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A House That Borrow Admired

By H. J. LLOYD-JOHNES, O.E.E. (TODO - Check name & O.E.E.? -- ChrisJones)
Chairman of the Historic Buildings Council for Wales

I write about Dolaucothi not because it was once my home, but because it played an important part in the life of South Wales. A house of twenty-eight rooms, it possessed no special architectural merits, but the site in the upper reaches of the Cothi Valley in the village of Cayo is a beautiful one. The approach was by two drives of considerable length, that in the east skirting the Roman Gold Mines (Ogofau, near Pumsaint), while that in the west was flanked by four lines of ancient oaks the "very noble oaks" that George Borrow remarked when he walked along the avenue in 1854 to glimpse the house, charmed by the thought that "he had never seen a more pleasing locality".

The oldest part of the house was dated to the last half of the 17th century but the front was altered in the 1790s by Thomas Nash [Thomas? John! -- ChrisJones], then a comparatively unknown architect working in Carmarthen. This front was spoilt by the addition of two bay windows in the 1870s. The stables and farm lay to the north-west and were of more recent date, while a walled garden bounded the eastern side. The park contained many fine trees and was intersected by the fast-flowing river Cothi, an excellent trout and sewin stream in its time. The property had been the home of cadet branches of the Johnes family since the 17th century. In 1800 the estate had been purchased by John Johnes from his cousin and brother-in-law, the famous Colonel Thomas Johnes of Hafod, M.P. and Lord Lieutenant of Cardiganshire. This was fortunate, as otherwise it would have been involved in the general ruin of the great estate at Hafod which followed so shortly after.

John Johnes, formerly an Army Officer, died in 1816 leaving one son, also John (1800-1876), who was educated at Oxford and called to the Bar. This John was a remarkable man who in a short time had put the whole estate on a sound financial basis. He married, in 1822, Elizabeth the heiress of Gileston Manor, Glamorganshire and was the father of two daughters, Charlotte and Elizabeth. His wife died in 1848. In his younger days a member of several Government Commissions, he was made a County Court Judge in 1847, Recorder of Carmarthen (1851 to 1872) and Chairman of Quarter Sessions. During the Rebecca Riots his advice and example did much to keep his district quiet during that troublesome period. On August 19th 1876 he was murdered by his Irish butler, Henry Tremble, who had been seventeen years in his service. Tremble also severely wounded Charlotte, whose life was saved by the cook. The murderer later committed suicide and his body was twice dug up by the infuriated villagers, before an unknown resting place was found.

Charlotte had been early widowed and her younger sister married, in 1882, Lt. General Sir James Hills, a V.C. and a hero of the Indian Mutiny. Sir James, who added the name of Johnes to his own, played a valued part in Welsh life, becoming Treasurer of the University of Wales and a much loved personality. His wife had in her early days been a ward of Lady Llanover and had moved in fashionable and literary circles, her life on one occasion being saved by the great Lord Lytton. Her correspondence with the famous Bishop of St Davids, Connop Thirlwall, was published under the title Letters to a Friend. The house was always full of guests, among them many distinguished men and women like Lord Roberts and Stanley, the African explorer. Charlotte died in 1911, the General in 1919 and his wife at the great age of 95 in 1927. The Trio was no more.

It was as a small child in about 1910 that I first visited Dolaucothi; the smell of the house still lingers in my memory. It was a mixture of beeswax, pot-pourri and old leather, and it was very pleasant. In the Trio's time no smoking was allowed in the house and a small and comfortless room had been built out for the convenience of the General's many military friends. The drawing room was to my youthful eyes quite magnificent. It was lofty and the walls were plastered with family portraits, rare china and rugs from Central Asia. The paper and curtains were of faded primrose and a door at one end led into a conservatory. It was approached by a small ante-room lined by glass cases full of china and trophies of arms. The hall at that time was narrow with a fine plaster ceiling said to be the work of some travelling Italian. On either side of the hall were two smallish rooms, one used by the Trio as a study; this was the room where the judge was murdered. The other room was a library lined with books from floor to ceiling. In my father's time both these rooms were knocked into the hall and a fine library built where the conservatory had been.

The dining room was at the west end; it was long and rather narrow and behind the shutters was a space to carry the chamber pot, so necessary in earlier days when interior sanitation was at a minimum! In its heyday Dolaucothi carried an indoor staff of nine and an outside staff of eighteen. Many worked there all their lives.

Dolaucothi is, alas, no more. Hardly used by the Ministry of Supply during the Second World War, its floors collapsed, the lead from the roof was removed and finally in 1955 it was pulled down. The finest trees were felled and the estate passed to the National Trust. After nearly four hundred years of ownership, the Johnes family ceased to live in Carmarthenshire. It is a fate which many other houses have suffered and as these country houses were the focus of many and diverse activities their extinction is to be sadly regretted.
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