Ceredigion's coast has several small ports and harbour towns like Cardigan, New Quay, Aberaeron and Aberystwyth, and there are many coastal villages which have a rich maritime history such as Aberporth, Llangrannog, Aberarth, Llansanffraid and Borth. Today the harbours are busy with leisure and fishing boats but in earlier centuries these little ports were key to the local economy.
The largest port in Wales
Cardigan was the second busiest port in Wales in the eighteenth century, with several multi-floored warehouses and small industrial sites along the Teifi and Mwldan waterfront. With a good local supply of timber, shipbuilding was an important part of the economy ever since Cardigan town received its royal charter in the 16th century.
Ships were built all along the coast from Cardigan to Ynyslas, often on or near the beaches. Two hundred and forty ships are believed to have been built at New Quay, 280 at Aberystwyth, 25 at Aberarth and a similar number, some as large as 200 tons, at Llansantffraid.
Trading along the coast and across oceans
Everything from anchors to ropes to sails were made locally, with New Quay having six sail lofts at one point, and as ships needed insuring, the village also boasted three insurance companies. In 1900, the 213 ships registered at Aberystwyth employed 900 men and boys.
Some ships traded along the coast, collecting and delivering lime and coal, whilst others crossed the oceans, carrying timber from the Baltic and North America, or guano from South America.
Look at the tolls boards at New Quay harbour to get an idea of the range of goods imported through this little port.
Departures for a New World
Passenger ships also facilitated large scale emigration. The failed harvest of 1816 led to mass emigrations to seek a better life in emerging nations such as the United States, Canada and Australia. Ships such as the Albion, Fair Cambria or the Active took tightly cramped passengers to New Brunswick and New Jersey, returning laden with timber.
In 1818 a group of 27 families from the Cilcennin and Mynydd Bach area, inland of Aberaeron left to settle in Ohio. The family ties remain strong between Wales and Ohio and during 2018 a series of events will be staged in and around Aberaeron to mark the bicentenary of the emigration.
Ceredigion communities such as Borth, Llanon Llansantffaid and Llangrannog have raised generations of master mariners. New Quay produced the largest number, followed by Cardigan, Aberystwyth and Aberaeron.
Follow Aberaeron town trail and find the plaque listing all the ships built in the town. At Aberaeron, New Quay and Borth it’s easy to spot house names which make reference to the sea, names of distant lands and ports like Gambia and Bari, or names of members of the mariner's family.
Women were also important contributors to this lifestyle. Several
taught seamanship and English to the young mariners. One of the most well known was Sarah Rees of Llangrannog, more commonly known by her bardic name 'Cranogwen' . She was also an accomplished musician and a campaigner for temperance and women's rights.
Many of Ceredigion's churchyards reveal seafaring heritage: explore the gravestones at Llanfihangel Genau'r Glyn, Llanrhystud, Llanon Llansanffraid, Llanddewi Aberarth, Llanerchaeron, Llanarth, Llanina, Aberporth and Cardigan, and spot Cranogwen's imposing gravestone at Llangrannog.
As well as official harbours Ceredigion’s coast features many coves and inlets with hidden caves - perfect for storing and trading contraband brought ashore by daring smugglers, especially around Cwmtydu and Llangrannog.
In the 18th century, salt smuggling was rife in Ceredigion. Salt was used to preserve bacon and herring, both important exports, bringing much needed cash into the economy. Salt was cheper - half the price- in Ireland, so there was a busy illegal trade, evidenced in place names such as Ogof yr Halen ('Salt Cave') near Llangrannog and Gilfach yr Halen ('Salt Creek'), near Aberaeron. Wines and spirits were also smuggled, stored and traded in local caves, hidden from customs officers.
One infamous Ceredigion smuggler was William Owen, a daring and vicious cut throat of the early 18th century, who, by his own admission, had killed at least six men before he was captured and hanged in 1747, aged only 30. Another colourful character was Sion Cwilt from Cwmtydu. He was never officially captured - maybe because he suppied contraband wine to the influential local landowner.
The 18th century also saw the deliberate wrecking of passing ships, whereby locals would lure boats onto treacherous rocks using lamps and then plunder the ships’ cargoes as crewmen perished. At one stage, this heartless activity had become so prevalent that it had to be denounced in sermons from the pulpit.
As well as a display about the maritime history of the county, Ceredigion Museum has a collection of paintings which capture the seascape and ships of Ceredigion.