Joshua Hughes (1807-1889) was the first Welsh bishop of St. Asaph for almost one hundred and fifty years.
Hughes was born at New Mill, Nevern, Pembrokeshire, on 7 October 1807. His parents were Caleb Hughes, a miller, and his wife, Magdalen. He was educated at Ystrad Meurig grammar school; after that he was one of the earliest students of St David’s College, Lampeter, studying there from 1828 to 1830. He was placed in the first class in the examinations every year and won prizes for Welsh and Latin essays. He was ordained deacon in 1830 and priest in 1831. Eventually, in 1868, he also graduated from Lampeter with a B.D. Two of his brothers became clergymen.
Jones married in 1832; his wife was Margaret, the widow of Captain Gun and daughter of Sir Thomas Mckenny, an Irish baronet. Through this marriage, he inherited an estate on the shores of Lake Como. He and Margaret had three sons and five daughters; of these, Joshua Pritchard Hughes was to become bishop of Llandaff and Thomas McKenny Hughes professor of geology at Cambridge.
The elder Joshua Hughes worked as a curate in Aberystwyth and then at St David’s, Carmarthen. In 1838, he was appointed vicar of Abergwili, a couple of miles north-north-east of Carmarthen. The bishop’s palace for St David’s was in his parish and he worked closely with Bishop Thirlwall, indeed teaching him Welsh. Hughes became vicar of Llandingat, Llandovery in 1845. There he worked zealously, often riding 25 miles on a Sunday to conduct four services. Hughes’s churchmanship was evangelical. He was a conscientious pastor and a fine preacher. He worked particularly hard on behalf of educational causes – church schools, Sunday schools and higher education. He eventually became rural dean and a proctor in convocation for the diocese. In the debate over the future of St David’s College, he favoured a merger with Christ’s College, Brecon. If this had happened, the institution formed would have been located in Brecon.
In 1870, when Bishop Thomas Vowler Short of St Asaph resigned, Gladstone, the prime minister, took immense trouble to secure a Welsh-speaking successor. Gladstone commented ‘I have not since taking my present office felt more strongly the gravity of any matter of duty requiring to be done than this of the Welsh bishopric.’ Hughes’ old vice-principal at Lampeter, Alfred Ollivant the bishop of Llandaff, recommended him as ‘a good man, a pupil of mine, with whom I have entertained very friendly relations ever since my early connection.’ After a protracted selection process, Gladstone nominated Hughes as bishop of St Asaph; he was the first Welsh man in that role since John Wynne had left in 1727. Moreover, he preached in Welsh at every opportunity. Hughes’ appointment was controversial. He had not attended one of the English universities; it is thought likely that Gladstone believed Hughes to have a degree from Cambridge, having been misled by a mistake in Crockford’s Clerical Directory. He then tried, unsuccessfully, to wriggle out of the appointment. Moreover, Hughes was little known outside Wales and his experience was confined to Welsh parochial ministry. Many of the senior diocesan clergy considered themselves superior to him in both learning and social position. The story of his fortunate marriage may also not have improved his status. However, the effect of Hughes’ appointment on Welsh national feeling was profoundly stimulating. In addition, his time as bishop was successful and marked by significant progress. New churches were built as well as many church schools. Hughes introduced a diocesan board of education in 1870, a church extension society in 1871 and a diocesan conference in 1878. Despite the bitterly divided atmosphere of the time, he established good relations with nonconformists. He worked hard to find Welsh-speaking clergy for Welsh-speaking and bilingual parishes, as well as encouraging Welsh services for Welsh people living in English towns. He also insisted that Welsh-speaking parishioners should be served, even if this meant priests unable to do this were forced to employ appropriate curates.
Hughes was struck with paralysis in August 1888; in consequence, he was unable to sign a deed of resignation from his bishopric. He died on 21 January 1889 and was buried at St Asaph.
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