Rhyl today is a bustling seaside resort, very popular with tourists. Having enjoyed a recent resurgence due, in no small measure to millions of pounds of Welsh Government and European money, Rhyl has begun a much overdue recovery from decades of neglect. Yet, while its history seems very much a modern affair, there are significant indications of a much older past.
The town’s name is curious. Identified as, ‘Hulle’ in 1292, the name varied a little over the years, reaching ‘Rhyl’ in around 1840. What the name translates to, is not clear, since there are few hills in the area. It is thought that it could refer to prominent sand dunes, or banks, but this remains speculation. While there are plenty of references to the place from the 13th century, it is thought these refer to an area rather than a settlement.
There are indications of a Mesolithic submerged forest close to where the River Clwyd enters the sea. Many finds, in the area would suggest the presence of people at this time, especially the chance but spectacular find of an antler mattock, dated to over 4000 BC. The mattock, along with the finds of axes, would suggest that the Mesolithic peoples were gathering foodstuffs from the area. Prehistoric flints have been found, along with a Bronze Age chisel and a variety of axes. Roman coins have been discovered scattered around the area of Rhyl, including on the beach and within the town.
If this sounds a little scarce, it is probably due to the nature of an encroaching coast. Indeed, it is out at sea where Rhyl’s real interest lies, with dozens of ship wrecks recorded. There would seem to be an inordinate number of aircraft wrecks in the near vicinity of the coastline, largely from the Second World War, with the remains of Spitfires and Defiants beneath the waves.
The oldest existing building in Rhyl is Ty’n Rhyl on Vale Road, dating back to 1672. It was mentioned by Edward Lhuyd in 1699, and remained the only important home in the area until the great Victorian expansion. The remains of post medieval farms and fields can still be seen just of the coast road, but by 1810, Rhyl’s real fame seemed to rest on its vast population of rabbits.
Rhyl, however, was the first of the North Wales coastal towns to develop as a resort. This began in the 1820’s with the building of two hotels. The Tithe Survey of 1839 records rapid expansion and by the time of the later 19th century, Rhyl had become a large resort indeed, dwarfing nearby Prestatyn. Most of the buildings in Rhyl date to the mid to late 19th century, some now listed, while the oldest church, Holy Trinity on Russell Road was built in 1835.
Much investment has gone into Rhyl in recent years, and today the town is on its way to recovering something of its glory days.