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William Downing Evans: Poetry and Poverty in Nineteenth Century Newport

William Downing Evans (1811-97) was a Newport poet, painter, and composer. Using the Bardic name, ‘Leon’, he wrote in English, but his skill as a translator revealed a deep knowledge and love of the Welsh language. In many ways he was lucky to be born when Newport began its industrial expansion, for with it came prosperity and, for Leon, a wider audience, catered for by local newspapers, books and pamphlets. But his private life was marred by the premature death of beloved relatives and close friends, many of them struck down by diseases that flourished in the rapidly growing town’s crowded, unsanitary conditions.

The eldest son of a lime burner, Leon was born at Caerleon. He moved to Newport where, for half a century, he was Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages and Clerk to Newport’s Poor Law Guardians. In these posts he strived to improve the town’s living conditions, and in 1845 propounded one of the earliest statistically based arguments for a proper policy on public health.

A friend of James Flewitt Mullock, one of Newport’s best known artists, Leon had early ambitions to be a painter, and his first known poem, dated 1836, appears under a self-portrait. From that time his work was regularly published in the local press, declaimed or played at Eisteddfodau – where he won many prizes – or recited or sung at the town’s frequent celebrations and public functions. Often described as the bard of Newport, Nature drew out the best of his talent. But he was also an astute observer of the social scene, and it is this facet of his work that is probably most relevant to historians today.

South Wales Record Society publication no. 24
Edited by Ian and Wendy Dear
Published 2011
ISBN 978-0-9553387-4-8 (hardback)

Price: £25.00      Members’ price: £22.50

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