The shipping activity on the Dyfi no doubt magnetised the subsistence fishermen of Borth into seeking employment and commercial opportunity there. As records show by the end of the 18th century Borth mariners began to run and eventually purchase their own vessels. In their first concerted effort into shipping, sloops were preferred as they were ideal for coastal trading around the Irish sea. Borth was an extremely poor village, and shares in vessels would be owned by many people other than the one person listed. This arrangement meant that vessels were often owned by one large and extended family, especially as previously mentioned, even small sloops could be expensive to purchase.
Metal ores were an important commodity that helped accelerate the expansion of the north Ceredigion shipping industry. It is thought that the Romans first exploited the County’s metal resources. In the 1976 drought the remains of a Roman fort was discovered near the Llangynfelin church site. Abandoned in A.D.130 it could have been located there to exploit the nearby lead and silver deposits (Breverton, 2000, pp.170-1).
By the 1600s the lead and silver mines of north Ceredigion were producing enormous profits. No wonder the Ysgair Hir mine and others in the area are marked on John Carey’s map as the Welch Potosi. Sir Hugh Middleton owned one mine that produced £2000 worth of ore a month for quite a number of years. Much of these profits went to support the Royalist cause, and local silver ore was minted into coins at Aberystwyth Castle for the same cause. This activity eventually caused the parliamentary forces to reduce the fortification to ruins. The enormous potential of Ceredigion’s mines to generate wealth 300 years ago is evident in the following:
Mr Waller, Captain of the Mines under Sir Carberry Pryse, writes in 1693, that by employing 600 miners, loading at Glandyfi, a creek of Aberdyf , thence by river boats to the ‘big storehouse at Aberdyfi’, it was possible to export via Aberdovey 15,000 tons of lead ore, or 10,000 tons of lead, to the value of £90,000 annually (Thomas, 1946, p.46).
In the 1700's, the multi-talented Lewis Morris came to live in Ceredigion where the lead industry was to provide much of his income. He used his engineering skills in mine supervising as well as building roads. Morris played an important role in the county’s maritime legacy with his journals and maps, that were to facilitate the shipping of the valuable lead export. It was a considerable achievement to persuade the naval authorities to employ him as a marine surveyor and underwrite a coastal survey of Wales. This was no doubt helped by the fact that his brother Richard worked at the Admiralty.
The majority of the local land-owning squires invested very little of their own money in venture capital. In mining, they only sold the mineral rights to prospective investors. Surprisingly, none of the gentry invested in shipping; there is only one entry for a Pryse of Gogerddan having shares in a cargo steamship in 1910.At times there was much rivalry between the landowners, especially as some mines were very lucrative. In 1751, landowner Thomas Powell of Nanteos, claiming lord of the Manorship of Aberystwyth, tried to levy a toll on the lead ore of Gogerddan Estate owner Thomas Pryse, which had to be exported from the port. During this short-lived, avarice-driven blockade, an attempt was made by Pryse to ship Cwmsymlog’s lead ore from Clarach Bay.
Not only was lead mining profitable at some workings, but its fiscal potential should be considered in the context of the fact that nearly a third of all Britain’s lead production came from Wales. Not only did shipping benefit from mining endeavours, but road systems were developed so that pack horses and cart trains could carry the ore down to the creeks and harbours for export to England and Europe. In 1753 Lewis Morris had to build a road to transport the ore from the Esgair Mine to the Dyfi. As was the case for other commercial products, sea routes were the cheapest and often the only feasible form of transport up to the 1860s. At one time copper was also an export cargo, mined from the Merionethshire side of the Dyfi, and in the years between 1791 and 1794 a total of 1,124 tons of copper ore left via the port of Aberdyfi (Thomas, 1946, p.9).
The environmental price paid for mining metals was substantial. A fisherman from Aberystwyth named John Jones, stated that lead pollution from the rivers Rheidol and Ystwyth had poisoned the herring spawning grounds in the area from the 1840s onwards. This was recorded by Frank Buckland and Spencer Walpole, who interviewed fishermen at Aberystwyth in 1878 whilst compiling the Report of the Sea Fisheries Of England and Wales. By the beginning of the 20th century the Ystwyth and Rheidol rivers were polluted to such a degree that they were described as fishless sewers:
…used almost solely for the lawless and selfish benefit of industries which could well afford to take proper means to effectively prevent the poisoning of the waters. …there must be something radically wrong in the administration of the pollution laws (Grimble, 1913, p.162)
Oak timber products of varying kinds including beams, planks, props and bark was another major export from the Dyfi valley area, so much so that its woodlands became seriously depleted. Oak bark was exported to Ireland in astounding quantities up until the 1890s. The Rev. Walter Davies in his agricultural surveys of Wales in 1810 and 1815, noted this, and riled against what he considered, even in those days, to be environmental malpractices (Davies, 1810, p.249 & Davies, 1815, pp.19-20). There had been other dissenting voices in the past objecting to the ravaging of Welsh woodlands, such as an anonymous 16th century Welsh poet who lamented the destructive practices of charcoal burning in his poem Coed Glyn Cynon (Glyn Cynon Wood), (Parry, 1962, P.550).
In the 18th century salt was such an expensive commodity that it became a prime item on the smugglers’ agenda. The duties it attracted made it difficult for the poor to access this product that was so essential in preserving the meat and fish that sustained them over the winter months. No wonder many places along the Ceredigion coastline became engaged in illegal activities out of sheer necessity. In 1704 customs officers were set upon with sticks and stones by a large gathering of local people who were caught unloading this contraband from Ireland on beaches near Newquay, in South Ceredigion (Davies, 1936. p.312). There were no salt duties in Ireland and it was a third of the price charged on mainland Britain. Salts importance was such that earlier, in 1567, a salt-works was set up in the Dyfi estuary by speculators, but unfortunately there is no mention of how it fared. Its very existence is only noted through old shipping records. Listed in the Port Books of Aberdyfi is the record of a French carrack sailing into the Dyfi during this salt work enterprise, with a speculative cargo consisting of 15 tons of salt, of all things, and 5 tons of wine. D. W. Morgan conjectures that the salt-work operators would surely have been somewhat taken aback; but, of course, the wine may have greased the wheels of commerce, as 18 days later Le Seahog de Emdin departed with 15 tons of lead ore; having successfully sold the salt and wine. The ships that brought salt cargoes to Ceredigion ports often left with barrelled herrings and oak bark (Morgan, 1948, pp. 9-11).
Activity in Ceredigion coastal shipping was further boosted in the second half of the 18th century with the increasing use of lime to neutralise the acidic soils of the county. To service this industry more locally built vessels were needed, and sloops were ideal. These oak built vessels were sturdily constructed as the pressure of heavy cargoes was substantial on their hulls, especially when left high and dry on beaches and river banks by an ebbing tide. Carts were drawn alongside the beached sloops in some places so that the cargoes could be swiftly unloaded before the returning tide. They were so well built that some like the Seven Brothers, one of the last sloops out of Derwenlas before its closure as a port in 1863, was converted into a schooner to be captained by James Morgan of Borth in the 1870s. Another consideration in their design was the necessity of a shallow draught, to accommodate the navigation of small, narrow rivers and inlets that they had to manoeuvre in. Vessels for the lime trade were built on convenient riverbanks and beaches everywhere on the county’s seaboard. It was in these coastal ‘workhorse’ vessels that generations of seafarers learned their trade, plying a shallow coastline with few sheltered harbours that were often difficult to access. There were many navigational hazards such as causeways and treacherous sandbars jealously guarding the havens of Cardigan, Aberystwyth, Aberdyfi and, possibly, Borth when the Leri flowed into the sea.
The coastal limestone carriers were usually crewed by three men. Often the sloops and the kilns were part owned by farmers. This meant that they had some semblance of control as the vagaries of agriculture could be harsh. Using lime to boost the poor soils of the area helped to ensure a supply of corn for bread-making. In the Elizabethan period, to alleviate famine, grain had been traded to the central Welsh coastal area from the more fortunate areas of Pembrokeshire on such vessels as Le Mary Fortune, George, Sonday, Angell and the Le Jesus. (Morgan, 1948, p.18). Later Oliver Cromwell sent a famine relief ship to the Dyfi area to avert one such catastrophe. A certain London merchant Luke Lucy, pleaded with the dictator’s Privy Council to send a corn cargo to Aberdyfi. The Council responded favourably and sent the John of Middleburgh under convoy to the Dyfi escorted by the naval ship Happy Entrance commanded by Captain Badiley (Morgan. 1948, p 20). Borth was no doubt one of the many places in the area that suffered such travails and emphasises how vital the seasonal herring bounty was.
Limestone, and often the coal and culm (coal dust or anthracite gathered into balls held together with clay) to fire the kilns were bought in from Caernarvonshire, Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire to the many coastal and estuarine kiln sites, such as those at Borth. Coal and culm for domestic and light industry needs were also regular cargoes bought to the county. Culm carried by Captain Thomas Davies of Borth in the sloop Venus in 1828 cost 12 shillings a ton (Morgan, 1948, p.198). At the height of this trade there was a whole rash of limekilns built along the Ceredigion coastline. It must have been quite a sight to see these kilns being fired, especially at night. Depending on the size of the kiln, the firing process could take many days. As well as a continuously stoked fire at the base of the kiln, alternate layers of culm and limestone ensured that the entire load was burnt. The lime for the most part still held its shape, and in this state was called lump lime. It and any powdered lime was transported by cart to the fields, which could be a tricky business as it was still very hot, and of course the carts were made of wood. It was usually scattered over the field and left to weather and when eventually it turned into powder it was ploughed into the ground. Occasionally the lump lime was placed in a kind of bed on the side of the field and covered with soil to weather, to be later spread on the land.
There are numerous recollections concerning the lime kilns that stood on the foreshore at Borth in the late 18th and early 19th century. They were part of the once plentiful kilns on the Ceredigion coastline which were to become redundant by the 1870s. Jac Richards, stated that his grandmother, Mrs Beynon daughter of Evan Griffiths the local carpenter, spoke of two lime kilns (J. Richards, pers. comm. 2000). The previously mentioned recollections of Reverend D.T. Hughes, record that there were three lime kilns on the Borth foreshore. No doubt there was more than one of these kilns near the present lifeboat station. Under the road outside today's Nisa shop, workers constructing the first sewage system in Borth in the 1960s discovered parts of a stone built wall and an arch which were probably the remains of one of the kilns. Verification of the existence and location of Borth lime kilns comes from the 1841 tithe lists. As a guide to the divisions of the townships that Borth lies in, the charts quite clearly indicate that where the Glanwern road intersects Borth’s main road there was a lime kiln and that to its north lay the township of Henllys and to its south that of Cyfoeth y Brenin.
The Welsh word for kiln is odyn, and in Borth we have a farm called Brynrodyn, nowadays a caravan park, inland from Aberwennol. I have scoured the records in vain to see if there was a kiln site on this farm or down on the beach at Aberwennol. This would have been an ideal lime landing place, and perhaps an old kiln on the foreshore there may have long since vanished. Another possibility is that there was an intermittant or field kiln somewhere on the farm indicating it was only a temporary structure. This still meant that limestone had to be shipped to the site. To add further confusion the word odyn also referred to corn drying kilns which were large structures made of wooden poles, usually sited on a hilltop to catch the wind.
Limekilns had to be sufficiently robust to withstand the weather and the lumps of limestone thrown into them. The Wallog kiln, built of stones from the shoreline has, like others that dot the Ceredigion coastline, recently been renovated to its original state. This kiln south of Borth, was apparently only fired a few times. There was a complex series of roadways and gateways organised in readiness for facilitating the deployment of lime to the local farms inland as far as Ruel Farm. Traces of these scarcely used ‘lanes’ can still be seen today (I. Mason, pers comm. 2000). As with other transportable commodities it was the arrival of the railways that heralded the decline of the maritime lime trade. Curiously in 1779, there was a smelting house at Wallog which had to be abandoned after a year as the boat loads of coal from Aberystwyth to fuel its activities were prevented from depositing their cargoes because of the persistent ground swell there. One wonders if this situation also affected the use of the nearby lime kiln.
An artist known as the ‘Aberystwyth Primitive’ has left us an insight into the hazards of the lime and culm trade in the first half of the 19th century in the Aberystwyth area. One of this artist’s works depicts the wrecking of a Borth vessel. The John and Mary, a 44 ton sloop built at Lerry Bridge in 1842, got into trouble whilst bringing culm from South Wales to Aberdyfi. The vessel was named after the captain, Evan Hughes’ parents. On the 9th of February, 1848, whilst approaching Aberdyfi in heavy seas, her steering gear was damaged. Rather than risk negotiating the dangerous Dyfi estuary mouth, she turned and headed for Aberystwyth and a seemingly easier harbour entrance. However, she came in too close on the northern approach and was washed on to Ro Fawr. As she wallowed in the surf a few yards from shore, the hatch opened and the heavy cargo of culm spilled out and covered Evan Hughes, who drowned, but two of the crew were rescued. It is the only Borth subject painted by the Aberystwyth Primitive.
The inventories of sloop cargoes coming into Aberdyfi at the end of the 18th century and in to the early 19th century indicate that there was a steady demand for luxury goods. Sloops carried tea, sugar, wine, spirits, dried fruit, tobacco, bricks, tiles and softwood building timber, sourced from the major port of Liverpool. Invoices listing such luxury goods bought in to Aberdyfi by several well known sloops,are in the possession of John Jones of Aberangell. This upholds John Rowlands's long held theory that sloops did more than bring in lime and culm. During this time some of Aberystwyth's vessels had to winter at Aberdyfi as their home port was virtually closed off for four months of the year because of silting at the entrance to the harbour. This situation was not remedied until after 1840 .
The expanding slate industry in the second half of the 19th century was to provide Aberdyfi with the export cargo that helped to create its heyday as a port and, by association, the apogee of Borth’s maritime achievements in connection with the port. From the time of Edward I, slate was increasingly used by those who could afford it, up to and beyond the Elizabethan age. In the 1590s over a quarter of a million slates were exported from Anglesey to Ireland. Although slate was part of the export cargoes of Aberdyfi as early as the 18th century, there was not a high demand locally for the product as the population was pastoral and static with no substantial building enterprises being undertaken. It was not until the industrial age really took off that the capital investment needed to exploit slate would return attractive profits. Prior to this time even the cost of carriage to the coast could be prohibitive. In 1765 Blaenau Ffestiniog’s slate was carried by packhorse from its mountainous location along primitive tracks and then put on small boats which took it down waterways to the sea. Later narrow guage railways provided an appropriate solution to such convolutions.
The export of Welsh slate had been primarily from Pembrokeshire and Caernarvonshire, but from the 1840s there was a rapid increase in the number of quarries in south Merionethshire. The years 1840 to 1885 were Aberdyfi's great days with shipbuilding increasing along with the growing prosperity. Although the slate industry was primarily funded by English investors, shipping affairs were managed by locals, and here Borth people played a substantial role as mariners, investors and shipowners. The local schooner fleet expanded to facilitate the exporting of this cargo. As everything was moved by hand, a schooner's cargo could be loaded or unloaded in a reasonable time. Slate production had increased dramatically after 1831 with the repeal of a repressive slate duty. Prior to this time slates leaving West Wales for a destination such as London incurred a duty comparable to the cargo’s total value, thus doubling the cost. In 1842 another boost to trade occured after the German city of Hamburg suffered a disasterous fire. Large amounts of Welsh slates went to re-roof this city, and as a result trade extended to other north European ports. For a time there were strong maritime trading links between west Wales and Germany.
The arrival of the railway system in west Wales was perceived initially as being beneficial to ports such as Aberdyfi. The reality was that it became, over four decades, it's destroyer by providing a swifter, safer and cheaper freight service. Everywhere sail was being superceded by steam and the new:
Alternative in the shape of the steam engine - ashore and afloat - was already a growing menace before the Slate Boom had begun; and to the shrewd ones it was already clear that, do what she might to refine herself and grease her bottom, the sailing ship was an anachronism (Morgan, 1948, p.187)
The railways fatal stranglehold saw the port go into decline, and finally collapse by the end of the century. Aberdyfi’s demise meant that those Borth men who had been working there had to look elsewhere for work. Fortunately they were already well equipped to do so as they had widespread family connections at other ports. Many Borth mariners had already gained employment on deepwater sailing ships. Amongst whom were Captains Edward Edwards the Euridyce, John Lewis the Snowdon, Evan L. Davies the Zinnia, John Lloyd the Dora Ann, David Lloyd the Zimmi, Lewis Williams the Coromandel and David Williams the Ivanhoe. Their seamanship was formidable when one considers that Captain Evan Jenkins was only just thirty when he commanded some of the largest sailing vessels afloat. Also in his thirties, Captain Richard Edwards was in charge of the 2268 ton, four masted sailing barque Holt Hill.
At this time, even though sail was giving way to steam, Borth seafarers took it all in their stride. Many of the men commanded and crewed steamers owned by the Cambrian Steam Navigation Company Ltd. of Aberystwyth. Although this company’s fleet of ships were too big to enter Aberystwyth harbour, the crews were recruited locally. Captain William Francis of Borth commanded the S.S. Glantivy in 1891. Other villagers John Hughes, Richard and John Jones served on the Glanhafren in 1893 (Troughton, 1997, pp.39 – 42). In a photograph of the Glanhafren’s crew of 1894 the sitter in the front row on the far right is Borth man John Richards who was master of the schooner Catherine twenty or so years earlier. The Harrovian’s master in 1901 was Captain Richard James of Borth. For the next sixty years Borth’s seafaring tradition continued unabated, including service throughout two world wars. As they had done in sail, they again provided a vital contribution in the age of steam, serving as masters and crew members on a variety of vessels including; tramp steamers, oil tankers and luxury liners.