Sir John Rhŷs

John Rhŷs  (1840-1915) was one of Britain’s most prominent scholars of Celtic Studies at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.  He also inspired a whole generation of scholars in the field.

Rhŷs was born at Ponterwyd, Ceredigion, and spent some time as a pupil-teacher before graduating at Oxford in 1869, and thereafter becoming an inspector of schools.  On the basis of his early publications, he was appointed to the University of Oxford’s new Chair of Celtic Studies in 1877.  He published a number of pioneering volumes, including:

  • Celtic Britain (1879)
  • On the Origin and Growth of Religion, as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom (1888)
  • Studies in the Arthurian Legend (1891)
  • The Outlines of the Phonology of Manx Gaelic (1894)
  • Celtic Folklore Welsh and Manx (1901)

He became Principal of Jesus College, Oxford in 1895, and for a while served also as Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford.  He died at Oxford on 17 December 1915.

Sir John Rhŷs’s Papers

The Papers of Sir John Rhŷs were presented to the National Library of Wales by Sir Idris Foster in 1978.  It is an archive of considerable size (over 117 boxes), rich in contents. It was fully catalogued, and organised into two main groups:

The papers of John Rhŷs himself, including

  • rich series of letters addressed to him (including groups of letters from John Morris Jones, Egerton Phillimore, D. Silvan Evans and Whitley Stokes)
  • drafts of his published works, both articles and books
  • research notebooks, together with field notes
  • papers relating to his professional and public career.

Family papers, among them:

  • papers of his talented wife, Elspeth
  • papers of their daughters, Myvanwy and Olwen (Myvanwy began to gather materials for a biography of her father, and these important notes are among her papers)
  • some papers of Sir John’s father, Hugh Rees, author of a volume of Welsh poetry published in the United States in 1884
  • the diaries of the family maid or housekeeper, Elizabeth Hughes

Photographs and portrait busts

A number of striking photographs have been transferred from the collection of papers to the Library’s Photographic Collections.  The Library also holds two portrait busts of Sir John: one by W. Goscombe John (bequeathed to the Library in Sir John’s will), and the other by Robert Lambert Gapper, purchased in 2015 and unveiled during the Centenary commemorations.

Relevant materials in other collections at the National Library

Numerous letters from John Rhŷs may be found among the personal papers of other individuals at the National Library, including the collections of J. Gwenogvryn Evans, J. Glyn Davies, D. Silvan Evans and T.H. Parry-Williams.  Search the Catalogue for further details.

Sir John Rhŷs’s Library

After his death in 1915, Sir John’s books were transferred from their shelves in the Principal’s Lodgings at Jesus College, Oxford to Aberystwyth University.  They were listed, and within many is a special bookplate, designed by artist Kelt Edwards, noting their provenance as part of John Rhŷs’s bequest. They are now kept at Aberystwyth University’s Hugh Owen Library.  Also at Aberystwyth University is a small collection of John Rhŷs papers, most of which - in all probability - were removed from the printed books for safe-keeping during a century of student use.

Sources at Oxford

Although the main sources for the life and work of John Rhŷs may now be found at Aberystwyth, a small collection of diaries and papers created by his daughters, Myvanwy and Olwen, may be found at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

The Centenary of Sir John Rhŷs’s death

In 2015, the centenary of John Rhŷs’s death was marked by two public lectures and two academic conferences at Aberystwyth, the fruit of collaboration between Aberystwyth University’s Department of Welsh and the National Library:

  • Dr Russell Davies’s Welsh lecture, Y byd wedi dadreibio? Syr John Rhŷs a’i amserau [The unbewitched world? Syr John Rhŷs and his times] (The Old College, 20 February 2015), and Professor Angela V John’s English lecture, Family Footsteps: Myvanwy and Olwen Rhŷs (Y Drwm, 4 December 2015)
  • the University’s conference at Old College (21 February 2015), and the Library’s From the Celtic Hinterland: Sir John Rhŷs Centenary Conference at the Drwm (5 December 2015). View the programme for the second conference
  • as part of the centennial events, the National Library of Wales has digitized a rich series of over 320 letters and cards from Whitley Stokes to John Rhŷs (1871-1909).