Industrial history - Porthmadog

Historic Coastline - Porthmadog’s slate trade with Germany

Remnants of Porthmadog’s industrial past remain today, in this popular tourist destination.  The small harbour, which is now home to mainly recreational boats was once a bustling commercial port at the heart of the local slate economy.

The trains of the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways follow the very same slate transporting route once so important to the town’s existence, carrying visitors up to the quarries.

Walking along this section of the Wales Coast Path towards the southern edge of Snowdonia is the perfect leisurely way to see this area of coastal Wales. The stunning views from the Porthmadog cob looking up towards the mountains are comparable to any you will see along the entire path.

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Few ports in Wales were hit as hard as Porthmadog was by the outbreak of the 1st World War, as it relied heavily upon the export of slate to northern Germany. This trade had its origins in the wake of the great fire that destroyed Hamburg in 1842. Slate was used extensively as a roofing material during the reconstruction of the city, and thereafter came to be used widely by architects and builders in many parts of northern and central Europe. Porthmadog flourished economically as a result of this trade, especially as many of the wooden sailing ships engaged in this trade were locally-built.

What started as a purely commercial link soon developed deeper cultural and social associations. Some of Porthmadog’s sailing ships trading regularly to Hamburg and other German ports were given German women’s names such as Fanny Breslauer or Frau Minna Petersen, these being the names of the wives of the German slate merchants who imported the material.

And amongst Porthmadog’s young sailors home on leave, nothing was more fashionable, or more guaranteed to catch a young lady’s eye, than a pair of smartly-polished bluchers, an ankle-length laced boot named after the Prussian general who came to Wellington’s aid at the Battle of Waterloo. Many young German seamen too served on the Porthmadog ships, often becoming quite fluent Welsh speakers in the process. 

In 1895 some 24,000 tons of slate were exported from Porthmadog, chiefly to northern Germany. In August 1914, this trade came to an abrupt end, a blow from which Porthmadog, both as a commercial port and as the last place in Wales where wooden sailing ships were built, would never recover. A fascinating era in international economic, social and cultural history came to an end, never to be revived again.

To plan a trip and enjoy a walk on the Wales Coast Path in this area visit our Menai, Llŷn & Meirionnydd page.