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  • Writer's pictureGraham Watkins

Gnoll Belvedere - A Story of Welsh Coal, Copper and Corruption.

Sir Humphrey Mackworth was an industrialist, lawyer and fraudster who studied the scriptures in his spare time. He was educated at Oxford, graduating in 1674 and knighted for his services to the legal profession, by Charles II, in 1683. In 1686, Mackworth moved to Wales and married the heiress Mary Evans, still a minor, whose family owned the mineral rights in the Neath area. She died in 1696 and Mackworth inherited the Gnoll family estate. His diary revealed that he had always regarded the marriage and subsequent inheritance as a purely financial arrangement.

Sir Humphrey Mackworth's Folly.
Gnoll Belvedere also known as The Ivy Tower.

Although he now owned the Neath Estate, the family had appointed David Evans to manage it. Mackworth, who believed in conspiracies wrote, ‘Evans was resolved to ruin me.’ Shortly afterwards the unfortunate manager suddenly died. Now in full control, Mackworth increased coal production and began to smelt copper. His next step was to acquire a large lead and silver mine in Cardiganshire but to do so he needed to raise more money. Mackworth took an office in Lincoln’s Inn, London and circulated prospectuses for a new company. The offer included exaggerated claims and a complicated lottery that would, supposedly, increase the returns to investors.

With the share offer wildly oversubscribed, his ‘Mine Adventurers’ Company’ opened for business. Mackworth filled the board of directors with cronies and was free to do as he pleased. He used some of the monies received for charitable Christian purposes, a fact he would often refer to. The other share capital was invested in various dubious schemes.

In June 1699, Mackworth sent presents of coal to potential influential backers in an attempt to gain a parliamentary seat and followed up with lengthy letters asking for support in return for his future ‘usefulness.’

Mackworth’s direct strategy worked and he entered parliament in 1701. Shortly after gaining his seat he backed a bill aimed at preventing bribery during elections, an odd thing to do considering he had just bribed his way into the job. Mackworth was a pugnacious and active member of parliament, responsible for introducing a national system of workhouses. His continual intriguing and bullying made the new MP unpopular and he soon made enemies. In Wales, he was embroiled in a commercial war with his neighbour Sir Edward Mansel. The Mansel mines at Briton Ferry competed directly with Mackworth’s and the rivalry was personal. To make matters worse, in Mackworth’s mine, coal output slowed because of a mutiny by the men and mobs from Neath, upset by his spiteful behaviour, attacked his coal wagons.

Mackworth responded through the courts but ran up against the influence of his powerful neighbours. In 1708, he lost his seat and the legal protection it afforded. The creditors and investors of the Mine Adventurers’ Company petitioned Parliament, alleging mismanagement and fraud. The petition was received and a committee reported without bothering to hear Mackworth’s defence. Mackworth attempted to blame his agent William Waller who responded by publishing letters from Mackworth. The correspondence showed Humphrey Mackworth to be ruthless, devious, hypocritical, self seeking and corrupt. His reputation was in ruins.

Sourly, Waller wrote, ‘a gentleman who at the beginning of the undertaking owed for his new chambers in Lincoln’s Inn and owned that he had not paid for an estate he bought in Cardiff… but by his wonderful management of affairs since, has bought no less than nine lordships in the same county and has found money, either of his own, or somebody else’s, to pay for them all.’

Parliament found Mackworth, ‘guilty of many notorious frauds, and indirect practices in violation of the charter granted to the said company, in breach of trust and to the manifest wrong and oppression of the proprietors and creditors.’

Surprisingly, Mackworth survived, was re-elected to Parliament and began a long fight to regain control of his company. 1720 was a boom year and the directors of the Mine Adventurer’s Company wanted to raise capital in order to expand. When they made a share issue, Mackworth borrowed heavily and bought as many shares as possible. Then, he forced a general meeting, packed it with supporters and got himself elected governor. He was back in charge once more.

Sir Humphrey Mackworth spent the last ten years of his life engaging in litigation with the conspirators he felt surrounded by. He died of fever on the 25th August 1727 at Gnoll. At the time his assets amounted to £14,450 and he owed more than £17,000. The cunning old rogue was penniless.

Following Sir Humphrey’s death, Gnoll passed to his son, Herbert Mackworth, a Lieutenant Colonel of the Glamorgan militia and Fellow of the Royal Society, described as, ‘a gentleman well versed in natural history and every branch of mathematics and philosophical thinking.’ He was made a baronet in 1776.

Herbert Mackworth was a keen horticulturalist and employed 28 gardeners at Gnoll. He enlarged the house and made architectural improvements to the garden including adding ponds, a water cascade and the ‘Belvedere.’ Belvedere is an Italian word meaning ‘beautiful sight,’ and refers to the banqueting tower he built on a hill above the house. For some reason, current ordnance survey maps refer to the structure as the Ivy Tower. The belvedere contained a dining room on the first floor and caretaker’s flat in the basement. Herbert enjoyed treating his guests to a tour of the gardens followed by afternoon tea in the belvedere.

Gnoll Belvedere today.

In 1791, while gardening, a thorn stuck in Herbert Mackworth’s finger. He did not seek medical attention immediately, for such a minor wound and died a month later of blood poisoning. Within a year, the next Mackworth, Robert married a 16 year old girl named Mary Ann. Robert died two years later leaving Mary, or Molly as she was known, a widow alone at Gnoll.

Mary Ann sold up in 1811, remarried and moved out. During the next century, Gnoll House had a variety of occupiers until 1923 when Neath Borough Council bought it. The council had no practical use for the house and it continued to deteriorate. It was demolished in 1957. In 1984, restoration work began on the gardens which have since become a country park. Although there is little left of the structure except some of the outer walls the belvedere remains one of the most prominent features in the area. The building is listed but, like Sir Humphrey Mackworth’s reputation, it is unlikely to be saved.

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