Discovering Slate Carrying Boat

Discovering One of Afon Dwyryd’s Rare Boats



It’s a rare sight to see so much coming and going down on the estuary between Talsarnau and Ynys Gifftan – not since a small whale was found stranded there some time ago.

Over the weekend, October 24th 1986, like the previous time, many of Talsarnau’s residents could be seen walking with an expectant gait down in the direction of Ynys Gifftan – all dicussing and enquiring about that which had appeared on the beach.

The centre of all of this attention was an old boat that had been discovered lying embedded in the sand between Ynys Gifftan and the sea wall. It’s more than likely that it has been lying there unconspicuously since that period when carrying slates down to the estuary by boat ended around 1845.

It’s more than likely that the story started with Mr Hefin Jones of Swn yr Wylan who was interested in old artefacts. After having heard a lecture about the history of Afon Dwyryd in Plas Tan y Bwlch by the then head, Mr Merfyn Williams, Mr Jones went out to search. Little did he imagine that he would come across such a find.

He went out one day taking his dog for a walk down on the estuary. He came to a spot where he noticed two pieces of wood a little distance apart sticking out of the water in one of the many ditches leading down to the river.

After spending a little time studying, he thought that maybe the protruding pieces of wood could be parts of one of the small boats that were used to carry slates during the early period of slate mining between 1800 and 1845.

That was the beginning to all that followed . . . . . . .

Hefin Jones consulted Merfyn Williams at Tanybwlch and he in turn got in touch with Maritime Department at Bangor University, and also with Owain Roberts from Amlwch who is a specialist in many fields to do with boats and ships.

Owain Roberts is a teacher in Amlwch, and due to his experience, expertise and knowledge in this field, he recently received an honorary degree from Bangor University. He was resposible for leading the work some time ago in retrieving a similar type of boat from Llyn Padarn.

Owain Roberts’ interset in the Talsarnau boat was obvious from the outset, and as the digging progressed and more of the boat came into view it became more apparent that this boat was very similar to the ones used generally at one time sailing along the coasts of the Celt ic countries. There were no other examples of this type of boat to be found anywhere. The bow was interesting in that it was round, which was unusual. It was also obvious that this boat had a mast that would have carried sails and that its main use would have been to carry slates.

As the worked progressed, years of sand being emptied from the main body of the boat, several interesting parts came to view; the odd piece of wood shaped in a certain way that gave owain Roberts more information, bits of slate that ascertained earlier suggestions made by him.

The weather was kind, the sun was warm which helped to bring many people down to the estuary – some just to have a look and others trudged down in wellingtons and carrying spades in order to offer some support.

Some experts in maritime from Bangor and from England joined in, some Snowdonoia National Park wardens and members of Blaenau Ffestiniog Historical Group turned up as well as many local people. One such local person who really enjoyed the project and who is engrossed in local history is Mr Tomi Gwilym Williams from Talsarnau. He had spent much time down on the estuary all his life placing fishing lines and spear fishing. This find was a bonus for Tomi Gwilym.

Whilst chatting with Tomi Gwilym, he mentions that his mother could remember the part of the estuary today covered in grass was during her lifetime nothing but sand. Some of the family then used to place fishing lines quite close to the embankment and succeeding in catching some skate. This shows how much change has been in a fairly short period of time.

During the digging and excavating there were many different theories being banded about. Tomi Gwilym although not disagreeing at all with Owain Roberts did however have a theory of his own concerning the buried boat. During the same period when these small boats were used to carry slates between the quays at Gelligrin, Trwyngarnedd, Tyddyn Isaf and Cei Newydd down to Porthmadog a similar boat was used locally as a ferry between Ty Gwyn Gamlas, Yr Ynys and Porthmadog carrying people and goods to and fro. One afternoon on August 7th 1862 when the ferry was returning from Porthmadog, the weather turned bad and eight lives were lost. Rees Jones was the ferry-man on that journey and his grandson was lost. He himself however was lucky enough to be saved with one other. Where exactly did that boat sink we wonder and was it ever found. (The full story is to be found on this web-site). There is no mention as far as we know of the sunken ferry being found.

Another theory being offered was that this was the “Cwch Du” – The Black Boat. The Cwch Du was one of many boats being used to carry the slates down the Dwyryd river to Porthmadog. On this occassion they ventured downriver, although they had been warned that bad weather was imminent. The two in charge were Thomas Jones, Y Pant and Griffith Rhisiart Gwaen Gwella – both from Penrhyndeudraeth. Somewhere, not far from Ynys Gifftan the slate load moved due to the swell, the boat capsised and both were drowned.

How close to Ynys Gifftan did this happen we wonder? Could this boat be the Cwch Du?

On the other hand, it could well be that the buried boat had seen many years work travelling up and down the river, travelling the six miles between places like Gelli Grin and Ynys Cyngar near Porthmadog where the loads were transferred to larger ships. Their time was up however when the narrow gauge railway was opened between Blaenau Ffestiniog and Porthmadog and took on the task of transporting the slates directly to the quayside. The boatmen fought hard to try and retain the work that they had but eventually had to give in to a more modern way of transporting goods. It could well have been that the boat was then left at the end of its useful life to sink slowly into the sand . . . . . . who knows?

Even though these small boats were widely used, and many of them were more than likely built on the banks of the Dwyryd, little is known about them – and there is not a single example in any of our museums anywhere.

We can therefore understand why Owain Roberts and his band of workers were more than enthusiastic about this discovery. It is now hoped than since the work is in progress to dig the boat out of its resting place, it will eventually be restored and exhibited in a maritime museum in Porthmadog so that future generations will be able to see a little of the story of what life was like in this part of the world years ago.

The Slate Carrying Boats – Some Background

More than likely, it is believed that the Diphwys Slate Quarry was the first to be opened in Blaenau Ffestiniog, and during the first few years, the slates were carried from the quarry on horseback and in carts down to Maentwrog. The slates were then loaded on to small boats from small quays built on the banks of the Dwyryd which made use of the river flow and the ebbing tide to carry them downstream. If the elements were unkind oars would be used as well.

The small boats would make their way down to Ynys Cyngar near Porthmadog where their loads would be conveyed onto ships which would then export them to many parts of the world.

There were several quays along the Dwyryd where the slates would be loaded onto the small boats. These are some of the names: Cei Cemlyn, Cei Gelli Grin, Cei Trwyngarnedd, Cei Cefnygarth, Cei Tyddyn Isaf and Cei Newydd.

The slate carrying boats were in use for a period between 1800 and 1845. The Cob was built in 1811 across Y Traeth Mawr and a railroad was built to link Blaenau Ffestiniog with Porthmadog. They began using this link to carry slates around 1833. In the early years horses were used to pull the empty trucks up to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The slates and the horses would be transported down under their own steam using gravity alone.

Before and during the period when the railroad was being built, the small boats were used to carry the slates for the six miles down to Ynys Cyngar. Usually two men steered the boats, and because of the nature of the work, the men had to be strong and healthy. The boats carried about six tons of slates on average and they were paid about twelve shillings (60p today) a ton for their labour.

Because of the nature of the work, the boatmen had to be able to load and navigate, - be able to use sails and be able to row. On their journey back up-stream they carried lime, coal and flour to supply the people of Ffestiniog and beyond.

People generally referred to the boatmen as the “Philistines” and following is a discription of their work by one of the boatmen in verse. This being a rough translation.

I do remember the boats on their way Their white sails in the wind Whist carrying down slates so fine Before they built the train line. Sometime the rowing was such a strain To reach our destination, The able men were true to their task To ensure transport along the Traeth Bach.

The above poem by Evan Dafydd, Y Morfa describes how typical the job was and how severe life could be.

Listed below are some of the names of the boats that were in use: Cwch Du, Cwch Gwyn, Cynffon Twrch, Darn, Gagre, Hagnu, Hector, Magog, Neptune, Pelican, Star, Swallow, Twrog, Tyro, Y Garreg Wen, Y Werddon, Yr Albion.

During the same period, boat and ship building was an important industry along the banks of the Dwyryd. There are records to show that many ships were built between 1761 and 1821 – as many as 53 of them. The “Unity” the longest of them all was 67 feet long and 21 feet wide, whilst the smallest – the “Stag” was 29feet long and 9 feet wide – which wre pretty much the same measurements as the one found on the estuary.

Some of the places where boats and ships were built are listed as the following: Abergafran, Aber Iâ, Archollwen (Llechollwyn?), Carreg Ro, Trwyngarnedd, Ty Gwyn, Yr Ynys, Ysgyrnolwyn.

This period was a very busy and very interesting period but the arrival of the railway between Blaenau Ffestiniog and Porthmadog signalled the end of the line for the small slate carrying boats. They competed and they fought to try and maintain their jobs for a number of years but they eventually lost out to a more modern development – the steam train. As a result the slate industry grew and the number of quarries increased between 1831 and 1881 from 7 to 20 and by the end of the century around 4,000 people wre employed in the slate industry.

Little did Hefin Jones think when he went to Plas Tan y Bwlch (where some of the quarry owners used to live) to listen to a lecture that it would eventually lead to creating so much interest and give people so much enjoyment whilst delving into the full story of slate quarrying. It’s a strange world . . . . . .

These comments were made in 1986 with the simple aim of putting something on paper lest we forget the discovering of this small boat, and maybe generate interest in the story further.

With thanks to Hefin Jones for being wide awake