Category Archives: Tywyn

A short history of the Ynysymaengwyn Estate, Ystumanner, including Tywyn, Aberdovey and Bryncrug

Any research into the Tywyn and Aberdovey areas in the 18th and 19th Centuries runs into the landowning Corbets and the Ynysymaengwyn Estate, one of the top eight estates of Merionnydd in its heyday.  The Ynysymaengwyn Estate owned much of the land in and around both Tywyn and Aberdovey well into the Twentieth Century.

The Ynysymaengwyn Estate, showing Ann Owen’s 18th Century house and the servants quarters and kitchens in a separate building to the right. Source: Coflein.

The few material remains of the Ynysymaengwyn Estate are located 1 mile from Tywyn on the road to Bryncrug.  The name of the estate (pronounced Inis mine gwin) means island or river meadow (of)  the white rock.  In 1949  the piece of land that retained the last echoes of the estate was bequeathed to the people of  Tywyn by Mary Corbett.   Although it is now dominated by a mobile home park and campsite, parts of the former estate now contain woodland walks and some of the original features of the estate survive, although the house and most of the accompanying buildings were dismantled in the late 1960s.  These remnants are discussed at the end of the post.

North wing at Ynysymaengwyn used in the 18th and 19th Centuries for kitchens and servants quarters

The Ynysymaengwyn estate included both highland and lowland areas, and extends down to the south bank of the river Dysynni, stretching along a portion of its valley.  The Dysynni has silted up considerably and it is thought that it may have provided a natural shelter for small boats.  One of the earliest buildings in the area is St Cadfan’s Church in Tywyn, parts of which date to the 12th Century probably developed out of the clas (a semi monastic church) that was founded near the shoreline.  There was also a small settlement at Bryncrug, where most of the land belonged to Ynysymaengwyn.  Llanegryn church is listed in the 1253 Taxatio, so must have been the centre for a small settlement before that time.  The core buildings of the Medieval Ynysymaengwyn estate would have been much nearer the sea than today.  A second estate that was present in the Medieval period was Peniarth, also on the Dysynni.  Gwynedd Archaeological Trust observes that “these two houses and their associated parks, together with the villages of Bryncrug and Llanegryn and the town of Tywyn emerges as focal points of this area in late Medieval and Modern times.”  There were also a number of early freehold properties such as Dolau Gwyn and Caer Berllan.

The commote of Ystumanner.  Source: Wikipedia

The history of the Estate can be traced back to the reign of Elizabeth I.  It passed through a number of families.  Like all these family histories, it is a bewildering succession of names that are quite meaningless to anyone not trying to trace their ancestry, and a substantial amount of this family history is captured in a well researched Wikipedia page dedicated to the Ynysymaengwyn Estate and and the Dictionary of Welsh Biography and will not be reproduced here, although some details are unavoidable.  The first name linked with certainty to Ynysymaengwyn was was Gruffydd ab Adda in the early 14th Century.  He was bailiff (legal custodian) in 1330 and 1334 of the Ystumanner cymwd (anglified as commote, an organizational division of an area into about 50 villages for the purposes of defence and justice).  His daughter Nêst married Llywelyn ap Cyunrig ab Osbwrn Wyddel, and from there the estate passed through the male line for over 200 years.

The family were noted patrons of Welsh poets.  Hywel, the great great grandson of Llywelyn was the subject of an elegy by Hywel ap Rheinallt when he died of the plague, and Hywel’s son Hwmffre ap Hywel ap Siencyn was in turn the subject of a famous cywydd (poem with a particular metrical form, in rhyming couplets) by Tudur Aled.  In the poem Tudur Aled (c.1465–1525) takes on the role of a conciliator between kinsmen.  Glanmor Williams describes the genre as follows:  “Quite apart from any disputes kindled by faction and war, there might be serious splits between kinsmen in ordinary circumstances.  Such quarrels could be more than usually bloodthirsty, ‘deadly feuds’ more dangerous than civil war . . . It was the intensity of such divisions that led poets to attach key importance to the role, which they shard with the priests, of being conciliators between kinsfolk.”  He says that the most celebrated of all the poems of this kind was Tudur Aled’s cywydd to reconcile Hwmffre with his kinsmen “by urging them to remember the tragic futilities of past internecine differences, from which only the English had benefited at Welsh expense (p.109).  I have been unable to find a translation of the poem, so please let me know if you have access to one.  Hywel ap Siencyn’s grandson Arthur ap Huw became vicar of St Cadfan’s Church in Tywyn between 1555 and 1570, and was another patron of Welsh poets.  He also translated Counter-Reformation literature into Welsh.

The raven at Ynysmaengwyn today

When Hwmffre died in 1545 his son John Wynn and then John’s son Humphrey each inherited the estate in turn.  On Humphrey’s death the estate passed to his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Sr James Pryse of Goderddon, who was high sheriff of Merioneth (married in 1601).  Both died in 1642 and and their daughter Bridget inherited.  Bridget Pryse married Robert Corbet of Moreton Corbet, Shropshire, in about 1612, which was the beginning of the long association of the name Corbet with the Ynysymaengwyn Estate, which endured for the best part of the next two centuries.  Robert Corbet was a passionate Royalist.  During the English Civil War, to prevent Parliamentarians taking the property, the estate’s mansion was burned down in 1635 and had to be rebuilt.  The coat of arms of the Corbets of Moreton, whose name means “little crow” was a black raven, and the name Corbet is itself French, derived from “corbeau,” from the Latin Corvus.  It eventually gave The Raven Inn in Aberdovey its name.  The family  motto was Deus Pascit Corvos, God feeds the ravens.

Ann Owen Corbet c.1720. Source: ArtUK

The estate passed to their great granddaughter Ann Owen (1684-1741), who had married Athelstan Owen.  Athelstan Owen clearly contributed new buildings to the estate, one of which is now the the Dovey Inn (formerly the Dovey Hotel and before that The Ship) built by Athelstan Owen in 1729.  Above the door is a plaque inscribed “This house was built by Athelstain Owen Esq, Anno Dom 1729.”  He died in 1755, leaving Ann with three children.  She lived for another 30 years and did not re-marry.  She was known locally as Madam Owen, a woman of considerable personality.  Anne purchased the Caethle Estate in Tywyn from Richard and Margaret Braithwaite, absorbing it into the Ynysymaengwyn Estate.  She also built the central block of buildings on the estate, added the dovecote for 800 birds that still stands and in 1717 donated almshouses for five widows in Tywyn.  According to Barbara Middlemass, however, her business methods could be ruthless:  “Her favourite method of adding to the estate was to lend money by way of mortgage to needy farmers and then, when she knew they could not pay, call in the mortgage and seize the land to swell the Ynys acreage.”

The dovecote and dog kennels

The interior of the dovecote

Ynysymaengwyn in c.1795 by etcher T. Bluck, T. Source: National Library of Wales

The two-storey house that Ann built in around 1758 was a built in a classic Eighteenth Century architectural style in local stone with details picked out in Portland stone, including an elegant pediment.  It was an unusual sight in Wales.  It was flanked by the two existing buildings, the north wing and the south wing, to make an impressive ensemble.  The stone-built dovecote has a truncated pyramidal slate roof, a deep segmental arch in the front wall inset with a much smaller flat-headed doorway.  She also appears to have been actively involved in building houses in Aberdovey.  A house on Copperhill Street bears a plaque reading “Built By Anne Owen Widow AD 1733,” and this was probably Madam Owen.  Although there’s a discrepancy on the dates (she could not have been a widow until 1755 if the date of Athelstan’s death is correct), the fanlight window on Anne’s plaque exactly mirrors the fanlights on the Dovey Inn, suggesting a close connection.

The Dovey Inn donated by Athelstan Owen and a row of three houses provided by Ann Owen

Richard Owen, second in line to inherit the estate after his elder brother Corbet, but both died childless so their younger sister Anne inherited. By Richard Wilson c.1748-50.  Source:  Richard Wilson Online

Of Anne and Athelstan Owen’s children, Corbet and Richard died childless so their daughter Ann Maurice (married to Pryce Maurice) inherited the estate.  To comply with Ann Owen’s wishes, the estate then passed to Henry Arthur Maurice, who was Ann and Pryce Maurice’s younger son, presumably chosen because Ann Owen disapproved of the elder son Edward’s youthful activities, which included fathering at least two illegitimate children.  An interesting twist in the tangle of family names is that when the property then passed to a male with a different last name (for example, where a daughter who inherited the estate married) those men were required in the terms of the bequest to change their last name to Corbet, ensuring that the name Corbet was always associated with Ynysymaengwyn.  This was the case even when the estate passed out of the Corbet bloodline.  Henry Arthur Maurice, grandson of Ann Owen, therefore changed his last name to Corbet.  When he died childless in 1782, his elder brother Edward Maurice (1741-1820) inherited the Ynysymaengwyn Estate against his grandmother Ann Owen’s wishes, and Edward also changed his name to Corbet.

Ynysymaengwyn mansion. Sources: Coflein (top) and Ynysymaengwyn Camping, Caravan and Woodlands Park (plan at bottom)

Although Ann Owen had disapproved of him in his feckless youth, to the extent of cutting him out of her will, the more mature Edward was not unlike her in terms of his urge to make improvements to the estate and to benefit its dependants.  Lewis Lloyd says that he had travelled to London to learn from a physician “to acquire sufficient knowledge to dispense medicine to his tenants and others.”  He was a loyal supporter of Britain’s role in the Napoleonic Wars, and was a captain in the local militia.  During this period, much of the lowland and upland parts of the estate were enclosed and marshy areas were drained.  Edward was noted for breeding horses, cattle and sheep, and beginning in 1788, the drainage of some 260 acres of peat land for conversion to hay fields for use as livestock fodder, eventually producing 500 tons of hay annually.  This denied poorer members of the community access to peat cutting (turbary) and communal pasture, and many people left the area, some emigrating to the United States.  The upland parts of the estate that Edward enclosed were of potential interest for their mineral content, and he established copper works and searched for coal.  His loyalty to the English government and the crown led, at least in part, to his suspicion of Methodism, which he thought radical and borderline seditious, and which was growing fast in Wales.  His persecution of Methodists in Aberdovey, for example, resulted in their eviction from their premises with bibles and benches thrown out onto the street, with fines imposed on anyone who gave them shelter for their meetings.  Edward Corbet’s obituary records that he “was a cynic and a wit, a man of the world and when he pleased a very polished gentleman.  he was by turns petulant and affable, entertaining everyone.  With the flashes of his wit and the bitter but often just severity of his satire.”

Griffith Owen, butler and harpist to the Corbets at Ynysymaengwyn, portrayed in the last 1820s or early 1830s by Benjamin Marshall (1768-1835). Source: ArtUK

When Edward died in 1820, the estate passed to Edward’s nephew Athelstan Maurice, son of Edward (Maurice) Corbet and Henry’s brother Price Maurice, and he too changed his name to Corbet.  Athelstan continued Edward’s work building enclosures and draining land.  His main achievement was to invest in the local road network, which was in very poor condition.  He built a new road between Pennal and Aberdovey that opened in 1827 and improved the road from Pennal to Machynlleth.  This improved communications and soon stagecoaches began to arrive with passengers, some in the area on business, some visiting as early tourists.  Interestingly, when the Wesleyan Methodists were looking for somewhere to build their chapel, it was rented from the Ynysymaengwyn Estate in 1828, suggesting that Athelstan did not share his uncle’s violent dislike of Methodists.  The portrait to the right shows Griffith Owen (1750-1833) who fascinatingly combined the roles of butler and harpist to the Corbets before be became the landlord of the Raven Arms in Aberdovey.

Corbet Arms Hotel 1829. Source: Hugh M. Lewis, Pages of Time.

In 1829 Athelstan built the Corbet Arms Family Hotel and Post House at the western end of Aberdovey to cater to the needs of visitors.  It was right on the edge of the sea before the construction of the sea wall.  A bowling green was laid out in the front of hotel, and on the beach bathing huts were installed and donkey rides were available.  Writing in 1833, Samuel Lewis described how horse races were held at Ynysymaengwyn every September by the side of the Dysynni, and one can imagine how perfect the wide flat floodplain would have been for this purpose.  By the 1840s the estate comprised some 7201 acres, eighth in size of the 21 south Meiryonnydd estates.  The nearest estate in size in the immediate area of Tywyn and Aberdovey was the Peniarth estate of 4421 acres.

Corbet Arms Hotel 1867. Source: Hugh M. Lewis, Pages of Time.

In his account of Ynysymaengwyn Lewis Lloyd says that from the mid 1850s the history of the estate “was increasingly troubled.”  When Athelstan Maurice Corbet died, the estate passed to his sister Henrietta Maurice, who married Charles Decimus Williams with whom she had a daughter also named Henrietta.  The younger Henrietta married John Soden of Bath, who duly changed his name to Corbet.  In 1862 a Trust was established for running the estate and the trustees were given leave to raise £5000 for harbour improvements.  In 1865 the harbour area, including the wharf and jetty, were leased to the Cambrian Railways Company.  The Corbet Arms Hotel was rebuilt in 1867 to accommodate the  visitors were anticipated would follow in the wake of the opening of the railway in the mid 1860s.  The opening of the railway was discussed on a previous post.

Ynysymaengwyn 18th Century mansion. Source: Commando Veterans Association

Lewis says that most of the stewards of Ynysymaengwyn were local men until the late 1860s, examples being two former ship captains, after which English agents were apparently preferred, but he adds that not much is known about who they were and that this is research yet to be undertaken.  In the 1860s the half-yearly rent audit of the estate was held in Tywyn and a dinner was given for the tenants in the Town Hall, and any important local issues were discussed.   In 1863 this included the opening of the railway.  It is quite clear that there is a lot of information about people who worked on the estate in various records held in the National Library of Wales and National Archives and elsewhere (see for example the results of a National Archives search on Ynysymaengwyn), so a major research project is awaiting someone.

John Soden Corbet died in 1871 and his son Athelstan John Soden Corbet inherited.  Athelstan’s majority was celebrated lavishly in both Tywyn and Aberdyfi in July 1871, celebrations that were reported at length in the The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard on 7th July 1871.  Reading the account with hindsight, the optimism and happiness with which he was greeted seem rather sad.  Some highlights are copied here, but you can see the full account on the National Library of Wales website. The celebration shows just how important the Ynysymaengwyn Estate was to the local communities:

News report of Athelstan Soden Corbet attaining his majority. Source: National Library of Wales.

THE MAJORITY OF ATHELSTAN J. SODEN-CORBET, ESQ., YNYSYMAENGWYN.   Towyn and Aberdovey were on Thursday the scene of long to be remembered rejoicings in honour of the attainment of the majority of Athelstan J. Soden-Corbet, Esq., of Ynysymaengwyn. The Corbets are one of the best known and oldest families of which the county of Merioneth can boast; their connection with Towvn, Aberdovey, and their neighbour- hood can be traced back for a good many generations, and, upon the whole of the extensive estate connected with the family property, the name of Corbet is never mentioned but with feelings of the greatest respect, for the Corbets have always been identified as liberal, go d-hearted land- lords, who are respected by their tenantry, and held in high esteem throughout the length and breadth of the county. Liberal sums were subscribed both in Towyn and Aberdovey, to celebrate the event in a manner be- fitting the occasion, and the hearty enthusiasm which was evoked cannot but have testified to the young heir the good wishes which his tenantry and numerous friends entertain for him. Towyn was quite en fete on Thursday; the demonstrations were of a varied and pleasurable character in honour of the young heir. The decorations were of the gayest, and bunting was profusely displayed from the residences of the principal inhabitants. Handsome arches spanned the roads and bore flags, banners, and mottoes wishing health, long life, and happiness to Athelstan John Soden Corbet, Esq.

Here’s the account of the venue:

THE BANQUET, or complimentary dinner, given by the Ynys estate, to the friends and tenantry, took place in a large tent erected on the grounds adjoining the Corbet Arms, Towyn. The tent, with the decorations, was supplied by Mr Andrews, of Shrewsbury, and was embellished in a most tasteful manner. The sides were of scarlet, relieved with white and the supports were entwined with pink, blue, and white draperies, and suspended from them were festoons of coloured flowers. Each support bore a banner and armorial bearings of the county families, the principal being the shield of the Corbet family with motto Deus Pascit Corvos.

The food served must have been something to behold:

Soup.-Mock turtle, ox tail, green pea. Fish.-Salmon and lobster sauce, turbot, filleted soles. Entrees.-Yeal Cutlets, sweetbread, patties, steak and oyster pie, stewed pigeons, curried rabbit.  Champagne. Removes.-Haunch of venison, roast beef, boiled beef, roast mutton, boiled mutton, lamb, veal and ham, veal and pigeon pies, chicken and tongue, ducklings and green entremets, &c. -Sir Watkin’s pudding, plum pudding, strawberry, currant, and raspberry tarts, cheese cakes, jellies, blancmange, tipsy cake. Cheese and salad. Dessert.-Pine apples, grapes, strawberries, dried fruit. Claret, sherry, port.

The Corbet coat of arms, preserved today in the walls of the ballroom garden in the public area of Ynysmaengwyn today.

Athelstan married Mary Helen Annie Oldfied in 1873.  The marriage failed very quickly and divorce followed.  He was Justice of the Peace and became High Sheriff in 1875.  In spite of all the high hopes of the community, Athelstan Soden Corbet’s poor management of the estate combined with expensive renovations to the house, new furnishings, the costs of the divorce and heavy expenditure by Athelstan and his wife on luxurious lifestyles resulted in serious debts.  Lewis concludes that “he did not share the sense of duty and regard for his estate in Wales and its people which his predecessors had demonstrated.”  In 1875 he decided to sell the 9347 acre estate,  which earned an annual rent of £8241.  Athelstan fled his responsibilities by going overseas, living a rich life, but his letters to his agent demonstrate that he was suffering increasing financial stress, and the estate was barely able to support him.  Ynysymaengwyn was put up for sale in April 1876.  In 1877, still living vastly beyond his means, Athelstan was forced to take out a series of mortgages on the estate, which by 1878 had reached £42,000 (around £2,779,757.40 today, according to the National Archives Currency Converter). 

John Corbett. Source: Dodderhill Parish Survey Project.

Athelstan Soden Corbet must have been very relieved when John Corbett purchased the property for £51,000, which secured for Corbett the mansion, demesne and pleasure grounds.  John Corbett (1817-1901) was, somewhat confusingly, no relation to the Ynysymaengwyn Corbets.  He was a wealthy salt merchant who owned the Stoke Prior Salt Works near Droitwich, was the Liberal M.P. for Droitwich between 1874 and 1885 and the Liberal Unionist M.P. for Mid-Worcestershire between 1886-1892.  In Droitwich he was known as The Salt King.  He remained very involved with Worcestershire throughout his life, and like some of his predecessors  did not live at Ynysymaengwyn on a permanent basis, although his wife moved there with their children.  His Coat of Arms incorporated the symbol of the raven, an elephant and a castle.  It can be seen on the gate posts at the entrance to Ynysymaengwyn and on the porch of the Aberdovey Literary Institute.

The main staircase at Ynysmaengwyn. Source: Coflein

The property when he bought it was described in detail in the Book of Sale of 1878, and this has been reproduced by Lewis Lloyd.  Anyone wanting to see the full description should see Lloyd’s book, but here are some of the highlights, which also indicate the extent to which Athelstan Soden Corbet was living beyond his means.  The mansion was described, in typical estate agent speak, as “a commodious stone-built residence of commanding elevation,” containing “a magnificent Central Hall, 42ft by 26ft, surrounded by the Reception Rooms, over which are the principal Bedrooms and in Two Detached Wings are the Secondary Apartments, Private and Domestic Offices, possessing all the conveniences necessary for a well-ordered establishment.”  Athelstan’s renovations “in the most substantial manner and regardless of cost” were “in the purest feeling of the Adams’s time and school.”  Furnishings were described as “of mediaeval style, most exquisite in design and unsurpassed in quality and workmanship.  It is practically new, having been recently supplied to the owner, and is in admirable order, and in perfect harmony with the elegant surroundings.”  A London upholstery firm had been imported to restore the fabrics. Outside it lauded the “gardens and pleasure grounds.”   The estate itself was described as “a sporting estate” including pheasant, partridge, duck, widgeon, teal and snipe, and offered fishing in the river Dysynni with salmon, sewin and trout.   Further attractions listed include yachting, sea-fishing, the seaside resorts of Aberystwyth, Aberdovey and Barmouth and “the unsurpassed beauty of the Welsh Mountain and River scenery.” Details of the farms attached to the property and the rent they paid were also detailed. The house was home to Belgian refugees during the First World War.  The Gwynedd Archaeological Trust says that in 1879 the estate began to be sold off piecemeal, and that this resulted in a period of land-speculation and development.  It would be interesting to know more about how this happened and took up the opportunities offered.

When John Corbett arrived at Ynysymaengwyn he made many improvements to the property, including connecting the south wing and the north wing, which housed the kitchens, via stone corridors to the main house, which underwent extensive improvements.  Remnants of these walls still remain at the estate.  The south wing was gutted and provided with a ballroom, stage, gallery and additional bedrooms.  He also invested heavily in the gardens and by the 1880s the gardens were were thought to be amongst the finest in Wales.  The estate was expanded by the purchase of additional estates, farms and the Tonfunau granite quarry.

Literary Institute Verandah, with the Corbett coat of arms showing an elephant carrying a tower or castle in red, with the black raven beneath

John Corbett became a significant investor in Tywyn’s physical, social and cultural infrastructure. His investments, most of which followed the sale of his salt business in 1888, included the development of Tywyn’s water and sewage system, the construction of the promenade in 1889 (at a cost of £30,000), the Intermediate School in 1894, improvements to the Corbet Arms Hotel (renamed the Corbett Arms Hotel) and the land for and £500 towards building of the new Market Hall as well as £70 towards the price for its clock. In Aberdovey he paid for the charming porch or verandah for the Literary Institute in 1897, topped with his crest showing a raven, an elephant and a castle.  He continued to invest in the school, as this short report in the Weekly Mail describes: “A meeting of the local managers of the Towyn Intermediate School was held on Saturday evening, Mr. Haydn Jones, J.P., presiding. Mr. J. Maethlon James announced that Mr. John Corbett, Ynysymaengwyn and Impney, Droitwich, had generously subscribed a sum of £100 per annum for three years towards enabling the managers to secure the services of an additional teacher and to increase the number of John Corbett’s Scholarships. The Chairman remarked that Mr. Corbett had already given over £2,000 in cash, towards the school.”  In January 1896 the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard reported “It is gratifying to find that Mr Corbett of Ynysymaengwyn, after having the matter brought under his notice, has given instructions that local tradesmen are to be allowed to lender for the work of constructing the Corbett Avenue and the Llechlwyd Tramroad. This gives a prospect of plenty of work for the spring and summer.”

John Corbett’s contributions to Ywyn. Top line, 1893 Assembly rooms (which he did not build, but to which he contributed) and the land and contribution to the building of the new Market Hall. Middle row: expansion and modernization of the Corbet Arms Hotel (renamed Corbett Arms Hotel) and its stables. Bottom row: plaque commemorating the new promenade and esplanade, and one of the gateposts into Ynysymaengwyn

Corbett’s convictions was completely consistent with 19th Century beliefs in philanthropy, public education, the promotion of healthy activities and the social obligation for the rich to invest on behalf of the relatively deprived. This tendency was particularly prominent in industrial cities, where manufacturers and merchants like John Corbett conducted business, but as these successful city entrepreneurs became landowners in their own right, many of these philanthropic ideas began to spread into more rural areas. It also did local landowners no harm to invest in infrastructure to improve the local economy and boost their own incomes.  John Corbett died 22nd April 1901.  The Towyn-on-Sea and Merioneth County Times reported on the funeral, listing estate workers who attended the funeral in Droitwich, stating that all flags in Tywyn were flown at half mast.

Rear aspect of Ynysymaengwyn mansion.  Source: Coflein.

In John Corbett’s will, the estate was left to his brother Thomas Corbett, who besides Ynysymaengwyn inherited “Impney Hall and estates in the Droitwich district, brine baths and four hotels,” (Welsh Gazette and West Wales Advertiser).  John had been alienated from his wife, from whom he was legally separated in 1884.  The will was contested, but although financial compensation was provided for John’s children, Thomas retained the estate. It only passed to John and his divorced wife Anna’s son Roger (1863–1942) on Thomas’s death in 1906, on the fifth anniversary of John Corbett’s death.  Roger and Anna moved back to the property in the same year, news received with considerable enthusiasm by the residents of Tywyn, although Roger only used it as a summer residence.  Barbara Middlemass says that in 1908 the house and grounds were “maintained by a housekeeper, eight maids, a chauffeur, seen gardeners and two game keepers.  Among the activities of the last mentioned were the rearing of 500 pheasants for a single season’s shooting”   The Corbett Arms Hotel in Aberdovey, which had been rebuilt in 1867, burned down in 1914, remaining in ruins until it was knocked down to create space for a new primary school in 1968.  In 1935 a Roman Catholic chapel dedicated to St David was established in a former Predbyterian Chapel in Brook Street.  It has a rather fine stained glass window decorated with the Corbett raven.  It only closed in 1989 when it was replaced with a new St David’s.

Ynysymaengwyn mansion, interior views.  Source:  Flickr, Richard Griffiths

When Roger died in 1942 the estate passed to his sister Mary Corbett, who remained unmarried, and ended the line of inheritance at the Ynysymaengwyn Estate.  During the Second World War the army occupied the Ynysymaengwyn Estate as a Royal Marines’ Camp, although I have not found a date for when they took it over.  When the Ministry of Defence handed the estate back to Mary Corbett in 1949 she transferred it in trust to Merioneth County Council, together with £3300, suggesting it might be converted to an agricultural college for the county.  The house was in a state of significant disrepair, with extensive dry rot,  and there was insufficient income from the estate to pay for repairs, which the council could not afford either, and the theft of lead from the roofs added to the speed of decay.  Given the extensive revamps carried out by Athelstan Soden Corbet in the 1870s and John Corbett in the 1880s, it is frightening how fast the property deteriorated.  One wonders to what extent the occupation by the army was responsible, but it is also clear that the estate was no longer in any condition to pay for itself, perhaps because of the war, and perhaps because of changing economic and social processes from earlier in the 20th Century.

The interior of the Ynysmaengwin ballroom wing. Source: Flickr, Richard Griffiths

Mary died in 1951.  In 1957, under the terms of the 1906 Open Spaces Act, Merioneth County Council transferred the property to the Urban District Council of Tywyn “for securing the enjoyment of the said open space.” New trees were planted between 1958 and 1962 and two fields were let out for livestock grazing. Initially the house was converted into a base for training and practice facility for the fire brigade and army, but was demolished in around 1965 (there is some disagreement about exactly when it was taken down).  It was set on fire as an exercise by the Fire Service, and was finished off by the Royal Engineers who blew it up during a demolition exercise.  It was a sad but far from prosaic end to its life.  In 1966, part of the grounds were turned over to 115 static caravans, with an additional 4.5 acres developed as a campsite for tents, caravans, and campervans.   This destroyed the mansion’s pleasure garden, of which according to the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust there are now no traces.  In 1984 the local government organization of the area was changed, and the following year a dispute erupted between Bryncrug Community Council and Tywyn Town Council regarding the management of Ynysymaengwyn, with the result that Tywyn Town Council took over the Caravan site, with profits being re-invested into the estate for its maintenance.  The ballroom wing was demolished in 1989.  In 2008 Tywn Town Council, with a £47,000 contribution from Cydcoed (Woods for All) completed the restoration of the woodlands, which had become dominated by conifers and were replanted with broadleaf trees, which are far more friendly to other wildlife, letting in more light and providing good mulch following leaf fall.

The video below shows the remains of the ballroom and the walled ballroom garden, some of the walled kitchen garden, and local scenery that would have been enjoyed by the occupants of Ynysymaengwyn (February 2019 – and sorry it’s a bit jerky, I am still new to a camcorder).

Of the projects that John Corbett initiated in Tywyn and Aberdovey, the Assembly Rooms are still in use as a cinema, the market hall has been divided into three retail properties, the promenade is still going strong, the porch at the Aberdyfi Literary Institute is in excellent condition, but the Corbett Arms Hotel in Tywyn, a Grade 2 listed building, is in an appalling state of disrepair and is empty.  I’ll talk about each of these buildings in more detail on future posts.

Finally, there are two puzzling carvings flanking the last surviving remnant of the north wing, its porch, shown in the image below.  The one on the right is still well preserved, but although there was also one on the left this is now very difficult to make out.  I have seen no suggestions about when they were added or what they were supposed to signify.

The carvings flanking the porch of the north wing.  Source of photograph at left: Coflein

A rather depressing adjunct to the story of modern Ynysymaengwyn was reported in the Cambrian News.  In 2016 the neighbouring Ysguboriau farm and campsite attempted to claim between five and seven acres of the bequeathed land, having grazed sheep there for sufficient time to attempt to legally sequester the land for themselves, planning to fence it off. As Tywyn town councillor and trustee of Ynysymaengwyn, Cllr John Pughe, said: “the land they are claiming should be for the benefit of everyone.” The dispute was still ongoing in 2018.

If you would like to visit, and I do sincerely recommend it, the surviving portion of the estate is open to the public as a woodland walk, with access to walks along the wonderful Dysynni river.  Just drive through the gate posts on the A493 and head down the short lane, watching out for a left turn that will take you into the carpark. In the bottom left hand there’s a map that shows you three woodland routes, the longest of which takes 30 minutes, but you can lengthen this by doing a section of the Dynsynni.

On the right is a noticeboard showing the walks, which are positioned at strategic places around the woodland. I have annotated a Google map on the left with approximate locations of some of the features (you can click to expand the view). The porch of the servants and admin quarters is to the right of the ballroom, minus the Corbet coat or arms, which was spectacular and is now preserved in on of the remaining walls of the ballroom garden.

One of the twin gateposts of the Ynysymaengwyn Estate today, with part of John Corbett’s coat of arms

There are a few features of the 19th Century estate still visible, most notably the dovecote, the former vast kitchen garden (now just an enclosed area of grass, the remains of the former ballroom and its garden, the old entrance to the big block of servants quarters with figures carved into the stonework each side of the entrance, and several sections of wall.  The snowdrops are splendid in February.  Take a bag full of bird seed with you if you like bird life – the wild birds are borderline tame, and all expect to be fed, and yell vociferously if you stand there looking at them and don’t provide sustenance!  Here’s the address:
Ynysymaengwyn Caravan & Camping Park
The Lodge, Ynysymaengwyn
Tywyn, Gwynedd
LL36 9RY
See the website for directions:
https://www.ynysy.co.uk


References:

The starting points for this post, with my thanks, were Lewis Lloyd’s A Real Little Seaport, and the Coflein website, supplemented extensively by other information resources, all listed below.

Anon. 1829. Wanderings in Wales. Cambrian Quarterly Magazine and Celtic Repertory, vol.1, 1829. https://bit.ly/2DujYjq
Eade, S. 2017.  Towyn on Sea, Merionethshire.  Volume 2.  Sara Eade
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2007.  Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd: Aberdyfi. A Threat Related Assessment.  GAT Project  No.1824, Report No.671.1, April 2007
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2011.  Conservation Area Appraisal: Aberdyfi, Gwynedd. GAT Project  No.2155, Report No.956, June 2007
Lewis, H.M. 1989. Pages of Time. A Pictorial History of Aberdyfi. Published by the Author.
Lewis, S. 1833.  A Topographical Dictionary of Wales. Brython Press
LLoyd, L.  1996.  A Real Little Seaport.  The Port of Aberdyfi and its People 1565-1920, Volume 1.  ISBN-1874786488
Marshall, D. 2009. Local Walks Around Tywyn in the Snowdonia National Park. (Walk 17).  Kittiwake Press
Middlemass, B. 2017 (second edition).  John Corbett.  Pillar of Salt 1817-1901. Saltway Press
Williams, G. 1987.  Renewal and Reformation Wales c.1415-1642.  Oxford University Press.

Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard.  The Majority of Athelstan J. Soden-Corbet, Esq., Ynysymaengwyn. Welsh Newspapers Online – The National Library of Wales.
Coflein. Ynys-y-Maengwyn Estate Cottages. http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/28895/details/ynysmaengwynynys-y-maengwyn-estate-cottages-bryn-crug
Geni.com.  Historic Buildings of Merionethshire. https://www.geni.com/projects/Historic-Buildings-of-Merionethshire/25169
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust. Dysynni Historical Themes. http://www.heneb.co.uk/hlc/dysynnithemes.html
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust. Tywyn. http://www.heneb.co.uk/hlc/dysynni/dysynni3.html
Jones, A.  2016. We’ll fight to keep land for the town. Cambrian News, 17/11/16. https://bit.ly/2N3dp79
Jones, A.  2017. Fence row erupts in Trust land dispute. Cambrian News, 02/01/17. https://bit.ly/2NJfav8
North Wales Daily Post 2008. New Life Breathed into Old Woods. Daily Post (North Wales) 03/07/08. https://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/new-life-breathed-old-woods-2824545
Owen, Athelstan (1676-1731) of RHIWSAESON, LLANBRYN-MAIR, MONT.
https://Biography.wales/article/s-OWEN-ATH-1676
Wikipedia. Ynysymaengwyn. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ynysymaengwyn
Wynn, Pryse and Corbet families, Ynysmaengwyn, Mer., and Gwyn And Nanney  families, Dalau Gwyn, Mer.
https://biography.wales/article/s-WYNN-PRY-1275
The Ynysymaengwyn Papers. Archives Wales. https://archiveswales.llgc.org.uk/anw/get_collection.php?inst_id=38&coll_id=1246&expand=&L=1
Ynysymaengwyn Camping, Caravan and Woodland Park website, history page https://www.ynysy.co.uk/history.html

 

Walking from Aberdovey towards Tywyn along the beach

Yesterday’s walk along the beach was extraordinary.  I had intended to park by the cemetery, but by accident parked opposite the row of houses at the foot of the road from the Trefeddian Hotel, crossed the golf course and emerged from the dunes at the Second World War pillbox.   The sun was hazy and incredibly pale, but at the same time reflected off the wet sand, creating some beautiful colour and light combinations.  I walked for far longer than intended, and it nearly became a case of walking into Tywyn and getting a bus or taxi back to my car!  Instead I retraced my steps, and because of the light it was like doing an entirely different walk.  It was lovely to see a pair of oyster catchers, obstinately refusing to do anything other than stand, preening in the sun!  They are in the video at the end of this post.

 

 

The woodland walks at Ynysymaengwyn

Ynysymaengwyn late 18th Century mansion. Source: Commando Veterans Association

I went over to Ynysymaengwyn today to take some photos for the article I’m writing about the history of the Ynysymaengwyn Estate.  Although it is now a caravan and camping site, it used to be the biggest landholding property in the area, dating back to the reign of Elizabeth I.  It is best known for its 18th and 19th Century history, when it owned most of Tywyn and Aberdovey, the fortunes of which were inextricably tied with those of the estate.  A splendid house was built in 1758 by the widow Ann Owen, and this was still standing together with a ballroom wing, a servants’ and administrative, kennels, a dovecote and kennels, as well as a vast kitchen garden in the 1960s.

When the last owner of Ynysymaengwyn signed the buildings and the remaining 40 acres of the estate over to Merioneth council, and it was then handed over to Tywyn Town Council, it fell into increasing disrepair it was decided that the buildings should be disposed of.

Only very few remnants of the buildings remain, but some of the woodland has been preserved as a series of very beautiful short walks.  I’ll write up full details of what is left of the original estate when I post the article, but in the meantime here are a few photos of the walks.  The snowdrops today were absolutely stunning, the walk down the Dynsynni was beautiful with the reeds rustling in the breeze, and the views across the hills from the Dysynni were wonderful.  The birds were all amazingly tame, and even a rabbit hopped across the path in sublime unconcern.

If you would like to visit, and I do sincerely recommend it, the surviving portion of the estate is open to the public as a woodland walk, with access to walks along the wonderful Dysynni river.  Just drive through the gate posts on the A493 and head down the short lane, watching out for a left turn that will take you into the carpark. In the bottom left hand there’s a map that shows you three woodland routes, the longest of which takes 30 minutes, but you can lengthen this by doing a section of the Dynsynni.  Take a bag full of bird seed with you if you like bird life – the wild birds are borderline tame, and all expect to be fed, and yell vociferously if you stand there looking at them and don’t provide sustenance!

Here’s the address:
Ynysymaengwyn Caravan & Camping Park
The Lodge, Ynysymaengwyn
Tywyn, Gwynedd
LL36 9RY
See the website for directions:
https://www.ynysy.co.uk

 

Short walk along the Wales Coast Path from Tywyn to the Tonfanau footbridge

It was such a lovely day again that I decided to walk the short stretch along the road that runs along the side of the railway from Tywyn to the new Tonfanau Bridge over the river Dysynni.  It forms part of the Welsh Coast Path, which follows long sections of the 882 mile Welsh coastline, with some unavoidable detours inland.  Until recently one of these detours was where the Welsh Coastal Path met the river Dysynni at the point at which it opens into the sea.  Here it was necessary to divert inland along the Dysynni as far as Bryncrug, returning on the other side of the river to rejoin the coast, an admittedly very attractive detour of some eight miles.  In January 2013 this all changed when a new 50m bridge was installed to link the two parts of the Coast Path.

The bridge is of an unusual design, formed of twin crescent-shaped sides of white tubular steel.  It is a type known as a Vierendeel bridge, named for its inventor, the Belgian civil engineer Arthur Vierendeel (1852-1940), defined by vertical trusses, rather than the usual diagonal ones.  This creates rectangular rather than triangular spaces between the trusses.  Most Vierendeel bridges are in Belgium.  The bridge cost £850,000 and was funded by the Welsh European Funding Office, Traac, the Countryside Council for Wales and Gwynedd Council.  It was installed  on the 16th January 2013 by Jones Brothers of Ruthin.  It is the largest span for a Vierendeel truss footbridge in the UK.  It takes pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders.  The Tonfanau Bridge takes its name from the nearby village of Tonfanau, which has an interesting history in its own right and will be discussed at a later date.

Section of the Ordnance Survey Explorer Map (OL23 Cadair Idris and Llyn Tegid) showing the Wales Coast Path, and the start and end point for the short walk between Tywyn and the Tonfanau footbridge over the Dynsynni. Click to enlarge.

The Wales Coast Path (Llwybr Arfordir Cymru – www.walescoastpath.gov.uk) opened in May 2012 and extends between Chester in the north to Chepstow in the south, following the line of the coast wherever possible.  The route between Aberdovey and Tywyn goes along beach for four miles, but becomes more complicated when it reaches Tywyn.  The map to the left shows the Welsh Coast Path as a line of green dotted diamond shapes.  For those who want to walk this short section, I have marked my starting point in the car park on the sea front in Tywyn and the location of the bridge itself.

In Tywyn you can either walk along the sea front on the promenade or on the walkway that runs the length of the promenade at beach level.  The path then goes on to the extended promenade lying between residential housing and the sea.  This gives you excellent views of the sea, but blocks views of the hills.  Part way along is a turn off between the last of the houses and a mobile-home park.   This is a small lane that crosses the railway.  From there you either walk along the small road that leads to the footbridge or through the fields.  Here, there’s nothing but the raised track of the railway to be seen to the west, although the sea can be clearly heard, but the views to the east are absolutely terrific.

We have been incredibly lucky with the weather recently.  It has generally been cold, and there have been frosts in the village, but the sunshine so late in the year has been a splendid treat.   There were lots of dog walkers out today, everyone making the most of the weather whilst it lasts.

 

 

Eating Out: Proper Gander, High Street, Tywyn

On the last day of his visit, on 12th September, my father and I went into Tywyn to eat at a restaurant called Proper Gander.  A quirky name.  I had picked up a leaflet for it in Dai’s Shed and checked out the website and the menu looked splendid, emphasizing that most of the produce used is sourced locally.  The Welsh lamb, beef and pork come from the Aberdovey butcher in Chapel Square.  The sea bass, lobster and crab are from Dai’s Shed in Aberdovey or from an alternative source in Tywyn, and the Menai scallops and oysters are from Pwllheli.   There is also a wine bar downstairs selling Welsh ales, ciders, whiskey, gin and vodka.  I am amazed that Proper Gander has been there for five seasons and I have only just noticed it.  It has taken me a few days to write it up because I’ve been busy, but it was a great evening.

Proper Gander is a beautifully presented restaurant with a lovely warm atmosphere, recently redecorated, and can sit up to 45 covers.  It was by no means full when we pitched up at 6.30 at the end of the season, but by the time we left five other tables were occupied.

Lam Adobo. Photograph from the Proper Gander website at http://propergandertywyn.com/about/

There were two menus, the standard menu, which includes an imaginative selection of vegetarian options, and a steak menu, and two wine menus from two different suppliers, one of which is based on Dolgellau.  I was seriously tempted by the steak menu, but in the end went for a more adventurous choice.   The food was divine.  I chose grilled halloumi and za’tar with harissa-infused yogurt on a bed of tiny salad leaves with pomegranate to start, followed by lamb adobo, described on the menu as pancetta-wrapped lamb stuffed with a filling of Porcini mushrooms, fresh oregano, mint, parsley, garlic and shallots, and served with with peppers, courgettes, tiny diced red onion, creamed mash and a wonderfully fresh chimichurri sauce.  My father chose pear and stilton pate with a pear chutney followed by squid ink risotto and hake with asparagus, sugarsnaps and samphire.  It was all cooked to perfection.  My father waxed particularly lyrical about the cooking of the hake, but it was all gorgeous, and beautifully presented.  The wine was excellent and didn’t bankrupt us. Other meals that were going past also looked stunning, and next time I go I will be torn between some of their wonderful seafood choices or diving headlong into the steak menu.

The Boer War memorial showing Proper Gander at far right.  Photograph by Arthur C. Harris, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

We were welcomed warmly and were served with friendly professionalism.  We had lots of questions to ask about the restaurant and how long it had been there, and it was great to be able to chat.  When we left, we said goodbye to the chef and returned home feeling very pleased with a great, celebratory evening.

If you are looking for the restaurant on a first visit, it is at the opposite end of the High Street from the railway station, immediately opposite Neptune Road and the memorial to the Boer War.  There is plenty of parking at this time of year.  Enjoy!

Proper Gander can be found at:

4 High Street
Tywyn
Gwynedd
LL36 9AA
01654 712169
www.propergandertywyn.com

A Background to Shipping and Shipbuilding in Aberdovey

Introduction

I will be talking about shipping, shipbuilders and individual ships over the next weeks and months, and in order to put these topics into context, I have been looking at how a maritime tradition developed not merely in Aberdovey but in west Wales as a whole. The following summary, amalgamating information in a number of secondary resources, is brief but hopefully provides sufficient information to introduce shipping and shipbuilding in the Aberdovey area. For those who would like to read more, I have listed the books and papers I used at the end of the post.

Mid-West Wales showing the locations of Aberdyfi (or Aberdovey), Tywyn, Borth, Machynlleth, Aberystwyth, Corris and Barmouth, key places in the story of coastal and deep sea trade and boat- and shipbuilding. Google Maps.

 

 

The 900-mile Welsh coastline, includes many river estuaries and natural harbours.  Mid Wales sits within Cardigan Bay, a sweeping arc at the east of the Irish Sea, extending from the Llyn peninsula in the north to St David’s peninsula in the south.  As Moelwyn Williams says:  “the small ports and creeks along the coastline were focal points in the economic life of the Welsh people: they formed a kind of network of commerce and trade.”  Often largely cut off from the interior due to the absence of roads, and excluded from land-based trade networks, it may have seemed inevitable that the Welsh coastal inhabitants would take to the sea, but in fact up until the 18th Century the vast majority of the ships exporting Welsh goods and supplying Welsh ports with Welsh, Irish and English goods were either English or Irish.

The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages natural harbours became important for provisioning of military bases established by foreign invaders to fend off attempts to oust them.   This means that most shipping engaged in trade at that time was not Welsh but Norman.  J. Geraint Jenkins describes how wine and fruit imports could come from as far away as France and Spain, giving the example of Edward III who gave Tenby a grant to build its first landing stage in 1328, enabling it to import wine from France.  Wales in return exported agricultural produce, animal hides and wool.  Other traders came from nearer to home, particularly from ports along the Bristol Channel, exchanging a wide variety of imports in return for agricultural produce.  An important fishing industry also developed during the Middle Ages, taking advantage of the rich herring shoals, both for local consumption and, salted, for export.  The salt for preserving the herring was imported from Ireland, Cheshire and Lancashire.  Irish vessels carried most of the salted fish for export, and most other ships came not from Wales but ports like Liverpool and Deeside.  Piracy and smuggling were both common, with Irish salt the most commonly smuggled import due to its importance for preserving fish for export and the high duty imposed on it since 1693.  Smuggling of salt only ceased when the duty was dropped in 1825.

The 17th and 18th Centuries

After the conflicts of the Middle Ages a wide range of commodities and industrial products were transported along the coastline.  As J. Geraint Jenkins says “Much Welsh export was transported in the veritable armada of ships owned by local people who traded the entire length of the Welsh coast.”   This highlights two important points.  Ships were owned by local people, sometimes by individuals who owned only one ship, usually by locals who combined their resources to purchase shares in a ship, and only more rarely by ship owners who could afford more than one ship, sometimes extending to a small fleet.  The second point is that whilst much of the trade was local, in the sense that it was focused on moving commodities from one part of Wales to another, an eternal revolving door of commercial activity, some ships were also travelling regularly to Ireland and Europe, exchanging local Welsh products like wood, wool, coal, fish, wheat and beer for commodities like wine, different agricultural produce, fruit and kitchen wares.

Map of Aberdovey and its harbour in 1801. By William Morris and Lewis Morris. (National Library of Wales. Used under terms of license)

In the 18th Century, Wales was swept into the Industrial Revolution and goods like lime, coal, granite, bricks, slate, tin, lead and copper joined the export trade, and it seems to have been this that gave Welsh coastal inhabitants the impetus to take to the sea.  As these new materials acquired increasing importance, so did the Welsh coastline, with investment both into improvements at existing ports, harbours and wharves and into new ports to serve specific industries.  At the same time, small flat-bottomed boats continued to land on beaches to unload their cargoes, requiring no specialized facilities.   Passengers, too, increasingly required transportation between commercial centres.   Coastal work dominated, but long distance trade also continued to have an important role, not merely to Europe but across the Atlantic and elsewhere, facilitated by both local and foreign shipbuilders who were now building the larger ships required for such enterprises.  Moelwyn Williams says that by 1768 there were around 60 ports and cargo handling creeks in Wales from Chepstow in the south to Chester in the north.  In the early days of its maritime tradition, many sailors were also engaged in land-based trades, spreading the risk.  By the 19th Century, however, sailors were engaged in the maritime trade full time.

The 19th Century

The High Street of Cardigan in 1855 by Joseph Clougher (Source: National Library of Wales. Used under license)

It was only in the 19th Century that Welsh ports developed into more prosperous and organized enterprises, hubs for longer distance and sometimes international trade, building on the 18th Century trades and reinforcing it with new produce.  Exports included slate, lead, copper, oak poles and planks, wooden furniture, bark, trenails (wooden pegs), butter, cheese, wheat, malt  animal hides, dried salmon and wool were exported.  Williams says that imports included goods from Liverpool, including bricks, tiles, boards, fir timber, potatoes, turnips and clover seeds as well as foreign commodities such as tea, sugar, tobacco, raisins, Spanish wines and spirits.  Competition opened up between ports, both under sail and under steam, as trans-Atlantic trade and passenger travel took off.  Steam began to make its presence felt in Wales from the first half of the 19th Century, but as Williams and Armstrong discuss, sail still dominanted for heavy cargoes, partly because steamers were most appropriate for rivers and lakes rather than the open sea, fuel costs for carrying the heavy industrial cargoes were prohibitive, and they were unsuitable for bulk cargoes due to the size of the coal bunkers that they carried.  For most of the 19th Century sail and steam worked together in harmony, each suitable for different roles.  Competition with the railways, spreading remorselessly into even the most remotest parts of England, Scotland and Wales, undermined coastal shipping, but provided some ship owners with the motivation to engage in more ambitious trading enterprises in the long distance deep sea trades.  These ships were usually not based in Wales, and did not export Welsh goods, but many of them were owned by Welsh individuals and companies who were themselves based in Welsh villages and many were crewed by Welsh sailors.  Local shipbuilders now had to compete with the Canadian counterparts for business.  Many of the big ships owned in Wales were built by  famous clipper and schooner shipbuilders in Canada used to designing ships that could tackle the dreadful conditions around Cape Horn.  Both American and Canadian ships were larger than most British ships.  In spite of the benefits of size and short-term durability, they were built of softwoods, which had a much shorter lifespan than the durable hardwoods preferred by British shipbuilders.  Welsh sailors were soon to be found on ships travelling all over the world on ships that could be away from Britain for many months at a time, travelling west from ports like Liverpool, London, Bristol and Cardiff to Europe, New York, round Cape Horn to Peru and California and east as far as China, Japan and Australia.  The main exports from Wales were slate and coal, with ships returning from Canada with salted dried cod for the Mediterranean, from America with copper ore, from Peru with guano, from Chile with copper ore, from the China and Japan with tea, from Australia with wool, from the Mediterranean with wine, oil, fruit, iron ore and zinc, and from eastern Europe with grain for western Europe and timber for Britain.  All destined for the major British ports including Liverpool, London, Newcastle, Bristol and Cardiff.  Iron ore and copper ore were of particular importance to south Wales where the tin and steel trades were developing towards the end of the 19th Century.

Cardiff from the South by Paul Sandby in 1776, showing two sloops on the River Taff (Source: MeisterDrucke https://www.meisterdrucke.uk/artist/Paul-Sandby.html

Cardiff became the biggest port in Wales and in the north Holyhead on Anglesey was dominant due to its connections with Ireland.  In mid-west Wales Cardigan was an important port until the late 18th Century, when Aberystwyth, which had started to become a successful port during the late 18th Century began to overtake it.  Liverpool dominated west coast trade in the northwest.   There were many attempts to establish mid-Wales terminals for either crossing between Britain and Ireland, or as bases for trans-Atlantic passenger liners.  Porthmadog, on the northwest Welsh coast, became important due to the demand for slate in the early 19th Century.  Unlike Cardigan, which grew up over the centuries, it was the brainchild of William Maddocks who in 1810 created a sea wall and diverted a river in order to reclaim land for agricultural use, which led to the river carving out a natural harbour at Porthmadog, making it an ideal location for exporting slate.  Four narrow gauge railways descended into the town, which became an important port and an important shipbuilding centre, producing famous schooners.

The Charlotte of Aberdovey. (Source: “My Welsh Ancestry” website by Alan Jones at http://www.mywelshancestry.co.uk/John%20Jenkins/John%20Jenkins%20Story.html)

Shipbuilding was a natural match for a country with an important export trade and a poor inland transport infrastructure.  As trade grew, so did the demand for new ships, the men to sail them, and all the crafts associated with the shipbuilding industry.  Wood and metalworking, rope-making, sail-making, anchor manufacture, mast-makers and other craft specialists, all provided work for local craftsmen who benefited from the business.  Building wooden sailing ships was surprisingly low-tech.  It did not require, for example, the construction of dry docks or the provision of cranes.  All that was needed was a flat piece of land, preferably a beach or close by, the supply of timber, particularly oak, a saw pit and something to act as a mould loft (a sort of design studio) where the ship plan is laid out, and and men with the requisite skills to create scaffolding, work wood and finish a ship.  Porthmadog was famous for its beautiful schooners, but a lot of other Welsh ports produced ships, including most notably Barmouth and Pwllheli, and the river Dyfi was a smaller base for shipbuilding at Aberdovey, Penhelig, Morben and  Derwenlas.   Some of the vessels produced were small sailing ships, with no more than one mast, like sloops, smacks, snows and ketches, but many were more ambitious including two-masted schooners such as the 84 ton 75ft Frances Poole, the 112 ton 83ft Acorn and the Jane Owens, both built by John Jones of Aberdovey, brigantines such as the 148 ton 88ft Charlotte built in Barmouth for Aberdovey owner Thomas Daniel, and square rigged brigs, including the substantial two-masted 208 ton 101ft Rowland Evans, built at Derwenlas and even three-masted barques like the Mary Evans.  The bigger ships, particularly the square-rigged ships, travelled all over the world, as demonstrated by Alan Jones’s description of the career of John Jenkins, born and raised in Borth in the 1800s, who sailed on several Aberdovey-built ships.  Churches and chapels for different denominations grew up,  support services for locals and visitors developed and an entire social infrastructure, including schools, pubs, hotels, shops and ferry services evolved to serve the needs of these growing communities.  Local railways serving quarries and mines improved the connection between industries and ports and even the roads eventually improved.

Ships were financed by local investors, each of whom owned one or more of 64 shares.  These included the ship’s captain, farmers, quarry owners, merchants and similar businessmen with who had need of ships for their own business ventures, as well as craftsmen who worked on the ships, the ship’s and ordinary people from the local community who saw them as an opportunity for profit or to expand meagre incomes.  When larger enterprises developed with two or more ships, the most common model for ship ownership was the Single Ship Company, in which the manager or owner takes a portion of the gross earnings of the ship rather than a share of its profits, thereby benefiting from its successes without suffering from its losses.  An alternative with the Limited Joint Stock Company, an innovation of the 19th Century in which an individual could invest in a company without risking his personal fortune.

The S.S. Countess of Lisburne (Source: National Museum of Wales at https://museum.wales/industry/images/?action=show_item&item=3188)

As steam began to replace sail on all but the most remote parts of the globe, where steamers were unable to carry sufficient coal for the long legs between coaling stations, the Welsh shipbuilding industry began to go into decline.  The Welsh coastal ports never invested in the development of a steam shipbuilding industry, and the shipbuilding industry died out when steam largely replaced sail during the late 19th Century.  With a busy coastal trade based on steam, Welsh boys and men continued to go to sea, in spite of low salaries and uncomfortable conditions, finding it a viable alternative to work available in small farming communities and the hinterland beyond.  Even with the advance of rail, much of west Wales still offered limited opportunities for young men who did not want to work on the land or leave to find work in other areas.  Jenkins says that in the big ports, steamship owners “preferred sailors from rural Wales because they know how to handle a ship in difficult situations on a rugged coastline” and that on many ships sailing from Cardiff, Welsh was the first language.

Shipping and Shipbuilding in Aberdovey

Aberdovey was located in the Ynysymaengwyn estate, in the parish of Tywyn, at the far south of Meirionnydd (formerly Merionethshire).  It is a good example of a small fishing village, specializing in herring, that grew into a small but important port as its own natural resources became desirable elsewhere. Lewis Lloyd, in his admirable book “A Real Little Seaport” (1996), describes how, in its hey-day “Aberdyfi was a great deal more than a coasting port with a modest fleet of locally built smacks and schooners . . . . Aberdyfi possessed a number of deep-water or ocean-going vessels which sailed to distant places and Aberdfyi’s larger schooners, especially those built at Aberdyfi by Thomas Richards, sailed to St John’s Newfoundland, and to Labrador along with Porthmadog’s famous 3-masted schooners. . . Aberdyfi was, in short, a complete and diversified small port.”  Aberdovey started from modest beginnings, and there are almost no traces of its shipbuilding and shipping past now, but it is still possible, via the work of a number of authors, to trace the history of Aberdovey and to locate some of the long-buried centres of activity on the ground today.

Williams says that the first official reference to Aberdovey as a port was in 1565, coming to life only during the herring season, when it was described as “a wonderful great resort of fishers assembled from all places within this Realm with Shippes, Boats and Vessells.”  Just two years later, however, the official port books show that a substantial amount of cargo was being offloaded at Aberdovey, and the same records show that lead ore was the chief export. By the end of the 16th Century Aberdovey was a busy maritime location.  Aberdovey became both the region’s registry throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries, and it was the most important herring port in Cardigan Bay.  Herring fishing took place in autumn and winter, and during the spring and summer the same vessels engaged in carrying coastal cargoes.  A Custom House had been established from at least the 17th Century, and J. Geraint Jenkins quotes a 1704 report from a local newspaper quoted by Jenkins that says that customs officers from the Aberdovey office caught three boats smuggling salt that was ready to be loaded on horses, around 200 of them, In New Quay.

Aberdovey in 1834 (National Library of Wales. Used under terms of license)

A significant source of work for Aberdovey came from its with Derwenlas.  Derwenlas, at the last navigable point on the River Dyfi, was the major port serving Machylleth, a thriving wool manufacturing centre based on the unnavigable part of the Dyfi, 2 miles inland from Derwenlas.  Industries like the 17th Century silver mill and Royal Mint at Furnace (Ffwrnais) and the subsequent lead smelting furnace on the same site in the 18th Century depended on the sea to send and receive cargoes.  Sea vessels were too large to navigate the river Dfyi, and river vessels were too small to tackle coastal waters, so all cargoes were trans-shipped at Aberdovey, making the port a hub for local trade.  Furnace is the subject of another post on this blog.  Machynlleth’s position at the meeting point of Montgomeryshire, Cardiganshire and Merionethshire at the border between north and south Wales was significant, and provided Aberdovey, as the main port for the Dyfi valley and beyond with, as Lewis Lloyd puts it, a certain “hybrid vigour.”  In 1770 the Custom House moved to Aberystwyth, taking with it some of Aberdovey’s status, but not its business. In 1776 a bigger blow was the establishment of the statutory registers of shipping, in which Aberdyfi was subordinate to Aberystwyth, which firmly established Aberystwyth as the dominant port in mid Wales.

In the 19th Century trade expanded and Aberdovey the relationship between Derwenlas and Aberdovey continued to be symbiotic, whilst Aberdovey began to develop in its own right.  Slate exports became Aberdovey’s main source of income from at least the 1850s, with other cargoes supplementing this trade.  Williams gives details of the cargo shipped down the river for export including slates, bark and timber, whilst imports included rye, wheat, limestone, and English and foreign hides.  Most of the area’s wool exports went out from Barmouth.  Jenkins describes how Corris slate was conveyed via tramway to Derwenlas and lead ore was was brought from Dylife in horse and cart. Samuel Lewis, writing in 1883, adds that tree bark, oak timber and oak pole for collieries were also loaded into river boats at Derwenlas.  Imports offloaded at Derwenlas included rye, wheat, coal, culm (a form of coal), limestone, hides and shop goods including groceries.   All products into and out of Derwenlas had to be carried by river, so Aberdovey functioned as the major hub for transferring cargoes to and from river boats  to and from seagoing ships.  Even cargoes destined for Aberystwyth from America were often trans-shipped at Aberdovey into barges from the 1840s, because Aberystwth’s harbour was too shallow to handle the the big deep-drafted trans-Atlantic vessels.  In 1852 a marine insurance society was formed in Aberystwyth, but Aberdovey never formed one, which, as Lloyd points out, underlines the secondary nature of Aberdovey at this time.

The largest ship ever built on the Dyfi, at Derwenlas, the 258-ton barque The Mary Evans built by John Evans in 1867 (Source:  Dyfi Osprey Project on Faceook at https://bit.ly/2N9YecU)

Shipbuilding took place all along the river Dyfi, at Aberdovey, Penhelig, Aberleri, Morben Isaf (now a caravan park) and Derwenlas.  D.W. Morgan says that in the mid 19th Century around fifty five schooners were built on the Dyfi, as well as a barque, two brigantines, three brigs and fourteen sloops.  Some of these larger ships were specifically built to serve the trans-Atlantic trade, where size and speed were in demand for carrying woollen goods.  The best known of the shipbuilders was Thomas Richards who built ships in Aberdovey. Ship’s crews came from the the parish of Tywyn, the Dyfi valley and its hinterland, with a remarkable number coming from Borth, on the other side of the river in Ceredigion, at that time Cardiganshire.

In the 1860s the railway connected Machynlleth and Aberystwyth, undermining Derwenlas, and the construction of a railway bridge to extend it up the coast cut off traffic upriver.  The railway arrived in Aberdovey in 1867, marking an end to the shipbuilding yard at Penhelig, which was already suffering from competition from experienced shipbuilders in the north-east and Canada.   Jenkins says that the last ship to be built on the Dyfi was the 1869 76-ton 75.2ft schooner/ketch Catherine built at Pennal.    It had been the same story in Borth, across the estuary, and Barmouth to the north. In both cases, when the Aberystwyth and Welsh Coast Railway arrived in the 1860s maritime trade went into decline and together with the shipbuilding industry.  This was just a year before the last sailing ship, the 1870 794-ton tea clipper Lothair, was built at Rotherhithe on the Thames, demonstrating that although the new Dyfi railway bridge, the west coast railway itself and Canadian-built ships were challenges to shipbuilding and maritime trade in the Aberdovey area, there was a bigger threat.

Steam power was slowly taking over the sea, and many steamships and long distance sailing ships were now iron-hulled.  Whilst some shipyards on the Thames began to make steamers, Wales never got to grips with building steamships, an industry that became concentrated in north-east England and, most importantly, in Scotland on the Clyde.  Steam, however, held out considerable hope for the future prosperity of Aberdovey, capitalizing on the proximity of Aberdovey to the Midlands and improving trade links along the coast. In 1834 the Cardigan Bay Steam Navigation Company began to provide a service between Aberystwyth and Pwllheli with the S.S. Vale of Clwyd, stopping at Barmouth, Aberdovey, Aberaeron and New Quay.  It carried passengers in the summer but also carried cargo in the winter, including livestock, and agricultural produce.  In 1880 the Waterford and Aberdovey Steamship Company was established to connect the Midlands to Ireland for carrying livestock and passengers, but this was short-lived. In 1892 the Aberdovey and Barmouth Steamship Company Ltd., financed mainly by Liverpool wholesale grocers,.sailed most weeks between Liverpool and Aberystwyth with three ships, the S.S. Countess of Lisburne, the S.S. Dora and the S.S. Grosvenor.

The decline in maritime trade was not the end of Aberdovey’s prosperity in the short term.  Slate was carried on the Talyllyn railway into Tywyn, where it was trans-shipped to Aberdovey and then loaded on to the mainline railway.

Crowds at the Aberdovey wharf at a regatta in c.1885. (National Library of Wales. Used under terms of license)

In the 1880s the slate trade went into a slump, but in 1882 new wharves, animal pens and warehouses were built, handling imports of timber, corn, livestock and fuel for distribution both locally and throughout Britain, and it continued to handle diminished exports of local slate and agricultural produce.  As steam took over from sail, the character of the town changed.  Although hopes of becoming a port between Ireland and the Midlands was sustained for some time, these were doomed to failure because Holyhead in the north and first Neyland and then Fishguard in the south dominated shipping across the Irish Sea, both thanks to excellent rail connections with London.   Sadly, hopes of a trans-Atlantic steamer service also came to nothing.  Trade, like shipbuilding, began to suffer in the late 19th Century, in spite of the railway.  Jenkins describes how the lead and slate industries went into decline and the wool trade came to a close.  Timber continued to be imported, and the Melin Adrdudwy steam flour roller mill continued to be productive in the late 19th Century, but by 1914 the main form of income was tourism.

Future posts will look at some of the above topics in more detail, with reference to specific examples from Aberdovey and the surrounding area.

References

The main sources for this post are as follows, with full details listed in the Bibliography:
Fenton, R. 1989
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2007
Jenkins, J.G. 2006
Jones, A. 2010
Lewis, S. 1833
Lloyd, L. 1996, volume 1
Morgan, D.W. 1948
Williams, D.M. and Armstrong, J. 2010
Williams, M. I. 1973

The Salt Association website