The symbol of a lost generation
11th November 2021
Discover the story of Ellis Humphrey Evans, the Welsh poet posthumously awarded the Eisteddfod chair at Birkenhead in 1917 after failing to return from 1st World War trenches. His story lives on thanks to a National Lottery funded centre at the former home of the poet in North Wales.
“People feel a real connection with this place and they always have,” says the Site Manager, stoking the kitchen fire in the stone farmhouse that was once the home of the Welsh poet Hedd Wyn.
It is true: Yr Ysgwrn feels like a special place. It is partly the location – the isolated building enjoys spectacular views of the Snowdonian hills – but most visitors are drawn by the story of Hedd Wyn himself, a prodigious self-taught bard who was killed in 1917 on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele.
His real name was Ellis Humphrey Evans, a shepherd born in the Welsh village of Trawsfynydd. Writing in the Welsh language and inspired by romantic poetry, he won numerous competitions and local eisteddfodau. One of his peers suggested he adopt the bardic name Hedd Wyn (Welsh for “blessed peace”).
As a Christian pacifist Ellis did not enlist when war broke out. But his family was required to send one of their sons to the British Army and 29-year-old Ellis signed up instead of his younger brother.
He was killed on 31 July, 1917 at the Third Battle of Ypres. Six weeks later, a poem he had submitted to the National Eisteddfod using a pseudonym, was declared winner of the bard’s chair, the highest prize that can be awarded to a Welsh poet.
When his death was announced, the empty chair was draped in a black sheet and the event became known as Y Gadair Ddu (or the Eisteddfod of the black chair). Today, the ornately carved throne can be seen at Yr Ysgwrn as well as many other artefacts from the poet’s short life.
The Site Manager at Yr Ysgwrn, says Ellis’ life and death have granted him a mythical quality. “But when you come here you learn about the man,” she says. That lesson is often delivered in the kitchen of the cottage where she likes to light a fire and tell visitors about the big family who shared Ellis life.
She points out that a decision was made to keep the cottage as a home rather than a museum. The walls are mostly free of panels and labels and the building has a warm, lived-in ambience.
The first visitors made their way up the narrow track that leads to the cottage in November, 1917, shortly after Ellis was “chaired” posthumously at the National Eisteddfod. For a while his mother would show curious people around the house; in later years his nephew, the late Gerald Williams, performed similar duties.
Snowdonia National Park Authority bought the cottage in March 2012, but soon realised the high cost of renovating the building and making it accessible to a rising number of visitors. In November, it was awarded a £149,700 grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund to develop plans for the refurbishment of the cottage and its outbuildings.
“It [the un-restored cottage] was very authentic and people knew what they were coming to,” says the Site Manager. “But if you wanted to entice people from further afield to tell the story we obviously needed to adapt the site and that’s where the Lottery bid came in.”
In May 2014, a further £2.8 million grant was obtained from the Fund to push ahead with the conservation of the cottage and the transformation of a cowshed into a visitor centre and café. A barn behind the cottage has been turned into a screening room and a new barn was built for the farmer who leases the 168 acres surrounding the cottage. New accommodation has also been built for Yr Ysgwrn’s resident colony of bats.
Since Yr Ysgwrn re-opened in May, 2017, more than 24,000 people have passed through its doors. Many of them are Welsh, of course. But the success of Hedd Wyn, a Welsh language movie about the poet’s life that was nominated for an Academy Award in 1994, has drawn increasing numbers of visitors from places like America, Canada and New Zealand.
Why do they come? Some are interested in poetry, of course. But to others Ellis is a potent emblem of wasted talent.
“He was one of 40,000 men in Wales that were killed and he is a symbol of that lost generation if you like,” says the Site Manager. “It’s impossible for people to remember each and every person who was killed in that war, but he symbolises a loss of potential. He had the potential to win the National Eisteddfod Chair; another of the 34 local men who were killed had finished his apprenticeship as a butcher; another was going to run his own bike shop. They never got that chance.”
To find out more about Yr Ysgwrn and the story of Hedd Wyn, please visit https://www.yrysgwrn.com/home
The film capturing the stirring story of poet Ellis Evans, Hedd Wyn, was the first Welsh film to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, in 1993, at the Oscars. The film (Hedd Wyn), is available to watch for free on the BFI Player https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-hedd-wyn-1992-online