It is very difficult not to look at the past through the tinted spectacles of the present. Society’s attitudes and expectations are always different in different eras. Morals and tolerances are certainly beyond compare. Geographic locations also change their appearance. As a great example, look at a ruined castle and think of its once grandeur and display of power. The lead mining community of Dylife, once a thousand strong, is now a small clutch of houses around the old spoil heaps and small remnants.
So how similar is Aberystwyth today from the 1890s and early 1900s? In the later industrial revolution, Aberystwyth provided a gateway for the local area’s imports and exports. It has done since the Norman castle was established there, but up until very recently, the calibre of road infrastructure has been poor as a method. Aber was more reliant on sail and latterly rail for essentials from further afield.
Thus, the harbour, now a tranquil marina and sleepy fishing port, was a bustle of activity. Sailing ships brought in many cargos, like lime to be burnt for agriculture . The kilns are still around if you look in Trefechan. Now silent in their slumber. Trefechan itself was the main working hub of town and industries sprang up there to benefit from the proximity to the harbour. Turkey (as it was called) had ropemakers, breweries and smiths. The harbour had vats for the mining companies to dump their lead ore in for shipping out. A smelter was on the slopes of Pen Dinas above it.
When sail was king, the south end of the promenade was called Rofawr. The terrace by the castle was the site of a thriving shipbuilders.The harbour in the Aberystwyth side had the Vale of Rheidol railway running along it to take the timber and ore that had been loaded in the Rheidol valley. Adverts were still placed for those who wished to emigrate, showing the ‘Countess of Lisburne’ as the vessel for travel to the New World. One feels she took her charges to Liverpool, whence they departed on something designed for the ocean.
The railway station was also busy, with a large goods yard that is now only partly covered by a retail park. Coal was a rare commodity, as the nearest mines were over 70 miles south. Consequently coal was prohibitively expensive until the coming of the railway – which is why the mines of Mid Wales had their mechanics powered by great waterwheels. There at least was a local commodity that wasn’t difficult to find!
Across the road from the station and Goods yard was Green’s foundry, covering the whole block bar the Vale of Rheidol pub on the corner. Water again played its part – a mill stream ran the full length of Plascrug Avenue and then across the station forecourt and down Mill Street, where two water powered mills at Trefechan Bridge used the suupply before tipping the waste into the harbour. this stream is now built over, as is the tributary that runs north to Llanbadarn Road, but when the Rheidol floods, they do remind people of their presence.
Down the west side of the railway was Smithfield Road, now Park Avenue. The land here was cheap, so the new free school was built at the top and the Vale of Rheidol railway built its original terminus in what is now the car park by the football club. However, it was called Smithfield Road in tribute to the great Smithfield meat market in London. The railway and school were close to the cattle market, abattoir, a candle works and a tannery (another was at the Town clock, casting a fragrant odour down the town with a prevailing wind…). In 1900, the town football club won the Welsh cup. Not bad for a team playing next door to this aromatic group of industries. Imagine Cristiano Ronaldo playing in that environment…
This is a snapshot of a very broad subject. The book ‘Born on a perilous rock’ still holds the best record of Aber as it was. But when we read historical fiction, we have to remember to place ourselves in a semblance of how things were, not how they are today.
Over the coming weeks, I will provide a few more historical backdrops pertinent to the book, which I hope will help.
(I am talking about ‘By the Banks of the Rheidol’ at the Cletwr cafe in Taliesin on 14/11/18 at 7.3opm)