Martyn J Griffiths
There is little doubt that the construction of a mansion at Rheola for the London engineer John Edwards sometime between 1811 and 1814 was based on designs drawn up by John Nash. Later, Nash would go on to earn fame and fortune by redesigning central London. However, the links between the Nash family, the town of Neath and in particular the Edwards family, go much deeper than that.
The origins of the Edwards family of Neath are unclear as John Edwards Vaughan of Rheola commented that his grandfather had come from Staffordshire, though other claims were to a Welsh heritage. The family at Neath was well-known to Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826) who commented that they had for several generations been ‘greatly distinguished for their genius and skill’ in constructing machines. Certainly, their skills would have been very welcome in an area which was rapidly becoming an industrial powerhouse.
Humphrey Edwards senior, presumably the man who moved to Neath from Staffordshire, lived in Water Street in 1750 - 1751 as shown on lists of resiants [an ancient form of residents] where his name appears as ‘Umphrey Edwards’. Water Street had been one of the more prestigious parts of the town in the mid seventeenth century but by the time that these lists were being drawn up it had been downgraded somewhat in status. The influx of English coal miners and metal industry workers to the Mera meant it was rapidly becoming a less desirable part of town. The more affluent residents had mostly moved to High Street, New Street and Water Street. Nevertheless, some of the better-off still lived there. Humphrey, like all three of his sons, was a millwright and engineer; skills much in demand on the Gnoll estate.
Living next door to the family in Water Street was an Edward Nash. Like Humphrey Edwards, Nash’s father, Thomas, had moved to Neath to work for the Mackworth (Gnoll) Estate. The Nash family hailed from Brosley in Shropshire which also happened to be the home of the Guest family of Dowlais. Brosley was one of the primary centres for the industrial revolution and where the world’s first iron bridge would be built in 1779. Thomas Nash acted as mines’ agent or surveyor for the Mackworth Estate.
Nothing much is known about Edward Nash other than his occupation as ship’s carpenter, but it is obvious that the two families were already closely tied as his brother John and John Edwards senior travelled to London together in about 1762 to seek their fortunes. Both were millwrights and both were successful entrepreneurs in the metropolis, particularly John Edwards. John Nash was the father of the architect of the same name.
John Nash the architect of Regent’s Street,
Regent’s Park, Brighton Pavilion, Marble Arch and
Buckingham Palace – as well as Rheola!
It is not known where John Nash junior was born. Some say London, others Cardigan and there is one reference from the portrait painter John Deffett Francis that refers to a note he had seen saying, ‘his sister who was the very image of him, told me that they were both born in Neath.’
The budding architect married in 1775, shortly after finishing his apprenticeship, but it was not a happy union. Just three years later he sent his wife, Jane, back to Wales ‘in order to work a reformation on her.’ There were two allegations. Firstly, she was allegedly something of a spendthrift having millinery bills alone of nearly £300. Living with his relatives in Aberavon there was less likelihood of that sort of temptation. The second allegation was that the two children they had baptised were not fathered by Nash! In fact, he alleged that she had never had any child by him but had faked the pregnancies and imposed two children as theirs! Nash asked a friend, Charles Charles, who was a clerk in Mackworth’s Neath coal-yard, to keep an eye on her in Aberavon. That was another mistake. Charles’ eye was too close for comfort.
Jane returned to London in June 1779 but continued her spending sprees and in October she was again sent to Wales, this time under supervision of either Humphrey Edwards, named as Nash’s cousin, or his brother Thomas (references vary). She probably stayed in Water Street where the Edwards family was living in the 1750s and where Thomas Edwards still occupied several houses at the time of the 1811 Gnoll Rent Roll. One can imagine the comments of the Mera miners when Jane Nash was parading round in her London finery.
The final disaster was that Jane became pregnant and had a baby, born in December, which was later acknowledged to be fathered by Charles. That, unsurprisingly, was the end of the marriage.
Divorce proceedings were started at the Bishop of London’s Consistory Court in 1782 and an action brought against Charles Charles seeking damages for ‘criminal conversation’. This resulted in Nash’s favour and Charles went to prison being unable or unwilling to pay the damages and costs awarded. Divorce proceedings were lengthy and tortuous. In 1787 Nash obtained a definitive sentence of divorce but this did not allow for re-marriage. He, therefore, sought a full divorce by Act of Parliament. Witnesses, including Humphrey Edwards, his brother Thomas, and the Morgan cousins from Aberavon, all travelled to London to give evidence. The evidence they gave was a repeat of the earlier proceedings in the Bishop’s Court but it was all to no avail; the divorce bill was rejected.
Thomas and Humphrey Edwards were brothers to the John Edwards that had travelled to London. Thomas was six times portreeve of Neath and was surveyor for the new bridge built across the River Neath. He was the go-between for Capel Hanbury Leigh and John Edwards over the purchase of Rheola.
The younger brother, Humphrey, was another millwright and engineer. Like his brother he was also involved in the running of the town being a common councillor at the time of his death. He married Mary, an aunt of John Nash the architect, but no trace has been found of the actual marriage. Given the ages of both Humphrey Edwards and John Nash, it seems more likely that Mary was a cousin rather than an aunt, and she may be the Mary born to his neighbour Edward Nash in about 1757.
Humphrey is named taking out a 21-year lease dated 1791 for the mill at Neath River Bridge. This mill has been constructed just fifty years earlier to replace an older one nearer Neath Abbey. In 1815 the same mill passed to Joseph Tregellis Price; c1817 to Elijah Waring; to the banker John Rowland in 1837; to William Weston Young in 1855 and through his extended family until it burnt down in 1872.
John Nash’s link with the Edwards family continued in London as the architect worked closely with John Edwards’ son, another John Edwards, later known (from 1829) as John Edwards Vaughan. The latter was a solicitor. Their closeness is perhaps reflected in the will of Nash who left almost his entire estate to the solicitor’s son, Nash Vaughan Edwards Vaughan. George IV regarded Nash Edwards as Nash’s nephew ‘or just a relation’.
- Pages from an Architect's Notebook - Nigel Temple (1987)
- The Early Life of John Nash : Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (2009)
- by Elis Jenkins, NAS Transactions (1978)
- The Diaries of John Nash, architect 1832-1835 - Malcolm Pinhorn (2002)