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  • Writer's pictureGraham Watkins

Swansea and the Sea

When Captain Dan Nicholas wrote his diaries, describing forty years at sea, he recorded that his father was a boy of ten when the French invaded Fishguard and Jemima Nicholas, the heroine

who rounded up French soldiers with a pitchfork, was his aunt. Dan’s father had gone to sea as an apprentice when he was thirteen. Four years later, on the day his apprenticeship ended, he was pressed into the Royal Navy and sent to fight American in the War of 1812. During the fighting, he was wounded twice in the legs. Six years later, with the war over, Dan’s father was discharged and returned to life in the merchant marine. When he was thirty eight he inherited the family farm, married a farmer’s daughter half his age and left the sea. They had eleven children including Dan who was the seventh.

On the 7th December 1863 all hands were at dinner on the Brigantine Eliza out of Swansea except the helmsman and a boy when the cry, ‘boy overboard’ was heard. He had fallen from the stern and could be seen struggling in the water as the ship sailed on. He couldn’t swim. The crew launched a boat and searched for him but only his cap was found. Llewellyn Benyon was a seventeen year old native of Bishopston, Swansea.

Perhaps it was hearing stories of his father’s adventures that gave Dan a taste for the sea. Dan’s first voyage was on a collier, in 1858, carrying coal from Llanelli to Savannah. After they unloaded the cargo by hand, using buckets, Dan explored the slave market and wrote it was the same as the cattle market at Pontardawe. On the return voyage his close friend died on board. Dan Nicholas made several more trips to Savannah and was there at the outbreak of the American Civil War. As the ship departed they could hear cannon fire from Charleston. Life was cheap. Dan Nicholas’ diary records another apprentice drowning and five sailors with smallpox who he was ordered to nurse keeping the flies off during the day and the rats at night. During a voyage to Calcutta his ship’s crew contracted cholera and five died, including the captain. The first mate couldn’t read or write and there was no one aboard who could navigate. The remaining crew members began to drink and fight. The situation was getting desperate. Eventually the ship’s steward took charge and somehow they limped back to Britain and sailed into the River Thames where they collided with a barge and sank it. The voyage bankrupted the ship’s owner.

William Rowland was greasing the fore topmast of the Barque Ethel on the 24th October 1872 when he fell overboard from the rigging hitting his head on the rail as he fell. The crew watched him sink beneath the waves. The captain’s log recorded his wages due for the voyage up to his death as £2.8s.0d less stoppages. Balance due 17s.1d.

Later, Dan spent two years on a ship named the Burry taking lead ore from Swansea to Sardinia and in 1875 he became the master of the Elmira with a cargo of salt bound for Rio De Janiero returning to Falmouth with a hold full of sugar. It was common to lose several hands on each voyage. There was no doctor on board and little or no first aid equipment. While loading at Santos in South America Dan lost all of his crew to yellow fever except an apprentice and himself. Dan spent six weeks ashore, recovering from the fever, while the apprentice stayed aboard ship on his own.

During a trip to Port Natal as master of the City of Asaph Dan sailed across the Atlantic to Brazil planning to turn east and catch the trade winds which would blow the ship to South Africa. When they reached Brazil the crew discovered their cargo of coal was alight. Desperate to put out the fire and save the ship, they stopped pumping the bilges and allowed the hold to flood with seawater. The coal continued to burn and it was soon clear the ship was going to sink. Fortunately another vessel saw they were in difficulty and took the crew off. Dan watched his ship go down.

Dan Nicholas’ last trip was to Antwerp in 1909. After the voyage he retired and returned to the family farm. He was sixty five.

The log of the Linwood records, that James Bamford was travelling from Swansea to join the ship at Porthcawl on the 5th March 1872 when he got intoxicated and assaulted the Station Master at Pyle and was arrested. The ship sailed without him.

David John Jones, born in 1871, was named after the patron saint of Wales. David’s father was a Swansea tailor and David would often deliver parcels containing uniforms to the docks where he would listen to tales of the sea. David was a reluctant scholar and frequently in trouble with the truancy man. When he was fourteen his father signed indentures for him to join the Mary Rose, a three mast sailing ship of 600 tons, as an apprentice. His wage would be £5 for the first year at sea. After four years he would qualify as an able bodied seaman earning £25 from which would be deducted the cost of his food. Then, there were the ‘crimps’, men who provided clothing and tools for the voyage. They also had to be paid. The crimps served another purpose; to find crewmen when needed. The Mary Rose left Swansea on an early March tide. She was bound for Valparaiso with a cargo of steam coal.

The captain of the Mary Rose was a hard man and a bully. David quickly realised he had become a slave in a world where the master’s word was law. Sailing around Cape Horn took three weeks as the ship battled strong headwinds. The ship was taking water and the crew manned the bilge pumps day and night. After three months at sea the Mary Rose reached Valparaiso where a long boat towed it to a berth. As they came alongside David saw three ships anchored offshore. They were flying yellow flags. Yellow fever was aboard. Death from the plague was common among crews and ‘from Abertawe’ was carved on many gravestones in Valparaiso’s cemetery. David was eager to explore this strange new land but the captain refused to allow anyone ashore. He feared his crew would jump ship. While the coal was being unloaded and a homeward bound cargo of copper ore brought aboard several crew members slipped away. The ship couldn’t sail without a crew and the captain went to find the crimps of Valparaiso.

The captain of the Tenby Castle wrote in his log, ‘On 13th February 1912 that at about 5 p.m. whilst on the bridge with me Charles Green [Spare Hand aged 32 born Bristol England], who had joined one for the trip, suddenly went mad wanting to jump overboard and making for the man at the wheel, I called all hands and we lashed him and at 11.30 the following night he died in my opinion from effects of drink taken before coming onboard on the 10th February. I made for Gibraltar where the corpse was landed and buried. Doctor stated no inquest was necessary.

The evening, before the Mary Rose sailed, crimps delivered six comatose sailors to the ship and dumped them in the hold. The captain paid a dollar each for the men and put to sea. When they opened the hatch, in the morning, to release the men a vile stink wafted up from the hold. The smell of stale alcohol, urine, unwashed bodies, vomit and worse combined with another stench; of death. Five hung-over men emerged from the hold. The sixth had been dead for several days. The captain had paid a dollar for a corpse.

Life at sea in the 19th Century was hard and dangerous. Overloaded, unseaworthy ships were common and many were wrecked either by accident or deliberately for the insurance. Copper ore combined with salt water to corrode iron bolts holding the hull, causing ships to break up. Order, aboard ship, was maintained by the first mate’s fists and any crewman, who was not liked, could be put ashore, thousands of miles from home.

On the 15th March 1874, the Volta a Swansea Brigantine of tons 221 owned by a Mr. Richardson was enroute from Nevassa island to Bristol with a crew of 9 when she floundered and sank. The court of inquiry were of opinion that the Master was justified in abandoning his vessel but they suspended his certificate for three months for overloading.

David Jones returned to Valpariso several times and went on to qualify as a ship’s master on the 28th August 1909, the same year that Dan Nicholas retired. Later David Jones formed the Dillwyn Steamship Company which owned three ships. During the Spanish Civil War, he earned the nickname Potato Jones, Spud to his friends, for allegedly smuggling potatoes to the Popular Front. There was little profit in taking potatoes to Spain and his real cargo was almost certainly guns. Potato Jones retired in 1940 and died in 1962 aged ninety-two.

A stow away, Samuel Dorset, was found aboard the William on the 24th June 1874. The boy was hiding in the cargo of coal. He was kept in irons for two days and then put to work. When the William reached Sombrero Island in the West Indies Dorset jumped ship and joined a sloop returning to Britain.

The lives of Dan Nicholas and David Jones are typical of their times when thousands of young men left South Wales and went to sea. Their life was hard. Many of the ships were unseaworthy and known by the men as coffin ships. Owners would overload them to increase their profit regardless of the risk to the crew’s lives. If a ship was delayed in a foreign port, the crew would be put ashore without wages to fend for themselves. Insurance fraud was common. It was more profitable to lose an old ship at sea than retire it from service. When a seaman died either by accident or illness he was wrapped in a shroud and committed to the sea. His family got nothing. The owners weren’t responsible for their wellbeing. It wasn’t until the 20th Century that conditions began to improve. In 1894 the Plimsoll line, named after Samuel Plimsoll, determining the maximum load a vessel could safely carry was made compulsory. The sinking of the Titanic was another turning point triggering an International Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Treaty in 1914. Despite the increased awareness and concern for safety tragedies continued to happen.

The Samtampa was a liberty ship built in America in 1943. Liberty ships were mass produced to cross the Atlantic Ocean with supplies for the war effort. Germany was attempting to starve Britain into submission by sinking allied shipping. The Samtampa survived the war and on the 23rd April 1947 was in the Bristol Channel heading for Newport. Before she reached the safety of the harbour a violent storm blew up with 70 mph winds. Realising it wasn’t safe to try and dock in such conditions Captain Sherwell decided to anchor offshore and wait for the wind to slacken. He tried to anchor but the force of the wind carried the ship onto rocks at Sker near Porthcawl. The South Wales Evening Post described the sea as a ‘seething cauldron of fury.’ The crew sent several radio messages pleading for help. The last message at 5.14 p.m. said, ‘Breaking up. Leaving shortly.’ They never got to safety. The entire crew of thirty-nine died when the ship disintegrated, but it wasn’t the end of the disaster.

The Iron Master, Graham Watkins author

When HMCS Chebogue, a Canadian frigate, was torpedoed in 1944 she was towed into Swansea Bay with a skeleton crew aboard. The warship ran aground on Port Talbot sand bar. A gale was blowing and the crew of 42 feared they were lost. The Mumbles lifeboat arrived and, despite the danger of being dashed against the side of the ship, rescued the entire crew. The coxswain William Gammon was awarded a gold medal for gallantry. Three years later he lost his own life trying to save the crew of the Samtampa.

The Mumbles lifeboat, Edward Prince of Wales, with a crew of eight, was launched to go to the assistance of the Samtampa. It was wrecked on the rocks at Sker Point killing all eight men aboard. One of the lifeboat men had only been married a few days. The crew of the Samtampa were buried in Porthcawl Cemetery and the lifeboat men interred together in Oystermouth Cemetery. A stained glass window in all Saints’ Church, Mumbles serves as a reminder of the tragedy.

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