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 his parents were fervent Baptists, so that 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 in 1885–90.

In the late 19th and early 20th century in England and Wales, a promising 13-year-old could stay on at school as a probationer to help with teaching younger pupils. After two years, he or she would spend another three years, learning the profession before taking a final exam. Passing that ensured being paid for at training college to become a qualified teacher. Gwili did not go on to become a qualified teacher.[3]

In 1891 Gwili became a pupil at the Athenaeum School in Llanelli, but stayed for only one term as it then closed. He moved on to the Gwynfryn School in Ammanford for a year, studying Greek and Latin, before moving to the Baptists Theological College in Bangor. There he studied for the external intermediate examination of the University of London, which he failed in 1896, probably because he had spent too much time on his poetic and literary pursuits rather than his studies.[4] The failure also precluded him from being accepted into the Baptist ministry.

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

In 1905, aged 33, Gwili entered Jesus College, Oxford as a student of Greats, i. e. Latin, Greek, Ancient Philosophy and History, and passed the first-year examinations. However, he changed his course and instead obtained a second-class honours degree in theology in 1908. University regulations at the time would have awarded him an automatic MA degree after seven years (1915).

In 1918 Gwili 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 duties, spending most of his working life in various teaching roles. Between his studies in Cardiff and Oxford, he worked as assistant master at Gwynfryn School Ammanford. After graduating from 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 stint was from 1914 to 1927, 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, and so he was invited back as editor in an attempt to revive its fortunes in 1933, and remained as such until his death. He was also the editor of another Baptist periodical, Seren Gomer, from 1930 to 1933.

The poet[edit]

Gwili 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 throughout Wales with a fair degree of success, winning competitions in Llanelli and Cwrt Henri and in places as far away as Dolgellau, Corwen and Caernarfon. He was not as successful on a national level. He tried but failed to win a major prize on at least seven occasions before gaining the Crown at the Merthyr Tydfil National Eisteddfod in 1901 for his poem Tywysog Tangnefedd (Prince of Peace).

Gwili had a knowledge of cynghanedd the strict meter of Welsh poetry, but never had much success in it. All his provincial eisteddfod honours were for poems in free meter. However, he did adjudicate a 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 from 1932 until his death in 1936.

Personal life[edit]

In 1910 Gwili married Mary E Lewis of Ammanford, by whom he had two daughter: 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 700 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)