Birkenhead and all that . .

500px-BirkenheWhere there is faith there is light and strength

The translation of the moto is above.

My father’s family have lived in Birkenhead since around 1870, after moving from St Albans in Hertford via Derby. My mother’s family were relatively new comers having moved from Caernarvon in North Wales in 1921. I was born in the same terrace house in Lower Tranmere, Birkenhead in which my father was born. The house was built around 1870.

Birkenhead was an amalgamation of four boroughs in 1877 – Birkenhead, Tranmere, Oxten and Claughton-cum-Grange and the seal of Birkenhead was created from the four seals of the original towns.

The single lion and the crosier is from the Massey family of Birkenhead who founded a monastery in 1150. The oak tree is from Tranmere, and the dual lions from Oxten, and I think the blue ‘star’ symbol is from Claughton-cum- Grange.
On the top you will see a blue lion with his front paw on an anchor, which symbolises how Birkenhead depends on the sea and shipping.

Odd facts about Birkenhead – particularly with connections to the United States of America.

In 1847 Birkenhead opened the first public funded civic park in the world. It was designed by Joseph Paxton. The idea of a public park came about in 1841 when the town bought 226 acres of land, which was marshy and grazing land on the edge of the town.

1280px-Birkenhead_Park_-_The_Grand_EntranceMain entrance to the park.

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Lakes

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Lake house

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Quiet spots

The above park pictures have been taken from the internet – all of mine are black & white!

Frederick Law Olmsted, an American landscape architect,  arrived in Liverpool in 1850 to stay in the north west of England. During his time in England he visited a number of parks, including Birkenhead Park.
In 1858 he and Calvert Vaux won a competition to design a new park for New York, which was to be called Central Park. He was very impressed with Joseph Paxton’s design of Birkenhead Park, and this influenced his over all design of Central Park.
Birkenhead Park was also the template in 1872, for the design of Sefton Park in Liverpool

Central-Park-New-York-CityCentral Park NY

conservatory-waterBoat lake Central Park

Central park is nearly four times the size of Birkenhead Park.

In 1860 an American, George Francis Train, visited Liverpool to try and persuade them to build a tram network – Liverpool did not respond to his idea, so Mr Train crossed the river to Birkenhead and they listened, and opened the first tramway in Europe, which was from Woodside (which is on the river bank) to Birkenhead Park. It was horse drawn.

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The above two pictures are to illustrate the horse drawn tram – both were taken by me in Victor Harbor, South Australia, this Australian service began in 1894.

Mr Train told Birkenhead council that if the service was not a success he would return the streets to their original state, at his own cost. He didn’t have to spend any money.

In 1828 William Laird and his son John started a ship building company on the banks of the River Mersey at Birkenhead.

In 1839 he built the first screw propelled steamer, the Robert F Stockton, which was a tug for use on the North American Waterways.

They were very successful at building iron ships and one of the best customers was the East India Company. Relations with China began to deteriorate so the Company wanted war ships to protect their China trade.  Laird built the Nemesis, which was 184 foot long, 29 foot beam, 6 foot draft and 660 tons. She was armed with two pivoted mounted 32 pounders, four six pounders and rocket launchers. She had 120 hp steam engine as was the first iron ship to round the Cape of Good Hope. She was a paddle steamer.

The 'Nemesis'   Nemesis, (Goddess of retribution).

HEICo_steamer_Nemesis Nemesis wreaked havoc amongst the wooden junks of the Chinese navy during the First Opium War. The first rocket that she fired hit a large junk and caused it to blow up with a huge explosion. The Chinese didn’t stand a chance against such modern weapons.

In 1848 they built the 1400 ton paddle frigate HMS Birkenhead for the navy. She became famous when she was being used as a troop ship and was wrecked off South Africa in 1852.

The_Birkenhead-TroopshipHMS Birkenhead

She didn’t have enough lifeboats for all of the passengers so the troops stood in their regimental lines so as to allow the women and children to get away in the lifeboats.

Only 193 of the 643 people on board survived and the soldier’s bravery gave birth to the call ‘ women and children first’ when abandoning any ship. This became known as the Birkenhead Drill. All the women and children survived.

Wreck_of_the_Birkenhead

Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem in their honour and part of it is below

‘To stand and be still
to the Birken’ead Drill
is a damn tough bullet to chew’.

Some years later the Confederate States of America ordered an iron clad ship from the same ship yard in Birkenhead –

CSSAlabamaCSS Alabama

1050 tons, 222 foot long, 31 foot 8 inch beam, 17 foot 8 inch draft, single screw, with 6 x 32 pounders, 1 x 100 lb cannon and 1 x 68 lb cannon, BUT none of her armaments were on the vessel when she was handed over to the Confederates because of the British neutrality Act. Lairds were legally able to build, and sell the ship without arms. She sailed to the Azores where she was handed over and then rigged with her armaments. Her decks had been built with reinforcements to take the cannon.

QaYtGJwHer moto was – ‘God helps those who help themselves.’

She burned 65 union ships (mainly merchant ships) but didn’t harm the crews, but put them on neutral ships.   Eventually she was sunk by a Union vessel off the coast of France. In 1984 the French navy found the resting place of the Alabama in 200 feet of water off  Cherbourg, France.

Birkenhead was not always building ships because sometimes ships were run aground to be broken up.

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SS Great Eastern

Brunel’s Great Eastern, launched in 1858 and was the largest ship ever built. 18,915 grt, 692 feet long, 82 feet wide with four decks bult to carry 4000 passengers non-stop to Australia from the UK. The world had to wait until 1899 before a longer ship, RMS Oceanic was built, and 1901 before a heavier ship was built RMS Celtic, 21,035 grt.

 The Great Eastern never carried passengers to Australia, but did carry them to America, before becoming a cable laying ship.

later she was used as an advertising ‘hoarding’ and sailed up and down the River Mersey advertising Lewis’ Department store. I suppose it was ‘fortunate’ that Brunel died in 1959 and never saw what happened to his world class ship.

Lewis's-GE-Handkerchief_d

The Great Eastern was beached between Rock Ferry and New Ferry not far from the Laird’s ship yard.

Great_Eastern_SLV_AllanGreen  Her stern is towards Rock Ferry and her bow points to New Ferry, although many comments state that she was broken up at New Ferry.

Behind the Great Eastern’s stern (which is not shown in this photograph) is HMS Conway.

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It took eighteen month to break up the Great Eastern, it was far larger and stronger than the breakers had imagined and it is thought that they made a big loss on the job.

Finally to end on the park again –

War_memorial_BirkenheadThe Birkenhead war memorial in Hamilton Square has my uncle’s name inscribed up on it – he is buried a short distance outside Ypres in Belgium, having been killed in action in 1917 – he was nineteen.

DSC00214r  Albert Edward01He signed up at seventeen, and just before he left he and his parents visited a show for the troops. It was held at a theater across the road from the main entrance to Birkenhead Park. I believe my father would have been with them – he would have been six years old at the time.

aaki_wmOpening day for the park in 1847.

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I found the program the other day amongst some old papers of my father’s. As you see the theater is reopening on Good Friday, 2nd April 1915, only a hundred and two years ago tomorrow (Good Friday).

The theater was later renamed as the Park Cinema, before being pulled down in 1938 and replaced with a more modern building called the Gaumont Cinema.

Ship ahoy!

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1 Corinthians 16 : 13 – stand firm in the faith an apt moto.

In a number of my blogs I have mentioned HMS Conway Nautical College, and some of my readers have asked various questions, so I thought I’d do a more detailed blog of ‘The Conway’.

In the mid 1800’s Great Britain had the largest merchant fleet in the world – in fact the British fleet was larger than the combined fleets of all other nations.

Because the British requirement was so large it caused problems of lack of seamen and officers. The British Government at that time produced a report in 1848 because safety standards were so low. At that time there wasn’t any formal training of officers in the merchant navy.

The Government passed the Mercantile Marine Act of 1850, which established a system of examining masters and mates who wished to sail deep sea. A further Act of 1854 set the system that British vessels had to have certificated officers, who had been properly trained, in command.

Liverpool ship owners realised that they needed to set up a system to train officers for their own future. They created the Mercantile Marine Services Association and one their first acts was to create a school for the training of boys to become officers in the merchant navy.

The MMSA (as it became known) asked the Government for help in the form of a Royal Navy ship to use as a training school. The vessel offered was quite large and would have cost too much money to refit as a school, so they asked for a smaller ship, and the Government offered a sixth rate frigate, called HMS Conway. She was 26 guns and 652 tons.

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HMS Conway 1859

She was fitted out in Devonport, which is in the UK, and sailed to the River Mersey to be moored off Rock Ferry, on the Birkenhead side of the Mersey, which is across the river from Liverpool.

The school opened for ‘business’ on the 1st August, 1859, after an extensive conversion from a man of war to a ‘school’ ship.

The Conway was so successful that by 1861 they had outgrown the sixth rate ship, and a larger vessel was obtained from the Government, HMS Winchester, which was a fourth rate frigate. She  was renamed Conway and the ‘old’ Conway was renamed Winchester.

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HMS Conway – nee Winchester 1861

In 1864 Queen Victoria recognised Conway’s success in training boys for the merchant navy by granting £50 a year to be distributed in prizes and a gold medal. In the Conway Chapel in Birkenhead there is a medal board with the names of every winner of the Queen’s Gold Medal. Later the medal became known as the King’s medal and when I was on the Conway 1960 – 62 it had reverted to the Queen’s medal.

By 1875, due to Royal patronage, they’d outgrown the old ‘Winchester’, so they had to find a larger ship – this time the Government offered HMS Nile, a second rate frigate. She was, 2,622 tons and designed for a crew of 850.

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HMS Conway – nee Nile 1875

The conversion took over a year, but by 1876 HMS Nile had become HMS Conway and the old ‘Winchester’ sailed away as HMS Nile.

A thirteen year old boy attending HMS Conway for two years and passing the examinations at the end of his time, would only have to do three instead of four years as an apprentice sailing deep sea. Shipping companies realised the value of hiring a Conway cadet, because they used to donate various prizes (binoculars, sextant, tankard, books, gold / silver watches) for those cadets who achieved the best passes in various subjects.

During the air raids in WW2 the cadets had a ring side seat of the bombing of Liverpool and Birkenhead. The Germans used to drop magnetic mines by parachute in to the river so as to explode when close to a ship. One fell close to the Conway and only the drag of the parachute kept it from hitting the ship. Although much of her was wood she still had a lot of metal on and around her. It was this incident that caused the authorities to decide to move the Conway to a less exposed site.

From a personal aspect during one of the raids my grand mother’s home, which was not far from Birkenhead docks, was hit, and in the language of the time ‘they were bombed out,’ which meant that they had lost their home. Fortunately they were in an air raid shelter when the bomb hit the house.

birkehead-park

The above photograph is of the local underground railway station near my grandmother’s home, which was bombed.

At that time my mother was living with my father’s mother, who was a widow, while Dad was at sea in the Royal Navy. The house was near Cammell Lairds ship yard, and they were fortunate that their house was spared amongst so many lost in the area. Much of the bombing was against the ship yard.

HMS Conway was moved to a safe location off Bangor in North Wales, where she stayed from 1941 to 1949.

The demand for qualified sea going staff in both the Royal and Merchant navy had cause an over crowding problem on the Conway so she was moved to a mooring in the Menai Straits off the Marquis of Anglesey’s home Plas Newydd. The Marquis had agreed that certain land based facilities could be created on his estate, which eased the over crowded ship board life.

conway-coloured1

By 1953 it was evident that HMS Conway required a Dry Dock – the last one being in 1937 and she was after all 114 years old having been launched in 1839 as HMS Nile, and there were very few wooden walled ships left.

Arrangements were made and tugs allocated to take the old ship through the Swillies, which is a stretch of water between the two bridges that link the mainland of Wales and the Isle of Anglesey. It is a dangerous area with the northern tide meeting the same tide from the south. Ther area has shoals, sandbanks and rocks.

The journey started well, but during the time she was in the Swillies the tide became too strong for the tugs, and the Conway ran aground on a rock shelf.

conway_agroundAs the tide dropped it was realised that only the forward part was on the rock shelf and the stern area was overhanging the end of the rock – she broke her back.

brokenbackYou can see how the line of the ship has changed

framedTaken from ashore at the bow some time later.

Only a handful of cadets where onboard when the loss occurred, because it was during a holiday period.

Some fast thinking had to be done to arrange accommodation for nearly 200 cadets when they returned from leave and realised that the ship was a total loss. The Marquis of Anglesey was very generous in allowing the Captain of the Conway to take over some fields and build a tent ‘town’ to accommodate everyone. The Marquis also promised land on which a new college could be built, after everything had been sorted out.

When the cadets returned for the winter term they found that the tents had been removed and barrack style camp had been created.

conway_camp_aerialThe large house at the top of the picture is Plas Newydd – the Marquis’ home.

Each hut could sleep twenty cadets with a small bedroom at one end for the cadet captain.

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I took this photograph in 1961 of the hut (as it was called) where I lived at the time and designated Starboard Main. The hut had one toilet, and outside was a small drinking fountain. But for showers and other facilities we had to run quite a long way. We were never allowed to walk, unless we were in a squad. See below.

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kelvin-block-2004

I took this photograph in 2004 from approximately the position of my hut to the building that contained the showers, and you can see how far it was for us to run at 6.00 am on a winter’s morning in North Wales. It was COLD!

In 1956 a company from South Wales was given the task of dismantling the ship. On the night of the 30th October the ship caught fire. It was built out of wood that had been polished and scrubbed for over a hundred years with wax and polish – the fire grew and grew. The local fire brigade fought it for three hours, and it looked like they where winning until the wind changed and they had to retreat. The fire burned for eighteen hours and could be seen for miles.

It was August 1961 when the foundation stone was laid for the new college. One hundred and two years to the day that the first cadet had joined Conway in the Mersey.
In 1963 as the cadets left for summer leave they didn’t know what to expect on their return. None could remember the move from the tents to the camp area and now the camp would be demolished during leave and the next chapter for HMS Conway was in the new buildings.

new-collegeThe official opening was performed by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh on the  6th May 1964.

Although I wasn’t at the opening I have read one comment made by the Duke during his opening presentation – ‘Education is not a system for accumulating facts, it must prepare people to meet the responsibilities and challenges of civilised life.’

A handy comment in today’s shattered world of terrorism.

By 1973 the world had changed and British shipping was in decline – partly due to containerisation.

The demand for cadets had fallen and the cost of maintaining the college grew and grew. Cheshire County Council took over management and eventually the shipping industry changed and some shipping companies wanted to train their own cadets as long as they had ‘A’ level passes in national exams. This drained the application numbers from Conway, because if a cadet was taken by a shipping company he was paid, whereas his family had to pay for him to attend Conway.

I left the sea because it was believed that one large container ship would put six standard ships out of work – and the thought of competing for jobs against more experienced merchant navy officers helped me make up my mind to leave the sea. The fact that I wanted to marry also helped me to make this decision – so I joined an airline.

During its life of 115 years HMS Conway trained over 11,000 cadets – and Britain from having a merchant fleet larger than the combined fleets of all other nations, has now the tenth largest fleet in the world. (as at 2006).

They used to say ‘and you’ll find on the bridge a Conway boy . . . . ‘ not many left – a few lines below of the Conway song called – ‘Carry On’

From every distant sea and shore,
You’ll hear the cry
“Ship ahoy! Ship ahoy!”
And you’ll find on the bridge a Conway Boy,

If you wish to know more you can buy the latest history of   HMS Conway from Amazon. A very good read by Alfie Windsor ex Conway 1964 – 68.

The picture at the top of my blog shows part of the Swellies and one of the bridges linking mainland Wales and Anglesey.