CBHC / RCAHMW > News > Celebrating International Women’s Day: Amy Dillwyn (1845 – 1935)
Black and white photograph showing a family group outside Penllergare House, taken by Mary Dillwyn, circa 1860. (Penllergare Cultural, Archaeological and Historic Landscape Collection).

Celebrating International Women’s Day: Amy Dillwyn (1845 – 1935)

Activist, author and one of the first female industrialists in Britain – an inspirational Welsh woman!

On International Women’s Day it would be hard to find a better example of a pioneering woman than Elizabeth Amy Dillwyn from Killay, Swansea, who exemplified a panorama of skills as an industrialist, campaigner, philanthropist and author.  She was a member of one of the most prominent families in the industrial development of Swansea and Wales.  Her personal legacy would deal a devastating blow to those who questioned a woman’s ability to succeed in industry and business.  During her life, she had made pioneering steps in many ways, and this was reflected in her general contribution to society and in her appearance.  Amy Dillwyn (1845 – 1935) was a pioneer during her lifetime as she rebelled and challenged the traditional social expectations which she believed limited the individuality, liberties and rights of women.  She showed herself to be a vigorous campaigner for various social causes and equal rights for women, an enthusiastic supporter of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), and a capable industrialist, manager and director, work skills which were alien to the overwhelming majority of women at the time and considered a masculine area of work.

She was born in Sketty, Swansea, in 1845, into the Dillwyn family, a leading family not only in Swansea history but Welsh history during the 19th century.  The family home was Hendrefoilan House, in the Killay area of Swansea, built specifically for Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn in 1853, and shown in a very early photograph taken by Amy’s aunt Mary Dillwyn in about 1855.

An early photograph taken by Mary Dillwyn, showing Hendrefoilan House, Swansea, circa 1855.
An early photograph taken by Mary Dillwyn, showing Hendrefoilan House, Swansea, circa 1855.

She was one of four children born to Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn, Liberal Member of Parliament for Swansea and Elizabeth Dillwyn (nee De la Beche), and granddaughter of the well-known industrialist Lewis Weston Dillwyn.  Her mother was the daughter of Henry De la Beche, the geologist and palaeontologist who was appointed the first Director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, an organisation pioneering early methods of geological exploration.  He was also the first President of the Palaeontographical Society.  Elizabeth, or Bessie as she was known, had contributed to the art designs of the Cambrian Pottery company owned by her husband.  Amy’s father was also a geologist, a radical in his political leanings, and her father’s brother, John Dillwyn-Llewelyn, owner of the magnificent Penllergaer mansion, Swansea, (now demolished)  was a well-known pioneer in early photography in Wales and regarded as one of its earliest photographers.[1] Mary Dillwyn, her father’s sister and Amy’s aunt, is considered Wales’s earliest female photographer as well as amongst Britain’s earliest female photographers. [2]The Dillwyn family were Quakers by religion and a family who promoted a spirit of individualism, freedom of conscience and creativity.   

Black and white photograph showing a family group outside Penllergare House, taken by Mary Dillwyn, circa 1860. (Penllergare Cultural, Archaeological and Historic Landscape Collection).
Black and white photograph showing a family group outside Penllergare House, taken by Mary Dillwyn, circa 1860. (Penllergare Cultural, Archaeological and Historic Landscape Collection).

It was within this context that Amy Dillwyn grew up and nurtured a wide variety of interests and skills, having at her disposal the financial wealth and social standing to promote and develop those different paths.  Her letters and diaries show the conflict she felt being a member of the affluent, industrial families of Glamorgan, such as Margam and Penllergaer, who owned large estates in the county, and turned in well-heeled circles, while also feeling the need to support and give aid to the industrial working class in the area. 

Black and white photograph showing the west front of Margam Castle. (Thomas Lloyd).
Black and white photograph showing the west front of Margam Castle. (Thomas Lloyd).
Nineteenth-century view of Penllergare Mansion from the garden. (Penllergare Cultural, Archaeological and Historic Landscape Collection).
Nineteenth-century view of Penllergare Mansion from the garden. (Penllergare Cultural, Archaeological and Historic Landscape Collection).

Her fiancé, Llewelyn Thomas of Llwyn Madog, died in 1864 and on her mother’s death in 1866 Amy took over the duties of looking after the house and accompanied her father at various important social occasions.  This was the period when she decided to take up a new role and get involved in social activities in the community, such as helping fundraise for various local charities, volunteering at the local school in Killay, teaching at the Sunday School in Killay, and helping to set up a Reading Room for working class men in Killay.

Her literary work as a writer reflected her ‘social conscience’ as when she described the hard life of the working class in a blunt and realistic style. For example, her first novel about the Rebecca Riots, The Rebecca Rioter: A Story of Killay Life (1880), was written from the perspective of the protestors, and her second novel, Chloe Arguelle (1881), describes conflicts between the classes while at the same time satirizing the masters. She was a reviewer for the famous The Spectator magazine and contributed literary items to The Red Dragon: The National Magazine of Wales during the 1880s and 1890s.  She also used her writings to argue for the independence of woman and to rebel against the conformity women of all classes were expected to follow. Her diaries and other literary works, such as A Burglary (1883) and Jill (1884), are regarded as important steps in the development of lesbian literature and reflect her experiences as a gay woman living during the period.  She fell in love with Olive Talbot (1843 – 1894), the daughter of the millionaire owner of Margam Castle, C.R.M Talbot, and Amy Dillwyn often referred to Olive as her ‘wife’.  Though the two were close and the families were friends there is no evidence that Olive Talbot felt the same towards Amy Dillwyn.

On her father’s death in 1892 the house was inherited by her sister’s son, John Dillwyn Nicholl (as were the arrangements of the period) and Amy had to leave Hendrefoilan and rent a house in the West Cross area of Swansea. Newspaper reports at the time about Lewis Llewellyn Dillwyn’s will stated that he left furniture and personal effects worth £500 in the house for Amy to choose. On his death she also inherited her father’s zinc business, which was based in Llansamlet, on the bank of the river Tawe, Swansea. [3] The business was in a sorry state at the time, with a workforce of nearly 300 and at serious risk of bankruptcy with debts of nearly £100,000.  Despite the terrible debt, she was able to reverse the company’s decline through perseverance and hard work.  By 1899 she had paid all the creditors of the company and in 1902 the business was registered at Companies House under the name Dillwyn & Co.  According to these arrangements, she held the largest number of shares in the company and was also one of the three directors of the company. 

The value of the company’s shares soon rose and the company was rapidly transformed into one of the United Kingdom’s largest zinc producers with an annual profit worth around £10,000.  An example of Amy’s decisive character was her 1905 trip, at the age of 59, to Algeria in search of zinc resources to try and ensure the company’s survival.  In the early 20th century it was decided to merge Dillwyn & Co. Ltd. with the Metallgesellschaft company of Frankfurt. The Cardiff Times in November 1905 in an article entitled ‘Lady Director’s Shares’ describes Amy Dillwyn’s resignation of her directorate of the company and therefore her controlling stake though still remaining a shareholder. [4] Amy Dillwyn, had brought the family business from the abyss of financial bankruptcy to becoming an international company. The company’s prosperity deteriorated after the First World War and closed in 1926 with the works being demolished in 1962. However, Amy Dillwyn’s achievement certainly stands as being one of the first women industrialists in Britain.[5]

An Aerofilms image of National Smelting works, Llansamlet, commissioned by Imperial Smelting Corporation (1933). One of four spelter works in Llansamlet that included Dillwyn & Co. run by Amy Dillwyn.
An Aerofilms image of National Smelting works, Llansamlet, commissioned by Imperial Smelting Corporation (1933). One of four spelter works in Llansamlet that included Dillwyn & Co. run by Amy Dillwyn.

Around the same time as she registered the company, she moved into Tŷ Glyn, the first home she had owned since leaving Hendrefoilan 10 years earlier.  Running parallel to her enterprise in the industrial world, Amy had involved herself wholeheartedly in community work in the Swansea area. According to an article published in The South Wales Daily Post, 13 July 1899, it was recorded that one of the Ancient Order of Foresters courts in Swansea had been named after her: ‘She has come prominently to the fore as a female Forester, and has done much to help on the female branch of the society in Swansea….she  throws herself heart and soul into the work in a manner characteristic of her’. In 1900 she was elected a member of the Swansea School Board, and had also been Chairman of the Swansea Hospital Committee, as well as being a member of the Swansea Chamber of Commerce.  It was noted in the same article in the newspaper in July 1899 that she was the only female member of the Chamber at the time.[6] She was also a member of the Swansea Board of Guardians for the Castle Ward area and her re-election to the post was reported in the The Cambrian, 29 March 1907, ‘In whose re-election for the Swansea Board of Guardians the Castle Ward voters displayed good sense’[7] Her re-election was certainly a sign of the high regard with which she was held within the community.

In 1911 she gave her support to the dressmakers’ strike, caused initially by the unfair dismissal of one of the workers but which quickly turned into a protest against working conditions and wages.  The women’s workforce was represented by the NFWW (National Federation of Women Workers), and Amy Dillwyn was one of the speakers when the new Swansea branch marched through the town in 1911. Among the other speakers were Margaret Bondfield, the first woman member of a Government Cabinet.  Amy Dillwyn was a fervent supporter of female suffrage and was elected Chair of the NUWSS Swansea branch. However, despite having aspirations to be elected to positions in the area’s political circles, namely Swansea Harbour Board and Swansea Council Board, she failed to be elected.

Her unwillingness to conform to society’s expectations about the status of women showed in the way she dressed and behaved.  She would often smoke a cigar in public at a time when such a habit was frowned upon, especially if you were a member of the middle and upper class, and her clothes were frequently described as ‘mannish’ or male-looking.  She was described in an article published in a Welsh newspaper as a ‘… strong advocate of the equality of the sexes…by wearing a mannish coat and collar, and a skirt whose length is more consistent with comfort than with elegance, while on her head she wears a hat of the “crushed bowler” variety…’[8].

She would travel to Monte Carlo to gamble, and was a member of the Mourning Reform Society which argued that less emphasis was needed on spending money as part of the grieving process, whose elaborate rituals were very popular in Victorian times.  There is no doubt that she saw her way of dressing as an external challenge to the expectations and ideas of the society of the time about the role and status of the woman. She died in December 1935 and her ashes were buried in St. Paul’s Church, Sketty.

The phrases used to describe her – such as ‘A Notable Welshwoman’ and ‘Pioneer’ – reflect her perspective and achievements in life.  As described in The South Wales Daily Post in 1899, she was a gifted businesswoman who had, on her father’s death in 1892, ‘taken over his interest, and to this day has carried on the business in a thoroughly capable manner’ [9].

The legacy she left provided a future blueprint for other women to follow who aspired to achieve within industry and business.  She was an ‘exception to the rule’, a pioneer in a man’s world that felt alien to women at the time.  Her main aim was to secure equality for women with men and ensure that they had the freedom to live and work free from patriarchal societal expectations and limitations. [10] [11]

Further information about Swansea’s industrial heritage can be found in our latest publication Swansea Canal and its Early Railways and our e-publication A Guide to the Industrial Archaeology of the Swansea Region. Both available from our online shop.

Bethan Hopkins-Williams, Public Engagement Officer 

Footnotes

1. NLW photograph album 900 – National Library of Wales
2. Mary Dillwyn’s Llysdinam Album – National Library of Wales.
3. The Western Mail, ‘The Will of the Late Mr. Dillwyn, M.P’, Gorffennaf 28, 1892, p.5
4. The Cardiff Times, November 18, 1905, p.6
5. Llansamlet Spelter Works | Coflein
6. The South Wales Daily Post, ‘Miss Dillwyn Sketched by “M.A.P” ‘, July 13, 1899, p.4
7. The Cambrian, ‘Miss Amy Dillwyn’, March 29, 1907, p.3
8. The South Wales Daily Post, ‘Miss Dillwyn Sketched by “M.A.P” ‘, July 13, 1899, p.4
9. The South Wales Daily Post, ‘Miss Dillwyn Sketched by “M.A.P” ‘, July 13, 1899, p.4
10. Dictionary of Welsh Biography, ‘Elizabeth Amy Dillwyn’, Kirsti Bohata, DILLWYN, ELIZABETH AMY (1845 – 1935), novelist, industrialist and feminist campaigner | Dictionary of Welsh BiographyAmy Dillwyn – Swansea University; The Life and Fiction of Amy Dillwyn – Swansea University
11. https://museum.wales/cardiff, ‘Amy Dillwyn – ‘The Pioneer’, Professor Kirsti Bohata 

Bibliography

08/03/2024

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