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Holyhead Harbour
Holyhead, Isle of Anglesey, Wales, UK
Holyhead Harbour
associated engineer
John Rennie snr
Thomas Telford
James Meadows Rendel
Sir John Hawkshaw
William Baker
date  1810 - 1824 and onwards
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Harbour  |  reference  SH250828
ICE reference number  HEW 1095
photo  © Ian Capper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Holyhead Harbour has been transformed over two centuries from a tidal inlet into a modern port. A succession of famous engineers designed the various structures, which are in full use today. Holyhead remains one of the UK's busiest ferry ports and its outer harbour's North Breakwater is still the longest in Britain. The statutory harbour authority is Stena Line Ports Ltd.
Holyhead developed into a large town following the construction of Thomas Telford's (1757-1834) Menai Suspension Bridge (1826) and Holyhead to London road. It also became the principal port for trade with Ireland, as it's the closest point in Britain to Dublin. The earliest part of the port is the Old Harbour. It is bounded by Admiralty Pier (constructed 1810-24) to the north, designed by the elder John Rennie (1761-1821), and South Pier (built 1823-31), designed by Telford.
The Old Harbour includes Telford's graving dock (SH254826), located inside the harbour entrance to the west of the foot of the South Pier. It was completed in 1825, measures 93.6m long and 18.3m wide at its entrance, and was designed to drain dry at low water spring tides. By 1829, steam pumping had been installed to enable emptying during neap tides using a Boulton & Watt steam engine driving two bucket pumps. Associated with this dock is a smaller wet dock some 20m long.
Original drawings suggest that the graving dock was constructed with hinged gates, though a caisson later replaced them. In 1939, a new caisson was fitted for wartime purposes. The dock became derelict and has now been infilled, though the tops of its masonry walls are visible at the entrance. The wet dock has also been infilled.
The Old Harbour soon became congested and a larger area of calm water was required in which to construct safe anchorages for the increasing number of vessels. Admiralty Pier was heavily used, exposed to bad weather and required frequent dredging alongside it. In 1847, the New Harbour was authorised by Act of Parliament.
James Meadows Rendel (1799-1856) designed the new outer harbour works. These consisted of a North Breakwater from Soldier’s Point (SH236836), an East Breakwater from the north of Salt Island (SH253833) and a shorter steam packet pier on the west of Salt Island. The breakwaters enclose a deep water sheltered roadstead of 161.9 hectares, in addition to 111.7 hectares of harbour.
The breakwaters were constructed using stone from Holyhead Mountain (SH218829) brought to site by rail. Work began in January 1848. In 1854, the 610m East Breakwater was completed and the zigzag shaped North Breakwater had reached 1.63km in length.
On Rendel’s death in 1856, harbour construction work was taken over by John Hawkshaw (1811-91, knighted 1873), assisted by Harrison Hayter (1825-98) who had been involved in the project for some years. By 1857, increasing demand for port facilities prompted further work on the North Breakwater and it was lengthened to its present 2.4km by 19th August 1873.
The Chester & Holyhead Railway opened to Holyhead on 1st August 1848, and by 1856 it had established a rail terminal on Admiralty Pier. Steam ships made the crossing to Ireland in about four hours.
On 17th October 1859, the SS Great Eastern steamed into Holyhead, one month after the death of her designer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859). Holyhead was intended to be her home port for transatlantic crossings. Unfortunately the breakwater was damaged in a storm a few days after her arrival. Moreover, at 211m long and up to 36.5m wide, she was a little too large for the Old Harbour, and embarked on her maiden voyage from Southampton instead (17-28th June 1860).
Between 1860 and 1880, the inner harbour was developed by the London & North Western Railway Company for transhipment of goods and passengers between land and sea. From 1875, works in the Old Harbour were supervised by William Baker (1819-78). They included a larger graving dock on the east side of the harbour, 125m long, 20.9m wide and 6.1m deep at high water spring tides.
Two new quays were also constructed along the V-shaped harbour inlet (the original creek) to accommodate the passenger station. On 17th June 1880, a new five storey station hotel was opened by Edward, Prince of Wales. The works provided two passenger berths, three import and three export cargo berths, a repair berth, a coaling berth and a 91.4m long public quay. In modern times, with larger seagoing vessels, a berth for container ships was added.
From 1902, the London & North Western Railway worked on improving its passenger service at Holyhead. In 1920, the railway took over sea mail contract from the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company, with four new steam ships operating from Admiralty Pier. In 1922, a rock-breaking dredger deepened the channel to the passenger station.
In 1955, the Station Hotel closed. It was demolished in 1978, and a new complex of booking office, waiting rooms and café was constructed in its place.
In 1965, the first RoRo (roll-on, roll-off) ferry berth was constructed in the inner harbour. The ferries berth at a short jetty (SH255833) at the north of Salt Island.
In about 1970, a bulk materials handling pier and deep water berth (SH256841) was constructed a little to the west of the RoRo berth. It has a 780m long jetty equipped with two travelling cranes and a conveyor system for unloading. The facility was in use until 2009, for importing aluminium ore and transporting it to the refinery, and for container shipping.
By the 1990s, container shipping had ceased and more ferry berths were constructed by Stena Line and Irish Ferries. The new facilities accommodate a range of vessels, including high speed catamaran ferries capable of making the Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire crossing in less than two hours.
At the beginning of the 21st century, a large area of the harbour was reclaimed and infilled to form a vehicle and freight handling area and space for other port functions. The land reclamation means that much of the Old Harbour is not accessible by ships.
A direct pedestrian and cycle link has been constructed from the station and port terminal facilities to the town centre. It consists of a causeway bridge across the inner harbour leading to the stainless steel Celtic Gateway Bridge (SH247824, opened 2006), which crosses the railway and Victoria Road and leads directly into Market Street.
A new vehicle causeway bridge links the ferry terminal to the various berths. The route of the A5, which follows Telford’s London to Holyhead road, no longer continues on into the port but stops at the port boundary. The modern A55 North Wales Expressway now leads to the east of the railway station and directly into the ferry complex and terminal.
Holyhead is one of the UK’s busiest ferry ports. It hosts some 8,000 conventional and fast ferry movements per year with more than 500 visits annually from bulk carriers, cruise liners, coasters and large fishing vessels. Numerous smaller fishing vessels and leisure craft call at the port every year. A 300 berth marina (SH239835) has been created at the western edge of the New Harbour.
Resident engineer (1810-28): James Brown
Resident engineer (1829-50): John Provis
Contractor (North Breakwater 1947-73): J. & C. Rigby
RCAHMW_NPRN 23135, 402393, 403731, 41260, 41261, 41283, 41557, 417531, 519067, 519107
Research: ECPK
reference sources   CEH WalesBDCE1BDCE2

Holyhead Harbour