Lewis Edwards and Robert Roberts

The 19th century saw the gradual decline of Dissenting academies and their provision of an alternative Higher Education. When London University was founded in 1826 and enabled to award degrees in 1837, the academy, as a place for non-Anglicans to obtain an Oxford and Cambridge level education, became obsolete. The establishment of provincial universities, where Dissenters were admitted, and then the reform of Oxbridge in the 1850s, brought an end to almost two centuries of a religious educational tradition. The final academies were transformed into denominational training colleges for ministerial candidates already in possession of a degree.98

Non-Anglican faith schools, of all denominations, were less affected than academies by these educational reforms and continued to serve their communities. One such was the Calvinistic Methodist preparatory school at Bala, North Wales, run by Lewis Edwards (1809-1887). Edwards (Figure 8.5) was a Calvinistic Methodist preacher, who was instrumental in the shaping of modern Wales through his educational writing and practice; his son Thomas Charles Edwards continued his educational work, becoming the first Principal of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Lewis was convinced of the benefits gained from teaching the Greek and Roman classics, and in 1852 published in Y Traethodydd (The Essayist) his own Welsh translation of a passage of Homer’s Iliad. He wrote in his journal:

It seems to us that the prime place in education should be given to the classics; not for the sake of the Latin and Greek languages in themselves, but for the sake of the books that have been written in them. These books are worth reading and understanding because of their merits, inasmuch as they are the products of all the best thinkers who were ever in the world before the days of Christ, apart from the writers of the Old Testament; furthermore this is the best preparation for anyone who wishes to devote the rest of his life to reading the work of the greatest thinkers who were subsequently in the world."

Dr. Lewis Edwards, Bala. Reproduced by courtesy of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru—The National Library of Wales

FIGURE 8.5 Dr. Lewis Edwards, Bala. Reproduced by courtesy of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru—The National Library of Wales.

According to these principles, he educated many of the next generation of Methodist ministers, and other working-class young men from the North of Wales who were destined for other careers. One of his students was Robert Roberts (1834-1903), who became known as ‘Y Sgolor Mawr’ (the great scholar), but who, in a pattern by no means unknown amongst the most educated Methodists of the later 19th century, eventually transferred his allegiance to the Church of England. Roberts (the cousin, incidentally, of the Welsh philosopher Henry Jones (1852-1922) on whom see below, pp. 293-4), worked his way from extreme poverty and life as a farmer’s drudge to become a cleric and celebrated academic.100 He grew up in Hafod Bach, on a tenanted farm in the hills of North Wales, which he considered neither pretty, nor sublime, but ‘ugly’ and ‘utterly uninteresting’.101 Too poor to afford schoolbooks, he struggled through Lewis Edwards’ Calvinistic Methodist College and, against odds, excelled in his studies.

After just two years at school he spent a further two tutoring privately before heading to the Church of England teacher training college at Caernarfon. Not long after qualifying Roberts grew tired of teaching: ‘I’ve tried to earn my bread by teaching, but that bread is so bitter that it is uneatable’.102 He longed to go to Oxford University to further his education, but his knowledge of Greek and Latin was insufficient for him to win a scholarship. Spurred on by stories of others who had made it to Oxford from the Welsh working class—notably Reverend Morris Williams (1809—1874)—Roberts decided to gamble with the last of his savings and go for the entrance exams anyway: ‘I had three months to read, and at it I went like killing snakes. I read up my Horace, Virgil, etc., and prepared to go up at the next October examination, coûte que coûte’.'03

He never did make it to Oxford. Instead, in 1857 he enrolled at St. Bees Theological College (also Anglican), where he beat his English public-school-educated contemporaries to the Greek Prize. His friend and chief competitor, a young man named Castley, told Roberts:

It’s no use your talking, old boy-you know Greek books better than I do: if I know two or three Greek books better than you do, it is just because I read them carefully at a good school and you did not. But you know Greek Testament far better than I do.104

Roberts’ exceptional grasp of the classical languages accelerated his ascent of the socio-economic ladder nearly as forcefully as his working-class roots impeded it. In 1859 Roberts applied to become an ordained deacon, for which he had to sit an examination. In the interview with Bishop Thomas Short of St. Asaph, his Oxford-educated examiner opened a page of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia at random and told him to translate, explaining: ‘When I want to know if candidates know any Greek’, said Short, ‘I always try them with Xenophon, it’s such Greek Greek’.10’ Roberts had not read a line of the Cyropaedia. But, as he reports, he ‘happened to light on a plain passage and got through pretty creditably’.

Bishop Short apparently responded to his efforts, thus: ‘That’ll do ... You don’t seem quite to see the force of it, but never mind-let’s try the Greek Testament’.106

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