The Mystery of the Non-Existent Castle

IMG_20200321_0001bI get regular notifications from eBay for new items listed related to Anglesey history, particularly old postcards showing scenes from the past century. As I live in Pentraeth I was particularly intrigued by one postcard, showing a large castellated building with two towers. It was labeled “Pentraeth Castle”. What??!!

I know there is no place like this in or around my village, and as far as I know never was. The hill in the background doesn’t look like the landscape around here. It could conceivably be Mynydd Llwydiarth, but there are far too many houses on the slope. The National Library of Wales place names database, which lists not only towns, parishes and villages, but also individual farm and field names as shown on the mid-19th century tithe maps, doesn’t show any other Pentraeths in Wales. So where was this? I can’t resist a chance to follow up a historical mystery, so I bid for the postcard and won it for the princely sum of £1.

IMG_20200321_0002The first clues are on the back of the postcard. It was published by F. H. May, based on Ata Road in Pwllheli. It was postmarked somewhere in Caernarfonshire (part of the postmark is missing) in 1914 and was sent to a Mr Williams of 15 Hill Street, Gerlan, Bethesda. So it is probably somewhere in North Wales. The writer of the card, who signs off as “Nain”, says “This is my house O Alun how do you like it? Be good you shall come here for your holidays.”

I posted scans of the postcard on my Facebook and Twitter pages, hoping one of my followers might recognize it. Within a couple of hours the mystery of the location had been solved. On Twitter a couple of followers said “Nefyn”, and @dilgriff posted another postcard from F. H. May with a view across the bay at Nefyn, showing this building sitting on top of the cliff. This card seems to come from a page on the website about the photographer, Fred May. One Facebook follower, Wendy Howard, jumped in with both feet and started researching the recipient family; see her comments on my original post.

1900 - Clipboard01
1900 OS Map

So we now know where the mysterious Pentraeth Castle is, lets fill out some of the details about it and the people involved. First, when was it built? The site allows you to explore old Ordnance Survey maps through the years, from the 1st edition in the late 1880s. The one from 1900 shows The Castle on top of the cliff overlooking the bay. In 1889 there was just a small building on this site, labelled “Cliff Cottage”. By 1918 the building was labelled “Castell Pentraeth”.


The census can also provide clues. In 1891 Cliff Cottage was still in existence. It was occupied by Griffith Griffiths, his wife Ellen and their 10 year old niece Jane Evans. Griffith was a settmaker, presumably working at the nearby Gwylwyr Quarry, which produced granite setts for paving roads. So that cottage must have been demolished and the castle built sometime between 1891 and 1900.

1901 census - CAERG13_5267_5269-0175
1901 Census

Cliff Castle appears in the 1901 census, occupied solely by Ellen Owens. She is listed as a servant and caretaker. In 1911 she is still there as its caretaker, the only occupant. Was this ostentatious castellated building a holiday home for some wealthy person, with Ellen looking after it when the owner was not in residence?


1911 census summary - 31820_01988-00016
1911 Census Summary

Most UK censuses only list the people who were actually living at a property on the day. But in 1911 they also produced summary books, which for each property gave just the name of the main occupier, along with the total number of males and females living there on census day. For The Castle the occupier is named as Corton Lord, with just a single female (Ellen) actually living there. He presumably is the owner and occasional resident.

So who was Corton Lord? An unusual name like that should be easy to track down, but searching the Ancestry and FamilySearch genealogy databases throws up very little. Beside the entry for the 1911 census, all Ancestry offers that seems to fit is a Frederick Corton Lord, born in 1860 in Salford, Lancashire, who is listed in one person’s family tree as the husband of Katherine Pollitt, with no further information. Searches of the newspaper databases at the National Library of Wales (available online free of charge to any resident of Wales who applies for a reader’s ticket) were also fruitless. The next step after these online resources would be to visit the Gwynedd Archives, but for the moment I’ll need to leave this question aside.

1911 census Bethesda rg14_34515_0319_06
1911 census, 15 Hill Street, Bethesda

What about the postcard writer and recipient? My Facebook follower Wendy got to this before me and tracked down the 1911 census record for the family living at 15 Hill Street, Bethesda. They were William T Williams, a quarryman at Penrhyn Quarry, his wife Annie and their three children. One was six year old Owen Alun Williams, so this little boy was the “O Alun” to whom this postcard was sent from his Nain (grandmother). He would have been around nine years old when the postcard was sent and she is encouraging him to be good so that he can come visit. It sounds like his parents may have been ill, but are improving.

So was the caretaker of Pentraeth Castle, Ellen Owens, little Alun’s grandmother? Given that she is listed as single in both censuses, that doesn’t seem likely. She was 70 in 1911, so perhaps someone else had taken over as caretaker by 1914, when the card was posted. A concerted effort to track down the Williams family tree would probably help to identify her, but other tasks are calling me now, so I’ll need to set this aside for another time.


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