Obituaries: The Rev W. Rhys Nicholas

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Welsh have included hymn-singing as an integral part of their culture, and the most popular television programme in the ratings stakes on S4C is the Sunday evening hymn-singing programme. A year ago a complete programme was devoted to the hymns of W. Rhys Nicholas, acknowledging his unique position as the most inspiring hymn-writer in the Welsh language of the last 30 years.

His most well-known hymn, "Pantyfedwen", has an unusual history. It was inspired by a competition at the annual Pantyfedwen Eisteddfod in Lampeter, one of the three Cardiganshire Eisteddfodau supported by the wealth of the London Welsh millionaire Sir David James, who made his fortune in West End cinemas. A then large prize of pounds 300 was offered for the best hymn of the 1967 Eisteddfod and it was won by W. Rhys Nicholas. The following year there was a competition to compose a tune for the winning hymn which was won by a Liverpool Welsh composer, Eddie Evans. The marriage was a brilliant success, so much so that within a decade the hymn-tune had become a second national anthem, sung at funerals, weddings, singing festivals and at Sunday services.

Nicholas became a familiar name on radio and television hymn programmes.

W. Rhys Nicholas was a highly cultured individual, a respected Congregationalist minister in Bryn, near Llanelli, in south Cardiganshire, and then in the seaside town of Porthcawl; his contribution to Welsh publishing has to be recognised. For many years he was involved with two publishing houses, Gomerian Press in Llandysul and the John Penry Press in Swansea. It was they who published most of his books of poems and hymns, such as Cerdd a Charol (1969), Oedfa'r Ifanc (1974), Cerddi Mawl (1980) and Y Mannau Mwyn a Cherddi Eraill I'r Ifanc (1985), but his most lasting and valuable contribution was published by the University of Wales Press in 1978 under the title The Folk Poets.

For 16 years, from 1964 to 1980, he was joint editor of Y Genhinen ("The Leek"), a literary journal. He also edited at least three other volumes of poetry, one for the Welsh Arts Council.

Nicholas received many honours but to him one of the most important was in 1978 when he was made a Fellow of the University of Wales, Swansea, for it was in that university college that he gained his honours degree in Welsh, serving as President of the Students' Union in 1941-42, and then between 1952 and 1975 as a regular part-time lecturer in the Department of Continuing Education.

William Rhys Nicholas, minister of the church, poet and hymn-writer: born Tegryn, Pembrokeshire 23 June 1914; ordained 1947; married Betty Evans (died 1985); died Porthcawl, Mid Glamorgan 2 October 1996.