Elspeth Hughes-Davies

Llanberis-born campaigner for girl’s education

1840? - 1911

Elspeth Hughes-Davies was a school teacher in Llanberis in the mid 1800s, with spirited views about the education of girls and women. She married the famous celtic scholar and pioneer John Rhys (to later become Sir John Rhys) on the 6th of August, 1872 at the Parish Church Llanberis. Elspeth and Rhys had had three daughters: Gwladus, who was born in 1873 (and died in Llanberis in 1874); Myfanwy, born 1874; and Olwen who was born in 1876.

Merthyr Tydfil 1890 school_.jpg

Elspeth (aka “Mrs Rhys”) however, was a force in her own right, focusing on the education of her girls as well as being a teacher. She gave a speech at the National Eisteddfod in Bala, reported in the Cambrian 25th August, 1882.

"At 9 o'clock the Cymmrodorion Section met in the Town Hall, under the presidency of Mrs. Rhys, to discuss the subject of the education of women. Mrs. Rhys, in a clever paper, contested the general impression that the amount of education a girl ought to receive was limited. Any girl who undertook any study likely to open the mind was at once set down as a blue-stocking, but that kind of prejudice was gradually breaking down. The education of women ought not to be regulated by the whims of stupid men (laughter). Such men might naturally be horrified at the idea of marrying an intel- lectual woman, but they ought to, at least, have some consideration for their more gifted brethren. To want of intellectual companionship of women was driving only too many to the cynical world of the clubs, and thus inflicting an indirect blow at family life.

Mrs. Hoigan, M.D., delivered an address in favour of Uni-versity co-education. Wales, she said, for the purposes of higher education must ba considered as almost virgin soil. It had been formerly assumed that women were unfitted for  the higher studies, and, in some instances, botany bad been substituted for chemistry. But it bad been found that girls had proved themselves equally fitted to take up chemistry and mathematics.

The experiences of co-education in America had been most favourable, and instead of having led to disorder had been carried on without the si ghtest tendency in that direction. Whatever were the difficulties of co-education they did not come from the intellectual side, girls having shown themselves to be capable of keeping up to the standards of intellectual training both in the college and in the school.

Mrs. Ayrton, wife of Professor Ayrton, in the discussion which followed, said that, the co-education of men and women was looked upon by many as a sort of continual lawn- tennis and afternoon tea rolled into one and going on day by day (laughter). This might be the view of a young lady fresh from the boarding school, who was apt to consider all men most interesting individuals, but the woman who bad mixed much with thousands of men came to see that many of them were most unin- teresting individuals (laughter), and having her critical faculties developed she learnt only to admire and mix with men of superior intellectual capacity."

Another intriguing story relates to the family - in the Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, 30th January, 1881.

"A charming story reaches me, says a correspondent, from the neighbourhood of Llanberis. It was told in the vernacular, and I faithfully render it in the best English I can command. "If, on leaving Llanberis along the road towards Carnarvon, you looked carefully at the stones in the walls on both sides of the road you would see till lately scratched on them here and there certain monosyllables such as Tad, Mam, Taid, Nain, Ci, Bach, Llyn, Mawr, and the like; they had been there for many years. They were the reading lessons of two little girls named Myvanwy and Olwen who came to spend a part of the summer with their grandparents at Llanberis.

Their father and mother used to take the two little maids out for "walks" on that road, and the words were scratched on the stones, which in that neighbourhood are, as everybody knows, of a slaty nature, easy to write on. When they came to a word there was competition between Myvanwy and Olwen who should spell and read it first. Thus two important things were very pleasantly combined - taking the fresh air and learning to read their mother tongue - and in those days they knew no English (or French).

People about used to wonder why their father did not teach them it at home, and they came to the conclusion that he wished to show his contempt for schools and schoolrooms, because he was condemned to pass most of the year in the town as a Government Inspector. Be that as it may, the Hedge School undoubtedly pleased Myvanwy and Olwen much better then than sitting down to a book at home. Alas, many changes have taken place since then, and their taid and nain are gone. But Myvanwy and Olwen are still competing, and although it was Myvanwy that got the French medal at the Mansion House, I am not sure but that it is Olwen that oftenest heads the French class at the Oxford High School."

In the 1911 census both sisters were living at home with their parents at The Lodgings, Jesus College, Oxford. Myfanwy was described as a ‘Researcher in History,’ while Olwen was performing housekeeping duties for their parents. Olwen went on to become a suffragette. Neither sister ever married. Myfanwy, of the Ivy House Hotel, Marlborough, Wiltshire, passed away at the age of 71 on the 28th of November, 1945 at 95, Southmoor Road, Oxford. Olwen died on the 10th of April, 1953 at 3, Brading Avenue, Southsea, aged 77.

Elizabeth (or Elspeth as she was known) died in 1911, and her husband in 1915.

Story contributed by Lindsey Colbourne