Dictionary of Welsh Biography

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THOMAS , JOHN WILLIAM ( Arfonwyson ; 1805 - 1840 ), mathematician ;

b. in 1805 , the son of William Thomas , labourer , of Allt Isaf , Pentir . He attended school for three years, from the age of 7 to 10; after that he became a quarry boy , but attended night school where he showed a particular aptitude for arithmetic. At the age of 17, in order to get more facilities for study, he became a traveller for a Beaumaris bookseller ; he gave this up after a year, and for three months studied at the school kept by Robert Roberts , the almanac-maker ( 1776 - 1836 ) (q.v.) , at Holyhead . Then, he himself opened a school at Tre-garth and began work on his book, Elfennau Rhifyddiaeth . At the age of 21 he married, and moved to Bangor ; the story goes that he was again engaged for a time in selling books in Anglesey ; however, J. H. Cotton (q.v.) obtained for him the mastership of a school at Ffestiniog . There, he and the local clergyman failed to see eye to eye; he lost his appointment, and returned to Bangor to keep another school; and here, towards the end of 1830 , he published the first part of his Elfennau Rhifyddiaeth , which would, more appropriately, have been entitled ‘Elfennau Mathemateg’ — though there was nothing elementary about it; the second part appeared in 1831 and the third in 1832 ; the author also talked about publishing a Dwned (i.e. grammar) Cymraeg , and a Geiriadur Cymraeg , ‘scientific and technical.’ For six months in 1832 he was editor of Tywysog Cymru , a periodical published at Caernarvon . In 1833 he produced his Geiriadur Cymraeg a Saesneg , the undoing of which was his acceptance of the views of W. O. Pughe (q.v.) — views which Arfonwyson was to defend vigorously later on in Seren Gomer . In Aug. 1834 the search for work took him to London , where he became a member of the Cymreigyddion Society and, in 1836 and 1837 , its official ‘bard.’ He became private secretary to William Cobbett but on the latter's death was, once more, unemployed. It was during this period that he completed his Trysorfa yr Athrawon , 1837 , for the use of Sunday schools . A letter which he had written on Halley 's comet was brought to the notice of G. B. Airey , the Astronomer Royal , who found work for him at Greenwich Observatory ; there he produced Welsh almanacs , and wrote many articles for Seren Gomer and other periodicals. But, by this time, he had fallen into a decline, and he d. 12 March 1840 ; he was buried at Greenwich . It is not often that we find such a striking example of triumph over grievous difficulties as we do in the life of Arfonwyson .


  • Y Gwyddoniadur Cymreig (1889-96) ;
  • Seren Gomer , 1849 (six articles by Hugh Tegai ) — the two sources differ in some details and it should be observed that the recollections of Arfonwyson's father included in Hugh Tegai 's first article are manifestly incorrect in places;
  • T. M. Jones , Llenyddiaeth fy Ngwlad (1893) , 162, corroborated by Gwyneddon in Y Geninen , 1903 , 216.


Emeritus Professor Robert Thomas Jenkins, C.B.E., D.Litt., Ll.D., F.S.A., (1881-1969), Bangor

Corrections and additions:

THOMAS , JOHN WILLIAM ( 1805 - 1840 ; DWB , 955-6).

In 1832 he published a primer on reading English , Ffordd anffaeledig I Gymro uniaith ddarllen Saesneg yn gywir , one of the earliest books of instruction. On Elfennau Rhifyddiaeth see Gwydonydd , 11 ( 1973 ), 128.


Dr Llewelyn Gwyn Chambers, Bangor

Published date: 1959