Daniel James 1848 – 1920

Mynyddbach Chapel is lovely, a small comfortable place, an archetypal Welsh Chapel, the oldest Independent chapel in Swansea. and you can find it set back from Llangyfelach Road in Treboeth. It was built in 1867, renovated in the middle of the twentieth century and threatened with demolition in the twenty first. It was saved by a group of local activists and we owe them a debt of gratitude, not only for the preservation of a lovely chapel, but also for saving one of Swansea’s most important graves which resides in its cemetery, one which has such significance across the country. Within it rests the poet Daniel James, who wrote the words of the hymn, Calon Lân, regarded as the second National Anthem of Wales. His story is a fascinating one, one of unexpected contrasts, of achievement and tragedy, and one which provides an unexpected insight into the lives and tribulations of ordinary people in industrial South Wales during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Daniel James was born in 1848 in Treboeth in Swansea where the family were members of  Mynyddbach Chapel. They were a large family living in a small cottage, like so many others, and their expectations of what life might offer them. probably did not extend beyond the one lived by their parents. Daniel’s formal education was inevitably minimal, although it is believed that he briefly attended a local drama school. Sadly his education – and his childhood – were terminated when his father died unexpectedly and in 1861, at the age of 13, Daniel began work as a labourer in the Landore Tinplate Works, eventually attaining skilled positions like that of  puddler and  traffic manager. He was employed there for thirty three years until it closed in 1894.

Away from work he mastered the intricate formalities of Welsh poetry.  He was taught by D.W. Thomas, an elder at Mynyddbach Chapel, and began to write verse initially as ‘Dafydd Mynyddbach’, and then  later he assumed the Bardic name ‘Gwyrosydd’.

In 1871 when he was 23 Daniel married Ann Hopkin and they lived in Treboeth, having five children. In the locality he developed a reputation as an enthusiastic drinker. Neighbours, struggling perhaps to reconcile his attendance in chapel with his attendance in public houses, said of him that he would have ‘sold his soul for a pint of beer.’ He was particularly fond of the King’s Head. where he would sit at the bar on an unusually high chair, now on proud display in the chapel, composing poems and rhymes in exchange for drinks. He would also turn up at weddings and compose a poem in honour of the happy couple, managing his thirst in return for carefully chosen words.

For many working class families, living precarious lives on the very edge of poverty and ruin, tragedy was a constant companion. You can see this very clearly in Daniel James’ life.  His wife Ann, the woman who would sometimes not let Daniel back into the house after his drinking sessions, thus forcing him to sleep in the pigsty, sadly died on Christmas Eve, 1887. He was suddenly a 40 year old widower with five young children. For our ancestors there was little time for sentimentality. If he found no one to look after the children then he couldn’t go to work  – and so how would they live? In October 1888 he married Gwenllian Parry, herself a widow with five children of her own. She had returned from Russia where her husband had died, possibly working at Yuzovka, an industrial centre established by Welshman John Hughes in what is today Donetsk. The marriage was a mutually supportive contract which suited them both as single parents and they went on to have three more children together. It was a large family to support and when in 1894 the Landore works closed down, the new James family had no alternative but to move around in search of work. They went to the Cynon valley, then to Tredegar and on to Dowlais, Daniel James spent some time working as a miner at Mountain Ash, until moving once more, this time to Blaengarw. This was, of course, in no way unusual and neither was the pressing need to get your children out to work as soon as possible in order to boost the family income. It is what happened to him, but of course it came with its own dangers and had its own impact upon future opportunities.

They lived at No 8 Herbert St, Blaengarw, where Gwenllian gave birth to their last child, a son called Tawe James in 1895, but she died shortly afterward. The baby was sent away to live with Daniel’s sister Marged in Llangyfelach. How else was the child to be cared for?

Amongst the tragedy, his second marriage had been a productive time for his poetry. Two collections were published,  ‘Caniadau Gwyrosydd’, 1892 (which included Calon Lan) and ‘Caneuon Cymru’ in 1895. The third collection ‘Aeron Awen Gwryrosydd’ appeared in 1898.

Tragedy though would not leave Daniel James alone. His son, William, a miner, died following an incident in the pit.  He developed tetanus following a minor foot injury which had become infected with horse manure that was stuck to a rope and he died a few days later. His body was returned to Mynyddbach where it was interred alongside that of his mother.

Throughout his life, Daniel James who had no alternative but to support his large family by working in difficult and often dangerous jobs and clearly he paid a heavy price for this and his health, like that of so many others, suffered considerably. It was not until 1916 that, aged 68,  he finally retired from mining.  Even then he took another the job, this time as cemetery caretaker and gravedigger at Mountain Ash

He did eventually return to Swansea when he could no longer work.  He ended his days in Swansea and died on 11 March 1920 and is buried at Mynyddbach along with his first wife Ann and his son William.  They were later joined by his daughter Mary. As you approach the chapel you will see the extensive cemetery on the left and there are small wooden indicators which will direct you to his grave.

But what about his most famous work, Calon Lan? It is a poem which became a hymn and has generated so many myths. In the first place no one can be sure where it was written. There are many who believe – or at least would like to believe – that Daniel James wrote the words on the back of a cigarette packet in Blaengarw.   Neither is it clear where and when he met  John Hughes, the man who gave Calon Lan its beautiful and simple melody, so easily sung, who is probably the one most responsible for its enduring success. There is a story of James thrusting the poem at Hughes as he walked home briskly from Chapel one afternoon. He was unimpressed, more excited by the prospect of his tea than by unsolicited literary achievement. But there was something about the words which spoke to him, because at  evening service he gave Daniel James the finished hymn.

Calon Lan has been sung to at least four different tunes and indeed can be adjusted to fit in with many others, but it is the power of the music composed by John Hughes which reaches out to people. No English language version of the hymn is sung with any regularity, although there is, I am told, a Spanish version which, not surprisingly, is popular in Patagonia.

Appropriately perhaps it is believed to have received its first public performance at the The Blaengarw Hotel and it became one of the most popular hymns sung during the  Religious Revival of 1904-5.  Today it is frequently referred to as the second national anthem of Wales and features regularly at weddings and funerals, for it speaks of how a pure heart, full of goodness, is more important than riches. That so clearly reflects the unrelenting life of toil and unhappiness that Daniel James experienced, a life which is a representative of thousands of similar lives lived throughout late nineteenth century Wales.

It is also sung with enthusiasm before rugby internationals too. Personally, I have always found this strange. The music certainly has the power to express the national identity but any connection between lyrics about pure hearts full of goodness and those who play or watch the game is tenuous to say the least.


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