The Last Shots of the British Civil Wars? The Naval Action at Swansea, 1660

The restoration of the monarch in 1660 was an astonishingly rapid development, one which could hardly have been foreseen at all until just before it actually took place. Inevitably, this led to much confusion, perhaps especially in outlying parts of the country, and created opportunities for the unscrupulous to try and take advantage of the situation before certainty returned. A particularly interesting example of this took place at Swansea in May 1660, in an incident that has only recently come to light. This may well have a claim to be the last engagement – and certainly the last naval engagement – of the British civil wars.


On 9 March 1660, a thirty ton vessel came to an anchor in Mumbles Road. She was the Royalist privateer Henrietta Maria, commanded by Captain George Dowdall, sailing under a commission that had been issued by James, Duke of York (the future King James II) at Brussels in the previous July. Dowdall was unaware that King Charles II had been proclaimed in London on the previous day, and proceeded to capture several ships within Swansea Bay. Complainants hastened to Cardiff to demand action from Colonel Edward Freeman, governor of the castle and one of the commissioners of militia for Glamorgan. Freeman immediately despatched soldiers to the Mumbles, and went down himself on the following day. He informed Dowdall of the astonishing developments in London, ‘telling him he daily expecteth his Majesty’s arrival, at which the said captain was very glad’; Dowdall immediately agreed to restore the prizes he had recently taken, and not to attack any more shipping. Freeman then proclaimed the King aboard the Henrietta Maria, at which ‘Captain Dowdall caused divers guns to be fired and he and all his soldiers [sic] uttered many expressions of joy’. Dowdall and his crew then forebore from attacking any other potential prizes in Swansea Bay.

There matters rested until about the fifteenth, when the frigate Lichfield sailed into Mumbles Road. She was an altogether different proposition to the relatively small Henrietta Maria – a Fifth Rate frigate of 24 guns, although ironically, she, too, had been a Royalist ship, captured by the Commonwealth navy in 1658. Her captain, William Barker, gave the order to open fire, and the Henrietta Maria cut her anchor cable and sailed for the mouth of the River Tawe. The Lichfield pursued her, firing all the time. The Henrietta Maria anchored at Swansea Quay, but still the Lichfield followed. The Royalist ship now cut her other anchor cable and sailed even further upstream, where the larger Lichfield could not follow. The Henrietta Maria sailed ‘above the town’, but then ‘stuck at the Point’ and could go no further. Barker sent some forty to sixty men ashore, heavily armed with cutlasses and muskets. They boarded the ship, stripped the crew (beating some of them in the process), broke open chests and boxes, and pillaged the money on board, most of it takings from the prizes the Royalists had taken – perhaps £500, according to one source, £300 of which (another source says £360, yet another £380) was in Dowdall’s sea chest, together with some £80 worth of other goods plundered from prizes, including canvas, fine linen, tobacco, clothes, arms and ammunition.

Meanwhile, Dowdall and Barker were having a frosty encounter at the nearly adjacent house of William Jones, the mayor of Swansea. Dowdall stated that he sailed with the Duke of York’s commission, and ‘hoped that he [Barker] was not an enemy, saying he was a servant of His Majesty’s’. Barker replied stiffly ‘that the King had no need of such servants’, and told Dowdall that he was sending the Henrietta Maria to Plymouth as a prize, which is what he duly did.

The affair at Swansea was one of the first things that crossed the Duke of York’s desk during his earliest days in office as Lord High Admiral, following his entry into London with his brother on 29 May; a week later, on 5 June, James ordered Barker to ensure that the contents of the Henrietta Maria were not embezzled (wishful thinking, as the ship had obviously been cleared out at Swansea) and that it should be placed in safe custody. What ultimately happened to the ship and the money she had been carrying would require further work in the papers of the High Court of Admiralty, but William Barker certainly never held a command in the Restoration navy. There is no further record of Dowdall, either; he was probably an Irishman (a George Dowdall had been Archbishop of Armagh in the sixteenth century), and one of those serving on his ship as a volunteer was ‘Captain Owen Sullivan’ of Munster, ‘gentleman’.

As for the engagement between the Lichfield and the Henrietta Maria in Swansea Bay, it may well have a claim to be the last ‘battle’ of the British Civil Wars, and certainly deserves a footnote in the naval history of Wales.



  • National Archives, Kew, High Court of Admiralty papers 13/73 folios 520-1, transcribed by Marine Lives
  • National Archives, Admiralty papers, 2/1732, folio 1

Going Dutch: Wales and the Royal Netherlands Navy during World War II

First, apologies for the long delay in getting a new post onto this site – this was due to both other commitments and a shortage of suitable, or, at least, sufficiently substantial, material.

However, I was recently browsing the excellent Dutch maritime collections website, Maritiem Digitaal, looking primarily for suitable material for my new non-fiction book, Kings of the Sea: Charles II, James II and the Royal Navy. Having done so, I then entered a number of Welsh search terms, and came across some excellent links. During the Second World War, for example, units of the exiled Dutch Navy were based in both Holyhead and Milford Haven, and I referred to these sojourns in Britannia’s Dragon. A search of Maritiem Digitaal under the names of both those ports, as well as for related ones (such as ‘Pembroke’), turns up some fascinating supplementary information.

‘Holyhead’, for example, produces photographs of the Dutch warships Hydrograaf and Medusa alongside Pelham Quay in 1943,  as well as a number of images, such as this one, of Dutch Marines training in the Anglesey countryside. There are also a number of photos, including this one, of the funeral at Holyhead in 1941 of M J R Matthias of HNLMS Noordsvarder, of the Stanley Sailors’ Hospital, and of the memorial in St Cybi’s church donated by the Protestant churches of the Netherlands, giving thanks for the area’s hospitality to the Dutch forces during the war. Perhaps we’ll forgive the captions that refer to ‘Holyhead, Engeland’!

A search for ‘Milford’ brings up photos of the Dutch armed trawler Vikingbank in the Haven in 1942, the communications vessel Traversa, and the captain and crew of the minesweeping trawler Gerberdina Johanna in the Haven in 1941. Changing the search to ‘Pembroke’ brings up quite a number of photos of the Dutch forces celebrating Queen Wilhelmina’s birthday at the Pembroke Dock flying boat base in August 1940, such as this one and this one, as well as other photos of her son-in-law, Prince Bernhard, visiting the base.

It’s worth trying several other Welsh search terms, too. Entering ‘Swansea’ brings up, among other things, a passport stamped both there and at Holyhead for Lubbert Kramer, boatswain of the tug Amsterdam, which escaped from the Den Helder naval base in May 1940; and two photos of the SS Texelstroomsunk by a German mine in 1915 when en route from Amsterdam to Swansea (despite being neutral in that war). A search for ‘Cardiff’ reveals several photos, including this one, of Dutch Marines disembarking from HNLMS Poolster in Cardiff docks in 1967, in order to take part in joint exercises with the Royal Marines, as well as a large number of photos of the exercises themselves. Most surprising, perhaps, are a couple of fascinating oil paintings of Dutch naval personnel in Pwllheli during the period 1943-5.

All in all, yet more proof that one can find important material for Wales’ naval and maritime history in all sorts of unlikely places!

Naval Heritage at Bodrhyddan Hall

The other day, I visited Bodrhyddan Hall near Rhyl. This is a fascinating house, principally 17th century with considerable 19th century remodelling, and it has a very interesting history; some of it, indeed, is embodied by the current owner, Lord Langford,  a 103 year old veteran of campaigns in the Far East during the Second World War (and whose father was killed at Gallipoli during the First).

Bodrhyddan Hall

Bodrhyddan Hall

It also contains a considerable amount of naval interest. I already knew about the house’s connection with Captain Conway Shipley, whom I wrote about in Britannia’s Dragon; a younger son of the family, he distinguished himself in command of the 18 gun HMS Hippomenes in 1804, aged just twenty-one, when he led his crew to victory over the 36-gun French privateer L’Egyptienne. He was killed in 1808 while trying to cut out a French corvette from Lisbon harbour. Bodrhyddan has on display the Lloyds Patriotic Fund sword that was presented to him after the victory over L’Egyptienne, together with the ‘everyday’ sword he was carrying when he was killed (the hilt was tied to his wrist). There is also a sketch of the Hippomenes / L’Egyptienne action by the former’s lieutenant.

The house has a considerable amount of memorabilia relating to Rafe Grenville Rowley-Conwy, a rear-admiral who died in 1951 and who served latterly as Lord Lieutenant of Flintshire. When the First World War began he was commanding the destroyer Lark, and the guidebook claims that she fired the first shots of the naval war during the action against the German minelayer SMS Konigin Louise during the night of 4/5 August 1914. A German shell from this action is on display in the entrance hall of Bodrhyddan. However, most sources attribute the first shot to Lark‘s sister ship Lance.

There are also a number of other naval relics. The entrance hall, which contains an eclectic collection of armour (including some from the British civil wars), houses a couple of naval swivel guns that were apparently dug up in the 1970s from a ditch near a house in Llangollen. The fireplace in the drawing room is surrounded by elaborate carved panels supposedly taken from the chapel of a Spanish Armada ship wrecked on Anglesey – although history doesn’t record any Armada ship having come to grief on those shores. Finally, the house has a splendid piece by the great 18th century naval artist Peter Monamy, ‘Ships of War and other craft in a squall’. For some reason, though, this is displayed in an out-of-the-way corner in the corridor on the way out to the garden.

Bodrhyddan is open relatively little, only a couple of days a week for some of the summer, so it was good to have an opportunity to see it. The house demonstrates both the naval connections of one Welsh gentry family, and the unexpected items of naval heritage that can often be stumbled across in Welsh houses and museums.

A Welsh Chaplain in the Post-War Royal Navy

Despite the best efforts of Ebay, Amazon and the rest, it’s still possible to come across unexpected finds and real bargains in good old-fashioned secondhand bookshops. Last week, I paid a call to the delightful Discovery Bookshop in Garnant, in the Amman valley – arguably an odd location for such an establishment, made even odder by the fact that its welcoming owner is Australian! There, I picked up a memoir called The Parting Mist by Harold Edgar Williams (1917-2004), a clergyman who served as a Canon of Brecon Cathedral and Archdeacon of Gower, for the bargain price of £1.50 (the most expensive copy online is £23.95!). This appealed to me for two reasons: Williams was born and raised in my home town of Llanelli, so the book begins with several chapters chronicling life there during the 1920s and 1930s, but he also served as a chaplain in the Royal Navy, and it’s that aspect of his life that I’ll summarise here.

Having trained as a clergyman and served as a curate during the war years, Williams became a naval chaplain and joined the light cruiser HMS Dido at Chatham in 1946. He was not the only Welshman on board: one of the others, ‘Taffy’ Jones from Newport, was ‘the main occupant of the cells…he was of the opinion that if he made a nuisance of himself on a regular basis, they would discharge him from the Navy’. Williams recounts the nature of shipboard life, the chaplain’s duties, and the Dido‘s ports of call, which included ‘showing the flag’ visits to Morocco, Portugal, Denmark and Norway. Although a republican by inclination, Williams recounts with some pleasure the part Dido played in escorting HMS Vanguard on the first part of her cruise to South Africa in 1947, with the royal family on board. Following this first stint at sea, Williams returned to Wales to serve as a curate in Swansea.

HMS Bermuda entering Grand Harbour, Malta, in 1954, when Harold Williams was serving aboard her.

HMS Bermuda entering Grand Harbour, Malta, in 1954, when Harold Williams was serving aboard her.

Some time later (Williams is very vague on dates), he served briefly as chaplain of HMS Landrail, the air station at Machrihanish, Campbeltown, and as relief chaplain of Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, when the regular incumbent was on sick leave. Williams then joined the Colony-class cruiser HMS Bermuda at Devonport before she sailed to join the Mediterranean Fleet; the book includes a photograph of him and the rest of the ship’s Welsh contingent (three other officers and nineteen men) sitting on one of the ship’s forward 6″ gun turrets. He was greatly impressed by Malta, somewhat less so by Port Said, where Bermuda served as guardship in 1954, just as the tensions which led to the subsequent ‘Suez crisis’ were increasing. Bermuda then sailed to the relief of Zante, which had been struck by an earthquake, before returning to Malta and a visit from Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. This was followed by a cruise to Venice and Naples: ‘as I looked out at the Bay of Naples, I was moved to compare it with the Swansea Bay that I knew as a young man, when the Mumbles train took us around the coast…’. Further visits were made to Trieste, Rhodes and then to Istanbul, the latter prompting recollection of ‘the account I received from my parents of the loss of a whole regiment of Llanelli soldiers at Gallipoli during the first world war’. Williams provides extensive descriptions of all these destinations, particularly of the churches and mosques, and the religious services conducted within them: ‘as I listened to the Imam lead the faithful in prayer within the Mosque, as a true Welshman, I appreciated the rhythms as the Koran was read, described in the words of one Arabic scholar as that “inimitable symphony”, not unlike our Welsh hwyl‘. Subsequent port visits included Beirut and Piraeus, with excursions to Damascus and Athens respectively.

On Bermuda’s return to Britain (c.1957?) Williams left the Royal Navy and returned to parish duties in south Wales. Bermuda herself ended her days not far from the likes of Llanelli and Mumbles, being broken up at Briton Ferry in 1965. All in all, Williams’ memoir provides an interesting insight into the often neglected role of the naval chaplain, and was certainly well worth £1.50!


A Welsh Admiral in Catherine the Great’s Navy (Part 2)

I recently received a response from Trish Newman to my original post under this title. Trish generously pointed me towards Anthony Cross’s book By the Banks of the Neva: Chapters from the Lives and Careers of the British in Eighteenth Century Russia (Cambridge, 1997), which sheds further light on the career of William Lewis. The following is a summary of Cross’s account.

Lewis arrived in Russia in 1714 as an ‘under-lieutenant’ (podporuchik) and eventually rose to be ‘captain of the rank of colonel’ in January 1733. He was often given positions of special responsibility, such as escorting Peter the Great’s daughter Anna to Holstein following her marriage to its duke, or going to London in 1733 to recruit shipbuilders (a mission mentioned in my first post about him). In the reign of the (by then) Empress Anna (1730-40), he was dismissed the service and exiled from Russia ‘for not more than two days…for daring to petition personally the empress for the restoration of pay’, but he was swiftly pardoned and returned to command. During the 1740s he was successively commander at Archangel, Kronstadt and Reval. In 1743 he commanded the White Sea squadron that attempted to leave Archangel to join the fleet moving against the Swedes; the fleet was dispersed in a storm and he was court-martialled, but acquitted. He commanded the Reval squadron that took part in the capture of Memel in 1757, but the arrival of a British fleet in the Baltic led to him being given permission to reside ashore at Memel until the conflict between Russia and Britain was over. In addition to making him a full admiral, Catherine the Great also bestowed on him the prestigious Order of Alexander Nevskii, but he retired in 1764 and continued to live in St Petersburg on a full pension until his death in March 1769.

Despite being quite evidently one of the most important Welsh naval officers of the entire age of sail, William Lewis remains frustratingly obscure. I’ll keep trying to track down his origins, and would be very grateful to hear from anybody with further information about him!

Displays relating to the Russian navy during the era of William Lewis and Catherine the Great: Russian naval museum, St Petersburg

Displays relating to the Russian navy during the era of William Lewis and Catherine the Great: Russian naval museum, St Petersburg, photographed January 2003

In Unexpected Quarters

A week in Edinburgh recently allowed me to pay a couple of research visits to the National Records of Scotland. Apart from being an exceptionally pleasant environment in which to work, the archives held there contain a surprising amount of material on Welsh history, much of which seems to be relatively little known to researchers in Wales. I’ve already reported elsewhere on an exceptionally rare first-hand account from a ship navigating the Burry Inlet in the eighteenth century (a very brief summary of a much longer piece I contributed to The Llanelli Miscellany), but the Scottish archives also contain, for example, a significant amount of letters and plans relating to the history of Pembroke Dockyard, papers of the Cardiff and Clyde Coaling Company and various other Welsh maritime companies, the correspondence of the Marquesses of Bute relating to Cardiff, and so forth.

During my recent visits, I came across a fascinating document relating to the famous riot at Carmarthen in 1803, when a naval press gang was attacked by a mob comprised chiefly of local women. This forms part of reference GD123/378, a bundle of miscellaneous documents relating principally to Carmarthenshire in the period c.1800-1810, and which includes letters by the likes of Lord Dynevor, Lord Cawdor, John Vaughan of Golden Grove, and Sir William Paxton of ‘Nelson’s Tower’ fame. It is a letter dated 5 June 1803 from several officers of the Carmarthenshire militia, who had been ordered to assist Lieutenant Roach of the Royal Navy in pressing men at Carmarthen on 7 May. They testify that they were willing to assist Roach, but ‘that it was to be understood by the undersigned that the Regiment was to be assisting, but no intimation given to the soldiers, who having friends and relations in the town might create an alarm, which would be the consequent loss of many sailors who would immediately abscond’. The letter provides an interesting insight into both the state of discipline in the Carmarthenshire militia and inter-service relationships during the Napoleonic War: its tone suggests that the officers had more than a little sympathy with their soldiers and, by extension, with the pressed men, and were glad of an excuse not to assist Roach to the best of their ability!

A Nuclear Deterrent Submarine Base at Milford Haven: ‘Road Not Taken’ or Tabloid Fantasy?

The Daily Mail recently ran an ‘exclusive’ to the effect that, as a result of the seemingly inexorable rise of the anti-nuclear SNP and the unexpected closeness of the recent  Scottish independence referendum, politicians and civil servants in Whitehall were secretly drawing up contingency plans to move Britain’s nuclear submarine base and Trident boats from Faslane in Scotland to Milford Haven. While the level of accuracy of this report may, perhaps, be gauged by the fact that the story’s photo of ‘HMS Vanguard at the Faslane base’ is actually of her being launched at Barrow-in-Furness over twenty years ago, it nevertheless reflects one of the obvious truths of the changed political situation in Scotland: namely, that if an anti-Trident Scottish government ever demanded the withdrawal of the system, a pro-nuclear government in London would have to find somewhere else to put it. The suggestion that the base might come to Milford Haven is far-fetched for several reasons – not least the mind-boggling ‘risk assessment’ that would be required to justify placing several nuclear reactors and dozens of nuclear warheads immediately adjacent to a LNG facility and one or two oil refineries – but it is not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility, if only because Milford has been seriously considered for this exact role before. As I wrote in Britannia’s Dragon,

It was one of the sites considered in 1963-4, before the decision was taken to base the submarine deterrent force at Faslane. Indeed, a number of Welsh harbours – Carmarthen Bay, Tremadog Bay, Fishguard and Holyhead – made the original ‘long list’ of potential Polaris bases, but all were rejected at a very early stage because of unsuitable geography. Milford Haven made a ‘long short list’ of ten, with plans drawn up for a submarine base at Newton Noyes and a weapons facility at Angle, but it was excluded from the final short list of six on safety grounds due to the proximity of the then new oil refineries.

Polaris submarine HMS Repulse in Loch Goil, 1988

Polaris submarine HMS Repulse in Loch Goil, 1988

Detailed information on the Milford scheme can be found in ADM1/28965, a file at the National Archives in Kew. This contains a detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of all the candidates, with detail on navigational issues, potential safety problems, and so forth. The study of Milford proposed that the base should be at Newton Noyes, where the Admiralty already had a Royal Naval Armament Depot producing most of the navy’s stock of mines. The storage facility for the Polaris intercontinental ballistic missiles was to be built on the south side of the Haven, ‘three cables east of Thorn Point’. The report noted that there were likely to be some difficulties with submarines manoeuvring at their berths – a problem that would presumably be exacerbated in the case of today’s much larger Trident submarines and their likely successors – and potential interference from merchant shipping, namely the large tankers that were already using the Haven. As far as weapon safety was concerned, this was described as

Marginal/fair. The small village of Angle would lie within the area of major damage, in the event of [a] maximum credible explosives accident. Fire risk from large numbers of tankers present needs recognition.

The former RN armament depot at Newton Noyes - proposed site of the submarine base

The former RN armament depot at Newton Noyes – proposed site of the submarine base

More prosaically, it was noted that shore side attractions were ‘limited’, and that the site possessed neither canteen nor playing fields, which would need to be built from scratch. Requirements to establish the base included extended the existing pier at Newton Noyes by 100 yards and building a 200 yard pier at Angle for the new RNAD. It was noted that ‘opposition to acquisition or development from local and particularly industrial interests [was] likely to be strong’. It was estimated that it would cost £2 million to build the necessary new dock facilities, the same as at the other proposed sites; running costs were estimated at about £198,000 a year, roughly double those for Faslane but nearly identical to those at all the other proposed sites.

Ultimately, Milford Haven was eliminated from the final shortlist of six – which contained Devonport, Falmouth, Rosyth, Invergordon, Loch Alsh, and the eventual ‘winner’, Faslane – entirely on safety grounds. As the Admiralty study put it,

Development of the Haven as a major oil port is far advanced and increasing. In deference to industrial interests, the Admiralty has agreed to reduce the handling and storage of mass-risk explosives in the area. The functions of the existing RNAD at Newton Noyes are being reduced accordingly. We see no other advantages at this site which would justify an attempt to reverse this policy…the safety distances which will be available when the Regent Refinery is built would be quite unsuitable. On political grounds also it is presumed to be inadvisable to put Polaris into this developing oil port. 

With the potential dangers of basing nuclear-armed submarines at Milford Haven now being significantly greater than they were fifty years ago, it might be interesting to witness the amount of political ‘spin’ and legerdemain that would be required to justify making such a move today, and to dismiss the entirely convincing arguments that were put forward when the matter was first aired. But these are strange and uncertain political times: and as a certain fictional Commander RN once said, ‘Never say never’!