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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As 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.
You can see how the line of the ship has changed
Taken 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
The 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.