The Port of Caernarfon

From Festipedia, hosted by the FR Heritage Group

The Origin of the Port[edit]

The port of Caernarfon must have grown up under the castle walls. It was not by chance that many of the Norman Castles of North West Wales, Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech and Beaumaris to name but four, were built by the sea. Supply by ship allowed the dangerous hinterlands to be avoided when shipping in supplies and personnel. No doubt that process began while the castles were being built. [1] A detailed examination of the timing of the building of the quays is given in the book about de Winton.[2]


The first Act to give powers to further develop the harbour was in 1793. It allowed the quays below the castle and a little way up the River Seiont to be built.[3] Slate began to be exported by the quarries in the Nantlle area especially after the Nantlle Railway opened in 1828. Early pictures of the harbour show it full of just sailing ships beside the castle. Victoria Dock was opened in 1868. One of the important imports to Carnaerfon was timber, a trade in which Thomas & de Winton and the Vulcan Foundry owner, John Owen (of Ty-Coch), were involved with the former owning four vessels and the later up to twenty including fully rigged ships all built in Canada. The firm Thomas & de Wintons which was housed on the Seiont quay produced marine engines and boilers as well as locomotives and equipment for the quarries. During it heyday as a slate port sailing ships held sway but the first regular twice weekly packet service to Liverpool began in 1848. One of the remarkable facts about Caernarfon is that the prime teacher of navigation to aspiring mariners was Mrs Ellen Edwards, daughter of Captain William Francis who left the sea and was a well know and highly respected teacher of navigation at Amlwch until his death in 1847. By the time of her death in 1889 Ellen Edwards had been associated with teaching navigation in Caernarfon for sixty years.[4] Towards the end of her life her school of navigation and seamanship was run by her daughter Mrs Ellen Evans.

From 1793 the cleaning and deepening the harbour was an important function of the Harbour Trust. For many years vessels were hired for that purpose. This included dredging on the bar well out in the Menai Straights and blasting was also carried our at the Swellies to improve the passage. The first steam dredger was bought for £1,760 in 1871. There are frequent references in the Caernarfon Harbour Trust accounts to expenditure on dredging. In the twentieth century the original steam dredger was replaced by the Seiont I (built by Lytham Engineering Co. Ltd in 1901) and Seiont II in 1937.[5]

Caernarfon was late in founding a ship insurance society. The Menai Mutual Marine Insurance Association was founded in Caernarfon in 1871 by which time the local shipping was in decline. The smaller centres of Pwllheli and Nefyn created and operated a very effective group of marine insurance societies from 1858 into the 1870s. This was resented by the shipowners of Caernarfon.[6]

During the nineteeth century imports were significant. The timber from Canada and the Baltic was a major import as has already been mentioned. Many wooden sailing ships built in Canada were purchased for the trade. On the return journey after bringing timber these ships often carried emigrants to the New World. In the nineteenth century especially before the railway opened to Holyhead, Caernarfon had the atmosphere of a frontier town with many foreign going ships. Wines were an minor trade and Caernarfon had bonded warehouses to accommodate it. Coal was an important import with more than 10,000 tons brought in every year up to 1906.[7] These trades all fell foul of the development of major ports like Liverpool and competition from the railways. There was no longer a need to use the minor ports of the British Isles.

The End of Regular Services & New Beginnings[edit]

The regular steam packet services did not survive the 1st World War but steamers continued to call. The quantities of slate shipped from Caernarfon in the 1890s ranged from 19,839 to 26,860 which was only slightly less than half the quantities shipped from Port Dinorwic. In the period up to the first World War the quantity of slate shipped from Caernarfon was less than that sent by rail in every year (except 1909) and once the war began it declined very rapidly with only 567 tons shipped in 1917.[8] The building industry had virtually ceased and many quarries closed. The last dry cargo landed at Victoria Dock was timber in April 1962. An oil depot opened in 1913 and continued to receive supplies by coastal tanker but was under threat of closure in 1989. Its storage tanks were to the north of Victoria Dock but the tankers presumably berthed in the dock. Since then the closure of the depot has happened and the land has been redeveloped. The dock has been turned into a yachting marina. The picture below shows the steam dredger Seiont II during its working life. She later became the main exhibit of Caernarfon Maritime Museum. This ship was scrapped when the volunteer run museum was unable to finance its upkeep. The engine is on exhibition at Markham Grange Steam Museum near Doncaster and can be operated. Seiont II was last worked in 1978 and was broken up at Port Penrhyn in July 1999. In common with the ship the engine was built in 1937. The engine is by W J Yarwood & Sons of Northwich. See here for viewing information:[[1]]. The maritime museum was in a small building at the south end of Victoria Dock which was formerly the town's public mortuary. The museum did not open again after the end of the summer of 2010 and the trust was wound up. The conversion of the building to provide toilets and showers for yachtsmen with vessels in the dock was given planning permission in 2013. [9]


  1. ^ Temple M L (2020) Personal observation.
  2. ^ Fisher D, Fisher A and Jones G P (20111) De Winton of Caernarfon: Engineers of excellence, RCL Publications, Cambrian Forge, Garndollbenmaen, Gwynedd, LL51 9RX pp 1 - 3.
  3. ^ Fenton R S (1989) Cambrian Coasters, World Ship Society p 15.
  4. ^ Lloyd Lewis (1989) The Port of Caernarfon 1793-1900, Lewis Lloyd, Caernarfon pp 175 - 184.
  5. ^ Lloyd Lewis (1989) The Port of Caernarfon 1793-1900, Lewis Lloyd, Caernarfon pp 260 - 270.
  6. ^ Lloyd Lewis (1989) The Port of Caernarfon 1793-1900, Lewis Lloyd, Caernarfon pp 126 - 128.
  7. ^ Lloyd Lewis (1989) The Port of Caernarfon 1793-1900, Lewis Lloyd, Caernarfon pp 53 - 62.
  8. ^ Lloyd Lewis (1989) The Port of Caernarfon 1793-1900, Lewis Lloyd, Caernarfon pp 48 & 268.
  9. ^ BBC (2013) News report,