The family has deep roots in the area, being connected to the Anwyliaid of Parc, though Ellis seems to have been used as the family name in later generations. Indeed, there is a family tree that goes all the way back to Gruffudd ap Cynnan, the king of Gwynedd (1055-1137). The origins of the Williams-Ellis family name can be traced to Jane Bulgin, who was the heiress of Miss Catherine Williams of Brondanw. It was a condition of her inheritance that she should marry her cousin the Rev. Thomas Ellis and that their descendants should bear the name Williams-Ellis. Her son John Williams-Ellis (Clough’s grandfather) was brought up at Brondanw in the 1830s, but Clough’s father, John Clough Williams-Ellis raised his own children at Glasfryn near Pwllheli, where some of their descendants reside to this day. Clough was the fourth of six sons, and his father gave him Plas Brondanw in 1904.
Clough married Amabel Strachey in 1915, and they brought up their three children at Plas Brondanw. However, both their surviving children were girls, so that none of Clough and Amabel’s descendants are named Williams-Ellis. However, some of them still do live in the area, and many are still very much involved in the running of the charitable foundations established in the wake of both Clough and Susan Williams-Ellis’s careers, and also with Portmeirion.
28 May 1883 – 9 April 1978
Clough Williams-Ellis was the visionary architect who created the Italianate village of Portmeirion on the North Wales coast. He explained: ‘I wanted to show that exploitation need not necessarily mean spoliation, that it was even possible to enhance the beauty of a site by building appropriately, to demonstrate in short that so far as seaside resorts were concerned, at any rate, good architectural manners were also good business.’ Many people are unaware of Clough’s underlying motivation; he was a passionate and vociferous campaigner for the environment, with a low opinion of thoughtless developers: ‘Truly it’s an ill bird that fouls its own nest, and not only ill but perverted if it rejoices in the fouling.’
Despite having grown up with four brothers, Clough remembers himself as a solitary child: ‘I liked doing things alone and being on my own and if my employments could be kept secret, so much the better.’ Disliking formal education, he dropped out of Trinity College, Cambridge, and persuaded the Architectural Association to take him on as a student. He did not stay for long, preferring instead to accept a paid-for commission, which, fortunately, marked the beginning of a successful career.
In 1908, at the age of 25, Clough was given Plas Brondanw by his father. The Plas, then, was divided into tenements, and occupied, except for the basement: ‘I instantly set about contriving a little flat from which I might gradually expand … The smell of the deal shavings and the fresh distemper as I scrambled round with a candle … smells soon to be gloriously blended with that of frying bacon on a brazier in the old brew-house, beautiful and unforgettable.’
In 1915, whilst on leave from service during WWI, Clough married the writer Amabel Strachey. Throughout the 1920s and 30s he ran his architectural business from London, where Amabel’s literary contacts were also based. Earning money was essential to support their growing family (three children between 1918 and 1923) and to finance Clough’s various ventures at Brondanw, where designing and landscaping the garden was his passion. The result of his endeavour is clear to see to this day.
But Clough had a bigger project-in-waiting: ‘I had resolved someday to plan and built my own conception of the ideal village on my own ideal site. Where I should ever find such a site or when found, how to acquire it, or how to finance its development when I had bought it, were considerations that in no way disturbed my dreams.’
In 1925 he saw a way to realise his architectural ambition. He purchased Aber Iâ from his Uncle (who owned Castell Deudraeth), renamed it Portmeirion, and started to build his Village. It took half a century to complete, and it is for this achievement that Clough is most often remembered. Despite this, he always considered Brondanw to be his home: ‘it was for Brondanw’s sake that I worked and stinted, for its sake that I chiefly hoped to prosper.’
Additional biographical information about Clough Williams-Ellis.
A short video about Portmeirion, with commentary by Clough:
Some old silent footage of Clough and others, shot at Portmeirion and Plas Brondanw, with a brief glimpse of Tan Lan at the end:
Italy in Wales (1962) a short promotional film by Pathé
10 May 1894 – 27 August 1984
Amabel was the daughter of John StLoe Strachey, owner and editor of the Spectator newspaper between 1887 and 1925, and Amy (nee Simpson).She was born in Guildford, Surrey.Her brother was John Strachey, Labour MP and cabinet minister in the government of Clement Atlee.Amabel and John were both staunch socialists and active members of the Independent Labour Party.Amabel edited the literature pages of the Spectator for a period, and she and John expected they would inherit the publication eventually, however their father decided to sell rather than allow his paper to become a mouthpiece for his left-wing radical children.Amabel was extremely politically active throughout her career, and worked on various political publications including Left Review, the Socialist Review, the Miner and Left News.
Clough Williams-Ellis and Amabel Strachey married in 1915, during the first world war, when Clough was serving as a Lieutenant in the Welsh Guards, and Amabel was working as a Voluntary Aid Detatchment nurse at her parent’s house, Newlands Corner, in Surrey, which had been requisitioned as a military hospital.
As well as her political work, Amabel wrote novels, books for children on science and history as well as notable collections of folk tales, which she collected in the field as well as compiling from other writers.She edited numerous collections of science fiction writing, and wrote a few short stories of her own in that genre as well.
Her first published book ‘An Anatomy of Poetry’ is still a classic nearly 100 years later. Her pamphlets warning of the dangers of Nazism are displayed in London’s Holocaust Museum. A recently published volume of “radical writing for children” recently included a lively passage by her, and her post-war feminist work The Art of being a Woman has had recent academic interest (see talk below, by Jayne Sharrat).
Clough and Amabel lived long and varied lives together in a partnership that lasted more than 60 years. They were both prolific authors and wrote several books together, including ‘The History of the Tank Corps’, and ‘The Pleasures of Architecture’.
Some, but not all of Amabel’s works are to be found in the library at Plas Brondanw, amongst her own collection of books, which includes books on a diverse range of subjects from politics to children’s literature and adult fiction.A list of the Plas Brondanw library is available on request.
For more information on Amabel’s political life and activism, see this talk by Dr Merfyn Jones:
Amabel Williams-Ellis - The Radical in the Plas. A talk by Dr Merfyn Jones - YouTube
A short talk by Jayne Sharrat about Amabel and ‘The Art of Being a Woman’
A review of ‘The Big Firm’ by Amabel Williams-Ellis
For more information about Newlands Corner, see this talk, by Trevor Brook:
A bibliography of Amabel’s science-fiction work is available here:
6 June 1918 - 27 November 2007
Susan Williams-Ellis was the eldest child of Clough and Amabel Williams-Ellis. She is best remembered as the creator and designer of Portmeirion Pottery, which she and her husband Euan Cooper-Willis (m.1945) started in 1960. They had four children, Anwyl (b.1946), Siân (b.1947), Menna (b.1957) and Robin (b.1958).
Susan Williams-Ellis (1918-2007) was the eldest child of Clough and Amabel Williams-Ellis. She is best remembered as the creator and designer of Portmeirion Pottery, which she and her husband Euan Cooper-Willis (m.1945) started in 1960. They had four children, Anwyl (b.1946), Siân (b.1947), Menna (b.1957) and Robin (b.1958).
As a child, Susan’s maternal grandmother ‘Gigi’ (pronounced Giggy) took her to museums and art galleries. In her old age, Susan revealed:
‘Looking at pictures is like a drug, it affects one so strongly that it becomes scarcely bearable and one has to stop before it becomes too much to cope with. Perhaps I shy away from it a little nowadays. Almost as if I was no longer strong enough to endure such overpowering feelings.’
Susan was also inspired by flora and fauna, particularly the sea, and marine life. In her early adulthood she devised a method of drawing underwater as she observed fish and other creatures, by using plastic architectural drafting film, a clip board, and a combination of Thespian grease paint and lead pencils. A late 1940s commission by Puffin Books to illustrate Richard Elmhirst’s Shore Life in Britain sadly fell through, but the resulting body of work – mainly in gouache, and lithographic prints – is amongst Susan’s best work. Later, from the 1960s, the success of Portmeirion Pottery enabled her to travel. Snorkelling in tropical waters became her passion. Susan produced hundreds of drawings of fish, identified with the help of her immense collection of reference books.
Susan and Euan’s acquisition of Portmeirion Pottery played to Susan’s strengths as a designer, and to her mechanical skills. She had an inherent grasp of how things worked, and was undaunted by the prospect of taking on a factory from an industry in decline. She had an instinct for opportunity. In a pamphlet she designed in c.1950 she wrote:
'Gifted creative artists have far too little to say in the shape of everyday things, yet it is they who should be employed to design the lovely household things which mass-production can then bring within reach of all.'
This statement encapsulates perfectly Susan’s attitude to her industry and her contribution to forming popular tastes in the twentieth century.
22 August 1919 - 30 December 2009
Charlotte was the youngest daughter of Clough and Amabel Williams-Ellis. She was always interested in natural things and became a scientist, completing a Master’s degree at Oxford University followed by a doctorate at the University of Cambridge during the war. Here she met and then married a New Zealand serviceman Lindsay Wallace who was also completing his doctorate there while on leave from the navy. In 1946 she travelled to New Zealand on a converted troop ship with other war brides, and then settled there for the rest of her life. Charlotte was an important conservationist and campaigner for peace in her adopted country, and was recognised in 1994 by the award of an Honorary doctorate from the University of Waikato.
The following is an edited extract from the citation:
Citation for Dr Charlotte Wallace, for the degree of Honorary Doctor of the University of Waikato, 1994 graduation
“She has raised awareness of successive generations of New Zealanders in matters of environmental importance, long before a body of public opinion existed as a sympathetic context". (See below for a list of the environmental organisations she was involved in).
She worked to establish the University of Waikato, and taught zoology, genetics and evolution in a wide range of courses in the Department of Biological Sciences, of which she was a founding member as well as an interdisciplinary course on the history of science. Her approach has been described as scholarly, lucid, stimulating and often very witty. Her strong interest in evolutionary processes (exemplified in her 1967 book, A Study in Evolution) gave her teaching a wide perspective.
When the School of Science was established, she returned to her research with great enthusiasm and began a remarkable and wide-ranging study of the genetics of freshwater snail Potamopyrgus antipodarum which has resulted in a number of papers in international journals.
she has been described as self-effacing and fundamentally shy with an abundance of common sense, a sense of humour and a ready wit, the sort of person who works quietly but energetically away, often while others get the credit.”
On top of all academic and institutional roles, Charlotte raised five children, all of whom were devoted to her.
She was also a longstanding and active member of:
15 January 1923 - 13 March 1944
Christopher or ‘Kitto’ as he was known within the family was a 2nd Lieutenant with the Welsh Foot Guards when he was killed on March 13, 1944 in Italy before the Battle of Monte Cassino in WW2. He was interred at the Minturno War Cemetery in Provincia di Latina, Lazio, Italy. Since there is nobody alive now who remembers him, it is difficult to compose a biography, and yet there is some fragmentary information to be gleaned from the family’s archive. Amabel says in her autobiography ‘All Stracheys are Cousins’
“But this often vivid second living is something that I completely refuse to do for the next event in my life. This was Christopher's death in action when the Second Front in Italy was launched. He died at a place called Monte Purgatorio. Nobody should ask me to relive this and, as I say, that is what writing about one's own past so often amounts to.
So let oblivion cover it for the reader, if never for the writer.”
Likewise Clough in his autobiography, ‘Architect Errant’ describes how news of Christopher’s death arrived hot on the heels of his sister Charlotte’s wedding:
“The armistice was thus a time of both pleasure and of almost unbearable pain. We soon had grandchildren to add to the pleasure. We decided that since we, Christopher’s parents were alive, we should try to be so properly, and to keep the wound to ourselves.”
They were not ones to air their grief in public, but it is widely known within the family how deeply the loss of Christopher affected Clough, Amabel and their daughters, like so many other families bereaved by war.
Aside from these recollections of his death, not much survives to indicate what kind of person Christopher was or how his interests would have developed had he lived. This is probably due in large part to the fire of 1951 that destroyed the contents of Plas Brondanw.
However, a few letters from Kitto do survive in the archive, some written from Dartington school, which he attended along with his sisters for a time. These are mostly about practical matters such as items forgotten when packing or unexpected baggage charges on the train journey, requests for money to buy shirts and thanks for items sent. However, there are two slightly longer letters written around the time he was visiting and working on Skokholm, an Island bird reserve in Pembrokeshire. He talks about birds, books, cars, and the people around him, and appears to be developing an interest in the biological sciences. Here is a quote from one of them:
“Spent all the afternoon Botanizing with Lack who knows nothing (even less than me) and Tom Turin, a friend of his from Plymouth, who knows pretty much everything. We went round collecting things in the woods & fields & there wasn’t a single thing we found that he didn’t know, usually the English & Latin names…”
(Lack here was the ornithologist David Lack, who Susan later worked with on an exhibition for the Festival of Britain.) The tone of these letters is conversational, informal and breezy. An earlier letter from a younger, less confident Christopher complains of being bored at school and wishing he could come home.
There is also an intriguing letter dated Aug 10, 39 from Clough, which reads as follows:
“My Dear Kitto
I don’t suppose that this will actually ever get to you – but as our cable to your New York place has been returned marked “Left for Mexico City leaving no address” there seems no other possibility of communicating with you save – doubtfully – through the British Consul. If you don’t know your actual address it is generally wise to use “Poste Restante”. Anyway all this because you twice in your letter talk of getting back here on Nov 11th – whereas of course your Cambridge Term starts on Oct 8th & if you don’t show up, you will presumably lose your place. I daresay it was as it were a mis-print but as it is so important there should be no mistake – we decided it was worth a cable. Expect you know really, only it gave us a fright!
Very glad of another fine long letter and the grand stuff arrived about the fair which I am really glad to have. No more now as I don’t expect this will really reach you! Blessings. CWE”
We don’t know if this message ever reached Christopher, but we know that he did turn up in time to attend King’s College, Cambridge. That is where he met Euan Cooper-Willis, with whom he shared a room, and who became a friend, and later on married Christopher’s sister Susan. Christopher studied Moral Science, and his obituary, published in the 1945 King’s College annual report is quoted here:
“He was the youngest member of his year, and he was always young in spirit, but he showed high promise, and made a deep impression by his sincere, unselfish interest both in social and international affairs. Also he made good friends. After passing his Tripos well, at the end of his second year, with a 1st Division of the 2nd Class, he joined the Welsh Guards, and was serving in Italy as a Lieutenant when, on the night of March 16-17, 1944, he was wounded and taken prisoner wile leading a patrol. He must have died soon after of his wounds, for his grave was found a year later, close to the place of his capture. He was 22 years old when he died.”
Also in the bundle of letters referred to above is a loose line drawing with the name ‘Kitto’ scrawled underneath. We believe this to be a picture of Christopher, but the artist is unknown.
Susan Charlotte & Kitto