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A black-and-white photograph showing Harlech Castle atop a hill in the foreground, with fields and hills stretching off to the horizon.

1930s life in rugged Merionethshire

An area marked by mountains and deep valleys, 1930s Merionethshire was sparsely populated and fiercely proud to be Welsh

Discover 1930s Merionethshire in the 1939 Register

Although the county was abolished and absorbed by Gwynedd in the late 20th century, Merionethshire has always been known for its rugged landscape, lofty mountains, broad estuaries and deep wooded valleys of rushing streams and lakes. The area is the most mountainous in Wales, with a large portion of the Snowdonia National Park falling within its boundaries. A former maritime county, Merionethshire is bordered to the north by Caernarfonshire, to the east by Denbighshire, to the south by Montgomeryshire and Cardiganshire, and to the west by Cardigan Bay.

Merionethshire has always been known for its rugged landscape, lofty mountains, broad estuaries and deep wooded valleys of rushing streams and lakes.

Dating back to the Roman period, the slate industry dominated the economy of north-west Wales during the second half of the 19th century, and it was no different in Merionethshire. Slate was originally extracted on a small scale by groups of quarrymen who paid a royalty to the landlord, carted slate to the ports, and then shipped it to England, Ireland and on occasion to France. Landowners soon began to operate the quarries themselves on a larger scale, and rapid expansion was propelled by the building of narrow gauge railways to transport the slates to the ports.

World War I saw a great reduction in the number of men employed in the industry, while the Great Depression and World War II led to the closure of many smaller quarries. Competition from other roofing materials drove the final nail into the coffin for most of the larger quarries in the following decades.

A sepia-toned postcard showing a small village street with some hills visible in the distance.
The Village, Llanegryn, Tywyn, near Bryncrug, Merionethshire, Wales. Image: Mary Evans Image Library

Life expectancy in Merionethshire in 1939 was just 61.37 for men and 65.6 for women—well below the national average, and most likely attributable to the prevalence of work in quarries and mines. Today the most common occupations in the area are agriculture, forestry and tourism, but if you were a working citizen of Merionethshire in 1939, you’d most likely be employed in:

  • Agriculture
  • Personal services
  • Mining
  • Building

Living in Merionethshire in 1939 meant living in one of the most sparsely populated and heavily Welsh-speaking regions in Wales—the county spanned a total area of 1,731 square kilometres, and in 1939 the population stood at just 43,201.

In fact, according to the 1901 census, a full 50 percent of people spoke only Welsh

The Welsh language was extremely prevalent across Merionethshire, and even though some English customs and manners may have penetrated the way of life, it was Welsh that was most commonly spoken—not only informally, but in business and in the churches and chapels too. In fact, according to the 1901 census, a full 50 percent of people spoke only Welsh, with around 43 percent being bilingual, thus a mere seven percent spoke only English.

Main image: Harlech Castle, the last Royalist castle to hold out for Charles I during the English Civil War. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

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