Blaenavon House was built by Samuel Hopkins on land acquired by the ironmaster Thomas Hill from the Pontypool industrialist and landowner Capel Hanbury Leigh in 1798. It was constructed near Blaenavon Ironworks, alongside Hill and Company’s railroad to Pontypool, which connected the growing Blaenavon works with the canal at Pontnewynydd.
In a period of ten years, Blaenavon had changed rapidly. New rows of housing were springing up and the population was quickly rising as people flocked to the area to seek work in the area.
Archdeacon William Coxe, who travelled through Blaenavon as part of his historical tour in Monmouthshire, noted that in 1799, his host, the ironmaster Samuel Hopkins was ‘building a comfortable and elegant mansion for himself’. The three-storey, and somewhat unimposing, house was completed in about 1800. It is depicted on Deakin’s map of 1819.
The house was known informally as the ‘Great House’ or the ‘Big House’ and may have been referred to by Welsh speakers as ‘Ty Mawr’. Joseph Bradney (1906) records that Blaenavon House, like many other large houses in Monmouthshire, was known as ‘Ty Mawr’. However, there is no documentary evidence of it ever being known officially by this name.
Following the completion of the property, Samuel Hopkins used the house as his personal residence. He was unmarried but lived with his elderly aunt Sarah Bissel (nee Hopkins), who died there in 1809. She is buried in a iron-topped tomb in St. Peter’s Churchyard. The house was also used by members of the family who visited Blaenavon frequently, including Samuel’s sister Sarah Hopkins and their Hill cousins. Samuel Hopkins was much-loved in Blaenavon and played a leading role in guiding the emerging industrial community. Before Hopkins and his uncle Thomas Hill completed St. Peter’s Church in 1805, it is recorded that Hopkins would hold worship at his own home.
Samuel Hopkins died suddenly in June 1815. He was succeeded as residential ironmaster by his cousin Thomas Hill II, who moved to Blaenavon in 1816. Blaenavon House became a family home, with Hill’s children and their governess taking up residence. Hill was also known for keeping a large pack of hounds in the grounds. He died in 1827.
Thomas Hill III was the last of the Hill family to live in the house, assuming control of the company following his father’s death. The Eton-educated young man did not share his father or grandfather’s enthusiasm for the industry and sought to sell the Blaenavon business, including the mansion, in 1833. The attempt failed but the business was reorganised as a joint-stock company in 1836 when the Blaenavon Iron and Coal Company took control of the works and its assets. Thomas Hill retained a directorship and shares in the new company but retired to Rudhall, Herefordshire. The company quickly became dominated by Robert William Kennard, the major shareholder. The Kennard family would be highly influential in the company for almost a century.
Kennard and his sons would stay at Blaenavon House when on business in Blaenavon and during the grouse hunting season in the summer. The house was extended in 1839 to increase its accommodation as a hunting lodge. Many of the local gentry and even European nobility would stay at the house for several weeks. In August 1866, the Blaenavon House grouse hunting party managed to bag over 100 birds in one day alone. Within the grounds were the gravestones of two of the Kennard family’s dogs, ‘Billy’ and ‘Bones’.
The new Blaenavon Company appointed General Managers to run the works and these men and their families tended to either live at Blaenavon House or Park House, which was constructed later in the nineteenth century. Certainly, the managers Richard Johnson, Henry Scrivenor and Thomas Plum lived at Blaenavon House with their families in the post-1836 period. From the late 1860s Blaenavon House was the official residence of Edward Kennard, a director of the Blaenavon Company. It remained his residence during his tenure as High Sheriff of Monmouthshire in 1876.
In 1866 some 3,000 people, including local schoolchildren of all religious denominations and their teachers, were invited into the grounds by John Paton, the General Manager of the Works, the managers held a party with tea and cakes, followed by sports, dancing and the ‘climbing of the greasy pole’, accompanied by music from two of Blaenavon’s town bands and concluded with a ‘truly magnificent’ fireworks display witnessed by 6,000 people.
An even bigger event was held in 1870 following the marriage of Edward Kennard to the novelist Mary Laing. Some 5,000 men from local friendly societies met the young couple in their carriage on the Varteg to Blaenavon road and marched with them to Church Road, where a crowd of 7,000 people met them. The newlyweds, surrounded by 12,000 people from Blaenavon and the nearby towns proceeded to Blaenavon House, where they were joined by as many people who could fit into the park. Kennard gave a speech in which he said that, through marriage, he was ‘a quarter Welsh, a quarter English, a quarter Irish, a quarter Scotch, and wholly Blaenavon!’ He told the Blaenavon Workers that they ‘may ever consider their employers as their best and sincerest friends’, accompanied by great cheers from the thousands in attendance. An afternoon of sports and fireworks followed.
During the First World War, calls were made for the house to be converted into a military hospital. These plans were resisted by the Blaenavon Company, with the agent Henry Charles Steel refusing to accede to the demands. However, in the early 1920s, the Kennard family became less involved with Blaenavon and retired to Bradford-on-Avon. The house was taken over by the Blaenavon Medical Aid Society, a worker-led scheme that (along with Tredegar) provided the blue print for the National Health Service. It remained the town’s hospital until 1980 when it became a residential home. Following the closure of the home in 2006, the house has fallen into disrepair.
Article by Dr Nathan Matthews