The Butes: A Family & Dynasty

NOTE: most of these miscellaneous notes and illustrations rely on John Davies, Cardiff And The Marquesses Of Bute (University of Wales Press, Cardiff 1981).


Here is one example of South Wales' royalty in the making: their pedigree is that of an "A-list" family, based on judicious inter-marriage, inheritance and purchase. They were "connected"! They were "old money" of aristocratic wealth and breeding, set against the new arrivals of a messy industrial age (such as John Guest of Dowlais and David Davies of Llandinam)!

Their ancestry was stellar: from the Herberts (Pembroke) of the 16/17th centuries, through the Windsors (not royal then!) to the Mountstuart Scottish connections in the 18th.

Their formula was not new: it was a circular proposition, viz.


The TWO main players (for the purposes of these notes) were, in succession:

(1) JOHN, 2nd Marquess (1794-1848)

"John, the elder son of the Stuart-Crichton marriage, is the central figure of the Bute estate in the nineteenth century and it is his activities which give the family’s history its special significance." (Davies) At his death The Times barely recognised his passing; "He was just at the height of his glory," entered Lady Charlotte Guest in her diary, however! He presided over the consolidation of the Bute’s South Wales estates and their mineral rights; recognised Cardiff as their family base (of sorts), embraced a medley of a liberal Conservatism at times; married well (twice). After 1820 he devoted himself to estate administration and improvement (Davies). He barely tolerated ironmaster Josiah John Guest whose lease of ironworks he held at Dowlais and the renewal of such during 1847-48 took Guest and Dowlais to the brink of closure and both men to their ultimate deaths: 1848 and 1852 respectively!

(2) JOHN, 3rd Marquess (1847-1900)

The best known of the Butes as far as South Wales and London circles were concerned, he was the more eccentric of the family members; yet at his death local newspapers cited: "Death of the Son of the Creator of Cardiff." He followed his father’s legacy in making Cardiff the Welsh capital: the capital of coal, wealth, docks; he had designs of grandeur (literally!) re Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch; enthused about medieval history and embraced an Arthurian style of life; and converted to Roman Catholicism in December 1868. He remained a Conservative but not a political animal as such!

In his years the Butes open up the Rhondda Valleys and exploited coal there; made Cardiff the export facility for millions of tonnage of such coal. In essence he set up the place to become the de facto capital of Wales by the start of The Great War; presided over agricultural lands and urban developments; and make a few cool £millions in the process.


The Butes are still listed within The Sunday Times’ Richest Thousand in the UK today! Johnny Dumfries, former racing driver, is the best known of the Scottish-based clan, presiding over corporate/sporting/charity events from his Scottish estate on the Isle of Bute. At the time of writing (2015) he is about to be joined on the Isle by a dozen Syrian refugees.


(1) The Cardiff Castle Estate

Some 11,000 acres of enclosed land, acquired through marriage in 1766, together with a vast area of common land within the manors of east and mid Glamorgan county. By the 1760s a large proportion of the estates had been disposed of and a legacy of confused administration, with no one in effective charge, meant that by the early 19th century, for example, the lease to the Dowlais Company for 99 years at £23 p.a."was the crowning folly of the eighteenth century owners of the Cardiff Castle estate, but their foolishness was compounded by the absence of any attempt to supervise the activities of the company." (Davies)

The Butes did make strategic acquisitions in up and coming Cardiff under the first and second marquesses. In 1814, the 2nd marquess's surveyor wrote: "I never saw an estate in a more neglected condition.". The Butes never stopped trying to exploit their possessions, offering mineral leases, organising experimental borings, mapping out plans for new urban expansion; thus, elaborate schemes to harness the water power of the River Taff, establishing markets and building railways were mooted, but few, with the exception of Cardiff Docks, came to fruition. The Butes' successes in their land holdings into the mid 19th century were as much owed to a Cardiff-born Bute estates administrator: Edward Priest Richards. The 2nd Marquess's principal acquisition was the 500 acres of the Cathays estate, making him the chief landowner in north Cardiff. At his death, however, there were debts of a half million pounds. "My feeling is that the entire fabric of our affairs has been shivered to its foundation by Lord Bute’s death!" wrote Lady Bute in 1848.

Under the 3rd marquess, mineral agent W. T. Lewis (subsequently, Lord Merthyr) came to the fore as chief estate administrator and docks manager. The Cardiff Castle estate by 1900 was some 22,000 acres, a portfolio of one of the richest in the UK! During and after The Great War, the Butes divested themselves of their principal colliery holdings; GWR took over the Bute docks in 1922 and in 1947 Cardiff Castle was gifted to Cardiff Corporation.

(2) The Butes and Glamorgan

Centred on Cardiff, here was the power base for the Bute's prominence in the rise of industrial South Wales, at least over the later steel and coal phases! The early family had nurtured Cardiff and the county. "Weep, sons of Cambria", wrote T. E. Clarke on the death of the 2nd marquess, "weep at the loss of such a benefactor and may the lasting monuments of his genius and beneficence, his boundless generosity, high character and philanthropic mind excite a nation’s feeling of admiration and regret.". Despite the castle being not quite what it seemed – an inelegant, dour set of furnished rooms – the 2nd marquess bestowed patronage to the local poor, held the livings of several strategic and lucrative Anglican church livings, supported education, considered himself a Conservative in local and national politics, (as Lord Lieutenant of Glamorgan) and railed against the Merthyr Rising and Chartism of the 1830s-40s and strategically inaugurated the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian newspaper as a Bute mouthpiece in 1832 after the troubles at Merthyr Tydfil.

The 3rd marquess followed suit but after 1859 and the death of Lady Bute, the castle ceased to be a regular residence. The Bute’s political powers in Cardiff were being challenged by the rising middle classes (enfranchised) yet the family continued a prominent role in local affairs; this particular Bute inaugurated the Western Mail in 1869 as another mouthpiece for his views, the first daily newspaper in Wales. And of course this Bute also invested in castles and other works on a lavish scale 1868-1881 through the architect, William Burgess.

John Davies, historian of the Butes in South Wales, sums up: in the course of the 19th century there was a reversal of roles between the Bute estate and the corporation of Cardiff. "The first and second marquesses had coveted the property of the corporation; the property of the third marquess was coveted by the corporation."


The Butes were no real farmers despite their rural holdings across several countries – Scotland, England and Wales! Their land holdings in South Wales changed from agricultural to industrial yields over the course of the 19th century; by the early 20th century, when mineral royalties were producing over £120,000 p.a., income from agriculture was a mere fraction of that figure.

Theirs was never, apart from some exceptional lands in the Vale, productive crop yielding acres, especially on the upper slopes of the typical South Wales valleys. Yet the Butes were at pains to look after, for example, their estates around Rhigos – the collection of farms and collieries there. The Butes in common with most landowners of their time were rentiers rather than entrepreneurs, relying on tenants and managers to produce a living; the Butes were never hands-on, active rural aristocracy here. Yet as landlords they remained one of the least harsh, in a period of increasing rents and costs by 1900!


Here was their main claim to wealth, the rapidly growing town fast taking on the proportions of a: Cardiff. They also had a large hand in the lay-out of Treorci and Treherbert in the upper Rhondda, Aberdare and that uncluttered area which still abounds present day Caerphilly Castle. As far as urban planning went in the 19th century, the Butes and landlords were as able and as unsuccessful as anyone in getting their way: Butetown at Rhymney being a singular exception.

The Butes favoured shorter leases, less than 50 years (being reminded of the protracted squabble over the Dowlais Lease until 1848!) By end of the 19th century the Butes were incurring strenuous opposition from Cardiff elders as to their policy of favouring works, factories and docks and refusing to sell building land, which was hampering Cardiff's growth as an industrial centre.


Here was Butes inherited wealth: by 1919, stated the 4th Marquess, the family had spent £220,000 on purchasing mineral land in South Wales, 1814-1919, many of which were highly profitable. From 1841 the family had entered the coal trade, albeit on a small scale: at the Rhigos, the Cynon Valley and thence into the Rhonddas (Ystradyfodwg), purchasing Cwmsaerbren, a 600 acres farm in the late 1840s, opening a colliery there in 1850. Bute agents W. S. Clark and then W. T. Lewis presided over the expansion and the exploitation of the mineral holdings after 1850: the age of "King Coal" was being announced. The family remained busy granting leases; royalties ranged from one shilling per ton of coal to six or eight pence, depending on the accessibility and quality of the coal and were imposed on small coals as well as lump coal.

Income was also derived from iron ores, fireclay, surface clay, sand, limestone and building stone, usually paid in the lower range from two pence to nine pence. Then there were wayleave payments, charges for transporting across the lessor’s lands, above or below ground. The abundance of railway lines serving South Wales almost guaranteed disputes would follow. There was also the charge of a dead or sleeping rent. The Butes insisted that all their coals went out through their Cardiff Docks, reasons for further disputes. "During the nineteenth century the Bute property in Glamorgan was transformed from a large, but impoverished agricultural estate into a great industrial concern." (Davies)

Dock building followed mineral exploitation: the 2nd Marquess first turned to dock construction in the 1820s and the West Bute Dock was finally completed in 1839, almost bankrupting him. Expansion after the 1850s in steel making and coal mining throughout South Wales necessitated further works: the East Bute Dock in 1855, the Roath Basin 1874, the Roath Dock 1887 and the Queen Alexandra Dock 1907. Cardiff was never quite as dependent on coal as were Penarth or Barry, yet coal exports were the main trade (78% of all trade by 1910). The Butes had sunk £millions into such ventures, swallowing up vast amounts of the income from their mineral royalties. By the 20th century the docks were almost an embarrassment to the Butes, to be off-loaded as soon as practicable.