« Previous | Main | Next »

William Madocks and the Cob at Porthmadog

Post categories:

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 11:00 UK time, Tuesday, 6 December 2011

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!


  • Comment number 1.

    I do find it sad that William Maddocks didn't realise or benefit from the full potential of his developments around the Porthmadog area. As a relative newcomer to railway interest my first trip on the Blaenau Ffestiniog railway, across his cob, still ranks as one of the great experiences. What a tragedy that nobody has ever turned Maddocks's life into a novel - or have they?

  • Comment number 2.

    To my knowledge nobody has yet written a novel about Maddocks. It's a shame because he was a classic nineteenth century entrepreneur and would make a great subject.

  • Comment number 3.

    I've done a bit of Googling and no sign of any books about Maddocks.

    I am a mature student studying history and heritage with the OU, so may well try and write a short book on him in the next couple of years if the market is out there. There are many great historic figures Welsh that deserve to be written about.

  • Comment number 4.

    I am told by a writer friend of mine that Madocks features in a book by Thomas Love Peacock - though quite which one I don't know. Peacock was a friend of Shelley and knew the area well, hence the connection. Sorry I can't be of more help.

  • Comment number 5.

    I've just heard from another writer friend of mine, John Idris Jones, who tells me he's written a short novel about Madocks. It's due out shortly from Alun Books - as the man said, weatch this space!

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    Thomas Love Peacock wrote a novel 'Headlong Hall' (1816). The squire character is based on William Alexander Madocks.

    Shelley and his young wife stayed in Tan-yr-Allt, Madocks' first house, in Tremadog. There was a night confrontation with a man with a gun, who came in through a window and fired at him. They fled to Ireland, leaving debts behind. (JIJ)

  • Comment number 8.

    I'm afraid we're a bit ambivalent about Madocks in our family has he helped put Dafydd Rhisiart, my great great grandfather, out of business.

    Dafydd was the ferryman who rowed (and sailed) passengers across the River Dwyryd and shipped cargoes of slate down the Dwyryd to "Portmadoc" (as our family still calls it). Dafydd Rhisiart - a former man'o'warsman who'd served in Nelson's navy at Trafalgar - was a one of the select group of top-hatted river boatmen called "Philistines".

    Alas the coming of the railway meant the end of the river slate-boat trade - but at least Dafydd's son - also a sailor - was able to start a second career as a railway plate-layer on the Ffestiniog narrow-gauge railaway.

  • Comment number 9.

    I've just received a copy of "Madocks" which is a novel - although with lots of historical background/information - about William Madocks and John Williams who, between them, effectively created Porthmadog. The book is by John Idris Jones and would be fascinating for anyone with an interest in these amazing men.


More from this blog...

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.