from 'The Foundations of Modern Wales 1642–1780', Geraint H Jenkins. (Clarendon Press, University of Wales Press, 1987, pages 370–381)

[In 'Education in Ammanford (2)' we saw the Circulating Schools opened by Griffith Jones in the Parish of Llandybie. This was such an important era in the history of Wales that a much fuller essay is provided here to give more background into what was a nationwide phenomenon for almost fifty years in the middle of the eighteenth century. The following article is reproduced from 'The Foundations of Modern Wales 1642 - 1780', by Geraint H Jenkins, Clarendon Press, University of Wales Press, 1987, pages 370 - 381), with the author's kind permission.]

In many parts of Wales the growth of Methodism coincided directly with the setting up of Griffith Jones's highly successful network of circulating schools. This remarkable educational scheme, first launched in 1731, is one of the major success stories of the eighteenth century. Griffith Jones was forty-seven when he began to organize itinerant schools, and in some ways it is strange that a middle-aged, asthmatic, and often neurotic man should have embarked on such a challenging and time-consuming venture. But, like so many notable eighteenth-century Welshmen, Jones was a man of inexhaustible energy and determination. Although he gave the impression that the burdens of the world rested upon him and liked to prophesy that his own death was at hand, he was in fact a born survivor. Ever since his conversion, saving souls had been the ruling passion of his life, but his concern for the spiritual welfare of 'the vulgar sorts' became even more acute when much of Wales, especially the counties in the south-west, were devastated by a typhus epidemic between 1727 and 1731. Hundreds of people died, many of them, Jones feared, without ever having truly known Christ. Deeply aware of the desperate plight of the unfortunate lower orders, Jones dedicated himself to the task of improving the spiritual and material condition of sick, undernourished, and ignorant people. He constantly fretted whether the people of Llanddowror and neighbouring parishes had enough bread to eat, clothes to wear, and medicines for their myriad ailments. By offering doles of bread to the impoverished he coaxed them to attend church. He clothed the needy and strove to protect them from the cruelty of others. Something of a hypochondriac himself, Jones cared for the sick by providing them with local herbal remedies and distributing pills, drugs, ointments, and life-enhancing cordials which he regularly ordered from London. We have seen how Methodist evangelists regarded Griffith Jones as their mentor and father confessor, but it is also important to stress that he possessed the inestimable gift of being able to win the affection of underprivileged and poor people. When John Thomas of Rhayader, who became a servant in Jones's household, first met him, he likened the experience to gazing at 'an angel of God' Many others, too, fell under his spell as his circulating schools began to spread.

Hitherto, as we have seen, educational opportunities among peasants and their children had been largely dictated by economic constraints, the size and wealth of families, and the widespread aversion within farming communities to schooling. Unlike Sweden and Finland, where revolutionary success had been achieved by charging parents with the responsibility of instructing their children in the catechism, the Scriptures, and scriptural verses known as the Hustavla, charitable societies in Wales had chosen to provide education by means of charity schools which were not geared to the peculiar needs of peasant people. As a result, by the late 1720s, most of the schools sponsored by the SPCK had either collapsed or were in decline. By contrast, Griffith Jones's scheme was economical, flexible, and efficient. He knew that people's lives were governed by the rhythms of their agricultural environment and by the demands of the farming calendar. His own experience as a schoolmaster in SPCK schools had shown him that attendance numbers always collapsed during the summer months and that poor children seldom came. He therefore implemented a peripatetic system of intensive schooling. The notion of ambulatory schools was not new, for Griffith Jones, whatever else he might have been, was not an original thinker. The SPCK had encouraged a similar scheme in the northern counties of Scotland and in 1719 Sir Humphrey Mackworth had advocated the use of itinerant schoolmasters. In some ways, too, the use of itinerant teachers was the logical extension of the use of itinerant preachers. But the crucial point is that Griffith Jones was the first educationalist to launch and administer such an enterprise in Wales.

Since Griffith Jones's schools were held in parish churches, barns, farmhouses, cottages, and almshouses, they were easily accessible. No pupil was obliged to travel far, for the schools went directly to the poor, generally for a period of three or four months on the invitation of the incumbent of the parish. Since the spring and summer months had to be devoted to pressing agricultural tasks in the fields, most schools were held during the relatively slack autumn and winter months when both adults and children were able to attend regularly. Whereas most children attended day-schools, two-thirds of the total number of scholars were adults, and it is remarkable that so many of them were sufficiently single-minded to sacrifice hours of leisure in order to acquire the ability to read at night schools. In some parishes, servants hired labourers to deputize for them whilst they gained a few hours' schooling at night. Individuals mastered their letters swiftly, with the phonetic characteristics of the Welsh orthography enabling the brightest pupils to learn to read within six or seven weeks. Once a schoolmaster was convinced that his pupils were able to read and had been solidly grounded in Christian principles, he moved on to his next assignment, usually in the neighbouring parish. Often, however, he would return later on in order to refresh memories and consolidate gains.

Much of Griffith Jones's success stemmed directly from his decision to trim severely the curriculum adopted by his predecessors. Part of the price to be paid for instant success was the abandonment of writing and arithmetic, accomplishments which Jones believed were unnecessary and over-demanding in rural communities. He instructed his schoolmasters to offer a rudimentary but practical education by teaching pupils to read the Scriptures, thereby providing them with the means to salvation. Catechizing, too, was a central plank in his scheme. Over the years he had become increasingly aware of the fitful and ephemeral effects of preaching and of the need to catechize the lower orders more effectively. Children and adults were catechized twice daily and Jones himself provided schools with translations of popular English catechisms and other useful latimers. Pupils were also taught to sing psalms, to pray, to learn portions from Welsh versions of The Whole Duty of Man, and to memorize the crude but popular verses in Rees Prichard's Canwyll y Cymry. Much of the teaching may have been mechanical and unimaginative, but in enabling scholars to master the basic principles of the Christian faith and to familiarize themselves with biblical stories, parables, and songs, it served its purpose. Griffith Jones strongly believed that the ability to read and understand was a pre-condition of profitable religious endeavour and his overriding concern was always to save the souls of his fellow countrymen. He never considered literacy as a tool for acquiring radical opinions or as a vehicle for social change. Haunted by the spectre of the upward mobility of the labouring classes, he prayed fervently that those who toiled in the fields would not be tempted to learn English, desert their calling, and seek greater prosperity either in England or across the seas. Fear of popery and its attendant evils preyed heavily on his mind, especially during years of political crisis such as 1745 and 1756, and whenever opponents of his scheme pointed out the perils of mass education Jones reminded them of the propensity of the common enemy to flourish wherever ignorance and ungodliness reigned. His schoolmasters were instructed to instil or fortify the fear of Catholicism in the minds and hearts of their pupils in order to encourage deference and obedience to authority. In many of his own sermons and tracts, he warned the heedless that 'a suffering day cannot be far off'. Fervently pro-Hanover, Griffith Jones opposed every Jesuit, Catholic, Jacobite, or Dissenter who threatened to storm Protestant citadels and weaken the establishment.

The vital key to Griffith Jones's success, however, was his steadfast determination to instruct Welsh children in the vernacular. Schoolmasters were permitted to conduct their schools through the medium of English in long-established Englishries such as south Pembrokeshire, Gower, east Monmouthshire, and other border counties, but the principal medium of instruction in the overwhelming majority of schools was the Welsh language. Learning English texts by rote had been a central feature of the schools run by Jones's predecessors and this had led to widespread popular hostility towards schooling among monoglot Welsh communities. Thomas Ellis of Holyhead referred contemptuously to the 'useless smattering of English' which children in Anglesey had acquired in SPCK schools, and there is no doubt that, prior to the launching of the itinerant Welsh schools, much of the teaching had been lifeless and unimaginative. Griffith Jones himself had often personally witnessed the enormous difficulties with which Welsh children had to contend as they grappled with material in a foreign tongue. However, many English philanthropists had serious misgivings about Welsh-medium schools and Griffith Jones was obliged to persuade them of the merits of the Welsh tongue and to impress upon them the force of opinion in Wales in favour of his policy. He showed how teachers were able to capitalize on the phonetic advantages of the Welsh orthography to produce literate pupils within a maximum period of three months. The Welsh language acted as a solid barrier against the evils of libertinism and vice, protecting innocent peasants from 'atheism, deism, infidelity, Arianism, popery, lewd plays, immodest romances and love intrigues'. Moreover, Jones insisted, there was no practical alternative. 'Welsh is still the vulgar tongue and not English', he informed doubting Thomases and any Welsh bishop who might choose to listen, 'shall we be more concerned for the propagation of the English language than the salvation of our people?' He believed that setting up English charity schools in Wales was as absurd as planting French charity schools in England. Speed was essential, for he feared that, as a result of his predecessors' attempts to instruct pupils in an alien tongue, hundreds of innocent and ignorant souls had been allowed to fall into 'the dreadful abyss of eternity'.

The secret of Griffith Jones's success also lay partly in his ability to recruit able schoolmasters and secure the enthusiastic co-operation of clergymen. He assembled a band of willing teachers who were paid a miserable pittance of around £5 per annum but who were prepared to make material sacrifices in order to sustain his venture. Among the most gifted of them were Jenkin Morgan, Morgan Rhys, John Thomas, and Richard Tibbott. As principal director of the scheme, Griffith Jones provided his recruits with precise information and a detailed plan of action. He took on the responsibility of instructing them at a seminary known as Yr Hen Goleg (The Old College) at Llanddowror and impressed upon them the need to catechize regularly, eradicate ignorance, and arrest the drift to immorality. Each volunteer was carefully vetted, trained, and supervised before being sent out to the countryside to spread the habit of reading and enforce obedience to the moral and social code. A critical role was played by the parish clergy, many of whom shared Griffith Jones's ideals and were prepared to throw themselves whole-heartedly behind the scheme. Without their readiness to act as teachers, to offer administrative assistance, and to promote popular education in general, the schools could never have flourished.

In order to employ teachers, subsidize pupils, order bibles, catechisms and devotional books, and to hire schoolrooms, Jones depended heavily on the financial support of wealthy benefactors and well-disposed parishioners. Although Jones was a man of few intimates, his career and plans were furthered by a number of pious and enthusiastic philanthropists. The death in 1737 of Sir John Philipps, his most committed benefactor, was a loss which he felt deeply, but it served to bring him closer than ever before to Madam Bridget Bevan of Laugharne. Madam Bevan was the heiress of John Vaughan of Derllys and the wife of Arthur Bevan, sometime MP for Carmarthen boroughs. She was a lady of considerable beauty, charm, and piety, and when Howel Harris, as a young man without savoir-faire or experience of affluent women, first met her he found it 'a taste of heaven' to be in her company. Griffith Jones, too, was enchanted by this pious lady who was thirteen years younger than he and twenty-two years younger than his wife. Jones's wife, Margaret, was a solitary and often sick woman, and Madam Bevan, both as spiritual confidante and a financial adviser, helped to meet his frustrated emotional and spiritual needs. An active and selfless philanthropist, she was, in Jones's view, 'the greatest mistress of contrivance and of directing affairs that I know'.

Since virtually no support was forthcoming from Welsh bishops, deans, or archdeacons, Madam Bevan's financial support and extensive social connections were of crucial importance. It was she who enabled Griffith Jones to enter the charmed circle of polite life in the towns of south Wales and to meet men and women who counted in Bath. Jones was not above using his considerable social charm and persuasive tongue to beguile funds from wealthy peers and members of the moneyed professional middle-class in England. Eminent bankers, physicians, and scientists were made acutely aware of the sufferings of the poor in Wales and of the need to sustain humane and enlightened educational schemes. 'Every soul you help to save', Jones informed them, 'may be as so many shining pearls to your never-fading crowns of glory.' According to John Evans of Eglwys Gymyn, Jones shamelessly flattered the piously disposed: 'he strokes their heads, calls them his fine boys; flatters, coaxes them; gives them sugar plums'. This was probably true, but it should also be borne in mind that Griffith Jones was equally adept in pricking the consciences of miserly men by reminding them that charity was a prudent investment and that 'terrible judgements' were hanging over their heads. By pandering to and berating the rich, he ensured a regular flow of funds which helped to swell the more modest contributions which regularly came to hand from church collections. The munificence of the SPCK also proved invaluable to the scheme. Although its educational plans had withered, the SPCK continued to supply thousands of bibles, prayer books, catechisms, psalters, and manuals of devotion, many of which were distributed free of charge among deserving scholars by local clergymen, schoolmasters, and agents. Over a period of fifty years, around 70,000 Welsh bibles were provided by the SPCK and were distributed, via horses, wagons, and ships, among common people in every county in Wales. This largely unsung work not only helped Griffith Jones to conserve much-needed cash but also exercised a powerful influence on the growth of literacy in general.

Griffith Jones administered his scheme with strict efficiency. He was a devoted fund-raiser, kept his books in good order, and did not waste a single penny. Virtually all the funds raised were used to pay schoolmasters and to buy religious texts. According to his calculations, it was possible to educate pupils at a cost of some two or three shillings a head. It was a matter of pride to him that the scheme was 'husbanded in the most frugal and saving manner'. To his considerable business acumen Jones also added a fierce determination to succeed. He may have been a neurotic, thin-skinned, and sickly man, but he was also highly resourceful, energetic, and single-minded. Like the Methodists, he was an early riser (if not an insomniac) who felt it was his duty to carry out his daily pastoral routine, and to provide his countrymen with the means by which they could acquire the gift of reading and the salvation of their souls. So complete was his absorption in his work that no obstacle was formidable enough to deter him.

From the beginning the schools flourished, and spread especially rapidly in Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire, Glamorgan, and Pembrokeshire. By 1740, 150 schools had been established, with 8,767 scholars in attendance. During the early 1740s, however, Griffith Jones was forced to fight for survival. His employment of Methodist exhorters as teachers brought his movement into grave disrepute. Leading churchmen, mindful of Jones's intimate links with Methodist leaders, argued that his schools were a covert means of spreading evangelical religion and perilous schism. Schoolmasters, especially in north Wales, were cruelly harassed and maltreated: some were prosecuted in the courts, others pressed into the armed forces. As a result, only 74 schools were maintained during 1743-4. During the crisis, Jones wisely distanced himself from his Methodist friends and removed committed enthusiasts from his army of schoolmasters. He also cleverly disarmed his enemies by inviting the clergy to inspect his schools, assess the qualifications and behaviour of schoolmasters, and prepare reports on the quality of their teaching. Having rid his schools of the taint of Methodism, Jones extended his network of schools into many parts of north Wales. By 1751-2, 130 schools were offering education to 5,724 pupils, and as Methodism fell away during the 'Great Split' of the 1750s the circulating schools prospered as never before. It is true that John Evans of Eglwys Gymyn, Jones's inveterate foe, continued to assemble trumped-up charges against his enemy in hostile pamphlets, but few were now disposed to heed his poisonous comments. 'Should the traveller be disturbed', wrote Griffith Jones disdainfully, 'by the little animals that bark at him on his way, or stop to correct their rudeness?' It mattered not to William Morris 'who pushes the good work on, whether he be Turk, brindled Jew, Pagan or Methodist'. There were 218 schools in 1758, with nearly 10,000 scholars, over a third of whom hailed from Carmarthenshire. Save for Flintshire and Montgomeryshire, where the number of schools was small, attendances were buoyant everywhere; over a thousand pupils were receiving education in each of the counties of Anglesey, Caernarfon, and Cardigan. The number of pupils who attended individual schools varied from parish to parish. Classes of between thirty and forty pupils were the norm, although in some populous parishes membership, especially at night, soared to eighty or a hundred. Parishes vied with each other for schoolmasters and sought to emulate each other's number of pupils.

When his wife died in 1755 Griffith Jones settled in Madam Bevan's house in Laugharne. There, hard-pressed servants refused to revere the asthmatic and cantankerous old patriarch and dubbed him 'Old Peevish'. Those who knew him best, however, were aware of his staggering achievements. By his death in 1761, aged 77, Griffith Jones had been responsible for establishing 3,325 schools in nearly 1,600 different places in Wales. The total number of pupils – both adults and children – who were taught to read fluently in his schools may well have numbered 250,000, an extraordinary achievement, given the fact that the population of Wales was around 490,000 at the time. With enormous passion and perseverance, Griffith Jones had launched and sustained a national system of schools and turned it into a truly Welsh institution. Even after his death, the schools continued to flourish under Madam Bevan's benevolent and watchful eye. Between 1761 and 1777, 3,325 schools were established, offering education to 153,835 pupils. The peak year was 1773, when 242 schools were set up and 13,205 scholars received instruction. However, most of the gains achieved under Madam Bevan's supervision were made in anglicized communities, notably in the towns of Monmouthshire and Pembrokeshire where pupils were taught through the medium of English. When Madam Bevan herself died in 1779 and was buried alongside Griffith Jones in accordance with her wishes, she bequeathed her estate of £10,000 to the scheme in order to ensure the perpetuation of the circulating schools. However, two of her trustees challenged the will and the money became tied up in the Court of Chancery for thirty-one years. From this set-back there was to be no recovery. Deprived of essential financial aid, the circulating school system withered and died.

Conscious of the need for good public relations, ever since 1737 Griffith Jones had published an annual report, Welch Piety. These reports invariably included dozens of letters from appreciative clergymen and laymen who gratefully spoke of the beneficial effects of regular schooling within their localities. An army of common people and children had been created who were able to read the Bible, understand the catechism, and give a decent account of their faith. Once the harvest had been safely gathered in, parish churches echoed to the sounds of infant and adult voices chanting the alphabet aloud, spelling words, repeating the catechism, and reading passages from the Scriptures. Many 'poor and ignorant' young children braved cold mornings in order to acquire reading skills. Some of them went barefoot and dressed in rags. George Parry, curate of Gelli-gaer, was impressed by the diligence of 'poor harmless babes in their mean rags', whilst hearing the poor children of Llangernyw at prayer moved John Kenrick to tears: 'they seemed even beautiful in their rags, while they thus learnt to put on Christ Jesus'. Some pupils were prodigiously gifted: at Y Ferwig in Cardiganshire a three-year-old child could spell even the most difficult Welsh words, while at Cynwyl Elfed in Carmarthenshire a child of seven learnt to read fluently in three weeks. At Llwyngwril in Merioneth a thirteen-year-old boy learnt to read the relevant text relating to the visitation of the sick as fluently as his own clergyman. Often the progress made by children during the day shamed their parents and even their grandparents into seeking the same proficiency at night schools. At Tre-lech, Carmarthenshire, a seventy-one year-old-man, with spectacles on his nose, a catechism in his hand, and five other penurious and aged adults at his side, strove to acquire a basic understanding of letters, syllables, words, phrases, and sentences. Married couples, usually farmers, cottagers, servants, and labourers, brought their own candles and fuel to night schools, which often remained open until nine or ten. At Llan-ddew in Breconshire, day-labourers attended night school twice a week, whilst the colliers of Llangyfelach in Glamorgan sacrificed precious leisure hours following arduous twelve-hour shifts in order to master their letters.

Griffith Jones's major triumph, therefore, was to provide large numbers of tenants, labourers, and servants, together with their sons and daughters, with the opportunity to learn to read. Many factors contributed to the dramatic upsurge of literacy in Wales after 1730 – the benevolence of affluent gentlemen and their wives, the role of Methodism and revivified Dissent, the influence of pious and active middling sorts, and the growth of flourishing printing-presses – but none of these played such a decisive role in the dissemination of reading habits as the circulating schools. For the first time in the history of Wales most rural inhabitants had access to elementary schooling in the vernacular. 'Reading among the lower class of people', wrote Thomas Llewelyn in 1769, 'is become much more common and general . . . than formerly.' Much of the credit for this lay with the itinerant schools, for Griffith Jones had successfully geared his scheme to the economic and religious needs of hewers of wood and drawers of water. And although his experiment produced a restricted kind of literacy, in the sense that it involved exclusively the ability to read, it was nevertheless a vital element in the modernization of Wales. Indeed, Jones's scheme was such a seminal influence that, in 1764, Catherine II of Russia instructed a commissioner to investigate the circulating schools in action and to prepare a detailed report on their practicality and merits.

The effects of the circulating schools also ramified in all directions in Wales. 'Great were the blessings which followed', claimed Robert Jones, Rhos-lan, who had himself mastered his letters after six weeks' tuition at a circulating school in Llanystumdwy and who subsequently made the long journey to Laugharne on two occasions in order to persuade Madam Bevan to maintain a network of schools in Caernarfonshire. The fact that so many clergymen, laymen, and Methodist exhorters pleaded with Griffith Jones and Madam Bevan to extend the period of tuition or promise them a fresh teacher in their respective parishes reveals that they were acutely aware of the direct and indirect benefits which regular schooling implied. Many overworked and underpaid clergymen testified that the itinerant schools had served to rejuvenate the church in their localities. The demand for Welsh bibles was seemingly insatiable: when limited supplies of the 1748 edition of the Welsh Bible reached Anglesey, poor people nearly scratched out the eyes of Thomas Ellis, vicar of Holyhead, as they surged forward and fought to acquire a copy; similarly, there was such an extraordinary demand for the Scriptures among the parishioners of the vale of Conwy that poor people borrowed money in order to buy copies. All the evidence suggests, too, that by the 1750s and 1760s parishioners were worshipping more regularly and reverently, that monthly rather than quarterly communion had become common, and that standards of personal morality had improved. Itinerant schools had not only instilled reading habits into untutored masses but had also promoted family prayers on the hearth and the practice of reading aloud in knitting-groups and workshops. Indeed, had not the circulating schools helped to renew church life, Dissent would have grown much more rapidly than it did.

Methodism, too, reaped the benefits of the circulating school movement. Robert Jones of Rhos-lan believed that the origins of Methodism were at least partly attributable to the itinerant schools which 'like the crow of the cockerel signified the appearance of a new dawn'. Certainly, wherever circulating schools were well attended, there, too, Methodism prospered. Although Methodist leaders never revered learning for its own sake, they did encourage their members to learn to read. In many areas, the growth of literacy and the development of Methodism tended to advance hand in hand. Methodist chapels of ease and meeting-houses, as well as private farmhouses, were made available to the circulating schools, and it is not hard to appreciate why clergymen, especially in the 1740s, believed that the schools were Methodist seminaries. At least a third of the farmhouses in Carmarthenshire where Methodist society meetings were held were also placed at the disposal of itinerant schoolmasters. It is doubtful, therefore, whether Welsh Methodism would have borne so splendid a harvest had not Griffith Jones sown such valuable seeds.

Although it would be an exaggeration to claim that Griffith Jones's scheme saved the Welsh language from extinction, it is certainly true that the circulating schools were the chief means by which the native tongue was strengthened and preserved during the eighteenth century. Many historians have claimed that Griffith Jones abandoned the linguistic policies pursued by the SPCK for practical and utilitarian reasons. But he was not insensible of the purity and antiquity of the Welsh language and, unlike his superiors within the church, he was always prepared to do battle with those who disparaged his mother tongue. For over fifty years he preached and taught in the language of his flocks in the Tâf valley in Carmarthenshire, insisting always that the vulgar sorts received no more benefits from an English service than did their ancestors from the Latin Mass. Moreover, his schools encouraged the use of Welsh as a spoken and written language and thus enhanced the prestige-value of the language. By 1780 the Welsh language was in a much stronger position to withstand the pressures of anglicization than it had been fifty years earlier. Even in communities where grammar schools had traditionally been foci for anglicization, much ground was recovered. Iolo Morganwg argued that the Welsh language was 'greatly increasing' in Glamorgan by the 1780s 'and this in great part through the Welsh schools being more numerous in our county than in almost any county in Wales'. Griffith Jones's arguments in favour of the more widespread use of the Welsh language also went a long way towards making the vernacular a respectable tongue in Wales. He shared the growing appreciation of eighteenth-century scholars of the beauties of the language and its potential role in the field of poetry, literature, and academic study. Furthermore, he sincerely believed that the survival of Welsh had been providential and that those who sought to hasten its demise were flying in the face of 'the decrees of heaven'. Not only did Griffith Jones increase literacy levels dramatically, but he also infused new life into an old and honourable tongue.

Date this page last updated: September 28, 2010