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Dolgellau, Wales

 

 

Description and photos from a visit by M. Stone on 15-16 April 2007.

 

I believe Dolgellau was the native village of my great-great-great-grandfather, DAVID ROBERTS (1806-1863) and was where he and his wife and children lived and ran a grocery/tea/sundries store on Waterloo Street circa 1841-1844.

 

 

 

Here are my first views of the ancient central market town of Dolgellau in Gwynedd (known in the 1800’s as Dolgelley, Merioneth), in northwest Wales (now part of spectacular Snowdonia National Park). The first mention of this town of “Dolkelew” is from a source written in 1253.

 

 

We parked in a large open car park (parking lot) just southwest of the town’s seven-arched Big Bridge (Y Bont Fawr) over the River (Afon) Wnion, and I took these photos. The bridge was originally built in 1638, but has since been considerably enlarged.

 

 

In ages past the town was subject to flooding whenever the river rose, but now the river’s flow is controlled. Seagulls flew and called overhead, for we were not far from the sea.

 

 

The people here speak, read, and write in Welsh, but almost everything and everyone is bilingual, so we could get along fine in English.

 

 

It seems that almost all the buildings in the old town center are made of massive dark stones, grey-brown and heavy, looming over very narrow streets going sinuously in every direction, with no grid, reflecting ancient roots.

 

 

 

We walked from the car park down a narrow alleyway into the town and followed the signs to Eldon Square, where we found a building (Ty Meirion) that housed the visitor information and Snowdonia National Park office (Canolfan Croeso) on the first floor:

 

 

Ty Meirion (the central building, above) in earlier years was called London House, and was “an emporium for goods from a London merchant.” An upper floor houses an exhibit on the town’s former Quaker population. Persecuted in Wales, a sizeable group of Dolgellau Quakers emigrated to Pennsylvania in the late 1600’s and founded the town and the college of Bryn Mawr.

 

 

Also on Eldon Square we found the shop of Roberts Bros. Butchers (established 1840). I wondered if the owners were distant relatives of mine. Later I found out there are pages and pages of Robertses in the Dolgellau phone book, so even if we were related, it would not be a simple or swift matter to figure out how. Nevertheless, I had the feeling, if not the facts, that we had indeed found my ancestral “hometown.”

 

 

After buying a map of the town at the visitors’ center, we went into a place around the corner, Y Sospan (“The Saucepan?”), the old town hall courthouse and jail building (1606), now a cozy tearoom, where we got refreshments and our bearings. When we came out, I took a photo of the T.H. Roberts building across the street, a former ironmonger’s shop built in 1886, now a sandwich and coffee place. T.H. Roberts has the red front, and the venerable Ship Hotel is the place with the green front and ivy:

 

 

T.H. Roberts Ironmongers was an important source of panning equipment during the 19th-century “gold rush” near Dolgellau. Below, another shot of the ivy-covered Royal Ship Hotel, and, in the distance to the left, on the street behind it (showing the blue rectangular sign) the building formerly known as the venerable and famous Golden Lion, a famous coaching inn of previous centuries:

 

 

Then we strolled around to get a look at Dolgellau and take some photos. We learned that you can date the buildings by the stones:  in general, the older the building, the bigger, more massive, and more roughly-dressed the stones.

 

 

 

In some places the sidewalk narrowed to only about six inches in width and we were constantly falling into the narrow streets. To my amazement we discovered that most places didn’t have street numbers—each residence or building had a “house name” in Welsh.

 

 

We found Ebenezer Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, built in 1880, with a plaque commemorating Methodist founder John Wesley’s coming to Dolgellau on March 23, 1750 and March 23, 1756. This church (photo below) is still in use, but there were also other church buildings turned to other uses, being those now “redundant chapels and churches” left over from the Welsh Nonconformist revivalism of the 1800’s and early 1900’s, when both the town’s population and its religious fervor were much larger.

 

 

 

Above, Ebenezer Chapel; below, Dolgellau Coffee Shop menu:

 

 

Below is a closer view of the Golden Lion. Dolgellau had a famous “Golden Lion” inn that was the principal (and fashionable) stopping-place for visiting royalty, literary figures, and other travelers in that area of Wales at least since 1794. The stagecoach journey from London to the Golden Lion took about 24 hours in 1830. With the advent of trains, the journey took 8-1/2 hours in the 1870’s, and was down to 5-1/2 hours by the 1930’s.

 

 

The Golden Lion finally went out of business sometime after World War II and deteriorated rapidly. With the help of restoration grants from the National Park system, it has now been renovated to look as it did before on the exterior, while the interior has been turned into apartments.

 

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Suddenly, not far from the Golden Lion, while walking down Bridge Street (Heol y Bont), we stumbled across one-block-long Waterloo Street (“Heol y Dwr” or “Water Street” in Welsh), where a Roberts family which looked to be very much like mine had lived and operated a grocery and tea shop circa 1841-1844:

 

As enumerated on 6 June in the 1841 Welsh census [UK Census Collection, Ancestry.com]:

 

            [in Waterloo Street:]

 

Catherine Roberts, 65, Ind [independent? or “Wd” = widow?], born in the same county [i.e. Merionethshire]

 

 [next-door to:]

 

David Roberts, 35, Tea Dealer, born in the same county

Catherine, 30, born in the same county

David, 10, born in the same county

Lewis, 10, born in the same county

John, 4, not born in the same county

 

Knowing that the Welsh census enumerators were supposed to round ages to the nearest 5, this family could well be ours, including son David, age 13, and his brother Lewis, age 10, although they are claiming Welsh birth instead of Boston birth for Lewis (but perhaps this entry provides the clue that younger brother John had been born in Boston c. 1837). At any rate, we know the censuses often provide inaccurate information, and this is the only Roberts family I found in any of the available Welsh censuses with parents David and Catherine and sons David and Lewis. In this one census entry, these people are all of the approximately correct ages at the appropriate date to have been my family.

 

The 1844 business directory for Dolgelley also lists “Roberts, David, Waterloo st.” as a grocer and dealer in sundries. There is no such person listed in the 1835, 1840, or 1850 Dolgelley directories, although in the 1850 directory there is a “Roberts, Robert” listed as a grocer and dealer in sundries in Waterloo Street. These listings would be consistent with David and Catherine Roberts and their family leaving for Boston in 1846, as we know they did, and another Roberts relative taking over the Waterloo Street shop.

 

It felt amazing to contemplate them being here—and now me being here.

 

 

We walked by this shop on Bridge Street and I looked up and noticed the sign that said “Waterloo” over the shop’s doors. Just around the corner to the right was one-block-long Waterloo Street. Behind which little door or windows in the block did the Roberts family live in the 1840’s? I’ll probably never know for sure. But we’d gotten close enough to give me goosebumps.

 

 

Here are several shots looking east from Bridge Street down narrow, one-block-long Waterloo Street (which seemed to have space for about ten households, according to past censuses)

 

 

 

 

 

This is the cross street (upper Smithfield, or Fos y Felin) at the other (eastern) end of the block of Waterloo Street:

 

 

Below, looking back, west, down Waterloo Street toward Bridge Street. Which door once led to my ancestors’ home?

 

 

 

While in Dolgellau we enjoyed a fine stay at Tan-y-Fron, a charming bed-and-breakfast in an old stone house on Arran Road near the Dolgellau town cemetery. It also featured a “caravan park” where people could park their R.V.s and campers and then stay in them while on holiday. It was quiet, quaint, surrounded by carefully cultivated blooming flowers, and our upstairs room had a big window with a view of the hills and sheep surrounding the town:

 

 

 

 

 

During our stay in Dolgellau, we drove the winding eight-mile road to picturesque Barmouth to see the sea. While doing so, we caught a glimpse of the local tallest mountain, Cadair Idris, as we drove along the Mawddach Estuary. Barmouth is an old resort town on Cardigan Bay that looks across St. George’s Channel toward Ireland. It was once a place where large sailing ships were built and where slate, wool, and hides produced or processed in Dolgellau and the surrounding areas were exported from its harbor.

 

My ancestor, David Roberts, had been a skinner in his youth (in the 1820’s) before he was a grocer in the 1840’s. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had once processed hides in Dolgellau as a young man, attended church there, sat in Eldon Square, or had a drink at the Golden Lion. How many generations back did his family go in Dolgellau? Had he (or his sons) climbed Cadair Idris, or visited Barmouth before the family set sail for good to America? It is intriguing to contemplate.

 

Of course there is no substitute for seeing these places with your own eyes, but I hope by providing these photos to have given others at least a small glimpse of the beauty and unique character of this area of northern Wales, land of (some of) my fathers and mothers.

 

 

Dolgellau website:

http://www.dolgellau.net/

 

Quakers of Dolgelley to Pennsylvania:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/northwest/sites/history/pages/quakers.shtml

 

Old Dolgelley slide show:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/northwest/sites/dolgellau/pages/old_dolgellau.shtml

 

Old photos of Dolgellau:

http://www.francisfrith.com/search/wales/gwynedd/dolgellau/photos/dolgellau_photos.htm

 

 

 

List of HUMPHREYS and ROBERTS baptized at Dolgellau, 1827-1837

 

 

List of HUMPHREYS and ROBERTS baptized at Dolgellau, 1838-1846

 

 

To see my photos of nearby Mallwyd, North Wales, where David ROBERTS and Catherine HUMPHREY were married in 1827, go here.

 

 

 

 


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