Stephen W. Williams, engineer, architect, archaeologist

August 26, 2022 2 Comments
Stephen W. Williams

His name’s been familiar to me for years, but it’s only in recent months that I’ve got to know him better.  In May this year I happened to stay the night in Penralley House, his home in Rhayader, and earlier in our walk up the Wye we passed Bryn Wern, a country house he designed south of Newbridge, a Victorian pile that looks over meadows towards the river.  At Strata Florida I’ve read about his work uncovering the remains of the Abbey.  It’s almost as if he’s been haunting me – or I’ve been haunting him.  It’s time to do his memory justice.  In his three main areas of interest, engineering, architecture and archaeology, Stephen W. Williams combined construction, reconstruction and deconstruction to create a lasting legacy.

Williams was a literal Victorian, born in the year Victoria came to the throne and dying less than two years before her.  He was born on the farm attached to Mellington Hall, Churchstoke, Montgomeryshire, where his parents were tenant farmers.  Mellington is another Williams connection, since we passed the house three years ago when walking Offa’s Dyke Path.  At the time I called the house, ‘a Victorian pile and estate which have maybe seen better days.  The owner’s sign inviting scruffy Dykers to breakfast suggests they’re no longer choosy about the status of their guests.’ It was an earlier, long-demolished house that Williams would have known.

Rock Park, Llandrindod Wells

After school in Bishop’s Castle he was articled, aged fifteen, to a civil engineer in Silverdale, Newcastle, Staffordshire, and began work as an assistant to Benjamin Piercy, who surveyed the routes of early railways in rural Wales, including the Cambrian Railway.  In 1862 he settled in Rhayader as a private surveyor and architect, marrying the daughter of a naval officer, and two years after was appointed as County Surveyor for Radnorshire – a poorly-paid job he held for thirty-five years.  Bridge-building became a speciality – he designed six bridges spanning the Wye and its tributaries – we walked past the abutment of his dismantled bridge at Erwood – and he was much involved in land enclosures, incorporating common land into large estates, in at least nine parishes.  He surveyed many local gentry estates, and when Birmingham Corporation was preparing the new Elan valley reservoirs, he conducted the delicate negotiation to move and compensate residents; he also planned the construction of the new village nearby.  He played a large part in designing the new spa town of Llandrindod Wells, including Rock Park.

Buckland Hall

On top of this, Williams was a prolific architect.  He designed country houses; the building he was proudest of was Buckland, Breconshire, and in 1871 he extended Llysdinam, outside Newbridge-on-Wye, another of his buildings we passed on our Wye valley walk.  There were also numerous public buildings – schools, a workhouse, a police station, a gaol – and many restorations of churches (mid-Wales, alas, is choked with over-restored churches).  He built two new churches, including the impressively large and ornate Decorated style church in Newbridge, which I visited on our Wye walk.  In 1893, next door to Penralley House in Rhayader, he built Bryniago, new offices for the Elan Valley project; the frontage bears his monogram (he was a vain man and made sure his buildings bore his name or initials).

As if all this activity was not enough, Williams was pursuing a quite different interest, archaeology.  He attended his first meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Association at Welshpool at the age of twenty in 1857 and later became a Cambrians fixture, contributing many articles years to Archaeologia Cambrensis from 1870.  His special interest, sparked by visits to Cwm Hir and Strata Florida during his railway surveying days, was Cistercian abbeys.

S.W. Williams at the Strata Florida excavations

The abbey of Strata Florida was Williams’s main focus of interest.  He had first come across the site as a young railway engineer twenty-six years before, surveying the route of a never-built line from Rhayader to Aberystwyth, one of what he called the ‘slaughtered innocents’:

… it passed near the village of Pont-rhyd-fendigaid in Cardiganshire, in the immediate vicinity of the ancient abbey of Strata Florida.   

I was much interested in what I then saw of the ruins remaining above ground, and formed a resolution that if ever the opportunity presented itself I would endeavour to learn what lay below the mounds of fallen stone and débris which covered the site occupied by the Abbey church, and conventual buildings.

The Cambrian Archaeological Association was persuaded to make a small grant to fund preliminary excavations for a fortnight in June 1887.  In May 1888 work resumed, with twenty assistants and a clerk of works, and the help of a larger CAA grant, until early August, when the money ran out (there was a brief resumption in the autumn and a short season in 1890).  The dig attracted many visitors, who paid to see the works.  The Manchester and Milford Railway offered cheap return tickets to passengers who wanted to come.

The arch at Strata Florida, from S.W. Williams’s book

Williams succeeded in recovering the full plan of the Abbey church, and roofed the side-chapels to preserve the floor tiles he uncovered.  He found traces of burnt timber and lead, perhaps from the documented fire of 1285, detected Celtic influence in stone details, and distinguished the various stone types used.  Publication, financed by subscription, was prompt: The Cistercian abbey of Strata Florida: its history, and an account of the recent excavations made on its site, Williams’s only monograph, appeared in 1889.  It was well illustrated with plans and illustrations of tiles, architectural and other fragments.  For his book Williams researched thoroughly the documentary history of Strata Florida Abbey, and he knew of the site of Capel Madog, which belonged to the Abbey’s estate, taking care to divert a new Elan valley railway in Cwm Deuddwr around it.

The lordly Society of Antiquaries was unimpressed by the way Williams excavated.  J.W. Willis-Bund reported to the Society that damage would be done unless ‘some competent person’, preferably the Society’s medieval specialist William St John Hope, was drafted in to oversee the excavation.  The Cambrians, insulted at this London condescension, rejected the offer of ‘help’: ‘it can never admit the contention that the Society of Antiquaries has a right to send its officials to Wales to dictate how explorations shall be conducted’.  Williams too responded to the interference with some bitterness.  But the row was patched up, Hope arrived at Strata Florida to offer advice, and the Society of Antiquaries elected Williams as a Fellow in 1892.

Penalley House, Rhayader

Was the Society of Antiquaries right in its accusation of incompetence?  It’s true that Williams had no training in, or prior experience of, archaeological excavation.  On the other hand, his long, expert knowledge of engineering and surveying equipped him well for the painstaking work of uncovering the Abbey’s foundations and recording them on paper.  Hope himself, it’s worth saying, had little archaeological experience at this date and was later regarded as a careless scholar.  And, of course, it was a case of an amateur usurping the role of a professional: it would be some decades before professional archaeologists like Mortimer Wheeler pioneered scientific techniques like the ’box grid’ system of excavation, and stratigraphic analysis to distinguish successive periods of construction.  Nor could Williams be criticised for failing to explore the outer buildings of the abbey: his money to employ assistants had run out.  More recent archaeologists have seen him as a fairly careful and efficient excavator by the standards of his time, and David Williams was certainly right to call him the ‘father of Cistercian archaeology in Wales’.

Encaustic tile, Strata Marcella

in the summer and autumn of 1890 Williams excavated the Cistercian abbey of Strata Marcella for the Powysland Club.  Here virtually nothing of the buildings survived above ground, and Williams clearly found the task harder than at Strata Florida.  In practice he visited the site only occasionally, and delegated the day-to-day conduct of the dig to the Powysland Club stalwart Morris Charles Jones, already in his seventies, who travelled by trap each day from his house at Gungrog.  Much preliminary clearance was needed, and on the other hand, much of the church foundations had been robbed.  During the dig many curious visitors arrived, making off with some of the finds.  Recent geophysical surveys of the site suggest that Williams’s plan may not be wholly reliable.

Williams conducted two smaller excavations at two other abbeys: Abbey Cwm Hir, on the other side of Cambrian Mountains from Strata Florida, for the Cymmrodorion Society, who hoped that he would find the grave of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (he didn’t), and Talley Abbey in 1892.

Williams was still going strong in the year of his death.  He’d been appointed as High Sheriff of Radnorshire for 1899.  In that capacity he organised the treasure trove proceedings for the late Iron Age/Roman gold hoard recently discovered at Nantmel near Rhayader.  These finds were deposited in the British Museum, causing several influential voices to call for the setting up of a National Museum of Wales.

Stephen Williams was an immensely energetic and versatile product of the Victorian age.  Through hard work, shrewd positioning and endless curiosity, he managed to transcend his modest beginnings to become, by the end of his century, one of the best-known figures in mid-Wales.  Few others have left such a visual imprint on Radnorshire and other parts of Powys.


R.W.D. Fenn and J.B. Sinclair, ‘“Our ubiquitous friend”: S.W.Williams, F.S.A., F.R.B.A., F.S.I., 1837-1899’, Transactions of the Radnorshire Society, vol. 59, 1989, p.116-33.

David H. Williams, ‘An appreciation of the life and work of Stephen William Williams (1837-1899)’, Montgomeryshire Collections, vol. 80, 1992, p.55-94.

David H. Williams, ‘The exploration and excavation of Cistercian sites in Wales’, Archaeologia Cambrensis, vol. 144, 1995, p.1-25.

David H. Williams, ‘Stephen William Williams, the archaeologist and soldier: the man and his family, Transactions of the Radnorshire Society, vol. 69, 1999, p.116-42.

All Saints Church, Newbridge-on-Wye

Comments (2)

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  1. Richard Saville says:

    Very pleasing! Thank you.

  2. Gill Lewis says:

    Thanks Andrew, fascinating post about another remarkable man, a somewhat unsung hero.

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