French visitors to Welsh slate quarries

DSC05522 photo by Elenor Nicholas

The north Wales slate industry of course led the world in the nineteenth century, and so it should come as no surprise that the quarries around Llanberis attracted international attention. A quick search of the European Travellers to Wales database reveals a handy list of travel accounts to the area by travellers from mainland Europe. One that stands out is a book-length study by L. Smyers, entitled Essai sur l’état actuel de l’industrie ardoisière en France et en Angleterre : suivi de quelques observations pratiques sur la formation du schiste ardoisier (Paris : 1858), who records conversations that he had with people at Penrhyn Quarry.

There is nothing else like Penrhyn in the world, he enthuses : ‘Quand on a vu Penrhyn, on se demande si on n’a pas tout vu, et s’il est utile d’aller ailleurs’ (t. 28) [Once you have seen Penrhyn, you wonder whether you haven’t seen everything, and whether there is any point in going elsewhere]. Keen to understand how this awe-inspiring quarry functions, he speaks to various foremen, making a careful note of their answers for future use. He hates to admit that the English [sic.] are ahead of the French in inustrial matters, and it pains him to report that Penrhyn quarry actually exports to France. However there is something else that he discovers during his stay that he thinks France would do well to imitate: when he is invited into the home of a foreman, Smyers is given bread, butter, cheese and milk, and is surprised to be offered only water when he asks for a different drink. Seeing his surprise the forman explains the temperance movement to him.

My favourite episode is his description of a ride on a gravity train carrying a load from Ffestiniog to Porthmadog. During his terrifyingly rapid descent through mile-long tunnels, his hat hits the roof and he is almost knocked off: ‘mon chapeau heurta le plafond, je faillis être renversé’.


Llyn Gwynant. Photo Steffan Nicholas

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Belgian refugee concert in Aberystwyth 1915

A fundraising concert given by Belgian refugees who came to Aberystwyth in the First World War was remembered on its centenary in July 2015 in a very special lecture by Dr Rhian Davies, Artistic Director of the Gregynog Festival. The original Fête of 21 July 1915 marked 85 years of Belgian national independence and the programme at the Coliseum Theatre in Aberystwyth included vocal, instrumental and choral music by the distinguished musicians whom the Davies sisters of Gregynog had helped to come and live in Aberystwyth. The centenary lecture took place in the very same space on the exact centenary and was part of a programme of events that complemented the ‘EuroVisions: Wales through the eyes of European visitors, 1750-2010’ exhibition. Dr Davies gave an illustrated talk about the many concerts that took place in Wales, as well as mentioning some of the painters who were also among the refugees. The ‘EuroVisions’ exhibition shows some striking artworks by Continental Europeans who came to Wales to seek refuge from both World Wars, including an Aberystwyth landscape by Valerius de Saedeleer. It has since gone on tour and is due to open at Bangor’s brand new venue Storiel in April 2016, and in the meantime can also be enjoyed virtually here

‘EuroVisions’ is the fruit of a major AHRC-funded project ‘European Travellers to Wales, 1750-2010’ that brings together researchers at Bangor University, Swansea University and the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies in Aberystwth, more details here:



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Diwrnod ym Mharis

Wedi dod o hyd i ddarn a ysgrifennais rai blynyddoedd yn ôl. O am gael dychwelyd i Baris!


Paris imi yw rhedeg neges i brysurdeb y rue Lepic erbyn naw, a’r stondinau llwythog yn ymestyn dros ymyl y pafin i ganol yr heol: caws gafr, saim gwydd, pâtisserie, perlysiau, y cyfan yn arwain i fyny’r rhiw tua Montmartre.  Gyda’r Sacré-Cœur ar ei gopa a’r Moulin Rouge yn gysglyd wrth ei droed, rhaid cyrraedd cyn y twristiaid os am gael cynnig mefusen neu domato i’w profi.  Yna hel clecs wrth y peiriant coffi yn yr hen Bibliothèque nationale erbyn deg: pwy sy’n darllen beth heddiw, pwy fethodd godi mewn pryd i sicrhau lle yn y ciw boreol.  Dianc boed haf neu aeaf i erddi’r Palais Royal gyda brechdan i ginio.  Sgwaryn o ardd ffurfiol Ffrengig, ffynon yn ei chanol, wedi’i hamgáu gan resi o goed, yna gan golofnau, ac yn goruchwylio’r cwbl ribidires o ffenestri na cheir eu gwell ond yn y Place des Vosges.  Yn rhyfedd iawn, dim ond Ffrancwyr a darllenwyr ddaw yma, a’u brechdanau, i freuddwydio.  Gwrthod y demtasiwn i bicio draw i’r siopau dillad yn y Place de Victoires, neu fynd am dro bach i’r Louvre am y prynhawn, a’i heglu hi am fws i groesi’r Seine.  Rhyfeddu bob tro at yr olygfa wrth oedi mewn tagfa ar y ffordd i ddarllen llawysgrifau yn y quartier latin.  Teimlo gwefr wrth droi tudalennau canrif mewn llyfrgell fechan guddiedig sy’n swatio yng nghysgod y Panthéon a’i enwogion.  Yna darlith gan Derrida erbyn amser te.  Mae Derrida yn smygu pib ac yn gyrru car gwyn, ac yn traethu’n glir, ac mae’n feidrol.  Rhuthro wedyn am y metro, osgoi sgwrs a golwg cyd-deithwyr yn ofalus, a cheisio ymgolli yn un o nofelau Sylvie Germain cyn cyrraedd.  Erbyn wyth mae’r Place Blanche ar ddeffro – breichiau’r felin yn troi, llond bysus o dwristaid o’r Almaen yn archwilio’r bwydlenni’n swnllyd, wrth i’r stondinau wacáu, ag i’r Parisiaid ddiflannu i’w fflatiau.  Taro heibio’r popty pedair-awr-ar-hugain, ‘run peth ag arfer, diolch.  Yna cilio, y cyfrifiadur dros f’ysgwydd yn drwm o syniadau a throednodiadau’r dydd.

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French travellers visit the Ladies of Llangollen at Plas Newydd

The Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831), were famous for their Francophilia among other things, and they were known to welcome French visitors to their home at Plas Newydd.


Plas Newydd. Copyright Nicholas Shilton

Poor Louis Simond, a Frenchman who had lived in America for twenty years before making his tour of Britain with his English wife, discovered this fact rather too late, as he recounts in his travelogue, Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the Years 1810 to 1811, by a French Traveller (Edinburgh, 1815), which he quickly translated into French as Voyage d’un Français en Angleterre pendant les années 1810 et 1811 (Paris, 1816). On arrival in Llangollen they sent a note requesting permission to visit Plas Newydd, making the mistake of announcing themselves as American travellers. But the ladies were cruel: ‘Les belles dames se sont montrées cruelles’ and they refuse. Later on back at the inn Simond’s landlady remarks that they would probably have been let in if only the ladies had known that they spoke French:

‘La maîtresse à l’auberge, qui probablement nous avait entendu parler français, a remarqué que ces dames aimaient la langue française, et que si elles eussent su que nous la parlions, nous aurions été admis. L’avis était venu trop tard.’ (pp. 320-321)

For more on Simond’s travels in Wales see

Basile-Joseph Ducos (1767-1836) had more luck when he visited in 1826, and describes his guided tour of their property in his travelogue Itinéraire et souvenirs d’Angleterre et d’Écosse 1814-1826, vol 4 (1834):

‘Nous avions fait demander la permission de visiter leur domaine où elles accueillent volontiers les Français. Une pente douce y conduit. Nous y sommes arrivés par un chemin ombragé, sinueux, charmant. La maison n’est qu’une chaumière ornée. Des sculptures gothiques tant soit peu prétensieuses, surchargent la porte et les fenêters qui sont cintrées en ogive. La bibliothèque est éclairée par des vitraux coloriés. Une rotonde sert de laiterie. L’ordre, l’arrangement, les soins les plus minutieux se montrent partout, dans ce modeste ménage dont lady Élénora nous a fait gracieusement les honneurs. Il nous restait à voir les jardins. Leur étendue est médiocre, mais il y a tant d’art dans le dessin des sentiers qui les parcourent, que nulle part on n’en aperçoit les limites. Un point de vue est-il ingrat? Des massifs le dérobent. Aux endroits d’où l’on domine la rivière, les ravins, hérissés de rochers menaçans, les aspects romantiques de la contrée, des percées s’ouvrent et permettent de porter au loin les regards. Quelquefois on rencontre un berceau de feuillage et de fleurs. Là se trouve un banc confident muet des plus tendres épanchemens. Peut-être attend-il les deux causeuses. Craignons de nous rendre importuns, malgré les aimables propos de notre vieille cicérone. Aussi bien sommes-nous loin de la couchée que nous nous sommes prescrite.’, pp. 190-191.

[We had asked permission to visit their property where they are keen to welcome the French. A slight slope leads to it. We arrived there by way of a shaded, winding, charming route. The house is just a decorated cottage. Some slightly pretentious Gothic sculptures weigh down the door and windows with their pointed arches. The library is lit by stained-glass windows. A rotunda serves as dairy. Order, tidiness and attention to detail are to be seen everywhere in this modest household that Lady Eleanor graciously showed us around. The next thing was for us to see the gardens. Though their surface area is not great, there is such art in the design of the paths that run through them that there is no position from which their limits can be seen. Any view that is found unattractive is screened by banks of planting. From the parts that overlook the river, the ravines, studded with threatening rocks, the romantic aspects of the land, vistas open up and guide the gaze into the distance. Here and there are bowers of foliage and flowers, a bench, discreet confidant of the most tender of effusions. Perhaps it awaits the two lady conversers. We’re afraid of getting in the way, despite the kind words of our aged guide. Also we’re a long way from the accommodation that we had arranged.]

One French visitor who would surely have received a warm welcome was Louis Antoine Philippe d’Orléans, duc de Montpensier (1775-1807), the younger brother of Louis Philippe who became King in 1830, and son Louis-Philippe known as Philippe Égalité. He was living in exile in Twickenham on account of what the Ladies referred to in their letters and diaries as ‘the horrors in France’, and came to Wales in summer 1806 in order to sketch the landscape and to console himself that his family had forbidden him to travel to Scotland to visit Elizabeth Forbes, with whom he was in love. He chronicled his travels in Wales in a series of letters addressed to Elizabeth’s mother, but intended for her: Correspondence to Mrs Forbes, Seaton House, Aberdeen MS 2358 University of Aberdeen. Wearied by so many society functions in Twickenham and London, he writes on the 20th September that he had intended to make just one visit in Wales, but abandons even that plan in order to avoid the risk of further engagements:

‘The only [visit] I had an idea and intention to pay was to the female hermits of Langollen, but having heard of some races taking place under the management of Sir W.W. Wynne, just in their neighbourhood, and at the very time I meant to call upon them, I gave up even that, knowing that it would have been very difficult for me in that case to disentangle myself from Sir Watkin’s kind invitation.’

Their most famous French visitor was novelist and educationalist Madame de Genlis (1746-1830), who was also in exile because of the Revolution. She describes her visit in her Mémoires inédits de Madame la Comtesse de Genlis, published over a quarter of a century later in 1825 (with an English translation – Memoirs of the Countess of Genlis – appearing in the same year), complimenting the Plas Newydd library: ‘très-belle’( p. 349), and the ladies’ French: ‘elles parloient français avec autant de facilité que de pureté’ (p. 348).

There’s lots more information on visitors to Plas Newydd at

This research was undertaken as part of an AHRC-funded project If you know of other French visits of near misses, I’d love to hear from you!

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Lost paintings of Wales by French Royal in exile

A member of the French Royal Family, living in exile in Britain during the French Revolution, sketched Hafod Uchtryd in Ceredigion, and was mistaken for a French spy at Cilgerran Castle!


By Amédée Faure (1801-1878) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Louis Antoine Philippe d’Orléans, duc de Montpensier (1775-1807), younger brother of Louis Philippe who became King in 1830, and son of Louis Philippe, known as Philippe Égalité was living in exile in Twickenham with his family from February 1800. Montpensier was eager to learn about Britain, and was a keen amateur artist; his education had been overseen by Madame de Genlis, who arranged art lessons for him with the Polish artist Silvestre de Mirys (1742-1810). We know, from his letters, that Montpensier went on a sketching tour of south Wales in 1805, and possibly also in 1803.[1] This was followed by a sketching tour of parts of north Wales, where he sought consolation in summer 1806 (27th August to the end of September), when Elizabeth Forbes, with whom he was in love, had been removed from Twickenham to Scotland by her family. Banned by his family from travelling to Scotland to visit her, he sets off for the Welsh mountains driving a phaeton with two horses, accompanied by a groom named James and a servant called George White, and carrying books and sketching material. The account of his tour that has survived is a series of letters addressed to Elizabeth’s mother, but intended for her.[2] See the database of the ‘European travellers to Wales’ project for a map of this journey and notes on the content of his letters

But what of the pictures? These seem to be lost. However there are details of them in a catalogue of Montpensier’s works by J. Vatout, Notices Historiques sur les Tableaux de la Galerie de SAR Mgr le Duc d’Orléans (Paris: 1826), vol. iv, pp. 513-32.

This catalogue shows that he visited different parts of Wales on his other trips there, and lists his artwork by title, and sometimes provides a description.

For 1803 the catalogue gives a detailed description of his view of a waterfall at Hafod Uchtryd, Cwmystwyth, Ceredigion:

This is the cave known popularly as robber’s cave, or officially as the Hafod Uchtryd Cavern Cascade

This is how it looks today (and presumably then too)

The catalogue describes landowner Thomas Johnes’s manmade waterfall that falls at the back of a cave to delight his visitors. Montpensier has included at least two people in his picture, one gesturing towards the water and the other showing surprise.

Also in 1803, so presumably as part of the same trip, he sketched ‘Vue de la cascade de Mellincourt dans la principauté de Galles’ [view of the waterfall at Mellincourt in the principality of Wales]. Here is an engraving of it by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, a slightly earlier European Traveller to Wales


For 1805 is listed ‘Vue des ruines de l’abbeye de Vale-Crucis dans la principauté de Galles’ [view of the ruins of the Abbey of Valle Crucis in the principality of Wales]

Also for 1805 is listed ‘Vue du pont de Mallwyd’ [view of the bridge at Mallwyd].

And also for 1805 is listed ‘Vue des ruines de Kilgaran-Castle dans la principauté de Galles’ [view of the ruins of Cilgerran Castle in the principality of Wales],


This picture includes a representation of Montpensier sketching, and shows what happened to him at Cilgerran: some little boys mistook him for a French spy who was making maps, and started throwing stones at him.

For 1806 are listed ‘Vue d’un petit lac sur la route de Bedkellert à Caernarvon’ [view of a little lake on the road from Beddgelert to Caernarfon], and ‘Vue de la Montagne de Snowden dans la principauté de Galles’ [view of Snowdon mountain in the principality of Wales].


However, when the Palais-Royal was sacked in 1848 Montpensier’s artworks disappeared.

Is there any hope of hope of recovering these images of Wales? We know that our artist showed his sketches of Wales to guests at a dinner party in mid-October 1808, at which the Duke of Kent and a number of French notables were present, and that the guests praised them (Hays, p. 213). We also know that he made paintings based on the sketches, and he mentions in particular one that he made as a gift for the Duke of Berry (Hays, p. 215). So there may well be paintings or copies waiting to be discovered!

This research was undertaken as part of an AHRC-funded project


[1] Malcolm Hay, Prince in Captivity : Based on the Memoirs and Unpublished Letters of Antoine Philippe d’Orléans Duc de Montpensier, 1775-1807 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1960), pp. 165-66, p. 162.

[2] Antoine Philippe d’Orléans, Correspondence to Mrs Forbes, Seaton House, Aberdeen. MS 2358 University of Aberdeen. Extracts from these letters, in the original English, are printed in Malcolm Hay.

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More French views of Swansea

Here are a few more French views of Swansea to add to the previous post.

Maudet de Penhouët, Letters Describing a Tour Through Part of South Wales (1797)

‘Before we got to Swansea we saw immense forges at work, and I could not enough admire the genius and œconomy of commerce, which transports copper hither out of Cornwall, in order to be wrought, coal being the principal production of this country, which is wanting in the other. Swansea feels greatly the advantage of this commerce; by its situation it is, as it were, the staple town between the interior country of Wales, and the opposite coast of England, particularly Bristol. Company also frequents Swansea for the advantage of Sea Bathing, and I have heard say, that it would be a place of great resort if the Bathing was better conducted; but, notwithstanding this, and though on the great road to Ireland, there is but one decent inn, the master of which is not backward in taking due advantage of such a circumstance.’ (pp. 42-43)

Amadée Pichot, L’Irlande et le pays de Galles (Paris, 1850) arrives in Swansea by boat from Bristol. According to Pichot Swansea is a bit like Dieppe (other French travellers compare Aberystwyth to Dieppe), and is connected by steamboat to Bristol, Waterford, Cork and Dublin. He then mentions the ship building industry, the surrounding coal and copper mines, and tousism.

‘une ville agréable du troisième ordre : c’est un peu notre ville de Dieppe, un port qui, sans commerce extérieur, prospère par le cabotage, par la pêche et ses chantiers de construction, d’où sortent chaque année de beaux navires de commerce : à cette dernière industrie se rattachent des corderies et des fonderies; enfin, dans le voisinage de Swansea, on trouve des mines de charbon et des mines de cuivre : c’est en dire assez pour faire apprécier l’importance d’une ville de dix à douze mille habitants, qui, par ses bateaux à vapeur, est en communication périodique avec Bristol, Waterford, Cork et Dublin. Chaque été, Swansea est aussi le rendez-vous d’une assez nombreuse foule de baigneurs qu’attire sa belle baie’ (p. 149).

Alfred Erny, author of “Voyage dans le pays de Galles.” Le Tour de Monde 15.1 (1867), visits in 1862, takes an omnibus excursion to the Gower, and describes Swansea as:

‘la ville la plus importante et la plus populeuse du pays de Galles’ (p. 263), but note that ‘important’ here should be translated as something like ‘considerable’ or ‘substantial’.

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French views of Swansea

In advance of my lecture in Swansea on ‘Views and visions of Wales in nineteenth-century French travel writing’ on Monday 16 November, here are some French views of Swansea. Many more can be found by searching the ‘European Travellers to Wales 1750-2010’ database here:

Alfred Erny travelled through Wales in 1862, and makes a huge effort to see harmony instead of pollution in Swansea:

‘la vallée de Swansea, où l’air est vicié par les vapeurs arsenicales et sulfureuses des manufactures de cuivre. Partout le sol est aride et dégarni de verdure; on affirme pourtant que cette atmosphere n’est pas pernicieuse aux ouvriers, et qu’un grand nombre d’entre eux arrivent à un âge très-avancé’ (‘Voyage dans le pays de Galles’, in Le Tour du Monde, p. 263).

At Swansea, there is no doubting how poisonous and pernicious industry is: the air is ‘vicié’ [related to the word ‘vice’, that is lacking in oxygen, contaminated], the fumes are of arsenic and sulfur, and the ground is barren. However, affirms Erny, these conditions seem to suit the workers very well indeed. In fact they thrive on it – and live well into old age!

In 1865 Simonin recommends visiting Swansea:

‘La rade, le port, les docks, le canal de Swansea, les environs eux-mêmes de la ville couronnés de collines, et s’étendant autour d’une large baie, sont intéressants à visiter. On se plaît aussi à parcourir la ville, percée de belles rues, égayée par quelques monuments modernes, et entourées, dans les faubourgs, suivant l’usage anglais, de gracieuses maisons de plaisance et de jolis jardins.’ ‘Une visite aux grandes usines du pays de Galles’, in Le Tour du Monde (1865), p.325

He then manages to visit the Mr Vivian’s factory, but only on condition that he sketches no diagrams of furnaces (he tells of a friend who had been banned on a previous visit for havingmeasured the length of a copper rolling mill!).

He also claims that ‘real’ Wales begins in Swansea:

‘C’est à Swansea que commence à proprement parler le pays de Galles. A Cardiff, où nous sommes déjà passés, à Newport où nous nous arrêterons en quittant le pays, l’élément étranger domine, ou du moins la race galloise s’est peu à peu fondue avec la race saxonne et normande; mais à Swansea et plus avant dans l’ouest et dans l’intérieur, les mœurs et les usages welches sont assez bien conservés.’ (p. 331)

Albert Huet in 1877 is not very nice about Swansea, describing it as a type of Hell:

‘le Railway traverse comme un enfer. Tous ces ouvriers travaillant dans huit fonderies de cuivre, le long de la mer et dans un cercle de fonderies d’étain du côté de la terre, apparaissent aux voyageurs comme s’ils étaient au milieu des flammes,’ Un tour au pays de Galles (Paris: 1877), p. 20

It is somewhere you wouldn’t go on purpose unless you worked in the metal or pottery industries; however, a tourist can find a ‘gîte’ here he reassures his reader:

On n’irait pas exprès à Swansea, à moins d’être commerçant en métaux ou en poteries. Mais le touriste y trouve à la fin de la journée un gîte et un moyen de repos (p. 20).

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