From about 1600 onwards the increase in Ceredigion’s population and wealth meant a growing demand for consumer goods, the majority of which had to come by sea. This boosted the need for ships, men to sail them and the development of ancilliary service industries such as rope and sail-making and blacksmithing. An important factor in all this was King George III’s Shipping Act of 1786, instituted for the further increase and promotion of shipping and navigation, whereby the value of every ship was divided into 64 parts, encouraging small capital investors. A unit of ownership was called ‘an ounce’ and consisted of four shares, which were sometimes sold or bequeathed in parts. This meant that a vessel’s ownership could became quite complex. This share division was based on the fact that there were 16 ounces to the pound, therefore, four times sixteen equalled the 64 parts of a ship. This new dynamic had a positive impact on small communities such as Borth as it allowed business enterprise to flourish in poor areas. It was also one of the few opportunities tenant farmers in the region could have for private investment; and the shipping records show that they did just that.
The establishment of Friendly Societies at the beginning of the 19th century was another way in which local people could work together for their mutual benefit. One such society, the Order of Ivorites, was formed in Wrexham by Thomas Robert Jones of Llannefydd in 1836. In 1841 the Castell Gwallter Ivorite Lodge was established in Llandre (Owens, 1956, p.25). Each member contributed a monthly subscription that went into a benefit fund for the members and their families. It was in essence a much needed health and social benefit system. The subscription money was invested in mortgages, to purchase property and occasionally vessels. The Ivorites’ account books held in the National Library Aberystwyth, reveal that many farmers and blacksmiths from the Borth area were subscribers, as well as some ninety mariners. One can trace the involvement of Borth Captain John Simon from his initial subscription through to his death. He owned the sloop Robust, built in Aberarth in 1797, which he had bought in 1832, and had her re-registered at Aberystwyth in that same year. He died in March 1881 at 74 years of age.
Borth’s Captain Thomas Davies financed the purchase of his schooner Nathaniel in 1879 with the help of a £360 loan from the Ivorites. This 110 ton vessel was bought from Porthmadoc owners and had been built at Caernarvon in 1868 by William Griffith. Earlier another Thomas Davies, associated with the Venus, had been assisted in buying the sloop Endeavour. One interesting entry notes that Captain John Lewis of Borth, who had previously not asked for anything from the society was forced by circumstances to seek financial help as his schooner Ocean had been wrecked in Cornish waters. Another entry indicates that some members were not so enchanted with life at sea; a Shadrack Morris was listed initially as a mariner, but later as a carrier and finally a miller.
The Ivorite records show that there were two vessels named Friendship both owned and operated by two Borth brothers. The larger and older of the two Friendships weighing 45 tons was built at Llugwy in the Dyfi estuary in 1788 and traded for at least 60 years. The smaller 17 ton vessel was built at Aberarth in 1826, and was affectionately known locally, and noted in the Ivorite papers, as Y Friendship Fach, the Little Friendship. William Jones was the principal skipper of this vessel, whilst at other times John Arter and the two sloops’ owners, the brothers John and Evan Hughes took command. This small sloop foundered in a squall off a location that is difficult to read in the Aberystwyth Shipping Register. It looks like Pygyn Point, so it may be Pen Pygyn. These vessels are commemorated in the name of the old Borth pub, the Friendship Inn. One of the last of the Hughes’ associated with the inn and sloops was David Hughes who died in 1904 aged 80. His wife Martha had predeceased him in 1893 aged 62.
In 1786, the Statutory Registers of Shipping were introduced and Aberystwyth took over as the main port from Aberdyfi; and it also gained a custom house. Aberdyfi henceforth becomes a sub-port. Despite this new responsibility, Aberystwyth still tarried in making improvements to its harbour until 1840. Although for centuries an important fishing centre, the harbour was too shallow for larger vessels. This was largely due to its continual silting caused by longshore drift and tidal activity. Up until that year, imported timber from North America was brought to Aberdyfi by Aberystwyth vessels, such as the Hero and the brig Credo. Their cargoes were then floated in huge rafts southward past Borth to the ships home port (Lloyd, 1998, p80). Such complications finally spurred improvements at Aberystwyth harbour.
Even as the demand for larger ships grew, local shipwrights still built on the same sites and under the same conditions as they had for sloops. These shipbuilders seldom worked from detailed plans, but taking their own initiative intuitively and skilfully constructed not only sturdy coastal vessels but some of the finest schooners built anywhere. The schooner had evolved...
.."from the apple dumpling design she developed in the course of 25 years into a longer, leaner and more beautiful ship altogether "(Morgan, 1949, p. 109).
Usually a half hull wooden model was made in consultation with the prospective owners’ needs. Aberdyfi’s ablest shipbuilder, Thomas Richards, built the Dovey Belle and the Lizzie Jane for Borth owners. Another Aberdyfi man, John Jones, built the following schooners for Borth skippers, Jane and Mary, Beatrice, Sarah, and the Sarah Davies. This shipbuilder was driven to distraction by the Borth owners’ fastidious insistence that quality and care should be invested in their purchases, so much so that in a drunken fit he cursed them and demanded that upon his death he be buried well away from them. Prospective captains of new ships often supervised their building, which seems reasonable when one considers that their lives depended on the quality of materials and workmanship involved.
After the Leri was diverted into the Dyfi estuary shipbuilding took place at the Lerry Bridge yard, whose main customers were Borth residents. Built there were the sloops Mary and Ellen 1842, Mary Rees 1842, Claudia 1850, Priscilla 1855; the brigantine Island Maid 1851; the schooners Gleanor 1849, Resolute 1849 and the smack Catherine 1864. To date the only ship recorded as having been built on the Borth foreshore somewhere opposite todays Railway Inn, was the schooner Catherine & Ellen in 1842. This schooner’s construction seems a large enterprise to have been the first foray into shipbuilding undertaken at this location. One wonders whether any smaller type of vessels had been built there previously. The local type of fishing boat certainly would have been before its design was taken to Aberystwyth around 1840. If the dates for the first Lerry Bridge yard vessel launchings are correct, then from 1842 onwards the Ynyslas location was recognised as being far more convenient for shipbuilding than the trickier Borth foreshore.
Every small port in Ceredigion seems to lay claim to having provided the sea transportation for the first organ to St David's cathedral. Borth's contender is the previously mentioned schooner Catherine and Ellen; David Hughes the younger, master and owner. On her launching in 1842 she was blessed by the Rev. John Jones of Glanleri Farm. This is the John Jones that was courted so assidiously by the vicar of Llandre who even offered him a curacy in the parish if he would take up a teaching post under the auspices of the church. However he was not dissuaded from his staunch Calvinistic Methodist leanings (Enoch, 2002, p.53). Earlier, Glanleri Farm had provided the Llanfihangel Genau’r Glyn church with a vicar in the 1700s, whose name was John Gwynne. Perhaps he was the Borth vicar who reported a severe earthquake at the time.
In Brief Glory D.W. Morgan supplies the reader with the complete costings of the construction of two Dyfi built schooners. The Mary and Ellen built in 1872 by Thomas Richards cost a total of £1,832/5/2. An ounce, four shares, of this ship was worth approximately £114, still a lot of money for most…no wonder even a share, in this case £28, was often divided amongst family members in Borth. The Jane Gwynne built in 1858 by John Jones for Captain John Price of Borth, cost altogether, including sundries £1,585/1/1. An ounce share in this vessel was approximately £98 (Morgan, 1948, pp.120-122 & pp.130-132). According to Lewis Lloyd, sloops were also expensive to build when one considers that the Amity built at Derwenlas, cost nearly £1,000 (Lloyd, 1996, p.155). This seems an incredible sum of money for 1802. A Newquay sloop of 54 tons, the Catherine, built by John Evans in 1829, cost £822/12/0 (Campbell-Jones, 1975, p.281).
In the latter half of the 19th century the increasing demand for schooners of 80-120 tons, saw them overtake the larger square-rigged ships as a favoured vessel as they were easier to handle when sailing in and out of the small ports of Ceredigion. The schooner was also responsible for bringing about the demise of the existing fleet of coastal trading sloops which had evolved over the preceding centuries to suit local conditions. This expansion in schooner building was spurred by the slate exporting boom in west Wales that coincided with the region's final involvement with merchant sailing ships. Many of these locally built schooners travelled far afield in search of cargoes. They went to Europe, the Mediterranean, the West Indies and to Newfoundland and back across the north Atlantic. Of the local schooner fleet the last two built at Aberdyfi were the Sabrina in 1879 and the Olive Branch in 1880.
The square-rigged barques and brigantines of Aberdyfi and other local ports sailed to the Far East and also around Cape Horn to such ports as Iquique and Valparaiso. The barque Caradog was the largest sailing ship registered at Aberystwyth, whose captain was a Borth master mariner, Lewis Williams. Most of these local vessels could not enter their home ports and therefore traded from harbours which were more accessible than those on the Ceredigion seaboard. Local ownership of these larger and increasingly estranged vessels declined swiftly. This resulted in a number of Borth masters being employed to command ships owned by companies based at deep water ports elsewhere. Large sailing vessels, such as the Liverpool barque Rose Hill, commanded by Borth's Evan Jenkins, were a last ditch attempt to challenge the increasing supremacy of steam toward the end of the 19th century.
The barque Glendovey (not to be confused with the smaller Canadian built barque also named Glendovey, owned by Machynlleth merchants, which often bought timber cargoes to the Dyfi), was a 588 ton vessel and was the largest sailing ship whose home port was Aberdyfi. Built at Sunderland in 1876 by James Laing at the Deptford yard, it was owned by William James of Borth, and fellow villagers had shares in her. This vessel was captained by John Williams also of Borth, who sailed her all over the world from 1876 to 1900. Captain Williams took command when he was 40 years of age and continued until his retirement at 64 years of age. This ship sailed to both coasts of South America and undertook the arduous Cape Horn passage on her way to Chile and Peru. Other than local Welshmen employed as 1st and 2nd mates, the crew consisted mainly of German, Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish seamen employed from the Glendovey's stops at north European ports. Below is a brief list of the Glendovey's voyages from 1876 to 1898 compiled from Lewis Lloyd’s account of this vessel’s working life (Lloyd, 1998, pp.213-17).
1876. Sunderland-Monte Video-London, 1877. London - Cape Town - Rangoon - London
1879. London - Wellington - Valparaiso - Fulcahuano - Hull
1880. Tyne - Iquique - Glasgow
1881. Glasgow - Valparaiso - Dunkirk - Swansea
1882. Swansea - Antofagasta - Carrezal - Boya - Iquique - Hamburg
1883. Hamburg - Iquique - Cardiff
1885. Glasgow - Valparaiso - Hamburg
1887. Antwerp - Valparaiso - London
1890. Liverpool - Callao - Dunkirk - Liverpool
1891. Liverpool - Iquiquie - Rotterdam - Cardiff
1892. Cardiff - Iquique - Antwerp
1893. Antwerp - Barry - River Plate - Sharpness
1894. Sharpness - Cardiff - River Plate - Cardiff
1895. Liverpool - Buenos Aires - Cardiff
1896. Cardiff - Rosaria - Cardiff
1896. Cardiff - River Plate - Newcastle-On-Tyne
1897. Newcastle-On-Tyne - Rosario - Liverpool
1898. Liverpool - Rosario - Barry - Hamburg – Preston
This barque carried a total compliment of twelve crew members and her trading scope was wide, enabling her to voyage to any port within the limits of 60 degrees north and 60 degrees south. Some Borth men who served on the Glendovey were Morgan Jones, John H. Roberts and John Jones as 1st mates, and Llewelyn Rees and John Davies as 2nd mates.
The Glendovey’s records show that there were a few desertions amongst the crew at various ports, such as Rosario and Valpariso. As with many other Welsh ships it was ‘dry’, meaning no alcohol, so maybe the temptations of these exotic ports proved too much for some, as attested by the fact that several crew members contracted venereal diseases. On one voyage in 1876 the twenty eight year old 1st mate Thomas Walters of New Quay, had to leave the ship in Valpariso to treat a severe abscess, but he soon rejoined the vessel at Pisaqua. This New Quay man went on to become a master mariner and in that capacity often employed Borth men, some of whom he is seen with in the crew photograph of the S.S. Glanhafren taken in 1894.
In Ceredigion from the middle of the 19th century everything maritime was gravitating towards a world-wide trading format that necessitated greater skills, such as more sophisticated navigational knowledge. It has been noted that navigational instruction was very late in arriving in Aberdyfi, with a Captain Walter beginning classes in 1880 (Lloyd, 1998, p.165). Borth men were better served as, with so many master mariners in families, skills were handed down from father to son. There were also informal navigational classes conducted at private houses, of which there were two in Borth. One was at Tymawr run by Captain John Jones who levied a fee of threepence a week for tuition, the other was at today’s Oriel Tir a Mor, on the site where an old cottage called Noddfa once stood sideways to the road. Miss Rees of Arequipa, daughter of Captain Dafydd Rees, called it a nautical school. Captain Rees who owned several vessels, was born in Sabrina cottage, as was his father before him, another Captain Dafydd Rees (Stan Evans, pers. comm. 2003).
Some remarkable women taught navigation in Wales. In tiny Llangrannog, Ceredigion, there lived the extremely gifted Sarah Jane Rees, or to give her Bardic name ‘Cranogwen’ (1839-1916). Rees imparted her knowledge, via her navigational classes, to the local maritime aspirants. According to Susan Campbell-Jones, there was also a woman navigation teacher at Aberystwyth. (Campbell-Jones, 1975, p.296). In Caernarfonshire, Mrs Ellen Edwards (1810-1889), another daughter of a master mariner, taught navigational skills to generations of seamen in her 60-year career. Intriguingly, in one of the photographs of Borth's skippers a woman has been given central place in the composition. I speculate that this hitherto unknown woman may have taught navigation to Borth skippers as well as English, so that class members could gain this much needed linguistic skill. An aspiring officer would need this knowledge to understand the questions likely to be asked in master mariner examinations, and later in the keeping of logbooks. Years ago I viewed one of Captain William Richards’ diaries and his entries are very much a Welshman’s version of English, as in “bort two sospans”, meaning… bought two saucepans.
As previously stated, Borth’s maritime role is not only subsumed under the history of Aberdyfi, but visual evidence of this era, still so prevalent in the 1940s and 50s is fading rapidly. There are hardly any artefacts left of this maritime past. In my childhood, every home had a painted sailing ship with family associations on their walls, yet today I know of only a few paintings of Borth vessels in the village. These ship paintings were icons of a family’s success, therefore there was social cachet attached to them. In a sense they were the equivalent of the symbolic paintings of prize animals by prosperous farmers. Many of these ships paintings were commissioned on the spot from what were known as pier-head artists. Most of them worked on a canvas that already contained a painted-in sea and sky ready to include whatever ship was going to be depicted. Some had pre-painted local features such as harbour entrances, lighthouses or Mount Vesuvius if the ship was in the vicinity of Naples. Some paintings although charming, have a static ambience as they feature vessels with wind filled sails on an improbably calm sea with pendants and flags streaming defiantly into the wind!
The images of the Charlotte and the Catherine Morgan are depicted at the same location as the backgrounds are identical; and probably by the same artist. Another painting of the Charlotte by L. Renault, shows her entering Leghorn. In this work, as well as the slight change in the sail pattern he has included a personal touch in the left hand corner, where one of the background vessels is actually the Charlotte leaving Leghorn. Perhaps the slight change in rig had something to do with the change of master as Borth skipper Richard Jones was in command for four years whilst previously Thomas Daniel of Aberdyfi had been in charge. More knowing artists have depicted the Pluvier and the Nerissa as they demonstrate an understanding of seagoing reality. In both these paintings the sail distribution is in accord with the stormy seas as the square sails are down and the main sails partly reefed. Another knowledgeable, but unknown painter, depicts the barque Drusus champing at the bit at the beginning of her voyage. A pilot boat has just left her outside an unknown Welsh port. Could it be Aberdyfi, as Captain David Rees of Borth owned and commanded this vessel in the 1880s?
Borth mariners certainly continued and expanded their role beyond the port of Aberdyfi after its decline. The following statement makes it clear that they were Aberdyfi's life blood in its heyday as a port. Apparently after their withdrawal from Aberdyfi’s maritime role, Merionethshire's local contribution faded noticeably:
On the available evidence it does seem that the seafaring propensity of the men of Borth remained throughout World War 1, markedly greater than that of the men of Aberdyfi and south Merioneth generally:..... besides, as has been seen, Borth was the major source of seamen for Aberdyfi during the most successful years of the port. The strength of the seafaring tradition at Borth was surely a major factor (Lloyd, L., 1998, p 265).