Plas Tan yr Allt – a house and its secrets
Over two hundred years ago this month, there was a dramatic and traumatic event at Plas Tan yr Allt, Tremadog, Gwynedd. On a wild and stormy night on 26 February 1813, the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed someone tried to assassinate him and his family. He was so frightened they left for Ireland the following day without packing never to return.
Plas Tan yr Allt, a Regency villa, had seemed an ideal place for Shelley to avoid his debtors in England and the Home Office, who were deeply suspicious of his radical political ideas. It was built shortly after 1800 by the entrepreneur William Madocks who built the Cob or sea wall across the Glaslyn estuary and developed the newly enclosed land. This led to the growth of Porthmadog as a port for the export of millions of slates from the Blaenau Ffestinog mines and quarries and to the creation of the model town of Tremadog.
William Madocks bought the Tan yr Allt estate in 1798 and extended an existing house to his own design with a wide veranda on three sides giving spectacular views overlooking the estuary. The large windows gave a light and airy feel to the rooms. Madocks developed the gardens at Tan yr Allt, bringing soil from the building of the Cob and planting trees to create wooded walks.
However, financial problems resulted in the sale of Plas Tan yr Allt to one of his creditors, Samuel Girdlestone, in 1812. Samuel was initially reluctant to let Plas Tan yr Allt to Shelley.
Although from a wealthy family and with expectations, Percy Bysshe Shelley was viewed as unconventional with dangerously radical political, anti-Christian and social views. He was twenty in 1812 and had already been expelled from Oxford for publishing radical pamphlets. Shelley had eloped with sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook in 1811 which led them both to lose their family allowances. When his servant was discovered putting radical posters on trees in Lynmouth, Shelley and his wife fled to north Wales.
Shelley was very productive during his time at Plas Tan yr Allt, composing several poems, including the completion of his epic poem ‘Queen Mab’. When they arrived in Tremadog in September 1812, the Shelleys were faced with suspicious and unfriendly neighbours. These included John Evans, a local solicitor, and Robert Lesson, a quarry owner. The Hon. Robert Lesson’s quarry provided the stone for the reclamation project and Shelley voiced objections to Lesson’s treatment of his workers.
According to his wife Harriet, on 26 February Shelley heard a noise downstairs around 11pm. He went to investigate carrying his loaded pistols and saw a man leaving the house. The man fired at Shelley, whose pistol failed to go off. Shelley fought with the man and fired again, hitting him in the shoulder. The man then threatened him in English and ran off. Shelley stayed downstairs on guard and claimed that the man returned and shot at him again leaving bullet holes in his nightshirt and in the wall.
No one witnessed these attacks and the event became known as ‘Shelley’s ghost’. No wounded man was ever found and, if the man was local, why did he threaten Shelley in English? But the bullet holes were real and remained until the house was later renovated. Shelley was under considerable strain at the time which may have influenced his reaction to the dramatic events on 26 February 1813. Lesson denied any involvement and the truth may never be known.
After Shelley left, the house was occupied by James Spooner whose family contributed to the development of the Ffestinog railway line. The railway line initially only used gravity to send a line of eighty slate trucks down from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Tanybwlch station. Another occupier with a connection to the slate quarries was John Greaves who developed the Llechwedd quarry. The Greaves family lived at Plas Tan yr Allt for many years and included Miss Hilda Greaves who commissioned her nephew Sir Clough Williams Ellis to restore the mural in the house. After a period as a school, Plas Tan yr Allt is now a hotel.
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Dr Ywain Tomos, Enquiries & Library Assistant
Cynorthwyydd Ymholiadau a Llyfrgell
The author Louisa Matilda Spooner, author of the novels Gladys of Harlech, Country Landlords and A Welsh Heiress, was the daughter of James Spooner and his first wife. She was born in nearby Maentwrog, before the Spooner family came to live at Tan yr Allt.
Note on the Ffestiniog Railway in your last paragraph: James Spooner was the gifted surveyor of the railway; his son Charles greatly developed it as General Manager. The gravity slate trains probably better referred to as of ‘up to’ 80 wagons, and of course ran down from Blaenau Ffestiniog to the harbour at Porthmadog (passing through Tan-y-Bwlch half-way down the line.) The restored railway normally has a thriving tourist traffic these days.
Many thanks for the additional information Bob – and of course Spooner’s Grill at Porthmadog harbour station is named after James Spooner.
A lovely article with point that needs correction.
Ffestiniog Railway gravity trains continued through Tan Y Bwlch to Boston Lodge where the wagons were weighed and the train then drawn by horses across the Cob to Porthmadog.
Many thanks for the correction Chris – glad you enjoyed the blog