Winifred had been born an immensely wealthy heiress, the only surviving child of Robert Bamford-Hesketh. Abergele’s Gwrych Castle formed the core of this fortune, but the estate itself stretched across most of North Wales into Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Winifred had an arranged marriage to a Scottish nobleman, the 12th Earl of Dundonald, who later acquired international fame by leading the charge at the Relief of Ladysmith, during the Boer War. Sadly, the marriage was not entirely happy and as a consequence, the Earl spent most of his time in Scotland, whilst his wife remained in her Welsh homeland. It was this distinct self-awareness and passion for nationhood on both sides which contributed to the Earl and Countess leading two separate lives.
The Countess was an important patron of Welsh art, music and literature during the early twentieth century. Winifred, like her parents, was a Welsh speaker, who held an academic interest in Wales’s society and language; she saw herself principally as a Welsh woman and enigmatically, the last of the Lloyds of Gwrych. The culmination of her contribution to Welsh culture saw her being inducted as a bard at the National Eisteddfod of 1910, with the plume de nom ‘Rhiannon’, taken from the Mabinogion. To mark this event, an exhibition was mounted at Colwyn Bay in 1910 displaying various works of art and rare historic manuscripts, tracing the history of the Lloyds back some six hundred years.
Art and music were undoubtedly some of the Countess’ passions. During the early 1900s for instance, she founded a North Wales harp competition and recently, a medal presented in 1915 by the Countess for harp playing was sold at auction. Her poetic writings published in 1907 were well received and there were calls for her to carry out a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Winifred continued her parent’s love of architecture, having witnessed as a child the building of many churches and public buildings in North Wales as well as commissioning great works of art such as the high altar reredos at St. Asaph Cathedral. The Countess herself donated the land and stone for the building of Church House, Llanddulas and employed the eminent Arts and Crafts architect, Detmar Blow to design the marble staircase at Gwrych.
During World War One she founded two military hospitals entirely at her own expense which served to treat patients from all over the world – a fascinating photograph survives of the Countess caring for injured Maori soldiers. Recognition of this humanitarian work came with the honour of Dame of Grace, for the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. The work and plight of women was a concern for the Countess, becoming involved with exhibitions of Women’s handicrafts and patronising women artists, most notably the American Pre-Raphaelite, Anna Lea-Merritt.
An early protagonist of archaeology, the Countess was active with the Abergele Historical and Cambrian Societies, giving permission for extensive excavations to be carried out on ancient monuments she owned and then financing the publication of their findings. Politically active with the Primrose League, Winifred also organised a rally in the grounds of Gwrych Castle regarding Tariff Reform with Lord Ridley as a keynote speaker.
Winifred was an extraordinary woman for her times; she single handedly managed her landed estates totaling several thousand acres – a rare circumstance for a Victorian woman. In religious affairs, she was a leading light during the disestablishment of the Church in Wales, later becoming one of its founding members in 1920; her generosity was immense as she gifted a large quantity of diamonds and rubies for the crozier of the Archbishop as well as for the processional cross of St. Asaph Cathedral. On her death, the entire Gwrych estate was left to the Welsh Church as a bequest for its endowment.