Taid and Hen Taid

A shorter edited version of this story can be found in Gwreiddiau Gwynedd Roots No. 79 Autumn / Winter 2020

Captain Owen Williams and John Davies Williams

of

Aberdyfi

The picturesque village of Aberdyfi (Aberdovey) started life as a fishing community with herring and salmon just two of the many species attracted to the Dyfi estuary. “Where the mountains meet the sea” is a phrase often associated with Aberdyfi, but the village also has the advantage of being on a river. This idyllic situation allowed the community to grow from a sleepy fishing village into a thriving port with much coming and going of large ships bringing in food and building materials, as well as foreign commodities such as tea, tobacco, and wines, whilst taking away oak bark and timber, copper and lead ore and of course slate. Fishing continued and a large shipbuilding industry grew up on both sides of the river at a number of locations including Ynyslas, and Penhelig. Sadly, following the arrival of the railway in 1867, Dyfi shipbuilding and fishing industries started to slowly decline as it became possible for commodities and people to be transported to and from the now famous seaside resort more efficiently.

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Captain Owen Williams

Captain Owen Williams
Captain Owen Williams (1838-1934) enjoying his retirement in Aberdyfi.
(Geraint Lloyd Owens)

Owen Williams (1838-1924), my Hen Taid (Great Grandfather) was born during the shipping heyday of the village. He was the seventh of ten children raised by John Williams (1797-1865) and Mary Lewis (1804-1876). John worked on Pwll-Helyg farm1 at the time of Owen’s birth but later became the local Ferryman.

Owen first found work as an Errand Boy in the Corbet Arms Hotel2 where, no doubt, he heard exciting tales from the seafaring folk who acquainted themselves of the landlord, Josiah Higgs’, ales3. It was no wonder he felt the call of the sea.

At the age of 21 Owen, by now an accomplished Mariner, married Elizabeth Davies, a Mariner’s daughter from Borth, at St. David’s Church in Liverpool4. The home of the Beatles played a very big part in the life of the family but not for anything particularly musical. Many of the vessels built on the banks of the Dyfi, and those that sailed to and from the village, ended up in the Lancashire port from time to time, along with their crew.

By 1861 Owen was Master of the Star, a 45 ton smack employed in the coasting trade. He went on to become Master and part-owner of a number of vessels during the course of his career.

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Owen is mentioned in the book ‘A Real Little Seaport’ by Lewis Lloyd5 as being a Master Mariner and Trinity Pilot. Owen was discharged from the Kate of Liverpool at Liverpool on 3rd March 1869. Lewis goes on to say that Owen was a share owner in, and the first Master of, the Catherine, a 76 ton schooner built at Llyn Bwtri, near Pennal, on the river Dyfi and registered at Aberystwyth No. 2 in 1869.

Owen became Master of the 94 ton schooner, Maglona, in 1876 but as he was uncertificated he commanded the Maglona in the home and coasting trade and shipped qualified commanders for foreign-going engagements.

The Schooner Catherine: Master Captain Owen Williams
(From Brief Glory by D.W. Morgan)
The Maglona commanded by Captain Owen Williams and Captain David Richards
(From Brief Glory by D.W. Morgan)
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Owen took command of another new vessel, the Olive Branch, the last seagoing vessel to be built at Aberdyfi, in 1880 and in the 1881 Census6, at the age of 43, he was aboard this 99 ton schooner in Milford Haven along with his crew consisting of John Evans, 22, Mate (Aberdyfi), William Perry, 25 Able-bodied Seaman (London), Richard Hughes, 19 Able-bodied Seaman (Aberdyfi), and the Boy, John Cook, 16 (London).

Lewis Lloyd points out that Owen must have been well trusted by the owners of the three new vessels he commanded. Owen was Master of the Olive Branch for the run from Antwerp to London in February of 1881 and in the home and coasting trade to May 1881. Owen then became a Purser for the princely sum of £4 a month under Captain Thomas Walters for a voyage from Limerick to Cadiz and thence to Newfoundland and then homewards by way of Genoa. He was subsequently Boatswain and Purser for voyages to St. John’s, Newfoundland and was finally discharged from the Olive Branch at Port Talbot on 3rd March 1884.

Loss of Olive Branch 1901
Loss of the Olive Branch
(The Evening Star, Saturday, August 10, 1901)
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Headstone for Elizabeth wife of Captain Owen Williams
Headstone for Elizabeth, first wife of Captain Owen Williams, in Cwm Maethlon (Happy Valley) cemetery. Their daughter, Jane Ellen, was also buried here7.
(Phil Williams)

Owen’s wife, Elizabeth, died in 1882 and Captain Owen’s ship the Olive Branch is referred to on her gravestone in Cwm Maethlon (Happy Valley) cemetery, near Tywyn.

Owen obviously came home quite a bit too as he fathered ten children by Elizabeth:

 Sadly Elizabeth died just thirteen months after John Davies Williams (Taid) was born. Although Owen’s eldest daughters were more than capable of looking after the family, he gave up his sea-faring career and became a Trinity Pilot8, a post that involved safe navigation of large ships into and out of the tidal port with its inherent dangers.

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Owen married again in 1888, to Jane Aspinall née Roberts (1852-1934), the ex-wife of Abraham Aspinall a stone-mason who passed away from Phthisis (Tuberculosis) in 1883. There was a daughter of this marriage; Eliza Aspinall, born 1881 in Talybont – not much is known about her.

Jane was a cousin to Owen’s first wife9 and together they had a further 4 children:

Captain Owen’s second marriage took place just a week after he got hit on the head10. He was engaged aboard the schooner Nathaniel and an anchor was being hoisted by means of a teagle11. The rope broke and a wooden block fell, striking him on the head. Whether this had anything to do with the union or not we will never know!

Owen gets a bump on the head
(The Cambrian News and Merioneth Standard, 16th March 1888, and The Aberystwyth Observer, 17th March 1888.)
Life Saver

During his years ashore Captain Owen Williams was six times instrumental in saving lives, and because of the resource and courage shown by him on one of these occasions he was awarded the Humane Society’s Bronze Medal12, with a certificate for life-saving: this being the first of such awards ever presented at Aberdyfi. On the 10th December 1891, The Aberystwyth Observer reported:

Rescue: On Friday night, about 6 o’clock, Rowland Davies, son of Mr. R. Davies, Minydon, had a narrow escape of being drowned. In descending the step-ladder which adjoins the outer corner of the shipping wharf his foot slipped and he fell headlong into the river. Not being a swimmer, and being unable to see because of the darkness, he cried lustily for help. His cries were heard by Captain O. Williams, who immediately jumped into a boat and in the darkness managed with great skill to find Davies, who was on the point of sinking to a watery grave. He got him into the boat and then brought him ashore where by this time many people had gathered. This is the third life for Captain Williams to save this year. 

Owen remained a Trinity Pilot up to his death in 1924.

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John Davies Williams

John Davies Williams or Johnny’r Corbet, as he was to become known locally, the son of Captain Owen Williams and Elizabeth Davies, was born on Saturday, 5th February, 1881. He was my Taid (Grandfather).

Johnny was small of stature yet was hard and resilient. By the age of twelve he could row a boat and draw a net as well as anyone. His first place of employment was at a grocery shop in Liverpool owned by a relative (probably his brother-in-law Richard Edward Barnes and sister Elizabeth). However, he soon returned to Aberdyfi and joined the Sarah Davies, under the command of Captain John Williams, as a “Boy” at a rate of 5 shillings a week. Whether Johnny was economical with the truth regarding his age or not is unknown. Suffice to say his age is recorded in “A Real Little Seaport” by Lewis Lloyd as being 15 whereas according to Taid’s discharge book he was a mere 13.

He later served aboard the Lady Alice, undocumented in his discharge book. The vessel was captained by his uncle who had carried coal, slates, corn, and timber across the seven seas. The men that challenged the oceans in those days were rough and tough and it was accepted that the Captain would be tough and merciless. It was disadvantageous in these circumstances to be related to the ship’s master and it was no bad thing that Johnny’r Corbet had not an ounce of fear in his makeup. Captain Williams ensured that his nephew should set an example for the rest of the crew. If the Biscay was rougher than usual, Johnny was invariably given the first watch in the crow’s nest. Should the ropes be stiff with ice, Johnny was given the task of their splicing. And when the winch broke down it was Johnny’s hand that was thrust into its depths. He received the favour of the Captain but once – a shared cup of rum when the Captain cut off the end of his sore thumb with a knife. However, the following morning he exemplified himself in the rigging before the rest of the crew13.

(Photos courtesy of Dilys Williams)

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There are fifteen trips in ships recorded in Johnny’s discharge book14:

  1. Sarah Davies (Schooner) 1894.
  2. Ann Warren (Aberystwyth) 6/11/1896 to 20/7/1897.
  3. Mervinia (Aberystwyth) 8/1897 to 1/1898.
  4. Gifford (Barque) 2/1898 Liverpool to Sydney, San Francisco, Tacoma, Cardiff.
  5. Edward Windes (Porthmadoc) 26/7/1900 to 13/11/1900 Tacoma to Cardiff.
  6. Bernard Hall 24/11/1900 to 4/2/1901 Liverpool, West Indies, United States.
  7. Queen of Cambria 4/3/1901 to 11/6/1902 Caernarvon, Dunkirk, Australia.
  8. Lizzie (First Steamship) 8/1/1903 Cardiff to Pembrey.
  9. Barbadian 19/2/1903 to 19/5/1903 West Indies.
  10. Sant Kevin (S.S.) (Newcastle) 14/6/1903.
  11. Lizzie 30/10/1905 to 22/12/1905 Liverpool.
  12. Pluvier (Schooner) to 21/11/1906
  13. Canadian 31/10/1908 to 29/11/1908 Liverpool to Boston.
  14. Canadian 5/12/1908 to 4/1/1909 Liverpool to Boston.
  15. Canadian 9/1/1909 to 7/2/1909 Liverpool to Boston.
Taid's happiest ship, the Gifford off the White Cliffs of Dover.
(State Library of South Australia [PRG 1373/18/100])
The Queen of Cambria in an unidentified port.
(State Library of South Australia [PRG 1373/22/10])

Johnny sailed around the world twice. Firstly between 1898 and 1899 aboard the barque Gifford from Liverpool to Sydney and then between 1901 and 1902 he sailed around the world once again aboard the Queen of Cambria. In a letter to the magazine Sea Breezes he wrote

“I started my sea career sailing out of Aberdovey in a schooner in the slate trade at the age of 13, and in 1898 I joined a small Barque in Liverpool called the Charlotte Young but I made a very short trip in her, towed to Garston and left her before she sailed and joined as ordinary Seaman on the four masted Barque, Gifford, Captain Parry of Llangranog as Master a sailor and a gentleman, on my first deep water trip, and during my career at sea it was my happiest ship of all and I would willingly take off my hat to all her crew. We sailed for Sydney, from there to Newcastle NSW, Frisco, Oakland, Tacoma and home to Cardiff, and I may say that the Crown of India mentioned in Sea Breezes some time ago as being towed into Sydney dismasted arrived there during our stay at Sydney which I remember well. I also made a round trip in the Barque Queen of Cambria, with Captain Roberts of Nevin.”

He served aboard his first steamship, Lizzie, in 1903 on a trip from Cardiff to Pembrey. He was to meet up with her again a couple of years later in Liverpool.

Johnny completed his active seafaring in the employ of the Mersey Light Ships.

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John Davies Williams married Annie Jones, my Nain (Grandmother), at Toxteth Park, Liverpool on the 31st March 1908 and had eight sons – the first arriving a mere 7 days after the marriage! They were;

 They also raised a niece, Susan Jones (1909-1991), who was regarded as the boy’s sister. Susan’s mother, Marged Ellen Jones (1883-1919), died when she was very young. Susan married Ieuan Jones (1912-1994) and they had four children.

Nain and Taid in their later years.
(Dilys Williams)
Tywyn Cottage Hospital with the Marconi Wireless Station in the background
1920's postcard of Tywyn Cottage Hospital with the Marconi Wireless Station in the background.
Leading up to the First World War Johnny was employed as a foreman fitter in the construction of the Marconi wireless station at Tywyn where all his skills were required in building huge wireless masts. His rate of pay is recorded as 6½d per hour. The ½d being the extra pay for being a foreman. This finally rose to 10½d per hour.
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In a letter to Mr. Lash of Marconi in 1962, Johnny recounted the ‘little drama’ he and a Mr. Copper had one day on the steps of the powerhouse during the building of the wireless station at Tywyn. It seems they had rigged up a catapult and Mr. Copper picked up a pebble and fired it into the air. One of Johnny’s outside men was returning across the field with his wheelbarrow at the time. He was halfway across when the pebble was fired and it came down on the chap’s head. He dropped the wheelbarrow like a hot cake, took off his cap, rubbed his head and then picked up his wheelbarrow and continued on his journey without knowing what had struck him. As no harm seemed to be done he was never told the truth.

Johnny goes on to say that the station must have been the cheapest built as no contractors were used apart from for the main station building. All the work on top of the hill, the carting of the materials from the railway station, driving in steel girders for anchoring masts, in fact all the outside work was done by local labourers at the rate of 6d per hour. They did not have the luxury of tractors, bulldozers, spidermen, or danger money. The job was well done with the assistance of all concerned; Engineers, Operators and Labourers alike all working together for the good of the cause. This meant the station was completed in good time before the outbreak of the first great war.

One of the engineers, S. C. Anselmi, recounts the lesson he was taught on a cold and windy day when an aerial blew off into the next valley. Anselmi insisted that Johnny go up the mast. Taid replied that it was impossible as the wind was too strong and suggested that Anselmi go up the mast to see. Johnny then proceeded to haul Anselmi up the mast and about half-way Johnny made the rope fast and cleared off leaving Anselmi to “freeze on the bl***y mast”. Johnny went back after about half an hour and let Anselmi down – not any the worse but much wiser!

Johnny’s service to the Marconi Wireless Company was recognised in 1962 by his being made a Member of the Marconi Transoceanic Guild.15

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In 1936 he followed in his father’s footsteps and was appointed the Trinity House Pilot for the river Dyfi, taking over the post from Captain John Williams, his first “Master”.

The local papers carried similar articles to this:

Mr. Williams has been “round the world'” on two occasions, his first trip being in the barque “Gifford“, of Glasgow, and his second in the “Queen of Cambria,” a Liverpool vessel. He has also been to the West Indies several times in the Steam Navigation Company and the Leyland service.

His first pilotage job was to bring in S.S. Halton on Tuesday, 25th February 1936. The vessel was carrying a cargo of cement and was stranded off the North Bank at Aberdyfi after running aground on the previous Sunday. The nine crew were effectively prisoners in their ship for 36 hours and had to huddle in the wheelhouse and engine-room of the 460-ton cargo steamer. Food rations were low when Pilot J. D. Williams, after two unsuccessful attempts, brought her in. “It was a terrible experience,” said one of the crew. “The seas were huge, covering the main hatch. Nowhere was safe except the wheelhouse and engine-room.” According to Johnny’s record book, the cost of this endeavour was £3 10s.

During the Second World War, together with his pilotage duties, he served with the National Fire Service and the local Royal Observer Corps.

On the 30th December 1947 a yacht carrying three people ran aground near Aberdyfi bar. Mr. Peter Spence and two young companions were sailing the five-ton yacht Svenska from Barmouth to Aberdyfi for transportation by rail when she grounded on the South Bank, lost her rudder, heeled over and was swamped by the big seas. Peter tied his two companions to the mast to prevent them being swept overboard. It was nearly dusk but luckily the yacht was spotted by Johnny and he called two of his friends, Ferryman (and half-brother) Ellis Williams and Councilman Morris Williams. Together they launched a rowing boat and set out to race against the gathering gloom. When they reached the foundering yacht big breakers prevented the small boat from getting alongside. Mr. Spence managed to struggle to the safety of the boat but the rescuers had to plunge into the sea to help the young couple across the few feet of boiling water. “It was desperate going” said Ferryman Williams. “We could see when we neared the yacht that the two young people were almost exhausted, and it was a question whether we could get to them in time.” Then, with a double load, the three rescuers pulled back the two miles to the shore where doctors and stretcher bearers were waiting.

Cousin Archie Williams 16 wrote the following day “It called for courage of a very high standard to tackle such an undertaking in a rowing boat. You knew the danger and risk better than anyone and yet with that knowledge you went out and took the risk.” He goes on to say “It only is another incident which proves the tragedy of the taking away of the Aberdyfi Lifeboat of which you ought to have been the coxswain17.”

Doing his duty, Johnny informed the Coastguard of the event and was rewarded by them with a postal order to the value of 7/-.

In 1951 he was commended by the Chief Constable of Gwynedd for his help in the search for a missing person.

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When I was less than 5 months old, on the 20th December 1951, Johnny retired from being Pilot. Local newspapers 18 summed up his career in January of 1952 and suggests that Johnny first became an Able-Seaman in 1899 whilst with Captain Thomas Humphreys aboard the Lady Mostyn. After recounting the incident of the Halton the article continues:

On another occasion, when he was taken out to a ship by the late Mr. Oswald Jones, the rudder of Mr. Jones’s boat snapped in half. The two men dropped anchor in turbulent seas. Ripping up two planks, Mr. Williams nailed them across the broken pieces of the rudder with two six-inch nails – the only two nails in the boat. “I was really afraid that night,” he confessed.

One of the Last

Mr. Williams, who has agreed to stay on (though he has retired) till January 31st, has received a Full Merit Certificate from Trinity House.

He is also proud of a photograph and note he received from Dr. K. Hahn, founder of Gordonstown School, forerunner of the O.B.S.S.

Mr. Williams went to Caernarvon in 1941 to bring to Aberdovey the school’s schooner, “Prince Louis.” The voyage went without a hitch. From Dr. Hahn, Mr. Williams received a mounted photograph of the schooner, and this note: “To Mr. J. D. Williams; gratefully remembering his skill and his devotion to a noble profession.”

Now the time of complete retirement is nigh, but Mr. Williams, like many Aberdovey men nurtured in a long and distinguished seafaring tradition, has the sea in his blood.

He is one of the last survivors of the gallant Aberdovey band who went to sea in the old sailing ships.

My Grandfather, like all old sailors, could turn his hand to most things, and worked in painting and decorating and carpentry. Mostly, however, he worked with the elements he was happiest with, which was rope and tackle and all things with a seafaring connotation. He used to sit for hours on end plaiting old rope into doormats with intricate designs. He carved wooden spoons not only for everyday use but also in competitions for local eisteddfods, much of the time using just a penknife and a piece of glass. For each of his sons, he carved model sailing ships. They still survive to this day. He was an expert at repairing clinker-built or carvel boats that had been damaged in storms etc. Many were the time that he waited for one of his sons to come home from school to hold the hammer for him whilst he clenched rivets to the planks that were being replaced.

He suffered from Paget’s disease of bone for many years and died peacefully at his home in The Corbet, Aberdyfi in 1964. He was buried in the cemetery at Aberdyfi where two of his sons had previously been interred.

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

My father, Owen Leslie Williams, was born in the Welsh area of Liverpool, Toxteth Park, in 1911. At the time my grandparents were living at 40 Greenleaf Street – a 20-minute bike ride to the docks. The family moved back to Aberdyfi sometime in the following 4 years.

By now the failed Corbet Hotel, the same hotel where his father first worked, had been turned into flats. The building caught fire in 1914 and my grandfather reportedly climbed the roof in an attempt to put out some of the flames. Much of the ex-hotel was damaged by the fire but thankfully, the family domain was spared – whether this was due to Johnny’s antics on the roof we don’t know. Part of the building was later converted to accept the local fire engine!

The remains of the Corbet Hotel after the fire in 1915.
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  1. Pwll-Helyg farm is situated 600m north-east of Penhelyg Halt – see map.[]
  2. The Corbet Arms Hotel and Post House was built in 1827 and rebuilt in grandoise form after the coming of the railway in 1864.[]
  3. 1851 Census for Aberdyfi – HO107 Piece 2495 Folio 224 Page 10[]
  4. Marriage Certificate for Owen Williams and Elizabeth Davies[]
  5. A Real Little Seaport, The Port of Aberdyfi and Its People 1565-1920 – Two volumes: ISBN 1 874786 48 8 and ISBN 1 874786 49 6[]
  6. 1881 Census for Aberdyfi – RG11 Piece 5417 Folio 61 Page 8[]
  7. Coffadwriaeth
    am
    Elizabeth,
    Anwyl briod Capt. Owen Williams,
    Olive Branch, Aberdovey.
    yr hon a hunodd yn yr Iesu
    Mawrth 13eg. 1882, yn 43
    mlwydd oed.
    Canys y mae yn gyfyng arnaf o'r dden-tu, gan fod gennyf chwant i'm dattod, ac i fod gyda Christ; canys llawer iawn gwell ydyw.

    Hefyd
    Jane Ellen Williams,
    merch yr uchod
    A hunodd Rhag 21, 1962.
    Yn 86 mlwydd oed.[]
  8. 1891 Census for Aberdyfi – RG12 Piece 4587 Folio 48 Page 9, 1901 Census for Aberdyfi – RG13 Piece 5190 Folio 22 Page 8, 1911 Census for Aberdyfi – RG14PN33712 RG78PN1945 RD615 SD2 ED5 SN42[]
  9. Brief Glory by D. W. Morgan (page 261) “Captain Owen Williams having married first a sister of my mother and then a cousin of hers”. Owen’s first wife Elizabeth Davies was the daughter of David Davies and Anne Owens. Owen’s second wife, Jane Roberts, was the daughter of David Roberts and Eliza Owens. Anne Owens and Eliza Owens were sisters.[]
  10. The Cambrian News and Merioneth Standard, 16th March 1888, and The Aberystwyth Observer, 17th March 1888.[]
  11. A teagle was a hoisting apparatus.[]
  12. Humane Society Case number 25724: At great personal risk, Owen Williams rescued Roland Davies from drowning at Aberdyfi, 3rd December 1891.[]
  13. Atgofion am hen ffrind (memories of an old friend), Johnny’r Corbet; written by Janet Hughes.[]
  14. Discharge Book for J. D. Williams held by Peris Williams[]
  15. Letter from A. R. Lash of P.O. Radio Station, North Weald dated 28th February 1962.[]
  16. Letter from Archie Williams dated 31st December 1947[]
  17. The Aberdyfi Lifeboat Station was closed in 1931 and only re-opened at the Outward Bound Sea School as an inshore station in 1963.[]
  18. Various newspaper articles[]