Category Archives: Industrial history

A walk from Telford’s Horseshoe Falls to the outskirts of Llangollen

Photograph taken from the top of the path leading from the car park, looking down at the Horseshoe Falls

The Horseshoe Falls are just outside Llangollen, a remarkable and lovely feature developed by Thomas Telford as part of his solution for supplying the Llangollen canal with water.  As the name suggests, it is a semi-circle of falling water, actually a man-made weir, which combines human symmetry with the natural beauty of water.  It looked spectacular in the sun, more art than engineering.

I usually make my comments about accessibility for people with uncooperative legs at the end, but in case the above photo makes you think I have lost my mind to categorize it as suitable , this is because there are other ways to approach the falls than from the top of the hill, approaches that are completely on the flat along the canal towpath.  Bear with me; clarity will emerge 🙂

Map of the Horse Falls area. Source: Pontcysyllte Aqueduct website

I had not set out to do this walk yesterday (Friday), and was actually on my way back from Valle Crucis (open once again to the public, but closed Tuesday and Wednesday each week), and was not ready to go home, so decided to drive down the road to the car park for the Falls, which is clearly signposted, and do a short walk to find out what it was like with a view to returning for a longer walk on another day.  The car park is pay-and-display but it is only a pound for the entire day, payable by cash or by swiping your debit card.  There are also public toilets.  I imagine that it gets quite busy at the weekends.

It is a short walk from there up a very slight slope along a metalled path to the top of the hill, from which the valley unfolds below.  There is an information sign here too.

I covered the basics of the building of the canal on earlier my post about the fabulous Pontcysyllte aqueduct, which you can find here, so won’t repeat that on this post, but the Horseshoe Falls deserve an explanation in its own right.  To secure water from the Dee, which ultimately comes from Lake Tegid at Bala, Telford gained permission from the owner of the lake to take off water  from the Dee for the new canal. The water had to be diverted from the Dee into the Llangollen canal by means of a feeder channel, some 1.8 miles long.  The distinctively shaped weir helps create a pool of water that can be pumped into the feeder channel. 

This link between the river and the canal required the installation of a pumping station by the side of the pool below the weir.  It was replaced by a new  Meter House or “valve house” in 1947, which still stands.  A massive pipe, 20ft long and 3ft in diameter runs 8ft below the ground to supply the Dee water to the Llangollen canal feeder.  This flow is released and slowed by means of guillotine valves which are controlled from the valve house.  By using the water of the Dee as it fell from Snowndonia via Lake Tegid, over 11 million gallons of Dee water a day, is fed into the Llangollen canal, eventually emptying into Hurleston reservoir, just north of Nantwich, where the Llangollen Canal meets the Shropshire Union Canal and contributing to the greater canal network. It was completed in 1808.

It is a short and not particularly steep walk down to the falls from the car park, and the hillside is, at the moment a sheer delight, with the slopes covered in giant buttercups, purple thistles and daisies, with a few blue speedwells dotted in amongst them.  Once down at the falls, you are at the source of the Llangollen canal, a remarkable thought.   The valve house for the canal is at your left, and the footpath runs both left (east) and right (west).

I cannot yet comment on the footpath heading west, but if you head left, towards Llangollen, you find yourself immediately on a wide, level path, the towpath, which runs deliciously between the canal on your left and the Dee on the right.  The canal is very narrow at this stage, just a feeder, and not navigable.  The Dee too changes character, from a wide, deep run of uninterrupted river to fast, impressive rapids channelling itself through large slabs of natural rock.  Although the towpath runs above the level of the Dee, there are paths down to the river, and people were sunbathing on the huge slabs and paddling in the water.

The sound of the river coursing over the rocks is glorious, and a fabulous contrast to the peaceful, mirror-surfaced channel of canal that runs along the base of a solid wall of local rock, infiltrated by all sorts of rock-loving plant species and overhung by trees.  The canal widens as it goes, but remains un-navigable because, even where the canal is sufficiently wide and deep, there is no winding point (an indent where narrow-boats can turn around.  Long, sinuous weeds signal the direction of flow in the apparently motionless water, and fish, swimming against the current, hold a stationary position.  With the sun on it, when not mirroring the vegetation and sky above, it appears gold and velvet brown.  There are bridges all the way along, some modern and metal, but there are also traditional stone canal bridges, clearly numbered, with ramps for horses.  There is also an impressively substantial bridge spanning both the canal and the river.

One bridge is a delightful exception, and very unexpected.  The Chain Bridge Hotel contains within its Dee frontage, access to a small but perfect suspension bridge that provides access from the tow path to the railway station on the other side of the river, and some height above.   There is a small car park at the hotel, which can be used by the public.  I didn’t stop for a for a drink or a bite to eat, but the views from the terrace, over the bridge and the Dee rapids, are excellent.  This would probably be a good place to start and end your walk (particularly if the food is any good) if your legs like things simple, because the whole walk is on the flat.

I didn’t go much further because it was already getting rather late and I had other things to do.  I suppose I must have walked for about half an hour, with breaks to take photos, and then turned and walked back. Another way of tackling the walk would be to start in Llangollen and walk out towards the Horseshoe Falls.  This would be a much longer walk, and one for another day,  and again on the flat all the way along the towpath.  I am looking forward to it.

I went some way past the Motor Museum, which was to the right and below the level of the towpath.  The walk was particularly good on a day like yesterday, with hot sun and a light breeze.  At this time of year, with leaves on the trees, the towpath is in dappled shade, perfectly warm but not too hot.

Here are the rest of the photos:

Exhibition: “Tales from Terracottapolis” at Tŷ Pawb gallery, Wrexham

Tŷ Pawb, meaning “Everyone’s House,” is a small but well thought out community and arts hub in the heart of Wrexham.  I had never been to Tŷ Pawb before, simply because I didn’t know of its existence.  Although I have been permanently installed in Churton for over a year now, I am still finding my way around.  The photographs below are my own unless otherwise stated in the caption.

Ty Pawb in Wrexham. Source: Wrexham Leader

For those who have never encountered Tŷ Pawb, it was formerly a covered market with a car park on top.  Apparently the market was hanging on to life by a thread before it was closed and as usual with this sort of change, the plans unsurprisingly met with some resistance. Often, the words “arts” and “community” when put together in the same sentence are enough to set any number of warning bells ringing, but in this particular case, there has been a strong dose of common sense and a real feel for the town thrown into the mix. The car park and the open space occupied by the market are still there, but the exterior and the former market space have been given a very smart and modern facelift.  Small retail units and a food hall and modern benches and chairs making it an an excellent place to meet and grab a bite.  It is an impressive initiative, and looking at it today, it seems to be working very well.

Source: Ty Pawb

The  gallery fits in very nicely into this arrangement.  The market space with its creatively designed modern signage and bright frontages and furnishings give the whole place a contemporary edge, which segues nicely with the inclusion of the gallery, which is so well blended into the space that at first we couldn’t see it.

We were there to see Tales from Terracottapolis.  It is on until 4th June (open Monday to Saturday, 10-4, free of charge), and I recommend it wholeheartedly.  It is a small exhibit, a single gallery, but makes brilliant use of the space with its excellent light.  Using objects from the Wrexham Museum and elsewhere, together with art works from a number of local artists, it combines 19th Century with 21st Century ideas to explore the local production of architectural flourishes and glazed tiles that formed the character of an older, more confident and prosperous Wrexham.  Some of the decorative twiddles, like capitals, finials and long decorative panels, could be ordered from catalogues, but others were custom made.

There is an excellent video that provides the background to the industry, and explains how the terracotta was made, from kneading the clay by hand via being formed into moulds before firing, a highly skilled process from beginning to end.  It would have been really great to be able to re-see the video online.

The front part of the gallery, where you walk in, is dominated by the modern pieces, many of which are very striking and engaging, and which aim to complement the story of Wrexham’s brick, tile and terracotta industry by offering new responses to it.

The first thing that draws the eye is The Brick Man by Antony Gormley, best known for his Angel of the North. It is (or would have been) one of his most tactile pieces, and a true celebration of brick.  This is a scale model of a piece that was originally planned as a 120ft (36.5m) monument in the run down Holbrook area of Leeds, near the Leeds City Station.  There was some public outcry against it, which is such a shame, as it resulted in the planning application being rejected by city planners.  As well as the scale model, itself a solidly impressive celebration of brickwork, there is an archive of documentation following the sources of the statue, from the original proposal to the official rejection of the the proposal.

There is a fascinating letter from the Partnership Manager of the British Railways Board, who supported the idea of the project, to a disgruntled objector, which really hits the nail on the head for me.  You can click on the image to see a legible version.  I am often amongst the first to grumble about inappropriate and poorly thought out modern sculpture installed in urban or rural locations as some form of random art statement, because such initiatives can actually alienate people from art and frequently undermine the impact of the heritage in which they are being installed.  By contrast, The Brick Man actually had real merit (originally, I typed “legs”), not only as an art work, but as a way of contributing to urban regeneration, both by drawing attention to the monument and the area, and by attracting visitors.  It is also a good piece of art, which is important.  I was previously unaware of The Brick Man, and it was a really good opportunity to see the scale model and some of Gormley’s original plans.

Display of pottery sherds by Paul Eastwood

Immediately on the right as you walk in to the gallery is a section of wall covered by rows of ceramic sherds that the artist, Paul Eastwood, had collected from riverside locations during lockdown.  It was so familiar, looking eerily like some of the stuff I have been collecting from my garden, and posing exactly the same sort of questions.  Eastwood, based in Wales, specializes in capturing how memory is created through objects and language and, in this case, what abandoned sherds tell us about the people who discarded them and the places they were found.  There were other pieces of his work on the same wall.

A set of large stand-alone pieces in the main space of the gallery, hanging panels and tall curving sections, captured the images of walls and arches, surface-traced like brass-rubbings from the derelict walls of buildings that had produced the bricks, moulded works and tiles.  I had not worked my way round to these Lesley James pieces when I was welcomed to the exhibit by one of the curators, who pointed them out to me, and I was glad she had as I would certainly have missed their textural connection with the 19th century manufacturers:

Lesley James surfaces traces

At the far end of the gallery is a floor-to-ceiling map showing the location of all the major brickworks.  It is an excellent way of showing just how important the area was for the production of bricks, tiles and terracotta.

In this section of the gallery, the focus shifts from present to past, and some of the marvellous tiles and moulded terracotta pieces are located here, together with the video.  This is where the exhibition makes a slight gear change from modern art gallery to beautifully displayed items of heritage.  Both flanking the map and at its foot, are examples of locally made bricks, each one marked with the name of the works that produced it, with a key to identify which name related to which manufacturing works.  In Farndon, on Brewery Lane, there is a Llay Hall brick more or less randomly incorporated into the left side of the road, all on its own, face up.  I have no idea what it is doing there, but it was great to see two of its relatives on display, from Llay Hall Brickworks in Sydallt.


J.C. Edwards ceramic tiles, rescued from a condemned property on the Air Products factory site in 1989, and restored and reconstructed in 1993.

The main manufacturers represented at the exhibition are Dennis Ruabon Ltd and  J.C. Edwards of Ruabon, both important local producers of bricks, tiles and terracotta.

J.C. Edwards tiles were particularly valued and were installed locally at Liverpool’s Pier Head, and at the Lever Brothers village Port Sunlight on the Wirral, and were bought from as far away as Singapore, Egypt, Panama and India.  Edwards also provided the floor tiles for the kitchens on the Titanic. There is at least one of his tiles in the British Museum, designed by Lewis Foreman Day.

Examples of Dennis Ruabon Ltd terracotta work can be seen locally in Chester at the Westminster Motor Car and Coach Works and the Central Arcade in Hope Street, Wrexham.  Further afield, the Grand Metropole Hotel in Blackpool and Wellington House, at Buckingham Gate in London are high profile examples of  Dennis Ruabon Ltd work.  Whilst Edwards specialized in brickworks based on the Etruria Marl unique to the area, Dennis had interests in a variety of industries, including  quarries, coal pits, waterworks, brickworks and a tramway.

Tiles by J.C. Edwards

Tiles by J.C. Edwards, Henry Dennis, Monk and Newell and the Pant Works

The use of clay pressed into moulds was an excellent way of enlivening buildings, giving them celebratory flourishes without all the costs involved in stone masonry.  The use of moulds that could be re-used many times, enabled manufacturers to produce catalogues for architects, from which their customers could choose appropriate features, which not only made decorative flourishes affordable, but resulted in their proliferation, particularly on roofs.  Once you have seen the items on display, as well as those more elaborate versions shown in the video, it encourages you to look up in places like Wrexham and surrounding villages to spot the terracotta work that gave many local towns a real sense of pride.

Dennis Ruabon Ltd chimney

The layout of the works was elegant and well thought out, with each item widely spaced from the next, allowing it to be appreciated without distraction.  The combination of modern art works and 19th century heritage objects worked beautifully.

All the signage was in Welsh and English, and there was a  handout introducing the modern artists whose works were on display, together with  the 19th century manufacturers J.C. Edwards and Dennis Ruabon Ltd.  I picked up the Welsh version, assuming that it was bilingual; presumably there was an English version as well, so if you don’t read Welsh, look out for it.  I was rescued by Google Translate 🙂

The friendly and helpful curator of the exhibition, whose name I failed to catch, told me that over 2000 people had visited since the exhibition opened in March, with a number of them either former workers or their families sharing experiences.  Certainly, from my own perspective of things I have found in my garden, the Llay Hall brick randomly set into the side of a lane in Farndon, and my enormous affection for 19th century tiles in general and the Westminster Car and Coachworks (now the public library) in Chester in particular, it was very easy to relate to this exhibition.  The modern art pieces also work really well, balancing the older pieces and offering a new way of looking at this type of heritage, as well as engaging the visitor in their own right with thoughts about how heritage can be remembered, explored and, when necessary, lamented.

There was a school party arriving as we left, and on the table by the door I noticed that there was a pile of A4 sheets showing illustrations of three different statues, with an empty space for children to add their ideas for a monumental work.  We flipped through the completed sheets, and they were brilliantly inventive.  They made me remember what it was like to be a child with all that flying, chaotic, no-holds-barred imagination.  I particularly liked the giant robin with a big mouth in its side were its wing should be, complete with a healthy set of teeth.  The giant jelly fish statue was also rather terrific, but they all had something to offer.  Some were surprisingly very abstract.  It was a marvellous idea.

The gallery is a welcoming place, completely unintimidating. I both admired and enjoyed the entire feel of the place.  My only actual grumble about  it is that apart from seating for watching the video there was no seating in the gallery for those who have less than perfectly functioning legs, or who just want to sit and soak up the exhibits.


The gallery is open 10-4, Monday to Saturday and the exhibition is free to visit.  We didn’t investigate what else the gallery has to offer, so it would be worth checking what else is available and whether there is a ticket charge if you want to visit anything other than the exhibition space (Gallery 1).  Full details for visitors and future exhibits are at  You can also follow them on Twitter at

We parked in the multi-storey carpark on Market Street, which has lifts down to the ground floor where the gallery and the food /retail space are located.  It was easy to find, and unlike some multi-storeys, the spaces were generous.  Do not leave your carpark ticket in the car – the pay station is on the ground floor outside the doors to the elevators, and access to the elevators requires you to put your car park ticket into a ticket reader by the side of the door.

Tŷ Pawb has been shortlisted for Art Fund Museum of the Year, the winner of which will be announced in July 2022.  Here’s hoping!

Source: Ty Pawb


Ty Pawb
Exhibition: Tales from Terracottapolis

Exhibition handout in Welsh:  Chwedlau o Terracottapolis 19/03/22 – 11/06/22

More re Wrexham’s brick, tile and terracotta manufacturing history:

Wrexham Leader
There was gold in the red of Dennis Ruabon

Old Bricks – History at your feet
Ruabon Area

Hafod Red Brick Works; Dennis Ruabon Brickworks, Rhosllanerchrugog

Wrexham History
Henry Dyke Dennis and the Red Works, by John Davies


Hansard 1803 – 2005
Brick and Tile Industry, Wrexham Area: Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.] – Mr. J. Idwal Jones (Wrexham)

More on Ty Pawb:

Ty Pawb
“About” page

The Guardian
Tŷ Pawb review – an art gallery that truly is everybody’s house. By Rowan Moore

Architect’s Journal
Something for everybody: Ty Pawb art gallery by Featherstone Young

Wrexham Leader
Ty Pawb, Wrexham, shortlisted for Art Fund museum of the year

More on artists in the exhibition mentioned in this post

Paul Eastwood

Lesley James

Antony Gormley



A stroll through Marford Quarry (source of the Mersey Tunnel cement) on a cold but sunny day

Last week we went to Marford Quarry, just off the Chester-Wrexham road just south of Rossett.  I had never visited before, but it has been open to the public for walking and cycling for decades and has had a lot of work invested in it to make it a great place to walk dogs and stretch legs.  Bigger and smaller footpaths and trails make for a lot of variation, as do the multiple facets of the quarry and its surroundings, with different types of plantation and wildlife providing a lot to see.  Some of it looked almost like a desert landscape, whilst other parts were thick with shrubs and trees.  Although trees dominate even the sparsely covered areas, particularly silver birch and conifers, and the bird song is fabulous, there is a lot more going on at ground level, with wild flowers clustering in favoured spots and the rustle of birds turning over the leaves.  We saw a wren, long-tailed tits, blue tits, great tits, blackbirds and plenty of robins bouncing fearlessly near the paths.  The heart of the quarry a deep bowl with a slight rise in the centre with a single tree on top, is a dramatic sight, like an enormous amphitheatre.

Marford smithy on the left, with the glacial moraine like a giant wall in the background, now quarried away. Source: Essentials Magazine

Marford Hill, climbing from Rossett towards Wrexham, is what remains of a glacial moraine.  An article, The Last Ice Sheet by Pam Gibbons in Essentials magazine, has a photograph of the quarry before it began to be quarried for sand and gravel to make cement.  It is shown right, around 130ft high and up to 25,000 years old, dumped by the glacier as it melted, and the ice retreated north.  The former smithy, used by ATS for so long, and recently replaced by two modern houses, is clearly visible on the left at the foot of the hill.  A marvellous photograph, with thanks to Pam Gibbons for recognizing its significance when she saw it.

There was originally a motte and bailey castle at the top of Marford, called Rofft.  I’ll see what I can find out about it, but the quarrying destroyed it, which surprises me given how aware people were of the value of historical sites by the 1930s.  It is such a shame.

Here’s the original caption from the Wonders of World Engineering website: “BUILDING THE ROADWAY through the Mersey Tunnel. Made of reinforced concrete, the roadway is supported by two intermediate walls, 12 inches thick and 21 feet apart, and is anchored to the cast-iron lining. The finished road in the main tunnel has a width of 36 feet between the kerbs. The tunnel has a capacity of 4,150 vehicles an hour, with cars 100 feet apart and moving at twenty miles an hour. The space beneath the roadway acts as the duct for fresh air and is sufficiently large to provide a second road or railway should they be necessary.” Source: Wonders of World Engineering

The quarry opened in 1927 and closed in 1971.  Its biggest claim to fame is the it supplied material for the Mersey Tunnel.  The Mersey Ferry and the railway tunnel, between them doing a good job of carrying passengers to and fro, could not cope with the growing demands of road traffic.  Initially a bridge was proposed, but the engineering wisdom came down in favour of a tunnel, which required a lot of aggregate.  Work on the tunnel started on December 19th 1925.  Today, the former Birkenhead to Wrexham railway, following the river valley, still runs between Chester and Wrexham and runs immediately to the west of Marford Quarry, with the A483 bypass now running between them.  The railway enabled the quarried materials to be loaded directly on to the train and carried to Birkenhead, a super-efficient and cost effective way of acquiring the building materials for the tunnel project.  For a good article on the building of the Mersey Tunnel, with some great pictures, see the Wonders of World Engineering website, which gives the following details “On July 18, 1934, the Mersey Tunnel was opened to traffic by His Majesty King George V. The main tunnel has a length of 3,751 yards, from the Old Haymarket, Liverpool, to King’s Square, Birkenhead. The branch tunnels which lead to the docks on either side of the river bring the total length of roadway to 5,064 yards, or nearly three miles.”  Funny to think of Marford’s glacial moraine holding it all together.  For more about the history of the quarry and its ownership, see the Maes y Pant website.

The main bowl of the quarry, a single tree standing on a slight rise, the rest of the quarry edges rising like an amphitheatre all around it. When I first rounded a corner and saw it, completely empty of people, I found it distinctly eerie.

The 39 acre site was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1989 and the following year 26 acres of it were bought by the North Wales Wildlife Trust.  As the North Wales Wildlife Trust puts it “The reserve is especially important for a specialised group of invertebrates, aculeate Hymenoptera (bees, ants and wasps), with an astounding 171 different species recorded (2018). Ants, in particular, are an important source of food for green woodpeckers.” In 2011 the site was split into two, and one section of the site is now owned by the Maes-y–Pant Action Group Ltd.

Sadly, the photos taken with the emergency back-up camera that I carry in my handbag did not come out as well as I hoped, but hopefully give some sense of what is there to be seen.  There was a bit that we missed, where there is apparently a viewing point and an outdoor gym, but we figured out where they were so will visit them next time.


There were all age groups present, and several of the unwilling-leg variety who were doing very nicely on the nicely maintained paths, making good use of plenty of benches dotted around (and lots of fallen logs to sit on).  There are some gradients, but not many severe ones, and it is very easy to avoid them.

There are two places to park, one on Springfield Lane just below the Trevor Arms in Marford, with spaces on the side of the road, and a small but proper car park on Pant Lane just beyond (heading north) the Co-op at the top of the hill.  We parked in Springfield Lane and walked along the quarry footpaths to Grove Street, and I walked back to retrieve the car to collect Dad.  It’s about a 15 minute fast walk from one to the other.


Gibbon, P. The Last Ice Age.  Essentials Magazine

Maes y Pant
Site History by Trevor Britton

Marford Conservation Area Assessment and Management Plan

Twentieth Century Society
Of the Month: Building of the month – October 2006 – The Mersey Tunnel

Wonders of World Engineering
The Mersey Tunnel


S.S. Great Eastern,16th February 1867 – The world’s biggest ship under refit on the Mersey

Introducing Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s S.S. Great Eastern

The Great Eastern under repair, refit and restoration on the shore of the Mersey, at a cost of £80,000. Illustrated London News ,16th February 1867

On this day, February 16th 1867, 155 years ago, the colossal, and glorious iron steamship S.S. Great Eastern was beached on the Mersey just off shore from Rock Ferry for repairs, a major refit and some much-needed restoration after two years of laying cables across the Atlantic.  The work was undertaken to return her to her status as a luxury passenger liner, ready to embark on a voyage to New York to collect passengers for the 1867 Paris Exposition in France.   She was beautifully captured by an artist for the Illustrated London News, which often featured the vast ship.  I have the same page framed on my kitchen wall.

A sketch by Brunel in his journal, accompanied by the following comment: “”Say 600 ft x 65 ft x 30 ft” (180 m x 20 m x 9.1 m).  Source:  S.S. Great Eastern Facebook page

On 25th March 1852, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, perhaps the greatest civil engineer of the Victorian era, and certainly the most ambitious, had sat at his desk and made a sketch, accompanied by the following comment: “Say 600 ft x 65 ft x 30ft” (180 x 20 x 9m).  The title was “East India Steamship.”  As Rolt puts it, “Thereafter the pages of the sketch books are haunted by the apparitions of gigantic ships.”  There had been problems with his other two major shipbuilding projects, Great Western and Great Britain, launched in 1837 and 1843 respectively, but Brunel had a gift for sweeping along hard-nosed investors in his wake, building on the confidence and excitement of a Britain that knew that the world getting smaller everyday, and that it was well placed to reap the commercial rewards of new technologies.  Although just toying with the idea on these pages, Brunel had no reason to believe that he would have difficulty finding an investor.

In the opening lines of a book devoted to  S.S. Great Eastern, George Emerson observes that “By the middle of the nineteenth century the people of Britain were not easily impressed; they thought they had seen everything,” an impression confirmed by the Great Exhibition of 1851.  If there were multiple blind allies in Victorian creativity, there were also splendid successes, and the sense of unstoppable progress was hard to resist, even when some of the ideas were rather more brave and optimistic than they were viable or sustainable. Even in such a creative and ambitious era, where technological ambition had produced innovation after innovation, Great Eastern stood out as a true landmark of engineering excellence and unrestrained ambition.

Building Brunel’s “Great Babe”

Guide to the Great Eastern Steamship. Captain John Vine Hall commander. Source: Library of Congress

Brunel referred to the ship as “Great Babe,” and she was his last project, his last great gift.  Great Eastern was designed for  transporting passengers and cargo to Australia.  The idea came to him whilst working on a much smaller project.  Brunel was asked to design two steamships for the Australian route for the Australian Royal Mail Company.  He had become aware of the “wave-line principle” proposed and researched by shipbuilder and marine engineer John Scott Russell, who had suggested an optimal hull shape for moving a ship through turbulent energy-draining seas.  Brunel, impressed with Russell’s research, invited him to bid for the contract.  The partnership resulted in two iron steamships, the Adelaide and Victoria, launched in 1853.

One of the sturdier sailing ships on the Australian route, the St Vincent, built in 1829, shown here departing with a full load of emigrants in 1844.  She also carried convicts. She was still sailing when Great Eastern was launched. Source: Illustrated London News, via Wikipedia

The passage to and from Australia was still dominated by sail.  Sailing ships serving Australia could take advantage of the trade winds to do the journey in 90-120 days, and although better and faster sailing ships were being built all the time, they were at the mercy of winds and tides.  They were forced to follow routes where the winds were to be found, and were terribly uncomfortable for passengers.  Nothing could compare to an iron-hulled steam-powered ship fitted with masts and sails, whose captains could choose shorter routes by firing up its engines to propel it through becalmed waters, setting sails to save fuel where winds were available.  Even though steamships had to be refuelled en route, the most modern steamships had improved had seen journeys of 70-80 days, and these technologies were were improving all the time.  Timetables were now realistic, and the Australian Royal Mail Company had jumped on the steamship bandwagon to enable it to meet the terms of its mail contract.

Houses behind the shipyard where Great Eastern was built. The river was on the other side of the ship. Great Eastern rises behind them. Source:

Brunel, who had already built two transatlantic ships, now turned his formidable brain to the challenges of sailing to and from Australia.  His key insight was that the ideal ship should be able to carry all the coal she needed to complete the entire round trip without refuelling.  The Australian gold rush of 1851 had supercharged emigration from Britain to Australia, and as Australia became a more economically active part of the global economy, improved communication and transport links were becoming annually more imperative.  But who would finance such a ship?  The obvious customer, the Australian Royal Mail Company, had now been provided with what it needed.  Instead, he looked to the Eastern Steam Navigation Company (ESN Co), which had been formed the previous year, to which he submitted a paper proposing the new ship.  In spite of misgivings of some of its board of directors, the proposal was accepted.  At this stage, two sister ships were envisaged, the first to be used between Britain and Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) off the southeast coast of India, to be used as a distribution network from which smaller cargoes would be sent to Madras, Calcutta, Hong Kong and Sydney.  If that were to prove successful, the two ships would then do regular runs to Calcutta and Australia.  The mind fairly boggles at the idea of two Great Easterns on the oceans.

Working on “Great Eastern” in 1857 at night, preparing the great ship for launch by gas light. Source:

Work began with the laying of the keel plate in May 1854 in John Scott Russell’s Millwall yard on the Thames, almost opposite Henry VIII’s Royal Docks at Deptford.  Although these beginnings went unnoticed by either the public or general media, specialist reports began to emerge, drawing attention to the vast scale of the ship, and even before she was launched, she began to draw attention.  As she went up, slowly materializing in Russell’s yard, the sheer scale of Brunel’s great ship became evident.  The Times waxed lyrical about the build on 5th April 1857:

Where is a man to go for a new sight? We think we can say.  In the mist of that dreary region known as Millwall, where the atmosphere is tarry and everything seems slimy and amphibious, where it is hard to say whether the land has been rescued from the water or the water encroached upon the land . . . a gigantic scheme is in progress, which if not an entire novelty, is as near an approach to it as this generation is ever likely to witness.

Remains of the slipway down which Great Eastern was launched. Source: Wikipedia

Great Eastern was built just behind today’sThames Clipper stop called Masthouse Terrace Pier, captured on the photograph below.  The old slipway is still in situ and can be visited, a very short distance from Masthouse Pier.  When Charles Dickens went to see the work in progress, directed by John Scott Russell, he commented that she rose “above the house-tops, above the tree-tops, standing in impressive calmness like some huge cathedral.”  In fact, the noise associated with the welding and riveting of 30,000 iron plates to form her double hull and watertight bulkheads must have been deafening, an absolute cacophony, but Dickens does manage to convey the majesty of the enterprise.  The build of the ship was fraught with problems, financial and technical, and of course there were accidents and injuries, as well as a fire that destroyed much of the shipyard.  The relationship between Brunel and Scott Russell became increasingly acrimonious towards the date of the proposed launch, and it is something of a miracle that Great Eastern was ever completed.

Superimposition of Great Eastern on the modern Google satellite image by Mick Lemmerman. Source:  Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives blog

When it came to her launch, her very size created a unique situation.  As shown in the photograph and superimposition by Mick Lemmerman, left, she was so long that she had to be built parallel to the Thames, rather than perpendicular to it.  Russell leased part of a neighbouring shipyard to accommodate her, and plans were made for a sideways or broadside launch.  In a lecture that I attended in London a few years ago, Thames archaeologist (and excellent speaker) Elliott Wragg commented that if she had been launched stern-end first, as was usual, she would have plunged into and across the Thames, shattering its southern banks before proceeding to carve her way down Deptford High Street.  Everyone at the lecture, all of us familiar with today’s thriving Deptford High Street, burst out laughing, but he made his point very effectively.  The ship really was immense.

Robert Howlett’s famous photograph on the occasion of the first launch attempt, 2rd November 1857. It is the only photograph that shows Brunel and Russell together. Russell is at far left, and Brunel is third from the left.  Source: Wikimedia

At that time known as Leviathan, Brunel’s dream became a reality when she was launched on the Thames on January 31st 1858, following several, increasingly embarrassing abortive attempts that had begun on 3rd November 1857.  There were few witnesses when, the Great Ship, as she had become known, was eventually launched without ceremony or drama.  The public, initially excited by the prospect of the 1857 launch had lost interest, but as the news of the launch spread, bells rang out across London in celebration.

Great Eastern was now afloat, and an impressive sight.  She had two means of propulsion, consisting of two huge side-mounted paddle-wheels, and a single screw propeller.  When both were used simultaneously she could reach a maximum speed of 15 knots (or 27.7 kilometres per hour), and she carried 6500 yards (5943m) of sail on her six masts.  Each of the ten engines built by James Watt and Co. was the size of a house.  She had four decks, and could carry 4000 passengers and 15,000 tons of coal. 

Infographic comparing ship sizes, in chronological order from left to right. Click to expand. Source: JF Ptak Science Books.

She measured 692ft (211m) long, 83ft (25m) wide, with a draft of 20ft (6m) unloaded and 30 ft (9m) fully laden, and displaced 32,000 tons fully laden. In comparison, S.S. Persia, the next in size launched two years earlier in 1856, was 390ft (119m) long and 45ft (13m) wide.  Not until 1906 was her 22,500 ton displacement exceeded in 1906 by Cunard’s RMS Lusitania;  and her great length surpassed, in 1899, by the White Star Line’s RMS Oceanic of 704ft (215 m).  At the time of her launch in 1858, S.S. Great Eastern was the biggest ship that anyone had dared to imagine.  

One of Robert Howlett’s photographs of Brunel with Great Eastern in 1857 prior to launch. Source: Wikimedia

In spite of the launch, celebration was not on the minds of the ESN’s company directors.  She had already cost an eye-watering amount, and to fit her out, a lot more investment was required, and there was no money left.  Emerson summarizes the situation as follows:

The great ship was in the water but how was she to be completed?  About £640,000 had been expended on an unfinished, partially engined and boilered ship which no one seemed to want, with a debt of £90,000 handing to it like a superfluous anchor. . . . There was growing belief among some of the directors that the ship should be put up for sale or auction.

For a long time, the ship sat on her mooring at Deptford, incomplete.  Eventually Brunel persuaded railway contractor Thomas Brassey to form a new company to raise the money to complete Great Eastern. The “Great Ship Company” was formed, which purchased the ship for £160,000, whilst raising additional capital to fit out the ship and ready her for active duty.  Brunel, sent by his doctors to Egypt for his health, was absent for much of the fitting out, returning in time to oversee final work under preparation for Great Eastern‘s maiden voyage in September 1859.  Checking her over on the 5th September, Brunel suffered a stroke and was carried home, partially paralysed.

Sea Trials in 1859

Great Eastern set off on sea trials under Captain William Harrison and a team of engineers without Brunel, on 17th September 1859, proceeding with the aid of tugs down the Thames, which must have been a remarkable leg of the journey, before turning into the open sea, heading south and then west along the coast.  The Times reported:  “She met the waves rolling high from the Bay of Biscay.  The foaming surge seemed but sportive elements of joy over which the new mistress of the ocean held her undisputed sway.”

Explosion on Great Eastern 1859. Source: Royal Museums Greenwich, PAH0309

On her first sea trials, without the ailing Brunel to supervise, she was proceeding along the English Channel near Hastings when an explosion in the paddle engine room sent one of the funnels flying upwards, destroyed the beautiful grand salon, the fire and pressurised steam tragically killing five stokers and injuring twelve.  Thanks to her double-skinned hull and watertight bulkheads Great Eastern remained intact, and thanks to alternative propulsion, she was able to proceed under her own steam. Brunel was told of the explosion, which must have been an awful blow.  He died six days later, aged 53.  Repairs were soon underway in Weymouth and the ship proceeded to Anglesey in October, where she dragged the two anchors holding her and began to drift in the same gale that sunk the S.S. Royal Charter nearby, with 446 lives lost.  Great Eastern suffered damage, in this storm, and underwent more repairs, but thanks to her captain, crew and the engines used to hold her in position, she survived the night.

Consideration now had to be given to the ports that would be able to handle Great Eastern at home in Britain.  She usually sailed from either Milford Haven in southwest Wales, or Liverpool, on the Mersey.  In both places she could be accommodated with moorings, and laid up on gridirons when she was under repair or out of service.

The career of the S.S. Great Eastern

Great Eastern in New York in 1860. Source: Library of Congress (LOT 14160, no. 10)

Great Eastern had been designed to carry passengers and cargo to Australia, carrying sufficient coal to complete the round trip without refuelling. In an era before the building of the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, Great Eastern could have chugged round Africa and back at greater speeds, with greater reliability, than any sail- or steam-powered ships currently operating.  She could have offered far greater comfort and at much less risk with enormously more capacity for passengers and cargo than any sailing ship owner could dream of at that time.  Unfortunately no-one had taken into consideration that she was far too big for nearly all the harbours to which she might have sailed, meaning that passengers, their luggage and the cargo would have to be ferried to shore in smaller vessels.  In addition, her experience anchored off shore at Holyhead in Anglesey in a gale had cast doubt on how well she was equipped to sit at anchor beyond harbour walls.

More to the point, the struggling Great Ship Company was unable or unwilling to raise the funds to send her that far, and the decision was taken to send the ship to America on its maiden voyage, as a transatlantic passenger liner.  To top off a rough few years, in January 1860 Brunel’s chosen Captain, William Harrison, drowned in a freak accident in a small sailing boat on the approach to Southampton harbour.  He was replaced by John Vine Hall, who was in charge of her maiden voyage to New York in the same year.  Although she had several captains, perhaps surprising given how unique she was, and how potentially difficult to manage, most of her captains seemed to have very little trouble handling her.

Interior of the Great Eastern showing the grand saloon. Source: McCord Museum, Quebec

Great Eastern‘s first commercial trip, her maiden voyage as a luxury liner, was from Southampton to New York under Captain Vine.  On board there were only 38  paying passengers and 418 crew.  Great Eastern was greeted as a fabulous spectacle in New York, a shining, magnificent newcomer.  Taking advantage of this, with the intention of milking her for all she was worth between arrival and departure, the decision was made to sell tickets for a two-day excursion, a mortifyingly mismanaged episode that did nothing to shower the ship or her owners in glory.  She returned to Britain via Halifax with 72 passengers and was laid up for winter at Milford Haven in southwest Wales.

Repairs and adjustments were made, at a cost that the slim gains from America were unable cover, and more financial controversies ensued, all reported in the media, and proving a barrier to further bookings.  In May 1861 around 100 passengers embarked at Milford Haven for New York.  Four days in, they hit a gale, and the previously steady ship was tossed around much like her smaller competitors, with furniture crashing around and broken skylights letting in water.  Nothing worse happened, but it frightened the passengers and undermined the storm-proof reputation of the ship.

1958 lithograph of Great Eastern by Charles Parson. Source: Wikipedia

Great Eastern put into New York just after the outbreak of the Civil War and following her return to England she was refitted as a troop ship to carry British soldiers and family members to Canada from Liverpool.  Once the refit was complete, she sailed for Quebec in June 1861 with 2144 officers, 473 women and children and 122 horses, as well as 40  paying passengers and a crew of 400.  This was the first and last time her massive capacity was actually useful for carrying passengers.  After a 10 day voyage from Liverpool to Quebec, she remained for a month, taking on paying sight-seers, and accumulating bookings for the return trip, carrying 357 passengers back to England.  She began to be a regular on the transatlantic route.

The Great Eastern in a gale, 1861. Source: Royal Museums Greenwich

After several incident-free voyages, in September 1862 the ship left Liverpool with 400 passengers and a healthy load of cargo. On the afternoon of the second day out, they hit a gale and in the process of turning into the storm, the rudder was hopelessly damaged and, hanging loose, began to damage the propeller.  One paddle wheel damaged in the storm was shredded, lifeboats were lost, and furniture and fittings were tossed throughout the ship’s interior.  Water entering through smashed skylights and portholes began to overwhelm the pumps.  The day was saved not by captain, officers or crew, but by a passenger, civil engineer Hamilton Towle, who devised a scheme to steer the rudder manually.  Under his direction, the crew managed to wrap chains around the rudder, restart the screw propeller, turn around and limp the ship into Queenstown (today Cobh) in southeast Ireland.  She was subsequently escorted by tug to her mooring at Milford Haven.  It cost some £60,000 to repair the ship, and Towle claimed that as Great Eastern would have foundered without his intervention he could demand a salvage fee.  He was awarded £15,000, and again the management company found itself struggling.

Cross section of the Great Eastern. Source: Original unknown; this was downloaded from Encyclopedia Titanica

Great Eastern returned to the New York run in May of 1862, with only 128 passengers on the way out but 389 and a hold full of cargo on the return journey.  Her July 1862 voyage was also successful.  In spite of this, she was not competitive with the fastest ships against which she was running, all of which, being so much smaller, were running at their full passenger and cargo capacity and burning much less coal.  These were profitable where Great Eastern was struggling.  Her third voyage in 1862 caused more financial worries when, nearly having arrived at New York in late August, she scraped against an uncharted reef.  Although the ship made port without difficulty, thanks to the double-skinned hull, the tear was 80ft long and the cost of a temporary repair was £70,000, partly due to the difficulty of obtaining materials during the American Civil War.  Her return to Liverpool in January 1863, with substantial cargo, and was put on a gridiron on the Mersey for the damage and repairs to be inspected.  The temporary repair had to be made good, and two boilers required work. 

1863 was a much better year and she carried a total of some 2700 passengers to New York and 950 in return over three trips.  Still, she made a substantial loss thanks to a pricing war started between the Cunard and Inman Lines, which pushed fares down to below the 1862 rates.  Combined with mortgage and creditor debts, the Great Eastern was no longer viable, and she was put up for auction in January 1864.  She failed to meet her reserve, and the ship was withdrawn from sale.  Instead, she was sold privately for £25,000 to a new company formed to buy her for cable laying, The Great Eastern Steamship Company.  

The following years were Great Eastern‘s  most productive.  She was ideally suitable for laying telegraph cables along the floor of the Atlantic, the only ship large enough to carry the machinery and the 2,000 nautical miles of cable required to reach from Ireland to America.  She was first engaged on this work from 1865-1866.  Although the first attempt to lay cable failed due to problems with both the cable laying equipment and the cable itself, the value of Great Eastern herself was proved, and the second attempt in July 1866 was a great success, and there were now two telegraph cables lying across the seabed of the Atlantic.  A dividend of 70%  was returned on the Great Eastern Steamship Company’s shares.

Great Eastern and the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867

Great Eastern under repair at New Ferry, by Edwin Arthur Norbury. The Illustrated London News engraving at the top of the post is thought to have been based on this painting. Source: Artware Fineart

Great Eastern had been a familiar sight on the Mersey from the early 1860s, when she often used Liverpool as a base for her transatlantic crossings.  The Mersey was one of the few rivers wide enough and sheltered enough to provide her with safe harbour when she was not at sea.  After 1866, Great Eastern returned to Milford Haven.  The Great Eastern Steamship Company, having completed its work, jumped at the opportunity to rent her out for a one-off voyage as a passenger ship.  She was leased for £1,000 a month to a French company, La Société des Affréteurs du Great Eastern, which planned to use her to take around 3000 wealthy Americans to the Paris Exposition, and was moved to the Mersey for a refit.  Some illustrations refer to her being at New Ferry, others at Rock Ferry. There is some confusion in publications over whether New Ferry or Rock Ferry was the most appropriate name for the location.  In fact, both appear to refer to the Sloyne, an anchorage in the Mersey, lying off shore where Tranmere Oil Terminal is located.  It was popularly used as a mooring for particularly deep ships, including the Royal Navy training ship HMS Conway

The French company agreed to pick up the bill for refitting Great Eastern, together with new screw boilers, at a cost of £80,000. A Liverpool company picked up the contract to restore her to her former finery and overhaul the engines, work taken place at the Sloyne, as shown in the picture above and at the top of the post, between 19 January and 21 February 1867, ready to sail in March.

The story of Great Eastern‘s repairs was reported 26th January 1867, as follows in the Brecon County Times Neath Gazette and General Advertiser for the Counties of Brecon Carmarthen Radnor Monmouth Glamorgan Cardigan Montgomery Hereford.

Account of the repairs to Great Eastern at Rock Ferry. Source: Brecon County Times

BEACHING OF THE GREAT EASTERN. The big ship was, on the 19th, placed on the grid- iron at New Ferry, just above Liverpool, on the Cheshire side of the river. The gridiron, on which the ship now rests, was constructed about three years ago, when the vessel was first overhauled in the Mersey, but has since been altered, strengthened, and very much improved. There was a very high spring tide, and although the ship was drawing 18 feet 6 inches of water on an even keel, there was quite sufficient depth on the shore to render the operation of beaching a safe one. She lies broadside on the grid running parallel with the river. About nine o’clock a.m. all was in readiness, and the ship left her moorings. Sir James Anderson, the commander of the big ship, attended to the navigation, while Mr. Brereton, the successor to Mr. Brunel, and Mr. Yockney, carefully watched the engineering department.  Four steam-tugs (two on each side the Great Eastern assisted to keep the vessel in position, as with scarcely perceptible motion she neared the beach. The screw engines only of the big ship were worked. Tie screw boilers have been taken out of the ship, and are to be replaced by new ones, and the screw engines were consequently worked from the paddle boilers. The big ship took the grid about ten o’clock. She was placed with great nicety in the exact position fixed upon. Every- thing passed off without the slightest accident, and the beaching may be said to have been accomplished in the most skilful and successful manner. The Great Eastern is kept in position by two massive dolphins. Although her sides and bottom are rather dirty, the lines, bolts, and rivets appear in excellent order. The gridiron is perfectly flat for 60 feet wide, and the big ship rests in perfect security upon it. Every precaution has been taken to prevent accident. Thousands of men are at present engaged on the ship, and she will be ready at the time specified to trade between New York and Brest. Her first voyage after she comes off the grid-iron will be from Liverpool to New York, with goods and passengers.

Great Eastern sailed to New York with 123 passenger on board, which took a lengthy 14 days due to storms and the need to run in new parts.  Jules Verne, renowned for his novels about futuristic technology, was on board Great Eastern when she left the Mersey .  His subsequent novel The Floating City, is a real mixed blessing, combining his own real world experiences with a very bad fictional drama.  In spite of that, the bits of his text where he talks about the ship herself are excellent.  One of my favourite bits describes her leaving her mooring on the Mersey before heading across the Atlantic (the rest of this account can be found at the end of this post):

Illustration in the Jules Verne book The Floating City

At this moment large volumes of smoke curled from the chimneys; the steam hissed with a deafening noise through the escape-pipes, and fell in a fine rain over the deck; a noisy eddying of water announced that the engines were at work. We were at last going to start.

First of all the anchor had to be raised. The Great Eastern, swung round with the tide; all was now clear, and Captain Anderson was obliged to choose this moment to set sail, for the width of the Great Eastern, did not allow of her turning round in the Mersey. He was more master of his ship and more certain of guiding her skilfully in the midst of the numerous boats always plying on the river when stemming the rapid current than when driven by the ebb-tide; the least collision with this gigantic body would have proved disastrous.

To weigh anchor under these circumstances required considerable exertion, for the pressure of the tide stretched the chains by which the ship was moored, and besides this, a strong south-wester blew with full force on her hull, so that it required powerful engines to hoist the heavy anchors from their muddy beds. An anchor-boat, intended for this purpose, had just stoppered on the chains, but the windlasses were not sufficiently powerful, and they were obliged to use the steam apparatus which the Great Eastern, had at her disposal.

At the bows was an engine of sixty-six horse-power. In order to raise the anchors it was only necessary to send the steam from the boilers into its cylinders to obtain immediately a considerable power, which could be directly applied to the windlass on which the chains were fastened. This was done; but powerful as it was, this engine was found insufficient, and fifty of the crew were set to turn the capstan with bars, thus the anchors were gradually drawn in, but it was slow work.

Dining room on the Great Eastern. Source: National Library of Ireland

After an on-board accident leaving port, the ship reached New York without further incident, and preparations were immediately made for her voyage from New York to Brest in France, from where passengers to were to be sent on to Paris.  She had berths prepared for 3000 passengers, but the lengthy  outward passage, much discussed, proved to be a deterrent and she left New York with only 191 on board.  This was a disaster for the French company that had invested so much in her.  It was also a disaster for the Great Eastern Steamship Company, which was caught up in legal disputes concerning unpaid crew fees amounting to £4500.00.  When the company told aggrieved crew members to sue the French firm that had leased the ship, they took legal advice.  Great Eastern was seized by the Receiver of Wrecks, and the Great Eastern Steamship Company eventually awarded the crew a miserly £1500.00. No dividend was paid in 1867.

From 1869 to 1870 and between 1873 and 1874, the great ship had returned to cable work.  Between these two contracts she sat unused at anchor on the Mersey and in 1874 was returned to Milford Haven where she again sat unused.

Great Eastern’s final days on the Clyde and the Mersey 

Back in Milford Haven, no-one could think of a commercially viable use for Great Eastern, and she was beached on a gridiron  in 1874 and was left there for twelve years.  In 1885 she was eventually auctioned to a coal haulier, Edward de Mattos for £26,200, who had first shown interest in her in 1881.  He is thought to have wanted her as a coal hulk in Gibraltar, but his plans fell through, and he agreed to lease her to Louis S. Cohen. Cohen, managing director of Lewis’s Emporium in Liverpool, one of the earliest department stores, had attempted to purchase the ship himself to use as a show boat, but  was prevented by some of his mortgagees.  Leasing her was the next best solution, and Cohen hired crew to bring her from Milford Haven to Liverpool, inviting 200 guests to enjoy the voyage.  In May, she left Milford Haven, once her engines were persuaded back to life by one of her former engineers, George Beckwith.  Having sat unused for so long, her paddles had rusted and were useless, but the screw propeller was in tact and the engines obediently fired up.  Unsurprisingly, the engines could not achieve anything like maximum output, and the hull was mired with seaweed, mussels and limpets, but she still averaged 5 1/2 knots.  The engines failed once when pipes burst, and there was a small fire, but these problems were resolved en route and the guests were delivered safely to their destination.  News of her upcoming arrival in the Mersey had generated considerable interest, and the crowds began to gather.

All along the shore from Crosby crowds of people might be seen assembled looking for the arrival of the big ship.  Tugs crowded with persons approached and cheered.  The Cheshire shore and the New Brighton pier were crowded, and all the way up the river on either side the shore riverwalls and landing stages were black with spectators. (New York Times).

Great Western with an advert for Lewis’s department store painted on her hull. Source: Royal Museums Greenwich (P10569)

Advertising was painted on her hull, promoting Cohen’s own chain of Lewis’s department stores, the painting having been carried out before her arrival at Liverpool.  Lewis’s was a local success story.  It was founded in 1856 by the son of a Jewish merchant who called  David Levy, who changed his name to Lewis.  He did an apprenticeship with tailors Benjamin Hyam and Co, and at the age of 23 opened a boys’ clothing shop.  His wife’s nephew was Louis Cohen, and the two teamed up to grow the business into the Lewis’s supermarket chain, with the flagship store in Liverpool, and branches opening during the later 19th Century in Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham, all marketed with the slogan “Lewis’s are friends of the people.” David Lewis died in 1885, after which Louis Cohen took over the entire enterprise.  The entrepreneurial spirit that drove the retail chain was clearly drawn to the marketing possibilities of Brunel’s great ship.

Moored on the Wirral side of the Mersey, visitors had to be ferried over to Great Eastern from Liverpool, and there was no shortage of visitors willing to pay a shilling for a visit, accompanied by entertainments including music and dancing, and religious music played on a Sunday.

Great Eastern laid up in Milford Haven. Source: Source:  Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives blog

When Cohen’s contract came up for renewal, he decided against renewing and de Mattos decided to covert Great Eastern into a funfair, with space rented out to performers, vendors and other interested parties.  She opened complete with merry-go-rounds and acrobats, with a music hall, a dining room and bars.  After opening in Liverpool, she spent the winter in Dublin with adverts for tea painted on her hull, returning to Liverpool in April 1887.  She was now refused a license for alcohol, possibly because of church objections to the employment of workers on a Sunday, even for sacred music performances.  The novelty had worn off and the revenues dried up, and she was moved to Greenock on the Clyde in August 1887, to lure in residents of Glasgow who were delivered by steam packet, but again the scheme was a financial failure.  The ship was put up for auction and posters were printed publicising the sale.

TO BE SOLD AT PUBLIC AUCTION on Thursday 20th October 1887 at 12 O’Clock, at the Brokers’ Saleroom, Walmer Building, Water Street, Liverpool, if not previously disposed of by private treaty, THE CELEBRATED, WORLD-RENOWNED, MAGNIFICENT, IRON PADDLE AND SCREW STEAMSHIP ‘GREAT EASTERN’, as she now lies in the Clyde. Lately steamed from Dublin to Liverpool and then to the Clyde with her screw engine, which is 1,000 h.p. nominal; paddle engines are 1,000 h.p. nominal. She has lately been painted and decorated.

The ship was now purchased by a Mr. Craik for £26,000 who seems to have been de Mattos’s manager and had bid on the ship to prevent a financially ruinous sale.  After several more weeks of failure to find a buyer for Great Eastern, she was sold to a shipbreakers for £16,500.

This cartoon was published in 1858 at a time when members of the media were poking fun at the multiple failures to launch the ship, which at that stage was still called “Leviathan.”  It is bizarre and truly regrettable that this silly satire became the commercial reality nearly 30 years later. By Watts Phillips. Source: Mariners’ Blog

By October, Great Eastern was again up for sale, and was purchased only to be auctioned for scrap in 1888 to Henry Bath Ltd, 30 years after her launch in London on the Thames.  Henry Bath was established in 1794, and is still going today, although no longer involved in ship breaking.  She left the Clyde on 22nd August 1888.  Unable to make more than 4 knots, she was provided with a tow from the accompanying tug, Stormcock.  It took three days to move her to  the Mersey.

Great Eastern, beached in advance of being broken up.  Source: Liverpool Echo

Great Eastern was broken up on the Mersey on the same gridiron erected for the repairs.  It is a measure of how big an impression she still made that there was a huge demand for souvenirs, with people lining up to buy pieces of the ship before she the work began.   Breaking began on 1st January 1889.   In this too she ate into her new owner’s profits.  They company directors had estimated that it would take 200 men a year to break up the ship, but she was so well built that it took nearly two years to complete the brutal and punishing task of taking her apart. Her buyers, having been very happy with the purchase price and having made an excellent start selling her pieces of her hull and her fittings, had looked forward to a substantial profit from breaking her up as scrap.  Instead, they found themselves paying out for far more manhours than anticipated, and having to bring in additional machinery, including wrecking balls, to finish the job.  She was broken up at a loss.

Final comments

Flagpole at Anfield, which was originally a topmast from Great Eastern. The flagpole still stands today. Source: Play Up, Liverpool

There are plenty of paintings and contemporary newspaper articles, as well as original documentation, from which much of the Brunel and Great Eastern story have been retold in books, articles, museums and art galleries.  An example is a display in the  Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Emigration Gallery where the ship’s bell is preserved.  There is also a silver model of the ship made for the son of Captain Paton, who had been with the ship from 1860-1863.  Captain Paton’s son, James Paton, had been born on board Great Eastern.  A part of one of the ship’s funnels, which exploded during her sea trials, is now at the S.S. Great Britain Museum, saved after she put into Weymouth for repairs.  In 2011, Time Team, a Channel 4 archaeological series carried out a geophysical survey on the Mersey foreshore that suggested that some small pieces of the ship are still buried where she was broken up on the Mersey.  Perhaps the most unusual remnant of the ship is at Liverpool FC in Anfield, where one of Great Eastern‘s top masts is used as a flagpole.  There must be dozens of souvenirs purchased in the final days before Great Eastern was broken up, still out there, perhaps unrecognized.

The Leviathan or Great Eastern Steam Ship.  Source:  Royal Museums Greenwich

It is often said that Great Eastern was ahead of her time, but in some ways, she was too late for the moment when she would have fulfilled Brunel’s vision of filling her to capacity with passengers.  The gold rushes of California (1848–1855) and Australia (1851-1860) saw massive emigration from the UK.  In Australia, by the early 1870s the population had tripled, and most of the emigrants accounting for this phenomenon were carried on sailing ships in often dreadful conditions; they would have been far better off on Great Eastern.  It remains something of a mystery to me why, after her initial service in the US and as a cable layer, she never did go to Australia.  In 1869 the Suez Canal opened, putting many sailing ships out of business in China, because they were unable to navigate the Red Sea’s difficult cross-winds, whilst steam ships could chug on regardless, in a fraction of the time.  Full-rigged tea clippers like Cutty Sark (launched in 1869) shifted on to the Australian route, carrying out passengers and goods for wealthier emigrants and farmers, and returning with sheep wool.  Steam ships of the era could not carry sufficient coal to be competitive but Great Eastern would have been perfect.  Emerson interestingly suggests that some of the company’s directors may have wanted to avoid putting her into competition with shipping lines serving Australia and the Far East in which they had interests, and perhaps that was indeed a factor.  

As Kenneth Clark said in his classic book Civilisation, Brunel “remained all his life in love with the impossible.”  There are plenty of survivors to remind us of this wild, explosive imagination.  One of Brunel’s earlier and brilliant ships, the Great Britain, has been preserved in dry dock in Bristol, and his railways and bridges are still used today.  It is a true tragedy that Great Eastern could not be rescued, but she really was too big and expensive to maintain.  It is impossible to imagine how she could have been saved.  Brindle calls her Brunel’s “ultimate triumph, and his greatest folly.”  Sad.

I am left wondering it was like to be at the helm of such an enormous ship, powered by steam or sail, propelled by screw or paddle.  So far, I have found nothing about what it was like to handle that vast, glorious bulk, so please let me know if you know of any first-hand accounts by one of her former captains or crew.

The same length as Great Eastern, the Silver Spirit, photographed in 2021. Source: Vessel Finder

Cruise ships today are still being made that are the same length as Great Eastern, although their other vital statistics are  unsurprisingly considerably different.  One example is Silversea’s Silver Spirit, 211m long (the same length as Great Eastern), with a passenger capacity of 608.  Although she was shorter when first built in 2009, she was cut in half and a middle section added in 2018.

The following is a short but visually appealing 2-minute Royal Museums Greenwich video about Brunel and the Great Eastern:


Here’s more from Jules Verne on what it was like to be on board the leviathan.

A Floating City
Chapter V – Off at Last [leaving the Mersey]
Jules Verne

THE WORK of weighing anchors was resumed; with the help of the anchor-boat the chains were eased, and the anchors at last left their tenacious depths. A quarter past one sounded from the Birkenhead clock-towers, the moment of departure could not be deferred, if it was intended to make use of the tide. The captain and pilot went on the foot-bridge; one lieutenant placed himself near the screw-signal apparatus, another near that of the paddle-wheel, in case of the failure of the steam-engine; four other steersmen watched at the stern, ready to put in action the great wheels placed on the gratings of the hatchings. The Great Eastern, making head against the current, was now only waiting to descend the river with the ebb-tide.

The order for departure was given, the paddles slowly struck the water, the screw bubbled at the stern, and the enormous vessel began to move.

The greater part of the passengers on the poop were gazing at the double landscape of Liverpool and Birkenhead, studded with manufactory chimneys. The Mersey, covered with ships, some lying at anchor, others ascending and descending the river, offered only a winding passage for our steam ship. But under the hand of a pilot, sensible to the least inclinations of her rudder, she glided through the narrow passages, like a whale-boat beneath the oar of a vigorous steersman. At one time I thought that we were going to run foul of a brig, which was drifting across the stream, her bows nearly grazing the hull of the Great Eastern, but a collision was avoided, and when from the height of the upper deck I looked at this ship, which was not of less than seven or eight hundred tons burden, she seemed to me no larger than the tiny boats which children play with on the lakes of Regent’s Park or the Serpentine. It was not long before the Great Eastern, was opposite the Liverpool landing-stages, but the four cannons which were to have saluted the town, were silent out of respect to the dead, for the tender was disembarking them at this moment; however, loud hurrahs replaced the reports which are the last expressions of national politeness. Immediately there was a vigorous clapping of hands and waving of handkerchiefs, with all the enthusiasm with which the English hail the departure of every vessel, be it only a simple yacht sailing round a bay. But with what shouts they were answered! what echoes they called forth from the quays! There were thousands of spectators on both the Liverpool and Birkenhead sides, and boats laden with sight-seers swarmed on the Mersey. The sailors manning the yards of the Lord Clyde, lying at anchor opposite the docks, saluted the giant with their hearty cheers.

But even the noise of the cheering could not drown the frightful discord of several bands playing at the same time. Flags were incessantly hoisted in honour of the Great Eastern, but soon the cries grew faint in the distance. Our steam-ship ranged near the “Tripoli,” a Cunard emigrant-boat, which in spite of her 2000 tons burden looked like a mere barge; then the houses grew fewer and more scattered on both shores, the landscape was no longer blackened with smoke; and brick walls, with the exception of some long regular buildings intended for workmen’s houses, gave way to the open country, with pretty villas dotted here and there. Our last salutation reached us from the platform of the lighthouse and the walls of the bastion.

At three o’clock the Great Eastern, had crossed the bar of the Mersey, and shaped her course down St George’s Channel There was a strong sou’wester blowing, and a heavy swell on the sea, but the steam-ship did not feel it. . . .

Our course was immediately continued; under the pressure of the paddles and the screw, the speed of the Great Eastern, greatly increased; in spite of the wind ahead, she neither rolled nor pitched. Soon the shades of night stretched across the sea, and Holyhead Point was lost in the darkness.


Colour lithograph (7 in total) of the S.S. ‘Great Eastern’, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and John Scott Russell, launched 1858. 1850s. Longitudinal section. Scale 1/8″ : 1′. Flat copy. Click to see bigger image, and click the link following to see close-up details in sections. Source:  The Science Museum


Books and papers

Brindle, S. 2005.  Brunel. The Man Who Built the World. Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Cadbury, D. 2003.  Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. Harper Perennial

Emmerson, G.S. 1980. The Greatest Iron Ship.  S.S. Great Eastern. David and Charles

Maggs, C. 2017. Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The Life of an Engineering Genius. Amberley Books

Rolt, L.T.C. 1957 (with an introduction by Buchanan, R.A. 1989). Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Penguin

If you want to know more about Brunel or Great Eastern and are looking for just one book to read:
Of all the books about Brunel in general, rather than the Great Eastern specifically, I found Maggs and Rolt the most useful. Rolt offers the best narrative with most detail (447 pages). Maggs is also thoroughly digestible, and is the best for quoting Brunel himself (310 pages).  Brindle is by far the least useful for detailed analysis (195 pages), but is an enjoyable romp through Brunel’s life.  All three have shiny illustrations and photographs clumped together.  All three, being about Brunel, end with his death, and do not pursue the longer term fortunes of any of his ventures.
Regarding Great Eastern, Emerson’s book is invaluable, with a good analysis and some terrific photographs, although it is not always easy to track dates; Cadbury did an excellent job in the chapter of her book (and the other chapters on other engineering triumphs of the period are also a good read); the chapter by Maggs is short, but quotes Brunel extensively, which offers great insight into Brunel’s thinking; Rolt provides a lot of excellent detail in two and a half chapters on the subject; finally, Brindle devotes only 21 pages to all three best-known ships, which renders it fairly useless for insights into Great Eastern.


Artware Fine Art
Text about the picture “The Great Eastern beached on the gridiron New Ferry , On the Cheshire Bank of the Mersey February 1867 with workers maintaining the Hull”

Dead Confederates. A Civil War Era Blog
The World’s Largest Troopship

Grace’s Guide
S.S. Great Eastern

Henry Bath Ltd

History of the Atlantic Cable and Underseas Communication
Great Eastern by Bill Glover

The Illustrated Times
The Death of Mr Brunel

Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives
From Millwall to the Kop – the story of Great Eastern
Timeline of the Great Eastern

Liverpool Echo
Can you help solve this decades-old Anfield mystery?

Liverpool Echo
Store that has its heart in Liverpool

Lyttleton Times, vol.VIII, Iss.496, 5 AUGUST 1857, page 3 (originally from The Times)
The Great Eastern

New York Times
The Great Eastern. Details of a Voyage from Milford Haven to Liverpool, May 1886

Old Mersey Times (originally from the Daily Post, January 23rd 1860)
Death of Captain Harrison of the Great Eastern.

Shipping Wonders of the World
The Famous Great Eastern

The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) Sat 31 Dec 1892, p.10

Victoria and Albert Museum
Photographing the Great Eastern


Industrial Archaeology: The 19th Century Birkenhead Docks in the mid-late 1980s

I found these photos the other day in an old file and thought that they ought to be shared.  I cannot remember the exact date, but it was somewhere in the mid to late 1980s when Jack Edwards, who ran the Cavendish Enterprise Agency in Birkenhead, gave me the most brilliant work experience opportunity after I left university, one of the best times of my life.  Up until that time, my work experience consisted of digging up archaeological sites around Britain, and Cavendish was a real insight into another world. There were so many superb projects.  Jack noticed that I photographed anything that came my way, so one of the projects that he set me was to take photographs of the derelict Birkenhead docks and its wharves.  This was pre-digital,  all slide and print film.  It was always a bit of an anxious moment when photographs came back from the film processors, to find out whether they were any good.  I have resisted the temptation to tweak them in Photoshop.

Jack was collecting tram rails at the time, in the yard at Cavendish, because there was a lot of conversation about restoring the docks along the lines of the Albert Dock in Liverpool, and he thought that it would be terrific to run replica trams through it.  When I went to the docks, my beloved Nikon in hand, I took the incumbent boyfriend with me, on the grounds that the derelict docks were probably not the best place to be wandering around alone, but we encountered no-one.  Not merely derelict, but deserted.  The photographs were never used for anything,  although Jack loved them, but I am so glad that he sent me to take them, because this is something that no-one will ever see again.  A moment in time, captured.

Jack was my Dad’s great friend, and thanks to my ruthless custom of gate-crashing their many lunches, he became a lifelong friend of mine too.  We lost Jack last year.  In the tornado of questions that I failed to ask him over the many happy and boozy lunches, one of the big ones was – Jack, what on earth did you do with all those tram rails?


The late 19th century Churton village pump

A little way down Pump Lane, opposite Churton Hall in the village of Churton is a cast iron hand-activated water pump, in an alluring shade of bottle green.  Its original manufacturer marking is almost illegible, but apparently reads “G. INGOLD B. STORTFORD,” referring to G. Ingold of Bishop’s Stortford.  The modern paintwork makes this illegible today.  I haven’t found any photographs of the pump prior to 2005 when it was renovated and reinstalled, but there must be plenty in local collections, so perhaps some will turn up.  It looks as though it is in very good condition, at least externally, its paintwork glossy and its structure intact.  Its What Three Words location is ///lance.alas.prune.

Pumps were installed from the 18th century, and began to replace wells in the  latter half of the 19th Century.  Wells in Churton are recorded at Churton Hall, Pump Lane, inside and out, and inside Cherry Tree Cottage on Chester Road, discovered during renovation work, the latter now sealed over.  Latham says that well water was very hard in the Farndon area, and that most houses had some form of rainwater storage as a common supplement to use of the well, for washing clothes and other tasks were softer water was required.

There were two primary types of upright pump commonly installed in Britain in the mid-late 19th Century: the lift pump and the force pump.  The Churton pump is probably a lift type.  These are relatively simple, with two valves opening and closing as a piston is lifted and dropped with the lever.  When the handle is lifted, the lower vale opens and the upper valve closes.  The barrel draws the water up the downpipe, filling the barrel below the piston.  When the handle is pushed down, the lower valve closes and the upper one opens, forcing water into the barrel about the piston.  The next upward pull of the handle pushes the water out of the spout, with water again filling the barrel below the piston.

Pumps relied on bringing water up from local aquifers via boreholes, which were the biggest part of pump installation.  A simple screw-shaped auger could be used for soft soils (I use a small one for planting daffodil bulbs), but percussion drilling was required for sinking a borehole through stone, a far more laborious and expensive process.   

The first village standpipe pumps were made of wood, which inevitably rotted, and later lead.  Lead was malleable and enabled smaller pumps to be made, but it was expensive and was targeted by thieves for melting down for resale, in spite of the threat of transportation, which was the standard punishment for theft of village pumps. Cast iron, a new technology in the 18th century that spread during the 19th century, replaced both.   Cast iron pumps were cheap to produce and far less prone to decay.  They spread rapidly into villages that had not previously been able to afford a pump, and found their way into homes, inns, farms and public institutions such as schools and hospitals.

Public pumps were not merely water sources but, much like the office water fountain today, places where people bumped into one another and where information, news and gossip were exchanged.  Some activities were easier to carry out at the pump itself rather than carrying the water back to home or business, whilst some better-off residents paid for the water to be delivered to them.  Comings and goings at the pump made it a social as well as a functional resource, and probably changed the dynamic of village life quite substantially once installed.

Servicing the pump was important, replacing the more vulnerable parts to ensure that it stayed functional.  The pump would sometimes be out of commission during the winter months due to frozen water, and the pumps themselves might be chained up to prevent use, and wrapped against the cold to protect them from frost damage.  I do much the same (wrapping, not chaining) with my high-tech hose reel and my outdoor taps.


So far a precise date for the installation of the Churton pump eludes me. Latham says that the village pump at Crewe-by-Farndon was installed by William and Mary Barnston in the 1850s, and the one in Farndon by Mary Barnston in about 1877.   However the Churton pump is on the Churton-by-Aldford side of the road, inset into a field on that side of the road.  This is relevant because Churton was divided at that time into two parts, Churton-by-Aldford and Churton-by-Farndon, the division between the two running down the middle of Pump Lane.  Churton-by-Aldford came under the Grosvenor family’s Eaton Hall estate, and Churton-by-Farndon came under the Barnstons of Farndon, so the pump, if not paid for by public subscription, is more likely to have been donated by the Grosvenor family rather than the Barnstons of Crewe-by-Farndon.  On the other hand, I can find no record of a village pump in Aldford at around the same time.  Aldford, of course, was a model village, built from scratch by the 2nd Marquess of Westminster in the mid-19th Century, and the houses may have been supplied with running water.  So the question of how and precisely when the Churton pump arrived remains, for the time being, unanswered, but there are clues to establishing a rough date.  

G. Ingold of Bishop’s Stortford (Hertfordshire), made pumps for a variety of locations, although usually in the south, including villages in Essex and Cambridge.  The company had been founded in 1851 by John Ingold for sinking wells and manufacturing pumps.  He was based at Rye Street with a workshop in Apton Road in Bishops Stortford.  Following the death of John Ingold, the business was taken over by his son George, but the latter was marking pumps “G. Ingold” well before his father’s death.  This seems to put our pump quite late in the 19th Century.  This is born out by a number of wells and pumps in Uttlesford in Essex, where the date was recorded.  The earliest marked as “G. Ingold” as opposed to merely “Ingold,” was in 1873, then 1886, with a cluster of five in the 1890s.

Where images are available, all of the Ingold pumps looked very similar. As far as I can tell from the Essex and Cambridge examples posted on the web, most Ingold pumps had handles to the rear, with only some, like the Churton pump, fitted with handles at the side.  The Ingold spouts often had a thorn-like feature at the top of the bend, a bucket hook, often decorated.  This is absent on the Churton pump, although there is an indentation where one might have been located, visible in the photograph above left.

There are two modern signs on the walls flanking the Churton pump.  One is a disclaimer notice drafted by a local solicitor, commenting on the quality of the water available from the pump, saying that  it derives/derived from an artesian aquifer and warning that one drinks at one’s own risk.  I did try to activate the pump, giving it a really good go after heavy rainfall when the aquifers were all filling up, but it produced nothing.  Although I’ve never tried to use a village pump before, there was no feeling of resistance as you might expect of a lever raising a piston.  Thanks very much to Irene Mundy and John Gallagher for the information that When the renovated pump was reinstalled it was discovered that the pipe delivering water up to the pump was deeper than expected. Half way down the pipe towards the water reservoir another, secondary pumping mechanism had been attached in the past.  Although the pump initially drew water, it eventually ceased to function.  It’s nice that it did work for a while, and it still looks great.

The other sign refers to the restoration.  Although it says that it was a Millennium project, commemorating the arrival of the 2000s, Latham comments that the renovated pump was not actually installed until 2005.  The sign records that the project was supported by both Barnston and Grosvenor estates, both with vested interests in the village, as well as the Chester City Council.  The engineering and installation work was carried out by A.E. and K.E. Jones, farmers near Pant yr Ochain (Gresford), and the welding by J. Vale.  Someone must have a record of the project and the installation of the pump, including photographs of the installation and official opening, which would be really good to see.  The Eaton estate repaired the stone wall that encompassed the pump.  If any more details come to light, I will cover the restoration project on another post.

It was super, late last summer, to see that the sandstone trough beneath the pump had been planted out, and that a very attractive display of bedding plants had replaced the straggling weeds (see also the photo at the top of this post).  Many thanks to whoever took the trouble.  It was great to see it looking so good.  The photograph was taken in August 2021.  The other photos on this post were taken in May 2021.

For more information on village pumps
I recommend the short book, Village Pumps by Richard K. Williams and the Village Pumps website (details of both below), both of which provided a lot of the general information in this post and are comprehensive resources on the subject of all types of village pump.


Books and papers

Latham, F. 1981.  Farndon: the History of a Cheshire Village. Farndon Local History Society

Williams, R.K. 2009.  Village Pumps.  Shire Library


The Recorders of Uttlesford History

Village Pumps website
Village Pumps: Churton entry
Village Pump, Widdington, Essex


Object histories from my garden #8 – Pieces of 19th century clay tobacco pipe

A photograph of the collection of clay pipe pieces from the garden

Clay pipes are ubiquitous in Britain.  The small collection from my garden, extracted from all over the garden over several months, is meagre but the fact that those bits were there at all is still interesting.  Like willow pattern ceramics, I would be very surprised if there are not clay pipe pieces scattered in almost every garden in Churton, Aldford, Farndon and Holt.

The ones found in my garden are shown in the photo on the left.  I suspect that we missed quite a lot when we first started digging out old beds and introducing new beds.  The stem fragments, which survive better than the more fragile pipe bowls (see diagram below right for terminology), are far easier to spot on a river bank where they have been washed back to their original white, than in gardens.  In fields and gardens, they are earth-encrusted and the broken pieces of shaft look almost no different from short pieces of twig.  After I spotted a broken pipe bowl in the garden, I realized that they were there to be found and started looking for them.  Several more emerged, all pieces of stem, one including a mouthpiece.  Most of the rest of the photos in this post are taken from elsewhere to illustrate the points made in the text.  I found the Thames foreshore examples shown below when I lived in London.

Clay pipe terminology by D.A. Higgins. Source: National Pipe Archive

A clay pipe consists of a long tube of white clay, which makes up the shaft, finishing in a bowl, which often has a small heel (also known as a  spur) to keep it upright when placed on a table.  As clay pipes were prone to snapping and could be easily replaced, their remains are littered throughout the country, turning up in fields, gardens, rivers and on building sites.  When I lived in London I found many decorated pieces on the Thames foreshore, including two complete short pipes, but all of the bits I’ve found in the garden have been completely unmarked by either decoration or manufacturers’ marks.

Clay pipes first started being produced at the end of the 16th century, in the wake of Walter Raleigh’s introduction of tobacco as a luxury item from Virginia.  Although tobacco was new in English society, it had been adopted on ships and was known in many parts of western Europe.  Its rapid success after Walter Raleigh introduced it was due to his launch of it into the upper echelons of society. Much the same happened with Chinese tea in the late 17th Century.  The Worshipful Company of Tobacco Pipe Makers and Tobacco Blenders was granted a charter by King James I in 1619 and although a duty on the sale of tobacco pipes imposed between 1695 and 1699 appears to have lead to a hiatus in clay pipe manufacturing, this did not prevent its success spreading.  It rapidly found its way from the wealthiest to less privileged households.

Decorated bowl from the Thames foreshore

The pipe making industry had spread throughout England by the end of the 17th Century, when there were very few towns without at least one pipe maker, and there were over 1000 clay pipe makers in London alone.   As prices of tobacco fell and consumption expanded, the size of the pipe bowl increased.  There was another hiatus in pipe manufacturing around in the 18th Century, this time due to interruption of tobacco imports during the American War of Independence.  They came back into fashion in the 19th Century, when all sorts of decorations were applied, some of them real works of art.  These more rarefied pipes became more collectable and less disposable, although plain, unmarked pipes still dominated in the less wealthy echelons of society.  For many more examples of the sort of decoration that was fairly common, see the What The Victorians Threw Away website.

Makers’ marks. The two at the top are a single stem, with the name H. Dudnam from Plumstead clearly shown. At the bottom is a maker’s mark, EW, on the heel of a clay pipe bowl. All found on the Thames foreshore.

Some pipes were marked with the maker’s stamp, either on the shaft or on the base of the heel, enabling the manufacturer to be identified and a date to be assigned.  Some manufacturers became particularly popular, their names a guarantee of quality, and their pipes were priced accordingly. Pipe-making dynasties sometimes emerged, with the skills being passed from one generation to another.  There’s more about pipe marking on the National Pipe Archive website.

Longer pipes were more expensive than shorter pipes, because they more were difficult to make, and used more clay, although the shorter types were more practical, were easier to smoke without holding up, and were less prone to breakage.  However, longer pipes were preferred by connoisseurs as they cooled the smoke as it travelled from the bowl.  Other factors that commanded a higher price include the above-mentioned decorative embellishments, which became particularly popular during the 19th Century.  Some very special ones had elaborate sculptural elements, but are very unlikely to be found in agricultural village gardens.  A far greater number are unmarked in any way and are found everywhere, rural and urban.  Of course, where only small pieces are found, it is entirely possible that a different portion of the same shaft would have been marked and its bowl decorated; there is no way of knowing.

Clay pipes began to be replaced by wooden ones in the early 20th Century, and all were largely replaced by cigarettes in the mid 20th Century.

Clay pipes were made in moulds, although they had to be pierced with a long metal rod before being fired.  Any decoration or manufacturer mark was incorporated into the mould.  The mould seam can usually be seen on the pipe’s underside and the front and back of the bowl.  Often, the seam is disguised by being incorporated into a decorative motif, as shown in the thorn pipe photograph below where the seam becomes the stem of a plant and is flanked by leaves (click to expand to see the decoration on the bowl).

A short pipe that has little decorative bumps on the bowl and stem called “thorns” (pipes featuring this are referred to as thorn pipes).  This one also has a button mouth piece and decorative leaf motifs along the mould seam at the front of the bowl.  Found on the Thames foreshore.

The pipes were then left to dry before being fired in a kiln.  Before being shipped, the mouth piece, the very end of which was often defined by an additional ring of clay, was painted with red or, less usually, yellow wax to prevent the smoker’s lips sticking to the clay.  The wax, which presumably wore off quite quickly, didn’t do much to prevent damage to the teeth.  Habitual pipe-smoking led to damage to the teeth, as well as the lungs.  A Museum of London study of skeletal remains excavated from a Victorian cemetery in Whitechapel found that in many cases teeth had been worn down by pipe-smoking, with some having a circular hole when the jaws were closed, formed in two or four teeth.

The oldest objects to emerge from the garden so far have been later 19th Century, and that seems a probable date for these pieces too.  It is impossible to extrapolate from a single pipe bowl, but that one example is so simple and basic, that it was not something that would have been singled out by someone wealthy.  This was an everyday item, nothing special, like a lot of the decorated ceramics and embossed glass found in this garden.

Piece of a bowl with spur, and piece of a stem with button mouthpiece. From my garden in Churton

Having found many really fascinating examples on the Thames foreshore, the small crop of unmarked clay pipe remains from my garden seem a little underwhelming by comparison, but the pipe pieces tell a more localized story of their own.  Without a maker’s mark to work with, there’s not a lot to be said about these specific examples, and that’s rather frustrating because there has been a lot of great research that has helped to develop clay pipes as archaeological tools to understand the pipe-making industry, the tobacco industry, and how both shed light on economic and social history over the centuries of their usage.  Even simple questions of source and distribution are unanswerable when the maker cannot be identified.  On the other hand, these pieces fit in with the general theme of the 19th century objects from my garden, which all of which are nicely made and look good, are robustly made and standardized, and fairly low cost.  Still, they were nice-to-have, not must-have items and suggest that the people who lived in the house were sufficiently well off to indulge themselves from time to time.

Broseley Clay Tobacco Pipe Museum. Source: Visit Bridgnorth

I initially thought that at least some of the pipes from which the pieces came could have been made in Chester, where there were multiple pipe-makers, some of them producing pipes of very high quality that were in demand both within and outside the immediate area.  Many were exported in great volume up until the 18th Century.  An example is the clay pipe works where the Roman Gardens now stand, with the kilns lined up along the side of the city walls.  It turns out, however, that by the early 19th Century the manufacture of clay tobacco pipes in Chester had collapsed.  The main source of clay pipes in the general area in the 19th Century was Broseley in Shropshire, a few miles to the south of Telford, which had been producing clay pipes since the 18th Century.  The Broseley Pipeworks, for example, was established late in pipe-making history, in 1881, and only closed in 1957, now a small museum.  Realistically, unless I find something more diagnostic, there’s no way of knowing where these odds and ends originally came from.

If you are in the Churton, Aldford, Farndon and Holt general area, and you have found clay pipe remains in your garden, especially if there are any type of markings at all, it would be great to hear from you.

For other objects in the series,
see the History in Garden Objects page


Books and papers

Another photographs of Churton clay pipes from my garden

Ayto, E.G. 1994 (3rd edition). Clay Tobacco Pipes.  Shire Publications

Cessford, C. 2001.  The archaeology of the clay pipe and the study of smoking.  Assemblage,  Issue 6, August 2001

Dagnall, R.  1987.  Chester Pipes in Rainford. Society of Clay Pipe Research, Newsletter no.15, July 1987, p.10-12

Davey, P. 1985. Clay pipes from Norton Priory, Cheshire. In (ed. Davey, P.) The Archaeology of the Clay Tobacco Pipe IX. More Pipes from the Midlands and Southern England British Archaeological Reports British Series 146i and ii. p.157-236.

Nevell, M.D. 2015.  The industrial archaeology of Cheshire: an overview. Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society, 85 (IV), p.39-82

Pearce, J. 2007.  Living in Victorian London: The Clay Pipe Evidence.
Part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded study ‘Living in Victorian London: Material Histories of Everyday Life in the Nineteenth-Century Metropolis’ Award Number AH/E002285/1 led by Dr Alastair Owens in the Department of Geography at Queen Mary, University of London

Sandy, J. 2019.  Clay Pipe Making: The Victorian Way. Beachcombing Magazine, volume 11, March/April 2019

Victoria County History 2003.  Late Georgian and Victorian Chester 1762-1914: The economy, 1762-1840, the demise of old Chester. A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003, p.172-177.


Victorian smokers had rotten teeth to match lungs


A visit to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen – Thomas Telford’s iron trough 126ft over the Dee

It is without question a marvel of modern engineering and a remarkable sight, but what strikes most people when they first see the 1000ft (c.305m) Pontcysyllte  canal aqueduct is that the handrail along the pedestrian walkway 127ft (38.5m) over the river Dee is only a few steps away from the other side of the narrow canal trough, which has no handrail at all to separate a boat user from a straight drop into the valley bottom.  Until you lean over the towpath’s handrail and look straight down, 127ft is a rather abstract number.  The photograph on the right shows me crossing it on a 40ft narrowboat in the 1990s on a two week canal holiday.  What you cannot see are the white knuckles with which I am gripping the tiller for dear life, in spite of having absolutely no fear of heights, because there was absolutely nothing between me and that drop.  The aqueduct, Grade I listed, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009, is the longest and highest in Britain.  It’s a long way down.

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct passing over the Dee valley at Trevor. Source: Dronepics Wales

Seen from below or from a distance, the Pontcysyllte aqueduct is a fabulous sight, not pretty but truly awe-inspiring, and it shows exactly what Pontcysyllte is:  an iron trough built on 18 vast tapering brick piers, with 19 arches.  It was all about function, nothing to do with aesthetics, and has no ornamentation to soften it, but the sheer ambition of it grips the imagination and makes one look beyond the factual details of the thing.  It really is superb.  There is a path leading down along the side of the approach to the aqueduct into the valley below, a long but well maintained track to the valley bottom, where you can walk along the Dee and get a long at the aqueduct from a distance.  That’s one for another day.

It was a beautiful day, absolutely flawless, with cerulean blue skies, a golden sun warming one’s face, and a brightness of autumnal colours that takes some beating.  After attending the Remembrance Day commemoration at the Churton war memorial, with a memorable and moving address, and a two-minute silence filled with birdsong, I collected the car first, the parent next, and we proceeded towards Trevor, on the A539 to Llangollen.  There’s a brown signpost pointing to the aqueduct’s pay-and-display car park at the Trevor Basin, which is the home of a number of canal boat companies today, but when it was built was used for the transhipment of coal, building stone, iron products, timber and bricks, much of which was brought to the canal wharf by horse-drawn waggons.

Map of the key canal features in the Vale of Llangollen. I have added a red arrow to show the best car park for Pontcysyllte. Click to enlarge. Source: Pontcysyllte Aqueduct & Canal World Heritage Site

Thomas Telford and his chosen team

Portrait of Thomas Telford, who chose to be painted with the Pontcysyllte aqueduct in the background. Engraved by W. Raddon from a painting by S. Lane.

The aqueduct (built (1794-1805) was part of the Ellesmere Canal project.  It is one of the many British civil engineering projects that has the names of Thomas Telford (1757-1834), ironmaster William “Merlin” Hazeldine (1763-1840) and master stonemason John Simpson (1755-1815) attached to it, three men who had brought their particular skills to many different joint projects and in doing so had developed an invaluable relationship of trust and mutual respect.

Thomas Telford started his career as a stone mason, working in London on buildings such as Somerset House, and had ambitions to develop his career as an architect.  When he became the County Surveyor for Shropshire, he worked on a great variety of building projects including, by his own estimation, 40 road bridges between 1790 and 1796, two of which employed iron in their construction.   Hazledine had initially trained as a millwright, but  his family owned a small foundry  and Hazeldine went on to grow his iron casting business with the large Coleham Foundry at Shrewsbury.  Hazledine and Telford, both Freemasons, had met at Salopian Lodge  in Shrewsbury in 1789 and become friends and professional collaborators.  On one of his earliest projects in Shrewsbury Telford hired a childhood friend Matthew Davidson to oversee works, and Davidson employed master stonemason John Simpson who worked on many of Telford’s projects. Telford described Simpson as “a treasure of talents and integrity.”

Although Telford is by far the best known of the three, he, Hazledine and Simpson worked together frequently on many different projects to produce some of the great civil engineering constructions of their era, mainly bridges.  All three were involved with the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, where  Matthew Davidson also joined them, but the story of the canal starts before any of them were recruited to work for the Ellesmere Canal project.

Background to the aqueduct

The Trevor Basin today.

The big name in canal construction was James Brindley (1716-1772), who was responsible for building over 365 miles of canals by the time he died.  Brindely realized that any inland waterway network would need to connect to all the great navigable rivers that connected to the sea, including the Thames, the Mersey, the Severn and the Trent, incorporating other important navigable rivers like the the Avon and the Dee.  Most of his canals were contour canals, wherever possible built on the level and avoiding slopes so that locks and lifts could be avoided.  The network was therefore a sprawling affair, but it revolutionized transport, avoiding roads that would become mired and impassable in winter, as well as unnavigable sections of rivers, and the riverine problems of drought and flood.  Water into and out of the canal system was regulated and therefore predictable, and allowed year-round transport.  The advantages became very clear very quickly, and manufacturing and trading businesses began to locate themselves at critical points on the canal network.  Eagerness to invest in infrastructure resulted in a canal boom in the late 1780s and 1790s.  Each new section of canal required an Act of Parliament, subject to Royal Assent, and Act after Act was passed as the network expanded.

The complex arrangement of the Ellesmere Canal and its branches is shown as a think blue winding line. The thick blue line is the Dee. The yellow lines are roads. Click to see a bigger version. Source: Wikipedia

In 1791 a proposal for a canal to link the Mersey at Netherpool (later renamed Ellesmere Canal) to the river Dee at Chester and the Severn at Shrewsbury was discussed by three Shropshire entrepreneurs, carrying mainly coal, iron and lime, supported by other goods as well.  It was decided that a branch would be needed to Wrexham and Ruabon and onwards, via Chirk, bypassing Oswestry at its west, to Shrewsbury in the south with a branch to Whitchurch in the east and another to Llanymynech.  Originally it was planned to run a branch from Ruabon to reach the Irenant slate quarries near Llantysilio, via Llangollen, but this was at first dropped and later revived for different reasons (discussed below).  That branch would in turn connect to the Montgomery Canal from Frankton Junction via Welshpool to Newtown in mid Wales (for carrying limestone, coal, timber, stone and slates).

This seriously ambitious plan found sufficient support for a surveyor to be hired and possible routes to be explored.   William Jessop, an experienced canal engineer, was hired to head up the project and oversee all of its different components.  After disagreements over the final route were resolved (albeit not to everyone’s satisfaction), the Ellesmere Canal proposal went through parliament and received its Royal Assent in April 1793.  There were still a lot of technical and logistical details to resolve, including how the canal was to cross the Dee and Ceiriog valleys.

It was clear that Jessop needed help, and although the internal promotion of William Turner was Jessop’s first choice, Telford was brought in without his input. It is not certain how Telford, increasingly bored with life as a county surveyor, managed to insert himself into this ambitious engineering project, but the canal was already generating considerable excitement in the area and it looks as though he heard of the position and sought the support of one of Britain’s most prominent industrialists, John Wilkinson, to help him secure it.  Jessop made it clear in his letters what he thought of having Telford, who he had never met, brought in against his wishes as his right hand man, and refused to attend the meeting that appointed Telford to the Ellesmere Canal Company.  In spite of this rocky start, Jessop and Telford seem to have hammered out a decent working relationship, with Jessop teaching Telford what he needed to know about canal construction, and Telford injecting some ideas into the project.  Like Jessop, Telford managed to broker a deal to enable him to carry out other projects when his personal presence was not necessary, and this enabled him to work on other civil engineering works whilst the Ellesmere Canal was being built.

Building the aqueduct

Work began at Netherpool on the Mersey, renamed Ellesmere Port, in 1793.  The 9-mile canal ran down the Wirral to meet the Dee at Chester, and went so well that it opened for traffic in 1795 and was an immediate success.  While this section was underway, discussions were underway about how the canal might cross the Dee.  The original idea presented to the directors by Jessop and Turner, and apparently not opposed by Telford, was a relatively low level stone channel crossing three stone arches, with step locks either side to manage the ascent to and descent from the level of the canal to the aqueduct.   This would have been an expensive option, requiring not only the locks but the management of the water that would feed the locks.  Even after this had been agreed in principle, concerns resulted in a new plan for an iron channel on stone columns.  It is likely that it was proposed by Telford and supported by Jessop partly because it would have reduced the cost as iron was lighter, easier to work and move, and cost less.  A sketch by Telford from March 1794 survives showing an early version of this aqueduct design.

Telford’s Grade 1 listed Longdon-on-Tern aqueduct in Shropshire, 1796. Source: Chris Allen, Wikimedia

In early 1795 Telford had the opportunity to try out a smaller, less ambitious version of the design at Longdon-on-Tern on the new Shrewsbury Canal, on which Telford was also working, as replacement for the incumbent engineer who had died mid-project.  Later in the same year he had built a fully navigable iron aqueduct on a canal that had none of the problems of leakage or shattering that had worried other engineers.  Whether or not this was taken into account by the directors of the Ellesmere Canal Company, they decided in the same year to go for the iron trough on immense stone piers that was eventually built.

Telford’s friend and frequent collaborator, master mason John Simpson soon joined him on the project.  Telford also brought in Matthew Davidson, his childhood friend of Telford, a stone mason, civil engineer and excellent organizer, to oversee the bridge works.  Telford and Davidson had worked successfully together on Telford’s Montford Bridge project of 1790 – 1792.  Shortly afterwards, William Hazledine arrived to establish an ironworks and take charge of the construction work for the iron ribs and the trough.  By assembling three men that he had worked with before and trusted absolutely, Telford was not only ensuring that the project was in good hands, but that he had a team who could operate in his absence. The foundation stone for the aqueduct was laid on 25th July 1795.

Jessop and Telford made wooden models to test the design for the trough, finding that 1000s of iron parts would be needed.  The cast iron for the aqueduct was made of cast iron that was produced in William Hazledine’s new iron foundry nearby at Plas Kynaston, Cefn Mawr.  Hazledine established the Plas Kynaston foundry to service the construction of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, thereafter taking advantage of the canal network to carry his cast iron in segments to be transhipped by river or sea to where it was needed.  When he built the Eaton Hall Iron Bridge at Aldford on the river Dee (described on an earlier post) it was from Plas Kynaston that the iron was shipped by canal.

After 1801 Jessop was much less involved and Telford also had interests elsewhere, and Telford was also involved in other projects, leaving Davidson, Hazledine and Simpson to run with the project.  The piers rose steadily, each built in turn from south to north by, at the peak of the project, over 500 men.  Jessop had been desperately worried from the beginning by the dangers to workmen’s lives of such tall piers, and safety precautions were taken very seriously, with the loss of only one life.  The iron parts were manufactured as needed at Plas Kynaston, and were numbered according to the order in which they would be needed so that only pieces needed at any one time would be delivered to the site.  First, ribs of iron were fitted to the piers, and then the trough was bolted on top, after which a wooden towpath was fitted to the side.  The entire project was finished in 1805, and opened on a sunny afternoon on November 26th 1805 at a grandiose ceremony followed by a lavish feast.  The entire cost for the aqueduct project was £47,018, which in today’s money translates as around £617,855 (National Archives Currency Convertor).

Metalwork over and under the arch at the left-hand Rhos y Coed bridge.

Although not as visible in the finished design, iron was also used in the Chirk aqueduct on the Llangollen canal where ten semi-circular masonry arches were crossed by a water channel with an iron bed plate and brick sides sealed using hydraulic mortar.  As well as in the aqueducts, iron was used in various ancillary structures too.  for example, Bridge 29, Rhos y Coed, at the Trevor Basin has visible iron metalwork supplementing the stone arch, and iron was used to cap the weir at the Horseshoe Falls.

The role of the aqueduct

Map from Nicholson’s Guide to the Central canal system, showing the stump end (framed in orange) of the planned Ruabon to Chester section of the canal, which was never built and now houses the attractive Trevor boatyard where the visitor centre is located. Source: Nicholson 1989

The Pontcysyllte aqueduct was almost immediately  in danger of becoming something of a white elephant, because its original role as a direct route to Wrexham and Chester was never fulfilled.  The section that led past Trevor Basin over the aqueduct was supposed to run straight on to the west of Ruabon, via Wrexham and on to Chester where it would link with the Wirral stretch leading to the Mersey and to the  Dee and the Shropshire Union Canal.  All that is left of the Trevor-Ruabon-Wrexham-Chester branch is a stump end occupied by the Trevor Basin, where the car park is located.  This is clearly visible on Nicholson’s map left, where the main line of the canal comes to a sudden, abrupt end.

The abandonment of this important part of the original plan was due to both engineering problems and financial issues.  There were only  two obvious engineering options – an enormous tunnel or a series of locks climbing towards Wrexham and another descending into the Cheshire plain where the canal could run along the flat plain to Chester.  The tunnel would have been appallingly costly, and it was difficult to know how the locks, by no means a low-cost option themselves, could have been supplied with the sufficient water.  Although other technologies were considered, they were rejected for reasons of practicality and cost.  This left the problem of where the water was to come from to feed the rest of the Ellesmere Canal and its branches.

Horseshoe Falls

At the far end of the Llangollen canal is Telford’s great arc of a weir, today known as the “Horseshoe Falls,” marking the point at which the Dee begins to feed the Llangollen canal.  An original survey had considered using the water of the Dee as it fell from Snowndonia via Lake  Tegid at Bala and through the Vale of Llangollen as a water source for the canal.  The idea had been to link the canal to a slate works, feeding the canal at the same time.  This proposal was now revisited.  The owner of Lake Tegid gave his permission and the plan was actioned.  At the Horseshoe Falls the canal is fed with water from the Dee via a sluice and meter, and today carries over 11 million gallons of Dee water a day, emptying it into Hurleston reservoir, just north of Nantwich, where the Llangollen Canal meets the Shropshire Union Canal.  I will be posting more about the Horseshoe Falls weir on another day.  There is no turning point for vessels over 10ft long beyond Llangollen, so the final stretch is only used by minimal traffic today.

This means that the vast aqueduct, such a remarkable feat of civil engineering, would only ever lead to the relatively unimportant narrow section of canal and feeder to a complete dead end at Llantisilio after passing high through Llangollen.  This navigable channel is approached from the aqueduct by negotiating a sharp left-hand corner just beyond the exit of the trough.  Although this seems like a sad role for an aqueduct that should have carried many times the traffic that it eventually did, without the aqueduct there would have been no water to feed the rest of the system.

Even without the Ruabon – Chester link, those wishing to carry all their goods by canal were still able to connect to the main canal system, although to reach Chester they had to take a very long way round, and Wrexham was excluded completely.  The Llangollen canal still linked to the Shrophsire Union at its eastern end, from which the rest of the vast canal network could be reached.

  • Chester could still be reached by travelling the full length of the Llangollen canal to Hurleston Junction, just north of Nantwich, on the Shropshire Union Canal.  From here Chester was nearly 16 miles away.
  • Just to the north of Hurleston Junction was the Middlewich Branch, which headed east and linked to the Trent and Mersey Canal, from where Manchester, Stoke on Trent, the eastern Midlands and Yorkshire could all be reached.
  • In the opposite direction, from Hurleston Junction the Shropshire Union ran directly to Birmingham, which was a vast junction for canals in all directions, including London on the Thames and Gloucester on the Severn.

The Cefn Mawr railway viaduct, which opened in 1848.

Along the line that the original canal would have taken, a cast iron tramway was built to connect local collieries and ironworks with the canal, the iron supplied by Hazledine.  This made the Trevor Basin a particularly important hub of activity, taken delivery of bricks, tiles, coal, iron limestone, slate and sandstone for transhipping along the canal.  It was also a boatyard, with  working narrowboats being built and repaired by Hills Boatyard in the dry dock next to the Visitor Centre (now occupied by a floating take-away café).  Later, there was an interchange with the steam railway.

Visiting Pontcysyllte

A small pay-and-display car park is available for visitors at the Trevor Basin, now the home of some canal trip and holiday companies.  There is also a pub with outdoor seating, and a take-away small café on a little boat next to the visitor centre.  There is a lot of disabled parking provided for in the small car park, which is reached from the A539 in Trevor, clearly signposted with brown heritage signposting.   The aqueduct is a very short walk from the car park, and the towpath heads for miles in both directions.

If, before or after crossing the aqueduct, you are interested in finding out more about the general context of the aqueduct and its location in relation to other parts of the canal, at the Trevor Basin there is a visitor centre, a small but nicely put together display space.  As well as a map of the area that takes up a wall and shows all the main features of the landscape and the canal system itself, there is a display of some of the tools that were used in the construction of the aqueduct, which are startlingly basic, and photographs and artists’ impressions of some of the supporting works, including the foundry at Plas Kynaston.  There are ring folders full of additional information, including facts and figures, that you can look through.

Walking the aqueduct itself is not for everyone.  The towpath is rock solid, with a tall handrail on the valley side, but only wide enough for two people, so there is a lot of stopping still to allow others to pass and there is nothing to stop you falling into the canal.  The canal is only just over 6ft (1.8m) wide, and beyond that is an unrestricted (no handrail, no nothing) drop 127ft to the valley floor.  A couple who I passed told me that they were determined to walk the full length and back, but were conquering their fears to do so, and they were gripping firmly to the handrail.

An alternative to walking is to cross by boat.  There are a number of short cruises that leave the Trevor Basin and run for about 20 minutes before turning and coming back (depending on which one you take and the time of year).

For those with uncooperative legs, everything is on the flat, so it is a very good walk for those who find uphill sections of walks difficult.  After rainfall, towpaths always become a bit muddy, and can be slippery, but even though we’ve had some rainfall recently, it was fine.  The towpath between Trevor and Llangollen is beautiful, and a good choice if you can face the aqueduct.

I noticed that one of the passenger boats said that it was suitable for disabled passengers, but I would recommend getting in touch with them first to find out about timings, prices and suitability for different types of disability.


Books and papers

Glover, J.  2017.  Man Of Iron.  Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain. Bloomsbury

Lynn, P. A. 2019.  World Heritage Canal.  Thomas Telford and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.  Whittles Publishing.

Nicholson, R. 1989 (4th edition). Nicholson/Ordnance Survey Guide to the Waterways 2: Central. Robert Nicholson Publications and Ordnance Survey

Rolt, L.T.C. 1958, 2007.  Thomas Telford. The History Press.

Pattison, A.  n.d. William Hazledine (1763-1840): A Pioneering Shropshire Ironmaster.  West Midlands History  (Pattison’s full 278-page M.Phil, on which the article is based, is available here: )


Canal and River Trust
Montgomery Canal

DronePics Wales

Engineering Timelines
Longdon-on-Tern aqueduct

Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History
James Brindley
William Hazledine
William Jessop

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal World Heritage Site



Hidden Holt: An illuminating must-visit exhibition currently at Wrexham Museum

Cover of the free English/Welsh booklet accompanying the exhibition published by Wrexham Heritage Service, 2021.

My thanks to Brian Payne of the Holt Local History Society for alerting me to the fact that the Hidden Holt exhibition has been launched at the Wrexham County Borough Museum, running until 29th January 2022.  I went last week my father, and we were both bowled over by how good it was.

The exhibition introduces the Roman tile, brick and pottery works that were spread across a number of fields to the northwest of Holt, next to the river Dee.  It uses an excellent combination of original artefacts, video,  information boards and both old and new photographs and diagrams to track the twin stories of the site itself and the history of its discovery and excavation.  Holt Local History Society has a long-standing interest in the Roman works, and commissioned the most recent geophysical survey work at the site, so it’s great to see their contribution to the story being celebrated.

The exhibition (free to enter) is in Gallery 3, to the left as you move beyond reception and the café to enter the display areas.  I’ve given an overview below, but I seriously recommend that you just go – it is a tremendous, professionally-produced and beautifully designed little exhibition with some superb objects on display and some excellent information boards that explain what you are looking at.  You won’t regret it.  If you’re in the mood, the café serves a great coffee and what looks like a rather delicious lunch 🙂

Survey and excavation

Arthur Acton –  page 5 of the booklet accompanying the exhibition.  Source: Wrexham Heritage Service, 2021

The story of how the site was recognized and investigated begins in the early 1600s when landowner Thomas Crue of Holt Hill suffered repeated damage to his plough on broken brickwork and eventually discovered a series of fifty 2ft-tall posts and recorded this in a letter now in the British Museum.  The letter was mentioned in the book Roman Cheshire by W. Thompson Watkins (1886).  Retired chemist and keen amateur historian Alfred Neobard Palmer read the book, and in 1905 decided to hunt for the remains that Crue had found.  He tracked down the original letter and accompanied by local vicar Jenkyn Jones, and with the permission of the landowner Mr Beard, he engaged in a series of fieldwalking expeditions that found plenty of fragments of Roman bricks, roof tiles and pottery over an area of some 20 acres.

Fold-out plan of the kilns at Holt, published by Grimes in 1930. (Scanned from my copy of “Holt, Denbighshire”)

Palmer was not an archaeologist, and the task of excavating the site was taken on by Wrexham solicitor and amateur archaeologist Arthur Acton.  Work began in 1907,  in Wall Lock Field, and continued until 1915.  Although he lectured prolifically about the site, Acton never published his work.  Fortunately some of his records survived, and he sold the finds to the National Museum of Wales.  After five years of admirable work, the Assistant Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum, William F. Grimes who was better known as a prehistorian, published a comprehensive 235-page report on the site, complete with site plans, photographs and object illustrations.

Photograph and logo from the Archaeological Survey West website:

Work did not stop there, and during the 1970s Geoffrey Bevan conducted both field walking activities and an excavation, finding Roman material that filled dozens of boxes, which were donated to the Grosvenor Museum in Chester.  Most recently, Holt Local History Society commissioned Archaeological Survey West to carry out a geophysical survey of the site,  to accurately fix the positions of the known buildings and to identify any unexcavated and previously unknown structures.  This was successfully completed in 2018, and demonstrated that the Holt complex was even bigger and more complex than Grimes, via Acton, had been able to determine.  There is, of course, the potential for future field research.

The exhibition

Piece of a colander manufactured at Holt, on display at the exhibition

The exhibition is based mainly around discoveries made during the Acton excavations, using the Grimes and later reports to explain what was found and what has been discovered since.  Between them, Crue, Palmer, Acton, Grimes, Bevan, Holt Local History Society and Archaeological Survey West have produced a history of what lies beneath those lush green fields, and this is what the exhibition introduces.

As usual usual the exhibition’s narrative is arranged in a clockwise direction, so turn left as you walk in to Gallery 3.  The exhibition begins with a video that explains the history of survey and excavation and then talks about the site itself.  It is well worth taking a seat and watching.  It lasts about 15-20 minutes and is chock-full of information with some terrific photographs, diagrams and artist impressions of what various structures may have looked like.   The technique of superimposing building plans over a modern aerial view of the fields is particularly useful for understanding how the site was composed and what each element consisted of.   From there, the excellently designed displays take the visitor through the site’s history.

Site plan of the Roman tile and pottery work displayed in the exhibition. Also in the excellent booklet accompanying the exhibition, full details in Sources below. Click to see a bigger version with fully legible text.  Source: Wrexham Heritage Service, 2021

The site was more elaborate than I realized, composed of a number of buildings as well as the kilns.  The image on the right is shown at full size in the exhibition, and shows how big a complex the Holt tile, brick and pottery works actually was.  This is a bang-up-to-date site plan, combining the information provided by Grimes in 1930 with the details obtained by Archaeological Survey West in 2018. What this and a lot of Acton’s photographs makes clear, is that the site was a fully integrated operation combining industrial, public and domestic architectural components. A senior manager had his own house, complete with hypocaust (under-floor) central heating, there was a public bath house, presumably for workers, a series of kilns for the manufacture of mainly tiles and pottery, and a barracks that may have housed workers, or alternatively a detachment of the Roman army based at Chester at this time.  The features shown in blue are unrecorded / unexcavated.  Those in dark brown are the building locations fixed in 2018, and those in paler brown those estimated by Grimes based on Acton’s work.

The main kiln plant at Holt, published by William Grimes in 1930. Scanned from my copy.

Although now the archaeological remains are covered with fields, Acton used photography extensively, and his site plans were detailed, many published by Grimes, and used in the exhibition to reveal and explain the different components of the site.  This is very helpful not only for understanding how the site worked as an end to end operation, but is invaluable for putting the objects into context.  Objects on their own tell a limited story, but when contextualized in terms of the buildings in which they were produced and used, come to life.  The exhibition does this brilliantly.

It was a good location for a tileworks.  Building stone was available in the immediate locality thanks to the Bunter sandstone, alluvial clay was available locally, woodlands were present for the provision of fuel to feed the kilns, and the river Dee provided direct access to Chester, 12 miles / 19km away, passing the civic settlement at Heronbridge.  The generally flat environment meant that building of roads was not particularly laborious.

The visitor is taken step-by-step through the production process, explaining how the kilns and drying sheds  were built and how they functioned. The kilns formed two main units, a larger (139ft / 52m long, consisting of a row of six kilns) and smaller twin-kiln built on the natural bed-rock.  Each kiln was rectangular and tile-lined with an arched stoke-hole for access.  A round pottery kiln was also located on the edge of the main kiln complex.  The oven floor was fascinating, consisting of a raised floor of tiles plastered with clay that were pierced with holes that acted as vents.  I was fascinated to see that the drying shed was provided with a hypocaust, better known as the under-floor heating system that was used in villas and bath houses.  These, like the kilns, were stoked and kept hot to ensure that the tiles, pottery and bricks were dried through after firing.

The exhibition displays a number of artefacts, including a roof tile, a brick and a triangular atefix tile marked with the letters LEGXXVV, an abbreviation for the twentieth legion, known as Valeria Victrix (valiant and victorious).  The antefix tile, one of which is shown in the exhibition (photo left and illustration below) also shows Legio XX’s dramatic running boar symbol.   Legio XX was stationed at Chester from AD87, and the Holt works appears to have been established shortly afterwards, reaching its peak output at around AD135, and falling out of use in the mid 3rd Century.

Antefix tiles from Holt. Source: Grimes 1930

A display board shows the vast range of products that were made at the site, including floor and roof tiles, and a variety of different pottery forms.  There is a good explanation of how the roof tiles, called imbrex and tegula (plural imbrices and tegulae), worked.  A good memory for me – I dug up a lot of these tiles at my first ever dig in Silchester.  The arched imbrices, sit snugly over the upright edges of two facing tegula tiles, as shown in the above photograph, and the the triangular antefix tiles were placed to cover the ends of the imbrex.

Green-glazed ware found at Holt. Source: National Museum of Wales

Examples of the pottery found at the site are on display, with some really fine examples, including ollae (jars), urcei (jugs), lagenae (flagons), cattili (plates), calices (drinking bowls), and testa (lids).  I particularly liked a partly preserved ceramic colander and a mortarium (the latter working like a modern mortar, but with bits of stone embedded into the interior base of the pot to create a rough surface for grinding spices and seeds).  Green-glazed pottery, a luxury ware that I had never come across before, was also made at the site.  It is rare in Britain, so it was excellent to see examples of it on show.  A photograph of the green glazed pottery found at Holt (from the National Museum of Wales website) is shown below.

The workers also turned their hands to other types of objects made from clay – one cabinet shows a marvellous piece of shaped water pipe that was manufactured at the site.

Section of water pipe manufactured at Holt

All of the output manufactured at the works was sent by boat downriver to Chester, the exhibition suggests that a short may have been dug out at Holt in order to make loading the ceramics easier, its course marked today by annual floodwaters that, as they recede, leave a line of floodwater in what could well be a Roman channel.

Samian pottery found at Holt. Source: Grimes 1930

Interestingly, the exhibition shows that even though huge amounts of pottery was being made on-site, there were particularly favoured types of ceramic being imported.  Samian (terra sigillata), a truly gorgeous luxury dark red ware that has moulded decoration on its lustrous surfaces, was found in surprising quantities.  This was usually imported from south-eastern Gaul (France); a Roman experiment with samian production in southern England produced inferior pottery and was very short-lived.

Imported black-burnished ware was also found at Holt, which the exhibition explains was made in Dorset.  At sites in southern England it is common (we found bucket-loads of it at Silchester), but when found at northern sites, it was probably imported to fulfil a particular need or desire.  The works manager might have wanted high-status ceramics, and any soldiers at the site may have craved the comforts of home, but another option is that it was being imported for use by a nearby settlement.  One of the findings of the 2018 geophysical survey was the presence of a possible Roman fort or marching camp to the west of the site, suggesting that the site may have been on the edge of an unidentified vicus settlement, or village.

Coins on display in the exhibition.

The coins at the site are invaluable for their contribution to creating a timeline for development of the site, but are works of art in their own right.

The exhibition provides another insight into the inhabitants of the site by displaying some of the other objects they owned, like small pieces of jewellery made of bronze, manicure equipment, a beautifully crafted needle and a delectably delicate silver spoon.  These are objects that people chose and kept on them, intimate reminders that these were real people who lived complicated lives in which personal appearance had an important role.

Silver spoon from Holt on display at the exhibition. Source: Grimes 1930

A map at the end of the exhibition was riveting, showing how widespread Roman presence in northeast Wales actually was, showing everything from single find-sites to industrial sites like that at Holt, the settlements at Heronbridge and Plas Coch, and the villa at Rossett, the latter two sites both recent discoveries.  It looks as though there will be more Roman discoveries in the future, filling out a picture not merely about the activities of Romans in Britain, but on their interactions with local communities, something which remains poorly understood.

Museum details

The museum is an excellent resource, a small but modern with excellent displays and a lot of great information on professionally produced display boards into context. At the time of writing (August 2021) masks must be worn and you need to leave your name and telephone number with reception.  For opening days and times, plus directions, see the Wrexham County Borough website:

A booklet accompanying the exhibition is available both in the museum foyer and under the video screen in Gallery 3.  The cover and some of the pages from the booklet are shown at the top of the post, and full details are in Sources, below.   A leaflet, Holt: Legacy of the Legions, is also available from the museum, or can be downloaded.

It is a real shame that the Hidden Holt gallery is only a temporary feature, but Wrexham Museum has a lot more to see, and I will be posting about some its permanent displays in the future.


Books and papers

Grimes, W.F. 1930.  Holt, Denbighshire:  Twentieth Legion at Castle Lyons.  Y Cymmrodor.  Society of Cymmrodorion.

Ward, M. 1998. A collection of samian from the legionary works-depot at Holt.  In (ed.) Bird, J. Form and Fabric.  Oxbow Monographs 80.

Ward, M. 1998. Some finds from the Roman works-depot at Holt.  Studia Celtica 32:43-65

Booklets / leaflets

Wrexham Heritage Service 2021.  Hidden Holt.  The Story of a Roman Site.  The Discovery of a Roman Legionary Tile and Pottery Works at Holt, near Wrexham.  (Booklet accompanying the exhibition in both English and Welsh)

Holt Castle Conservation and Interpretation Project.  Holt. Legacy of the Legions.  An introduction to the history of the Legionary Works Depot at Holt. (Leaflet, including site plan, available from the museum)


Hidden Holt
Wrexham Museum

Hidden Holt – Roman history revealed in a new Wrexham Museum exhibition
Wrexham Council News

Holt Local History Society

National Museum of Wales

Roman Glazed Pottery from North Wales
National Museum of Wales

The Pottery Kilns of Roman Britian by Vivien Swan (database)

Object Histories in my garden #2: A bottle by J.F. Edisbury and Co. Ltd. (Wrexham)

Damaged J.F. Edisbury bottle found in my garden

Last week I posted about a Chester Lion Brewery Co. bottle that we found in the garden, dating to the final years of the 19th Century, one of two bottles that were found in a part of the garden that was completely invisible beneath a tangle of dead trees, shrubs and weeds.  On the right is the second one that we found, labelled J.F. Edisbury and Co. Limited, Wrexham.

The J.F. Edisbury and Co. Ltd bottle is made of clear green-tinted glass, with seam lines running up each side.  The text “J.F. EDISBURY & CO. LIMITED WREXHAM is embossed in raised glass on one side of the bottle, as is the trademark, consisting of two crossed foxes within a frame in the shape of a shield.  The shield shape was a traditional frame for displaying the name of ingredients on jars that lined the shelves of pharmacy shop interiors.  The base has some slight damage, obscuring some raised text, but appears to end in the numbers 80 (or to start with the numbers 08).  Opposite it, on an undamaged section of the base, more raised text is clearly visible, and appears to read, C.S. and Co. Ltd. on one side of the base, perhaps a reference to the bottle manufacturer.  Unlike the Chester Lion Brewery bottle, for which I could find no duplicate online, there are plenty of examples of Edisbury bottles of this type, with long necks.

James Edisbury , father of James Fisher Edisbury

The Edisbury family has a long connection with the Wrexham area, and the name pops up repeatedly, mainly because of Josiah / Joshua Edisbury, High Sheriff of Denbighshire, who was responsible for building the earliest version of Erddig Hall c.1684 overlooking the river Clywedog.  He went bankrupt in the process of building it.   The Dictionary of Welsh Biography says that Edisbury’s brother John Edisbury (c.1646 – 1713), ruined himself by misappropriating funds to help his brother. In 1716 Erddig was sold to a successful London lawyer Sir John Meller who bought out the mortgage and debts that Edisbury had incurred, finished the work and added two wings that remain today.

Bersham Hall, Wrexham, which is still standing. Source: Francis Frith Collection

The owner of J.F. Edisbury Co. Ltd., to whom the bottle belonged, was James Fisher Edisbury,  born in 1837.  His father James was very commercially successful first as a retailer in Holywell and then in Wrexham as an auctioneer.  James Edisbury senior was born in 1803, and in 1829 married Elizabeth Walker Ratcliffe, eldest daughter of the late Henry Walker Ratcliff, a grocer.  She died in 1832 and James was remarried in 1834 to Sarah Ratcliffe.  In the 1835 North Wales Directory for the Holywell & Bagillt areas,  James Edisbury is listed as “High St. Grocer &/or dealer in sundries, and tobacconist:  Tallow Chandler, Wine and Spirit merchant.”  A daughter, Emily Walker Edisbury, was born in 1834  and James Fisher Edisbury was born in 1837.  Emily died in 1839  and Sarah died a year later in 1840.  James Edisbury had more than his fair share of loss.  At some point before 1855, when he is next recorded, he made the decision to move to the outskirts of Wrexham, purchasing Bersham Hall in 11 acres of land.  In 1857 he decided to move into the town for business reasons, letting out Bersham Hall. He appears to have had a major career change, becoming an auctioneer and appraiser, living and working at Brook Street in Wrexham.  He died on 21st September 1859, leaving Bersham Hall to his son James Fisher Edisbury.

The pharmacy business in the 19th Century

Jacob Bell, founder of the Pharmaceutical Society in 1841. Source: Pharmaceutical Journal.

Pharmacies began to rise in importance in local communities as scientific research into the relationship between diseases, ailments and potential treatments began to make real improvements to medical knowledge in 19th century Europe.  The Pharmaceutical Society was established in 1841, which moved to establish schools to standardize training and to regulate the sale of pharmaceuticals, but apprenticeship remained the principal form of learning until the end of the century.  Synthetic drugs were being developed, but traditional remedies based on herbal preparations were still dominant.

Pharmacists combined the roles of chemists, health consultants and dispensaries.  They worked alongside and often in competition with physicians to develop treatments for an enormous range of real and imagined conditions, frequently undercutting their more formally trained and qualified colleagues.  As the adverts on this page demonstrate, the public were becoming increasingly interested in their own symptoms and any treatments that might alleviate them.  Ailments at all levels of society represented lucrative business opportunities.

A recreation of a 19th Century chemist at the York Castle Museum’s “Kirkgate Victorian Street,” York. Source and copyright: Crinoline Robot, Miriam McDonald

Every town had at least one pharmacy, sometimes more.  For example, as well as J.F. Edisbury and Co., another Wrexham pharmacy Francis and Co., with premises at 53 Hope Street and 22 Town Hill in Wrexham.   The shops were lined with shelves and cabinets that held clearly labelled glass and ceramic jars full of the raw materials for the manufacture of pills, potions, gels, ointments and medicines, looking much like a traditional sweet shop.  A workshop in the rear usually contained the equipment for assembling these products.  The above photograph by Miriam McDonald shows a recreation of an actual pharmacy in contemporary York, giving an excellent idea of what sort of experience a customer would have had when they walked through the door of a British pharmacy in the 19th Century.

James Fisher Edisbury, chemist and pharmacist 

In this 1916 family photograph published in the Wrexham Leader, James Fisher Edisbury is at far right, four years before his death. Source: Wrexham History website

Top: 3 High St, Wrexham. Bottom: 4 Grosvenor Road. Source: Google Maps.

James Fisher Edisbury established himself as a pharmacist at 3 High Street, Wrexham.  The building is a remarkable survivor sandwiched between two deeply unattractive modern buildings.  By 1861 he is recorded as a master chemist and pharmacist in Wrexham.  James Fisher Edisbury married Harriet Jones in 1863.  She gave birth to a stillborn child in May 1864 and died herself two weeks later.  James Fisher remarried, to Minnie Jones, in 1867 and the couple lived in Bersham Hall, now sitting in only in 4.5 acres of land.  Like James Senior, they moved their home to Wrexham for business reasons, letting out Bersham Hall and settling at 4 Grosvenor Road.   In total they had seven children, one of whom died, and Minnie herself died at the age of 35 in 1882.   

I have never had much of an interest in family history, but what these two generations of family history do say is that the risk of death for mother and child during childbirth, and the ongoing risk for babies and toddlers was very high, and that medical assistance was very much required.  For a long time it had been little better than the provision of quackery, but during the 19th Century health care was developing in new and more scientifically exacting directions.

(Thanks to Annette Edwards for her article on the Wrexham History website for the information about two generations of the family’s history – please see that page for more James Fisher Edisbury’s family details).

James Fisher Edisbury’s business interests were embedded in the pharmaceutical industry, and he was a Member of the Pharmaceutical Society, (M.P.S.). The fascinating advert to the left gives a very comprehensive idea not just of the products that he was selling but the high quality of customer service that he offered to his valued customers.   The pharmacy offered a 24 hour service.  Although the shop was shut at night, those in need could obtain the services of the pharmacist by ringing the doorbell.  I don’t know what Chinese Floating Soap might be, but I want some!

According to his advertising, at some point in the late 1870s or early 1880s J.F. Fisher  and Co. became the proprietors of the North Wales Mineral Water Factory at Horse Market, Wrexham and seem to have owned the Penadur Spring Works also in Wrexham, perhaps towards the end of the century.   The company may  have bought the business from R. Evans and Co., as one advert refers to “J.F. Fisher and Co. (Late R. Evans and Co.)”.

By 1881 the company was producing mineral waters in Llangollen in a building adjoining the Cambrian Hotel, a coaching house in Berwyn Street, called the Mineral Water Manufactory.  Late Victorian Llangollen was enjoying an economic boom building on its existing stone and slate quarrying, manufacture of woollens and fabrics and tourist industry.  The canal network, the arrival of the railway and the construction of Telford’s Holyhead road all contributed to the success story, The Mineral Water Manufactory was a soft drinks business, which produced  aerated (fizzy) versions that were something of a late 19th Century novelty.  Edisbury bought the mineral drinks operation from Zoedone, together with nine vans, which delivered throughout Wales and had depots at Chester, Oswestry, and Birmingham.  In 1903 the Cambrian Hotel, Cambrian House and the mineral water factory premises were sold at auction in Llangollen but I do not know what happened to the drinks business, which may have moved elsewhere or have been absorbed into one or other of the Wrexham operations.

Back in Wrexham, adverts placed in various newspapers indicate that James Fisher Edisbury had a cure for just about every ailment from corns, warts and bunions to shortness of breath, bronchial problems, nervous afflictions and neuralgia.  An advert dating to 1883 indicates that he had also diversified into animal cures as the agent for a farm suppliers:  “IMPORTANT TO FARMERS. -J. F. EDISBURY is the authorised agent for the Pix Compo, Down’s Farmer’s Friend, and manufactures the celebrated Wheat Dressing for destroying slug, grub, and wire worm, and preventing the ravages of birds, 3, High-street, Wrexham.”  He also sold personal grooming and bathing products, such as hair brushes, tooth brushes, nail brushes, sponges and sponge-bags.  In one 1885 advert advertising sponges and gloves, there was also the mention of Cyprus Insect Powder as “the best exterminator of moths, beetles, fleas, &c.-non- poisonous and effectual, in Id, 2d, and 3d, packets, 6d and 9d tins.”  Another advert lists the “paints, oils, colours and varnishes” available to purchase from 3 High Street.

In 1887 J.F. Edisbury and Co. purchased a ginger beer company, A1 Stone Ginger Beer.  On last week’s post about the Chester Lion Brewery the topic of trademark infringement came up in connection with beer sales, and here is a similar example, with the company placing a notice in a local newspaper warning that the firm’s bottles were being used to pas off “very feeble and unpalatable imitations.”  A reward was offered to anyone bringing examples of such fraudulent products to the factory for testing.

In 1895 Ellis and Son from Ruthin ran a large advert in the Wrexham Advertiser and North Wales News advertising their own mineral waters.  They were mainly advertising their own operation in Ruthin, but in smaller letters also featured J.F. Fisher and Co. as an outlet for their products.  In the same newspaper, and next to the Ellis and Son advert, J.F. Fisher and Co. also had a large advert, focusing on their North Wales Mineral Water Co, which sold Penadur Spring Waters.  The latter advert mentions that the water had been exhibited in the Paris Exhibition and the London International Exhibition of 1891, reinforcing the sense of high-tech novelty.  At the same time, it emphasizes that this new product was very accessible, available not only via retail outlets, but also at railway station buffets at Chester, Birkenhead, Chester and Ruabon.  By diversifying, Edisbury may have been looking for a competitive edge to consolidate his position as he was not the only pharmacist operating in Wrexham in the late 19th Century.

Edisbury was also involved in the Aerated Water Manufacturing Company, which appears to have been another profitable Wrexham-based business.  The company’s Third Ordinary General Meeting in 1891 was held at the Wynnstay Arms, a few doors down from Edisbury’s premises at 3 High Street, and was reported in the Wrexham and Denbighshire Advertiser and Cheshire Shropshire and North Wales Register.  It was announced that the company was doing well. “On the year there was an increase, and due care having been exercised in the matter of expenses the net profit had proved to be in excess of what was stated in the prospectus. . . . That would be satisfactory to the shareholder.”  At the same time, it was revealed that “the Company had commenced the manufacture of British wines under Mr Hutchinson, who had special experience in the work, and he thought the wines produced were of high quality.”  These wines were medicinal rather than epicurean.  By 1895 James was selling the wines in his Wrexham premises:  “MEDICATED WINES.  J. F. Edisbury, M.P.S., 3, High-street, Wrexham. Coca Wine @ 2s 6d per bottle; Extract of Meat. and Malt Wine, ls 6d per bottle.”

James Fisher had a very strict record system for the supply of bottles of his products to customers, some of which were very expensive to manufacture, as explained in the second page below, taken from a J.F. Edisbury Co “pass book.”  The first and last pages of the pass book provided details of some of the company’s products, and the rest of it was a record of a customer’s account, tracking product deliveries and returns. You can flip through the pages of the book on the Internet Archive website here.  The outer envelope and cover of beautifully preserved pass book from the National Trust’s Erddig is shown below.

This sort of bottle return policy operated by Edisbury and other drinks suppliers probably accounts for why only two 19th Century bottles have so far been unearthed in my garden.

Green leatherette account book in a red leather-covered cardboard case. The account book is marked dated on the first page 1871.  Source: National Trust Collections

There are plenty of references to James Fisher Edisbury in the Wrexham local newspapers in the context of a number of civic activities.  He was a Justice of the Peace, was on a committee to organize the planning and building of a new retail arcade, which still stands, and was a Provincial Grand Officer of the Freemasons.   As well as a successful business entrepreneur and a Member of the Pharmaceutical Society, (M.P.S.), with fingers in several pies, he was clearly a solid and influential pillar of the Wrexham community.  James Fisher Edisbury died on 20th October 1920 at the age of 83.

Back to the bottle

J.F. Edisbury and Co trademark.

The bottle from my garden was unlikely to have been used for one of the aerated drinks, because these, being fizzy, had special storage requirements.  They were delivered in bottles with pointed bases that had to be laid horizontally, ensuring that the liquid inside would prevent the cork from drying out, ensuring that the gas was retained in the bottle.

This bottle, with its flat base, was not one of those  and could have contained any number of other J.F Edisbury products.  A the moment there it has not possible to narrow down which of the various wines, oils, medicines, tonics, and other potions that it may have contained.  Nor has it been possible to narrow down a date for the bottle.

Markings on the base of the bottle

The crossed foxes trademark is very distinctive and appears on many of J.F. Edisbury and Co. bottles and jars.  I was unable to find out where it came from or what, if anything, it refers to, but Adam Mercer, from the Wrexham Antique Bottles website (which launched in spring 2022) suggests that the crossed foxes were derived from the family crest of the Williams-Wynn family of the Wynnstay Estate, with the cross foxes coming from the Williams side.  I was also unable when I first posted this to discover what the markings on the base might refer to.  My guess that it was a bottle manufacturer was turns out to be correct.  Adam says that the C.S. and Col Ltd marking refers to Cassington, Shaw and Co, a bottle manufacturer that was eventually bought out by the United Glass Bottle company.  It is possible that the markings on the base refer not to Edisbury’s various enterprises, but to the bottle manufacturer.  The shape of the bottle, the presence of the cross-foxes trademark and the quality of the glass itself might help to narrow down a date for the bottle.  I do hope that some of these details will eventually emerge, and if you are reading this and have more information please get in touch.

Final Comments

This is a rather different story from the one I told last week about the Chester Lion Brewery bottle, and not merely because of the contrast between health drinks and beer.  Last week’s bottle was the story of big factory-style breweries, big investments in future technologies and large ambitions, and even a case of minor trademark fraud.  The Edisbury bottle, by contrast is the story of high street retail where success was achieved by offering wide product ranges and providing excellent customer service.  James Fisher Edisbury’s advertising speaks of a man who was highly organized, ambitious and driven to look for new ways to use his skills to find new markets, or to find new products for existing markets.  Where expedient he joined forces with other companies to retail their products and he invested in new infrastructure when required.  He saw the potential for health drinks and invested heavily in providing this to families who wanted to improve the quality of their lives and their overall well-being, and were attracted by novelty.  Looking around today at the proliferation of health-food stores and the growing interest in vegan diets, it is a far from unfamiliar story.

For other objects in the series,
see the History in Garden Objects page


Books and papers

Robinson, J. 2016. Looking back at 175 years of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. The Pharmaceutical Journal April 15th 2016, Vol. 296, No.7888, p.296

Wilson’s Trades Directory of Wales, 1885. William Wilson & Sons.

Cadw 2016. Llangollen. Understanding Urban Character.


Wrexham History, founded by Graham Floyd
James Fisher Edisbury, by Annette Edwards, August 2019 
Francis The Chemist by Annette Edwards, October 2018 

The Internet Archive
The North Wales Mineral Company. Pass Book

The National Trust
Erddig, The Whole Story

Welsh Newspapers Online.  National Library of Wales

History Points
Former Cambrian Hotel, Berwyn Street, Llangollen

The Dictionary of Welsh Biography
EDISBURY family, of Bedwal, Marchwiel, Pentre-clawdd, and Erddig (Denbighshire)
J.F. Edisbury and Co. 

Center for the History of Medicine
Jars of “Art and Mystery”:  Pharmacists and Their Tools in the Mid-Nineteenth Century