Penrhyn Castle

By Hennessy, Alistair | History Today, January 1995 | Go to article overview

Penrhyn Castle


Hennessy, Alistair, History Today


To be reminded of the 'fungoid region' of our past can be an unsettling experience when visiting an architectural monument of such grandeur as Penrhyn Castle, built in the 1820s and 30s, in its magnificent setting between the Menai Straits and Snowdonia, but there is no building which illustrates so graphically the role which slave plantation profits played in the growth of British economic power.

Little noticed at the time of its publication in 1944, the Trinidadian historian, Eric Williams', Capitalism and Slavery has since become a seminal book on the Industrial Revolution and still rouses fierce controversy as historians debate the effects of slavery and its abolition on British economy and society. Whatever the precise relationship may be, there can be no doubt of the link between West Indian money and the economic take-off of North Wales through the entrepreneurial skill of Richard Pennant (1739-1808), 1st Baron Penrhyn, a Liverpool merchant and owner of five Jamaican sugar plantations. North Wales developed economically in a symbolic relationship with Liverpool much as South Wales did with that other great slaving port, Bristol -- the one symbolised by Penrhyn Castle, the other, more domestic in aspect, by Cyfarthfa Castle at Merthyr Tydfil.

Penrhyn was not only the most visible monument to the power of sugar money but also to the cultural divide between Welsh and English. Slate from the nearby Bethesda quarries, which in the nineteenth century dominated world production and consolidated the Pennant family fortune, was the most Welsh of industries, the workforce divided from its masters by language, custom and religion. By the end of the nineteenth century the early rapport between employer and miner was to break down in the great strike of 1900-1903, one of the longest in British working-class history. Penrhyn Castle, with its huge neo-Norman keep, towers and battlements is the most dramatic expression of the 'Norman Yoke' which was to strew the British countryside with castellated mansions -- Eastnor, Belvoir, Windsor and many others, but what the naturalist and traveller Thomas Pennant observed of Caernavon Castle, could equally well be applied to Penrhyn -- it was a 'magnificent badge of servitude'.

The Pennants could claim Welsh ancestors in Flintshire, one of whom was the Abbot of Basingwerk whose great-grandson Gifford Pennant emigrated to Jamaica in 1658. His family prospered, his son becoming Chief Justice of Jamaica. By the middle of the eighteenth century three sons John, Samuel and Henry had moved to England, becoming anglicised as with so many West Indian absentee landowners. With their wealth and connections the family became important members of the West India interest of absentee proprietors, merchants, commission and political agents. Through intermarriage among themselves and with the English aristocracy West Indians became one of the most formidable pressure groups in eighteenth-century English politics, including such notables as Sir William Codrington, a benefactor of All Souls College, Oxford, and the formidable 'godfather' Sir William Beckford, twice Lord Mayor of London. Their power and influence would continue only so long as the West Indian sugar boom lasted and an unreformed House of Commons enabled them to outbid political rivals.

Of the Pennant family, Samuel was knighted, becoming Lord Mayor of London a year before he died in 1750 and John became a Liverpool merchant as did his son Richard who was MP for Liverpool for nineteen years. The key event in Richard's life was his marriage to the heiress of General Warburton of Winnington Hall, Cheshire (now an ICI club). This was to bring him the income from their Northwich salt mines and the Warburton's half share of the Penrhyn estate at Bangor on the general's death in 1771. In 1783 Richard had been created an Irish peer as Baron Penrhyn of Penrhyn Co. Louth on the recommendation of Charles James Fox (in spite of their opposed views on the abolition of the slave trade). …

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