The First Thousand Years
On the 19th September 1643, in the faltering reign of Charles 1st, a young Welsh married servant shivered with fear in the dining room of the local magistrates house. Elizabeth, daughter of Ieuan and wife of another Ieuan stood accused of the theft of a cheese valued at 6d. The house Plas yn Rhiw, was the home of Richard Lewis, the local squire and owner of a large farming estate. John Bodwrda, a notary and Commissioner of Array, although it was possible that he was a secret parliamentarian supporter, slowly and in a very spidery hand, wrote down the evidence submitted by the various witnesses, writing in both English and Latin.
Elizabeth must have despaired as her neighbours and fellow servants gave their damning evidence. Grace the wife of Robert said that she saw Elizabeth go into a chamber in the farm house known as Mellionydd, she stated that this room was next to another chamber in which the cheeses were stored and that she noticed that when Elizabeth came out of the chamber, that her petticoat was tucked up suggesting that there was something hidden in it, and that when Elizabeth had entered the chamber her petticoat had not been tucked up. Grace also said that from the chamber into which Elizabeth had gone, she would have been able to reach into the other chamber that contained the cheeses.
Katherine, the daughter of Hugh, and a servant at the same farm, which incidentally still survives and is situated some 8 kilometres from Plas yn Rhiw, stated that she had mislaid a hatchet, and that Elizabeth had offered to look in the chamber for it.
The Widow Lowri, daughter of Richard stated that she was a diarywoman and servant of Arthur Williams, the owner of Mellionydd, and that on the 18th September she knew that a certain cheese treated with marigold was in the room containing the cheese, and during the summer of 1643 she had missed a number or as she said, divers, cheeses from the cheese chamber in the farm house.
Blanch, daughter of John of Aberdaron gave evidence that she had been hired for one day during that summer’s harvest to reap hay for Ieuan the husband of Elizabeth, and that Elizabeth and Ieuan gave Blanch a little piece of cheese to eat along with her bread and meat. Blanch stated that she had asked Elizabeth if the cheese had come from Mellionydd, but Elizabeth had denied this and replied, "No" and that "The cheese had come from far away." Blanch further stated that some two or three days after this she had again visited Ieuan where she had seen Ieuan and a child of his eating cheese without bread, and that they had given her a piece of cheese.
Elizabeth, in her defence to the charge, freely admitted being in the chamber next to the chamber containing the cheese, but denied the felony of stealing the cheese. She said that her husband Ieuan had made a rick of corn for Gruffith David, and that his wife had given Ieuan a cheese as payment for this task. Elizabeth also stated that in August, the previous month, her mother had brought her a cheese valued at 6d, and that her husband Ieuan had also bought at Pwllheli fair a cheese price 4d, and that these two cheeses were the only cheese she had all that summer.
Poor Elizabeth, unable to read or write in any language, conversant only in Welsh and tried in English and Latin and facing a charge of felony. She could be hanged, branded, whipped or deported to the newly found colonies in North America if found guilty. John Bodwrda was not convinced of her innocence and committed her to Caernarfon Quarter Sessions for the felony of stealing a cheese to the value of 6d. Even today, more than 350 years later, the evidence submitted makes out a convincing argument for committing this case for trial.
This incident, literally a matter and life or death for a young married mother, is just one of the many episodes which have taken place in and around the National Trust house of Plas yn Rhiw, a small manor house strategically situated on rising ground above Hell’s Mouth Bay of the Llŷn Peninsula. The house, gardens and over 400 acres of countryside were gifted to the National Trust by the Keating sisters who bought the then derelict house in 1939 and spent all their savings and income on renovating the house and re-designing the planting the gardens.
Some 4000 years ago Neolithic tribes were quite active in the area in and around where Plas yn Rhiw now stands. The evidence of this is quite obvious as about 1 kilometre to the north of the house are two Neolithic graves with their cap stones still standing, whilst at the same distance to the south is another grave, although this is now in a collapsed condition. On the northeast slope of Mynydd Rhiw, the hill above the house, are the faint remains of a Neolithic axe factory, an example of the products from this ‘factory’ can be found in the form of a stone spear head which is exhibited in Plas yn Rhiw. Stone tools from Mynydd Rhiw have been discovered in Ireland and as far as Cornwall showing that the people of that period travelled great distances.
Two "Cromlechs" at Rhiw
Within 2 kilometres of the house are two Celtic hill forts, one to the west and one to the south, whilst there are numerous examples of ring house settlements in the area. The Celts, originally from Middle Europe, settled in the area about 2000 years ago, building defended settlements on the tops of many hills and keeping a sharp lookout for the Roman legionaries who were based at Segontium near Caernarfon. These Roman soldiers certainly explored as far south as Rhiw as there is confirmed evidence of the remains of Roman defences near the 6th Century church of St Hywun at Aberdaron. The base at Segontium was an outpost of the XXth Legion with it’s headquarters at Chester. Also living in the area at the time were the descendents of the Neolithic people, immigrants from Ireland and the Iberian Peninsula. All these separate peoples intermarried, fought and made peace from time to time, and became the ancestors of the modern welsh families of the area.
Although the Roman legions left Britain in the 4th Century, they left behind many locally born soldiers and the families who preferred to remaining familiar lands. The Romans also left behind a lot of their language, which was incorporated into the Brythonic language of the day and now spoken locally as modern Welsh. Take, for instance, the Latin for school – schola and in Welsh ysgol, bridge is pont in both languages, whilst window in Latin is fenestra and in Welsh ffenestr. The Romans also brought Christianity to Wales and so the rise of the early Welsh saints, 20,000 of whom are alleged to buried on nearby Bardsey Island also known as Ynys Enlli. It may be of some interest that about 7 kilometres from Plas yn Rhiw is the village of Llangian, the churchyard of which contained a 6th Century gravestone inscribed MELI MEDICI FILI MARTINI IACIT translated as ‘Doctor Melius, son of Martin, lies here .’ Is it surprising to find that in the 6th Century Latin was still being spoken in an isolated part of Wales?
Around the 5th Century, the Celt Cunedda, the leader of the tribe Votadini, moved from the Strathclyde area to Anglesey and settled at Aberffraw. His first mission was to drive out all the Irish settlers, a long task, eventually completed by his grandson Cadwallon. His son Maelgwyn Gwynedd took control of all of North Wales, and his successors became the Gwynedd Royal Dynasty controlling Wales from Anglesey to Cardigan, fighting and defeating any army daring to challenge their right to rule.
In the 9th Century the relatively peaceful people of Ireland were attacked by the fierce and far travelled Vikings, and by the middle of the century the Vikings were lords of Ireland, possessing it and ruling it for another 150 years. It was only a further short sea voyage to Wales, and in the 9th and 10th Centuries Wales was raided constantly by Viking warriors attempting to settle and rule. They attacked and razed to the ground many of the early Christian churches including in 935AD, the church, which is now the site of the Abbey at Clynnog Fawr. Many small trading sites were founded by the Vikings, identifiable by their Norse names such as Bardsey, Skokholm and Skomer.
The Gwynedd kings fought the Vikings and any other intruders such as the Saxons (the welsh word for English – Saison is a corruption of the word Saxon), coming from the East, and when King Merfyn died in 844 his son Rhodri inherited Gwynedd and Powys and later acquired a large portion of South Wales. He was known as Rhodri Mawr, Rhodri the Great, the first king of all Wales. He died in 876 to be succeeded by his son Anarawd. It is believed that during the 10th Century, Meirion Goch, a great-grandson of Rhodri Mawr was instructed to build a defended house at Rhiw in order to prevent incursions by the Vikings into the bay below Mynydd Rhiw. This house is believed to have been built somewhere about where the present house of Plas yn Rhiw is situated. There is no direct evidence to prove this theory although future archaeological research may help to unravel this intriguing mystery. Such a house would have been constructed of large stones and timbers, and would probably have had some form of watch tower. The elevated site of the house if it was were it is thought, would have given a panoramic view of ship movements to the south and east and also overlooks lower land to the north and east.
The next 200 years were equally turbulent, the Llŷn was subject to lessening Viking raids but more problems with Saxons and the various family wars taking place within the Gwynedd Dynasty. Very little is known of what was happening at Rhiw, what we do know is a tantalising partial picture of every day life. We know that just above the house was a mill for grinding corn, the power being derived from a mountain stream and spring. This pre-supposes that corn was grown in the vicinity and that to possess the mill, the owners of the property must have had some standing in the community. Again there are the remains of another mill just below the present house and ancient millstones have been found in the grounds of the property. A small creek known as Porth Rhiw is situated below the property and this would have been used for trading with other ports both on the Welsh and Irish coasts. Fishing would have been an important part of life and this again supposes that boats would have been constructed locally in the harbour. This is borne out by the knowledge that in the early 19th Century ships of up to 20 tonnes were constructed in this same harbour. The woods above the creek and around the house would have harboured boar and deer, whilst otters, badgers, wolves and beavers would have been hunted for their pelts. Domestic animals, cattle, sheep, goats and poultry would have been raised, whilst in the streams salmon and trout could be netted to supplement the various sea fish and molluscs which could be collected in the shallow waters of the bay. The very richness of the area made it desirable and it had to be protected from raiders.
Many of today’s visitors consider Plas yn Rhiw to be very remote and suggest that in earlier years it must have been totally isolated. Nothing could have been further from reality. People in Mediaeval times travelled widely and seemingly without much hardship. Consider Gerald of Wales, one of the greatest scholars of his time. He visited Paris in 1165 and returned their again in 1174 and perhaps his most famous journey was a circular tour of Wales in the company of Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury which began at Hereford on the 2nd March 1188 and ended, after riding around the country and visiting all the cathedrals in Wales when they arrived back in Hereford about the 14th April the same year. Gerald did not visit Rhiw but got very close as he passed through Nefyn on his way north to Bangor. Baldwin travelled even further and was killed at the siege of Acre in 1190. There were well established drovers roads, fords and river crossings by this time, and of course, a coastal village always had the advantage of sea travel as an option.
By the 14th Century the Plantagenets had taken control of England and Wales, and had built may castles in Wales to defend their acquired land from the descendants of Cunedda. One of these castles, Harlech, can be seen from the grounds of Plas yn Rhiw, and the Plantagenet influence has extended to the house. The Keating sisters suggested that their surname was derived from a Norman family and it is known that when a number of Norman barons moved into Ireland in 1316, one of the barons had the name de Keating. The Plantagenets took over existing Welsh castles such as Criccieth following the death of Llywelyn the Great who died in 1282, and enlarged and modernised them, although this castle was to suffer great damage later on. Again in 1356 the Black Prince, the son of Edward III, was victorious at the Battle of Poitiers, and was of his knights, Nigel de Louareyn, being especially brave was awarded the boroughs of Pwllheli and Nefyn. In the Welsh language, the letter ‘g’ is always pronounced as hard as in ‘go’, and so Nigel’s Port became Porth Neigwl, and later also as Hell’s Mouth Bay, the very bay below Plas yn Rhiw. That the two boroughs both with 20 kilometres of Rhiw were established by the middle of the 14th Century, suggests that the house would have probably been a property of some importance with the owners paying homage to their Norman overlord.
The Black Death visited the British Isles in 1348 and 1349 killing off about 30% of the population. This shortage of labour meant that wages had to rise, freeing men from serfdom and giving rise to much discontent. This was the tinderbox that ignited the revolution led in Wales by Owain Glyn Dwr, a descendant of the Gwynedd Dynasty, who successfully at first, fought the now English invaders, attacked and captured their castles, including the supposedly impregnable castle of Harlech that he made as his headquarters. Eventually the might of the English armies, led by Henry IV and Henry of Monmouth (later to become Henry V) defeated the depleted troops of Owain Glyn Dwr. In 1409 Harlech Castle was recaptured by Mortimor, and Glyn Dwr’s wife Margaret and all but one of her children were taken. In 1410 Glyn Dwr was on the run and declared to be an outlaw, and by 1412 all contact with him was lost. Imagine, these monumental happenings could be seen, and probably heard by the residents of Plas yn Rhiw, which side were they supporting? Were any of the family fighting for Glyn Dwr? How would there fortunes change when the Glyn Dwr supporters were routed, for there is no doubt that Gwynedd had been ravaged by the effects of the rebellion and support for Glyn Dwr had evaporated? None of this is known, but it must have been a time of great anguish to the people living in and around the area. Earlier in this troubled period Owain Glyn Dwr had destroyed Criccieth Castle, the great fire that was started would have been visible to the frightened residents of Plas yn Rhiw.
By now, the house would have consisted of strong stone walls, more than 1 metre thick, very small slit windows, unglazed, but with waxed cloth or hide to keep out the cold, and a heavy front door to keep out unwelcome visitors. The house would consist of one main room, possibly with a half landing and certainly a tower containing a circular staircase leading to a watch point. The fireplace would be in the middle of the room, and the smoke would drift up through the roof that would be thatched, possibly with reeds. There are still reeds growing locally, and no doubt in the 15th Century these would have been cultivated. The floor would be made of mud covered with meadowsweet, which also grows locally. Around the main house would be various farm buildings, pigsties, barns stables and small cottages housing the farm labourers. The mills would be operating and the population would be slowly increasing as the effects of the Black Death diminished. By the end of the Century, the civil unrest had died down and a period of peace had arrived.
The Caernarfon Quarter Sessions Calendar for the 16th Century contains many references to the village of Rhiw and it’s manor house that is now known as Plas yn Rhiw. The people referred to did not use a surname, but were known by their Christian name followed by the name of their father, and so you have a reference to Dafydd ap Hywel, which can be Anglised to David son of Howel, and so on. Interestingly, the named residents of Plas yn Rhiw were never defendants in any trial, but were always called to make up jury members. You can form your own judgement why this should be the case, but suffice to say, the house and family prospered under whoever was in command of this part of Wales. It was during this period that a Welshman, Henry Tudor – Henry VII, who could trace his ancestry back to the Gwynedd Dynasty, became the first Welshman to rule England and Wales.
Eventually, emulating the gentry in England, the family of Plas yn Rhiw adopted a surname – Lewis, a name which was associated with the house for another 250 years, either as a surname or as a forename. A study of the slightly shaky family tree displayed in the entrance hall of the house, shows a propensity for the male line to die out leaving heiresses to marry and continue the line.
During the Elizabethan era Catholics were treated with suspicion and persecuted, England was at war with Spain, and Catholics were often considered to be spies and or traitors. The old religion had remained dominant in the area, and although no great fuss was made locally, efforts were made to eradicate it even as late as 1657 when a Gwen Griffith of Rhiw was summoned to the Quarter Sessions for being a Papist. What the Royalists had tolerated, the Parliamentarians despised. The Keating sisters asserted that the old stair case in the house contained a hide, although the evidence for this is lacking.
A date on the stone lintel of a French window at the front of the house is inscribed 1634 IL; this is thought to refer to John Lewis, the owner of the house at that time. (Not that despite all the Jones’s there is no ‘J’ in the Welsh language). It was at this time that the house was extended by the building of a classic hall house, consisting of a kitchen, hallway and dining room. Circular stairs to the right of the kitchen fireplace led to the upper floors and the attic.
The upper floors were divided by wooden screens, which were fixed to posts by tongue and groove joints. A beam situated in what is now the upstairs sitting room, shows the evidence of this, and local people who climbed into the then derelict house as adventurous boys in the 1920’s, speak of a wooden decorated screen separating the hall from the dining room. This is consistent with a 17th Century building. The front of the house above the 1st floor windows shows the 17th Century wall height, and the sides of the house show the original heights of the gable ends. At this time an additional building was built, or more likely, enlarged. This is the holiday cottage adjacent to the main house. This cottage, used at various times as a family overflow house, a wash house, brewery and an art studio (by Honour Keating) and now as a National Trust holiday home, has its original windows and roof and gives a fine indication of how the main house would have looked at that time.
The first-born son of John Lewis was Richard who married the daughter of Richard Glynn, the Rector of Edern. In time they had a son who they named after his grandfather, and this second John Lewis inherited the house on the death of his father, living there with Jane, his wife. They had a daughter, also named Jane, who died in 1774 aged 62 years. She was married to a William Williams, who at the age of 75 years died some 10 years later, leaving the house to his son, anther William Williams who was married to Mary Jones, the daughter of the Rector of Llaniestyn. In the 18th Century the house was the home of a prosperous farming family possessing over 400 acres of land, access to a harbour and creek, continuous supply of fresh drinking water and a road to the towns of Pwllheli and Nefyn. Many small vessels were plying their trade in and around the harbours and creeks of Llŷn, and records show that groceries, coal, pottery and bricks were all transported in vessels up to 15 tonnes, well able to ply their trade into and out of Porth Rhiw below the house. There is speculation that a great deal of smuggling also went on in these same creeks, with cargos of spirits and wines coming in from Spain and France. At the end of the century, war with France made the Llŷn vulnerable to attack by French troops, and although an abortive landing was made at Fishguard, nothing untoward happened in Caernarfonshire.
In 1816, Jane Ann, she was the daughter of William Williams, (the Lewis surname had now disappeared) and sole heiress, married Lewis Moore Bennet, a military gentleman, who by his forename may have been distantly related, and the house was extensively enlarged and altered.
A further storey was constructed; the house was extended laterally and to the rear, whilst a central staircase was built. In the style of the period, dressing rooms with connecting doors to the bedrooms were constructed. What is now the library was a dressing room to a bedroom, which is now the sitting room, whilst the small bedroom on the 1st floor was a dressing room for a bedroom, which now forms part of the Property Manager’s flat. The doors and windows were changed for the new Georgian style, the verandah with cast iron pillars to support the tiled roof was installed, and an ornamental iron gate closed off the entrance to the front door, with an iron bell pull affixed to the wall near to the verandah gate. The water supply, which is derived from a spring in the courtyard, was pumped up into a trough by hand pump. The base of the pump and the trough are still to be seen in the courtyard. This courtyard is cobbled and leads to the old milking parlour, stables and tack room.
Lewis Moore Bennet and Jane Ann had a daughter named Mary Ann, who again was the sole heiress (a trait that seems to run in this family) and she in turn married Cyril Williams. This gentleman was an influential character, who, if he had succeeded in his aspirations, would have denied the National trust of Porth Dinllaen, as you will see. Cyril Williams was an attorney and the son of the Rector of Llanbedrog. He was married on the 10th January 1835, and his wife gave birth to a son in November the same year. It was reported in the local newspaper, that following the news of the birth of the son, ‘cottages lit up their humble dwellings, bells were rung, and a large bonfire blazed on the summit of Llanbedrog Mountain.’ Sadly, his wife, Mary Ann Williams, died on the 3rd December just one week after the birth of her son. Cyril Williams was a member of a powerful group of men who ran Pwllheli. In March 1836 he was elected treasurer of the proposed Pwllheli Dispensary. A position which could have had great influence and in 1839 he was elected President of the Llŷn and Eifionydd Friendly Society. By 1846, he was Mayor of Pwllheli and supported a petition to the House of Commons, to support a plan to build a railway line from Worcester to Porth Dinllaen via Ludlow, Tremadog and Pwllheli to link up with a ferry service to Ireland. This scheme would have made Pwllheli a rich town and the supporters even richer. However it was not to be, the vote in Parliament was close, it was lost by only one vote, and of course, Porth Dinllaen was not developed as a ferry port in the manner of Holyhead, and is now a National Trust property. In 1851 Cyril Williams, now aged 46 years, remarried and fathered more children, living at Plas yn Rhiw.
In the main ground floor of the house is a mail pouch bearing the house name. This pouch dates from the period when Cyril Williams was in residence, and as he was an attorney and magistrate as well as Mayor, no doubt many confidential letters were carried in this pouch. It has a hasp and can be padlocked in necessary.
It was about the middle of the 19th Century that the next phase in the extensions to the house were made. This was the large kitchen and living area above. Originally this room would have had a Victorian range, but this has long since been removed, to be replaced firstly by a coke boiler for a central heating system installed by the Keatings, and later a paraffin stove dated to the 1920’s. There is a drain in the floor of the kitchen to allow waste water to be poured away, and a peculiar round pattern of stones near to the back door, which give rise to the thought that there may have been a well there at some point in the history of the house. The thick stone wall dividing the kitchen from the main room shows that it was an exterior wall at one time, a fact emphasised by the window set into the wall looking into the kitchen.
Cyril Williams had a daughter, Anne Elizabeth Williams and at some time, she inscribed the name Annie and A E Williams with a diamond ring on a pane of glass in a room on the upper floor. This room could have been her bedroom, but at the moment it is not open to the public.
On the death of Cyril Williams in 1859 at the age of 55 years, the property passed into the possession of his son by his first marriage, a William Lewis Williams, military officer, who died, unmarried in 1874 at the age of 39 years. The house and estate were then sold for the sum of £8000, a fortune in those days, and the first time that the house had ever been sold.
A Mr. Thomas Edward Roberts of Hendre, Aberdaron, purchased it, and he resided there with his wife and family. He was famed for his fiery temper and great horsemanship. In 1881 Roberts, now a widower, one unmarried daughter, a married daughter and her husband and two children, a nursemaid, housemaid, cook and stable boy, occupied the house. When Edwards died he left his house to a son who lived in Harlech. This son had no interest in the house and leased it and the land. It was occupied for a few summers by a Lady Strickland who was famous locally for introducing the first bathtub in the area. This original bath is now in the garden being used as an ornament. Later on, the house was occupied by a daughter of Roberts, who left in 1922 to settle in Abergele, leaving the house to remain empty and becoming more derelict, until the Keatings purchased it in 1939.
The Keating sisters, Eileen, Lorna and Mary Honora, first came to Rhiw as children with their mother in 1904. At that time they rented a house name Pen yr Ogaf, a small cottage situated on the hillside overlooking Hell’s Mouth Bay. The house was rented from the North Wales Iron Ore and Manganese Company at the cost of £8 per year. At that time there were extensive manganese workings on Mynydd Rhiw, with tramways, overhead carriers, winding engines and jetties to carry away the ore at Porth Ysgo and Port Rhiw. Their home was in The Park, Nottingham, and their father, who had been a surveyor’s architect, had been involved in the design of Jesse Boot’s first shop in Goose Gate, Nottingham. He was unfortunately killed in a traffic accident in the 1890’s when the sisters were small children. Their mother and grandparents raised the girls. One grandfather was an accountant, the other a lace manufacturer. The sisters came regularly to Rhiw for their summer breaks, buying the house Ty Uchaf. When their mother broke her hip in 1934 whilst on holiday, they decided to live in Rhiw permanently. The frame of an old wheelchair, thought to belong to Mrs Keating has been found at Ty Uchaf by its present owners and has been preserved.
In 1939 the family were able to purchase Plas yn Rhiw which then only included 58 acres of land, and by single minded endeavour, restored the house, and repurchased much of it’s original land, to a total of over 400 acres.
Plas yn Rhiw today
In 1949, the three sisters gave the house and land to the National Trust in memory of their parents, but remained living at Plas yn Rhiw until the death of the last sister in 1981. They are now buried in the churchyard of Llanfaelrhys church, an ancient church near to Porth Ysgo, and just some 5 kilometres from their last home.
Rhiw.com would like to thank Patrick Allely for this very interesting article.
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