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.
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 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.
When I told non-Welsh audiences that I was researching and then writing a naval history of Wales, I often got one of two reactions: either ‘there wasn’t any, so that’ll be a really short book’, or else I got plenty of jokes about coracles. So I was particularly pleased when I found that I could legitimately include a reference to the coracle playing a part (albeit a very minor part) in naval warfare, and not just in the section about the Roman conquest. During the Seven Years War (1756-63), two warships were built on the Milford Haven waterway: the larger became the navy’s first Prince of Wales, while the other was a frigate named Milford. Some of the timber for the latter was purchased from the Golden Grove estate near Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, a property of the Campbells of Cawdor and Stackpole, the family that later became the Barons and then Earls Cawdor. 6,620 trees from Golden Grove were cut down for the construction of the Milford, and the timber was floated down the River Tywi, guided by the local coracle men, before being stacked on Carmarthen Quay for onward shipment. The Milford went on to have a successful career, capturing five French or Spanish privateers in 1761-2 and four American ones in 1776-7, so perhaps a small part of that success should be attributed to the Tywi coracles!