Castle Coch is a ruined Victorian castle in the southern Welsh town of Tongwynlais. It was once the home of one of lowland Wales’ richest ironmasters, William Rees. The castle was built in 1811 by John Nash, who also designed Kennington Park and Downing Street in London. Castle Coch is now maintained by Swansea City Council but has been a Grade I listed building since 1928 and is regarded as one of Nash’s masterpieces.
The castle stands on a hill above Pontypridd and Cardiff Bay and its location at the end of the Bristol Channel meant that there would have been coal deposits nearby for local ironworks to exploit.
Rees, who was one of the original Quakers in Wales, became a leading figure in the development of the iron industry in Merthyr Tydfil and he also owned a number of coal mines near Merthyr. He made his fortune as an entrepreneur and industrialist and was reputed to be worth £500,000 at the time of his death in 1846. His wealth enabled him to become Lord Lieutenant of Glamorganshire from 1830 to 1848 and a baronet in 1831. He became friends with John Nash after he helped to design the Cefn-coed-y-cymmer mansion for his neighbour Sir John Josiah Guest (1752–1840).
He built Castle Coch in honour of his wife, Gwen Rees, who was proud of her Welsh ancestry. The couple were married in 1799 and lived at Cefn-coed-y-cymmer for the first two years of their marriage before moving into a home that they had designed themselves in Merthyr Tydfil. They had eight children and the family expanded when Gwen’s niece Ann Rees joined them in 1809 after the death of her father.
The construction of the castle cost £53,000 and it took eight years to complete. In an article that appeared in “The Builder” on 14 August 1823, John Nash wrote:
“A more magnificent pile cannot be conceived by the imagination. The eye is at once arrested by its appearance … From the extent of ground taken up by it together with its towers and turrets of various elevations, I am led to believe that it will contain within itself a nobleman’s residence and stables fit for a prince.” .
A three-storey central lodgings block, which is the main part of the castle, was surrounded by 16 square towers. It had four corner towers at irregular angles but no other point was more than one tower’s length from a corner. The towers were linked together by two-storey buildings that were built on their outer walls. There is little carvings or embellishments on the exterior of the building except for ironwork gates and railings and a few small windows with Gothic features. The main building has a rectangular plan as do the attached towers but most of them are longer, narrower and taller versions of each other.
The other main characteristics of Castle Coch are its size and its distinctive shape. The two-storey building has a central section that is twice as long as the flanking wings. It also had a 20-metre square tower at each end and there was a small domed pavilion between them. All of these features made Castle Coch one of the most distinctive castles in Wales at that time and it was claimed to be one of the finest examples of Gothic castellated architecture in Britain.
The castle was built with accommodation for about 100 people and, to mark its completion, Rees had a celebration on Easter Monday 1811. The event was attended by Sir John Josiah Guest and Anthony Bacon (1788–1876) who wrote about the occasion in his diary.
“I went to Tongwynlais Castle – great entertainment – 150 gentlemen came from London – dined there with Mr Arnot, Mr James Rees and family of course. 200 servants at dinner and splendid ball in the evening…”.
After they had built the castle, the Rees family lived there for only two years before travelling to London. William Rees and his eldest son, John, had a business in the capital that was making them large amounts of money. His wife died in 1842 and Rees himself died in 1846.
Sir John Josiah Guest built a mansion nearby called Coed-y-Brenin which became the home of the Guest family for many years. It is now a Grade II listed building and has been converted into flats. The old hall at Castle Coch was used for dances before it was pulled down in 1851 but part of the original courtyard gatehouse still survives. A three-storey house with Gothic windows was also built on the site at the same time but this has since been demolished. A modern house now stands on the site.
One of William Rees’ daughters, Caroline, married John Josiah Guest’s son, John Josiah Guest (1802–1881), in 1823. Caroline’s share of her father’s property was divided between them and they eventually moved into a new building which they called “The Towers” at Cefn-y-Brenin. They had a large family with 13 children and the family business became known as Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds Limited when it was formed in 1928 to exploit new electro-thermic welding technologies that had been developed by Guest. Coed-y-Brenin is still the home of the Guest family.
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