The Skerries, one of my favourite UK trips, it has it all! (Part two)
Updated: May 2
As long ago as 1658, there were rumblings of discontent about the Skerries from merchants trading between Britain and Ireland. Henry Hascard, a private speculator, was chief amongst the protests, he appealed to Oliver Cromwell's Council of State and offered to build a Beacon on these rocks himself, Trinity House, which has supervision over pilotage around the British coasts and over all lighthouses, opposed him and the matter lapsed.
A particularly high profile casualty of the Skerries at the time, was the first British 'Royal Yacht', Maria - an eight gun ship gifted to Charles II in 1660 from the people of Holland.
In 1675, she was en-route from Dublin to Chester with 46 passengers and 28 crew when she struck the Skerries under full sail in dense fog. At 9.30pm she came to rest on her side with her mast touching land, enabling over half of the passengers to escape to safety, the master, his bosun and other 30 or so souls perished. (The image, left, is a supposed view of the Maria, by artist Gordon Grant).
A petition, drawn up by Captain John Davidson, was signed and presented to Sir Edward Northey, Attorney General, in 1709, pointing out that "...many ships were cast away... chiefly for want of a light in the night on the Welsh Coast". What is probably the most significant decision in the whole history of the Skerries and its lighthouse was now taken by Northey and his Law Officers. They disagreed with Trinity House about their sole rights and recommended to the Crown that Captain Davidson's petition and offer of construction be granted in 1710. Legal difficulties ensued in negotiations over a lease of the Skerries from their owner, one John Robinson and interest in this historic decision waned in 1712. Shortly afterwards in June 1713, the Skerries was leased from John Robinson by William Trench, a wealthy merchant, with a 99-year lease on payment of £10 for the first year and £20 for subsequent years. By 13th July the following year, he had added to this a patent for the erection of a lighthouse financed from his own pocket at an additional rent of £5, but with the provision to collect dues of 1d (penny) and 2d a ton from shipping for the 60 years after its completion, as it was normal for a ship to pay a duty when passing lighthouses.
Trench could not have had a more disastrous start. In 1714, he supervised the loading of the first boat with men and materials, he watched it depart for the Skerries with his son onboard, he would never see his son again; before reaching the rocks their boat was wrecked in a freak storm, it was driven onto the Platters Rocks with the loss of all seven men onboard. Trench finished building the lighthouse in 1717 at the cost of his son and in excess of £3,000. The tower was 150ft high from sea level and was lit by a coal burning grate in the lantern on 14th November that year. The coal was stockpiled on Carmel Head and brought to the Skerries by boat, but because of the flue fumes and smoke, the Skerries gained the reputation of being one of the worst lights in the UK.
Trench passed away in 1725, an impoverished and broken man. The Skerries was passed to his family, who subsequently sold it for a nominal sum. The Trench family experienced financial difficulties with the enforcement of light duties, and with losses estimated of over £100 per year plus the £3,000 spent on construction, they made the decision to present the accounts for the lighthouse. They were fortunate enough to be granted the lease of the light, together with the right to keep all the dues, in perpetuity, by an Act of Parliament, one which Parliament would later regret, giving the Skerries a unique place in lighthouse history.
By 1803, the Skerries coal fired grate was looking outdated and its new owner, Morgan Jones Snr, High Sheriff of Cardiganshire, was 'advised' by Trinity House, that an upgrade was required. Samuel Watt, the Trinity House consulting engineer, produced plans to raise the tower by a further 22ft, complete with battlements along the top. A proper iron framed, glazed lantern with 16 Argand lamps and reflectors was installed, giving a range of 15 - 18 miles, they were lit for the first time on 20th February 1804.
By now, trade had increased with the Americas, so much so that in 1834, it was estimated that profit alone for the Skerries was £12,500. In less than a century, a smoke en-shrouded light which had bankrupted its builder was transformed into a highly profitable oil burning lantern, a fact that had not gone unnoticed by Parliament.
How profitable, they were not exactly sure. By 1834 the light was in the hands of Morgan Jones Jnr and he was reluctant to produce accounts, claiming immunity because of the earlier act passed by Parliament during the days of George II. When figures were produced from Jones, the Government were staggered to find that in addition to his annual profit of over £12,000, the owner was also receiving £1,700 from them under a reciprocal agreement made during the earlier history of the light when it was incapable of recovering its own costs. Such a state of affairs could not exist and as a result, an Act of Parliament in 1836 was passed, to bring all lighthouse owners under one responsible body thus eliminating unscrupulous profiteering by the majority of these fortunate private owners.
In 1836, an Act for vesting lighthouses, lights and seamarks in England in the Corporation of Trinity House, was passed. It gave Trinity House the power to purchase any remaining private lights, by compulsory purchase if necessary. They were keen to acquire the lucrative source of income provided by the Skerries, though Morgan Jones was resolute on not parting with his property without a fight. Following his rejection of their offer of £399,500, he insisted on the final settlement being decided by a jury, taking the line that his family had the right of all dues from the Skerries "in perpetuity". He would doubtless have resisted the pressure for a good deal longer had it not been for his untimely death in 1841.
Sitting before the High Sheriff of Beaumaris on 26th July 1841, the jury awarded Morgan Jones' estate the sum of £444,984, the fate of the Skerries was sealed and it would now be maintained by Trinity House. The Skerries was the final private lighthouse to pass into public control, an expensive outcome from a decision that Parliament must have deeply regretted making, over a century earlier.
In 1845, a start was made on a new tower 75' high, with a ring of even more impressive castellations around the top.
A new iron lantern containing 16 Argand lamps with mirrored reflectors was installed, its light set at 119' above HW which had a range of 18 miles, and first seen on 23rd September 1846. Apart from a line of continuous improvements in line with technology, this is the structure still found on the Skerries today.
A fog horn was added in September 1876 and a new semi-circular lantern was attached to the south west of the existing structure in 1903. The light it contained shone a fixed red beam over a cluster of dangerous outliers to the Skerries visible for 14 miles, though this was discontinued in the 1980s. Electricity arrived in 1927 and automation in 1987, ending 270 years of continuous manned service.
Nowadays, during the summer months from May 6th until August 2nd, the RSPB wardens care for the large bird colonies which arrive at the Skerries each year. It is an important sanctuary for nesting birds, especially terns. The Skerries has the largest colony of Arctic terns in the UK, in 2018 over 3,000 breeding pairs raised their young there as well as 300 pairs of Common terns. The island has a large puffin colony along with Herring, Lesser and Great black-backed gulls. Also in 2018, 2 pairs of Roseate tern raised 4 chicks there, the Roseate tern is the UK's rarest sea bird!
I hope you've enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.