The Chester and Holyhead Railway and The Britannia Bridge

By Bill Rogerson

2020 Marks the 170th Anniversary of the Opening of The Britannia Bridge on 5 March 1850, and 50 Years Since the Disastrous Fire on the 23 May 1970

Part 1: The Chester And Holyhead Railway

The Britannia Bridge taken from the Menai Bridge – Photo Bill Rogerson

In 1844 powers were secured for the building of a railway from Chester to Holyhead, which became known as the Chester and Holyhead Railway. It was not only an expensive line to build but it was also a very difficult one to build as well. Construction of the 84 ½ mile went ahead very slowly.

All but 2 miles of the line is in England.  The rest of the line is in Wales. It leaves the Dee estuary at Talacre and is never more than four miles from the Irish Sea.

The Chester and Holyhead Railway was built to secure fast communication with Ireland. The railway became part of the British holiday scene with towns in Wales such as Rhyl, Colwyn Bay, Llandudno and Holyhead which were developing into flourishing resorts.

Holyhead (or Caergybi, in Welsh), for centuries had been used as a port for Ireland as it provided the shortest sea passage to Dublin. The mail to Ireland was first carried in Elizabethan times and was carried overland by horse and later by coach, over roads which were bad. The ships between Holyhead and Dublin were subject to the tempests of the Irish Sea. The Irish Sea has a reputation for unpleasant sea conditions, due to its southern approaches being open to the prevailing winds.

After the signing of the Act of Union in 1800, Irish Members of Parliament sitting at Westminster, demanded better communication between Holyhead and London.

In 1805 the famous road engineer, Thomas Telford, surveyed a road from London to Holyhead. Eventually a road from Shrewsbury to Holyhead via Llangollen, Betws y Coed and Bangor with a suspension bridge over the Menai Straits to the island of Anglesey (Ynys Môn) was built.

With the coming of the railways the question of rapid transit for the mails to Dublin was again raised in Parliament.

Government and Admiralty Committees were set up to consider the feasibility of the seaport available. Several schemes had been put forward for railways through North Wales suggesting Ports other than Holyhead. These were, Ormes Head at Llandudno and Porthdinllaen on the Lleyn Peninsula.

The Chester and Crewe Railway had opened two years previously and there was clearly an urgent need to plug the gap between the border city of Chester and the port of Holyhead via the North Wales Coast.

A scheme put forward by the famous railway engineer George Stephenson, was to be called the Chester and Holyhead Railway and was incorporated by an Act of Parliament in July 1844.  However, Robert Stephenson accepted the commission to build the new railway before he had any idea as to how he was going to solve the two greatest engineering problems on the line, how to bridge the notorious, fast flowing Menai Straits and the river Conwy in the town of Conwy.

Work commenced on the Chester and Holyhead Railway, with the backing of the London and Birmingham Railway, appropriately enough on St David’s Day 1 March 1845, at Chester, Conwy and Bangor. Robert Stephenson, son of George was appointed Engineer. Francis Thompson was appointed Architect. The building of the railway no doubt cost Stephenson many a sleepless night.

The stretch of line between Chester and Saltney Junction, approximately 2 miles was opened on the 4 November 1846, for traffic on the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway. On the 24 May 1847 Stephenson’s reputation took a knock when another of his bridges, over the River Dee estuary, collapsed. But undaunted, he pressed on to open the remaining 58 miles of North Wales line as far as Bangor on 1 May 1848.

Stephenson’s railway line across the beautiful Isle of Anglesey began at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (usually shortened to Llanfair PG or Llanfairpwll), which translates to “The Church of St Mary, in a hollow of white hazel  near to the rapid whirlpool and to St Tysilio’s Church and near to a red cave”. It continued to Holyhead and opened on the 1 August 1848, with coaches transferring passengers  from Bangor to Llanfair PG over Telford’s suspension bridge.

Construction of the famous Britannia Bridge (more of this further on) continued and the whole route was opened to through trains between Chester and Holyhead on the 18 March 1850. The 2.30 pm Holyhead to London Euston express was the first public passenger train to travel the whole of the Chester and Holyhead Railway.

The Contractors on the Chester and Holyhead Railway took care of their men, pioneering some of the improvements in industrial relations in early Victorian England and Wales. The Contractors employed Scripture Readers; their business was to go wherever large groups of men worked.  They were to talk to them during their meal breaks, persuading them to attend Divine worship and send their children to school. William Breathley a Scripture Reader said that the Welsh, many of   whom had been Miners and formed the majority of the workforce on the railway had a great desire to learn English. ‘The Welsh labourers’ said Breathley, ‘Were steady sober men. I have never seen anything like it’ Perhaps one reason for the sobriety was that they were paid in money, fortnightly and on a Saturday, this effectively stopped the usual Friday night carousal and kept them at work a further day.

During the construction, the Chester and Holyhead Railway  was one of the few companies blessed with a minimum of trouble from its navvies, unlike the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway which was also being constructed, where national rivalries between the English, Scots and Irish erupted into bloody battles.

However, in May 1846, when the Chester and Holyhead Railway reached Penmaenmawr, three hundred Welshmen fought a pitched battle with the Irish Navvies, the Riot Act was read by Magistrates and the military were called out. These navvies believed they could outdrink, outfight and outwork anybody.

The navvies were prone to fighting on other occasions too. On 22 March 1848 the Military had to be called out from Chester to the Bangor area to put a stop to the fighting.

The Chester and Holyhead Railway employed Policemen paid for by the contractors. The contractors Warton and Warden were told to maintain four regular Constables and fifty Special Constables.  The other contractor, Jackson, was told to recruit six regular Constables and fifty Special Constables. All men were recruited from the workforce. Their uniforms were similar of those of the Police on the London and Birmingham Railway.  The police officers were eventually amalgamated with the London and North Western Railway Police, when that railway company took over the Chester and Holyhead Railway in 1859.

London and North Western Railway Policeman with flag at Rugby station. c. 1849 / 1865
Photograph courtesy of the British Transport Police History Group website.

On the 17 September 1856 a train accident occurred at Bangor Railway station. The two platform loop lines at Bangor Station were used for through running, while the two centre lines were used for wagon storage. Perhaps because it was the original intention to run express trains on the centre lines, the points were weighted so as to be open to the latter. As today, the points leading to the Holyhead bound platform were near the Bangor tunnel mouth. The arrangement was that all Holyhead bound train whistled in the tunnel, so that the points were held open for the platform line. The inevitable happened on the day in question. Policeman Myddleton, who was on duty at the tunnel mouth so far forgot himself that having lowered the signal, he omitted to turn the point and allowed the night mail from London Euston to plough into the wagons. Having watched this spectacular arrival during which a Post Office Inspector, a mail Guard and four passengers were injured, he immediately absconded and has not been heard of since.

The entrance to Bangor tunnel taken from Bangor police station. The two Holyhead lines are on the far right. Photo – Bill Rogerson


Local records show two nine-year-old boys were whipped in school, during the month of March 1857 at Holyhead for placing stones on the line.


Photo courtesy of the BTPHG website

An early railway policeman on Tunnel Duty. This would be similar to PC Myddleton. At night-time the policeman would have a lamp.








The Chester and Holyhead Railway made the following Byelaws with regard to the issue of tickets. ‘By virtue of the powers and authorities vested in us by an Act of Parliament passed in the eighth year of the reign of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, intitled an Act for making a Railway from Chester to Holyhead.  We the Chester and Holyhead Railway Company do hereby make the following Byelaws.

No passenger will be allowed to take his seat in or upon a carriage used on the railway or to travel there in upon the said railway without having first booked his place and paid his fare.

Each passenger booking his place will be furnished with a ticket, which he is to show when requested by the Guard in charge of the train and deliver up before leaving the Company’s premises, upon demand to the Guard or any servant of the Company duly authorised to collect tickets.


During the years following the building of the railway, Police officers were stationed at Chester, Mold Junction (Freight) Rhyl, Llandudno, Bangor and Holyhead. Over the years the establishment of officers varied greatly.

During the war years the regular officers at Holyhead were supplemented by Specials and the total strength was around twenty-four officers. Paid Specials during the summers of the 1950s and early 1960s were stationed at Rhyl and Llandudno to deal with the influx of Holidaymakers to the resorts. Regular officers were stationed at Holyhead and Bangor.

The police posts at Rhyl and Llandudno were closed in the early 1960s. Bangor with a Detective Sergeant and two officers was closed in 1964, leaving Holyhead as the only post on the North Wales Coast Line. The next one being Chester.

The Inspector in charge at Holyhead, which was a sub-division of Liverpool, had a large patch to cover. Holyhead, Dun Laoghaire, and Dublin, Ireland, Chester and Shrewsbury. It is said that on a Monday morning whilst at Holyhead, he signed the timesheets and dealt with correspondence from over the weekend. He then went to Ireland returning on Tuesday. Wednesday was spent at Shrewsbury. Thursday was spent at Chester and Friday was spent back at Holyhead.

When I transferred to Holyhead in October 1985 the establishment was one Inspector, two Sergeants, one Detective Constable, six Constables and one Clerical Officer. We regularly provided a police escort on the ships to Ireland especially when football and rugby supporters were travelling. It was a regular occurrence to have one Sergeant and two constables on the ship full of 1500 supporters. We had a very good liaison with the Garda.

One of the wartime Specials was still alive at the time of my arrival and he regularly came to the office to see if there were any duties for him. Due to his age I had to let him down gently.

Upon being made redundant in January 1989 I transferred to Bangor as the Officer in Charge with just two Constables to cover the line between Holyhead and Prestatyn and between Pwllheli and Barmouth on the Cambrian Coast. We became part of the Crewe District and I was also given the police post at Chester with four Constables to supervise.

Group of London Midland and Scottish Railway Police Officers at Holyhead during World War Two. Photo courtesy of the British Transport Police History Group Website



Part 2: The Britannia Bridge

Part 3: The Britanna Bridge