All we need to do is ‘Keep smiling’: Bert Turnbull’s Story

It might be thought that, with the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, servicemen and women across the world could look forward to an early return to their homeland. However, the reality for many men from Wales was that it would be months, and sometimes up to a year, before they landed back in Britain. The Roath Road Roamer, the parish magazine of the Roath Road Methodist Church, tracked the fortunes of 460 servicemen from the parish throughout the war and told their stories through a series of letters, photographs and reports.

 

Possibly one of the most celebrated characters in the Roamer was Bert Turnbull.

 

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The Roamer estimated that, during the course of the war, Bert served on more fronts and travelled more miles than any of his fellow ‘Roamers’.  Born in Middlesbrough, he had lived most of his life in Cardiff with his mother who was originally from Tredegar.  At the outbreak of war he was 19 years of age and was working as a gas fitter’s lad. As a member of the Territorial Army, Bert was called up in the days leading up to the conflict. It is difficult to believe that, in July 1914, just 12 days before the outbreak of the war, he could have had any idea what the next five years had in store for him as he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) as a Private.

 

The Roamer aimed to provide a photograph of every one of the service men and women featured in the magazine. Bert Turnbull appears in the November 1917 edition with a photograph taken in Cairo. In just three years he had risen through the ranks and was now Staff Sergeant Bert Turnbull RAMC serving at the 45th Stationary Hospital, Egyptian Expeditionary Force.  Although Bert was posted to many fronts he did not serve in France or Belgium. Instead, in 1915, he sailed with his Field Ambulance Unit through the Mediterranean to Egypt where he joined the forces being assembled for the assault on the Dardanelles. Field Ambulance Units operated immediately behind the front line and often only a matter of a few hundred yards from the fighting. Their task was to set up a network of Dressing Stations to treat the wounded before they were moved on to the larger Casualty Clearing Stations. It was a dangerous and difficult task working unarmed under gun and shell fire and dealing with badly wounded men. Bert Turnbull would, therefore, have had a baptism of fire at Gallipoli. It was a short and bloody campaign with the Allied armies sustaining over 50,000 casualties and Bert was one of the wounded shipped back to Egypt to recover.

 

In the following years Bert Turnbull served with the RAMC in both Egypt and Palestine before being transferred to Salonika in the autumn of 1918. Although it was only months before the Armistice was signed, the army in Salonika was involved in a series of desperate and costly battles as they attempted to prevent German and Bulgarian forces being transferred to the western front.  In a rare break from the front line Bert was home in Cardiff on leave in October 1918, just weeks before the end of the war. After three years away from Cardiff it might have been hoped that the fates had intervened to end Bert’s days on active service. However, this was not to be the case.

 

On 11 November 1918, as crowds celebrated the armistice in Cardiff and across the world, Bert was on a troop ship in the Mediterranean Sea heading for Turkey. He landed on 13 November and the Roath Road Roamer published a letter from Bert from Constantinople dated 16 December 1918:

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I received your letter at the above address. Just fancy it arriving in such a place! I wonder if the Roamer has reached Berlin yet? Rather strange that you should have written your letter on 13th November as that was the very day on which we landed at Constantinople. My word what a reception we had. I think that the only people who were not pleased to see us were the Germans who were there in occupation but have all run home to Germany since. The people of England are grumbling about the price of things at home. But they would not believe the high price of things her. When I first arrived I was speaking to an Englishman who was interned here at the outbreak of war. He was liberated on our arrival and went to fit himself out with clothes. He paid £11/10/- for a pair of shoes!! A loaf of bread weighing 12 oz costs 1/8. Sugar is 12/6 a Ib. The electric cars are unable to run owing to a shortage of coal. The water supply is turned on from 2pm to 4 pm daily at present but the first fortnight we were here it was only turned on every third day. It is a pitiful sight to see the very poor people begging in the streets [DAWES6, edition 51, page 4].

 

He also added, enigmatically:

 

The next time I write it will be from another country, sorry I cannot tell you as the Censor is still employed here.

 

Sure enough Bert’s war service was far from over. In April 1919 the Roamer reported on a celebratory reception held at the Church for returning servicemen where the …refreshments were abundant… and …the smokes were greatly appreciated… Electric lighting had been installed in the Sunday school class rooms especially for the occasion.  Those attending were asked to sign a register as a record of ‘Roamers’ back in Cardiff. Jokingly, some said that they were reluctant to put pen to paper in case they were signing up for further service in the Army, currently mounting a campaign in support of the White Armies in Russia.

 

The Russia campaign, however, was no joke for Bert Turnbull. The same edition of the Roamer also contained a further letter from Bert and this time it was from even further afield:

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Many thanks for the January Roamer which I received a few days ago. I noticed my letter which I wrote from Constantinople was in it. Well, here is letter from a few hundred miles up the Black Sea. So you have had some of the boys back once more. Good luck to them! I hope my turn will come soon. Don’t you think it is about time that I stopped ‘Roaming’? In khaki 12 days before war was declared. Served in Gallipoli, Egypt, Palestine, Egypt (second time) Salonika, Turkey (Constantinople) and Russia. I was a time expired man in 1916 but still have to ‘carry on’. Never mind the day will soon come now. All we need to do is ‘keep smiling’ [DAWES6, edition 54, page 4].

 

The British Army in Salonika had been deployed to the Caucasus. The campaign was mounted, in part, to occupy territory formerly controlled by Turkey but also to support the White Russian Armies. Bert, therefore, found himself based at Batoum in Georgia. Fortunately, it was a short lived campaign and the next time we hear from Bert it is good news – at last.  In June 1919 the Roamer reported:

 

I am sure you will be glad to hear that one of your Roamers will soon be home. I am leaving this place for Blighty. What a journey! I dread it! [DAWES6, edition 55, page 6].

 

By August 1918, some 9 months after the signing of the Armistice and sporting the Riband of the Territorial Long Service Medal, Bert Turnbull was back in Cardiff and on ‘Civvy Street’.

 

Two months later Bert’s story had a happy ending when the Roamer reported in October 1919:

 

Our ‘Roamers’ are still getting married and we offer out hearty good wishes. Staff Sergeant Bert Turnbull, who holds the ‘Roamer’ record for seeing active service in the greatest number of countries, was married to Miss Irene C James on 7 September [DAWES6, edition 57, page 3].

 

This was the last edition of the Roath Road Roamer. Of the 460 servicemen tracked in the Roath Roamer, 42 died during the war. At the end of October 1919, 30 were still waiting to be demobbed. For Bert and many others, the end of the war, while celebrated wildly in November 1918, was a long time coming.

 

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

 

A copy of the Roath Road Roamer is held at Glamorgan Archives. Roath Road Methodist Church was situated on the corner of City Road and Newport Road (known at Roath Road until 1874). Built around 1860 and modified in 1871, it was a substantial building reputedly able to seat 1000. It was severely damaged during an air raid on Cardiff on 3 March 1941 and demolished in 1953.

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Celebrating the Peace in ‘a right worthy fashion’, 11 November 1918

As we commemorate Armistice Day and the centenary of the end of the Great War, records held at Glamorgan Archives throw light on celebrations in South Wales in November 1918 and, in particular, the joy and relief that marked the end of a bloody and brutal war. Headteachers in schools across Wales were required to keep a regular record of events. Summaries of the school log books for 1914-18 can be accessed on the Glamorgan Archives website. They provide an insight into the tumultuous celebrations that erupted across South Wales on 11 November 1918, none more so than as recorded by Mr W S Jones at Whitchurch Boys’ School. William Jones had been Headmaster at the school for over 4 years. On 11 November he made the following entry in the school log book:

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Great excitement prevailed at school this morning. The Church bells chimed and the boys soon came to the conclusion that the Armistice had been signed by the German representatives. As we had been misled by a false report of the signature of the Armistice on Thursday evening – 7th I sent a message to the local postmaster who confirmed the signing of the Armistice as official.  

The boys were informed of the good news which brings the actual fighting of the Great European War to a close and great enthusiasm was shown. We did not try to restrain their energies for the last half hour and about 5 minutes to 12 the whole school was assembled in the yard when the Doxology and the National Anthem were sung. Cheer after cheer was given for such glorious news and the boys dispersed.

School reassembled after dinner. The Chief Education Official was telephoned to, but no holiday could be granted. The matter would be referred to the Education Committee which was expected to meet on the morrow (Tuesday). The boys were reassembled on the yard in the afternoon and led by a scout with a small drum marched around the yard waving flags and singing various popular songs. The significance of the act of the signature of the Armistice was explained to the boys [Whitchurch Boys’ School, log book, ESE64/1/4]

The log book draws a veil over what happened next but no doubt many of the boys, with their families, joined the crowds that flooded into central Cardiff. The signing of the Armistice was announced across the city by the sounding of the ‘Western Mail’ siren soon followed by hooters and horns from factories across the city and ships in the docks. A ‘wildly enthusiastic’ crowd gathered in Cathays Park with the newspapers reporting that:

Everybody felt that the hour had come for the abandonment of restraint and for the expression of a long pent up enthusiasm….others arrived with the announcement that the Docks was on stop. Everyone there had downed tools, and there was not a murmur of dissent. All the workshops and yards, schools and business premises let loose their jubilant occupants and after a riot of abandonment they gradually gravitated to the City Hall, where the flags of the Allies proudly fly.

Many dock workers marched directly into City Hall and could be seen waving to the crowds from the windows on the upper floor. By midday a semblance of order had been restored with the Lord Mayor, standing on the roof of the porte cochere over the doorway to the City Hall, reading a message from the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, confirming the signing of the Armistice. This was met with ‘thunderous applause’ and was followed by a march past by the Welsh Regiment and the singing of the national anthems of the allied nations including the Marseillaise and the Star Spangled Banner. Sensing the mood of the crowd the Lord Mayor …appealed to the citizens to celebrate the day with joy and thanks but also with restraint and dignity. It was a plea echoed by Sir William Seager – In this hour of victory let us be sober. Perhaps it is not surprising that this was met …with loud cries of no, no and laughter.

By early afternoon the city centre was awash with cheering crowds including St Mary Street and High Street, where people were crammed at windows in the buildings along the street to gain a view of the crowds and join in the celebrations. Whenever they were spotted there was a special cheer for members of the Armed Forces including a number of American servicemen. The cheers, however, were not just for the ‘boys back from the Front’. Recognising that the war had seen major changes in roles and responsibilities the newspapers reported that:

A brewery wagon carried not supplies of Government beer but something incredibly livelier a bevy of land girls in uniform who sang all the popular ditties with great gusto.

In addition, during the war years the male conductors on the city’s tram service had been replaced by women and the newspapers reported that:

The tramway girls got off the cars, they must, they said, join in the processions.

The following day the Western Mail concluded:

South Wales came perilously near the Mafficking type of jubilation. In most places there was an absolute stoppage of work. Shortly after the dinner-hour shops were closed – the staffs would not brook restraint and the employers readily relaxed the rules and regulations [Western Mail, 12 November 1918].

Many schools, including Gabalfa, Hawthorne and Maindy, had been closed for all or part of October and the first week of November as a result of the influenza epidemic that had swept south Wales. Whitchurch Boys’ School, however, had escaped relatively lightly with 15-20 cases of influenza at any one time out of a school complement of just over 200 pupils. The Whitchurch boys were very likely to have been amongst the bevy of small boys reported as adding to the clamour in Cathays Park with improvised ‘tom-toms’ made from old kettles, pans and sheets of tin. They would also have cheered the Lord Mayor’s announcement of a seven day holiday for all schools.

The war years had been a difficult time for schools with shortages of basic supplies and food. In addition, shortages of coal had meant that schools had found it difficult to heat the classrooms during the winter months. The school had ‘done its bit’ with the establishment of a garden of some 20 perches cultivated by the boys two days a week to grow vegetables as part of the national campaign to increase food production. The school had also been in the forefront of campaigns to raise money for the War Savings Association and with some success, being rewarded with an extra day of holiday for their efforts.

Like many schools Whitchurch had seen several of its teachers enlist in the armed forces. Of the three male staff at Whitchurch who had joined up, two came though unscathed but sadly one, Ivor Drinkwater, had been killed on active service with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, in France, in the last week of November 1917.  As in many other areas of employment women had come forward to fill the gaps and a school staffed by male teachers in 1914 had, by November 1918, three female teachers. In many instances male teachers leaving the armed forces returned to their posts. However, the barriers to women working in boys’ schools had been broken down and the Whitchurch school log book confirms that, from that point onwards, the school always had a number of women teachers.

Monday 11 November 1918 was, however, a day to celebrate and the following day the Western Mail reported:

It was great day of rejoicing and abandon, and most people went to sleep at a late hour, satisfied that they had done the celebration of peace in a right worthy fashion.

It must have been an unpleasant surprise for the Whitchurch boys the next morning to find that the holiday only applied to schools in the Cardiff Education authority area. Whitchurch Boy’s school was open on Tuesday 12 November and on the morning of Wednesday 13th before it was announced that the rest of the week could be taken as a holiday.

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The Headmaster, William Jones, simply noted in the school log that …the school was dismissed after assembling on yard. Perhaps diplomatically, he made no comment on the attendance.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

The Norwegian Church, Cardiff

Cardiff’s multicultural population is by no means a recent phenomenon. The town’s rapid growth during the 19th century as a port serving Glamorgan’s industrial hinterland attracted workers from Britain and around the world. Many settled; in 1911 the foreign male population of Cardiff was second only to London in Britain. Many more were transient visitors, particularly the sailors on foreign-registered vessels calling at the docks. Among them were a substantial group of Norwegians, Swedes and Danes, and it was to these men that Pastor Lars Oftedal of the Norwegian Seamen’s Mission addressed his ministry from 1866.

After initially meeting on board ship and in a redundant chapel, the Sjømannskirken was soon erected.

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Plan showing proposed alterations to the Norwegian Church, 1939

Prefabricated in Norway and shipped to Cardiff, it was in typical Norwegian style, although made of corrugated iron sheets. The port authorities had insisted that it should be easily dismantled and re-located if necessary. The church, which Cardiff trade directories describe as:

…the Norwegian iron Church, south-east corner of West Bute Dock for Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Finnish sailors and residents

was consecrated on 16 December 1869, and remained in its original position until its eventual removal in 1987.

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Plan showing the original location of the Norwegian Church

The Norwegian Seamen’s Mission’s 25th Annual Report highly commended the location which:

could not be improved upon, as it is situated between the two docks, at the point where they converge towards the inlets. The church is thus positioned in amongst the ships, so that it is at only a short walk’s distance from many of them, and easy to find for all those who would like to visit it.’

The absence of possibly more enticing attractions on the dockside was a major point in its favour, as the seamen …do not need to go into the town and expose themselves to its temptations, only for the sake of a visit to the reading room.

The church developed with the increase in Scandinavian, and particularly Norwegian, shipping in the Bristol Channel ports. Missions were established at Newport, Swansea and Barry Dock, served by Assistant Missionaries under the Pastor at Cardiff. By 1920 the Pastor lived in the Norwegian vicarage, ‘Prestegaarden’, at 181 Cathedral Road. The number of Scandinavian ships using the area’s ports rose from 227 in 1867 to 3,611 in 1915, and annual statistics for communicants and visitors rose correspondingly from 7,572 in 1867 to 73,580 in 1915. The industrial and economic problems of the 1920s and 1930s affected the Norwegian churches. By 1931 the Mission was reduced to its churches in Cardiff and Swansea only.

During the Second World War Cardiff’s resident Norwegian community increased and many more Norwegians passed through the port as seamen or refugees. The Iron Church and its staff worked with the local branch of the Norwegian Seamen’s Union and other organisations to provide for its people during these difficult years. The Norwegian merchant navy played a significant role in the Allied war effort, but many ships and many lives were lost. The bombing raids on Cardiff made even shore leave unsafe. A number of men were killed when the Scandinavian Seamen’s Home on Bute Road was hit and destroyed.

At the end of the war Cardiff’s Scandinavian communities joined together to celebrate the peace. From that time on, however, activity in the Seamen’s Mission declined, staff was reduced, and the Norwegian community itself dispersed as Cardiff ceased to be a major port. The Iron Church closed in 1959, the last service taking place on 17 May, Norway’s national festival, Grunnlovsdagen, Constitution Day.

The church remained standing, in an increasing state of dilapidation, for almost thirty years. In the 1980s South Glamorgan County Council sponsored the establishment of the Norwegian Church Preservation Trust to save the church and integrate it into the re-developed docks. Roald Dahl, the author, was the Trust’s first President, as a Cardiff-Norwegian himself. In 1987 the old church was dismantled and stored for re-assembly. However, the church which was eventually opened in a splendid new location overlooking Cardiff Bay in 1992 was almost entirely a new creation. As much of the original building as was useable was incorporated into the new church, but most of the materials were new, donated by companies in Norway and in Cardiff, or purchased with the donations raised by public subscription in the Bergen area. Many companies gave their services free to complete the church, which is now built of wood, except for the roof of sheet steel, especially produced by a local firm to fit the building.

The church was officially opened by Princess Märtha Louise on 8 April 1992 as a cultural centre. Although it is not consecrated as a church, art exhibitions and concerts are held in the building and a café serves food and drink.

Susan Edwards, Glamorgan Archivist

This article has drawn on an unpublished lecture by Professor John Greve and on ‘Med Norsk Siømannsmision I hundre år’ [100 years of the Norwegian Mission to Seamen], by Gunnar Christie Wasberg

Penarth Captain Rescues Vanderbilts off South America

Acts of heroism at home and abroad are chronicled in a small collection of papers relating to William Henry Bevan, a Penarth merchant navy Captain in the first half of the 20th century. Episodes in his colourful career are described in personal papers, photographs and newspapers (ref. DX741).

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Born in 1881 at Berriew, near Montgomery, William Henry Bevan first appeared in Penarth as an apprentice on a sailing ship. He was awarded the Royal Humane Society medal for saving the life of a man who had fallen into the dock; a rescue accomplished after jumping fifteen feet from his ship into thirty to forty feet of water. This incident was recalled by Samuel Thomas, speaking on behalf of the Town Council, at the opening ceremony of Captain Bevan’s Washington Hotel.

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These premises (nos. 9 & 11 Stanwell Road), formerly occupied by the Penarth Tutorial School, were converted by Captain Bevan and opened as a private hotel in October 1922. The name ‘Washington’ he believed would attract American visitors:

for whom the name might have special appeal being the name of their first president and also their seat of government.

Captain Bevan’s particular association with America began on 27 January 1914 when his vessel, the Almirante of the United Fruit Line, lying at Santa Marta off the Columbian coast, received a distress call from the yacht Warrior, aground in heavy seas off Cape Augusta. Aboard the Warrior were Mr and Mrs Frederick W. Vanderbilt, their guests the Duke and Duchess of Manchester and Lord Arthur Falconer, and their crew. Bound from Curaçao to Colón and nearing the end of its cruise the yacht was swept on to a sand spit at Cape Augusta, thirty-five miles from Santa Marta, at the mouth of the Magdalena river. When the call was received, the Almirante was unable to leave port as her cargo was only partly stowed and most of her passengers were ashore. Her sister ship the Frutera was therefore despatched ahead and ordered to stand by. When the Almirante arrived on the scene, the Warrior was found to be lying, bow ashore, in such a position that the strong current of the river washed her port quarter, while heavy seas lashed the starboard. Small boats were put out from both ships but the seas proved too heavy to effect a rescue that day.

Immediately after breakfast on the following day (the 28th) the chief officer of the Almirante, N.H. Edward, took his small boat out again and managed to board the Warrior, the seas having slightly abated. He found the yacht resting on her upright keel in a shoal of mud and sand, her passengers in remarkably good spirits after their terrifying ordeal. The Vanderbilts and their guests were transferred uneventfully to The Almirante and apparently suffered little ill-effect from the experience. The crew members of the Almirante, as the rescuing vessel, were rewarded immediately with gifts of fifty dollars each, whilst Captain Bevan and Mr. Edward were informed by Mrs. Vanderbilt that they would each receive a specially designed token of the family’s grateful appreciation, which would be made on their return to New York.

Captain Bevan maintained contact with the Vanderbilt family, not only advising members on seafaring and the purchase of further yachts, but also briefly commanding one of them. The Washington Hotel was but a short interlude in Captain Bevan’s seafaring career for five years later, and three years after the birth there of his daughter Josephine, he sold the hotel and returned to the merchant service as a Captain with the Blue Star Line. He renewed his acquaintance with Jamaica where the local newspaper in Kingston celebrated his return by chronicling his past heroic acts on the island during the ‘Great Earthquake’. On 14 February 1940 his ship the Sultan Star was torpedoed and for his bravery he was recommended for the OBE.

South Wales Coalfield Photographs – Mystery Solved!

Thank you to everyone who has been in touch with information concerning our previously unidentified collection of south Wales coalfield photographs. The response has been incredible and we really appreciate people taking the time to get in touch.

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Public response has enabled us to correctly identify this image as being of Roy Lewis, Face Electrician, D1544/1/16

The collection was transferred to Glamorgan Archives from ON at Fife Archives earlier this year and the photographs depict men working at Abercynon Colliery, scenes taken during the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike at Penrhiwceiber coal tips and views of derelict collieries. We had no information about the photographer and some of the people within the photographs were unidentified.

Following the media campaign, we now know that the photographer of the collection is Leslie Price, a former collier at Abercynon Colliery and keen amateur photographer. Mr Price came into the archive last week to talk to us about the photographs and discuss the stories behind the images and his passion for photography.

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Leslie Price, Photographer meeting Louise Clarke, Glamorgan’s Blood Archivist (image courtesy of Matt Murray, BBC)

Mr Price started taking photographs of the collieries in the 1960s. His aim was to tell the stories of the south Wales coalfield and its people. His images were featured in a number of exhibitions in Wales and throughout the UK, including at a mining museum in Fife, hence why they were found in Scotland.

Following responses from former Abercynon Colliery workers and their family members, we have been able to confirm, change and add names to the faces of those shown in the photographs. I am currently collating the information, ready to update the descriptions on our catalogue. Mr Price took these photographs shortly before the closure of Abercynon Colliery in 1988.

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Public response has enabled us to correctly identify this image as being of Terry Northam, Fitter   D1544/1/1

The coal picking photographs were taken by Mr Price at various times throughout the 1984/85 miners’ strike. The scenes were taken at Cwmcynon colliery tip, Penrhiwceiber. Some of the photographs show the derelict pit head baths, also known as the white house. Cwmcynon Colliery closed in 1949. Mr Price has kindly donated a further image from this series of photographs to Glamorgan Archives.

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The Coal Run, D1544/4/18

We would like to say thank you to Leslie for coming into the archive and providing us with the background to his work. We would also like to thank everyone who has been in touch with us. If anyone has any further information about the photographs we would still love to hear from you. The collection can be viewed on our catalogue under reference D1544.

Board of Trade Shipping Enquiries, 1875-1935

The Board of Trade held responsibility for the general superintendence of matters relating to merchant ships and seamen. This included overseeing formal investigations into any shipping casualties on or near the coasts of the United Kingdom and for any British ship, stranded, damaged or lost.

Amongst the records for Cardiff Petty Sessions Court are a series of files relating to such investigations held at Cardiff City Hall and Law Courts during the period 1875-1935 (ref. CL/PSCBO/BT). Composed of papers assembled for the inquiry, depositions of witnesses and accounts of the proceedings of the court, the files represent an invaluable source for maritime history in the 19th and 20th centuries. Often written in pencil and sometimes hard to read, the bundles of papers provide a wealth of information about matters ranging from ship design to ship discipline.

Since the place of investigation was to be the place most convenient for witnesses, by no means all the shipping casualties investigated in Cardiff were Cardiff-based ships. Some of the ships were registered in other ports and have no obvious connection with Cardiff other than regular trade with a South Wales port or a predominance of Welsh names amongst the crew lists. Equally, Cardiff ships were sometimes subject to investigations in other ports, as in the case of the SS Albion of Cardiff, which was owned by the Duffryn Shipping Company of Cardiff and was lost off Spain in 1908. The inquiry into her loss was held at Caxton Hall, Westminster.

Among the earliest papers perhaps the most interesting are those highlighting the hazards involved in carrying dangerous cargoes. In December 1880 explosive gas given off from a cargo of coal was suspected as the cause of the loss of the SS Estepona of Hull whilst she sailed from Cardiff to Marseilles. The case file for the inquiry includes depositions from the owner concerning the ship, her ballast and insurance, the chief accountant to the colliery which supplied the coal, a foreman trimmer who remembered loading the coal and a Government Inspector of Mines for South Wales who advised on the likelihood of explosive gas forming. In this case there was no definite decision about the cause of the loss, but a year later there were more definite conclusions about the SS Penwith of Hayle, which disappeared having left Penarth bound for the Rio Grande. She carried 422 tons of South Wales steam coal, drawn from collieries in the Rhondda and Ogmore valleys. The coal was notorious for the explosive gas it emitted. In his report to the court, the Inspector of Mines outlined the importance of ventilation, since gas was normally given off some days after the coal was wrought, and he criticised the situation whereby the hatches were the only form of ventilation even though these might well have to be closed in bad weather. In concluding that ventilation on the ship was inadequate, the court attributed blame both to the builder and to the master of the ship as well as to the owner.

Inquiries concerning ships lost in mysterious circumstances obviously generated a greater amount of paper work since more possibilities had to be examined and more people questioned. In 1907 the SS Grindon Hall was supposed lost with all hands in the Black Sea when bound from Sulina in modern Romania to Glasgow. Only part of her lifeboat was ever found. Amongst the case papers for this particular inquiry are telegrams received from the master concerning the passage of the ship and copies of letters received by and from the master.

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There are sad personal details of the master’s recent return to sea after his wife’s long illness, and his last letter reporting the final completion of loading after much trouble and delay which concluded …hoping we shall have a fine run home. Evidence seemed to indicate some instability after loading and in considering this, the court carefully examined plans of the ship, lists of repairs whilst in dry dock, a manifest of the cargo, and the testimony of former mates as to the ship’s sea-worthiness. The papers combine to supply a full and personal insight into the ship and her crew.

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A common issue was the inability of crews to understand English. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1906 had attempted to address this problem by stipulating a requirement for sufficient knowledge of the English language to understand the necessary orders. However, a judge dismissed this stipulation as …futile and illusory… in 1908 when he investigated the stranding and loss of the SS Huddersfield of Cardiff off the coast of Devon. He had heard in the evidence how a Brazilian seaman was on look-out at night during heavy seas and failed to report any lights. The seaman’s knowledge of English was found to be so deficient that:

…he was not able to understand necessary orders nor to report intelligibly objects he saw. He had a wrong idea of the port and starboard sides of a vessel calling port starboard and starboard port.

At midnight he had handed over to a Greek seaman who had a similar lack of understanding of English for …he was not able to report broken water if he saw it. The case of the Huddersfield was again recalled in the inquiry concerning the loss of the SS Mark Lane of London off Spain in 1912. No inquiry of the Spanish look-out man’s English had been made before his engagement and he too showed total confusion between port and starboard.

The language barrier may also have been a factor in the tragedy which ensued after a collision in heavy fog between the SS Kate B. Jones of Cardiff, bound from Swansea to Catania in Sicily and SS Inveric of Glasgow. After the collision, the crew of the SS Kate had asked the Inveric to throw ropes but this was not done either because the request was not heard or the man on look-out did not understand. Worse still, the first and second officers proceeded immediately to abandon ship and board the Inveric. Left suddenly on his own, the master took the precaution of placing his wife and a Miss Yates of Chester in the starboard lifeboat along with three other members of the crew, whilst he examined the ship for damage. The lifeboat was lowered and suspended half-way and the rest of the crew crowded into the port lifeboat. When it was discovered that little water was entering the ship, the crew were recalled but the starboard lifeboat was found in the water towing by her stern tackle only, with the occupants nowhere to be seen. The court’s verdict on the sad events was sympathetic to the master but strongly censured the officers who abandoned ship:

The conduct of these two officers immediately after the collision was most culpable and without precedence in the history of British officers of the mercantile marine … such misconduct on the part of these two officers this court has no jurisdiction to punish except by exposure to the reprobation it deserves.

By the early 20th century over-insurance of ships had become a sinister and recurring theme. In 1910 what the Western Mail described as …the most important and sensational inquiry ever conducted in South Wales under the Merchant Shipping Act… was held after the loss of the SS British Standard of Cardiff off Negra Point in Brazil. Between July and August, a packed court listened in dismay to detailed testimonies of the crew which highlighted conflicting evidence and glaring discrepancies between the log and the master’s report of the mysterious sinking. It became clear that even if the sinking was not caused by human agency, the loss itself could have been averted had the master and chief engineer not been guilty of gross negligence.

The motive for the wilful sinking of the SS British Standard emerged as it was revealed that the promotion of the British Standard Steamship Company as a public company had not been a financial success. Paul Braun, the master of the vessel, the same Paul Brown who appeared on the company’s register of shareholders, had helped to finance the Company but had concealed the fact from the underwriters. His brother, the managing owner of the company, owed him £40,000. Most suspicious of all, the ship although valued only at £46,378 was insured for over £55,300. The Chief Engineer had insured his personal effects for the first time.

There were worrying implications for Cardiff itself. Great controversy ensued when it emerged that underwriters demanded higher insurance premiums for Cardiff-based ships as they were considered a bad risk. When the judge delivered his two and a half hour judgement, …the expectant hush which fell upon the crowded court reminded one of a great criminal trial. His observations outlined clearly the dangers of over-insurance:

Where a vessel is over-insured, one of the most powerful incentives for keeping her in good condition and seaworthiness is removed.

He called for legislation to prevent the abuse. The master was suspended for eighteen months and ordered to pay one thousand guineas towards the costs of the inquiry. The Chief Engineer was suspended for twelve months and ordered to contribute fifty guineas as costs. The third engineer was censured for misleading the court with false statements and for his conduct.

Unhappy reflections upon the outcome of inquiries and the relative impotence of the courts, often surface in the reports to the Board of Trade. The judge was not happy in the case of the SS Ouse of Cardiff, lost off the north coast of Devon in 1911, when no deposition was received from the man at the wheel at the time of the stranding since he had returned to sea. When the SS Powis of Cardiff was lost off Greece in 1907 …probably due to human agency, the judge in his report gave the opinion:

…wreck inquiries are of very doubtful utility. Owing to the conditions under which a vessel is lost or stranded, the absence of eye witnesses who are independent, the rare production of log books or other such valuable documentary evidence, the dispersing of the crew before an inquiry is held and the almost invariable absence of the most important witnesses… the court has but rarely the material to enable it to ascertain the whole truth.

Whatever the doubts of those participating at the time as to the usefulness of the shipping inquires, the records combine to provide a fascinating insight into the problems and hazards which beset merchant shipping in the past.

Subordination and Devastation: Two Sea Voyages from the Port of Cardiff

Glamorgan Archives holds crew agreements and log books for ships registered at the Port of Cardiff for the years 1863-1913 (ref.: DCA).  The following incidents illustrate two extraordinary occurrences recorded in these logs.

The master of the Talca (official number 50438), Charles Woollacott, a Devonshire man, aged 41, must have wondered at the events which dogged his ship during a voyage carrying coal from Cardiff to Australia, which began in July 1869 and ended in December 1870. The cook was the main cause of trouble, as Woollacott recorded in January 1870:

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…we find that the man Thom[as] Roelph engaged as cook and steward at £5 per month, does not know anything about Cooking. He cannot Boil a Potatoe…It is intended to reduce his Wages in proportion to his Incompetency.

On a long voyage food was of great importance and a cook’s inability to provide good food was a threat to the health of the crew and hence their ability to work. The problem was even more serious because the Talca was a sailing ship and the work, therefore, even more strenuous. The problems on the Talca continued, and in February an entry in the log stated:

All hands came aft to say they could not do their work if they could not get their victules better cooked.

Mercifully five days later in Freemantle, Australia, Charles Woollacott noted:

This day Thomas Raulph [sic] deserted the ship.

The story did not end here. In Freemantle another man, Richard Evans, was engaged as replacement cook. As the document among the ship’s papers proves, Evans had been a criminal transported to Australia, and, having completed his sentence he was working his passage back to England (although he deserted in Dunkirk). The crew list gives his age as 32, and his place of birth as Liverpool. It is likely that Captain Woollacott would have preferred Richard Evans to have stayed in Australia. The new cook proved insolent, insubordinate and incompetent, refusing to obey orders, until the master was forced to enter in the Log:

I did not know when I shipped him that he had been a convict. Upon the next occasion I intend to put him in confinement for the sake of Subordination of the Ship, called him aft and read this entry to him. Received a insullent reply and a threat of-what he-would do when he got home.

Transportation does not appear to have reformed Richard Evans.

In contrast, the master’s entry for the S.S. Afonwen (official number 105191) for December 1908 records an event of a different kind. Whilst the ship was docked in Messina, Sicily, on a voyage carrying coal, the area was struck by a severe earthquake. The crew members acted with great bravery, two of them being awarded the Albert medal and a third was decorated by the King of Italy for attempts to rescue local people from the disaster, risking their own lives. The ship was used to bring the injured to safety in Naples. The master, William Owen, shows professional restraint in his entry in the official log for 28 December 1908 and mentions only the physical effects of the earthquake on his ship:

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At 5.15 all hands disturbed by heavy earthquake shock causing great confusion on board, rushing on deck but being pitched dark and the air full of dust was unable to see anything; same time tidal wave came over quay which raised the ship bodily tearing adrift all moorings… unknown steamer which was adrift collided with our starboard bow damaging same… the water now receded and ship grounded… At 7 a.m. sky cleared when we found out the quay had collapsed and town destroyed…

One member of the crew, Ali Hassan, was reported as being ashore at the time and the entry against his name in the crew list gives him as …supposed killed in earthquake.

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An article in the Western Mail for 15 December 1965, using letters and recollections of the crew, tells a more vivid tale. Captain Owen, by then in retirement in his native Amlwch, Anglesey, recalled:

a great wall of water sprang up with appalling violence; it was a miracle we came through it. The wind howled around us and waves continually swamped us as though a squall had come on. Vast eddying clouds of dust settled on the ship like a fog.

Many people fleeing the earthquake tried to swim for the ships in the harbour.  Nineteen such people are said to have reached the Afonwen including by a strange coincidence, a man from Cardiff. The next morning Captain Owen took a party of three men ashore to seek instructions at the British Consulate, but they found it had been destroyed. He wrote in the Log for 29 December 1908:

At 8 a.m. this day-I went on shore but unable to find any means of communication and no one to give instructions I returned on board and decided to proceed to Naples, sailing from Messina 10 a.m.

One of the crew who went ashore with him was Eric Possart, given in the crew list as an 18 year old apprentice from Cardiff. He wrote of the incident in a letter home to his father:

The people were all cut and bleeding… As fast as we could we were taking them aboard ships. We could only find one doctor alive. Little girls and boys saw their own hair turning white as snow

Over 100,000 people were reported to have been killed.

The majority of voyages recorded in the Cardiff crew agreements were less eventful, but the records are no less interesting as they give valuable insight into trade from Glamorgan ports, life on board a ship, as well as information on the crew and on the conditions under which they served.