Penybont and District History Group Notes 6th May 2019 Main Topic: Dams that did NOT Happen – Richard Rees

Geraint welcomed John and Amelia Worth as newcomers to the History Group. John is Mary’s brother and of course a direct link into the Thomas Family and the life of Penybont.

Gill from Rhayader was also welcomed to this session, as was Diana Duggan who now lives in Hereford.

Shirley mentioned a new initiative for the village. Following the last Macmillan Coffee morning she and a few others noticed that people were reluctant to leave. They had the feeling that there was a need for an opportunity for people in the village to meet up. They are starting a Coffee Morning on 20th May in the Village Hall and this will be on-going on the 3rd Monday of every month.

Shirley will also be the Main Speaker at our next meeting on 3rd June. The focus of her presentation will be the Insall Family and the beginning of the Flying Corps.

In July we will walk around Llandegley.

No Meeting in August but Judy will be our Main Speaker in September and she will be talking about Llanbadarn Fawr School.

Main Topic: The Dams that did NOT Happen – Richard Rees

Geraint welcomed Richard to our meeting and thanked him for coming all the way from Lanwrda, in Carmarthenshire, to give us the benefit of his research into Victorian Plans that could have reshaped much of Mid Wales.

As an engineer Richard has an interest and passion for what was historically known as the Central Wales Railway, and is now known as the Heart of Wales line. It was in pursuing this interest that he came across an anomaly that has led to research into the Rivers and Waters of Mid Wales. A map of the rivers of Wales:

shows the concentration of rivers within Mid Wales.

In his research Richard discovered a plan to divert the Central Wales Railway and this intrigued him and he decided that he needed to find out more. As he began to look, he discovered more and more about the Victorian plans to get water for London from Mid Wales. Richard’s research took him to National Library of Wales, House of Lords, Kew Archives and many other establishments that helped him to put together the complete plan to draw water to serve the needs of the growing population in London.

It was the plan to divert the railway between Cilmeri and Llanwrtyd that drew his attention. This potential major change to the railway line was estimated to cost £140,930 in 1898, a not insignificant amount. This puzzled Richard. The diversion of the line would take it North of Garth and about 1-mile East of Llanwrtyd. But this was only the beginning! What was going on!??

The need to improve the water supply for London was identified around 1894. The Chief Engineer for the London Council, Sir Alexander Richardson Binnie, took on the challenge. He saw Mid Wales as an area rich in water, and with a very sparse population, and therefore providing the potential for a major scheme that would meet the needs of the city dwellers in London. Binnie looked at Mid Wales as a resource, not as farms homes, and a resource for the people of Mid Wales. He saw a multitude of rivers and he had the engineering potential to draw them together into an opportunity to meet the needs of Londoners.

Binnie was a man who got things done, knighted for his engineering achievements he saw Mid Wales as the solution to the water needs of London.

The Wye and its tributaries were his target. The particular rivers included Towy, Usk, Irfon, Ithon, and Edw Rivers. These are just few of the 42 rivers that came into Binnie’s plans. When we think of the Elan Valley providing water to Birmingham, this was dwarfed by Binnie’s vision and would have supplied about 5 times the amount of water to London.

The impact on the area would have been enormous but the reservoirs would be only one aspect of this. One town and 30 villages would have been submerged or cought up in the scheme. Richard notes that 60% of Brecknockshire, 50% of Radnorshire and large parts of Carmarthenshire would have been severely impacted by Binnie’s scheme.

If we start in the north, there would have been a reservoir on the northern edge of the Elan Valley stretching up the Upper Wye Valley. The one that would have had the most impact on Penybont area was a reservoir that was almost square that would stretch from well north on Llanbadarn Fynydd down to Llanddewi. Below this and also very close to Penybont would have been a smaller reservoir in the Edw Valley that would have taken in Hundred House and Franksbridge. The Chapel on the Hill at Franksbridge would have been on the edge of the reservoir.

The main catchment area was associated with the Towy and Irfon where a vast reservoir would be created. This would be in the region of about 3 times the size of the area encompassed by the reservoirs in the Elan Valley. This would extend into some smaller reservoirs along the Usk and over towards Llangorse where the reservoir already there would be raised by 98 feet making it of similar size to the Ithon Valley reservoir. Between the reservoirs there would be tunnels and aqueducts constructed to take water from one system to others and as part of keeping the river waters flowing.

Creating these tunnels and aqueducts would swallow up more land. One of the tunnels would have cut through from the Ithon reservoir at Llanddewi close to Crossgates. Then there would have been an aqueduct in the Edw valley near Bettws. All of this infrastructure would have necessitated an enormous amount to compulsory purchase and Binnie had plans for all these purchases drawn up. While there would have been opposition locally there were also opportunists. The owners of the Epynt House Hotel, now known as Lake Hotel Langammarch, rushed an extension into being, using very basic materials, in order to get more compensations should the scheme have gone ahead. It is also worth remembering that it was not only the properties affected by the reservoirs and the infrastructure that were affected. Huge areas of land and properties that could potentially pollute the water supply were also subject to compulsory purchase.

Richard gave us a hint at the scale of the impact to the area when he listed the destruction in the Irfon Valley alone:

69 farmhouses        212 houses

20 cottages             2 mansions

37 shops                 9 workshops

3 hotels                   7 public houses

3 blacksmiths          5 water mills

4 railway stations     3 schools

9 chapels                 4 churches

1 brickworks            1 public hall

For some years we, at the Thomas Shop, had been reading William Thomas’s advertisement for his ‘Steam Laundry’ at the Thomas Shop as a joke, but the talk by Richard brought home how this scheme must have been a hot topic of conversation during the latter end of the Victorian Era and into the Edwardian Era. William Thomas wrote in 1905:

“W.T. has been fortunate in securing a competent Trained Staff and excellent Management. The Water Supply is perfectly suited for the requirements of a Laundry, and is the same as the Londoners are so anxious to obtain.”

Having done all the preliminary work to start the scheme there was the small matter of getting it accepted and then trough Parliament. Binnie felt that it would not be a problem to get the water from Wales. His plan included building an aqueduct 192 miles from Garth to Boreham Wood, London. Water would travel by gravity, albeit this did mean some extensive tunnels through the Cotswolds. There would be a holding reservoir at Boreham Wood.

An investigation into the scheme was conducted into the scheme in 1896 and this was compared with an alternative scheme based around Staines. The latter scheme would have been cheaper to build but much dearer in the long term. London CC then appointed a Chemist William Dibdin to give a report on the state of the water coming from the Thames against that from Wales. He found that samples obtained from Wales at the end of the winter, as the water had been flushed by winter rains, from Wales were much better, but that this was an unfair comparison. He discovered that there was much politicking over control of the water by the water companies and this was underpinning the decisions being made. Despite this London CC recommended that it should go to the next stages.

The next stage would be to take the matter through Parliament where a Bill had to be prepared and subsequently voted on. At the same time that this was happening a Royal Commission had been set up to compare the water scheme that Binnie had prepared with the Staines scheme mentioned earlier.

Richard explained that the preparation of a Parliamentary Bill required a degree of accuracy that was found to be very challenging in this scenario. Many landowners across parts of Mid Wales were Welsh speaking and many had the same name. In a celebrated situation a John Jones was not given notice relating to one of his fields, and it was discovered on investigation that two different John Jones lived on 2 adjacent farms. Despite these difficulties, and alongside considerable stress across Wales, a Bill was prepared and received assent at its first reading. A growing concern that this was progressing before the Royal Commission had reported on its findings. The second reading was delayed and Binnie, in order to give the Bill a greater chance of succeeding, made some modifications to the scheme.  This meant moving the Irfon Dam further upstream and submerging Beulah and Abernant.

It was on the 29th March 1900 that the Bill was placed before Parliament for its second reading.  By this time the Royal Commission had reported and came out against the Binnie proposal. The tide had in fact turned and opposition to London CC had even turned in the Greater London area. The opposition in Wales had gained momentum as it was recognized that there were water needs for towns and Cities in South Wales that would be compromised by the scheme. The scheme was rejected by Parliament.

In discussion Richard Davies commented that: “If ever there was a justification for a ‘Free Welsh Army’, this was it.”

Geraint thanked Richard Rees for his ‘magnificent’ talk. It is fair to say that the research that Richard has undertaken in this matter has been thorough to a level that is quite outstanding. This write up only attempts to sketch through some of the detail that Richard has uncovered. Richard has written a small book on the subject, a copy of which is in our archives.

Shirley will be with us on the 3rd June to talk about the Insall Family and the birth of the Royal Flying Corps.

Penybont and District History Group Notes 1st April 2019 Main Topic: New Angles on Abbeycymhir – Roger Coward

Geraint welcomed members and one new member from Rhayader, Helen. Helen is new to the area and is keen to learn about the history and to meet people.

Geraint invited members to make announcements about local activity.

Trevor Powell made a passionate plea for members to support his on-line parliamentary petition on behalf the British Expeditionary Force who went to the defence of France during the 2nd World War. Their contribution and sacrifice has never been properly recognised and he has initiated this petition.

Sylvia has tickets for a Male Voice Choir who will be singing in the Hall on the 14th April.

Roger, today’s speaker, mentioned a talk being given my the Abbeycwmhir Heritage Trust on ‘Cwmhir and the Mortimers’ that will be at the Philips Hall in Abbeycwmhir on Thursday 4th April at 7.30 p.m.

Geraint then drew attention to the number of members who now had significant roles in the Radnorshire Society.

Geraint then introduced our speaker, Roger Coward, from the Abbeycwmbir Heritage Trust. Roger has done, with other members of the Trust, some very detailed work relating to the Abbey, and the Abbey, before it’s dissolution, in turn would have had a hugely significant impact on the surrounding area, including Penybont. Roger who is Chair of the Trust has published a book – Abbeycwmhir , and copies are available.

Main Topic: New Angles on Abbeycymhir

The Abbey at Cwmhir was a Cistercian Abbey, the daughter House of Whitland Abbey in Carmarthenshire and in turn the Mother House of Cymer Abbey in Gwenedd.

Roger opened his talk by asking a question about the reasons why people are keen to attend Local History sessions rather than join the Heritage Trust. Clearly the Trust is very active and has done a large amount of work on Abbeycwmhir but they were few in numbers. After some hesitation some members did say that they were a bit intimidated by the academic rigor of the Trust. Roger admitted that he was keen on the research side of the Trust’s work and did, as Chair, promote this side of the Trust’s activity.

Roger started his talk with some recent slides taken by drone that have exposed, within the embankment surrounding the Abbey, a possible grave. Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust CPAT are planning to do some exploratory work on the grave later this year. A 2010 photo shows the extent of the Abbey but it has been necessary to look at a drawing relating to St. Mary’s Abbey in York to get some idea of how the Abbey and the precincts gave the working environment for the Monk’s and their need to be self-sufficient.

This shows a:

Chapter House where meetings relating to the work of the Monks and the Community would be held and might include ecclesiastical courts.

Scriptorium & Library where the Monks might have written documents.

Monk’s Dorter or dormitory, sleeping quarters for the Monks.

Monk’s Frater, or dining room for Lay Brothers and Monks

Lay Brothers Quarters for the Un-ordained Brothers who worked the land, often referred to as ‘separate but equal’, unlike the Monks who had more ‘spiritual’ duties. The CPAT site:

Shows the suggested enclosure around the Abbey and the ridge and furrow areas within the precinct.

Roger then posed four questions for his talk:

  1. Why is the nave of the Abbey so long?
  2. Who built the Abbey?
  3. Which of the two suggested dates was it founded?
  4. Why is there no choir area?
  1. Why is the Abbey so long?

The abbey nave at Cymhir is extraordinarily long and is the longest Cistercian Abbey in Europe. Not just long in terms of Strata Florida and in Wales but long in terms of the national and even international perspectives.

The longest nave of a Gothic Abbey or Cathedral in the world is the Winchester Cathedral nave at about 170 meters. The nave at Abbeycwmhir is only marginally shorter than this. The nave in abbeys and cathedrals is often measured in ‘bays’:

Winchester has 10 bays; as does Westminster; Hereford Cathedral has 6 bays; and Strata Florida had 7. Abbey Cwmhir had a massive 14 bays. Why such a large Abbey was built in this part of Wales, and was probably never completed, remains a mystery. Maelienydd, as part of Rhwng Gwy a Hafren, was strategically important to both the Welsh Princes and to the Marcher Lords. The Abbey may have been seen by both sides as making a statement about their power in the area.

Clearly the Abbey was built to make a major statement in the area. Maelienydd was quite strategically placed and would have been important to the Marcher Lords as well as the Welsh Princes. The Kings around this time were often preoccupied by their lands in France and even Spain and so they looked to the Marcher Lords to at least keep the Welsh Princes occupied so that they were not a threat to their interests on the English side of the Marches. The Abbey was built to have about 60 Monks and the King would have hoped that the power of the Church and Ecclesiastical Law would have helped in this regard. Equally Cadwallon ap Madog Llewelyn Fawr might well have had similar hopes and they would also have valued the prestige that this brought to Maelienydd.

In their research the Heritage Trust have drawn upon Monastic Chronicles, Cistercian History and more secular documents but these were all written some time after the building of the Abbey.   

  • Who built the Abbey?

As we approach this question it is worth thinking about Elystan Glodrydd who featured in our previous notes of 6th July 2015. We know how Elystan’s descendants have had an influence on so much of British and Welsh history. In exploring Abbeycwmhir we see his great grandsons playing a significant role, albeit there is still considerable debate about some of the specifics. Probably the most debated date is that of 1143. There are suggestions that an Abbey was started by Maredudd ap Madog, Prince of Maelienydd, and one of the great grandsons of Elystan and a cousin to Rhys ap Gruffudd (The Lord Rhys, King of Deheubarth), in 1143. Tradition suggests that this was at another site, Ty Faenor, about 1 mile east from where the Abbey was built in Cwmhir. What does appear to be more certain is that the Mortimers in 1144 gained the upper hand in Maelienydd and whatever had been achieved came to an end. Maredudd, it would appear, was killed by the Mortimers in 1146. Research into this starting point is unclear. There are documents that refer to considerations about building a church but what actually happened, if anything remains uncertain.

Maredudd’s brother, Cadwallon ap Madog, did however play a significant role and is regarded as the Founder of the Abbey. He was given charge of Maelienydd from Madog, his Father, with another brother Einion Clud having charge of Elfael. Gradually Cadwallon took control of the whole of Rhung Gwy a Hafren. One of Cadwallon’s bases was at Cymaron Castle. He built a number of Castles and it is thought that one of these might have been Crug Eryr, which is not far from Llandegley, and which featured in one of our History Group walks on 3rd July 2017.   Though no Charter has ever been found to consolidate the Founding of the Abbey it is widely accepted that Cadwallon started to build the first wooden Abbey at Cwmhir in 1176. The Abbey would have added to his ability to keep the Mortimers at bay. He was however killed by Roger Mortimer in 1179. Roger Mortimer was imprisoned by King Henry ll for his part in this crime.

The Abbeycwmhir Heritage Trust, within which Roger Coward is a key player, has an excellent article on Cadwallon.

Another interesting feature of Cadwallon was that he had supported Geraldus Cambrensis and it may have been that it was Cadwallon who rescued Geraldus when he locked himself in Llanbadarn Fawr Church. See our notes of 7th April 2014:

Roger Mortimer then held sway in Maelienydd until 1215 and the earliest known Charter was prepared by him in 1200, only discovered in 1956 when it was about to be turned into a lampshade. Intent on sweeping away any Welsh claims, he makes no mention of Cadwallon. The Abbey was clearly important to Roger Mortimer and he is one of the people who may have commenced building the stone Abbey at Cwmhir. The view of the Heritage Trust has moved towards Roger Mortimer having the best claim. The Charter gave to the monks considerable land adjacent to the Abbey and access to all common pasture throughout Maelienydd.

Fortunes turned back to the Welsh with the arrival of Llewellyn Fawr, Llewellyn the Great or indeed Llewellyn ab Iowerth. As the Prince of North Wales he became the dominant force across most of Wales and in that sense a true ‘Prince of Wales’. Llewellyn had married the illegitimate daughter of King John and this gave him some political advantage in his disputes with the Marcher Lords. Politically things were never straightforward as Llewelyn sided with those against the King and made King John sign the Magna Carta and begin the process of endorsing democracy and human rights. Llewelyn saw the Abbey as being advantageous to him and had plans to crown his son Dafydd as Prince of Wales. The building of the Abbey clearly overlapped with his time but whether he started the build or not remains disputed. This was a period of relative peace under Llewelyn albeit King Henry lll threatened to burn down the Abbey when the Abbott misdirected the King’s army into an ambush. Things changed quickly and in 1232 the King gave the Abbey a more generous writ of protection in an attempt to get them on his side against Llewelyn. In the same year the Pope intervened with the running of the Abbey when he gave it the right to administer the sacrament to local people due to the rurality of Cwmhir and the lack of Parish Churches. This was something that a Cathedral might do.

There is a third claim to who might have taken the initiative in building the stone Abbey. Some people would say that King John had the most to gain. King John became increasingly worried by the power that Llewelyn was gaining across Wales and it can be argued that it was the King who saw the Abbey as an opportunity to have a presence at this strategic point. In 1214 King John did take the Abbey into his possession and confirmed its status as an Abbey and extended the rights that the Abbey had over land and its activities.

The Welsh dominance of the area declined with the death of Llewelyn in 1240 and Mortimers were back in control. It was Ralph Mortimer who consolidated his tenure by building one of the Castles at Cefnllys. Though Ralph died in 1246 the Mortimer influence continued until 1262 when Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, the ‘Last Prince of Wales’ brought took back control into Welsh hands. Llewelyn regained Cefnllys Castle in 1262. Having consolidated his position across most of Wales Llewelyn refused to attend the coronation of Edward l in 1274 and found himself excommunicated despite overtures to the Pope by the Abbot of Cwmhir Abbey not to do this. Disputes over the imposition of English Law over Welsh Law continued and in 1282 Llewelyn was killed near Builth. His head was taken to the King but where his body was taken is uncertain. Roger Coward thought that it was possible that bits could have been taken to different places as was common practice. One theory is that his body was taken by the Monks at Cwmhir and buried at the Abbey. This theory is uncertain due to his excommunicated status. A recent drone photograph has revealed a grave sized plot outside the precinct of the Abbey which has caused some interest and it is hoped to excavate this site and see who or what might be buried there. A Memorial Slate, Carreg goffa, to Llewelyn was been placed within the Abbey.

A ceremony is held each year on the 11th December, the date of his death, to commemorate the last true Prince of Wales.

  • Which of the two dates was the Abbey Founded? 1143 or 1176.

The Heritage Trust Study Group have delved into old documents to try and establish a definitive date for the Founding of the Abbey. Looking atr Monastic Chronicles the Annales Cambriae do not contain any reference to the Abbey in 1143, but documents relating to Gruffudd  ap Llewelyn Fawr in 1248 do mention this early date.  These documents were not originals and so the group decided that they could not be considered reliable. Within Cistercian History documents there is reference to 1143 in a document written by a Dutch Abbot, on 1642 a document gives both dates, 1143 and 1176, in 1877 another document also mentions both dates. William Dugdale in 1693, writing from a secular perspective, gives the date as 1143.

Roger would say that despite the many statements about 1143 the 1176 date is more credible.

  • Why is there no choir area?

This is another unresolved mystery. Normally the Choir area is the first area to be built for a new Abbey. It represents such a core spiritual activity for the Monks and therefore assumes a priority status. A recent drone photograph has shown the outline of a previously unknown building at the east end of the Abbey and this has opened up the possibility that this might be the room where the choir performed.

By 1282 Edmund Mortimer was back in charge and it was not until Owain Glyndwr came along in 1401 that the Abbey was ‘spoiled and defaced’. By this time the Abbey was seen as being part of the Mortimer’s Estate and loyal to the King.

It was Henry Vlll, in 1536/7, however who turned the Abbey into a ruin with the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The work of the Heritage Trust is to try to find answers to the questions that have been raised about the Abbey. A new analysis of the hard stone used in the stone carvings that have been found has been commissioned and it is hoped that this might give some new insights into the riddles that exist within the history of Cwmhir Abbey.

Roger Coward then talked about some of the finds from the old Abbey. These include a stone Tympanum which was found at Home Farm and would have been originally over the Door of the Abbey. Like many of the stones found around the Abbey the Trust have initiated a project to make 3-D prints of these stones. In a more ambitious way, they are also appealing to landowners across the territory to bring stones that may have been taken from the Abbey to have them 3-Dprinted as well. It has been questioned as to why there is so little stone at the Abbey itself? It would appear that farmers from a wide area, and even locally to us in Penybont, took the stone for their own needs.

Mabli’s tomb lid, which has been discovered recently, has a very unusual type of writing. It says simply ‘Here lies Mabli, on whose soul be merciful’.

An example of the Common Seal of the Abbey, used in 1533, just before the Dissolution, has been found. It depicts the Virgin Mary holding the child Christ and is typical of Seals used by the Cistercians. The Seal is quite elaborate and contains the arms of France, England, Anne Mortimer, Richard of Cambridge, and the Duke of York.

Mentioned above, the Annales Cambriae did not refer to the founding of the Abbey but it would appear to have been written at the Abbey for about 8 years. Within it during these years there are many references to place names in the local area. For example, the is reference to Cefnllys in 1262 and Llewelyn ‘trudging through the snow’.

The Book, “Abbeycwmhir – History, Homes and People” that has been published by Abbeycwmhir Community Council is a brilliant source information on the Abbey and the Community of Abbeycwnhir.

Geraint thanked Roger for his excellent talk. The next session will be on Bank Holiday Monday, 6th May when Richard Rees will give us a talk on ‘The Dams that did not Happen’.