Well-known entrepreneur John Meade of Holyhead died on the 8th June 2002, leaving the town poorer for his passing. Born in Maeshyfryd Road, Holyhead, in 1922, he was the founder of the group of companies based on Newry Beach, under the name Holyhead Boatyard Ltd., which have been very successful and an important source of employment for the area. A passionate ambassador for Holyhead, he had a lifelong concern to develop the port for the benefit of the town, and founded Holyhead Port Users Association as a pressure group for that purpose.
His father was Captain William (Bill) Meade, Master on the Irish Mail ships which ran out of Holyhead. His mother was Mary Conroy, daughter of Michael Conroy, owner of the Edinburgh Castle pub. The only boy in the family, John had eight sisters; his father Bill being known to declare that “A penny bun costs ninepence in this house!” John frequently travelled with his father onboard the mail ships, and became such a familiar face around the port and railway station that he was allowed to travel along with the fireman and engineer onboard the steam trains out of Holyhead.
At the time that war was declared he was enrolled in medical school, but like many others he exaggerated his age to join the Merchant Navy at 17. He was torpedoed twice during the war, and was posted missing at sea when only 18 years old. He was the only survivor of a group of sailors left clinging to the wreckage of their vessel the SS ‘Ganges’ for three nights, and was finally picked up by native fishermen in a canoe off the east coast of India. They took him ashore and treated his gangrene, as he had been hit in the leg by shrapnel – the injury affected him till the end of his life. After a few days, a buffalo cart took him on to a military hospital, where he developed a lifelong aversion to eggs – breakfast was a single egg, lunch was two! He survived this ordeal to later serve in the North Atlantic convoys, and was decorated accordingly.
When the war ended he trained as a teacher, working as a nurse in his spare time to pay his way. He met Deirdre (Audrey) Morris, also of Holyhead, at this time and they married in 1947. He was a very competent craftsman and cabinetmaker, and they and their young family moved so that he could work as a woodwork teacher, first in Manchester and then Hartlebury, in Worcestershire, and of course the students often found themselves building boats!
In 1959 the family moved back to Holyhead and John became headteacher of the Our Lady Primary School in Bangor. At this time, and with a growing family to support, his entrepreneurial skills started to come to the fore as he tried various ways of increasing the family income. His eldest son Billy was a sickly child and John was determined to be a success so that he could make sure Billy and the others would be comfortable. So, In 1961 at the age of 39, together with his friend and partner Norman Sheldrake, he bought a boat business off Mervyn Phillips, who only had one arm. The business entailed hiring out rowing boats, taking trips around the harbour, and taking deliveries to the Skerries for Trinity House. Always looking to develop further, John and Norman laid the first yacht moorings in Holyhead and started servicing the visiting yachts with the first chandlery on Newry Beach. Using his cabinetmaking skills, they won a major refit job as their first major work for Holyhead Boatyard, converting the fishing vessel ‘Stormdrift’ into a luxury motor yacht at Soldier’s Point dock. Business grew from that, and after three years knocking on the British Rail Estate Manager’s door, insisting that they should sell him Trefor Dock and the surrounding land with all the decrepit buildings that used to be warehouses for the dock, the manager finally crumbled. Trefor Dock had previously been used to bring in coal and flour, and the cargo vessel that brought in these supplies also carried passengers from Liverpool. There is a rumour, not confirmed, that salt produced at Salt Island was shipped back on the return journey. By the 1960s the surrounding buildings had all fallen into disrepair and the site was a scrap yard. They bought the premises from British Rail (the owners of Holyhead Port at the time) in 1967. Alongside Trefor Dock were two hand-operated cranes, one of which could lift 7 tons. A single turn could lift a boat out of the water by ¼”, so to lift a boat of up to 7 tons up the 25 feet required to swing it ashore required 1,200 heavy turns by hand! John Meade and his yard foreman John Regan used to do 50 turns each, lying panting on the dockside trying to recover as the other turned the crane handle.
Soon after this, John Meade started Holyhead Towing Company Ltd., and acquired a fleet of tugs and workboats offering towing and salvage services. All vessels were (and still are) named after the rivers and islands of Anglesey and North Wales: because of the beauty of the Welsh names and for the sense of local identity gained. The company now regularly wins work internationally, and the crew of the tugs have heard many odd pronunciations of their vessels, such as Afon Goch or Llanddwyn Island, and many a time a UK expat has looked from the quayside and seen the Red Dragon which is painted on all the Towing Company’s vessels, and exclaimed “Holyhead! Out here?”.
John then took over the local ship and port agency to compliment the growing group of companies, and was appointed agent to the Royal yacht ‘Britannia’ on Prince Charles’ investiture at Caernarfon in 1969. He contributed to the event by having one of the Towing Company’s tugs fitted with fire hoses to produce in water the three feathers of the fleur-de-lys of the Prince of Wales’ emblem – an idea now copied all over the world.
Hearing of Shell’s intention to have an oil tanker discharge facility built, John fought hard to win the contract to build, install and service the giant 500-tonne mooring buoy and discharging facilities in the deep water off the north coast of Anglesey. Typically, he formed a very close friendship with Paul van den Berg, Managing Director of Smit International of Rotterdam, and Buoywork Anglesey was formed with Smit as partners. The mooring buoy and two brand new vessels were designed and built specially for the work, and Buoywork Anglesey successfully serviced and maintained the facilities off Amlwch with the visiting Very Large Crude Carriers, or VLCC, of up to 100,000 tonnes discharging crude oil through the giant Mooring buoy to the shore and on through a 40” pipeline that stretches from Amlwch to Elsmere Port, for the full 13 years of its planned life. The 80-mile long, 40” pipe is now used as a gas storage facility.
Although John was very wary of most politicians, he became great friends with Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos (at that time, Cledwyn Hughes, M.P.), particularly since they shared the same strong interest in increasing employment for Holyhead through the development of the port. Lord Cledwyn was instrumental in bringing Rio Tinto Zinc and Kaiser Alumina to build their joint-venture aluminium smelter at Holyhead, because he could point to the availability of sheltered deep water for the delivery of the raw materials in bulk carriers up to Handysize – that is a bulk cargo ship with a capacity to carry 24,000 – 35,000 tonnes. The cargoes discharged at the AAM Jetty were transferred to the main AAM site at Penrhos via an underground tunnel and conveyor belt; that is over 2.4kms! John advised on the building of the Anglesey Aluminium Jetty, and that knowledge came in useful several years later when he helped save the self-same jetty after the semi-submersible drilling platform ‘Sovereign Explorer’ broke free from her moorings during a storm and threatened to smash the jetty. A veteran from Anglesey Aluminium at that time afterwards stated that John Meade was the only person willing to stand up and say “This is what we should do, and we should do it now”.
Edit: two years after John’s death, Anglesey Aluminium Metal Ltd started winding down before its final closure: this meant that the cargo vessels which were the bread-and-butter work of Holyhead Shipping Agency disappeared, and the port agency was shut down.
On his 60th birthday, John was reluctantly winched off a barge by helicopter in a severe gale in the North Sea while attempting to salvage it – but only as the helicopter pilot insisted and told him that it was his last chance to get off. In the 1970s, he went to the government offices of two Caribbean islands and told them he could ship fresh water in towed barges from one fresh-water abundant island to an island without any – something they had not considered until he knocked on their door. He repeated this almost exactly when we went to Airbus in Broughton and told them that the wings for the Airbus A380 would be too large to ship by road to even get them to a port to be shipped on to Toulouse, and they would have to transport it down the river Dee in specially-designed self-propelled barges. After two years consultation with others, Airbus came back to Holyhead Towing and asked them to realise the idea John had proposed at the outset.
These are all examples of the entrepreneurship, determination, force of character and resilience that was so essential for the building of successful businesses from often very little or even nothing. This could often lead to impatience with other points of view, and he certainly did not suffer fools gladly. These characteristics were, however, more than balanced by his outstanding loyalty, generosity, and genuine concern for, and interest in, others. As his friend, the well-known Dutch Salvage Master, Captain Bill Moerkerk said, “He had the looks of a pirate, but the heart of and angel”, and as a devout Roman Catholic, he wore his heart on his sleeve.
He is survived and sorely missed by his wife Audrey, his two daughters, five sons, eight grandchildren, and six of his sisters.