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The Port of Holyhead

Courtesy Capt Wyn Parry,

Ship Operations & Port Manager

Historical development


Prior to 1810


The location of a small Roman fort on the north side of the creek, with one side open for access to the sea, shows its position was appreciated some 1400 years before its natural benefits were much improved by human agency. 


The fort is roughly square, with a tower at each corner, and is reminiscent of other late Roman coastal fortifications in Britain and on the Continent.  Though the side walls of the fort running down to the estuary terminate in round towers, there is evidence that the walls once continued beyond the towers into the estuary[1].


Though Holyhead was undoubtedly used as a port within the Middle Ages, and was considered for use as a mustering point for a punitive expedition to Ireland in 1332[2], Beaumaris was the principal port of Anglesey.  It is intriguing that it was referred to as ‘Haliheved’ as early as 1315, though the majority of references are official documents written from elsewhere, and it is of note that Edward I addressed his letters whilst staying there as from ‘Castrum Cybi’[3].  Though sea charts were not particularly accurate until the 16th century, one of the earliest maps to show Anglesey as an island (circa 1534) gives three place-names viz. Beaumaris, Holyhead and Aberffraw[4].  The convenient location of Anglesey made it a likely target for invasion during wars with Spain and later France, and several rapid surveys of the coast were undertaken to aid defence[5], and in the late 16th century Holyhead was described as ‘The baye of the holihed and the havyn in the myddest of the said bay’[6].  Whereas several other landing places are mentioned, Beaumaris is the only other one to be called a ‘haven’.


The history of Holyhead as a port connected with the carrying of mails from London to Ireland goes back to at least the last quarter of the 16th century, and developed through the succeeding centuries[7].  There appears, however, to have been few improvements made to the harbour.  The mail packet boats moored in the deeper water alongside Salt Island and passengers and mail were carried to and from the shore in wherries.  On the north side of the harbour lay the custom house, and a related quay was constructed by building a wall from the shore to a small island in the estuary.  A lighthouse was built on the east end of Salt Island, as shown on a print of 1815, though no records exist concerning its construction or operation.  Salt Island was so called because of a Salt works constructed on it.  Lewis Morris’s detailed map of 1746 marks the salt house as ‘in ruins’.  Boats were loaded and unloaded on both sides of the estuary, though no improvements were made to aid this. 


The Skerries lighthouse, though constructed in part for passing ships, was also of great use for marking the north-east side of the entrance into the mouth of the Strait between Holy Island and Anglesey. The South Stack lighthouse which conveniently marked the other side of the entrance was constructed in 1809 by Trinity House, with Daniel Alexander the architect.

Rennie and Telford – 1810 to 1840


The harbour at Holyhead at the start of the 19th century was therefore in regular use as a packet station, as a ferry port for passengers to Ireland, as a local port for fish, grain, coal and other items, and as a harbour of refuge during stormy weather. It was typical of its time in being largely unimproved – the only harbours in north Wales to be improved were those used for shipping copper ore (Amlwch), or slate (in particular Penrhyn dock, where initial works were carried out in 1790). The difference between these and the changes to take place at Holyhead are that the latter were undertaken with the full financial backing of the Government, and with the use of the leading engineers of the day. These improvements can only be understood when seen against the political situation of the time. Britain was at war with France, and had also suffered rebellion in Ireland. Though not seen as a long-term political solution to the problems in Ireland, an Act of Union with that country was signed on 1 January 1801, which effectively abolished the Irish Parliament and led to 100 Irish members attending at Westminster. This, at least, meant that invasion of Britain from Ireland by the French could now be effectively monitored and dealt with should occasion arise. It also, however, led to considerable pressure being placed upon the Government to improve the route between Dublin and London for the sake of both comfort and speed, and to allow more effective passage for the military. Particularly influential in this respect was Sir Henry Parnell, MP for Queen’s County, and his work in connection with the Holyhead Road Commission. The Government commissioned John Rennie and Joseph Huddard to survey the route between London and Holyhead in 1801. Their report contained suggestions for improving the road, bridging the Menai Strait and improving the harbours at Holyhead and Howth in Ireland. No immediate work was started, and Telford was appointed to examine the road again in 1810, after which in 1815 he was asked to undertake the necessary improvements, which were to include long lengths of new road through Wales, and particularly across Anglesey. The improvements incorporated such major engineering works as Waterloo Bridge, Nant Ffrancon, Menai Bridge, the new road across Anglesey and the Stanley Embankment across the strait between Anglesey and Holy Island.


In the meantime, Rennie had been commissioned to undertake improvements at the harbour of Holyhead. In 1809 he was asked to draw up plans, and works were begun in 1810. Rennie was an experienced harbour engineer, and though many of his works, such as those on the Thames at London, involved the construction of wet docks, a number involved pier ports, in particular that at Ramsgate, Kent. This had been designed by Smeaton, and was the most substantial pier harbour built in the 18th century[8]. Rennie was appointed as engineer in 1807, and carried out substantial repairs, making particular use of the diving bell to allow careful placement of stones under water. His work at Holyhead was also influenced by his experiences of designing and constructing a breakwater at Plymouth Sound, where the exposed conditions made working particularly difficult.


Rennie’s initial plan at Holyhead involved the construction of a pier off Salt Island (Admiralty pier), with a new road and bridge across to Salt Island. His initial estimate for this work was £66,862, which included the purchase of Salt Island. This was largely constructed by 1817, when it was proposed to extend it by a further 120 ft, to be completed by the end of 1818, though works were still ongoing in 1819. A plan to create a large wet dock within the tidal creek was not taken up. A small harbour and landing place was constructed at Porth Dafarch on the west side of Holy Island to allow packet boats to land when tide and wind did not allow access to Holyhead[9].


In 1819 Rennie stated that plans were in hand to construct a graving dock, but that the work was being held up whilst decisions were being made concerning the location of the custom house. In 1821 he wrote to the Admiralty saying that he had drawn up plans for the dry dock to be situated on the south shore of the creek, and for a second pier which would protect the dock and allow greater anchorage space during poor weather when the harbour was used for refuge.


Rennie died on 4 October, 1821, and Thomas Telford was asked to take over responsibility for the harbour works. Telford’s first report to the Commissioners in 1824[10] states that great progress had been made in the construction of the new graving dock, and a new road had been made along the side of the harbour, linked to his London to Holyhead Road. Parry’s Island was purchased and wharfs built upon it. Over the next few years the work to the graving dock was completed, a small steam engine installed (1828), the surrounding wall constructed, and carpenters’ shops built against the curtain wall[11]. On Salt Island a new custom house and harbourmaster’s office were built to a design by Telford[12]. Stores, workers’ cottages and workshops were built behind the new offices. Gas lights were installed on the road from the two inns at the west side of the creek to the pier on Salt Island. These works led to the statement that ‘this harbour is now brought to as perfect a state as was formerly contemplated, it continues not only to afford protection and accommodation to the steam packets, but in stormy weather frequently protects above a hundred sail of coasting vessels’[13]. However, regular maintenance work continued, as did removal of rock from the bottom of the harbour using the diving bell. In 1834 Thomas Telford died, and John Provis took over the engineering responsibilities at Holyhead. This consisted in the main of regular maintenance of existing features, for example in 1837 store yards for the custom house and the workshops on Salt Island were being fenced in, and a new approach road built. Lime was being burnt for re-pointing the face of the north pier, and repairs had been undertaken to the workman’s cottages. The diving bell was in continuous employment in cutting down rocks within the harbour to enlarge the mooring area[14]. Provis continued to send in reports until 1851 noting minor repairs undertaken each year, but by this time other events had long overtaken the development of the harbour.

Changes 1821-30


In May of 1821 two steamers were employed by the ‘Steam Packet Company’ to sail from Holyhead to Howth.  The mails were still carried in sailing packets, and though the new company offered to contract to take the mails in their steam ships the post office, partly on advice from its captains, continued to use the sailing packets[15].  However, the greater reliability and versatility of the steam boats soon became apparent, and the post office, after a trial run, ordered two of its own, the Lightningand the Meteor, which were put into service in June 1821[16]. 


In August of 1821 King George IV visited Holyhead on his way to Ireland.  He arrived on 7 August, and after being greeted by the townsfolk, he went to stay the night at Plas Newydd with the Marquis of Anglesey, in part to await news of Queen Caroline’s health, as it was thought unwise to proceed to Ireland without awaiting events.  Having heard that she was improving, he returned to sail the following day, but the winds were contrary.  On the ninth he was informed of the death of his estranged Queen, which was marked by the lowering of the masts of the squadron.  The winds remained contrary, so on the thirteenth he decided to take the steam packet across to Ireland, leaving the squadron at Holyhead to follow when they could.  He travelled on the Lightning, commanded by John Skinner[17] , and occupied the journey in eating goose pie and drinking whisky ‘ in which his Majesty took most abundantly, singing many joyous songs, and being in a state, on his arrival, to double in number even the numbers of his gracious subjects assembled on the pier to receive him’[18].  A triumphal arch was erected on the pier.  This was replaced by the present arch on the pier, paid for by local subscription, and designed by Thomas Harrison of Chester, the architect also responsible for the column commemorating the Marquis of Anglesey[19] at Llanfairpwll, Anglesey.


The coming of the railway


Additional speed, despite the introduction of the steam packets, remained a desirable attainment.  The carrying of mails by rail enabled considerably faster times to be made than by coach and horse.  Thus when the London & Birmingham Railway was opened in 1838, and a link was formed with the Liverpool & Manchester Railway via the Grand Junction, it was possible to travel from London to Liverpool and on to Dublin in 22½ hours, a shorter time than it had taken the mail coach to travel from London to Holyhead.  Accordingly the decision was taken to send the mails from Liverpool, and Holyhead became a backwater, responsible only for local mails, thus confirming a trend that had started several years before[20].


The long sea crossing from Liverpool (later Birkenhead) was, however, seen as a limiting factor in being able to shorten journey times, and various ways were examined to continue the land journey to west Wales, thus shortening the sea crossing.  The land journey had to be made by rail, and thus Holyhead suffered the major disadvantage of the Menai Strait, where a second crossing to accompany Telford’s suspension bridge appeared too expensive.  Other ports were therefore considered, in particular Orme’s Bay off the Great Orme, and Porth Dinllaen on the north coast of the Llyn peninsula[21].  This latter was a good natural harbour, but had little else to recommend it, though a rail route through central Wales via Portmadoc was a distinct possibility.  Numerous reports were obtained by the Government from a number of engineers concerning the relative merits of harbour and rail route.  The choice was complicated by the need to provide a larger harbour of refuge at Holyhead, as this became too crowded from ships seeking asylum.  Though the two aspects were not inseparable, the ideas and plans of James Meadows Rendel linked the two by suggesting an improved packet pier reached by a rail link, situated within a large harbour protected by a new breakwater.  These ideas were made possible by the proposals of the Chester and Holyhead Railway (CHR) to construct a railway along the north Wales coast, bridge the Menai Strait, and so to Holyhead across southern Anglesey.


The earlier situation of road and harbour improvements being undertaken simultaneously was now mirrored by improvements to the harbour (to designs by Rendel), whilst awaiting the arrival of the fast approaching railway, masterminded by George and Robert Stephenson.  Rendel had already been asked to comment upon the conflicting reports put forward by those contending for Holyhead and Porth Dinllaen and his report, made in 27 May, 1845, came down firmly in favour of Holyhead.  Thus when the Llanfair to Holyhead section of the railway opened on 1 August 1848, complimenting the already completed Chester to Bangor section, the Admiralty Packets were sent on the first train to Holyhead, shortly followed by the Government steamers from Birkenhead, to take up their new stations on the Holyhead to Dublin route[22].  On 1 August 1848 the Admiralty packets were once again sent from Holyhead, being placed on the train in London at 8:45pm, and reaching Holyhead at 6:45am.  Four new packets were built for this service by the Government, though the CHR had been hoping to receive a contract for carrying the mails, and had ordered new steamers ready for a service from Holyhead to Dublin.  Thus began a dual service of passengers by CHR (later LNWR) on the one hand and mails and passenger on the other that was to last until the early 20thcentury, and considerably affect the layout of the port.   


Rendel’s ideas for Holyhead were quickly accepted by the Admiralty.  The inner harbour was to be further deepened, and timber piers built onto Rennie’s Admiralty Pier to allow greater room for boats mooring alongside.  These were soon to be replaced by a timber L shaped pier, which was in turn replaced by a long timber extension to the Admiralty pier. 

The Harbour of Refuge


The new harbour was to be created by a long north breakwater leaving the shore at Soldiers Point, west of Salt Island, and an east breakwater off the north end of Salt Island. A new pier for the railway and steam packets was to be built, and the railway was to run in a tunnel under Holyhead to emerge by the new pier.


The first year of work involved laying down a seven foot gauge tramway from the proposed quarries to the south-west to the start of the north breakwater, and along the shore to Salt Island to service the east breakwater. Small branch lines were constructed for the proposed railway pier and to a creosote works and sawmill. Work commenced on the north and east breakwater, however the latter was stopped because of dangerous working conditions, with the intention of continuing it when the north breakwater was long enough to offer protection. It was never restarted, and the railway pier was also never built when the CHR decided to pull out of the arrangement.


The north breakwater, however, was continued, and in view of the large number of vessels requiring refuge within it, was extended on two occasions. The initial design was an ‘L’ shape with the shorter length attached to the land before turning east, with a total distance of 5360ft. A decision to lengthen the structure by some 2000ft led Rendel to turn it back to the north, thus creating a ‘z’ shape, and a total length of 7860 ft thus making it the largest breakwater in Britain. The work was started in 1846, and finally completed in 1873. Rendel was the Engineer in charge until he died on 21 November 1856, when his role was taken over by John Hawkshaw. The resident engineer was George Dobson, brother-in-law of Rendel, and the contractor was J&C Rigby.[23]


Other developments relevant to the port and harbour at this time were the construction of a lifeboat house under the auspices of the Anglesey Association for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, started by James and Frances Williams in 1828, after they witnessed the sinking of a packet boat the ‘Alert’ off the West Mouse whilst on its way from Howth to Parkgate[24]. The first lifeboat in Holyhead was established in 1828, but in 1836 it was reported that a new house for the lifeboat was nearly finished[25], though the location of it is not known. In 1857 a new lifeboat house was built at the newly formed Newry Beach, part of the shoreline within the new harbour, in preparation for a new lifeboat. It was in the previous year that the Anglesey Association became a member of the RNLI.The inner harbour 1846-1880

The inner harbour 1846-1880


The development of the inner harbour during this period was dictated by the arrival of the railway and the development of the port by the CHR and later the LNWR, and the continued use of the port for carrying mail packets, first directly by the Government, and then under contract by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company (CDSPC).  The latter were already carrying mails from Liverpool, and were dependant for their survival upon attaining the Holyhead contract.  The CHR were also largely dependant upon the mail contract, and though they were quickly given the rail contract to Holyhead, the Government, after deciding to privatise the service and after considerable wrangling and political pressure, let the packet service to CDSPC in 1850.[26]  This resulted in larger vessels being employed, with yet four larger ones ordered ten years later in 1860.  Initially the CHR (from 1859 the LNWR) developed the harbour with the CDSPC, and laid a tramway from the Holyhead terminus outside the town along the edge of the estuary and on to Salt Island.  Initially horsedrawn, the line was later improved to allow specialised vertical boiler engines along it.  As noted above, it was expected that a new pier was to be erected within the inner harbour, and as a temporary measure to allow paddle steamers alongside the Admiralty pier, timber jetties were built off it.  John Hawkshaw, following Rendel’s death, produced yet different plans for a packet harbour to the north of Salt Island, to be protected by two stone piers.  As a temporary measure a timber extension was built onto the end of Admiralty Pier, and the timber jetties were replaced by a single ‘L’ shaped jetty, both clearly marked as ‘new jetty’ and ‘temporary pier’ on Calver’s chart of 1857.  This temporary measure remained until 1863, when it was further improved and strengthened, a good direct rail link connected, and platforms erected on new timber staging.  The new piers proposed by Hawkshaw were dropped.


In the meantime the extension had become known as the ‘Great Eastern Jetty’, presumably because this was where the Great Eastern, when it visited in 1859, discharged its passengers.  The intention had been to set up a regular trans-Atlantic route, but in fact the Great Eastern was never to return as a passenger ship, though in its capacity as a cable laying ship it was responsible for laying the first trans-Atlantic cable, which had an impact upon the LNWR passages to Greenore.  Whilst at Holyhead the Great Eastern suffered one of the strongest gales recorded, which was responsible for the sinking of the Royal Charter off Moelfre. 


The LNWR, concerned by the non-appearance of new jetties, and the occupation of the Admiralty pier by the CDSPC packet steamers, were still attempting to run their own ferry services (both freight and passenger) to Dublin and, by 1873, to Greenore, both to service north-east Ireland and to improve its service to America.  In order to remain competitive, new and larger ships were ordered, and decisions were taken to improve the inner harbour.  Initially the improvements were concentrated upon the north side of the harbour, where a new quay and large new shed was built.  Land was also purchased on the south side of the harbour, a new harbour wall erected, and the coast filled-in behind.  Upon this were built a second large shed and storage facilities, whilst at the east end was built a new and larger graving dock.  Two steam engines were installed to operate dock hydraulics and empty the dock.  A large hotel was built around the west end of the harbour, with new station alongside.  This was all opened in 1880 by the Prince of Wales. 


Repairs to the LNWR steamers were required continuously, and boilers necessitated regular renewal.  The CDSPC had the use of the former Government dockyards on Salt Island, and so the LNWR established its own workshops on the north side of the harbour on the site of the old custom house and alongside Pelham Quay.  These initially (1857) consisted of two buildings, a smithy and a workshop, the former containing six forges, the latter a mixture of lathes, drilling machines, borers, timber steamer, and circular saw driven by a 16 hp engine[27].  This was quickly developed into a larger establishment capable of supplying full maintenance needs for LNWR, and remained in use into the second half of the 20th century. 

Developments after 1880


The period from 1880 to 1914 saw few major developments within the port.  Transporting cattle formed a significant part of the trade – the cattle pens were south of the harbour and alongside the railway, with a special path designed to take them alongside and then over the railway to the harbour, where there were two paths, the choice of which to use being dependant upon the state of the tide.  The final remains of the cattle lairage were removed in 1999 during the construction of the A55 dual carriageway.  A number of railway sheds were also removed at that time.


The improvements to the harbour in the 1870’s were accompanied by an updating of ships so that by 1880 the LNWR had four relatively new Express steamers running to Kingston, Dublin, and three slightly older ships on the Greenore route with a fleet of at least seven older ships again for use as required, but mainly for use on the North Wall, Dublin route[28].  A change from paddle to screw propulsion was introduced by CDSPC following their renewal of the mail contract in 1895, when they ordered four new ships from Laird Brothers, all with considerably larger engines than had previously been used, which allowed the journey time between Holyhead and Dublin to be cut to under 2½ hours[29].  The LNWR followed this trend, initially on the cattle ships, though the passenger ships soon followed and the last of the LNWR paddle steamers, the Banshee, was sold in 1906.  A few years later the turbine engine was introduced to Holyhead in the new ships the Greenore and the Curraghmore.  


The 1914-18 war saw the four good railway steamers requisitioned and converted into armed boarding steamers, though a passenger service was maintained with the remainder of the fleet.  A Naval Base was established at Bryn y Mor, on the south side of the harbour, as part of the force designed to counter the submarine menace present in the Irish Sea. 


Following the war, the mail contract finally passed from the CDSPC to the railway company.  The CDSPC left Holyhead, and the maintenance workshops on Salt Island and the timber pier both fell into disuse, the latter to be removed in 1935, when many of the workshops were also dismantled[30].  The general economic slump of the inter-war years allowed little major investment at Holyhead, and the port suffered a slow decline.  The Second World War saw the re-establishment of a naval base at Bryn y Mor, with related buildings on Parry’s Island, and the establishment of a Dutch naval base in the ship Peter Stuyvesant. 

In 1948 the railways were taken into public ownership, and came under the British Railways, London Midland Region of the British Transport Commission, who also took over the fleet of ferries and port operation.  Operation of the port passed to Shipping & International Services Division in 1969. 


The principal themes to have dominated the development of the port in the post-war era have been changes in the mode of travel with the rise of the motor car and decline of rail use, resulting in the closure of the Station Hotel in 1955, followed by the rise of containerisation and introduction of roll-on roll-off (ro-ro) ferries for cars.  The first of the latter was situated off Salt Island, an area which had been little used by the port since the closure of the CDSPC, and opened in 1965.  Others soon followed, with new berths opening in the inner harbour and in the outer harbour on the north side of Salt Island.  The container terminal, officially opened in 1970, was concentrated on the south side of the harbour, which caused the removal of the goods shed, and the installation of large cranes, supplemented by one for Wylfa Nuclear Power Station at the town quay.  The establishment of an aluminium smelter at Holyhead by Rio Tinto Zinc in the late 1960’s saw the construction of a new pier off Salt Island linked to the plant by an underground conveyor belt for importing the ore, and an increase in port facilities to handle the finished product. 


The decline of containerisation and increase in road haulage saw the demise of the container port and the increase in size of ro-ro ferries.


[1] RCAHMW 1937 Inventory of Ancient Monuments of Anglesey, 31-4. There was also a small watch tower on top of Holyhead Mountain with evidence for late 4th century occupation (Crew P 1981 Archaeology in Wales, 35).


[2] Usher G 1953 ‘Holyhead as a fourteenth century port’ BBCS XV Part 3, 209-12


[3] Usher op cit, 210; Jones G T and Roberts T 1996 The Placenames of Anglesey, 122-3.


[4] North F J 1935 ‘The map of Wales’ Arch Camb XC Part 1, 39


[5] E G Jones ‘Anglesey and Invasion 1539-1603’ TAAS 1947, also Aled Eames 1973 Ships and Seamen of Anglesey for more information.


[6] E A Lewis 1927 Welsh Port Books, 305-6.


[7] See E Watson 1917 The Royal Mail to Ireland for details.


[8] G Jackson 1983 The History and Archaeology of Ports, 66.


[9] BPP 1822 VI.353


[10] BPP 1824 IX.293


[11] BPP 1828 IX.227


[12] BPP 1825 XV.63


[13] BPP 1826 XI.47 


[14] BPP 1837 XXXIII.195


[15] Watson 1917, 107-8


[16] Watson 1917, 116


[17] For biographical details of Skinner see D L Hughes and D Williams Holyhead: the story of a port 1981, 75-7, also J R Owen ‘The letters of James Sparrow Surveyor of Customs at Holyhead to Sir Richard Bulkeley Williams Bart , MP, February – March 1832’ Maritime Wales 22, 2001, 14-31


[18] Hibbert 1973, 207-9.  See also a first-hand account of the visit by Louisa Stanley, who was 22 at the time, and watched from the new lighthouse on the pier (J H Adeane (ed) The early married life of Maria Josepha Stanley, 1900, 420-4)


[19] See entry in H Colvin, 1995 A Biographical dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840, 466-70.  There also exists in the UWB archives a series of eight designs for the arch, signed by John Rennie, and dated London, February 28 1822 (UWB Misc 4/109).  These must have been carried out at the request of the committee, and were presumably by John Rennie Junior, though his father may originally have been asked whilst he was still alive. 


[20] See Watson 1917, 129-148 for a full description of this period of history


[21] See M Ellis-Williams 1984, Packet to Ireland concerning Porth Dinllaen


[22] See P E Baughan 1972 The Chester and Holyhead Railway: Vol 1 The main line up to 1880 for a history of the Chester and Holyhead Railway.


[23] See H Hayter 1875-6 ‘Holyhead New Harbour’ Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institute of Civil Engineers, 95-130 for a description of the breakwater.  The history and some of the effects of the population increase caused by the scheme are discussed in Holyhead: Story of a Port, and E A Williams The Day Before Yesterday, trans. G Wynne Griffiths, 1988. Aspects of Rendel’s life are discussed in M R Lane 1989 The Rendel Connection: A Dynasty of Engineers. 


[24] Eames, A., 1957 ‘Frances Williams and the Anglesey Association for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, 1828-1857’ TAAS, 20-25.


[25] BPP XXXVI.403


[26] See Watson 1917, 165-181; Baughan 1972, 143-180


[27] A full inventory is given in W/Maps/28 at the County Record Office, Llangefni.


[28] Pearsall and Davies The Holyhead Steamers of the LNWR


[29] Watson 1917, 224-6


[30] Hughes and Williams 1981, 159; LM&SR plan of 1935, W/Maps/43, County Record Office, Llangefni.

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