Elizabeth Green is Lead Curator for Wales. One of her favourite objects is also one of the most unusual in the Trust’s collection – a working steam engine from Penrhyn, Gwynedd. Although it doesn't hang on a wall or sit in a display case, this little locomotive is nonetheless a precious object – one that reminds Elizabeth of visiting Penhyrn Castle as a child.
I joined the National Trust Wales curatorial team after completing my architectural training and a PhD in architectural history, and spending a few years in private practice. I learnt the ropes on the vast estates of Snowdonia and Llŷn, Plas Newydd in Anglesey and Penrhyn Castle in Gwynedd – all of which I visited many times as a child.
My parents brought me up on a diet of industrial archaeology, mountain walks and historic buildings, and I love this little Welsh steam engine from Penrhyn Quarry because for me it links all three. It also demonstrates that precious pieces in the Trust’s collection don’t always hang on a wall or sit in a case.
Penrhyn Castle was built on the proceeds of sugar, slavery and slate. Throughout the 19th century, Lord Penrhyn’s empire carved the world’s finest roofing slates from the mountains of Snowdonia and exported them through his own port to the New World and beyond.
In its heyday, Penrhyn Quarry employed over 3,000 quarrymen, and Lord Penrhyn built a whole town, Bethesda, to house their families and provide for their educational and health needs. The quarry was the largest man-made hole on the planet – a vast, echoing place swarming with people and shaken by explosions, crashing rock and the clatter of horse-drawn wagons.
But within a couple of generations, mechanisation took over, horses were no longer needed, and the air rang with the puff and whistle of steam engines like this one.
Hugh Napier is a saddle tank locomotive, made in 1904 by the Hunslet Engine Company of Leeds to haul Penrhyn’s slate wagons. Several engines were made, all named after Penrhyn family members.
'My' engine was named after Hugh Napier, grandson of the 2nd Baron Penrhyn, George Sholto. The 2nd Baron is best known for presiding over one of the world’s longest industrial disputes, the Great Lockout, which lasted from 1900 to 1903. By the time it ended, 2,000 workers had left the area and the Bethesda community had changed for ever.
" To me, this little engine represents the best and the worst of Penrhyn’s story – entrepreneurialism and industry, riches and poverty, international renown and local hatred."
Hugh Napier was restored to working order in 2012, following years of fundraising and public
donations, at Boston Lodge, the engineering works of the historic Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways. Restorers skilfully retained every piece that could be rescued and crafted exact copies of any working parts that were beyond saving.
The locomotive now spends much of its year running on the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways, making occasional visits to Penrhyn Castle for special events.
To me, this little engine represents the best and the worst of Penrhyn’s story – entrepreneurialism and industry, riches and poverty, international renown and local hatred. The team at Penrhyn is working to change perceptions, breaking down barriers between castle and community so that local people see Penrhyn for what it is – an important part of the nation’s history and one that belongs to them.
This blog is adapted from 'An object I love' by Elizabeth Green which appeared in the spring 2019 issue of the National Trust Magazine.