"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 away. As Owen grew up Nefyn became a busy bustling port with the increasing activity of the local ship building yards*. It was an exciting and fascinating place for children, who would be hypnotised by the wonderfully exaggerated and intriguing tales told by garrulous sailors of their adventures abroad. These exhilarating tales fired the imagination of young boys who became so impatient to grow up, so they too, could partake in such fantastic events. Career opportunities for young men in Llyn at that time were very limited, they were faced with the options of being apprenticed to whoever would accept them, working hard on a farm, or seeking a livelihood at sea. Owen affected by such ambience, decided at an early age to follow his family tradition and go to sea, relieving his widowed mother of one less mouth to feed.

* A total of 145 ships were built at Nefyn and Porthdinllaen, in Owen Griffith's lifetime.

Mermaid

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. His new environment must have been sometimes a frightening experience for such a young boy, despite the company of men he was acquainted with. Owen stoically endured the miserable conditions of living in a small fo’csle dimly illuminated with a single oil lamp, and a small stove providing a totally inadequate attempt at heating and having to endure the misery of having to wear wet clothes. Sleeping would prove to be difficult with the perpetual noise of the waves breaking on the bow, complicated by the nightly invasion of his straw palliasse by irritating and indestructible vermin such as cockroaches, which added to his discomfort, despite the compulsory airing of bedding. The very young boy would be often lonely and hungry, cold and very miserable in his cramped smelly quarters reeking of unwashed bodies and wet clothes, coupled with the overpowering aroma of lime and vinegar used to disinfect the ship after it’s previous voyage. The food, due to the primitive facilities, limited provisions and lack of any culinary skills on board provided a poor and monotonous diet, it was not a pleasant or stimulating environment for any young child. Every crewmember had to sign an agreement before starting on a voyage, which stated the duration of the voyage and the daily allowance of food, which more often than not, this section would have a scrawl written across it by an autocratic captain “sufficient without waste”. Thus, the captain would ignore the rulings of the Victualling Board allowing him complete freedom regarding the quality and quantity of the food he had to supply. Sometimes the crew’s daily rations would be detailed in these agreements.

Provisions

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. The bread referred to above were in reality, comparable to large dog biscuits. The poor toothless sailors were forced to break them with a hammer or give them a good soaking before ingesting. During these long voyages these biscuits became infested with weevils, an undesirable source of fresh meat, which could be only dislodged by several sharp knocks.

A typical weekly menu on board would be like the following :-

Day Bread Beef Pork Peas Tea Coffee Sugar Water (qts)
Sun 1Ib - 1/31b 2oz 2oz 1oz 2oz 3
Mon 11b 1/31b - 2oz 2oz 1oz 2oz 3
Tue 11b - 1/31b 2oz 2oz 1oz 2oz 3
Wed 11b 1/31b - 2oz 2oz 1oz 2oz 3
Thur 11b - 1/31b 2oz 2oz 1oz 2oz 3
Fri 11b 1/31b - 2oz 2oz 1oz 2oz 3
Sat 11b - 1/31b 2oz 2oz 1oz 2oz 3

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. Some shipping lines were more notorious for this culinary meaness, such as the Davies Brothers of Menai Bridge, whose ostentatious contributions to the ‘Methodist Cause’ were much publicised, but their sailors would sarcastically remark that not even voracious seagulls would bother to follow their ships, because nothing edible would be thrown overboard!

Mermaid

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. In the meantime, John Roberts had built a much larger ship of eighty seven tons displacement, which he again named ‘Mermaid’ for coastal and foreign trade and appointed Owen to be her captain. After five years she was sold, meeting her end some forty years afterwards in the Thames estuary on the 9th of August 1887.  

Prosper

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 years.

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.

"Prosper"

In Lloyd’s Register she was entered as follows :-

PROSPER – 118 tons

Length -    74.5 ft

Breadth  -  20.3 ft

Depth – 11.5 ft

Owner – Owen Griffith.

Port -

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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. The only clue to differentiate between these two mariners of the same name and practically identical career was the date of birth on their Board of trade certificate of competency, which had to be accurate. The ‘Prosper’ gave him many years of service until he sold her to a Bangor captain. She met her ultimate end returning from Hamburg to Glasgow by being stranded on Lowestoft beach on 29th October 1882, and the wreck was sold for the benefit of the underwriters.

Foreign Trade 

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 people.

In the North Wales Chronicle in 1860 there appeared the following:-

Porthdinllaen Launch

On Saturday morning last a beautiful new brig of 225. 56/100 tons named ‘Simon’ was launched from the building yard of Mr Owen Griffith, Nefyn. This splendid vessel is built from the best materials and is classed A1 at Lloyd’s for twelve years. She is intended for foreign trade and is to be commanded by Captain Owen Griffith, Plas. (nephew)

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Ships that Owen Griffith built at Nefyn

1856 Cossack Schooner 111 tons Decommissioned in 1879.
1856 Alfred Schooner 112 tons Lost off Brighton, 18-9-1887.
1860 Simon Brig 225 tons Condemned at Port Elizabeth 14-1-1871.
1862 Glanavon Brig 184 tons Lost Germany 25-12-1884.

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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. Simon was a very serious man of deep Christian conviction, and been educated at Rev Jenkin’s Academy at Chester and afterwards had gone to Liverpool to be trained as a ship’s broker. Sadly during his time at Liverpool he had fallen victim to the dreaded disease TB. Simon kept a meticulous diary of this voyage, giving us a rare in sight of the daily routine aboard these Welsh vessels. He starts his diary when they started their voyage from Cardiff to Smyrna on 12 September 1862 with a fair wind behind them allowing them to overtake many ships that had left port before them. During the first few days of the voyage Simon and his sister were very sea sick, and they saw many Nefyn ships and ‘Mary’ of Pwllheli on her way to Land’s End, and he records their thrill on seeing flying fish for the first time.

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. Many captains flew a ‘Bethel Flag’ at their mast head on Sunday while in a foreign port, informing Welsh seamen that a religious service would be held with the visiting sailors being invited to tea afterwards with the crew. This ‘Bethel Flag’ had been devised by the tough, but religious Captain Hughes. Gellidara, Pwllheli who was concerned about the many exotic temptations facing unoccupied Welsh seamen in ports on a Sunday. To make their trip as interesting as possible and to keep boredom at bay, Owen took the children on a longish trip by train and horses to Ephesus, a name that they were well acquainted with from their Sunday school. The young ones were thrilled with seeing the countryside and the magnitude of the grand temple with its remains of the statue to Diana, with its gigantic columns and the large subterranean cellars.

Annie Boyd

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 twentieth year.

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. He decided to retire from active command and concentrated his efforts on his company’s affairs.

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.

These ships are some that belonged to Owen’s company.

"Cossack"

Prosper – No 4694  130 tons Lost off Lowestoft 1883.
Cossack – No 14937  111 tons  Lost Thames Estuary 1887
Alfred – No 17362112 tons Lost off Brightin.
Ann Jane -              109 tons Lost off Rhosneigr, 27-12-1897.
Simon – No 28544  224 tons Condemned at South Africa 14-1-1871.
Annie Boyd -          502 tons Sold.
Mermaid  - No 40137  158 tons Lost Pentaland Firth 1903.
Agomoriad  Sold.
Lakeland Abandoned at sea 1892.
Magellan of London 

 

Sold.

 

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.

Discipline

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.

Maintaining discipline

Not being on board on time 2 day's loss of pay
Not returning on day of leave 1 day’s loss of pay
Insolence I day’s loss of pay
Carrying a sheath knife 1 day’s loss of pay
Sleeping or gross negl on duty 2 days loss of pay
Smoking below  1 day’s loss of pay
The poor cook was subjected to more punishment
Food not ready on time  1 day’s loss of pay
Not attending divine service 1 day’s loss of pay
Not clean, to wash and shave  1 day’s loss of pay

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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 Simon.

‘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 further employment.

Again from the log book of the Simon.

Guayaquil, Ecuador,

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 deserter.

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.

Troubles 

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 discharging him.

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’. Simon came to an ignominious end after becoming grounded and was condemned on 13th July 1886 at Port Elisabeth, South Africa and the crew finally arrived home on 25th January 1887.

Wives 

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. John her husband was in the Med at this time, but on hearing this dreadful news he brought home in the “Cossack” some Carrerra Marble for his son’s headstone, which ironically also became his.

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. Owen Griffith attended the following public auction on behalf of his sister in law, which was held at the Nanhoron Arms (today known as Ty Cerrig) and tried very hard to regain Jane’s home. He was out bidden at every stage by the owner’s of the ship Ardent. Jane naturally harboured bitter thoughts at the situation she found herself in, and told the Ardent family in no uncertain terms that no blessing would come from their purchase. Before she vacated her home she vented her anger by removing all moveable objects within, including the grates, and as a final act of defiance she painted the inside walls of the house with pitch, before going to live with her daughter at Penbrynglas.

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 "Magellan" of 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 !!

Sarah Ann

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. John was a most experienced mariner having served as a navigating officer in the Royal Navy on the Med station for three years, when it was the custom in emergencies for the Navy to recruit Merchant Navy Officers as seen in this old advert.

 

NAVY OFFICE, LONDON, JULY 10 1806.

Principal Officers and Commissioners of his Majesty’s navy who maybe at that time unemployed are to send immediately to this office information of their place of abode whether they may be capable of service or not, in the latter case certificate from a medical practitioner must be forwarded, and every person failing to comply with this request within one month from this date will be struck from the list of Masters.

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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. Within days both brothers were struck down with fever, and the new crew unused to deep water sailing became very agitated and apprehensive a situation that could easily have become mutinous. The brothers seeing the tense atmosphere aboard, rigged a hammock on deck enabling one of them although still very weak, to be always present to assure the crew and supervise the navigation. In time the brothers slowly recovered and they ultimately arrived at their destination in the USA. They sold their cargo and recruited another crew and set sail for home in ballast, only to face the unenviable task of consoling the bereaved families in Nefyn. This sight of many houses in the same street losing their breadwinner, led to captain’s recruiting future crews from different places to avoid the repetition of such tragedies.

The ‘Sarah Ann’ was sold in 1877 to a Norwegian shipping line and her name was changed.

Insurance

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 Banker"

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! The Board was made up of highly experienced, hard headed men who demanded a high standard of competency and honesty from members and their ships to be kept in good order. Every captain after an accident had to undergo an examination by an experienced captain appointed by the Board, failure to give an adequate answer meant immediate expulsion which could be a fatal blow to his reputation and career. During the early years of this society membership was confined to local ships with an initial cover limited to £1000, later raised to £2000. Strict management ensured the continued success of the society and captains were always aware that any mishap would be intimately examined on their return, they went to extraordinary lengths to bring their ships home for repair which would be much cheaper than elsewhere.

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 her activity.

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.  

Epilog

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.

"Owen Griffith"

"Owen's daughter Jane"

Owen’s wife 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.

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Nefyn Shipbuilders and their Ships

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