"Capt Owen Griffith Nefyn"
1816 ~ 1891
Master Mariner / Shipbuilder / Ship owner.
Owen Griffith was born in 1816 at Nefyn on the Llyn Peninsula, at that time Nefyn was dominated
by the sea, with every household having some association with it. Nefyn people
had a profound knowledge of distant countries and towns, New York, California
and Australia, which were referred to in daily conversations, as if they were down the
road. Many wives had accompanied their husbands to these distant countries, but like many other of the town’s people had
never traveled further on dry land than Pwllheli, which is only seven miles
* A total of 145 ships were built at Nefyn and Porthdinllaen, in Owen Griffith's lifetime.
He joined the crew of the ‘Mermaid’, a locally built ship of twenty
tons involved with the coastal trade, as a boy of twelve years of age. One can
easily imagine the trepidation of this excited young boy manfully carrying his
‘box’ on his shoulders walking through the town to the beach to join his
first ship, with the good wishes of friends and neighbours ringing in his ears. He
soon discovered no doubt to his great disappointment, that the life aboard the
ship was hard and extremely boring, so very different to
the romantic stories he had so often heard.
When 140z of butter given weekly, the allowance of meat shall be 1lb or less daily. Coffee, chocolate or cocoa may be substituted in lieu of tea and
molasses for sugar. When fresh meat was available the proportion to be two
pounds per man in lieu of salt meat. Flour, rice, peas, beef or pork can be
substituted for another.
It was little wonder with such a poor diet sailors suffered scurvy and
piles. The lack of reasonable food on a ship would give a captain a reputation
of running a ‘hungry ship’, which sailors would always try to avoid.
An old friend of mine Capt Owen, when he came home on leave as a very
young boy he whispered to his mother about the corpulent state of his captain
walking into chapel, that most of the fat on his body belonged to him, because
it had been created by food that he should have fed his crew. He also said in
all seriousness, that the food condition on board ship was so bad, that he was
forced to steal food from the stewards galley to avoid starving.
There had been a long trading association between Ireland and North Wales, e.g an Irish ship had called at Conway as early as 1245, and many of the Nefyn ships visited the ‘Emerald Isle’ regularly. The dockers at these Irish Ports would always be on the lookout for a young lad on his first voyage to make sure that he paid ‘footing’, this I am sure that Owen Griffith had undergone. The innocent and penniless lad would be kidnapped, placed in a sack and carried to the nearest public house, obtaining his release from his frightening and demeaning position, only after the captain had bought them a round of drinks, which was a particularly galling act for many a strict tea-totlling Methodist captain!
Owen served six years on board the ‘Mermaid’ steadily working his
way through the ranks from boy to seaman, able seaman and finally boatswain.
John Roberts, owner of the ship must have been impressed by Owen’s
capabilities because when he was eighteen years of age he promoted him captain
entrusting him with his ship and the safety of its crew.
The wages paid to those crews to us today appears pitifully small, the
mate would be paid between £2.50 to £2.55 a month, seamen £1.80 and a boy 60p
to a £1. Seamen employed on coastal trade were usually paid a little more than
their deep-sea colleagues because they had additional work with the loading and
unloading, provide their own food, and had a shorter contract.
Owen served on the ‘Mermaid’ as captain from 1833 – 1841 when John
Roberts decided to sell her, meeting her ultimate end twenty years afterwards on
2nd of December 1863 while fishing in Cardigan Bay.
The ever industrious John Roberts had at this time just completed
building yet another larger schooner on Porthdinllaen Beach which he named
‘Prosper’. She was two masted, caravelled built schooner with a carved
female on her bow and a displacement of 118 tons. John James the surveying
officer at the port, was so impressed with her construction that he classified
her as A1, allowing her to have a favourable insurance rate at Lloyds for five
Owen realised that with his promotion to captain of the ‘Prosper’ his acquired skills and experience could be better utilised to his own advantage, rather than for an employer. In the ‘Transcripts and Transactions’ at Caernarfon Archives, I found that on April 27th 1846 Owen bought forty four of the sixty four shares in his new command, the remaining twenty shares being held by John Roberts who undertook the management of the ship.
After twenty-two hard years at sea, Owen Griffith, had
realised his lifelong dream as he stood on the bridge of his own ship. He would
henceforth be always known as ‘Owen Griffith Prosper’, to distinguish him
from many other mariners of the same name in the area. I spent many hours in my
early days of this research on a disappointing false trail, tracing the career
of a Captain Owen Griffith, who lived at Plas and served on identical ships as
my relative, only to discover afterwards, that he was Owens nephew, whom he had
employed and let his home after he remarried.
At this time much concern was felt by the marine authorities about the
increasing losses of sailing ships which they felt was due to lack of expertise
of captains. Britain improved the situation in 1850 by introducing two mandatory
competency certificates exams for her Merchant Navy Officers, one for ‘Home
Trade’ allowing a captain to sail coastal waters and across the English
Channel to the limits of the Elbe and Brest, and a more detailed ‘Foreign
Trade’ allowing world wide sailing. Human nature being what it is, many a
captain holding a ‘Foreign Trade’ certificate tended to look down with
derision at their ‘Home Trade’ colleagues. It was at Plymouth on 10th
December 1850 that Owen decided at the age of thirty-four to apply to the Board
of Trade authorities for a ‘Foreign Trade Certificate’. He based his
application on his experience on his years of service from boy to captain on
many ships in home and foreign waters. His application was successful and his
certificate as Master mariner no 40125 was issued on 22 February 1851. He could
well have taken this step as part of his future plans because he thought this
qualification would give added confidence and assurance to potential investors
in his as yet unborn shipping company. The exact date when he formed ‘Owen
Griffith & Co’ is unknown, because records have long been destroyed, but
it probably occurred in the middle of the 1850’s. He must have been of
exceptional good report and reputation because during the first year of his
company’s existence he attracted sufficient funds from the investing public
not only to build the schooner ‘Cossack’ for his brother John, but also to
buy two other ships the ‘Alfred’ and ‘Anne Jane’. This activity required
considerable sums of money which all came from the savings of ordinary working
On 12th September 1860 Owen sailed his new ship to Ardrossan,
Ayrshire, for cargo before sailing to Genoa and then on to Alexandria before
returning home. On 28th April 1861 he set sail for Montreal and Quebec to find
on his return disturbing news about the health of two of his children, Simon
and Jane. It was strongly suggested that a voyage to a warmer climate would be
beneficial to both of them and Owen decided to take them on his next voyage,
which he arranged would be the Mediterranean.
The day’s routine on board always started after breakfast with a short
religious service with reading from the scriptures and a prayer, these daily
domestic acts of worship were a common feature in many Welsh households at
that time. Another religious service was held at half past six in the evening,
but on Sunday providing the weather was favorable, a Sunday school would be
held followed by a sermon by Owen and Simon.
On February 7th 1866 Owen sailed in the ‘Annie Boyd’ to
Baltimore and then went on to Montevideo and on his return having docked at
Belfast he was informed that Simon’s health was causing concern and it was
suggested that another sea voyage might be beneficial. Simon went across to Belfast
from Liverpool and joined his father on the short voyage down to Cardiff and
then went on to Llantrisant to take the waters. Simon’s health continued to
deteriorate after his return home, fortunately his father returned and on
seeing his son’s condition decided to stay home and comfort and support his
family. Sadly Simon passed away on February 14th 1868 in his
After this tragedy Owen returned to sea and sailed to Aden in the ‘Agormoriad,’
when he became desperately ill. He soon realised after he had partially
improved, that his condition did not allow him to carry out his
responsibilities effectively and he discharged himself, leaving the ship in
the care of his mate and came home.
David Thomas in his classic book on maritime affairs wrote that the
principal ship – owners at Nefyn were the family of Pwll Parc, Edern and the
Plas family, Nefyn. In Slaters Directory 1883, a business directory, under
Nobility, Gentry and Clergy and the sub section of Ship Masters and Ship
Owners Owen Griffith’s name appears a sure sign of social progress for a
sailor from such humble beginnings.
The history of Owen’s ships is most difficult to follow because they were being continually sold and bought with their new owners invariably changing their names.
Life on board these ships was not always uneventful and peaceful, their
logbooks gives us an useful insight into the many problems that faced captains
on their voyages around the world.
Maintaining discipline amongst a group of well acquainted men confined for long periods at sea must have been a most difficult if not impossible task, particularly for the captain, who would have to be judge and jury on those that transgressed. The following is a list of penalties a captain could impose.
It was mandatory for all crew members to sign a ‘Crew Agreement’
before being allowed to sail in a ship. This is a copy of a voyage in the
‘Compulsory agreement that all crew are obliged to obey all lawful
commands of the Master and his Officers, and any infringement or disobeying
shall be punishable by law. The ship was at liberty to sail anywhere between
the latitudes of 60 North or 60 South of the equator. No grog allowed, lime
juice and vinegar to be supplied according to the Act. Cash advance at the
Master’s option and to be paid off at any port between the Elbe, Brest or
the United Kingdom’
The crew’s agreement for another of Owen’s ships the ‘Glanafon’
of 184 tons with a crew of captain, mate, cook, three able seamen and two
seamen is more specific.
‘Voyage from London to Haldo any other place on the River Uruguay and
Plate, Brazil and The West Indies, USA between Galveston and Portland
including North and South Atlantic Oceans, the Continent of Europe including
the Baltic and the Mediterranean Seas and back to the port of discharge in the
United Kingdom. The voyage not to exceed two years’.
The expiration of the agreed time for a voyage due to all kinds of
factors could easily occur at a foreign port and sailors had to regularise
their position lest they could be accused of desertion by obtaining a
certificate like the following.
British Consul Antwerp
I hereby certify that the following seamen J Jones, J Robinson, D Parry,
R Jones, R Hughes have been discharged and paid off at this port.
W Wilson (Acting Consul)
Failure to attend in circumstances such as these would result in the
seamen being in trouble with the authorities, which could seriously hamper his
Again from the log book of the Simon.
I hereby certify that seaman Blair left this ship at this port without
permission and cannot be found and I have to declare the said seaman as a
It was a great temptation for seamen after a hard voyage under harsh
conditions on docking in a pleasant warm country to desert, leaving the
captain the onerous task of finding a replacement from the flotsam of humanity
that inhabited all ports and were anxious to return home.
The logbook of the Simon reveals such troubles. Capt Thomas Foulkes
entered in his log that on July 1st 1865 while the ship laid at
Puerto Arenas, South America, he discovered that his mate, John Thomas was
missing and despite a careful search of the ship could not be found. The
previous day Thomas had reported sick to the captain and requested to see the
British Consul who lived fifteen miles to the interior. The captain held
Thomas, by his absence, responsible for neglecting the ship and fined him £5
sterling. On July 22nd the captain wrote to the Consul of Costa
Rica describing the situation, and threatened to take Thomas’s licence away
from him. The log goes on to describe how the captain under protest, was
forced to pay Thomas £29/18/2d before the captain of the port, before
Another interesting entry in the log regarded a Thomas Clark from Cork,
steward, who had surreptitiously gone ashore without permission and did not
return the same day. The following day his captain reported the occurrence to
the Consul at the port, he saw Clark on the quay and despite his appeal he
refused to return to the ship. By order of the Consul a substitute was engaged
and $29 paid into his account. Clark having been absent for thirteen days had
£5/1/9d deducted from his account with a strong possibility that he could
face further disciplinary action for delaying the departure of the ship.
Captain Foulkes’s troubles were not yet over because the following day
the 23rd July three other sailors Fred and John Thomas and Fred
Johnson disappeared from the ship. Searches of the usual haunts of sailors,
the taverns and bordellos around the docks failed to find them.
Another interesting entry was:
‘This is to certify that John Williams, cook and steward on board the
Simon was today found guilty of wasting provisions of the said ship, namely
flour and fruit about the galley and the half deck. When told about it he gave
insolence to the Master and it was decided to put him in irons. When the
culprit saw the situation he was in, he misbehaved by shouting at the top of
his voice, and in the ensuing brawl he damaged the chronometer and other
various articles. In the meantime, while the irons were being prepared by the
carpenter to shackle him, Williams hit me in my face with his fists making a
wound on the face and cheek. After much effort he was put into irons in the
presence of the mate and carpenter’.
The unsung heroines of the maritime world, were the sailors wives, who
in the absence of their husbands had to face and solve all kinds of family
problems, making them determined, independent and resourceful women. John
Griffith’s wife was such a person, and these qualities came well to the fore
when she was informed about the accidental death of her son John on September
9th 1878. John had fallen between the ship and the quay at London
Docks, and she was determined to bring his body back to Nefyn to be buried. To
undertake such a long journey to London by herself in any circumstances in
those days, was no little task for a lady from such an isolated place as
Nefyn, but she resolutely undertook this long arduous and harrowing task.
Captain John Griffith died about 1893 and his wife Jane took over the
management of the Cossack and appointed Capt Lloyd from Porthmadoc as captain.
Jane soon found herself in serious financial trouble due to the inept
management by this captain. The bank coerced her to sell her possessions which
she had given as collateral, which included her home ‘Bodeuon’ together
with two cottages.
It was on the 12th of April 1879 that the family suffered
another severe blow, with the peaceful atmosphere of Plas being shattered by
the news of the sudden and unexpected death of Captain Hugh Griffiths aged 29 yrs, their son in law, Jane’s husband, aboard his ship
London, returning from Dunkirk.
The depression in world trade accelerated the decline in demand for the
services of small wooden ships despite valiant efforts to increase their
commercial viability by enlarging them. Steel hulled sailing ships were being
built and began to be fitted with engines making them faster and independent
of wind and tide. These steel ships the workers at the Nefyn yards were
convinced that these steel ships would sink !!
Sadly, our knowledge of these wooden ships only comes to light when some
calamity overcomes them and the event is reported in the press. In a copy of
Sea Breezes from 1934, there appears an account involving Sarah Ann a Bluenose
barque of 337 tons that Owen Griffith bought in 1858. Owen embarked on a
voyage to south Africa with his brother John, acting as mate.
On approaching the African coast ‘Sarah Ann’ was forced to put into
an unnamed port because all the crew had collapsed with fever. Within a few
days the whole crew died with the exception of Owen and John, due in all
probability to infected water. The ship was thoroughly disinfected but to
continue their voyage the two brothers were forced to recruit a new crew of local fishermen.
The ‘Sarah Ann’ was sold in 1877 to a Norwegian shipping line and
her name was changed.
There had been considerable disquiet and resentment amongst ship owners for some time regarding the high premiums charged by the monopoly of Lloyd’s of London for insuring their ships. Local ship owners arranged a meeting at the ‘Star Inn’, Pwllheli to discuss the problem, and they elected Mr William Jones, ship owner and the prominent chemist of the town as chairman, and Mr W Thomas, Tyn Coed as vice. Both described in the press as ‘prudent and wise’ men. Mr Hugh Pugh a local bank manager was appointed their banker, he later donated a large sum of money to establish Aberystwyth University. It was projected at this meeting that owners could insure their vessels for 2% value of their ships against the 5% charged by Lloyds, but for unknown reasons, this Pwllheli and Nefyn Mutual Marine Insurance Society, never came to fruition.
"Hugh Pugh, Pwllheli
On 27th May 1858 the society became a reality with its first
meeting held at Pwllheli Town Hall to ‘discuss and perfect its rules’,
which the press reported they did ‘with open eyes’. Griffith Jones the son
of William Jones was elected chairman and J B Jarret of Nefyn secretary and
Owen Owen solicitor who registered the company under the company law
‘limited Company Warrant’. The proposed constitution stipulated that the
headquarters was to be in the ‘Club Room’ Nefyn (near Madryn Hall) and the
board to be made of equal members from Pwllheli and Nefyn and the annual
meeting to be held in alternative in both places. The constitution contained
one rather unusual clause, namely that should a female member get married she
would have to resign her membership!
This was clearly seen in the case of the Bramley Castle after being
grounded on a sand bank at Dunkirk, loaded with 1000 tons of guano, had
suffered considerable damage to her hull on being hauled off, but her captain
rather than face the high cost of repair on the Continent, sailed her home
with considerable difficulty.
It would however, be quite untrue to present a picture that there was no
dishonesty by some greedy owners, anxious to get rid of an unsatisfactory
ship. I have heard tales from old salts that if Captain X was taking his
silver watch with him on his next voyage it was not a good sign for the ship
insurers, likewise inquisitive barmaids at various dock public houses were
known to give ‘tips’ that they overheard, to gamblers about the doubtful
fate of certain ships leaving the port.
Several other societies in North Wales were formed and they were all
successful, with ships being insured from all over the UK. The Nefyn Society,
for example, held the unbelievable insurance of £1,204,170 at the height of
With the passage of time however the wooden fabric of these ships
deteriorated their losses increased, and the demand for their services was
slowly disappearing with the gradual but steady development of the steam
engine. This seriously affected the financial viability of these societies
forcing them to amalgamate and centralise their activities at Caernarfon, but
with the increasing completion of the railways and the reliability of steam
vessels forced them to wind up their services in 1901, after giving such
useful service to all the community.
Owen Griffith after being retired for some time was asked by a friend from Bristol to go to Liverpool to examine a ship, and if she met with his approval, to buy her for him. Owen fell in love with this vessel and bought her for himself while buying another for his friend. He crewed and loaded his new ship with cargo and sent her to trade to South America. On docking a revolution broke out, resulting in mounting high dock charges, wages for the crew and loss of earnings etc soon exhausted Owen’s meager savings, which faced him with financial ruin. Owen with his financial adversity, and having played such a prominent part in the life of Nefyn must have been to say the least most uncomfortable. However, he must have been heartened, pleased and flattered when his fellow chapel members appointed him chairman of the all important chapel rebuilding committee.
Catherine died on 6th November 1879 aged 62 and he remarried Mrs
Ellen Ellis, Rhos, Morfa Nefyn at Salem Chapel on 2nd of October 1884
and moved to live with her. Owen died on 27th November 1891 aged 75
yrs and was buried with his first wife Catherine.
Thanks to Mr O J Cowell Pwllheli, for this brilliant
account of Owen Griffith's life. ~~~~~~~
Thanks to Mr O J Cowell Pwllheli, for this brilliant account of Owen Griffith's life.
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