Before opening as a Study Centre and a place to visit, Plas Tan y Bwlch was home to some of the wealthiest families in North Wales.
Discover how the Oakeley family, owners of the estate from 1789 to 1961, lost their grasp on a lucrative slate empire and eventually the Tan y Bwlch estate.
During the C16, Ieuan ap Iorwerth ap Adda and his descendants slowly acquired property and land in the Maentwrog and Ffestiniog area, which became the Tan y Bwlch estate.
Famous Family Links
The Tan y Bwlch families were highly regarded locally because of their supposed descent from Collwyn ap Tangno, 1 of the 15 tribes of Gwynedd. Through this they were also linked to the famous Prince Gruffudd ap Cynan who is reputed to have defeated the English in a battle near Gellilydan, only 4 miles away from Plas Tan y Bwlch.
Tan y Bwlch was first referred to in the will of Robert Evans in 1602. Robert Evans’ son, Robert was married to Lowri Prys, grand daughter of Edmwnd Prys, Tyddyn Du, rector of Maentwrog and Archdeacon of Meirionnydd. Edmwnd Prys was an instrumental helper of Bishop William Morgan whilst translating the Bible to Welsh.
Lowri’s inheritance included Rhiwbryfdir (near Blaenau Ffestiniog) which proved extremely important to the later fortunes of the family as it was the land where the lucrative Oakeley Quarry developed during the C19.
In 1634, Robert and Lowri's son, Evan, became Sheriff of Meirioneth and it was probably he that built the first house in its present location.
Bards and poets like Siôn Dafydd Las, Ellis Rowlands and Siôn Prichard Prys were all welcomed to Plas Tan y Bwlch and wrote poetry praising this historical house.
In 1722 Ellis Rowlands heaped praise on the house, its lovely setting, its family and their lavish hospitality:
'Tŷ gwinoedd wyt mewn gwenallt
gwydrog wych mewn godre gallt
a'th goed a'th gaeau ydynt
hapus gaer rhag pwys y gwynt'
(Thou art a house of wines on a white hill
magnificently windowed at the foot of a hill
thy woods and thy fields are happy walls
against the press of winds)
Catherine, heiress of the Evans family married Robert Griffith of Bach y Saint near Cricieth, expanding the estate.
Their grandson, Robert Griffith, rebuilt and extended the house around 1748. His son, Evan Griffith was the last male of the Griffith family. The male line of the Evans and Griffith families had both come to an end in their turn and each time, the heiresses married new wealth and land.
Margaret, his grand daughter and heiress of the Griffith family, married a wealthy Englishman named William Oakeley from Staffordshire in 1789. Margaret Griffiths had apparently been on the look out for a husband who could take care of her and expand the Tan y Bwlch estate: William Oakeley was the perfect candidate! The Oakeley’s influence continued for almost 200 years.
William Oakeley – Owner of Tan y Bwlch Estate (1789 – 1811)
William Oakeley's arrival heralded prosperous times for the estate which had grown substantially through marriage settlement and inheritance. William Oakeley was a popular man, known locally as ‘Oakeley Fawr’ (Great Oakeley). He is said to have been able to speak Welsh but it is likely that he only learnt it after marrying his Welsh wife.
He is most noted for improving the poor agricultural land in the valley below the Plas. Farming was the main livelihood in the area at this time but because the valley was a tidal estuary, the agricultural land was very poor. He carried out a major scheme to improve the land by building nearly a mile of embankments costing £309, equivalent to £21,854 today! This work helped to contain the river when water levels rose.
William Griffith Oakeley's period was one of great excitement. He transformed the Oakeley Quarry into the largest subterranean quarry in the world, employing over 1600 men.
William Griffith Oakeley - Owner of Tan y Bwlch Estate (1811 - 1835).
William Griffith Oakeley transformed the Oakeley Quarry into a lucrative slate empire. Much of this success was due to a landmark legal case when he famously sued Lord Rothschild for trespassing on Tan y Bwlch land in his search for minerals and slates. Winning the case meant that only the Oakeleys could profit from the slate on their land.
He improved the transport of slate by building several slate quays on the river Dwyryd and was involved in the creation of the Ffestiniog Railway, allowing slate to be transported quickly.
William died childless and the estate was managed by his wife, Louisa Jane Oakeley, until it eventually passed to his cousin's son William Edward Oakeley in 1879. William Griffith had left the estate to only William Edward Oakeley’s male heirs. However, this clause was overturned so both his son and daughter could inherit. Also the Married Woman’s Property Act had become law, allowing inheritance to be controlled within blood instead of a daughter’s fortune becoming another man’s property in marriage, the method used so painstakingly to build the estate.
Louisa Jane Oakeley – Owner of Tan y Bwlch Estate (1835-1879)
Louisa Jane Oakeley continued her husband's good work with the Oakeley Quarries and further developed the slate town of Blaenau Ffestiniog by building a hospital for her quarry men in the town.
As years went by, her interest in the estate waned and she became a virtual recluse. By this time William Edward Oakeley, who was set to inherit the estate, tried to get her certified as insane but failed. However, a year later in 1868, she left Plas suddenly and signed over the running of the estate to William, although it remained her property until her death eleven years later. She never returned to Wales and was not buried with her husband.
William Edward Oakeley - Owner of Tan y Bwlch Estate (1879-1912)
William Edward Oakeley's flair for building is evident today as you look at the Plas. He built the bay windows overlooking the lawn, the extension on the south west (now a reception area and offices) and put in the bridge to connect the main house with the servants quarters.
He also rebuilt much of Maentwrog, the Church, a new school and continued with the land reclamation scheme in the valley. He was awarded a medal for the reclamation work from the Royal Society of Arts in 1897.
His influence on the family’s lucrative slate empire however was disastrous and eventually led to its collapse. Having been the core of the family fortune for years, serious financial trouble in the C20 was inevitable.
Despite his increasing financial problems, William Edward Oakeley paid for special trains on the Ffestiniog Railway to carry thousands of people to Tan y Bwlch for an 18th birthday party he was throwing for his son Edward de Clifford. Some years later, he paid for quarrymen and their families to go to Llandudno on the train. These events suggest that he was a benevolent employer.
Plas Tan y Bwlch was believed to be the first house in North Wales to be lit by electricity from its own hydro electric source during the 1890’s. This was generated by a form of pelton wheel, presumably fed from Llyn Mair (an artificial lake constructed by Mary Oakeley) by means of a pipeline. The small power house was on the hillside immediately behind the house and is said to have operated until after the opening of Maentwrog public hydro electric power station in 1928.
It was a dismal start to the century as increasingly difficult times faced William Edward Oakeley. By the time he died however, he had managed to raise enough money to keep part of the estate which was inherited by his two children. The Oakeley line finally came to an end when his daughter Mary died at 96 in 1961.
Edward de Clifford - Owner of Tan y Bwlch Estate (1912-1915)
Edward de Clifford had inherited the Plas and the estate the north of the river. His sister Mary Caroline inherited the south side of the river.
Edward showed no interest in his inheritance and preferred to spend his time gambling and partying in London. Rumour has it that he once spent £50,000 on a single bet, equivalent to over £3 million today! Little wonder that the family’s financial situation was so dire!
By 1915 he had sold his estate to his niece Margaret Inge for £25,000. Margaret also paid the £40,000 of outstanding mortgages with money probably left to her by her father.
Edward died a bachelor in 1919 only 55 years of age leaving the surprising legacy of £88,000. He had failed to make much impact on Plas and the estate.
Mary Oakeley / Inge (from 1893) - Owner of Tan y Bwlch Estate (1912-1961)
Mary was already a widow when she inherited part of the estate from her father. She had married wealthy William Frederick Inge of Thorpe Hall near Tamworth in 1893. Only ten years later her husband had hanged himself at his family home, suffering from a hereditary mental illness.
They had three children; Margaret, Hilda and Edith, a victim of the Inge family mental illness. She was institutionalised for most of her life.
Margaret had bought the Plas from her uncle but died of pneumonia shortly afterwards. Hilda managed the estate for the next 30 years. She died a spinster in 1953 leaving the north side of the Tan y Bwlch estate to her mother who now owned it all.
‘Mrs Inge’ was said to be quite the dictator! Keen on rules and regulations she insisted housewives on the estate were only to hang their washing out on Monday afternoons. Despite this she did seem well liked amongst the locals and is remembered as a generous landlord.
During the 1920’s and 30’s Mrs Inge bred Tan y Bwlch Welsh ponies, primarily to provide ponies for children to ride. Her stud became one of the most influential of her time. Tan y Bwlch ponies helped to establish the world famous Coed Coch stud at Abergele, owned by the late Miss Broderick MBE.
The Russell family inherited the estate from Mary Inge but were forced to sell in 1962 because of crippling death duties. It was owned briefly by a member of the Bibby flour and feed family from Liverpool who planned to turn the Plas into a Country Club. The chalets in the grounds, all privately owned, are the remains of this vision.
Meirionnydd County Council bought the house and the grounds in 1969 and these eventually came under the control of the Snowdonia National Park which opened the Study Centre in 1975.
During 2004 / 2005 major renovations were undertaken at Plas Tan y Bwlch in a move to make the historic house and grounds more accessible to the public. Locals and visitors now have the opportunity to learn about the history of the house and gardens as well as continue to attend the various courses held at the Study Centre.
The £1.2 million project, grant aided by the Heritage Lottery Fund and CADW, entailed major work on the gardens, the external fabric of the building and the roof. Work inside the house included installing the lift and stair lifts as well as extensive work to return the conservatory to its former glory.
Other notable elements of the project were demolishing the front of the ground floor of the wing, the former swimming pool and rebuilding the wall with stone work to match the rest of the buildings. Sandstone mullions were also reinstated in windows along the ground floor of the main building.
As part of the project, new educational facilities were installed in the house and gardens enabling visitors to form a greater understanding of the unique heritage of the Centre and its landscape.
The Public courses run at Plas Tan y Bwlch are constantly under review in an effort to adapt to participants' requirements.
There is also a range of Professional Training courses aimed at people who work for environmental organisations such as Local Authority Officers, Wardens, University and College lecturers and students. Pick up a brochure about the courses in reception.
Many Universities as well as local and national organisations also use the Centre's facilities for their own residential events.
The Snowdonia National Park Authority is a part of the Green Dragon scheme and Plas Tan y Bwlch is working towards achieving Eco-Centre status.
Centres striving for eco-centre status have to adopt 'green' principles and apply them to the day to day running of the Centre. In turn, this process raises awareness of sustainable principles to staff and residents and encourages them to take sustainable actions in their homes and working lives.
The Centre has already adopted the following:
In addition to offering a wide range of courses, Plas Tan y Bwlch also hosts conferences and seminars for a wide range of organisations such as:
In 2003 the Centre won the Wales Tourist Board award in the Specialist Activity Category.
The Centre is also used by the local community of Maentwrog for a variety of cultural activities and meetings.