Wednesday, 31 August 2016
A Sidney Sussex don and father
of the architect of Portmeirion
I was writing last month about Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis (1883-1978), the English-born architect from a Welsh family who is best remembered as the designer of Portmeirion.
I am staying this week in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, during the annual Summer School organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and I was interested to learn that the architect’s father, the Revd John Clough Williams-Ellis (1833-1913), was a leading don at Sidney Sussex.
John Clough Williams-Ellis was a don at Sidney Sussex College in the Victorian era before returning to Wales, and was descended from a long line of Welsh Anglican priests.
The Williams family can be traced back to Thomas Ellis Anwyl, of Porthdinllaen, Edern, Caernarfonshire, who died in 1703. Later, the Ven John Ellis (1721-1785), Rector of Bangor, Chancellor of Bangor Cathedral and Archdeacon of Merioneth. His son, Canon Thomas Ellis MA (died 1833), was Rector of Llanfachreth, Anglesey, and the Treasurer of Bangor Cathedral.
The architect’s grandfather, the Revd John Williams-Ellis, adopted the additional name of Williams when he inherited the Brondanw estates. He was born 21 January 1808, and educated at the Friars’ Grammar School, Bangor, and Saint John’s College, Cambridge (BA, 1830). Later, he was the Rector of Llanaelhaiarn and the Rector of Beddgelert. On 21 February 1831, he married Harriet Ellen, only child of James Henry Clough, of Plas Clough, Denbighshire, and they had two sons and a daughter.
His eldest son, Thomas Parr Clough (1832-1897), succeeded to the Plas Clough estate in 1878 and assumed by royal licence the name of Clough in accordance with the will of his grandfather.
His second son, the architect’s father, the Revd John Clough Williams-Ellis (1833-1913), succeeded to the Glasfryn and Brondanw estates. He was born in Plas Clough, Denbighshire, Wales, on 11 March 1833. He was brought up in Brondanw, Llanfrothen, and later, when his father became the Rector of Llanaelhaearn, in Glasfryn, Llangybi. He was educated in Rossall School and came to Cambridge in 1852 when was admitted a pensioner at Sidney Sussex on 28 April 1852 and matriculated at Michaelmas 1852.
Although he was proficient in Welsh, he seems to have written only in English. He won prizes for poetry in Cambridge, and while he was proficient in Welsh and assumed the pen-name, ‘Shon Pentyrch.’
He was also a good oarsman and swimmer. In 1855, he received the Royal Humane Society’s Silver Medal for rescuing a friend from drowning in the River Cam.
Williams-Ellis graduated BA (3rd Wrangler) in 1856. The Wranglers are those students at Cambridge who gain first-class degrees in mathematics. The Cambridge undergraduate mathematics course, or Mathematical Tripos, is famously difficult. The Senior Wrangler is the top mathematics undergraduate at Cambridge, a position that has been described as ‘the greatest intellectual achievement attainable in Britain.’
Following his graduation 160 years ago, Williams-Ellis was elected a fellow of Sidney Sussex College in 1856. Two years later, he was ordained deacon by Thomas Turton, Bishop of Ely and former Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge, in 1858. He proceeded MA in 1859, and was ordained priest by Bishop Turton that year.
He was admitted MA at Oxford (ad eundem) on 7 June 1860, when he was described as ‘Of Glasfryn, Co Carnarvon, and of Brondanw, Co Merioneth.’
He remained a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College for over 20 years from 1856 to 1877, and was also a Tutor from 1859 to 1876. He was Senior Moderator of the University of Cambridge in 1866-1867.
Williams-Ellis may have been the first Welshman to climb one of the highest mountains in the Alps. He was familiar with the mountains of Snowdonia and in 1857 he went on a tour in the Alps with the Revd JF Hardy, also a don at Sidney Sussex College.
On 13 August 1857, accompanied by JF Hardy, William and St John Mathews, ES Kennedy (1817–1898), and five guides, he climbed the Finsteraarhorn (4,274 metres), the highest peak in Bern Oberland. The mountain had been scaled earlier, possibly in 1812, but this was the first British climb and the venture inspired William Mathews and Kennedy to establish an Alpine Club.
However, Williams-Ellis did not join the Alpine Club and there is no mention of him visiting the Alps again, although his family still has his alpenstock.
Meanwhile, the reforms to the university in the 1850s would change Sidney’s intellectual course forever. From the largely theological and mathematical college of the first two centuries or so, it became a power-house in the rapidly expanding medical, natural, physical and chemical sciences, and this direction was much inspired by John Clough Williams-Ellis.
John Wale Hicks, later Bishop of Bloemfontein, was typical of the time, publishing books on both doctrine and inorganic chemistry. The laboratories that stood along the Sidney Street wall beyond ‘A’ staircase, were among the first in Cambridge. Later, they were the site of a string of important experiments by the world famous metallurgist FH Neville and others such as EH Griffiths until they fell into disuse by 1910.
Their fame led Dorothy L Sayers to propose Sidney Sussex as the Cambridge college Sherlock Holmes attended in 1871-1873. Developing this theme, Professor Richard Chorley of Sidney Sussex College later allocated Holmes a room on the first floor of Staircase A, overlooking both Hall Court and Sidney Street.
As a brilliant mathematician and a successful tutor, Williams-Ellis contributed to enhancing the reputation of Sidney Sussex College. When the Cambridge chair in mechanics became vacant all the eminent scholars in the field supported him, but another person was elected as a result of the influence of the larger colleges.
While he was still a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Williams-Ellis became the Vicar of Madingley, Cambridgeshire, in 1865. His predecessor, Robert Mackray, who was Vicar from 1862 to 1865, was later the first Anglican Primate of Canada. As Vicar of Madingley, Williams-Ellis restored Saint Mary’s Church, and he planned the new vicarage, which allowed Madingley to have a resident vicar.
In 1876, he became the Rector of Gayton, Northamptonshire. Within a year, he married Ellen Mabel Greaves on 2 January 1877, and resigned his fellowship at Sidney Sussex. They had six sons, including Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, the architect (1883-1978), who was their fourth son.
Meanwhile, Williams-Ellis invested his earnings as a tutor in expanding his Glasfryn estate in North Wales, and he retired there in1889. A year later, he became a Justice of the Peace in 1890.
Williams-Ellis died on 27 May 1913 at the age of 80, and was buried in a glade near Glasfryn in North Wales. Had he remained a don at Sidney Sussex College and never returned to Wales, I wonder whether his son, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, would ever have dreamt of building Portmeririon.