Photo by Stephen Elwyn Roddick
The Skerries are a group of small, mostly low grass toped islands that are at the end of a low tract of submerged land North East of Holyhead off Anglesey North Wales. They are 4 miles off the Anglesey coast and 7 miles north east from the port of Holyhead.
They are directly in the path of many of the major shipping lanes from Liverpool and Ireland and the route from Holyhead to Ireland. The lighthouse gives a guide to passing shipping and a warning of the dangerous rocks. Nearby is another group of small of submerged rocks centred on Coal Island, and these are shown both by a series of three markers known as the White Ladies, 2 on the mainland at Carmel Head and 1 on the island of West Mouse, see Two White Ladies. A sector light from the lighthouse also marks these rocks.
They get their name from the Gaelic word sgeir meaning reef or rocky islet, in the Gallic Welsh language they are known as Ynys Y Moelrhoniaid or Ynysoedd y Moelrhoniaid which means islands of bald headed grey seals.
This light station marks the extreme north western tip of Wales, making it one of the most important lights of the Irish Sea.
Privately built, in fact, this was the last private lighthouse in Britain when it was finally bought by Trinity House in 1841.
Photo from Geograph
Panorama photo on a misty day Photo by Stephen Elwyn Roddick
The Full History
The first suggestions I can find of a light here were in 1658, from merchants trading between Holyhead and Dublin. Henry Hascard, some say Mascard, a speculator pointed out the danger and applied to Oliver Cromwell's council of state, to be able to personally pay for and erect a beacon here. Trinity House opposed this but later in 1662 agreed there was a need for a beacon here.
By 1675 nothing had happened, except presumably more ships wrecked over the years. On the 25th May 1675 at 9.30pm, the first British Royal Yacht, the 8 gun ship 'Maria', a present to Charles II in 1660 from the people of Holland, was to run into The Skerries in fog. She was going from Dublin to Chester, she came to rest on her side against one of the smaller rocks and her mast touching land. This allowed around half of those on board to use the mast as a bridge and reach land. The ships master, his bosun and just over 30 others perished. Surprisingly nothing still happened about lighting this hazard.
Over 140 merchantmen signed a petition in 1705, drawn up by Captain John Davidson, presenting this to the Attorney General Sir Edward Northey in 1709, stating the reason as because "many ships were cast away". Northey asked Trinity House, who objected, claiming sole rights to build lighthouses under the Elizabeth 1st Charter, but offering to build one if they were paid to. Northey and his legal advisors, disagreed that they had sole rights to build lighthouses, and in any event by this time others had already built some including the Eddystone Lighthouse in Devon. He recommended to the crown that Captain Davidson be granted permission. The owner at that time of The Skerries was John Robinson, and they could not agree a fee for the sale of the islands so the idea came to nothing.
In June 1713, a wealthy merchant William Trench, managed to negotiate a lease for the islands, £10 for the first year and £20 for the remaining years of the 99 year lease. In July the following year, the lease was amended to add the fact that he had a patent to erect a lighthouse out of his own pocket, and paying an additional £5 per year on the lease. Providing he had 60 years of income at 1d and 2d a ton from shipping passing. Another source says he was granted a patent by Queen Anne for the building of a light. For a Crown Rent of £5 a year, Trench was given the right to levy dues of one penny per ship and two pence per ton of cargo.
In 1714 William Trench supervised the loading of the first boat to go and build the lighthouse, taking a lot of supplies and 7 men including his son. On the way out it was caught up in a storm and being overloaded had problems, become swamped de-masted and was driven on to Platers Rock with the loss of all 7 on board.
The first lighthouse comes into use
The lighthouse was completed and first lit on 4th November 1717, and he said it was 150ft higher than the sea. This was the first light on the west coast of Britain. Later records show it to have been a 36ft stone tower, with grate on top, set 78ft above high water mark. The cost was £3,000.
The light was from coal burning in a cast iron grate 3ft across piled high. The area was subject to heavy fogs that could last sometimes days and the logic of the coal fire rather than a candle lantern was that the light would be more likely to be seen through the fog. Many others were to follow this example. Very many vessels had been lost in these fogs.
They burnt 80 tons of coal in a typical year and up to 100 tones of coal in a cold year, it was stockpiled on Carmel Head and brought out by boat.
Later a stone built keepers cottage was built next to the tower, its built of local stone, with typical Anglesey stepped gable ends. This has not been lived in since the middle of the 1800's, but survived and recently £100,000 was spent restoring the 'world's oldest lighthouse keeper's cottage', they say built in 1716, but it was built a little later than that, to its original condition. The work was done by Llanfairpwll based company Dewis, working closely with conservation contractors Faenol-Linford on the project and funded by Cadw. More.
The lighthouse made huge losses, and besides the £3,000 build cost, it lost around £100 a year as collecting light dues was difficult from the Port of Liverpool where most of the ships went. By the time of his death in 1725, most of his wealth was said to have gone and The Skerries was inherited by his wife and the lighthouse lease to his daughter Anne and her husband Sutton Morgan.
Its not clear why, but perhaps to keep the light going at a loss, Parliament passed an Act on the 24th June 1730, that gave them a new lease in perpetuity for the family with no costs having to ever be paid, as well as increasing the shipping rates. It also appears they had an allowance or grant. I have also seen it said that the Post Office had William Trench a pension rather than pay shipping tolls. It's likely therefore that there is more going on than I am aware of, and if someone had the interest in delving through the public record office records at Kew it might bring more light on this.
This was a unique situation, more money, no payments to the state and all the profits to be kept for Morganís heirs forever.
One foggy night in 1739, the lighthouse was being run, and fire stoked up by a couple, then the keepers, and being paid £15 a year, when they thought they heard a knock on the cottage door. They thought it was a trick of the wind as they were the only people on the island, but hearing a second knock they went down to investigate ad opening the door they found a completely naked Negro stood in front of them, the wife then became hysterical believing she was being visited by the devil. The man was a survivor from a ship that had wrecked on the rocks, in the mist. This story suggests that occasional wrecks happened still, but were not frequent.
The second tower
In 1759 the original Tower was demolished and a new one put up by Sutton Morgan's son, for about £3,000. The rebuilt lighthouse was a slightly tapering limestone tower, 21.8ft (6.65m) in diameter and about 28ft (8.5m) high. It was lit by a coal brazier on top of the tower. He also constructed a new jetty for landing coal and a new grate. The effect was to increase its range to around 15 miles.
In 1778 Morgan Jones, who was twice High Sheriff of Cardiganshire, inherited the lighthouse. In around 1803 he with the help of Samuel Wyatt, a Trinity House engineer, raised the top of the tower by 22ft (6.7m) and built an iron balcony with railings enclosing the oil-burning lantern. The lantern was 12ft high, glazed all around with square panes and covered by a cupola. It was lit by 18 Argand lamps and reflectors, and had a range of around 18 miles. They were lit on 20th February 1804.
By the early half of the 19th century trade had increased considerably, more boats brought in more money, and by this point the problem of colleting light dues had been overcome. The lighthouse had gone from a serious loss making venture to creating good profits. By 1834, it was estimated that they were making an annual profit of £12,500. While Parliament earlier was happy to give them the lighthouse forever with no return now it was no longer making a loss and had good profits, this was now questioned. It didn't help when Morgan Jones, the son of the one above, refused to produce accounts for a Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry, on the basis of the previous Act. When they did eventually get him to disclose the figures they found he was making £12,000 pa plus he was still getting £1,700 a year from them, from the time before it was able to support itself.
As a result of this a new Act was passed that would change lighthouse history again, this time it was the 1836 Act Vesting Lighthouses, Lights and Seamarks in England, the corporation of Trinity House. Wales was considered a part of England at this time. The objective of the Act was to remove profits from individuals who, due to increasing trade, had huge profits and to standardise a single rate for light duty. Its likely that the ship owners were well represented in Parliament.
This Act enabled Trinity House to take over other lighthouses by negotiation or where this failed by compulsory purchase.
Mogan Jones was not keen to give up his profitable lighthouse, that was now showing a profit of £20,000 a year, and argued that the Act did not include him as the earlier Act made him except. He turned down offers of £260,000 then £350,000 and finally £399,500 prior to his death in 1841. Trinity House saw the opportunity to move now but the same solicitor representing Morgan Jones was representing his estate and he got them to have the final settlement figure settled by a Jury. The Jury sitting in Beaumaris, Anglesey before the High Sheriff of Anglesey, set the figure as £444,984. It was the last privately owned lighthouse to be taken over by Trinity House. However there were some others, like the ones owned by the Liverpool Dock Board, that were not taken over at this time or for a long time after.
This today is quite a sum, but in equivalent value it would be £22 million today.
Photo from Geograph
The third tower
Now in the ownership of Trinity House, they started to plan improvements, and work started in 1845, with a new tower 75ft high, with a row of even more impressive castellation's around the top, a new iron lantern with glazed square panes, 14ft in diameter and 16ft high, sat on top. In this was 16 Argand lamps with mirror reflectors in a rotating mechanism, driven by clockwork. This light, visible for 18 miles, was 119ft above high water and was first lit on the 23rd September 1846.
This lavishly restored by James Walker, exhibiting two of his characteristics, a decrease in diameter and a solid parapet (as seen at his Trwyn Du Lighthouse.) The stone built gallery was 2.8ft (0.84m) wide and bracketed out on corbels with a crenellated parapet.
At the same time a new keepers house was put up, and the old keepers house converted to storage. The original keepers cottage has recently been restored.
There are also on the island two stone-walled enclosures, which still exist on the east side of the island, probably served as pens for livestock to supply fresh milk and food.
There is also a freshwater well, only a short distance from the cottage, enclosed within a small stone building. Unusually it has steps leading down into the water and there is a local tradition that the well was also used for baptisms.
In 1851 a new fresnel lens from Chance Bbrothers was installed rotating around a fresnel oil lamp on a clockwork pedestal, this had the effect of increasing the range to 21 miles.
September 1876 saw the addition of a fog horn.
In 1903Ė4, a solid circular tower 10ft in diameter, was added to the south west side of the main tower to carry a red sector light over a group of dangerous rocks, this was visible for 14 miles, this light was discontinued in the 1980's.
In 1927 it was electrified, and automated in 1987.
On the north side of the tower there is a former external doorway exhibiting the Trinity House coat of arms, which now leads to the engine room.
Nearby are castellated dwellings having cobbled yards and entrance stairs, along with symmetrically sited privies, a garden, a stone bridge connecting two islets, and a unique stone well-head building. An axial corridor leads from the dwellings to the lighthouse tower's base. The early date of the lighthouse keepersí cottages makes the buildings of considerable interest. For a number of summers, they have been used by wardens working for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
The Cottage Restoration
What is said to be the original lighthouse keepers cottage was used up until the redevelopment by Trinity House and a new house being built in 1845. Then it was converted into storage. Although the main building had been maintained and occasionally used since automation, this had not and was falling into a bad state. Recently £100,000 was spent restoring this, said to be the 'world's oldest lighthouse keeper's cottage', they say built in 1716, but it was built a little later than that, to its original condition. The work was done by Llanfairpwll-based company Dewis, working closely with conservation contractors Faenol-Linford on the project and funded by Cadw.
This was no simple renovation but a complete historic recreation including, taking supplies out by helicopter, and the building team having to live of the islands for some time. The Cadw handout on this work explains what was done and how, but says they have no use for the building. However it hardly seems credible that even a Government quango would spend this amount on a detailed reconstruction with near original materials, if they were not going to make any use of the building. Franchised tourist trips out to the islands, wildlife and to see the lighthouse is probably on the cards. see also media coverage Cadw handout on renovating cottage.
Visiting the Islands
The islands can be visited by charter boat from Holyhead. The individual islets are accessible from one another at low tide and by small bridges.
I can find a number of photos of people on trips who have stopped there, but can't see any public trips that are routine. Given that the Welsh Government through Cadw have spent recently £100,00 to restore a historic cottage to its original condition, I would assume there will be plans at some time to allow people to see it. There are a number of boat charter businesses around Anglesey, the sort of boats are those that take people out sea for fishing, but also take out photographers and people interested in wildlife and the like.
View from the lighthouse over islands - notice the bridges. Photo by Stephen Elwyn Roddick
Wildlife on The Skerries
The RSPB manage the island reserve although the islands are owned by Trinity House.
A group of small, inter-connected islands with breeding terns, particularly Arctic Tern and there are over 2,000 pairs, plus Common Terns, but also with occasional breeding Roseate Tern. The islands also hold significant numbers of breeding herring and lesser black-backed gulls and locally important numbers of breeding puffins.
Habitats on the islands include maritime grassland, characterised by common scurvey-grass, lesser sea-spurrey, red fescue and common sorrel, inter-tidal rocks and pools and low maritime cliff with associated ledges and crevices. Of particular interest are species rich sediment floored rockpools and the small cushion star.
Two old postcards, we would need old drawings or paintings to see earlier designs
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