Monthly Archives: August 2013

Model of 18th Century HMS Severn Discovered

A 200 year old model of the fifth rate frigate Severn, built in Bristol in 1786 and wrecked in Jersey in 1804, has been discovered locked in a cupboard at Berkeley Castle – story here. She spent much of her service in the West Indies, but when wrecked she was the command of one of the most unusual British naval captains of the Napoleonic Wars, Philippe d’Auvergne, the Prince de Bouillon.

Proud and Prejudiced? The Welshness (or Otherwise) of ‘Star Captain’ Sir Thomas Williams

Captain, later Admiral, Sir Thomas Williams (1761/2-1841), was a successful frigate captain of the French wars, who was knighted for capturing two French frigates in 1796. He was also married to Jane Austen’s cousin, hence his appearances in the author’s letters and diaries; but the wife in question was killed in 1798 when she was thrown from her gig when it collided with a runaway dray horse. Unfortunately, though, Williams is one of those infuriating people whose origins are very difficult to track down, principally because the combination of names is so common. In this case, the combination suggests that he might well have been Welsh, especially as he was the son of a Captain William Williams RN, and he also became the first captain of the frigate HMS Cambrian, the first warship to bear the name. Some have duly jumped to that conclusion: Thomas Williams was included in a collection of Welsh book plates assembled by Sir Evan Davies Jones (1859-1949), MP for Pembrokeshire, and in 1946 General Sir Henry ap Rhys Price included Williams in an article about ‘Some Famous Welsh Leaders in War’.

In fact, research that I’ve undertaken since completing the book suggests that Williams’ immediate antecedents were actually in the Isle of Wight. Indeed, his first wife’s death provides a clue, as her fatal accident took place on the island. William Williams and his wife Elizabeth had at least five children at Ryde, then in the parish of Newchurch, in the 1750s and 1760s: Thomas, who was christened at Ryde on 20 June 1762, Edward, Charles (who probably died young), Anne and Elizabeth. William’s will, made when he was first lieutenant of the Southampton in 1757 and proved over twenty years later, makes the Isle of Wight connection clear, as does the will of his widow Elizabeth from 1805, which mentions all four surviving children. In turn, Anne’s will of 1834 mentions her nephew Edward Richard Williams, the son of Edward, who served as flag captain to his uncle Sir Thomas and also served as captain of HMS Victory. None of this precludes the possibility that William Williams was a Welshman domiciled in the Isle of Wight, but both my own researches and the staff of the Isle of Wight Record Office have failed to turn up any evidence one way or the other. Moreover, as anyone who’s ever done any Welsh genealogical research knows, pinning down one individual with a name like William Williams really is ‘needle in a haystack’ territory! So unless other evidence emerges, Sir Thomas Williams is going to need to remain on the fringes of Welsh naval history, with a very large question mark against his name.

Sir Henry Morgan and the Perils of Wikipedia

Today (25 August) marks the anniversary of the death of one of Wales’s most famous seafarers, Sir Henry Morgan, and this was duly marked on social media. Unfortunately, many tweeters chose to describe Llanrumney-born Morgan as a ‘Royal Navy admiral’, apparently relying on his Wikipedia entry, which describes him as such. (To add insult to injury, some tweeters – invariably from across the pond – described him as an ‘English’ Royal Navy admiral…) This might be excusable for those who aren’t expert in the field and have only had time to refer to the most obvious online source, but there’s simply no excuse when the same claim is made in the Twitter feeds of the likes of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, which should surely be authoritative.

To clarify: Morgan never held a Royal Navy commission of any sort. He was granted a local commission as admiral by Sir Thomas Modyford, governor of Jamaica, in 1667, but this was in command of local privateers and ‘irregulars’, not official naval forces. Samuel Pepys, a near-contemporary of Morgan, was holding high administrative office in the navy throughout the time period in question, and was thus in a much better position to know the truth of the matter than any Wikipedia editor: and Henry Morgan is omitted from Pepys’s definitive list of those who held flag office between the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution.

I’ve said very little about Morgan in Britannia’s Dragon, partly because he never served a ‘proper’ navy – the central criterion of the book’s focus – and partly because he has been written about in so much detail elsewhere. Covering Morgan (and other Welsh ‘pirates’ like Bartholomew Roberts) would simply have forced the deletion of less well-known material elsewhere in the book, and that wasn’t something I was prepared to do. Fortunately, my first guest submitter on this blog, Josh Provan of the Adventures in Historyland blog, has solved the problem for me by providing links to his three posts (to date) about Henry Morgan!

Welshmen aboard the USS Monitor in the American Civil War

Britannia’s Dragon names several Welshmen who are known to have served in both the Confederate and Union navies during the American Civil War, including an account of the most famous of them – Henry Morton Stanley, the future discoverer of Doctor Livingstone. There were Welshmen aboard the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (formerly Merrimac), which fought the world’s first battle between metal warships, and one of them has been the subject of a recent, if slightly macabre, news story. As I wrote in the book,

‘Aboard the USS Monitor as it sailed into battle against the CSS Virginia (and their fellow Welshmen) were coal heaver David Ellis, a trainee teacher from Carmarthenshire, and fireman Robert Williams, who later went down with the ship when it sank in a storm in December 1862. A skeleton likely to be that of Williams was discovered when the Monitor’s turret was raised in 2002. In 2012 his face was reconstructed by a team from Louisiana State University, and on 8 March 2013 the body believed to be his received a funeral with full military honours at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, making him probably the last sailor of the American Civil War to be honoured in this way.’

Further information about the remains and facial reconstruction of ‘Williams’ can be found here, while coverage of the funeral can be found here, with film footage here,

When Britannia’s Dragon had already gone to press, I came across a reference to a memoir that Ellis had written about his time aboard the Monitor. It was too late to do more than work in at the proof stage the brief reference to him having been a trainee teacher; this was a pity, as Ellis’s memoir provides a rare first-hand account of a Welshman’s experiences during the American Civil War at sea. Fortunately, the memoir is freely available online, and can be read here.

A Very Rum Do

I came across some weird and wonderful pieces of information when researching Britannia’s Dragon, but none were odder than one I came across at the very end of the process. This was a throwaway line on Coflein, the website of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, in the entry for the market hall in Newtown, Powys: ‘During the Second World War the Market Hall was used as one of four sites in Newtown in which the Royal Navy’s entire store of rum was housed’. Such a bizarre statement clearly demanded inclusion in the book, but it also clearly warranted further research to confirm it – and both at the time and since, I’ve had no time to carry it out. So I covered myself in the book by using one of the most useful words in the English language (‘allegedly’), and hope that someone reading this post might be able to provide some definitive evidence one way or the other!

Of course, there were other examples of ‘national treasures’ coming to Wales to be stored during the war (such as the paintings of the National Gallery at the Manod slate mine), so there’s nothing innately implausible in the idea of the rum being stored in Newtown, which was hardly a likely bombing target for the Luftwaffe. But the cursory search of the National Archives that I’ve had time to carry out reveals no mention of a naval presence in Newtown, and, indeed, provides some evidence to the contrary: ADM1/11556 discusses the move of several large rum vats from Deptford victualling yard to the ‘hostilities only’ victualling depot at Jamestown, Dunbartonshire, in 1941-2. So was the navy’s entire rum store hidden in Newtown? If not, how much, if any, of it was? A rum question indeed!

The Fleet in Milford Haven, c1892-9

This photograph, of unknown provenance, shows the fleet in Milford Haven, probably for the naval manoeuvres of 1892-3 or thereabouts. The dating is derived principally from the presence of the ship in the foreground, the old ironclad HMS Bellerophon, which served as the port guardship during those years, and from the designs of some of the ships in the background. The battleships lie in ‘Man of War Roads’ off the town of Milford, the torpedo boat flotillas closer to Newton Noyes. Milford Haven was regularly used during the elaborate war games that the navy carried out each summer during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Another ‘Welsh’ Warship?

Britannia’s Dragon includes accounts of the warships that have borne ‘Welsh’ names – that is, those which have been named after either Welsh places or people. Despite trawling the various standard sources, such as J J Colledge’s Ships of the Royal Navy and Rif Winfield’s superb series of books, I knew that I was bound to have omitted some names that probably should have been included. A recent conversation with a former naval officer who had served on the survey ship HMS Waterwitch when she was based at Pembroke Dock for two years in the mid-1970s reminded me about one such case, namely HMS Owen, a converted Bay-class frigate which served as a survey vessel from 1949 to 1965. She was named after William Fitzwilliam Owen, an eminent naval hydrographer of the 19th century who was noted especially for his work on the coast of Africa. Although not born in Wales, Owen was the son of Captain William Owen of Glansevern, near Welshpool, and was schooled in part in north Wales, although he spent much of his life in New Brunswick, Canada, where his father had established a settlement. So HMS Owen certainly deserves at least a footnote in a history of British warships with ‘Welsh’ names, and a very detailed account of her service career can be read here.

The Scrapping of HMS Chester

The light cruiser HMS Chester played a heroic part at the Battle of Jutland, notably through the exploits of Jack Cornwell, who received a posthumous VC: aged 16, he remains the youngest ever naval VC. The Chester was subsequently broken up at Llanelli, and a detailed account of her final days – including possibly the only known photograph of the ship in the town – can be found on the excellent website of the Llanelli Community Heritage group.