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).


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.


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.