This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

September 2004


4 September 1848:   Charles Ashton, Welsh literary historian, born.

A child of the stony hills of north Wales, Charles Ashton was born in the village of Trefeglwys in Montgomeryshire. Although Trefeglwys was a small place, one of its sons, Benjamin Piercy (1827-1888), was already on his way to an engineering career in which he built many of the railways in Wales. And David Davies from nearby Llandinam was gaining prominence as a developer of the South Wales coal industry, and would become most famous for building the Barry docks. Charles Ashton’s circumstances were more modest and at the age of twelve he was put to a job in the lead mines of Dylife.

Charles soon found that lead mining was not an agreeable occupation and began looking for a way out. It was a wise choice. Though heavy metal toxicity was imperfectly understood by the medical science of his day, back in ancient times the Romans in Wales had consigned condemned prisoners to work the lead mines, certain that none would last more than two or three years down there. The Cornish physician Charles Barham Foster (see March 2004) had, shortly before Charles was born, detailed the health problems suffered by child laborers in the lead mines of Cornwall, but so far little had been done in terms of protective legislation.

Charles eventually got out of the mines and in 1869 joined the Merioneth constabulary. Though he soon attained the rank of sergeant, the policeman’s lot wasn’t the sole aim of his life. While working in the mines he had begun attending evening classes in local Methodist chapels and later on at the town of Machynlleth, and discovered a deep and abiding interest in the arts and literature, especially the literature of his native Welsh language. He began attending, and later competing in, local Welsh-language literary competitions and the annual competitions at the National Eisteddfod. Though starting out without any particular educational advantages, Ashton soon proved to be the sort of success story the eisteddfod system was intended to create.

Writing in both Welsh and English, he contributed articles and sketches to such magazines as Bye-Gones and the journal The Montgomery Collections. He went on to write on such scholarly subjects as the legal system of medieval Wales (Cyfreithiau Hywel Dda, 1887), the history of Welsh literature (Hanes Llenyddiaeth Gymreig o 1651 hyd 1850, 1893), bardic poetry (Gwaith Iolo Goch, 1896) and local archaeology (A Guide to Dinas Mawddwy, 1893).

By then known as “the Literary Policeman of Wales,” Sergeant Ashton retired from the force in 1895 and set about his lifetime ambition, compiling a complete bibliography of Welsh literature in the nineteenth century. Since the Welsh revival of the late 1700s, Welsh-language literature had been booming, but with such central national institutions as the National Library and University of Wales only coming onto the scene late in the century, little had been done to systematically list or gather the material together. Working for four years in the National Library and other places, Ashton assembled the Llyfryddiaeth Gymreig (“Welsh Bibilography”) that today occupies seventeen bound volumes in the National Library in Aberystwyth, and is a primary resource for scholars doing work in the field of Welsh-language literature.

Charles Ashton had barely completed his work when tragedy cut his life short. On 13 October 1899 he suddenly attacked his wife and then killed himself. There was little clue as to why this had happened. Was it the stress occasioned by completing his monumental work, or was it the long-term effects of lead poisoning from his youth in the mines?

For more information on Wales, see the Welsh Nation Page.

The stories featured in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2005 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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