William Spurrell, 1813-89

What’s in a Name … William Spurrell, 1813-89

William Spurrell, the third son of Richard and Elizabeth Spurrell was born at 13, Quay Street Carmarthen on 30th July 1813. The father, a former master, became clerk to the justices of the Carmarthen division of the county, an appointment he held until his death. The family settled in Carmarthen about two hundred years ago, when John Spurrell, an auctioneer left Bath to live in Lower Market Street (now Hall Street) and became estate agent for one of the Mansell’s. Their son, the aforementioned Richard, married Margaretta, daughter of Thomas Thomas,  Frowen, about two miles north-west of Llanboidy. George, younger brother of William, liked to claim that the Spurrell’s were an ancient family descended from a Roman invader called Spurilius, a name which occurs in Livy, but no one could be sure whether he was meant to be taken seriously.
William Spurrell attended the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in his native town until he was about sixteen, when he was apprenticed to John Powell Davies, a councillor and leading citizen. After five years, young Spurrell left for London to work in the office of Bradbury and Evans, printers and publishers, where he had the experience of working from the original manuscripts of Dickens (Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby) and Disraeli (Henrietta Temple). In 1838 he also witnessed the procession of the Coronation of Queen Victoria, as he stood within a few yards of her as she was about entering Westminster Abbey.
He returned to Carmarthen in 1839 and on 18th August 1840 a certificate of registration was issued to him to establish a printing press in the Borough. His first printing office was in Spurrell’s Court, Lower Market Street, so-called because the family had property there. The following year he moved his business to 37 King Street, where he also opened a stationery shop. In these premises the business remained for the rest of its time in Spurrell hands. In the early days, all the printing was done in one room at street level and upstairs there was a book-binding room, but as business grew so the office was extended. Printing was done on hand presses- for more than thirty years until about 1872, when the first printing machine, driven by a primitive gas engine, was installed.

In time William Spurrell acquired for himself an enviable reputation as a printer and publisher and many important works issued from his premises. But he was, too, an author who published his own work. The first edition of his Welsh-English Dictionary he issued in 1848, his English-Welsh Dictionary appearing in 1850. For some years he had been engaged upon a comprehensive dictionary of the Welsh language, by the Rev. D. Silvan Evans. B.D. This is unquestionably the most extensive work of its kind ever printed. Some idea may be formed of the magnitude of the book when we say that the first part, embracing the letter A only, contains 420 pages of closely printed matter. The dictionaries ran through a number of editions and eventually earned praise from David Lloyd George in the following terms: ‘I deeply appreciate the great service which the firm of W. Spurrell & Son have rendered over a long period to the Welsh language by producing successive editions of their Welsh Dictionary. I myself have found their last edition invaluable …

Long after William Spurrell’s death the dictionaries were completely revised by John and Edward Anwyl, but they still appeared under the Spurrell imprint, the Welsh-English text first in 1914 and the English-Welsh version first in 1916. But the largest work ever undertaken was the Welsh dictionary of Daniel Silvan Evans, planned on a grand scale in 1884.

In 1857 he acquired Yr Haul, a Church monthly, priced sixpence, which had been produced at Llandovery from its inception at the beginning of that year, and was its editor during the time he published it up to 1884. A few years earlier, in 1862, he brought out a cheaper monthly, Y Cyfaill Eglwysig, price one penny. During this period—1860 to 1884—he also produced a small weekly pamphlet called The Carmarthen Chronicle and Haul Advertiser, which served as a means to publish his personal views, often of antiquarian interest, as well as local news. With his ever increasing output of printed works he built up a reputation as a master of the first rank who introduced technical improvements, notably in the design of the printing case. He wrote often to the Printers’ Register and he revised the proofs of South-ward’s Dictionary of Typography. The first was the little Albion Press, which was given to the old County Museum.

If the dictionaries made his name a familiar one throughout Wales, it is the less ambitious “Carmarthen and Its Neighbourhood” that has endeared William Spurrell to the people of his native town and district. Although he contributed to contemporary journals, his claim to be considered as a local historian rests on this slight volume, which first appeared in 1860, an enlarged edition being brought out in 1879. It cannot in any sense be regarded as a comprehensive history—he probably never intended it to be—but it remained for long the only convenient reference source and is still frequently consulted; without it much would have been lost to memory and the recollections of The Oldest Inhabitant of the day left unrecorded. But in-extensive as his published work is, Spurrell was certainly rated as an antiquarian of supreme worth in his day and evidence of the fact is that when a prize was offered for a history of Carmarthenshire at the National Eisteddfod held at Carmarthen in 1867 the adjudicator, along with Archdeacon Archard Williams, was William Spurrell. The Welshman, in its obituary, said: As an authority on local historical, antiquarian and topographical questions he has left no one behind who can fill his place’. The testimony to his knowledge cannot he doubted, but the belief that there was no one to follow him is surprising in view of the fact that Alcwyn Evans, who had been awarded the gold medal at the Carmarthen National Eisteddfod in 1867, survived him by thirteen years.

Even so local history was a leisure interest, as was literary criticism and, more seriously perhaps, the study of philology, which manifested itself principally in his cultivation of the Welsh language and its literature at a time when it was still unfashionable to use the vernacular. This devotion to the old language showed itself in his frequent attendance at the little School Church in Priory Street, whereto the poor Welsh-speaking folk had been banished from the elitist St. Peter’s Church. He was therefore not afraid to identify himself with Welsh culture when many of his peers and most of his social superiors preferred to be anglicized.

It is of interest to recall that George Eyre Evans was inclined to believe that this anonymous contributor to Spurrell’s book was one John Morgan of Croesyceiliog. Transactions of the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society, Vol. 1, p. 102.

He was always a ready supporter of any movement which encouraged the spread of education, especially among the working classes. In 1839 he was one of thirteen who founded the Mechanics’ Institute in a room above the draper’s shop of C. Jones in what is now Hall Street ; soon afterwards the Institute moved to Guildhall Square, where it remained for some years before transferring to the Assembly Rooms when these opened in King Street in 1854. In the meantime it had changed its name to Carmarthen Literary and Scientific Institution, which it retained until World War II, when it became defunct.

William Spurrell was strongly patriotic and was a prime mover in the formation of the Volunteer force in the town. Although he was a staunch Conservative and Churchman, he was always well received by all sections of the community, but he never courted popularity or sought public office; nevertheless he was made a Justice of the Peace for the Borough in 1875 and was Churchwarden of St. Peter’s once or twice.

He married in 1846 and had a large family. On Easter Mon-day 22 April 1889 William Spurrell died in his 76th year, being survived by his wife Sarah, who died in 1911, and a number of children, one of whom, Walter, succeeded him in the business with equal distinction. He was buried in St, David’s Churchyard north-east of the east window, where the grave is marked by an unusual monument about eight feet high, the lower half of which is triangular in plan and the remainder a hexagonal spire. The monument bears the inscription Myfi yw’r edgyfodiad a’r bywyd, medd yr Arglwydd and the epitaph: Take heed unto the thing that is right, for that shall bring a man peace at the last.

Extracted from the Carmarthenshire Historian, published in 1978

Featured image: The memorial to William Spurrell and his family .