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The opening of Holyhead's new harbour

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 08:00 UK time, Monday, 20 June 2011

On 17 June 1880, the tiny north Wales town and port of Holyhead was suddenly filled, almost overwhelmed, by thousands of visitors and dignitaries. They had come to watch and applaud as the Prince of Wales formally opened the port's new harbour and hotel.

The occasion was a dramatic and important one. This new harbour spelled prosperity for the town and everyone knew that the future beckoned brightly.

Many people in the crowd were only too well aware that Holyhead had a long history as a port.

Sitting on the north-western tip of Anglesey, on the adjacent and tiny Holy Island, the invading Romans saw its advantages as early as the first century AD and quickly built a fort to protect the anchorage.

Soon a stone bridge connected Holy Island to the larger Anglesey (now replaced by a solid causeway) and the place became well-used as a port during the Middle Ages.

This was the ideal departure point for anyone intending to cross the Irish Sea or to sail south along the coast of Wales. In fact Holyhead was significant enough to be used, in 1332, as a major mustering point for a military expedition to Ireland.

Yet despite these clear advantages, for a long while Beaumaris was still regarded as the premier port on the island - sitting at the south east corner it was, at least, better protected from the elements - and it was not until the growth of the mail service between London and Ireland in the early 19th century that Holyhead really began to assume a dominant position.

Thomas Telford, who was building the connecting road to London, and John Rennie were heavily involved in creating the harbour at Holyhead. Rennie built what was known as Admiralty Pier at the north end of the harbour, the work being taken over by Telford after Rennie's death in 1821, and soon this was being heavily used for both goods and passengers.

To begin with the larger mail packets simply moored in the deep water channel and passengers - and their baggage - were transported ashore in small rowing boats or wherries. Such an arrangement, however, was clearly at the mercy of the tides and elements and in 1845 an Act of Parliament gave permission to build a new pier at Holyhead.

Brunel's Great Eastern docked at Holyhead in 1859 and for a while there were dreams of a regular transatlantic route. It came to nothing and the Great Eastern, far too large and unwieldy for use as a passenger ship, was relegated to laying the transatlantic telegraph cable across the ocean. She never returned to Holyhead.

In the 1870s the LNWR became alarmed at the plans of other companies to develop the Irish ferry terminal - and, eventually, to create a transatlantic route. They therefore decided to improve the inner harbour at Holyhead. New quays and sheds were built as well as a new harbour wall, the land behind it being filled in with rubble.

Previously, passengers disembarking at the old station, at the southern end of the town, had to be transported through the streets to the quayside by horse bus or cart in order to catch their boat. It was the same, of course, for people coming off the ferries - after what was often a rough and uncomfortable crossing. But now a new station was built, the platforms being divided by the angle of the harbour. This meant that passengers could, almost literally, climb out of their train and step onto the gangplank up to the ferry boat.

Part of the new complex was an elegant and comfortable station hotel - complete with memorial clock - so that travellers who had the time could either stay overnight or take tea while waiting for their boat.

When Edward, Prince of Wales, agreed to open the new complex it seemed as if the port of Holyhead was being given royal approval. The future was assured.

Of course it did not quite work out that way. Holyhead operated boats to the Irish port of Dun Laoghaire, close to Dublin. But when a rival ferry port was created at Fishguard in Pembrokeshire - running ferries to Rosslare - it meant that the Irish trade was split between the two ports and neither one of them ever achieved quite the degree of prosperity they had expected.

These days Holyhead continues to operate its ferries across the Irish Sea. A container harbour was opened in 1970 but this was a short-lived enterprise. The old station hotel closed in 1955 and, with the advent of ro-ro ferries, now most people barely notice the port as they speed through Holyhead on their way to their destination.

Yet for those who have imagination, it is easy to think back to 17th June 1880. That glorious day will live forever in the town's history.


  • Comment number 1.

    I've travelled across the Irish Sea many times and I have often thought how run down the Welsh ferry ports seem. Pembroke Dock, Fishguard, Holyhead, they're all the same. Not the sort of place you want to be left alone late at night. They are so different from the terminals catering for the French trafic. Those places always seem so alive, so vibrant. I wonder why the difference?


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