Amy Dillwyn (1845-1935)

Born: Elizabeth Amy Dillwyn

Sector: Industrials

In the spring of 1905 a fifty-nine-year-old woman gazed up at the snowy Atlas mountains as she clambered onto a donkey and prepared to embark on a day-long trek to a zinc mine.  It was the final stage in a long journey that had started on the west coast of Wales and was now coming to its conclusion in Algeria. She hoped that she would find the raw materials she needed to keep her business competitive and her 300 employees in work.  
This woman was Amy Dillwyn.  Forty-two years earlier, in February 1863, she had set off on a very different journey. Dressed in a white crinoline, with feathers and fan, the seventeen-year old debutante had stepped into a carriage that would take her to St James’s Palace for her Royal presentation.  The teenage Amy was expecting her life to unfold along the traditional path of marriage, children and domestic duties; she was not planning to be a writer and she certainly had no ambition to become one of Britain’s first female industrialists.  What were the events that had changed its course?
Amy was born on 16th May 1845 near Swansea, the third of four children.  Her father, Lewis Dillwyn, was an industrialist and a director of the Great Western Railway. In 1855 he became the Liberal MP for Swansea, a seat he held until his death 37 years later.  

Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn by Sir Leslie Ward
chromolithograph, published in Vanity Fair 13 May 1882
NPG D44066 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Amy’s mother, Bessie de la Beche, had had an unconventional upbringing, accompanying her father on his geological expeditions.  Amy’s paternal grandfather was a wealthy industrialist, her uncle and aunt, John Dillwyn Llewelyn and his sister, Mary, were pioneering photographers while another aunt was an astronomer.  Amy was smart and lively and although taught at home by a governess, she was raised in an upper class household where both independent thought and social engagement were valued. 

When she was ten, the family moved into a large newly-built home, Hendrefoilan, to the west of Swansea and she continued along a well-trodden path to St James’s Palace. In October 1863, eight months after her debut and now aged 18, Amy became engaged to Llewellyn Thomas, whose family lived close to hers.  He was seven years older than her and sole heir to a coal-mining fortune.  Although Amy was ready to comply with her family’s expectations, her heart lay elsewhere: she was in love with her best friend, Olive Talbot.  The close friendship between their families meant that they were able to spend a lot of time together and they had much in common including a shared joy in music. However, Amy’s feelings were not reciprocated. 

Olive Talbot as a child; photograph taken in the 1850s by Amy’s uncle, John Dillwyn Llewellyn
© Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Plans were well underway for a spring wedding when in February 1864 Amy’s fiancé suddenly died, a victim of small pox. Amy turned down a later proposal from a local vicar and instead pondered the challenge of charting a path through society as an unmarried woman while retaining a sense of self-worth.  The answer came for the saddest of reasons when Amy’s mother died in 1866. Amy took over the day-to-day management of the house and started to act as her father’s hostess.

She began mixing in the highest political circles, attending royal ‘drawing-rooms’ at Buckingham Palace and balls to honour visiting dignitaries.  In 1871, she attended the opening concert at the newly-built Royal Albert Hall, sitting in the box next to Disraeli’s. She came into contact not only with politicians – William Gladstone, the Earl of Clarendon – but also with writers.  She met Robert Browning, William Makepeace Thackery and Emma Cons’ business partner, Thomas Hughes; she immersed herself in the feminist ideas of John Stuart Mill. 

Amy continued to spend a lot of time with Olive, who was not blessed with good health. They spent time in one another’s family homes and together made lengthy spa visits. Amy’s unrequited passion grew and in 1872 she referred to Olive as “wife” in her private diaries but she acknowledged that Olive did not feel the same way.  By the late 1870s  Amy started to lose her own joie de vivre and withdrew to Hendrefoilan.

Amy, the writer
There she turned to the pen for relief: she had always written a diary but now she saw writing novels as a way of channelling her emotions and expressing her views on the societal restrictions placed on women. Her first book, ‘The Rebecca Rioter’ drew on real events four decades earlier and all six books she published between 1880 and 1890 have themes of social justice and love for unobtainable women. Through her father Amy was introduced to the editor of The Spectator and started writing for them in 1880. Around sixty of her articles were published over subsequent years including an enthusiastic review of ‘Treasure Island’ that later led to her being credited with ‘discovering’ Robert Louis Stevenson (though she by no means the only one to highlight his work).  

Amy on the cover of the re-issued version of ‘The Rebecca Rioter’

Perhaps Amy might have been remembered as a writer if not for another death in the family, this time of father, Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn, in 1892.  This triggered a series of events where her responses showed her determination and independent spirit.

She had wanted him to have a private funeral but finally yielded to pressure to hold a more public event.  Rather than turning up in conventional black, however, she wore a purple skirt, fawn-coloured bodice and a black jacked trimmed with flowers.  As eyebrows disappeared up into hairlines she stated her support for the Mourning Reform Association, which wanted to stop those already struggling to stay solvent from getting further into debt by removing the societal pressure for new mourning clothes and expensive funerals.

By then Amy was in the barely-solvent category herself. Her father might have been a dedicated MP but his focus on the needs of his constituents had come at the expense of attention to his own financial affairs.  He had extensive personal debts and the principal family ‘asset’, the Llansalmet Spelter Works, was deep in the red with a deficit of nearly £100,000 (around £10m).  As the final indignity, Hendrefoilan, where Amy had lived for nearly four decades, was entailed.  Amy’s older brother, Harry, had died in 1890 so now the house passed to her eldest nephew and at the age of 47, she found herself not only poor but homeless.  

Amy, the industralist
Amy could have tried to offload the spelter works but in its current financial state, she would have received little for it.  Instead she decided to try to return it to profitability. Spelter, a zinc-lead alloy that comes to resemble bronze as it ages, was then a popular metal. It was relatively inexpensive and easy to cast into everyday items including candlesticks, clock cases, tableware and light fixtures. Sitting on the reserves of coal needed for the smelting process, Swansea was the centre for British production at this time and the Dillwyn-owned factory was one of several in the local area.  There was clearly a market for spelter: the question was whether with a better grip on both costs and revenues the Llansalmet Spelter Works could make money from it. 
Amy was not without commercial experience: from the late 1870s, she had managed the farm at Hendrefoilan, acting as her father’s farm bailiff and she had made it profitable. This, however, was a much bigger challenge, with 300 men relying on her for their livelihood and so she hired a manager, John Corfield, to help her turn the business around.  She found cheap lodgings three miles away from the works, often making the journey by foot. She arrived and left at the same time as everyone else and educated herself, studying books on metallurgy. Two years into this tough situation, she faced the hardest loss of all when Olive died.

By 1896, she had reached a point where she could get her father’s estate out of Chancery. Three years later she was well-enough known to be profiled in T.P. O’Connor’s society magazine Mainly About People.  The article praised her commitment to improving the welfare of the town but also included extensive comments on her appearance, the pattern for nearly all future articles about Amy. ‘She is a strong advocate of equality between the sexes and demonstrates her convictions when walking (of which she is very fond) by wearing a mannish coat and collar and a skirt whose length is more consistent with comfort than with elegance while on her head she wears a hat of the “crushed bowler” variety which seems as indispensable to her walking toilet as her spectacles.’

“Should Women Smoke?”
Although not mentioned at this point, Amy had another habit that was causing plenty of chatter: her readiness to smoke in public.  ‘Whether in public banquet, at home or in the train, Miss Dillwyn enjoys her cigar with the best of men’ commented the Western Mail when she wrote in 1901 that women had the same rights as men to smoke.   

Amy in later life, complete with cigar

In April 1902 the Western Mail ran a long interview with Amy, headlined, ‘A Business Lady’ but her business successes came a long way down the column. The first paragraphs were spent, as usual, on her physical appearance (‘a thin pale face, a spare figure, a slight stoop..’, her clothing (‘the plainest of short serge skirts with two pockets, one either side, a short, rather mannish jacket, a very plain hat’ and ‘a simple bunch of violets at her throat’.. and, of course, her smoking.  Word of this unconventional pioneering woman started to spread profile: in May, an American newspaper sent a photographer arrived in Swansea to do a story on her.

The Western Mail interview had been inspired by the publication of the prospectus for the spelter works. By 1902, the trading profits had increased from £7,600 to nearly £11,000 (equivalent to over £1m).  Amy had decided that the time was right to convert the partnership into a limited company and seek external investment.  Amy would stay on as one of the Directors and retain the largest shareholding.  The other two directors were her business manager, Mr Corfield and William Williams, who ran a significant tinplate business and was a former Liberal M.P.  With a paid up capital of £60,000 (around £6m) it would become one of the biggest spelter businesses in the area. 

In October 1902, with the business now publicly listed, Amy was finally able to move out of lodgings and into a small rented cottage. ‘For the first time in ten years I slept in my own bed, with my own sheets and my own blankets’ she wrote in her diary.  

Amy, the activist
Even while she was coping with the demands of her business, Amy maintained her commitment to improving social care, perhaps even more conscious of its importance now that she was an employer. In the 1890s, she became involved in the Ancient Order of Foresters, now known as the Foresters Friendly Society. It had nothing to do with trees: its aim was to provide support for men and women who needed help ‘as they walked through the forests of life’. Members joined a local group, or ‘Court’, and paid a few pence a week into a common fund that were then able to draw on if they were in need. In 1895, one was started in Swansea named “Court Amy Dillwyn”.   Amy was initiated as an honorary member and threw herself ‘heart and soul into the work in a manner characteristic of her’.  She was elected to the Swansea School Board in 1900 and was Chair of the Swansea Hospital Committee, where she devoted her energies to fund-raising.  When she retired from the latter role in 1902, it was also back in the black after a difficult period, with income up 20% on the previous year and its debts repaid.

When Amy returned from her zinc-prospecting trip to Algeria in 1905, she received an offer from the German company, Metallgesellschaft to buy a majority share. She knew that this deal would give her workers more security but it was hard for her to walk away from her business role even though she now finally had complete financial independence.  With more free time she became further involved in causes that mattered to her most: health, education, equality and workers’ rights. In February 1911 twenty-five dressmakers who worked for Ben Evans and Co, ‘the Harrods of Wales’, went on strike when they felt a colleague had been unjustly fired. Although not the reason for the strike, attention was almost immediately drawn to their pay and general working conditions: a three-year apprenticeship with no pay then 2s 6d a week for what was often a 14-hour day with no break.

Their case quickly attracted the attention of the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) who saw an opportunity to mobilise working women in the city.  Within a month, a new local branch had around 700 members, who marched through the streets of Swansea on Saturday 11th March.  The following afternoon Amy presided over a packed two-hour meeting in the Star Theatre. 

Mary Macarthur

Margaret Bondfield, by Bassano Ltd;
whole-plate glass negative,
10 Feb 1922; © National Portrait Gallery, London

The headline speakers were Mary Macarthur, founder of the NFWW and Margaret Bondfield, organising secretary of the Women’s Labour League and later the first woman to hold a Cabinet position. Amy also spoke eloquently about an employer’s responsibilities.  They had no right to take advantage of people’s situations to grind them down further, pay them badly or make them accept unfair conditions of labour.  Workers should be paid a “living wage”, not just the bare minimum needed to manage day to day but enough to be able to save for the future. She received some unpleasant anonymous letters when her remarks were reported but brushed it off.

The one area in which Amy was not able to get involved was local government. Her attempts to join the Swansea Harbour Trust in 1903 and Swansea County Council in 1907 both ended in failure: she might have had a proven track record in managing financial affairs but clearly for some her sex was an insuperable barrier.  

Amy would have found this extremely frustrating. She was an early supporter of the suffrage cause, one of the earliest members of the Women’s Freedom League in Wales and later Chair of the Swansea branch of the NUWSS in Wales.  She said that it was the experience of signing cheques every week for the 300 men in the spelter works who all had a vote when she did not that given her a strong sense of injustice and made her a suffragist.

She did not call herself a feminist, more an equal opportunist.  She wanted women to be given a fair chance to show what they could do. This extended to participation in physical activities and again here Amy led by example. She was President of the Ladies’ Hockey Association and in her late 50s was still playing regularly, usually as a back.  She was also vice-president of the local Ladies’ Water Polo Association. ‘She is a hater of loafing’, remarked one article, hardly news to the citizens of Swansea.
In the run up to the First World War she chaired and hosted many pro-suffrage meetings, donating money, recruiting new members and urging women to refuse to subscribe to any public funds until they got the vote. The war brought an end to the pro-suffrage activities and so she turned her attention to fund-raising for the NU and Elsie Inglis’s Scottish Women’s Hospitals.  

Final years
The spelter works closed after the First World War but the Dillywn name lived on when it was used for the founding of a new building society in 1923.   Amy liked the odd gamble and in the 1920s could sometimes be seen in Monte Carlo at the card table, playing bridge or poker in a panama hat.  When the Equal Franchise Act was passed in 1928, Amy joined in the celebrations at a reception given by the Mayor and Mayoress.  One of the toast was to “The Pioneers in Swansea” to which Amy was asked to respond.  She said it was her own personal sense of injustice that had made her a suffragist, when she was signing weekly cheques for 300 men in the spelter works who all had a vote when she did not.

Amy’s death on 13th December 1935 when she was 90 years old received widespread coverage. Though many newspapers wrote only about her clothing choices and smoking habits, some acknowledged her pioneering role in commerce and the Western Mail wrote a lengthy tribute: she was ‘one of the most picturesque and outstanding women in the social and industrial life of Wales.’  She left a fortune of £112,203 (equivalent to over £6m) remarkable given her position a few decades earlier but she would have been prouder of the indisputable contribution she made to the lives of the people of Swansea, as an employer, a public servant and a campaigner.

Amy left diaries and letters that are part of the archives of Swansea University They have recently been transcribed and catalogued as part of an ongoing research project led by Dr Kirsti Bohata and are now being prepared for open access. Last year the Lighthouse Theatre developed and toured a play about her life

Sources include:

Amy Dillwyn by David Panting (2013); Dillwyn, Elizabeth Amy (1845 – 1935), novelist, industrialist and feminist campaigner by Kirsti Bohata, Dictionary of Welsh Biography

South Wales Daily Post 13/2/1895; Swansea Journal and South Wales Liberal 3/8/1895; 15/7/1899; Western Mail 04/01/1901; 10/04/1902; 25/07/1902; The Vote 16/7/1910; Cambria Daily Leader 13/3/1911; Common Cause 6/6/1912; 19/2/1915; 14/5/1915; Western Mail 14/12/1935

‘The spelterman of Swansea’ by Joanna Masters (2014) MA dissertation

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