John Davies Williams , 18811964 (aged 83 years)

John Davies /Williams/

«b»Captain Owen Williams and John Davies Williams of Aberdyfi«/b»

Aberdyfi (Aberdovey) was a small fishing village back in the day. Owen Williams, was born there in 1838, the son of John Williams (1797-1865) and Mary Lewis (1804-1876). Owen was the seventh of ten children. His father worked on Pwll-Helyg farm at the time of Owen's birth but later became the local Ferryman.

Like many in the Williams family, Owen felt the call of the sea. This was hardly surprising as the village he lived in was a very important seaport and there was much coming and going of large ships bringing in potatoes, turnips, bricks, tiles, and clover seeds, as well as foreign commodities such as tea, sugar, tobacco, raisins, Spanish wines and spirits, and taking away oak bark and timber, copper and lead ore and, of course slate. Fishing continued and a large shipbuilding industry sprung up on both sides of the river at a number of locations including Aberdyfi, Penhelig, Borth, Aberleri, Morben Isaf, Ynyslas and Derwenlas.

Owen first found work as an Errand Boy in the Corbet Arms Hotel where, no doubt, he heard exciting tales from the seafaring folk who acquainted themselves of the landlord, Josiah Higgs', ales.

At the age of 21 Owen, by now a Mariner, married Elizabeth Davies, a Mariner's daughter, at St. David's Church in Liverpool. 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 «i»Star«/i», 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.

Owen is mentioned in the book 'A Real Little Seaport' by Lewis Lloyd as being a Master Mariner and Trinity Pilot. Owen was discharged from the «i»Kate«/i» 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 «i»Catherine«/i», 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, «i»Maglona«/i», in 1876 but as he was uncertificated he commanded the «i»Maglona«/i» in the home and coasting trade and shipped qualified commanders for foreign-going engagements.

Owen took command of another new vessel, the «i»Olive Branch«/i», the last seagoing vessel to be built at Aberdovey, in 1880 and in the 1881 Census, 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, William Perry, 25, and Richard Hughes, 19, Able-bodied Seamen, and the Boy, John Cook, 16.

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 «i»Olive Branch«/i» 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 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 «i»Olive Branch«/i» at Port Talbot on 3rd March 1884.

Owen's wife, Elizabeth, died in 1882 and Captain Owen's ship the «i»Olive Branch«/i» 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:

«tab» Elizabeth (1860-1927), married Edward Owen Jones (1860-1945),8 children. «tab» (1862-1959), married John Evans (1858-1926), 10 children. «tab» (1865-1927), married John Rees (1864-1915), 5 children. «tab» (Lizzie) (1869-?), married Richard Edward Barnes (1872-?), 1 adopted child. «tab» (1870-?) «tab» John (1872-1936), married Mary Thomas (1882-1960), no children. «tab» (1874-1960), married Henry Robert Shortland (1875-1960), 2 children. «tab» Ellen (1876-1962) «tab» Owen (1878-1881) «tab» Davies (1881-1964), married Annie Jones, 8 children.

Elizabeth died just one year and one month 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 Pilot, a post that involved safe navigation of large ships into and out of the tidal port with its inherent dangers.

Owen married again in 1888, to Jane Aspinall (nee Roberts), the ex-wife of a stone-mason who passed away from Phthisis (Tuberculosis) in 1883. There was a daughter of this marriage; Eliza Aspinall, born 1881 in Talybont.

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

«tab» (1889-1959), married Edwin Hughes (1884-1957), 3 children. «tab» Lewis (1891-1966), married Annie Jones (1888-1918), 2 children. «tab» Owen (1896-1966), married Gwen Owen (1899-1990), 2 children. «tab» (1898-1978), married Catherine Jane Evans (1893-1960), 3 children.

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 Medal, with 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.

John Davies Williams or Johnny'r Corbett, as he was to become known, was born on Saturday, 5th February 1881. This was our Taid (grandfather) the son of Captain Owen Williams, our Hen Taid, or great 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. However, he soon returned to Aberdyfi and joined the «i»Sarah Davies«/i», under the command of Captain John Williams, as a "Boy" at a rate of 5 shillings a week. Whether John Davies 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 «i»Lady Alice«/i», 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 Corbett 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 crew.

There are fourteen other trips in ships recorded in Johnny's discharge book. Between 1898 and 1899 he sailed around the world aboard the barque «i»Gifford«/i» from Liverpool to Sydney calling at San Francisco, Tacoma, and Cardiff, as well as many other ports along the way. He sailed around the world once again later in his career aboard the «i»Queen of Cambria«/i» as well as serving on «i»Lizzie«/i», his first steamship, in 1903. He completed his active seafaring in the employ of the Mersey Light Ships.

He married Annie Jones, my 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;

«tab» Eric Wynne (1908-1934) «tab» John Ivor (1909-1910) «tab» Owen Leslie (1911-2001), married Dorothy Ellis (1921-2002), 4 children. «tab» Richard Clifford (1912-1917) «tab» David Kenneth (1913-1978), married Marjorie Davies (1923-2004), 2 children. «tab» John Ronald (1915-1965), married Glenys Harriet Davies (1920-2012), 2 children.«tab» Alan Eurwyn (1920-1991), married Dorothy Ruth Heinemann (1911-2002), 1 child, married Ann (living), 3 children.«tab» Living (1924-), married Mona Francis (1928-2020), 2 children. They also raised a niece, Susan Jones (1909-1991), who was regarded as the boy's sister. Susan's mother died when she was very young. She married Ieuan Jones (1912-1994) and they had four children.

During 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 6 per hour. The being the extra pay for being a foreman. This finally rose to 10 per hour.

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. 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.

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".

«i»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.«/i»

His first pilotage job was to bring in «i»S.S. Halton«/i» on Tuesday 25th February. 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 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 «i»Svenska«/i» from Barmouth to Aberdovey 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 Ellis Williams and Councilman Morris Williams. Together they launched a rowing boat and set out to race the 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 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 coxswain."

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.

20th December 1951 Johnny retired from being Pilot.

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 Corbett, Aberdyfi in 1964. He was buried in the cemetery at Aberdyfi where two of his sons had previously been interred.

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 Corbett 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!


In 1829 Athelstan Maurice (changed his name to Athelstan Corbet) built the Corbet Arms Family Hotel and Post House at the western end of Aberdovey to cater to the needs of visitors. It was right on the edge of the sea before the construction of the sea wall. A bowling green was laid out in the front of hotel, and on the beach bathing huts were installed and donkey rides were available.

In his account of Ynysymaengwyn Lewis Lloyd says that from the mid 1850s the history of the estate "was increasingly troubled." When Athelstan Maurice Corbet died, the estate passed to his sister Henrietta Maurice, who married Charles Decimus Williams with whom she had a daughter also named Henrietta. The younger Henrietta married John Soden of Bath, who duly changed his name to Corbet. In 1862 a Trust was established for running the estate and the trustees were given leave to raise £5000 for harbour improvements. In 1865 the harbour area, including the wharf and jetty, were leased to the Cambrian Railways Company. The Corbet Arms Hotel was rebuilt in 1867 to accommodate the visitors were anticipated would follow in the wake of the opening of the railway in 1864.