Pwllheli, Deneio and Penmaen

Key landscape characteristics and processes - Reproduced by the kind consent of Gwynedd Ymddiriedolaeth Archaeolegol Gwynedd - Gwynedd Archaeological Trust  

The boundary of this character area is defined on the west by the lower reaches of the Afon Penrhos from Towyn to the river’s confluence at Afon Rhydhir as it opens out into Pwllheli harbour and the sea.  Our boundary follows the line of the river from a little to the south-west of Yoke House, turning south-east and south again to the point where the Afon Erch enters the water of the harbour.  The easternmost boundary of this area is the tongue of sand which reaches eastward from Carreg yr Imbill.

The evidence for activity in this character area during prehistory, is limited,  A spindle whorl and a stone tool (PRN 2212, 2213) have been found near Carreg Yr Imbill.  Four exceptionally large orthostats have been recorded, set in a field bank near Pont Pensarn.  It has been suggested that these stones were once part of a, now demolished, Neolithic chambered tomb (PRN 438).

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Pwllheli flourished.  Pwllheli was a royal maerdref under the Princes of Gwynedd.  A maerdref is a township in the Prince’s hand and which was organised on ‘manorial’ lines.  It was here that the focus of the Prince’s demesne lands lay in the commote of Afloegion.  There would be a royal hall and other buildings appropriate to the royal officials who oversaw the management and tax collection of the Prince’s interests in that commote.  There would be estate workers, tied bond tenants, who would have their own small plot of land and would also work for a set number of days on agricultural works on the Lord’s demesne.  Because of the restrictive nature of the estate tenure there could be a tendency for he cottages of the tir cyfrif bond tenants to cluster in a hamlet.  The result would look very much like a village.

At some point before the conquest in 1283, Pwllheli was granted borough status.  In the earliest records available to us we find 20 burgesses in the town.


The small township of Penmaen lies to the west of Pwllheli, in a bend of the Rhydhir.  This township was also held by tir cyfrif estate tenure and the tenants there would perform the duties that the bond tenants of Pwllheli were obliged to do.  Sixty years later, in the aftermath of the Black Death, Penmaen was empty and the land lay uncultivated through lack of tenants.  At the end of the thirteenth century, however, a tax or subsidy assessment was made at Pwllheli and Penmaen and gives a valuable indication of the productive capacity of Pwllheli at this time.  Penmaen was a very small community of only three tenants with any moveable wealth.  One of the tenants, however, Teg’ ap Philip, had 8 cattle and 4 sheep in comparison with the other two tenants who had 3 cattle between them.

In Pwllheli, 21 taxpayers were accounted for.  Between these tenants there were 78 cattle, 24 horses, 44 sheep and 11 draught animals.  The tenants were capable of producing 46 crannocks of flour and grain per annum.

Of the 21 tenants, 9 had fishing nets (26 nets in total) and two of the tenants had boats.  One of the components of the rent of land in Pwllheli was the cash value of a mease of herrings.  There were also sums of money which had to be paid for maintaining the Prince’s hall and houses.  The tenants were obliged, moreover, to mill their corn at the lord’s mill at Deneio, immediately to the north of the core of Pwllheli and on the higher ground behind.

The borough of Pwllheli was granted to Edmund Dynieton at fee-farm in 1317.  In 1349, Pwllheli was granted to Nigel Loryng, along with Nefyn at a value of £50.  Six years later Pwllheli was enfranchised as a free borough.

The nucleus of the Medieval borough was sited on the northern side of the tidal pool, where the basin or inner harbour is now, and where some of the earliest buildings in Pwllheli have survived; along Strand Street (now a continuation of the High Street), Kings Head Street and Penlan Street.  The tenements would have extended to the shoreline which, before enclosure and the embankment, ran from the area of the present Penmownt Chapel, in a curve towards the roundabout near the Maes.

In the ‘Pool’ itself there were vast expanses of sand, hemmed in from the west and east by extensive sandbanks.  Three rivers come together at Penmaen, the Afon Dwyryd, the Afon Penrhos and the Rhydhir and, from the east, the Afon Erch joined the Rhydhir just south of the Borough.  (see Lewis Morris’ map of 1748 which provides a good indication of earlier topography here).

During the Glyndŵr rebellion Pwllheli was described as ‘destroyed and laid waste’ (Jones Pierce, 1972, 156).  This was a setback and Pwllheli did not recover until the end of the fifteenth century.

The burgages were close to the shore, hemmed-in in by an arc of rising ground to the north.  Above this lay residual elements of the manorial land, focussed, so Professor Jones Pierce has suggested, on the location of Henllys, 350m north-east of the church of Deneio.  The church was ancient but little is known of its chronology or detail. The church was about 14m long on a west-east alignment, and 6m wide.  There was a side chapel on the north side at the east end.  A new church, St. Peter’s was built to north of the High Street in 1834 and the old church at Deneio was demolished in 1859. The nineteenth century church was replaced on the same High Street site in 1887. 

Around 1550 David Lloyd ap Thomas had the demise of the town of Pwllheli.  John Wynne ap Hugh of Bodfel had Penmaen.  The sixteenth century was a period when leases in Crown and former monastic land could be obtained more readily by local gentry.  Freeholders, from the fifteenth century, were active in the property market, amalgamating parcels of land and creating consolidated estates, transforming the landscape in the process.

Pwllheli had one shop in 1580 (Jones Pierce, 1972, 180).  A generation later there were five.  When Pennant visited Pwllheli in the 1770s he described it as ‘the best town in this county’ and ‘the magazine of goods which supplies all this tract’.  Hyde Hall, forty years later, noted the amount of grain exported, a commodity which had only begun to register in that respect, 25 years previously.  He also noted significant improvements in agriculture in the area.  The market prices were reasonable, not only in corn but pigs, cattle and horses, chickens and eggs.  Pwllheli had several fairs in the early nineteenth century.  The August Fair was the largest; three hundred head of cattle were not unusual (Hyde Hall, 281).

An important craft and trade was shipbuilding.  Pwllheli built over 400 ships during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Wood’s 1834 map of Pwllheli clearly identifies shipbuilding yards on the north side of the basin between Penlan and Strand Street.

In 1808 an Act of Parliament was passed in respect of enclosing and some 3000 acres in the parish of Deneio and the adjacent parishes.  The Act was implemented in 1816.  It involved draining land on the shoreline at Penrhos, Talcymerau and Abererch and constructing two embankments at each side of the basin.

During the greater part of the nineteenth century most of the development at Pwllheli extended eastward on the north bank of the Erch and north and west around St. Peter’s church.  On the west side, there was just the Pwllheli Union Workhouse and a row of terraced houses on the south side of the road to Penrhos.  Hyde Hall, in 1810, noted that 104 new houses had been built in the last ten years but conceded that many were re-builds on pre-existing sites.

In 1869 the railway came to Pwllheli.  This event had an impact on several interests in the community.  It was contributory to the demise of coastal trading over longer routes such as Liverpool and it was soon to be instrumental in bringing holidaymakers to the peninsula.  In 1909 the railway was extended westward to the present position of the station, which required reclaiming a strip of land on the north side of the basin.  There were two routes in and out of Pwllheli.  One, the Cambrian Coast Express via Machynlleth, Shrewsbury and London Paddington and the other via Afon Wen to Caernarfon and Crewe.

In 1890 a Cardiff entrepreneur, Solomon Andrews, began to develop a holiday resort on the sand bar of Morfa Garreg, between Talcymerau Isaf and the Cob (embankment).  It is said he brought the stone from the Llanbedrog quarries on the tramway that his company designed (his firm were coachbuilders) and transported passengers to the Plas Glyn y Weddw gallery which Solomon Andrews had purchased as a focus for art, culture and entertainment.  His complex at the West End, Pwllheli included housing, a golf course and the West End Hotel.  During the course of the twentieth century there has been considerably more infill: housing estates to the east of the sand spit at Morfa Garreg and to the west, at Talcymerau road and, north of the Rhydhir, along the road to Llanbedrog.

Historic Landscape Character
The landscape of the several rivers, the Penrhos, the Dwyryd and the Rhydhir in the west and the Erch in the east, come together in the Pool at Pwllheli (=salt water pool), with a long sandbar to the south of the Rhydhir and a shorter, but nevertheless substantial, spit, extending south from the confluence of the Erch.  At low tide there would be extensive sands in the Pool and along the banks of the rivers.  The name applied to the confluence and estuary of these rivers is Talcymerau (= the end of confluences) and Sarnau (= fords), descriptive of the way in which travel was achieved in this coastal area. The present landscape of the Pwllheli basin or harbour and the coastline east and west, is the product of an early nineteenth-century Inclosure Act, by which the basin was embanked and the coastal strips were drained.

The Medieval maerdref of the commote of Afloegion in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was at Pwllheli.  Before the conquest in 1283 a part of the township gained borough status and, in the mid-sixteenth century, was enfranchised and became a free borough.  The borough lands were tightly grouped between the Pool and the escarpment below Garn.  Above this, it is supposed, lay residual components of the manorial elements which include the now demolished church of Deneio.  Early maps and surviving buildings allow us to identify the eighteenth and nineteenth-century core of the town which almost certainly overlies the Medieval borough.  The Rev Bingley, in 1814, thought Pwllheli to be a very unpleasant town from the extreme irregularity of the houses and streets.  These features are, however, are clues to its origins.

It is reasonable to assume that the triangle formed by the eastern part of High Street, Whitehall Street (later Gaol Street and now Stryd Moch, close to where the pig market stood) and Penlan Street.  New Street, now Lon Dywod, corresponds, more or less with the ancient shoreline and remained undeveloped, except for access to the basin and shipbuilding, into the nineteenth century.  Buildings which lend character and historical depth to this area of the town include: a group of two-storey, single window rubble-built cottages on Strand Street of late eighteenth- early nineteenth-century date; a three-storey Georgian house opposite the town hall on Penlan Street and another three-storey house of about 1800, midway down Penlan Street on the south side.  There are three premises on the north side of Penlan which were once the Eagles Hotel, of late seventeenth – or early eighteenth-century date, with tall, stone, chimney stacks.   Penlan Fawr is a public house of the early seventeenth century with gable-end chimney stacks and a barn at the rear of seventeenth-eighteenth-century date.  The walls of the public house were raised in the nineteenth century.

At the north-east end of the High Street, on the corner of the old Strand Street there are three properties, fairly close to each other.  On the old Strand Street stands part of Madryn House, a late eighteenth-century house which became an inn and then a bank.  In the 1890s the frontage was replaced with a classical façade.  On the corner there is another late eighteenth-century premises, three-storeyed with a red-brick stack.  Adjacent stands a former townhouse of the Madryn family.  It then became a public house, the Madryn Arms and, in the 1890s, the Post Office.  King’s Head Street is an extension of Strand Street, leading towards the escarpment to the north.  There is a group of five single-storey and attic cottages, of rubble build with tall rubble stacks, in a row, on the south-west side of the street, 50m from the corner with the High Street.

The best evidence for the identification and location of burgage plots is to be found on John Wood’s 1834 plan.  These are to be found on the north and south side of the High Street at the junction with Gaol Street, and on the north side of Penlan at its south-western end.  The dimensions correspond relatively closely to those of Beaumaris at about 80ft (24m) long and 40ft (12m) wide, bearing in mind that there will have been several changes and modifications to these boundaries between the thirteenth and the nineteenth century.  John Wood has, perhaps, over-straightened the back plots at the east end compared with a more sinuous interpretation provided by the 1890s Ordnance Survey 1:2500 map.  It would, nevertheless, seem undeniable that the Medieval borough and later town of Pwllheli was established on the sinuous arable quillets of open field cultivation.  Much of the landscape evidence for this transition has been lost with development in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  A direct parallel for the superimposition of a borough on pre-existing arable fields and using their boundaries may be found at Rhosyr, Newborough, on Anglesey.


Further aspects of the historic landscape in this area relate to:

Reproduced with the consent of the Gwynedd Ymddiriedolaeth Archaeolegol Gwynedd - Gwynedd Archaeological Trust ........ follow this link 

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