The Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society was founded
in 1905 at a time when there was little in the way of authoritative history about Carmarthenshire
in published form. Indeed the primary research for such work was yet to be done. The Society
was central in co-ordinating the collection and dissemination of all manner of historical
and archaeological material.
Through its well-attended field days members were able to see and hear about
field monuments, and reports of these were published in The Welshman. So popular were
these reports and notes that they were reprinted as our journal - the Transactions. Artefacts
were also collected, and it was soon decided that the Society should have its own museum to
hold these and the books and manuscripts that came flooding in from all corners of the County.
From 1905 to the early 1920s the Society amassed so much material
that its Museum became second only in size to the National Museum of Wales. It is clear that
by the mid 1920s this by now priceless collection was ill housed in the Society's ‘Rooms’
in Quay Street. In 1920 Lord Kilsant had given the Society property in Bridge Street (including
part of the Castle). By 1929 things had come to a crisis point due to shortage of space, poor
storage and then dry rot set in. In December 1929 Sir Cyril Fox scathingly criticised the
Society for continuing to gather material when its resources were inadequate. Fox hoped that
the County Council would contribute. E. V. Collier, long-standing member was also ‘Director’
though this period and he and George Eyre Evans
were active in increasing the collections. Number 5 Quay Street had been used rent free since
1920 and then the Society bought it for £400.
Four years later they bought No. 4 and thus doubled the storage
and display area of the Museum. During the 1930s the collections of books, MS and artefact
continued to grow placing increasing strain on storage and exhibition space. In November 1939,
George Eyre Evans, one of the founding members, a long serving Secretary, and indefatigable
collector and Curator of the Museum, died. Yet before his death the Society had already been
in discussions with Carmarthenshire County Council with a view to the transfer of the Museum
into public ownership.
Thus in November 1940 the Society conveyed 4 and 5 Quay Street,
9 Bridge Street and all the objects, books and MSS for the sum of £800 to Carmarthenshire
County Council. A brief (and wholly inadequate) catalogue included in the transfer gives some
indication of the sheer vastness and range of the collections - Early Christian Memorials,
objects of Folk Culture, glass and china pottery, much of it from Llanelli, quantities of
love spoons, samplers, paintings, pictures and 60 cases of stuffed animals. The Society’s
collection of early Bibles was immense, including editions of 1611 and Y Beibl Cysegr Lan
of 1620. Other early printed works included editions of Camden, Speed and rare illustrated
antiquarian tours of Egypt and the Middle East and fabulously illustrated volumes dealing
with natural subjects. There was also a magnificent collection of journals including Alcwyn
Evans’ annotated set of Archaeological Cambrensis and those accumulated through exchange
agreements for the Transactions.
The Society had provided much of the raw material and to some extent a synthesis
for a better understanding of the development of the area from early times through to the
modern era. The Transactions were continuously published and no doubt were invaluable
to the authors of the Royal Commission Inventory (1917); and the County History,
produced under the capable editorship of Sir John Lloyd in the 1930s. Field days continued
to be popular and an important avenue for providing members with information about the County’s
antiquities, and landowners with information about the importance of sites on their land.
Under the County Council the Museum at best can be
said to have remained stable. The Society maintained a presence on its management committee
(a condition under the transfer agreement). The war years were however a difficult period
for the Society: It is clear that V. E. Collier and George Eyre Evans were sadly missed, and
despite the stalwart efforts of officers like E. G. Bowen and Sir Gismond Philipps, it was
not possible to build up membership from the then very small base. The immediate post-war
period was not conducive to rebuilding the Antiquarian Society in its former celebrated form.
County ‘Society’ had changed and many of the old guard had long since passed away.
During the war years the dwindling membership became detached
from knowledge of the wonderful collection that it been assembled between 1905 and 1939. Was
it surprising then that it had lost interest in what it had created? It was a council member,
J. F. (Fred) Jones, who became the Curator in the 1950s and held the reins of both the museum
and Society through almost two decades that saw a stagnation in membership. J. F. Jones was
no mean antiquary and scholar, but he was idiosyncratic and made enemies as well as friends.
It must be recognised that he was working in isolation for a County Council that put little
into the upkeep, let alone development of the museum. Coupled with this was the fact that
the Society no longer owned the Museum. Poorly managed and with inadequate storage facilities,
many manuscripts and books became dispersed and ill cared for. Dry rot was rampant and destroyed
delicate objects like stuffed animals. During his tenure as Curator J. F. Jones kept no records
of accessions (or returns of loans), nor indeed items destroyed through poor storage. Even
allowing for the isolation within which he was working, posterity will perhaps judge this
omission as indefensible. The consequence today is that it has proved impossible to trace
many very valuable items and books that are now missing.
A rebirth developed as a result of a number of factors which
came together in the 1960s. An awakening interest in the past, especially in archaeology,
coincided with local excavations lead by a young and enthusiastic Dr Barri Jones of Manchester
University. His excavations in Carmarthen provided supporting evidence for his assertion that
Carmarthen was not just a Roman Fort, but a civitas capital with its own walls, distinct
from the fort. The Society’s membership started to climb dramatically after a shake-up of
officers with the election of a new Council. Field days took on a fresh dimension, with much
interest being shown in Roman sites. J. F. Jones had already discovered the important marching
camp at Arosfa Garreg (which was not far from the already known overlapping camps at Y Pigwn).
In addition the confirmation of the fact that Carmarthen’s amphitheatre was proved, after
survey work, provided a further focus for the archaeological dimension to the Society’s interest.
The Transactions had made way for the Carmarthenshire Antiquary from 1940 and
by 1969 Barri Jones was able to publish interim results from his 1968 excavations. By 1970
more reports and the results of work at the Roman mines at Dolau Cothi appeared.
In the early 1970s local government reorganization was being
planned and with the creation of Dyfed a new curator (John Little) along with the Society
lobbied for the removal of the Museum from Quay Street to the Old Palace at Abergwili (the
latter had been vacated by the Bishop leaving the Old Palace without a use). In 1974 the Dyfed
Archaeological Trust was set up making its headquarters in Carmarthen. The Trust brought in
professionals who became involved in the Society’s activities, helping cement the archaeological
direction that had been the driving force for the growth in membership.
One of the distinctive elements in the way the Society now developed was
that its own members were carrying on field work and historical research, and these often
formed the subject matter for lectures and field days. This active work by our own members
then formed (and still underpins) much of the subject matter in the Antiquary. Typical
of such field work and lectures was the pioneering work of the late M. C. S. (Mike) Evans
on the early iron industry. His pre-Turnpike roads research became one of the most successful
series of lectures/field days that in turn became Antiquary articles and are warmly
remembered by the membership. Excavations by the young Anthony Ward at Mynydd Llangyndeirn
and elsewhere, provided opportunities for members to become involved in excavations, and a
project aimed at younger members included a gravestone recording project at St Ishmael’s Church.
It was the drive to provide ever better field days that sparked off the revisiting by members
of the programme sub-committee of field monuments that had been left forgotten for decades.
Attention was directed at the renewed interest in Industrial Archaeology, and members were
surprised at how early Carmarthenshire’s industrial history had developed. This provided a
magnet for work in the south-east of the county, with a spin-off of membership growth in the
Llanelli area. The programme of field days thus became a forum for showing the results of
field work. The Antiquary, under the capable hands of the late Bill Morris, attained
a well deserved reputation with its exceedingly wide ranging subject matter, a mirror of the
wide range of interests that the Society’s Council members had. The Society continued with
this pattern of field days, lectures and publications, with monographs like Terrence James'
Carmarthen: an archaeological and topographical survey(1980), Francis Jones’ Carmarthenshire
Homes and their families (1987), Heather James (ed) Sir Gâr: Essays in Carmarthenshire
History in memory of Bill Morris and Mike Evans, and John Davies’ The Carmarthen Booke
of Ordinances (1995). In 1990 the Society commenced the ‘Carmarthenshire Place-name Survey’,
which epitomised the type of collaborative activity members enjoyed. Under the guidance of
six co-ordinators a large number of members worked on collecting place-names from four primary
map sources and these were assembled on slips for input into a computerised database. The
project was then taken over by council member Peter Wihl, who single-handedly typed in the
complete data set of about 15,000 headwords and some 40,000 historic forms and continued to
collect place-names from other historic sources.
To mark the new millennium, the Society decided to undertake
an ambitious project to make an archive of 20th century reminiscences of Carmarthenshire folk.
The project was co-ordinated by Eiluned Rees who went on to edit the publication Carmarthenshire
Memories of the Twentieth Century. It contains nearly 130 contributions from ordinary
people recording a very wide variety of extraordinary activities, events, occupations and
trades spanning much of the 20th century. Other types of publication to meet the demands of
the digital age was Glenys Bridges’ CD database of Maps of Mapbooks for Carmarthenshire estates
launched in 2005 which coincided with the launch of the Society’s web site. The Antiquary continues to be the main vehicle for the publication
of members’ research interests, the changing subject matter reflecting changing attitudes
and interests of members in the 21st century.
Read more on the early history of the Society and its first curator George Eyre Evans.