Patrick Hannan, writer and broadcaster is an honorary fellow of Cardiff University.
I don’t know exactly when it was when I first walked through the main building in Cathays Park and saw the statue of John Viriamu Jones, the first principal of what was eventually to become Cardiff University. What I do know is that I was struck in particular by that unusual middle name. I’d never come across it before, but I assumed it was one of those desperate efforts, so necessary in Wales, to establish a distinctive identity, to wave a hand above the tide of the great surname shortage that washes over the country.
When I was at a small grammar school in South Wales probably more than half the pupils there shared only a handful of surnames. The problems this caused was tackled, conventionally enough, by doling out numbers. But in Latin. So you would have, for example, Williams major, minor, tertius, quartus, quintus…and so on. In some cases this system ran into, for most of us, uncharted realms of classical accomplishment: in a school of only three hundred and fifty boys at one time twenty-six of them were called Davies. Eventually, perhaps in despair, the headmaster allotted a new arrival the title Davies minimus – the least – but even he was by no means the last of his numbered tribe.
Over the years people have devised various methods of dealing with the problem. Being identified by three names rather than two, for example, as in Evan William Evans, or using an emphatic initial – R. David Davies, perhaps. Maybe adding a hyphen for a bit of class, or adopting a place name instead of what they’ve been landed with: even a county, say, like Powys or Gwynedd.
While some parents have remained resolutely traditional, others have gone to great lengths to establish distinctive identities for their children. So it’s scarcely surprising that, in a nation devoted to choral music, the names of two German composers, Handel and Haydn, with a slightly altered pronunciation, have been bestowed on the youth of Wales for generations. And what about the stipendiary magistrate in South Wales who became particularly famous, I suspect, because of the idiosyncrasy of his name. It was Matabele Davies, derived, I suppose, from Matabeleland, then in the British colony of Rhodesia, now part of Zimbabwe.
Which brings us back to Viriamu Jones, whose whole family exemplifies this particular quest for individuality. Far from the name being buried deep in the history or literature of Wales as you might have thought, its origins lie far away on an island in the New Hebrides – now Vanatu – in the south west Pacific, called Erromanga. It was there in 1839 that a Welsh missionary called (what else?) John Williams, landed and, tradition has it, was subsequently eaten by the natives.
John Viriamu Jones’s father, Thomas, was a particular admirer of this missionary and honoured his memory in naming his son. Viriamu was the Erromangan way of pronouncing William and so Viriamu the boy was called. It may well have been that this bold departure in the naming business was enough for Thomas Jones for a while because his next son was called, unexceptionally, David Brynmor Jones. When he was eventually knighted, however, he awarded himself the tiny distinction of a hyphen and lived on as David Brynmor-Jones.
However, a third son was the most exotically named of them all, known as Leif but christened Leifchild Stratten Jones. Like his brother he eventually invested in a hyphen and became Leif-Jones, but the name pursued its owner. He enjoyed a career as a Liberal politician and, because of his devotion to the temperance movement, became popularly known as Tealeaf Jones. The joke had probably worn pretty thin by the time he made his escape from it by becoming Lord Rhayader.
But of course the distinction of this particular family doesn’t lie in what its members were called. It’s much more that it represents the character, ambition and determination that then drove people from modest backgrounds all over Britain to achieve great things. Thomas Jones, the father of those three boys, had been an apprentice flannel maker, a collier and eventually a Nonconformist minister. David became a knight, a QC, an MP and a Privy Councillor; Leif a member of the House of Lords.
And John Viriamu was perhaps the most remarkable of them all. A physicist by training (he graduated at the age of 19, following that with a double First at Oxford), by the age of twenty five he was principal of a college in Sheffield, rescuing it from what was described as its “moribund state” with such success that it became the founding institution of Sheffield University. Only two years later, in 1883, he became Cardiff’s first principal.
Although he was only forty-five when he died he was one of the most important figures in modern Welsh educational history. The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales, published earlier this year, says of him: “A personality of rare charm (and an expert mountaineer), hitherto no-one has equalled him as an educational leader in Wales.”
Did that unusual name mark him out, spur him on, you wonder? Without it would he have achieved so much in a short life? Almost certainly so, but and if he’d just been plain John Jones that life would perhaps not be quite so easily remembered today. © Patrick Hannan 2008