Castle Buildings, Llanelli
Anyone walking or driving past the junction of Murray Street, Station Road and Queen Victoria Road in Llanelli, cannot fail to spot the impressive building known as Castle Buildings. This imposing structure stands on a corner section of a plot of land that was formerly known as Pen-y-Castell. Historians believe this site was once the location of an ancient fort, probably a small Roman station or fortlet, hence its name. Today it houses the restaurants and bars known as Langostinos and the Vista Lounge. Previous businesses occupying the premises were a ladies' lingerie shop, and a heavy industrial supplier. It has also housed administrative offices of both the Llanelli Borough and Rural Councils.
The building was constructed by a Swansea company, Gustavus Brothers, and designed by the architects Messrs., J. Buckley Wilson and Glendinning Moxham, also of Swansea. The Clerk of Works was a Mr. Morgan, a local man from Tunnel Road, Llanelli and was completed at the beginning of February 1894. It was constructed with red Ruabon bricks with a Bath stone dressing and was said to have been designed in the Queen Ann style. It originally consisted of six shops and associated offices on the ground floor with first and second floors above. All were arranged and laid out for use as a gentlemen's club, reading rooms, or for use as a hotel. Original architect's sketches show a large clock was to be installed below the roof spire of the south west turret, but it is not clear if this timepiece was ever fitted. The spire of this turret was topped with what appears to be a magnificent 'Eagle Finial' which can still be seen today.
On 15th February, 1894 the South Wales Press reported that a number of important Llanelli businessmen all interested in forming the gentlemen's club had been taken on a guided tour of this new architectural addition to the town by the owner, Mr Gwilym Evans JP. It was said that there were at least a hundred gentlemen from the district who were keen to join this club.[a]
Gwilym Evans JP was born 15th May, 1851 at Dolauhirion Farm, Llandovery. He studied chemistry at Llandovery College, became a pharmaceutical chemist, and operated from a shop at 18 Stepney Street, Llanelli. He made a fortune from sales of his patent medicine known as Gwilym Evans' Quinine Bitters. It was marketed throughout the world as a cure-all medicine which became a household name in Wales in the nineteenth century. It was said that He made the bitters and the bitters made him. He became a Fellow of the Chemical Society and the first Welshman to be President of the Pharmaceutical Council of Great Britain. Gwylim retired from the business and floated the company on the open market, remaining one of its directors.
He invested most of his monies in Llanelli's industrial might, becoming chairman of directors of the Old Castle Tin Plate Company and held similar positions on the board of the Welsh Tin Plate Stamping and Enamelling Company, and Richard Nevill & Co. As well as being a director of the Llanelly Steel Works Co. he had a hand in other local businesses. He involved himself in local education where he was a member of various boards promoting education. He took an interest in local politics and became the Chairman of Carmarthenshire County Council. In 1897 he was selected as Liberal Candidate for the Carmarthen Boroughs but became disaffected with all the trappings associated with the position and gave up the candidature.[j] With his vast wealth he purchased and restored the large Gothic-style house in the village of Felinfoel that was known as Westfa House, a property originally owned by the Nevills. He travelled the world twice and purchased many foreign curiosities including Indian and Chinese carvings to fill his mansion. [b] The magnificent Castle Buildings reflected his faith in industrial Llanelli at the end of the nineteenth century.
However, despite the benefits that this great building was going to bring to Llanelli, news that part of its use would be as a Gentlemen's Club with plans that drinks would be supplied caused outrage among the many teetotal organisations then existing in what was a strong nonconformist town, although the club would follow the normal licensing hours. Complaints and adverse comments were received from numerous individuals and groups including the Reverend R. Evans, Pastor of Greenfield, the Llanelly branch of the British Women's Temperance Association at Park Church, who as well as their protest, had written to the Home Secretary.
Speaking at the Lloyd Street Temperance Society, Mr George Evans said 'it would only bring young people to an untimely end by associating with these clubs where intoxicants were sold'.
In answer to these protests Gwylim Evans argued that, had he foreseen the furore that was created he would not have agreed to let the building as a private gentlemen's club, but added that he could let the building to any gentlemen he pleased.
He stated that he was not the promoter of the idea of a private club and had suggested the building as a venue to prominent leaders of the Liberal Party but did not press the matter in case he would be accused of doing so for personal advantage. [c]
On St David's Day 1894, the whole problem appeared to have been resolved, when it was reported that, the 'powers that be' of the Liberal Club had approached Gwylim Evans with a view to securing Castle Buildings as their premises[d], and at a subsequent meeting of the Liberals on 3 March they resolved to move to Castle Buildings.[e] For some time the Liberals had been meeting in a building in Hall Street, which was described by one contributor to the Llanelly Mercury, as a "den" [f]. Two months later rumours abounded in the town that the services of a Cabinet Minister no less, had been enlisted to open the premises of a new Liberal Club at Castle Buildings.[g] These rumours came to fruition causing great excitement because on Wednesday, 14th June 1894, the whole town was decorated with flags and bunting to greet the Rt. Hon. Herbert Gladstone MP., who was in Llanelli to formally open the New Liberal Club at Castle Buildings. He was accompanied by the borough member Major E. A. Jones and Mr. J. Maybery J.P. Herbert Gladstone was under-secretary at the Home Office to H. H. Asquith in 1892-1894 and, following the retirement of his father (William Ewart Gladstone), he played a central role in the Liberal Party.[k]
At the club a short meeting was held in the billiard room and Mr Herbert Gladstone was presented with a silver key and an address, illuminated on vellum, bearing a red dragon and two shields, one bearing a Welsh leek and the other the English rose. Mr J Maybery JP. read the address...
To the Rt. Honourable Herbert Gladstone, M.P. Dear Sir, We, the members of the Llanelly and County Liberal Club in common with the Liberals of the District, beg to accord you our heartiest welcome to this portion of the principality. Your recent compliance with our request, conveyed through our excellent and faithful representative Major Jones, to open our new premises must involve no small personal sacrifice on your part, and it elicits our warmest acknowledgement. Your presence on this occasion, we feel assured, cannot fail to give fresh impetus to the cause with which we are associated. The honoured position that you occupy in the Liberal Party, your gallant fight at Leeds, and your constant devotion to the principles of true progress have won our highest appreciation. You bear a name, sir, dear to the people of Wales, and your venerable and illustrious father, upon whose convalescence we tender our most sincere congratulations, has always depended, and not in vain, upon the fidelity of his Welsh friends. For, in him they recognize the most exalted gifts, brilliant attainments, and transcendent abilities, all unselfishly sacrificed on the alter of the public weal. It is our earnest wish that you may be long spared to again co-operate in gaining further victories in the cause of liberty, and to see the consummation of the highest desires of all friends of freedom.
(The top of this document bore the monogram H.G.)
Mr Herbert Gladstone thanked them for the address, but warned that these political clubs unless properly managed might do more harm than good, If they used the club merely for the purposes of amusement and recreation. It had better not be called a political club at all' Herbert Gladstone then addressed the crowds outside from a window of the building, after which he drove to the residence of Major Jones.[h]
In 1894 Castle Buildings stood at the most important crossroads of Llanelli; it was on the main route to the docks, the railway station, the manufacturing sector, the Town Hall, the market and shopping centre and all roads communicating in and out of the town. At this time the town boasted four commodious docks, collieries, extensive tinplate, iron and steel works, a copperworks, a chemical works and a vast number of subsidiary industries.[i]
Some of the tenants of Castle Buildings give an indication of past uses which reflect the town's commerce at the time. The year following the opening of the building it was occupied by; Williams & Son (Tailors), William Williams (Fancy Repository) and Arnold Thomas (Civil Engineer). [j] In the following nine years we see it occupied by, Mills & English Co. Ltd (mill furnishers), Williams & Bros, Mr E G Baker (hairdressers), Mr R I M Samuel (surgeon?). In 1896 it was the home of Llanelli's earliest Co-operative shop.[l] Some of these businesses operated from here well into the 1920s. Mills & English may have been replaced by the heavy engineering supplier, R. B. Phillips, who operated into the early 1970s.
Castle Buildings has survived for over a hundred and ten years, thanks to its past use by local government bodies and more importantly, Llanelli's present and past entrepreneurs who took on the custodianship of this important landmark.
Despite the curative powers of his Quinine Bitters, Gwilym Evans died on Saturday, 25 November 1905 at the age of 54, following a long illness. For a great part of his life he suffered from gout. His remains were interred in the cemetery at Felinfoel Church. The name of Llanelli's business 'tycoon', Gwilym Evans is almost forgotten, only a few bottle collectors will be familiar with some examples of his Quinine Bitters phials, but Castle Buildings stands as a fitting memorial to one of Llanelli's entrepreneurs.
Notes and Citations
We acknowledge the Staff at the Llanelli Reference Library for their assistance and permission to use photographs from the Local Collection.
Photos of the rare example of a Quinine bottle by Mr Glynne Jones who has kindly donated the artefact to Parc Howard Museum, Llanelli.
[a] Llanelly Mercury 15 Feb 1894
[b] South Wales Press Nov 1905
[c] Llanelly Mercury 15 Feb 1894 & SWP 22 Feb.
[d] South Wales Press 1 March 1894 p5
[e] South Wales Press 8th March 1894 p1
[f] Llanelly Mercury 8 March 1894 p6
[g]Llanelly Mercury 31 May 1894 p5
[h]Llanelly Mercury 14 June 1894
[i]Kelly's directory 1894-95 p405
[j]Llanelly Mercury 30 November 1905 p7
[k] Oxford DNB
[l] South Wales Press 30 January 1896 p4