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How one man made Wales one of the most literate countries in Europe: the extraordinary story of Griffith Jones

Read about a Welsh minister and his circulating schools - best known for spreading literacy.

Europeana Foundation

Between 1731 and 1771 Griffith Jones’s Circulating Schools managed to teach half of Wales to read. In the space of forty years, around 200,000 people had attended his three-month schooling programmes; including men, women and children. This was quite a feat as they were not government funded.

Jones’s endeavour radically transformed Wales in a spiritual and cultural sense. The renowned preacher did not wish to create educated social climbers, but communities of pure Christians. In his view, the inability to read the Scriptures in an individual’s mother-tongue endangered one’s access to the eternal life.

Therefore, most classes under Jones’s system were held through the medium of Welsh. These short-term schools not only had a profound effect on literacy in Wales, but they varied the way people experienced the Welsh language. It was now practised more widely in textual and written form, as well as orally.

Across Europe, Jones’s schools were the subject of many a discussion. Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, even commissioned a report on his charitable endeavour in 1764.

How did these Circulating Schools operate?

The schools circulated all over Wales and typically lasted three months at each location. Sessions were held at central community hubs: churches, chapels and sometimes farm barns.

Recruited teachers were often trained beforehand by Griffith Jones himself, at his base in Llanddowror, Carmarthenshire.

This charitable endeavour attracted financial support from far and wide. Patrons as far as London and Somerset donated towards Jones’s Circulating Schools. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge supplied him with generous amounts of religious texts, especially Welsh Bibles, to be used as teaching material in the ‘classroom’.

It’s worth noting that around two thirds of each ‘classroom’ were adults.

What were the Circulating Schools’ purpose?

Between 1710 and 1731 Griffith Jones worked avidly as a clergyman and preacher. He was fond of questioning his congregation on their morals and beliefs.

However, he quickly realised that a large portion of his rural congregation at Llanddowror were incapable of discussing such matters sophisticatedly. Quite simply, because they didn’t have access to an education. As a result, these folk were unable to develop their ability to read widely on religious subjects.

This inspired Jones to set-up his Circulating Schools. It’s no surprise that they placed great emphasis on reading and understanding the Bible, which, in Jones’s view, could save one’s soul.

By Griffith Jones’s death in 1761, a total of 3,495 Circulating Schools had been conducted all over Wales. These schools continued to circulate until 1771.

Elen Haf Jones, Digital Access Projects Officer, National Library of Wales

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