The Photographs of Ruthin by
Roger Edwards December 2017
John Thomas was a truly remarkable man. Born in 1838 near Lampeter in Cardiganshire, he moved at the age of 15 to Liverpool, where he worked for some ten years as a draper’s assistant. His journey to Liverpool, initially on foot, then by horse and trap, canal boat and, finally, by rail was in itself indicative of the hardship of life in rural Wales. A devout chapel-goer and a member of Liverpool’s vibrant Welsh community, he remained in Liverpool until the end of his life in 1905.
In the interim period, hr discovered photography and, shortly before his death, sold a selection of 3000 negatives to Sir OM Edwards, at the time the Editor of the magazine “Cymro”, whose descendants later donated the collection to the National Library of Wales.Aberystwyth, where I went to view it some 30 years ago. Of course, as many of you are aware, John Thomas has family connections with Ruthin, as two of his great-grandchildren, Ann Francis Roberts and Huw Davies currently live in the town.
In the 1860s Thomas left the drapery business and became what we would, I suppose, call today a travelling salesman. He soon found that there was a great demand for what were called “cartes de visite”, postcards of prominent personalities of the time. Among the Liverpool Welsh community it became fashionable to display photographs of preachers in their drawing rooms. Remember that, according to Thomas himself, by 1890 there were no fewer than 59 Welsh chapels in Liverpool alone. Thomas began taking studio photographs of these preachers and there are literally hundreds of them in his collection. Quite how he mastered the infant craft of photography is unclear but master it he certainly did and some of his portrait photographs are little short of masterpieces.
Thomas spent the next 40 years taking photographs of we now call “Yr Hen Ffordd Gymreig O Fyw”, the old Welsh way of life. He concentrated almost wholly on life in late-Victorian rural Wales, took no photographs at all in Llanelli, Swansea, Merthyr, Cardiff or Newport and his only concession to modern, post-industrial life was to photograph railways, banks and post offices but then only in rural Wales.
In 1867 he made the first of many journeys to take these photos in Wales and the following year, 1868, he made his first visit to Ruthin to take two large group photographs of the great and the good of the National Eisteddfod, which was held in Ruthin that year. You’ll see those photos shortly. During the 1870s he travelled further and further westward into rural Wales but it is difficult to work out how many times he visited Ruthin because his Ruthin photographs are undated. My own guess is that it was no more than three or four times. You will notice from his Ruthin street scenes that he seemed to favour empty streets, though, in other Welsh towns and villages, he also photographed fairs and markets. As I have said ,many of his photographs are undated but we believe that his shots of Well Street and the Square were taken in the early 1880s.
In the 1890s his horizons widened and he travelled as far as Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire. It was very unusual at the time for a photographer to take any interest in ordinary people, “Y Werin” and only a person coming from that background would have chosen to portray the life and character of those communities. He photographed drunkards, beggars and vagrants, as well as preachers and literary figures and some of his most poignant portrait photographs are of the very lowest strata of Welsh society, as you will see from the two final photographs.
You don’t have to travel to Aberystwyth to view his collection now because, in the last few years the collection is available to view on the Net. If you type in “John Thomas photographs” you will gain access to them. Incidentally, some old Ruthin photographs have appeared on the Net, wrongly ascribed to John Thomas, his photographs are very distinctive, as I hope you will agree.