Once a grand three storey building, Orielton Banqueting Tower, now stands alone and neglected in the south western corner of Wales. The tower’s gaily decorated rooms, bright fireplaces and fancy ceiling were abandoned more than a hundred years ago. Since then, nature has reclaimed it. The roof collapsed long ago and, exposed to the elements, the tower is now a decaying ruin. The Baronet John Owen built the tower in about 1850 but within a few years it was locked, never to be used again.
In 1571, Sir Hugh Owen married Elizabeth Wirriot, heiress to a fortune. Her dowry
included properties in Pembroke and the Orielton Estate, south west of the busy seaport. Sir Hugh came from an ancient Welsh family with estates on Anglesey and was a wealthy man. The Owens were a prominent family and Sir Hugh, a lawyer, served as the Sheriff of Pembrokeshire. When he died his Pembrokeshire estates passed to his grandson, also Hugh Owen, who was Sheriff of Pembrokeshire from 1634 to 1654. He was made a baronet in 1641, the same year the English Civil War began. During the ten year war Baronet Owen astutely vacillated between sides, intent on keeping his family’s fortune intact. At the start of the war, Owen supported Parliament but changed his allegiance in favour of the king. When the tide of war turned against King Charles, the opportunistic Owen changed sides again. His strategy worked and his position in society was secured.
Generations of Owens were involved in the political life of the county. Pembroke was controlled by a council whose members were elected for life by the merchants. The councillors worked closely with the Owen family, who owned much of the town. It was a cosy relationship. Owen family members were also elected to Parliament. One such MP was Sir Arthur Owen. It was Sir Arthur who, in 1702, famously galloped to London to give the casting vote for the ‘Act of Settlement,’ securing the Hanoverian right of succession to the throne.
At the time, Parliamentary candidates bought votes and gerrymandering - the manipulation of constituencies to influence electoral results - was commonplace. Bribery and violence often replaced reasoning and debate. During one election, when there was a particularly strong challenge for his seat, Sir Arthur Owen employed thugs to break up his opponents’ meetings. Despite the intimidation Sir Arthur was defeated by a landslide. The returning officer, however, was in Arthur Owen’s employ and, ignoring the result, declared Sir Arthur the winner. The family motto ‘Honesty is the best policy’ did not, apparently, apply to politics. The result of the election was later overturned on appeal to Parliament.
In 1786, the 6th Baronet, another Hugh, inherited. He was four years old. The young baronet died unmarried and childless in 1809. He was 27. When he died, the title but not the assets passed to another male member of the family. Instead, the will bequeathed all the young baronet’s possessions to John Lord, a distant cousin. John Lord was an impulsive man who, in 1800, had eloped to Gretna Green with Charlotte Phillips only to then discover that her family was not wealthy.
The new owner of Orielton promptly changed his name to Owen and in 1813 a second Owen Baronetcy of Orielton was created for his benefit. There were now two men with the title, Owen Baronet Orielton. The new Baronet John Owen began a campaign to become a Member of Parliament. Several fiercely fought and very dirty elections followed on which John Owen spent a great deal of money. Baronet Owen committed numerous electoral irregularities and, in 1831, was finally elected. His opponent petitioned Parliament with evidence of vote rigging and the election was declared void. A new election was held and an unrepentant Owen was again returned as the MP with an even larger majority.
As well as spending his money winning elections, the Member of Parliament for Pembroke enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. One thing he decided he needed was a banqueting tower. It was to be an elegant building with an archway for carriages to pass through on the ground floor. Stairs led to the upper floors containing reception and dining rooms.
The money ran out in 1857 while the banqueting tower was being built. John Owen was bankrupt. One man’s profligacy had squandered the family fortune. Orielton Estate was put up for sale and the properties in Pembroke were auctioned off to
John Owen's planned to entertain in the tower but was bankrupted before it was completed. He died in 1861. Both titles; Owen, Baronet Orielton, have since become extinct. In 1943, the Georgian mansion at Orielton became a ‘Field Centre’ offering outdoor learning for schools, professional development for teachers, individuals and families. The folly, standing south west of the centre, continues to decay. No one, it seems, has a use for a 160 year old banqueting tower without a roof.