Mike Guilfoyle, vice-chair of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, on the life of an accomplished poet and minister at the Welsh Presbyterian Church in Lewisham.
After passing the site of the former Welsh Presbyterian Church on Lewisham Way recently, I was minded to pick up a second hand copy of Huw Edward’s very readable and richly-illustrated 2014 book called ‘City Mission’, The story of London’s Welsh chapels.
One name in particular held my attention when I reached for the section on the history of this local chapel ( although at least two other religious figures cited in chapter six have familial links to Brockley and Ladywell cemeteries!).
The name was that of the chapel’s first minister following its move from nearby Undercliffe Road in 1901, when it then became known as Lewisham Welsh (Calvinist Methodist) Church.
That name was of the Reverend Robert Silyn Roberts , who was born in 1871 in Llanllyfin, Wales, where he worked as a slate quarryman from the age of 13 before his ordination to the ministry, having been educated at the University College of North Wales, Bangor.
An accomplished poet* he was a crown bard at the national eisteddfod in 1902 for a winning poem, on ‘Trystan and Esyllt’ .His bardic name was ‘Rhosyr ‘( Rose).
It was during his time in Lewisham that Silyn Roberts, whose ardent socialist leanings were later to see him elected as a Labour member for Merioneth county council in 1908, sat alongside and became friendly with the future architect of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin, a regular visitor to the British Museum’s reading room who was then living in exile in the capital.
Silyn married London born Mary Parry in 1905 ( she was one of the earliest women to earn a degree at Aberystwyth University, where she later lectured) and in the same year the couple travelled to Denmark to study Adult education.
He also undertook lecture tours of the US/Canada. He was prominent campaigner in raising money for the fight against tuberculosis and travelled by ship from New York the week before the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
After four successful years in Lewisham , Silyn Roberts returned to minister in Wales in 1905. At the outbreak of World War One in 1914 he was active in seeking commissions for Welshmen in the armed forces and later worked to assist disabled ex-servicemen to retrain.
He was a close friend of the Welsh -language poet Hedd Wyn (Ellis Evans) who was killed at Passchendaele in 1917 ( and served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers as did the Brockley born poet and artist David Jones).
Later setting up in furtherance of the couples shared passion for adult education, the North Wales district of the WEA (Workers Educational Association ) in 1925.
In 1930 Silyn Roberts travelled to Russia , it was while sailing home that he was attacked by mosquitoes, developed a fever and died later at Bangor, North Wales at the age of 59.
Mary Silyn Roberts died in 1972. A truly remarkable couple who made an abiding impression on all who knew them and who for four years made Lewisham there adopted home.
* In 1897 Silyn Roberts had said that he would rather compose one immortal englyn (poem) than be a millionaire!
Footnote : Silyn Roberts was on good terms with the parents of the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones who was killed in Inner Mongolia in 1935 , one theory for his unsolved murder was his fearless reporting of the Soviet Famine ( Ukraine) of 1932-33, the murder being carried out by bandits in the pay of the Soviet NKVD secret police?. His iinvestigative journalism was the subject of the 2019 film, Mr Jones.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mr_Jones_(2019_film)
For those interested in reading more on the fascinating life and death of Gareth Jones, a recent book (2020) comes highly recommended. It was written by Dr Margaret Seriol Colley , who was a cousin of Gareth Jones. She was born in Lewisham in 1925 to Welsh parents! ( Thereby hangs another post!)