Shipbuilders and their Ships"
Mr O. J. Cowell
I feel it would be appropriate at this juncture to write a little about shipbuilding at Nefyn, which for practically a century dramatically changed the life of the town and its inhabitants.
The turmoil of the
Napoleonic war created a great demand for shipping to supply the army’s needs
particularly in the Mediterranean. Nefyn mariners became much involved in this
campaign which not only was to their financial advantage but fostered their
skills and confidence. Captain John Jones of the brig ‘Elisabeth Bowen’ for
example, had an unforgettable moment of personal glory after being instructed to
report in person to the House of Commons about the latest developments at
Sebastapol, ‘Margery’ and the ‘Mary Watkin’ were two of the many other
local ships employed in this venture.
This growth was also accelerated from the demands from the rapidly growing industrial towns for the locally produced roofing slates, which the builders found more durable and safer than the previous thatch. The astute business men of Llyn scenting profit took advantage of the situation by encouraging the building of larger wooden ships and enlarging the old ones, with more craftsmen moving to live in Nefyn, the increasing population added to the prosperity of local businesses. As time went by this insatiable demand for new ships could not be met by these yards, forcing owners to buy ships from such places as New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. These new ships were much larger, of the order of 700 to 1000 tons, which had a marked effect on freight rates. Local ship workers sarcastically called these ‘foreigner’ or ‘cut price ships’ because they were built with green or unseasoned wood making them liable to ‘open up at sea’ with possible calamitous results.
These new elegant
ships affected the design of Nefyn ships, with their bows becoming sharper and
their flair improved making them faster and more maneuverable. These early ships at Nefyn were constructed not from plans but scale models, and
furthermore in an area that was completely Welsh in language, surprisingly all
the terms used in this industry were in English.
Pwllheli and Nefyn
were considered to be cheap places for shipbuilding, the extra cost of importing
materials more than compensated by the low wages. In 1851 there were 256 men
employed and were paid 2/- to 2/6d per day with an extra sixpence for the wear
and tear on their tools as the timbers on the old ships had become very hard
with age. Sails, anchors, chains etc were brought in from Liverpool or Bristol,
but by 1838 ropes began to be made locally in rope-walks called locally ‘ropogs’.
finance required to build these ships in the absence of powerful institutions
was provided for by local people such as preachers, quarrymen and shopkeepers
who were all filled with a fervent hope of having a good return on their hard
earned money. This investing fever swept through the country villages such as
Bethesda which held the complete shares in one ship.
In modern parlance
these investments because of their high losses and the fickleness of world trade
were ‘high risk’, the final deep recessions in the 1880’s made many a
shipping company bankrupt and cost Owen Griffith dearly. In a time of great
religious zealousness with gambling frowned upon, these investments were
amazingly tolerated with no comment !! It could be highly lucrative with one’s
investment being returned in three years, a 25% return was quite common. The
‘Maria Catherine’ of Nefyn earned £387/0/5d in one year, dispersals were £135/18/0d,
wages £70/16/0d leaving a grand profit of £172/10/0d.
The infamous and
scathing Education Report of 1847 giving a supposedly detailed report on the
standard of education did nothing to boost Welsh confidence, when it stated that
monoglot children and sailors were most ignorant, and opportunities for
education was poor. The qualifications of the teachers was also condemned and
treated with much disdain. In view of the dearth of education facilities in the
early part of the last century, tuition in seamanship and navigation for these
sailors was most difficult to obtain. Fortunately several talented local men
such as James Griffith, a headmaster and John Ellis, Ty Cerrig, Nefyn started
giving lessons in simple mathematics, enabling potential officers to cope with
navigation problems and to keep a ship’s book. As early as 1803 the Rev Michael Roberts,
minister of Penmount Chapel, went to Liverpool to undertake a course in
navigation, but probably the most famous of these teachers was Mrs Edwards of
Caernarfon a captain’s widow, and her daughter, with one of her pupils
appointed captain of the ‘Mauritania’. Payment for fees for these course
varied, Hugh Davies, Nefyn charged £1 for passing the second mate’s
certificate examination and £2 for the first mate and £3 for passing the
captain’s, it was payment by results.
The Launch Day
Launching a ship was
a most important social event in these seaside towns, to which everyone looked
forward to with great excitement, and was considered by everybody as an
unofficial public holiday. The headmaster recorded many times in the school log
that on such occasions and at harvest time he had to close the school because it
was impossible to get children to attend.
The Welsh invariably
appear to see a problem in every answer, and so it was during the last quarter
of the 19th century when a serious tide of teetotalism swept through
the land. This created a most serious and prolonged theological debate about the
breaking of a bottle of alcoholic drink during a launch. The ‘saints’
considered alcohol because of it’s abuse and the ensuing social consequences,
as the invention of the Devil himself, and the saints were only placated with
this problem by the substitution of non alcoholic wine.
It is worthy to
mention part of Pwllheli’s folklore regarding another famous launch a
‘Seiat Feddw’ (drunken religious meeting) which created at that time such a furor in the town, and is still referred to with no little embarrassment. This
event occurred after the completion of one of the largest vessel built at
Pwllheli named after William Carey, a noted missionary, and was owned by William
Jones, a prominent Baptist and ship owner. William Jones had foolishly issued a
crew list for this new ship, which included only some of the ship’s workers,
causing bitter resentment in the ones rejected. Jones ordered all the workers to
attend a religious blessing on his new ship at Penmount chapel, but to his and
the town’s astonishment the rejected men refused to obey and adjourned to a
local hostelry to drown their sorrows and disappointment rather excessively.
This unwarranted act rejecting the authority of the Almighty and rebelling
against their employer so contrary to the traditional of the town, invoked so
much consternation and disgust amongst the town’s people, that it is still
shamefully talked about a hundred and fifty years later.
A Harsh Life
their crews and ships very hard, resolutely navigating the High Seas with
doubtful charts, but as many of these early captains were illiterate they had
developed an uncanny sense of direction aided by coastal prominences, the colour
of the sea, the presence of birds and kind of seaweed etc. Sailors suffered
enormous amount of fatalities and injuries e.g. to climb a violently oscillating
mast working themselves along a spar in a storm clinging desperately with one
hand and gathering in heavy wet or frozen sail with the other, balancing on a
single rope under their feet which separated them from certain drowning, demand
courage. Some avaricious captains added to the dangers by continuously
overloaded their ships, a practice that only ceased with the introduction of the
‘Plimsoll Line’ in 1876.
A typical voyage for
these ships was to sail from Caernarfon or Bangor with a cargo of locally
produced roofing slates to Hamburg and then proceed with a fresh cargo across to
America, completing their trip by going to Newfoundland to load with dry fish
for Spain, where often they had to wait weeks for the fish to be caught and
dried, and then finally returning with a cargo of citrus fruits to the UK. They
also often sailed directly to America with slate returning with a cargo of
cotton or with a cargo of foul smelling guano, a popular fertiliser before the
invention of artificial ones. There were many instances of a small ship with a
crew of only a captain and a boy sailing the Atlantic carrying slate, but on
arrival at the American coast, they had no idea where they were and had to sail
along the coast to reach their destination.
The very stressful
life style of these captains left a lot to be desired and many died young. They
had to be at the helm of their ships for hours, if not days in stormy weather,
and were always burdened of their inescapable responsibility for returning good
financial returns for their shareholders. They were responsible for keeping
discipline aboard as well as attending to some horrendous accidents that
occurred aboard. Captains reacted to these conditions in many different ways,
some became alcoholics and others quite eccentric, such as the captain that
ordered he should be buried at the nearby Pistyll cemetery in a vertical
position, as he could walk out of his grave on the great day of resurrection!!!
Some developed an
interest in various hobbies and some acquired expert knowledge in many fields by
their extensive reading at sea, but surprisingly very few of them kept diaries.
With the advent of the larger steel hulled ships and the development of marine engines leading to faster, more reliable and cheaper freight charges, demands for the ageing wooden ships declined and ship building at Nefyn ceased completely in 1880, bringing an end to a period of great activity, excitement and regretfully many tragedies.
To conclude perhaps
a few words about the incommensurate belief many of those early sailors had in
superstition. It was an age when even responsible members of society believed in
the existence of fairies and spirits, while those people considered to have
supernatural powers to predict and control the future and help people in their
difficulties, were always treated with respect and a degree of fear.
Sailors because of
their dangerous work were very prone to these influences and a feeling of being
lucky was of fundamental importance to them, to sail on a lucky ship with a
lucky captain was essential to their peace of mind. While on dry land these
sailors were reverent Christians but once over a harbour’s bar they felt
affected by the primitive Gods of the sea. At the bar at Porthmadog’s harbour
there was a black buoy on which it was reputed sailors as they sailed by threw
their coats of respectability. This symbolic act allowed them to fully enjoy the
readily available pleasures in foreign ports without disruptive conscience, but
on their return these imaginative coats of respectability would be raised before
they rejoined their families. Incidentally, the incidences of various imported
diseases in this area appeared to have been low, the poor monotonous diet,
fatigue together with probably a touch of religious conscience, appears to have
been an effective prophylactic.
The breaking of a
wine bottle at a ship’s launching ceremony was considered by sailors as a
baptism, and by others a sacrifice to the Gods of the sea.
To ensure a safe
voyage a sailor would often arise at dawn on the morning of his departure and go
down to the dock to touch the bow of his ship, others would spit on a coin and
throw it over the side. Seeing a clergyman on the way to join his ship was
considered a bad omen, and they would return home, which I can imagine would be
most awkward if the ship was to sail on the next tide.
clothes was forbidden !!!
Sailor’s considered that changing a ship’s name changed it’s luck a new name ending in the letter “a” would be always viewed with suspicion e.g. Lusitania. Ships were always referred to as "she" who had a soul incorporated in the ship’s figurehead, and when that was above water, they firmly believed the ship would never sink.
The cutting of their
hair and nails was forbidden on board as well as using certain words e.g. salt,
salmon, egg and on hearing such words a sailor would immediately touch a piece
of iron to restore his luck. The wearing of gold earrings was not a big fashion
thing, but they hoped their value would, should they unfortunately drown in
foreign waters, pay for a Christian funeral.
Thanks to Mr O J Cowell, Pwllheli, for this brilliant account of Nefyn and its history.
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