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… a story of slate and more . . .

Posted by on June 12, 2020

Last year, I became the published author of a family history:  The Cassons in  North Wales: A Story of Slate and More (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2019).  

The culmination of 8 years of research and writing, it tells the story of my maternal grandfather’s family. Since childhood, I had heard how, at the beginning of the 19th century, his great-grandmother, Esther Casson, rode pillion on the back of her husband’s horse, on a life-changing journey from the Lake District to Ffestiniog, Meirionydd, where, with his brother and an old schoolfriend, he had bought the first slate quarry. 

My grandfather, Lewis Casson,  was brought up in Denbigh, but spent much of his career in London, where he became an eminent actor and director, married to a famous actress, Sybil Thorndike. In the 1930s, Lewis inherited Bron y Garth, a family house above Porthmadog, Caernarvonshire. I was born there, during the Second World War, and later spent summer holidays there, until, in 1950, my grandfather sold it, ending 150 years of Cassons in North Wales.

I planned to write about the Mrs Cassons but I soon discovered that women’s lives in the 19th century went largely unrecorded. About Esther Casson, there was almost nothing written. We had her portrait, and the family stories.  The one contemporary reference praised her as ‘a lady whose worth is little known from her unobtrusive life’. While Esther remained an inspiration, my focus changed, and I saw other themes emerging alongside the family story.

First there was the part played by the English in developing the Ffestiniog slate industry. Esther’s husband and his brother and friend were humble Lakeland quarriers. They scraped together enough money to buy ‘Diffwys’ quarry which, until then, had been worked only for local use.  By the time their sons sold Diffwys in the 1860s, the industry was thriving, with slate carried to many parts of Britain and abroad; almost every Ffestiniog quarry was owned by Englishmen, some of whom had little practical experience of quarrying.

Another theme was the change in social amenities and infrastructure during the 19th century in North Wales.  In the 1840s, two of the second generation of Cassons went into banking; when their parents had arrived in 1800, there were no banks in the whole county of Meirionydd.  The mountainous terrain had slowed the development of turnpike roads, but with greater prosperity came more toll roads, creating a network of communication unknown to Esther and her husband when they made their way to Ffestiniog, following drovers’ roads and packhorse trails for much of the time.  A major  development was the building of an embankment, completed in 1811, allowing carriages, horse riders and those on foot to cross the river estuary that separated Meirionydd from Caernarvonshire (now both in the county of Gwynedd). Another important engineering feat was the construction of a bridge across the Menai Straits, linking the mainland with Anglesey.  And then came the railway, which developed more slowly than in many other parts of Britain, again because of the challenges that the terrain presented.  Nevertheless the third generation of Cassons enjoyed far greater mobility than their forebears.

Partly as a result of greater ease of access, another important development during the Cassons’ residence in Wales was tourism.  In the mid-18th century, few travellers ventured into the Principality. One who did described it as ‘the very Rubbish of Noah’s flood’. But by the end of the century, more enlightened visitors began to appreciate its beauty. During the second half of the 19th century, and into the 20th century, rail travel, and then the motor car,  brought more and more holiday-makers to North Wales, threatening the beauty of sea and mountains they had come to admire.  The slate industry itself left unsightly heaps on the mountain sides, yet as that faded, its history became one of the visitor attractions. None of the Cassons saw themselves as visitors – they were residents.

Another theme was political change. When the Cassons arrived in Ffestiniog, they encountered a society which was, in terms of government, no different from what they had known in England, though established more recently.  During the first part of the 19th century, working people played little part in parliamentary politics, few having the vote.  They accepted the status quo, whereby Members of Parliament, traditionally Tory, were drawn from the landed gentry. The Cassons’ prosperity as quarry owners raised their own status to that of the gentry.  Esther’s husband and brother-in-law each in turn held the position of High Sheriff. Gradually, after their lifetime, interest in progressive politics grew.  One of her sons became a Liberal, supporting the candidature of the first Liberal MP in Meirionydd, elected in 1868.   One of the next generation, Randal Casson, a keen Liberal himself, became involved in the early career of Lloyd George, training him in law and taking him canvassing in Caernarvonshire. 

Closely related to politics was the question of the Welsh language.  While many, from the middle of the 19th century onwards,  felt that social and political progress in Wales depended on its people using the English language, and letting their own language die out, the Cassons did not share that view.  Esther, her husband and her brother-in-law had learnt the language, and all her children were fluent. The third generation knew enough to Welsh to get by, and all the family, being keen on music, supported the eisteddfod movement, with its emphasis on Welsh language and culture. 

The final theme that emerged from my research was the change in the lives of women, bringing me back to my original interest.  Randal Casson’s wife Lucy held a prominent position in their home town of Porthmadog. Although women did not have the parliamentary vote, they were allowed to vote in local elections from 1888 and to sit on the Board of Guardians, in charge of poor relief.  Lucy joined the Ladies’ Committee at  Ffestiniog Union Workhouse, and in 1894, was elected to the full Board.  She was also a Governor of Porthmadog County School.  Education was a topic of growing interest.  In 1882, Frances Hoggan, the first female doctor in Wales, had lectured on girls’ education at the National Eisteddfod in Denbigh, where Randal Casson’s brother and his wife lived.  They were particularly interested, their oldest child being a bright 10-year-old girl.  Dr Hoggan believed that women’s education could help to build ‘a strong Wales’, in which ‘the full measure of national prosperity, of national happiness and usefulness, and of national growth can be attained.’ 

6 years later, that bright 10-year-old, the oldest of the fourth generation of Cassons in Wales, took the Oxford and Cambridge local examination, recently open to girls. She became a successful teacher in London, the first Casson woman to have a profession.   Her younger sister, held back for several years by domestic duties, trained as a doctor, enrolling at Bristol University, where she graduated in 1919,  the first Casson woman to gain a degree.  As Dr Elizabeth Casson, she became a well-known pioneer in the field of Occupational Therapy, her achievement recognised by a plaque on the wall of the house in Denbigh, where she was brought up.  Not so ‘unobtrusive’ as her great-grandmother.  

3 Responses to … a story of slate and more . . .

  1. Nicola

    Wow – what a great story with fascinating themes. A pleasure to read.

  2. Jo

    A rare thing, to have a plaque to a woman – the Cassons did well to raise a range of indomitable women across the generations; fascinating to think how they might have influenced one another.

  3. Clive Brisco

    Dear Diana

    I recently read your family history, ‘…A Story of Slate and More’ – fascinating as I am a keen amateur industrial archaeologist, have worked as a volunteer engineer on the Ffestiniog Railway for over 55 years but also have a family connection with Bron y Garth!

    My late Grandmother – then Alice Small, was employed as a maid by Lucy Casson from 1891, when Randal bought the house off the Spooner family – builders and managers of the railway. I learned of the railway in 1958 but had to wait until 1960 to visit. On getting home, a day or two later, I visited my Gran and told her about this little railway I’d been to in Portmadoc. ‘Oh, you mean the Toy Railway! I used to travel to Blaenau Ffestiniog on that with Mr & Mrs Casson when they went up to Blaenau on business when I worked for them at Bron y Garth.’ When I then started to volunteer on the railway a few years later she was thrilled to know I was helping it come back to life. She told me she used to serve tea on the lawn to Randal’s Articled Clerk, David Lloyd George, also (Sir) Lewis Casson and (Dame) Sybil Thorndike when they came to visit. She told me that Lucy was a very good employer and that after she left Bron y Garth to marry my Grandfather in 1907, Lucy and she used to correspond for some years after. Whilst no letters survive, I do have a photograph of Lucy that she gave Gran and a photograph of the staff lined up in front of the house c.1900.

    Again, thanks for writing this book. It’s answered many questions about the slate industry in Blaenau and the social conditions and confirmed some of the stories about Bron y Garth that my Gran told me before she passed on.

    Regards, Clive B

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