Skip to main content

Book Review A radical inspiration, from start to finish

Communist, man of religion, poet and dentist — Welshman TE Nicholas led a long and extraordinary life, says GWYN GRIFFITHS

Ar Drywydd Niclas y Glais
(In Search of Niclas y Glais)
by Hefin Wyn
(Y Lolfa, £14.99)

WELSH speakers with an interest in literature and left politics will find much material to ponder over in this impressively researched volume on the life of TE Nicholas (1879-1971) by Hefin Wyn.

Known to the people of Wales as Niclas y Glais, he was a life-long socialist and a prolific and popular Welsh language poet, Congregational minister and later a dentist.

He was born in a tiny cottage at the foot of the Preseli hills of north Pembrokeshire, a few miles from Efailwen, where the Rebecca rioters smashed their first tollgate in 1839. It was a land of independently minded people.

He may have been born into a materially poor family but Nicholas grew up in a mentally, morally and spiritually rich society of country craftsmen and small farmers, which cherished its language and gave rise to a culture inspired by the ideals of religious nonconformity and political radicalism.

Forbidden to speak Welsh in school, his education and ideas were gleaned from Sunday school and listening to his father discussing the contents of the liberal Welsh language journals Y Cronicl and Baner ac Amserau Cymru with their sustained assaults on landlordism, slavery and imperialism. He would later attend one of the academies established by the nonconformist denominations.

In old age, he claimed that it was not communism that made him aware of social injustice but the legacy of his youth. He had, he said, been preaching communism before he had ever heard of Karl Marx. “It was the Gospel and Robert Owen [the Welsh-born social reformer usually associated with New Lanark], the greatest Welshman of our country, that were my greatest inspirations.”

He began his ministry with the Annibynwyr — Welsh Congregationalists — in the market town of Llandeilo before embarking for Dodgeville in the US. There he spent a year preaching before being invited to take charge of one of the numerous Welsh chapels. But it was a short-lived stay. He received an unexpected invitation to return to Glais, an industrial village in the Swansea Valley.

The local colliers and employees of the nearby Mond Nickel Works on the outskirts of Clydach suited Nicholas well. Although he spent just 10 years in Glais from 1904 to 1914, his name became linked with the village and forever after he was known as Niclas y Glais.

He made friends with Keir Hardie and served as Hardie’s election agent in 1910. When the Scotsman established the Merthyr Pioneer in 1911, Nicholas became its Welsh-language editor. Nicholas never wrote in English and it was only on rare occasions that he preached, lectured or wrote in the language.

And, despite his vast poetic and journalistic output in Welsh, the only political pamphlet he ever published was Cyflog Byw (Living Wage) in 1913.

When he spoke publicly it was usually without written preparation and it is ironic that the source of some of Nicholas’s speeches and sermons are the Home Office papers.

When he was a minister in Cardiganshire, local policemen were sent to take notes of his anti-war statements which would then be translated to be used when he was being hounded for his pacifist activities during World War II.

As a result of the Kafkaesque attention of the chief constable of Cardiganshire, who loathed Nicholas, socialism and pacifism in equal measure, Nicholas and his son Islwyn were imprisoned for four months before being released without charge.

This period of unjust imprisonment endeared him to a sizeable and influential section of the people of Wales, in particular those who spoke Welsh. In prison he wrote a number of sonnets on toilet paper which would be smuggled to his publisher by a sympathetic warder.

Poetry and his letters and articles to the Welsh language press, were the medium for his message. A number of journals from time to time rejected his articles but there was no way of banning him from the Welsh columns of the Merthyr Pioneer. He was, after all, its editor.

His presence as minister of chapels in rural areas, especially during the war, was at times embarrassing as the elders tended to be better-off farmers. He left to take up what was then the somewhat rough business of dentistry — on a par with that of a country pig killer, as Wyn puts it.

But it was a self-employed job, which meant that Nicholas could carry on his unofficial role of spokesman for the USSR and the Communist Party.

The tales of his dentistry are legend. Poets and people of the left would regularly gather for discussion in his waiting room at Aberystwyth, which was well-stocked with Communist literature and his volumes of poetry.

To the end, he defended the communist cause and, when he became disillusioned with the Soviet Union, he switched his allegiance to China and Cuba.

Hywel Francis, formerly MP for Aberavon, recalled being taken by his father Dai Francis, a life-long communist and General Secretary of the NUM in South Wales, to hear Nicholas preaching one Sunday evening.

It was in 1957, the 40th anniversary of the Russian revolution, and the Soviet Union had successfully launched the Sputnik. Nicholas drew comparisons between the Sputnik and the star of Bethlehem as a sign of better things to come. Francis's father had long turned his back on religion but he was well pleased with his friend’s sermon that evening.

Wyn’s somewhat sentimental portrait reflects the affection with which Nicholas is still held, particularly among Welsh speakers. There is nothing about his links with the Communist Party of Great Britain, although his work within the ILP and with Keir Hardie are well documented.

Harry Pollitt, who came near to winning Rhondda East for the Communist Party in 1945, does not get a mention. Nor does Idris Cox, a Welsh speaker who published and translated communist material into the language and was a prominent party official in London and South Wales.

This is surprising. Although Nicholas spent much of his later life in Cardiganshire, he was a popular lecturer and preacher in industrial South Wales.

OWNED BY OUR READERS

We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 5,907
We need:£ 12,093
18 Days remaining
Donate today