Dyddgoviant William Owen Pughe

Reference: NLW MS 13248i-iiB

The diary of the lexicographer and antiquarian, William Owen Pughe (1759-1835), for the period 1811-1835. The diary is in Welsh and is part of a substantial collection of manuscripts collected by Pughe, NLW MSS 13221-13263.

His life

Pughe was born, the son of a farmer, in the parish of Llanfihangel y Pennant, Meirionnydd, in 1759. He was known as William Owen before he adopted the surname Owen Pughe in 1806. During his youth he developed a passionate interest in Welsh literature, an interest which was further stimulated by his reading of Rhys Jones’s famous anthology Gorchestion Beirdd Cymru (1773), (The Masterpieces of the Welsh Poets).

In 1776 Pughe went to work in London as a lawyer’s clerk. He spent six lonely years in the capital before encountering other Welsh migrants who shared his literary interests. In 1783 he joined the Gwyneddigion Society and became part of the political and cultural ferment which characterised London-Welsh life during this period.  He began to study the important collection of Welsh manuscripts kept by the Cymmrodorion Society at the Welsh Charity School, in Gray’s Inn Lane. And with the financial support of the skinner and literary patron, Owain Myfyr, he began publishing the earliest Welsh texts. He was joint editor, with Myfyr, of the poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym, Barddoniaeth Dafydd ab Gwilym (1789), and in 1792 he published The Heroic Elegies and other Pieces of Llywarç Hen. In the following year, the first part of his most influential work, the Welsh-English dictionary, Geiriadur Cynmraeg a Saesoneg (1793-1803), appeared. Pughe was also the principal editor of one of the most significant landmarks of Welsh scholarship, the three volumes of The Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales (1801 and 1807). As a result of his prolific output, Pughe came to be regarded – in both Wales and England – as the greatest authority on the Welsh language, and on Welsh history and literature. And he corresponded with a wide circle of eminent English writers and antiquarians.

Yet, despite his industriousness and enthusiasm, Pughe was a credulous character, and an uncompromising romantic. The literary forger Iolo Morganwg succeeded in exploiting Pughe’s lack of critical judgement by persuading him to publish a large corpus of his own forgeries. Pughe also held specious and wildly inaccurate views on Welsh word derivations, and on the development of the language.  Consequently, his dictionary exercised a pernicious influence on 19th century ideas of correct Welsh usage.

The diary

The diary is written in the eccentric orthography devised by Pughe himself, in which the Welsh letter ch is represented by ç, and f by v. By the period covered in the diary, Pughe had fallen under the influence of the strange prophetess, Joanna Southcott, the founder of one of the many millenarian sects that flourished at the turn of the 19th century. Pughe became Joanna’s amanuensis and a member of her inner circle. The diary throws a good deal of light on her final days, and on the circumstances of her death (pp. 103-108), as well as on the development of her sect over the succeeding years. Another matter frequently referred to by Pughe is his - extremely laboured and garbled - translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Coll Gwynfa (1819): a translation dismissed by Iolo Morganwg as ‘Milton lost! Perhaps the most powerful and moving entries in the diary are those describing the death of Pughe’s wife, Sarah, or Sal, in January 1816 (pp. 134-136).

Further reading

Glenda Carr, William Owen Pughe (Caerdydd, 1983).