In the late 18th century industry was booming in the area around Swansea in Wales. Ever more sophisticated machines were powering the various works, and coal was required to fuel the industry. With copper works and coal mines, John Morris was a wealthy man and lived in style at the newly-built Clasemont , a grand classical mansion. The unusual structure he had constructed to house some of his workers was also eye-catching, but within decades it was dismissed as a folly.
John Morris (1745-1819) was a partner in Lockwood, Morris & Co., the biggest of the copper smelting enterprises in the area, and the rapid expansion of the works meant further housing was needed for his workforce. On the hill called Cnap Lwyd he built a vast fortress-like structure, with four corner towers and a central courtyard, which quickly became known as Morris Castle. It provided homes for a number of families (accounts vary between 20 and 40), and was one of the earliest examples of a tenement for estate workers. Probably designed by architect John Johnson, who also designed Clasemont (or Clas Mont or Glasmount), the castle had decorative quoins and battlements made of copper slag, a by-product of the smelting process. The waste could be moulded into blocks, their darker tone and soft sheen contrasting nicely with the local building stone.
But whilst handsome, Morris Castle was not practical. A passer-by in 1776, only a few years after it was completed, found there was already dissent: ‘Mr Morris has built a very large house on a high hill which makes a striking appearance for the Workmen to dwell in, but they complain of clambering up to it’. By 1796 the grand hillside fort was shown to tourists as ‘Morris’s Folly’: the development had been an experiment that failed. Would the workpeople ‘go the summit of a high hill and live in “flats” … when there was plenty of space for pretty little white-washed cottages?’, queried a later writer, before concluding: ‘They would not!’.
Morris learned from his mistakes, and when he created a new town for his workers in the late 1770s, the buildings were conventional cottages and on lower ground. This planned settlement, named Morris Town or Morriston, thrived, and in 1819 the ‘houses for the poorer classes’, neatly arranged in straight lines, were considered ‘excellent and commodious’: by that date Morris Castle did not even merit a mention.
The mock castle did however continue to fulfil its role as a dramatic eye-catcher from Morris’s nearby demesne, making a ‘striking appearance’ on the hilltop. The landscape around Clasemont combined manicured elegance with the thrill and curiosity of heavy industry, which some early visitors found ‘wild and romantick’. This view was clearly not shared by Morris’s son, Sir John Morris 2nd bart (his father had been created a baronet in 1806), who after his father’s death in 1819 demolished Clasemont and built a new mansion a few miles away at Sketty, where he could escape the noise and dirt of industry. Clasemount’s site was later developed, and today the principal building on the former estate has a postcode that will be familiar to many: SA99 1BN, home of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority.
Morris Castle was offered for sale or to rent in March 1811, but there is no record if there was any interest. The building was still inhabited (presumably by those who had no other option) when Rev. Walter Davies wrote his General View of the Agriculture & Domestic Economy of South Wales in 1814. He praised Sir John as ‘the most extensive individual builder of comfortable habitations for the labouring classes’ and described the tenement as a ‘kind of castellated lofty mansion’. At that date it was largely home to colliers, but there was also a tailor and a shoemaker as ‘useful appendages’ to the family of residents. By the middle of the 19th century the building had become redundant, supposedly undermined by coal workings, and by the time the 1st edition Ordnance Survey map was published in 1877 it was described as ‘in ruins’.
The land on which Morris Castle was built was the property of the Duke of Beaufort, and when Morris’s lease expired it reverted to the estate. The building continued to deteriorate and in 1990 there was a further collapse. The surviving fragments were scheduled by Cadw and Swansea City Council bought the site from the Beaufort Estate. Hopefully this dramatic Swansea landmark can be saved from further decline.
Not enough of Morris Castle survives to illustrate the use of furnace waste as a decorative building material, but across the river Severn in the Bristol suburbs stands Arnos Castle (aka Arno’s Castle, or the Black Castle), where the material is used on a much greater scale. Built for William Reeve in 1764, the slag blocks were produced at his copper and brass works. The unique structure, which a visitor in 1777 described as looking like a ‘Fairy’s Castle’, housed his stables and was restored in the 1990s; it is now home to the Black Castle pub.
Thanks to The Garden Historian for discovering the important contemporary reference to the building as ‘Morris’s Folly’.
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