Capt John Roberts


I have decided to put pen to paper and write a little bit about my life. I was born in Edeyrn in the year 1897, the second son of Judith and Henry Roberts. I barely remember starting school, as I was only three at the time, and by some misunderstanding was sent to the infants a year before I should have. I didn’t learn much there and by the time I was twelve, I had passed through standard six and was allowed to leave. Some of my mother’s relatives lived next door, namely her uncle and his son. They had a business as carriers to Pwllheli, and after school we children used to help preparing the hay and crushing the gorse to feed the horses.

The old man was about eighty at that time and when he got to the stage he could no longer go to Pwllheli, we were allowed to go with the second cart on Saturdays. I was about eight or nine years old then, and we’d start off at about 6.30am and return between five and six in the evening. We’d get a cheap lunch in Pwllheli and sixpence for our efforts. We carried pigs to Pwllheli and returned with general goods. One time I made a right mess of things, whilst sitting up on the cart outside the timber yard in Pwllheli. The stage coach was coming up behind me, and in order to give it plenty of room to pass, I turned the horse’s head to the right, somehow or other, the reins had got twisted and the old nag went across the road and managed to get himself fouled up with the stage coach and horses. I don’t remember what the driver said about me at the time. Another time I remember I was sent to get a load of slates from the cemetery at Denio, on my own. Everything was going fine until we came back down to the Maes, the cart jerked suddenly and I fell between the strops and the horse, apart from a couple of scratches on my chin, I was none the worse. Someone gave me a helping hand and I was soon on my way again. My uncle Jack and I helped a Mr Little move from Morfa Nefyn to the hilltop at Nefyn, it took a day and a half and the cost of the job was 6/6d and I was given half a gold sovereign. Whilst in the infants I remember a thundering sound, as if a coach and horses were galloping past, the schoolmistress popped her head out of the window, to see what was going on, but she couldn’t see anything, apparently it was an earthquake!

One winter’s evening we boys were playing round the fire when Capt O.W Evans came to the door asking if one of us lads would go and fetch some milk for the little lamb, and it was I who went, this lead to a great friendship between us and shortly afterwards he gave me the job of looking after his sheep for six pence a week. He came up a couple of times a week from the beach, he’d be up early before eight and before it was time to leave for school he’d tell me lots of sea stories. He had a yacht called Betsy, in Porthdinllaen, as well as a couple of boats. During the summer holidays 1908 – 09, I spent most of my time down at the beach. I looked after the boats whilst the yacht was out mackerel fishing. The Mate was known as Thomas Hunt, or Twm Gwyddel (Tom the Irishman). By the time the boats returned the women would have gathered on the shore line to buy mackerel, and if there was a good catch and not many customers about, I was given the job of going around the village selling mackerel from door to door. Pay was a ‘fry’ to take home and a sixpence.

Going on the yacht was a real treat. Before going on deck we’d have to take off our hobnail boots, in case we marked the decks. In time I was promised a trip out on the yacht. I well remember that morning, calling at Porthdinllaen Farm for Robert Griffith, who was also going on the trip, and away we went with our ‘stores’ tied safely in our handkerchiefs. It was crystal clear morning, but with a stiff breeze, when we were on the cliff top we could see the Mr Lord from Nefyn outside the point an elegant sight we thought. When we arrived down at the beach the Captain said ‘Sorry lads. We’d better not take you out today it’s far too rough’. Both of us were really disappointed and pleading to go out with them, and so it was. Within half an hour we were in the thick of it, the old yacht plunging up and down in the waves, the air in the cabin thick with the smell of tar and oakum, old Tom Hunt smoking away at his old clay pipe and blowing it in our direction. No wonder then that I began feeling sick, oh yes really, really sick! For days afterwards I could feel rise and fall beneath my feet, like waves, the feeling still comes back to me even now at times. I soon came to learn how to set the sails and I’d settled the mainsail most times before the Captain came in. My job was to keep the boats on the water, so I could meet them in the afternoon when they came in to land.

One day the yacht was out and I was keeping an eye on the boats. About 4pm some visitors came up to me wanting to be taken to Nefyn. We struck a bargain and I said I’d take them for 2/- and they’d help me row there. It never occurred to me about getting back on my own, we landed on Nefyn beach and I dropped them off and set back skulling on my own. Whilst off Nefyn Point, I suddenly realised that one of the rollocks was missing, I turned back towards Nefyn beach and was lucky to find it on the beach. By this time it was beginning to get dark, but the sea was calm and smooth. I was getting a bit worried as I was sure the yacht would have returned by now and me not there to take them ashore. After skulling in the dark for about an hour, I heard someone shout ‘Ahoy there’ and little by little the sound came closer and from out of the darkness came another boat, the old captain and Tom Hunt searching for me. Both of them were furious with me for going out so close to nightfall, I nearly ended up having the sack. I once dropped a bucket from my hand to a depth of about twelve foot, a line was put round my waist and I was ordered to dive down and retrieve the bucket and bring it back up, which I did.

Quite a few schooners called at Porthdinllaen at that time I used to go aboard some of them. I remember the Lord Nelson was wind bound there for about six weeks. One day I took the lifebuoy off her, having decided to learn to swim. Somehow the lifebuoy slipped and there I was head down with my feet sticking out of the water. Fortunately for me the mate of the Lord Nelson saw me and fished me out with a boathook. Tom Hunt used to let me go with him when he went out to help the ships lift anchor when they were ready to sail. The old Irishman acted as pilot for some of the ships and I used to go out to the bay with him. When the ships had set the sails and were under way, Tom and I would jump into the little boat, Tom had quite a few tools with him on the return trip, they were payment in kind for his services.

By the summer of 1909 I went out with them on the Betsy, as one of the crew and would have a share of the catch, but I still had to sell the skipper’s share all the same. They let me sail her whilst they fished, I’d soon have my orders if I let the sails flap or let the boat to wander off course.

During the summer of 1909, having left school, against everyone’s wishes, I was asked by some visitors who were on board the yacht, whether I’d like to have a job as handyman, looking after the hens and doing various odd jobs, at Tan y Bryn, Morfa Nefyn, the lad who used to work there had gone away to sea. I took the job, which meant polishing shoes, cleaning knives, the WC and feeding the hens as well as running errands etc.  I had to sleep in, but I wasn’t keen on that, I only stayed there one night, I ran off home the rest of the time, so I don’t think I was very popular and at the end of the week the gentleman came up to me and said ‘You needn’t come here anymore’, he paid me 2/- for the week. In the meantime my brother William had taken my place on the yacht, and when I went to the beach the following morning the old captain was quite cross ‘Oh damn I see you’ve left me’, he said, however he let me stay until the end of the summer.

I was too young to go away to sea and the only other thing could was to go and work as a farm boy, so in November 1909, at the age of twelve, I was taken on at Brynrhydd for 30/- a season and an extra 5/- if I worked well. I had sixpence to seal the deal. The owner of the farm was a spinster, Miss Laura Roberts and William Hughes, Bryngors was her bailiff, and there was another chap who looked after the horses. There were about 25 head of cattle there and as William Hughes was poorly the job of feeding them was left to me. I slept in the stable loft with the carter in a wainscot bed, I’d never seen one before. The door to the loft was on the gable end of the building with a wooden ladder leading up to it from the crushing midden. We’d get up about five thirty in the morning and would finish work by about seven at night.

On the 15th of March 1910, William Hughes and the carter had gone to the fair at Pwllheli and had left me on my own. After mucking out the cowshed, I started fiddling with the gorse-crushing machine, by removing a few of the cogs I could use it for churning as well. However I gave it a turn and my right hand got stuck in the cogs crushing my fingers and chopping the top off one of them. I was in terrible pain and terrified to go anywhere near the farmhouse and let the women know what a mess I’d made of things. I ran around the haystacks in the garden, until lunch time, but then I had to show myself. The old ladies sent me home immediately, and I went to the doctors and it was six weeks before I could do anything. Even though they gave me the full wage including the extra 5/-, the doctor’s bill was £2, there was no such thing as the National Health then. I worked two more seasons at Brynrhydd for £2/0/0 and £2/10/0, so all together I was employed there for a year and a half, and I thought I was as good a farmer as the rest of them. I’d go to neighbouring farms, with my pitchfork on my shoulder, like a real man, to help with the threshing. I used to have the job of undoing the sheaves and my hands would be red raw, and I couldn’t keep the feeder going, it wasn’t a job I liked. I liked the spring evenings the best, walking home, collecting plover’s eggs and listening to the birds sing, the lark and the corn crake.

On the twelfth of May 1911, my time at Brynrhydd came to an end, I was within two months of being fourteen. They couldn’t afford to keep me on so I went down to the beach to work on the yacht again, until I could go away to sea. I remember well the first night I spent aboard the yacht. The investiture of the Prince of Wales was taking place on the 13th of July 1911 and the yacht was going to go there. ‘Now Virtue’ and I, a lad about the same age as me, decided to go down the night before and take the yacht out into the bay ready for an early start. Now slept soundly snoring the night away, but not me. I could hear the water lapping round the sides of the yacht and I kept thinking what if something runs into us, as we didn’t have any lights at all. About half past four in the morning I could see a light in the captain’s bedroom window, a signal for me to go and fetch him. The old captain, Tom the Irishman and three other women, came aboard Marjorie, Porthdinllaen is the only one I recall now. It was a calm clear day, hardly any wind at all and after a while we took to the gigs and towed the yacht, we were at it all morning. When we came in sight of Caernarfon, the tide turned against us and we had to turn back disappointed.

Arvonian 27-7-11 to 30-1-13.

Hugh my brother had done a couple of voyages on this ship as mess boy but was going as Ordinary Seaman. He came home one morning and that evening took me back with him to do his old job. I’ll never forget that night, travelling down to Swansea through the night, everything was new and a wonder to me. I was sleeping in the same cabin as the third engineer, and it was my job to look after the engineers for a wage of £1/10/0 a month. The captain was from Pwllheli and the mate from Nefyn. The first thing the skipper said to me was ‘Do you like sugar and condensed milk?’, ‘Yes’ I replied, ‘Well my boy you better take good care of them or you’ll be in trouble’, and I thought he was so deadly serious that I never gave him cause to complain at all. The 2nd engineer expected his tea and toast 5am on the dot, more often than not the tea would have got to the bottom of the engine, before me as I slipped down the greasy engine room ladders.

There were as many sailing ships as there were steamers in Swansea at that time. I can remember the four masted barque, Margarette of Hamburg, sailing out on the same tide as us, and the Swansea women there handing out bottles of beer to the crew from the locks. The Margarette was being towed out in front of us and there was a big swell in the channel. Very shortly afterwards I was suffering from the old illness, seasickness. Our next port was Antwerp, we then called at Madeira for bunkers and sailed away leaving the island far behind on the horizon. We discovered we had a stowaway, he was sixteen years old. I was frightened to death when I heard the skipper asked if he could swim, threatening to throw him overboard !! Mochacho was granted a pardon though and the first night in Paranagua, Brazil he disappeared. We needed fresh water in Paranagua and the only way to get it was to go with the lifeboats near a well fill it up and tow it back with the gig to the ship and empty it with buckets. The next port was Rio Grande de Sol, we were at anchor there for a month waiting for enough water to be able to cross the bar. From there we went to St Lucia for orders. We loaded cotton at Galveston bound for Havre, the stevedores at Galveston would sing some kind of sea shanties which sounded like dog barks, whilst using the screw jacks in the hold. We sailed from Galveston on Christmas Eve, 1911 and the old illness seasickness, was with me again for my first Christmas at sea.

The food was reasonable, that is salt horse and harriet lane, seeing as there was no such thing as an ice box or refrigerator then. After reaching port soup and fresh meat was really tasty. On the 1st of January 1912 we sailed from Norfolk after bunkering and within a few days we were caught in a fierce storm. The mate was 65 and he couldn’t remember ever experiencing such a strong wind as this. It spanned most of the Atlantic and many ships were lost at the time. At Havre the tugboat ran into our propeller and damaged itself as well as us. We returned to the Bristol Channel at the end of January 1912 and I was able to leave the job I hated and went on deck to become an ordinary seaman. After that we were a collier for the Navy, carrying coal to many ships including the ‘Lion’ which later became Admiral Beatty’s flagship. All the crew of the man o war would take part in the bunkering. When we finished this charter we went down West Africa to load nuts for France, up the creeks in the jungle, there were all kinds of wild animals to be seen all around us. By his time I felt like a real seaman, and would take my turn on the wheel, just like the rest of them, we worked watches, 4 on 4 off, of course. After unloading our cargo of nuts at Marseilles, we were on our way to Torrevija, Spain, to load salt. One night whilst I was on the second mate’s watch, I fell asleep in the galley, when they woke me I was called to the bridge, the second mate was furious and hit me under the chin as I was climbing up the ladder, I fell to the lower bridge and he came after me kicking and punching. My brother Hugh was on the wheel at the time and he came to my rescue and saw to it that I got fair play!!!

We arrived at Calcutta to unload the salt, may of the crew including myself fell ill with malaria, a doctor came on board and I was sent to hospital, as I had a temperature of 103. They sent me off on my own and it took me all morning to find the hospital, when I did eventually find it, I was put to bed and there I stayed for a week, having nothing other than cold milk to sustain me. The captain came to visit me and I was really pleased to see him and he asked if I’d seen my brother Hugh. Hugh couldn’t visit me, he’d gone down with malaria too and had come into hospital the day after I did. The next day even though I still had a high temperature I insisted on leaving the hospital, I barely made it back to the ship, the doctor came with some paperwork, but I refused point blank to go. I was constipated so asked the steward for a dose of salts, no joy, so I went back for a second dose, this did the trick and gradually after that I was soon on the mend and back to normal.

One morning between 4 and 8, after we’d sailed from Calcutta with a cargo of coal, I was dreaming that the ship had gone aground. When we were called, I found we’d run aground on a sandbank. A boat was launched to take soundings, the 2nd mate in charge and I was one of the boat crew, we eventually found deeper water and after a while the old ship started to move, the wind had come up by this time and as we were getting the boat back on board a huge wave came and one end of the boat broke loose and it fell back down and upturned taking me with it. Fortunately I managed to cling on and was rescued none the worse for my experience.

Shortly after this the Captain was taken ill and died, he was buried at sea in the Bay of Bengal. The Mate took command of the ship until a new captain came out to take over. We traded in coal out of Calcutta for but eventually we set sail for Hamburg and from there back to Cardiff and home. It had been a trip of thirteen months, during which time I had grown quite a bit and my Sunday suit was too short in the sleeves and trousers.

Tavian 31-3-13 to 6-2-14

J.D. Griffith, or Jack Dan as he was known, the captain that came out to join the Arvonian in Calcutta, was the captain on this ship. So far I’d sailed with my brother, but it was high time we went our separate ways, as quite often there’d be a fight between us. He was two years older than I, and more often than not, he’d get the better of me. The Tavian was a new ship, she’d done one voyage across the Atlantic, but this trip we were taking a cargo of coal from Cardiff to Port Said, then to the Black Sea to load manganese ore for Rotterdam. At the time Turkey and Italy were at war and as we went through the Dardanelles we were fired on from landforts, to stop us from going through minefields. A launch came to guide us through to Constantinople, and after going through the formalities we were on our way to Nickoleif for loading. On our return journey we got stuck on a sandbank and were there for days, we had to have lighters from Odessa to lighten the load and eventually we got free and went to Odessa for loading. When we got back to Cardiff we found there was some damage to the tail shaft. The spare shaft, that weighed 7 tons, had to be shipped down to the hold and it was the riggers that were in charge of this job. Due to  lack of care as they were swinging the shaft over the derrick broke and the shaft fell into the dock. Fortunately no one was injured.

Next trip was to Rio and from there to Cuba and this where our troubles began. At the best of times JD wasn’t popular, he had some bother with one of the stewards, who kept helping himself to the whiskey and the replacing it with cold tea and resealing the bottle, eventually the old man found out and the steward was demoted and sent back to the forecastle, he jumped ship in Baltimore. In five hours we’d loaded 8000 tons of ore in Port Padre, Cuba. I don’t know what the steward would have made of his escape if he’d seen what the skipper was up to this evening, he was creeping round the bridge with a revolver in his hand, when old Dafydd Jones, from Nefyn came across him, acting strangely, he took the gun off him and threw it overboard. From Baltimore we went to New York to load case oil and railway iron for Manila, Kobe and Yokohama a long trip around the Cape of Good Hope. Soon after leaving New York we were put on a ‘pound and pint of everything according to the act, as the English would say. Things went from bad to worse on this trip and even though we’d just sailed from Yokohama on Christmas Eve, we were given nothing different to the ACT, that is to say Salt Beef. It’s hardly any wonder then that when we got to Newcastle NSW, that I said to myself ‘I won’t be leaving this place on this ship’. Little did I know what was ahead of me.

It wasn’t unusual in those days for young lads to jump ship in Australia, and it became increasingly appealing to me, but I had no idea what to do or where to go. The first thing was to get hold of as much of my wages as I could and this wouldn’t be an easy task, one option we had was to go to a tailor known as Morgan in Storkton, buy the goods and get the skipper to pay!! The crafty old devil was willing to advance money on a fifty, fifty basis, that is he would give us a £1, but get us to sign for £2. I planned my escape for Saturday night, we’d been in port since the beginning of the week and were waiting for Saturday so the skipper would give us a sub on Saturday night, but the old captain wasn’t available to give us the money so the majority of the crew went on strike, demanding to be paid off. The following day we had to shift ship, but we refused, and the result was that we weren’t allowed food if we didn’t shift the ship. On Monday the police were called on board and we were threatened with jail if we didn’t get back to work. Only the fact that the skipper hadn’t got a warrant for our arrest saved us from being taken to jail, by the police. Tuesday we went to see the shipping master and he advised us to see a lawyer and whilst we were telling the lawyer our story, the police came in to ask about us, and after confirming who we were, they marched us off through the town to jail, and then went to round up the rest of the crew, and by midday nine of us were in the dock. The jail in Newcastle was next to the Post Office on Main Street, and if we had any money we could order food from a nearby café, through the warders. There were only mats to sleep on in the cells that held nine or ten, and they were flea ridden. About five our lawyer arrived to sort things out. The only consolation he could give us was that the only way to steer clear of the ship was to go to jail for a period of time. We agreed to pay him 2 guineas each to take on our case. Next morning we were taken to court in a Black Maria, which was drawn by horses. We were thrown into the prisoner’s box and the proceedings started, but there were a few cases to be heard before ours. At last our case came up, the charges being Absence without leave and disobeying the lawful command of the master. There was a lengthy discussion between the two lawyers and JD. Strangely enough we weren’t allowed to say anything. When the talking had finished the Judge turned to JD and asked him ‘What are you going to do with these men, do you want them back captain?’ and JD said with a smirk on his face, ‘No, I think you better punish them to teach them a lesson!!!’ The judge looked at us and passed sentence ‘So and So, said to be the two leaders, go to prison for 14 days, and the rest of you 7 days, all without the option of a fine’.

With the sentence passed we were taken back again in the Black Maria to the jail to wait for the train to take us to the country. We’d had breakfast but nothing else since, and later that afternoon we were lined up outside the jail and shackled together three by three, D Roberts, Tirdyrus was in the middle, Joe Larney one side and I the other side.  We were marched to the station in prison vans with constables to look after us and were taken o a place called, Maitland. When we arrived we could see a high hill with walls on it not far from the station. There was no doubt what it was. They marched us up to the house on top of the hill, and once inside the walls we were released from our shackles. Having gone through many formalities we were stripped naked and sent to the bath, there was no soap! It was about 6pm by now and we hadn’t had anything to eat since the morning, and we didn’t get anything either that evening. We were put in single cells, six feet square with an iron door and iron bars, a narrow window with bars on it was set up high on the wall, it was furnished only with a wooden stool and a water pitcher. About seven o clock the door was opened and I was passed a piece of canvas and two blankets. It didn’t take me long to work out what the canvas was for, there were holes in each corner and two hooks on the wall, it fitted perfectly as a hammock, I made my bed and quickly got into it. In a short while the warder came on his rounds, and looked through the spy hole and said ‘This isn’t the first time you’ve been in a place like this’. This really hurt my feelings. However my bed was much better to sleep on than the dirty flea ridden mat I’d slept on the night before.

We were woken very early, and shown how to fold our beds and place them outside the cells. Later a piece of bread was thrown into the cell, it took me ages to ‘tackle it, no sign of any tea or coffee. Poor old me all we had to eat whilst we were there was a piece of bread twice a day and cold water to drink.

We were dressed appropriately canvas pants and a striped shirt with a number on the front and back, I was 109 if I recall, three of us were under twenty and were to be taken to the far end of the prison. The scene is still alive in my mind, everything done army style. We stood in line, then right turn, quick march. Joe Lamley was the first in line and after the order to left turn, Joe just carried on staring at the warder, which caused a lot of bother. After the formalities on the new block we were put in our cells and kept there apart from half an hour in the exercise yard, every morning and afternoon. We weren’t allowed to talk to each other either. The Governor would make his rounds daily, every door would be open and each prisoner stood opposite saluting. One morning I hadn’t quite managed the WC and when the governor came by all he said was ‘Phew’ and slammed the door shut on me. This long unforgettable week came to and end and don’t forget I was only sixteen at the time!

Release day dawned and were given our own clothes back and a train ticket to Newcastle. Seven of us were released and we learnt that our companions had had porridge as well as bread. As the door of the prison closed on us, on the right side this time, we went to the nearest café in the village for a feast of ham and eggs. They were ready for us, almost as if we’d pre ordered. In a few hours were back in Newcastle and the problem now was what to do next, as the old ship had sailed. Having found a place to stay with a very kind family, I went off to see the shipping Master, he was very helpful and promised to do his best for me. As a consequence to this I sailed the following day on a ship called ‘Era’, trading between Newcastle and South Australia on a wage of £6/10/0. Within a month I was AB and got £8. This ship was about forty years old and some of the crew had been on her for twenty-five years. It was some time before I had a letter from home, as no one knew where I was, when my mother found out she sent asking me to come home as soon as I could. After six months I left the Era in Newcastle and went down to Sydney, I‘d heard that one of the crew of the Tropic had jumped ship, and also that the mate was a Welshman.

I went aboard and after seeing the Mate, he said ‘What are you doing, are you on the beach?’ Asking this was like rubbing salt in the wound. He said he needed a seaman and I could start the following day. When I asked what the rate was he said I’d be on the same wage as the others, which was £5, the Liverpool rate. I told him I was on £8 on my last ship, but I soon realised if I didn’t agree with him there’d be no job, so I accepted the terms pretty quick.


1-7-14 to 30-8-14

We were on our voyage home when the First World War broke out. We had to call in to Cape Town as most of the crew belonged to the R.N.R. and the ship fitted with two 4.7 guns and flew the Blue Ensign. On our way we passed many enemy ships, but neither of us took any notice of the other. The raider ‘Kaiser Willhelm di Grosse’ was operating around St Vincent, Cape de Verde Islands, but fortunately she didn’t come across us and was destroyed by the HMS High Flyer soon after. We arrived at Tilbury on Sunday night August 30, 1914. I went home B.O.T lugging my luggage and curios across London, and arrived at Pwllheli about one the following day and set off to walk home, on the Ala, I met old John Ty Uchaf with his lorry, but he didn’t recognise me. I had a lift on the bus from Bodfel to Bryncynan and from there crossed the fields and home. My mother was so happy to have me home. She’d been at school with JD, and he’d sent her a postcard and the only thing written on it was ‘Drink was the cause of John being left in Australia’!!!

I’d now turned 17 and was on AB’s wages, I sailed on three ships until mid 1916, the Snowdonian, Devian and the Lake Michigan. The first two ships belonged to Pwll Parc (Golden Cross Line) and the last one to C.P.R. Sometime at the end of 1915, I nearly drowned whilst I was swimming in Baltimore one Sunday afternoon. Somehow or other I got into deep water and lost all control and unless you’ve been in the same situation, you won’t know what an awful experience it is. I managed to get hold on to one of the piles, which was covered in barnacles, and came up to the surface, they had quite a job to get me out. I was covered in scratches, but was feeling myself by the following day, it took years after that before I could watch anyone diving into the sea. As we were sailing from Chile to France through the Panama Canal, a landslide occurred one morning, we arrived at Balboa and stayed there for three weeks, but we eventually had to return through the Straits of Magellan. I was on the wheel as we left Punta Arenas, it was about four in the morning, the captain came up to me with clenched fists in my face, shouting, ‘Watch out, watch out, we’re doing 16 knots and if you go off course we’ll be slap bang into the rocks’!! By 1916 I’d completed enough sea time to go for a ticket, you’ll remember I left school at 12 and hadn’t studied much there, however I went at it seriously and after a couple of months in sea school at Cardiff I failed, but after two weeks at home I went back and the following week I was successful. I had now turned my back on being before the mast.

Picton 1-12-16 to 10-11-17

My first job as 2nd mate was on the Picton she belonged to T. Radcliffe & Co, Capt Roberts came from Cricieth but was born at Edeyrn. We were carrying ammunitions and stores from America and Canada to France, we had quite a few narrow escapes with the submarines. After I left her in Penarth she sailed for Canada and was in Halifax when the place was destroyed after a ship carrying TNT blew up, very few of the crew of the Picton survived.

Florentino 1918.

For most of 1918, I was 2nd Mate on the Florentino, Houlder Middleton &Co. The crew were Chinese and we were acting as transport across the Atlantic. About the end of 1918, I got my Mate’s ticket. By now the war had come to an end and I was very lucky to come through it unscathed. My next ship was the Frankby, Mcvicar Marshall & Co, she was built as the William Wallace, before Mcvicar’s took her over she was on a charter to the Italian Government for over a year and a half at £300 a day, carrying wheat to the West Coast of Italy. At the age of 23 and having left the Frankby, I went back to sea school and passed my Master’s ticket on the 13 of December 1920.

I was home for a while, as is it wasn’t easy to get a job in those days, and I was also married, and had a young daughter. Mcvicar had sold all their ships to the Scindia co, Bombay, many of them including the Frankby had already gone out to India. I joined the Frankmere as Mate in May 1921 and before we sailed her name was changed to the Jalavihar. For two years we traded between the British Isles and India and after that we were coasting in India. One Sunday afternoon we were at anchor off Green Island at the mouth of the river Moulmein, when we saw something in the water about five or six miles away. We upped anchor and as we got nearer we realised that it was a schooner and that it was water logged, lashed under the bowsprit were three men, one was in quite a bad way. We managed to rescue them. It appears that the schooner had capsized three days earlier and of the twelve crew only the three were rescued. The Government gave the Captain and the Pilot a gold watch in recognition of the rescue.

Three years to the day I’d passed my Master’s, I was given the job of Captain on the Jalapalaka. I was twenty-six and I continued trading on the Indian coast until the end of 1930. We were nearly blown ashore on the northern tip of the Andoman Islands by a cyclone. On another occasion we hit an uncharted rock at Point de Galle, Ceylon, and after that the rock was known as the Jalapalaka rock. To make the harbour safer the rock was blown up and removed. The Seconys (Quarter Masters) would gage the depth of the water as we entered and left harbour, they sang a charming song at the top of their voices as they did so, ‘Panch bam…nemila sat bam’. Who hasn’t been on the mooring boats in Calcutta and not heard them sing their shanties whilst at work. We carried Hindus as sailors many of them coming from Surat. The old Surang would take a trip home when we needed new crew, and quite often would return with a Chocra, relative, some only 10 to 12 years old, to teach them the sailors craft. One Sunday morning whilst on the buoy at Moulmein, I saw a sampan come towards the ship with about nine crew aboard, and in amongst them a Chocra who wasn’t officially one of the crew. The tide was running strong, the sampan capsized and turned turtle, throwing everyone into the water. They drifted away in the rapid tide before anyone could throw a rope or anything over. The lifeboat was launched with the second mate in charge but by this time the sampan and heads were bobbing up and down about a mile further down stream from us and it was night before the boat returned to the ship. I was really worried that some of the men especially the young Chocra had drowned. However when they returned they were all accounted for. They could swim like fish and climb like monkeys, it always amazed me way they would take hold of the stays with their toes and ‘walk’ up them.

I had quite an experience when I was on the Jalavijaya at Bassein. We were shifting from one mill to another with the tide and whilst approaching a right hand bend in the river a lighter came out from the bank and we had a collision. The lighter sank and we believed that one of the crew had been lost. We moored with one anchor down and a rope to the shore near the rice mill. The following morning around ten the mate came up to me and said he thought the man who’d been drowned the day before had come back to bother us and was stuck in the chain, I went forward myself and sure enough there was a body, it’s arm stuck in the anchor chain. I suggested to the mate that we slacken the chain immediately and sure enough the body drifted away with the tide. However later that afternoon it was back hovering around the ship. It really was a strange experience indeed.

Whilst loading rice directly from the mills, there’d always be a cluster of rats as large as cats, we had a man on the gangway with a bamboo stick to ensure that they didn’t come on the ship. Despite that they managed to get aboard by climbing the ropes and quite often in the mornings some of the crew would come for medication to put on their heels where the rats had been chewing the hard skin whilst they slept at night.

We carried all kinds of cargo, live and dead. I remember carrying a cockerel and eight hens from Birkenhead to Rangoon and there’d be a bonus of 2/- a head for the Mate and I if we delivered them safely. Some kind of disease struck them and only the old cock remained alive when we got to Rangoon. They were going to some lady out there and she wrote us some very stern letters about the loss of her hens, however she did send 2/- for the old cock, even though he was on his last legs and in a very sorry state. I left India towards the end of 1930 on the P&O ship Nalderra. Amy Johnston was on the same ship, she was on her way home after flying solo from London to Australia.

I spent quite a bit of time at home then, thinking of taking up farming. Everyone was very free with good advice and the end of it was I decided to go back to sea again in 1932 as second mate on the Athelchief, which was owned by the United Molasses Company. After being on a few ships within the company, I’m still with them and have been Master for 16 years. I was for 17 years on the same ship, Home trade and the Baltic. I saw and experienced many things on this ship the Atheltarn. In 1935, she collided with a railway bridge, which carried main line traffic between Amsterdam and Copenhagen, putting it out of action for months. The ship was placed under arrest when we got into the Danish port of Stege, until a £10,000 bond was put down.

Dutch newspaper coverage of the incident.

The caption reads "Did we strike anything Mr Mate?"

We chose some very odd characters as crew, some good, some bad. Reeves the bosun was an exceptional character, he was an old fellow well over sixty, a superb seaman, there was no one to beat him, but drink would quite often see him the worse for wear. Reeves had had one too many one day and some of the young bullies set upon him, and gave him such a ruthless kicking that his face was reduced to pulp. Despite that he wouldn’t say a word as to who did it. In a couple of weeks I had to send him to hospital in Gluckstadt, Germany, with a carbuncle on his neck and leave him there. As a result his gear was packed and he sent word that he had £10 in his cabin. We searched high and low in his cabin, but couldn’t find it, the old fellow had hidden it in a pair of dirty old socks and thrown it under his bunk. As he said ‘No one would think of stealing an old pair of socks.

William Tyler Page




During the war the American ship Southland, ran into us, we were fast alongside. The mate and the Second Engineer were in the after peak tank at the time, imagine the shock they had when the ship’s side opened up in this compartment. We were in dry dock for a month for repairs. On another occasion we were at anchor in the river Scheldt, it was a beautiful moonlight night, at about one in the morning the American ship ‘William Tyler Page’ ran into us. The port bow of the old ship from the forecastle head to below the water line and along the deck for about ten feet had been ripped open, damaging the crew cabins on the port side. It took a good couple of hours to release two sixteen year old lads, that were trapped in the whole mess, it was their first voyage. Despite all the damage no one was injured. We managed to keep the old ship afloat and docked at Antwerp the next day.

During the war I was at Plymouth for most of the time apart from a few voyages to Falmouth, Fowey, Dartmouth, Brixham and Portland, to oil the fleet. In this time we carried or pumped 800,000 tons to 1300 ships. Even though Plymouth and Devonport were bombed extensively we were fortunate that we didn’t come to any harm with the bombings.

It’s been 23 years since I joined Athel Line and I’m still going strong in 1955. Quite a rare occurrence was that my eldest son Wil sailed with me for a time as mate. Later I relieved him as Master on two ships consecutively.

It’s been a long journey from 1911 to 1955 and many changes in the world, and the urge to have my feet on terra firma is now as stronger as it’s ever been.


The many vessels that John Roberts sailed on

Yacht Betsy of Porthdinllaen  - OW Evans 1907 – 11

SS Arvonian, Cardiff, O&W Williams 1911 – 13

SS Tavian, Cardiff, O&W Williams, 1913 – 14

SS Era, Melboutne, Howard Smith&Co, 1914

TSS Tropic, Liverpool, White Star Line, 1914

SS Snowdonian, Cardiff, O&W Williams, 1914 – 15

SS Devian, Cardiff, O&W Williams, 1915-16

TSS Lake Michigan, Liverpool, Canadian Pacific, 1916

SS Pictom, Cardiff, E T Radcliffe, 1916 – 17

SS Florentino, London, Houlder Middleton, 1918

SS Frankby, Liverpool, Mcvicar Marshall, 1919-20

SS Frankmere, Liverpool, Mcvicar Marshall 1921 – 23

SS Jalavihar, Bombay, Scindia Steam Nav, 1923 – 26

SS Jalapalaka, Bombay, Scindia Steam Nav, 1927 – 30

SS Jalarifaya, Bombay, Scindia Steam Nav, 1930

MV Athelchief, Liverpool, United Molasses co

TSS Teno Valpariso Copamania Sud Americana

MV Athelknight, Liverpool United Molasses

SS Atheltarn, Liverpool, United Molasses, Co

SS Athelmere, Liverpool, United Molasses Co

SS Brita Thordens of Liverpool. WS Kenmaugh, Liverpool ?

MV Athel Queen

MV Athel Princess

MV Athelfoam

MV Athelbeach

MV Athelduke.


The family

The picture wouldn’t be complete without my family. Janet and I married when we were young and had seven children two daughters, Betty and Judith and five sons Wil, Henry, John, Hugh and Dewi. The eldest is now 36 and the youngest sixteen. The greatest loss to us all was to loose their mother in 1947. She was our Guiding Star.


Many thanks to Capt Hugh Roberts, and his sister Mrs Judith Griffith for sharing their father's story with us.


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