• Graham Watkins

Cilwendeg Shell House - Built with profits from a shining light.


When William Trench visited a group of islands off the coast of Anglesey known as The Skerries he came up with a money making idea. The name Skerry derives from the Old Norse word ‘Sker’ meaning small rock or reef. The position and rocky nature of the islands made them a hazard to passing ships and Trench’s idea was to build a beacon to warn of the danger. Trench started work on his lighthouse in 1716 and in 1724 he registered a patent to protect his idea. Shortly afterwards, Trench’s son died in an accident at the lighthouse and within 5 years Trench himself was dead. The project he had hoped would make him rich had broken William Trench and he died penniless. Shipping tolls had proved to be an unreliable source of income. The dead man left nothing except one asset; his patent. The patent, protecting the right to maintain a warning beacon on the Skerries passed to his son in law, Sutton Morgan.

Morgan was an astute fellow and petitioned for an act of Parliament, allowing him to increase the charge levied on passing vessels. The act was passed in 1730 when the rights he wanted were awarded to Morgan and his heirs in perpetuity. The lighthouse was improved and Morgan started to make money. Morgan Jones, his son in law, inherited the lighthouse in 1779 and improved it again, raising the top and adding an oil burning lamp in place of the previous coal brazier. At the same time, the amount of shipping passing Anglesey on its way to the docks at Liverpool was growing fast and so too was the income produced by the lighthouse. The triangular slave trade between Liverpool, Africa and the New World was thriving and, because of their lighthouse revenue, the Jones family were becoming very wealthy.

By 1820, the next member of the family to own the lighthouse, another Morgan Jones, was earning more than £20,000 a year in income from the lighthouse (£1.5m in today’s values). The family settled at Boncath near Cardigain and were among the wealthiest in the county. The mansion they built, Cilwendeg Manor, included 21 bedrooms and every amenity that landed gentry might want. Having been granted the rights to the lighthouse revenue for ever, Morgan Jones was confident his family had a secure future. Believing that he owed a debt of gratitude to his forebears, Morgan built a shrine to them in the form of a shell house and, in particular, to his immediate uncle, Morgan Jones Sr. The uncle had been a quiet, rustic man of few words and a bit of a recluse. As well as being a family shrine the shell house was designed to look like a hermit’s cell while serving as a summer house and retreat, away from the grandeur of the mansion house. The folly was built deep in the woods, using local materials and decorated with shells, pieces of bone and coloured glass. Many of the shells originated in the West Indies, brought back by returning slave ships. In keeping with prevailing fashion, the style of the building was gothic and rather fanciful for a hermit’s cell. Morgan Jones included a fireplace so the shell house could be used throughout the year.

Morgan Jones’s good fortune was threatened when Trinity House, the official lighthouse authority, declared its intention to take over Skerries lighthouse. Fearing the loss of his goose that kept laying golden eggs, Morgan Jones put up a desperate fight but an act of Parliament enabling Trinity house to seize the lighthouse was passed in 1836. Trinity house took the lighthouse and Jones lost his franchise together with the income he needed to maintain Cilwendeg Manor. In 1952, Pembrokeshire Council bought Cilwendeg Manor and converted it into a care home, which it served as until 2010 when the home closed. The house was put up for sale in March 2012. One of the most prominent and stunning mansions in Wales was being returned to private ownership.

In the years since its construction, the shell house had deteriorated to the stage where it needed serious repairs in order to survive. In 2003 the Temple Trust, a historic building preservation trust, acquired the shell house and surrounding woods. The trust undertook a major restoration to return the folly to its original condition. Doing so revealed a strange but beautiful building that shimmers in the sunshine and captivates visitors who enter within to view the intricate shell patterns that decorate the walls. Today, the trust maintains the shell house and it is open to the public at certain times of the year.