• RLF News
  • Article

The Life and Times of Reverend David Williams

Reverend David Williams
  • 16 May, 2024

As we get ready to celebrate our 234th anniversary on 18 May, a recent RLF grant beneficiary takes a deep dive into the background of a fellow Welshman and minister who founded the RLF in 1790 – Reverend David Williams.

Originally written for the Welsh-language magazine Barddas, the English translation of this article originally appeared on our Substack.

Help in Need

By a grateful old Welsh rhymer!

In the year 1787, after failing again to pay for his lunch, an old man called Floyer Sydenham was arrested in London. He was a modest fellow, but a brilliant Greek scholar and philosopher, well-known in the coffee houses of the city. He was taken to a debtors’ prison, and there, on April 1st that same year, he died at the age of 77.

Sydenham’s death was a shock to his friends and acquaintances, especially to one Reverend David Williams from Glamorganshire.

It would be impossible to sum up in a couple of pages all the remarkable turns in the career of this Welshman, who corresponded with Voltaire and Frederick the Great, and had among his friends Tom Paine, ’the father of the American Revolution’, and Benjamin Franklin, one of the signatories of the Declaration of American Independence. He was born in 1738 in Waun Waelod in the parish of Eglwysilan, now in the County Borough Council of Caerffili. A stone’s throw from the house was Watford Fawr, the home of Thomas Price, ‘Price yr Ustus’, a wealthy ironmaster who welcomed to his house the itinerant nonconformist preachers of that time. It may very well be that the four-year-old David saw through the frosty window one January morning seven men, among them George Whitfield, Hywel Harris, Daniel Rowland and the ‘Sweet Singer’ William Williams Pantycelyn, arriving to hold the famous first Sasiwn (congress) of the Methodists in the big house. David’s father, like Pantycelyn, was one of Harris’ converts, and his dying wish was for his son to go into the ministry. At fifteen, after attending the school of the local minister, David went to the Carmarthen Academy. ‘Free-thinking’ is the best word to describe the ethos of that academy.

Williams was ordained in 1758 and went off to England where he was minister in several places, rubbing up many people the wrong way for more than ten years, until he reached Highgate in around 1769. The young preacher soon became familiar, it seems, in the coffee houses of London, the places for debate and discussion. He was befriended by Benjamin Franklin, whom he later gave shelter to in his home during a ‘political storm’.

In 1772, the famous actor David Garrick mentioned ‘a young man who is making himself known as a first-rate genius. […] His name is Williams. […] Goldsmith knows him, and I have seen him go into Johnson’s’.

In 1773, the Reverend David Williams fell out with his Highgate congregation as well. He resigned as their minister, in fact he resigned from the ministry altogether. Because the wages were too small, according to some; because he was too much of a rebel, according to others; because of the ‘intrigues of a lady’, according to himself. Whatever the reason for his defection, he married that year and, with his wife Mary Emilia, took a house in Chelsea and opened a school for boys. The experiment was a great success. But then, suddenly, Mary died, and Williams the schoolmaster disappeared, leaving his pupils to fend for themselves as best they could. He ran away to ‘a distant country’ (Buxton, according to some) and wrote a volume under the breezy title Sermons, chiefly upon Religious Hypocrisy.

Then in 1776, in a disused chapel near Cavendish Square, he established a congregation quite unlike any other he had been minister to. His new flock believed in one benevolent Being, delighting in Nature as the proof of His existence, and jettisoning all the traditional tenets of Christian doctrine. Franklin called him ‘Priest of Nature’, and his writings brought him to the notice of Frederick the Great, Rousseau and Voltaire, well-known deists of the day. But, although it was enthusiastic, the congregation was small, and before four years were up, the mission had petered out. But meetings continued in a coffee house in Charing Cross and gave rise to spirited debates on all sorts of subjects.

“I was educated among the Saints”, said the fallen minister, “and I now live, thank God, among Sinners!”

When the strange Cavendish Square mission came to an end in 1780, Williams started up a club in the Prince of Wales coffee house. One of the subjects of debate was the setting up of a fund for ‘distressed talents’. He wrote to many bigwigs of the day, but he failed to raise much support and the club went to the wall. Then on April Fools’ Day 1787, poor Floyer Sydenham died in the debtors’ prison, and Williams took up the idea again. Eight friends of like mind came together (not unlike the seven men at that first Methodist Sasiwn (congress) many years before in Watford Fawr) and pledged a guinea each to the venture. The first general meeting of the Literary Fund was held at the Prince of Wales coffee house in 1790, and the call went out for public subscriptions. One of the first to answer was the young Prince George, who was later to become King George IV, and that was a great boost to the cause. The prince also donated a building in Soho in order for the Fund to have a permanent home.

All sorts of other adventures came David Williams’ way. In the summer of 1792, for instance, at the height of the Revolution, he went to France to be made an honorary citizen in acknowledgement of his outspoken support of the cause. But in January of the next year, when Louis XVI was executed on the guillotine in front of a big raucous crowd, Williams came away disgusted. He was in France again in 1802 doing something clandestine on behalf of the British Government. But quite soon, despite everything, David Williams himself became one of the ‘distressed talents’. In 1811 he had a bad stroke and his friends arranged for him to lodge comfortably at the headquarters of his own Literary Fund in Soho. And in 1815, without his knowing, the committee decided to award him an allowance of £50 from the Fund every six months. There was only one payment before he died.

The London Memorial of Reverend David Williams, founder of the Royal Literary Fund in Soho.

His wish was to be buried ‘in as plain and frugal a manner as the rules of decency will admit of’, and he was laid to rest in St Anne’s Church in Soho on the 6th of July, 1816. In 1911, a memorial was put up to him in the park opposite the castle in Caerffili, four miles or so from Waun Waelod where he was born.

‘He devoted the greater part of his life’, the inscription on Williams’ memorial reads, ‘to the helping of the poor, the expounding of the principles of popular education and the furthering of the cause of liberty […] He shielded Benjamin Franklin and other friends of freedom from persecution and he founded the Royal Literary Fund. Gwyn ei fyd.’

The Fund went from strength to strength. In 1842, because of the interest of Prince Albert in its philanthropic work, the Literary Fund became the Royal Literary Fund. It has been the salvation of many famous writers, and not only English ones. One of the first, in 1799, was Chateaubriand, who, as a Royalist Breton had fled during the Revolution and was living in poverty in London. The Fund saved the skin of James Joyce from Dublin too, and Dylan Thomas from Swansea.

And it has been a help in need, without broadcasting the fact, to thousands of less well-known writers from all sorts of backgrounds who have had an illness or a bereavement or an accident, or maybe just become tired and out of fashion — like the old Welsh codger who wrote this piece!

If you are a professional writer needing financial support, please visit our Grants page to see if you are eligible.

You might also like:

Her Majesty the Queen bt Chris Jackson - Getty Images
RLF News Article

Her Majesty The Queen is announced as our new Royal Patron

To mark the first anniversary of Their Majesties’ Coronation, it has been announced Her Majesty The Queen will take on…

Dr Kerry Young at the New Dawn New Day workshop. Photo credit: Lealle Brady.
RLF News Article

“The best thing about all of this is that it matters” – Running a public education programme

RLF Fellow Dr Kerry Young has spent seven years running Writing for Life workshops. But what exactly is writing for…

RLF Fellow Lisa Evans
RLF News Article

“Writing gave me back joy” – How writing for self-expression can foster well-being

“It’s all about people expressing or discovering what kind of stuff they’ve got in the back catalogue of themselves, the…

Royal Literary Fund Substack

View our Substack. All our articles are free to read and are written by either the RLF team or our contributing writers.

Subscribe on Substack