Archives for September 2011

Keir Hardie, socialist pioneer

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 13:46 UK time, Thursday, 29 September 2011

On 2 October 1900 James Keir Hardie became the socialist MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare.

At that time the Labour Party did not exist, but earlier in the year Hardie had been instrumental in forming the Labour Representation Committee. It was as a member of this group, the forerunner of the Labour Party, that Hardie took his seat in parliament.

Keir Hardy

Keir Hardy

James Keir Hardie was born in Holytown near Motherwell in Scotland on 15 August 1856. He was the illegitimate son of a domestic servant and a ship's carpenter who, in order to be close to his family, gave up the sea and attempted to earn his living in the shipyards along the Clyde.

Hardie had no formal education, the family's finances being so parlous that he was forced to take his first job - as messenger boy for the Anchor Line Shipping Company - when he was just seven years old. His parents taught him to read and write in the evenings and, in due course, the young Keir Hardie moved on to work in the coal mines of the area.

He was a devout evangelical Christian and supporter of temperance. Hardie became skilled at public oratory and soon his colleagues in the mines were looking on him as a spokesman in their disputes with management. The mine owners, on the other hand, saw him as an agitator and duly blacklisted him. Unable to work in the mines, Hardie quickly moved on to working for the miners' union.

In 1879 he was a delegate to the National Miners Conference in Glasgow and then became a miners agent. He was active in all the many strikes that took place in the closing years of the 19th century and he and his wife, Lillie Wilson, a fellow evangelical and temperance campaigner, actually ran a soup kitchen out of their own house.

Originally a Liberal, Hardie soon became disillusioned by the party's slow progress on reform and help for the working man. He decided to run for parliament as an independent for a Midlands constituency but finished last in the poll. Undaunted, he soon tried again. This time the scene of political battle was to be West Ham South in the east end of London.

Standing in a by-election where the Liberals decided not to field a candidate, in 1892 Keir Hardie was elected as an Independent Labour candidate for West Ham, defeating his Conservative opponent by 1,000 votes. In 1893 he formed the Independent Labour Party and, as its leader, spent the next two years agitating for better conditions for working people.

In 1894, after a colliery explosion at Pontypridd killed 251 miners, he asked that a message of condolence for the families of the dead should be added to the congratulations being sent by parliament to the crown on the birth of the future king, Edward VIII. When this request was refused Hardie stood up and delivered a vitriolic attack on the monarchy. The house was in uproar.

Keir Hardie lost his seat in the 1895 election and duly spent the next five years laying the foundations of the future Labour Party. He was a fervent supporter of female emancipation, a friend of the Pankhursts and was actually arrested during one Suffragette meeting. He was never prosecuted, however, as the government was too concerned about the effect on the public should the leader of the Independent Labour Party end up in jail!

Hardie returned to parliament in 1900, the first MP of the Labour Representation Party. In 1906 the name of the group was changed to the Labour Party, with Keir Hardie as its first leader. He resigned this position in 1908, being replaced by Arthur Henderson, but continued to serve as MP for Merthyr and Aberdare.

He continued to battle for the oppressed and under-privileged all his life, and was a staunch supporter on home rule for India and of bringing to an end all forms of segregation in South Africa. When World War One broke out in 1914 he was, as a pacifist, firmly opposed to the war and to the jingoism that accompanied it. His efforts to bring the conflict to an end were, however, totally unsuccessful.

His work in helping others had, by now, worn him out and on 26 September 1915 he suffered a series of strokes and died. Hardie was buried in his native Glasgow but has never been forgotten in Merthyr and Aberdare where he is still revered as Britain's first truly socialist MP.

There is an interesting footnote to the story. Keir Hardie became MP for Merthyr and Aberdare on 2 October 1900. Eighty-three years later, on 2 October 1983, Neil Kinnock became leader of the Labour Party, the party that Hardie had been instrumental in founding. Perhaps that day, the 2 October, has a significance only the Labour Party understands.

Heritage Lottery Fund to revitalise Pontmorlais in Merthyr Tydfil

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 11:00 UK time, Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Fifteen historic buildings in Merthyr Tydfil, some dating back more than 200 years, are to be restored thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

The HLF has give the final go-ahead for £1.58m towards the restoration of buildings in the Pontmorlais area of the town.

Marlies Pires, owner of the Imperial Hotel and the Morlais Castle Inn - one of the buildings hoping to benefit from funding said: "Pontmorlais is in a desperate need of regeneration so we are over the moon with the news that this scheme is set to go ahead.

Read more about this story on the BBC Wales News website.

Alan George's Old Merthyr website has a wonderful collection of archive images of Merthyr Tydfil. Take a look at some photographs of Pontmorlais.

Tanker disasters

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 13:52 UK time, Monday, 26 September 2011

Pembrokeshire has always had its fair share of shipwrecks. In the days of sail it was inevitable that, with a westerly wind driving frail schooners and ketches onto the rugged coast, maritime disasters of one sort or another were bound to happen.

Oil spill sign

And when the oil industry came to Milford Haven in the early 1960s there were many prophets of doom who predicted ecological disaster should one of the giant oil tankers that regularly sailed in past St Ann's Head ever run up onto the rocks around the south Pembrokeshire coast. In the main, such disasters have not occurred - that does not mean, however, there have been no accidents and when shipwrecks have taken place the threat from oil spillage has been real and terrifying.

In fact there was near disaster right at the beginning. Esso's new refinery at Gelliswick Bay in the Haven had only just opened for business when, on 8 July 1960, the "Esso Portsmouth" began discharging 32,000 tons of crude oil at the terminal. She was the first ocean-going tanker to tie up at the refinery and expectation and excitement ran high. Unfortunately, so did the risk of danger, not only for the ship and refinery but for the whole town of Milford.

Almost as soon as the tanker began to discharge her cargo, there was a structural failure in one of the arms that took off the oil in huge pipes from the ship and a serious spillage took place. Within seconds the oil had ignited and a massive explosion rocked the area. Firemen quickly put out the flames and the majority of the cargo was saved but the hull of the "Esso Portsmouth" was seriously damaged and buckled.

The explosion was a warning. No serious oil leak had occurred but the incident could so easily have resulted in chaos. The next time an oil tanker was in trouble off the Pembrokeshire coast things did not go quite so well.

On 12 October 1978 the "Christos Bitas", en route from Rotterdam to Belfast, ran onto the Hats and Barrels Reef, some 10 or 15 miles off the coast. The ship was quickly re-floated and the captain decided to continue with the voyage. Unfortunately, the rocks had ripped a large hole in her bottom and the ship was now leaking oil at an alarming rate. The owners, BP, ordered her to stop and two tankers came alongside to take off over 20,000 tons of crude oil.

Although the "Christos Bitas" was towed out into the Atlantic and scuttled, thousands of tons of oil leaked into the sea. Over forty vessels were deployed, laying down booms around the oil and using skimmers to try to reclaim what they could. Aerial spraying, when it was feared the slick might reach the bird sanctuaries of Skomer and Skokholm, was also employed. In the end, after many days of hard physical effort, the oil was mopped up but not before somewhere in the region of 9,000 sea birds had been killed.

Milford Haven oil spill

Clearing up at Milford Haven

Pembrokeshire's next oil disaster, the third largest oil spillage in Britain, took place on 15 February 1996 when the "Sea Empress" grounded on the rocks of St Ann's Head at the mouth of Milford Haven. She was bound for the Texaco refinery on the south shore of the Haven but was pushed off course by the current and hit the rocks just after 8.00pm.

The "Sea Empress" had punctured her hull and rescue attempts by tugs from the Port Authority served only to make matters worse as the ship repeatedly re-grounded, slicing open her bottom even more. Over the course of the following week 73,000 tons of crude oil spilled into the water and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park was faced with an ecological disaster of major proportions.

It took six weeks for the oil slick to disperse and in that time thousands of birds had died, caught up in the cloying and clogging mixture. Shearwaters, guillemots, puffins, birds that had made their homes on the islands off shore, fell victim to the oil. There was also serious damage to the shore line right around the coast, seaweed and invertebrates being particularly badly hit.

A rescue centre for oiled birds was set up in Milford and dozens of volunteers (as well as paid workers) toiled for days to try to minimize the extent of the disaster. Tugs and other vessels from as far away as Dublin and Plymouth also came to help.

The "Sea Empress" disaster was only the third major incident involving oil tankers to take place in and around Milford Haven. Perhaps the area has been lucky. One thing is certain - the potential for future disaster remains and the only way to avoid trouble is with extreme caution and vigilance. It is the least our coastline deserves.

Tommy Cooper, a great Welsh comedian

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 13:48 UK time, Thursday, 22 September 2011

It's often said that Welsh humour doesn't travel. People sometimes comment that while the Welsh might find something - a joke, a story or a sketch - hilariously funny, as a general rule nobody else does.

Tommy Cooper was born in Caerphilly

Quite apart from the fact that statement just isn't true, it also hides the fact that one of the greatest and best-loved of all post-war comedians was Welsh - it was just that very few of the people who watched him night after night on TV or in the theatre, ever realised it, at least not until after he died. The man in question was the incredible Tommy Cooper.

Tommy was born at 19 Llwyn On Street, Trecenydd in Caerphilly on 19 March 1921. His father was a Welshman, also called Thomas (Tom as he was known), working as a recruiting sergeant for the army. His mother, Gertrude, was English, coming from Crediton in Devon.

The Coopers did not own the house in Llwyn On Street and were merely lodging there. Apparently, in those pre-maternity hospital days, Tommy was born at home and the owner of the house acted as the midwife for the birth.

He was a premature baby and was underweight and scrawny - amazing, considering that, when he grew to adulthood, Tommy Cooper stood six feet four in his stocking feet! Indeed, for a long while the baby was not expected to survive and was only kept alive by a mixture of brandy and condensed milk. It may have started a lifelong and, ultimately, fatal habit as Tommy Cooper battled against the effects of alcohol all his life.

When Tommy was just three the family moved from Caerphilly to Exeter. They didn't like the pollution of the Welsh valleys; it was not good for young Tommy's health and, anyway, his father had been offered a job in the Devon city. They never moved back to Wales, although Tommy kept in contact with members of his family who remained in Caerphilly.

The story of Tommy Cooper's success is too well known to repeat here. But after finding his trademark fez (he apparently grabbed it off a passing waiter while performing in a NAAFI show in Egypt during World War Two) he went on to become one of the country's best loved comedians. Indeed, he had only to appear on stage and stand there for people to fall about laughing. He had that sort of personality and looks.

Cooper was a skilled magician and a member of the Magic Circle

And when his disastrous magic tricks invariably went wrong, the house would erupt. It was an act of course. Tommy was actually a very clever magician, a member of the Magic Circle and someone who had been fascinated by magic tricks ever since he was given his first conjuring set by an aunt when he was just eight years old.

The stories about Tommy Cooper's "tightness" with money are legendary. He would, it seems, lean across to taxi drivers, say "Have a drink on me" and slip something into their top pockets. When the men looked they found, not a £5 note but a tea bag. Whether or not such stories are true, they remain part of the Tommy Cooper legend.

Tommy died on 15 April 1984, performing live on television in a show called Live From Her Majesty's - not at the London Palladium, as is often reported. Of course, when he collapsed viewers at home and those in the audience thought it was part of the act.

A statue to the great Tommy Cooper was erected in Caerphilly, the town of his birth, in February 2008. Sculpted by James Done, the statue was unveiled by fellow Welshman Sir Anthony Hopkins, a self-confessed Cooper fan. It now stands in the centre of the town, in the shadow of the giant Caerphilly Castle, a more than suitable tribute to the man who is, arguably, the town's greatest son.

There is a footnote. In 2009, on Red Nose Day, when comedians from all over the country - professional and amateur alike - try to raise money for charity, a suitably large and bulbous red nose was placed on the statue. It went missing, stolen by someone who wanted a free memento of the day and of the man. Tommy Cooper would probably have understood.

Grab your chance to explore Wales' Open Doors

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 16:12 UK time, Tuesday, 20 September 2011

There's just over a week left of Open Doors, Wales' annual celebration of architecture and built heritage. Events are running throughout the month of September and as they're all free, there is ample reason to get out and about to explore interesting buildings.

BBC Wales History asked Derw Thomas, Open Doors Coordinator, from the Civic Trust for Wales, to recommend a range of buildings and events for the Open Doors programme.

"Every local authority area of Wales has its own contribution to the Open Doors programme. A visit to the Open Doors website will direct you to listings for all 22 local authority areas of Wales.

rhiwbina walk

Rhiwbina Garden Village guided walk

"The Open Doors programme includes so many different types of buildings. And in addition to castles, stately homes, industrial heritage, places of worship and impressive civic buildings, there are numerous guided walks, talks and lectures.

"Last Saturday Rhiwbina Civic Society coordinated a series of events concentrating on Rhiwbina Garden Village. The weekend included exhibitions, a lecture on the Garden Village movement and a guided walk. This mixture provided an informative and entertaining set of events with the local community at its heart.

"There are more guided walks lined up as part of the rest of the Open Doors programme. The designated Townscape Heritage Initiative area of Bridgend will be the focus for a guided walk on Saturday 24 September. There are also several guided walks planned in the historic market town of Ruthin in Denbighshire on the weekend of 24 and 25 September.

Chepstown Castle

Medieval Mayhem at Chepstow Castle (Cadw)

"Recent research showed that Welsh castles are Britain's most popular attraction with foreign visitors. We are, of course, blessed with a huge wealth of castles and fortified buildings.

Chepstow Castle came to life recently with an Open Doors event entitled Medieval Mayhem. With stalls and demonstrations representing everything from archery to courtly dances, and food to fossils, this event was a real favourite with families despite the inclement weather.

Castles and historic houses are at the core of the Open Doors programme. There's so much variety among the fortresses and grand houses across the country and many take part in the programme. Margam Park, in Neath Port Talbot, which formerly belonged to the Mansel Talbot family, is a new addition to Open Doors this year. There have been events in Margam throughout the month and there are more still to come.

penllech church

St Mary's Church, Penllech, Gwynedd

Also central to the Open Doors programme are places of worship, with buildings representing a range of faiths, all ages and every denomination included. There are churches and chapels around Wales in every possible type of location, from remote rural stone churches to inner city faith buildings.

The Friends of Friendless Churches campaigns for and rescues redundant historic churches threatened by demolition and decay. It looks after 20 such churches in Wales and Open Doors is an opportunity to seek out the most appealing of them.

Pigs cotts

Pigs cotts, Lower White Castle, part of the Village Alive Trust programme

Some of the most popular venues for visitors are the private homes which take part in Open Doors. In the main, these events normally need to be pre-booked in order to cope with demand and manage numbers. In the spirit of inclusion that is central to the Open Doors programme, there's even a pig house included in the programme this year!

Open Doors days take place throughout September and offer the public free access to places and buildings of historic and architectural interest. Buildings which are normally free to visit put on something very special. This year there are over 500 events at more than 300 sites across Wales. For more information visit

Call for conservation volunteers to help protect 2,500-year-old hillfort

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 10:07 UK time, Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Volunteers are needed to help with a very special task at the impressive hillfort of Caer Drewyn, Corwen this week.

caer drewyn

Caer Drewyn hillfort

On Wednesday 21 and Thursday 22 September, Denbighshire Countryside Service and the Heather and Hillforts Project will be carrying out erosion repair work on the 2,500-year-old monument, and are asking for help from the public with the project.

Caer Drewyn

Known locally as Mynydd y Gaer, it is unique in the area as its massive banks (ramparts) are made out of stone. Over the years these have begun to tumble down and have blocked the original entranceway.

The Repairing The Past event this September will carry out erosion repair work at the eastern entranceway by laying a membrane layer across the entranceway and covering with turf to protect the archaeology and also to make access safer.

caer drewyn

Archaeologist Erin Robinson will be on site to speak about the hillfort's history and to give a tour of the site during both days. She said:

"Mynydd y Gaer is a site which is loved by many and regularly visited. It boasts a wealth of history dating back thousands of years, being built around the time of the Iron Age 800BC-43AD and used since, including a visit from the infamous Owain Glyndwr!

"Today it is home to a range of wildlife including the yellowhammer and rare lichens. The hillfort now needs your help to ensure it can be enjoyed in the future, so we are appealing for volunteers to come and join us to help with work to help the hillfort stand for another 2,000 years."

caer drewyn

Caer Drewyn is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and this work has been approved by Cadw, the Welsh Government's historic environment service.

The conservation event will run on Wednesday 21 and Thursday 22 September and will meet at 10am at Corwen Leisure Centre, OS grid reference SJ068442 (or view on Google Maps).

Sensible clothing and footwear is advised along with a packed lunch and plenty of fluids. The walk up to the hillfort includes a steep steady climb.

For more information please contact the South Denbighshire Countryside Office on 01978 869619.

Further details can be found on You can also follow the Heather and Hillforts project on Twitter - @HeatherHillfort.

The three-year Heather and Hillforts Project is developing a £2.3 million initiative for upland conservation work and has received a grant of £1.5 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

King Arthur, a Welsh hero?

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:48 UK time, Friday, 16 September 2011

The King Arthur that we know so well from books and films first became a "national hero" in Britain in the years between 1150 and 1200. It was a time of huge military and economic expansion, Henry II bringing all of Britain and Ireland, as well as much of modern-day France, into his Empire.

Actor as King Arthur

It was also a time when the Plantagenet dynasty, descendants of William the Conqueror - a man who was never accepted by the Church of Rome as the true ruler of Britain - were attempting to justify their claim to the throne of England by linking themselves to the rightful rulers of the country. In other words the descendants of Arthur - whoever he might have been.

Thanks in no small degree to the influence of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and other courtly ladies, the ballad singers and story tellers of the time quickly turned Arthur and his realm of Camelot into one of noble knights and stirring deeds of gallantry and chivalry. But that, of course, bore no resemblance to the real man. So who was King Arthur? And did he ever really exist?

He certainly existed, but the hero we have today is probably an amalgam of two different leaders. Both of them came from the post-Roman period when, with no clear leadership, the Romano-Celtic peoples of Britain found themselves under direct attack from the barbarian tribes of northern Europe. It was a time for heroes to emerge.

Ambrosius Aurelianus, the last of the great Roman Cavalry leaders, was one original. The other was his successor as the Dux Britannia (Duke of Britain) and the man who by his victory at Badon Hill finally threw back the Saxon hordes for some years, a warrior by the name of Artorius. The deeds of these two men have, over the years, become linked and subsumed to the name of Arthur.

These days many parts of Britain claim links with Arthur but, probably, he held sway in the north of Britain where the men of the Gododdin were the main tribe. Strong links between the Gododdin and Wales certainly existed, not least because the language spoken in both kingdoms was the same, a strand of common Celtic called Brythonic. The bard Aneirin wrote his verse saga "The Gododdin" about a tragic military campaign in approximately 600AD, a campaign involving men from both Wales and the north country. It is the oldest surviving major work of literature in what was to become the Welsh language.

Arthur, of course, appears in several of the stories of "The Mabinogi", the great series of folk tales about the Celtic peoples, and in these there is talk of his court at Caerleon. It has been enough for some people to declare Caerleon to be the site of Camelot. However, more distinct references to the man appear in a life of St Cadog, written by by a monk from Llancarfan in the 11th century.

In this book, the story is told of a local king called Gwynllyw, from the western part of Gwent, who abducted and eloped with Gwladus, the daughter of the king of Brycheiniog. Gwynllyw was pursued all the way back to Gwent and was only saved by the intervention of Arthur and his two friends Cei and Bedwyr - plus about 200 warriors - who happened to be resting (and playing dice) at a hill called Boch Rhiw Carn on the edge of Gwynllyw's kingdom. So much for the story.

But what would Arthur and his companions have been doing in what is now the Gelli Gaer area of Wales? In the period 400 to 500 AD the region was famous for its iron workings and it could well have been the case that they had come to equip themselves with good quality swords and other weapons.

The act of drawing his sword from stone is, according to the legend, what made Arthur the king when dozens of other knights failed in the attempt. But that act, the process of drawing a sword from stone, can also be seen as a metaphor for metallugy, literally the drawing out of iron from ore or stone. And if that is the case, where better to do it than in an area renowned for its iron smelting. It remains a matter of conjecture.

Certainly the wise man and religious sage Dubricius - the very man who was said to have later crowned Arthur as king of all the Britons - lived in the area. It is not too hard to see a connection between Dubricius and the legendary Merlin but, of course, the stories have been so altered and adapted over the years that it is now impossible to seperate truth from fantasy.

Wales continues to claim Arthur as her own. As the Saxons slowly but surely began to push back the Celtic peoples until, finally, they were left with just the land we now know as Wales, so the legends and the stories grew and developed. Now, wherever you look - Snowdon, Carmarthen, Gelli Gaer, Caerleon - Arthurian connections flourish and thrive.

Nobody will ever know the real truth. And perhaps that is just as well. All cultures need their legends and in King Arthur, Wales has one in which we can all be proud.

School to honour Battle of Britain hero

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 13:34 UK time, Thursday, 15 September 2011

The heroism of Welsh pilot Sgt Lewis Reginald Isaac who was killed in action during the Battle of Britain will be commemorated at a reunion of former school pupils of Llanelli Boys Grammar School in October.

The Llanelli born fighter pilot was just 24 when he was killed in an attack by German fighters on 5 August 1940.

The reunion of old boys from his former school will remember the bravery of Sgt Isaac. A commemorative plaque will be unveiled by Clive Millman from the Battle of Britain Historical Society.

In an article in the Western Mail, Mr Millman said:

"The Battle of Britain Historical Society places memorial plaques in honour of the brave men who fought so successfully in the battle, at the schools where they were educated,

"We, and future generations, will always have a huge debt of gratitude for Lewis Reginald Isaac and his brave colleagues."

Sgt Isaac's six Spitfire squadron became engaged in a dogfight with enemy planes in the Folksetone area. Sgt Lewis' plane was seen to crash into the sea and his body was never found.

When the remaining pilots returned to base it became clear during the debriefing that Sgt Isaac had turned to face enemy fighters in an effort to try and protect the other planes from his squadron that had suffered damage in the dogfight.

Next month's black-tie event is taking place on Friday 21 October at the Graig campus, in what was previously the assembly hall of the old school. Tickets for the event need to be booked in advance. More information available at

Today marks Battle of Britain Day. Many historian consider 15 September 1940 to be the turning point in the Battle of Britain when the Royal Air Force, flying new Spitfires, downed 56 German aircraft in two dogfights lasting less than an hour.

Although fighting continued in the air for several more weeks, and British cities were sporadically bombed for the rest of the war, German efforts to achieve air superiority ahead of an invasion had failed.

Find out more about Battle of Britain Day on BBC History.

Read James Roberts' article Battle of Britain comes to Wales on the Wales History blog.

There's more to Wales' Open Doors than a view, a brew and a loo!

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 14:55 UK time, Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Open Doors, Wales' annual celebration of architecture and heritage which runs throughout September, is approaching its mid-point.

Offering free access to sites and events all over Wales, Open Doors is an opportunity to take a fresh look at buildings which might seem familiar but warrant a bit of further exploration.

Murals talk in Newport

Curator Emily Price talks about Newport Civic Centre murals

Derw Thomas, Open Doors' coordinator, who works for the Civic Trust for Wales, offers his take on what's coming up:

"There are centres of activities in all parts of Wales. A visit to the Open Doors website will direct you to listings for all 22 local authority areas of Wales, each offering its own distinct contribution to the programme.

"In the past, to be successful, heritage sites had to include 'a view, a brew and a loo'! Whilst those elements are still pretty essential, visitor attractions need to offer something more if they are to engage with visitors on a more meaningful level. This is where the Open Doors programme really comes into its own. Being able to get into buildings not normally open to the public or offering some newer form of interpretation are both particularly effective ways to engage with visitors.

"This year there is a new cluster of sites in and around Newport. Various buildings around the city opened their doors over the last few days.

"Newport has a long and fascinating history. Much of it can be seen in the murals in the main foyer of Newport Civic Centre. The murals were painted by Hans Feibusch between 1961 and 1964. Newport Castle, St Woolos Cathedral, Maindee Police Station and Newport Medieval Ship also took part.

Garden Village Wendy house

The Wendy House, Rhiwbina

"In addition to the new cluster in Newport, there are new clusters in Brecon, Flint and Rhiwbina.

"Andrew Davies (he of Pride & Prejudice fame) son of Wynford Davies will be launching a reprint of his father's book about Rhiwbina Garden Village. There will be various other events in Rhiwbina on Saturday 17 September.

"Building on success of previous years, there are expanded clusters in Bridgend, Caerphilly, Cardiff and Rhondda Cynon Taf. All these areas have had sites in the Open Doors programme before.

"This year there are more sites and a breadth of activities such as talks and guided walks.

"In north east Wales, Llangollen is set to host a cluster of events on the 17 and 18 September and in Ruthin on the 24 and 25 September. "

Fedw Hir

Fedw Hir Eco Centre

Open Doors days take place throughout September and offer the public free access to places and buildings of historic and architectural interest. Buildings which are normally free to visit put on something very special. This year there are over 500 events at more than 300 sites across Wales.

Read the rest of this entry

The Penarth Pier fire of 1931

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:34 UK time, Wednesday, 14 September 2011

From the two pavilions, one at each end of Penarth's elegant Victorian pleasure pier, the strains of music wafted, clear as chapel bells, on the night air. It was just after 9pm on 3 August 1931.

Penarth Pier

Penarth Pier (Image from

The music was loud but it was also very different. From the New Pavilion at the landward end came the sound of 'Variety', the girls' voices high and shrill above the orchestra. From the old Bijou Pavilion at the seaward end the lilting melody of a foxtrot swept across the waves.

Piermaster Leonard stood outside the New Pavilion, his arms resting easily on the metal railings, glad that yet another August Bank Holiday was almost over. He glanced along the wooden decking, taking note of the two youngsters who were charging towards him. Then came the screams and cries that every piermaster in the country dreaded.

"Fire!" the youngsters shouted. "The pier's on fire!"

Piermaster Leonard and his assistant leapt for the fire hydrants and extinguishers that all piers carried but at that moment the pier burst into flames at their feet. Within minutes a long stretch of the decking had become a mass of spitting and snaking fire.

Penarth, the premier holiday destination on the south Wales coast, had finally been graced with a pleasure pier in 1894. It came after years of debate and discussion - at one time there were even plans to import a second-hand structure from Douglas on the Isle of Man. Many were up in arms at the suggestion, others not so sure. As the editor of the Penarth Observer wrote:

"Any pier would be better than none and no doubt the purchasers would be glad to sell it again at a reasonable profit. We do trust that another season will not be allowed to pass without one of some sort being erected."

Piers, in the Victorian age, meant day trippers and tourists and they, in turn, meant money to any resort lucky enough to attract them. So the need for a pier in Penarth was apparent to all. In the end Penarth did not buy a second-hand pier; a company was formed, shares were sold and the firm of Joseph and Arthur Mayoh of Manchester was employed to build Penarth the pier it deserved.

Opened in 1894 the pier at Penarth led an adventurous and chequered life, being requisitioned by the army as a searchlight base during the Great War. Unusually, the pier had two pleasure pavilions, the first one being a wooden structure on the seaward end, built in 1907. The other was the new ferro-concrete structure created on the landward end in 1929. Both of them were well used for concerts and dances - as on the night of 3 August.

It has never been clear how the fire began. All that is known is that it started in the Old Pavilion, probably when a casually-discarded cigarette fell through the boards and ignited the piles of rubbish that had lain underneath for over 30 years.

Panic spread quickly as people realised the danger. Over 200 people dancing in the Old Bijou Pavilion rushed for the safety of land, and halfway down the pier met a crowd from the New Pavilion who had seen the flames and were rushing to help. Disaster was imminent. Luckily members of the theatre orchestra, piermaster Leonard and his staff and policemen from the town were able to link arms and push the crowd back to the promenade.

Thirty people were unable to get down the pier before the flames became too fierce. These desperate souls took refuge on the concrete landing stage below the Bijou Pavilion, the place where the pleasure steamers of the White Funnel Fleet normally picked up passengers during the summer months. From here they were lifted to safety by boats from the nearby Penarth Yacht Club.

An heroic attempt to put out the fire was made by the local fire brigade but the flames had gained too great a hold. Just after 10pm the Old Pavilion collapsed in a shower of sparks and flames and half an hour later the inferno reached for the whole length of the pier. The central portion collapsed just after 11pm. After that the fire had nowhere to go and simply burned itself out.

Fires on wooden pleasure piers had always been - and continue to be - something of an occupational hazard. In the Penarth Pier fire there were no casualties but the damage to the town and to its tourist trade was incalculable. Thousands of pounds were lost as people simply stayed away or went to Barry Island instead.

The only people to gain were the children of the town who, in the days following the fire, were to be seen happily searching the beach beneath the pier for coppers that had fallen from the buckled and melted slot machines.

The town council decided that a pier was still an essential part of Penarth's amenities and therefore decided to rebuild the structure. It cost many thousands of pounds and took several years but the job was done - although the council wisely decided that a dance hall on the seaward end of the pier was too great a risk and, consequently, the Old Bijou Pavilion would not be rebuilt.

There were more troubles ahead - being hit by a cargo ship in 1947 and by the paddle steamer Bristol Queen in 1966 were just two of the potential disasters the pier survived. But survive it did and today it still stands, a living reminder of how people used to enjoy themselves in the early years of the 20th century.

Museum prepares to show underwater footage of 1859 Royal Charter shipwreck

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 10:21 UK time, Monday, 12 September 2011

From next month, visitors to Chester Grosvenor Museum will be able to view underwater video footage of one of Wales' most notable shipwrecks.

On 26 October 1859, a steam clipper called Royal Charter, was returning from Melbourne to Liverpool. Laden with gold, the vessel was battered by a force 12 hurricane and smashed onto rocks off Moelfre, Anglesey. A total of 459 passengers and crew subsequently perished with only 21 passengers and 18 crew surviving the destruction.

Diver Chris Holden, treasurer of the British Sub-Aqua Club's Chester branch, will show the film at the Chester Grosvenor Museum on 25 October as part of a lecture to mark the 152nd anniversary of the maritime tragedy.

Along with the unseen footage, it will be the first opportunity for many people to see artefacts from the wreck.

Read more about this story on the BBC Wales News website.

Roald Dahl - the Cardiff Connection

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:40 UK time, Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Go into any school, in any part of Wales, Scotland or England, and ask the pupils for the names of their favourite authors. Nine times out of 10 Roald Dahl will feature high in the list of responses. The author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches and Matilda remains constantly popular yet, in school, his teachers did not think he had any particular talent for writing. How wrong can you be?

Roald Dahl was born on 13 September 1916 at Villa Marie in Fairwater Road, Llandaff, Cardiff. His parents were Norwegian, his father Harald having given up his previous career as a farmer and come to Cardiff to seek his fortune in the 1880s.

In those days Cardiff was one of the biggest and most important ports in the country, thousands of tons of coal being exported through the docks every year. Add in the fact that Norway had the third largest merchant fleet in the world and a pattern begins to emerge.

Before too long Harald was the joint owner of a large and successful ship broking business, Aadnesen and Dahl. When he married Sophie Magdalene (who came from Norway for the wedding and to settle down with her new husband) the young couple seemed set on the road to success.

Children soon began to arrive: Roald and three sisters. Despite living all their married life in Wales, Harald and Sophie remained very conscious and proud of their Norwegian heritage. Roald was named after the famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the man who had beaten Captain Scott to the South Pole in 1912, and when it was time to christen their new son, the ceremony took place in the Norwegian Church just outside Cardiff docks.

The Norwegian Church had been established in Cardiff in 1868 by the Norwegian Seamen's Missions. It was always more than just a church, being intended as a place where Norwegian sailors who were in port for a few brief hours or days could go to read newspapers and find comfort. Of course, there was the church element as well and the place was also intended to be used by Norwegian expatriates like Harald and Sophie Dahl. They and their family worshipped here regularly and all of their children were christened in the church.

In 1916, when Roald was christened, the Norwegian Church was not in the position or location we see today. Then it was situated on the spot where the Wales Millennium Centre now stands, at the entrance to Bute West Dock. It was an ideal location for the sailors who came regularly to use the facilities.

Churches like this, made of wood and put together almost like flat-pack furniture, were fairly common in most ports at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries - certainly in ports where the Norwegian presence was strong. Swansea had one - it has now been pulled down and remains in storage until, hopefully, it will one day be erected in a new location.

The Cardiff Norwegian Church was well used for many years, before closing in 1974 and falling into disrepair. Thanks to preservationists, the building was saved and moved, piece by piece, to its present site in 1990. Roald Dahl was the first President of the Preservation Trust, a position he held until his death in 1990.

The building has recently undergone a major refurbishment. Now known as the Norwegian Church Arts Centre, it regularly holds exhibitions and workshops - and the fact that Roald Dahl was christened there is commemorated on a large painting and a small plague on one of the walls inside the church.

Dahl's comfortable existence in Llandaff was cruelly destroyed in 1920 when first his sister Astri and then his father both suddenly died. Harald had been on a fishing trip in the Arctic and his death, in particular, must have been both a blow and a shock for the young boy.

His education began in Cardiff. He attended Cathedral School in Llandaff where his chief claim to fame was slipping a dead mouse into a jar of sweets in a shop owned by an unpleasant shop keeper. The boys in the school apparently consigned the occasion to immortality by giving the affair the name of 'The Great Mouse Plot of 1924'. The incident - which Roald duly went on to write about - shows a certain wicked sense of humour but, in his essays and school work, there was little or no sign of the prose style that later made him famous.

After this Roald was packed off to boarding school in England where, again, nobody saw any literary merit in his stories and essays. He used to travel home for holidays on the old Beachley ferry across the River Severn but, despite the excitement of the trip, his time at this school was a very unhappy one. A further period at Repton in Derbyshire further removed Roald Dahl from Wales and for the last past of his childhood and adolescence he spent most of his holidays with relatives in Norway.

Roald Dahl went on to achieve fame as a pilot in the Second World War and, in particular, as one of the most gifted writers ever to pick up a pen. Clearly his literary talent flourished later in his life. He wrote novels, poems and stories, not just for children but for adults as well - his Tales Of The Unexpected are a classic of their genre. He died on 23 November 1990.

Now, every year, Roald Dahl is remembered on 13 September, the date of his birth. Readings and discussions of his work take place all over the country, always well attended and always a source of huge enjoyment for children and adolescents.

As far as Cardiff is concerned, he is remembered in the Norwegian Church Arts Centre and by the naming of a roadway, the Roald Dahl Plass in the recently revamped dock area, in his honour. When he was given the further honour of a 'blue plaque' it was placed, not on the house where he was born but on the wall of the former sweet shop where the Great Mouse Plot of 1924 took place. Roald Dahl would probably have been very pleased.

The First Severn Bridge

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:32 UK time, Tuesday, 6 September 2011

These days, travelling across the new or second Severn crossing, it is all too easy to forget that, when it was built, the original Severn Bridge, a bare mile upstream, was a crucially important piece of infrastructure that would revolutionize transport in Wales. It offered, in the words of the Queen when she arrived to formally open the bridge, "A new economic era for South Wales."

The Severn Bridge in the 1970s

The Severn Bridge in the 1970s

Whether or not that statement is true, the first Severn Bridge was certainly a remarkable piece of architecture. Officially opened on 8 September 1966, the bridge had been several years in the making and many, many more in the planning.

The first proposal for a road bridge across the Severn had been made as long ago as 1824 and came from no less a person than the renowned engineer and road builder Thomas Telford. He had been asked to recommend ways of improving the mail service between London and South Wales and quickly came to the conclusion that a bridge to span the Severn was the best option.

The huge bulk of the River Severn and its estuary had always been a problem for travellers, its long arm acting almost like a defensive wall between England and Wales. There were only two ways to get around the river. Either you could take the long road trip through Gloucester or chance - and chance was the operative word - the ferry service that ran between Aust on the English bank and Beachley in Wales.

Telford recommended a crossing - over the very part of the river where the later bridge would eventually be built. In the event Telford's suggestions came to nothing. Cost was a major factor and it was not long before railways came to be considered the main form of transport. When the Severn railway tunnel finally opened in 1886 it seemed as if the idea of spanning the river had gone for ever.

By the early years of the 20th century, however, there had been a significant increase in road traffic and in the period immediately following World War One it became clear to everyone that the old ferry boat service was struggling to cope.

As early as 1935 a Bill was proposed in Parliament, by Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire County Councils, for a bridge over the estuary. But opposition from the Great Western Railway was too strong and the Bill was vetoed. And so things remained until after the Second World War when proposals were laid for a series of major trunk roads - motorways as they became known - across the length and breadth of Britain. A road crossing of the Severn river and estuary were seen as a vital part of this network.

Planning and building the bridge took time. Things were further delayed by government sponsoring and funding on the Forth Road Bridge in Scotland but, finally, construction began in 1961. It took five years to build the bridge and cost £8 million.

From an early stage in the construction the government announced that they would be recovering at least some of the costs by levying a toll. The original charge for this - in old money - was to be two shillings and sixpence and in those early days tolls were to be collected when motorists were travelling both ways.

The tolls were to be collected on the English side of the river, a fact that caused Welsh poet Harri Webb to write:

Two lands at las connected
Across the waters wide
And all the tolls collected
On the English side.

The new structure was not just one bridge. It actually consisted of four separate parts. Firstly there was the Aust section, a bridge of box girder design with a concrete deck; then came the Severn Bridge itself, a suspension bridge with cables slung between steel towers; next was the Beachley section, another box girder structure; and finally a cable-stayed bridge over the area where the River Wye flowed into the Severn.

The finished item was a construction of some magnitude and for many months people took trips across the bridge, just to see and experience the new phenomenon. The one thing motorists did not want was to break down on the structure - it cost an arm and a leg to be towed off!

With the huge increase in car and lorry use during the final decade of the twentieth century it eventually became clear that the Severn Bridge was not able to sustain the pressure and volume of traffic. Consequently, a second Severn crossing was designed and built, to the seaward side of the original bridge. This opened on 5 June 1996, carrying the M4 and the original road across the first bridge was renamed the M48.

Since its opening in 1961 thousands - millions even - of people have crossed the Severn by the original road bridge. Like so many important pieces of infrastructure in Britain, it has been privatized, sold off to foreign investors and operators but it continues in use, closed only occasionally by high winds and, as happened in 2009, by snow and ice dropping from the steel cables onto the carriageway beneath.

Whether or not the bridge brought prosperity to South Wales remains a matter of conjecture. It is certainly a remarkable piece of engineering, a Grade I listed structure that dominates the river and estuary. It remains an important part of the history of Wales.

The First Welsh VC

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:56 UK time, Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The date 8 September might not mean very much to most people. But on that day in 1856 Corporal Robert Shields won the first ever Welsh Victoria Cross. It was for an act of great bravery and courage during the Crimean War and Shields was not only the first Welshman to ever win the award, he was also one of the first 60 men to win this, the highest British medal for conspicuous gallantry.

Queen Victoria had only recently instituted the Victoria Cross, a Royal Warrant authorizing the medal being issued on 29 January 1856, barely seven or eight months before Shields' act of gallantry. The medal was meant to be awarded to men and officers alike, regardless of whether they served in the army or the navy, with no distinction for rank or position.

The Crimean War had broken out in October 1853. Its causes were many and varied but not least amongst them was the long-running dispute over the breakup of the old Ottoman Empire. On the one side were ranged the combined might of the Allied forces - Britain, France and Turkey - while standing alone against them was the huge Russian Empire.

The war was actually fought over many areas, including the Pacific, the Baltic and the Caucasus, but most of the action took place on the Crimean Peninsula. It was a war of terrible mistakes and mis-management and, these days, is chiefly remembered for the work of Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole and Betsy Cadwalader.

The campaign in the Crimea began in September 1854 and immediately troops were subjected to freezing conditions - which often resulted in frostbite - in the winter, broiling heat and fever in the summer.

Numerous battles took place and the city of Sevastopol was surrounded by Allied forces. The Russian commander Prince Menshikov withdrew from the city, leaving the defence to two Admirals, Kornilov and Nakhimov. The siege wore on and on and it was here that Shields was destined to win his medal.

On the morning of 8th September 1856 he volunteered to accompany Assistant Surgeon William Henry Thomas Sylvester in order to rescue a wounded officer who had been shot down not far from their position outside the city walls.

The officer in question was Lieutenant Dyneley, the Adjutant of Shields' own unit, the 23rd Regiment, Royal Welch Fusiliers. He had been shot and wounded close to the Redan, a fort built outside Sevastopol and then occupied by dozens of Russian troops. It was an exposed and dangerous part of the line and to venture close to the Redan, under the fire of the Russian infantry and artillery, was a foolhardy thing to do. Nevertheless, Sylvester and Shields decided to try to save the wounded man.

Together, they reached Dyneley but it was quickly apparent that his wounds were more serious than either of them had imagined. Sylvester dressed his wounds as well as he was able under Russian fire and, together, they brought then injureded man back to the shelter of their trenches. Sadly, Dyneley soon died from his wounds. For their courage under enemy fire, both men were recommended for the Victoria Cross. It was an award that was quickly approved.

Corporal Robert Shields was subsequently on parade for the very first presentation of the new medal. This took place in Hyde Park on 26 June 1857 when 62 men from the army and navy were presented with the award by Queen Victoria. In those early days the navy ribbon to the VC was blue, the army one crimson. This was later changed and all Victoria Cross medals now have a crimson ribbon.

Little else is known about Robert Shields. He came from Cardiff and was just 28 years old when he won the VC.

Sadly, he did not live much longer, being posted to India at the end of the war and dying there, in Bombay, on 23 December 1864. Presumably, like many soldiers in those days of poor medical care, he succumbed to fever. He was buried in the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral in Bombay - which does, at least, suppose that he was a practising Catholic.

A few years later, in the Boys Own Volume of 1860, there appeared a drawing of shields, complete with long bushy beard - something many of the soldiers sported during the Crimean war - discovering the body of Lieutenant Dyneley. Surgeon Sylvester does not feature in the illustration - quite why has never been explained.

Archaeologists excavate 'tomb of Stonehenge builders'

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 14:38 UK time, Friday, 2 September 2011

Archaeologists believe they may have discovered the Welsh tomb of the builders of the Stonehenge monument.

The remains of a ceremonial monument were found with a bank that appears to have a pair of standing stones embedded in it. The bluestones at the earliest phase of Stonehenge - also set in pairs - give a direct architectural link from the iconic site to this newly discovered henge-like monument in Wales.

The bluestones are thought to have been quarried from the west Wales site in around 2,300 BC. A Neolithic tomb, next to the Carn Menyn site believed to have been the quarry, is being excavated in the hope that it will provide a conclusive link to Stonehenge.



The excavation project of the tomb has been led by Professor Geoff Wainwright and Professor Timothy Darvill, who believe that the giant stones were brought from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire to the Wiltshire grounds.

Prof Darvill said: "It's a little piece of keyhole surgery into an important monument, but it has actually lived up to our expectations perfectly."

Prof Wainwright added:

"The important thing is that we have a ceremonial monument here that is earlier than the passage grave.

"We have obviously got a very important person who may have been responsible for the impetus for these stones to be transported.

"It can be compared directly with the first Stonehenge, so for the first time we have a direct link between Carn Menyn - where the bluestones came from - and Stonehenge, in the form of this ceremonial monument."

The excavation will feature in the new series of BBC Two's Digging For Britain, which begins at 9pm on Friday 9 September. Louise Ord, an assistant producer on the series, has written more about the excavation on the BBC News website.

HMS Warrior, the first iron clad warship

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 14:15 UK time, Friday, 2 September 2011

HMS Warrior was, for a brief period of ten years, the most powerful warship in the the Royal Navy. Yet she spent her last 50 years of active service as an oil hulk at Llanion on the River Cleddau in west Wales.

HMS Warrior in Portsmouth

HMS Warrior (All images kindly provided by HMS Warrior Preservation Trust)

These days, with the restored Warrior on public display at Portsmouth, the link between the most powerful ship in the world and Wales is barely remembered. Yet from 1929 through until August 1979 she was a common sight, nestled serenely against the wooded bank of the river, a reassuring landmark for anyone who sailed up the Cleddau from Milford or Pembroke Dock.

The Warrior was laid down at the private yards of CJ Mare, the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company as the business was called, as the Admiralty felt that no Royal Naval Dockyard had the skill or capacity to undertake such a job. She was launched on 29 December 1860, just over 18 months after building began.

She was built as a response to the French armoured warship La Gloire, which had been laid down a year before. Rumours of the French design had been troubling the Admiralty for months, nobody daring to believe that Britain's sea power might be seriously challenged.

However, when the design was complete, it was clear that the Warrior was to be bigger, faster, more fully armoured and equipped with better guns than the French vessel, thus easily maintaining Britain's supremacy at sea.

The Warrior was an iron hulled, armour plated battleship, powered by steam engines and armed with nearly twenty breach loading guns of various calibre. She was a frighteningly powerful ship, a vessel that, together with her sister ship Black Prince, soon became the pride of the Royal navy.

The winter of 1860/61 happened to be the coldest winter for half a century, and on the day of her launch the Warrior's iron hull actually froze to the launching ways. Six tugs had to tow the mighty warship into the river.

The Warrior immediately made every other capital warship totally redundant and the maritime nations of the world were soon falling over themselves to follow in Britain's footsteps and build ironclads of their own.

The Warrior had cost £357,000 to build - a figure that, these days, would be translated to the region of £25 million pounds - but, so quickly did technology develop, that within ten years she was out of date and ready to be replaced.

The Warrior saw active service all over the world but never fired her guns in anger. In her later years she became Guard Ship for Osborne House, Queen Victoria's favourite dwelling place on the Isle of Wight, and then on the River Clyde.

In 1904 she was taken to Portsmouth where she became part of the HMS Vernon torpedo school. It was a job she carried out for many years until the school "came ashore" and Warrior was once again redundant.

The admiralty planned to sell her for scrap but no-one was interested, despite the fact that she had armour plating that was nearly four feet thick - or perhaps that was the reason as it would have been the devil's own job to break her up. So she remained at Portsmouth, idle and useless, until in March 1929 it was decided to send her to Llanion on the Cleddau where she would operate as Oil Fuel Hulk No C77.

Over the next 50 years more than 5,000 ships docked against the Warrior's side to receive fuel from the oil tanks that were located further inland. Modifications had to be made to the hulk and tons of concrete were poured onto her upper deck, in order to make transfer of men and oil easier. It was a sad end for one of the most revolutionary and influential warships ever to float.

For the people of south Pembrokeshire the Warrior soon became a common sight as they went about their daily tasks. They sailed their boats past her, fished alongside her and, if they were lucky, were invited for a look around by Watchman who lived on board with his family. She became part of the scenery on that section of the river.

HMS Warrior in west Wales

HMS Warror at Llanion on the River Cleddau in west Wales

It was nothing short of criminal, however, to allow such an historic and important vessel to simply rot away. And in 1968 no less a person than the Duke of Edinburgh - himself a navy man - chaired a meeting to discuss the possibility of restoring this once proud ship to her former glory. The Maritime Trust was founded and negotiations continued right through the 1970s. Finally, however, an agreement was reached.

In August 1979 the Warrior was towed away down Milford Haven and brought around the coast to Hartlepool where she was moored in the Coal Dock and an £8 million pound restoration project was begun. It took eight years, one of the toughest jobs being to remove the concrete from her upper deck, but at last the task was complete.

In June 1987 the Warrior was taken to Portsmouth and opened to the public. Along with Nelson's Victory she now holds pride of place in the historic dockyard. And most visitors do not know that for 50 years this wonderful old ship lay as a derelict hulk on a backwater in west Wales.

You can visit HMS Warrior at Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard. See the HMS Warrior website for more information.

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