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Plas Gunter Mansion: Catholic history in Wales

By February 16, 2024February 26th, 2024No Comments
Plas Gunter Mansion as seen from Cross Street in Abergavenny, with modern shop fronts taking up the ground floor, and the later extension of the building jutting out from right of the main part of the building.

Back in December, Izabella, our heritage trainee for Wales visited Plas Gunter Mansion in Abergavenny to learn about the building and the restoration project that Plas Gunter Mansion Trust have planned.

Plas Gunter Mansion Trust is a charitable company, set up in 2011 as the Welsh Georgian Trust with the aim or preserving the historical, architectural and constructional heritage of Wales and the Welsh Marches, particularly focusing on Georgian and pre-Georgian buildings. Since the trust took over the care of Plas Gunter Mansion that has become their sole project and to reflect that they changed their name to Plas Gunter Mansion Trust in 2020.   

The Building

Plas Gunter Mansion was built on priory land sold off after the dissolution of the monasteries. In 1546 James Gunter bought a large swathe of land, which was later inherited by his son Robert, who further split the land between his sons. His son Thomas built Plas Gunter Mansion on the piece that he inherited. The mansion is thought to have been built between 1600 and 1634 due to a survey which was conducted to determine the age of the mansions timbers; it would have been built as a traditional Welsh cross passage house with a smaller entrance on the street side of the building and a more grand arched entrance facing towards the church, and would have originally been detached, with windows at either end which have since been blocked up.   

A wall painting of the Adoration of the Magi which was found in the attic chapel in 1907 and taken to Abergavenny Museum where it can still be seen.

The house was extended sometime after 1650, though it is thought to have been post 1660, after the restoration of the monarchy as the family were catholic and unlikely to have been making large displays of wealth when Oliver Cromwell was in power. This extension would have been undertaken by Thomas Gunter II, as his father died just a few years before the restoration in 1657. This newer part of the house contains a catholic chapel in the attic, where Catholics worshipped when it was illegal and dangerous to do so. It is the only known recusant chapel that exists in Wales and one of the best surviving examples in Britain. One of the priests who led the secret services was denounced to Parliament by priest-hunter, John Arnold of Llanfihangel Court, near Abergavenny. Father – later Saint – David Lewis was arrested, hung, drawn and quartered at Usk on 27 August 1679. He was Wales’ last Catholic martyr. 

The building also has a strong connection to the food and drink industry: in the late 1600s, Richard Gunter ran a successful brewery from the building and in the mid-1700s, Ann Gunter left Abergavenny for London and married Italian confectioner, Domenico Negri. They set up The Pot & Pineapple in Berkeley Square in 1757 which was eventually taken over by her nephew, James Gunter, becoming Gunter’s Teashop – now seen in the Netflix show, Bridgerton. The house has since belonged to many people and been used for several purposes including as a public house, with each owner adding to or changing parts of the building, giving it many layers of history The volunteers for Plas Gunter Mansion Trust have recently peeled back one of these layers, uncovering a Victorian tiled floor in the foyer area of the building 

Nowadays the building is in a great deal of disrepair, with the upper floors of the house not safe to enter, there are rot and pest issues, floorboards that are damaged, and an original 17th century ornate plaster ceiling on the first floor is cracking and sagging.

In 2018 an archaeological and architectural survey was conducted which confirmed the importance of the building; in 2021 some major works were conducted to ensure that the roof is watertight, and a chimney was replaced, and then in 2022 there was a survey of the buildings timbers, which helped to date the main part of the building, though the timbers in the parts added later were too damaged to accurately date.  

The Project  

The ornate plaster ceiling in the first floor parlour – full of catholic symbolism.

The whole development of Plas Gunter Mansion will be a large undertaking and extensive restoration project, and the trust applied to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for a development grant, which since the visit to Plas Gunter Mansion, they have been awarded. The initial part of this work on the building will be the development stage of the project, which will span over a period of around 18 months.   

The development stage will include appointing architects, a design team and a conservation management team. This stage will also include a detailed exploration into the state of the building and a plan for how to proceed in restoring and managing the building, both structurally and in terms of cosmetic work needed.   

As part of the development stage of the Plas Gunter Mansion project there will be a planning process and the trust will aim to be at RIBA stage 7 be the end of this phase. The development stage will be an opportunity to assess which parts of the building should be displayed, which need to be restored and what needs to be updated.   

The Plas Gunter Mansion Trust want to make sure that the different eras of the building and its various previous iterations can be shown in the best way. This means that the building will not just be restored to how it was originally built but will aim to showcase the key developments and changes that were made to the building over time, to give a fuller history of Plas Gunter Mansion from when it was built to present. The trust wants to create a feeling that visitors to Plas Gunter Mansion are peeling back the layers of the building, to see all the different parts of its history, and learn how the different eras and owners influenced the changes made to the building. To ensure that this is done to the best standard it can be, and to make it accessible to the public, an interpretation plan will be created so that the most can be made of the building’s history, and so that the local community can benefit from a heritage resource that contributes to the assets of the town.   


The Future   

If the development stage is successful then Plas Gunter Mansion will be able to progress onto a delivery phase, where they will be able to implement many of the plans from the development phase. This part of the project will for the most part consist of completing the various works to the building that will be planned and arranged during the development stage. Once works are mostly completed the trust will need to hire an activities manager who will ensure that the building is ready for the public and organise the different events and activities that Plas Gunter Mansion will be host to.  

This activities manager will be a varied role that includes managing the activities, interpretation and day-to-day running of the building. The activities manger will have significant creative say over how the building is managed and will work with the trust and local community, as well as adhering to the plans created in the development stage to make sure that the building fulfils its potential. Plas Gunter Mansion Trust have previously worked with local schools to be an educational platform for schoolchildren about their local history and heritage and are planning to start working with the local secondary school again this year. They also have connections with the local Catholic church and hope to continue this partnership and highlight the religious history of the building, especially since the recusant chapel is so historically significant.  

How the first-floor parlour could look as part of the Plas Gunter Mansion exhibition, with different layers of the building’s history on display.

Some advice from Plas Gunter Mansion Trust  

The Plas Gunter Mansion project, as with many other heritage projects has taken much time, energy and resources to organise and plan. Here are some tips and lessons learned that the Plas Gunter Mansion team have imparted as advice for those looking to undertake heritage projects and funding: 

  • Everything will take longer than you think it will. Working with volunteers, trustees and other organisations means that you are not only relying on other people to complete tasks, but also that it is outside of their normal activities and so might take even longer. Budget extra time to get things done and make sure to be patient as people are volunteering their time.   
  • Make sure to make connections and partnerships where you can. Building partnerships with other organisations and funders is important for making sure you can achieve your goals, but embedding your organisation in your community and building relationships with those around you is equally important to making your work sustainable.   
  • Be thorough in your planning. When initially thinking of putting in an application for their funding Plas Gunter Mansion Trust contracted an independent fundraising consultant to make sure that they had all that they needed. This consultant encouraged them to plan further and in more detail than they had done so that not only would they have a better understanding of the scope and detail of the project, but funders could be more confident in the structure of the project. It’s worth taking the extra time initially to make sure that you’re prepared as it will set you up for future success.   

Thanks to Deborah Holland.  

Find out more about Plas Gunter Mansion and the restoration project on their website:  

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