Llantarnam Grange is based in a 19th century manor house in the centre of Cwmbran New Town. The foundations of the house date back to the 12th century, when a farmhouse stood on the site, called Gelli Las. For the majority of its existence the history of Gelli Las was intertwined with that of Llantarnam Abbey which was founded by Cistercian monks in 1179 in nearby Llantarnam village. The Cistercians took over huge tracts of land, setting up monastic farms called granges to provide food for the abbey. Llantarnam Abbey is believed to have had around fourteen of these granges, one being Gelli Las (Green Grove).
After the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, the Abbey was taken over as a private house by William Morgan who owned all the attached estates, including Gelli Las. The farmhouse appears in the survey of the manor in 1634 and the estate passed down through the Morgan family until 1707 when Sir Edward Morgan’s daughters, Anne and Frances agreed to a partition of the estate. By the 1830s another descendant Reginald James Blewitt was in residence, virtually rebuilding the abbey in 1837. It was sold to Sir Clifford Cory in 1895 who lived there until his death in 1941. In 1946 the abbey became the home for the Sisters of Saint Joseph as it still is today.
It isn’t known when Gelli Las was sold off from the rest of the abbey estates although it could have been when the estates were partitioned in 1707. However we do know from the Apportment of the Rent-Charge in lieu of Tithes in 1844, Gelli Las was then owned by John Lawrence. It is referred to as being ”one hundred and fifty acres, tithe free by prescription and very well known.” John Lawrence sold Gelli Las to Henry Crawshay in 1862, who in turn sold it to Alfred Colerick Pilliner in 1871. Pilliner is noted to have been a Justice of the Peace and one of the principal landowners in the district. The Holy Trinity Church in Pontnewydd, Cwmbran was said to have an oak screen dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Pilliner of Llantarnam Grange.
Sometime during the 19th century Gelli Las was converted from a farmhouse into a gentleman’s residence, probably by Alfred Colerick Pilliner as his initials can be found on a plaque above the bay windows. He was probably also responsible for changing the name to Llantarnam Grange – a title perhaps more in keeping with his grand new residence and referring to its former history. The property passed to Pilliner’s family on his death in 1887 and was sold in 1905. Little is known of its owners until 1914 when Mr. John Fox-Tallis was resident at the Grange and recorded as one of the principal residents in the area.
In 1932 Llantarnam Grange was bought by William Thomas Jones, who was Managing Director of Avondale Tinplate Works. He and his wife, Margaret who had died in 1911, had four children – Thomas, Wilfred, Arthur and Jesse. Thomas’s son Richard has told us how he remembers the house when he visited it as a child in the 1940s, playing with model trains under the billiard table, skating on the pond when it was frozen and magic lantern shows in the cellars. The Grange had a large kitchen garden and orchard, which allowed them to be virtually self-sufficient during World War II. The gardens led down to Grange Road (St David’s Rd was not then built); there was a sunken lawn and a revolving summerhouse. At the rear was a farmhouse and stables occupied by a tenant farmer, the farmland for the estate stretched as far as the other side of the current shopping centre. William Jones died in 1951 and Llantarnam Grange passed to his four children and was put up for sale in 1952.
Llantarnam Grange was bought at auction by Cwmbran Development Corporation, which was formed following the New Towns Act in 1946 to create New Towns all over Britain. In 1953 the building was let to the General Post Office who used it as a sorting office. Cwmbran was just a small village at that time and more space was needed to deal with the anticipated extra demand following the building of the New Town and its houses. Work on Cwmbran Town Centre began in 1956, built predominantly on the grounds and farmland belonging to the Grange estate. The Bus Station was built on top of the Kitchen Garden, a car park built over the orchard (now the site of the cinema complex) and Glyndwr Road now runs straight through the area where the stables once were. Lucas Girlings took over the lease of the building in 1958, using it as a drawing office but were forced to give up the lease in 1964 to enable the building to be demolished to make way for a park in the town centre.
In a last minute reprieve the General Manager of Cwmbran Development Corporation suggested that Llantarnam Grange’s position made it the perfect venue for a meeting place for small societies and clubs – something that was seen as vital to the social and cultural growth of the New Town. Renovation of the building cost nearly £12,000 and on 30th April 1966 Llantarnam Grange Societies Club was officially opened with an exhibition of work by John Wright and Tom Rathmell. A trust was set up to run the club, with local theatre, art and camera clubs meeting there as well as the galleries could be hired for art exhibitions and social functions. In 1983, with the demise of the Development Corporation, the running of Llantarnam Grange was transferred to an independent Board of Trustees and it became a registered charity. Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre was awarded annual revenue funding status from the Arts Council of Wales and has gone on to gain a national reputation for the quality of its exhibition and learning programmes and staying at the heart of the region’s artistic community.