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Holyhead, Anglesey

Historical Description

Holyhead, a market-town, a seaport, and a parish in Anglesey. The town stands on Holy Island, at the south side of Holyhead Bay, and at the terminus of the Chester and Holyhead section of the L. & N.W.B., 3 miles ENE of the western extremity of Holy Island, 24½ WNW of Bangor, and 260 by road, but 264½ by railway, NW of London. The Druids appear, from traces of their remains, including a tolerably well-preserved cromlech, to have flourished much in the neighbourhood. The Romans seem either to have had a station at the town, or at least to have used the contiguous creek of the bay, as a port for communication with Ireland. Traces of ancient fortifications exist on the neighbouring eminence of Holyhead Mountain; a rude circular tower, supposed to have been an ancient pharos, was on the summit of that eminence; spear-heads, bronze rings, and ancient coins have been found in various parts of the town's environs; and a gold coin was exhumed in 1860, at a lonely spot, where formerly stood a lonely oratory, called Capel-y-Lochwy, under Holyhead Mountain. The walls on three sides of the churchyard, 6 feet thick, having extremely hard cement mixed with coarse pebbles, are believed to be Roman. A copper mine in the neighbourhood, called the Hamlet Mine, was worked by the Romans. An eminent British saint or Cnldee, called Cybi-after visiting Gaul and making distinguished opposition to the errors of Arius-returned about the year 380 to his native country and founded then, on the site of Holyhead parish church, a monastic or rather Culdee establishment. This appears to have given celebrity to the place, and it occasioned the town to be called Gaer-Cybi and; the island to be called Ynys-Cybi. A college grew out of the religious establishment perhaps as early as about 580, and was eventually transferred to Jesus College, Oxford. Many religious persons seem to have been drawn to Cybi's establishment, many men noted for their piety were interred there or in the vicinity, and a number of ancient chapels or oratories have left traces or are known to have existed on the island. Hence the names Holy Island and Holyhead. But both the ancient fortifications and Cybi's establishment are assigned by some antiquaries to as late a date as the 6th century. These antiquaries suppose the fortifications to have been formed by Caswallon Llaw-hir, Prince of North Wales,. to defend the country against the aggressions of the Irish, Picts. These marauders after the departure of the Romans' made frequent descents upon Anglesey, massacred many of the inhabitants at a place still called Cerrig-y-Gwyddel or the Irishman's rock, and endeavoured to take firm post for further hostilities by fortifying a place called Din-dryfal. The town thence for many centuries makes no figure in history, but in the tune of William III. it comes again into notice in a widely different aspect as the chief mail-packet station from England to Ireland. It is the nearest practicable point from which vessels can run to Dublin; it acquired great additional fitness as a packet station by successively the formation of a regular harbour, the construction of the great road to it through LlangoUen, the introduction of steam navigation, and the formation of the Chester and Holyhead railway; it now commands such facility of communication, on the one hand by railway, on the other by steam-vessel, as to place London and Dublin within about ten hours' travelling-distance of each other; and it has the further importance of possessing a great harbour of refuge.

The town adjoins the W side of the old harbour, and has-on the whole a somewhat triangular form. It comprises-several good principal streets, a number of subordinate streets½ and considerable outskirts. It has the disadvantage of standing on uneven ground, so that some of its streets are inconveniently steep. An arch of Mona marble, in commemoration of the landing of George IV., is at the entrance of the pier. An obelisk to the memory of Captain Skinner, commander of one of the mail steamers, who perished near the North Stack during a gale in 1833, is on the opposite rocky side of the harbour. The principal public buildings are the town-hall, the local board office, and the market-halL The parish church, begun in the reign of Edward III., completed in that of Henry VII., and restored by Sir Gilbert Scott, is cruciform, and by far the most interesting church in Anglesey; has a square tower surmounted by a low flattish spire; presents on its exterior some curious rude carvingsi, which are now much weather-worn; contains in its S porch a canopied figure of St Cybi; and shows in its transept the singular property of the piers in the S being higher than those in the N. The churchyard, or precinct of the church, measures 221 feet by 130, and looks, from the character of its imposing walls, to have been originally a camp or fort. St Seiriol's Church, on Summer Hill, was built in 1854i. There are Roman Catholic, Congregational, Baptist, Calvin-istic Methodist, and Wesleyan chapels.

A breakwater, to protect the harbour, and to form or enclose a harbour of refuge, was long seen to be much needed. A scheme for constructing this, and for at the same time adding a new packet-pier, was launched in 1846 under the superintendence of Mr Bigby, and was completed in 1873. The breakwater commences about 9 furlongs WNW of Ynys-Halen, goes with a curve north-eastward to the extent of 7500 feet, stands for the greater part in a depth of from 6 to 8 fathoms of water, incloses an area of 260 acres of complete protection. and 350 acres of partial shelter, and consists of enormous blocks of stone which were brought down on railway by locomotive power from quarries in the neighbouring Holyhead Mountain, and lifted to their positions by cyclopean cranes½ The structure of it looks so vast and strong as to promise perfect resistance to any amount of storm-power, and yet a large portion of it when in course of construction was overwhelmed by the same gale of 1859 which wrecked the Royal Charter. The new packet-pier commences at the NE side of Ynys-Halen, goes about 1500 feet north-eastward, and deflects northward into two arms called the inner pier and the outer pier, each about 1000 feet long. The Beacon, Skinner's, and Platter's rocks are within the area of the sheltered harbour. The Soldier's Point is at the place where the breakwater commences. Holyhead Bay is a narrowing estuary inward in a south-easterly direction from the harbour, and an exposed sea-expanse outward from the breakwater to an imaginary line of about 6 miles in length, drawn northeastward from the North Stack at the NW extremity of the Holyhead promontory, and it used to afford good anchorage in some winds in from 3 to 4 fathoms water, but has ceased to be used for anchorage since the construction of the breakwater. A lighthouse, with revolving red light 201 feet above high-water mark, and of great service to the harbour, is on the South Stack, about 1½ mile S by W of the North Stack. Another lighthouse, showing a steady bright light 117 feet above high water, is on the Skerries, about 9 miles N by E of Ynys-Halen.

The old harbour consisted of an estuary striking southward from the bay, about 5 furlongs in length and about 2 in mean width. Not only the shallowness of this, but also the difficulty of entering or leaving it in particular winds, and still more the exposure of the bay outside of it, where billows of enormous magnitude were wont to roll in stormy weather, rendered it often unsuitable for the packet-traffic. A new harbour and quays were constructed by the L. & N.W.R. Company, and opened in 1880. The old harbour was excavated to a depth sufficient to admit of ships being brought up to the quays at all states of the tide, and was banked in on both sides by a fine quay wall, to the head of which the railway extends. The harbour is 2000 feet long, 600 feet wide, and has a water area of 24 acres. An islet, called Ynys-Halen or the Salt Island, lies at the mouth of the harbour. An iron bridge, conveying road and railway, connects this with the mainland; the custom-house and harbour offices are on the islet; a pier nearly 1000 feet long goes due eastward from the island, and is faced seaward by massive embankments; an inner jetty or small pier of excellent construction goes northward from the shore toward the outer part of the pier; and a massive chain lies sunk across the entrance, between the pier-heads, as a grappling-hold to vessels making for the harbour in a NW gale. The depth for 300 feet alongside the pier is 10 feet at low water, and thence it rapidly decreases. A lighthouse, 50 feet above the level of the sea, is at the extremity of the pier.

The town has a head post office, two banks, and carries on some shipbuilding and ropemaking. Steam-packets sail twice a day, on arrival of the London mails, for Kingstown, at the S side of the mouth of Dublin Bay, and steamers sail daily also for the North Wall, Dublin. Population, 8745.

The parish comprises 6280 acres of land and 13 of water, with 180 acres of adjacent tidal water and 637 of foreshore; population, 9610. The limits comprise all the parts of Holy Island NW of an isthmus or contraction near its middle, and therefore include all the promontory of Holyhead proper. This promontory has a somewhat half-moon outline, on a diameter of about 3 miles, with the convexity toward the NW; presents a grandly picturesque coast-line, and culminates, near the centre, in Holyhead Mountain or Gaer-Cybi, which has already been mentioned in connection with ancient fortifications and the new harbour works. It has an altitude of 709 feet above sea-level, consists mainly of serpentine rock, and commands a magnificent panoramic view of Western Wales to Snowdon, and of the Irish Sea to the Irish coast. The North Stack, in the sea at the NW skirt of the mountain, is a huge mass of rocks of chloritic schist, hollowed into magnificent caverns, with grand receding arches, all a great resort of sea-fowl, and one of the caverns, from the multitude of its feathered visitors, is called the Parliament House. The South Stack, the site of the lighthouse formerly mentioned, is also pierced with vast caverns, has splendid lofty crags, frequented by large numbers of birds, and is connected with the mainland, at a giddy height across a fearful chasm, by a chain-suspension bridge. The sea here, in SW gales, often rages so tremendously as to dash over the entire islet and the dwellings of the lighthouse keepers. The path at the mainland end of the suspension bridge ascends a precipice by 365 steps, known as the Stairs, but a good road leads thence to the town, A perilous trade was formerly carried on in procuring birds' eggs from the cliffs. Between one-third and one-half of the parochial surface is very rocky, but most of the rest is under cultivation. A chief residence is Penrhos, a handsome mansion, the seat of Lord Stanley of Alderley, about 2 miles ESE of the town. A cliff, called Penrhyn, projects into the sea about a quarter of a mile E of Penrhos. The living is a vicarage in the diocese of Bangor; gross value, £440 with residence. Patron, Jesus College, Oxford.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5


The following is a list of the administrative units in which this place was either wholly or partly included.

Registration districtAnglesey1837 - 1885
Registration districtHolyhead1885 - 1937
Registration districtAnglesey West1937 - 1968
Registration districtAnglesey1968 - 1974

Any dates in this table should be used as a guide only.

Church Records

FindMyPast have a parish records collection which includes transcripts and images of most Welsh parish registers.
This includes Holyhead: Baptisms from 1737 to 1909, Marriages from 1737 to 1926, and Burials from 1737 to 1980. Free to search.

Civil Registration

For general information about Civil Registration (births, marriages and deaths) see the Civil Registration page.

For births, marriages, and deaths in Holyhead from 1837 to 1885 you should search for the Anglesey Registration District.
For births, marriages, and deaths in Holyhead from 1885 to 1937 you should search for the Holyhead Registration District.
For births, marriages, and deaths in Holyhead from 1937 to 1968 you should search for the Anglesey West Registration District.
For births, marriages, and deaths in Holyhead from 1968 to 1974 you should search for the Anglesey Registration District.

Land and Property

A full transcript of the Return of Owners of Land in 1873 for Anglesey is online.


Online maps of Holyhead are available from a number of sites:

Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the following newspapers online:

CountyIsle of Anglesey
RegionNorth Wales