John Jenkins (Gwili)

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For other people with the same name, see John Jenkins (disambiguation).

John Jenkins (8 October 1872 – 16 May 1936),[1] known by his bardic name of Gwili, was a Welsh poet and theologian who served as Archdruid of the National Eisteddfod of Wales from 1932 to 1936.

Early life and education[edit]

Gwili was born at Hendy in Carmarthenshire, the fifth child of John Jenkins a metal refiner and Elizabeth his wife.[2] Both of his parents were fervent adherents to the Baptist cause, so he received much of his primary education in the Baptist Sunday School movement. He attended Hendy Primary school where he served as a pupil teacher between 1885 and 1890.

In the late nineteenth century and early 20th century in England and Wales a 13-year-old pupil who had showed promise in his or her schooling could stay on at school as a probationer to help with the teaching of younger pupils. After two years as probationers, they would then spend another three years, learning the job before taking a final exam. If they passed, they would be paid to go to training college to become a qualified teacher. Gwili didn't go on to become a qualified teacher.[3]

In 1891 he became a pupil at the Athenaeum School in Llanelli but stayed for just one term because the school closed shortly after his enrolment. He moved on to the Gwynfryn School in Ammanford, where he stayed for a year studying Greek and Latin before moving on to the Baptists Theological College in Bangor. In Bangor he studied for the external Intermediate examination of the University of London, which he failed in 1896, the reason given for his failure is that he spent too much time on his poetic and literary pursuits rather than on his studies.[4] Because he failed his examinations he also failed to be accepted into the Baptist ministry.

In October 1896 he enrolled for a course in The University of Wales, Cardiff, but he withdrew from the course in March 1897.

In 1905, aged 33, Gwili entered Jesus College, Oxford as a student of the Greats, i.e. Latin, Greek, Ancient Philosophy and History, and passed the first year examinations in these subjects. However, he changed his course in mid-stream and obtained a second class honours degree in Theology in 1908 According to the University regulations of the time, he would have been awarded an MA degree automatically after a period of seven years, in his case 1915.

In 1918 he wrote a thesis on "The Study of the Gospels in Mediaeval Welsh" for which he obtained a B.Litt. from Oxford University. He also received an honorary degree D.Litt. from Oxford University in 1932.

Professional Life[edit]

Despite being an ordained minister Gwili never took up pastoral duities, he spent most of his working life in different teaching role. Between his studies in Cardiff and Oxford he worked as assistant master at Gwynfryn School Ammanford. After graduating in Oxford he returned to Gwynfryn as its head. The school closed during the First World War. In 1917 Gwili was appointed as Lecturer in Welsh in the Department of Celtic Studies at Cardiff University, spending some months as acting professor whilst Professor W. J. Gruffydd was on active service in the Royal Navy. In 1919 he became Librarian of the Salisbury Library at Cardiff University. In 1923 he was appointed Professor of New Testament Exegesis at the Baptist College and University of North Wales Bangor, where he remained until his retirement.

Gwili spent two periods as editor of the Baptist periodical Seren Cymru, his first period from 1914-1927 was one of great influence where he used the paper to promote the works of the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party, giving the paper "an importance that no other denominational publication attained in later times".[5] The paper went into decline after Gwili's departure so he was invited back to the editorial chair in an attempt to revive the paper's fortune in 1933 and remained as editor until his death. He was also the editor of another Baptist periodical Seren Gomer from 1930-1933.

Gwili the Poet[edit]

Gwili started writing and publishing poet at an early age. He had a poem published in the Llanelly and County Guardian in 1887 when he was only 14 years old. He competed in regional and local bardic competitions thorough Wales with a fair degree of success, winning competition in Llanelli and Cwrt Henri in his own part of Wales as well as in places further away such as Dolgellau, Corwen and Caernarfon. He was not as successful on the national level, having tried but failed to win a major prize on at least 7 occasions before eventually gaining the Crown at the Merthyr Tydfil National Eisteddfod in 1901 for his poem Tywysog Tangnefedd (Prince of Peace).

Gwili had knowledge of Cynghanedd the strict meter of Welsh poetry, but he never had much success in the art, all of his provincial eisteddfodic honours were for poems in free meter. He did however adjudicate the competition for the chair (offered for a poem in cynghanedd) on at least two occasions. He was elected Archdruid in 1931 and served his term in the post from 1932 until his death in 1936.

Personal life[edit]

In 1910 Gwili married Ms Mary E Lewis of Ammanford by whom he had two daughters Nest born in 1912 and Gwen born in 1914.

He died on 16 May 1936. The children of Hendy were given a half-day holiday to line the streets before his funeral at Hen Gapel, Llanedi where he was buried on 19 May.There were over seven hundred letters and telegrams of condolence sent to the family.[6]


  1. ^ Welsh Biography Online
  2. ^ [1] Welsh Biography Online
  3. ^ [2] Pupil Teachers
  4. ^ [3] Ammanford website - Gwili
  5. ^ J. Beverley Smith; Transactions of the Cymmrodorion Society, 1974
  6. ^ Llanelly Mercury, 28 May 1936


  • Poems (1920)
  • Arweiniad i'r Testament Newydd (1929)
  • Hanfod Duw a Pherson Crist (1931)
  • Caniadau (1934)

Further reading[edit]

Preceded by
John Owen Williams (Pedrog)
Archdruid of the National Eisteddfod of Wales
Succeeded by
John James Williams (poet)