The Welsh Gentry Estates: a Treasure Trove of History

Collections / Story of Wales - Posted 24-01-2020

For centuries a large proportion of the land in Wales was concentrated in the hands of a comparatively small number of gentry families. Some estates were enormous, such as Wynnstay, while others were quite small, like Allt-lwyd in Cardiganshire. The very existence of the gentry estates had a profound impact on the landscape and history of Wales. The physical manifestations of power were evident in the fine mansions surrounded by extensive gardens and park lands. The omnipresence of estates in the landscape was perceptible in the tenanted farms, the cottages, the forestry plantations, the game coverts, the enclosures of common lands, the turnpike roads, the mine workings, the railways and urban developments.

The influence of the estates was felt in almost every aspect of Welsh life. They provided employment for local people as agricultural labourers, estate stewards, gardeners, grooms, household servants and children’s nurses. Those employees were entirely at their mercy. Estate owners married into other high status families, thus expanding their lands and extending their tendrils of power into every area of public life. They held positions of high office as servants of the English Crown, members of parliament, deputy lieutenants, county sheriffs, mayors and justices of the peace. They controlled the county elections, the appointments of parish clergy and the collection of the tithes. They contributed to the building and renovation of churches, schools, hospitals, village halls and public reading rooms.

In private life they patronised poets and musicians in continuation of the bardic tradition, they amassed libraries of rare manuscripts and books, they filled their houses with fine furniture, they collected works of art and had their own portraits painted for posterity.

Fortunately the Welsh gentry estates generated a large volume of records, a positive treasure trove for the modern historian. A typical estate archive contains title deeds, rentals, estate accounts, household records, surveys and valuations, maps, family settlements and wills, diaries, letters, legal papers and county administration papers. Some estates created vast quantities of records relating to agriculture, lead mining or slate quarrying. Other estate records reflect particular interests of their owners, such as fox-hunting at Gogerddan or the collection of music, art and sculpture at Wynnstay. All of these records provide almost unlimited scope for research by genealogists, local historians, school children, archaeologists, landscape historians, students of political history, artists and musicians.

Title deeds, family settlements and wills clarify how the estate owners accumulated their lands and passed them down to their descendants. Some documents are of national significance. Both the Wynnstay and the Penrice and Margam estate archives incorporate important mediaeval charters, of Strata Marcella and Margam Abbey respectively, showing the distribution of lands prior to the dissolution of the monasteries.

Estate rentals, wage books and household records will provide the names of the estate stewards, the tenants, the labourers and the servants. The accounts often record the erection or repair of buildings which may still survive in the modern landscape. Inventories might list the silver plate, pictures and other heirlooms. Surveys and maps show where the lands were located and how they were utilised.

Diaries and letters may describe the day-to-day lives of the estate owners and their employees, relations within the family, local events, social gossip, army life, travel and political ambitions. Legal papers often incorporate a mass of evidence, shedding light on hidden family connections and current social conditions. Paintings and portraits portray the gentry houses and their owners in context, showing contemporary landscapes, architecture, heraldry, interior furnishings, clothing, hairstyles, and sometimes favourite or prized animals.

The ultimate fates of the Welsh gentry estates were various. Many sank under the burden of their own debt, created by heavy outgoings, mortgages, family settlements and death duties. Great swathes of estate lands in Wales were sold off during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of the mansion houses fell into ruin, others were converted into apartments, hospitals, asylums and schools. Some, such as Powis Castle and Llanerchaeron, came to be preserved at the hands of the National Trust. A few, such as Rhug and Mostyn, are still run as functioning estates in the modern world.

So where do you go to find out more? Estate records are held in various repositories throughout Wales. A large number of them reside here at The National Library of Wales, and we have compiled a list of 50 of the most popular estate collections, which you can view on our website. You can browse the Library’s Catalogue online from the comfort of your armchair. If you prefer to visit us in person, the professional staff in the Reading Rooms will be on hand to assist you.

Many more estate records are located in county archive offices. Some are still kept in private hands with the current estate owners or their solicitors. Bangor University has established a special centre dedicated to the history of the Welsh estates: the Institute for the Study of Welsh Estates (ISWE).

Please feel free to discover the Welsh estate records for yourself. With such a wide area of interest to choose from, no-one need feel excluded.

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A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.

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