The National Library of Wales opened to the public in 1909 in a temporary location at the Assembly Rooms in Aberystwyth before moving to its permanent home on Penglais Hill in 1916.
Wales Online reported “Even though space was limited at the Assembly Rooms readers could access the archive in full. This included the Llanstephan and Peniarth collections purchased and donated by Sir John Williams, containing a number of important medieval Welsh manuscripts.
Between the years 1909 and 1912 around 350 individual readers used the library’s reading room and consulted more than 1,300 books, manuscripts, maps and prints.
Unsurprisingly, men were in the majority, but 14% of the readers during this period were women. It was predominantly a younger female generation who used the library, as almost two-thirds of the female readers were under 30 and many were enrolled as university students.
The woman who used the library the most during this period was Elizabeth Jane Lloyd.
In 1911 Elizabeth was 22 and studying at the University College in Aberystwyth, from where she graduated with a first-class honours degree in Welsh. She was the daughter of a timber merchant from Llanilar, a village just outside Aberystwyth, where she still lived with her mother.
Elizabeth’s reading choices were often linked to the history of the Eisteddfod in Wales, which was the subject of a prize-winning essay she wrote for the Wrexham Eisteddfod in 1912. Like other readers, access to manuscript collections previously held in private hands enriched Elizabeth’s research.
In 1916, following a time studying in London and Oxford on a fellowship, she was appointed as a lecturer in Welsh and English at Bangor Normal College.
Later, in 1928, she co-authored Mynegai i Farddoniaeth y Llawysgrifau (An Index to Poetry Manuscripts) with Professor Henry Lewis. Her use of the reading room and her completion of a degree at the university enabled her to have a position within academic circles in Wales and play an active role in national life, possibly unobtainable a generation before.
By 1909 women undergraduates were well established at the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth, and, as a result, half of the female readers using the National Library of Wales during this period were students.
The first woman had enrolled at the college in 1884 and by 1911 the all-female hall named Alexandra Hall, built on the seafront in 1896, housed 168 students.
In 1911 the student Deborah Jarrett Rowlands (known as Dora) was living in Alexandra Hall while studying Welsh at the University College. Dora was born in Llangollen in 1890 to John and Eleanor Rowlands, who ran a grocery shop in Llangollen’s Castle Street.
During her time at Aberystwyth she became interested in Welsh folk music under the guidance of Mary Davies, the founder of the Welsh Folk Song Society.
The first woman to work in the House of Commons
Dora’s interest in this subject is reflected in the books she read at the National Library, such as Howell Elvet Lewis’ Sweet Singers of Wales: a story of Welsh hymns and their authors.
Dora went on to serve as secretary to the MP John Herbert Lewis and it is now thought that she was the first woman to work in the House of Commons. In the 1920s she worked at the National Library of Wales and then as a secretary for the Gregynog Press. Dora was awarded an MBE in 1967.
It was not just Welsh-born women who enrolled at the University College in Aberystwyth. Also boarding with Dora at Alexandra Hall was Winifred Hindle, from Yorkshire, whose father ran a drapery business in Bradford.
Winifred used the National Library several times to consult a book on the old cottages of Snowdonia. Almost 30 years later she is listed on the 1939 register as an auctioneer working in Yorkshire, a relatively rare position for a woman to have held in the 1930s.
A bid to become teachers
In the 1880s the educationalist Elizabeth Hughes, who was the first principal of the Cambridge Training College for Women Teachers, emphasised the role that university colleges in Wales could play in educating women who would then become secondary school teachers.
The Liberal MP Thomas Edward Ellis argued that the quality of secondary education would be improved if more female teachers had the opportunity to receive a university education.
Gwendoline Elizabeth Taylor qualified as a secondary school teacher in 1910 after completing a Bachelor of Arts degree at Aberystwyth. Gwendoline was from Wrexham and was the daughter of William Taylor, a commercial traveller. During her time at the university she was a regular user of the National Library’s reading room.
Gwendoline’s reading habits suggest that she was interested in Welsh poetry and music. She consulted several literary journals such as Y Geninen (The Leek) and music periodicals like Y Cerddor Cymreig (The Musician).
In 1910 she spent two days reading a reproduction of the Black Book of Carmarthen, which is thought to be the oldest surviving manuscript written entirely in Welsh.
Gwendoline never married, and following her university education went on to have a long teaching career. She began in 1910 at Llandovery County School, then went on to teach in Wrexham and Liverpool.
In 1939 she was teaching in Crosby in Lancashire while living with her widowed mother and her sister, Ethel, who was working as a chartered accountant’s clerk.
Female lecturers also used the National Library during this period. Aberystwyth-born Mary Williams, who had achieved a double first in French and German at University College Wales, was a frequent library user between 1911 and 1912.
She was an accomplished linguist with a working knowledge of at least six languages and was particularly interested in the connection between Arthurian romances and Welsh literature.
She spent her time at the National Library analysing the Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch (White Book of Rhydderch) which comprises the four branches of the Mabinogion from the Peniarth collection.
‘Women are freeing themselves’
Mary Williams held a number of teaching posts, including the chair of Modern Languages at University College, Swansea. Her election to this chair is said to be the first example of a woman being appointed to an established chair in a British university.
Later in her career she was appointed Professor of French at Durham University.
The Welsh colleges, established in the latter half of the 19th century, were relatively progressive in their attitudes towards women entering higher education, unlike other longer- established universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. Aberystwyth, Bangor and Cardiff all accepted women by 1884.
By 1888 out of 165 enrolled students at Aberystwyth almost a quarter were women.
The status of women within these educational institutions was officially defined in the University of Wales Charter in 1893.
It stated: “Women shall be eligible equally with men for admittance to any degree which the University is, by this our Charter, authorised to confer.”
The Western Mail argued that this was “perfectly in accord with what might be expected in these days, when women are freeing themselves from ancient traditions, prohibitions, and disabilities”.
The student population of Aberystwyth grew in the 1890s to about 400.
The completion of Alexandra Hall of residence in 1896 increased the number of female students and by 1898 women represented 45% of the student population.
The establishment of an all-female hall both reassured anxious parents who feared university life would have a corrupting influence on their daughters, and solidified the position of women in higher education at Aberystwyth.
By the time the National Library opened in 1909 218 women were enrolled at the university. At this stage the majority were from middle-class backgrounds and, like Elizabeth Lloyd and Dora Rowlands, their fathers were tradesmen. However, there were some women attending who came from a working-class background.
For example, May Myfanwy Jones, who lodged in Alexandra Hall, was the daughter of a coal miner. She was born in Ystradgynlais, Breconshire, in 1893, and by 1901 was living with her widowed father and her grandparents.
May spent several days in April 1912 consulting the manuscript 133 from the Llanstephan collection. This manuscript contains an important corpus of Welsh poetry compiled by the Reverend Samuel Williams (c.1660).
Students but not staff
Unfortunately, during this period the increase of women in higher education was not represented on the university staff, which contained very few female lecturers.
This shortage was probably the result of the difficulties faced by women if they wished to remain in a teaching job after marriage. Also, the traditional image of the woman as home-maker was still widely propagated.
These factors influenced how far they could progress and women were certainly not recognised by wider society as equal to men. During this period the suffragettes were campaigning to secure a woman’s right to vote. This was given to women over the age of 30 in 1918, but not to women over the age of 21 until 1928.
Both Aberystwyth University and the National Library of Wales provided public spaces where women could study and learn on an equal footing with their male counterparts.
Although female students at Cambridge were able to take examinations from 1882 women were not accepted as full members of the university until 1948.
As the above case studies demonstrate, equal access to higher education and library resources had the potential to have a significant impact on women’s lives and enabled them to pursue their professional aspirations” here.
W Gareth Evans, Education and Female Emancipation: The Welsh Experience, 1847-1914 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1990)
EL Ellis, The University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, 1872-1972 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1972)
Dictionary of Welsh Biography Online ( a free online resource )
WHO IS CALISTA WILLIAMS?
I am an Open University PhD student and for the past three years I have been based at the National Library of Wales.
This AHRC-funded project is a study of the establishment, management and use of the National Library of Wales, c.1840-1916.
It connects the development of the library with the cultural and political situation from which it emerged in an attempt to better understand the library’s relationship with Welsh national identity.
For further information see @Ca7ista and open.academia.edu/CalistaWilliams
* This article was first published during the Western Mail’s Welsh History Month 2017.