By Douglas Fraser
In the 21st issue of this journal (2012) an article edited by Michael Eastham John Nash’s Houses in Pembrokeshire by I Wyn Jones (1928-2004) mentioned Sion House in Tenby. This was built in 1790 for William Routh, a printer and publisher from Bristol, and Jones made the comment “It is difficult to imagine why Routh should come to such a remote place as Tenby which was then just recovering from an 18th century slump as a port and scarcely yet in the process of development as a holiday resort.” The question is of more than passing interest since the building of a stylish Nash villa coupled with the promotion of Tenby in Routh’s publication, Sarah Farley’s Bristol Journal, may well have helped to secure Tenby’s development as a fashionable place of relaxation.
In this paper I intend to answer the question of why Routh came to Tenby by drawing upon recent research which suggests that William Routh did not choose Tenby but acquired an attractive plot there almost by accident. Furthermore, that accident was probably a consequence of a dubious property deal involving one of Pembrokeshire’s oldest families.
A Disputed Sale
The person who first identified in modern times that there was something odd about the title of Sion House was Stella Pedersen, a direct descendant of Joseph Routh, a nephew of William. This came to light as a result of researching the sale of Sion House to Sir Henry Mannix following the death of William Routh’s widow, Catherine. These events were described in a family history1 and the principal source was The Letter Books of Jacob Richards (1774 – 1834) of Tenby.
William Routh died in 1800 leaving everything, without specifying any detail, to his wife, Catherine who survived him by nine years. Her executor, the Haverfordwest solicitor, John Willy, put Sion House up for auction (November 1809) and the successful bidder, who offered £1450, was Jacob Richards, recently arrived in Tenby having made a fortune in India. The sale did not go through (the reason is not clear but may be inferred from what happened subsequently) and Willy put the house up for auction a second time in July 1810, and again Richards was the highest bidder, at £1400. Willy then wrote to Richards advising him that the title was not safe and he could not advise Richards to proceed until the “heir at law” (Catherine’s next-of-kin), John Davies, a mariner, had been traced. Richards expressed concern over the deteriorating condition of the house and in correspondence with both Willy and Joseph Routh offered to accept the deficient title in return for a reduction in the price or an indemnity.
According to Richards, when Sion House first came on the market in 1809, Mannix called on him “under an appearance of friendship” and advised him not to bid too high. In the light of subsequent events one can speculate that even then Mannix was setting himself up to obtain the house on advantageous terms and may have known about the “problem” with the title. On 24th January 1811 Richards wrote to Joseph Routh: “I was not a little surprised by the receipt of a letter from Mr Willy this evening stating that he had let the House to Sir H Mannix for 21 years. I understand from Sir H precisely that he is to pay £65 p.an and to keep the Premises in repair with an option to purchase at any time previous to the expiration of this period on your producing a title to his satisfaction.” There followed a great deal of correspondence including threats of legal action and Richards asserting that he had bought the property and intended to have it.During all of this, Mannix put his men to work in the garden of Sion House and Richards brought in three constables to remove them. There were to be other incidents. On March 10th 1811, Richards described one such in a letter to Joseph Routh: “After I had been about an hour in the House Sir H Mannix and his people besieged me all round most completely, having got into the lower part of the House into the kitchen thro’ the arched Passage which I forgot to secure……I left my servants in the upper part of the House with a Constable to keep the Peace & went for more assistance. While I was away one of his Servants got into the upper Storey by a Ladder thro’ the window, unbolted one of the Doors and let him and his people in……Mr Willy has since been here who declares he had authorized Sir Henry to take possession as a Tenant a Month ago.”
Although the blustering continued, Mannix had outwitted Richards and went on to purchase the house. Subsequent events showed that Richard’s pride was very much hurt. Indeed, the degree of embitterment was to extend to the next generation: Sir Henry Mannix’s illegitimate son, Henry Mannix and Jacob Richard’s son, William, fought a duel in 1839 over access rights to Sion House, in which William Richards was grievously injured.3
But what was the problem with the title that prevented John Willy selling to Jacob Richards but not to Henry Mannix?
The sale had become urgent because by 1810 Sion House was falling down. On 14th August 1810 in a letter to Joseph Routh, Jacob Richards wrote: “I should not in the least wonder to see the ceiling of the drawing Room tumble in from the lodgement of Water which has insinuated itself thro’ the cracks of the Lead, and as I have no doubt seriously injured the beams.” In December he wrote: “You no doubt know, it is now too much unroofed and the Rain has soaked into the lower Storey and seriously injured the intermediate woodwork.” Although Richards was putting pressure on Routh, he could not have done so without cause – urgent maintenance was, undoubtedly, required. Thus, the approach of granting Mannix a repairing lease and option on the property whilst resolving the issue of the title was an ingenious way of preventing any further deterioration. But, if the lease were the right route, was it offered to Richards? Unfortunately we have only Richards’ side of the correspondence but there is no letter referring to or rejecting an offer of a lease and Richard’s expressed surprise at the arrangement with Mannix suggests that he had received no such offer.
To understand why Mannix may have received an offer that Richards did not, it is necessary to look more closely at Sir Henry Mannix himself. He was born at Richmont, County Cork in 1740. In 1778, when the United Irishmen started attacking the property of the protestant gentry, Mannix (in common with many of his peers) formed a regiment of militia, the Glanmire Union. Through this and as a magistrate, he became a scourge of the rebels. Sir Henry Mannix was one of a number of individuals identified for assassination by the Whiteboys, a particularly militant branch of the United Irishmen. In 1798 he was shot in the back by his gardener and initial reports suggested that he was dead, but Mannix recovered and retreated to Pembrokeshire, probably as a safe haven from which he could easily visit his properties in Ireland. Sir Henry had married Elizabeth Parker in Ireland in 1764 but they had no issue. He took a mistress, Mary Banks, and for the rest of his life ran two establishments. Whilst Lady Mannix reigned at Sion House, Mary was established at Eastwood, near Narberth, with her three children by Mannix.
In 1807 Henry Mannix was living in Market Street, Tenby (roughly on the present site of the Natwest Bank), next door to a mariner, Thomas Maddox. Maddox’s property had a rear passageway to Cresswell Street and Mannix decided that he would like to use it (Murray John who owns 2 Olive Buildings in St Mary Street, believes that Olive Buildings were initially built for the use of Mannix’s mistress, in which case Sir Henry may have wanted a more discreet means of visiting than via his front door). Mannix had his mason break through his garden wall into the passage and, quite reasonably, Maddox tried to stop him. This resulted in Mannix prosecuting Maddox for assaulting him and his mason and having Maddox imprisoned for two months. The following year Mannix was waiting with his carriage for the ferry to cross to Pembroke from Neyland when, he asserted, John Griffiths and David Noot pushed ahead of him. He prosecuted both for assault and had them put away for one month each.
It may be concluded that Mannix’s combination of legal training and forcefulness would make it quite in character for him to have browbeaten Willy into a course of action which resulted in him, Mannix, achieving his objective with respect to the purchase of Sion House. However, even that is unlikely to have succeeded unless Mannix knew something that could have embarrassed Willy and complicated the sale – did Mannix have prior knowledge of a problem with the title to Sion House that frustrated the sale to Richards?
Catherine Routh’s Trust
Catherine Routh’s will was proved early in 1810 and made no explicit mention of the house. The estate was valued at less than £300, which is easily accounted for by the personal possessions listed and includes nothing for Sion House. Joseph and Elizabeth Routh although the residual legatees, probably received little if anything under the will. Whilst the controversy over the sale was raging, Jacob Richards wrote to Joseph Routh: “I really begin to think with you that this has been a pre-meditated conspiracy to deprive me of the House and you of the Sale.” But far from a “pre-meditated conspiracy”, did the house even belong to the Rouths?
In 1781, very shortly before William Routh married Catherine Davies in Bristol, all of William Routh’s property was placed into a trust fund of which Catherine was the beneficiary and Michael Hodgson of London was the trustee. In the deed setting up the trust it was stated that after the death of Catherine the beneficiaries were to be her “heirs and assigns”. Since the purpose of a trust is to put the property outside the control of the beneficiary, this must mean that the heir-at-law – John Davies and then “Leonard of St Clears” (Mary Davies, Catherine’s aunt, had married Thomas Leonard in St Clears in 1746) – had a greater claim upon the proceeds of the sale of property contained in the trust than did her chosen heirs, Joseph and Elizabeth Routh. As it happens, William Routh did not purchase the land upon which Sion House was built until 1784 but it would be reasonable to assume that property purchases made after the establishment of Catherine’s trust were added to it. There is evidence in support of this in the modest value of Catherine’s personal estate. The existence of a trust does not, however, provide a complete explanation for the problem with the title that prevented the sale to Richards in the first place, since the house could still have been sold by the trustees – even if the heirs-at-law rather than Joseph and Elizabeth received the proceeds.
Catherine Routh’s trust may have been no more than a form of marriage settlement but it seems odd that William put his property out of both his and Catherine’s reach, unless he feared some claim against it. It is also of interest that the transfer was in the form of “lease and release”. The process of lease and release was devised in the seventeenth century as a means of effecting a sale of property in secret (the vendor gave the purchaser a one year lease for a peppercorn and followed it up with a release of the freehold interest for a consideration – since neither transaction was of itself deemed to constitute a conveyance of the freehold no-one had to be told about the transfer). However, by the late eighteenth century and until 1845 when property laws were modernised, lease and release was the most common form of conveyance, simply because it was cheap and easy; but it could also be used to hide the ownership of property.
Stella Pedersen also points to the odd fact that as late as 1825 the four cottages in “No Acre” adjoining Sion House were still described as belonging to Catherine Routh’s estate. (These had been left by Catherine Routh to be sold and the interest on the proceeds given to four boys until the age of 18). As these cottages, unlike Sion House, were explicitly mentioned in her will they must have belonged to her personally and not to her trust. There appears to be no obvious reason why her wishes were not promptly executed unless there was a problem with the title other than relating to the trust, possibly a problem that encompassed both Sion House itself and all other property on the same plot.
So what was in this trust at the time of Catherine’s death? The Rouths appear at certain times to have been considerable landowners* but at the time of Catherine’s death, the controversy over the sale of Sion House reported above, related purely to the house and associated properties. There is also evidence that Catherine was financially pressed by 1805 – she had taken on the running of Sarah Farley’s Bristol Journal on the death of her husband and by 1805 her representatives were referring to “a large sum immediately to be made up for Government Duties”; the Journal was sold a year later. But even if Catherine were not able to utilise the capital tied up in a trust, if it held a lot of property there should have been a substantial income from it. So what was in this trust and could it merely have been a device for putting property temporarily “out of sight”?
William Oliver – who really owned Sion House?
In April 1784, William Routh, then living in Bristol, obtained from “William Oliver formerly of Wotton Underedge, Co. Gloucester, but now of Bristol, gent.” under lease and release for £320 and an annuity of £100:
– messuages and lands called Grove Demesne, lands called Oxiands, Mileford, Castles and Sentences, messuages and lands called Chappel Hill, Templeton (lands in), cottages and gardens including Old Walls, Cold Blow House, Mountain Side, Petersfinger, Pitch, Roseside, messuages or tenements called Narberth Mountain and Molleston Back, lime kilns and quarries, tenements called Parrotts Walls, Newcastle, Longstone, Pensoed and Spring Garden, all in the parish of Ludchurch, tenements called Dinnaston, Middlehill, Martin Hill, the New Inn, Dinnaston Mountain Cam Mill, Islands, Ducks pool and Loveston, parish of Loveston, the demesne called Merrixon, tenements called Welch Gate, Camomile Back, New House, Stagger’s Hill, Hammonsford Bottom, lands called Row Park, Wells head, the Croft, Kilsaice, Closes and Hill, Hodge Moor, Upper Eighteen Acres, and Little Kiln Park, the tithes of the rectory of Amroth, parish of Amroth, a messuage in Tenby, messuages called Cilvachwennith and Nantagof Issa, parish of Landekeven, messuages and premises called Trenikol, parishes of Landeloy and Lanrythen; a meadow called Pembroke Meadow; lands called Queens Ditch and Doctors Close, a storehouse, etc., parish of St. Mary, Haverfordwest; messuages and lands called Broad Meadow and Jordans Close parish of St. Martin, Haverfordwest; a colliery called Merrixon; messuages called Parke and Talvan, and cottages, parish of Langan, of Carmarthen.4
This appears to be a very substantial part if not the whole of the inheritance of the Poyer family of Grove, near Narberth, including coal mines, and worth a great deal more than the sum paid. It also includes the “messuage in Tenby” which was to become the site of Sion House. Yet in the rates records of Tenby for the last decade of the eighteenth century, Sion House is shown not in the ownership of William Routh but purely in his occupation: the ownership is shown as “late of Mr William Oliver”. The lease and release mechanism did not require Routh and Oliver to tell anyone about the transfer of title but what did they have to gain by, in effect, hiding the ownership of Sion House? Furthermore, it is only because we still have the rates records for Tenby in this period that we know that the ownership of Sion House was not declared. Presumably the ownership of the other property listed was similarly suppressed. 5
In 1799 the transaction was reversed and the property returned to Oliver – all that is but “the premises situated in the parishes of St Mary and St Margaret, Haverfordwest”. So, Routh retained Sion House (and property in Haverfordwest) and the records for 1800 are the first which show William Routh as being the owner of Sion House.
The Poyers of Grove and the case in Chancery
The land transferred by William Oliver was that belonging to the Poyers of Grove, in Lampeter Velfrey, one of the old families of Pembrokeshire. The then head of the family, John Poyer had died in 1737, leaving the administration of his estate to his wife Ann who neglected this charge and herself died intestate in 1781. The eldest son, Daniel died in 1756 without leaving a wife or legitimate issue and the second son, John, died in 1784, leaving a wife, Margaret neé Lewis but no children. There had been a total of nine children born to the older John and Ann but only two were alive by the end of 1784, Anne and Louisa. Anne was married to William Callen and Louisa had married William Oliver in 1779. By 1784 the affairs of the family were in a state of confusion which went back nearly 50 years. There were three surviving claimants on the estate of the older John Poyer, Margaret, the widow of his son John, and his daughters, Louisa Oliver and Anne Callan.
Margaret Poyer remarried in 1786, to Thomas Mansell, a surgeon. By that time, William Oliver had secretly transferred the estate to William Routh. Mansell, acting on behalf of his wife challenged Callen and Oliver (acting on behalf of their wives) concerning the distribution of the estate and by the end of 1787 the case had gone to Chancery, the court concerned with wills and similar disputes. This was often a long drawn out process but this case was devolved to a local court and resolved in principle the following year, although it took over ten years to unscramble everything. Thomas and Margaret Mansell won the right to the bulk of the property but they were required to assign the leases of the valuable collieries at Coedrath (Stepaside and Saundersfoot), to Callen and Oliver. However, Louisa Oliver died in 1792 and William Callen in 1793 so the Mansells actually assigned the property to Anne Callen. It would certainly seem that the lease on this colliery was part of the parcel that Oliver had “sold” to Routh since in 1796 William Routh accepted £597.14.6d from Anne Callen in respect of compensation for investment that he had made in it.
An interesting twist to this tale is that although the court appears to have reversed the questionable land deal (William Routh was brought before it and was party to many of the “unscrambling” transactions) the land upon which Sion House was built remained with Routh. Was this the intention of the court or did Routh manage to hang on to it unseen?
Thus William and Catherine Routh appear to have been conspiring with Oliver to hide the ownership of a substantial part of the Poyer estate with the intent of ensuring that Louisa Oliver and her sister retained a greater share of the whole than they were strictly entitled to. Since the site of Sion House was part of this estate, the Mansells or Callans might well consider that they should have owned this land. Was this the “problem with the title” to which Willy referred in his dealing with Richards?
The threat to John Willy
One of the questions raised above concerning the Sion House sale by John Willy, the Haverfordwest lawyer and executor of Catherine Routh, was why he preferred Sir Henry Mannix as a purchaser to Jacob Richards, although the latter may have been thought to have had a stronger claim. The Willy family were from Lampeter Velfrey and it is quite likely that they had been aware of the Poyer dispute; indeed, it is quite possible that they had advised one of the parties. Mannix was a lawyer and moved amongst the Pembrokeshire gentry. It is almost certain that he would have known the story. Did Mannix use his knowledge of the background to the title of Sion House as a means of putting pressure on Willy? Could he have threatened to disrupt the sale by bringing the Callen and Mansell families into the transaction? Indeed, if Willy or his family had set up the original deal, that might give Mannix an even more powerful hold over him, the threat of exposure. As his previous history had demonstrated, we know that Sir Henry Mannix would have taken any steps that he thought might be effective in order to have his way.
Even if the above goes some way to answering some of the outstanding questions surrounding Sion House, it does not answer them all. Henry Mannix did eventually buy the property but the purchase price does not appear to have gone to Joseph and Elizabeth Routh. Did it go to the “heirs-at-law”, or even to the Callens? Catherine Routh appears before her marriage to have been a wealthy woman but we know that she was short of cash by the early nineteenth century. Was her wealth absorbed by the various, possibly over ambitious ventures of her husband or was it hidden in trusts – in which case, what happened to it?
Sion House was probably the first grand house built following the decline of Tenby and thus contributed to the emergence of Tenby
during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as a desirable resort. Perhaps the most intriguing question of all is, could Tenby’s development as a fair and fashionable resort have been in part the side effect of a dubious series of property deals?
* Catherine was the grand-daughter of Thomas, one of the Howells of Prinknash Park whose money came from Caribbean sugar, and was an heiress in her own right. She lived in and met William Routh in Bristol.
- Pedersen S, More about Maria’s Family, Cydweli (2008)
- The National Library of Wales, Manuscripts 22870D and 22871D.
The whole letter book has since been transcribed by the late Brian Price of Tenby and provides a wealth of material about Jacob Richards, a significant figure in Tenby’s history. Jacob Richards was a Carmarthenshire man of humble stock who had joined the army of the Honorable East India Company, rising to Sergeant-Major. Tough and shrewd, he made a fortune in India and retired to Tenby in 1809 where he first became Mayor in 1812 and served as such on four further occasions.
Copies of the transcript are deposited in the Tenby Branch of Pembrokeshire County Library and in the Pembrokeshire County Record Office.
- Price, B.D. Two Tenby Duels and their Associations, Journal of the Pembrokeshire Historical Society XIV (2005)
- Pembrokeshire County Record Office, The Eaton Evans and Williams Collection contains much of the evidence drawn upon in this account including:
4502-27 Papers relating to the estate of John Poyer of Grove 1781-1790
3841-2 Lease and Release of properties of William Routh 1781
3902 Release of lands by William Oliver to William Routh 1784
1600-1 Lease and Release 1799
4398-4403 Letters from Routh concerning the settlement of the Grove estate. 1790
- Tenby Museum and Art Gallery Rates Records for Tenby 1790 to 1800.