architecture, eyecatcher, Folly, Glamorgan, sham castle, Wales

Morris Castle, Swansea, Glamorgan, Wales

© Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales © Hawlfraint y Goron: Comisiwn Brenhinol Henebion Cymru

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.

Thomas Rowlandson, The White Rock Copper Works, 1797.  Image courtesy of  Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd. Morris Castle can be seen on the horizon.

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.

South east view of Clas Mont, the seat of J. Morris, Esqr., by Thomas Rothwell, 1792. Glamorganshire Top. B8/3 B063, courtesy of the National Library of Wales.

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.

The DVLA HQ in Swansea. Perhaps lacking a little of the finesse of Clasemont.

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 Ruins of Morris Castle in 1964. © Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales
© Hawlfraint y Goron: Comisiwn Brenhinol Henebion Cymru

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.

Morris Castle as it stands today. Its hilltop site is surrounded by housing development, but the amazing views can still be appreciated and the remaining towers are landmarks in the city. Photo courtesy of Bob Persuader.

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 ‘castle’ housed his stables and was restored in the 1990s; it is now home to the Black Castle pub.

Arnos Castle, Brislington, Bristol.
A detail of the lustrous blocks which were a side product of smelting. The waste ‘stone’ used at Morris Castle was similar, although not used as extensively as this example.

Thanks to The Garden Historian for discovering the important contemporary reference to the building as ‘Morris’s Folly’.

And thank you for reading. If this post has prompted any thoughts or questions please scroll down to comment. If you would like to receive a folly story in your inbox each week then why not subscribe?

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4 thoughts on “Morris Castle, Swansea, Glamorgan, Wales”

  1. Gwyn Headley says:

    Well! Very embarrassed to say I’d never heard of this. Thank you.

    1. Editor says:

      Neither had I until Mike Cousins aka the Garden Historian told me about the mention of ‘Morris’s Folly’ in a travel diary. Intrigued, I did some further research and became fascinated with the history of the building. It must have been a really dramatic landmark back in its day, and the remains are still very atmospheric, especially when you know its story.

  2. Gand says:

    We were in the Black Castle pub a couple of years ago after a folly trip. Looks better on outside. A bit ‘fur coat and no knickers’. However the beer was good.
    We will have to delay any Swansea trip till next year l feel. Your timing was good.

    1. Editor says:

      We were there before the pub opened so missed out on the interior (and beer). Yes I was lucky to make it to Swansea in the brief window between lockdowns and local restrictions. Look forward to more folly forays before too long, hopefully.

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