- This article covers shipping calling at Portmadoc, the Harbour as a location is covered in Portmadoc Harbour.
A brief look at other modes of transport in the area of Porthmadog, or Portmadoc as it was in the days gone by, would obviously look towards the sea. This page is published with the approval of Robert Cadwalader, Secretary of Porthmadog Maritime Museum, author of a number of maritime articles, including one with regard to the FR connection. The original article is interspersed with English and Welsh.
Porthmadog - The Port and the Ships
For information about the establishment of the port see Portmadoc Harbour. Over 260 ships were built at Porthmadog and Borth y Gest between 1825 and 1913. Previous to the construction of "The Cob" embankment in 1812 (and the subsequent development of Porthmadog), ships were built in various locations around "Traeth Mawr" and "Traeth Bach". Several of the shipbuilders, shipwrights and carpenters from the Merioneth side moved to the new port. First a horse drawn tramway was built then a narrow gauge steam railway brought the slates down from the quarries up in the hills. The Ffestiniog slate was famous and was exported to all parts of the world by these locally built brigs, schooners, barquentines and brigantines (a couple of larger barques were also built). Coal, hardware, grain and all sorts of general cargoes were brought in.
After the arrival of the standard gauge railway in 1867 there was a drop off in trade but the shipbuilders, owners, brokers and the seamen themselves fought back and found new trades. A new type of ship was developed with one trade in mind - the Newfoundland and Labrador salt cod industry. These were the "Western Ocean Yachts" for which Porthmadog is justly famous. A full description of them is given below.
We musn't forget the unglamorous workhorses though - the coastal smacks, the phosphate brigs and others which carried any cargo to most places in the world. They are also mentioned below.
A list of most of the ships that called Porthmadog their home port (some were built in Pwllheli or Nefyn) was compiled by Emrys Hughes. The late Aled Eames expanded it and included it in "Porthmadog Ships".
Last days as a commercial port
During WWII the local foundries were involved in munitions and military machinery manufacture and raw materials were sometimes brought in by sea and the finished or part completed articles backloaded.
The last vessel to trade regularly to the port was the FLORENCE COOKE. Her last visit was in 1959.
This was the end. A few cargoes of heavy machinery for the Trawsfynydd Power Station were brought in during the late fifties, some timber cargoes and a coaster unloaded in the port during a Liverpool docker's strike. Research in to this final period is more difficult as the records have been scattered. Some of the Harbour Records up to 1918 are at Caernarfon, the National Library of Wales and Bangor University and some are missing.
The real blow had been earlier though. The last vessel built at the port, the GESTIANA, was lost on her maiden voyage in 1913 and then the outbreak of the war in 1914 brought the German slate trade to an abrupt end. The competition with the railway was almost lost for coastal trade. No new ships were built, several were sunk by enemy action and most of the survivors sold. Slate did leave the port during the twenties and thirties but in 1925 less than five per cent of the Ffestiniog output went out by sea; about 3,000 tons Some of these cargoes continued to be loaded onto schooners and ketches. Most of this dwindling fleet had had their rig cut down and auxiliary engines installed. They were owned in North Devon ports, Arklow in Ireland, Kilkeel in Ulster, Connahs Quay and a couple locally.
Vessels such as the SOLWAY LASS, RESULT, EMILY BARRAT, GARLANDSTONE, KATIE and the SARAH LATHAM sailed on well into living memory. Two of the last locally built ships to load slates were the DAVID MORRIS and the ELIZABETH. Both were sold from the port in the 1920s and were lost soon afterwards; the former in Newfoundland and the latter far from home in the Seychelles. The Ffestiniog Railway went into decline during this period. Once when three steam coasters happened to be in port at the same time difficulties occurred with the movement of wagons because of the poor state of the stock.
The last remaining locally owned sailing vessel, the LADY AGNES, rotted away near the railway station during the second war and was condemned. Her entry in the Caernarfon ship register for 31st December 1945 baldly states "closed". In June of 1946 the final load of slate, delivered by rail, left by sea from Porthmadog. Two months later the Ffestiniog Railway ceased commercial operations (In his book "Porthmadog Ships" the late Aled Eames has statistics for export by sea up to 1948. Possibly these last loads were slates stored on the quayside or at Minffordd or brought by lorry).
It had been hoped that there would be a revival of the slate industry as part of the reconstruction of towns and cities damaged during the war but this did not occur. Other materials for roofing had become more popular and the hoped for boom as had happened after the Great War just did not occur. The statistics in various reports and papers published at the time illustrate the decline of the slate industry. In 1935 the total production of the Welsh Quarries had been 228,434 tons. In 1945 it was 82,702 tons of which 19,587 came from the Merioneth Quarries. In 1935 the output from the Ffestiniog and other smaller Merioneth quarries had been 55,718 tons. Of the 1945 figure the bulk, about 50,000 tons, had been produced by the Penrhyn and Dinorwic Quarries. Some had been shipped out through the Menai Straits ports - Port Penrhyn and Port Dinorwic.
A handful of the old local steam coasters carried on loading occasional slate cargoes. According to Roy Fenton in his book "Cambrian Coasters" Penrhyn's SYBIL MARY (built 1921) and Dinorwic's JULIET DUFF (built 1920) were the last two and were scrapped in 1955. The last cargo of roofing slate from Port Penrhyn was loaded on to a Dutch motor coaster in 1962.
There has been development of the latter port in recent years and slate dust used in the plastics industry, granules and floor tiles are exported by sea on Dutch and German vessels. The debate over the transport of waste slate from Ffestiniog via the Conwy Valley line continues and the author is unaware if there has been any discussion of transport of this commodity by sea.
With acknowledgement to the local maritime historians and authors who have provided most of this information via their many publications.
NOTES on some of the well known ships built or owned in Porthmadog and Borth y Gest. These pages are held on the external web site of Porthmadog Maritime Museum.
|MARY HOLLAND||A "snow" built in 1854 that ended up in Australia|
|EVELYN||Brig built in Porthmadog 1877. Capt Huw Roberts. Foundered in 1913|
|FLEETWING||Brig that lay for many years in the Falklands. Only recently demolished|
|FRAU MINNA PETERSON||A "jack" barquentine. Well known in the Newfoundland trade. Later converted to a schooner as the JANE BANKS|
|CADWALADER JONES||Two masted schooner that traded for many years. Foundered off the Scilly Isles in 1933|
|BLODWEN||First of the "Western Ocean Yachts"|
|ISALLT||Last of the "Yachts" under sail|
|M A JAMES||Last of the "Yachts"|
List of the Western Ocean Yachts:
- Blodwen, 1891
- Owen Morris, 1891
- Dorothy, 1891
- Consul Kaestner, 1892
- Elizabeth, 1892
- The Oakleys, 1892
- Mary Annie, 1893
- Emrys, 1893
- Mary Lloyd, 1894
- Mary Owens, 1894
- Elizabeth Llewellyn, 1895
- Sydney Smith, 1895
- Miss Morris, 1896
- David Morris, 1897
- Ellen James, 1897
- Elizabeth Pritchard, 1898
- M. Lloyd Morris, 1899
- M. A. James, 1900
- Callidora, 1901
- Kitty, 1902
- Royal Lister, 1902
- Isallt, 1902,
- William Pritchard, 1903
- Ellen James, 1904
- John Llewellyn, 1904
- Elizabeth Eleanor, 1905
- William Morton, 1905
- John Pritchard, 1906
- Gracie, 1907
- R. J. Owen, 1907
- Isallt, 1909
- Elizabeth Pritchard, 1909
- Gestiana, 1913
(Source, Hughes E & Eames A (1975) Porthmadog Ships - see further reading below)
|LADY AGNES||Last Porthmadog sailing ship|
|EMILY BARRAT||Owned in Porthmadog in the 1920s. Recently demolished|
|GARLANDSTONE||Traded to Porthmadog. Was a museum here in the 1970s. Now in Cornwall|
|SOLWAY LASS||Owned in Porthmadog in the 1930s. Still sailing in the Pacific|
|FLORENCE COOKE||Steam coaster. Especially built to carry explosives from Cookes. Traded to 1959|
|REBECCA||Built for local owners. Weekly run to Liverpool up to 1916|
Porthmadog had a regular steam coaster service with Liverpool. The two REBECCA's served the ports for many years. Other coasters, such as the Telephone and the Dora called frequently.
See the section on North Wales Steam Coasters
In 1982 when the Festiniog line was re-opened the full length to Blaenau Ffestiniog a token load of four tons of slate was sent down the line to the quayside.
In 2007 a commemorative plaque of slate was brought down and was to be taken by a sailing vessel to Cardiff for the Millennium Centre .
Sadly the EMILY BARRAT did not make it. She did survive but attempts by the Barrow Dock museum to restore her failed because of lack of funds and damage by vandals. Parts were salvaged for display.
The RESULT has been awaiting restoration funds for many years and lies in Northern Ireland.
The SOLWAY LASS is a steel schooner built a hundred years ago and owned in Porthmadog for a couple of years in the 1930s. She survives and sails as a charter vessel in Australia.
The figurehead of the LADY AGNES was recently traced to Canada. It was purchased and returned to Cornwall and is now displayed at the museum in St Agnes where she was built in 1877.
The last remaining locally built vessel, the FLEETWING, a brig built in 1874 in Borth y Gest, lay rotting away in Port Stanley, the Falklands - a long way from home. By 2007, news from Steve Shakespeare indicates that the remains of the FLEETWING have been bulldozed away and a seawall built on the site.
And so it ends - Felly Fydd
Original copyright © RD Cadwalader and used with permission.
Eames A (1980) Ship Master, Gwynedd Archive Services, pp199.
Fenton R S (1989) Cambrian Coaster: Steam and motor coaster owners of North and West Wales, World Shipping Society, Kendal, LA9 7LT, pp190.
Hughes E & Eames A (1975) Porthmadog Ships, Gwynedd Archive Services, pp417.
Hughes H (1969) Immortal Sails, T Stephenson & Son Ltd., Prescot, Lancs, pp240.
Hughes H (1975) Through Mighty Seas, T Stephenson & Son Ltd., Prescot, Lancs, pp288.