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The end of the Conway

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:50 UK time, Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The coastline of Wales has seen thousands of shipwrecks over the years but none is more interesting than that of the famous boys' training ship Conway which went ashore in the Menai Straits on 14 April 1953. The Conway was an old wooden battleship, one of many once used to train boys for careers afloat.

The ship involved in the wreck was actually the third Conway, the previous vessels having been changed as they became too tired and dilapidated. This third Conway was actually the 91 gun battleship Nile, but everyone associated with the training ship knew her only as the Conway.

From a fleet of over 100 training establishments that were once located around the coast of Britain, ships and shore bases that trained both officers and crew, by 1953 the Conway had become almost the last of her kind.

Founded in 1859, she was intended to train officers for Britain's enormous merchant fleet. She was, to begin with, moored off Rock Ferry on the Mersey and here 120 young boys came for a two-year intensive course of seamanship before beginning their careers as apprentices in one of the great shipping lines.

It was a hard and rugged life. The upper deck had to be scrubbed every day, regardless of the weather, the task invariably being carried out in bare feet. The rope's end across the back was a common punishment if tasks, physical and theoretical, were not carried out quickly or efficiently enough. As you might expect on an old ship full of adolescent boys, a fair amount of bullying took place. As one young trainee later said:

"I don't think I shall ever forget the stinging clout I got on my head on my first day; and all my toffee was taken from me. There was too much bullying and small new chums were not looked after as they should have been. The result was that I lived to bully other small boys but, thank goodness, I was soon ashamed of myself."

Amongst famous Conway boys were the poet John Masefield, who later wrote a book about the ship, and Captain Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel. Webb, incidentally, was not considered a particularly good swimmer while he was training on board.

The Conway remained on the Mersey until the dark days of World War Two when, for safety reasons, she was moved to the Menai Straits and moored, firstly off Bangor and, from 1949, off Plas Newydd on Ynys Mon. The ship was owned by the Mercantile Marine Service Association, continuing to operate as a training ship, despite her old age and lack of modern facilities. Then in 1953 it was decided that, if she was to continue functioning, she required a refit.

The intention was to tow her to Cammel Laird's dry dock in Birkenhead, a task that involved navigating the treacherous Swillies Channel in the Menai Straits. It was a trip that had to be done at high tide but, even then, the clearance between the Devil's Teeth Rocks was a mere four feet.

On the morning of 14 April, towed by the tugs Dongarth and Minegarth, the old ship left her moorings. All went well until the Conway passed the Menai Suspension Bridge and there she was met by the flood tide. A sudden north-westerly wind doubled the strength of the tide and the two tugs simply could not make headway. The towing hawser parted and Conway's bows swung helplessly round towards the Caernarfonshire shore.

Under the gaze of thousands of enthralled spectators, there was a roar like a million pebbles being washed along the beach and ship ploughed up onto the foreshore. An inspection soon revealed that her hull was badly buckled and strained - there was little hope of refloating her, at least not immediately. During the very next high tide, however, the Conway flooded aft and before anyone could do anything about it she had broken her back.

The Conway was abandoned and lay for many months on the foreshore. She provided an interesting attraction for the tourists and the locals alike, most of whom had never seen an old woodenwall in the flesh, so to speak. The ship's trainees were educated, for a while, at Plas Newydd, the house of the Marquess of Anglesey, but the great days of the British mercantile marine were already coming to an end. There was, quite simply, no longer any need of an establishment like the Conway.

Declared a total loss, it was decided that the Conway should be broken up where she lay. This was duly done, the remains of the hull being finally destroyed by fire in October 1956. It was a sad end for a once proud ship, a vessel that had provided thousands of officers for the merchant navy - and more than a few for the Royal Navy, too.

In the wake of the disaster Captain Eric Hewitt, who had been on board at the time, was much criticised. However, the responsibility for the tow rested with the towing master, not Conway's captain. Knowing the strength of the tides in the Menai Straits, Hewitt had asked for three tugs but had been told that two were more than enough for the job - as they sometimes say, hindsight is the only exact science.


  • Comment number 1.

    HMS Conway survived as a school until 1974. Initially many of the boys lived in tents after the ship foundered. These were quickly replaced by wooden huts. The main new building was completed and opened by Prince Philip in the early 60s.

    I spent my last 2 years of school there before joining the Merchant Navy as an officer cadet at the end of 1971. The training in many ways was still very relevant for those who wanted to go to sea. It was good enough to ensure that I sailed through my cadetship and 2 mates certificate and I was tough enough to overcome all obstacles set before me.

    I do not think things had changed much at Conway as far as the toughness of the regime and the discipline were concerned from the days of the old ship. When not at school we were kept busy cleaning the building, marching, rowing, sailing and taking part in sports. Limited leave was allowed for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday.

    You mentioned the bullying and I have to admit it was still very prevalent when I was there, I think all of us were subjected to it during our junior year. The prefects generally were responsible and did not bully, with a few exceptions. The bullying generally was carried out by boys in their final year who had their own unofficial code and rules which were expected to be followed by all.

    I assume the rope across the back that you mentioned was what we referred to as a teaser. It was a thin piece of rope with a hard end. Although the prefects were not supposed to use this form of punishment the staff officers responsible for dormitories were and occasionally did for serious breaches of discipline. I have first hand knowledge of how painful just 3 strokes of the teaser was. The main form of official punishment was an arduous and often painful physical endurance event which took place before everyone else awoke. The other main punishment was spending a Sunday afternoon doing some form of physical work when everyone else was allowed on afternoon leave.

    Despite the above most of us quickly settled in to the way of life there and like any other teenage boys made the most of enjoying our time and getting up to mischief when given the chance.

  • Comment number 2.

    That's a really great comment, Dan, a first-hand account of life at the school, albeit after she's "come ashore." Do you know if there's anyone around these days who trained on board the actual ship? Also, I wonder, do you know John Masefield's wonderful book on the Conway? She was, of course, on the Mersey then, not the Menai Straits.

  • Comment number 3.

    Thanks Phil.

    In answer to your question I very occasionally see someone locally who was one of the last boys to have completed his training on the ship while it was moored off Plas Newydd. I did read Masefiield's book many years ago. He also wrote another called "New Chum", I have a copy of it somewhere. If I remember rightly "New Chum" described his first term at Conway. Relatively recently a complete history of the Conway has also been published. There is an old boys association and an informative website at www.hmsconway.org

  • Comment number 4.

    Dan, during your time at the Conway, did you have any contact with the boys from the Worcester, down on the Thames? Or had the Worcester closed down by then? I know there used to be regular contact between the two schools/colleges - in particular a rowing race that was held every year, one year on the Menai Straits, the next year on the Thames.


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