Gwyn Alf, historian and national icon

Tuesday 19 November 2013, 14:00

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Gwyn Alf Williams was – and probably still is – one of the most renowned, admired, even loved, historians of the last 100 years.

It is unusual for academics to gain popular public appeal but that was something Gwyn Alf certainly did. He attracted a following of academics and lay people alike, not only through his television broadcasts but also through his lectures and books. For anyone who has ever sat through one of his remarkable lectures there could only ever be one Gwyn Alf and there will never be anyone quite like him again.

Gwyn Alfred Williams – Gwyn Alf as he was invariably known – was born on 30 September 1925 in the iron town of Dowlais, just outside Merthyr Tydfil. Educated firstly at the famous Cyfarthfa Grammar School in Merthyr, he went on to study history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

He formed his political opinions during the dark days of the Depression and the Spanish Civil War and those opinions, garnered when he was no more than an adolescent, were retained – with minor alterations - throughout his life. He became a Marxist, albeit one who was driven by a dynamic and heart-felt concern about his own people, the Welsh.

During World War Two, Gwyn Alf served in the army and fought in the Normandy campaign following the D-Day landings in 1944. After his discharge from the army he turned, once again, to academia and completed a doctorate that was later, in 1963, turned into the book Medieval London: From Commune to Capital.

From 1954 until 1965 he worked as a lecturer at Aberystwyth, then took up a post as reader in York. He was later Professor of History at York before, in 1974, returning to Wales where he became Professor of History at the University of Wales, Cardiff. He retired from this post in 1983 to concentrate on writing.

A dynamic and exciting lecturer, Gwyn Alf Williams was astute enough to use his slight speech impediment or stutter to emphasise and reinforce his points. It was a great technique. People from various faculties in the universities where he worked flocked to hear him, sitting enthralled as he made his pronouncements and offered his point of view.

He was particularly passionate about Wales and her people, seeing himself – in his own celebrated phrase – as 'a people's remembrancer'. Gwyn Alf, however, was also a passionate republican and soon found himself a place on the left-wing of Plaid Cymru.

He came to believe that the central British state – by which he meant English control and domination of Britain – had to be undone or broken off if Wales was to survive as a united community. All his life he was fascinated by the struggles of the working classes, particularly in Wales.

As Meic Stephens wrote in his obituary in the Independent, Gwyn Alf was clear that: "Wales – particularly south Wales – was the very anvil on which the progress of the whole urban working class had been first hammered out."

After his retirement Gwyn Alf moved to Drefach Felindre in west Wales, to a home that he shared with Sian Lloyd. He continued to write and to make television programmes and films.

Notable amongst his books were Merthyr Rising, the story of the 1831 riots in Merthyr and the martyrdom of Dic Penderyn, and Madoc, the Making of a Myth, which was the story of how the legend of Madoc and his supposed discovery of America came into being.

His book When Was Wales was written while he was making an extraordinary television programme with Wynford Vaughan Thomas. The TV programme was the famous The Dragon Has Two Tongues a 13-part series that took the form of discussion, often heated debate or confrontation, between the two men.

Gwyn Alf made films about Welshmen including Saunders Lewis and Iolo Morganwg but also tackled other subjects and people such as Mary Shelley and Sylvia Pankhurst. He had a fondness for the dramatic, something that helped his television work reach a wide audience, enthralling people who would otherwise never have considered watching a history programme.

Gwyn Alf Williams died on 16 November 1995, a Marxist, a Welsh republican and a writer of great skill. But it was in his superb and exciting lectures and in his wide range of television programmes that he really made his name. Truly a one-off, that was Gwyn Alf.

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    Comment number 1.

    Thanks for a great article. I have just finished reading his "Merthyr Uprising" - Again! His descriptions of Merthyr of the time and the events that took place are so vivid it's like he was there. Just like a historical novel in places. But this is no work of fiction but an intensively researched study with several pages of references and notes after each chapter. His love of Merthyr and Wales shines through the book as effectively as in his TV broadcasts.

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    Comment number 2.

    I, too, loved that book on the Merthyr risings, even though I've got no particular affinity with Merthyr Tydfil. That, I think, is the mark of a great historian, to interest you in something that might otherwise leave you cold. And you're right, some of Gwyn Alf's prose writings did read like historical novels.

 
 

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