Obituary: Professor Stephen J. Williams

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The Independent Online
Stephen Joseph Williams, writer, grammarian, born Ystradgynlais Breconshire 11 February 1896, Professor of Welsh Language and Literature University College of Wales Swansea 1956-61, married 1925 Ceinwen Williams (died 1989; two sons, one daughter), died Swansea 2 August 1992.

STEPHEN J. WILLIAMS died, aged 96, at the beginning of the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales, a unique cultural event in the calendar of western Europe, and an institution to which he gave unstinting service for 70 years. His contribution as an academic - he and Sir TH Parry- Williams translated works from Latin into Welsh for the evening concerts and campaigned for the festival's all-Welsh-language role - was acknowledged by his being made a Fellow of the Eisteddfod.

Born into a coalmining family in the Swansea valley in 1896, Williams was educated locally and at the University College of Wales Cardiff. His course was interrupted by the First World War, for which he served mostly in India and with the 11th Gurkha Rifles Regiment. Hundreds of his fellow soldiers died en route home from the subcontinent, but he survived, only to find that his father had died in his absence.

Williams returned to Cardiff, where he gained first-class honours in Welsh. For a short period he taught at Aberaeron County School and Llandeilo, where he met Ceinwen Williams, a member of a well-known family in the Towy Valley; they married in 1925. In 1927 he was appointed lecturer in Welsh at the University College of Wales Swansea and after the retirement of Dr Henry Lewis in 1956, to the chair of Welsh language and literature; here he remained until his retirement in 1961. He distinguished himself as a scholar in particular through Ystorya de Carolo Magno (1930), and Llyfr Blegywryd (1942), a critical text of the laws of Hywel Dda and the first attempt to edit the work since the efforts of Aneurin Owen in 1841. This work brought together Williams and the future politician J. Enoch Powell. Williams contacted Powell, then a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, after reading his article in a bulletin of Welsh studies on 'The Floating Sections of the Laws of Hywel Dda'. Powell contributed a chapter to the final volume and a long friendship between the two scholars followed.

Williams gave unstinting service as a lexicographer to the Board of Celtic Studies from 1950 until the late Eighties. He devised hundreds of terms in the world of Welsh language, especially in the field of sport. He was a pioneer in the field of teaching Welsh to learners and his useful textbook Beginner's Welsh went through 20 editions. Williams was willing to use all modern methods to teach the language. He was invited by the Welsh Economic Development Association to produce the first records on teaching Welsh as a second language.

He broadcasted on BBC Radio Wales lessons for those who wanted to learn Welsh: through these programmes his influence spread in the late 1940s to all parts of England, to Holland and, in particular, Brittany. He became a dependable friend of the Bretons and at the end of the Second World War, when the French (unfairly) persecuted some of the Bretons for alleged support of the Nazis, many of them fled to Wales, where they found an open door at the Williamses' home in Swansea. These Bretons never forgot his courage and kindness.

Williams took a great interest in the life of Swansea and especially in the world of drama. He agreed with the initiatives and the campaigns for a Welsh national theatre and was always ready to help the local Welsh drama society. He wrote plays to be performed and occasionally appeared in them. He served as a deacon at the Welsh Congregational Church of Henrietta Street, Swansea, and became the President of the Welsh Congregationalist Union.

Stephen J. Williams was a small, wiry active figure, a friendly, gregarious individual who never lost the common touch and who served the Welsh nation and generations of students faithfully as a scholar, grammarian and a historian of literature. He edited the poetry of Robert Williams (1766- 1850), 'Robert Ap Gwilym Ddu', issued by the University of Wales Press in two editions between 1948 and 1960. It sums up his immense gift of communicating the attraction of literature to the layman. His Welsh-language grammar, Elfennau Gramadeg Cymraeg (1959), is in a class of its own.

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