodied men was set at 25s. a week. Both employers and men were to have representation on the wages boards and obviously a trade union representing all the farm labourers of a district would strengthen the men's bargaining position.
With his early experience of rural poverty on the Preseli mountains, his strong socialist sympathies and his experience of labour organisation in south Wales, Nicholas was the ideal person to take the lead in organizing the rather helpless and traditionally servile Cardiganshire farm labourers. The Welsh Gazette for 8 November, 1917 reported on the village of Llanilar:
"Agricultural Workers' Union. A most enthusiastic meeting was held at the Council School on Tuesday evening when the farm workers of the district turned up in force to listen to a very interesting address by Rev. T. E. Nicholas, Llangybi ...The meeting had been called with the object of taking the necessary steps to form a branch of the National Agricultural Labourers' and Rural Workers' Union in the district. Mr. Nicholas, who was warmly received, dealt at length with the benefits that would be derived from the Union. He further said that farm servants in Cardiganshire were paid less wages than in any other county in Wales. The cause of this was not need of money, because Cardiganshire had invested more money in the war loan than any other county. The wages of all classes of workers had been advanced to meet the extra cost of living, but nothing had been done for the agricultural workers, and it was high time that they as a body should do something to secure better wages and also less working hours. At the close of the meeting it was unanimously decided that a branch of the Union be formed."
By May 1918 it could boast forty-eight members.
No other branch was formed in Cardiganshire in 1917 because Nicholas temporarily diverted his attention to the plight of the lead miners further north in the county around Ysbyty Ystwyth. But the early months of 1918 saw him once again helping to organise the farm labourers. Travelling to different villages on a bicycle, in late February 1918, for instance, he addressed a well-attended meeting of farm labourers at the Council School, Talybont, with a view to establishing a union of agricultural labourers for the district. He spoke for nearly two hours, giving the aims of the Union, and dealt with problems concerning land, housing, poverty and the Corn Production Act. An enthusiastic audience thereupon founded a union. In mid-March he was invited by the farm labourers and other workers of Mydroilyn to come and address them. Tuesday, 2 April, was to see him speak at Llangeitho, when he stressed that the current wages were far too low and urged the importance of setting up a union in order to achieve justice.
There is no doubting the impression that the Cardiganshire farm labourers' poverty made on his mind. It served to intensify his denunciation of the capitalist system. He was to talk of their hardship in his speech at the I.L.P. Meeting at Aberaman on 29 September 1918:
"I will tell you three things about Cardiganshire ...there are more people dying of darfodedigaeth (consumption) in Cardiganshire than any other county. The workers receive less money in Cardiganshire than any other county. They have sunk more money in war loans in Cardiganshire than any other county".
Likewise, speaking at an election meeting at Abercynon in late November 1918 for the 'khaki' election of December of that year, he ridiculed the statement of Lloyd George that poverty was due to the drink traffic and unemployment. It was, he insisted, mainly owing to inadequate wages, and he went on to ask his audience to picture the conditions of living among the Cardiganshire peasants who until recently earned only 9s. a week. Clearly, he emphasised, the men who toiled the most were given the least comfort, whereas the capitalist who did not work at all lived in palaces.
The Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire farmers were often downright vindictive towards the unions. Thus some threatened to release for military service any farm servant who dared join the union or they issued the same warning during the hiring period so as to deter young men from asking for higher wages. Predictably, union officials were particularly loathed: one notable case of victimization in Cardiganshire was that of Richard Llywellyn-Jones, an early recruit with the Llanilar branch and subsequently appointed a union representative on the west Wales wages committee. The price he paid was high the loss of his job. Hence the validity of the criticism voiced by D. J. Morgan, county agricultural organiser, at a meeting of the Aberystwyth Farmers' Union in April 1918 that there was too much talk of threats against the farm labourers among some farmers. It was claimed on another occasion that Cardiganshire farmers were too ready to see real danger in the labour movement which they disparagingly viewed as being led by schoolmasters and sea-captains who, unlike farmers themselves, knew nothing of the conditions of agriculture.
But, as David Pretty has underlined in his valuable study of farm labourers' trades unions in Wales, their greatest venom was reserved for Nicholas. He concludes: 'That the fortunes of the union stood so high in Cardiganshire testified to the dedication of T. E. Nicholas. In the capacity of unpaid organizer, Nicholas had, by the end of October (1918), held at least twenty-two meetings In the villages and remote hamlets of both north Pembroke and Cardiganshire. But his emphasis on the social message of the gospel soon made him the most abused man in Cardiganshire'. We have an excellent glimpse into the strong measure of blame accorded Nicholas on the part of the farmers for the union activity in the reminiscences of the aforementioned victimized Richard Llywellyn-Jones:
"The custom at that time was to hire workers for twelve months from November 13. The hiring fair at Aberystwyth used to be the Monday following the 13th., when the workers would be on one side of the street waiting, like animals, for the farmers to approach them. At the farm where I was then working the custom was for us to be called in to the best kitchen in front of the farmer where he had his account books on the table, first to settle the accounts and then to agree on the wages for the following year. I was the last of the three workers to be called in. He asked me sarcastically whether I wished to stay or follow T. E. Nicholas. Then he said with a grin: "As you have decided to listen to Nicholas you had better go and work for him to see how long he can keep you. I don't want any union man here".
As well as founding trades unions for farm labourers and lead miners, Nicholas during the summer months of 1918 was helping to set up a Labour Party in Cardiganshire, which was now made possible under the new constitution of the Labour Party. The move towards achieving this came from two direction:- in early June the county trades council secretary, Carl Hanson, contacted Labour Party headquarters, while, in August, Nicholas and his friend, John Davies of Llangeitho, an I.L.P. man and west Wales organiser of the National Agricultural Labourers' and Rural Workers' Union, jointly urged through the columns of the local press the founding of a provisional committee, laying emphasis upon the peace proposals of the party. By the end of the year a county Labour Party was in being, and Nicholas was to be a member until 1926, when he was expelled for his attacks on Ramsay MacDonald as being too right wing.
Nicholas, we have seen, had faced a court case in 1918 for preaching pacifism in his chapel. Increasingly, too, he was getting into trouble for preaching the social gospel. At the Aberaman meeting of 29 September, 1918 cited earlier, he informed his listeners:
"I live in a county where there is a lot of poverty. ..and if l preach on the condition of things in Cardigan, they tell me they only want me to preach the Gospel and that is what they pay me for. I have to start at the Garden of Eden and follow on, as if it were not religion to preach about things nearer home. "
Seemingly, his preaching pacifism and his emphasising the social implications of the Gospels led many chapels to ban him from their pulpits and so at an unknown date in late 1918 he resigned the ministry. He now took up full-time dentistry, a skill, we have noted, he had practised while ministering to his flock at Llangybi and which he had probably picked up while at Glais in his acting as a canvasser-agent for a Mumbles dentist. It appears that after the War he received further training, as too did his wife, from his friend D. Ernest Williams of Mountain Ash and, so equipped, Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas proceeded to set up in practice first at Pontardawe and then, in 1921, at Aberystwyth. Their son, Islwyn, who had been apprenticed to D. Ernest Williams in the war years, also practised in Aberystwyth. Nicholas was to spend the rest of his life in the town.
His renown as an I.L.P. stalwart led to his being chosen as candidate to fight the newly-created Aberdare seat for the Labour Party in the 'coupon election' of December 1918. During that year the war-time grouping of patriotic trade unionists known as the British Workers' League re-constituted itself as the National Democratic Party, seeking to sever the links between trade unionism and socialism and giving its backing to the policies of the Lloyd-George coalition. At the December election the N.D.P. Was to gain nine seats in England and one in Wales, the only one it contested there, at Aberdare. Its candidate was C. B. Stanton, one-time syndicalist and local miners' agent who, despite his espousal of industrial unionism had found it in him to be a passionate pro-war supporter. Chiming with the popular mood, he screamed for vengeance against the 'filthy murderous Huns' and easily triumphed over Nicholas by getting on for 17,000 votes.
Nicholas, true to his nature, stood by his pacifist and socialist principles, however ill-befitting the hour, reminding his audiences that the old social system had failed and insisting that the Labour Party was the only political party who were out to remove the causes of the failure and set up a new social order, the coalition party merely working towards improving the old one. The people should insist on controlling their own industries, he urged. He also told his listeners that while, on the one hand, believing in the rights of small nations, he supported Home Rule for Wales, Scotland and Ireland, on the other he upheld the rights of large ones, which meant that he could not approve of the allied intervention in Russia. The workers, as trade unionists, believed in government by the majority; therefore to be consistent they should endorse the rule of the Bolsheviks.
Like all pacifist I.L.P. candidates in this election, he was subjected to a stream of abuse and threats of violence. At one of his early meetings he was asked 'WouId you shake hands with a German?', to which he replied 'Yes, why not?' A storm of protest erupted and he was lucky to escape unharmed. A meeting at Mountain Ash was invaded by some fifty or sixty people intent on disruption and the speakers were denied a hearing; threats of personal violence and epithets as 'pro-Germans', 'dirty conchies' and 'I.L.P. bastards' were freely used and the objectors made clear their determination that Mountain Ash would receive no more Labour speakers. An angry citizen signing himself 'Democritus' wrote to the Aberdare Leader: 'Who could lightly view the glorification of mob rule which culminated in the savagery of last night's disturbance at the Market Hall (Aberdare)? Surely in the year 1918 A.D. any man, however unpopular he may be, shall have the right to a fair hearing and shall not be subjected to personal violence and filthy abuse because he stands for something that is not generally recognised as true or necessary'. In all this frenzy, not least were the newly-enfranchised women voters caught up in the national thirst for revenge on the 'Huns'. Children, too, were roped in: writing to Alistair Wilson, Communist candidate for Aberdare in the 1950 General Election, Nicholas stated: 'I trust that in this fight you will have a better time than I had in 1918. They organized children to beat tin kettles and pans outside our meetings and made it very difficult to carry on'.
4. Nicholas: Communist and Anti-Fascist
We have identified in the foregoing pages a number of important influences which combined to shape Nicholas' outlook and to govern his behaviour. A final, crucial one came towards the end of the War. According to J. Roose-Williams the Bolshevik Russian revolution of October 1917 was 'the greatest formative influence in his political career', Nicholas seeing in it 'the realisation of his dreams of national freedom and social emancipation'. From this time forward he was supportive towards Russia and, as mentioned, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. He was to become a founder of the Communist movement in Wales and until his death he remained a staunch and colourful devotee. His son, Islwyn, was to stress in 1972: 'My father was a Communist out and out. He could quote Marx as well as the Bible', and he emphasized how his religious and political standpoints had been interlinked. In the interview with John Griffiths already referred to, Nicholas recounted how he had 'found that the Socialist system, if worked properly, and especially the Communist system, agreed very much with the doctrine of the Gospel. There is a great clash between what Jesus taught and the people's way of life. The stock exchange, warfare, nation oppressing nation, but there is no clash between the teachings of the Gospel and those of Marx'. He stressed in this conversation that the Communists' main belief is that a nation should be run like a family .One vivid memory which he shared with John Griffiths was how on a trip to Moscow in 1935 he with eleven others in his party had been given a bus all to themselves. One day while driving past a field in which twelve children were playing, the latter, spotting them, rushed up to the bus and told the guide that it was their bus they were using but that t,hey could borrow it just for one day.
In his embracing Communism, another vital element touched upon already was his early experience of the co-operative ways of the countryside. He wrote to W. S. Jones on 1 November 1939: 'I read your book "Helyntion Hen Bregethwr a'i gyfoedion" (Adventures of an old preacher and his contemporaries) avidly. Your picture of neighbours co-operating at harvest time brought back many memories. I well remember those good days. I saw as many as 35 working together on small farms. It was not difficult for me to accept the principle of collective farms after my experience of seeing such co-operation'.
Summing up his beliefs, Nicholas was on one occasion to state: I am a Communist because I want to see the means of production, distribution and exchange firmly in the hands and control of the working people. I stand for the poor against the rich. I stand for the socialist, classless system of society. I stand for the abolition of every means of nuclear and bacteriological warfare. I stand for freedom of all peoples struggling for national liberation and independence. In short I stand for the greatest and noblest set of principles mankind has ever known.
He stated on television on his ninetieth birthday that he was as much a Communist as ever, for despite the problems and divisions in the Communist world, Socialism remained the only way forward.
As in the years before 1920, Nicholas was to continue for the remainder of his career to be the most important Welsh-speaking propagandist of socialism. One interesting episode occurred in the early 1920s when Edgar Evans of Bedlinog, a socialist ironmonger in the village and secretary of the Young People's Society at Moriah chapel, succeeded in getting him to come and lecture to the group despite the opposition of the Revd. Richards, bard minister of the chapel, on account of Nicholas' earlier calamitous visit there in the War years. Between 1917 and 1945 he gave over a thousand lectures on the Soviet Union. On his return from Russia in the mid-1930s he was to find that his lecture "Hen Ddyn Mewn Byd Newydd" (an old man in a new world) was in great popular demand, so much so that he was to give it throughout Wales on nearly two hundred occasions. He also sent donations towards helping the Russian people: his private papers contain a receipt bearing the signature L. Trotsky, dated Moscow 12 February 1923, for a parcel which Nicholas had sent to him and which had been forwarded to the Moscow Branch of the International Workers' Famine Relief Committee; later, in 1942, W. Molinov of the London Soviet Embassy wrote thanking him for a donation of £10.8s.6d. for Soviet Medical Aid (representing the proceeds of a lecture given by Nicholas at Blaenau Ffestiniog) and assuring him that the money would be put to the best possible use on the eastern front.
From 1934 to 1939 his was the loudest voice in the public life of Wales, condemning Fascism in Germany, Spain and elsewhere. The Spanish Civil war, 1936-38 gave rise to his sonnets denouncing Fascism there and these helped to rouse the sympathy of the Welsh people for the Spanish Republic. October 1938 saw him speak at a meeting in Glamorgan, chaired by the general secretary of the South Wales miners, Dai Francis, commemorating the death of a south Wales miner in the Spanish Civil War. Back home in Aberystwyth, he wrote to Dai Francis enclosing a sonnet in memory of the 'Welsh Comrade' who fell in Spain and pledging that he would see to it that a memorial would later be set up for the gallant Welshmen who died in Spain. He was true to his word, for he with others organized a memorial tablet in the Stalingrad Hospital to the memory of those Welsh members of the International Brigade who fell in Spain.
His antifascist views were also strongly in evidence from the mid-thirties in his detestation of Hitler's Germany.
Resuming his earlier role as a political journalist, his weekly articles to the Welsh newspaper Y Cymro from 1937 impressed upon his readers the danger of a Second World War arising out of Fascist aggression and Britain's policy of appeasement. He was later to recall that the loneliest time of his life was at the time of 'the sell-out at Munich' when he knew it meant war. While the Nazi-Soviet Pact of friendship of August 1939 shocked the outside world, Nicholas, upsetting the editor of Y Cymro and antagonising public opinion, expressed his support for it and opposed the war against Nazi Germany. Russia, he wrote, had acted in the interest of peace and in so doing was taking the path of the Gospel. As German invasion threatened, panic mounted and Nicholas fell victim to the witch-hunt against not only pro-German sympathisers but those on the political left and Welsh nationalists. The Cardiganshire police picked him up at Llanbrynmair on 11 July 1940. Back in Aberystwyth, he was exposed to the vengeful spite of the chief-constable determined to put him behind bars on account of his pro-Russian sympathies. On a trumped-up charge of Nicholas being a Fascist on account of his having at home a war map published in the Daily Express with German flags pinned on it simply to show the course of the war, both he and Islwyn were packed off first to Swansea prison and later transferred to Brixton. While behind bars, he wrote some one hundred and fifty sonnets expressing, in Daniel Hughes' words, his Christian-inspired 'deep and wide sympathy for suffering humanity'. A small incident in the gaol would furnish the starting point for a poem. Denied writing paper, he scribbled the sonnets on the slate in his cell and then wrote them out in ink on toilet paper, some of which were smuggled out of Swansea prison by a friendly prison officer. It was thanks to a protest raised by the Labour movement and the chapels on their behalf that Nicholas and Islwyn were released after four months of imprisonment. On 22 June 1941 Germany attacked Russia; this brought Nicholas welcome peace of mind and he spent the rest of the war backing the Russian war effort.
5. His Religion and Poetry
Although quitting the ministry in 1918, Nicholas continued to preach all over Wales until the end of his life. From World War II onwards to 1968 he reserved the longest Sunday of the year in late June for preaching at Beulah Chapel, Nant-yr-Eira, near Llanerfel in Montgomeryshire. As a preacher of the social gospel, he was to comment on the 1905 revival: 'The oven was warmed. ...but no bread came of it for the people'. Typically, in a sermon he preached first in 1956 from Genesis, 37, vs. 18 20, 'Behold, this dreamer cometh', he stressed how 'the everlasting dream was in the teachings of Jesus. ..Millions upon millions hold fast to this dream. Through them race hatred is due to wither and die, through them oppression and injustice will be done away with; through them the spirit of social and economic freedom, human equality, brotherhood and of peace is spreading slowly, but surely'.
Nicholas was critical of the orthodox clergy of his day who preached the wrath of God. In a public lecture he gave on 'Religion' he observed: 'The church represents God as an arbitrary, tyrannical, and vengeful being who sends souls to hell merely for not believing. ..Preaching by the orthodox clergy is a dreary business. They do not preach a true God nor a true Christ. They tell of an angry God whose wrath can be appeased only by murder'. For Nicholas true Christian religion 'recognises the divinity of man, made in the likeness of God, and having the spirit of God within him, who is not a fallen being, but is continually advancing to higher levels, and who is endowed with unlimited possibilities. ..It has never persecuted nor excommunicated anyone, and has never taught that God will inflict eternal punishment on Man'. Nicholas was partly influenced in this outlook through communication with the Revd. William Rees, Llechryd, who laid stress on the love and mercy of God, on his forgiveness. Rees was to translate into English Nicholas' beautiful love poem 'Sarah', whose atonement message was that just as the sweetheart of 'Sarah' sought her out despite her faithlessness, her guilt and shame, to love her, so Jesus loves and searches out the fallen and guilty humanity, ready to forgive completely, with no punishment:
"I saw Sarah, I sought Sarah,
Not to scold her, but to love her."
This Christian Marxist was from early days the 'people's poet', introducing, stated J. Roose Williams, 'new themes and a new revolutionary note into Welsh poetry, which at the time was dominated by the spirit of romanticism'. Another fellow-Communist, Idris Cox, wrote similarly in 1949: 'No other Welsh poet of the twentieth century has been able to give so intimate an expression of the hopes, fears and aspirations of those who till the soil and who work in mine and factory'. His outstanding qualities as a poet were recognized in his winning many bardic chairs at provincial eisteddfodau, a good number of which he gave away to friends and various chapels. Altogether some twelve volumes of his poetry were published, poems in the main condemning the evil forces of greed, poverty and war. Important among these were Salmau'r Werin (psalms of the Common People) 1909, Cerddi Gwerin (Songs of the People) 1912, Cerddi Rhyddid (Songs of Freedom) 1914, Dros Eich Gwlad (On behalf of your Country) 1920, Terfysgoedd Daear(The Tumults of Earth) 1939, his two prison works, Llygad y Drws (The Eye Through the Spy-Hole) 1940 and Canu'r Carchar (Prison Sonnets) 1941, and Dryllio'r Delwau (The Shattering of the Dolls) 1942. Nicholas' chosen vehicle was the sonnet and in discussing the Prison Sonnets Daniel Hughes pays tribute to him for inventing his own sonnet form rendering it highly adaptive for Welsh composition the scarcity of monosyllabic rhymes in Welsh called for this change and freed the form to convey ideas'. Gwenallt felt that while the Marxist sonnets were very sincere, those on the countryside were deeper and constitute his great contribution to Welsh literature.
Perhaps one of his most valuable contributions was his translation into Welsh in around 1914 of Edwin Markham's celebrated socialistic poem 'The Man with the Hoe' published in 1899 and subsequently translated into some forty languages. This was based on the painting he saw of 'The Man with the Hoe' by the French artist, Millet. The poem's social theme was to be Nicholas' theme throughout his life: thus he was to lecture on 'The Man with the Hoe' in Brunswick Street Chapel, London, in February 1949, elaborating upon Markham's message.
Nicholas died at his home in Aberystwyth on 19 April, 1971, aged ninety-one. His body was cremated at Narberth and his ashes were scattered on his native Preseli hills. He had spent his life championing causes he held dear, those of pacifism, the international brotherhood of mankind and a world free from poverty, greed and oppression. While he was above all committed to universal brotherhood, this did not prevent him from being at the same time a fervent Welsh patriot. On the personal level his was not an unblemished life but there is no mistaking his kindness and compassion for the poor around him; significantly, he did not make a lot of money as a dentist, showing lenience towards those whom he knew could not afford high charges.
His long love-affair with Russia at times clouded his judgment on foreign and domestic issues. Professor Gwyn Williams has vividly demonstrated his total commitment to Stalin, a loyalty which remained unbroken long after Stalin's death and when others inside and outside Russia were denouncing his tyranny. Thus he supported the expulsion of Tito, defending the Soviet Union's policy towards Yugoslavia and accusing those who criticised Russia of selling out to 'the American gangsters' and to Churchill, who were determined to smash the Soviet Union and Socialism. Were it not for Stalin he was to maintain, when asked about Kruschev's denunciation of him in 1956, we would not be here today. Nicholas was likewise to defend the Soviet line over Hungary in 1956. At home, one senses an unwillingness to concede anything good coming out of the British Labour Party, as in his rejecting Beveridge, seeing the programme as a means of keeping the workers on the bread-line, and in his persuasion in 1954 that 'the greatest threat to us as workers comes from Attlee, Morrison and the official Labour Party'.
Nicholas was not a politician but a dreamer, a moralist, possessed of an utter simplicity of faith, a pure-minded pursuit of a vision of a socialist, Biblically-righteous society, an ideal he saw enshrined in the Soviet Union. If that vision could at times blind him, if in his detestation of capitalism he was simply incapable of conceiving that Socialism might sometimes be in the wrong and so conveniently chose to ignore its faults, yet we must admire him for adhering to the truth as he saw it, no matter what the cost in terms of personal standing among his fellows. Iorwerth Peate was right to stress that at the heart of everything in his life was his staunchness to the ideal of the dignity and worth of human personality, of its very divinity, which he saw best achieved through a socialist society. His espousal of this belief meant scorn, rejection and imprisonment. In his unwillingness to tolerate humbug or hypocrisy, his fierce denunciation of oppression, he was a rebel, an outcast. His mission in life was to serve the underdog, he was from start to finish the people's champion.
NOTES ON AUTHOR
David Howell is a native of Wiseman's Bridge, Pembrokeshire. After attending Narberth Grammar School, he continued his studies in history at University College, Aberystwyth and the London School of Economics. He joined the History Department in Swansea University College in 1970 where he now holds the post of Professor of History.
PUBLICATIONS BY DAVID W HOWELL:
Land and People in Nineteenth-Century Wales, London,1978, xv, 207 pp.
Patriarchs and Parasites:The Gentry of South-West Wales in the Eighteenth Century,Cardiff,1986, 307 pp.
The Rural Poor in Eighteenth-Century Wales, Cardiff, 2000, xv,317 pp.
Roots of Rural Ethnic Mobilisation:Comparative Studies on Governments and Non-Dominant Ethnic Groups in Europe,1850-1940, vol.vii, European Science Foundation, New York University press, Dartmouth, 1993, xxii, 327 pp, Edited (in collaboration with Gert von Pistohlkors and Ellen Wiegandt)..
Pembrokeshire County History, vol. 4,Modern Pembrokeshire,1815-1974,Pembrokeshire Historical Society, 1993, xxii, 521 PP, Edited..
Crime, Protest and Police in Modern British Society: Essays in Memory of David J.V. Jones,Cardiff,1999, x, 248 PP, Co-edited with Kenneth O. Morgan.
Nicholas of Glais: The People's Champion, Clydach Historical Society,1991, Booklet, 49 pp.
....................SEVEN PRISON SONNETS
........................TO A SPARROW
Here, take this other crumb for that bright singing,
And now a bit of apple to make it good;
Your constant pecking its own comfort bringing,
'Tis fine to see again your old grey hood.
You came perhaps from distant Dyfed's moorland
Where furze and heather climb great Frenni's height,
And on grey wing, perhaps, above some foreland
Of Ceredigion you have poured delight:
Come, take this bread; had I the wine as well
Pressed from the richest grapes of some far state,
Despite all wars, within this narrow cell
The blessed sacrament we'd celebrate:
The bread I swear is pure, for nothing mars
The offering of a heart that knows no bars.
.............................(Translation: Wil Ifan)
.AND WHEN YOU PRAY AND PRAY
And when you pray and pray I cannot listen,
Your silky hands, so steeped in blood, I dread,
From holy altar's, easeful shade I hasten
When on the upward steps I hear your tread.
You dress your mealy words in subtle clothing,
You bless the dogs of war with priestly cant,
I loathe you with an everlasting loathing,
Arch-hypocrite and royal sycophant.
Humanity in need can wait no longer,
And you like foolish mummer on bent knee
The blood and fat of ox won't feed my hunger
While untold corpses litter hill and lea.
Your paws are red with blood, you fleshy knave,
Who panting runs with beast of primal cave.
.............................(Translation: Meirion LLoyd)
I hear a humming on the brink of sleep,
Like that of bees 'mid leaves in summer heat,
And something distant ever closer creep,
Like thresher's whir and rasp among the wheat,
And soon deep thunder rolls across the skies,
The lightning bolt descends where folk reside,
And under the dictator's blows men's cries
Are heard, like soughing of the ceaseless tide.
The prison rocks like ship on ocean high,
And all of us for now in terror's sway;
The drone of metal birds around the sky
Recedes at last and slowly dies away.
I doze again, and in a warm July
I hear the bees among the fox gloves ply.
.............................(Translation: Meirion LLoyd)
"Why agonize about the people's plight,
It's only snub and scowl you'll get in battle's roar.
Be wise, take refuge from the tempest's might,
And put aside some milk and wine in store.
You'll earn the gentry's trust and high regard,
Your wife and child will not know indigence;
A pastor's tranquil life is scarcely hard,
An anchorage in circling turbulence."
"As well beseech the waves to shun the shore,
Implore the sun to keep in check its beams;
I am a child the nation's people bore,
For good or ill I am their son, it seems.
So long as the poor have a cross to bear,
Some part of it will rest on me, confrère."
.......................................(Translation: Meirion LLoyd)
If I receive a choice of blessings now,
.....Too much to count, when they unlock this cell,
.....A palace mine, with money raining down,
.....And wealth beyond my dreams, to keep or sell,
I would refuse, and chose a day instead
.....Of autumn sun, to ruffle hazel leaves
.....And plunder nuts and berries from the hedge
.....Or from the hazel shell the kernel tease.
Then homeward after in each other's arms,
.....We'd talk of how we roamed these woods and farms,
.....And watch in silence ivy's autumn growth
.....From rock and wall draw out support and strength.
Where children with their toys play on the floor
Our dog's big laugh will greet us from the door.
.............................(Translation: Terry Norman)
It's not an accident I'm in this cell:
.....For working for the poor that's how you're paid.
.....But after strife of war, all will be well,
.....With freedom from the grasp of fear and fate.
I sleep, despite the aeroplane's vile noise,
.....Spitting its madness out in sparks of fire:
.....When wrath of men descends from out the skies,
.....The sound of song can quell its fear and ire.
I did not make this monster now abroad,
.....Its talons gripped about the nation's towns,
.....Whom tens of millions worship as their lord,
.....Willing their god to send his vengeance down.
Though evil birds of judgement nearer fly,
The devil's power I'll face and will defy.
.............................(Translation: Terry Norman)
.........THE WORK OF THEIR HANDS
From deep within the earth, in rocks and caves,
.....My fellow workers dig the metal ore,
.....And bring it from afar through wind and waves,
.....And at the furnace purify it more.
The sound of wheels inside the factories
.....Is heard like stones of judgement grinding on;
.....The man who hammers at the anvil, sees
.....Materials flower into steel and iron,
And all his labour yielding at the last
.....The hundred thousand links that make a chain,
.....Unable to foresee it binding fast
.....A race enslaved and held by hoops of pain.
And so these men, though not my enemy,
Have made these fetters that imprison me.
.............................(Translation: Terry Norman)
Translations made for this web site.
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Date this page last updated: May 4, 2011