The Rev. J.T. Rhys

Rev J T Rhys.png
Rev. J.T. Rhys, often mistaken for Lloyd George when at No. 10

The Rev. J.T. Rhys, 65, (1867-1938) Welsh born Congregational Minister and multiple chapel builder, fund-raiser, life-long Temperance campaigner and researcher, journalist, private secretary to Dame Margaret Lloyd-George (1917-22), Liberal party agent and prospective parliamentary candidate, Governor and Chairman of the Finance Committee of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, Chairman Bala-Bangor College, traveller and draper. He worked with Lady Rhondda’s mother, the first Viscountess Rhondda, at the time when he was Metropolitan Secretary of the British and Foreign Sailors’ Society, in 1917. Author of the unpublished “Lady Rhondda’s maiden speech”, relating his own experiences with The Dowager Viscountess, Lord Rhondda and Margaret Rhondda. It is quoted at length in the pages on Lady Rhondda on this website[1] If he had not kept the guest list of this dinner for posterity, this website would not exist. The only person in holy orders at the dinner. Perhaps he said Grace. My maternal grandfather.

SEATED BESIDE

With all his fellow table guests, all Liberals,  he would have engaged on subjects such as Liberalism, travel, fundraising and social work.  Perhaps he organised this table, being a networker and Liberal close to Lloyd George etc.

WHAT’S ON HIS MIND?

Undoubtedly looking forward to the opportunity to network amongst the guests. He would not have partaken of the wine on offer. Assuming the news had come through, he may have been downhearted on the passing in the US, on March 22nd (so during the night of 22nd/23rd in the UK) of the Cullen–Harrison Act, authorising the sale of 3.2% beer (thought to be too low an alcohol concentration to be intoxicating) and wine – thereby allowing the first legal beer sales since the beginning of Prohibition on January 16, 1920[2]. His only consolation might have been that in his lifetime not every state had repealed the law, Mississippi being the last in 1966.

WHAT JT DID… HIS STORY SO FAR

John Thomas Rhys (known at JT or JTR) was born John Rees on 9th December 1867, in Llanybyther, Cardiganshire, the third son of the rather remarkable Lampeter based Welsh family of Mary Thomas, dressmaker (1839-1922) and George Rees (1836-1903), nurseryman, both of Llanybyther. Welsh Liberalism was steeped in the family, not least with both George Rees and Joshua Thomas (Mary’s father) both being subjected to their Tory landlords’ revenge when they voted Liberal in the late 1860s. JT’s eldest brother Joshua was the auditor for the new Manchester and Milford Railway, over-ambitiously trying to link Manchester with Milford Haven, brother James was the first manager of the still running Vale of Rheidol Railway and brother Harry was a journalist and secretary of the Cardiganshire Liberal Association. Brother George Rees was the founding editor of the bilingual Welsh Gazette.  Their eldest sister Anne married a steelworker from Swansea, the second sister Margaret married the deputy editor of the Welsh Gazette, and the youngest sister Mary became, as was so often the case, the carer of the family. [3]

JT trained as a draper, in Ebbw Vale and then in London, where he found his calling to the ministry when attending the Welsh Congregational Church in King’s Cross, influenced by the charismatic Rev. Elvet Lewis.[4] Around this time he adopted the traditional Welsh spelling of Rhys and at some point added Thomas as a middle name (perhaps after his mother’s surname and/or after the death of a young brother, Thomas). After attending Brecon College and the University of Cardiff, he was pastor at three successive churches in South Wales, at Pontycymer in the coal mining Garw valley, at Aberaman, Aberdare, and in Swansea. He became a passionate temperance worker, though which he met his wife Jane Annie Jones (also a migrant from Lampeter), and his 1912 deeply researched book “The Drink Problem in Wales”, dedicated to David Lloyd George, was a much sought after reference book on this socially damaging problem. [5]

In 1917, seeking to do more for the war effort, he left the ministry and became Metropolitan Secretary of the British and Foreign Sailors’ Society, exploiting his fund raising and campaigning skills. Through this period (fund raising was a major part of building churches in Pontycymer and in Swansea) he worked with Viscountess Sybil Rhondda and first observed the young Margaret Rhondda making her views known (see Lady Rhondda’s Maiden Speech, in the pages on Lady Rhondda). Shortly afterwards he was invited to joining the staff at Lloyd George’s No.10, becoming the private secretary of Mrs Margaret Lloyd George – writing speeches, handling the day to day mail (all of which needed to be well coordinated between Criccieth and No.10 wherever Mrs Lloyd George was based), funding raising for her causes, helping to obtain introductions to Court , and other duties including (with his wife) helping to look after Mrs Lloyd George’s granddaughter Margaret Carey-Evans when Olwen and Tom Carey-Evans were in India at the Viceregal Lodge. [6]

His role at No.10 brought him in direct opposition to his siblings when Welsh liberalism was divided over Lloyd George. JT left No.10 in early 1922 to work with the Chief Whip’s Office at No. 12 Downing St, liaising with Free Church ministers around the country as Lloyd George sought to sustain his brand of Liberalism.  In November 1922, after Lloyd George had been ousted from office, JT was selected to run for the Twickenham parliamentary seat against the Conservative Sir William Joynson-Hicks (who later when Home Secretary had threatened to ban Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness).  In the event JT withdrew before the election, for health reasons, although I would not be surprised if it was linked to the simultaneous withdrawal of other LlG candidates as various tactical manoeverings took place. Joynson-Hicks was elected unopposed. The seat is currently in Liberal hands, held by Sir Vince Cable. In mid 1922 it was announced that he was leaving his position with Mrs Lloyd George to take up another position: in 1923 he returned to the ministry as pastor of Twickenham Congregational Church. He remained an active journalist, temperance campaigner, preacher on the Congregationalist circuits, writing articles, columns and letters, and was a Liberal electoral agent in Hackney for Miss Muriel Gibbon (daughter of a fellow Welshman and Congregational minister).

He was active in London Welsh circles, doubtless helping in his columns he wrote for the Welsh press. JT had always been an active traveller, around 1910 travelling the Channel steerage in working steamers, as a temperance campaigner touring Scandinavia, the Netherlands, France and Germany, and later leading tours to the Holy Land. In 1929 he, his wife and three children had narrowly escaped injury in a train crash in France en route home from the Italian and French Riviera (they were in the front carriage but the luggage van ahead of them took the brunt of the impact) and in Tel Aviv his party was temporarily stranded when their ship broke its moorings.

In 1925 he sought Lady Rhondda’s support for his prohibition campaign but she declined (saying she supported temperance but not absolute prohibition) and also letting him know that she had spoken to the Editor of Time and Tide who took a similar line thus would not be able to run the articles he was proposing.[7] President Roosevelt would sign the first act that would unravel US prohibition the day before our dinner, on 22nd March 1933.

In the 1920s he was working with Ernest Rhys, Head Editor of the Everyman’s Library, to write the latter’s biography, but this did not materialise. At the time of the dinner JT was in active retirement, writing and campaigning. In the months before the dinner the snippets of papers we have suggest he was active in supporting the principles of free trade as government wrestled with the depression.

Never one to miss an opportunity to campaign he had also just occupied another pulpit: in January 1933 the pastor of Whitefield’s Tabernacle, Tottenham Court Road, became indisposed and was unable to continue his duties. Under the heading “Versatility of the Rev. J. T. Rhys” the Western Mail reported:

“I understand that the Rev. J. T. Rhys, formerly secretary to Mrs. Lloyd George, has been asked to deputise. This is not surprising, for Mr. Rhys is a kind of general deputy in London, both in religious and political matters. During the illness of the Rev. J. Morgan Gibbon he frequently filled the pulpit at Stamford Hill, and not long ago in one week he deputised for a Socialist at a temperance demonstration, for a Conservative at a League of Nations Union meeting, and for a Liberal at a church anniversary. Politically, Mr. Belden and Mr. Rhys are as far apart as men can be, but they have a great admiration for each other, and it is a distinct compliment that Mr. Rhys should be asked to take the pulpit at the famous church in Tottenham Court Road”[8]

WHAT JT DID NEXT

In 1934 the “versatile” JT used his newly occupied central London pulpit to campaign for more stringent motoring regulations, urging that the majority of accidents were preventable and that driving licences were granted and renewed far too casually. “Killing was not done intentionally or with malice, it was the result of negligence, and should be punished accordingly”.[9]

If it wasn’t road traffic it was politics. He wrote strong articles to the press over Mussolini and Abyssinia: “can nothing be done to deliver Abyssinia from the hands of its oppressor?”; attacking “the apostles of Defeatism … so plausibly urging capitulation to Mussolini, when so many statesmen, mistaking indolence for prudence are surrendering ignominiously to the Italian Dictator”; and at one point urging sanctions against Italians living in the UK – “the tens of thousands of ice-cream vendors, restaurant keepers &c” – in retaliation to 100 Italian delegates boycotting the International Acetylene Oxy-Acetylene Congress in London, in 1936 – signing off as “100% British”. I don’t know if that letter sent to 48 daily papers got published (not one of his finest I have to say). He clearly wasn’t afraid of taking a hard line at times. His prohibitionist stand often provoked strong reactions in the press.

His son Thomas, a barrister, became Secretary of the BBC Union. His eldest daughter was an Inspector of Schools and the first woman to cox a Cambridge woman’s boat against Oxford (in 1927). His third child, my mother, was a much admired and inspiring primary headmistress, trained in Froebel’s methods.

JT died aged 70 in London on 6th July 1938, from cancer.  His life and times however live on, not least in the archive of papers he left behind, including not just many speeches and letters from his time at No.10 but the guest list for a certain dinner held at the Rembrandt Rooms on 23rd March 1933.

BACK TO TABLE 20


[1] Rev. J.T. Rhys, Lady Rhondda’s Maiden Speech, letter, unpublished, 1922 or later (undated), in private collection, available from Richard Rhys O’Brien and featured in the article on Lady Rhondda in this website.

[2] Repeal of Prohibition , Wikipedia

[3] See A Lampeter Family Story 1870-1971 – Newspapers & Nurseries, Religion and Railways, Politics and Plants) / Hanes Teulu O Lambed 1870-1971, Richard Rhys O’Brien, Translated into Welsh by Yvonne Davies, published 2018 for the Lampeter Museum / Amgueddfa Llambed, available from Richard Rhys O’Brien or the Lampeter Museum

[4] Howell Elvet Lewis Wikipedia

[5] J.T Rhys, Wales and its Drink Problem, published by the Welsh Gazette, 1912

[6] Copies of his collection of the speeches of Mrs Lloyd George are now deposited at the National Library of Wales and will be the subject of forthcoming publications, the first of which is available from the Lampeter Museum or from me: Mrs Lloyd George Goes to Lampeter, by Richard Rhys O’Brien, published June 2019 on the 100th anniversary of a controversial visit to Cardiganshire by the PM’s wife when the cracks were widening in Welsh Liberalism.

[7] Lady Rhondda, Letter to Rev J.T. Rhys, 20th May 1925, unpublished, in private collection

[8] Western Mail, 7.1.1933 p6

[9] Gloucester Citizen, 20.8.1934 p10

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