Owen, Hugh (1804-1881) (DNB00)
OWEN, Sir HUGH (1804–1881), promoter of Welsh education and philanthropist, born on 14 Jan. 1804, at Y Foel farm, near Talyfoel Ferry, in the parish of Llangeinwen, Anglesey, was the eldest son of Owen Owen, by Mary (d. 1862), daughter of Owen Jones, a prominent calvinistic methodist leader (Y Gestiana, 1892, p. 140). Owen Owen's father, Hugh, who was a currier at Carnarvon, afforded, in 1770, protection from an angry mob to the first nonconformist who preached after the methodist revival in that town (Hughes, Methodistiaeth Cymru, ii. 227).
Hugh the younger received his education at a private school at Carnarvon, and, after a brief stay on the farm at home, proceeded in March 1825 to London, where he became clerk to a barrister, and afterwards entered a solicitor's office. There he continued for about ten years, until he was appointed on 22 Feb. 1836 to a clerkship at the poor-law commission. After remaining for about six years in the ‘parish property’ department, where his practical knowledge of law proved of great service, he was promoted in 1853 to the post of chief clerk, an office which he retained after the reorganisation of the commission under the name of the local government board until his retirement in November 1872. During these twenty years he represented the department at all the parliamentary committees on poor-law subjects, notably the Andover inquiry in 1846.
Owen appears to have first interested himself in educational work in 1839 by acting as secretary of a movement for establishing a British school at Islington; but shortly afterwards he turned his attention to the wants of Wales, and on 26 Aug. 1843 he addressed and had widely distributed a ‘Letter to the Welsh People’ on the subject of day-schools. In November he was instrumental in inducing the British and Foreign School Society to appoint an agent to aid the movement in North Wales, where prior to that time there were only two British schools in existence. He also procured the appointment of another agent for South Wales a few years later. In August 1846, on the formation of the Cambrian Educational Society, which was practically a Welsh branch of the British and Foreign School Society, Owen became its honorary secretary, in which capacity he was in frequent communication with the committee of council on education, and rendered considerable assistance to the commissioners appointed by that department in October 1846 to inquire into the state of education in Wales (see their Report, 1847, pt. ii. p. 2). By means of a Welsh religious census, which he privately conducted in December 1846, he challenged the claims of the national schools, put forward on behalf of the Church of England, to enjoy a monopoly of government support in Wales (British Quarterly Review, January 1871). In his census schedules he obtained information about Welsh deaf mutes, and was thereby the means of forming in 1847 the Cambrian Association for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, which established shortly after a training-school for them at Aberystwith, subsequently removed to Swansea. Owen also wrote numerous letters to the Welsh magazines and for general distribution, notably one dated 17 March 1847, in which he explained and popularised the aims and methods of British schools, and organised the opinions of Welsh nonconformists in favour of state-aided undenominational education, against which a large section of them were at that time opposed. By 1870–1 there were 271 such state-aided schools in Wales, with an average attendance of 32,455 children. In the meantime Owen had in 1855 been elected a member of the committee of the British and Foreign School Society, and in 1856 helped to establish a normal college for teachers which was opened at Bangor in 1858. He also took an active part in establishing a similar institution at Swansea for the training of schoolmistresses. Many years afterwards, in the autumn of 1879, he prepared a scheme for connecting elementary schools with higher grade schools by means of scholarships, and this resulted in the foundation of the North Wales Scholarship Association, which, until the recent establishment of intermediate schools and the consequent dissolution of the society in 1894, filled an important gap in the educational system of North Wales.
The great work of the later half of Owen's life was the organisation of higher education in Wales, and it is to him, above all others, that the University College of Wales at Aberystwith owes its existence. The idea was first mooted by him at a private meeting held in London in April 1854, when he was appointed one of a committee of three to prepare a ‘Proposal to establish Queen's Colleges’ in Wales similar to those in Ireland (the proposal and outlines of constitution are printed in the ‘Report of the Committee on Welsh Education, 1881,’ Appendix, Nos. 1, 2); but owing to the government being preoccupied by the Crimean war and other matters, very little progress was made until September 1863, when it was discussed by Owen, Thomas Nicholas [q. v.], and others at a sectional meeting of the Eisteddfod at Swansea. A few months later a London committee was formed, of which Owen became one of the honorary secretaries. Owing to the scant support afforded it by the landowning class and the church party generally, only about 12,000l. had been collected at the opening of the college in October 1872, and a debt of over 7,000l. had been incurred. Resigning his position at the local government board so as to devote his whole time to the cause of Welsh education, Owen, who from 1871 to 1877 was honorary secretary of the institution, organised, at the suggestion of a Welsh journalist, John Griffith, better known as Y Gohebydd, a house-to-house canvass of Wales, and addressed meetings in all parts of the country, resulting in the payment of the debt and in the collection of about 9,000l. for a sustentation fund, as well as in the creation of a strong public opinion in favour of higher education. Without government aid the college would, however, have collapsed. On Owen's initiative, a departmental committee was appointed on 25 Aug. 1880, with Lord Aberdare as chairman, to inquire ‘into the condition of intermediate and higher education in Wales and Monmouthshire.’ Subsequently, on 27 Jan. 1881, he laid before the committee a complete scheme for secondary education in Wales, which has since his death been carried into effect, with only a few modifications, by means of the Welsh Intermediate Education Act of 1889. His other educational aims have also been fulfilled by the establishment of two other university colleges in Wales, in addition to that at Aberystwith, which has been placed on a permanent footing; while all three in 1894 became constituents of a university for Wales incorporated by royal charter. ‘He may almost be said,’ according to Mr. Lewis Morris, ‘to have created, or at any rate to have discovered, the thirst for education which now plays a great part in the present of Wales, and will play a greater part still in its future.’
Owen was the chief instrument in bringing about a reform in the Eisteddfod, thereby renewing its usefulness and reviving the national interest in it. As the outcome of a scheme submitted by him at the Aberdare meeting in 1861, there were established, in connection with the usual competitive assemblies, sectional meetings for the consideration of papers dealing with Welsh movements. In 1866 he invited Matthew Arnold, who spoke of him as an ‘old acquaintance,’ to read a paper at the Eisteddfod held that year at Chester. Arnold sent him a sympathetic reply, but declined the invitation (Arnold, On the Study of Celtic Literature, Introduction, pp. v–xiv). At the Carnarvon meeting in 1880 Owen himself read a paper advocating a scheme for placing the control of the Eisteddfod in the hands of a permanent body, since called the National Eisteddfod Association, acting in conjunction with ‘Yr Orsedd,’ or congress of bards (see First Report of Eisteddfod Association, October 1881). With John Griffith (Y Gohebydd) Owen was also the means of reviving in November 1873 the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, extinct since 1843.
Throughout his life he was also closely identified with philanthropic work. With Griffith Davies [q. v.] and other members of the Welsh methodist chapel at Jewin Crescent, to which he then belonged, he founded in 1837 a Welsh provident society, and continued to take an active part in its management until 1862; and in July 1873 he was the chief means of establishing the London Welsh Charitable Aid Society. He was for twenty-three years honorary secretary, and subsequently vice-president, of the London Fever Hospital. He was also one of the vice-presidents of the National Thrift Society, and treasurer, and for many years chairman of the executive committee of the National Temperance League. That society had his portrait painted, in October 1881, for inclusion in a series of portraits of temperance advocates. For a short time he sat on the London School Board, being elected to succeed William McCullagh Torrens [q. v.] for the Finsbury division in 1872.
In recognition of his ‘services to the cause of education in Wales,’ he was knighted in August 1881; but by this time his health was failing, and on 20 Nov. he died at Mentone, and was buried on 26 Nov. in Abney Park cemetery.
A statue in bronze, by Mr. Milo Griffith, has been erected by public subscription to his memory at Carnarvon, where it was unveiled on 22 Oct. 1888; and there is a bust of him, by Mr. William Davies (Mynorydd), at the Royal Institution, Swansea.
By his wife Ann Wade, who predeceased him in 1879, he had several children, of whom two sons and four daughters survived him, his eldest son being Sir Hugh Owen, K.C.B., the present permanent secretary of the local government board.
[Memoirs of Owen by Mr. Lewis Morris (in Y Cymmrodor, i. 39, 48), and Mr. Marchant Williams (in the Red Dragon for May 1882, with portrait), both of whom were closely associated with him in some of his later educational work. The authority for his early life is an autobiographical sketch published posthumously in the North Wales Chronicle; while his own evidence before the committee on Welsh education in 1880–1 (see above) gives the best account of his work in connection with Aberystwith College. See also ‘Sir Hugh Owen, his Life and Life-Work,’ by W. E. Davies (being the essay to which the prize offered by the National Eisteddfod Association was awarded at the Liverpool Eisteddfod in 1884), London, 1885, 8vo; and a Welsh memoir by T. L. (the Rev. Thomas Levi), published by the Religious Tract Society, 1883, 8vo, both of which have portraits of Owen.]