The Woman Who Made Port Talbot

There’s more to Port Talbot than steel. It’s more than metal, sulphur and its reputation. Like everything, it has a history. There’s a reason the town has its name, but what’s not as well known, is the woman behind it. The woman who helped make Port Talbot what it is today. 

Miss Emily Charlotte Talbot

Emily Talbot

Emily Charlotte Talbot was born on 1 August 1840 in the Talbot’s London home, and by 1890 was the richest Heiress in Britain. Her past and circumstances are somewhat tragic. Her mother, Lady Charlotte died in April 1846 during a cruise in Malta on the family yacht. The next to pass was her elder brother, Theodore who died in 1876 after falling from his horse. Finally, her father, Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot passed away on 17 January 1890 at home in Margam, leaving his entire fortune and estate to Emily. In 1890, it was valued at around six million pounds. “Emily’s father thought so highly of her that after Theodore died, he broke a centuries-old entail on the estate so that she could inherit. There were male heirs available, so it wasn’t because he had no one else to leave the estate to,” said Sally Jones, local historian.

Emily never married and was said to be like two different people. She was an excellent businesswoman, firm, and deeply dedicated to the affairs of her estate, on the other hand, a kind and charitable person who did a vast amount for Port Talbot.  An astute character and not someone to be taken lightly, Emily employed a large majority of the town where she was able to. She founded hospitals, schools and churches and was forthcoming when donating money where needed. It was thanks to her that the Gothic Mansion on the Margam Estate is what it is today. Following the death of her father, she began restoring and updating the house. These updates included plumbing, the addition of telephones and the construction of an engine house to power the main residence and church.

The Estate

Dividing her time between London, Margam and Penrice Castle, Miss Talbot was passionate about Margam and her estate. Whilst travelling she was known to keep in contact with staff and particularly, her gardener to get updates and discuss plans regarding the gardens. The total acreage of her estate was thought to be about 45,000 acres. She owned the entirety of the land in Port Talbot and Penrice estate. Many of the older properties in town still have deeds with her signature.  

Emily’s contributions to Port Talbot

The Talbot estate was said to extend from the River Afan to Pyle near Bridgend. During the war, the castle at Penrice in the Gower, Swansea was used as a war hospital with permission from Emily, who wanted to do all she could for wounded soldiers. Noted in a copy of the Herald of Wales and Monmouthshire Recorder published on 28 September following her death in 1918, it said she invested, ‘£80,000 in the War Loan. Only quite recently she also gave £30,000 for the establishment of a chair of medical research in connection with the Welsh University.’ 

Another notable act involved losing thousands of pounds to keep a failing colliery open to provide work for hundreds of staff. She was also instrumental in developing the docks, railway, installing sewerage, building new roads and a waterworks. Emily was the reason Port Talbot had a public swimming baths, workingmen’s hall and an athletic ground commissioned. “It is said that the reason that the roads in Port Talbot – the area between the Grand Hotel and Margam Road were made wider than usual (cf Abbey Road) was because Emily foresaw the development of road traffic with motor transport,” explains Sally.

Inside Margam House

This was far from the end of Emily’s charitable ways, she donated land, gave money to help with education, set up charitable funds (one of the more notable being for the families of those who died in the Morfa Colliery explosion) and paid close attention to the welfare of those who worked for her. As a religious woman, it was to the church that a lot of her time and donations went. One such church, St. Theodore’s was built in memory of her brother Theodore and sister, Olivia. She gave generously and was in large part responsible for the construction of three other churches; St. Tydfil’s in Bryn, St. Agnes’ in Port Talbot and St. John’s in Oakwood. When Emily’s sister Olivia died in 1894, she donated money in her memory and continued to honour the work they had done together. She was known to help with church and parish funds throughout her life. 

Looking around Port Talbot it’s evident a lot of what Emily, and indeed her family did for the area has been swept up in modern life and forgotten about (aside from the few who care to keep their memory and what they did for the town alive). People like those in the Port Talbot Historical Society and staff at the local library, these characters have a passion for remembrance and giving credit where it’s due to those who came before us. It’s a shame to see so much of the town changed, demolished and forgotten when people like Emily put the foundations in place, and left behind stories such as this for us to be ignorant of them. “Several of Emily’s gifts have been knocked down or rebuilt – Glanafan School, the swimming baths, Groezwen Hospital (I think that was hers). And Port Talbot Hospital, which was in Aberafan was another gift,” explains Sally.

Her contributions almost endless, there are countless stories of her generosity and caring nature for those who lived on her estate. What she did for those less fortunate, and for Port Talbot is something that shouldn’t be forgotten. Arguably, as an unmarried woman in the time she lived in, and as the richest woman in Britain, the fact she did what she did deserves merit in its own right. She wished to elevate the town and did so. This is evident in all she gave, where she chose to invest, and what she helped to develop. 

Emily’s Death

Emily died on 21 September 1918 at her residence in London. Before her death, she had been unwell and unable to travel back to Margam. Her body was transported by train to the family vault in Margam Abbey Church, her final resting place. She was the last Talbot of Margam Park. She was 78 when she died and 50 when she inherited the estate, she devoted almost thirty years of her life to Port Talbot. If you visit today, you can find her memorial in the Talbot Chapel at Margam Abbey Church. 

As a woman who gave so much to a place, to the people, even those long gone and to those alive today, she deserves to be remembered for all she did and all she is still providing. The buildings (at least most of them) she helped create still stand, the Manor House serves as a tourist attraction, sat in the vast grounds of Margam Park, a gem juxtaposed against the steelworks that dominate the skyline and all they provide and take away from where they stand.

She was a woman ahead of her time, arguably self-assured and unwavering from her goals. She knew what she stood for and continued to do so until the day she died. If that isn’t someone worth remembering, then I’m not sure who is. She helped make Port Talbot what it is today and is a huge part of its history.

Port Talbot is not just steel, it’s community, charity, history and it bears the name of the woman who helped make it a better place. Long live, Emily Talbot.