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We know little of the early history of Barmouth, or Abermaw to give it its Welsh name. Dinas Oleu, which means the ‘fortress of light’, is a pre Roman site that sits on top of the hill above the town and was the first land donated to the newly formed National Trust in 1895. Early settlements in Wales were generally based upon dispersed farmsteads and this was commented upon by Geraldus Cambrensis, (‘Gerald of Wales’), who travelled through Wales in the 12th century. This area was no exception. There were small towns and villages in Meirionnydd but scattered farmsteads were normal. Shortly after the conquest of Wales by Edward I in 1282 a subsidy or tax of 1292 listed some 100 taxpayers in the parish of Llanaber which now includes Barmouth. Many of the farmhouses in the surrounding area date to the 15th century, those buildings themselves being constructed on the sites of earlier occupations.
The Bishop’s Census of 1563 gives an idea of the population as it lists 60 households in the Ville of Llanaber while an Elizabethan survey in 1565 of the Havens and Creeks of the coast in Wales, (an audit of the weaknesses of the coast to invasion or piracy), lists Abermowe (sic) being likewise a haven having no habitation, but only foure howses whereof there are owners Res ap Res; Haryy ap Eden; Thomas ap Edward and John ap Howard Goche…
The town grew very slowly as another Crown Rental of 1638 mentions some ten houses in Barmouth amongst 90 houses in the ville Llanaber.
The first mention we have of a building in Barmouth itself is a poem dedicated in praise of the builder of Ty Gwyn yn y Bermo, and written around 1465. It is hoped to tree-ring-date this building soon but until then we must enjoy the legend that Ty Gwyn was used as a meeting house for the Lancastrian supporter Jasper Tudor to plot the overthrow of the Yorkist supporters during the Wars of the Roses. It is most likely to have been used as a warehouse or later as a customs house.
Studies of two boats lying one on top of the other just off the shore at nearby Talybont reveal that one of them dates to the 15th century and is armed with canon and is the earliest evidence of a craft in these waters. It was possibly engaged in the war. The boat lying on top is thought to have gone down in 1709 so is fairly recent in comparison! The story and artefacts from these wrecks are displayed in the Ty Gwyn Museum on the quay and well worth a visit.
If the town grew slowly most of the population lived on farms within a short distance of Barmouth within what was called the Townshippe of Llanaber. These houses invariably date from the 16th century onwards but older buildings undoubtedly existed in some form. We also know that houses were built on the steep hill above the harbour in what is now known as Hen Bermo or Old Barmouth. The earliest buildings in the ‘old town’ date from the 17th century but remnants of older buildings may exist. Up until the middle of the 18th century virtually the whole town was situated in this location, safely above the waves.
A ferry has existed, under Crown licence from late medieval times at least, and still carries passengers to the south side of the estuary to this day
Barmouth’s early trade was coastal in nature and small boats of seven to twenty tons were listed in the Welsh Port Books. These boats were officially recorded as trading with the town as early as 1566, and the earliest mention of such trade for a boat belonging to Barmouth was a cargo unladen from le Angell de Bermo in 1587 to Robert Edwards of Llanaber, who had just built himself a new house at Llwyndu. This cargo of grain - rye, pilcorn, barley and wheat - was a common cargo. The trade was mainly for these staples yet also included outward trips taking oak timber and bark, wool occasionally and, of course, herrings. Yet in 1615 a cargo that included twentie tonnes of Ffrenche wines was un-laden from a barque and customs were charged. So there were refined tastes even at this early date!
Trade increased with the main exports mostly deriving from the Mawddach valley; wood, (mostly oak timber and bark, used for pit props and poles), paving stones, slate and especially cloth from the mills in Dolgellau. The wool manufacturers had had to transfer their products overland to the monopoly traders in Shrewsbury but this began to be shipped direct from Barmouth to other parts of the world including the plantations of America, in particular thousands of coarse wool products called ‘webs’. In one year it was recorded that £40,000 of wool products shipped overseas. To support this trade Barmouth and the Mawddach Estuary became a notable ship building location. A golden period stretched from the 1760s through to the mid-19th century with around 350 ships being constructed, however, the war with America (1776-1782) and the war against Napoleon (1788-1815) did curtail activity from Barmouth to some destinations.
The ship building interests both around Barmouth and across the bay in Pwllheli may well have driven the slate trade with London that developed in the mid-1800s, but as Porthmadog blossomed as a slate port it also became the major ship-building location and Barmouth’s industry declined. Ship building activity was immense and continued right up to 1865 but the coming of the railway in 1867 effectively put an end to this.
Today Barmouth has lost all of its commercial activity. A handful of small boats convey tourists on fishing trips and there is little evidence of the once thriving seafaring tradition.
Philanthropy had many flavours in Victorian England from treating the ‘deserving poor’ in an age when we sent people to the workhouse to movements like the Co-operative Society which originally sought to provide goods and services at reasonable cost. The Salvation Army is another visible remnant of this philosophy and of course a religious overtone was often present. Generally these people tended to come from the ‘well to do’ and many moved to Barmouth, built large houses, and some were involved in the themes of the time. The census of 1851 shows an almost exclusive Welsh population but by 1901 there were many English speaking families in and around Barmouth. Fanny Talbot was an important figure who lived above Barmouth and she listed among her friends leading members of the wealthy intellectual classes. An early beneficiary of her generosity of spirit, as well as her purse, was John Ruskin the social commentator, art critic and polymath who was so important to the development of philanthropic thinking. Talbot was enthused with Ruskin’s ideas and especially those that were incorporated in the Guild of St. George The Guild was established to provide land and education to house the working men of England and Wales and train them in ways that harked back to the craft skills of medieval times, while promoting progressive ideas. For a consideration of £1,000 she transferred a number of cottages in the Old Town to the Guild in order to begin setting up this social experiment; social housing you might call it now, with tenants enjoying a security of tenure at a fixed rent . The idea was providing such accommodation and education would nullify the ferment of radical ideas that might form in the minds of working men whilst teaching skills being lost to the industrialising effects of capitalism. It seems, however, that it fell to Fanny Talbot to maintain the experiment as Ruskin rarely visited Barmouth.
Twenty years later Talbot donated the first piece of land to the newly forming National Trust – Dinas Oleu - meeting frequently with doyens of the movement like Octavia Hill and Canon Rawnsley.
The foundation of the Sailor’s Institute by Canon Edward Hughes in 1890 as a reading and recreation room for mariners and others was another symbol of public spiritedness.
Other magnates of Victorian and Edwardian industry also settled around Barmouth. Mrs. Sarah Perrins of Lea and Perrrins Worcester Sauce fame came to Barmouth and built a large house called Plas Mynach. She later funded most of the construction of the huge St. John’s Church and its later Church Hall. Across the Mawddach estuary the McDougal’s Flour family constructed much of early Fairbourne, previously called South Barmouth, although it was primarily constructed for the arrival of wealthy industrialists!
There have been several 're-buildings' over the years that testify to Barmouth's history. In the 18th century elegantly fronted Georgian buildings replaced some of the earlier vernacular structures in the town, although there are cottages of the older era that remain in Old Town, together with Penygrisiau on the High Street and Ty Gwyn on the quayside. Some of the later Georgian buildings are rather fine and can be seen on the Heritage Trail.
The arrival of the railway in 1867, however, was the trigger for another significant boom in building in Barmouth and many of the buildings in what is now the town centre date from this time. Any examination of the older photographs of Barmouth can see how the very early buildings made way for later construction. The activity concentrated on serving the new economy with boarding houses, hotels and large public buildings such as the Assembly Rooms (demolished) amongst many shops. A school and library and the Cambrian Establishment were all constructed during these years. The influx of visitors brought problems as well as benefits and the small round lock-up, Ty Crwn, was built during this period to deal with drunkards. However, the new Poor Law of 1832 saw the construction of these lock-ups all over the country so Barmouth may not have been any worse for these misdemeanours than many other places.
That Barmouth was a religious place is beyond doubt. The two large Anglican churches in Barmouth, St David’s and St. Johns, were both built to accommodate the growing number of visitors. St David’s was built just before the Victorian era in 1830 to provide an Anglican presence in the town as the existing, early 13th century, St. Mary’s church is some 2 miles north of the town. There was also a strong non-conformist following which saw the construction of large chapels such as Caersalem and Christchurch, Ebenezer, Siloam and the Congregational Chapel, (now the Dragon Theatre). These gave a distinctly non-conformist perspective to Barmouth with a strong local following. All these buildings, except Christchurch which continues to attract a regular congregation, have found new uses.
While this period continued to see a declining maritime trade, leisure and tourism became what Barmouth was known for and it was to accommodate the shifting demands of the visitor that the town has since had to manage.
If you are visiting Barmouth you are joining a host of visitors who have come to the region over hundreds of years. For most of its history Barmouth was, like the rest of north-west Wales, isolated from the rest of the country by geography. Roads were few and traversed difficult landscapes so travelling was an adventure. The river Maw, (now the Mawddach), whose estuary joins the sea at Barmouth, first got a mention in the 12th century from Geraldus Cambrensis, a cleric, who travelled the region encouraging followers to sign up for the Crusades to the Holy Land. He used the ferry to cross the river. There was little habitation that we know of. A few hundred years later, around 1545, John Leland, who submitted his writings of his travels around England and Wales to Henry VIII, travelled through Abermowe as it was then known.
The 18th century saw a fascination with picturesque landscapes and the romantic notions of the ‘enlightenment’. Despite the difficulty of access Wales became attractive to the well-to-do travellers of the day and the Mawddach Estuary was an incredible draw. In the latter part of the century the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had made the Grand Tour somewhat unattractive so the scenic regions of Britain, such as North Wales, became the destination of choice. A great variety of figures visited Barmouth and its vicinity, some of whom became quite well known. Visitors included Charles Darwin, who visited locally on several occasions, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth and George Byron amongst many others. They came in part, no doubt, because of the great works of Thomas Pennant, (1726 -1798), a world renowned naturalist and antiquary whose descriptions of every part of Wales encouraged visitors to see them. He described Barmouth thus…'I found the little town of Barmouth, seated near the bottom of some high mountains, and the houses placed on the steep sides, one above another, in such a manner as to give the upper an opportunity of seeing down the chimneys of their next subjacent neighbours. The town is seated very near to the sea, at the mouth of the 'Maw', or 'Mawddach'; and takes its name of Barmouth, i.e. Aber Maw, or Mawddach, from that circumstance.'
His descriptions were often copied, however many others of the ‘better sort’ came browsing around to write of their experiences and whilst the common theme in most of their reports was the magnificent scenery not all were complimentary. Descriptions of poor accommodation, sand inundation and pigs living alongside humans in parts of the Old Town give an alternative flavour, but generally the view was positive. We can only wonder what the atmosphere was like when the harbour, thronged with boats, sailors and others of the ruder sorts were visited by the ‘new tourists’. We must remember also that the road from Barmouth along the estuary was not blasted through the rock until the 1790s and people had a steep decent down into the town so it was much easier to reach by boat unless coming from the north!
As well as the scenery, the other great draw to Barmouth was the attraction of sea bathing and some local entrepreneurs thought it a good idea to cater for these people. One such man was William Barnett, innkeeper of the Cors y Gedol Arms Hotel who established the Bath House in the early 19th century to offer bathing from within the building and bathing machines had also been erected on the sands.
It was the laying of the railway in 1867 by the Aberystwith (sic) and Welsh Coast Railway that proved a great catalyst in the fortunes of Barmouth. Within ten years the railway had seen off the boat building activity but it had unleashed a new direction for the town as it brought a great influx of new trade in the form of tourists – 1200 on the first train! From its genteel Georgian period there was a great impetus to regenerate the town in its new Victorian form and many of the buildings you see today came from the rebuilding that went to serve the new economy.
Holidays in the Victorian period were still restricted to the well-off as most working class people did not yet enjoy paid holidays, with just the odd Bank Holiday from 1871. Nevertheless, seaside holidays became increasingly popular and the train brought thousands to stay in the town’s ‘boarding houses’ and hotels with some staying the whole summer. It was not until the twentieth century that the traditional factory summer holiday closures brought a wider population to town. Summer specials transported thousands of factory workers and their families to the coast; south to Weston-Super-Mare and Torbay, west to Aberystwyth, Tywyn and Barmouth. It was not long into the 1930s and 1940s that the private motor car and the coach slowly began to give the train increasing competition. But those trains transformed Barmouth’s fortunes as the combination of great beaches, mountain walking and a friendly climate quickly established a reputation that encouraged tremendous loyalty. That legacy lingers even today.
Although the train still brings tourists to Barmouth the vast majority arrive by road, the fast ‘A’ roads from the Midlands offering an easy route to the coast. And that loyalty to Barmouth is still there. Listen to the accents along the prom on a summer’s day and you’ll realise that the West Midlands dialects dominate!