‘This Once Blessed Isle’

In January 1823 an audacious attempt was made on the life of Richard Owen, whilst carrying out his duties as a Messenger between the Custom Houses of Holyhead and Beaumaris.

Highway Robbery!

His experience was reported in a local newspaper and describes how he was twice shot at when journeying on horseback to Beaumaris at a place close to Cleifiog Farm, five miles from Holyhead. The location is further described as being where ’the old road meets the new one’. The report continues to tell how at about 4am a ball suddenly passed through his hat and another grazed his left side. The attack frightened him so much that he drove his horse hard to get away and by the time he reached Llangefni the animal was too tired to continue. He then had to complete the journey on foot. As he was not carrying any money, only the quarterly accounts, his attacker would have not profited from his efforts. Once Richard Owen had spend off his assailant disappeared and was never apprehended.

The probable location for the attack on Richard Owen and the onward route he would have taken to cross the island.

The ‘new road’ referred to in the report is now the A5, built in 1822, part of which is the Stanley Embankment linking Holy Island with the Isle of Anglesey. The ‘old road’ is probably Gorad Road, a section of the ‘Old Post Road’ that ran from Holyhead, via the bridge at Four Mile Bridge, through Bodedern and Llangefni and across Anglesey. The junction in the photograph below is just outside the present village of Valley and is the probable location of the attempted murder of the Customs Messenger.

The junction of the ‘New Road’ (A5) with the ‘Old Road’ (Gorad Road) just outside Valley

The newspaper report finished with the hope that events of this nature would not become more frequent thus threatening the relative peace of Anglesey – referred to in the article as ‘this once blessed Isle’.

Strangely in the next issue of the newspaper (the North Wales Gazette) it was suggested that Richard Owen had made up the story, an accusation he strongly denied.

From research undertaken by Peter Scott Roberts

The map is from Barnes, F. A. ‘Land Tenure and Landscape in Llanynghenedl’, 
Anglesey Antiquarian Society and Field Club. Transaction 1988, p.72.


Dueling at Holyhead


During the 18th Century dueling was a common method of settling differences between gentlemen in European society. The object being not necessary to kill an opponent but to ‘gain satisfaction’. Fighting duels in Ireland at this time was illegal. However, dueling in Britain was not banned until 1842. This resulted in a number of duels being fought at Holyhead when antagonists would travel over, sometimes in separate vessels, with their supporters, to find a convenient location to settle their differences.

One such notable duel is reputed to have taken place at Holyhead between two Irish politicians, Henry Flood and James Agar. An account suggests that it occurred in the grounds of St. Cybi’s Church, within the walls of the Roman Fort. Dueling with swords had generally ceased by this time and the use of pistols became the norm. As a result of this engagement James Agar ended up being slightly wounded. However, the disagreement between the two Irishmen did not end here. They again met at Dunmore Park, Kilkenny in 1769 resulting in the death of James Agar. Henry Flood was tried at Kilkenny Assizes the following year but was acquitted.

Henry Flood (1732 – 1791). Portrait by Bartholomew Stoker

Buried in the churchyard at St. Cybi’s Church are the last mortal remains of Major William Houghton. The Northampton Mercury newspaper provides an account of a duel between Major Houghton and a Captain Wolsely that occurred in October 1796. Records show that the duel was fought away from the town and on land belonging to Plas Rhyd-Pont near Four Mile Bridge. It is unclear as to why the duel was fought but sadly it resulted in Major Houghton being shot and instantly expiring.

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Entry in the Holyhead Parish Burial Records

The Parish Burial Register records that William Houghton was a Major in the 23rd Regiment of Foot (Royal Welch Fusiliers) and buried on 12th October 1796. His gravestone bears the following inscription.

‘Here lieth the body of William Houghton late
Captain in his Majesty’s 53rd Regiment of Foot
who departed this life on the 8th of October 1796’

Captain Wolseley would appear not to have been brought to justice but was pursued by the Petty Constable of Holyhead, Hugh Williams, as far as Conwy.

From research undertaken by Peter Scott Roberts.

Madam Megan Telini

Megan Telini’s distinctive and elegant grave at Maeshyfryd Cemetery, Holyhead.

This distinctive gravestone  marks the last resting place of a famous Welsh Prima Donna, Madame Megan Telini. The inscription reads:-

Megan Telini
Welsh Prima Donna
Beautiful voice great artist
Charming personality
Lifelong worker for charity
Including Penrhyn Quarry strike
Miners relief fund
And with-all a most loving
and devoted wife and mother.

She was born Margaret Jane Parry at Bethesda in 1878 and was an accomplished singer, winning over 350 prizes and accolades at various concerts and eisteddfodau and eventually winning the Open Soprano competition at the National Eisteddfod in 1898. Her father Robert Parry (known as Trebor Llechid) worked at the Penrhyn Slate Quarry and became involved with the strike fund committee during the great quarry strike of 1898-1902.  She helped to raise a significant amount of money with a ladies choir in support of the quarry workers during this very difficult time.

When the strike ended many Bethesda families moved away from the area and the Parry family came to live at 8 Moreton Road, Holyhead. Megan married David Huw Jones in Bethesda in 1902. After marrying she spent eight years in Edinburgh before going to Italy where she had further training and took up the name of Madam Telini.

On returning to London she was kept busy on the ‘Concert Scene’ for several years, singing on many world stages such as La Scala in Milan.  She released over sixteen records (a great accomplishment for the time). During the great depression of the 1920/30’s she performed numerous concerts to raise money for the miner’s families of South Wales. She also supported many good causes at her adopted town of Holyhead, particularly for Capel Tabernacl, Thomas Street, where the Parry family worshiped. Madam Telini eventually retired in 1934 to keep a small hotel in London. When WW2 broke out Megan and David moved to Pembrey, Carmarthenshire, where she died in 1940.

Returned by her family to Holyhead to be buried, her grave at Maeshyfryd is close to that of her parents and two of her siblings.

From research undertaken by Peter Scott Roberts.

Peter Scott Roberts is keen to continue his research into Madam Megan Telini and would be pleased to hear from anyone with information to offer – scotty1944@talktalk.net or 01407 740246.

Jonathan Swift at Holyhead – ‘muddy ale and mouldy bread’

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was an Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer, poet and cleric who became Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. He is probably best known for his book ‘Gulliver’s Travels‘, published in 1726. He would have passed through Holyhead many times in his lifetime.

Jonathan Swift left Dublin on 9th April 1727 for a six-month visit to England. On his way back, he arrived in Holyhead on Sunday 24th September, just missed the packet boat, and had to stay in the town for a week because of storms. He stayed at the inn run by Mrs Welch, which was at the corner of present-day Thomas Street and Market Street and at the time just above the rocky sea-edge.

He wasn’t happy. Several of his initiatives in London had come to nothing. He was tired from his horse ride from Chester, and he was having bad dreams. He was suffering from recurring bouts of deafness and giddiness. He thought he didn’t have long to live, and made his first will. And he’d just heard of the dangerous illness of Stella, the name he used for the woman with whom he’d long been intimate. He was desperate to get back.

During his enforced stay, he had nothing to do, so he wrote bits and pieces in a notebook that came to be called his ‘Holyhead Journal’. The first page is a list of memoranda – things to be done before leaving England, such as buying ‘a pair of spectacles for [someone] 70 years old’. But most of the Journal consists of poems, such as the one that doesn’t paint a very nice picture of Holyhead at that time.

Lo here I sit at Holyhead
With muddy ale and mouldy bread
All Christian victuals stink of fish
I’m where my enemies would wish
Convict of lies is every sign,
The inn has not one drop of wine
I’m fasten’d both by wind and tide
I see the ship at anchor ride

The Captain swears the sea’s too rough
He has not passengers enough.
And thus the Dean is forc’d to stay
Till others come to help the pay
In Dublin they’d be glad to see
A packet though it brings in me.
They cannot say the winds are cross
Your politicians at a loss
For want of matter swears and frets,
Are forced to read the old gazettes.
I never was in haste before
To reach that slavish hateful shore
Before, I always found the wind
To me was most malicious kind
But now, the danger of a friend
On whom my fears and hopes depend

Absent from whom all climes are curst
With whom I’m happy in the worst
With rage impatient makes me wait
A passage to the land I hate.
Else, rather on this bleaky shore
Where loudest winds incessant roar
Where neither herb nor tree will thrive,
I’d go in freedom to my grave,
Than rule yon isle and be a slave.

The town of Holyhead that Swift would have known

He has nobody to talk to, because he doesn’t speak Welsh. He goes for walks along Rocky Coast – which in those days extended all the way round to the inner harbour – but has to fight against the rain. He walks to the top of the Mountain, but it was too hazy to see the Wicklow hills, and he gets soaked on his way down. A boat eventually sails, but meets another storm and has to turn back. He finally got away on the first day of October.

No wonder he penned such a gloomy poem. And yet, ten years later, he wrote a letter directing his executors to pay the cost of transporting his body to Holyhead ‘and for my Burial in the Church of that Town’. (He changed his mind later, and is now buried in Dublin.) And he writes, probably thinking of the happier times he’d passed through Holyhead on his way to England: ‘Here I could live with two or three friends in a warm house and good wine – much better than being a slave in Ireland’. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad place after all.

Irish Ferries’ ‘Jonathan Swift’ at Holyhead – named after the Dean of St. Patrick’s

Contributed by Professor David Crystal

The Charlemount Packet Tragedy of 1790

Parkgate Packets at Dublin Harbour in 1788

Throughout the 18th Century Parkgate Packet Boats provided a much used means of sea travel to Dublin from the west coast of Britain. They mostly carried passengers, the mail being directed through Holyhead. Described as brigs, carrying two masts with square rigged sails, the vessels were built of wood and had a broad and flat beam so that they could lie aground at low tide. Although based at Parkgate, close to Chester on the River Dee, they also sailed from the larger port of Liverpool.

Parkgate Packets depicted on a commemorative bowl from 1790

On Wednesday 15th December 1790 the Parkgate Brig Charlemount, reported to be under the command of Captain Gillen, set sail from Liverpool for Dublin and had reached the bay of Dublin, when she was driven back by a violent gale. On Friday 17th December, the weather became favourable and the Captain again proceeded to make for Dublin, having now 120 people on board. The storm returned and he was again forced to put back.

By now the passengers became increasing concerned and insisted that he make for Holyhead. The Captain declared that he was unfamiliar with the coast but the Mate said that he knew the coast well. The Captain gave way against the pressure of the passengers and the Mate took over the navigation. As they approached Holyhead in the midst of a storm the Mate was confused by some lights and the Charlemount struck the rocks at the point of Salt Island (Ynys Cybi). A few yards further and they would have reached the relative safety of the creek at Holyhead. This being about 4.30 in the afternoon of the 18th December 1790.

It took only half and hour for the vessel to break up completely. There were about 12 ladies on board, who it is told, clung to the Steward in fear of their lives. Unfortunately they and the Steward all perished. Of 120 persons on board only 16 survived. One of the passengers, Captain Charles Jones RN, the eldest son of the Irish peer, Viscount Ranelagh, managed to save himself and was able to help another passenger by catching hold and dragging him onto the rocky shore.

Lewis Morris’ Map of Holyhead from 1748. The Charlemount foundered at the point of Ynys Cybi.

Newspaper reports of the day mention some of those who perished – William Holmes of County Wicklow; Mr. and Mrs. Moore of County Meath; Mr. Smith of County Wicklow (his body was found with his pocket watch and 9 guineas in his pocket book). Also lost were a Miss Carter and Miss Church, belonging to the Society of Moravians at Ballymena.

The Captain and Mate saved themselves. They took to the shrouds and managed to scramble ashore. A newspaper report in the month following the tragedy mentions that the Charlemount was among a number of vessels seeking shelter at Holyhead from the storm and was following another vessel, the Hillsborough, and should not have lost its way. The Mate was later arrested and imprisoned for negligence in his navigation of the vessel.

With more than 100 victims of the tragedy the question arises to where the bodies were buried. Those of a higher station in society could have been returned to their home parishes. Many of those who died were of poorer means and probably buried locally in an unmarked grave. There are no records available to confirm a precise burial location. However, evidence suggests that they were buried together in the north-west corner of the Roman Fort at the Holyhead Parish Church of St. Cybi.

This area is now the location of the town’s ‘Field of Remembrance’, where tributes to those lost in recent conflicts are displayed. Observers will see the lack of  marked graves in this section of the graveyard and that the ground is clearly raised. Lending support to this theory is the marked grave of William Holmes, 31 year old victim of the tragedy, lying close by. It would seem from his grave inscription that a friend thought highly enough of him to arrange a separate burial.

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The probable burial location of the victims of the Charlemount Packet Tragedy


William Holmes’ Gravestone.

From research undertaken by Peter Scott Roberts

Image of the ‘Packet Boats at Dublin Harbour’ from a painting by J T Serres. With permission of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Loss of the Kirkmichael

The barque Kirkmichael stranded on the seaward side of the Holyhead Breakwater. She eventually broke up and slipped into deeper water.

The December storms of 1894 at Holyhead resulted in the tragic loss of two vessels. They both foundered within days and yards of each other on the Great Breakwater at Holyhead resulting in significant loss of life. This is the story of one of those vessels – the Barque Kirkmichael. The even more tragic story of the Osseo will follow.

The Kirkmichael was a steel hulled barque built in 1882 and on 22 December 1894 was on passage from Glasgow and Liverpool to Melbourne with general cargo, under the command of Captain T Jones. She left Liverpool under tow on 20 December but the tow parted the next day and Captain Jones decided, due to the increasing gale, to hoist sail and make a run for Holyhead and its Harbour of Refuge. As she progressed the storm steadily took away her canvas. On 22 December, at 10am, now under bare poles, she was driven onto the outer wall of the breakwater, 200 yards from the lighthouse, immediately losing her mainmast and becoming stranded.

The Kirkmichael’s bell on display at the Holyhead Maritime Museum

The Holyhead lifeboat was quickly launched but was swamped by the heavy seas forcing her to return. The rocket lifesaving crew crawled along the breakwater avoiding the regular deluge of water breaking over the wall. They managed to get a line onto the stern of the barque by which 11 men, including the Captain, were taken off. However the Mate and Second Mate had taken to the rigging and refused to move.

Holyhead Breakwater during a recent storm

William Jones from Newry Street, Holyhead had gone to assist the Coastguards and volunteered to go on board to help the two remaining in the rigging. He was accompanied by a coastguard officer, Harry Hunt, but before the men could be reached, one fell to his death and the other, although rescued, later died of exposure. The ship’s steward had also refused to leave the ship and remained below. He was eventually taken off in the morning when the weather abated.

In all seven of the crew perished. Four crew members are buried at Maeshyfryd Cemetery, Holyhead – John Leigh Chamberlain Richardson from Caistor, Lincolshire (aged 18, Apprentice and Midshipman, RNR), Richard George Lea from Wallasey, Cheshire (aged 22, AB Seaman), Warren Lipscombe* from Teddington, London (aged 20, Apprentice) and Edwin Dixon (aged 24, First Mate). Others whose bodies were lost or buried elsewhere – J D McCubbin (Second Mate), J H Martin (Apprentice) and Thomas Ready (Sailmaker).

William Richard Jones with his bravery medals.

William Jones was later recognised for his bravery and awarded a silver medal from the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society and bronze medals from the Board of Trade and the Royal Humane Society. These can be viewed at the Holyhead Maritime Museum.

Contributed by Barry Hillier

* Records show that Warren Lipscombe may have been only 16 years old. He commenced his indentures at Liverpool on 18 December 1894, just 4 days before he was drowned.

The photos of the wreck of the Kirkmichael and William Richard Jones are from the Holyhead Maritime Museum Collection.

The photograph of the breakwater is included with the kind permission of Holyhead photographer, Alan Jones.

Curious Incident of the Luggage at Holyhead in 1850

britannia bridge 1850s
The Britannia Tubular Railway Bridge in 1850

When the Britannia Bridge carried its first train across the Menai Straits on March 18th 1850, this meant that people could more easily travel to north Wales, not only to places they’d never seen before but also by a method of transport which was in its infancy. Such was the case of a Mr Bower, a barrister from Birkenhead who headed a party of eight people on a tour of places of interest lying along the route of the Chester and Holyhead railway. On August 13th 1850 they boarded a train in Bangor and travelled to Holyhead. What happened next was to affect the rights of train travellers to this very day.

As the train (described as ‘the express’) came to a halt in Holyhead Mr Bower and his companion, Mr Griffith, went over to the luggage van to claim their trunks and suitcases. They were told by the stationmaster, Mr Massingberd, that they could sustain injury if they entered the van. To their amazement, the train was reversed out of the station and shunted to the pier and the awaiting packet boat. The two gentlemen made their way (presumably along Land’s End) to the pier to find that all luggage was, by then, stowed away in the ship’s hold and was inaccessible. Mr Bower boarded the vessel and remonstrated with the crew but to no avail because, even as he spoke to them, the gangplank was lifted and the packet-boat began to move away from the quay. Mr Bower clambered onto the paddle-box on the stern of the vessel and leapt across the divide to land on the pier itself. (which must have been quite a sight!).

unknown artist; Paddle Steamer Passing South Stack in a Storm
Holyhead to Dublin Paddle Steamer of circa 1850

In a disturbed state, Mr Bower and Mr Griffith went back to the station and argued their case, quite forcibly, with the stationmaster. He, eventually, agreed to take action and that the ‘lost’ luggage would be returned from Ireland the following day and, in fairness, the much-travelled items were delivered to the party at 6:00pm the following evening. The complaints then increased – Mr Bower had no clean linen, Mr Griffith had to stay in bed at the Holyhead hotel until his shirt had been washed, the ladies had no combs, brushes or change of clothing and, as a final blow, they found Holyhead to be completely uninteresting and, where they had expected to enjoy open views of the sea, all they saw was a mudbank. (We are not told what area of Holyhead was being viewed).

On his return home, Mr Bower decided to take the matter up with the Cheshire County Court and it was during this hearing that the facts were divulged. The Chester and Holyhead Railway Company’s defence was that the ‘express’ was 40 to 60 minutes late and that Mr Bower’s party was the only one not travelling on to Ireland. The Company said it had done all in its power to retrieve the luggage but the judge in the case felt that this was not the standard expected from the Company or from its workers and that all Railway Companies had a responsibility not only to deliver passengers safely to their journey’s end but also to care for and deliver their luggage. He judged in Mr Bower’s favour and asked the jury to assess a suitable sum of compensation for the inconvenience caused. The Chester and Holyhead was ordered to pay the plaintiff £20.

This was possibly the first legal case ever where lost luggage was the issue and Holyhead played a role in a situation that resulted in all railway companies since 1850 having to accept their liabilities.

Contributed by Dr. Gareth Huws

Image of the Britannia Bridge is from the National Library of Wales – https://www.llyfrgell.cymru/ by Lizars, W. H. (William Home) 1788-1859 engraver.

Image of the Paddle Steamer is by an unknown artist and from the Holyhead Maritime Museum Collection (https://artuk.org/)