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The Parish of Llanwyno (extracts)

Guto Nythbran

Glanffrwd [Rev. William Thomas] "The Parish of LLanwyno: its History, People, and Customs." 1888.
(The story of Griffith Morgan [Guto Nythbran])

Extracts from Chapters lX and Xlll.

Translated from the Welsh - "Plwyf Llanwyno: yr Hen Amser, Yr Hen Bobl, A'r Hen Droion." (1888).


Recommended reading on the same subject are  Guto Nythbran and the athletes of the 1730s and Searching for Guto Nythbran, both by Peter Radford.


The author:

William Thomas (1843-1890) was born in old Ynysybwl, the youngest of seven children.  After a short time at Bethel School, he began helping his father wood-cutting, but by the time he was a teenager he had started work as a miner in the Rhondda Valley; but did so only briefly for he was seen to be bright and with an interest in reading.  Such was the standard of school-teaching in his local area that he was soon approached to open a school in Ynysybwl, where he was so successful he was asked to open one in Llwynpia; where he developed a reputation as a public speaker, and also began to make a name for himself as a poet and local historian who competed with success in local eisteddfodau.  He was also interested in the local people and their welfare and took a short training course and became the pastor for the Calvinist Methodists at Gyfeillon Chapel, near Ponypridd.  Here he married Mary Davies of Brynllefrith, Nelson. 

By the age of 23 he went by the name of Gwilym [William] Glanffrwd, when competing in eisteddfodau, but soon dropped Gwilym and became known simply as Glanffrwd.  The Ffrwd was a tributary of the River Taff, and was noted for the coldness of its water.  It was described by Glaffrwd as “a fussy little river which flows from Mynydd Gwyngul down to Ynysybwl, to lose itself in the Clydach.”

Even at such a young age, he had collected so many stories about Guto Nythbran that influential members of the local community raised money to erect a suitable headstone to stand alongside his gravestone; and he and Meudwy Glan Elai (Evan Richard) wrote the words for it.

In 1871 he left Gyfeillon Chapel to prepare to enter the Church of England.  He went to St Aiden’s College in Birkenhead and then to Oxford for a years’ training, followed by appointments at West Cornforth, County Durham, Mold in NE Wales and then St. Asaph Cathedral, where he became vicar and choirmaster.  Here, after the death of his first wife, he married Lizzie Williams, a well-known singer, by whom he had three children. 

His career at Eisteddfodau may have begun as early as 1859, and he went on to win chairs, medals and money all over Wales.  He won in England too, winning the bardic chair at Liverpool, and in 1887 he took the honours at the London National Eisteddfod, in the newly-opened Royal Albert Hall; winning the Pryddest (long poem in free metre). 

He could talk, preach and write with equal facility, and wrote and talked about a huge range of religious, social and historical topics; but the two books he is best known for are, “Sisialon Ffrwd”, a book of pastoral poems (1874), and “Plwyf Llanwyno” (1888).

So heavily involved was he in church matters and in eisteddfodau, as a judge and participant, that it was thought that he was worn out by it.  He was officiating at the National Eisteddfod at Brecon in 1890 when he had a stroke, followed by another, and he died shortly afterwards, on 2nd October 1890, at the age of 47. 


The place of Glanffrwd’s “The Parish of LLanwyno in the history of Athletics literature:

Men and women have been running races in Britain for centuries, but very few ever reached the status of legends.  Griffith Morgan (aka Guto Nythbran), who was born in 1700 and lived and ran in a Welsh Valley, is one who did; his name is as well known there today as it has been at any time over the past three centuries.

Inevitably, stories get twisted and stretched in the re-telling, and now it is hard to know what the original story was.  When Glanffrwd [William Thomas] was a young man, he collected the stories about Guto Nythbran from old men with direct links to Guto.  Published in Welsh in the 19th century, Glanffrwd’s stories about Guto Nythbran became almost forgotten until Bernard Baldwin set out to rediscover them in the middle of the 20th century.  Bernard Baldwin’s Nos Galan road races redirected public attention to Guto Nythbran, and there is now a need to get back to the original sources of the Guto Nythbran legend.  This is a new translation from Glanffrwd’s 1888 original; the first new translation for 67 years. 


The text.

Three extracts have been selected.  The first is the author’s Preface, which sets the scene.  The second is short and describes the two old men who were the main sources of Glanffwd’s information.  The final extract relates the stories of Guto’s birth, running ability, races, and death. 

There are many stories of Guto Nythbran, in print and on-line, and all, it seems, have their origins in the stories that Glanffrwd collected from the old men in the Cynon Valley in the middle of the 19th century.  If there is another source, it has not yet been discovered. 

As the years went by, the stories of Guto Nythbran grew, but access to Glanfrwd’s original allows us to look back and see what embellishments, misunderstandings, distortions and sheer inventions have been added to the story.

In truth, a close reading of Glanffrwd’s text shows that the story remains, in essence, the same - the story of a remarkable runner from the Cynon Valley in Wales, who ran a famous race over 12-Miles, in a very fast time, but died at the moment of his triumph when slapped on the back by Sian of the Shop. 

In some respects, the original story is even stronger than those that followed it, with Guto’s contemporaries having to resort to Biblical comparisons to express just how wonderful and exceptional a runner he was.  Gone, however, is his ability to run 50 yards in 4 seconds - always an absurd claim that paid no attention to the way races were run and timed in the early 18th century.  Gone too, is his ability to catch a bird in flight.  The story about the hare does add an additional element though - Guto’s sense of fun; he jokes with his father about the red-grey sheep, as if he couldn’t tell the difference between one of his own sheep and a hare. 

Sian of the Shop is still central to the story though, but in a new guise.  In recent tellings of Guto’s story, Sian of the Shop is his girl-friend or sweetheart, and this was said as early as 1903.  Sian of the Shop, however, played a different role.  She arranged Guto’s races, and had already made many of her family rich, and others too, and had made “a considerable fortune” when Guto defeated the English Army Captain Carmarthen over 4-Miles, for £500.  She seems to have been a cross between an event-organiser, book-maker, agent, and financial advisor.  She was probably much older than Guto, but her importance in Guto’s story remains undiminished.  Incidentally, the romantic element of Guto’s story must, surely, be reserved for the mother of his son, named Griffith Morgan after his father.  The young Griffith Morgan died in Cardiff in October 1766, at “about 30 years of age, from the fever”.  As Guto died on 6 September 1737, if we take “about 30 years” to mean one year on either side, that would take us to about 1736, say, September 1735 to September 1737.  So, Guto had a son who was two years old at the most when his father ran his last, fateful, race, and it is even possible that his wife was in the final stages of pregnancy when Guto died.  It was also believed that Guto had an older sister, so there is no need to cast Sian of the Shop in any romantic role in Guto’s life; that was already taken.

What we do get in Glanffrwd’s account, that are often missing elsewhere, are the stories of a man who followed the local hounds on foot, and kept up with them; a man who completed errands in almost impossibly short times and did so, not only by running fast for miles, but by doing so by running up and down steep hillsides in straight lines, taking on any barrier in his way, rather like a skilled fell-runner would today.

Those who saw him believed him to be “the greatest runner in the country, or perhaps in the world, ever.” 

In 1888, Plwyf LLanwyno was an inexpensive book.  It was a paper-back of 193 pages, and had no illustrations, and it sold for 1/6d (one shilling and sixpence, or eighteen pence), which was equivalent in purchasing power to £7.67 in 2016. 

A second edition was printed in 1913 by Erbin Thomas, one of Glanffrwd’s three sons, but the lion’s share of work seems to have been undertaken by the Rev. R. William who corrected the errors in the first edition, read the proofs, and provided titles to the 32 chapters (Glanffrwd had not given the chapters titles).  Visually, it looked almost identical with the Glanffrwd’s first edition, but the price had been reduced to 1/- (one shilling) - equivalent in purchasing power to £4.52 in 2016 - perhaps because, as Erbin Thomas wrote in his Preface, “to publish a Welsh book these days is no light matter.”  The 2nd edition had 213 pages but, once again, there were no illustrations.

In 1949 another edition was published - this time entitled simply, Llanwynno, prepared by Henry Lewis, Professor at the University of Wales (Swansea).  This edition was described as a “revised” one with “new spelling.”  It included for the first time a black and white fold-out map of the Parish of Llanwynno, based on the 1-inch Ordnance Survey Map of the area.  This edition continued with the same 31 chapters, but with new headings.  Once again, it was a paperback, had 264 pages, and cost 5/- (five shillings - equivalent in purchasing power to £7.34 in 2016). 

The first English language edition was produced in 1950, translated by Thomas Evans, and was a somewhat more ambitious undertaking.  It was a hard-back book, included the black and white fold-out map of Henry Lewis’s edition, plus 10 photographs.  It ran to 210 pages, but with a relatively small print-run.

The new Athlos edition also contains the black-and-white map adapted from Henry Lewis’s 1949 edition, plus the portrait of Glanffrwd taken from Thomas Evans’ 1950 edition.  The photograph of St Wynno’s Church is also taken from Thomas Evans’ edition.

The photographs of Nythbran farm and Griffyth Morgan’s headstone are from the author's [PR’s] collection. 

Peter Radford

December 2017


Dates of earlier publications:

Plwyf Llanwyno: yr Hen Amser, Yr Hen Bobl, A’r Hen Droion, 
Glanffrwd, 1888
Pontypridd: David J. Hopkin.

Plwyf Llanwyno: yr Hen Amser, Yr Hen Bobl, A’r Hen Droion, 
2nd Edition, Erbin Thomas, 1913
Aberdare: Pugh and Rowlands

Llanwynno, Revised Edition,
Henry Lewis, 1949.
Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Glanffrwd's History of Llanwynno,  (English Translation)
Thomas Evans, 1950.
Merthyr Tydfil: H.W. Southey and Sons, Ltd. 

Bibliographic details:

Title: The Parish of Llanwyno: its History, People, and Customs. Translated from the Welsh - (Plwyf Llanwyno: yr Hen Amser, Yr Hen Bobl, A'r Hen Droion)
Extract Details:

Extracts from chapters lX and Xlll

Publisher: Athlos
Place of Publication: UK
Date of Publication: 1888
Date(s) of Re-Publication:
BL Catalogue: None
"An Athletics Compendium" Reference: None