Holyhead’s Arctic Ocean Explorers

During the 19th Century there were many attempts to discover a navigable trade route to Asia via the Arctic Ocean of Northern Canada. This became known as the search for the Northwest Passage.

In 1845 an expedition led by Captain Sir John Franklin departed the UK aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to traverse the last unnavigated sections of the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. The expedition met with disaster after both ships and their crews, a total of 129 officers and men, became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island. After being icebound for more than a year, Erebus and Terror were abandoned in April 1848, by which point Franklin and nearly two dozen men had died. The survivors, now led by Franklin’s deputy Francis Crozier and Erebus‘ captain James Fitzjames, set out for the Canadian mainland. They disappeared into the arctic wasteland.

Artist depiction of the explorers’ struggle to survive.

Much later in 1981 the frozen bodies of three crew members were found. Laboratory tests determined high concentrations of lead in the bodies, probably from the lead sealed tins of food that the expedition carried. Strangely evidence was also found on the bones of others that suggested that the last of the surviving crew resorted to cannibalism of deceased members in an effort to survive.

The frozen body of Royal Navy Stoker John Shaw Torrinton.
Died of Tuberculosis on 1 January 1846.

The fate of Sir John Franklin’s voyage of discovery to search for a Northwest Passage through Canada’s frozen north, became one of history’s greatest mysteries. Over 30 expeditions were made in attempts to unravel the enigma. The mystery perpetuated for well over 160 years before the wrecks of Franklin’s vessels, the Erebus and Terror, were finally found.  The two sites are currently under investigation and a number of artifacts have been discovered, including the bell from HMS Erebushttps://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/hms-erebus-and-terror

Two Holyhead sailors were among the 67 crew of the ErebusGeorge Williams and William Mark.

George Williams was from the Holyhead/Rhoscolyn area of Anglesey. He was familier with Arctic waters and had previously sailed with Edward Parry on board the Hecla in 1824. He had been invalided out of the navy in about 1841 due to ill health but managed to re-enlist as a Seaman on the Erebus four years later, aged 35.  Williams married Margaret Wade Jennings on Christmas day 1843 at St. Augustine’s Church, Bermondsey. His father’s name was given as Thomas Williams, a farmer, presumably from Holyhead.

William Mark was the son of Humphrey and Catherine Mark of Summer Hill, Holyhead, born about 1824. He was also a Seaman aboard the ErebusAs Mark was a bachelor, the residue of his effects passed to his sister, Elizabeth Porter of 3, Lower Well Street, Holyhead.  A metal certificate case belonging to Mark was one of a number of artifacts recovered during later expeditions attempting to solve the mystery.

Their bodies were never found.


These were not the only sailors with links to Holyhead to have sailed as part of the valiant search for the Northwest Passage.

Samgar-Nebo Samuel Wilkes was born at Westminster in 1794, the son of James Wilkes, a gunsmith residing at James Street, Westminster. It is not surprising that being brought up in such an environment that the young Wilkes followed a sea career as an armourer. In 1819 Wilkes joined the Hudson Bay Company vessel Prince of Wales and set out from Gravesend on the 23rd of May 1819 bound for Canada. He was to be part of an overland expedition to explore and chart the area around the Coppermine River. One of the leaders of the expedition was Lt. John Franklin. Wilkes, due to ill health, did not complete the voyage but returned to Britain in the spring of the following year, carrying dispatches from the expedition. Disastrously of the 20 men who formed the expedition, 11 perished.

Within months Wilkes signed on his second Arctic expedition under the command of Captains William Edward Parry RN and George Francis Lyon RN. The two vessels, Hecla and Fury set sail in early 1821 with Wilkes accepted as the Armourer’s Mate (Petty Officer rank) aboard the Hecla, then under the command of Captain Lyon. The expedition returned to Britain in November 1823.

Ship’s Crews cutting a route through the ice

In June 1824 and just 16 days after marrying his first wife, Mary Jane Doggett, at London, Wilkes set sail on his final Arctic voyage aboard HMS Griper accompanied by the survey vessel Snap. Their mission was to support  Hecla and Fury which had set sail a month earlier.  Well into the voyage, at the end of August, and after being severely damaged in bad weather, the vessel was almost lost.  She managed to limp into Hudson Bay before returning to Britain in December. Her commander, George Francis Lyon, abandoned his naval career the following year.

It was at the same time that Wilkes also abandoned his sea going career to take up a position at the new Packet Yard at Holyhead. He married the widow Elizabeth Watkins, nee Morris (his third wife) at Holyhead in 1835, living for most of the rest of his life at 14 Millbank Gardens, Holyhead. He descibed himself at various times as an Engineer, Boilermaker, Brazier and Coppersmith and became a very colourful character around the town. He was father to seven children – four sons and three daughters. He died in 1872 and was buried in St Seiriol’s Church Cemetery. It is believed that he was one of the original founders of the Hibernia, later St. Cybi, Masonic Lodge at Holyhead, as evidenced by the ensignia on his gravestone.

Samgar-Nebo Samuel Wilkes’ grave at St. Seiriol’s Church Cemetery

Although only supposition it is difficult to resist the thought that Wilkes may have had some influence in Williams and Mark signing up for Franklin’s ill-fated expedition of 1845. 

Samgar-Nebo Samuel Wilkes’ Arctic Medal.
All three mariners would have qualified for this award.

Contributed by Peter Scott Roberts

This is part of a collection of posts telling the sometimes overlooked stories of some of Holyhead’s brave heroes.

© Holyhead Maritime Museum.

With thanks to John Tyson Williams, a direct decendant of Samgarnebo Samual Wilkes, for the photograph of the Arctic Medal in his possession. Also for a copy of part of Samual Wilkes’ Journal.

With thanks to Aled L Jones for the fruits of his research.

References

Brigadier General Gerald Edward Holland CB, CMG, CIE, DSO, Royal Engineers (1860-1917).

When Gerald Edward Holland arrived at Holyhead in 1907, aged 47, to take up the position of Marine Superintendent for the London and North West Railway Company (LNWR) he had already completed an illustrious career as a senior officer in the Royal Indian Marines (RIM), spanning over 25 years.

Commander G E Holland RIM.

Gerald E Holland was born in Dublin in 1860, the son of Denis and Ellen Holland. He was educated at the Ratcliffe College in Leicestershire and in 1877 joined the ship Plassey of the G D Tyser shipping line as an Apprentice. He was discharged from the vessel in 1880 before completing his apprenticeship to allow him to join the Royal Indian Marines at Calcutta. He was commissioned Lieutenant in 1882 and Commander in 1893. He served with the Burma Expeditionary Force, 1887-89, and in the Chin-Lushai Expedition. For his services he was created a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 1890.

Model of the RIMS Warren Hastings at The Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum, Winchester.

He was in command of the RIMS Warren Hastings when that ship was lost off Reunion Island in 1897. He was court-martialed, and the result was a simple reprimand. At the same time he received an exemplary order from the Governor of India for his fine conduct and saving of life during this incident.  During the Boer Wars he served on the Naval Transport Staff, Durban, and as Divisional Officer, 1900-1. For three years he was principal Port Officer at Rangoon where he was responsible for a number of patented designs to aid the loading and unloading of ships. He retired from the RIM in 1905 as Commander. For his services he was awarded the Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE).

Commander G E Holland, Marine Superintendent, Holyhead.

He married Mary, elder daughter of Edmund Dwyer Gray MP in 1896 at Dublin and by the time they arrived at Holyhead they had three young children. They settled at Bryn y Mor, Holyhead and he soon set about organising the Marine Department to improve its efficiency. He quickly gained the respect of the workforce, being both strict but fair in his dealings. He was a man of boundless energy and was involved in numerous local charities and organisations, including President of Holyhead Football Club. The creation of the Holyhead Golf Club was due to his initiative. His wife, Mary, also involved herself in many local good causes and was sorely missed by many at Holyhead following her death after a long illness in June 1913. In the same year, during the Irish Goods Strike, which ran for 14 weeks, Commander Holland found work for the men of the Goods Department at the Holyhead Golf Club rather than see them laid off.

At the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 he was instrumental in forming the No. 2 (Holyhead) Siege Company, Royal Anglesey Royal Engineers, mainly from skilled workers from the Marine Department. His son, Bertram, was commissioned as Second Lieutenant for the company. At the same time, as Marine Superintendent, he oversaw the rapid conversion of the four LNWR ships – Hibernia (HMS Tara), Cambria, Anglia and Scotia for Admiralty service.

The Inland Waterways of France and Belgium

Shortly afterwards he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel, Royal Engineers and Assistant Director of Inland Water Transport (IWT) in France.  It was largely owing to his efforts that this corps was created.  He encouraged over thirty local seafarers and others from the town to join the initiative. He became Colonel and Deputy Director in 1915.  He became Director in 1916, and promoted Brigadier General in 1917, but was head of the Department in France since its creation in 1914. The IWT was responsible for the movement of war materials along the canals of France and Belgium to keep the army supplied. This means of transport at times proved much more reliable than road and rail and contributed much to the final outcome of the war. For his services he was three times Mentioned in Despatches; received the CB and CMG; was decorated by the King of the Belgians with the Order of Leopold of Belgium, and also by the King of Italy with the Order of St Maurice and St Lazarus.

IWT Barge used as Casualty Transport

In 1917 after the German army retreated to their prepared defensive positions on the Hindleberg Line, Brigadier General Holland took upon himself to personally inspect the condition of the inland waterways in the abandoned and battle damaged areas. This involved much physical exertion in sometimes atrocious weather. It is believed that this eventually led to him becoming exhausted and ill. He returned to the UK on sick leave but died, aged 56, on 26 June 1917 at St. Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex.

Brigadier General Gerald Edward Holland’s grave at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Holyhead

When his remains were brought back to Holyhead for burial his coffin ‘laid in state’ overnight at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. During which time it was reported that over 2,000 people came to pay their respects. His funeral took place the next day when his coffin, borne on a gun carriage, was drawn through the town by sailors from the LNWR Marine Department. Reports mention that over 8,000 of the town’s inhabitants lined the route to St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery where he was laid to rest alongside his late wife, Mary. There was a full military Guard of Honour and three volleys were fired at the graveside. Many local dignitaries, directors of the LNWR, War Office representatives, numerous ship’s officers and captains, military personnel and members of the Holyhead Marine Department, amongst many others, were in attendance. Eight captains of the LNWR fleet acted as pall bearers.

This post war tribute was later paid to him.

Brigadier General Holland was an officer of great foresight and powers of initiative with wide experience in connection with the services, civil, marine and mechanical engineering problems, a born administrator with a particularly strong capacity for the mastering of details, he had worked whole-heartedly to make the IWT service in France efficient and capable of meeting any demands upon its resources.

As can be seen Brigadier General G E Holland’s contribution to the war effort was considerable. The nation marked this by bestowing him with many awards and decorations. He was truly a very remarkable and able man. He remains Holyhead’s most senior fatality and highly decorated soldier of the Great War.

Contributed by the Editor.

© Holyhead Maritime Museum.

This is part of a collection of posts telling the sometimes overlooked stories of some of Holyhead’s brave heroes.

With thanks to Geraint S Griffiths for information previously supplied.

Holyhead Airman Remembered by Belgium Villagers

This is not a story that links directly to the maritime history of the port but it does bring to focus the service and sacrifice made by many young men and women of the town during the two World Wars. RAF Sergeant Richard Edwards’ remains lie at rest in the cemetery of a small Belgium village where the residents in 2004 erected a memorial to him and 13 other airmen who perished with him.

Just before midnight on 27 May 1944 a number of Halifax Bombers left RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire to join a massed group of 331 bombers on a mission to destroy a large enemy military camp at Leopoldburg, Belgium. Each Halifax bomber carried a crew of seven. On bomber LV831 ZL-P (nicknamed Gutsy Gerty) of 427 Squadron was Sergeant Richard Edwards, aged 31, of Holyhead. He was the aircraft’s Mid-Upper Gunner. It was his job to protect the aircraft if attacked from above.

Handley Page Halifax Type B.III Heavy Bomber

Sergeant Edwards was born at Holyhead on 11 November 1912 and baptised at St. Cybi’s Church on 6 December 1912. His parents were Richard and Annie Edwards (nee Abbit). They then lived at Banksland, Maeshyfryd Road, Holyhead. His father was a Ship’s Steward working for the LMS Railway Company. They married in 1909. At the time of the marriage Annie Abbit was working as a Stewardess. Prior to joining the RAF, Richard Edwards was a Police Constable stationed at Chichester in Hampshire. He was unmarried.

The Crew of Halifax Bomber MZ291 Al-Y

Flying in the same group of bombers on that night was another Halifax Bomber, MZ291 AL-Y of 429 Squadron. Both squadrons were manned mostly by Canadians. At approximately 2.30am, there was a mid-air collision between the two bombers and both aircraft crashed to the ground close to the Belgium village of Baisy-Thy. It is not known if this occurred before the aircraft reached the target or on their way back to the UK. All 14 crew members of both aircraft were killed.

The three remaining graves at Baisy-Thy. Sergeant Edwards’ grave is at the left of the photo

Initially all the recovered bodies were buried at the Baisy-Thy Communal Cemetery. However some time later eleven were removed and reburied at the Heverlee War Cemetery, Belgium. Sergeant Edwards’ grave remains at Baisy-Thy. In 2004 the villagers of Baisy-Thy erected a memorial to the crews of the two aircraft.

The Memorial to the two crews at Baisy-Thy

Contributed by the Editor.

This is part of a collection of posts telling the sometimes overlooked stories of some of Holyhead’s brave heroes.

© Holyhead Maritime Museum.

The following websites are the sources of the photographs.

https://www.ww2cemeteries.com/

https://www.hangarflying.eu/

https://wild-roots.org/

https://www.tracesofwar.com/

St. Columba – Saint and Ship

This post is one of a continuing series to showcase some of the special objects we have in the Holyhead Maritime Museum’s collection.

The Franta Belsky mural at the Museum

One of the most fascinating and certainly the largest object on display at the Museum is the Franta Belsky mural that once graced the Forward Lounge on the Holyhead ship MV St. Columba.

The vessel was named after the 6th Century Irish monk who founded the monastery on the Scottish island of Iona, then part of the Irish kingdom of Ulster. It is believed that work to produce the treasured ‘Book of Kells’ may have commenced by monks at Iona.

The mural portrays episodes in the life of St. Columba. It depicts his journey to Iona and the monastery he founded on a base of stones. St. Columba did much to spread Christianity to this area of Scotland. It also shows the coronation of the Scottish King Aiden, which helped bring peace to the feuding clans. Praying figures, a Viking ship and white doves of peace are also depicted.

MV St. Columba in her Sealink colours

The Car Ferry MV St. Columba was built in Denmark and commenced operations on the Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire route in May 1977. At 7,836 tons she was then the largest Sealink ship on the Irish Sea. She could carry up to 2,400 passengers and 335 cars or 36 HGV’s, or a mixture of both. A popular ship, she was well liked by both passengers and crew alike.

The Mural in place in the Forward Lounge

In 1997 she left the Irish Sea for the warmer climes of the Mediterranean as the Greek ferry Express Aphrodite. It is not known when the mural was removed from the vessel but rescued by members of the Museum, it now hangs in pride of place at the Museum to remind us of the strong Celtic links between Ireland and Wales.

Sculptor Franta Belsky with his bust of Queen Elizabeth II

Franta Belsky was a Czech sculptor known for large-scale abstract works of public art as well as more iconographic statues and busts of noted 20th-century figures such as Winston Churchill and members of the British Royal Family.

The photo of the mural on board ship is from http://www.doverferryphotosforums.co.uk/mv-st-columba-past-and-present/

Contributed by the Editor.

© Holyhead Maritime Museum.

This series of posts is to showcase items from the museum’s collection and 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 – https://portspastpresent.eu/

Captain Skinner’s Painting

This post is one of a continuing series to showcase some of the special objects we have in the Holyhead Maritime Museum’s collection.

One of the museum’s most valued items is an original oil painting from 1828 completed by James Sparrow, who at that time was a customs official at Holyhead and also a long standing friend and mentor of Captain John Macgregor Skinner RN, the main subject of the painting.

Captain Skinner’s House in 1828 by James Sparrow

The oil painting is of Stanley House, Captain’s Skinner’s residence. It was said that Sparrow’s original intention was to portray several humorous incidents concerning Skinner himself. However, following the captain’s untimely death in 1832, the artist’s intentions changed and he decided to fill much of the foreground to include several of his friends and a number of recipients of his charity. Captain Skinner can be seen on his bay horse in the centre of the painting offering charity to one of Holyhead’s poor.

Not shown in the above image is the gilded frame where James Sparrow inscribed the names of all the individuals depicted in the painting. It is not only a special work of art but also a valuable historical and social record of Holyhead at that time.

Commander John Macgregor Skinner

Of all the sailing packet commanders who carried the mails between Holyhead and Dublin, it may be argued that American born, John Macgregor Skinner is probably the most remembered. Popular with the social elite and renowned for his boundless acts of charity, there is no wonder that an obelisk, paid for by public subscription, was erected on Alltran Rock, above the Holyhead Harbour, in his memory.

Skinner’s Monument above Holyhead Harbour

Captain Skinner was an accomplished Packet Captain, who in 1821 had the honour of carrying KIng George IV to Ireland on his ship, Lightening. Refusing a knighthood from the King, he graciously accepted a promotion to RN Commander. He had, during his service with the Royal Navy, lost part of his right arm and was further disadvantaged by the loss of sight in one eye. Despite this he served as a distinguished Packet Captain for more than 30 years at Holyhead until he was sadly washed overboard from his ship The Escape in 1832. His loss was greatly felt by the people of his adoptive town.

Stanley House as it is now

Contributed by Peter Scott Roberts, author of the book – ‘The Ancestry, Life and Times of Commander John Macgregor Skinner RN’.

The oil painting and other artefacts that once belonged to Captain Skinner were kindly donated to the museum by Mrs. Kathleen Hughes of Birmingham. They are on display in the museum’s main gallery.

© Holyhead Maritime Museum

This series of posts is to showcase items from the museum’s collection and 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 – https://portspastpresent.eu/