Thomas Gee : Media Mogul with a Message

Bob Morris

20th November 2019

Thomas Gee 1815-1898 - a man of principle.

A Denbigh printer/publisher who left his mark on society in Wales in so many ways.

Thomas Gee's father, also Thomas (1780-1845), moved from Chester to the Vale of Clwyd  as a printer for the Ruthin publisher Thomas Jones, who produced sermons, Sunday School books and poetry.

Society in Ruthin was dominated by the Gentry, which a Methodist liberal like Jones found stifling, so the business was moved to Denbigh. Jones died in 1820 and Thomas Gee (senior) took over the business, and had married a girl from Llangynhafal, the marriage producing seven children, including Thomas junior, and although Anglicans the family became close to the Methodist persuasion. 

Thomas Gee snr. established his own printing works, Gwasg Gee,  in a new premises on Lon Swan (below , left), and bought the house Bronallt on Denbigh High Street, opposite the works. (below, right)

As the business grew, his son, also  Thomas, was taken on by the firm part-time, while being educated at Grove Park, Wrexham, and at Denbigh Grammar School. At the age of 15  he became a Methodist. Later, he too found a wife in Llangynhafal - Susannah Hughes - who became an influential lady in her own right. He worked for a while with the large company of Eyre and Spottiswoode in London, coming back with ideas, and the company introduced the first steam-driven press and the first linotype machine in North Wales, Thomas Jnr. taking over the firm after the death of his father.

This was at a time of several upheavals in Wales. Agitation for change was fostered by adverse social conditions and religious thought. Some preachers, David Hughes for one,  were beginning to support agitation, such as in the Rebecca Riots of 1839-44 in Mid-and West-Wales.

Methodists at this time were also excluded from aspects of society - including attending university, participating in elections, or standing for parliament.

The demands for the disestablishment of the Church in Wales were also beginning to be heard.

In 1857 Gee produced a paper - Baner y Amserau Cymru - the first Welsh Language newspaper, costing a penny at first for sixteen pages.

Production rose to 15,000 copies per week, read by some 50,000 people, and was circulated throughout Wales once the railway arrive in the 1860s. Thomas Gee was a principal investor in the construction of the Vale of Clwyd lines..A briefer Saturday update was also produced.

 The paper took a line which was neutral between nonconformist denominations but was anti-Church, supported the abolition of all forms of discrimination based on religion,  and promotes a widening of the franchise. Politically it was pro-Liberal, and Thomas Gee jnr. became a party member.
 

A wide range of other literature was printed, with long working hours, 6am to 8pm.

The Company also produce  'Y Drysorfa' ( 'The Essayist' )- a literary journal. This was edited by Lewis Edwards (who had established the Methodist Coleg y Bala) , in response to the 1847 report on the state of eduction in Wales - with devastating criticism of school standards.This created a sense of inferiority in Wales and Y Drysorfa was just one of the measures taken to drive improvement. Although a succesful publication, Lewis eventually took it elsewhere as he was unable to meet the deadlines and accounting exactitudes which the businessman Thomas Gee required.

On the publishing front, Gee also produced many educational books, including the encyclopedia Y Gwyddoniadur Cymreig, in ten volumnes, from 1854 to 1879,   with Dr. Silvan Evans an  English-Welsh Dictionary (1868), Archaeology of Wales volumes, and the Life Story of Gladstone.  In educational matters he waged a long and successful struggle on behalf of undenominational schools and for the establishment of the intermediate school system. He also played a part in the establishment of Bangor Normal College and Aberystwyth and Bangor  universities.

During the 1850s there were strong local protests against the Church Rates, levied by the Corporation on behalf of the Church of England,  payable regardless of church membership, and naturally resented by the nonconformists. Thomas Gee was among the many who refused to pay. Punishment came in the form of a night raid from the Bailiffs who would take away furniture and other items, to be sold at auctions. These sales became riotous and people were reluctant to buy, so the practice was short-lived.

Thomas Gee was eventually offered the return of his own confiscated  furniture, which he refused to accept. What these raids and protests did prove was that with planning and enough support, it was possible for ordinary people to generate change. By the 1880s Thomas Gee had earned a place as a dominant figure in Wales. 

Another major issue of the time was the discrimination shown against people who did not vote 'as they should'. Sir Watkin Williams Wynne was among those landlords who ejected tenants who did not vote for the landowner or his candidate. Elections at the time were public. Thomas Gee publicised these malpractices in his paper, and strongly promoted the Secret Ballot. He engaged a London correspondent , John Griffiths, and for the 1868 election sent him to travel around Wales to identify cases of intimidation which could then be published. The Baner reports were an element in the Liberal success across Wales in that election. The paper also promoted a relief fund for the unfortunate ejected tenants. Eventually the Secret Ballot was adopted by Gladstone's government in 1872.

Gee also supported the establishment of a Capital City for Wales, promoting Cardiff as his choice.

  

 

In 1886 an agricultural depression - caused in part by the influx of wheat from the Canadian prairies, led to the Tithe Wars. Farmers were forced to ask for a reduction in their rents, and although many landlords saw the necessity for this and complied, the Church Commissioners refused to reduce  the Tithes - by now commuted to a cash payment. Gee promoted refusal to pay and again the Bailiffs were called, this time leading to some violent confrontations across North Wales. By 1888 matters were so serious the troops were called to the Vale of Clwyd. Thomas Gee and his son organised a grapevine to inform on troop movements, and injustices were reported in Y Baner. In 1886  he founded the Welsh Land League to support the tenants.

The eventual outcome was that the  burden of Tithes was placed on the landlords rather than the tenant farmers, but this had the effect of raising rents again. The issue was not satisfactorily resolved until the Church in Wales became disestablished in 1920.

Liberalism continued to thrive in North Wales (though Ruthin remained conservative) and Thomas Gee's daughters were prominent in the Women's section of the Party. They were also campaigning for the female vote long before it became the  mass movement of the early 20thC.

The Gee family were also strongly opposed to alcohol and supported the Temperance movement - not least because excess consumption by men was leading to  the abuse of women.

Thomas Gee died after a short illness in 1898, and there were huge crowds at his funeral. His son took Howel  took over management of the firm. 

When Gwasg Gee finally closed for good  closed in 2001, it was the oldest works of its type in Wales,