Mary Oldham, researcher, and Librarian at Gregynog, cast light upon the private lives of Margaret and Gwendoline Davies, in her fascinating talk on 15th March, in the Girls’ Parlour. Much of Mary’s knowledge comes from her own long association with Gregynog and the research she has undertaken, but she also gave credit to the biographical work of Baroness White (The Ladies of Gregynog) and Trevor Fishlock’s ‘ A Gift of Sunlight’, and ‘Things of Beauty: What two sisters did for Wales’ by Oliver Fairclough. All of these titles are in the stock of Powys Library Service. Eirene White was the daughter of Thomas Jones, an active political reformer who was a mentor and close friend of the sisters, and ‘T.J.’s’ huge collection of papers, which were given to the National Library of Wales, includes Gwendoline’s many letters to T.J. Thomas Jones’s ‘A diary with letters 1931-1950′ provides further insights into the sisters’ lives.
Gwendoline, Margaret and their brother David were the three children of Edward Davies, son of David Davies, ‘Top Sawyer’, and Edward’s first marriage to his first cousin, Mary Jones of Trewythen. Their early years at Plas Dinam could be seen as ‘all ponies and picnics’, with all the benefits of privilege. However, their mother Mary died in 1888 while the children were quite young, and Mary’s sister Elizabeth stepped in as surrogate mother. Within a few years she became their stepmother. She took her role very seriously, and despite their love for her, the sisters often felt oppressed and controlled by her. The Calvinistic Methodist chapel also played a strong part in their lives. Dancing ‘was frowned upon’ but music, art, riding and tennis were acceptable, and these interests, particularly music and art, became key interests and skills throughout their lives. Daisy loved drawing and painting, and Gwen became a talented violinist, and loved the freedom that horse riding gave her.
Tragedy struck again, in 1898, when Edward died from the stress of managing his father David’s vast business interests, which he had inherited in 1890. The fortune bequeathed to the children would bring great responsibility to them when they had full access to the funds when they reached the age of 25. Unusually for the time, the funds were to be divided equally among the three children. While their brother David had attended public school and then Cambridge University, the sisters were in the excellent care of their governess, Jane Blaker. Jane was a strong and imposing figure, but she ensured that the sisters experienced the cultural life of London, where they also had a home, attended a ‘finishing school’, and made lifelong friendships. They were also able to travel to the galleries and great sights of Europe in the household’s Daimler, with family and friends. The love of art and interest in collecting art was clear from this time, and Jane Blaker’s brother Hugh guided and encouraged them.
While enjoying an expanding social circle, the sisters were protected by their stepmother from potential suitors, as she was convinced that they would be interested only in their great wealth. There might have been possible matches among the cousins, with whom both sisters formed close relationships, but it was not to be. They focussed their attention onto philanthropic projects and support for the arts in Wales, playing their part in the formation of the National Museum of Wales and the National Library of Wales. Their plans to help to improve the standards of art and art teaching in Wales included the support for Belgian refugees who escaped the German invasion of their country at the beginning of WW1, which we heard about from Dr Rhian Davies in November.
WW1 took its toll on the family, with Gwen and Daisy’s brother David at the front in France, and both cousins, Edward and Ivor Lloyd Jones, killed in action. The sisters had their own wartime experiences, running a canteen behind front lines. This brought to them the grim realities of war and enormous pressure, but also allowed them freedom away from the restrictions of family life at home. Back in Wales, Gregynog had been acquired by David as part of his purchase of the Joicey estate, and the sisters bought it from him in 1920 with the idea of transforming it into a cultural and craft centre. The Gregynog Press was launched there, a music room created, an organ installed and musical events held. While the sisters had never planned to make Gregynog their home, when their brother David remarried after the death of his first wife, Gwen and Daisy moved out. They did not wish to go to Broneirion back to their stepmother and their former governess, so they chose to move to Gregynog, and this began a new phase in their lives, with Gregynog at its centre. While the focus was very much on the development of the cultural centre at Gregynog and the restoration of the grounds, the sisters still enjoyed travel and spending time at their London home. Neither had good health and Gwen eventually had to give up playing the violin due to a form of leukaemia which affected her fingers and Daisy continued to suffer from a bronchial condition throughout her life.
Through the late 1920s and the 1930s the programme of conferences and musical and cultural activities flourished at Gregynog. Sir Henry Walford Davies and Adrian Boult were key to the launching of the Festivals of Music and Poetry. During WW2 these activities ceased, and Gregynog became a Red Cross convalescent home and respite centre. In 1939 David’s son Mike married Eldrydd, and their son David was born in 1940, on whom the aunts doted. But there was personal tragedy too, with the death of their stepmother Elizabeth in 1942, and their brother David in 1944. Their nephew Mike also died in 1944, of wounds received while in action in Holland.
After the war ended Gwen’s health worsened, and despite treatment at Oxford Infirmary, she died there in 1951. Daisy continued to live at Gregynog, returning to painting and drawing, and trying to recreate the conference and festival programmes of happier times. In 1960, at the age of 76, she made the difficult decision to bequeath the estate to the University of Wales as an inter-collegiate conference centre. She stayed on as a tenant until her death in 1963.
Mary ended her talk by saying that she wished she had known both sisters – and I think the audience felt the same after such an absorbing story.