Much has been written in modern times of ‘Hedd Wyn’, the poet/farmer from Trawsfynydd, who was posthumously awarded the chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod in Birkenhead. Ellis Humphrey Evans was a poet of renown and answered the call to arms to save his brother being conscripted. His taken bardic name, Hedd Wyn, means ‘blessed peace’. By the time the Eisteddfod took place, Ellis had been dead for over two months and a black sash was placed over the chair in posthumous recognition of his victory. This was immortalised in the film ‘Hedd Wyn’, which is a highly recommended watch (with subtitles for those who do not have ‘Y Gymraeg’)
On winning the chair, a bard is serenaded by a special chairing song ‘Cân y Caderio’, sung by a soprano, for which the audience will join in the chorus. It is a really stirring experience – check Youtube!.
The singer on this occasion was the renowned soprano Laura Evans-Williams. On hearing of the death of Hedd Wyn, the song was changed to the more fitting ‘I Blas Gogerddan’ partly translated excerpt below
Into the hall alone, my son? Now hear your mother’s prayer. Go back onto the battlefield And aid your father there. I’d far prefer your blood to be spilled Like water on the ground Or have you in your shroud arrayed, Than as a coward found. Go thou into the hall and see The portraits of your sires...
Laura was to sing in the Eisteddfod again in 1933 at Wrexham, where she sang ‘Cân y caderio’ and received the unusual distinction of an encore.
Laura was the eldest child of John and Ellen Evans of Bryn Meirion, Henllan, a village near Denbigh. Born on 7th September 1883, her father was a devout Calvinistic Methodist, to the extent that he found it difficult to get good employment. In 1901, he was listed in the census as a ‘castrator’, his youngest daughter (my Nain), used to refer to his trade as ‘improving animal stock’…
Laura managed to win a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. Initially training as a contralto, she developed her voice under the tutelage of Edward Iles.
The earliest mention of her in the press was of her singing the chairing song at Nantglyn in December 1898, when she was 15 years old. She was winning a prize in the Rhyl Eisteddfod in December 1899. She also won the contralto prize at St Asaph with the song ‘Barque of Dreams’. She won again in St Asaph in March 1900 with ‘O Ryfedd Groes’ The following month, she entered the Eisteddfod in Denbigh, where she won the contralto prize for ‘0 llefara, addfwyn lesu’, but was only given half the prize money (£1), as the judge felt she was in the wrong category. In August, she won at Corwen with ‘The Orphan Boy.’ In November at Henllan she gave a rendition of Y Gardotes Fach. The Welsh culture of the time was of regular competitive Eisteddfodau – competitions of the Arts, from which cash prizes were given for music, poetry, crafts and recitation. This promoted the Arts and also for those with talent, was a useful second income! It was also a way of gaining a good reputation, the ‘gigs’ of the Victorian age!
In 1901, Laura had become guest singers at many events. At the Denbigh Esiteddfod, the Henllan newspaper described her :‘The Eisteddfod song was sung by that talented and promising young contralto Miss Laura Evans of this village’.
In the National Esiteddfod of 1901, at Merthyr, she was highly complimented for her performance in the contralto competition, having been one of only three qualifiers from 30 competitors. ‘ a very high honour, especially for young singers’. She was placed second.
The Eisteddfod competitions took place in all the areas of Wales and many parts of England, where there was a reasonable sized community of Welsh folk. Venues such as Liverpool, Northampton and London, which had a sizeable London Welsh community. This can be seen by her success in winning the Eisteddfod at New Brighton, worth 2 pounds, 2 shillings. She also appeared in a concert in Dolgellau, a very fitting venue, given her father was a native of nearby Brithdir. The North Wales Times reported her concert in Northop that:
a great future is in store for This young lady, for the sweetness of her voice is accompanied by a clearness of enunciation which leaves nothing to be desired.
A note was also made of her being engaged to a musical event in Hope Hall, Liverpool. A sign that she was being recognised outside the principality. Not being just a singer, she was also noted as an accompanist to other singers at these concerts.
In 1902, she again came second in the National eisteddfod, whilst still only 19 years of age.
Laura was now renowned and in demand for concerts across North Wales and the Liverpool area. The Henllan correspondent described her as ‘generally said to be one of the finest singers Wales has ever produced.’
She married Robert T Williams in 1905 and went on to have a daughter and son by him; Mair and Tudor. The marriage was at the Calvanistic methodist chapel in Rhyl. Mr Williams was ‘a London draper’, although the newspaper referred to him as being one of Henllan’s most distinguished sons. The Denbighshire Free press reported:
The bride is a most popular young lady in this district, not only because of her bright genial manner, but because of the great aid she has given from time to time to various charitable objects in the district, by giving her services most freely as a vocalist at concerts which have been organized for such purposes. As all our readers are fully aware she is the fortunate possessor of a rich, superb contralto voice of remarkable purity and range, and is noted as a vocalist far and wide. She has thoroughly delighted many audiences throughout the district by her beautiful singing, and we doubt not this gift of song will give equal delight to thousands amongst whom she is now going to reside.
The couple honeymooned in London. The ceremony was a double ceremony, as her eldest brother William also married a Miss Gates. Both couples served as best man and bridesmaid for each other!
In 1907, the Denbigh Free Press reported a concert in the town. ‘The beauty, sweetness and clearness of her higher passages were remarkably fine and mark her as a soprano singer capable of the highest work ‘ The N Wales Free press reported on a concert in Caernarfon that ‘she has now blossomed into a very fine soprano’
She made her debut at Bechstein Hall, Wigmore St, London in 1908. The Manchester Guardian reported :
She has a soprano voice of remarkable richness and power and a wide range, and is gifted to a conspicuous degree with temperament and imagination. At present she has some faults of production., hut such big voices usually take longer to train than small light ones. She had a good deal of tremolo early in the evening, but that wore off as the concert progressed almost entirely… In some old Welsh airs she aroused the audience to a high pitch of enthusiasm…
She appeared in the production of ‘Enid’ in 1908 at the Court Theatre, Belgravia. The Morning Post review said ‘Miss Laura Evans displayed excellent qualities as a singer on the stage, and gave the music with much beauty of voice. There was dramatic promise in her bearing, and she generally acquitted herself in a manner that gave rise to high hopes for her future as an operatic artiste’
In 1909, she elected to change her stage name from Laura Evans to Evans-Williams, to avoid confusion with another soprano, Edith Evans of Llangollen.
Appearing in the Theatre Royal, Brmingham in 1910, she was noted as having: instantly evidenced grand power and the brio which has its source in vivid temperament backed by high vitality. She is a born singer and should go far, for born singers are rare, and made singers are upon us in shoals.
The N Wales Express reported at a concert in Bangor by the Choral Society dedicated half the column to Laura, declaring The singing was more superlatively fine than any superlatives of mine can express. Ask those who heard her
Her success continued. In 1910, she featured as a soloist in Elgar’s Caractacus in London.. In 1911, she performed on the 28th day of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall.
During the First World War, she toured extensively with Clara Butt having stood in for a soloist in her concert party at Reading. A newspaper reported her joining the troops at Bedford in 1915 and a successful concert with Clara in Belfast.
Sadly, the latter part of the war was to prove tragic for Laura – as much as many in the country. Firstly, in April 1916, her husband died aged 42, leaving her a widow with two children. In October 1917, her youngest brother and favourite of the sisters – Stanley, fell at Ypres. Another brother, Hugh George (a Corporal) had been sent home to recuperate following multiple wounds on the battlefield. One year later; and a month before Armistice, the now 2nd Lieutenant HG Evans was hit by a sniper in the ‘pacified’ area of Peronne. He had been transferred to a quiet zone whilst his regiment went to Egypt, having been wounded seven times. Now, he too was dead.
And yet, she continued to sing. To continue to headline concerts and raise money for the soldiers comfort and support. In 1917 at a concert in Rhyl, the audience demanded – and got, six encores.
After the war, Laura formed her own concert party and toured to raise money for the Services charities. Included in the party was Mr Darrell Fancourt, who would go on to become a leading actor in the D’Oyly Carte opera and husband of Laura’s middle sister, Nell (Eleanor), who also joined the world famous Gilbert & Sullivan company.
One misadventure that befell them on tour was at Aberystwyth. On 29th August 1919, the Waterloo Hydro hotel that they were staying at, burnt down. All the guests were saved, but they had to run out of the building and leave all their belongings. Darrell lost £130 worth of jewellery that he was taking home to Nell (about £5250 today). Two of the party, the conductor and baritone, had to leave via a window of the next bedroom and by tying a sheet to the drainpipe. The party was due to sing in Tywyn the following night, which they did – all wearing borrowed clothes, as they had lost everything. The cellist managed to borrow another instrument (his £130 cello also perished) and performed with a muffler on instead of the customary collar and tie.
From 1926 to 1928, Laura toured the New England part of the USA, receiving great reviews in Utica, New York and Philadelphia.
In 1940, she moved from Muswell Hill, London to Colwyn Bay, where her two sisters also eventually settled. She taught singing up to her death in October 1944, aged 61.
The picture below shows Laura’s stage photo for a performance of ‘Blodwen’, a Welsh language opera written by Joseph Parry (The composer of ‘Myfanwy’). The photo is undated, but I guess this will be post Great War.
Sadly, I am far too young to have met this beautiful, talented lady. In her day, she was renowned and admired for her ability, compassion and unassuming nature. For that at least, her great-nephew is unashamedly proud.