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Writing biography in Wales; Jen Llywelyn

(March 01, 2016)

Writing a biography in Wales

'Morally indefensible'? A 'posthumous exploiter'?

 Jen Llywelyn

Jen Llywelyn, portrait
Dr Jen Llywelyn
Photographer: Tim Arnold

In Lives for Sale,1 a collection by Mark Bostridge of essays by biographers about the genre, Lyndall Gordon (biographer of T. S. Eliot and Henry James) suggests that what biographers do is 'morally indefensible'. Henry James himself called biographers 'the posthumous exploiters'. The fly-leaf refers to us as 'scavengers' and 'scoundrels'. In the light of these comments, how can I justify my own research into the life of George M. Ll. Davies, a pacifist who became a conscientious objector, and then a peace-maker; a life-long depressive, who hanged himself in Denbigh Hospital in 1949?

I came across George Davies in 1999 while doing an oral history project for my first degree with Open University (OU). A photo I was shown stayed in my mind while I finished the degree, and I discovered a few things about George. A number of somewhat hagiographic pamphlets and booklets had been written about George in Welsh over the years – but very little in English. He seemed a worthy subject for research.

I applied to the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, to do academic research towards a PhD. That meant I couldn't just settle for researching George's life – I had to include all the contexts of his life. Everything he had been involved with needed to be delved into: the Liverpool-Welsh community late in the nineteenth century; the influx of women into the workplace; the establishment of the Territorial Army; David Davies Llandinam and the Welsh Town Planning and Housing Trust; the prison system during the First World War; famine and pestilence in post-war Germany; the Davies sisters and Gregynog; Ireland during the War of Independence; the parliamentary seat of the Welsh Universities; life as a Non-conformist minister in the 1920s; the General Strike of 1926; the international volunteers in Brynmawr and Rhosllannerchrugog; then the Settlement Movement in the south of Wales in the 30s and 40s.

And through it all, George M. Ll. shone, with his personal complexities, breakdowns, depression and angst, his nobility, integrity and humour, and his warm friendships with Lloyd George, Thomas Jones and Gandhi, which were no different from his warm friendships with criminals and unemployed miners. All this needed to be woven together in a cohesive and readable way.

George M Ll Davies, 1940s
George M Ll Davies, 1940s

I was helped, of course, a) by being here in Wales, which George loved with a passion, and which is a small community, and b) by the fact that many of the people who knew George were, when I began my research, still with us. Most of them have now died, sadly, and won't read the full story of George's life.

Welsh-speakers have a saying, 'Pawb yn nabod pawb yng Nghymru' (everyone knows everyone in Wales). I was already aware that this could work both ways! I didn't start seriously learning Welsh until 2002, so at the beginning everything had to be done through English, but I knew I must be beyond reproach in my conversations, in order to have good reports passed on to other possible interviewees! I learned many valuable things about twentieth-century Wales through my conversations at this stage.

For the OU oral history project I had to interview six people on their experiences of the Second World War. For no other reason than that I knew nothing about them, I chose conscientious objectors. I already knew Iorwerth John, who had worked with the Quaker Peace Service in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, during the war, and who showed me that memorable photo. Iorwerth had met George when he attended a Welsh Schoolboys' Camps Movement fortnight – George was the chaplain, and a huge influence on young Iorwerth.

I contacted the Peace Pledge Union (of which George was president towards the end of his life), and they pointed me to two other Welsh 'conshis', in Porthmadog. One of them was Parch. Islwyn Lake, who had grown up in Goodwick, near Fishguard. When Islwyn's English teacher, D. J. Williams, invited a good friend for tea, Islwyn was invited to join them. The friend was George M. Ll. Davies. He gave Islwyn the courage to decide to become a conshi.

Another one of the six was Gwynfor Evans. Most of what he told me about his life I'd read elsewhere, but then he went a bit quiet, and said, "Have you ever come across George M. Ll. Davies?" There he was again. George had been a great friend of Gwynfor and his family, and spoke at Gwynfor and Rhiannon's wedding. Gwynfor told me how George had died, which was clearly a sadness to him.

So by the time I started the doctoral research I had some direction, but my next stop was George's archive in the National Library. Boxes and boxes of papers... 'scavenging'. Hours of making notes. But as I went on, I began to make connections – light-bulb moments – oh, THAT's why George said that! Ah, THAT's what happened! Learning to love George's three brothers, Glyn, Frank and Stan. Learning to dislike their mother, Gwen Davies! Suffering with George when he wrote about loves and breakdowns; and when he read about the starvation in Germany after the war; sharing his anger when he wrote about the treatment of the Jews in Germany in the 1930s. Reading the details of George's death from hanging – morally indefensible? I know George's wife would have been unhappy with this intrusion, but I couldn't justify glossing over it.

And possibly worst of all, crying in the National Library as I read Stan's letter to George from the Gallipoli battlefield, telling of the Welsh men and boys who lay dead. That felt like the ultimate intrusion. Posthumous exploitation? Am I a 'scoundrel'?

I felt I was 'building' George from pieces of paper.

Then George's granddaughter Nancy White came to stay, from South Africa. She brought with her a folder of letters George's wife Leslie had written to her parents, and many gaps were filled. The biographer's dream – letters no one else has seen. Flesh on bones.

Nancy's friendship has meant the world to me during my research on George. I emailed each thesis chapter, and the book text, and she emailed comments and suggestions. In a sense, she has discovered her grandfather through me: that's a privilege, and humbling, and part of my justification for the work. Other family members, including George's daughter, Jane, were generous with their time and contributions. I wish they could all have read the book… but I've taken too long with it. I needed space between finishing the thesis in 2010 and adapting the book to a mainstream audience.

What I have ended up with is, I believe, an all-round picture of George M. Ll. Davies, pacifist, conscientious objector and peace-maker. Very few were all three – and that's another part of my justification. This was a man much admired, for his apparent serenity, warmth, compassion, and deep integrity. His life was in the fascinating context of Wales in the first half of the twentieth century: another justification.

Because I've seen all angles of George – from family, friends, colleagues, and detractors – I feel I know him better than any one person did during his lifetime (with the exception, perhaps, of his brother Stanley). Is that a gross presumption? Even after all the years of work, I still love him. I also dare to believe that to some extent I understand him. I would love to have met him. Now the thesis is done, and the book is published, I miss him, in a strange way. Miss the discovering. Perhaps I'll do it again – there are many lives to be discovered. But I'm not sure anyone will ever give me as much pleasure as George M. Ll. Davies has done.

Dr Jen Llywelyn, March 2016

1 Mark Bostridge (ed.), Lives for Sale: Biographers’ Tales (London, 2004)

Dr Jen Llywelyn is a writer and editor. She was born in Gloucestershire and came to live in Wales in 1997. She began her first degree at the age of 47 in 1996; she has since learned Welsh and published four books. She lives in an eighteenth-century cottage in rural Ceredigion with husband, son and cat, and enjoys reading, writing, jazz and motorsport (amongst other things!).

Pilgrim of Peace: A Life of George M. Ll. Davies, Pacifist, Conscientious Objector and Peace-maker, Y Lolfa, £12.99, will be launched at the Drwm, National Library, on 2 March 2016 at 6.30 pm. The book is available from, or

follow Jen Llywelyn on Twitter: @Penbrynhir


© 2016 Caregos Cyf. Hawlfraint


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