Remembering the white ox of Nannau
The White Ox
On 25 June 1824 one of Wales's grandest 21st-birthday celebrations took place for the son of Merioneth's biggest resident landowner. Held on the Nannau estate, Dolgellau, 200 guests sat down to an extravagant banquet that included a huge joint of beef from the white ox of Nannau. Various items produced to commemorate the event are now in the collections of Amgueddfa Cymru including a candelabrum made from the horns and hoofs of the prized white ox.
Heirs to landed estates
For centuries it was customary for communities to celebrate the coming of age of the heir to a landed estate. This seems to have been especially true in north Wales. Until the Parliamentary reforms of 1832, the region was socially conservative, and its traditional Welsh-language culture remained strong.
The best-documented celebrations were those of Robert Williames Vaughan of Nannau.
A pillar of the community
The young man's father, Sir Robert Williames Vaughan (1768-1843), 2nd baronet, was Merioneth's biggest resident landowner and its sole representative in Parliament for over four decades. A pillar of the community, he took pride in maintaining old Welsh customs and kept open house at Nannau, where the neighbourhood came to dinner daily without special invitation.
Beef for the poor, beer for the rich
The younger Robert Williames Vaughan's coming of age was marked not only by his family but also by the local inhabitants of the nearby towns. It was accompanied by illuminations, fireworks, balloon ascents and cannon fire, and also much eating and drinking, especially of beef, which the poor never otherwise enjoyed, and beer, which the wealthy usually avoided in favour of wine. Oxen were roasted for the poor of Corwen, Barmouth and Bala and subscription dinners were held in Conway, Dolgellau and Chester.
Tables bent under the weight of good things
The central event was the celebration at Nannau itself on 25 June 1824. A wood, canvas and thatch tent was built in front of the late 18th-century mansion. Here, played in to the tune of The Roast Beef of Old England, 200 guests sat down to "a most sumptuous and plentiful banquet". After a fish course, a huge joint or 'Baron' of beef from a prized white ox, weighing 166lbs, was escorted into the room by the family's cowman, Sion Dafydd. The tables literally bent under the weight of good things. As well as wines, enormous jugs of Cwrw Da ('beer') were placed at proper intervals on the tables.
The Vaughans had a long tradition of cultural patronage and Sir Robert's toast to his son encapsulates the spirit of the occasion: "May he fear God and Honour the King; show reverence to his superiors and respect to his inferiors. Heddwch, Dedwyddwch a Chymydogaeth dda".
Owain Glyndwr and the hollow oak of the demon
The white ox was commemorated in a painting by Daniel Clowes of Chester, and the horns and hoofs were made into a candelabrum. Sir Robert also had six special toasting cups made for the occasion. They were made from the wood of the Derwen Ceubren yr Ellyll, 'the hollow oak of the demon', an ancient tree at Nannau associated with Owain Glyndwr. These were subsequently cherished by the Vaughans, and are now also in Amgueddfa Cymru's collection.
The 1824 celebration was the highpoint of the family's influence. When the region marked Robert Williames Vaughan's wedding eleven years later in 1835 feeling in the neighbourhood was still said to be "worthy of old times when the words Radical & Reform were unknown", but he never enjoyed his father's prestige and died childless in 1859.
Article by: Oliver Fairclough, Keeper of Art, Amgueddfa Cymru
Article Date: 15 September 2009