Category Archives: Social history

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in Aberdovey in 2018

Pictures of the Atlantic 85 in-shore lifeboat in action (photograph of part of a poster on display in the Aberdyfi Boat House).

The RNLI is a vital national emergency service dedicated to saving human life, comparable to the NHS Ambulance service, with the fundamental difference that its boats are manned largely by unpaid volunteers, its shops are manned wholly by unpaid volunteers and it is funded mainly by private donations, legacies and its own fund-raising efforts.  The RNLI was established on 4th March 1824 as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, it was granted a Royal Charter in 1860, its Patron in Queen Elizabeth II and it has over 238 lifeboat stations and 445 lifeboats in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man.   In Aberdovey alone the lifeboat goes out between 20 and 30 times a year, dragged to and from its home in the boat-house on the wharf by a giant, custom-designed caterpillar-tracked tractor.

The RNLI has a long and really fascinating history, and much of that will be explored in later posts, with special reference to the RNLI presence in Aberdovey since 1837, but here I want to start with what the RNLI does in Aberdovey today, how it works and what it means to sailors, people and animals in distress and the community as a whole.

Let’s begin with the guided tour of the facility that was given to me by Dai Williams, Volunteer Shop Manager at the RNLI.   The lifeboat house in Aberdovey has moved around a lot since its establishment in 1837.  However, in 1991 the Yacht Club and the RNLI combined resources to extend the clubhouse and accommodate a new lifeboat on the wharf.  Most recently the wharf buildings were reconfigured in 2016 to allow the RNLI Lifeboat Station to expand, placing its new rescue boat the The Hugh Miles and its tractor under cover, improving the changing facilities for the lifeboat crew and moving the shop into a new location so that it is visible from the road and can benefit from passing footfall.  Funding from private donors was central to the modifications to the premises, and the new RIB was enabled by a donation from The Miles Trust.  The tractor is a massive and impressive beast on caterpillar tracks, a necessary adjunct to the boat due to the difficult recovery conditions at low tide.

The Hugh Miles, operating number B-896, is a fast inshore rescue craft, an Atlantic 85 rigid inflatable boat (RIB), replacing the previous Atlantic 75, Sandwell Lifeline.  The RNLI has two main categories of lifeboat: all-weather lifeboats and inshore lifeboats, each of which are suited to different conditions.  For the full range of lifeboat types employed by the RNLI see their “Our Lifeboat Fleet” web pageThe Hugh Miles is a specialized inshore lifeboat, one of the fastest in the RNLI fleet, powered by two Yamaha 4-stroke outboard 115hp engines, reaching top speeds of 35 knots.  It can go to sea in a force 7 wind during daylight hours and during a force 6 at night.  It cost £214,000 and, at nearly a meter longer than its predecessor, has the capacity for an extra crew member, bringing the total to four, although it can operate with three, and far more kit.  It is stored in a carriage, a cage on wheels, from which it is launched.  The RIB has a solid bottom and flexible sides, which makes it both strong and relatively light-weight.  The concept was originally developed in the Atlantic College, Vale of Glamorgan, south Wales during the 1960s and early 1970s.  Watersports were a big part of the boarding school agenda, and the college had its own in-shore lifeboat station.  They soon realized that the inflatable boat they were using could be improved upon and used marine plywood and rubber tube to create the templates on which the modern RIB is based.  The RNLI recognized the idea and created a glass-reinforced fibre model, which was a B-Class Atlantic 21 that came into service in 1972, its name commemorating the role of the college for this and future B-type RIBs.

Flicking through the Record of Service book in the life boat house there were a hair-raising number of minor and major incidences where the lifeboat was called out.  These involved yachts and other sailing vessels, power boats including a fishing boat, canoes, inflatable dinghies, kite boards, sail boards, jet skis, an inflatable toy, and swimmers in trouble.  Here are three examples of call-outs in 2018, all noted on the Aberdyfi Lifeboat’s Facebook page.  In July, the lifeboat was called out to the assistance of swimmers in difficulty at Tywyn.  On arrival, one casualty had been recovered but the second was still missing and the crew began a search, receiving information from the Coastguard that the swimmer had been spotted on the lifeboat’s exact course. The lifeboat proceeded as fast as was safe to the location where the helm manoeuvred the boat skilfully in the surf and shallow water to be able to put a crew member into the surf to recover the casualty with two members of the public who had waded in, recovered the second casualty.  First aid was delivered and a second  crew member from the lifeboat entered the surf with vital kit such as oxygen.  It should be noted that whilst the second casualty survived, the first one died later in hospital, a tragic reminder of the importance of the work of the RNLI.  One night in August at past 9pm, with the light fading and on an outgoing tide, the Aberdyfi Lifeboat was called out to a broken-down yacht.  The lifeboat reached the yacht and the crew were able to  secure a tow, bringing it back into the estuary and placing it on a mooring.  The lifeboat was returned to its station by 11pm.  At 1645 on an evening in September, the Aberdyfi Lifeboat was called out to aid a boat with eight people on board, which was experiencing engine problems and was aground just south of the Aberdyfi Bar.  The Borth lifeboat was already on scene and had managed to tow the vessel into deeper water, and from there they handed the rescued boat over to The Hugh Miles, which took most of the boat’s crew on board and set up a tow to bring them back to the Dyfi estuary.

David Williams, not to be confused with Dai Williams, is the Volunteer Lifeboat Operations Manager (LOM) at the RNLI in Aberdovey, leading the operation team.  He is responsible for authorizing the launch of the lifeboat and ensure that the lifeboats and all associated gear are maintained and in a constant state of readiness for action.  David Williams grew up in Tywyn and also volunteers with Mountain Rescue.  In the event of his absence there are also four Deputy Launching Authorities who can stand in for him.  The in-shore boat crew is headed by the Senior Helm (the equivalent of a coxswain on an the bigger all-weather boats), currently Will Stockford, who is also the Harbour Master and doubles up as boat mechanic.  Next in seniority is the Helm, who must be on board if the Senior Helm is unavailable.  The helm is trained in a variety of skills including navigation, search and rescue and casualty care, has many years experience as a volunteer and is in charge of leading any rescue.  Three other crew members may or may not be trained to steer and navigate the boat but all receive their initial training in Poole in Dorset at the RNLI.  As well as being on call for emergencies, the crew undergo practice drills and training on a weekly basis, usually on a Sunday morning.  The tractor drivers are usually former crew members who have retired.

Dai Williams is the Volunteer Shop Manager, currently with a team of six shop volunteers helping customers in the shop.  The RNLI shop on the wharf not only generates important funds for the charity but raises awareness of the RNLI and its activities, its staff acting as ambassadors for the lifeboat station, explaining its role and answering the many questions from the public.  The new merchandise in the shop is bright, modern and eclectic, offering everything from games and toys to calendars and diaries, as well as souvenir tea towels, mugs and clothing is provided by the RNLI.  Nautical themes dominate, of course, and many are by designer names.  There are also shelves outside selling second hand books, jigsaws and DVDs donated by the public. Having spent some time in the shop over the last month, it has been great to see the range of people who visit and buy products in support of the RNLI.  Small children with their parents, buying nets, shovels and buckets for crabbing are very happy contributors to RNLI funding.  I have been buying RNLI Christmas cards online for years, but it’s much better to be able to go and buy them in person.  And just about everyone is getting an RNLI tea towel in their stockings this year!

As well as the shop there is also an important fund-raising group based locally, the Aberdyfi Lifeboat Guild, which puts on events throughout the year.  Many terrific visitor activities take place, particularly during the course of the summer, which get everyone involved, from crew to visitors, from young to old.  Events have included Flag Day when there was a duck race (500 plastic ducks are launched and then retrieved!), the Abergynolwyn Silver Band played, there was a raft race and an afternoon tea was organized.  Other events have included a quiz night, a Crabby Competition, a barbecue, the Dysynni Male Voice Choir and a Fun Run.  There was even a stand at the Food Festival in August, demonstrating water health and safety procedures and equipment, and the Lifeboat Station has a stall at the Christmas Fair (this year on the 1st December, 10am – 4pm).

Aberdyfi Lifeboat Station and Shop

Donations from the public continue to be critical to the operations of the RNLI.  The donations that enabled the modernization of the Aberdovey RNLI base says a lot about the sort of people who help the RNLI not merely to continue operating, but to continue updating their technology and improving their services.  The Miles Trust, which funded the new boat, was set up in memory of Hugh Miles.  Hugh Miles, the only child of the late Herbert and took great pleasure in RNLI activities around South Wales and after his death his mother bequeathed her estate to the RNLI, part of which was to be used to fund a rescue boat for the Welsh coast.  The Aberdovey’s The Hugh Miles Atlantic 85 RIB is that boat.   The modification for the boathouse was funded by the Derek and Jean Dodd Trust and a legacy left to the charity by RNLI supporter Desmond Nall. Derek and Jean Dodd moved near Aberdovey, where Derek was able to kayak into his 80s.  Desmond Nall was an RNLI enthusiast from Solihull, who, together with his brother, Godfrey volunteered  on the RNLI’s stand at the Birmingham Boat Show for a number of years and funded two inshore lifeboats.

The Aberdyfi lifeboat station has a rather special and unique feature:  the bell from the HMS Dovey.  It is on loan from the Royal Navy.  Should another HMS Dovey be built, the bell will have to be returned, but at the moment it is a much loved and admired resident of the lifeboat station.  The HMS Dovey was the river class minesweeper M2005 commissioned in 1984 and sold to Bangladesh in 1994 for use as a patrol ship.

If you are a visitor to Aberdovey, do visit the lifeboat station and the shop.  You will find a very warm welcome.

Contact details:
Aberdovey Lifeboat Station
The Wharf
Aberdyfi
LL35 0EB
01654 767695 (If you see someone in trouble at sea dial 999 and ask for the Coast Guard).
The shop is open from Easter to October 10am–4pm Saturday and Sunday, and on some Saturdays in November and December.  During the summer it is open for some days during the week (opening times are shown in the shop door)
Facebook page

As well as the RNLI, local emergency services that receive no direct government funding and rely on their charity status and fundraising activities for their income are Trinity House (vital shipping and seafaring charity), the Wales Air Ambulance service and Aberdyfi Search and Rescue.

Many thanks to Dai Williams for correcting the mistakes and plugging the gaps in my first draft.  Helen Williams tells me that no matter how much you find out about the lifeboat station, there is always more to know and I believe her!

References

Aberdyfi Lifeboat Facebook page
https://bit.ly/2OXFbqx

Dermody, D. 2011.  Atlantic College students’ RIB sea safety revolution. BBC 15/05/17. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-east-wales-13377377

RNLI News Release 2016. Farewell to Sandwell Lifeline as Aberdyfi RNLI welcomes new lifeboat. RNLI 02/12/16. https://rnli.org/news-and-media/2016/december/02/farewell-to-sandwell-lifeline-as-aberdyfi-rnli-welcomes-new-lifeboat

RNLI News Release 2017. Double celebration ahead for Aberdyfi RNLI. RNLI 25/07/17.
https://rnli.org/news-and-media/2017/september/25/double-celebration-ahead-for-aberdyfi-rnli

RNLI News Release 2018. Aberdyfi and Barmouth RNLI Lifeboats involved in Tywyn rescue. RNLI 1/08/18. https://rnli.org/news-and-media/2018/august/01/aberdyfi-and-barmouth-rnli-lifeboats-involved-in-tywyn-rescue

A visit to St Peter Ad Vincula Church, Pennal

There are six churches in the Bro Ystumanner Ministry Area, which covers the Dyfi Estuary and Dysynni Valley.  I intend to write about all six of the churches, which include St Peter’s in Aberdovey and St Cadfan’s in Tywyn, but am starting with St Peter ad Vincula in Pennal.  The story of St Peter ad Vincula comes in three parts:  1) as a piece of architectural and ecclesiastical heritage in its own right, 2) as the site at which Owain Glyndŵr’s Llythyr Pennal (Pennal Letter) was signed, and 3) as a modern, fully functioning community church.  I was lucky enough to be given a full tour of the church by church warden Hugh Ramsbotham, to whom my sincere thanks.

The unusual name of the church refers to a story in the Acts of the Apostles XII.  St Peter ad Vincula translates as St Peter in Chains and refers to an event when St Peter was jailed in Jerusalem by Herod.  The night before his trial he was asleep, flanked by two soldiers and chained in irons, awaiting trial for preaching about Jesus.  An angel is said to have woken him on the night before his trial, releasing him from his chains with a touch, guiding him out of the prison past unseeing guards.  Today, the chain is kept in a reliquary under the main altar of the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli (Rome), which was built in the 5th Century to house the chains.

Aerial view of Pennal, with the church of St Peter ad Vincula surrounded by an oval wall. Source: Coflein website

The village of Pennal lies on the River Pennel, which runs into the River Dyfi, and it is probable that this was the main Dyfi river crossing throughout the Roman and Mediaeval periods.  The village was occupied from at least the Roman period, if not earlier, with a small fort, Cefn Gaer, established near to the river.  The site of the church itself had probably been occupied by a pre-Christian structure, suggested by the oval perimeter wall of the churchyard.  Oval and circular churchyard walls are often associated with a number of early structures including Roman era churches that survived the departure of the Romans, early burial grounds, pre-Christian shrines and Anglo-Saxon defended sites.  Such circular and oval churchyards are common in Wales.

The first church was established in around the 6th Century by Saint Tanwg and Saint Eithrias, missionaries from Armorica (modern Brittany).  There are no signs of either that wooden structure or any that followed it.  Pennal was the site of one of 21 llysoedd, or royal court compounds, and the motte that stands some 300m to the south-west of the church may have been part of the contemporary complex.  The church was re-dedicated at the end of the 11th Century by the Normans and it is possible that it was first rebuilt in stone during the 1130s when Gruffydd ap Cynan initiated a programme to rebuild ancient churches of Gwynedd.  Throughout the Mediaeval period it was located within the cantref (similar to a county) of Meirionnydd and the smaller administrative unit of the cwmwd (commote) of Ystumanner.  Throughout the Middle Ages the church  was one of three Chapels of Ease (subsidiary churches) under St Cadfan at Twywyn, along with Llanfinhangel-y-Pennant and Llanfair (Tal-y-Llyn).   The church is recorded as having served several of the Welsh tywysogion (princes) and is mentioned in the Norwich Taxatio (records of assessments of English and Welsh ecclesiastical wealth) of 1253.  It is probable that it was designated a Chapel Royal of the Princes of Gwynedd under Owain Glyndŵr. In the 1284 in the Statute of Rhuddlan the cantref of Merionnydd was combined with other cantrefs to form Merionethshire.

The Pennal Letter. Source: British Library. Archives nationales de France, J//516/A/29 J//516/B/40. Copyright © Archives nationales de France

The presence of a llys here partially accounts for the presence of Owain Glyndŵr in the early 15th Century.  The connection with Owain Glyndŵr concerns an important moment in Welsh history, which could have turned the tide in favour of Welsh independence from England. In 1404 Glyndŵr held a Parliament at Machynlleth where he was, according to tradition, crowned Prince of Wales, having organized the previously very fragmented opposition to Henry IV.  At the time he had backing from Scotland and Northumbria, but by the end of 1405 this support had been eroded by Henry’s armies.  In 1406 Glyndŵr assembled a formal meeting of his nobles and clergy at Pennal, including the Archdeacon of Meirionnydd Gruffydd Young, to discuss the options for making a strategic alliance with Charles VI of France.  During this period there were two papacies, the traditional papacy base in Rome and a new breakaway papacy in Avignon, France.  Charles VI was loyal to the Avignon papacy, whilst the English king Henry VI was loyal to Rome.  Glyndŵr hoped to take advantage of the breach within the Roman Catholic Church as a bargaining chip to gain the support of Charles VI.  As a result, a letter was written by Glyndŵr in Latin to Charles VI offering allegiance to Pope Benedict XIII in return for military support.  It was signed by Glyndŵr and provided with his great seal, which was probably done at the church.  Although the hoped-for support never arrived, the letter remains a vital historical document recording Glyndŵr’s intentions, a strategy for the future of Wales, which included the development of a Welsh church with its own Archbishopric at st David’s, an independent Welsh government and the establishment of two universities.  The letter is preserved today in France at the Archives Nationales de France in Paris, and a copy is on display in the church at Pennal.  A translation of the letter is available in English on the Canolfan Owain Glyndŵr website.  The letter was carried to France by Hywel Eddoyer and Maurice Kelly.  A 1996 painting by Ceredigion artist Aneurin Jones (1930 – 25 September 2017) that reconstructs the assembly hangs in the church, showing members of the parish at the time it was painted.

The Aneurin Jones reconstruction of Glyndŵr’s assembly at Pennal

The earliest of the clearly dated parts of the building belong to the 16th Century, with Roman red sandstone brickwork from the fort incorporated into the walls of the church and churchyard walls, which were otherwise built of locally sourced stone.  The church was a chapel of ease in the Tywyn parish in the Middle Ages, but became a parish church in 1683 under its first rector, Maurice Jones.  The 19th Century renovations were radical, but incorporated aspects of the 16th and later century features into the structure.  16th Century survivors include roof timbers that were incorporated into the new roof, oak pews, the oak altar and possibly the carved pulpit.

The church was rebuilt in 1700 and 1761.  In the 18th Century Pennal acquired particular importance when an east-west turnpike was built following the Merioneth turnpike act of 1775, which ran from near Pennal through Cwm Maethlon (Happy Valley) to Tywyn, completely bypassing Aberdovey.  By the mid 19th Century the wharf at Pennal became important for transporting slate downriver to Aberdovey for loading onto coastal vessels and in 1865 the Cwm Ebol slate slab quarry, about a mile to the northwest of Pennal, built a tramway to the village after several years of using horses to transport the slates.

During the 19th Century the church was again rebuilt in 1810 and 1872-3.  It is to the 19th Century that most of the current form and character of the church belongs.  St Peter ad Vicula is Grade II listed (listing number 23314, listed on 25th May 2000).  The interior layout of the church is a single unit incorporating both chancel and nave with a slate roof. There is also a south porch added in 1880 and made of stone from Llugwy Quarry, a north vestry added in 1890 and short square bell tower with two bells at the east end, with a fully functioning clock is set into the exterior just below the tower.  The original gallery was removed in 1873 (and was replaced with a modern version in 2010).  The internal floor area was lowered by two feet and six inches c.1901.  Wonderful 19th Century quarry tiles cover the floor of the chancel and the step leading up to it, as well as the floor of the vestry.  The modern slate floor at the west end replaced more quarry tiles, of which only one tiny patch survives.  The roof is a very nice open tie-beam arrangement, with re-used older timbers as well as contemporary Victorian ones.

The church has five lovely stained glass windows, all dating to the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  The earliest belongs to 1872 (by Holland and Holt of Warwick) and the latest, which replaced 1872 windows in the nave, date to the early 1920s and commemorate members of the community.  The themes are The Ascension (1872 by Holland and Holt); the IHS monogram, the abbreviation of the Greek spelling of Jesus, “ΙΗΣΟΥΣ” (1872, by Holland and Holt); Christ Blessing Children Brought by the Mothers (1893, Ward and Hughes); The New Jerusalem (c.1923, by Powell and Sons, designed by Ernest Penwarden), and Charity (1928).  The Ascension, which dominates the church at its eastern end, is a particularly colourful and lively piece, with a depiction of the the Green Man presiding over fruit and vegetable at its base, the only known representation of the Green Man on stained glass known in Wales.  The Green Man is usually a sculpture, either surrounded by or made of leaves, probably pagan in origins but frequently depicted in church sculptures, perhaps connected with ideas of earth-bound seasonal renewal and the harvest.  Most of the windows are commemorative, some with inscriptions below the them, or within the glass itself.  The Ascension window, for example, was dedicated to the memory of William Hodson Lloyd, who died in 1871.

The provenance of the three striking Flemish oak plaques showing the martyrs St Jude, St Andrew and St Paul on the north wall is unknown.  There used to be four of them, all dating to around 1700, but one was stolen.  A brass plaque, a rare example dating to the mid 19th Century, commemorates three Thruston sisters, one of whom held the first school in Pennal in the church’s gallery.  The date of the fretwork pulpit is uncertain.  The lovely little organ was built by John Smith of Bristol, c.1840 and still plays perfectly.  Underneath the altar, church documents record that Lleucy Llwyd (Lucy Lloyd) was interred following her tragic death.

The story of Lleucy Llywd belongs to the mid-14th Century, but is more legend than history.   Lleucy lived on Dolgelynnen Farm near the Dyfi river and fell in love with a young court poet called Llywelyn Goch.  Lleucu’s father refused to let them marry, and kept the two apart.  When Llywelyn Goch had to go away for a period of time, promising to return, Lleucy’s father told her that Llywelyn had married another woman. Lleucu died of a broken heart and Llywelyn returned to her on the day of her funeral. The story has been immortalized in Llywelyn Goch’s famous Welsh elegy Marwnad Lleucu LLwyd.  Copies are available online in Welsh (e.g. on Wikisource), but I have been unable to find an English translation – please get in touch if you know of one!

In 1991 a road widening scheme removed part of the churchyard, to the south. It was done sympathetically, so that the sense of the space being a clearly defined oval is retained.  The graves were moved to a new site outside the village, and ninety one tomb stones were recorded and moved to lean against the walls within the churchyard.  Unsurprisingly, some Roman tiles were found at the same time.  The churchyard was converted into a Heritage Garden in 2004 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of Owain Glyndŵr’s Parliament and this incorporated many of the headstones into its design.  It was designed by Peter Styles and was constructed by a Pennal, William Rees, with funding from Cyngor Gwynedd,with funds from the EU and the Welsh National Assembly, the Snowdonia National Park fund for sustainable development (CAE) and numerous local supporters.  Its aim was to provide a place of peace and tranquillity, incorporating native species of tree, shrub and flower, including some lovely pieces of topiary, emulating monastic gardens.  The dominant theme is of repeated curvilinear motifs, reminiscent of Welsh stone circles and Celtic themes.  Key features are memorial plaques, a statue of Owain Glyndŵr by sculptor David Haynes and circular oak benches that act as a textural bridge between the grey stone that makes up most of the garden and the delightful shrubbery that sits within it.  The sculpture, about 4ft tall, shows a man ready for action, a cloak held in place with a dragon clasp, and a suit of armour showing the faces of men who lost their lives, their bereft mothers and widows, and themes that bring Wales to mind, like buzzard, hare, oak tree, raven and harp.

Memorial to Charles Thomas Thurston of Pennal Tower

It is easy to think of churches merely in terms of their physical architecture and history, but of course churches were built by people for their communities.  Perhaps more than any other church I can remember visiting in the last couple of years, St Peter ad Vincula gives the sense of how it has been tied up with village life and the key families who helped to support and maintain it.  The monumental inscriptions on the walls, the earliest of which dates to 1717, all commemorated key contributors to the church, and captured some of the sense of pride and involvement that these people had invested in the community and in their country.  The number of memorials to those who died in wars alone is remarkable.  All these families, the Anwyls, Thrustons, Edwards, Talgarths and Rucks have died out now in the Pennal area, but there is a sense of continuity between them and the church’s current guardians.  Each of these family histories deserve research in their own right.

Today the church is one of six in the Bro Ystumanner Ministry Area in the Archdeaconry of Meirionnydd and the Diocese of Bangor.  The other churches in the Ministry Area are St Cadfan in Tywyn, St Peter in Aberdovey, St David in Abergynlowyn, St Michael in Llanfihangel-y-Pennant and St.s Mary and Egryn in Llanegryn.  The Reverend Ruth Hansford presides over the Ministry Area, supported by both clerics and lay personnel.  The village is tiny and being sandwiched between Tywyn and Aberdovey in the west and Machynlleth in the east does not have a vast catchment area, and of course congregations fluctuate throughout the year as locally-based holiday visitors come and go, but the church still manages to hold a congregation at 9.30 every Sunday and holds commemorative services, concerts and festivals, with song a running theme through all their activities.  The gallery upstairs is a space for meetings, social gatherings, small events and quiet contemplation, whatever your denomination.  Involvement with the local school, with its 18 pupils, is important, and evinced in the Remembrance Day exhibit at the west end of the church, and in an earlier project to interpret the Green Man, upstairs in the gallery.  The church is full of charm and interest, and above all warmth, with dozens of community stories embedded in every feature.

Location of St Peter ad Vincula in Pennal. Courtesy Google Maps.

The church is literally on the A493 that links Aberdovey in the west to Machynlleth in the east.  It is a small village, and parking may be difficult during the summer but is easy out of season.  Through the main door and to the left you will see a small metal box on the wall above a table with leaflets about the church’s history.  Feed a pound coin into it and it turns on all the lights for 20 minutes, transforming the interior.  Such a great idea.

Address:
Church of St Peter ad Vincula
Pennal
Machynlleth
SY20 9DW
Contact details are on the Church of St Peter ad Vincula website at: http://pennalchurch.org.uk

My many thanks again to Hugh Ramsbotham for the excellent guided tour, as well as to David Inman for introducing us.

References

British Listed buildings. Church of St Peter ad Vincula.
https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/300023314-church-of-st-peter-ad-vincula-pennal#.VwbTR3arSM8
Canolfan Owain Glyndŵr.  Pennal Letter.
http://www.canolfanglyndwr.org/pennal-letter.php
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2007. Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd: Aberdyfi. A Threat Related Assessment. GAT Project No.1824, Report No.671.1, April 2007
http://www.walesher1974.org/her/groups/GAT/media/GAT_Reports/GATreport_671.1_compressed.pdf
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2011.  Conservation Area Appraisal: Aberdyfi, Gwynedd. GAT Project  No.2155, Report No.956, June 2007.
http://www.walesher1974.org/her/groups/GAT/media/GAT_Reports/GATreport_956_compressed.pdf 
Leighton, D. 2015. Cym Ebol slate/slab works. RCAHMW, 26 January 2015
http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/286681/details/cwm-ebol-slate-quarrycwm-ebol-slab-works
St Peter ad Vincula Church Leaflet: A Guide to the Church.
St Peter ad Vincula Church Leaflet: The Heritage Garden at Pennal.
Stained Glass in Wales. Church of St Peter ad Vincula, Pennal, Gwynedd. http://stainedglass.llgc.org.uk/site/284 
Visit Mid Wales.  Local Legend – Lleucu Llwyd at Dyfi Valley and Coast.
http://www.visitmidwales.co.uk/Machynlleth-Local-Legend-Lleucu-Llwyd/details/?dms=3&feature=1002&venue=1124365 
Vousden, N. 2012. St Peter ad Vincula.  RCAHMW, April 2012
http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/415/details/st-petersst-peter-ad-vinculas-church

The Aberdovey Second World War pillbox

Walking towards Tywyn from Aberdovey you will come across a Second World War pillbox, an ugly concrete box with a small square hole in each side.  It has subsided unevenly into a dip in the beach at the foot of the dunes, an incongruous contributor to the area’s heritage.  It can be reached easily along the beach from Aberdovey.  It’s a fairly short walk from the car park, a little way beyond the Trefeddian Hotel, which is visible through a dip in the sand dunes.  If you prefer a short-cut there is a public footpath from a big lay-by on the A493 that takes you across the sand dunes and drops you very close to it.  Not that it’s a tourist destination, but it is certainly a local landmark, and sitting in an unspoiled stretch of eternal pale yellow sands with the rich blue sea beyond, it has an emphatic presence all of its own.  It is at grid reference SN59549635, at the end of the footpath known as The Crossing.

The pillbox is marked as a red box by The Crossing. Source: OS Explorer, Cadair Idris and Llyn Tegid. OL23. Ordnance Survey 2015

There are two war memorials in Aberdovey.  There’s a lovely 1999 memorial to 3 Troop 10(1A) who were stationed at Aberdovey during the war for their training (see my earlier post about this) and there’s a little shrine and plaque listing the dead from form both wards inserted into the wall of St Peter’s Church.

In some ways, the pillbox is an even more substantial monument to the bitter truth of war, mute but evocative.   The fact that it sits there, so out of place, so thoroughly ugly, is an appropriate shock to the system.  As detritus of war, it is something that demands a response and forces an  acknowledgement of the realities of the past in a way that a conventional memorial, however heartfelt, does not.  Although it was a lovely day for a walk, the sands endlessly beautiful and full of light, when I arrived at the pillbox it was just as dismal as I remembered.  Ugly, lop-sided, surreal, a scar on the landscape, a slap around the face.  A savage, palpable war memorial.

Pillboxes were part of a network of small defences that were put in place along the coastline, at road junctions and on canals to counter threats of Nazi attack on Britain.  The network consisted of a number of measures including offshore minefields; beach and manned seafront obstacles like barbed wire and landing craft obstructions, pillboxes and minefields; and cliff-top and dune defences including pillboxes and anti-glider obstructions.  The pillboxes, 28,000 of them, were sometimes round or hexagonal to avoid blind spots, but there were were seven different types in total (Types 22-28), with variants.  The Aberdovey one is a Type 26 prefabricated square with an embrasure in each wall and a door, now slightly subsided into a slight dip in the sand, 3ft or so deep.  Some pillboxes were brick- or stone-built but many, like this one, were made of concrete that was sufficiently thick to be bullet proof.   My thanks to the Pillbox Study Group for this excerpt, which explains the thinking behind pillboxes and other defence structures that were put in place in WWII:

On 25th June 1940, General Paget, Chief of Staff to the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces submitted General Ironside`s anti-invasion plan to the War Cabinet in the form of Home Forces Operation Instruction No.3.

SECTION 13 of the Instruction stated: “The general plan of defence is a combination of mobile columns and static defences by means of strong-points and stops. As static defence only provides limited protection of the most vulnerable points, it must be supplemented by the action of mobile columns. However mobile such columns may be they cannot be expected to operate immediately over the whole area in which it is possible for the enemy to attempt invasion by sea or air. It is therefore necessary to adopt measures for confining his actions until such time as mobile columns can arrive to deal with him. This will be done by means of stops and strong-points prepared for all round defence at aerodromes which are necessary to prevent the enemy obtaining air superiority, at the main centres of communications and distributed in depth over a wide area covering London and the centres of production and supply. This system of stops and strong-points will prevent the enemy from running riot and tearing the guts out of the country as had happened in France and Belgium.”

In total there were 6 pillboxes every 500m from south of the river Dyffryn Gwyn, which flows into the sea just south of Tywyn, to the entrance of the river Dovey.  Prefabricated pillboxes were built of concrete panels and were then bolted into place on site.  The pillboxes to the north of this one are badly damaged, perhaps in an attempt to destroy and remove them.  Aberdovey had an Observer Corps, a Home Guard and a Coastguard Station during the Second World War.

References:

 

Day Trip – The Royal Silver Mint and Dyfi Charcoal Blast Furnace in the village of Furnace

Today my father and I visited the site of the Royal Silver Mint and the restored Dyfi Charcoal Blast Furnace at the village of Furnace (Welsh Ffwrnais), only 10km southwest of Machynlleth on the south side of the Dovey river, in Ceredigion.  What an amazing place.   Some of my days out have nothing much to do with Aberdovey itself, but this one is positively bristling with linkages between the 18th Century Dyfi Furnace and the contemporary port at Aberdovey.

Learning of the existence of the Dyfi Furnace was a complete accident.  Last week my father and I drove into Aberystwyth to find out how long it would take to drive there from Aberdovey, and if there were retail facilities worth the trip.  The drive was surprisingly beautiful, mainly through lovely woodland and pastures, sometimes with views over the river Dovey, the estuary and Cardigan Bay, with a spectacular descent into Aberystwyth itself, the sea a staggeringly beautiful blue.  The reality of the eternally winding road meant that we were plagued with nervous and over-cautious drivers and very slow lorries, a frustrating experience behind the steering wheel.  On the other hand, discovering the Dyfi Furnace was an absolutely excellent outcome of the expedition.

As we hurtled around a corner on our way to Aberystwyth, we both noticed a large water wheel on the side of an impressively solid stone-built building on the left/east of the A487, a few miles southwest of Machynlleth.  When we returned from Aberystwyth I fired up my PC to find out what it was, and having identified it as Dyfi Furnace, started investigating its past.  The two buildings that make up the site are managed by Cadw, and the site has a long and absolutely fascinating history dating to at least the 17th Century, spanning the reign of Charles I, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution and the 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Today it has a valuable role welcoming visitors and providing information about the area’s industrial past.

There is a lot to say, so this is a long post, divided up as follows:

  • Introduction to the site
  • Archaeology and the history of the Dyfi Furnace
    • The early 17th Century lead works
    • The silver mill and Royal Mint c.1648-1670
    • The charcoal blast furnace c.1755-1810
      • Introducing the Dfyi Charcoal Blast Furnace
      • The job of a charcoal blast furnace, and how it works
      • How the iron smelting process translates into furnace architecture
      • The Dyfi Furnace in detail
    • The sawmill c.1810/1887-1920
  • The site today and visitor information
  • References

All sources used throughout the post are listed at the end.  You can click on images to see larger versions.


Introduction

The site is located c.10kms south of Machynlleth on what is now the A487.  On the Ordnance Survey map, at  SN685951 it can be found on the edge of the village of Furnace, which took its name from the Dyfi Furnace.  The Dyfi Furnace is one of the last charcoal blast furnaces is to be preserved in Britain and is the best preserved in Wales.  It is now managed by Cadw, Welsh Government’s historic environment service.

The history of the Dyfi Furnace can be divided into five phases of use:

  • The early 16th Century lead works
  • The establishment of the Royal Silver Mills during the Civil War (1642-1651), when it shifted from Aberystwyth when Aberystwyth Castle was under threat of attack;
  • Its conversion to a charcoal blast furnace in around 1755, changing hands at least twice before its closure in 1810;
  • The conversion of the furnace into a sawmill
  • The use of the sawmill as an agricultural storage facility, mainly for root vegetables

All three phases of use depended on water power, employing water wheels of varying sizes to transmit energy to operate machinery.

 

Archaeology and History

The early 17th Century lead works

In the early 17th Century, Sir Hugh Myddleton was responsible for promoting the metal mining industry in Ceredigion, with remarkable success, although he is better known for his pivotal role in the construction of the New River, to supply water from the River Lea to London.  It is thought that the Ynsyhir lead smelting works, that were the first industrial works standing on the Dyfi Furnace site were part of his drive to bring industry to the area.  The lead works dated from around 1620, processing lead ore to produce both lead and silver.  As in later years, local wood was probably the main reason for siting the lead works in this particular place.  The finished products were distributed by sea via the Dyfi estuary, helping to establish Aberdovey as an important trans-shipping port.

The Royal Silver Mint

During the reign of Charles I (1600-1649) silver coinage was produced in the Royal Mint in London from silver produced in mines throughout Britain, including Wales.  The crown owned a number of silver mills in its own right, known as the Mines Royal.  A paper by the Reverend Eyre Evans describes a surviving petition from 1636  that states that on the 12th May 1625 Charles I had granted one Sir Hugh Myddleton with the rights, for 31 years, to all the silver mines in the county of Cardigan, to be sent to the Royal Mint in London.  By the end of 1636 silver had been sent to the Mint at a value of £50,000.  The petition was sent by Thomas Bushell, member of the Society of Mines Royal, who had bought the land on Myddleton’s death from from Myddleton’s widow and hoped to retain Royal patronage for the endevour.

Threepence Charles I coins minted at Aberystwyth. Source: British Museum

Bushell was granted his petition, and now in the possession of the mines began to petition for a mint (a coin factory) in Aberystwyth Castle to manufacture coins exclusively from Welsh silver mines, citing the precedent of Ireland, where a Royal Mint had been established. Rather surprisingly, given strongly worded objections from the Royal Mint in London, on the 9th  July 1637 Bushell was again granted his wish, and was authorized to coin the half-crown, shilling, half-shilling, two-pence, and penny, all from Welsh silver.  In October of the same year the groat, threepence and half-penny were added to the list.  A set of accounts for the Aberystwyth Castle mint last up until 1642, when they cease abruptly, almost certainly due to the outbreak of the Civil War and the threat to the mint from Parliamentarian forces, and the castle was actually occupied briefly in 1648.

Tentative suggestions that during the Civil War (1642-1651) the Aberystwyth Royal Mint was moved to the site at Furnace were unambiguously confirmed during the 1986 excavations by James Dinn and his team, a great result.   Ceredigion silver was very highly valued and moving the Royal Mint to this location was a sound plan, particularly as Charles I was in urgent need of coin to pay his army.  This seems to have taken place in 1648 or a short time beforehand.

The silver mill had been described by Sir John Pettus and John Ray in 1670 and 1674 respectively, and a plan by Waller (1704) survives.  These between them describe furnaces, possibly up to five of them, the mint house and the stamping mill surrounding a courtyard, together with the mint house, a lead mill and a refining house.  Between them the buildings had four water wheels to operate four sets of bellows. One of the wheel pits was found during the excavations.  A cobbled surface was also found during excavations, apparently belonging to the courtyard of the silver mill.

Dinn says that the dates during which the silver mill was in use are uncertain, but that it may have operated in 1645-6 and 1648-9.  Activity was apparently suspended in 1650 but the works seem to have been in operation again in 1650.  1670 seems to mark the date for its permanent abandonment.

The Charcoal Blast Furnace

Introducing the Dyfi Charcoal Blast Furnace

At the top of the Dyfi Furnace, the charging room, from where the furnace was fed.

The Dyfi Charcoal Blast Furnace was built in c.1755 and was in use for five years for iron smelting (the production of iron from natural iron ore).  The excavations found that later conversion to a sawmill had destroyed some of the blast furnace components but preserved others.  Charcoal blast furnaces had been introduced into Britain in the late 15th Century but it took another century for them to become widespread.

The furnace was initially leased in c.1755 from Lewis and Humphrey Edwards by Ralph Vernon together with the brothers Edward and William Bridge, who had been involved with the building of a furnace in Conwy, north Wales in 1750.   The furnace-master, who was accommodated in a house at the site called Ty Furnace, was Thomas Gaskell.  Vernon retired sometime between 1765 and 1770 and the Bridge brothers went bankrupt in 1773.  Dinn says that this “left members of the Kendall family in sole control of Conwyy and Dyfi furnaces.”  I am not clear on how the Kendalls, west Midlands iron-masters with interests throughout Britain, came to be in control, but the Kendalls may have invested in the furnace operation.  Ralph Vernon was a cousin of Jonathan and Henry Kendall and they had been in business together before.  Both Dyfi and Conwy furnaces were put up for sale in 1774.  No buyers were found and it is thought that John Kendall probably managed the Dyfi furnace himself until his death in 1791, but the Conwy furnace closed in around 1779.  In 1796 the lease again changed hands and was now in the name of Messrs Bell and Gaskell, the latter being the Thomas Gaskell who had been the furnace master at Dyfi Furnace under the Kendalls.   Dyfi Furnace went out of use as an iron ore smelting furnace in around 1810.

There were four reasons for basing the furnace at the foot of the River Einion waterfall.

  • First, the waterfall provided power for the water wheel, and with its source high in the hills, originating in Craiglin Dyffi near the summit of the remote Aran Faddwy, the tallest peak in the area, it was unlikely to dry up at any part of the year. The water wheel powered the bellows that gave the blast furnace its name.
  • Second, there was a road to the river village of Garreg, 2km away, that provided access to the navigable part of the River Dovey (Afon Dyfi), which provided easy access to the sea port of Aberdovey.  The furnace depended upon Aberdovey for transfer of iron ore (the natural material from which iron is extracted in the furnace) from Cumbria to river ships that could make the trip to Garreg, and for transhipping its pig iron (iron produced from iron ore that was now in a state ready to be worked in a forge by a blacksmith) to elsewhere in the country.
  • Third, it was surrounded by rich woodland that was exploited for the manufacture of charcoal to fuel the furnace.
  • Finally, it was immediately next to the turnpike road out of Machynlleth, providing access to the market town.

Both iron ore and limestone had to be imported.  The iron ore came mainly from Cumbria, but it is not clear where the limestone was sourced.  Limestone is available in north Wales, and there are records of imports to the furnace from the River Dee, so this is a plausible source.

The entire complex included the Furnace (blast furnace stack, the hearth at its base, a casting house, a bellows room, a counterweight room, a charging room), an external charcoal storage building and the iron-master’s house, Ty Furnace.

Plan of the buildings associated with the Dyfi Furnace. Source: Dinn, J. 1988, p.112

 

The job of the charcoal blast furnace, and how it works

Iron Smelting

A furnace is an impressive combination of chemical and mechanical engineering.

Iron ores are a mixture of oxides and sulphates of iron, predominantly haematite, ferric oxide (Fe2O3).  However, the haematite and other iron oxides come mixed with a variety of other minerals, containing such elements as silica, alumina, phosphorous, manganese and sulphur. The smelting process must accomplish two things.

Blast Furnace simulation showing some of the components described in this post.  Please note that this simulation shows coke being used, but this is a later innovation; the Dyfi Furnace used charcoal. Sourced from the BBC History website, where it can be run as an excellent Flash animation.

It must split the molecules of the iron compounds so that the iron is separated from the oxygen.   This is done by the addition of heat and the supply of carbon in the form of (in this case) charcoal.   In this chemical and physical environment, the addition of heat energy divides the ore into iron and carbon dioxide, CO2.  The hot carbon dioxide exits through the chimney.  Notice that the charcoal is both the source of heat, and a chemical reagent combining with the oxygen in the ferric oxide.

The second thing the process must accomplish is remove the other minerals that accompany the haematite in the iron ore.  This is achieved in two ways.  First, the addition of intense heat acts in much the same way as it does with the haematite taking off some of the impurities as gases.   However, it also requires the addition of a limestone (primarily composed of calcite, CACO3) “flux,” which both lowers the melting point of the mixture and bonds with the impurities to make a silicaceous liquid, physically and chemically similar to a very impure glass.  Being silicaceous, it is light and floats on the iron, making it relatively easy to separate.

The addition of oxygen

Oxygen is added by use of bellows.  There are two features of the flow of air in a furnace which are worth noting.  First the bellows are much more effective blowing into a confined space.  Blowing into an open hearth, the air is quickly dissipated, as is the heat produced.  Second, the narrow funnel at the top of the furnace creates what engineers call a “venturi.”  It forces the hot rising gases into a much smaller space so that their speed increases, in the same way that like the narrowing of the nozzle size on a hose pipe, increases the speed at which the water squirts out.  When the velocity of a gas increases, its pressure falls, according to a physical law known as Bernoulli’s principle.  The low pressure at the top of the furnace pulls the air through the smelting mixture just as the air from the bellows is pushing it.  Together, they increase the amount of oxygen from the air which reaches the burning charcoal, radically increasing its temperature.

Bellows

Bellows are a device for taking a lot of air from an unconfined place and pushing it at high pressure into a smaller place.  To operate successfully the bellows need four features.

First, and most obvious, a bag into which the air can be sucked from the atmosphere.  At this time the bag were usually leather.

The second thing that the bellows need are a way of opening and closing the bag.  In this furnace opening is achieved by a cog with one side of each tooth rounded (see diagram), driven by a water wheel.  The opening is achieved by a counter weight connected to a lever which is pulled up by the same cog mechanism (see diagram). When the tooth of the cog passes, the counterweight falls to open the bellows.

The third thing is a valve on the leather bag which lets air be sucked in when the bellow are open, but not blown out when they are closing.

Finally, the bellows need a narrow nozzle to push the air at high speed into the furnace chamber to deliver oxygen to the charcoal and increase the rate of combustion.

A Cadw sign from the site showing how the counterweights related to the functionality of the bellows

How the iron smelting process translates into furnace architecture

The furnace consists of a number of different rooms, each devoted to a different task:

  • The charge (charcoal, limestone flux and iron ore) is fed in from the charging room at the top of the furnace.  This room keeps the charcoal dry whilst it is being fed into the furnace.
  • The furnace itself is in a square stack, but is circular in form.  A small round opening at the top (the neck) flares out down the length of the stack to allow the materials to expand as they are heated from a blast from the bellows.  The stack suddenly narrows into a funnel, called the bosh.  Finally, the a tall cylinder at the base, the hearth, is where the molten iron and slag gathers.
  • The heat within the furnace is maintained by the bellows, which are contained within the bellows room and these are operated by a water wheel on the outside of the building.
  • A counterweight room contains the counterweights that raise and drop the bellows.  The bellows connect to the furnace via an pipe, c.3 inches in diameter, and a nozzle called a tuyère that are carried through a tuyère hole or blasting arch at about 1ft above the base of the furnace at the correct angle to give maximum impact.
  • The area in the hearth below the tuyère where the liquid metal comes to rest is called the crucible.
  • Molten slag, floating on top, and molten iron, below, pass through separate tapholes.  The iron passes through an arch, called a casting arch, into the the casting room.  This is where the iron hardens in clean and dry conditions.


Looking in detail at the Dyfi Furnace

When it was built in c.1755 the Dyfi Furnace appears to have consisted of a free-standing blast furnace, with other components added a little later.  The completed complex consisted of the furnace building made of local shale from the Silurian period Llandovery series and grey-white mortar, the charcoal barn 20m away from the furnace and the head ironmaster’s house.

A superb cut-away image of the interior of the Dyfi Furnace, showing how all the components relate to one another, upstairs and down. The furnace is at far left with the bellows to its right and the couterwights beyond, at far right. Upstairs is the charging room where the iron ore, charcoal and limestone were poured in, and at the bottom you can see men urging the molten iron into the pig moulds in the casting house, of which only the foundations were found during excavation. The water wheel is on the other side of the far wall, powering the bellows. The chimney vents all the released gases. Source: Cadw signage at the site.

 

The charcoal store

The furnace building was split into the furnace stack itself (9.1m square at the base and 8m square at the eves, and 10m tall).  The furnace stack was was circular on the inside, which can be clearly seen from the ground floor.  The blowing house had a vaulted brick arch (the room measuring 5.1×7.7m).  The cast house measured 7.05×7.10m).  There was also a counterweight room and wheel pit, together with a wheel, to operate the bellows.  Two lean-to structures were added to the building, one housing the water wheel and the other apparently used for storage.

 

Site plan from the excavation report. Source: Dinn, J. 1988, page 122

The bottom of the furnace, the bellows room and the counterweight room can all be seen from the lowest level of the site down a small flight of stairs to the right of the building as you approach from the car park.

The excavations revealed the original cast house walls, of which only 0.80cm remained.   When you look in through the first arch at the furnace, you are standing where the cast house once was. Dinn says that “the variety of features in the casting area was much greater than that recorded at sites such as Bonawe  and Duddon, and the casting pit much deeper, suggesting a wider range of activities than pig casting was envisaged.”

It is not known whether the bellows were leather or the more modern iron blowing tubes that were installed in at least one contemporary furnace at Duddon in Cumberland.  Unfortunately there is nothing left to determine this.

The interior, circular design of the furnace.

The furnace, circular on the inside, but set within a square chimney, was probably composed of at least two layers of brick, separated by a fill of light rubble, earth or sand to allow for expansion of the furnace lining as it heated.

The rooms that would have contained the charging house were locked up, but this is where the iron ore (high quality Cumbrian haematite), the limestone and the charcoal would have been tipped into the furnace.  A covered charging bridge also existed, leading into the charging room.

There are considerable similarties in the design to Craleckan in Argyll and Conwy in north Wales with overall similarities to both Duddon in Cumberland and Bonawe in Argyll, and it is possible that they were all designed by the same person.

Outside, the water was managed using a series of features, including at least one leat (a channel dug into the ground to direct water to where it is needed), a waterfall that was built up to give it extra power for turning the water wheel, and a tailrace to take the water away from the furnace.   None of these features was excavated.  The wheel and wheel pit at the site today both belong to the saw mill and are bigger than the ones for which fittings were recorded during the excavations, which were 3.60-5m, 7.5m and 7.9m diameter.  The excavation report does not mention if the original water wheels used for the furnace were overshot or undershot designs.

Extensive use was made of arches throughout the building.  The main components of the building are built of local shale and mortar, but some of the arches, notably the blowing arch and taphole entrance, were made of brick.

Pen and ink drawing of the Dyfi Furnace from c.1790180 by P.J. de Loutherbourg. National Library of Wales. Source: Dinn, J. 1988, p.120.  The crack shown in this drawing is still clearly visible on the north wall today.

The furnace could not have operated without being able to interface with coastal carriers at Aberdovey.   Cargoes destined for the Dyfi Furnace, and products produced by the furnace were carried by sea, but these ships were too large to navigate the Dovey river, so everything had to be trans-shipped via Aberdovey, which acted as an cargo handling hub between coasters and small river vessels.    Materials and supplies arrived at Aberdovey by sea and were loaded onto river vessels.  Pig iron manufactured at the Dyfi Furnace was in turn sent down the river to Aberdovey, where it was loaded onto seagoing ships and sent on its way.  The relationship between Aberdovey and the small river ports that lined the River Dovey was completely symbiotic.   Ore and ironstone shipments to the furnace are recorded from both Conwy and the River Dee, whilst the Aberdovey Custom House records shipments of iron ore from Ulverston in Cumbria.  Backbarrow shipping ledgers from Ulverston record many deliveries to Dyfi Furnace.

One of the Cadw information sites at Dyfi Furnace showing coppicing and preparation of the stack for manufacturing charcoal

Information signs at the site say that the local woodlands were coppiced to make the wood go further.  This simply involves cutting the wood back very close to the ground every few years so that it regrows on several new trunks from a single root.  This wood was then converted to charcoal by baking it.  Branches were stakced and covered with earth, and then a fire was set.  Once it was burning, air was excluded from the stack and it was allowed to cook for several days.  The resulting charcoal burned at higher temperatures than wood, an essential asset for charcoal blast furnaces.  A single mature tree could provide sufficient fuel to manufacture two tons of iron.  Records show that charcoal was also shipped into Aberdovey from Barmouth, and this is thought to be have been destined for the Dyfi furnace, to supplement its own supply.  Pig iron was sent to Vernon and Kendall forges mainly in Cheshire and Staffordshire via Aberdovey but also to Barmouth.  Other pig iron was sent to the local Glanfred forge on the River Leri in Ynyslas (SN643880), presumably transported by river vessel down the river Dovey and then up the Leri.

My understaning is that the furnace-master’s house has also been preserved,  called Ty Furnace (translating as Furnace House), but I was unable to actually see that. It is, however, shown in both the drawings on this page.

Dovery Furnace. Etching by J.G. Wood, 1813, from his book The Principal Rivers of Wales. Source: National Library of Wales

The Dyfi Furnace was one of the last charcoal blast furnaces to be built in Britain, and is contemporary with some other well known charcoal blast furnaces including Bonawe (Argyll, Scotland), Conwy (north Wales) and Craleckan (Argyll, Scotland), all isolated areas that had good access to coastal trade routes. Richards suggests that very rural locations were selected because of their distance from Naval shipbuilding centres in the south and east of England, where shortages of shipbuilding timber were causing anxiety in the Admiralty, and competition for wood with charcoal-burning  furnaces may have been suppressed.

Saw Mill

There is very little information about the sawmill.  It was probably established at Dyfi Furnace at some point between 1810 and 1887, according to Dinn, although there was a period of disused after the furnace closed, marked by the collapse of the cast house roof.  A refurbishment and reorganization of the furnace building seems to have taken place a little later.

An early sawmill showing two men creating planks with a straight whipsaw.  Source: Cooney 1991

Sawmills were an innovation that simply did what the name implies.  Before mechanization, sawing had been achieved by two men with a long whipsaw, one man on top of the wood being sawed, the other man below, each man pulling his end of the saw in turn.   It was a highly skilled and physically demanding job, particularly for the man at the top of the saw.  The sawmill replaced man power with water power.  A water wheel was attached to the mechanism that did the sawing via a “pitman” (or connecting rod) that converted the circular motion of the wheel into the push-pull of the saw mechanism.  How the wood was loaded and unloaded is not discussed in any of the publications that I have found to date.  Given the lack of any additional structures described in the excavation reports it seems likely that loading the wood and removing it once processed were entirely manual, although mechanized systems were introduced at other sawmills.   According to E.W. Cooney’s fascinating paper, although sawmills had been established much earlier in Europe, the sawmill was a relatively late phenomenon in Britain, the first ones established in the late 18th Century but not really taking off until the arrival of steam-powered sawmills in the mid 19th Century, and this appears to have been partly due to pressure from professional manual sawyers but also from doubts about the benefits of new technologies.  Water power was gradually replaced by steam power, and during the 19th Century the number of water-powered sawmills declined very rapidly.

It was quite usual for a water mill that had formerly used for an entirely different task to be adapted for use as a sawmill, and often former corn mills were converted, so the re-use of a blast furnace as a sawmill was not surprising.  The water wheel that remains today is 9m (nearly 30ft) in diameter, but this may belong to a later phase than the initial conversion of the building to a saw mill and it may have been liberated from Ystrad Einion lead mine in the early 20th Century, which had a wheel of exactly the same size.  It is an overshot water wheel manufactured by  Williams and Metcalfe of the Rheidol Foundry, Aberystwith.  The Cast House pit may have been used for tanning from the park produced at the sawmill, as happened at Bonawe. A period of disuse seems to have been followed by the demolition of the Cast House and adjacent building in around 1880, and again a sawmill appears to have been the intended use.  Dinn says that it ceased to function in the 1920s.

The Dyfi water-powered sawmill was by now in a rather more populated area than the furnace had been.  Samuel Lewis, writing in 1849, recorded that “the immediate neighborhood is well wooded and agreeable, and some respectable residences are scatted over the township,” which is “conveniently situated near smelting houses and refining mills.”  He said that the river Dovey was navigable to the point where the river Einion met the Dovey for vessels up to 300 tons.  Nearby Eglwysfach was a bigger settlement with an Anglican church, a Calvinist and a Wesleyan Methodist chapel and two Sunday Schools.

Dinn’s report states that the sawmill only stopped operating in around 1920, but he does not mention how it was powered at that time, and it is possible that it was still water-powered.

After the Sawmill

The main furnace buildings were adapted for uses as an agricultural store, and a flagged floor was laid down for this new role in the Blowing House.  The Furnace stack was converted into a root vegetable store, with a slate floor.  Subsequent use of the site was limited.

 

The Site today and visitor Information

The top level at Dyfi Furnace,. The charging room where the furnace was loaded with raw materials for the transformation into pig iron.

The journey from Aberdovey to Furnace took about 30 minutes.  There is a decent sized carpark to the right of the road as you head south, immediately opposite the furnace itself .

When you have parked you just need to be careful (very careful) as you cross the busy A487.

Today the site is in beautiful condition thanks to renovations in 1977-8 and again in 1984.  The site is on two levels, with a set of easy steps with a handrail from one level to the other.  At the top of the steps you can see the top part of the builing’s structure and take a very short walk to the waterfall.

The interior is not accessible but open grills allow you to see all you need to inside the building at ground level.  The interior of the charging house at the top is closed due to horseshoe bats roosting there in the summer months.  The site is free to access and there are plenty of really excellent information boards to let you know what is happening at each part of the site.  On each notice board there is also a puzzle for children to explore.

Should you fancy a bit of a walk, there are a number of options that lead up the Einion valley from the waterfall, which you can find in a number of walking guides, or you can check out the ViewRanger website where there’s a short walk or a much longer one.  Alternatively, if you are in the mood for a different type of experience after your visit, you might take in the bird sanctuary at Ynys Hir, a short drive away, or the nature reserve at Ynyslas, a 15 minute drive away.

If you have any more information about the site and its history, it would be great to hear from you, so please let me know.

 

References

Primary references used in this post (all references cited above and below are listed in the website Bibliography):

First, many thanks to my father, William Byrnes, for writing the section “How a Blast Furnace Works.”

Cooney, E.W. 1991. Eighteenth Century Britain’s Missing Sawmills.  A Blessing in Disguise? Construction History 7, 1991, p.29-46.
https://www.arct.cam.ac.uk/Downloads/chs/vol7/article2.pdf
Daff, T. 1973. Charcoal-Fired Blast Furnaces; Construction and Operation. BIAS Journal 6
Dinn, J.  1988.  Dyfi Furnace excavations 1982-1987.  Post-Medieval Archaeology 22:1, p.111-142
Eyre Evans, G. 1915.  The Royal Mint, Aberystwyth. Transactions of the Cardiganshire Antiquarian Society, Vol 2 No 1, (1915) p.71 http://www.ceredigionhistoricalsociety.org/trans-2-mint.php
Goodwin, G. 1894. Myddleton, Hugh.  Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 39.  https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Myddelton,_Hugh_(DNB00)
Lewis, S. 1849.  A topographical history of Wales.https://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-dict/wales
Richard, A.J and Napier, J. 2005.  A tale fo two rivers:  Mawddach and Dyfi.  Gwasg Garreg Gwalch.
Sandbach, P. 2017. Dyfi Furnace and Ystrad Einion 21st October 2016. Newsletter of the Cumbria Amenity Trust Mining History Society.  February 2017, No.16,p. 17-21.
www.catmhs.org.uk/members/newsletter-126-february-2017
Walker, R.D. Iron Processing. Encylopedia Britannia. January 27, 2017 https://www.britannica.com/technology/iron-processing#ref622837

 

A history of Cambrian News, established 1860

I was in the Aberdyfi Village Stores a couple of days ago and asked if there was such a thing as a local newspaper.  I came away with the Cambrian News (www.cambrian-news.co.uk) for the Meirionnydd district, which is absolutely bursting with information about Meirionnydd (or Merioneth in English).

Meirionnydd is the southernmost part of Gwynedd and used to be a separate cantref, lying between the River Dyfi to the south and the River Mawddach in the north.  In 1889 it was officially renamed Merionethshire and in 1284 assimilated the cantrefs Penllyn and Ardudwy to its north.  In 1974 it was amalgamated with Caernarfon and Angelsey to become Gwynedd.  However, Meirionnydd is still considered to be an entity in its own right, and this is the area served by Meirionnydd version of Cambrian News, although the newspaper has issues for other districts as well, taking in much of Gwynedd and Ceredigion.

The Cambrian News itself has both heritage and pedigree,  celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2010.  It first appeared in October 1860, at that stage just a four-page supplement in The Oswestry Advertiser, and was called The Merioneth Herald.  It developed into a newspaper in its own right, still in Oswestry, and in 1864 became The Merionethshire Standard and Mid-Wales Herald.  It was only in 1864, that the name Cambrian entered the name, when it became the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard. At times it also included The Welsh Farmers’ Gazette.

Sir John Gibson. Source: The Western Mail, Monday 19th July 1915, p.7

In 1873 it was put under the management and editorship of a John Gibson (1941-1915), and was moved to Aberystwyth as The Cambrian News.  Gibson was clearly a force to be reckoned with.  He was the son of a Lanaster hatter who, according to John Gibson’s obituary in the Western Mail (19th July 1915) made the first silk hat in Lancaster.   Gibson started out as an errand boy in the newspaper trade and went to the Oswestry Advertiser first as a printer and then as a journalist.  In 1879 Gibson published Agriculture in Wales.   His obituary in the Western Mail says that “his outspoken and negative criticism occasioned great commotion in town and district and gave rise to considerable opposition.” In 1880 his outspoken remarks resulted in a number of libel actions against the newspaper, and rather than apologize he resigned.  However, in the same year a consortium of Gibson’s friends and supporters formed a consortium to purchase the newspaper, and reappointed him.  He eventually became the newspaper’s proprietor.   He had strong views on political and social issues, which permeated the newspaper.  In a column in the newspaper on the 26th October 1885 he  stated that women were “either slaves or are legally, socially and politically non-existent,” and followed this up in 1891 with a book entitled The Emancipation of Women, a treatise that came down very strongly in support of women’s suffrage.  An article on Wales Online describes how in the first decade of the 20th Century he was strongly opposed to the establishment of the newly proposed Welsh National Agricultural Society and its Royal Welsh Show, arguing vociferously that it would lead to the demise of the North Cardiganshire show and other similarly long-established events.The Welsh National Library’s Dictionary of Welsh Biography says that under Gibson’s supervision, “and through his vigorous personality and fearless independent views on local and national affairs, the Cambrian News became one of the most influential weekly newspapers in Wales.”

Advert from the 30th December 1910 edition, Cambrian News page 2

A measure of its success under Gibson is provided by a piece in the Cambrian Times of 11th July 1874, where a column describes how the Cambrian News and Aberystwyth Times had steadily increased over the previous few years throughout the district.  In 1873 there were 1590 more advertisements placed than in 1872 and in 1874 there were 1721 more than in 1873.  This is explained in the column by the standards to which the newspaper was held by its editor:  “The Cambrian News is characterized by the independent tone of its articles and the fearless spirit in which public affairs of local and general interest are criticized.  It is full of impartial reports, local sketches, nearly two columns of markets and general intelligence etc, and the proprietors do not spare expense in making it a good family, commercial and general newspaper.”  Advertisements were more expensive than other local newspapers, and this was discussed in the July 23rd 1909 issue of the Cambrian News and Welsh Farmers’ Gazette on page 3:  “We are frequently told that charges for advertisements in this paper are higher than those made by other local papers.  This is true.  We publish two editions every week in order to give al the news of the district, and our price for advertisements is high in order to keep space for news.  If reckoned by so much per thousand copies sold, advertisements should be included in the ‘Cambrian News’ will be found to be worth all that is paid for them.”

The tone of the Cambrian News under John Gibson was, to say the least, forthright.  On December 30th 1881 in the Almanac for the Year 1882, just beneath the newspaper’s header, the following statement was printed: “The Cambrian News aims at being all that a pure, honest and upright family newspaper should be.  Impure advertisements and reports are rigorously excluded.  The reports are impartial, the criticism is just and the politics Liberal.” It goes on to say that it gives “special attention” to agricultural subjects and that as well as a wide regional circulation it had agents in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.  By 1909 two editions were going out per week.

John Gibson was knighted in the same year in which he died, becoming Sir John Gibson, not a bad achievement for the son of a Lancaster hatter.  He died on Saturday 17th July, aged 74.  In his will be specified that his funeral his funeral “should be of the simplest form and no mourning worn at it or afterwards” (Cambrian News, 20th November 1915, page 6).  He was buried in Llangarwen churchyard.

Today the weekly Cambrian News is  owned by Tindle Newspapers Ltd.  It is full of local stories and has an active letters page.  It is a great way to find out about local government issues, problems with services and transport, innovations made by local businesses, upcoming and previous events and the outcomes of recent sports fixtures.  I had no idea, for example, that there are plans afoot to put a new bridge over the River Dyfi, that there is a Merioneth County Show (very sorry to have missed that), that there is a shortage of both firefighters and train drivers in the area, that there is a move to set up a Dyf Valley palliative care service, or that Tywyn has a netball team.  I also enjoyed the piece about the life of Marguerite Jervis who lived intermittently at The Lodge of Plas Pentedal near Aberdovey.  The newsaper is very people-focused, with a strong emphasis on human interest stories.   Its website says that Cambrian News is the biggest-selling weekly newspaper in Wales with six editions that cover Aberystwyth, south Ceredigion, Cardigan & Newcastle Emlyn, Montgomeryshire, Meirionnydd and Arfon/Dwyfor, spanning five Welsh counties.  Cambrian News was voted Welsh Weekly Newspaper of the Year for 2015 and has been awarded the title of BT Welsh Weekly Newspaper of the Year twice.  The price has just risen from 80p to £1.00.  Worth every penny.

The story behind the memorial to 3 Troop 10 (1A) in Penhelyg Park

I went in to the Aberdyfi Literary Institute today to become a member, and picked up a number of leaflets, one of which was entitled “The Story behind the Monument.  Penhelyg Park Aberdyfi.”  There is no author cited so I cannot credit him or her, but it is an excellent account of the history behind the monument. The monument, shown right, reads:

FOR THE MEMBERS OF
3 TROOP 10 (1A)
COMMANDO
WHO WERE
WARMLY WELCOMED
IN ABERDYFI
WHILE TRAINING
FOR SPECIAL DUTIES
IN BATTLE
1942-1943
TWENTY WERE
KILLED IN ACTION

The main thrust of the story is that the Number 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando unit, with its headquarters at Harlech, was made up of a number of volunteer troops, each representing a different European nationality, all dedicated to Allied interests, with each based at a different place in Britain.  Most remarkable of them all, however, was No.3 Troop, which was formed in 1942 and was made up of of German and Austrian nationals, “enemy aliens” who were many Jewish, as well as a few others who were either European (mainly Czech and Hungarian) or stateless, all of whom had fled the Nazi regime as it began to gain strength.  The members of the troop, once trained, were used for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, affiliated to other troops either on the front line or behind enemy lines.  The Troop never fought as a unit.  The idea was the inspiration of the Chief of Combined Operations, Earl Mountbatten.   3 Troop came to Aberdovey to be trained.  Whereas other troops were given the name of their nationality (e.g. No.2 Dutch Troop) No.3 was named X Troop by Winston Churchill, the X standing for an unknown quantity, a reflection of how bold the idea was considered to be.

Captain Brian Hilton Jones. Source: The Commando Veterans Association

Over 350 refugees volunteered for 3 Troop, of whom 86 were selected in the first intake.  Eventually around 130 men served in 3 Troop 10 (1A).  As well as being completely fluent in German, they had to be capable of achieving the highest Commando skills.  Most were aged between 18 and 25, many had been resident in Britain for some time, and some of them had served in the unarmed Pioneer Corps, which focused mainly on light engineering work.  There was no fanfare accompanying their arrival.  Their role was a secret one.  Each individual had taken a British name as a nommes de guerre and been given an identity backed up by all the necessary documentation.  Only the policeman was informed of the true purpose of the Troop, and they were billeted in private homes and integrated with village society.  Two of 3 Troop married local girls. Initially none of them were eligible to become officers, a restriction that was removed after they had proved themselves, in 1944, after which 18 became officers.  Their Commanding Officer was Bryan Hilton-Jones from Caernarfon who was a graduate in Modern Languages from Cambridge, and rated as a good leader of men.  The leaflet says that he was a fitness fanatic, and saw to it that their training was incredibly wide-ranging, everything from physical aptitude, weapons training and intelligence to housebreaking, lock-picking and demolition.

3 Troop members had been involved in numerous fighting, the invasions of Normandy and Sicily, small raids, and various other campaigns.  Twenty were killed in action and twenty two were wounded or disabled.  An article on the BBC website by Ron Goldstein, which is also well worth a read, lists the honours that were awarded to 3 Troop:  one MC, one MM, one Croix de Guerre, one MBE, one BEM, one Certificate of Commendation and three Mentioned in Despatches. He goes on to say that “the number of awards are derisory considering their exploits and the inevitable death sentence they faced if captured – not to mention the danger to any of their surviving relatives in Nazi Europe. Many details of the men were known to the Gestapo and reprisals would have been immediate.”  This was probably because, fighting as individuals alongside other units, they never fought as a unit and were therefore not in a position to be put forward for honours by their own Commanding Officer.

The English version of the memorial plaque in the sea wall of the park

The monument was installed in 1999, unveiled by the former Lord Lieutenant of Gwynedd, Mr Meuric Reese CBE, in the presence of twenty eight 3 Troop survivors, on 15th May of that year.   It was designed, carved and inscribed by John Neilson letter carver, lettering designer and callipgrapher of Pentrecwn, Oswestry.  With his skill at incorporating letters into works of art, he was the perfect choice for this particular memorial.  For more examples of his work see the Arts Connection / Cyswllt Celf website.  Another monument to 3 Troop 10 is a grove of trees at Ashton Wold in Northamptonshire, described by Ron Goldstein planted George Lane aka Lanyi, the first officer and MC of No. 3 Jewish Troop, by his wife.

For anyone who would like to read the full version of the leaflet, together with its recommended further reading, there are copies in the Aberdyfi Literary Institute, or you can download the PDF: 3 Troop 10 leaflet entire.

You may also be interested in the transcript of a speech delivered by Colin Anson, formerly Claus Leopold Octavio Ascher, on the 4th September 2007 at the Imperial War Museum.  The speech described his experience as a member of No 10 (IA) Commando 3 troop, given when he attended a reunion of refugees from Nazism who served in the British Forces in WW2. It gives insights into some of the work he carried out as part of 3 Troop.   The transcript is on the Commando Veterans website.

More very useful information about training and deployment of 3 Troop 10 is given in the book Leadership, Management and Command: Rethinking D-Day By K. Grint , the relevant section of which is available on Google Books.

Penhelyg Park with the memorial at the far end

Penhelyg Park with the memorial at the far end