Fairbourne, a potted history

The land now occupied by the village of Fairbourne, now in the county of Gwynedd but once part of the historic county of Merioneth, was until the mid 1800's nothing more than a mixture of open rough grazing and salt marsh.

The land that comprises Fairbourne and lower Friog were formed by glacial deposits and built up sand deposited by tidal action. Tidal action over thousands of years built up the shingle bank that stretched from the Friog cliffs in the South across the front of Fairbourne, ending in a sand spit opposite Abermaw (Barmouth) on the shores of the Mawddach estuary. These same tidal conditions regularly shift stone and sand around and are responsible in part for the silting up of Abermaw (Barmouth) harbour and the mouth of the Mawddach.

Aerial view of Fairbourne circa 1978
Aerial view of Fairbourne Village circa 1978

Farming & Residential History

By the early 1800's three farms had been established on the lands forming Fairbourne (and lower Friog), Ynys Faig, Penhryn & Friog with a near neighbour the mainly hill lands Henddol Farm using some of the low land for winter grazing. 

Ynys Faig farm was established on the rocky outcrop, over which the main road into Fairbourne passes and today also supports the church and old Fairbourne Hotel building. In fact that rocky outcrop was once the island of Ynys Faig and had Fairbourne grown from that initial homestead, it is probable that the village today would have retained that welsh name. The stone barn around which the main road navigates carries a carved date of 1325 so it is reasonable to assume that the farm was established before that date. In 1527 John Puleston the Deputy Sherriff of Merionethshire had his home at Ynys Faig Hall (believed to be where the Fairbourne Hotel building is sited today).

Penhryn Farm existed on lands now often called the Golf Course on the edge of sandbanks and mudflats adjacent to the Mawddach estuary. The Penrhyn Farm buildings are long gone, although for many years the floor plan of the building was maintained by stone sheep pens near the now Penrhyn Point road turning circle. It is claimed that much of the stone from the farm was reused to build The Bungalow, built in the late 1800's by Sir Arthur McDougall (more of whom later).

Friog Farm was established in the small hamlet of Friog and today still exists on the corner of Beach lane by the old Toll House. Its lower lands were the grass grazing between Friog and the beach, an area that today has the standard gauge railway embankment running through it.

Development into Fairbourne

In 1807 Ynys Faig Hall was occupied by Thomas Jones, Sherriff of Merionethshire and one of the founders of "The Old Bank", which through absorption and takeover developed into the Midland Bank and was eventually taken over to become part of HSBC.

After Thomas Jones, Ynys Faig Hall became the residence of Right Reverend John Jones, vicar of the parish of Llanegrin and Llangellen which included the farm lands of Ynys Faig, Penrhyn & Friog. John Jones went onto become Rector of Barmouth in 1844.

At some point during the early years of the 1800's the land that now comprises lower Friog and Fairbourne was acquired by the Duke of Westminster and by December 1864 Robert Jones (son of Rev Thomas Jones) had become the Duke's local Land Agent.

On 10th December 1864 Robert Jones is cited as agent in the sale of 3 acres, 1 rood and 16 perches of the Dukes (Fairbourne) land to the Aberystwyth and Welsh Coast Railway for the express purpose of building an embankment and right of way for the standard gauge railway joining the cliffs at Friog with the estuary shore at the site of the railway junction now known as Morfa Mawddach.

The arrival of the railway also brought a number of speculators and developers to area, keen to establish businesses to take advantage to the hoped for hordes flocking to this part of the Welsh coast. One of those speculators was Soloman Andrews, a Cardiff general builder & coach builder who also made coffins, sold fruit & veg and operated furniture removal vans and an omnibus service around Cardiff. Solomon Andrews & Co were engaged in developing Pwllheli on the Llyn Peninsula into a holiday resort and spotted an opportunity on the banks of the Mawddach, opposite the then flourishing port of Barmouth.

The site Solomon Andrews picked was a promontory, and he erected a sea wall, promenade and block of three story terraced house. He also established a small tramway to both carry building materials to his site and, he hoped, to convey visitors to and around his new "estate". The tramway was laid along the promenade, and swept round the side of the houses, across the salt marshes to the site of the soon to be developed Junction Railway station (now called Morfa Mawddach).

Soloman Andrews development came to the notice of Arthur McDougall, a Victorian entrepreneur who had developed a flour milling business in Liverpool. After visiting the area and also looking on the Barmouth side of the estuary, McDougall was drawn to the lands now owned by the Duke of Westminster for a plan to establish a new seaside resort to rival and outshine Barmouth.

McDougall's Fairbourne

The lands that now comprise Fairbourne were made more attractive to McDougal because in March 1868 a contract was let to establish sea defences along the north and west edges of the Ynys Faig and Penrhyn farm lands.

McDougall wanted to tap into this new prosperity and create a designed estate of summer dwellings and small hotels - the original second homes. He chose to build on the Duke of Westminster's Ynys Faig & Penrhyn farms lands because of its proximity to Barmouth and because with the railway running through the lands, establishing a station for his new village shouldn't be too difficult.

In July 1895 Arthur McDougall purchased the estate of Fairbourne from Hugh Lindsey Antrobus & Hon. Henry Dudley Ryder for the sum of £10,000.00. Antrobus was a Civil Engineer and both he and Ryder were on the board of Coutts & Co (bankers to HM Queen and the Duke of Westminster). Antrobus & Ryder had previously purchased the Fairbourne estates lands for £5000.00.

In August 1896 McDougall secured the services of George Stevens, builder, from St. Helens Lancashire with a view to start constructing his "model" village. George Stevens moved to the area and took up residence at Sea View, a lodging house in Friog.

In October 1896, McDougall purchased land (but not the mineral rights) from Marianne Catherine Cabrera, Countess de Morella, owner of Henddol Farm and Golewern Slate Quarrries, Friog.

Piecemeal construction of Fairbourne continued from 1895 until the then Sir Arthur McDougall sold Fairbourne Estate to Sir Peter Peacock (the draper and department store owner from Warrington) in January 1912. All of the obviously victorian 3-storey blocks were built during the McDougall era, including most of the shops by the level crossing.

McDougall's contractors also built a hand propelled tramway from the brickworks to each of the main contruction sites for the purpose of moving bricks and other construction materials. The tramway was eventually extended more or less along the route of the present railway to terminate in the sand dunes about half a mile from the present terminus. The tramway was also converted to horse-drawn and passenger carrying. The original terminus left a half mile walk of the ferries that carried the visitors to across the Mawddach estuary to Barmouth.

This tramway was later developed into the Fairbourne Railway.

20th Century

During the period after WW1 and before WW2, many building plots were sold in Fairbourne for the creation of holiday home bungalows, particularly along the foreshore either side of the Beach Road junction. Other bungalows were built here and there (no longer sticking to McDougall's plan) as desired by their new owners.

In 1917 the Fairbourne Estate, totalling 370 acres, was auctioned off to Arthur Peacock, son of Sir Peter Peacock. It included all lands except the 3 acres, 1 rood and 16 perches previously let to the Aberystwyth and Welsh Coast Railway, which by that time had become the Cambrian Railway and that in turn had been absorbed by the Great Western Railway.

Although the Fairbourne Estate still exists today most of the properties in Fairbourne are owned by occupiers or others including the Royal Air Force, but it is undoubtedly true that without the Victorian entrepreneurs, Soloman Andrews, Arthur McDougall and Peter Peacock Fairbourne would have grown into something quite different than it is today.