Pant Glas: a Meirionnydd commune in 1840

December 2, 2022 2 Comments
A John Moncas watch (British Museum)

Barmouth was not the only place in Meirionnydd to host utopian settlements in the nineteenth century.  Fanny Talbot’s Ruskinian village there was preceded by a quixotic attempt to set up a socialist commune in a very different part of the region, Abergeirw.

In Liverpool in 1839 a splinter group began to break away from Robert Owen’s cooperative movement.  Early in 1840 a meeting at the house of one William Westwick agreed to set up a ‘Community of United Friends’.  Its objects were to provide its members with ‘constant and suitable employment’, food, clothing and lodgings, and education for their children.  There was to be a President, Treasurer and Secretary, and eight Directors.  Membership fees were £12 for each man, £8 for each woman and £5 for each aged parent, and there was a subscription of 6d a week.

The first Secretary, and then, after two months, President was John Moncas (1788-1853), who had been a maker of high-quality pocket watches in the city until he was declared bankrupt.  In his words, the new movement was:

… to exhibit a practical example to the industrious, moral and intellectual working classes of this country, of the ease with which they may improve their condition, by establishing their communities, founded on the principle of equality of rights and properties, in opposition to the system of individualised interests of competitive society …

Pant Glas (phoro: Keith O’Brien)

One of the Community’s first decisions was to rent Pant Glas, a hillside farm just to the west of Abergeirw, a tiny, remote hamlet on the river Mawddach, over six miles south-east of Trawsfynydd.  The rent was to be £140 a year, with the option to buy the farm for £4,000 at the end of two years.  According to the owner, the farm came with a thousand acres.  But 300 acres of that was actually common land, some was woodland, and very little was fertile enough to grow any crops.  Yet it was here that Moncas planned to settle a community of up to two hundred people. 

How Pant Glas came to the attention of Moncas and his friends, and why they thought they could make any kind of living there, are a mystery.  Clearly no one had visited the site beforehand: the claims of the owner must have been believed, sight unseen.  In the pages of the New Moral World, a cooperative newspaper, it was described, bizarrely, as ‘exceedingly fertile, beautifully situated, and got upon very favourable terms’.

Capel Abergeirw)

The community finally came together in early spring 1840.  Nowhere more remote from the detested urban world of competition and exploitation could be imagined. In April 1840 Moncas wrote a measured report in the Working Bee, the newspaper of another commune, Manea Fen in Cambridgeshire:

… a good many agriculturalists have joined us, as well as carpenters, spinners and others, but we are sadly in want of a good agricultural smith, a stone mason, shoe-maker, and tailor …  With respect to accommodation, however, I must add that those who may feel desirous to join us must be very moderate in their expectations.

But very soon the illusions of the new arrivals were shattered.  They could see for themselves how impossible it would be to make a living from what was mainly mountainside.  The main landowner, Sir Robert Vaughan, was hostile, and chased the settlers’ cattle off Mynydd Bach, the common land to the north.  No doubt there were other problems.  Presumably not one of them spoke Welsh, the language of the few neighbours in the area.  Possibly too the arrival of these English settlers was resented by the locals.  Within six months those who had paid shares were eager to sell them for half of what they paid.  The settlers began to leave, disappointed and aggrieved. 

Abergeirw bridge (phoro: Keith O’Brien)

In August, a sceptical Community member, Joseph Gregory, reported that only twenty acres were under tillage, and another twenty acres under grass; the fields were covered in stones, and the ground so steep that horses could not draw the plough uphill.  He begged the others not to believe Moncas’s assurances.  Though there was some sort of harvest, of corn, oats and carrots, Gregory made a second report in September, to say that not a single field could be dug, that miles of fencing were needed, and that the roads were impassable in bad weather; in sixteen years the farm had had eight tenants, and not one of them could make a living from it.  In short, Pant Glas was ‘a grazing farm in the clouds’.

Moncas hung on, perhaps with his wife Catharine and daughter Anne, though most of the others had left.  When he finally abandoned the farm isn’t clear, but presumably he didn’t survive there through the winter.  By the time of the population census in June 1841 he and his family were back in Liverpool, and Pant Glas back in the hands of a local farmer.  By 1845 Moncas had moved to London, where became a bookseller, and he died there in 1853.

Road north of Pan Glas)

From the start Robert Owen himself was far from supportive of the Community and the Pant Glas settlement. In his eyes, every schism from his movement weakened it.  The cooperative newspapers took their lead from him and were similarly dismissive.  One noted that ‘the formation of their society has caused division and disunion amongst us’, and another said

This is to be sure a very delicate phrase to be applied to such a rough affair, and we know that many hasty individuals, in various parts of the country, who have been seduced into support by the spurious and deceptive reports formerly published, are expressing themselves in anything but such courtly language respecting the matter.

There was no further attempt to build a cooperative community in north Wales in later years – Pant Glas was hardly an encouraging precedent – though in 1847 the Leeds Redemption Society set up a second agricultural settlement at Garn Llwyd, near Porthyrhyd, at the head of the Gwendraeth Fach valley.  Initially successful in supplying the Society’s cooperative store in Yorkshire with produce, the farm later got into financial trouble and collapsed in 1853 or 1854.

Neither Pant Glas nor Garn Llwyd ever became part of their local Welsh communities.  Significantly, most of what we know about them comes from the cooperative press, none from Welsh sources.  In a sense, for all their high-minded ideals, their leaders were ‘colonists’.  This lack of rootedness, as well as more practical failings, may have been crucial in their failure.

W.H.G. Armytage, ‘Pant Glas: a communitarian experiment in Merionethshire’, Journal of the Merioneth Historical and Record Society, vol. 2, 1953-56, p. 232-4.

Comments (2)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Richard Saville says:

    Fascinating. Very pleasing article, though also sad.

Leave a Reply