Saturday, 17 September 2016

67 Welsh newspaper 'Seren Gomer'

67 Seren Gomer(photos: Joseph Harris, Capel Gomer, front page) – 17 September 2016

Many readers will be aware that the first English language newspaper in Wales was The Cambrian, published in Swansea from 1804.  Not so well-known is the fact that the first Welsh language newspaper in Wales was also published in Swansea, rather than in a predominately Welsh-speaking part of the Principality. 

This was Seren Gomer (literally meaning “Star of Gomer”), launched in January 1814 by Rev. Joseph Harris, who took the Bardic name Gomer.  Born the son of a farm bailiff in Pembrokeshire in 1773, Harris was inspired by a religious revival at Puncheston in 1795, and after his marriage became minister of Swansea’s Welsh Baptist Chapel in Back Lane in 1801, living in first Tontine Street and later in High Street.  He also kept a day-school, had a bookshop and a printing works, publishing sermons in Welsh and English, and in 1821 a collection of hymns “Casgliad o Hymnau”, which included some of his own compositions.  He wrote pamphlets and books to uphold belief in the Trinity and oppose trends towards Unitarianism.  He was a contemporary of Christmas Evans, with whom he collaborated on a translation into Welsh of Dr Gill's Commentary on the New Testament.

Seren Gomer was published by David Jenkin of High Street, Swansea, and sold in about fifty places throughout Wales.  It was intended as a ‘general weekly informant for the whole of the Principality of Wales’, and contained local, national and foreign news, poems, letters, details of the movement of shipping, and reports on markets and fairs.  Compared with the immediacy of the contents of current newspapers, Seren Gomer of necessity often contained news translated into Welsh of events that occurred long before publication date, which were often updated or corrected in later reports towards the end of the same edition, as with the progress of Napoleon’s march through France before Waterloo.

But the heavy tax on newspapers and paucity of revenue from advertising caused the newspaper to cease publication in August 1815 after 85 editions.  Three years later it was re-launched as a fortnightly publication, and in 1820 it became monthly.  Before Joseph Harris died aged 52 in 1825, Seren Gomer was sold to Carmarthen publisher David Evans, and became a quarterly Baptist magazine, which continued until 1983.  Its editor from 1951 to 1975 was Rev. Lewis Valentine, who, along with other Plaid Cymru founders Swansea University lecturer Saunders Lewis and teacher D.J. Williams, had been imprisoned for a year after their 1936 protest against plans to erect an RAF bombing school in the Llŷn peninsula. 

It was Joseph Harris who secured the site overlooking Penclawdd where the now ruined Mount Hermon Baptist Chapel was built.  After his death, the Back Lane congregation divided amicably to form separate English and Welsh chapels – respectively in 1827 Mount Pleasant in Gower Street (now The Kingsway), and in 1831 Bethesda in Bethesda Street (now Prince of Wales Road).  Capel Gomer opened in March 1891 in what is now lower Orchard Street, where the multi-storey car park stands, being named after Joseph Harris.  Along with the Central Hall next door, it was destroyed by enemy bombardment during the Second World War in February 1941.  The congregation re-located to Mount Zion Chapel at the top of Craddock Street, which was rebuilt in 1962 as Capel Gomer, and is now home to the Chinese Christian community in Swansea. 

The newspaper’s bicentenary was marked two years ago by an exhibition at Swansea’s Central Library, public lectures in Welsh and in English by Professor Prys Morgan, and the unveiling of a plaque on the village green in Wolfscastle, near Haverfordwest, in the parish where Joseph Harris had been born.  Seren Gomer’s significance lay, in the words of the late Professor Glanmor Williams, “in encouraging an awareness of nationality”.

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