[Please note that this is an ongoing summary work. I expect that various local enthusiasts / historians may have corrections or additions – if so, please feel free to use the contact form to get in touch, thanks.]
So what of Foel Friog’s history and how does that fit in with the other local history?
I think it’s fair to assume that the region has been used for extensive livestock production ever since the ancient Britonic peoples turned to agriculture in the pre-historic era. During the dark-ages there were certainly settlements & local people of power, but I cannot meaningfully start the story until much more recently.
Looking at the ruins of the old farm of Foel Friog, it appears to me that the homestead is of an old design, perhaps from the middle ages. We know that Owen Glyndwr made his Welsh Parliament at Machynlleth in 1404, so this would have been a busy & vibrant area. At that time the land of Wales was owned by large estates & princedoms with farmers as tenants on their particular plot of land. This form of land ownership & stewardship has continued until recent times – only gradually have the estates broken up and land ownership passed into the hands of farmers themselves.
Currently I can only presume that at some time during the middle ages, a tenant farmer established the original farm, up on the west facing ridge of Ffridd Maes-mawr above the village of Aberllefenni.
Herbert J Hughes’ wonderful 1834 map of the Machynlleth area, clearly shows the position of Foel Friog; though it is labeled as Moel friog. The map interestingly also shows the route of what I believe may have been a droving route leading east past the farm and down in to the Dyfi valley. This temporarily became a footpath and was then partially lost in the forestry.
By 1841 the National Census shows the Vaughan family farming at Foel Friog. This record is to be found under Llanwrin region, section 3b. (Note that because the farm buildings are located on the eastern side of the river, official records are tabulated in Montgomeryshire). The Vaughan family consisted of Husband, Wife and 2 young children. There is a 2nd entry for Foel Friog that records the Roberts family (labourer) as living there too. I suspect that the property, which included two adjoining sections House & Byre, had been split in two by the landlord. This is the time of rapid expansion at the slate mine and housing for mine labourers would have been in short supply.
Records from 1851 show that the Vaughan family then left Foel Friog. I do not know why but would love to find out. Were they evicted? Did illness strike? Or did they simply choose to leave, perhaps unhappy at having to share their farmhouse? Either way the Vaughan family were gone and more members of the Roberts family arrive at the farm. They do not however take on farming the land; the adult males (aged 62, 46, 15) all work in the slate quarry, whilst the younger wife provides a local washing service and her 13 year old daughter is a home help. Who farmed the land? Perhaps it was temporarily given to a neighbouring tenant to farm.
Image – Ruins of Gallt-y-rhiw (2011)
At about this time a young 28 year old farmer by the name of Thomas Jones & his Wife Elinor, move into the neighbouring farm holding called Gallt-y-rhiw. This property is located further south along the ridge, above Corris. He is from Tal-y-llyn and his wife from Pennal. They will become important in the story of Foel Friog and I wonder whether it is this family that now take on farming the land of Foel Friog. I imagine that the young family were from a farming background and that their parents helped to set them up with a local tenancy – I don’t currently have any evidence for this though.
By 1871 we find Foel Friog reunited as one farm, no longer split in to two dwellings. Thomas Jones and his now growing family have moved in to Foel Friog and are farming the land, which is recorded to amount to some 750 acres. The farm must have been providing an adequate income because as well as Thomas an his wife, 2 sons and 2 daughters are working on the farm, whilst the youngest son (14) is furthering his education.
Of note is the fact that Gallt-yr-rhiw is now being used to house miners. I suspect that the lands of the two holdings have been unified and that Foel Friog provided the better accommodation from a farming perspective and is therefore lived in by the Jones family.
Through the 1880’s and into the 1890’s we see Hugh Jones take over the farm from his father. With the reduction in family numbers a farm labourer & a domestic servant are employed to help with the running of the farm. In the 1901 survey the farm hand is described as a Horse Waggoner.
Image – The new stock & hay building
With the peaking of the workforce in the mines, there were many more mouths to feed in the valley. Allotments and gardens were laid out along the valley floor, west of the river. At Foel Friog a substantial slate building with three sections was constructed on the lower lands, closer to the river & village. This barn contained a cowshed in which about 8 cows could be housed. Their milk and associated dairy products were distributed amongst the villagers. On the western side of the barn were stalls for horses probably both plough / wagon and lighter horses for transport. The stalls had a cobbled slate floor and fine slate troughs for feed and water, with a timber manger above, for hay. The final section of the barn was for storage with a hay loft above horse stalls.
It must have soon become clear that it would be beneficial for all, if the farmhouse was relocated to the lower lands, near the horses & cattle; because soon after the turn of the century, work was started on building a farmhouse close to the stock barn. This would become today’s farmhouse at Foel Friog. The house was built on a rocky outcrop using the local slate for floors and walls. The roof was constructed with local timbers and covered with welsh slates. Opposite the back of the house, a well was dug with steps down to the water and a small dairy building constructed of slate, was placed over the well.
Image – Ruins of old Foel Friog (2002)
The Jones family moved in to the new house at Foel Friog early in the new century, they were to continue farming at Foel Friog for several decades and through two World Wars. The old farmhouse was immediately split again and used to house quarrymen and their family. It was renamed to Penbryn or Pen y Bryn, depending upon your source. The new name, rather descriptive of its position, saved confusion especially for government officials and the postal service. In the 1911 census, two quarryman’s families are shown living in Penbryn, one family of eight, the other of six.
Around & after World War II the Forestry Commission aquired large amounts of farmland in the area so that the forestry activities could be greatly expanded. They were backed by the governmental power of compulsory purchase, so there would have been little or no choice for the farmers, whether they were tenants or owner occupiers. Foel Friog was sold to the Forestry Commission (on a date I’m currently in the process of confirming). The Jones family moved out but still live locally. I’d like to thank them for the interesting anecdotes that they have passed on to me.
The land on the slopes of Moel Heulen was all planted to conifers, this had been valuable hay meadows & grazing land. Lands on the other side of the valley, Godre Fynydd, were also planted. However the rocky mountain land of Foel Grochan / Mynydd Cambergi were in some parts spared due to unsuitability for forestry. Thankfully the good valley land was not planted to timber. Initially the remaining agricultural land was rented out and the house stood empty. Eventually a new farmer was found to buy and farm Foel Friog. He and his family worked hard to return the farm to functionality and I am thankful to them for selling us the farm when we came here in the 1990’s.
Having sold the remaining outlying land to a good local farmer, we now manage the core of Foel Friog with a strong view towards conservation and habitat enrichment. If I ever won the lottery it would be wonderful to purchase back some of the old lands up by Penbryn from the forestry and slowly restore them to some of their former glory. That’s unlikely to happen though, since I don’t play the lottery! On a more serious note, the Forestry Commission have recently felled the conifers above Penbryn to make a conservation area for Dormice, so the future is looking good for that area.
If you didn’t read about the local history first, why not read that to see how it ties in with the farm’s history.