Cardiganshire Family
History Society

Cymdeithas Hanes
Teuluoedd Ceredigion



Episodes in the life of an Aberystwyth seaman

Victor Williams

Young Dick Williams found himself doing at 11 years old what many Aberystwyth boys dreamed of - sailing out of the harbour towards unknown places and unimaginable adventures.

As the schooner Ann and Betsy, skippered by John Elias Evans, crossed the bar perhaps Dick's thoughts turned to his brother David who, like himself, had opted for a life on sea. (In due course David was to become a master mariner and, after a lifetime on sea, was to die at the age of 67 whilst serving as Chief Officer aboard the ss South Pacific in 1916. He is buried at Bona in North Africa in a grave cared for by the British War Graves Commission.) In 1863 all this was a closed book; ahead for Dick were years of hard work and adventure.

Fortunately some of his Certificates of Discharge and Character, commonly known as discharge papers,[1] covering dates between 1872 and 1916, had survived and were deposited in the National Library of Wales by my cousin. These helped me to make a start. Even more useful than such certificates are Crew Agreements[2] and Port of Aberystwyth Registration Books[3] and thankfully many of these have been preserved in archives accessible to the public.

Before he reached his eighteenth birthday Dick was described as 'Boy' in crew lists. The ships he served on in this period were all Aberystwyth-registered vessels. Apart from the Ann and Betsy he sailed on two sloops, Bee and New Diligence, as well as the schooner Adroit, all trading in home waters.

Discharge certificateIn 1869 at the age of 18 he was employed as Cook/O.S. (ordinary seaman) on the Oneida, an Aberystwyth brigantine owned and skippered by Edward Morris of Portland Street, Aberystwyth. She was wrecked in September and members of the crew including the captain were drowned. Fortunately for Dick he had left the ship at Hull in July and joined the Sensation, registered in Rye, in the capacity of O.S., and he remained on that vessel until March 1870.

Soon afterwards he joined the Minnehaha, a Liverpool-registered fully-rigged ship of 844 tons - by far the largest vessel he had sailed on up to this time - which left Cardiff on 1 November 1870 with a cargo of coal bound for Callao in Peru. On her return he left her in Hamburg in September 1871.[4]

Dick, who was born on 11 April 1851, celebrated his twenty-first birthday abroad. At Liverpool on 26 January 1872 he was engaged on the Hannah, a ten year old wooden snow, registered in Aberystwyth, skippered by David Davies. On Dick's discharge paper the voyage or employment section just states 'Foreign', which meant that the vessel was trading in foreign parts for an unspecified period of time. He was on her until the end of the year, being discharged in Antwerp on 31 December.

By 1873 he was regularly employed as an A.B. (able-bodied seaman), and a seven month voyage to Pensacola, USA, and back on the Cardiff-registered ship Ocean Pearl was followed by two voyages on the Aberystwyth barque Hope. The Hope left Aberystwyth on 15 June 1874 for Quebec and arrived back on 26 September. Her next voyage, to Darien and back, lasted from 27 November 1874 to 23 March 1875. Three months later he was engaged as bosun on an Aberystwyth schooner, the Anne Jane, then berthed in South Shields, for a voyage to Villa Real, 40 miles north of Valencia on the east coast of Spain. This schooner was skippered by Captain Evan Davies of Powell Street, Aberystwyth. She tied up in Plymouth just two months later, on 14 August. This may well have been his first voyage as bosun; he was then 24 years old.

In November 1877 he sailed again as bosun, this time in the brig Wellington, another local vessel, on a voyage from Aberystwyth to Darien, South America, arriving back in Aberystwyth, on 6 March 1878 - just one month before his marriage which took place in St Michael's Church, by certificate, on 3 April 1878.

This was the one marriage in the family at which Dick just had to be present. He had been unavoidably absent from the weddings of two of his sisters the previous year. Mary had married in January 1877 when he was on the way to India on board the Ettrickdale of Glasgow; Jane had married in May when he was on the way back. The marriage of a third sister, Kate, in 1885 would take place whilst he was afloat somewhere in the North Sea.

In November 1880 when his only brother David led his bride to the altar, you will not be surprised to learn that Dick was on board ss Electra bound for Bilbao.

In this year, for the first time, Dick's discharge paper relates to a voyage on a steamship - a voyage that nearly cost him his life. He had joined the Cardiff steamer West of England in Liverpool in May 1880, was discharged in Cardiff on 5 July, but re-joined the ship in Liverpool on 12 July for a voyage to Pomoroa in Algeria. However the ship was lost at sea and the crew were picked up by the German ship George Washington and taken to Madeira. He was back in Liverpool for his discharge on 15 September. If he had lost his life in this disaster I would not be here as my father was not born until 1887.

By January 1883 my mamgu had already borne him two children and a third was on the way and for the next few years Dick's voyaging was on steamers trading to and from the ports of Europe, for much of the time on the ss Lady Mostyn with a few engagements on other steamships, such as Arthur, Hettie and Alacrity. The Lady Mostyn was registered in Liverpool and owned by members of the Lewis family of Aberdyfi.

In October 1889, only a month after leaving the Lady Mostyn, he was back at home and risking his life to help some fellow-seamen. He was a member of the crew when the local lifeboat went to the rescue of the Arklow of Nova Scotia which was in trouble off Towyn in a fearful storm. This incident was recorded at length in the Cambrian News.[5]

His ninth child was born in 1896 and soon after this he became a member of the crew of the local steamship Countess ofLisburne, much loved and long remembered in the town having been for a long time a regular feature of the Aberystwyth scene. The Aberystwyth and Aberdovey Steam Packet Company who owned her had their registered offices on Rofawr and from 1886 to 1908 the Countess was engaged on regular runs between Aberystwyth and Liverpool and Aberystwyth and Bristol: three times a month between Liverpool and Aber and once a month between Aber and Bristol in 1899, according to her log book.

Although the town was served by railways from July 1864, many commodities continued to be imported by sea and cargoes for export could still be found. The decline set in after 1914.

Whilst serving on the Countess Dick narrowly escaped serious injury, possibly death, in 1905.

The Cambrian News told the story in its issue of 11 August in the 'Aberystwyth News' column, under the heading 'A Collision':

'On Friday, whilst the steamer Countess of Lisburne was proceeding homeward bound through the Menai Straits, she collided with a sailing vessel. She was struck on the stern, the collision causing some damage. The davits were torn away and the shock caused the stern mast to fall. Mr R. Williams, Rheidol Place, was the only person on deck at the time and the mast when it fell narrowly missed him, falling within a few feet of him.' Well, the old salt survived and in 1908 the Countess was up for sale. However there was a lot of correspondence about her condition and in particular the state of her bottom. One letter dated 10 July 1908 said, ' We have never heard of a vessel's bottom being in such a deplorable condition.'

A Cambrian News report dated 24 July 1908 announced:
'The steamer Countess of Lisburne belonging to the Aberystwyth and Aberdovey Steam Packet Company, has been sold for trading purposes on the river Amazon, USA and the crew were paid off this week. It is the intention of the Company to purchase a larger steamer to cope with the increasing traffic. The steamer has been in the Company's service for the past twenty-two years and traded latterly between Aberystwyth and Liverpool, making weekly voyages with goods. Arrangements have been made to bring goods from Liverpool pending the purchase of a new boat.'

Although the Company continued to advertise the Aber to Liverpool service plied by the Countess of Lisburne right up to the beginning of October there is evidence that this boat was withdrawn from service in July and that the ss Dora was used as a stop-gap until October.

At the Extraordinary General Meeting of the Company on 9 October 1908 the purchase of a new steamer was agreed. This was the ss Grosvenor, a steel-built screw steamship with a carrying capacity of about 120 tons more than the Countess of Lisburne. The new boat required only the same number of crew and her speed and consumption of coal were about the same. She was new, having been built earlier that year. A purchase price of £5375 was agreed. The Company had sold the Countess of Lisburne for £1500.

The Grosvenor took over the service on 16 October. The Cambrian News carried an advertisement to this effect in their issue of that date. This steamer was the last Aberystwyth vessel my dadcu was employed on but during the Great War of 1914-18 he served on the Southampton steamer ss Allie which was conveying stores to the British Forces overseas. He was discharged in July 1916 having reached the age of 65 in April.

For his war service he was awarded the British War Medal and the Mercantile Marine War Medal and ribbons.

He died at No 1 Rheidol Place, Aberystwyth on 15 December 1920 at 69 years of age. He never saw his medals: they were received by his widow more than a year after his death.

[1] The system of issuing discharge papers was introduced under the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854. Both the master and the seaman had to sign the certificate on termination of a voyage. The document showed the name of the ship and its official number, port of registration and tonnage, h.p. of engines (when applicable) It also gave a description of the voyage and the seaman's name, age and place of birth, his R.N. Reserve number and capacity (if mate or engineer the number of his certificate), together with the date and place of his engagement and discharge and a remark on his ability and conduct (Dick's Reserve no. was 68599 )

[2] Crew Agreements show: name and official number of ship, port and date of registry, registration tonnage and h.p. of engines, name and address of owners and master, provisions allowed for crew, destination or voyage, date and port where voyage commenced, date and port where voyage ended; signature, age and place ofbirth of every crew member, name of last ship in which he served and date of leaving it, capacity in which he is employed and his wages, including his certificate no. if Master, Mate or Hngineer. Many of these relating to Aberystwyth ships can be seen at the National Library of Wales by researchers holding a reader's ticket.

[3] Port Registration Books give details of dimensions, construction, ownership, history and ultimate fate of each vessel registered at Aberystwyth. These and other records can be consulted at the County Record Office, Marine Terrace, Aberystwyth.

[4] There is a most interesting reference to this voyage on pages 80 and 81 with footnotes in Aled Games, Ship Master (Gwynedd Archives Service. 1980); also an account of their loss off the Scilly Isles four years later pp 83-84. Information on Dick's service on the Minnehaha was supplied by the Maritime History Archive at the Memorial University of Newfoundland.

[5] Dick is the fourth from the left in the back row of the photograph in the newspaper.

General contact: Menna Evans, Hon. Sec. Cardiganshire FHS, Hyfrydle, Ffordd Ddewi, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, SY23 1EU
Website design and development: Technoleg Taliesin Cyf.