"Capt Robert Griffith"

1855 ~ 1889

Robert Griffith was born in 1855 at Llanfaelrhys, Rhiw; and was adopted by William and Mary Griffith, possibly relatives, living at 1, Fourcrosses, Rhiw. On leaving school he became a seaman working on local coasting ships. He was married to Elizabeth nee Parry, born at Rhiw in 1857 and was the father of William Parry Griffith born 1881. Robert Griffith was a Master Mariner and the joint owner (together with his wife) of a two masted schooner of 66 tons named the Margaret and Martha which had been built at Porthmadog in 1847 and which was named after family members. Robert Griffith and his family lived in 1881 at Bodwddog Bach, Rhiw with his wife’s parents.

In September 1889, Robert Griffith now aged 34 years and master of the Margaret and Martha set sail from Garston Dock, Liverpool on the afternoon tide with a cargo of coal for Ireland. The crew, as was usual for a small trading schooner numbered four. The Master (Griffith), a Mate and two seamen, one of whom doubled as the cook. It was subsequently reported that Captain Griffith was not sober when the ship left Garston Dock, although this fact was not substantiated. However he had the sails set and took command as the ship went down the Mersey with the ebb tide.

The Caernarfon & Denbigh Herald of the 6th Sept 1889 printed ‘that opposite the Herculaneum Dock’ (a large stone built structure), ‘the captain, still directing and swearing at his men, ran into the Herculaneum Pierhead. The collision smashed the jibboom’ (it was a head-on collision) ‘and in this crippled condition the ship swerved off into the river and began to drift. The captain was then seen by those on the pier wall to rush as the mate, who was on deck, seize him by the throat, pin him down, kneel on him and attempt to choke him.’ (Even at his advanced age he was obviously a fit and powerful man). ‘ A desperate struggle took place between them, and while it was proceeding the other men jumped into the boat’ (the ships boat which would towed behind the vessel) ‘and were pushing off, when the Mate got free from the grip of the captain, and taking a dangerous leap, jumped into the boat. A strong tide was running, and they were in a position of considerable danger. In their panic on leaving the schooner they had forgotten the oars, they had only the blade of an oar lashed to a pole, and it seemed as if they would be swept by the force of the tide across the bows of steamers lying at the landing-stage.’ By an act of bravery, a stageman and a boatman jumped into the boat and sculled her a place of safety at the back of the stage. Once the crew were on dry land, the Mate went to the docks police office where he reported what had happened. Another ship, the Iron King ‘then went to the assistance of the schooner, which was down the river, and she found her to be in charge of three boatmen, who witnessed the fight on board, and had put off the vessel in a river gig. These men stated that as they neared to Margaret and Martha they saw the captain leap overboard. Nothing more was seen of him; and he had undoubtedly been carried away by the tide. By this time the schooner had, to the imminent danger of other vessels, drifted down stream, and was being carried rapidly by the tide on the sands. The Iron King, however, took her in tow, and brought her back up river, where she was anchored. The body of the captain has not yet been recovered.’

From this account it would appear that Captain Griffith was not sober and was abusive when the ship sailed from Garston Dock, and there is a suggestion that by leaping overboard he was committing suicide. Two of these implications were refuted in a report of the incident of the Liverpool Courier of the same date which printed ‘It was reported at the Landing Stage that Capt. Griffiths had committed suicide. Further enquiries put a different complexion on the sad occurrence. We are informed by persons who witnessed the departure of the Margaret and Martha from Garston that Capt. Griffiths was not drunk as alleged. It was further stated by those who saw the occurrence that the vessel was not run upon the Herculaneum by the captain, but was probably driven there by the force of the current. When the Margaret and Martha was drifting down the river, those on board the Dock Board steamer Vigilant saw a man drop overboard from the stern. When the man was noticed in the water a boat was at once lowered from the Vigilant, and with six hands proceeded in the direction of the man. The steamer also proceeded to the spot, but the poor fellow disappeared before the boat could reach him. The belief of those on board the Vigilant is that the man who drowned fell overboard accidentally.’

So we know have two versions of the event and a load of unanswered questions. Why did Captain Griffith attack the Mate? Why did the two seamen immediately abandon ship without helping to stop the fight or to save their ship? Why should an experienced Mariner allow his vessel to collide with a pierhead? There is obviously a lot more to this story that will never be known and perhaps has been deliberately covered up.

However, the Margaret and Martha was to cause further grief. At the beginning March 1891, this vessel, now 44 years old, sailed from Pwllheli bound for Llanelli, with a cargo of lead ore. At this time there were three lead mining companies, all based at Abersoch; the East Assheton Mining Co., the Tanybwlch Mining Co., and the West Assheton Mining Co. The two Assheton companies had been formed from a single company known as Penrhyn Du Mining. The remains of the lead mining at Bwlch Tocyn, Abersoch are still to be seen. The Master of the vessel is shown as R. Griffith with a crew of two, and the ship was owned by a Mrs Griffith of Rhiw, now living at Sea View, Rhiw, the village shop and Post Office built in 1883. There is no knowledge of what actually happened to the Margaret and Martha and she was last sighted shortly after sailing on the 9th March. It must be assumed that she sank without trace taking with her, her master and crew. We do know that the Irish Sea in March is subject to severe gales, that the ship would be fully loaded, and that it was undermanned. The ship was elderly and would not have been subject to the strictest inspection for seaworthiness. It was just another of the losses that was common amongst small sailing vessels in this period and just another tragic occurrence for the people of the small village of Rhiw. However, there is a bigger mystery concerning Robert Griffith and the Margaret and Mary. According to a grandson of Robert Griffith the family memory is that Robert Griffith was commanding the Margaret and Mary when it was allegedly lost at sea in 1891 and that the vessel was not lost but sold off and continued sailing under another name. I have been told that Robert Griffith was seen in Rhiw after the reported loss of the ship and that his body is buried in the Nebo Chapel graveyard at Rhiw. If this is indeed the case, he was reported dead twice, once at Liverpool and the other time in the Irish Sea but in neither case was his body recovered from the water.

Thanks to Patrick Allely for this article.

(Robert Griffith's Estate)


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