During the stormy weather last winter, with the seas too big for kayaking, we set down our paddles and put on the walking boots and headed out to the paths on Holy Island for some coastal walking. Walking along the coastline hereabouts, always alerts my thoughts to the brave men and women who have lost their lives during the area’s frequent storms.The whole area has a fascinating maritime history, especially with us being on the main shipping routes to Liverpool, Holyhead’s ferries and deep-water harbour.
Among the gravestones in Holyhead’s Maeshyfryd cemetery, there stands a striking memorial to a maritime disaster from over a century ago.
This is the tragic story of the ship and crew of the ‘Primrose Hill’.
I took this photo from the top of Primrose Hill on the Rifle Range; it’s named after The Barque-Primrose Hill. Between Christmas and New Year in 1900, the Primrose Hill was smashed to pieces on the coast near Holyhead, with the loss of 33 lives. All the crew, numbering 34, perished in sight of land, except one. He occupied a place on the poop (the highest deck of the ship) and made a jump, he was carried by an incoming wave onto the rocks, where he was pulled ashore.
Her tonnage was 2,520, 300ft in length constructed of iron and driven by sails from 4 masts, built in 1886 by T. Royden & Sons of Liverpool. She left Liverpool for Vancouver on Christmas Eve 1900, under tow from the tug William Jolliffe. On 28th December, the tug put in to Holyhead to report she had lost her tow off Bardsey.
Bad weather, which had already affected shipping in North Wales, returned with renewed fury on December 28. At 0830 the coastguard at South Stack saw her fly a distress signal, the Primrose Hill was caught between a WNW force 10 gale and a flooding tide. The Primrose Hill was in difficulty off South Stack and efforts to come to her aid proved hopeless.
The steam lifeboat, the Duke of Northumberland, made three gallant attempts to go to the rescue of the distressed vessel, but was beaten back by the fury of the gale. The passenger ship, SS Hibernia, from Holyhead diverted to assist, but had to abort when her steerage broke, she was lucky to escape herself!
The Primrose Hill dropped both anchors, but they dragged and at 1400, she hit rocks less than 200 metres off South Stack. Her crew could be seen waving for help to those watching their terrible fate from the cliffs above, helpless to do anything, the masts went overboard one after the other in quick succession, and the ship rapidly parted, being smashed to pieces. She broke up at location South Stack 1.5M ESE LAT, LONG 53:17N 04:41:0W.
Soon, the bodies of those who perished began to wash up on the shores of Holy Island, along with the more welcome cargo carried by the ship. Practically all the corpses were quite naked, their clothes having, in the awful struggle for life and afterwards, been dragged from them. Some of the unfortunate victims were in such a battered and unrecognisable condition that it was impossible to describe them.
The vessel’s cargo consisted of wines and spirits, which was placed in charge of coastguards and the police. But, unfortunately, the precautions were altogether ineffective, some of the crowd that assembled opened cases of liquor and drinking their contents, and despite protests from officers on duty, others made determined attempts homeward with the booty.
Following the disaster, the Mail criticised the restrictions on shipping it saw as contributing to the tragedy: “The terrible catastrophe to the Primrose Hill off Holyhead will sadden many a home”.
To those who are conversant with seafaring life, the disaster will suggest some painful reflections.
Sailors, for instance, will read with concern the letter of the ill-fated captain written before sailing.
He details the difficulties he encountered in securing a crew, the helplessness of the Board of Trade officials and the inconvenience of prohibiting people who could get crews together from doing so.
The acts directed against the practice of conscripting sailors by coercive techniques had doubtless done much good, but the captain suggested that they were then obsolete. There must be something seriously wrong somewhere, when a vessel must wait a week for a crew at Liverpool, and then as the result of the delay becomes a wreck in a terrible storm off a rock-bound coast.
The accident made a deep impression on the residents of Holyhead and its vicinity, who intended to erect a memorial stone over the graves by voluntary subscriptions. Over the following weeks, subscriptions were freely pouring in from local sources without any door-to-door collection being made.
The bodies of 27 sailors were found and interred at Meashyfryd cemetery Holyhead, with the exception of H Hughs; the mate who was interned at Liverpool and the apprentice S Cakebread, in London.
Next time we kayak around the ‘Stacks’ and rock-hop our way around Abraham’s Bosom, maybe spare a thought for the ill-fated Primrose Hill and her crew...