The 1st August 2019 marks the 125th anniversary of one of the worst boating disasters on the Mawddach Estuary in North Wales.  In 1894, Barmouth was the destination for holidays organised by the newly-formed Co-operative Holidays Association under the auspices of the National Home Reading Union.  The first holidays in 1893, “Under the auspices of the National Home Reading Union”, were arranged to Ambleside and Keswick in the Lake District.  Holidays were organised by a voluntary committee with J B Paton as Chairman and T A Leonard as Secretary.  University lecturers acted as companion guides on the walks and gave evening talks.  Leonard saw his holiday scheme as a development of his faith; an opportunity to enrich the lives of young working people by opening up the countryside for both physical and spiritual renewal.  Leonard was influenced by contemporary social, philosophical and political thought and gained inspiration from William Wordsworth, John Ruskin and William Morris.  It was from the poetry of Wordsworth that Leonard took the motto for the CHA: “Joy in widest commonalty spread”.  The focus of the holidays, therefore, was on both physical and spiritual fulfilment through communal walking and social activities, religious observance and the prohibition of alcohol.  The CHA attracted women guests from the start, reflecting the changing status of women in the late-nineteenth century.

In 1894, some 350 members of the CHA visited Barmouth in North Wales over a six week period.  From the late 18th century, this coastal town became a favourite stop for the travelling well-to-do, such as Charles Darwin, William Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and John Ruskin.  The introduction of the railway in 1867 saw the town’s prosperity grow as visitors began to flock to experience its picturesque scenery.  Lodging houses proliferated from the 1870s onwards to cater for the increasing number of working class visitors from the urban areas of England; the Midlands and the North-West.  Sailing and boating on the Mawddach became a popular pastime and the 1891 Census shows that there were some 50 boatmen in the town plying their trade at that time.

At Barmouth, the CHA rented lodging houses at Hendre Villas and on Marine Parade for six weeks in July/August 1894 and between 50 and 60 guests arrived each week.  The poster advertising the holidays at Barmouth, entitled: “A Week by Mountain, Sea and Lake”, advertised holidays for the weeks beginning July 21st & 28th, August 4th, 11th, 18th & 25th.  Meals would consist of a substantial breakfast, lunch in the open air and dinner in the evening.  A ramble was arranged for each day, except Sunday and Wednesday, which would be conducted by a University companion guide, assisted by local “friends”.  Excursions would include walks along the Mawddach Estuary, ascents of Cader Idris and Snowdon, and visits to Aberglaslyn and Cwm Bychan, popular scenic attractions.  In the evenings, there would be half-hour lectures on the geology, history or literature of the neighbourhood, lantern slide shows and music by the friends of the National Home Reading Union.  The cost of a week’s holiday, Saturday to Saturday was 31/6 [£1.57½p], with an additional cost of 3/6 [17½p] for coach and train fares.

The Boat Trip 

During the week commencing 28 July, some 60 guests from the length and breadth of Britain, all members of the National Home Reading Union, stayed at Hendre Villas and at ‘Ty-Fry’ on Marine Parade.  On the Wednesday, their day off from rambling, a party of about twenty guests planned to take boats up the River Mawddach to visit the gold mine at Clogau, near Bontddu.  According to one account from a member of the party, after meeting on the quay and talking to various boatmen, they began to doubt the advisability of making the trip as the wind rose during the day.  However, the majority of the boatmen were happy to take the visitors on a boat trip up the Mawddach in the evening leaving at about 6.00pm (high tide was expected at 8.00pm) rowing up stream on the incoming tide and back on the out-going tide to return by 9.30pm.  Some voiced concerns but, ultimately, nineteen visitors agreed to go on the trip.

The party left the quayside at 6.45pm in three boats; local boatmen, Captain William Jones and Captain Lewis Edwards, were in charge of two of the boats whilst two members of the CHA party, William (Willie) Paton, the youngest son of J B Paton, and Percival Gray, an Oxford University student, who were acting as companion guides, took charge of the third boat.  The estuary was relatively smooth on the journey upstream.  William Jones and Lewis Edwards reached Bontddu at about 7.30pm and the guests went ashore to visit the gold mine.  The boat in the charge of William Paton and Percival Gray continued to Penmaenpool where the party took tea in the hotel.  According to one of the survivors, who was in William Jones’ boat, after visiting the Clogau Gold Mine, the party started back from Bontddu at about half past eight.  The estuary was smooth until they approached ‘Little Island’ [probably near Ynys Dafydd] where there was a sharp curve in the channel.  A combination of rising south-westerly winds and an out-going tide caused big waves to form.  These swamped William Jones’ boat and, notwithstanding the brave efforts of Jones, four occupants of his boat were drowned.  Lewis Edwards landed his boat safely near Caerdeon and the occupants walked the 3 miles safely back along the road to Barmouth.  Meanwhile, the third boat, which was in the charge of William Paton and Percival Gray, following on behind the two other boats, was also swamped and all but one of its seven occupants, were lost.

The harrowing experiences of the survivors attracted national publicity and there were conflicting accounts of the causes of the accident.  The subsequent inquest, held in Dolgellau, returned a verdict of accidental death and discounted the notion portrayed by one witness that the party had been under the influence of drink, having visited the Halfway House at Bontddu.  Both William Jones and Lewis Edwards were commended for their actions during the incident and no blame was attached to the two young companion guides, who were both drowned.

The Victims

Four of the occupants of William Jones’ boat were drowned; John Newman, Herbert Woodworth, Marie Read and Louisa Golightly; William Jones, Frederick Pryor, William Fildes and Maud Reid survived.  Six of the occupants of the boat in the charge of William Pate and Percival Gray were drowned; William Pate, Percival Gray, and Misses Alice Mallinson, Ella Golightly, Sarah Greenwell and Edith Moore.  Only Ethel Packer survived.  Those drowned were all from England; single people, the youngest 17 years old, the eldest, 32 years of age.  William Paton, aged 27, lived and worked in Liverpool; Percival Gray, aged 21, whose home was in Oxford, was a student at New College, Oxford; John Newman, aged 21, came from Dunmow, Essex; Herbert Woodworth, aged 27, from Manchester; Marie Reid, aged 17, from Leeds; Louisa and Ella Golightly, aged 32 and 21 respectively, and Sarah Greenwell, aged 19, were from Durham; Alice Mallinson, aged 30, was from Bradford and Edith Moore, aged 25 from Harrow, Middlesex.

The Aftermath

According to the Cambrian News, “On arriving in Barmouth, relatives were so affected on seeing the dead bodies of their loved ones that the by-standers were affected to tears”.  The bodies of seven of the victims were transported to their respective homes on Friday 3 August, with the exception of that of Mr. Newman, which wasn’t found until the Saturday morning and that of Marie Reid, which was privately interred in Llanaber churchyard on Saturday 4 August.  The body of the tenth victim, Edith Moore was never found.

The boating disaster was a tragedy not only for the victims and their families but also for the Barmouth community.  It led to changes in the registration of boats for hire in Barmouth.  Notwithstanding the 1894 incident, and the resultant publicity, the Co-operative Holidays Association (CHA) continued to visit Barmouth in succeeding years, guests staying at various lodging houses.  In 1911, Orielton Hall on the outskirts of Barmouth was acquired as a guest house and continued in use as a CHA holiday centre until the 1980s.  The CHA would expand to become one of the country’s leading providers of outdoor holidays with some 25 guest houses throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Thomas Arthur Leonard, after establishing the CHA in 1893, would go on to establish the Holiday Fellowship in 1913, which continues to trade as HF Holidays.  Leonard was also instrumental in the establishment of the Youth Hostels Association (England and Wales) in 1930 and the formation of the Ramblers’ Association in 1935, of which he was the first President.  He strongly supported the National Trust and was a stalwart of the campaign for national parks during the 1930s.  He campaigned with Tom Stephenson for a long distance footpath along the crest of the Pennines and was a founder member of the Friends of the Lake District in 1934.  When he died in 1948, he was hailed as the “Father of the open-air movement in this country”.