The Changing Fortunes of a British Aristocratic Family, 1689-1976

Dr John E. Davies recently published his study of the Campbells of Cawdor, charting their growth, decline and eventual survival as one of the great aristocratic families. As such it is the first in-depth account of the family’s estates and widespread influence in Wales, Scotland and London – despite, as Dr Davies explains, the existence of a vast archive.

The book is based extensively upon the papers of the Welsh Cawdor estate archive which includes the papers of both the Stackpole Court and Golden Grove estates, and to a lesser extent the papers relating to the Scottish estate held at Cawdor Castle. The Welsh estates were of around 50,000 acres – making the Cawdor estate by far the largest and in consequence the most politically powerful in south-west Wales. However, although an important estate in terms of political and economic affairs both rural and urban, local and even international, in the development of infrastructure in south-west Wales, in the growth of coal mining and other extractive industries, the archive has never been fully catalogued, and that is probably why, with one or two exceptions the estate and family has never, until now, had a full study devoted to it. And at around one thousand boxes and hundreds of volumes in extent only a basic ‘box list’ gave access to the delights within, though what was in the actual box was sometimes quite different from that stated on the list. The research would have been completed much sooner had the catalogue been comprehensive, though the discovery of documents of interest would have been less fun. However, my nosiness was forever stimulated!

The book examines the growth of the estate, its achievements and its ultimate decline in Wales and at the same time follows the various family members and others, such as the agents of the estate and their influence on the lives of all who came into contact with the estates. The Campbells of Cawdor married into the Lorts of Stackpole Court estate in 1689 and for two hundred and fifty. They rebuilt Stackpole Court in the 1730s turning it into one of the largest houses in Wales with 150 rooms, and surrounded by a spectacular parkland and the creation of a 70 acre lake – the house was destroyed in 1963, but the lakes and landscape remain a jewel in the Welsh countryside. The first baron was bequeathed the whole of the Golden Grove estate in 1804. For a time he lived in Rome, was a connoisseur of art, and befriended the great sculptor Antonio Canova, from whom he commissioned several works. The baron was also a great land improver as were the earls Cawdor after him. Later in the nineteenth century the third earl became the most effective and youngest chairman of the GWR and then, albeit briefly, the first lord of the admiralty – establishing the ‘Cawdor Programme’ of building dreadnought battleships. However, increasing pressures from land reformers and more democratic forces, saw the power of the Cawdors decline in the twentieth century. Large parts of both Welsh estates were used for military purposes in the 1939-45 war, the loss in Pembrokeshire being permanent as a large area was retained for tank-training. In the early to mid-1960s the family sold off the Welsh lands in one of the biggest sales the country had known, and moved permanently back to their Scottish home, establishing it as a major tourist attraction.

This guest post was written by John E. Davies who was the County Archivist for Carmarthenshire and is now an independent historical researcher. He completed his doctorate at Swansea University.

The Changing Fortunes of a British Aristocratic Family, 1689-1976
By John E. Davies
9781783274345, Hardback, £55.25 or $90.25

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