A brief history of Penrhyn Castle

The south-west elevation of the Keep Penrhyn Castle

Penrhyn Castle is the former home of the Pennant family, and was rebuilt between 1820 and 1833 for George Hay Dawkins-Pennant on the proceeds of the North Wales slate industry and sugar plantations in Jamaica.

The Pennant family had owned Jamaican sugar plantations since the middle of the seventeenth century. By the 1730s, they had moved back to England, becoming established as merchants in Liverpool and London, while still benefitting as absentee landlords from the profits of their Jamaican estates – and the hundreds of enslaved African people working for them. 

Richard Pennant (1737–1808), MP for Liverpool, and the first Baron Penrhyn, re-established Penrhyn Castle as the family seat. He invested the Jamaican profits in his Caernarfonshire agricultural estates and set up the Penrhyn Slate Quarry and built Port Penrhyn. He also built roads, railways, schools, hotels, workers’ houses, churches and farms, but still campaigned against the abolition of slavery. 

When Richard died the estate passed to his cousin, George Hay Dawkins-Pennant (1764–1840). As MP, for Newark in Nottinghamshire and New Romney in Kent he consistently opposed the emancipation of slaves within the British Empire and when slavery was finally abolished, Dawkins-Pennant received £14,683 compensation for 764 enslaved people on his Jamaican estates: Pennant’s, Denbigh, Cote’s and Kupuis.   

Architecture

The castle was built by the famous architect Thomas Hopper. Known for his ability to turn his hand to almost any architectural style, Hopper opted for a neo-Norman design – tried elsewhere at Gosford, County Armargh – but perfected at Penrhyn. 

Hopper's hands-on approach also meant he oversaw the designing and making of furniture, carpets and decorative objects for the castle, all in the extravagant and playful neo-Norman style.  Featuring fantastical beasts, faces and patterns, the furnishings drew on the skills of  local craftsmen, with furniture created in oak, ebony, marble and even in slate from Penrhyn quarry. 

In 1840, with the castle finished, George Hay Dawkins-Pennant died. His daughter, Juliana, inherited Penrhyn, and her husband, Edward Gordon Douglas adopted the name Pennant and later became the 1st Lord Penrhyn of Llandegai. 

The Gallery of North Wales

Before he died, George Hay Dawkins-Pennant expressly desired that a good collection of paintings be made at Penrhyn and charged his son-in-law (Edward, the new Lord Penrhyn) with the task. 

Edward did this to great effect, amassing an outstanding collection of Dutch, Venetian and Spanish paintings with the help of Belgian art advisor, C.J. Nieuwenhuys. Great names included Canaletto, Rembrandt, Wouwermans, Ruijsdael, Belotto and Palma Vecchio. Many of these pictures can still be seen in the Castle and the collection gave Penrhyn its reputation of being ‘the Gallery of North Wales’ at that time. 

Asian Collections

Another notable feature of Penrhyn’s interiors is the exquisitely painted Chinese wallpapers, hung in the 1830s. The sumptuous wallpapers are complemented by lacquer and japanned furniture and ceramics made in China and Japan, as well as Sri-Lankan carved ebony furniture. 

Twentieth-century changes

In the early 20th century, relations between Penrhyn and local communities began to deteriorate. Exploitation of the workers in the quarry led to the longest running industrial dispute in Britain’s history. Beginning in 1900 it centered on Union rights, pay and working conditions. The Great Strike was a bitter battle between Lord Penrhyn and the quarry workers, the effects of which are still felt today.

In 1949, after the death of the fourth Lord Penrhyn, the land and title separated. The title went to Frank Douglas Pennant, who became fifth Lord Penrhyn, and the land went to the fourth Lord’s niece, Lady Janet Harper.

Only two years later, Penrhyn Castle, along with the Ysbyty Ifan and Carneddau estates, came under the care of the National Trust.

Twenty-first century: Addressing Colonialism and Slavery

Our research is on-going and we are accelerating plans to reinterpret the stories of the painful and challenging histories attached to Penrhyn Castle. This will take time as we want to ensure that changes we make are sustained and underpinned by high quality research.