Pentop or Pen-y-Top (the name is either an amalgamation of Welsh and English words – Pen meaning ‘head’ in Welsh – or is descriptive of the cottage being the highest house above the village of Penmachno) was built between 1790 and 1800 by the first Baron Penrhyn, Richard Pennant. The Pennant family fortune came from slave plantations in Jamaica and Richard was to become a notorious anti-abolitionist.
In 1765 Pennant had married Anne Susannah Warburton, the daughter of General Hugh Warburton, and in doing so acquired the Penrhyn estate in the then County of Caernarvonshire. Upon his arrival in North Wales he developed industrial slate quarrying and processing on a massive scale in and around the town of Bethesda. He built road and rail links to connect the quarries to the sea and he built the port and the ships, allowing him to ship his slate anywhere in the world. With the profits, his heir built the ostentatious 300 room Penrhyn Castle near Bangor.
The Penrhyn lands included the 8,000 hectare Ysbyty Estate where the high open moorlands were (and still are) home to red grouse, hares and other game. To service Lord Penrhyn’s sport, a gamekeeper was employed and Pentop cottage built to house him and his family. The cottage is similar to other properties built at around the same time in Llandygai, a ‘model village’ built by the First Baron for his estate workers just outside the gates of Penrhyn Castle. They were built in a ‘vernacular revival’ style which conformed to the ‘picturesque’ ideal fashionable at the time. He dictated that each house was built in a similar style but none was to be identical. They were furnished with ample gardens and the layout was such that no house’s front door faced another.
Unlike many of the houses in Penmachno, which were built with rubble walls, Pentop has an amount of dressed stone and at the time would have been one of the better dwellings in the area. It was originally built as a one-room cottage with a crog-loft – where the bathroom is now. The kitchen and dining room was added at a later (unknown) date. Outside the cottage were a number of outbuildings, including a bake-house in which a large, domed brick bread oven still exists (and which we are planning to renovate) dating from 1801.
Early maps (such as the 1880 OS Map) show the cottage sitting in a small wooded area below what would have been wild, open grouse moor. The coniferous plantations that now surround the cottage were not planted until the middle of the 20th century.
The earliest census from 1841 records the incumbent gamekeeper as William Floyd, originally from Tremeirchion in Flintshire. He lived at Pentop with his wife Ann (from nearby Ysbyty Ifan) and their daughter Elinor. Subsequent records show a high turnover of gamekeepers over the next sixty years, with a different family living at Pentop at most of the 10 year intervals. The gamekeepers were commonly in their thirties with between two and four young children. Not all were local however, as good gamekeepers were highly sought-after and often moved around the large sporting estates. In 1871 the resident gamekeeper at Pentop was William Thomas, originally from Howsham in Yorkshire, while the 1901 incumbent, Joseph Lloyd, originated from Westmorland (Cumbria). Unlike most residents of the village of Penmachno, the gamekeepers were recorded as speaking English as well as Welsh. They needed to speak English for their dealings with their aristocratic employers and shooting companions, whilst Welsh was the language of their local community and, in many cases, wives who were often from the village or surrounding area.
The first Baron Penrhyn was succeeded by his son Douglas in 1886 who, in his attempt to make more profit from the family slate mines, notoriously faced-down a strike of 3,000 quarrymen in Bethesda demanding the right to trade union membership. The strike lasted from 1901 to 1903 leaving many families in dire poverty. The men who eventually returned to work were branded as “Bradwyr”, or “Traitors”, by the strikers. Families loyal to the strike would place notices in their windows saying in Welsh: “There is no traitor in this house”. The strike divided the community and created serious social tensions which some say still exist in Bethesda today.
Into the 20th Century, the Penrhyn Estates were no longer being supported by either the family’s plantations or by slate, the demand for which had steadily declined. In 1907 some outlying parts of the estate began to be sold off to pay death duties. More sales took place in 1910, 1912 and 1925. Hugh Napier Douglas-Pennant (1894-1949) thus inherited a much smaller estate, and death duties also forced him to sell further property. The Jamaican estates were sold in 1933 followed by more property in Caernarfonshire in 1939. On his death in 1949, the title and estate were split. His niece, Lady Janet Douglas Pennant (1923-97), inherited Castell Penrhyn, the quarry and the estate. Two years later she reached an agreement with the Treasury by which the castle and a large part of the estate – including the Ysbyty Estate and Pentop – were transferred in lieu of death duties. In turn, the Treasury transferred them to the National Trust in 1951.
Along with some 51 hill farms and numerous other houses, Pentop was maintained as part of the Ysbyty Estate by the National Trust until the cottage was sold into private hands in 1991.
The remainder of the Ysbyty Estate is still managed by the National Trust as part of its largest single estate covering some 8,000 hectares. The estate covers the main parts of three river valleys: the upper Conwy, the Eidda and parts of the Machno. It has very diverse landscape and habitats including the Migneint, a large stretch of moorland and blanket bog on the south of the estate designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on account of its plant communities and its bird life.