The Castle and Outbuildings

Margam Castle

History and design

Margam Castle, a Tudor Gothic mansion was, with it’s service buildings and courtyards, built between 1830 and 1840 and it is listed Grade I as a building of exceptional quality and with some spectacular features such as the staircase.

It was not until the 1820’s that Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot (1803 – 1890) determined to build a new house at Margam.

The Margam estate had been in his family since 1536,however Thomas Mansel Talbot had demolished the original mansion house in 1787 to replace it with the magnificent Orangery that can be seen in the gardens today. Proud of this ancient family lineage Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot had always been attracted to romantic Margam. He wished to rebuild a suitable country residence which would compliment Margam’s illustrious history.

The site was deliberately chosen for its historic associations and picturesque position at the foot of a wooded historic hill, Mynydd-y-Castell, itself the site of Margam’s earliest habitation, with the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey and the eighteenth century Orangery visible to the West. The prospect of the house, rising above the Orangery and monastic remains to the west is unique in Wales.

Whilst the recognised and accredited architect is Thomas Hopper (1776 – 1856), it is rather interesting to find that another distinguished architect was closely involved with the project and almost certainly influenced the finished house with work on the interior and exterior, the stables, terraces and lodges, the Shrewsbury architect Edward Haycock (1790 – 1870). Thus we have two distinguished 19th Century architects involved with Margam.

However there is a third person who was to greatly influence the architectural style and finished design and this was C.R.M.Talbot who was greatly influenced by the architecture of two family homes borrowing elements from Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, ancestral home of the Talbots and residence of his cousin W.H.Fox Talbot ; and the idea of the octagonal tower from Melbury House in Dorset, the seat of his mother’s family, the Fox-Strangeways, Earls of Illchester.

Margam was really designed by three men Hopper, Haycock and Talbot and influenced by two earlier houses Laycock and Melbury whilst presenting an unique creation in sympathy with its sylvan surroundings, evocative of a rich and illustrious past – which is exactly what C.R.M.Talbot had in mind.

The Building

The irregular plan and pinnacled, chimneyed and castellated skyline of the house give it a Romantic appearance. The house was built around a complex of three courtyards, one in the centre of the main block and two former service courts to the east forming an oblong site with four elevations, three of which included the most decorated parts of the main house. There are two main storeys, with a gabled third storey. The surfaces of the building are ornamented with carvings and sculpted heraldic panels, the great number of shields and coat of arms of the branches of the Mansel family show the owner’s pride in his family history, which are seen in the stonework.

A dramatic octagonal tower with attached stair turret ( the stair turret is not the original height, some decorative parapet stonework appears to have been removed) is situated in the centre of the building, it rises two storeys above the main house and at the top is a viewing room.

The house is aligned east-west, with the main entrance on the north. The drive approaches from the south east, dividing just before the house. The southern branch leads to the stable court on the east end of the house and the main drive runs through a short cutting between grass banks and to the forecourt with central grass circle in front of the main entrance.

This entrance is a two-storey gabled porch, with a four-centred arched door and a Gothic traceried window over it. The long, irregular south front, with protruding bays, oriel windows and another arched door, overlooks the wide terrace which also extends along the west front. Inside there is a spectacular stone staircase rising up the first two storeys of the tower

Most of the building work was completed by 1836 when the interior decoration began, the gothic style continued in the entrance and staircase halls. Whilst the exterior may have been impressive, it gave little indication of the elaborate finishes within. It had a spacious library, a drawing room, dining room, study and muniment room

The staircase hall was flagged and fitted with a fleu-de-lys and riband carpet in pink on a rich brown. Later a set of fitted gothic stalls were installed around the edge of the staircase hall each carved with a back panel set with monograms of C.R.M. Talbot, above were carved lifelike figures of the animals seen on the park.

The Staircase Hall. Photographed by Spencer Nicholl, September 1885. Note the Victorian Gasoliers. The legs of the table in the centre were balusters from the staircase of the old Mansel House.The library, drawing and dining rooms were sumptuously decorated with carved woodwork and panelling, stained glass windows, gilded plasterwork and handsome marble fireplaces. Bedroom suites were treated in various ways, including the then fashionable Chinese style, another was decorated with tapestries and some contained fireplaces of the popular, local, Mumbles marble. Gold leaf, carved marble, fine furniture, French rococo panelling, crystal chandeliers, Chinese lacquer screens, porcelain vases, paintings by Rubens, Canaletto, all completed the opulent furnishing of the rooms. C.R.M.Talbot was an avid collector. He brought many sculptures, paintings and antiques back from Italy. Margam was soon filled with fine furniture, paintings and objects d’art.

To the east of the main block are the Grade II* service buildings clustered around a cobbled and flagged service court, with a screen wall on the north side topped with stepped crenellations. The entrance to the courtyard is through a massive, higher archway topped with a heraldic panel at the west end of the north side. Kitchens and domestic offices, including the laundry, bakehouse and brewery, are ranged around all but the south side which is bounded by a wall with a door in it leading through to a smaller yard of stores and larders. To the east is the boiler house, laundry-maids sitting room and gun room, to the south of which is a long, single-storey Gothic building with arched doorways in the end walls and small three-light windows with shallow buttresses between them.

Further to the east continuing the main axis of the house is the stable court there is an L-shaped area with an entrance on the north side and a bounding wall on the south.

The mansion is mostly built of a local sandstone, Pyle ashlar, which has mellowed beautifully over the years. Inside, use was made of a harder stone for the staircase hall whilst bricks were used extensively for the internal walls, the cellars and other parts of the building.

Oak and pine were used for rafters and flooring, with an ingenious use of cast iron railway lines to support the stone landings of the main staircase. Elsewhere cast iron was used for the drainage system, for grilles and ventilation covers. The guttering and water pipes were of lead, with the Talbot crest embellishing each hopper above the downpipes. The complicated roof was of lead and Cornish slate and was constructed at so many levels and angles that it was always necessary for a small army of men to regularly sweep out the gutters and gullies whilst the onset of snow saw estate workmen sweeping the roofs clean. The great number of elaborate chimney stacks, all in variations of the Tudor style were especially made in Bedfordshire and brought to Margam.

Building the Castle

In a letter 7th December 1828 Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot’s aunt wrote to her son W H Fox Talbot; she talks of his plans for the house, Kit was C.R.M. Talbot’s pet name…

"Kit has remained here a fortnight and went up to the town with Mr Fielding… Kit seems to like this place extremely and is determined to build a tower to his new house, a large hall and above all things secret staircases.!"

The young squire was determined that his new house would be the envy of the country and suited to his lineage, rank and fortune.

Sadly, no finished elevations drawings or plans exist for Margam with the exception of three small rough sketches. It is known that Hopper did present Talbot with detailed drawings and plans and probably Haycock would have completed some drawings too. Many of these architectural drawings were later framed and hung in the corridors at the Castle until their disappearance in 1941.

Picture 2 scanned Sectional drawing of the tower and staircase hall by Thomas Hopper

Letters and extracts from the estate accounts for 1830 to 1840 help illustrate the progress of the building works. During June 1830, entries record quarrying stone, digging foundations and drains and by December 1831 the main house was roofed in and the design of the tower was finalised. Work progressed steadily and the year 1834 saw great advances towards the completion of the house with work on the domestic offices and outbuildings competing with the works on the interior of the main house.

By 1836 most of the work on the main house was complete though work continued on the domestic offices and outbuildings. 1837 saw continued activity with plasterers and carpenters still at work and the foundations were dug for additional stables to the east of the house and in 1839, records show payment of £48 for 6,000 slates used on some of the courtyard building and a letter from Kit Talbot’s mother, Lady Mary Cole, describes the works to the terrace and the steps down to the gardens. During 1840 the works were completed and Talbot turned to the building of the estate’s entrance lodges.

Men and materials

Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot’s new mansion house was designed by Thomas Hopper, he was then the County Surveyor of Essex, patronised by the Prince Regent and a fashionable architect. The style chosen was Tudor Gothic and he excelled himself in the design. Encouraged by Talbot he let his imagination run riot, resulting in a sea of towers, turrets, pinnacles, cupolas, battlements and gables. Margam was as romantic as any gothic enthusiast could wish it to be.

However, much of the design of the interior and that of the stables and terraces was by Edward Haycock, the County Surveyor of Shrewsbury, who had been a pupil of Sir Jeffry Wyatt, the architect of Windsor Castle..

The Baglan Hall agent Griffith Llewellyn and his brother Thomas were responsible for the general oversight of the building project whilst the Margam bailiff, David Richards became the effective Clerk of Works. Running totals of the expenses incurred were meticulously kept in the estate accounts by the agent. Between 1830 and 1832 accounts record payments of almost £8,000 for wages, materials, freight and haulage charge; of this some £4,286.1s.7d was paid out for the year 1831 alone.

There was a flurry of activity on the estate as ships arrived at the harbours of Taibach and Aberavon. These ships brought limestone from Aberthaw, lead from Gloucester, slate from Cornwall and glass from Liverpool. Stone was hauled from Pyle and bricks supplied from a new kiln at Margam.

Many of the workmen and craftsmen employed were themselves the sons of the men who had worked on the building of the Orangery for Thomas Mansel Talbot. There was always a sense of continuity with employees and their families on the Margam estate which lasted into the 20th century. Some entries in the accounts for 1831 give an insight into the names of the craftsmen and artisans employed such as William Gubbins at the quarry in Pyle, Richard Jones the stonemason, Francis Lewis and James Pritchard made bricks and Benjamin Howell supplied horse hair for plaster.

The new house must have been a wonderful sight to its proud owner as completion of the work came near. The cost had been well over £50,000, the equivalent of several million pounds today, but this still does not take into account the vast resources that the estate contributed to the project.

The occupants, visitors and the later years

In 1835,Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot had married Lady Charlotte Butler, the daughter of the first Earl of Glengall, There were four children from his marriage - Theodore, Emily Charlotte, Bertha Isabella (who marries John Fletcher of Saltoun) and Olivia.

The house flourished, in its heyday it was visited by the gentry. The Prince and Princess of Wales, later to become Edward VII and Queen Alexandra came for lunch on 17th October 1881 and planted a tree in the gardens to commemorate their visit.

The castle in its heyday, showing the terrace, South and West Fronts c.1900 (Arthur Rees Collection)

One frequent visitor to Margam was Talbot’s cousin, Henry Fox Talbot of Lacock. A pioneer photographer, he succeeded in taking one of the earliest photographic views which clearly shows the corner of the southwest façade.

Emily Charlotte TalbotChristopher Rice Mansel Talbot died in 1890, his only son Theodore Mansel Talbot had died in 1876 and his daughter Miss Emily Charlotte Talbot inherited her father’s Margam and Penrice estates. She made various changed to the house, new bathrooms and plumbing was installed, the heating improved and in 1891 - electricity was installed. The billiard room was added, being built over the small inner courtyard. Jacobean in style it became the popular haunt of gentlemen guests invited to her large house parties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A large skylight of plain coloured glass lit the room. The fireplace had an elaborately carved mantle bearing the date 1892 and the initials ECT, Emily Charlotte Talbot. Miss Talbot maintained a large retinue of servants in the house and on her estate including an army of gardeners.

Following the death of Miss Talbot in 1918, her nephew Captain Andrew Mansel Talbot Fletcher (1880-1951) inherited the Margam Estate. He and his family frequently stayed here during the summer holidays. He often opened the grounds to the public hosting fetes and celebrations.

He altered the castle little, although did convert the old stable block into a squash court and garage in 1930.

Following the outbreak of war in 1939 the Government requisitioned the Orangery and part of the Castle. The trustees of the Margam estate decided to sell the greater part of the property, and Captain Fletcher and his family returned to their Scottish estate at Saltoun.

The four-day auction organised by Christies of London took place between 27th and 30th October 1941.The sale was to attract dealers from all over the country as well as many local people anxious to have a last opportunity to view the treasures and maybe purchase an inexpensive memento. Monday was the sale of the 18th and 19th century collection of silver, Tuesday that of the many fine books which raised more than the silver.

Wednesday saw the highlight of the sale with the disposal of Talbot’s fine collection of paintings, sculpture and ancient marbles. They included work by Canaletto, the National Gallery represented by Sir Kenneth Clark secured the dell’Abbate of "The Story of Aristaeus", Gentileschi’s "Repose on the Flight to Egypt" was sold to the Duke of Kent, and the Rembrant to a Dutch buyer whilst the National Museum of Wales acquired seven watercolours of Welsh scenes by Ibbetson.

Of the sculpture and marbles, some were acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm and Lord Trent. One item was left unsold, a life-size statue of an obscure Roman Emperor called Lucius Verus, this is now housed in the Orangery where it can be seen today. The final day saw the sale of the furniture, tapestries and household effects.

The contents of the Castle were soon dispersed leaving an empty and forlorn mansion.

During the war years both British and American troops were housed at Margam Castle. In 1942 the estate was sold to Sir David Evans-Bevan, the proprietor of the Vale of Neath Brewery. He never actually lived in the building and it gradually fell prey to vandals and thieves and into decline, eventually becoming an empty shell.

Restoration and renewal

The acquisition of the estate in 1973 by the Glamorgan County Council began an encouraging new chapter in the history of the Castle which was interrupted in 1977.The vast amount of work found necessary at the estate and the need for urgent work to safeguard the Georgian Orangery meant that the Castle was virtually last on the list of priorities. The stables and squash court were renovated, an Interpretative Centre opened in June 1977. Some clearance work at the Castle had been commenced when a disastrous fire gutted the interior of the Castle on August 4th, 1977. Gradually a programme of restoration and improvement work was undertaken.

Fire at the Castle, August 1977

The North Wing was re-roofed in 1982, using many of the original slates and stabilisation and consolidation of walls, chimneys and turrets affected by the fire was undertaken. The stonework of the central gable above the west bays had collapsed during the 1977 fire and this was rebuilt to incorporate a new stone shield depicting the West Glamorgan County Council Coat of Arms.

Despite increasing budget and financial strictures the most urgent structural repair works slowly progressed. Internal renovation was concentrated on the north wing and entrance hall, and in 1983 electricity was reintroduced into the mansion for the second time in its history. In 1987 the ambitious internal restoration of the elaborate plasterwork and fan vaulting of the entrance hall and the great staircase ceiling beneath the tower was undertaken. The original gothic style wall panelling had been severely damaged and only a small section could be saved., but from this plaster copies were made and are in place, painted to resemble wood. At the same time the Tower Room with its superb views over the Park and surrounding countryside was also restored.

1995 brought, with works to the South and West Wings, the completion of the final phase of the re-roofing and structural repairs, the Mansion was at last safe and watertight. On the 1st March 1996 a service was held by the Bishop of Llandaff to commemorate the restoration works to date, and a plaque unveiled on the half- landing of the great staircase.

Following local government re-organisation in April 1996, the West Glamorgan County Council ceased to exist and The Castle, together with Margam Park became the responsibility of the newly created Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council which has continued the restoration programme.

The North wing has now been converted for use as a residential centre for education purposes and accommodates a Field Study Centre housing dormitories and bedrooms, together with classrooms and laboratories, for use by school parties and adult courses from Wales and further afield. The outbuildings around the east courtyards house the park administration offices and the Visitor Centre.

During the summer months, the main staircase area and some of the ground floor rooms may be viewed by the public.

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