The Cyfarthfa Philosophical Society

January 9, 2021 0 Comments
Penry Williams, Cyfarthfa ironworks interior at night (1825)
(Cyfarthfa Castle Museum and Art Gallery)

The end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century saw the rise of local ‘literary and philosophical institutions’ throughout the British Isles.  They aimed to bring together like-minded people to discuss issues of the day.  The label ‘philosophy’ usually meant not logic or metaphysics, but an interest in the latest developments in science and technology, at a time when their study was in rapid flux as the industrial revolution gathered pace.  Typically, members gathered to listen and respond to lectures by visiting speakers.  Some societies also owned premises, issued publications, maintained libraries and museums, and even, as in the case of the Swansea Philosophical and Literary Institution (later the Royal Institution of South Wales), equipped and ran a scientific laboratory.

Most literary and philosophical societies were dominated by the upper and middle classes: members of the gentry and clergy, scientists, industrialists and engineers.  And so, on the face of it, was the Cyfarthfa Philosophical Society, set up in Merthyr Tydfil in 1807.  But all was not quite as it seemed.

Penry Williams, Crawshay’s Cyfarthfa ironworks (1817) (National Museum Wales)

At this time Merthyr was entering its heyday as one of the most dynamic and rapidly expanding towns in Britain, thanks to the numerous iron works set up in and around its centre.  The ironworks – Cyfarthfa was one of the two largest – employed large numbers of skilled and semi-skilled workers, and the town also housed the works’ owners, engineers, managers and agents, and others like shopkeepers who serviced the residents.  Early on in its explosive growth, despite its lack of physical infrastructure, like decent housing, sanitation and schools, Merthyr had a lively community culture, centred on its many chapels.  From the start of the nineteenth century its people developed a tradition of industrial protest and political radicalism.  In 1831 disaffection boiled over into what became known as the Merthyr Rising.

Charles Wilkins

Most of what’s known about the Cyfarthfa Philosophical Society comes from Charles Wilkins’s A history of Merthyr Tydfil, published much later in 1867.  This is how Wilkins describes how the Society began, apparently with a strong interest in astronomy:

On December 15th, 1807, sixty persons, living in Merthyr and its neighbourhood, met together, and subscribed a guinea each towards buying such apparatus as was deemed suitable; but that sum proving inadequate, it was augmented by a good many of them subscribing another half-guinea.  The instruments were had, a code of rules drawn up, and a few books on astronomy purchased.  It gives us a tolerable notion of the capacity of the members when we learn that the list of instruments was composed of a good reflecting telescope, a pair of globes, a microscope, a planetarium, an orrery, an equatorial, and other philosophical apparatus. (p.269)

Wilkins gives the names of the most prominent of the founding members:

J. Bailey, Esq., an M.P., and a large iron-master; the poet and stone-cutter, Rees Howell Rees; John Griffiths and William Williams, afterwards famous as engineers and mechanicians; William Aubrey, the mill contractor; Thomas Evans, the philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, of Cyfarthfa ; Benjamin Saunders, the ingenious moulder; Henry Kirkhouse, the mineral agent; and several others more or less able in their respective callings. 

Joseph Bailey was the nephew of Richard Crawshay, the founder of the Cyfarthfa ironworks.  He inherited a quarter share in the works, but sold it in 1813 and bought the Nant-y-Glo works.  Later he added the Beaufort works.  He converted much of his large profits into land, and lived at Glanusk Park.  Possibly Bailey was chosen as the ‘respectable figurehead’ of the Society.

Anon., William Williams, Chief Engineer of the Cyfarthfa Ironworks (c1810)
(Cyfarthfa Castle Museum and Art Gallery)

Most of the other men Wilkins mentioned were highly skilled technologists connected with the Cyfarthfa ironworks.  John Griffiths and William Williams were both engineers there.  Griffiths built steam-engines.  In 1829 Williams invented the first machine for testing the tensile strength of metals.  In later life, it was said, he became so large that he had to be moved around the works in a specially built trolley.   His son, Morgan Williams, became the leading Merthyr Chartist.  William Aubrey of Tredegar helped design the extensive water systems at Cyfarthfa.  ‘None of his contemporaries’, his obituary in Seren Gomer said, ‘was as skilful as he was in inventing and setting up all kinds of engines and machines worked by fire and water’.  Benjamin Saunders, the ‘ingenious moulder’ at the Cyfarthfa works, later described as ‘an amalgam of an inventive brain and a deft hand’, built a planetarium, a quadrant, a thermometer, a water-gauge and a weather-glass.  Henry Kirkhouse was the mineral agent at Cyfarthfa for more than half a century, and ‘retained the respect of all who came in contact with him – from Mr Crawshay to the humblest miner’.

Dynevor Arms, Georgetown

The Society ‘continued to flourish for some considerable time’.  Members met in the Dynevor Arms in Georgetown, and listened to and debated lectures on all kinds of scientific and technological subjects, with a decided emphasis on astronomy.  Owen Evans lectured on ‘the use of the globe’, while John Jones spoke on astronomy; both were Unitarian ministers.

But the Cyfarthfa Philosophical Society was far from being a usual collection of establishment figures and technocrats absorbed only by science.  It was also a crucible of radical political and heterodox theological thinking.  Its presiding figure was Rhys Hywel Rhys of Vaynor.  He was a stonemason, self-taught astronomer and poet, and also a Jacobin, who subscribed to the radical newspaper The Cambridge Intelligencer.  His atheism was overt.  When he died in 1817 an englyn was carved on his gravestone that conveys his atomistic philosophy:

‘Rol ing a gwewyr angau
I ddryllio fy mhriddelau
Rhwng awyr, daear, dwr a than,
Mi ymrana’n fân ronynau.

After the pains and pangs of death
Will have shattered my earthly tenement
Between earth, air, fire, and water,
I shall separate into minute particles

Wilkins, who as the son of a Chartist was sympathetic to radical causes, writes this about Rhys Hywel Rhys:

He devoted himself with great energy to the collection of a fund by which most valuable instruments were bought, such as were far beyond the individual means of any one of the members.  Then, when these were bought, the members named Rhys as their president, and many an evening was passed in the endeavour to solve the most difficult questions with which their favourite sciences abounded.  On the formation of the Society, it was wisely decided to confine the meetings solely to scientific matters, excluding political and religious subjects.  This was rendered all the more necessary as the members were great readers of controversial works, and disposed to form opinions of their own, instead of having them formed for them.  But it is not to be expected that a Society of thoughtful minds would assemble without occasionally diving below the current, and endeavour to solve to their own satisfaction certain points of science and the Bible, which, in their day, were believed to be sternly conflicting, and in discordance with each other. And this they did at friendly meetings, even if they were rigid enough to exclude the subject at their Society.  We can readily believe that such discussion, with gleanings from “Tom Payne,” Mirabeau, Volney, and the Rational School, had a tendency to awaken doubt, and the failure to reconcile the God of the Hebrews with the God of Nature to confirm those doubts, and warp some of them from sect and creed to Deism.  A few, we understand, became Unitarians, and some remained Orthodox.  We should not be surprised at this, for the ranks of the French doubters were composed of men of high reputation, and the sallies of Gibbon and of Hume against the citadel of the faith had been keen and well sustained. The very intellectual atmosphere, so to speak, was one of doubt, and all this was in natural sequence.

Elsewhere Wilkins outlines the advanced thinking of the Philosophers gathered around Rhys Hywel Rhys:

In the days of its infancy, the members were exposed to considerable sarcasm by the ingenious efforts of Rhys, who, in order to exercise himself in mechanical ingenuity, constructed a duck ‘that did everything but quack.’  Good, but foolish people, inferred from this that the society aimed at rivalling the deity, and condemned them; while others made it a theme for constant raillery.  The members were deep thinkers—astute politicians and though debarred from discussing any polemics in their society hours, yet they were only too happy to tread the debateable tracks of religious politics and philosophy; and some even indulged in opinions which led the Cyfarthfa school of philosophers to become rather unjustly associated with positive Atheism.  Paine and Voltaire had their admirers; and when it was a punishable offence to read the works of the former, a few, who thought highly of his Rights of man and Age of reason, would assemble in secret places on the mountains, and, taking the works from concealed places under a large boulder or so, read them with great unction.  But if Paine had admirers he had also enemies, for at the same time religious men had the nails in their boots arranged to form T. P., that then they might figuratively tread Tom Paine underfoot.

Hen Dy Cwrdd, Cefn-Coed-y-Cymer

The Society was just one of many institutions in Merthyr that nurtured a spirit of questioning, dissent and protest.  The Calvinists were relatively weak in the town, whereas Unitarians and other less rigid, free-thinking churches had many adherents: many of the Society’s early members belonged to the Unitarian chapel in Merthyr or the Hen Dŷ Cwrdd chapel in Cefn-Coed-y-Cymer.  Many ‘friendly societies’ – the precursors of trade unions – were set up in the town around the time of the Society’s beginning.  Together these and other local institutions helped to build an autonomous political culture of confident radicalism that would make Merthyr a natural centre for industrial strikes, Chartist reform, trade unions and other workers’ movements later in the nineteenth century.

Wilkins is vague about the subsequent history of the Cyfarthfa Philosophical Society.  After the deaths or removals of many founders the Society almost collapsed.  It was resuscitated for a while, with a new subscription and set of rules.  Further scientific instruments were acquired, and books added to a library.  But ‘a few years ago’ the Society was dissolved and it became amalgamated with the Merthyr Subscription Library.  Charles Wilkins himself became Librarian of the Library when it was established in 1846; its co-founder and Secretary was Thomas Stephens, the literary historian, reformer and Unitarian.

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