J. Geraint Jenkins: Maritime historian and authority on rural crafts

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The Independent Online

Salt water flows through my veins, as it did in many of my ancestors', though unlike them I have expressed it not by sailing to distant parts but in my books," wrote J. Geraint Jenkins in his autobiography Morwr Tir Sych ("Dry land sailor", 2007). As Curator of the Welsh Folk Museum (now the National History Museum) at St Fagans, on the outskirts of Cardiff, and of the Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum, J. Geraint Jenkins played a leading role in the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of Wales. He published more than 50 books, many to do with the seafaring traditions of west Wales, and was an acknowledged authority on the subject.

He also made expert studies of other aspects of Welsh folk life, including traditional farm implements, rural crafts, the woollen industry and Cardiff ship-owners. But his heart was in writing books about the sea and the communities which depend on it for their livelihood. His survey of coastal fishing, The Inshore Fishermen of Wales (1991), together with Nets and Coracles (1974) and Welsh Ships and Sailing Men (2005), reflect his lifelong fascination with those who go down to the sea in ships, doing business in great waters. He never tired of pointing out that Wales has 600 miles of coast.

Born into a seafaring family at Llangrannog in Cardiganshire in 1929, J. Geraint Jenkins received a wholly English education at the village school and at Cardigan grammar school. He first felt the romance of the sea while being taken to various ports in Wales and England to see his father, who worked on tramp steamers, and his first ambition was to become a sailor. The district was thoroughly Welsh-speaking and he retained a love of his first language throughout his career, writing such books as Crefftwyr Gwlad ("Country craftsmen", 1971), Traddodiad y Môr ("The maritime tradition", 2004), Ar Lan Hen Afon ("On the bank of an old river", 2005) and Y Cwrwgl ("The coracle", 2006); the last-named is a short study of the small, nearly square, keel-less boat made of wickerwork covered with water-proofed calico which was to be seen, until recent times, on the rivers Teifi, Tywi and Taf in west Wales.

He spent two years reading Welsh, Economics and Geography at University College, Swansea, before moving to the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, where he graduated with a degree in Geography and Anthropology in 1950. He made the move to study under E. G. Bowen and Alwyn J. Rees, the renowned sociologist, who supervised his master's degree. It was while at Aberystwyth that he first tasted strong drink, having been brought up in a strictly teetotal home, though he more than made up for this in later life. The chapel he attended, Penmorfa, was the subject of his 1998 monograph.

In 1953 he was appointed Assistant Keeper in the Museum of English Rural Life, housed at Reading University. Among his responsibilities was the wardenship of Whiteknights hall of residence, which went with a part-time lectureship. But the salary was only £450, paid quarterly, and on being refused a rise he began writing articles for magazines such as Country Life, The Countryman and Tatler as a means of supplementing his income. His first article was about a man named Owen Deane of Great Hampden in Buckinghamshire, a chair bodger, or broom squire, who made Windsor chairs for a living. Thus he became acquainted with English craftsmen and discovered an interest in an aspect of material culture that he was to write about for the rest of his life. His first book was the magisterial study The English Farm Wagon (1961), a detailed account which recorded information precariously held in the memories of the oldest members of the community.

Anxious for his sons to receive their education in Welsh, in 1960 he took up the post of Assistant Keeper in the Welsh Folk Museum at St Fagans, near Cardiff. The man who appointed him was Iorwerth C. Peate, the Museum's founder, a prickly character with whom Geraint Jenkins managed to get on well. Almost immediately he took on a miller, a blacksmith, a cowper, a saddler, a clogmaker and a baker, all of whom were set to work in the grounds of the open-air Museum. He was promoted to Keeper of Material Culture in 1969. His interest in the woollen mills of west Wales resulted in The Welsh Woollen Industry (1969) and several lesser studies, all researched with meticulous care and written in an attractively lucid style in both Welsh and English. It also led in 1976 to the establishment of the National Wool Museum at Drefach Felindre in the Teifi Valley. He became editor of the magazine Folk Life, a post he retained for the next 20 years. His Life and Tradition in Rural Wales (1976), a useful survey, was also written at this time.

In 1977, drawn by his wish to be engaged in something to do with the sea, he moved to the Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum in Cardiff's docklands. He was to spend nine happy years there, but in 1987 was tempted back to St Fagans, this time as Curator. The move was a mistake, for it took place just as the National Museum, of which the Folk Museum is an outstation, was coming in for interference from the Conservative Government and its representatives in Wales. As a patriotic Welshman he often clashed with the English businessmen appointed to the quango, and fell out regularly with the Museum's Curator, Alison Wilson, whom he detested because this dour Scot showed no sympathy with things Welsh. He was also disappointed in colleagues and Council members who were willing to put up with the non-Welsh ambience of the Museum and accept the financial limitations set on its work.

Taking early retirement in 1992, he went with his wife Nansi back to Penbryn in the district where he had grown up. There he found the predominantly Welsh culture of his boyhood had almost disappeared; English incomers had settled in most of the farms, Llangrannog had become a holiday village deserted out of season, and most of his old friends had died. He nevertheless threw himself into politics – he had been a longstanding member of the Welsh Liberal Party – and was elected on to the county council. He served as High Sheriff of the County in 1994 and took his turn as chairman of Ceredigion county council from 2002 to 2003. One of the things he accomplished, as a member of the Cadwgan Trust, was the purchase of Cardigan Castle, where the first National Eisteddfod had been held in 1176, with a view to restoring it as a heritage centre.

A man of Pickwickian frame, J. Geraint Jenkins was excellent company late at night and liked nothing better than the company of the less abstemious among Welsh writers, wits and artists. He reserved his animus for the more sober-sided of his compatriots, especially those who put their patriotism after their own careers. This outspokenness sometimes landed him in hot water but, for the most part, did not interfere with his genial manner, which was seen at its best when he was among country people, in whose culture he found deep and lasting delight.

Meic Stephens

John Geraint Jenkins, historian: born Llangrannog, Cardiganshire 4 January 1929; Curator, Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum (1979-87); Curator, Welsh Folk Museum (1987-91); High Sheriff of Ceredigion (1994-95); Chairman, Ceredigion County Council (2002-03); married 1954 Nansi Jarman (two sons and one son deceased); died Carmarthen 15 August 2009.