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Welsh History Review


Vol. 8, nos. 1-4 1976-77

Porthmadog ship : Book review.

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PORTHMADOG SHIPS. By Emrys Hughes and Aled Eames. Gwynedd
Archives Service, Caernarvon, 1975. Pp. 426; 61 plates (1 col.); illus.,
facsimiles. £ 4.00.
In An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
(1776), Adam Smith stated: 'As, by means of water-carriage a more
extensive market is open to every sort of industry than what land-carriage
alone can afford it, so it is upon the sea-coast that industry of every
kind naturally begins to subdivide and improve itself. This assertion
has certainly been borne out at many points along the Welsh coastline,
from Caernarvon to Chepstow, even before the coming of the railways
and when road transport was hazardous and often impossible. For the
first half-century or so of its history the slate industry of north Wales
was almost entirely dependent on the water transport facilities afforded
by the natural and man-made harbours and ports of Caernarvonshire
and Merionethshire (now Gwynedd). Around these small centres of
maritime trade, boat-building often developed into an industry subsidiary
to the local export trade, and so provided a broader economic base upon
which the welfare of neighbouring communities rested. Porthmadog was
a good example of such interdependence, for the history of Porthmadog
was interlinked with the local demand for ships to transport the slate
that came down from the Ffestiniog slate quarries, in the same way as
Port Penrhyn and Port Dinorwig, in neighbouring Caernarvonshire, were
linked with the extraction of slate from their respective local quarries.
Mr. Aled Eames, in the introductory chapters of his book Porthmadog
Ships, reminds us of how Porthmadog was built by William Alexander
Maddocks after enclosing Traeth Mawr, sometime before 1814, and
completed in 1824-an undertaking described as one of the wonders of
the nineteenth century. During the first year of its existence 11,000 tons
of slate were exported from Porthmadog, and in 1892 its highest export
total of 98,959 tons was reached whilst, significantly, 54,878 tons went
by rail. In the intervening period a new maritime community had grown
up in and around the town of Porthmadog where, as in other towns of
similar origin, almost every family was either directly or indirectly
involved in the shipbuilding business with its ancillary trades and
occupations. By reference to several editions of Slater's Directory we are
shown how the various trades and occupations had expanded between
1829 and 1880. We could have been told more about the sources of
labour recruitment and the extent to which the local shipbuilding industry
provided full-time employment for local workers. A fuller picture of the
structure of the population might also have been attempted here in order
to supplement the information taken from Slater's Directory. An
estimate of the growth of population could have been attempted by
applying a multiplier to the census figures relating to 'houses occupied'
and 'houses being built', despite the difficulty presented by the inclusion
of census figures for Porthmadog with those for Tremadog, Borth-y-Gest
and Morfa Bychan.
Shares in local ships were bought by members of almost every section
of the community, including many farmers and quarrymen from adjacent
villages. But it was the shipbuilders themselves, the master-mariners and
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