William Madocks and the Cob at Porthmadog

Born on 17 June 1773, William Madocks was a Georgian entrepreneur of startling ability and foresight.

He was the man who built the Cob across the Glaslyn Estuary, thus considerably easing travel - by foot, horse and eventually by rail - between mid and north Wales. He was also instrumental in creating two new communities at Porthmadog and at nearby Tremadog.

The whole enterprise was a phenomenal undertaking, one that exhausted and nearly bankrupted this man of great vision and energy.

Linda crossing the Cob, Porthmadog (Photo: Steve's Wildlife)

Madocks came from an old landed gentry family that had its origins in Denbighshire, although William himself was actually brought up in London. He became MP for Boston in Lincolnshire and later Chippenham in Wiltshire but his interest in his native Wales remained strong and vibrant.

He had a vision of opening up the country, improving its road and communication links and bringing prosperity to the people. As a land reformer and agricultural improver it was therefore inevitable that when he inherited land around the Traeth Mawr Estuary in Gwynedd he would attempt to make changes to the region.

His original intention was to reclaim the Traeth Mawr area for agriculture but this quickly changed as his ideas and schemes began to develop. Soon he was proposing an embankment across the estuary - on which, he declared, traffic from mid Wales could travel in order to reach Porthdinllaen on the Llyn Peninsula. The Irish trade was beginning to gather momentum and Madocks had plans to create a new port at Porthdinllaen in order to carry this traffic.

As it happened, Madocks' plan came to nothing. With the bridging of the Menai Straits, Holyhead on Ynys Mon quickly gained supremacy in the race for the Irish trade - it did not stop William Madocks and his embankment. Work continued on the crossing.

The embankment, known as the Cob, was finished in 1811. Its construction had been long and difficult and had cost Madocks literally all the money he had. By 1811 he was being hotly pursued by a great number of creditors.

The opening of the Cob brought him some relief as now, at least, he could charge people to cross the estuary and, by way of celebration, he organised a four-day feast and eisteddfod.

Disaster threatened a year later when, in February 1812, a great storm hammered the construction and breached the wall. By now, however, the value of the Cob as a crossing place had been proved and Madocks was able to raise money from all over the county to pay for repairs - and to strengthen the enormous edifice. By 1814 it was open once more for traffic but the repairs and sudden cessation of money coming in had, once again, hit Madocks were it hurt most - in his pocket book and wallet.

What really saved William Madocks and the Cob was the slate industry of the area. At his instigation, an Act of Parliament in 1821 gave permission for the creation of a new port at Ynys y Tywyn, the diversion of the river and estuary caused by the building of the Cob having created something of a natural harbour.

To men like Madocks it was quite clear that this harbour would be capable of handling ocean going sailing ships. Ynys y Tywyn was quickly renamed Port Madoc and a new town began to grow up in the shadow of the port.

Blaenau Ffestiniog and its famous slate quarries lay only a dozen miles south west of the new port and town and, as the demand for Welsh slate began to grow, Port Madoc was the logical place to export the raw material, not just to England but to the whole world. The Ffestiniog tramway (and, later, railway) ran from the quarries, across the Cob to the port where the public wharves, built in 1825, were used to load slate onto the schooners.

Porth Madoc - the name was only changed to Porthmadog in 1974 - grew rapidly in the first half of the 19th century. From a population base of nothing at the beginning of the century, the town had, by 1861, managed to achieve an occupancy of just under 3,000. Many of these men and women worked, in one way or another, in the harbour, slate and shipping industries.

For years William Madocks had lived close to the margins, his financial affairs always being tenuous, if not downright perilous. The development of his new town and port, the sudden boom of the slate trade, finally brought him a fair degree of prosperity. He could at last relax and contemplate other propositions.

In 1826 Madocks took himself and his family on a holiday to Italy. On his return he was planning to develop and move into a new house at Morfa Lodge, close to the new town. However, it was not to be. On the return journey the party stopped in France for a brief respite and Madocks was taken ill and died. He was buried on 17 September 1826 in Paris.

Porth Madoc, or Porthmadog, continued to function after the death of its founder but it was a hard and difficult road to travel. As the century moved to its conclusion, the development of Aberystwyth and its better rail links certainly made a dent in the town's profits. The final nail in the coffin came when World War One broke out in 1914 and the lucrative German slate market totally disappeared. The port consequently fell into disuse.

These days Porthmadog survives on its tourist trade. In particular, the Blaenau Ffestiniog railway brings trippers by the score. Perhaps, as they trundle across the Cob into the town, they might stare out at the gigantic wall or embankment and remember William Madocks, without whom there would have been no Cob to travel on!


More Posts