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.

 

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