Madocks was a man with big ambitions. And once work on the Cob was completed he set about designing the town that would bear his name. Porthmadog, or Portmadoc to use its anglicised name, rose up from the marshland and by 1825 a harbour, wharves and a small town had emerged.
The town grew rapidly around the slate mining industry of nearby Ffestiniog. In the early nineteenth century, the roofs of expanding industrial cities cried out for quality slate, and the dark hills and mountains of sleepy Welsh farmland revealed a treasure trove of fortunes in the shape of grey roof tiles.
Tons of slate were carted from the Ffestiniog mountains to the new harbour at Porthmadog to be exported around the world.
As well as wharves and warehouses, several ship-builders yards sprung up alongside the quay to satisfy the demand for cargo vessels and Porthmadog soon became as famous for its magnificent ships as it was for its slate. Majestic schooners, brigs and barquentines were carved, screwed, bolted and chiselled into life and set sail from Porthmadog with their precious cargo.
Porthmadog Cob and railway, Gwynedd
Trade increased during the 1830s as the demand for slate grew to fever pitch, particularly for fast growing German cities. The mid-1830s saw the birth of the Ffestiniog Railway and the horse drawn carriages from the quarries were replaced by fast steam trains, delivering many more thousands of tonnes of Wales’ grey gold to Madocks’ new port.
Between 1825 and 1913 over 260 ships were built at Porthmadog and the neighbouring village of Borth-y-Gest. Porthmadog’s harbour was thriving with the buzz of maritime activity. The Pencei area of the harbour was bustling as Captains stocked their vessels with last minute provisions from the chandlers that lined the cobbled square, and taverns were packed with sailors making the most of final moments before waving farewell to their families and home towns for months on end.
And further along the wharf returning ships would be welcomed home. Homesick crew would shout greetings to old friends, and foreign sailors acquired along the way would have a first glimpse of Welsh soil, their exotic accents floating along the quay to meet the local dialects.
Porthmadog’s population grew rapidly during the mid nineteenth century and the harbour and town flourished. By the 1880’s however, the expansion of the railways and a severe depression led to the decline of ocean exports and ship building in the town had all but ceased. In the 13 years between 1878 and 1891, only one new ship was launched from Porthmadog.
However, that wasn’t the end of the shipping legacy. Years of experience and knowledge meant that Porthmadog ship builders pioneered the development of the Western Ocean Yachts, designed for the salt-cod trade of Newfoundland. These beautiful three mast schooners were large, strong and steady to cross wide and wild oceans but small enough to navigate the rocky shores and narrow estuaries that awaited them on the other side of the world.
Thirty two of these ships were built at Porthmadog between 1891 and 1913 and they set sail across oceans to destinations all over the world. “Blodwen” was one of the first built and set a record breaking pace when she crossed the Atlantic between Newfoundland and Greece in 22 days, an incredible achievement for the time.
Sadly, by the early twentieth century the ship builders of Porthmadog had all but vanished. The slate industry had diminished and the lucrative German market ceased suddenly with the onset of the First World War, which also meant that manufacturing resources were required elsewhere. Porthmadog’s last ship was also perhaps the most famous. The Gestiana was launched in 1913 but was lost on the coast of Newfoundland on her maiden voyage.
Today, not much remains of the town’s busy ship yards. Working vessels have been replaced by cruisers and the harbour is lined not with cargo ships but with small leisure yachts. But the spirit of this ambitious, pioneering and once great harbour lives on its people, whose histories are knotted among the sheets and sails of great ships that helped to build an industrial world.
Sadly Madocks didn’t live to see the full scale of his legacy. He died in France in 1828 on his way back to Porthmadog after a trip to Europe. But the town that bears his name will continue to remember a man and celebrate his vision that shaped the great fortunes of a quiet corner of Wales.
For more information about Porthmadog’s rich maritime history visit the Maritime Museum, situated at the harbour. Open daily from May Bank holiday to the end of September.
Ask at the Tourist Information Centre or call 01766 513 736.