Saturday, 3 October 2015

18 Amy Dillwyn

18. Amy Dillwyn (photos: Amy Dillwyn, David Painting book) – 3 October 2015

Among the blue plaques erected to commemorate links with famous people or events is one outside Sketty Hall to Lewis Weston Dillwyn.  But his granddaughter does not need one, for there are already two blue plaques in honour of Amy Dillwyn!  One plaque containing biographical details stands on the seafront near the West Cross Inn, with the other across the road outside Tŷ Glyn, now Mumbles Nursing Home.  Both were erected by the Amy Dillwyn Society, established in 1989 to ‘promote an interest in the arts, antiques and our local heritage and history’.

Amy Dillwyn was part of a famous family.  Besides her paternal grandfather Lewis Weston Dillwyn, her uncle was pioneer photographer John Dillwyn Llewelyn of Penllergare, her father was Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn MP of Hendrefoilan House, while her maternal grandfather was geologist Henry De la Beche.

Born in 1845 at Park Wern in Sketty, Amy grew up at the newly-built Hendrefoilan House, and was presented at Court to Queen Victoria.  She was a friend of Olive Talbot, youngest daughter of C.R.M. Talbot of Penrice and Margam.  But a privileged upbringing did not make her exempt from life’s tragedies, for her fiancé Llewelyn Thomas died of smallpox in 1864 - leaving nineteen-year-old Amy expected to settle for a life of ‘quiet spinsterhood and good works’.  She did not.

During that difficult time she turned to writing novels - ‘The Rebecca Rioter’ is considered the best of the six she had published.  Set in the Killay area, it draws on her father’s experiences of the attacks on the Pontardulais toll-gate to tell of a young working-class man’s struggles with the injustice and social inequalities of the time. Published in 1880 and reprinted in 2004, it was translated into Russian.  Amy was also a literary critic - her review of ‘Treasure Island’ for ‘The Spectator’ in 1883 first brought Robert Louis Stevenson to general notice.

But the death in 1892 of her father, the radical Liberal MP for Swansea Town, meant that Amy had to move from Hendrefoilan House, for she was left the Dillwyn Spelter Works - deeply in debt and near bankruptcy.  She moved into lodgings in Tŷ Glyn in West Cross, and courageously took over responsibility for the zinc factory - in days when for a woman to run such an enterprise was unthinkable.  She would travel daily to the offices in Cambrian Place, sometimes using the Mumbles train but at other times walking the whole way.  She was responsible for the livelihood of over a hundred men at a time when they, not she, had the vote.  Aided by a good manager, Amy turned the business around within ten years into a profitable enterprise.  When aged sixty she travelled to Algeria to inspect a seam of zinc ore, which entailed riding on a mule and going down a mine! 

Amy Dillwyn was able to purchase Tŷ Glyn, and became a benefactor of several Swansea institutions, such as The Infirmary, the YMCA and the Ragged School in Pleasant Street, where her name can be read on a foundation stone.  An advocate of women’s rights, she stood for Castle Ward in the 1907 Municipal Election as an independent candidate and served on the Town Council.  She supported the 1911 strike of the 25 women dressmakers employed at Ben Evans.

When this somewhat eccentric but courageous character, a water polo player and cigar smoker, died in 1935 aged ninety, she was cremated and her ashes interred in the grave where her parents and brother lie in St Paul’s Church, Sketty.  Dr David Painting’s 1987 biography (reprinted in 2013) and the depictions of Amy by Debra John keep alive the memory of this unorthodox and progressive lady, described on the seafront plaque as ‘the first woman industrialist’. 

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