Tuesday, 1 November 2016

74 From Plas House to Castle Square

74 Castle Square

Castle Square is the name of the area resembling a continental piazza opposite Swansea Castle.  It has replaced Castle Gardens, which many found to be a pleasant haven of greenery in the old town centre, and which was laid out on the site of the huge dome-topped Ben Evans department store, destroyed during the February 1941 “Three Nights’ Blitz”.

Previously this area was occupied by the town’s most important building after the castle – the Plas, or Plas House.  Its construction was commenced in 1383 by John de Horton of Leicester on a plot within the castle’s outer ward.  With enlargement and extensions the mansion was not completed until the end of the 15th century, by his descendant Captain Sir Mathew Cradock, who died there in 1531: his splendid tomb in old St Mary’s Church was a casualty of the 1941 bombardment.

Through his daughter, the mansion passed to the Herbert family, and the Plas became the residence of stewards of the absentee Lords of Gower.  Glamorgan’s first High Sheriff, Sir George Herbert, resided there until his death in 1570.  After the Dissolution of the Monasteries he was given St David’s Hospital (part of which was on the site of the Cross Keys Inn) as a reward for military services in Cornwall.  After his grandson Sir William Herbert died, the Plas passed through maternal heirs to Calvert Richard Jones from Gloucester.  He permitted Rev. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, to preach in the courtyard during his visits to Swansea and Gower in the 1760s.  Calvert Jones lived there for about 15 years until his death in 1781.  His son and namesake gave the Ropewalk Field for the site of a new market (on present- day Oxford Street), and in turn his son – the third Calvert Richard Jones - was the notable painter and pioneer photographer.

The Plas gradually fell into ruin, as illustrated in Stockdale’s print of 1826 which shows the mansion from Goat Street – today’s lower Princess Way.  After much of it was demolished in 1840, some of the materials, such as the windows, were incorporated in the home farm on John Henry Vivian’s Singleton estate.  Coins dating from the fourteenth century reign of Edward II were found - significant since some of the King’s equipment and possessions were purloined from nearby Swansea Castle in 1326 after the fugitive King was captured; his marriage certificate and the Oxwich brooch survive.  

The draper Ben Evans began with two of the shops that were built on the site of the Plas during the nineteenth century, and as his business expanded he bought up more neighbouring properties, before massively enlarging his premises in 1893-94 at a cost of £30,000 into the Ben Evans Department Store, with entrances on Castle Bailey Street, Temple Street and Caer Street.  It occupied virtually all of present-day Castle Square, apart from the Three Lamps in Temple Street and the Swansea Gas Light Company at the corner of Temple Street and Castle Bailey Street.

Following destruction from the massive aerial bombardment of February 1941, the store was not permitted to rebuild on the same site because of plans to lay out gardens in the town centre as a memorial to those killed in the Blitz.  It relocated to Walter Road, finally going out of business around 1960.

Castle Gardens was replaced in 1994-95 by Castle Square, which contains six historical plaques relevant to the location, based on drawings by primary schoolchildren.  These illustrate Welsh attacks on Swansea Castle, the Royal Inquiry investigating William de Breos in 1306, King Edward II with his marriage contract, John Wesley preaching at the Plas, Dylan Thomas and the Three Lamps, and the “Three Nights Blitz”. 

With the installation of the Big Screen, Castle Square has become a venue for outdoor screenings of sporting and cultural events, but whatever changes future plans may implement, it remains a notable historical part of the city.                       

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