The Privateer’s Cannons

Holyhead Maritime Museum’s unique collection of historical artifacts help tell the story of the towns maritime heritage. Located outside the museum are two 18th Century ship’s cannon. The following is their story ……

The Irish sea had been plagued by pirates from the withdrawal of the Roman  legions from Britain in the fourth century.  Turkish, Moroccan, Irish, Viking, Spanish and French were among some of the vessels that plundered ships in these waters.  The following account illustrates how vulnerable and unprotected the town was three centuries ago from such threats.

One Saturday in the year 1710, a vessel flying English colours, sailed into Holyhead Bay, firing her guns to indicate that she was in distress.  In response, Maurice Owen, the local customs official, launched the Queen’s revenue cutter and proceeded to the vessel to investigate. Once aboard Owen quickly realised that they had been duped, for the ship was the French privateer ‘Fox’, with a crew of over 150 men and heavily armed.  After being stripped and interrogated about the town’s defences, the cutter’s crew were taken hostage and held to ransom.  The ‘Fox’ then proceeded to anchor off Borthwen Beach, close to Church Bay.

One of the two 18th Century Cannons on display outside the Holyhead Maritime Museum

However, as if by divine intervention, a ferocious storm blew up, de-masting  the vessel, forcing her to jettison 14 of her large cannon to allow her to become more maneuverable.  This proved to be futile and despite firing her remaining smaller guns in distress, the town’s people, out of fear, chose not to come to their aid.  She was eventually driven on rocks somewhere between Borthwen and Penrhos point.  On the Sunday morning, seven boats took off the 150 pirates and released Maurice Owen.  Twenty of the pirates were sent to Dublin aboard the packet boat ‘James’ for trial.

The cannons remained on the seabed for over one hundred years before they were rediscovered by divers carrying out work for the construction of the Admiralty Pier. They were then stored until George IV visited Holyhead in 1821 and despite being heavily corroded were used to fire the royal salute. They were later relocated to the newly built Market building sometime in the late 1850’s until the Town Council took them into storage in the 1940’s. They were eventually presented to the Holyhead Maritime Museum for display in 1986.

Contributed by Peter Scott Roberts.

© Holyhead Maritime Museum

This series of posts is to support the ‘Ports, Past and Present’ project that features and promotes five ports of the Irish Sea connecting Wales with Ireland – Rosslare, Dublin Port, Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke. More information here –


5 thoughts on “The Privateer’s Cannons

  1. Brian Jemmette July 18, 2020 / 8:18 pm

    Very interesting, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Edwyn Hughes July 18, 2020 / 9:29 pm

    Children who visit the museum love to hear the story that real Pirates visited Holyhead, thanks for the contribution Peter.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wyn Edwards July 19, 2020 / 8:22 am

    I will show this article to my family especially the grandchildren who will be fascinated to know that pirates came to Holyhead. We will definitely visit the museum when we come down in August. Thanks Pete for this interesting article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • maritime2018 July 19, 2020 / 8:41 am

      Hi Wyn – unfortunately because of the difficulties of keeping the museum safe for our volunteers and visitors we have decided to delay opening until next spring. Hope to see you then. Barry Hillier – Trustee.


  4. Gareth Huws July 19, 2020 / 11:00 am

    Another superb write-up from Peter and congratulations to him for keeping alive the memories of the pirates. (It was reported at the time that the people of Holyhead boarded the wreck of the ‘Fox’ and “borrowed” anything they could lay their hands on! Are there more artefacts to be discovered in attics and storerooms?)

    Liked by 1 person

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