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History of Dyffryn

The North Front of the house at Dyffryn House and Gardens, Vale of Glamorgan, Wales
The North Front of the house at Dyffryn House and Gardens, Vale of Glamorgan, Wales | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

The Dyffryn estate can be traced from the 7th century right up to the present day. Many of the large homes in Wales during the late 19th century were built on money made from the industrial revolution. Dyffryn was one of these homes and was built to the grand scale you can see today on wealth made from the coal industry.

During the 7th century the house was then called the Manor of Worlton and was given to the Bishop Oudaceous of Llandaf. In the 16th century the Button family acquired the manor and the first house was built. The family occupied the estate for a number of generations and the name was changed to Duffryn House.

Titans of industry

In 1891 the estate was sold to John Cory, a wealthy coal merchant. John’s father, Richard, first started trading coal as Richard Cory and Sons. John and his brother worked together to expand the business after their father Richard’s death in 1882 and renamed the business Cory Brothers and Co.

A founder of the port of Barry

John moved to Dyffryn so he could commute to Barry daily. He was one of the founders and creators of the port of Barry, which became a rival to Cardiff for the export of Welsh coal. John and his brother owned collieries across South Wales and were reputedly the largest private railway wagon owners in the UK.

A close-up of glowing coal embers
Glowing coal embers | © National Trust Images/Ian Shaw

Steaming ahead

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 was a key factor in their expansion. The brothers began to acquire more collieries as the demand for Welsh steam coal, considered to be the best in the world, began to rise. They were well-placed to ship it to countries where it was needed for steam ships and newly developing railway networks.

Wealth and charity

They exported coal to over 120 different ports worldwide and so John became an incredibly wealthy man. This allowed him and his son Reginald to build the magnificent house and grounds you see today. He was a very generous man and his charitable donations amounted to nearly £50,000 annually.

A passionate horticulturalist

After moving from Devon with his wife Anne and two of his four children, Florence and Reginald, John built the present house in 1893. Reginald was a passionate horticulturalist and collaborated on the garden design with Thomas Mawson.

Plant collecting

As well as sponsoring plant-collecting expeditions by some of the leading botanists of his day, Reginald Cory took part in several trips to South Africa, the Caribbean and the Atlas Mountains. His financial support for these excursions meant that, as a subscriber, he received a share of the seeds collected.

The Paved Court at Dyffryn Gardens, Vale of Glamorgan, Wales
The Paved Court at Dyffryn Gardens | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Plants on show

In many ways the planted areas of Cory’s gardens can be regarded as the outdoor equivalents of the walls and shelves used to display his indoor collectables. In order to create a fitting outdoor ‘gallery’ for the amazing bounty arising from his botanical expeditions, Cory called on the services of leading landscape designer Thomas Mawson.

As well as creating new garden features such as the Paved Court and Pompeian Garden, Cory insisted that existing areas such as the arboretum should be incorporated into the design. It is here that many of the original long-lived trees and shrubs, including the paperbark maple grown from seed collected by the famous botanist Ernest Wilson during his 1901 expedition to China, first planted by Cory, can still be seen.

A creative partnership

It is clear from historical accounts that the partnership between Mawson and Cory was a highly creative one; with Cory certainly actively contributing to the design of both architecture and planting. The two even took a trip together through southern Europe where they gathered ideas which were later incorporated into the developing garden.

The small thematic gardens in particular showed this variety of ideas especially in the classical influences in architecture and design of the formal gardens. These more intimate gardens also provided ideal spaces for displaying Cory’s collections of herbaceous and smaller plants including roses, bulbs, succulents and a vast range of other groups.

A man of plants

Such was his reputation and influence that Reginald Cory became a leading member of both the Royal Horticultural Society and the Linnaean Society. He developed a particular interest in dahlias, a previously rather overlooked group of plants, and was personally responsible for establishing horticultural trials that led to a wealth of new varieties and a renaissance in popularity for the genus that lasts to this day.

Dyffryn's future

Following Florence’s death in 1937, the estate was purchased by Sir Cennydd Traherne who later leased it to the Glamorgan County Council in 1939. There followed a chequered period of institutional use as a police academy, dog training centre and education conference facility.

The house and gardens are still owned by the Vale of Glamorgan council, but the National Trust took over their maintenance and running in January 2013 on a 50-year lease. A lot of conservation work has been done to the house and gardens by the council and we can build on that work and secure Dyffryn's future.

A member of staff cleaning wood panelling with a soft brush inside the house at Dyffryn Gardens, South Glamorgan.

Dyffryn Garden's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Dyffryn Gardens on the National Trust Collections website.

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