Llangollen Eisteddfod – September 1858


Llangollen is famed for its eisteddfodau, one of which was held in September 1858. Known as ‘Eisteddfod Fawr Llangollen’, this was a significant event in the history of the eisteddfod in Wales.

The main instigator of the eisteddfod was Rev John Williams (ab Ithel), rector of Llanymawddwy, and he succeeded to inspire three other clerics: Carn Ingli (Joseph Hughes, curate at Meltham, Yorkshire, poet and eisteddfodwr,) Estyn (T.R. Lloyd, rector at Llanfynydd), Môr Meirion (Richard Williams Morgan, prolific author and curate in many places in Wales and England). Those were the four main organisers. A local committee of two dozen was also formed together with two local secretaries, Edward Humphreys and William Hughes.

The initial enthusiasm of the four organisers gave them some degree of confidence:
Dec 1. 1857

Dear ab Ithel,

We were rather short of speakers at Llangollen on Friday, as Edwards & Morgan did not attend. It was however a most successful & enthusiastic meeting. If we conduct ourselves with ordinary prudence & energy the Eisteddfod will be a great success…Yours truly, Estyn.

Unfortunately, the relationship between the local committee and the four organisers turned out to be less than harmonious despite a most favourable report which appeared in the Cambrian Journal:
“… the zealous and energetic exertions of Ab Ithel, Carn Ingli, Morgan and Lloyd, were most efficiently seconded by local secretaries Humphreys and Hughes.”

This is a bit of an exaggeration! Ab Ithel was the editor of the Cambrian Journal and it was probably he who wrote the report in order to create a good impression on his readers and to create enthusiasm for the eisteddfod.

Estyn, in his letters to Ab Ithel, often complains about the Llangollen committee and the two local secretaries. He calls William Hughes “an opinionated and conceited puppy”, for example, and in another letter he says of the committee “…I will humour them as I can, and outwit them all 24, if mortal man can do it” and “we must out-dodge them”.

One of the main reasons for this rather unfriendly attitude was the local committee’s unwillingness to undertake any financial responsibilities – and an eisteddfod as large as the one Ab Ithel had in mind certainly meant a great financial burden. Estyn begins to panic in June when he finds out that the local committee has done very little to obtain subscriptions:
June 14 1858

Dear ab Ithel

Unless someone goes down frequently to Llangollen, I really fear “the incapables” there will keep looking at each other for two or three more months. They have not yet begun to canvass Llangollen even!! What do you and Carn Ingli intend to do? I would set to work at once if I did not think I was taking too much upon me. The geese at Llangollen are smelling at all the specimens of Waterproof canvass they can get hold of…As you are locked up at Llanymawddwy & Carn Ingli is indolent, I will begin now if you like. But I must have full authority to do so – & do not intend to let Carn Ingli take the credit for success he never worked for… You have worked well – but indeed the Llangollen committee barring Mathetes & Secretaries are a slow lot…Yours ar ras chwilwyllt, Estyn.

July 29 1858

“Hughes told me they would begin to collect in about a fortnight” says Estyn, “I gave it Humphreys, Hughes and Allen right well, and told them that they ought to be ashamed of themselves that they had not yet begun to collect subscriptions. I told them `Heaven knows that I did not want the work, but if they did not do it themselves, I would not be interfered with in doing it, and would have my own way… Oh! They are a rotten lot! Here it is, August, and “they intend to begin collecting in about a fortnight”. God knows, that if it was not for your sake, I would not move another inch with such a team.”

The Pavilion

Quite a large building was required to house the expected crowds, so advertisements were placed in numerous newspapers inviting tenders. The resolution made at one of the committee meetings read:
…It was proposed … that advertisements be inserted in the following newspapers – The Times, Liverpool Mercury, Manchester Guardian, Shrewsbury Chronicle, the Carnarvon Herald and the Star of Gwent – inviting tenders for thee erection of a suitable pavilion, with plans and specifications thereof, the estimate of the cost of the tent to be separate from that of the timber-work inside viz seats, platforms etc. The pavilion to be of such dimensions as will afford accommodation for 5000 persons, with the utmost practicable facility for speaking, hearing and sitting. That the tenders be sent to the Honorary Sec, the Rev I. Williams Ab Ithel MA, Llanymawddwy Rectory Nr Mallwyd on or before the 22nd day of June 1858…

Estyn explains the outcome in one of his letters to ab Ithel:

Dear ab Ithel,

I have let the Building of the Llangollen Tent to Mr. Henry Hughes, Builder, Broughton, near Wrexham for £200 of which sum £100 is to be paid when the Tent is ready for roofing & £100 on the 25th September next. To be completed by the 9th day of next month & removed in 14 days after the Eisteddfod, & not to be let for any purpose without your consent & that of Carn Ingli until removed. If any dispute should arise between you both & the Builder he agrees to refer it to Arbitration to me.
Should any accident occur owing to bad materials, defective workmanship, or any other fault of the Builder, Henry Hughes agrees to make good any damages sustained by action against the Eisteddfod Committee.”
The Grounds & Tent are now absolutely vested in the sole control of yourself & Carn Ingli. So we can now afford to be as polite as we please to the Local Committee as they cannot overrule us if they wish to do anything wrong…

The pavilion was to be erected on land adjacent to the Ponsonby Arms, which was owned by John Allen, proprietor of the inn. However, work on the tent did not begin until a few weeks before the eisteddfod. Estyn relates in his letters to Ab Ithel how “the geese are smelling at all the specimens of canvass they can get hold of”. It is evident also that the pavilion was erected in great haste and in a rather slapdash manner – it eventually proved to be full of holes according to newspaper reports and eye-witness accounts:
Heavy rain was experienced, and the canvass roof was no protection, especially where it was a little slack, water lodging there and continuing to rush through long after the showers had subsided. With umbrellas open, and the cries of “sit down in the front”, nothing could be heard from the platform.

Another description is given by Rhuddenfab in his reminiscences in Y Geninen:

It turned into a terrible storm on Wednesday and Thursday; and enemies of the Eisteddfod insisted that the thunder which swallowed the roar of the Llew in the concerts was God’s judgment. The wild and fierce lightning that darted through the air were “arrows of His wrath” according to the antis…

The Llew (lion) referred to was Llew Llwyfo (Lewis William Lewis), an accomplished vocalist, poet and journalist.


Everything was finally ready and all they needed was a crowd. The eisteddfod was advertised widely in Welsh periodicals and newspapers, in English papers as well and even as far as America. This was, no doubt, the first such invitation to Welsh exiles. It is obvious that the eisteddfod itself was secondary in importance to the Gorsedd meeting itself because this is how it was advertised:

Under the protection of God and his peace,
will be held,
on Alban Elved (September 21), A.D. 1858,
in the Province of Powys,
The National Gorsedd of Bards
accompanied by a

This is the wording of advertisement that appeared in the Cymmrodor in 1857. Advertisements were also placed on billboards in the area. In Y Faner in September there is a reference to “large posters at least two yards long which are plastered along the walls of the whole country” and in one of his letters to Ab Ithel, Estyn mentions placing “Monster Placards” in railway stations. Ab Ithel took advantage of every opportunity to promote the Eisteddfod in the Welsh press, informing the public and competitors of the rules and arrangements, and indeed he wrote personally to numerous people asking for donations or simple to mention his fine eisteddfod.

The Eisteddfod

And so, on September 21st 1858, thousands flocked to Llangollen from all parts of the country. Canal transport was arranged for those coming from Cefn Mawr, Acrefair, Froncysyllte and Chirk, and excursion trains came from South and North Wales, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. Many came on foot, one of whom recalls:
As we were nearing Llangollen, we were met with the bad news that the town was crammed and that beds were a guinea a night.

Another relates:
When we reached Llangollen the whole town came out to meet us.

Indeed it was a fantastic sight – the town decorated with flowers and flags, and the streets swarming with people.

Of course, the Gorsedd of Bards was given the greatest prominence, with members in their respective orders wearing white, blue or green and marching along the streets of Llangollen from the Gorsedd stones to the Eisteddfod ground – an exceedingly colourful and pompous procession, as described by the following eye-witness account:
They seemed to be forming a procession, headed by two of the most grotesque persons I have ever seen – Dr. Price, Pontypridd and his daughter. The young lady rode a cream coloured charger, and on her head she wore a cap of foxskin, the brush at the top, and the head falling down her back. The doctor wore the same, with very peculiar green trousers, scalloped at the bottom, scarlet waistcoat, and a green, round jacket.

Another strange sight was that of Myfyr Morganwg marching with an egg suspended from a string hanging around his neck: “…the Archdruid of the Isle of Britain, Myfyr Morganwg, in his white robes, as he might have stood amid the groves of Anglesey, or the megaliths of Stonehenge, bearing the mystic egg and other insignia.”

This was the first time they ever wore robes to an eisteddfod – at previous eisteddfodau they usually wore sashes on their arms.

Estyn was very thorough with his ticket arrangements
My plan with the Tickets is this. I will sell them as they do at a Railway Station at half a dozen different places close to the Ponsonby Grounds. So that everyone must run & get his Ticket before he can enter. Tickets can thus be got as fast as ever people can go through the Tent doors & we shall be sure of our cash. I have 200 what I call “Platform passes” which you Carn Ingli & others who know the Judges, competitors &c can have to give to whom you like. You all enter by a distinct entrance & won’t interfere with the general entrances, in the least. All parties from a distance, such as Davies of Liverpool, shall receive, by post, a “Dragon stamped Order” for their Tickets, which they must present at Llangollen & receive their Tickets in exchange for it.


Apart from the pomp and circumstance of the Gorsedd of Bards, the main attention was focused on the competitions. Eminent poets and literary figures of the 19th century flocked to Llangollen, amongst them Gweirydd ap Rhys, Creuddynfab, Glan Alun, Cynddelw, Mathetes, Glasynys, Taliesin o Eifion, Tegai, Myfyr Morganwg, Gwalchmai and Ceiriog, together with famous musicians such as Llew Alaw, Owain Alaw, Llew Llwyfo and Edith Wynne.

There was considerable quarrelling between the adjudicators, and between them and the committee – they disagreed with one another and complained of the organisers’ interference in refusing to share one prize but doing so on another occasion, and even refusing to award a prize when the adjudicators had chosen a prizewinner.

Eben Fardd won the Eisteddfod Chair for his poem The Battle of Bosworth and also received a medal and £30. Ceiriog won the competition for a love poem with his Myfanwy Fychan (Glasynys came second). It is interesting to note that it was with this love poem at Llangollen that Ceiriog gained fame.

Of greater interest, perhaps, are some of the more uncommon competitions, one of which was ‘Datgeiniad Pen Pastwn’ with a £2 prize being offered for the best song sung to the accompaniment of a stick tapping the stage. Another competition offered £3 to the day labourer who (earning maximum of £1 a week) had the greatest number of children present at the Eisteddfod able to read and write Welsh. The winner was Thomas Jones of Trefor who had five children on the stage. He also produced a sick note for the sixth! Some months before the Eisteddfod, ab Ithel received a letter from a man who hoped to compete in the same competition. He was enquiring whether all the children had to be present on stage as eight of his had died!


Another interesting competition was that which asked for a “peithynen”, or stick book, the bardic frame. This consisted of a wooden frame with triangular or square rungs (similar to a small ladder), on which were carve a poem in the bardic alphabet, in this case an elegy to Iolo Morganwg by Gwallter Mechain. Two entries were received, one being a small unadorned attempt whilst the other, a large and far more ornately carved piece of craftsmanship bearing druidic symbols of oak leaves and acorns and a royal coat of arms. However, the first had observed the rules of the competition, while the other had, despite its ornate carvings, neglected the rules completely according to the adjudicators. Consequently, the small peithynen received the £3 prize.

The winner was Edward Lloyd, brother of Estyn, one of the main organisers. The adjudicators praised his work, especially his adherence to the competition rules – mountain ash was to be used, letters should not overlap and the whole construction had to be light and small enough to be carried by an Ovate of the Gorsedd.

It is worth noting the name of the other competitor, described by The Cambrian Journal as “a cabinet maker in the town”. He was Taliesin o Eifion, posthumous winner of the chair at the Wrexham National Eisteddfod in 1876. Three weeks before the eisteddfod, Taliesin wrote to ab Ithel stating that he had put a lot of hard work into making the peithynen but that he could not find the poem to carve on it!


The competition which caused the greatest uproar in the whole eisteddfod was the 20th in the list of subjects – Essay on the Discover of America in the Twelfth century by Prince Madog ab Owain Gwynedd – for which £20 and a silver star were offered. Six essays were sent in, five of them were not up to the required standard and the sixth, although by far the best in the competition, was disqualified by the organisers for failing to keep to the subject. Carn Ingli writes to ab Ithel:

Meltham Parsonage
Aug 17th 1858
My dear ab Ithel,

…I rec’d a week ago an Essay on “Madoc” etc which I transmitted to Llallawg – It appears that he received one about a fortnight ago on the same subject.

There is an essay sent in against Madoc’s claim – ignoring the whole subject – that Madoc died in this country etc. This essay I understand is a very clever one. But in my opinion it is not entitled to the prize, be its merits ever so great. The subject is “the Discovery of America in the 12th by Prince Madog ap Owain Gwynedd. Now if a person writes an essay in the non-discovery of America by Madog – he writes on a different subject altogether. If we had offered a prize for the best essay on the discovery of America by Columbus and the writer were to take it into his head that Col. never discovered it, I should throw the essay over-board as irrelevant and foreign to the subject. I believe that Stephens of Merthyr is the author. At all events it is not improbable…

Thomas Stephens was, indeed, the author – a highly respected historian and antiquarian in his day! Such was the outcry in the pavilion against such unfair actions, they called upon the band to play in order to drown the protests!

National Anthem

One competition invited collections of unpublished Welsh airs. Three entries were received and of these, two collections contained a tune called Glan Rhondda, composed by James James. The tune was composed in 1856. It was harmonised by John Owen (Owain Alaw), adjudicator of the competition, and published by him in his third volume of Gems of Welsh Meoldy in 1860. With words by Evan James, this subsequently became the National Anthem of Wales, Hen Wlad fy Nhadau.

A place in history

Despite some of the quirkiness of Eisteddfod Fawr Llangollen, it merits a place in the history of the eisteddfod in Wales for it was here that the roots of the National Eisteddfod of Wales were established. A committee was established to consider whether it was appropriate for the eisteddfod to be established on a national basis. Proposals were published in Y Faner and it was agreed to hold one National Eisteddfod annually in North and South Wales alternately.


Copyright © Hedd ap Emlyn