New Tenants in a Council House

Tredegar House has been a National Trust property for six months now. On March the sixteenth Newport City Council officially handed over the keys to the House and the Trust’s management commenced. I say management because the arrangement was, at the time, quite unique. The National Trust are not the owners; the House is leased from the Council. As, I’m afraid, I say on public tours, it is still a council house – it just has new tenants.

Things were a bit hectic, to say the least, when it was decided to open the House to visitors within three weeks. There had been plans formulated and decisions made beforehand of course. One thing that was certain was that the visitor route and entrance would have to be changed. The Seventeenth Century entrance would become the main way into Tredegar House for the first time in nearly a hundred and fifty years. Another huge change was that there would be no guided tours. Visitors would enter and experience the House in a free flow system and everything would be much more hands-on and approachable. This would be facilitated by National Trust volunteers acting as Meeters-and-Greeters and Room Hosts. The problem was that in an area with very few NT properties there was no army of volunteers to call upon and therefore a recruitment drive was initiated. Very soon we had a good core of about fifty people who were willing to give up their time to help us open the House. Currently we have around two hundred and fifty volunteers on the books with about seventy or eighty coming in on a very regular basis.

Some of the ‘veterans’ and staff at a party celebrating getting through the first month!

There were a couple of downsides to these decisions. The logistics of it all meant that eight of the refurbished rooms that had previously been opened for guided tours, had to be closed for the time being. The decision to make the House more family friendly with a hands-on approach necessitated the removal of many original pieces from display. However, this was the price we would have to pay for becoming more attractive to visitors. I have to say, it is quite a relief not to be continually worrying about antiques and furniture being touched and not having to keep telling people not to touch or lean or sit on items. In many ways, it all makes for a happier, friendlier and more welcoming Tredegar House. Indeed, that is the response of a good eighty per cent of the visitors who leave comments.

Visitor numbers are up. We had hoped to have forty thousand visitors in the first year and we have already had thirty four thousand, so it looks like we will easily achieve that target. Membership is going well too. However, for me the success story is the group of regular volunteers we have here now. As one of them, John, said to me “This place gets a hold on you. I love it. When I’m not actually here, I’m reading about the House and the family”.  I know what he means and he is far from being alone in thinking that.

Therefore, the new tenants of Tredegar House seem to have settled in and I suspect they will be resident for quite some time.


A Tale of Two Tredegars

The National Trust Poster for Tredegar House’s Housewarming Party.

The above poster has been spotted on buses, bus shelters and billboards around South East Wales and has provoked a few comments – especially in the town of Tredegar and the City of Newport.  To the Project Team at Tredegar House, “I Love Tredegar” is a snappy little phrase that can be attached to campaigns and advertisement for lots of events and activities. The House and grounds are referred to simply as Tredegar. However, beyond the walls of the House, Gardens and Park the common usage for the name Tredegar has , for more than a century, alluded to the town at the Heads of the Valleys. This is causing some confusion now; only a little to be honest though. Occasionally in the past, some coach parties have found themselves in the birthplace of Aneurin Bevan and I do wonder if the recently restored Bedwellty House is benefiting from the advertising campaign.  With Google maps, Sat Nav and a eye on the road signs this shouldn’t really be a problem these days.

So why the two Tredegars? Visitors to Tredegar House often ask why the House is named after the Blaenau Gwent town. The answer is simple. It is not. Tredegar House is a Restoration period mansion with an even older Tudor wing. Indeed there seems to have been an earlier building on the site too. There are Fourteenth Century references to a Tredegar on the site and Medieval pottery has turned up. Until the Industrial Revolution was in full swing there was only one Tredegar; and that was at the bottom of the valley not at its head.

Samuel Homfray was a successful industrialist from a family of successful industrialists. Having made his mark at Penydarren Ironworks he moved to fresh ventures. In 1793 he had married Mary Jane, daughter of Sir Charles Morgan of the Tredegar Estate. When Richard Fothergill and Matthew Monkhouse looked to build a new Ironworks further down the Sirhowy Valley, they realised that Homfray would be an advantageous business partner. The land they had their eyes on for the new works  belonged to Sir Charles and favourable terms for a 99 lease were agreed upon in 1799. The Tredegar Iron Company began work in 1800 on the site and the first three furnaces were completed within a couple of years. Homfray seems to have thought it only right that they should name the Ironworks after his wife’s home – Tredegar! A public house, the Tredegar Arms, was soon opened nearby as well as workers houses, a tram road and a “Company Shop”. Other shops, more houses, chapels and churches, roads and tramways followed over the next ten years and the town of Tredegar was becoming well established.

Before long this town was more well known than the estate after which it was named and it became important in its own right. A. J. Cronin’s novel The Citadel, was based on his experiences working with Tredegar Medical Aid Society. The Society is rightly regarded as being the model, or a blueprint, for the National Health Service, and of course Tredegar’s most famous son was its architect Aneurin Bevan.

I think it’s quite OK for us to love both Tredegars. Both important in different ways.


The National Trust’s Tredegar House is now open!

On Wednesday the National Trust opened the doors of Tredegar House to visitors. We had quite a week leading up to it. Several events had already been booked in during the run up to the handover by Newport City Council to the National Trust, and this meant that most of the changes had to wait until they were held. Paintings have been moved around, rooms have been reinterpreted, props and hands-on furniture have been brought in and more delicate items moved out. We have also changed the names of some of the rooms that we are showing in the styles of different periods. Therefore, the Brown Room is now the Dining Room, the Dining Room is now the New Parlour and the Morning Room is now the ….. well, we’re still thinking about that one. Most confusing for me is that the Staff Room is now the Mess Room.

The Brown Room was the C17th Dining Room. Photo by Monty Dart.

The Gilt Room was always the room that had retained most of its original decoration, but it always felt a little bare and so Venita Gribble (a professional film set designer) was brought in to make it all feel a bit more lived-in and to convey the idea of the opulence that would have greeted Seventeenth Century visitors to Tredegar House. Venita was responsible for dressing and furnishing the whole of the ground floor of the North West wing, in fact. A day bed is now in the centre of the Gilt Room and visitors can lie there admiring the wonderful ceiling.

A mirror next to the bed also allows visitors to view the ceiling without straining their necks. Photo by Monty Dart

The Gilt Room. Photo by Monty Dart

Before the National Trust took over the management of the House in March, Newport City Council had been involved in a huge programme of restoration and refurbishment.  Visitors could only view the House by guided tour (except on special “open days”), but there were over twenty rooms that had been brought back to life by the Council. Simon Jenkins said that it was “equal only to Powis among the great houses of Wales” and that it was “superbly repaired, furnished and displayed – though little marketed“.

Hopefully, the National Trust can address this last comment. Visitor numbers had dwindled. In 1983 over 200,000 people visited the grounds and 15,000 paid to go on guided tours of the House itself, and in 1985 the House tours attracted 20,000 visitors. These figures would seem to indicate that, as a visitor attraction, Tredegar House was going from strength to strength. So what went wrong? Why, as a tour guide last year, was I occasionally left looking for other jobs to do because  nobody at all had turned up for a tour? Why did visitors keep asking the question “Why haven’t we heard about this place before“? It has to be the lack of marketing again.  Another factor could well be that a visit to Tredegar House and Country Park had been a great family day out. Farm animals, boats on the lake etc. Bit by bit, many of these other attractions had disappeared. This is where the National Trust will make a huge improvement. Let’s get the families back, let’s see people coming down for the day and enjoying all the facilities and let’s make sure that everybody hears about Tredegar House and what a wonderful place it is. Yes, I am biased – but, justifiably so.

I quoted Simon Jenkins from his book “Wales: Churches, Houses, Castles” published by Allen Lane in 2008.


Tredegar House Opens on April the Fourth

On Wednesday, the National Trust’s latest property will be opening its doors to the public. Tredegar House had been in the care of the local authority, Newport City Council, for nearly forty years. When they took the House on it was in a dreadful condition and decades of Restoration projects began to bring the property back to its former glory. The Morgan family, who had lived on the site for over five hundred years, had sold up in 1951 and most of its contents sold off. Newport Council, with help from many quarters, managed to re-acquire many pieces and some of them will still be on show. The Council still own Tredegar House, but a unique partnership finally agreed to earlier this year means that the running of the House and its grounds will be the responsibility of the National Trust.

There have been some changes, and there will probably be a lot more. The House will benefit from the expertise in preservation and presentation that the Trust can bring. Indeed, over the last few months a small army of experts have minutely inspected the House and its contents and have come up with some interesting ‘finds’. Hopefully, I will be able to mention some of these in future posts.

A personal worry for me, previously a Council employed Tour Guide and Facilitator, was the intention to abandon guided tours. However, for the past month I have been kept very busy in my new role as a National Trust Visitor Experience Assistant. I have been preparing a group of rooms that we will show dressed as they may well have been in 1897, when Godfrey Morgan lived at Tredegar House.

As Captain Godfrey Morgan of the 17th Lancers, he had survived the Charge of the Light Brigade. In 1875 he inherited the Tredegar Estates from his father and became the second Baron Tredegar. Godfrey was probably the most popular and best loved of the Lords Tredegar. Known as Godfrey the Good he was renowned for his benevolence and philanthropy. On the other hand, he could afford to. Some estimates have put the value of the estate he left behind on his death in 1913 at ten million pounds. The journey his body took to its resting place in Bassaleg was the closest that Newport has come to experiencing a state funeral.

He treated his staff well and this seems to have engendered a strong feeling of loyalty. One of those loyal servants was the Butler. The Butler’s Pantry is another room that I have been responsible for, and my colleagues and I have been dressing it so that visitors don’t have to worry too much about damaging original items. You can polish the silver, brush his Lordship’s top hat, buff up his boots – or just watch other people working instead.

If you want to hear more about Godfrey Morgan, come along to Tredegar House. Either myself, or a colleague will be giving short talks on Victorian Tredegar in the Side Hall and Morning Room. If it gets so busy that it is not practical to do the talk (which is a possibility), just come and ask me about it!

Tredegar House will open on the fourth of April 2012, 11.30 until 4pm (last admission), seven days a week!


Evan Morgan and the 1930s Suite.

Although I have fallen behind on my updates relating the progress of the Spring Clean at Tredegar House, the Clean itself has carried on apace with only the kitchen areas remaining. There is much more happening at the House now, and I have found myself in a new position. When I last posted on this Blog I was a Tour Guide for Newport City Council. Since Saint David’s Day I have been aVisitor Experience Assistant with the National Trust and last week the other Tredegar House staff donned the NT fleeces and polo shirts as the takeover finally happened on March the Nineteenth.

In the meantime I thought I would mention a few rooms that have been spruced up. The King’s Room (and accompanying bathroom), Red Room and the Blue Room were actually cleaned several weeks ago. These rooms will be on view more or less as they are now, when the House opens to the public on the fourth of April (although you may have to book a place on a mini-tour included in the admission fee – please, check before you come to visit us).

The King’s Room recently appeared on the BBC’s Upstairs Downstairs, when it was depicted as a hotel room full of high-ranking Nazis. In the Nineteen Thirties and Forties it was actually the bedroom of Evan Morgan, Viscount Tredegar.  Evan was a man with very catholic tastes and, indeed, with a taste for Catholicism. You won’t find his grave in the family plot at the nearby St. Basil’s Church; his remains are at Buckfast Abbey. Evan had converted to Catholism in 1919 and even became a Private Chamberlain of the Sword and Cape to Popes Benedict XV and Pius XI. A portrait of Evan in his Papal robes hangs in the adjoining bathroom.

Evan Morgan was quite a party animal, and you can hear some of the stories about him, his menagerie, his fascination with the occult and the women in his life on the mini-tour of this suite of rooms.

From the King’s Room, past the Bathroom and then into the Red Room. For a while this was the bedroom of Evan Morgan’s second wife, Olga Dolgorouky. His first wife, Lois Sturt, had died while staying with friends in Hungary.  The Room has been restored to its former state by Newport Council, the Damask wall covering’s colour gives the room its name and the same applies to the adjoining Blue Room (a sitting room-cum-dressing room) which is again part of the mini-tour.

The idea is that we will be presenting these rooms to feel as if Evan is still there.

A couple of years ago, a clairvoyant kindly remarked that from the way I talked about Tredegar House I must of lived there in a previous life. I jokingly replied that I hoped it wasn’t as Evan. “Oh no, dear”, was her reply “He’s still here”.

I do wonder at times.


Next Ye Best Chamber and the Passing Room

The Passing Room and Next Ye Best Chamber were the rooms that the best guests would pass through in order to enter their own bedroom for the night. The Best Chamber is at the end of the wing, and so there is some privacy here; no one passes through this room to access another.

Next Ye Best Chamber

Should the best guests have brought their own personal servants, they would be quartered in this small ante room located next ye best chamber. In the days before a bell system was installed at Tredegar House, servants needed to be within calling distance of their masters. Indeed, sometimes even in post-Tudor times some servants may have slept in the same room as their masters and mistresses, possibly at the foot of the bed. Click the link for a photo. http://www.gtj.org.uk/en/large/item/GTJ75170/

In later times the room that was next ye best would be used as a dressing room for the Best Chamber itself. The paintings currently hanging in here are not original to the Tredegar Collection and are, in the main, on loan.

The Passing Room

This was another guest room for much of the House’s history. These guests would not have had so much privacy as the best guests and their retainers would be passing to and fro as required.  http://www.peoplescollection.org.uk/Item/11619-the-passing-room-tredegar-house (The  link will take you to a picture of the Passing Room)

The colour scheme in here is rather dark and dull by today’s tastes; drab was used in bedrooms and guest rooms as, by candlelight,  it helped to accentuate the paintings and furniture that adorned these rooms. The over mantle painting is Seventeenth Century and depicts Apollo Pursuing Daphne. The gentleman to the left is John Morgan, the last in the male line, who died in 1792. When John died the Estate passed to his sister Jane and her husband Charles Gould. Charles adopted the family Arms and took the name of Morgan by Royal License.


The Best Chamber.

The Best Chamber

The Best Chamber at Tredegar was the bedroom for the very best guests. If you were put in here for the night you were someone special. Since the Eighteenth Century the Best Chamber has been accessed via an upstairs corridor ending at the door in the picture. However, the corridor did not exist prior to that. It was created by erecting walls through the bedrooms. The only way for the best guests to get to their bedroom had been through the other bedrooms – enfilade, the French style.  The bed you see in the photograph to the right is a mock up. The bed that was here is believed to have measured nine square feet and was the state bed; probably the one that Disraeli and his wife spent the night in.  Sadly, when Tredegar House became a school in the Fifties, the bed seems to have been broken up and adapted for use as an altar and altar rails for the school chapel.

The panelling in the Best Chamber is original, as is the ceiling. The Best Chamber ceiling is one of only two (possibly three) surviving from the Seventeenth Century. The ornate plasterwork seems to be very similar to that of the one in the New Hall which had collapsed in the school years.

The Seventeenth Century Ceiling

The Best Chamber became a family bedroom by the Twentieth Century, and when Princess Olga Dolgorouky married Viscount Tredegar in 1939 this was known as the Pink Room, probably because of its faded red damask walls. It was not a happy marriage or a very long one (it was annulled) and twelve years later the Sisters of Saint Joseph transformed the bedroom into a classroom. Newport Council bought the House in 1974 and began an extensive restoration project. It was decided to restore the Best Chamber to its original Seventeenth Century splendour, as it would have been for the special guests of William and Blanche Morgan of Tredegar Park.