There's nothing like a good story

There’s nothing like a good story to take you out of your familiar world for a while. And a good story needs good characters, real, fully rounded players that bring the narrative alive. Without these we have no more than a shell, an idea, but no emotional connection... Penrhyn Castle is currently such a shell.

Its story not fully told and devoid of strong and fascinating characters. Characters we may love or hate, but which help us understand a world that is different from our own.

A rich and controversial history

The history of the Penrhyn Estate is rich, complex and controversial. It stretches well beyond the confines of the walls of the Thomas Hopper designed gigantic Neo-Norman folly on the hill by Llandygai.

It reaches to Jamaica and the four Pennant owned sugar plantations in the Clarendon district. To the thousands of West Africans enslaved to labour there over more than two centuries, generating the riches that enabled the opening up of the Bethesda Quarry and the construction of Porth Penrhyn and the Castle. And not to mention Caesar, the black footman itemised in Bonella Hodges dowry on her marriage to John Pennant.

Strong independent women

The history includes the many women whose stories are currently untold. Such as Anna Susannah Warburton, the 1st Lady Penrhyn, who married Richard Pennant, bringing with her half the estate in North Wales and a number of plantations in Jamaica. This allowed Richard to obtain a title and peerage.

Anna Susannah Warburton, the 1st Lady Penrhyn
Anna Susannah Warburton, the 1st Lady Penrhyn. Painting oin displpay at Penrhyn CAstle

It also includes the 101 female convicts who were transported to Australia on the maiden voyage of the Lady Penrhyn, the ship that carried her name as part of what is now known as the 1st Fleet. And don’t forget George Sholto Douglas Pennant’s 11 daughters from two marriages, all residents of the Castle at one time or another and all living full and independent lives with pursuits in the arts, politics, gardening, photography and more.

Lockout

Then there is the 1900 to 1903 lockout at the Pennant owned Bethesda slate quarry itself, still the longest industrial dispute in Britain’s history. Its length and ferocity divided and devastated the Bethesda community, but also impacted severely on the wealth of the Douglas-Pennant family.

The Great Strike memorial at Bethesda
The Great Strike memorial at Bethesda

The dispute involved many players, including the compromised Liberal MP W.J. Parry and E.A. Young, the detested quarry manager, as well as various leaders and representatives of the N.W.Q.U. We should not ignore the many wives of the quarry workers from Bethesda, who wrote to the early 20th century Lady Penrhyn, George Sholto’s second wife, during the lengthy industrial conflict that closed the quarry for three years and left many with no income.

An old picture of Octavia Hill; one of the founders of the National Trust
Octavia Hill

Finally, we should not forget the National Trust’s very own Octavia Hill, who, during the time of the quarry lockout, extended her deep concern for the wellbeing of the working classes from housing to the availability of open space and air to all. As one of the founders of the National Trust she created the conditions that facilitated places like Penrhyn Castle and much of its estate to be passed into public ownership and be preserved for all, forever.

An incomplete picture

What is currently on show at the Castle represents but a fraction of these stories and so many characters and protagonists, some of which are mentioned above, are absent.

The story told is far from complete and ignores or avoids the more difficult aspects of our heritage. This denies many a place in this heritage and excludes their descendants from appreciating, participating in and enjoying this legacy, and be enriched by it.

This is what we will examine and explore at Penrhyn, while we work towards a much more veracious presentation of the narrative of the Estate and its people. Much will (appear to) remain the same, and much will change. The scale, variety and layout of the Castle offers the opportunity to tell stories in parallel and allows for the introduction of new elements, without disturbing or replacing the old.