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Women’s History Month: Fanny Talbot, first benefactor to the National Trust

FANNY Browne was born in Bridgwater in 1824, the daughter of Mary and John Browne.  Fanny was to marry George Talbot but it is by her remarkable donation to the National Trust that we remember her, writes Roger Evans.

In married life, Fanny owned a property at Tyn-yffynon, high on the mountains overlooking Barmouth on the Welsh coast, with beautiful views of the Mawddach estuary and the magnificently towering Cader Idris mountain which I have often admired myself as it changes moods from warm and mellow to dark and ominous in the setting sun – an inspiration for any artist.

This is a wonderful piece of coastline, glistening sands with sparkling shells as the tides recedes, cosy cottages cut into the mountainside and the ever-changing colours of the heathers.

And here we find the Cliff of Light or “Dinas Oleu” as it is called in Welsh.  Fanny had a particular love of this four and a half acres of rough grazing enclosed in dry stone walls and felt a responsibility to protect it as long as it remained in her ownership.

But it wasn’t just the countryside she loved, it was the people.  As a benefactor to the poor, founder of the local library and a supporter of many good causes, she was a well respected member of this community where she spent her final 50 years.

Fanny was a keen artist, often sketching the local scenery.  This was a skill she passed on to her son, Quartus.  Fanny was also a friend of  John Ruskin, the educational reformer with new ideas on art.

Through this friendship, Fanny was to arrange for Quartus to be taught under MacDonald at Oxford.  He soon became recognised as a water-colourist but sadly died after catching a cold on an expedition to the Lake District.

Fanny was devastated. With the loss of her son went the loss of an heir. What would become of Dinas Oleu and her other properties after her death.

Her days alone were spent tending her cliff-side garden, in between her charitable works and receiving visitors.  Among these was Ruskin who had recently started the St George’s Guild.

With typical generosity, in 1876 Fanny gifted a row of ten cottages, cleft in the mountainside below her own cottage, to Ruskin for the benefit of the Guild, to be used for a co-operative housing scheme.  However Ruskin never once visited the site nor took an interest in its affairs. Fanny had been considering donating Dinas Oleu to Ruskin but now changed her mind.

Another visitor was Hardwicke Rawnsley, who with Robert Hunter and Octavia Hill, was a founder member of the National Trust. All were friends with Fanny for they moved in the same charitable and learned circles.

And so on one such visit, Hardwicke was reading to Fanny his proposed agenda for the very first meeting of the Trust, not yet an organisation with a property to its name.  Fanny seized the opportunity.  “The Trust is the very thing I have been looking for.  I shall die, and what is to become of Dinas Oleu.  I cannot give it into the hands of any local body or any private person who will treat it as I wish it, kept sacrosanct to wild nature. Do you think the Trust would hold it?”

And so the Trust took possession of its very first property, an inspiration for others to follow, the generous gift of that lady from Bridgwater.

Fanny passed away in June 1917, aged 93, and was buried on the Welsh coast at Llanaber Church.

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