Llewelyn Prichard, bizarre genius

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Wales has produced many interesting and unusual individuals over the years but none was more bizarre and arguably more mysterious than the writer Thomas Jeffery Llewelyn Prichard.

This was the man who wrote The Adventures and Vagaries of Twm Shon Catti, thereby creating one of the great mythical figures of Welsh folk lore.

Very little is known about Llewelyn Prichard. He remains a man of mystery, born in the Builth area of Breconshir, possibly in Trallog, in about 1790, where he was educated although the origins of his family remain unknown.

Prichard's early career and life are also shrouded in mystery but we do know that in January 1826 he was married to Naomi Jones of Builth. The wedding took place at Abergavenny, possibly because Prichard was acting on the stage in the town at that time.

He is known to have appeared in various plays around Wales, in places like Brecon and Aberystwyth, and even in London where he might well have performed under the name of Mr Jefferies.

Prichard had other careers apart from acting. It is thought that he spent time cataloging the library in the Monmouthshire home of Lady Llanover and his love of books led him to create some literary works of his own.

His most successful book, The Adventures and Vagaries of Twm Shon Catti, first appeared in 1828, being published by a firm in Aberystwyth. Hugely popular, the book went through several editions, being translated into Welsh in 1872.

Twm was an attractive character whose adventures and lifestyle seemed to catch the public imagination. He has sometimes been seen as the Welsh Robin Hood and the book has often been referred to as the first Welsh novel in the English language.

Llewelyn Prichard wrote many other books. These included a book of poems called Welsh Minstrelsy, a travel guide entitled A Guide to the Watering Places of Wales, Marine and Inland, and the historically based Heroines of Welsh History. He also edited The Cambrian Wreath: A Selection of English Poems on Welsh Subjects.

Prichard is often referred to as a book seller. He did not have a shop, however, and the description comes from the fact that he made a living selling books – usually his own but others as well, if he could get them cheaply enough – around the doors of houses in Swansea where he eventually settled after he retired from acting.

Leaving the stage was something that had been forced on him. Somewhere around 1840 he became involved in an argument which, in turn, led to him fighting a duel.

Allegedly, his nose was partly cut off by his opponent's sword and for the rest of his life he wore a wax substitute, held in place by his spectacles. It made him look ridiculous and forced his retirement from acting.

Perhaps worse, the wax nose made Prichard the obvious butt of cruel jokes from children in Swansea. He lived first in Wassail Square (since demolished and turned into a modern shopping precinct) but the constant jeering of children in the area made his life such a misery that it forced him to look elsewhere for lodgings. He found them in Thomas Street in one of the poorer districts of the town.

By now Prichard had fallen into poverty – despite the success of Twm Shon Catti, which should have ensured him at least a reasonable standard of living. Perhaps more significantly, he had become a drunkard, one of the reasons his income from book selling and writing declined.

Stumbling, drunk, from one cheap ale house to another, he became a familiar sight in the poorer streets of Swansea. He once lost a whole sheaf of papers, a complete volume of his work, by leaving them in a public house in High Street. Prichard did have supporters and friends, however, and with his financial situation growing steadily worse, a collection was made to keep him out of the parish workhouse.

In the event, the collection was unnecessary. One night in 1862 he staggered home drunk from one of his favourite watering holes. He fell into the fire in his living room and was burned to death.

It was a sad and tragic end for a man who was always more flawed than he was prolific – not easy to do for a man who managed to turn out a large quantity of work in his 60 or 70 years of life.

As Dylan Thomas once wrote in the Herald of Wales, Llewelyn Prichard "failed to be great but he failed with genius."

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