The Squires of Dyffryn
Article by Jeff Griffiths
I wonder how many people have looked at the statue of Howel Gwyn in Neath’s Victoria Gardens and realised how important he and his family were to this area? The Gwyns were an ancient Welsh family from Breconshire who’d moved to the then ‘boom town’ of Neath where they practised as solicitors. The family had acquired large landed interests in South Wales and their Neath estate consisted of a number of valuable properties in the town centre. Howel Gwyn bought the Dyffryn estate from the Williams family in 1853 and built a new Gothic-style mansion which was completed by about 1855. The stables, the only part still in existence (now known as The Grange) and bearing the date 1862, and other outbuildings on the estate followed.
After the 1840s coal had begun to dominate the commercial life of this area, a development closely associated with the development of railways and shipping. The Moores were a Devonshire family who settled in the Skewen area and embarked upon colliery enterprises. The family’s elder Edward Acland Moore resided at Lonlas House and an area in Skewen known as Mooretown perpetuates the name of the family. Moore’s son, John Newall, resided at Longford Court (Cwrt Rhydhir) and became managing director of the Main Colliery Company formed as a result of the amalgamation of a number of small collieries, including Court Herbert, which had been worked in this area. The company obtained a lease to mine the minerals on Howel Gwyn’s Dyffryn estate and it eventually provided work for over 500 men at Bryncoch. Howel Gwyn married Ellen Elizabeth, the sister of Edward Acland Moore. A nephew, Joseph Edward Moore eventually succeeded to the estate of his uncle, Howel Gwyn, in 1900 as there’d been no children from the marriage of Howel and Elizabeth and the new Squires of Dyffryn then became known as the Moore-Gwyn family.
Victorian society had to adapt to the many challenges created by the industrial revolution with a huge growth in population being experienced in South Wales. Howel Gwyn was foremost amongst those who used his wealth to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding society by contributing to the building of churches, chapels, schools and meeting places. In Neath, the Gwyn Hall, St David’s Church and the former Constitutional Club all in close proximity were benefactors of land and money from Howel Gwyn and many localities, including Bryncoch and Skewen, benefitted from the family’s wealth.
Howel Gwyn died in 1888 at the age of 82 after an active life during which he received many honours in recognition of his great public service. He served as High Sheriff, Deputy Lord Lieutenant and a Justice of the Peace in the three counties of Glamorgan, Carmarthen and Brecon where he owned estates. He was the Member of Parliament for two constituencies, Penrhyn and Falmouth, and later for Brecon Borough. Howel Gwyn was a Neath Councillor and Alderman as well as twice Mayor of Neath. He supported a large number of charities and also served as Chairman of the Board of Guardians. The Cottage Homes for children were opened in Bryncoch in 1876 and each Christmas the children were generously feted by the Gwyns. At meeting of the Neath Constitutional Club after Howel Gwyn’s death in 1888 a speaker expressed his “regret that our Gracious Sovereign did not confer some special mark of favour on our dear friend and neighbour. Richly he deserved it.”
The magnificent residence which Howel Gwyn had built, unlike the Church he founded in 1871 on his Dyffryn estate, was not to endure for a hundred years and more. Dyffryn mansion was erected in 1855 on an elevated site which commanded a fine view of the surrounding countryside. The house had forty-seven rooms, including ten principal bedrooms, a billiard room, library, smoking room and a servants’ hall. There were garages, stables, and other outbuildings in close proximity and the estate boasted its own gas-making plant. The Front Lodge adjacent to the Church still stands at what was the main drive to the mansion. The Dyffryn estate consisted of over 320 acres with beautifully kept grounds including water gardens with artificially constructed waterfalls. There were four tennis courts with a pavilion as well as their private cricket pitch. The mansion was frequently visited by the surrounding gentry, affluent and influential families who formed a closely knit group in society and who often intermarried with one another. The great opera singer, Madame Adelina Patti, frequently came to Dyffryn and the Moore-Gwyns, in turn, visited the ‘Queen of Song’ at Craig-y-Nos Castle in the Swansea Valley. Lloyd George paid an impromptu visit to the mansion in 1918 when the National Eisteddfod was held at Neath, on which occasion the Prime Minister was awarded the Freedom of the Borough.
This was a hierarchical, deferential society, with the landowning class enjoying a style of living which was largely to disappear between the World Wars. The family at Dyffryn employed a large number of domestics in the mansion and a photograph taken after the turn of the century shows sixteen servants, including a butler, housekeeper, maids, coachman, groom and chauffeur. There were, in addition, gamekeepers, gardeners, and other ancillary staff engaged about the estate. Not everyone lamented the passing of this almost feudal pattern of society however. One person I interviewed in the 1960s recounted being punished by the village school’s headmaster because he hadn’t doffed his cap as Mrs Moore-Gwyn passed by.
Significant changes occurred both nationally and locally in the 1920s. Following on the depredations of the First World War, economic depression and death duties eroded the fortunes of many families. Falling coal prices and strikes at the Main Colliery Company meant that the Moore-Gwyns’ principal source of income which had sustained the Dyffryn estate was ended. The Main Colliery ceased operations in 1929 and the company, which by then had large debts, was wound up. In 1927, Dyffryn mansion, which had already been vacated for a few years, and its estate were offered for sale. Plans to transform the mansion into a hospital or similar institution failed to materialise and so the estate was divided into lots and sold. The fixtures and fittings of Dyffryn mansion, which had once contained splendid furniture, fine paintings, choice porcelain and a large library, were disposed of in 1931. By 1932, the proud residence had been demolished after being used for fire fighting practice by the Neath Fire Brigade. The Moore-Gwyns resided at Longford Court for a few years and then moved to Hampshire. The most influential family and the main industry of the village, coal mining, had thus faded within a decade. While we might lament the disappearance of fine old houses like Dyffryn House, unless alternative uses could be found for them then they were inevitably doomed, being the product of very different economic circumstances not least the large numbers of lowly-paid employees needed to run such establishments.
* A full text version of the centenary history of St Matthew’s Church published in 1971 which contains more detail about the family who lived at Dyffryn House can be found online by accessing the Dyffryn Clydach and Bryncoch Historical Society’s website.
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