The end of the Conway
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.