My Welsh Grandfather

In my piece about the late Lord Griffiths, I mentioned the fact that at one time my grandfather was vicar of Blaenavon, just a few miles away from Govilon (the village in north Monmouthshire from which Lord Griffiths took his title). I am now taking the opportunity to write about him at rather greater length.

In his enchanting book about his youth, Rhymney Memories. Thomas Jones CH, later deputy secretary to the Cabinet under four prime ministers between 1916 and 1930, wrote:

One other costume attracted and puzzled us during the school holidays. It was that of a hatless blue-coat boy, wearing white bands, silver buttons, belt, yellow stockings, and buckled shoes. He was to become a ‘Welsh International’ and a Canon of the Church.

This was my grandfather, Alfred Augustus Mathews (or Alf Mathews, as he was known when he played rugby football for Swansea). His father Jenkyn Mathews was chief accountant and secretary of the Rhymney Ironworks and also a magistrate in the counties of Brecon, Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. His father was the tenant farmer of a sheep farm at Ystradfellte, just across the county border in Breconshire. Except that he was a younger son, I know nothing more about him.

Young Alfred was born in February 1864.  He was the fourth son in a family which also contained three girls.  He was in due course sent to Christ’s Hospital Blue Coats School (hence his unusual attire) when it was still located in Newgate Street, London: it was not to move to its present site near Horsham until 1902. Then  (probably at the age of 15) he moved to Llandovery College, which prepared boys for universities.  It was there that he first learned to play Rugby Football.

According to some historians of the game, Rugby Football had been introduced to Wales in 1850 by Professor Rowland Williams, who brought the game with him from Cambridge to St David’s College, Lampeter, and over the next 30 years its popularity – in South Wales at any rate – steadily grew, largely through the influence of Oxbridge graduates who had learned the game in England.

[But see the Appendix below, which tells a rather different story]

Newport, Cardiff, Llanelli and Swansea all possessed strong rugby football clubs by 1880: when the Welsh Rugby Football Union was formed in 1881, its first team, which was pretty weak, was mainly composed of Oxbridge graduates.

In November of that year my grandfather played for Llandovery College against Swansea as a forward, when he scored a try in the college’s victory over Swansea by seven tries to nil. He is recorded as playing for the college as a three-quarter in the equivalent match the following year.

He then moved to St David’s College, Lampeter, where he matriculated in 1883 and obtained a BA degree on 1886. He was ordained priest in 1887. He played for St David’s as a half-back, turning out for them against Swansea three times in 1885 and 1886. It was while he was an undergraduate at Lampeter that he won his only cap for Wales – in the match against Scotland at Cardiff Arms Park on 9 January 1886, which was the second and final Welsh international in the 1885-6 Home Nations Championship.

He had been picked as a replacement for Charlie Newman, the Newport player who had captained Wales in the international against England that season (who was also later to become a clergyman).

He was chosen as a half-back, and during that match Wales experimented for the first time with playing four three-quarters, instead of the usual three. This proved to be so unsuccessful that they switched back to having three three-quarters for the second part of the match, which Wales lost 13-0. That was the end of my grandfather’s international career.

While he was still alive he showed me his Welsh cap which looked like the slightly later cap in the photograph.

After his death it passed to his son, whose care of it over the next 30 years was distinctly sub-optimal. Although it is still in the family, the moths did their work so well that all that remains is its essential cappishness, the braid piping and the heraldic badge of the Prince of Wales, with its three white ostrich feathers and the “Ich Dien” motto at the front.

In December 1885 he had joined Llanelli for a 4-match northern tour, but he switched his allegiance from Llanelli to Swansea when he was appointed to Holy Trinity Church, Swansea, first as curate (1887-1892) and then as Vicar (1892-1897). He played a number of games for Swansea as a half-back in 1887-8 and a full season for the club in 1888-9 (including the match when their depleted side was beaten 11-0 by the touring Maoris). He then gave up first class rugby, although he continued to turn out regularly for his parish’s XV, of which he was unsurprisingly the captain.

I do not know how and when he met my grandmother, Ethel Frances Evans – probably in church circles. She was one of the four children of Dr Edward Beynon Evans, a popular Swansea GP who lived in St Thomas’s parish, on the hill above Swansea docks. She was 12 years younger than her fiancé, and apart from the fact that at one time she was sent to school near the top of Heath Street in Hampstead, London and that she was taught to play the violin by Edward Elgar himself, I know nothing about her upbringing. Her brother Alban Evans was to become ear, nose and throat specialist on the staff of Swansea, Llanelli and Neath Hospitals. He also acted as a naval surgeon, and was drowned at sea in 1932.

We have a photograph of the wedding group following their wedding at St Thomas’s Church in October 1898. The male clerics (including my grandfather) are dwarfed by a number of strong-minded Welsh ladies, all dressed up for the occasion, with bundles of flowers galore and a remarkable collection of hats.[1] By this time my grandfather had moved east to Monmouthshire, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. He had been appointed Vicar of Blaenavon in 1897, with responsibility for three other local parishes. The family remained there until 1904, and their three oldest daughters[2] were born while they were at Blaenavon.

In 1904 he became Vicar of St Paul’s Church, Newport, where he was to stay for nearly thirty years. Their two youngest surviving children were born during their early years there – their only son Kenneth, parish priest and naval padre, who was for a few years Dean of St Albans; and my mother Barbara, who was to marry my father at St Paul’s Church in 1933.[3]

Throughout his ministry my grandfather obtained a clear understanding of what it meant to be poor and/or unemployed in South Wales in those days. My mother told me that in the years leading up to the Great War he took the pledge – to refrain from taking alcohol – when he saw the miseries created by alcoholism, but his profile on the Swansea RFC website contains this remarkable statement from the days when he played first class rugby:

As a member of the Swansea football team I can testify there is no need for alcoholic drink as a stimulant in athletic games, for although a total abstainer, I never lack energy nor lose my mind, neither do I train during the week, and I believe were all to abstain from alcoholic drinks there would be no need for training.

He was said to be very active even then in the Total Abstinence Society, and often made speeches on their behalf. Towards the end of his life his daughters surreptitiously laced his orange squash with gin –

“What remarkably good orange squash this is”, he would say.

1920 saw the disestablishment of the Church in Wales, when the Welsh Church Act 1914, one of a handful of statutes passed under the provisions of the Parliament Act 1911 against the opposition by the House of Lords – came into effect, following a long Parliamentary campaign by the nonconformist churches in Wales, who resented their tithes being paid to the Anglican church. When F.E.Smith, later Lord Birkenhead, called it a Bill which had shocked the conscience of every Christian community in Europe, he prompted the unforgettable poetic riposte by G.K.Chesterton, which starts:

Are they clinging to their crosses,

F. E. Smith,

Where the Breton boat-fleet tosses,

Are they, Smith?

Do they, fasting, trembling, bleeding,

Wait the news from this our city?

Groaning “That’s the Second Reading!”

Hissing “There is still Committee!”

If the voice of Cecil falters,

If McKenna’s point has pith,

Do they tremble for their altars?

Do they, Smith?


Russian peasants round their pope

Huddled, Smith,

Hear about it all, I hope,

Don’t they, Smith?

In the mountain hamlets clothing

Peaks beyond Caucasian pales,

Where Establishment means nothing

And they never heard of Wales,

Do they read it all in Hansard —

With a crib to read it with —

“Welsh Tithes: Dr. Clifford answered.”

Really, Smith?

I don’t suppose it made much difference to my grandfather’s life, except that he had to work even harder to raise funds for the Church – and for its work overseas, which he strongly supported. Hospitals in Peshawar and Mombasa were among the beneficiaries of funds raised by the parish, which paid this tribute to his work:

He was a man of untiring activity and boundless energy. Immediately on his arrival, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the work of the parish. By his genial and sympathetic manner he soon won the confidence of his congregation, and immediately set out on a programme of Church extension. During his 29 years, he raised a considerable amount of money for Church purposes and made a most adequate provision for carrying on the spiritual work of the parish…

Fom time to time my mother gave us insights into what growing up in a vicarage family entailed. Although most of it has faded from the memory, I do remember the scene round the family breakfast table when a visiting preacher repeatedly said

“Let us take this up to the throne of God in prayer”

whenever any issue arose in conversation on which more than one viewpoint had been expressed – and all the children had to break off from their bacon and eggs, or whatever, and look suitably prayerful. I also remember a story of how her father was once conducting a marriage service when he accidentally skipped a page or two in the Prayer Book and plunged deep into the service of Public Baptism for Those Who Are of Riper Years before realising that something had gone a bit walkabout.

In 1930 he was appointed Rural Dean of Newport and a Canon of Monmouth (in recognition of his work for the Church overseas), and in 1933, the year of my parents’ wedding, he moved to his final parish – St Stephen and St Tathan at Caerwent – where he stayed for six years before retiring to Great Milton, Llanwern, a Grade II listed farmhouse just outside Newport, where he lived for the last seven years of his life.

One of my earliest half-memories from when I was two years old is of the Vicarage garden at Caerwent, which boasted a very fine cedar tree. I have a much better memory of Great Milton, a beautiful old white-washed farmhouse with a genuine well in the garden, a bat in the attic, plenty of sturdy Welsh farmhouse furniture, and a farmyard in front of the house which sported two tastefully converted pig-sties where my brother Peter and I spent much of our time during visits in the war years. We spent some weeks there in the very snowy winter of 1939-1940 before my parents found a permanent new home for us in Bracknell, at a safe distance from London, and I have a better memory of that visit than I have of Caerwent.  We revisited them about once a year during the rest of the war years.

My main memory of my grandfather is of a very large, kindly man, with a bristling white moustache, who did not say very much but who radiated friendliness. I recall him tucking a beautifully laundered white table napkin (as snowy white as his hair and his moustache) up to his throat when he had meals.

I have far better memories of my grandmother – perhaps because she also came to live near us in London, bed-ridden and blind, at the very end of her life. They are buried together in the churchyard at Llanwern, beside the hedge beyond which you can see the remains of the steelworks which came to Llanwern after their time there.

When he dedicated a tablet to them both at St Paul’s Church Newport, their son Ken Mathews said that they were the opposite of normal gender stereotypes, our grandfather being profoundly intuitive, our grandmother equally hard-headed. They were typical of many professional middle-class families of their generation – hard-working, public-spirited, not having much money, and putting the education of their children first and foremost, above any other preferences of their own.


The archivist 0f the Swansea Rugby Football Club, who has been very helpful in sending me more details of my grandfather’s life between 1886 and 1904, has told me:

The origin of the rugby game in Wales via Lampeter College is a contentious one. Although they were among the first (with Llandovery College) to play ‘football’ in Wales, it would have been of a hybrid nature and NOT rugby rules. Though Professor Rowland Williams DID attend Cambridge as a contemporary of Arthur Pell, there is no evidence that he watched or took part in any football games.  When St David’s College Lampeter played Llandovery College in 1856 Llandovery had not yet adopted rugby rules.  That match was held to be the oldest football game (street games aside) in Wales. Football in Lampeter, certainly, but not rugby rules.

The first reference to that is in 1864 at Neath,  and a club that wished to take up rugby rules but did not prosper at that time. An obituary on Cory suggests it was he who took part in the first “regular” game of [rugby] football in Wales in 1873 between Roath and Pontypridd sides. Neath RFC say they were founded and played RUGBY football in 1871 but offer no evidence. When they played Swansea in the latter’s first match in 1872 it was under association rules.






[1] Many years later my mother met a woman in Kilburn who told her that she remembered that many local ladies had hung out their red petticoats as bunting to mark the route by which Dr Evans took his daughter from their home to the church. I visited the church in 1991 during my one visit to Swansea as a High Court judge, but it was locked, so that I had to content myself by walking round the outside.

[2] Evelyn, who married an Australian clergyman, and lived most of her married life in Melbourne; Averil, who became a Roman Catholic nun, spending much of her life in Uganda, and ending it in a Carmelite convent near Chester where I visited her in 1966; and Isobel, who practised as a nurse, not marrying until 1945. I think they all went to Monmouth School, and Averil spent some years as an Oxford Home Student, through the Society of Oxford Home Students which catered for women students who lived with private families in Oxford while attending courses organised by the Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women (AEW). The Society was the forerunner of St Anne’s College, Oxford, which was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1952.

[3] Kenneth, always known as Ken, went to Monkton Combe School and Balliol College, Oxford. My mother went to Queen Anne’s School, Caversham and Gloucester Domestic Science College. Ken had an older twin brother, who died very soon after he was born because the hospital staff were focussing their entire attention on the wholly unexpected arrival of his twin. Perhaps for this reason my grandmother went home to Swansea for my mother’s birth. She was born in a nursing home in Mumbles in January 1908. There was also a younger daughter, Margaret, born in 1911, who only lived a few years.

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