Walter T. Morgan, MA
Historian and Assistant Keeper,
National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth
Walter Thomas Morgan was an Assistant Keeper at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. He was a consummate scholar, a prolific reader, with a special interest in church history.
Walter was born in Aberdare on September 9th, 1912, the son of Isaac David Morgan and his wife Catherine (Cassie), née Butler. Isaac holds the distinction of being the very first pupil enrolled at the Aberdare County School; this event is dated September 29th, 1896. He went on to train successfully as a solicitor. Cassie Morgan died 22 June 1915 when Walter was not quite three years old, and so his upbringing was shared between his father, his father’s sister Agnes Mary Morgan, and his grandfather John Morgan a co-operative store manager. Walter’s grandmother Naomi Morgan died in 1914. The family home was situated in Foundry Town, at 8 Tanybryn Street.
Walter’s elementary education took place at the Town Council School, Clifton Street (now called Caradog Primary School). In September 1923 he transferred to the County School in Trecynon as the youngest entrant of his year1.
Walter must have shown interest in cricket while at school, as he is shown in a school photograph as a member of a Junior Cricket XI. The team was in the charge of R.V. Hoggins2, the teacher of Commercial Subjects.
Public examinations followed in the upper school: School Certificate 1927, and again in 1928 when he passed, gaining two distinctions. He took Geography at the Supplementary Stage in 1929 then his Higher Certificate in 1930. The quality of his Higher result was sufficient for him to be awarded a Glamorgan County Exhibition, worth £60 per annum, at U.C. Cardiff. He completed his B.A. in 1933 with an honours degree in history, spending the following year gaining his teaching certificate. His first post was as a teacher of history and French at Bexleyheath High School, but in 1937 he abandoned the role of schoolmaster and returned to Wales when he took up a position of Research Assistant at U.C. Cardiff where his lifelong study of manuscripts began3. The following year he was appointed to Cardiff Central Library as manuscript specialist, staying there for three years.
Like so many of his generation, his career was interrupted by the second World War. Walter was conscripted into the Royal Navy and three months after he joined, he was sent in July 1941 to Reykjavik in Iceland. He arrived 14 months after the British Government had, in May 1940, made the decision to occupy Iceland, a neutral country. This operation followed soon after the German invasion of Denmark and Norway. The occupation was intended to enable British bases to be established on the island, and to pre-empt a possible move on Iceland by the German forces. Walter worked with the Coastguard and was based in several places: Hofn in Hofnafjordtur; Vopnafjordur in the summer of 1942; then in 1944, he was put in charge of a small group at Eskifjordur. In July 1945 he left Iceland and spent the rest of his time in the navy in Scotland. However, his four years in Iceland were sufficient for Walter to become proficient in the Icelandic language, a skill that he successfully maintained for the rest of his life.
However on New Year’s Eve 1944, whilst in Iceland, he met a 22-year-old young woman called Thorgerdur Sigurrós Jóhannesdóttir the daughter of a watchmaker, Jóhannes Sveinsson. After the war, Walter and Thorgedur, who was known as Gerda, were married in February 1946 in south Wales. They lived for a short time in Aberdare when Walter resumed his post at the Cardiff Central Library. Then in July 1946 the couple moved to Aberystwyth following Walter’s appointment as an Assistant Keeper at The National Library of Wales, where he worked until he retired in 1975. In October 1950, at the age of just 29, and just four years into her marriage Gerda fell ill and died of heart failure. Walter was greatly distressed at the loss of his young bride, and grieved for her throughout the rest of his life. Walter remained a widower, and there were no children.
For many of his year’s in Aberystwyth, Walter occupied the ground floor flat at 49, Portland Street, Aberystwyth. He welcomed many visiting Aberdarians to the flat as well as the occasional student from Iceland who came to study at the university. The rooms were kept in good order but were stacked from floor to ceiling with books, a sign of Walter’s scholarly interests in a variety of subjects that he pursued in his own time in addition to his duties at The Library. He knew French, German, Latin, Icelandic and, of course Welsh, the language of his home. In addition to publishing several academic papers, Walter gained an M.A. in 1962 with a thesis which dealt with the consistory courts of the diocese of St. David’s, 1660-1858. Walter was well-travelled, was very concerned about international relations and world peace, and was a supporter of the United Nations.
In his later years, visits home to Aberdare were made by public transport, usually at Christmas time. He would stay with (Long) Tom Evans at ‘Ynyslas’, Abernant Road and sometimes with T. Arwyn Williams5 and his wife Heulwen at Unity House, Monk Street. On these occasions, he would arrange meetings with his fellow past students Handel Davies, the aerodynamicist, and Mansel Davies, professor of chemistry at Aberystwyth - all three were 1930 ‘leavers’. Meetings took place at Handel’s family home in Horeb Terrace, Llwydcoed.
Walter kept relatively fit as his years advanced. He particularly enjoyed walking in the Aberystwyth locality and his short stocky figure was well known in the area, particularly the rapid pace he maintained on his excursions - a pace which gave many a younger companion a surprising indication of the lack of his own fitness! However, Walter eventually suffered from cataracts in both eyes. One of the two operations he underwent to cure this disease was a failure and this left him blind in one eye. However, the improved sight in the other eye enabled him to resume his passion for writing and reading. He also suffered from a slight stutter, but his intellectual powers remained in place until his death, which followed a short illness. He died aged 78 on November 29th, 1990. Following cremation at Llwydcoed Crematorium his ashes were buried in his hometown of Aberdare where he had laid his wife Gerda to rest almost exactly forty years earlier.
Anybody who visited Walter in his Portland Street flat will have been entertained in his front parlour. Those of us who had the pleasure of Walter’s hospitality will remember the portrait of Gerda and Walter that took pride of place on the mantelpiece in that room, and its significance for him. We were fortunate to discover this lovely picture, which is reproduced at the beginning of this article. It was found in The Walter T. Morgan Papers held at The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.
Acknowledgement: This account of Walter’s life has drawn heavily upon the obituary6 written by Dr Ólafur R. Dýrmundsson for the Icelandic newspaper Morgunbladid dated 22 January 1991. We gratefully acknowledge Ólafur’s permission to use information from his article here. Ólafur was a research student at UCW Aberystwyth, 1966-72, and became a lifelong friend of Walter. The full text of the obituary written by Ólafur, can be seen here (pdf - opens in new window).