My ships have passed away
To uncover the story of this brass lectern, with its grand eagle bearing the weight of the word, wings outstretched ready for flight, we need to turn back a hundred years and more, back to 1905 and a turning point in Cardiff’s history, and the story of a life-long friendship.
It is the centenary of the death of Admiral Lord Nelson on 21st October 1905, and the latest edition of Punch magazine features a cartoon of the British flag officer.
He stands proud, confident, dressed in full regalia on a rocky shoreline, his head turned to the right as he glances across the water to the present day British warships which have long replaced the sailing ships of his fame. The fleet disappears into the distance, smoke streams from the horizon. Beneath, the words: ‘My ships have passed away, but the spirit of my men remains.” On the same day, a letter leaves Whitehall from the Secretary of State for the Home Department, bound for Cardiff.
Ringing the changes
Much has changed in a hundred years, and with the death of Queen Victoria less than four years ago, a new era has begun with the accession to the throne of Edward VII. Cardiff’s population stands now at 164,333.
The heavy industry of the docks has built a town, shaped and reshaped it. Roads have been carved and rail lines laid, crisscrossing their way through the docks. Buildings have risen and long been replaced reflecting the town’s growing reputation, and its confidence too, as it flexes its muscles on the back of coal and steam.
It is a cold, dry October evening two days after the Whitehall despatch, as a flurry of councillors, officials and other guests make their way into the large assembly room of the Town Hall which stands on the western side of St Mary Street. It’s the second to be built after the Medieval Guild Hall which once stood in the centre of High Street facing the Castle, and which is soon to be replaced by the new hall, north of the town in Cathays Park.
There are excited handshakes, wide eyes, bright faces. The Fourth Marquess of Bute who, at the age of twenty-five succeeded his father just four years earlier, takes his seat alongside the Principal of the University of South Wales and Monmouthshire, and the President of the Chamber of Commerce. There also representatives of the railway companies who arrive alongside ship owners and brokers, and who have moored alongside building contractors and coal exporters. The guest list tells the story of the growing town.
There, among them, is Fr Griffith Arthur Jones, the former Vicar of St Mary’s who, at 78 years of age, had retired just two years before. His health had been failing and he was tired, although he continued to attend St Mary’s each Sunday, taking the journey from Longcross Street in Adamsdown where he lived in a house he named Lluesty Mair, St Mary’s Rest.
The town mayor, Alderman Robert Hughes, brings the meeting to order.
He is a proud, portly man, 45 years of age, with grey hair and a full yet elegant moustache. Fr Jones watches him remove an envelope from his case, as he stands to address the room. They wait to hear the words from Whitehall.
From boy to man
Fr Jones has known Hughes since he was a boy, watched him grow up, witnessed how his life had changed, and had played a hand in it too, since he first arrived in Llanegryn in 1857 the year that Hughes was born.
A quiet parish at the foot of the Snowdonia mountain range with a solitary hilltop church dedicated to St Mary and St Egryn, it was there, in Llanegryn, that Fr Jones set about planting the marks of his ministry by introducing the riches of catholic teaching and worship. “It became,” so his friend, Titus Lewis, Vicar of Towyn said, “quite the leading parish church in the diocese.”
As well as being vicar, Fr Jones was also Head Master of the endowed school in the parish, which Hughes attended, leaving before his 16th birthday. The children were, in the main, educated free although the farmers were supposed to pay a small fee, and attendance at school wasn’t compulsory but even those who did not attend were often sent by their parents to school for punishment if they misbehaved. Fr Jones’ sense of justice was trusted by both churchmen and nonconformists. He administered punishment with a stern face in school but during the play-hour would make a playful gesture to the child concerned which softened any anger. He had a special gift of being able to win the confidence of the young.
As a boy, Hughes had experienced the adept skills of Fr Jones as a sportsman, particularly fishing and shooting, accompanying him on some of these activities. “I used to carry his rabbits,’ he reminisced, and he was a member of the choir that Fr Jones founded soon after his arrival, the first surplice choir in the diocese.
From Beer to Politics
When he left the parish to become Vicar of St Mary’s in Cardiff, his successor, the Revd Griffith Roberts (who was later to become the Dean of Bangor) had taken the boy under his wing. Correspondence must have flowed between him and Fr Jones who used his influence to gain him a job as a clerk to Nell’s Brewery which stood at the north-west corner of St John’s Church.
“He was not ashamed to admit that he came to the town a poor boy, with only eighteenpence in his pocket,” wrote the Evening Express many years later in 1905, reporting on a complimentary banquet in his honour.
He worked his way through the ranks until he became one of the directors, leaving later to work for Worthington’s Brewery. The promise of Hughes was beginning to take shape. In 1892, he won his seat as councillor by just 14 seats in but was returned unopposed on four occasions, before beating off a challenge from a certain Robert Scott. He also stood for Parliament although without success and was President of the Cymmrodorion and Chairman of the Conservative Working Men’s Association.
Hughes made his home in Cardiff, and his spiritual home was St Mary’s becoming a member of the choir, a devoted Sunday School and a sponsor for many children being confirmed. Robert Hughes took his responsibilities seriously, seeking out and returning any boys who neglected their Communion. When asked about the situation by the clergy, Hughes replied with “I did tell him.” These words were later teasingly applied to anyone who had to be encouraged back to Confession and Communion: ‘I did tell him.’ They became life-long friends, and Hughes was an ardent supporter of the priest despite the hardened opposition he received on first arriving in Cardiff.
The Language of Heaven
Together, they were also at the forefront of the Welsh Church movement in Cardiff. Not long before Fr Jones’ arrival in Cardiff, Welsh language services had been squeezed out of the Newtown area of the Parish but things were soon to change. In the Parish Magazine at the time we read:
“It is hoped Welsh Services will soon be permanently held in St. Mary’s Parish as a result of the Welsh Mission. A Welsh Sunday School has been started at Bute Terrace Schools in the afternoon . . . and the Vicar has arranged to celebrate the Holy Communion in Welsh on the first Sunday in the month, there having been quite a sufficient number of Communicants at the Welsh Celebration during the Mission to make such a service most desirable; and it now remains for the Welsh Churchmen of Cardiff to aid the Vicar in his endeavours to restore, what it is a scandal to Cardiff to have lost, Welsh Services for the Church of the most important town in Wales.”
In 1889, a new church hall, Capel Dewi Sant, was opened in Howard Gardens and, three years later, a church was built on neighbouring land offering a new home for a Welsh speaking congregation.
The Letter in Hand
Alderman Robert Hughes stands before the hushed gathering. The letter in his hand is dated 21st October, 1905. He reads it aloud.
“I am directed by the Secretary of State to inform you that it is His Majesty’s pleasure that the Borough of Cardiff be constituted a City, and that the Chief Magistrate thereof be styled Lord Mayor. Instructions are about to be given for the issue of Letters Patent under the Great Seal carrying His Majesty’s pleasure into effect.”
There are repeated cheers. Each, in turn, rises to offer a resolution, passed with great enthusiasm, expressing the great satisfaction of the Corporation and the citizens. And congratulations are offered to Alderman Robert Hughes on becoming the First Lord Mayor of the City of Cardiff.
Accompanied by members of the Corporation and other gentlemen, the Mayor makes his way to the balcony of the Town Hall. Beneath them, in St Mary Street, a crowd of people gathers, attracted by the echoed cheers heard from within the assembly room. The Mayor proclaims His Majesty’s gracious pleasure a second time, and the street is filled with cheering.
St Mary’s Rest
After much celebration, the balcony begins to empty, as the dignitaries step back into the hall. The new Lord Mayor has another engagement to keep. He is due at St Mary’s Church for a service to commemorate the centenary of Admiral Lord Nelson’s death. Lifted by the enthusiasm and joy, and wanting to show due honour to the first Lord Mayor of Cardiff, a candlelit procession is quickly planned to accompany him to the church and back.
From among the crowd, a woman turns to her companion and asks, “Who’s that?” She points to the old clergyman on the balcony, as he smiles gently at the cheering crowd below, before he shifts slowly back into the assembly room. “Oh, that’s Father Jones,” says the other in reply. “Everybody loves him, and he’s so fond of the children.”
One of those children, in whom he had invested so much time and love, kindness and guidance and who himself acknowledged his influence upon his life is now the first Lord Mayor of the City of Cardiff. Within a few weeks of being elected Lord Mayor of the newly formed city, he donates the brass lectern in thanksgiving for his friend’s 32 year ministry, an item which tells both a personal tale and the turning point in Cardiff’s own story.
Note: although this particular post is much written in narrative form, the events reported are gleaned from various sources including Fr Jones’ biography and newspaper reports of the time