The Life of a Holyhead Boatman: Lewis Jones (1867-1915)

by David Lewis Pogson

The life of a Holyhead boatman could be hard and dangerous. The boatmen, whether working alone or together, provided any kind of a service involving a small boat in and around Holyhead harbour for payment. Services included hobbling, hovelling, ferrying goods and people (particularly pilots out to ships) and recovering salvage. They also fished the local waters and foraged in the rocks to feed their families or to sell on the catch. They transported small amounts of cargo, such as coal, from the larger visiting ships to share in the re-sale profits.

Holyhead Harbour

They also helped to rescue boats and people in distress (often but not always in the hope of reward) and they were particularly sought after to crew the RNLI lifeboats for which they also received payment. They were skilled at their trade; their lives depending upon that skill plus their knowledge of the tides and currents, the weather and the local hazards when on the water.

As well as being the main ferry port to Dublin, Holyhead was a safe refuge for ships sailing to and from Liverpool and other ports up and down the British west coast. The coast of North Wales was littered with the sites of historic wrecks and the breakwater and inner harbour provided shelter from the violent storms that regularly plagued the Irish Sea. The rugged cliffs of the coast line, like the North and South Stacks, and the rocky outcrops offshore, like the Skerries outside the breakwater or the Clippera Rocks and the Platters Rocks within the inner and outer Harbours, presented dangers for unwary visiting ships. 

Analysis of records for the period 1859-1879 and 1892-1902, focussing on the Welsh coast and the Bristol Channel, suggested that the Platters Rocks in Holyhead harbour were amongst the most dangerous navigational hazards for shipping (excluding trawlers) using Welsh ports, with 18 strandings (1). So, knowledge of those hazards – provided by piloting to avoid accidents and a lifeboat service when all else failed – was an essential safeguard against the loss of life. Even then, many lives were lost each year.

Lewis Jones

Lewis Jones was a Holyhead boatman. He was born in 5 Porth Sach Street on Waterside in 1867, the second son and second eldest of five children born to Lewis Jones, a mariner in the Merchant Service, and Anne Owen. Their other children were William Lewis (b.1862) followed by Mary (b.1868, d.1869), another Mary (b.1870), Catherine Ann (b.1877) and Sarah (b.1883).

The Bolsach/Waterside Area of Holyhead.

Lewis spent his whole life in the Waterside area of Holyhead, always living in the streets that immediately surrounded the small bay of Bolsach (aka Porth Sach) adjacent to Salt Island and the entrance to the Inner Harbour because it was convenient for his work. It was also an area of cheaply-rented and poorly-maintained terraced housing (2) whose affordability fitted with the sporadic and uncertain nature of his self-employed income. Local families moved around from one rented house to another within Waterside on a regular basis.

Holyhead Town Map 1887-89 (adapted) from OS Maps at the
National Library of Scotland

The Waterside Families.

Many other boatmen’s families lived in that same group of streets – mainly Front and Back Bath Street, Parliament Ditch, Porth Sach Street, Stanley Row, Hibernia Row, Northwest Street and Fair View. Some had regular jobs and were only part-time boatmen. They often worked together in groups of three or four and sometimes more depending upon the nature of the job, with other family members or more loosely with neighbours or friends. They might club together to buy a boat or have an arrangement for the use of one for a percentage of whatever they earned. Lewis Jones was a full-time boatman and had an arrangement with Robert Jones, a Trinity Pilot, to use his hobbling boat when he was not engaged in ferrying Robert out to meet ships incoming to Holyhead harbour. Vessels wishing to enter Holyhead harbour were obliged by law to pay pilotage (and port charges) to a licensed pilot.

Day-to-day survival for most families involved struggle whilst rubbing shoulders with occasional violence, petty crime and drunkenness. As a port, Holyhead had many pubs and these were filled with local seamen as well as those from the visiting ships and others from the Royal Navy which often resulted in street fights involving the Police.

Even the women fought, with the local newspaper describing the women of Waterside in 1869, after one particular case before the Magistrates involving fighting between the women of the Jones family, as a “A Colony of Viragoes – That part of Holyhead known by the name of the Waterside has gained an unenviable notoriety by the pugilistic propensities and pugnacious character of its residents. Certainly the weaker sex (who in this part are often the stronger), are no exception to this rule.”(3) Whilst their husbands were also engaged in a constant and dangerous battle with the conditions offshore, for the women that life also included giving birth to a lot of children, some of whom died early.

Bolsach (before the demolition of the surrounding streets) viewed from
Salt Island Bridge at high tide: from the Holyhead Past and Present Facebook Page.

Growing up in the Waterside Area of Holyhead

Lewis grew up learning sailing skills, probably at the expense of his formal education. His father, also named Lewis, was a mariner, as was his grandfather Edward, who lived at 7 North West Street. In July 1878 at 11 years old, with the family living on Bath Street, his mother Anne was summoned by the School Board (4) to explain young Lewis’s absences. This resulted in his father being convicted at the Anglesey Michaelmas Quarter Sessions (5) for failing to send Lewis to school. In 1881 Lewis was living with his parents and siblings at 4 Parliament Ditch and was described as a ‘scholar’. It is likely that his schooling still took second place to his sailing but, despite that, Lewis could read and write in both Welsh and English.

Pre 1930s photo (before Prince of Wales Road was built) showing an aerial shot of the inner harbour with the original streets surrounding Bolsach circled. From Front Bath Street at the bottom of the circle stretching to Hibernia Row at the top: From the John Cave MBE Collection supplied by John Hodgkinson.

By 1885 and 1886 when Lewis was 18/19 years old and living at 4 Parliament Ditch the hovelling or hobbling boats “Sunshine” owned by Robert Jones and ? Owens and “Rock Light” owned by Robert Parry were winning races for cash prizes at Holyhead Regatta (6) (the Hovelling boats under 25 feet race over 5 miles, the sailing race for open boats and the scramble sailing race). There is little doubt that Lewis’s sailing skills were becoming apparent and it is likely that he was crewing for the owners in one or both of these boats although it is also likely that it would not be until later regattas that Lewis skippered them in his own right. Robert Jones was a Trinity Pilot and lived not far from Lewis at 2 Stanley Row.

The Boatmen and the Lifeboat Service at Holyhead

In 1851 the National Shipwreck Organisation (to become the Royal National Lifeboat Institution) had published its rules in the local paper (7). Rules 3, 4 and 5 – that the crew list should consist of sailors and fishermen usually resident (in the locality), that payment would be made for attendance at call-out and for exercises, and that the men would be entitled to a share in any salvage – would appeal particularly to the self-employed Waterside boatman. Even more so when the lifeboat house was built conveniently nearby at Newry Beach in 1858.

Until the introduction of the steam lifeboat in 1892 both Holyhead lifeboats were propelled by sail and oars so experienced seamen were essential. It is not known for certain when Lewis joined the RNLI crew but in 1886, when he was 19 years old, there was a mutiny (8) amongst the then lifeboat crew and thirteen of its members resigned rather than continue to serve under the coxswain superintendent, Edward Jones (not a known relation to Lewis). The mutiny was brought about by Edward Jones’ attempt to improve discipline and efficiency amongst the crew. The Committee stood by its cox and resolved to seek a new crew. It was likely that Lewis answered this call for replacement crew members.

The lifeboatmen were known to be an unruly bunch. Even Lewis’s father along with 5 others from the lifeboat crew had been up before the magistrates at the Valley Petty Sessions for fighting amongst themselves and with the Police in Waterside in 1868 (9). Following an apology, they were not fined (because they were lifeboatmen) but each had to pay costs of 3s 6d. Edward Jones may have improved discipline but he could not change nature because in 1892 the crews disgraced themselves again at the Holyhead Regatta (10)“During the afternoon guns were fired by the coastguards, and the lifeboats were launched and got under sail, their movements being watched by a great number of spectators. Much comment is made on the conduct of a number of the crew in fighting and creating a great, disturbance during a general scramble for the jackets, some of the men being badly assaulted. The matter will doubtless form the subject of inquiry by the institution if not by the police.”

Disagreements and Court Cases

By May 1890, at 23 years old, Lewis was working as a boatman using the “Sunshine” owned by Robert Jones, Trinity Pilot. He and six other boatmen, being the crews of the “Sunshine” and the “Mona”, sued four Trinity Pilots (including Robert Jones) and one boatman at the Menai and later the Holyhead County Courts for the balance of the commission outstanding on the sale of sixty tons of coal to ships calling at the harbour during a coal shortage. (11) The Pilots had bought the coal at 18 shillings per ton from the schooner “Rachel Anne” in Holyhead harbour. They resold it at 30 shillings per ton to boats brought in by themselves and also kept the pilotage fees for bringing those customers into the harbour. There was a lack of clarity in the agreement with the Pilots with the dispute centring upon the payment of commission, allegedly agreed at 5% of the sale price, to the boatmen for delivery of the coal from the “Rachel Anne” to the customers. The boatmens’ argument for the amount of commission expected, in the absence of any written contract, was based upon a claim of past custom and practice but they were able only to provide hearsay evidence of this and so the Judge threw out the claim.

Tragedy whilst Hobbling the Brig ‘Henri Evelina’

The court case seems not to have soured the relationship between Lewis Jones and Robert Jones because in October of that same year Lewis together with Hugh Griffiths (21 years) of Hibernia Row and Joseph Collins Jones (19 years and a sailor) of Park Street went out in the hobbling boat “Sunshine” to meet the French brig “Henri Evelina” as it was tacking around the Breakwater into the Harbour of Refuge making for the port (12).

Shipping off Holyhead Harbor, Anglesey’ 1858 by John Wilson Carmichael from ArtHistoryReference.Com website

A hobbling boat was necessary in the days of sail before engine-power made it easier to steer ships within confined spaces such as harbour entrances. A ‘hobbler’ is defined as ‘one of a team of men – often a family enterprise or a group of men each owning a share in the boat – who rowed down the harbour and vied with other hobbling boats for the right to guide a ship into harbour. In this particular case there must have been two men at the oars of the hobbler skiff “Sunshine” with the third steering and readying to throw the hook onto the deck to secure the commission to tow in the visiting ship. Hobbling was a difficult and dangerous occupation, as it often meant waiting outside the shelter of the harbour in all kinds of rough seas to secure the commission, but well paid for the risk. For example, in December 1890, with a gale blowing, a hobbling boat rescued a schooner in distress by securing her and towing the vessel into Holyhead Harbour for a payment of £120 (13) which, even if split 3 ways, would still be a healthy sum for each hobbler.

In this incident the three boatmen fell foul of the “Henri Evelina” whilst trying secure the hook and were run over by the Brig which immediately sank the “Sunshine”. Lewis jumped up and clutched the Brig’s anchor as it passed and was saved but his companions were pitched into the sea. John Collins Jones grabbed at a rope thrown from the Brig and was pulled aboard but Hugh Griffiths, after initially clinging on to Collins Jones, was carried away. In the act of sinking he raised his hand as if to bid farewell to his comrades. His body was recovered at Llanrhyddlad some days later and buried at a well-attended funeral at Maeshyfryd Cemetery. Lewis gave evidence at the subsequent inquest for which a verdict of ‘Accidentally Drowned’ was given.

The “Sunshine” was valued at £40 but not insured so Robert Jones claimed compensation and the award went in his favour plus costs. The High Bailiff arrested the Brig and removed it to the Inner Harbour, resulting in a minor international incident. When he went to secure it the Bailiff had to take the local Police Sergeant aboard for overnight protection. To prevent any conflict between the Police and the Crew, Captain Parry, the French Consul’s local representative, paid the award of £100 in full. The French Consul at Liverpool, writing to Captain Parry on the subject, remarked that he would not fail to mention the case to his Government in order that French captains might henceforth carefully avoid calling at such a place as Holyhead.

A Waterside Wedding

In 1891 Lewis, his occupation described as a sailor, was 24 years old and still lived at 4 Parliament Ditch with his parents and two younger sisters. Nearby at 6 Porth Sach Street lived Jane Jones, 27 years old, single, the daughter of Thomas and Catherine Jones both deceased. Thomas had been a mariner in the Merchant Service and latterly a Waterside boatman and had been awarded the Royal Humane Society’s Bronze Medal for his part in the rescue of crew members from the wreck of the “Cuba” on Holyhead Breakwater in 1869. John Roberts, boatman of 2 Porth Sach Street and then a boy of 19 years, was also awarded the same medal for that rescue. He would become a friend and colleague of Lewis as later events would show. Jane was then head of her family, with her occupation described as Housekeeper, and was single-handedly raising her younger sister Ellen ‘Nellie’ Jones (10 years old) and her younger brother Robert (8 years old). It’s likely that she survived with financial help from her three younger brothers who had all gone to work on building the Manchester Ship Canal. Lewis and Jane were married at St Cybi’s Church in August 1891 and both gave their address as Stanley Row. Nellie and Robert went to live with them.

Irrespective of marrying Jane in August, Lewis had a summons (14) against him to appear before the Holyhead Petty Sessions in October 1891 following a complaint of assault and battery by Jane’s aunt. Anne Owen (formerly Jones) had married John Owen but the marriage had not been a happy one and in 1880 Anne had suffered an eye injury from broken window glass following an assault by her husband (15). She had been left with a ‘china eye’. John served two months in prison for that assault. Anne was widowed and living with her mother at 6 Bath Street in 1891 and employed selling milk. She visited Lewis’s mother at 4 Parliament Ditch to ask for 1s 5d that was due from her or she would lodge a claim in the county court. Anne alleged that Lewis had followed her out of the house and struck her in her ‘china eye’ causing further injury. The only witness was the neighbour from 2 Parliament Ditch who would say nothing except that she heard Anne calling Lewis’s mother names. Without further evidence to support her complaint the case against Lewis was dismissed.

Editor’s Note – further information on the wreck of the Cuba can be found here

Bolsach Slipway

Despite the Waterside’s reputation for being a somewhat lawless place, the Boatmen were generally very respectful of the rules of their trade. A rare case (16) before the Petty Sessions in January 1892 was the exception that proved the rule when John Roberts, a hobbler and Lewis Jones’ friend and neighbour who lived opposite him in Porth Sach Street and recently returned from working on the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal at Runcorn, was summoned by the Queen’s Harbourmaster for neglecting to remove the barque “Willamo”, leaking and in danger of sinking, from where it would block the old harbour entrance. John Roberts had towed in the barque but then refused to take it to an approved location immediately when served notice. It was noted that this was the first case ever brought against the hobblers and the severity of the offence was marked by a £4 fine including costs.

Lewis and Jane together with Nellie and Robert were living at 3 Stanley Row in 1892 and Jane’s younger brother Thomas Jones (19 years old) was staying with them, having also returned to Holyhead from working on the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal at Runcorn. Thomas married Jane Williams in November 1892 and they settled just along the street at 6 Stanley Row with Thomas working, probably with Lewis and John Roberts, as a boatman. On 11 August 1894 Lewis and Jane Jones had their first child, also named Lewis Jones. He was followed by Catherine (‘Kate’) in 1896, then Mary Jane (b.1868), Ann Ellen (b.1899 d.1901) and Thomas William (b.1902).

Holyhead Regattas

The Holyhead Regatta (17) was held on Whit Monday as usual in 1895. The London and North-Western Railway Company steamer “Severn” left the inner harbour with the regatta committee and their friends to view the yacht races, and at noon it anchored off Salt Island in order to start the boat races. Lewis Jones with the Hovelling boat “City of Richmond” won a special prize. At the close of the boat races the two Holyhead lifeboats (“Thomas Fielding” and “Joseph Whitworth”,) which had been the means of rescuing a number of lives during the last winter, were launched amidst loud cheers, and they were rowed round in the New Harbour.

In August 1896, at the Towyn Capel Regatta (18) at Trearddur Bay, Holyhead competitors did well in several fishing and sailing boat races and Lewis Jones won the race for three-oared boats without a coxswain. His address was given as Bath Street, Holyhead.

Breakwater Cycling Tragedy

In May 1897 a fatal accident (19) occurred on the breakwater to the principal keeper, Mr Owen Roberts, who was on the eve of his retirement after many years’ service to the Trinity Corporation. Mr Roberts had purchased a tricycle and was testing it by riding from the lighthouse towards the town. In trying to turn the machine on the upper level it became unmanageable, and he was hurled to the lower road, a distance of about 25 feet. The accident was witnessed by some men in a boat belonging to Mr Wm. Williams, contractor, who proceeded to the spot and later conveyed him in the boat to the other side of the harbour. At the inquest Lewis Jones, seaman, gave evidence that he observed the machine going at a terrific rate over the side of the breakwater to the lower incline. Lewis had shouted, and Mr Davies, one of the keepers of the lighthouse, had rushed to his assistance but Mr Roberts was seriously injured, having fractured both arms and his skull, lying bleeding and insensible. He did not recover in spite of all that Drs Hughes and Jones did for him. Action was taken to erect a sign prohibiting cycling and suggestions were made to provide an iron rail along the edge of the upper roadway and that a telephone be established between the coastguard station and the breakwater lighthouse to improve emergency communications. A verdict of ‘Accidental death’ was returned.

Accusations of Assault

George and Ellen Jones were well known publicans, having run several pubs in Waterside. George was also a fisherman and member of the lifeboat crew. However they were not known relatives of Lewis Jones. At Holyhead Petty Sessions in May 1898 George Jones, Marine Social Club, and Ellen Jones, his wife, summoned (20) Lewis Jones, Stanley Row, and James Bell, Hibernia Row, for assaults. The defendant, Lewis Jones, summoned George and Ellen Jones for assault on the same occasion.

Mr T. R. Evans appeared for George and Ellen, and Mr R. A. Griffith for Lewis and James. The parties were hovellers and a dispute took place about piloting a flat to the Valley. A hoveller (21) was a usually-unlicensed coast boatman who did odd jobs in assisting ships or going out to wrecks to land passengers or secure salvage. ‘Hobbling’ and ‘Hovelling’ seem to be very similar self-employed but technically different boatman services. A flat (22) was a barge or raft of loose timber for working on.

On coming ashore the parties started to fight, and George Jones, in his evidence, held that he and his wife had come out of the affray the worse for the encounter. He said that he was unable to get any witnesses to support him on account of the reign of terror at the Waterside; because the Waterside people were afraid of Lewis Jones and his friends.

For the other side, Mr Griffith held that George Jones was not so much the saint and lamb as he was represented to be, but was likely to defend himself if attacked. He kept a social club and was unlikely to take a hammering without a protest. George Jones and his wife had beaten and assaulted Lewis Jones, who was an invalid. Bell only went to help Lewis Jones and it was Mr George and Mrs Jones who had set upon Lewis Jones and abused him terribly. John Roberts, a boatman and close colleague of Lewis, testified that Lewis Jones was set upon by Mr and Mrs Jones and rendered insensible, and that he had told them it was cruel to treat him in that manner. Lewis Jones was fined £1 and costs for the assault on Ellen Jones, and George Jones and Lewis Jones were bound over to keep the peace. The charge against James Bell was dismissed.

Success at the 1898 Holyhead Regatta

On Whit-Monday in June 1898, the annual regatta (23) and aquatic sports were held in connection with the Royal Dee and Royal Alfred Yacht clubs. The day opened very unfavourably, but the afternoon was more satisfactory as the rain kept off. A strong breeze was blowing and the greatest interest was concentrated on the rowing competitions. The four-oared rowing race for hobblers was won by Lewis Jones in “Ocean Home”. Not a bad performance for a man who, only a couple of weeks or so earlier, had claimed in court that he had been badly beaten and was an invalid. The lifeboats were launched at five o’clock. (In the Hobblers sailing race H. Owen won in the “Gladys” or “Gwladys”. In 1902 this boat would feature in the worst-known disaster to befall the Waterside boatmen.)

Herring at Holyhead

During the last few weeks of November 1898, Holyhead Bay was swarming with herring (24), many of them exceptionally large ones. The local fishermen, with their hovelling boats, were getting enormous hauls, such as had not been the case for some years past. Holyhead did not have annual visitations of herrings, only periodical ones but during the last few years they had appeared annually.

Back in the Courts – claim for an unpaid service

March 1899 saw Lewis back in Holyhead County Court (25) together with John Roberts, his next door neighbour now at 2, Stanley Row, Thomas Jones, of 2, George’s Place, and Owen Griffith, of 7, Market Street, Holyhead. They sued Dr O. T. Williams, Rhosygaer, Holyhead, for the sum of £1 for services rendered as boatmen. Mr T. R. Evans appeared for the defence (again).

Thomas Jones, boatman, testified that a foreign vessel was in the Harbour of Refuge in the outer roads and Dr O. T. Williams, in visiting a patient at the Waterside, had called on them and said that the captain of a vessel had called upon him for his services, and asked them to go off to the vessel, which they did. Jack (John) Roberts had said that the fee would be £1, and Dr Williams had replied, “It is all right, the urban council will pay.” They had been paid four times previously by the council for similar services. On reaching the ship and boarding her, the pilot had said that no serious sickness was on board. Dr Williams did not go on board, and on returning to the shore, the doctor had told them to apply to the Urban District Council for payment. The Council had refused to pay. When cross-examined Thomas Jones said that they had boarded the steamer before this, and if any job had to be done they would have got payment. Roberts had asked the captain for payment, but he refused, as he had not engaged them. Dr Williams had said that a report was current that fever was on board.

Mr T. R. Evans, for the defence, said that these men when they took Dr Williams on board looked to the Council for payment and they put in the claim to the Council, which the sanitary authority had refused to pay. In the morning of the day in question, a man had called and said that a doctor was needed on a steamer in the harbour. As the case was urgent, the man had said, as Dr Williams was not home, he must go elsewhere. Later in the day, Dr Williams was visiting a patient at the Waterside, when he incidentally mentioned the matter, and the men came forward, saying that they would take the doctor off, incurring all risk. They would get the money all right from the captain or the Council, and would not look to Dr O. T. Williams for payment.

Dr O. T. Williams, in evidence, stated that the men were in attendance, and pressed him to go to the ship. In doing so, he distinctly told them that he would not be responsible for payment. He had received no remuneration for the work. Judgment was given for the defendant, his Honour holding that their trip to the ship was purely a speculation on the part of the Waterside boatmen as well as the doctor.

More Success at the Regatta

The annual regatta (26) in connection with the Royal Dee and Royal Alfred Yacht Clubs was held on Monday 26 May 1899 at Holyhead. A large number of visitors arrived in the town early in the morning, although at the time the weather seemed very threatening, but towards noon it cleared up well. In the sailing race for bona-fide hobblers or fishermen’s boats with working sails only, Lewis Jones in “Rock Light” was the winner. At the close of the proceedings the two lifeboats were launched, and cruised inside the harbour.

Lewis Jones, Second Cox on Holyhead Lifeboat

Edward Jones, the coxswain superintendent of the Holyhead Lifeboat and the object of the mutiny by the lifeboat crew in 1886, retired (27) from RNLI service in July 1899 after 36 years. He was replaced by William Owen as Coxswain Superintendent of the steam lifeboat “Duke of Northumberland” with Lewis Jones being appointed Second Cox. Under RNLI rules, in the absence of the Coxswain Superintendent the Second Cox would take charge of the Lifeboat. This pairing of William Owen and Lewis Jones would go on to take part in many dramatic rescues. Owen Williams, best man at Lewis’s wedding, was made Coxswain Superintendent of the second lifeboat and John Roberts, the friend, neighbour and work associate of Lewis who gave evidence for him in his fight with George Jones, was made Second Cox.

Lewis Jones fifth from the left on the “Duke of Northumberland”. He must have had a grim sense of humour because on the rear of the photo he had handwritten these lines: “To think this little photograph, On common paper lightly cast, May look into your face and laugh, When I myself have inevitably passed.”

One evening in late September 1899 (28) during a North West gale, six men in a small boat about 20 feet long, were going on board the schooner “Thomas Aylan” in the outer road. The vessel was about 1 1/4 miles from the shore. The men had waited until midnight in hopes that the wind would abate before leaving the beach. After they had set off the wind rose to hurricane force, and the oars were broken, the yawl being driven on to a lee shore on the rocks South West of Salt Island. John Williams, of the Penrhos Arms, a local diver, plunged into the boiling surf and succeeded in carrying a rope to the men who were in such dire peril. John Smith, Richard Williams, Lewis Jones, Thomas Jones, Thomas Jones, Richard Jones, Hugh Owen, and John Roberts entered John Williams’s boat and finally succeeded at great risk in saving the men. A salvage claimed was submitted to Mr McIlgorm, H.M. Customs. Thomas Jones, boatman of 6 Stanley Row and likely Richard Jones, 9 Summer Hill were Lewis’s brothers-in-law. John Roberts, boatman of 2 Stanley Row was Lewis’s next-door neighbour and Richard Williams was a boatman from 8 Stanley Row. Most of the men were from the lifeboat crews.

November 1899 saw the local fishermen taking heavy catches of mackerel (29) and some herrings. These were in demand at several places along the North Wales coast, and commanded a very good sale locally.

Local Fishermen at the Waterside Landing

Tragedy in the Waterside Community

On Sunday evening, about 7.15 on the 1st of June 1900 a young man named Robert Brown (30) (24 years old), the son of Lewis and Jane’s next-door neighbours at 4 Stanley Row, Waterside, met with a shocking accident that terminated fatally. Robert was working in the London and North Western Railway goods shed when he became entangled in a capstan, sustaining a severe fracture of the skull. He was conveyed home but expired before reaching there. The event caused a great sensation in the locality where he lived and in the town generally. The inquest verdict was ‘Accidental death’ with any compensation left to be settled between the Railway Company and the family.

Cadbury’s Chocolate Gift to the Lifeboats

The annual regatta (31) in connection with the Royal Alfred Yacht Club in June 1900, was held at Holyhead. The day was most suitable for such an event with a steady breeze blowing. Much interest was shown in the rowing races. In the four-oared rowing race, with coxswain, for bona-fide hobblers or fishermen Lewis Jones won in “Primrose” with his best man Owen Williams coming second in “Phoebe”. At the close of the day’s proceedings the life-boat was launched and the men looked very well in their red caps and cork jackets. The launch created great interest as, on account of the steam lifeboat being available, it was seldom that the other lifeboat was launched. In that same month it was reported that, in addition to the standard biscuit ration carried by every lifeboat to feed the men, Messrs Cadbury’s (32) had given a supply of chocolate in double-lidded tins to the RNLI to be carried on each lifeboat and Cadbury’s had promised to renew supplies free of cost as they were used up.

The Lewis Jones Family at Waterside

In 1901 Lewis, aged 34 years, and Jane Jones, aged 38 years, were still living at 3 Stanley Row, Holyhead. The 3-bedroomed (33) house was crowded with their children Lewis (7 years), Catherine (‘Kate’) (5 years), Mary Jane (2 years) and Anne Ellen (10 months but died in 1901). Youngest son Thomas William Jones would not be born until 1902. Also still living there was Jane’s unmarried sister Ellen (‘Nellie’) Jones, aged 20 years, working as a dressmaker and recorded as ‘lame’ and Jane’s niece Annie Jones, aged 7 years. Living next door at 2 Stanley Row was Lewis’s friend John Roberts and just around the corner at 13 North West Street was Lewis’s widowed mother Ann Jones with his unmarried youngest sister Sarah, and his other sister Catherine Anne together with her husband Christopher Dodd Hodgson, a general labourer but later to become a fisherman, and their three children.

The ‘Duke of Northumberland’ Tragedy of 1901

There was no doubt that the steam lifeboat “Duke of Northumberland” had proved a great success in saving many lives. However, in June 1901 a dreadful accident (34) occurred on board the steam lifeboat in which two Holyhead men, John Owens, 47 years old and the leading stoker of 2 George’s Place, Waterside and Thomas Owen, second fireman, were killed and John Hall, second engineer, was injured. The lifeboat had been taken to Birkenhead for maintenance and during testing on the River Mersey the boiler had exploded. At the time she had on board Mr Basil Hall, inspector of life-boats for the western district plus the chief coxswain, assistant coxswain, the second engineer, two deck hands, two firemen and James Lee, the Chief Engineer from New Brighton. Judging from those ranks mentioned it is probable that both William Owen (as chief coxswain) and Lewis Jones (as assistant coxswain) were present on board at the time. It is likely that those members of the crew had accompanied the lifeboat to Birkenhead for the repairs and stayed to crew her during the sea-trials following those repair works. John Owens and Thomas Owen were buried at Maeshyfryd cemetery, the funerals taking place on a Saturday afternoon and attended by a vast concourse of people. Lewis and the rest of the crew must have been amongst the mourners. The coast guards attended in uniform, and the coffins were covered with the Union Jacks. Blinds were drawn and business establishments partially closed all along the route of the funeral procession. The RNLI provided £1000 to hand over to the local treasurer (the Rev. James Jones) in the interests of the families and the Prudential Insurance Company Ltd dealt with the compensation payments to the relatives.

The RNLI LIfeboat ‘Duke of Northumberland’ whilst serving at Harwich (1889-1892)

The ‘Gwadlys’ Tragedy of 1905

1905 saw the worst disaster (35) to befall Waterside. Just after midnight on 26th February, with a gale blowing and in torrential rain, the Coastguards called out the steam lifeboat to assist two schooners in distress, dragging their anchors out in ‘the roads’ and likely to be driven ashore. Before this could happen five men unfastened the hobbling boat “Gwladys”, which was about 20 feet long, from its moorings in Porth Sach. William Owen, who was going out as coxswain of the “Duke of Northumberland” tried to dissuade the men, amongst whom was his son Richard, against going out in such a small boat in such heavy seas. He was unsuccessful and the “Gwladys” quickly made her way out toward the distressed schooners. It’s likely that, as second cox, Lewis Jones was amongst the lifeboat crew. When near the Platters Rocks, the lifeboat passed the “Gwladys”, which was being buffeted about. The two boats lost sight of each other, but a few moments afterwards William Owen thought he heard a despairing cry from his son, Richard. The lifeboat crew became alarmed for the safety of the occupants of the “Gwladys” and turned the lifeboat towards the cry but no trace could be found of the boat or its occupants. It was concluded that she had either returned to land or beaten out in the direction of the distressed schooners. The lifeboat then made for the schooners, took the sailors on board and brought them ashore. With no news of the “Gwladys”, the lifeboat put out again in search of the missing boat, being helped in the search by another hobbling craft, but nothing could be found.

All Five Lived at Hibernia Row

The five men who lost their lives were very well known in Holyhead, and all lived on Hibernia Row, in close proximity to each other. Two of them were crewmen on the steam lifeboat. Thomas Thomas, 49 years of age, left a widow and five children. The eldest was only 19, and the youngest 10 years of age. Although a native of Aberystwyth, he had lived for the greater part of his life in Holyhead, and had been for many years Trinity pilot for the district. He had been in the Royal Naval Reserve for twenty years. Hugh Evans was 32 years of age, a single man who lived with his widowed mother and was her only support. Richard Bell was nearing 24 years and was a sailor on the L.N.W. Railway Company’s steamers. He was single and supported his mother, his father having been in delicate health for many years. William Owen was the son of Hugh Owen, pilot. He was 26 years of age, and left a widow and very young child. Richard Owen was 23 years of age, and was a son of William Owen, pilot and coxswain superintendent of the “Duke of Northumberland”. He was unmarried, and lived with his parents. He had been steward on H.M.T.S. “Monarch” and also on steamers of the Gulf Line for seven years. A short time earlier he had bought a trawler and was to have put out to sea in it that week.

A relief committee was formed to raise funds for the dependents of the drowned men and amongst the donations was £100 from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. 

The Gold Medal Rescue of the ‘SS Harold’ in 1908

In 1908 Lewis and his lifeboat colleagues faced possibly their greatest challenge (36) Saturday the 22nd of February was a day of several exciting incidents at Holyhead, and it was considered almost miraculous that no lives were lost in the hurricane which raged off the port all day. The steam lifeboat, “Duke of Northumberland”, under the command of Coxswain William Owen, was out for seven hours rendering aid to vessels and but for the heroism of the crew, there would assuredly have been a heavy list of fatalities.

The steamer “Harold” of Liverpool, which had been beating up channel was seen to be in difficulties and the lifeboat set out, to be met by terrible seas which swept her from end to end. On nearing the North Stack she was robbed of the shelter of the mountain, and the crowds which had gathered on its slopes watched her slow progress with breathless anxiety. The waves rose to an enormous height and engulfed her every few seconds. Sometimes she disappeared from sight for quite a minute and then rose like a cork on the crest of the enormous seas.

Tim Thompson/RNLI painting of the rescue of the crew of the “Harold” by the “Duke of Northumberland” from the Daily Post 16.2.2008.

One of those who was on the lifeboat later said: “The seas were running thirty or forty feet high, and many times the lifeboat men were swallowed up in them. The coxswain (William Owen) alone was on the deck proper, the rest of the crew, except those in the engine-room, were in the “cockpit” up to their necks in water. None of them were lashed down, and often they had to hold on desperately to avoid being thrown out of the lifeboat. At one time, when they were for a long time under water, they thought that their last moment had come, and that they would never reach land again. The task was the most difficult which the lifeboat at Holyhead has ever had to perform … and the men, though inured to perils of the sea, admitted that their experience was a fearful and memorable one.”

After skilful manoeuvring, a hawser was made fast and six of the crew were dragged through the water to the lifeboat. Then a huge wave carried the stern of the lifeboat against the quarter of the “Harold”, and the remaining three jumped on board, the lifeboat slipped the hawser, steamed ahead and proceeded to Holyhead to land the rescued crew in the inner harbour at 7 o’clock. “The coxswain and crew agreed that it was the worst sea they had ever encountered, and the lifeboat behaved splendidly. It was a splendid performance by a gallant crew, and worthy of recognition.”

William Owen received the RNLI Gold Medal and Certificate from the Prince of Wales at Marlborough House. Silver medals and Certificates (37) were later presented to Second Coxswain Lewis Jones, William Owen, jun., Samuel Jones, Lewis Roberts, Richard Jones, George Jones, Chief Engineer Lee, Second Engineer Brooks, Head Fireman McLaughlin, and second Fireman Marshall by Lord Stanley at Holyhead Town Hall on 20th of May 1908.

Editor’s Note – William Owen’s Gold Medal can be viewed at the Holyhead Maritime Museum – a little more of the story here.

Lewis Jones seated, front row, fifth from the left next to Lord Stanley, outside Holyhead Town Hall after the medal ceremony.

Lewis Jones’ Final Years and the Demise of the Hobblers

By 1911 Lewis Jones, at the age of 43 years, was occupied as a Fisherman. With his wife Jane, now 47 years, he continued to live at 3 Stanley Row, Holyhead with children Mary Jane Jones, aged 12 years, and Thomas William Jones, aged 8 years. Members of Lewis’s and Jane’s wider family still lived in the streets nearby. His widowed sister Mary Haynes and her family lived at 6 ‘Borth Sach’ Street and provided a home for his unmarried youngest sister Sarah Jones. Lewis was witness at the wedding of his niece, Mary Anne Haynes that year when she married Hugh Owen, a seaman from 7 Bath Street. Jane’s younger brother Thomas Jones, aged 38 years and a boatman/fisherman and his wife also named Jane, aged 40 years, lived at 8 Stanley Row with seven of their eight children. Thomas likely still worked together with Lewis and John Roberts, who still lived next door at No.2.

Stanley Row in the 1960’s prior to it being demolished.

Lewis Jones died at 3 Stanley Row at the age 47 years on 7 July 1915 and was buried on 10 July at St Cybi’s Churchyard, Holyhead. Although it may seem it by today’s standards, Lewis did not die young. The average life expectancy (38) for males was only 52 years prior to the outbreak of World War One. He had led a hard and dangerous life with the uncertainty of self-employment, before national health or unemployment benefits, whilst working through injury and illness to feed his family, labouring on the sea in all weathers when soaking wet and freezing cold, enduring the sheer physical effort of sailing and rowing, with the nervous anticipation of waiting for the maroons to go up to call-out the lifeboat in the early hours in the worst possible storms followed by the stress of clinging to that lifeboat when swamped by waves on numerous rescues. It must all have taken its toll on his health as he aged.

Although there was still work around the harbour, by the time Lewis died the age of the full-time, independent boatman was drawing to an end. With steam replacing sail, ships were more manoeuvrable and didn’t need hobblers to tow them in. Even when small boats were required, one hoveller in a vessel with a small engine could do the job better, quicker and, in many cases, likely cheaper than sail/oar-powered craft needing a crew. None of Lewis and Jane’s children followed Lewis into his boatman trade and all left Holyhead. Eldest son Lewis Jones became a captain in the Merchant Navy and based his family in Bethesda. Catherine (‘Kate’) Jones moved to live and work with relatives in Liverpool where she married a railwayman from Yorkshire and settled in North Lancashire. Mary Jane Jones married an Engineer Fitter (Salt Works later becoming ICI) and settled in Cheshire. Youngest son Thomas William Jones started out as a mariner and married in Holyhead but then moved his family to Cheshire, being employed as a rigger at a chemical works.

Jane Jones with one of her grandchildren at Stanley Row later in life after the death of Lewis, who never lived long enough to meet any of his grandchildren.

Lewis’s widow Jane Jones continued to live at 3 Stanley Row until her death at 86 years of age in 1950. By then many of the streets around her – Porth Sach Street, Parliament Ditch, Front and Back Bath Street that had once been occupied by the families of boatmen – had been gradually removed either following bomb damage (39) in World War Two or by slum clearance until, finally, Stanley Row itself was demolished in the 1970s.

Contributed by David Lewis Pogson 2023
© Holyhead Maritime Museum and David Lewis Pogson

1) The Maritime Archaeology of the Welsh Coal Trade. Wessex Archaeology 2009 p67
2) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 25/5/1888 ‘The Leasehold System in Holyhead’
3) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 14/8/1869 ‘Petty Sessions, Holyhead’
4) North Wales Express 5/7/1878 ‘School Board Meeting’
5) National Archives Anglesey Michaelmas Quarter Sessions 1878 ref WQ/S/1878/M/713
6) North Wales Express 29/5/1885 + Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 18/6/1886 both ‘Holyhead Regatta’
7) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 16/8/1851 Letter from National Shipwreck Institution
8) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 17/9/1886 ‘Reported Disagreement amongst the Holyhead Lifeboat Crew’ + Western Mail 19/9/1886 ‘Lifeboat Scandal’ + Aberdare Times ’16/9/1886 ‘Extraordinary Scene on board a Lifeboat’
9) North Wales Chronicle 18/1/1886 ‘Valley Petty Sessions’
10) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 10/6/1892 ‘Holyhead Regatta’
11) North Wales Express 9/5/1890 ‘A Holyhead Lawsuit’
12) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 17/10/1890 ‘Shocking Fatality’ + 7/11/1890 ‘The Recent Drowning Fatality’
13) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 5/12/1890 ‘Gale off the Port’
14) North Wales Express 16/10/1891 ‘Holyhead Petty Sessions”
15) North Wales Express 6/8/1880 ‘Petty Sessions
16) North Wales Chronicle 2/1/1892 ‘Petty Sessions’
17) North Wales Chronicle 8/6/1895 ‘Holyhead Regatta’
18) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 28/8/1896 ‘Towyn Capel’
19) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 21/5/1897 ‘Fatal Accident’
20) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 27/5/1898 ‘A Boatmen’s Misunderstanding’ + North Wales Express 27/5/1898 ‘Alleged Assaults’
21) Merriam Webster Dictionary
22) Modern Shipbuilding Terms – F Forest Pease, J B Lippincott Company
23) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 3/6/1898 ‘Holyhead Regatta’
24) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 25/11/1898 ‘Herrings in the Bay’
25) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 24/3/1899 ‘Holyhead Boatmen and the Doctor’
26) North Wales Express 26/5/1899 ‘Holyhead Regatta’
27) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 14/7/1899 ‘The Lifeboat Committee’
28) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 29/9/1899 ‘The Gale’ + North Wales Express 30/9/1899 ‘A Narrow Escape’
29) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 3/11/1899 ‘The Fishing Trade’
30) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 1/6/1900 ‘Sad Fatality’ + 8/6/1900 ‘Terrible Death at Holyhead’
31) North Wales Express 8/6/1900 ‘Holyhead Regatta’
32) North Wales Express 15/6/1900 ‘Royal National Lifeboat Institution’
34) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 28/6/1901 ‘Disaster to the Holyhead Steam Lifeboat’
35) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 7/3/1905 ‘Terrible Disaster at Holyhead’ + North Wales Express 21/4/1905 ‘Boat Disaster Fund’ + Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 19/5/1905 ‘Finding of a Body’ + North Wales Express 30/6/1905 ‘Inquest’
36) Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald 28/2/1908 ‘The Gale’ + 20/3/1908 ‘Lifeboat Bravery’
37) North Wales Express 22/5/1908 ‘Here and There’
39) News by Wales Online 27 September 2011- Interview with Dr Ken Roberts (eyewitness)