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Anglesey's famous LIGHTHOUSE

Ynys Lawd, better known as South Stack, is a small island situated off the west coast of Holy Island, and the most westerly point on Anglesey, well known to sea kayakers for its fast-flowing tidal streams.

The second element of its name ‘stack’, has its origins in Norse, derived from the Scandinavian word stakkr, meaning precipitous island in the sea. South Stack is one of many names of Norse origins around the coast of Anglesey, such as Maen Piscar and The Skerries, which both contain Sker (rock).  The name Anglesey itself contains the Norse personal name Ongull and the Norse ey (island) it seems Anglesey had a close connection with the Norse people in times gone past. Ynys Lawd the Welsh name, is believed to mean 'boiling and seething' and refers to the seas around the island.

From the time of Roman occupation until the seventeenth century Chester was one of the main ports for shipping between Britain and Ireland. The river Dee was prone to silting and along with Chester, other ports along the Wirral coasts fell out of favour for ports such as Holyhead.  There is evidence to suggest that the post to Dublin was routed through Holyhead as early as the sixteenth century, due to it being the narrowest point across St George’s Channel, during the days of sail it could take as long as twenty hours, depending on the tides and weather.

Following the passing of the act of union in 1800, when Ireland and Britain merged to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain the Irish Sea traffic was dramatically boosted with increased trading in goods and passenger traffic.

Losses of vessels along the North Wales coast were frequent , many lives and cargo were lost, and a need for a light near Holyhead was recognised as early as 1645, when King Charles I was petitioned for a lighthouse to be built at South Stack.

It was not until the early nineteenth century, that a Captain Hugh Evans showed renewed concerns about a lack of a navigational aid on the most westerly point of Holy Island. As a direct result of his maritime experience, he was aware of the dangers of navigating the western approaches to Holyhead harbour. 

Captain Hugh Evans was born in Anglesey around 1774, he had a career at sea in merchant marine and was part-owner and commander of the Belvoir Castle.  It was around 1805, when he started to prepare the case for South Stack.  He was a significant figure in the maritime development of Holyhead in the first half of the nineteenth century and keen to promote Holyhead as a port of refuge, in 1836 he set out a pamphlet arguing its advantages over Porthdinllaen on the Lyn Peninsula. He lived in Holyhead and passed away aged 70 in October 1844, during his life he would have been well known in shipping circles in North Wales and Liverpool.  He passed into obscurity in Holyhead and deserves to be better known.   The only record of Hugh Evans’s name today is on one of the four iron saddles that are situation on top of the stone pillars of the suspension bridge at South Stack which, along with the lighthouse, is his principal memorial.

In December 1807, Captain Evans prepared a chart of Holy Island with all the vessels that had sunk or run aground in the sea area.  He submitted a copy to Trinity House along with a petition signed by ship owners , captains and merchants, but Trinity House didn’t feel there were enough light dues (ship owners had to pay a fee for the light houses they passed) to be collected and refused to fund the building of a light house at South Stack.  The board asked him to approach the petitioners with a deal to double the light dues in order to cover the costs, such was the demand for a light they agreed, allowing the board to agree a second petition submitted in March 1808.  The site for the lighthouse was agreed by 2 elder brethren (Senior members of the board of Trinity House) and permission to erect a light was finally granted.

Surveying the Stack, which had only previously been used as grazing ground for sheep, started on 26th May 1808.  On 24th June, a 999-year lease was agreed by the Bulkeley Estate (which still own the island to this day) and Trinity House, the rent was set at £15 15s per annum, payable each Christmas Day.

Work started on the lighthouse tower in August 1808, Trinity House appointed their surveyor Daniel Alexander - project architect, who appointed Captain Evans as foreman due to his expertise with ropes and pulleys, enabling the workforce to lift heavy loads.   They collaborated on many projects including the lighthouse at Bardsey Island.  Local millwrights (skilled tradesmen) were employed because of their extensive experience in building towers for Anglesey’s tower windmills.

A 28-metre tall tower was built from local rock mostly quarried on the island; the undressed masonry for the walls, bound and held together by lime mortars. On the bottom part of the island, near to where the bridge is now located, a lime kiln was built. 

Due to the poor road network and difficulties of bringing materials down the cliffs, boats were used to bring many tons of materials to the island from Holyhead.  A winch was used on the north side of the island to bring in materials, and steps cut into the rock, although disembarking during heavy swell was difficult.  The steps and winch are still there today.  The lighthouse tower is a simple design, large slate pieces were used to form the floors and windowsills, and large pieces of Penmon limestone were used for the circular staircase.  

Seventy workmen were employed in the building work and travelled to the island by boat, they were only allowed to leave on a Saturday evening and had to arrive back on Sunday evening, though due to the unpredictable weather and seas, they were not always able to leave at the end of the week.  Provisions, needed to sustain the workmen, were hauled across the gap between the island and mainland using aerial ropeways with under-hanging baskets underneath. On one occasion, one of the workers had news that his mother was ill, hanging underneath the rope he hauled himself across the 150ft gap by his hands and feet, only to be severely reprimanded by his supervisors upon his return.  Ropes were soon changed to a rope bridge, which was said to be a ‘test of nerves’ in strong winds, as it swung the bridge violently.  

The reflectors in the lantern room were supplied and installed by George Robinson, the sole supplier to Trinity House at the time, the oil lanterns were supplied Robert Wilkins and son.  The light was first officially lit on Thursday 9th February 1809, only nine months from when work had begun, some feat when considering the difficulties involved!

The entire apparatus in the light room took six minutes to complete one revolution, the lenses were three sided so it flashed white once every two minutes and could be seen up to thirty miles on a clear night.  Navigating was made easier into Holyhead, allowing mariners to navigate the North Wales coast with more confidence.  Before the introduction of the lifeboat service, lighthouses were the only safety measure to ships at night. 

The majority of the lighthouses in Wales and England used fountain oil lamps(the oil was mainly from Sperm Whales), which were not very efficient as they needed constant maintenance.  During their shifts, the keepers would stay in the room below the lantern and maintain the lamps and their rotation during the night.  Two separate dwellings were built to house the keepers and their families. The dwellings had two rooms and measuring 26ft by 15ft, the dimensions correspond with the old keeper’s cottage on the Skerries lighthouse which is the oldest of its type in existence and was restored during 2003/2004.

In 1827, Captain Hugh Evans put forward a plan for a new bridge to be built which would span the 100ft chasm, replacing the hemp rope bridge. The Menai suspension bridge; the first to be built of wrought iron on such a scale, had been completed the previous year, some say this had inspired him.  The first two cables for the suspension bridge were strung across by October 1827, but work was postponed due to winter weather.  The bridge was officially opened on 12th August 1828, to coincide with the birthday of George IV, the reigning monarch at the time.

In August 1831, following the success of the bridge, Captain Hugh Evans put another proposal to Trinity House for a new moveable low light.  This additional light was intended to provide a light for times when the main South Stack light was obscured by fog and low cloud, making the main light useless to the Captains of the packet boats (boats with regular sailing schedules) sailing to Ireland. 

During November of the same year, permission was granted for work to start immediately, many tons of rock were blasted to clear an incline carved into the rocks on the north of the island, rails were placed so the movable light room, made of timber and painted white, could be lowered by a 3.5” thick rope to 40m above the sea, the ramp can still be seen today.

The first principal keeper was James Dean and his assistant was Hugh Griffiths, a local man to Holyhead, Captain Evans and Dean didn’t see eye to eye, so Dean was replaced by his assistant Hugh Griffiths in July 1810, less than 2 years after is appointment.  Again, the new appointment of Thomas le Cheminant didn’t go well, he was found to be under the influence and unable to do his duties on several occasions, he was dismissed in February 1812.   By April of the same year a new assistant was found, local man John Jones. This time Hugh Griffiths and John Jones got on well together, both were married with young families.  In those days, keepers had no reliefs, they lived and worked at the lighthouses along with their families. 

Although at the time, lighthouses were a new technology and living conditions were harsh. Indeed, it was a struggle to maintain a basic level of comfort, Hugh Griffiths and his wife Jane lost their daughter just 24 hours after Jane gave birth, on 13th April 1816.  John Jones passed away in February of 1828 aged 53, he was succeeded by his wife; Ann Jones, she had lived at South Stack for 15 years and knew how to operate the equipment there, so was a natural choice. She was superseded by her son in the 1840s, also named John Jones though known as Jack, who was born on the island in 1820.  

A new principle keeper Henry Bowen was appointed to South Stack in 1853 as a direct replacement to Hugh Griffiths, who had retired aged 78.  Henry Bowen and his family lived on the island in one of two dwellings and were both bi-lingual so fitted in with the mainly welsh speaking community. During the next 10 years, the couple were to have 4 children on the island, Esther, David, Thomas and Margaret.  His time on the island was not without incident, Bowen wrote to his superintendent to complain that “local children were of concern”, during the 1850s the children of Holyhead would gather in large numbers, especially during school holidays, on the steps leading down to the island. He wrote most were well-behaved, but a small minority were causing problems by throwing stones down onto the bridge, he wrote “if the behaviour was allowed to continue, someone could be injured or worse”. He asked for the presence of a policeman from Holyhead especially during holidays.  

Prior to his departure in August 1863, the Trinity House Board received a petition from local people testifying to Bowen’s good character and requesting they reconsider their proposals to move him to his next posting, the Board was adamant and continued with his transfer; Bowen was posted to Menai lighthouse, Penmon, its name changed to Tywyn Du in the 1950s.

Life at South Stack was never easy, and on the night of 25th October 1859, a terrible hurricane struck Britain.  Many vessels were lost, the best known the Royal Charter, with the loss of over 450 lives off the north coast of Anglesey.  During this terrible evening John “Jack” Jones was returning to the lighthouse after attending to the family cow at Plas Nico, in preparation for the coming storm.  Whilst struggling to close the gate near the bridge in the strong wind and rain, a rock was dislodged from the cliff face and struck him on the head, Bowen assumed he had stayed at the farm at Plas Nico due to the weather and Jack was not found until the following morning half-sitting, half-lying against the portal of the bridge, he had been there all night during the hurricane, he sadly passed away from his injuries three weeks later, on 16th November.

Trials of a new light were carried out at South Stack during 1874.  Once operational, favourable comments were again received from Captains of vessels sailing to and from Holyhead.  

Following proposals from Sir James Nicholas Douglass, Engineer-in-Chief to Trinity House, a new style of lantern for South Stack was to replace the original one, once the main light had been modernised, the low-level light seemed inadequate.  During 1905, a new incandescent mantle burner was installed in the tower, with a light output of 274,250 candela, much brighter than the previous multi-wick paraffin lamps. By June 1907, the low light was removed.  

In 1935 Trinity House deemed it unsafe for families to remain and they began negotiations to change the lighthouse’s designation, from an isolated shore station to a rock station.  Finally, on 1st September 1935, South Stack was officially known as a ‘rock station’ and keepers were to live there without their families.  Jon Samuel Jones (pictured left, with his assistant Bob Humphries on the right) worked on and off at South Stack until he retired in 1950.  From here on, keepers worked a shift system, similar to those already in operation on other remote rock lighthouses, working a month on and a month off.  

The 1960s proved a busy time at South Stack with a new aluminium bridge and mains electric being installed, the electrical supply proved difficult with poles set into the rock on the cliff edge. The mains electricity allowed many new instruments to be installed; a new electric foghorn became operational on 1st October 1964, a new automated fog detector was installed shortly after, freeing the keepers from the responsibility of operating the fog signal.  Engineers had been considering automation during the late nineteenth century, in 1922 Trwyn Du light house at Penmon was the first on Anglesey to be converted with its acetylene lamps.  South Stack was officially automated on 13th September 1984, following 175 years of occupation, the lighthouse now stood empty.

Though there was more change to come, Trinity House wanted value for money from their lighthouses and to secure the future of these historic landmarks, so they decided to open a few to the general public as tourist attractions, to raise revenue. During 1994, Trinity House sought partners to assist in this new venture at South Stack and a partnership between Trinity House, Ynys Mon council and the RSPB was formed, with the aim of opening South Stack as a tourist attraction. 

The main obstacle was the old footbridge, having been awarded a substantial grant by the Welsh Development Agency, together with contributions from both Trinity House and the Island of Anglesey Borough Council, work commenced on a new footbridge in 1996.

South Stack was reopened to the public on 9th August 1997 and is now one of the island’s top tourist attractions, it is now estimated that in the region of 150,000 people visit South Stack each year.

South Stack light house specifications

Established:  1809

Height of tower:  28 metres

Height of light above sea level:  60 metres

Automated:  1984

Lighthouse modernised:  2000

Current lamp:  150-watt metal halide

Optic:  First order catadioptric, rotated by electric stepper motors

Character of light:  One flash every ten seconds

Visible range of light: 24 miles

Fog signal character: one 3 second blast every 30 seconds 

Fog signal range:  3 nautical miles 

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