‘Chinese’ Staircases Case Study: A Local Style

Figure 7

Figure 12: The ‘Chinese’ staircase at Bishopsgate House, showing the first floor landing. The stylised wave design carved into the tread ends is just visible in the bottom centre of this image. DI2011_1011, NPRN 15946. © Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

A Local Style

If we accept the observations and conclusions of the Royal Commission’s field investigators then all three of these staircases were installed in the properties discussed in the five years between 1755 and c.1760. In each example, the staircase is either part of the original interior design of the building or appears to coincide with a change in the marital status of its owner. From the Commission’s photographs, the staircases appear to be constructed from similar materials (though further investigation is required to ascertain the particulars of their fabrication) and feature designs that are extremely similar to one another, as at Tan-yr-Allt (see Figure 13 below) and Bishopsgate House (see Figure 12 above), or that share basic, characteristic motifs and patterns that have been arranged differently, as at Trefeilir (see Figure 14 below). All properties share the stylised wave motif carved into their tread ends, though at Trefeilir this is more ornate than at the other properties. It should also be noted that the quality of the craftsmanship exhibited in the construction of each staircase is high. When examined in close detail, the photographs reveal a fine finish to the woodwork, with close, precise joints between component parts. However, despite searches of county archives and a number of documents held at Bangor University and the National Library of Wales, it has not been possible at this time to uncover the identity of the craftsmen that physically installed these staircases.

Figure 3

Figure 13: The main staircase at Tan-yr-Allt, photographed in 1995, after the building’s listing was upgraded to Grade II*. The staircase balustrade and treads have been painted white, probably when Tan-yr-Allt was in use as Bangor University Student’s Union. DI2011_1033, NPRN 16895. © Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.


Figure 10

Figure 14: The ‘Chinese’ staircase at Trefeilir, probably photographed in the 1930s, showing the main balustrade of the staircase with its latticework patterns. DI2011_1010, NPRN 15898. © Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

The geographical and chronological proximity of these staircases relative to one-another, as well as their similarities of design and construction suggests that their appearance in these houses in north-west Wales in the mid-1750s to c. 1760 may also be related. Furthermore, the Royal Commission’s Caernarvonshire Inventory notes that the staircase at Tan-yr-Allt ‘is a good example of the local Chinese Chippendale style’ (emphasis added).[i] There are also several “missing” ‘Chinese’ staircases in the region that were mentioned in the record, but that could not be located. In visiting local archives, museums and history groups in Anglesey and Caernarvon a number of ‘Chinese’ staircases were reported to have been in place in private households and even in shops up until the 1970s. However, with no evidence to support this they remain unconfirmed occurrences. Despite this, their frequent appearance in local history discourse hints that ‘Chinese’ staircases may have been more prevalent in the region than records suggest. How, then, might a ‘Chinese’ style become ‘local’ to north-west Wales in the eighteenth century, and how did the contemporary trade of the East India Company affect the appearance of this style of staircase in this area?

Possible Influence of Plas Newydd

In the Commission’s Anglesey Inventory, a summary of key or notable architectural features for buildings in the county is provided. The Inventory States:

The “Chinese” staircases of c. 1760, at Trefeilir (Trefdraeth) and at Bishopsgate House (Beaumaris), are also noteworthy, and an example at Plas Newydd (Llanedwen) has been attributed to James Wyatt.[ii]

This note implies that at the time the Anglesey Inventory was being compiled there was a ‘Chinese’ staircase at Plas Newydd in Llanedwen, Anglesey. Plas Newydd, overlooking the Menai Straits, is one of Anglesey’s most iconic buildings, and was home to one of the most influential families in north Wales from the eighteenth century until 1976 when the property passed into the care of the National Trust.

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Figure 15: Plas Newydd, Angelsey, overlooking the Menai Straits. DS2007_409_004, NPRN 15824. © Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

The current Plas Newydd was built in the late eighteenth century, incorporating elements of older buildings thought to date back as early as the fourteenth century.[iii] However, apart from the reference in the Commission’s Anglesey Inventory, no evidence can be found of a ‘Chinese’ staircase at the property, let alone one that could be attributed to James Wyatt. Without further information about the original source for this information it is difficult to pursue this line of enquiry further. However, it is known that in the early 1750s, Sir Nicholas Bayly (1708 – 1782) undertook a refurbishment of the interior at Plas Newydd, for which he acted as his own architect.[iv] Although no known plans relating to this work survive, records of later work at the property show that at the time of Nicholas Bayly’s refurbishment, the main staircase of the house was located in what is now the south end of the house. Between 1782 and 1786, Henry Paget (neé Bayly[v], 1744 – 1812), 1st Earl of Uxbridge, called in local architect and stone mason John Cooper (dates unknown) of Beaumaris to make improvements to the property, which was in use as the family’s summer residence. Then, between 1793 and 1799, Lord Uxbridge engaged James Wyatt to undertake further changes, including refitting the saloon and anterooms, creating the Gothick Hall, and installing a classical staircase. In 1771, Wyatt had undertaken a refurbishment of the Bayly’s main residence, Beaudesert in Staffordshire. This second phase of refurbishment at Plas Newydd was directed by Wyatt in association with Joseph Potter (1756 – 1842), a joiner from Lichfield, who may have undertaken most of the renovation work.  At this time, the staircase in the south wing of the house was relocated to its current position at the modern main entrance, possibly so that the layout of the house would better fit the centrally planned floor plan favoured by the master builders and architects at this time. Wyatt’s elegantly ascending cast iron staircase with its stylised anthemion (honeysuckle) motif was more in keeping with the new schema designed for the rest of house and made good use of cast iron, which had only recently become fashionable in interior design (see Figure 16 below).

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Figure 16: The cast iron staircase at Plas Newydd, Anglesey, installed during Wyatt’s renovation of the interior. DI2011_1012, NPRN 15824. © Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

Given that by the 1780s and 1790s, ‘Chinese’ staircase designs were outmoded in Britain, and given the Palladian style of Wyatt’s 1790s renovation it seems unlikely that Wyatt would have chosen to install a ‘Chinese’ staircase at Plas Newydd as part of his refurbishment.[vi] However, it is possible that the staircase installed by Nichols Bayly in the early 1750s was of ‘Chinese’ design. If so, it was possibly in situ in the south end of the building for only a few decades between c. 1750 and c. 1790, when it could have been removed by Cooper, Wyatt or Potter in the course of their work on the house. If so, then Plas Newydd would be the first house in north-east Wales to have a ‘Chinese’ staircase installed.

The political and social power and influence of the Bayly family at Plas Newydd would certainly have had an impact on the local elite, who may have mimicked the Baylys’ interior design choices. Sadly, there is simply no surviving evidence that proves there was a ‘Chinese’ staircase at the property beyond one unique reference in the Commission’s Inventory. It should also be noted that the wording of the Inventory is ambiguous at best: the paragraph which describes ‘Chinese’ staircases could also be referring to significant eighteenth-century staircases in Anglesey more widely, reducing the likelihood of a ‘Chinese’ staircase having ever been installed at Plas Newydd and acting as a red herring in this research.  

Local Connections with the East India Company

Despite the ambiguity of the Anglesey Inventory’s reference to Plas Newydd, it is nonetheless tempting to attribute the development of a ‘local’ trend in ‘Chinese’ staircases to the influential Nicholas Bayly and his possible work on the interior of Plas Newydd in the early 1750s. He certainly had the means to finance a broad programme of renovation work at the house, having married the wealthy heiress Caroline Paget (d. 1766) in 1737. The Pagets also have strong connections to the East India Company: Caroline’s four times great-grandfather William, 5th Baron Paget (1572 – 1629) was an investor in the East India Company, as well as the Amazon River Company, the Bermudas Company and the Virginia Company, of which he was also a Councillor. The family retained its interest in the East India Company for several generations: the 5th Baron’s grandson, the Honourable Henry Paget (1663 – 1743), held numerous political offices throughout his lifetime, and used his influence in Parliament to champion the cause of the Old East India Company. Records show that on the 24 February 1699 he was involved in, and may have championed on the Old Company’s behalf, a petition against paying a 5 per cent duty on trade to the New Company.[vii] Furthermore by 1800, the copper mines on the Bayly family’s lands – most notably Paris Mountain – had agreements with the East India Company for the trade of copper trinkets. The agreements were arranged by Thomas Williams, who was appointed General Manager of the Paris Mine Company in 1784.[viii] The Bayly and Paget families also have a strong tradition of Naval service, with many of the men taking up posts which allowed them to travel extensively around the world, and would have brought them into contact with the East India Company’s ships and merchants.

However, there are no readily discernible connections between the families or houses at Tan-yr-Allt, Bishopsgate House and Trefeilir, and the East India Company. John Ellis (1720 – 1785), the Archdeacon of Merionedd, had no appreciable connection to the East India Company or to broader contemporary travel and trade to the East. Prior to his ordination into the Church of England, John Ellis is known to have been a chemist and an engineer. However, at the time of writing, little information is available about this period in his life, and nothing to link him specifically to the East India Company either as a clergyman or in his engineering or chemistry background. There also is no obvious or direct connection to be found between the families at Bishopsgate House and at Trefeilir, and the East India Company.

Although no direct connections could be found between the properties in this study and the East India Company, they were all connected by one shared characteristic: all three houses were owned or occupied by wealthy and socio-politically influential families. John Ellis, as Archdeacon of Merionedd, was in a position of power both locally and nationally through the Church of England. The Bulkeleys of Baron Hill owned a significant amount of land in north-east Wales and had lived at Baron Hill since its construction in the early seventeenth century as a residence for Prince Henry, son of King James I and Anne of Denmark, for use his journey to Ireland (a purpose that was ultimately unfulfilled, as Henry died of typhoid fever in 1612 before he reached Anglesey). Charles Evans (1726 – 1802) of Trefeilir was High Sheriff of Anglesey in 1751, then of Caernarvon in 1752. All three families were invested in local politics; the Bulkeley family were even involved in a prolonged political rivalry with none other than the Baylys of Plas Newydd, in which both parties competed to represent Anglesey in Parliament.[ix] All three families were well-connected in society, both within and beyond Wales, holding numerous political positions and posts. They were well-travelled, and held property in London; they were well embedded in fashionable, metropolitan culture. It is likely therefore likely that the decision to install ‘Chinese’ staircases at the three houses considered in this study was mostly affected by much broader consumer trends for interior design and furnishings across Britain in the mid-eighteenth century.


[i] An Inventory on the Ancient Monuments in Caernarvonshire: II Central: the Cantref of Arfon and the Commote of Eifionydd (Aberystwyth: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, 1958) p. 61.

[ii] An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Anglesey (Aberystwyth: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, 1937) p. 156.

[iii] An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Anglesey (Aberystwyth: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, 1937) p. 244.

[iv] Oliver Garrett, Plas Newydd: Isle of Anglesey (London: National Trust, 2010).

[v] By Royal Licence on 29th January 1770, Henry Bayly took the surname Paget in place of his birth name.

[vi] Linda Hall, Period House Fixtures and Fittings 1300 – 1900 (Newbury: Countryside Books, 2005); Margaret Jourdain, English Furniture: The Georgian Period (1750 – 1830) (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1953), pp. 26 – 27.

[viii] Iorwerth Hughes Jones, ‘From Angleysey to Swansea’ in Journal of the Gower Society (7), 1954, pp. 30 – 32.

[ix] Peter D. G. Thomas, ‘The rise of Plas Newydd’ in Welsh History Review 16 (2), 1992, pp. 160 – 176.