The Williams Family of Abercamlais
The early part of this history is based on family tradition handed down over generations, much of it based on Theophilus Jones’ History of Brecknock. When Bernard de Neufmarché came over from Normandy in the train of William the Conqueror, after 1066, to become Lord of Brecon, he brought with him a certain knight, Sir Thomas de Boulogne. The area of land allotted to Sir Thomas as a reward for his services was that of ‘Talgarth and Wernfawr’ and much of the upper Usk valley.
In due course Sir Thomas married and had children. Most of these sons and daughters lived and grew up and, as is the case in many families, some members moved away and settled elsewhere. For the sons and grandsons who stayed on in Wales, the usual custom was followed of affixing ‘ap’ to the Christian name of a child before the father’s name, so ‘de Boulogne’ was entirely lost, and the family names were a succession of Lawrence ap Williams, John ap Lawrence, and so on. Henry VIII’s order that permanent surnames in Wales should be made from the name following the Christian name was given at the moment when the last name was William, and so the surname Williams came into the family.
In the 1400s a branch of the Bullen family appeared in Norfolk from which Thomas Bullen, Earl of Ormonde & Wiltshire, was descended (Bullen was the anglicised version of de Boulogne and the Bullen crest of three bulls is used by the family to this day). Thomas Bullen became Henry VIII’s Ambassador in France in 1527. As the name Bullen was considered ugly by the French, it was decided that the French equivalent ‘Boleyn’ would be a preferable alternative. Thomas’ second daughter, Anne, was briefly married to Henry VIII, during which time their daughter was born who was to become Queen Elizabeth I.
Also in the 16th Century there was a Breconshire descendant of Sir Thomas de Boulogne, one Thomas Williams, who was Vicar of Llanspyddid. This Thomas was known as “Vicar Gwyn”, (gwyn meaning “white” in welsh), being the first vicar in the area to wear a white surplice. He inherited the then medieval house at Abercamlais in 1580 or thereabouts and his descendants have lived there ever since. Some time before he died he discovered the Bullen connection (however distant) between himself and Queen Elizabeth. Vicar Gwyn was proud of this kinship and the relationship is written on his tombstone.
Of Vicar Gwyn’s grandsons, the eldest remained at Abercamlais while the second son moved downstream to a house which was eventually enlarged and altered and named Penpont. Because of intermarriages over several generations the families in the two houses are still related to this day. His third son (Richard) went a mile forther downstream to another house called Aberbran.
Ten descendants of Vicar Gwyn who lived at Abercamlais were in Holy Orders, with connections with churches far and wide, including the Cathedrals of St David’s, Llandaff and Brecon and also the local church of Betws Penpont which was originally a Chapel-at-ease for St David’s Church, Llanspyddid.
In the early 18th Century the owner of the house was another Thomas Williams, and it was he who altered the house, giving it the Georgian front which can be seen to this day. The only further alterations were done by the victorians. Gilbert Scott had re-built Penpont church for Prebendary Garnons Williams of Abercamlais, and also was responsible for the Porch on the front of the house.
In 1864 the Rev Prebendary Garnons Williams (christened Garnons as there was a fear that the family name was dying out) inherited Abercamlais and the estate from a young bachelor cousin at about the same time that his grandfather, the Archdeacon of Brecon died. Garnons and his wife Catherine Hort had 10 children and the sons collectively decided that they would take Garnons as part of their surname (for this reason it is not hyphenated).
In 1935 Captain Nevill Garnons Williams, a grandson of Prebendary Garnons Williams, inherited the house and estate from his father (who was also a vicar). After the War Nevill retired from the Royal Navy and returned home with his family.
Upon his death in 1983 the house passed to his daughter Susan Angela Garnons Ballance. She held the office of High Sheriff of Powys in 1994. Susan died in September 2016 and the house is now owned by her son Anthony and his wife Andrea.
‘If our ancestors came back today I hope they would approve of the inevitable changes. I hope that they would think that we try to do as much for the locality as they did themselves. But above all I hope that they would know that we who live and work in the area love it and appreciate it as much as they did in their times and above all that we do what we can to pass a better world on to our children…’
Susan Angela Garnons Ballance, 2009
Christmas at Abercamlais
“Now I must tell you about Christmas at Abercamlais. We used to go there every other year…We looked forward to this tremendously, and it was indeed an immense occasion… …the holly and its scarlet berries, the Crown of Thorns and the drops of blood, mingled with the spruce and yew of a much older faith. These ropes would be hung from the centre lamp in the Hall and looped upon the panelled wall of the dining room and up the stairs. And the feasting on Christmas night and the huge log fires, contrasted with the chilly morning walk to church, if fine along the river path, otherwise by main road, and the little Church the decoration of which we had assisted the day before… …there was tea, and the Christmas Cake in the Hall, and after that we all trooped up to the big ironing room above the laundry where the enormous Christmas tree had been set up… …All the household indoor and out gathered round the tree and the Carols began… The Christmas Dinner in the old panelled dining room was something to remember and must have been a pretty site. Candles with scarlet shades in sconces on the wall, which lighted up the swags of evergreens.”
Memoirs of Frances Mary Barbara Slater (nee garnons Williams), 1889 – 1968.
'Splendid Grade I mansion dating from 16th Century, altered extensively in early 18th Century with 19th Century additions, in extensive grounds beside the river Usk. Beautiful octagonal pigeon house, formerly a privy.' (2017)
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