From merchanting to gardening: the Williams dynasty of Caerhays

The history of the Williams family of Caerhays in mid-Cornwall and Scorrier, Burncoose and Tregullow near Redruth is the story of Cornwall writ small. Emerging from obscurity in the later 1600s in the country between Redruth and Penryn, the family became Cornwall’s most successful mine managers and investors during the 1700s. It was John Williams (1685-1761) who settled at Burncoose, a few miles south of Redruth, around 1715. From that base ‘with untiring industry and judgment … he realised no inconsiderable fortune’, managing many of the booming copper mines of the Gwennap district and being the initiator of the ‘County Adit’, the great drainage system of the district, commenced in the 1740s.

John’s managerial talents were shared by his grandson, another John (1753-1841), who was known as ‘Old John’ to differentiate him from his eldest son, who was of course called John. Old John and his son expanded into banking. They were accepted, after some hesitation, into the circles of Cornwall’s traditional landed class who had founded Cornwall’s first banks in the late 1700s. ‘In the year 1778, with the view to being in the immediate vicinity of the several important mines he was then superintending, he enclosed and planted Scorrier, and erected the house in which he subsequently resided’. As many as a quarter of Cornwall’s copper mines, including the majority of its most productive ones, were managed at some point by one or other of the Williamses.

In 1822 the partnership of Williams, Foster and Company was set up as the family moved into copper smelting in south Wales. By this time their commercial interests stretched to London and Liverpool and overseas to Ireland. The move into smelting proved a lucrative one. Old John’s grandson was John Michael Williams (1813-80), who succeeded to the majority of the sprawling family enterprise in 1858 on the death of his father. John Michael was described towards the end of the 1800s as having been ‘probably the most wealthy man in Cornwall’.

The source of wealth: the central mining district looking east from Dolcoath at the end of the 1800s

In 1854 the Williamses had bought Caerhays ‘Castle’ near St Austell and made the transition away from the original source of their wealth. In the meantime, in the 1830s, Old John had already left Scorrier for an estate he owned at Calstock in east Cornwall. This followed his secret marriage, at the age of 79, to a young woman of 25, following the death of his wife of 56 years. The ensuing scandal and family squabble led to his hurried retirement. Caerhays had been redesigned in 1805-07 but the building work had dragged on for decades and eventually bankrupted the owners, the Trevanions. They sold out to Michael Williams. Old lineage had been ousted by new money, which soon displayed its power over the landscape by cutting down an inconvenient hill in order to provide an uninterrupted sea view from their new property.

It was John Charles Williams (1861-1939) in the next generation who made the final move from mining to gardening. He funded the cost of plant-hunting forays into central Asia and built up a huge collection of rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias. These now make Caerhays an unmissable tourist attraction in spring. From mining and entrepreneurship to garden tourism and holiday homes – Cornwall’s history in miniature.

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