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Welsh History Review

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Vol. 14, nos. 1-4 1988-89

Singleton Abbey and the Vivians of Swansea. Book review.

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SINGLETON ABBEY AND THE Vivians OF SWANSEA. By Ralph A. Griffiths. Gomer
Press, Llandysul, 1988. Pp. 67; illustrated.  3.95, soft covers.
The siting of University College, Swansea, at Singleton Abbey in 1920 proved a
symbolic act. An institution purposely established to further scientific and
technological scholarship in Wales, notably in metallurgy, was placed in the former
home of the Vivian family, past promoters and advancers of copper and other non-
ferrous metal-working activities in the Swansea area. The resplendence of the house
and its contents testified to the great success of that industrial enterprise, the general
wealth it had brought to the area and the distinctive paternal instinct which was
displayed by the Vivians.
In a particularly attractive booklet, Professor Griffiths relates not so much the
economic history of Swansea as the role of the Vivians in it and their personal or
domestic histories. The Vivians were part of that remarkable migration from Cornwall
of skilled workers and managers into the copper and other metallurgical trades
throughout Britain, including Wales. It is important to remember, for example, that
John Vivian who managed the Penclawdd works and established the Hafod concern
was also the John Vivian who was principal copper agent to that great Welsh capitalist
of the late-eighteenth century, Thomas Williams of Llanidan, Anglesey, and that his
sons, Richard Hussey Vivian and John Henry Vivian, were both significant partners
in a revived Mona Mine Company at Amlwch after Williams's death.
It was with John Henry Vivian that the family loosened its Cornish ties and settled
at Swansea, and it was he who was responsible for the creation of Singleton Abbey.
As Professor Griffiths shows, the name Abbey was merely a convenient romantic
appellation adopted for the grand structure created in the 1820s. Singleton as a name
had medieval local associations, notably with Robert de Sengleton in the early-
fourteenth century, and it was this name, taken from a nearby farm, which was
applied to the mansion.
The mansion itself, in fact, encloses an earlier most interesting building, an
octagonal neo-classical house called Marino, built by Edward King in 1784. J. H.
Vivian was unusual in deciding not to raze the original but to mould it into the larger
whole which was in essence of a neo-Gothic design. In a lengthy section we are
offered many splendid illustrations and plans of the new building designed by P. F.
Robinson, an architect who became popular in south Wales at this time. The pinnacled
mansion at Maesgwyn, Glyn Neath, for example, seems to have been a modest
imitation of Singleton Abbey. The Gothicism of the Abbey was by no means as grey
and severe as some of the contemporary mansion rebuilding and perhaps was
testimony to the subtler artistic taste of both J. H. Vivian and his wife Sarah, revealed
too in their collection of objets d'art and in the fine landscaping of Singleton Park.
It was this devotion to culture as well as the amassing of wealth through industry
which characterized the Vivian family for most of the nineteenth century. It is
probably true, as the author hints in several places, that the continental education
provided for the sons of the family made them more adept in scientific and business
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