Alexandra Dock, Newport :The Belgia, the first German Ship to be captured in Britain
One of the first German vessels to be seized in World War One was the 8,132 ton liner Belgia – captured at Alexandra Dock, Newport. As well as a cargo of flour, bullion, and 73 German reservists, it also carried a consignment of zoo animals bound for Hamburg Zoo: these included alligators, racoons, fighting bull-frogs, rattle snakes, chameleons and a number of exotic birds!
The steamship Belgia was owned by the Hamburg-Amerika line, and was travelling from Boston to Hamburg. At 9pm on Sunday 3rd August 1914, when the ship lay off the Scilly Isles, the captain received information that war had broken out between Germany and France.
Fearing he might be seized by French naval vessels, he headed for the safety of the Bristol Channel, and when he was off Trevose Head (near Ilfracombe) he took on a Newport pilot. The ship arrived at the mouth of the Usk at about 5pm on Monday 4th August – before war had been declared between Britain and France.
At this point it seems the captain hoped to obtain coal at Newport, before sailing on to Hamburg. However, he was refused admission to the port itself and had to wait at the mouth of the Usk.
The next morning, with the two countries now at war, Chief Constable Gower took a party of policemen with him and boarded a tug, and together with the Dockmaster Captain Cutcliffe, sought a conference with the captain. The Belgia was soon taken over by the policemen, and declared a prize of war. The Dockmaster then brought it through the sea lock into the Alexandra Dock, a perilous feat, since the vessel only just cleared the sea bed!
As well as food supplies to the value of some £200,000 the ship was carrying 73 German Reservists, who were forced to sign a declaration of neutrality. Most intriguing of all was a consignment of zoo animals, originally destined for Hamburg Zoo. These were subsequently sold off, and came into the care of a Mr T Murphy, who later that month displayed them at Abergavenny Fair!
The owners of the Belgia were, understandably, not best pleased by the capture of their vessel, and protested that the action contravened international conventions by which ships who found themselves in port unawares that war had broken out were exempt from seizure.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the German company lost the case – the law lords maintained that , simply because the ship had been held at the mouth of the Usk, did not mean it was actually in the port of Newport. In any case, the company stood little chance of getting its ship back: by the time the issue was resolved in court, the Belgia had long since been pressed into service for Britain.
In common with other prize ships, it was renamed and, in the anti-German spirit of the time, given the highly imaginative prefix of Hun. Hence its new name, ‘Hunsteck’ (other prize ships bore names such as Hunslet and Hunstanton).
Location: Alexandra Dock, Newport, NP20 2WZ
Presented by Goff Morgan