Little is known of the early history of Barmouth. High above the present day town lies the first patch of land ever gifted to the National Trust, and its name suggests that the place must have been inhabited a very long time ago - Dinas Oleu, the ‘Fortress of Light’). More substantially the Parish of Llanaber, which covers Barmouth, listed over 100 tax-payers in a document dated to 1292, and 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 earliest record we have of a community in Barmouth itself is in a survey from 1565, commissioned by Queen Elizabeth II. It merely states: 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. We know, however, that Ty Gwyn y Bermo, on the Quay, was built between 1460 and 1485, and we also know that houses were built on the steep hill above the harbour as early as the 15th century in what is now known as ‘Hen Bermo’ or ‘Old Barmouth’. Up until the middle of the 18th century the whole town was situated in this location, safely above the waves.
It was in the 1700’s that Barmouth and the Mawddach estuary began to expand rapidly into a major boat-building centre, driven partly by the boom in coastal shipping. In just 20 years from 1770 records show that a total of 138 vessels were built on the river. This was helped by the growth of Merioneth as one of the major centres for the wool industry. With land routes still difficult the wool was shipped out of the port of Barmouth, feeding further ship building. In reality we should talk about the port of Barmouth-Dolgellau as although the two commercial centres were separate they were linked by the river Mawddach and in the late 18th century by a navigation, sometimes called a ‘cut’, linking the Mawddach to the river Wnion. The main exports were also mostly derived from the Mawddach valley; wood, (mostly oak timber and bark, used for pit props and poles), paving stones, slate and cloth from the mills in Dolgellau.
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. 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 in the 19th century was largely based on a religious tradition that was centuries in the making. Historically, wealthy people in society gave to the poor as a Christian duty. Charity was seen as a way of saving one’s own soul while also helping those in need. This was particularly strong in the Protestant churches, especially those with strong evangelical leanings, driven by the belief that social conscience demanded social action. Good works were seen as part of the foundation of Christianity and something that paved the way to salvation. Through the 19th century the church increasingly became the vehicle of private and public social work, however although philanthropy was rooted in religious and church tradition it also spread outside the church. Philanthropy and religion are intertwined throughout history, but are not necessarily dependent on each other.
Barmouth had become a popular seaside resort by the Victorian era and was attracting an increasing number of visitors, even before the arrival of the railway. Some of these settled in the town and became an integral part of the town’s development. Amongst the best known philanthropists associated with the town are Mrs Fanny Talbot, Mrs Sarah Perrins and John Ruskin. These people donated money, drove ideas forward, and made a significant impact on the life and appearance of Barmouth.
The arrival of the railway in 1867 was the trigger for a significant boom in building in Barmouth and many of the buildings in what is now the town centre date from this time. 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. The two large churches, St David’s and St. Johns, were both built to accommodate the growing number of visitors, (although St David’s was built before the arrival of the railway, demonstrating how the town was becoming popular even then), as were the majority of the guest houses and hotels that still offer accommodation today. Together with accommodation the town began to provide other facilities to enhance the visitor’s stay such as the Sailor’s Institute and reading room, and the Bath House. Many of the elegant buildings from this era survive today and give Barmouth its distinctive character.
Travel and Tourism in Barmouth
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. During the 18th century well-to-do travellers interested in the ‘romantic’ and the ‘picturesque’ began to visit, and Barmouth became a favourite stop on a tour of north Wales. A good number of notable people wrote of their experiences in this area, among them Charles Darwin, William Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and John Ruskin. The town was also documented by a host of less well known travel writers. The common theme in all of their reports was the magnificent scenery. But it was the arrival of the railway in 1867 that transformed Barmouth’s fortunes.
When the factories of the West Midlands closed their gates each summer for their annual shut-down the expanding rail network offered workers a new concept – the chance to take a holiday by the seaside. 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. Those trains transformed Barmouth’s fortunes as the combination of great beaches, mountain walking and a friendly climate quickly established a reputation that drove 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!