Plas Cilybebyll historic manor house has a remarkable history, linking it to Welsh kings of the dark ages, Arthurian legend, the tales of the Mabinogion, the industrial revolution and the rise and fall of an empire.
~ kings of the dark ages ~
The first identifiable person mentioned in the deeds of this historic manor house and estate is John ap Lewis ap Henri, whose name occurs in documents between 1507 and 1537. He was reputedly the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Lord Rhys of Solven and descended from Welsh kings of the dark ages.
~ the Herbert dynasty ~
The property was passed down through the generations until his great-granddaughter, Janet, started a new chapter in the history of Plas Cilybebyll by marrying George Herbert of Swansea, brother of Sir John Herbert, Secretary of State under Elizabeth I and James I. The Herbert family had risen from obscure origins, coming to prominence during the Wars of the Roses. Stability of government in England was generally bad news for the Welsh, who had been frozen into a subordinate social position. When civil war broke out in England in 1455, it gave Welsh families like the Herberts an opportunity to bargain for status and lands in return for allegiance. For them, chaos was a ladder. Their court of arms bore three lions rampant, symbolising bravery, valour, strength, and royalty. At least five generations of Herberts went on to live at the Plas, spanning a period of around 200 years. Memorials to many of them may be seen in Cilybebyll Church.
~the lion and the raven~
The fourth Herbert to inherit Plas Cilybebyll, Richard, married Elizabeth Lloyd of Cilymaenllwyd Farm near Carreg Cennen Castle. The Lloyd family coat of arms featured three ravens, the legendary symbols of Urien Rheged, an Arthurian knight from whom they claimed descent. Legendary references tell us that Carreg Cennen was originally a stronghold of Urien Rheged. When later Welsh Princes occupied the castle and harried the Norman invaders, the Lloyd family were said to be in the forefront of the attacks. Urien Rheged had a son named Owain ap Urien who was protected from his enemies by an army of 300 ravens, a story told as The Dream of Rhonabwy in The Mabinogion, a collection of classic Welsh folk tales. It is one of Owain’s ravens that appears in the Lloyd coat of arms and worn by family members and their servants during their tenure from 1725 to 1957.
The mixed Herbert-Lloyd ancestry of the owners of Plas Cilybebyll was reflected in a new coat of arms – a shield divided into quarters with three lions rampant depicted in the top right and bottom left quarters and three ravens depicted in the top left and bottom right quarters. The lion, a symbol of Anglo Saxon dominance was balanced by the raven symbol of a defiant Welsh Prince.
~the lloyd dynasty (1797 to 1957)~
Elizabeth Lloyd outlived her husband and passed the property on to her eldest daughter Elizabeth who, like her mother, lived to the grand age of 85. Although married, she bore no children. In her old age she became eccentric, hoarding money in secret places around the house. Many years after her death, a servant found 1,000 sovereigns hidden away in a cupboard. She also neglected the property and the Plas Cilybebyll estate was in a deplorable condition by the time she died in 1797.
Elizabeth had planned to pass the property on to her husband’s great-niece —Elizabeth Picton, younger sister of General Sir Thomas Picton who fell at Waterloo —but found her too eager. When she caught her searching a cupboard for the will she became so infuriated she left the property to her cousin, John Herbert Lloyd instead. This started a new chapter in the history of Plas Cilybebyll.
Over the next 160 years, six generations of the Lloyd family of Pembrokeshire owned the Plas Cilybebyll estate. Their time coincided with the coal-fired industrial revolution and their fortunes mirrored the rise and fall of the greatest empire in world history. Built on sea-power, India, and huge conquests in Africa, the British Empire would ultimately encompass a fifth of the world’s land surface and a quarter of the world’s population. Immense wealth was generated and for over a century, the owners of Plas Cilybebyll belonged to the wealthiest class of people in the world’s richest country. They called it ‘the empire on which the sun never sets,’ and as luck would have it, the Plas Cilybebyll estate sat directly on top of one of the richest deposits of high-quality anthracite on Earth.
John Lloyd (1797 – 1817)
John Lloyd did much work to improve the Plas, no doubt helped by the completion of the Swansea Canal in 1798 which led to the rapid development of coal and iron industries along its route. The towns of the Swansea Valley grew and became more prosperous as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace. John Lloyd lived at the Plas for many years with his sister Jane, the widow of a close relative to Iolo Morgannwg, the infamous forger of medieval Welsh literature who had such a dramatic influence on the nation’s culture.
Some of Iolo Morgannwg’s letters have survived. In one of them he speaks very highly of John Lloyd and his sister stating that they, ‘were blessings to the County about Neath,’ and that John Lloyd’s death, ‘drew floods of tears from the eyes of many hundreds of poor.’ He added, ‘it is now since his death that more than three fourths of his and his sister’s charities are becoming known.’
When John died in 1817 Jane was said to be inconsolable. She left Cilybebyll and went to live in West Wales, leaving the Plas to her second cousin, Mary Brand Jones, wife of Henry Leach of Pembrokeshire. He and John Lloyd had some business interests in common, including a number of coal mines in West Wales. An energetic and ambitious man, Henry Leach was one of the most colourful characters to have ever lived at the Plas.
Henry Leach (1828-1849)
Henry Leach was born in 1770 and went to sea at an early age. The Napoleonic Wars were sweeping back and forth across Europe and killing an estimated five million people before Napoleon was defeated in 1815 at Waterloo. Compared to Europe’s population as a whole, this was proportionately as many as, if not more than, those who died during the First World War.
In 1794, Leach’s ship was captured by a French man-o-war and he was taken prisoner. After a year’s bitter suffering in a French prison, he escaped only to be caught and returned to prison on an open cart which involved a 100 mile journey during the savage winter of 1795. The chains around his legs made marks that were still visible when he was over 70. He escaped again, making his way back to Britain by hiding inside a cask in the hold of a Norfolk-bound ship. On his return he married Mary and helped to greatly improve Plas Cilybebyll and its home farm, spending over £1,800 between 1828 and 1831. This included converting the house so that it faced south, ‘commanding a good view of the sea and of the abrupt knolls and eminences near Briton Ferry,’ where the River Neath enters Swansea Bay. In the eighteenth century this was one of the most painted vistas in Britain and attracted towering figures of landscape painting such as J.M.W. Turner, Paul Sandby, J. ‘Warwick’ Smith and Richard Wilson. When the house had faced north onto a walled garden and the mountain it was approached from Neath by a very rough road that ran along the edge of Marchywel. It is possible that the chateauesque facade of Plas Cilybebyll is modelled on what Leach saw as he fled for his life through revolutionary France. He died within a year of his wife and in 1849 the Plas was left to Francis, their youngest son.
Francis and Harriet Lloyd (1849 – 1865)
Francis enjoyed a privileged upbringing, being educated at both Oxford and Cambridge, before spending three years travelling on the continent. He was artistic, a proficient painter in watercolours, a keen early photographer and like his father, a whig in politics. He spent much time away from the Plas, touring with friends. It is said that he built the original thatched lodge at the entrance gates in the style of a home he lived in overseas. His wife Harriet came from a prominent London family with links to the East India Company, her grandfather being a former Mayor of Bombay.
The nineteenth century was a golden era for the owners of Plas Cilybebyll, who benefitted from the considerable role that the Swansea Valley played in the Industrial Revolution to the extent that some historians have suggested the area be nominated for World Heritage Status. Consider the modern-day analogy of Silicon Valley’s role in the Digital Revolution. The iron and tinplate works in Ystalyfera, a few miles up-valley, had the reputation of being the largest in the entire world. The copper smelters of Swansea, a few miles down-valley, were producing half of the world’s copper. Meanwhile, a mile away in Pontardawe, the tinplate works was rolling the thinnest sheets in the world and manufacturing steel sheets for the roof of the White House in America. Plas Cilybebyll was at the heart of a global phenomenon. The 1861 census lists George Thomas Clarke as a house guest at Plas Cilybebyll. The former employee of Isambard Kingdom Brunel was in control of the formidable Dowlais ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil and had just constructed the world’s most powerful rolling mill.
A magnificent hand-painted estate map from 1862 shows new estate outbuildings and magnificent ornamental gardens. The colourful bushes are presumably rhododendrons, imported from some distant part of the empire, a reflection of the economic power wielded by its owners during this period.
Francis and his wife Harriet were held in high regard by their tenants. The rector of the parish referred to Francis as a ‘kind and liberal landlord, one who rejoices in our own advancement,’ and Harriet as ‘one whose life was devoted to acts of charity and kindness.’ There is a memorial to them and three of their servants, who are referred to as ‘friends’ in Cilybebyll Church. One of their daughters married the Arthur Gilbertson, owner of the tinplate works in Pontardawe and they passed the Plas on to Herbert, the fourth of their 13 children, in 1865.
Herbert and Frances Lloyd (1865-1914)
Herbert Lloyd was Cambridge-educated like his father and met his wife in Ireland while studying Land Agency at Castletroy in Co. Limerick. He was very well respected in the community and led an active public life – he was a Justice of the Peace, acting chairman of the Pontardawe Union and High Sheriff of Glamorgan. He devoted much time to farming and believed in working alongside his servants. He was a keen sportsman, a good shot and cared little for riding and driving. He preferred to walk and would go off with his pipe, stick and sandwiches and ‘tramp the district for many miles.’
During his lifetime, millions of tonnes of black gold were being extracted from beneath the Welsh countryside by an army of workers, that at its zenith, was over a quarter of a million strong and responsible for a third of the world’s coal exports. South Wales ports became the busiest in the world and privately owned estates were major industrial enterprises as vast sums of money were earned on the back of miners’ blood, sweat and toil via wayleave agreements and royalty payments for mines on their land or under their control. Mines that yielded, on average, a death every six hours and a serious injury every 12 minutes.
On the 1st August 1890 at a public auction held in the Castle Hotel in Neath, Herbert Lloyd spent £4,850 on a local farm named Glynbedd including its timber and underlying minerals. Accounting for inflation, that is the equivalent of around £500,000 in today’s money. However, as a measure of wealth in comparison to the total output of the economy at the time, it was the equivalent of spending more than £6 million of today’s money. The ‘coal barons’ were the oligarchs of their day and in 1904, the world’s first cheque for over £1,000,000 was signed in Cardiff.
During Herbert Lloyd’s period of ownership, more buildings were constructed at the home farm including a concrete granary, one of the earliest examples of mass concrete construction in Britain and now a Grade II listed building. A state of the art addition to the farmyard back in 1891, it was constructed using ballast from coal ships that were transported from Swansea docks to Pontardawe by canal, and then hauled to the farm by horse and cart.
Herbert Lloyd was very public spirited. He made sure that all of his children were able to speak Welsh, was a warden at the church for 50 years, sat on the local school board with men from different social classes and always treated his servants with respect. When a servant became too old to continue working, they remained at the house and were treated like a member of the family with rooms being named after them. The 1911 census shows Herbert, his wife and children living with nine servants – a cook, lady’s maid, head parlour maid, head house maid, under parlour maid, dairy maid, kitchen maid, house maid and scullery maid. At this time, one out of every seven employed people in Britain was a domestic servant. A bell in the entrance hallway of Plas Cilybebyll serves as a reminder of these times.
A mark of the esteem in which Herbert Lloyd was held can be seen in the stained glass window that was installed in Cilybebyll church in his memory. Herbert was also presented with an oil portrait for his contribution to various committees. It hung in the drawing of the Plas for over a century, passing ownership along with the house on six occasions until being removed in 2020.
~Jack and Eleanor Lloyd (1914-1957)~
Herbert’s son and heir, Jack, was the fourth of 11 children. He was to end a line of inheritance that had lasted for centuries. Jack was born at the Plas and privately educated at Clifton and Bath Colleges. He went on to study estate management at a Pembrokeshire estate before spending some years tea planting in Ceylon. He returned to Cilybebyll in the early 1900s to assist his father with the estate, which he inherited when his father died. However, parts of it had to be sold to pay the death duties that had been introduced by the Liberals in 1894. Like his father, he did a lot of good work for the community and married a lady from County Clare in Ireland.
Succeeding generations were faced by different challenges. During Jack’s time as owner of the Plas there were two world wars and the coal industry fell into steep decline. Plas Cilybebyll, like many other large estates across the country, could no longer sustain itself. By the middle of the 20th Century the house was considered too large and the upkeep too expensive. In the 1950s, much of the rear of the historic manor house was demolished, including a dining room that seated 40 people. Beams were taken down and bought by local farmers and the house was reduced to half its original size. In spite of the drastic measures taken, the house still proved too expensive to run and when Jack died, his children instructed an agent to sell the Plas, Home Farm, two cottages and woodlands. The area to be sold was approximately 88½ acres, with a lowly price tag of £7,500 (the equivalent of around £180,000 in today’s money). Unwanted and deteriorating, the Plas remained on the market for three years before a local man, Oswald Bowen, wandered down the driveway and started a new chapter in the story of this remarkable house. In doing so, he ended over 500 years of inherited ownership by the landed gentry.
Oswald and Flora Bowen (1957 to 1970) to Present (2020)
Plas Cilybebyll was suddenly in the ownership of the local working class. Oswald, a Welsh speaker, had started his working life in a coal mine at the age of ten. His ancestors were the very colliers, farmers and tinplate workers whose labour had helped sustain the estate for centuries. Fifty years previously, his grandfather Lewis Bowen had shared a stage with members of the gentry at the ceremonial laying of foundation stones during construction of Pontardawe Town Hall. He was the representative of the workers of the town, an honour bestowed to him as at 78 he was the oldest workman at the tinplate works. Other foundation stones were laid by the, ‘gwŷr mawr‘ – Mr. Herbert Lloyd of Plas Cilybebyll and members of the Gilbertson family who owned the tinplate works and were related to Herbert Lloyd through marriage. Perhaps Oswald was in the crowd. He would have been five years old at the time.
The entrance porch of Plas Cilybebyll is very similar to the entrance of Cilybebyll Church. When Oswald entered for the first time in 1957 he found that the walls of the hallway were covered with paper more than 100 years old. It was dominated by two large oil paintings, one of Italian bandits and the other depicting the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, left by the previous owners, presumably because they were too big to move. They were eventually sold at Sotheby’s in the 1980s. The library was also well-stocked, with volumes of 18th Century French philosophy through to wonderfully illustrated natural history texts.
Many original features had survived modernisation and still exist today. To the left of the hallway is a very wide staircase, and at the top of the first flight there is a beautiful stained-glass window. On the right of the hallway is the drawing room with its carved fireplace, of which the focal point is two Tudor roses. The pillars on either side of the fireplace are carved in the shape of Adam and Eve. Beneath the floor are stone steps leading to a mediaeval style wine cellar through which a small spring runs – ideal for cooling drinks. Approaching the house from the front, the tennis court can be seen on the left, and to the right the outbuildings of the Home Farm.
In 1970, Oswald Bowen divided the property between his children. The Home Farm was annexed and became a separate entity known as Plas Farm which was run as a dairy farm before diversifying into tourism and becoming the home of Swansea Valley Holiday Cottages. At its centre lay Plas Cilybebyll Manor house which was retained as a private dwelling, sitting quietly in gardens that represented the last two acres of an estate that was once over a thousand times bigger – in 1873 it was recorded as being 2,887 acres in size.
The Manor house was sold out of the Bowen family in 1986 before being reacquired at auction in 2019 by Richard Bowen and his wife. Richard is the grandson of Oswald Bowen and son of David and Rachel Bowen, owners of Plas Farm. In the intervening 33 years, the Manor house changed ownership on three occasions – in 2001, 2010 and 2016) and many improvements were made, particularly by Alan and Lisa Clews who in 2004, rebuilt the rear section of the house to accommodate a grand kitchen and indoor swimming pool (where there was once a dining table for 40), the conversion of the grass tennis courts to a hard surface, landscaping of the walled garden to include two ponds, creation of a copper-domed folly, new ornamental gardens and the building of a new garage overlooking the tennis courts. Further renovations were carried out in 2010 by Dreams Beds entrepreneur Mike Clare who added an orangery and bar to the garage and converted it into a unique wedding and events venue overlooking the grazed parkland of the home farm.
We are delighted to have once again reunited Plas Cilybebyll Manor House with its Home Farm and look forward to sharing its impressive and little known history with guests who can now enjoy a truly magical location that has remained exclusively private for the majority of its 500-year history. Welcome to Plas Cilybebyll.