HMS Conway (school ship)
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HMS Conway at Rock Ferry
|General characteristics 1857 - 1861
|Class & type:||Conway-class corvette|
|Tons burthen:||651 74/94 bm|
|Length:||125 ft (38 m) (gundeck)
106 ft (32 m) (keel)
|Beam:||34 ft 5 in (10.49 m)|
|Sail plan:||Full-rigged ship|
|General characteristics 1861 - 1875
|Class & type:||Southampton-class frigate|
|Tons burthen:||1,468 11/94 bm (as designed)|
|Length:||172 ft (52 m) (gundeck)
144 ft 9 in (44 m) (keel)
|Beam:||44 ft 3.25 in (13 m)|
|Depth of hold:||14 ft 6 in (4 m)|
|Sail plan:||Full-rigged ship|
|General characteristics 1875 - 1953
|Class & type:||Rodney-class ship of the line|
|Tons burthen:||2598 bm|
|Length:||205 ft 6 in (62.64 m) (gundeck)|
|Beam:||54 ft 5 in (16.59 m)|
|Depth of hold:||23 ft 2 in (7.06 m)|
|Sail plan:||Full-rigged ship|
|General characteristics 1953 - 1974|
|Class & type:||"Stone frigate" at Plas Newydd|
HMS Conway was a naval training school or "school ship", founded in 1859 and housed for most of its life aboard a 19th-century wooden battleship. The ship was originally stationed on the Mersey near Liverpool, then moved to the Menai Strait during World War II. While being towed back to Birkenhead for a refit in 1953, she ran aground and was wrecked, and later burned. The school moved to purpose-built premises on Anglesey where it continued for another twenty years.
In the mid-19th century, the demand for a reliable standard of merchant navy officers had grown to the point where ship owners decided to set up an organisation to train, and indeed educate, them properly: the Mercantile Marine Service Associations (MMSA).
One of the first sites chosen for a school ship was Liverpool, in 1857. The ship they chose to accommodate the school, to be provided by the Admiralty and moored in the Sloyne, off Rock Ferry on the River Mersey, was the corvette HMS Conway. There were to be three Conways over the years, the name being transferred to the new ship each time it was replaced. In 1861 HMS Winchester took the name, but the one that housed the school for most of its life was lent by the Royal Navy to the Mercantile Marine Service Association in 1875. This was the two-decker Nile, a 92-gun second-rate line-of-battle ship. She was 205 ft (62.5 m) long on the gundeck, 54 ft (16 m) in beam, and displaced 4,375 long tons. During her operational life she was equipped with ten 8-inch (200 mm) guns and eighty-two 30-pounders. Launched in June 1839, she was entirely built from West African hardwoods and copper fastened, with copper sheathing anti-fouling to her under parts. She had survived the Baltic Blockade during the Crimean War, later protecting British possessions in the Caribbean and 'showing the flag' along the eastern seaboard of North America 50 years after the British surrender at Yorktown. In 1876 she was renamed Conway and moored on the Mersey.
The ship, already a century old, was refitted in the dry dock at Birkenhead between 1936 and 1938. She was also fitted with a new figurehead representing Nelson, which was ceremonially unveiled by the-then Poet Laureate John Masefield, himself an old alumnus of the school (1891–1893).[Note 1]
By 1953 she had already outlived both her sisters, 'Rodney' and 'London', by more than 70 years.
From Mersey to Menai
In 1941, with air raids on the Liverpool docks taking place, Conway had already survived several near misses. It was decided to move the ship from the Mersey to Anglesey, where she remained moored for the duration of the war between the former Bishop's Palace at Glyn Garth and the Gazelle Hotel, in line with the Catalina flying boat moorings along the Anglesey shore. This being wartime there was no official announcement of the move and local residents were startled one evening to see a picturesque Nelson-era battleship, a "wooden wall", entering the Menai Strait. Subsequently, ship to shore traffic was across the Menai Strait to the pier-head at Bangor or to the Gazelle Hotel ferry terminal and she became something of a local tourist attraction.
At the end of the 1940s there was a surge in demand for merchant navy cadets. The ship did not have space for more cadets so the ship's superintendent, Captain Goddard, started looking for space ashore with playing fields and a shore establishment. He picked on Plas Newydd, the stately home of the Marquess of Anglesey, a large part of which had been vacated by the US Intelligence Corps at the end of the War. This site seemed ideal, except that the seabed provided very poor anchorage, so four five-ton anchors were sunk there. Only one problem remained: could the ship be moved there in one piece? She would need to be towed by tugs through a stretch of water between Anglesey and the mainland, known as the "Swellies". This area, bounded by the two Menai bridges (the Menai Suspension Bridge and Britannia Bridge), is notorious for underwater shoals and dangerous, complex tidal streams as well as a non-tidal current varied by the wind and atmospheric pressure. Captain Goddard was proud of his experience as a hydrographic surveyor, and having studied the problem, believed it was possible.
After a false start the day before, the ship was moved successfully on 13 April 1949, in spite of what was obviously a great risk. Conway remains by far the deepest ship ever to have passed through the Swellies. Her draft was 22 feet (6.71 m) aft and the underwater clearances were marginal. The overhead clearance under Menai Suspension Bridge, which is 100 feet (30.48 m) above high water, was estimated to be three feet, all depending upon the actual height of the tide at the time of passing through. "I was glad when it was accomplished," Captain Goddard wrote. "It created a great deal of interest amongst the North Wales seafaring fraternity who had declared the undertaking to be a foolish one."
Loss of the ship
By 1953 another refit was due. This could not be done locally so the ship had to be taken back to Birkenhead dry dock, passing back through The Swellies once more.
The operation took place on 14 April 1953. There were the same two Liverpool tugs which had shifted her several times before, "Dongarth" forward and "Minegarth" aft. The new Captain Superintendent, Captain E Hewitt RD RNR was in command, with two Trinity House local pilots, Pilot R D Jones (junior) aboard the head tug, Pilot R J Jones (senior) advising Captain Hewitt, with Blue Funnel Liverpool Pilot James Miller overseeing the towage.
High Water Liverpool that morning was 1118 am, height 32'10" and the highest tide that year (Admiralty Tide Tables) Lavers Almanac quote HW Menai Bridge as 28 minutes before HW Liverpool (L.pool -00.28). What is termed High Water 'Slack' in the Swellies is actually a brief period of uneasy equilibrium between two opposing flood streams which typically occurs 1 hour 42 minutes before local High Water. (L.pool - 2.10, or 0908 that morning - (Caernarfon Harbour Trust) Owing to the strength of the SW-going ebb, which Admiralty chart 1461 states runs at 8 knots at Springs producing a confused complex tidal flow among the numerous rocks and islets generating many powerful eddies (Anglesey Pilot p17 para106) on a big tide in particular it's vital for an outbound vessel to be through the Swellies before the tide turns against her, a point which cannot be over emphasised. It's therefore the local practice to start the outward transit with the last of the NE-going flood 20 minutes before the 'Slack'. (L.pool -2.30, or 0848 that morning) (Caernarfon Harbour Trust)
The least depth in the principle channel through the Swellies, the South Shore Course, is the depth over Cheese Rock, which is the 4 ft sounding shown on the chart 270 ft east of Britannia Bridge. Since the chart title clearly states that soundings between the bridges are reduced for the same 22 ½ feet rise and fall as Menai Bridge, it would be a very easy mistake to add the height of the tide at Menai Bridge to soundings to figure the depth at that time at any given point between the bridges. But the title also states that when the tidal range is 22 ½ feet at Menai Bridge it's only 19 feet at Britannia Bridge (Pwllfanog). So while the depths at the N-Eastern end of the Swellies are figured on the tide at Menai Bridge, at the S-Western end depths must be figured on the tide at Pwllfanog. Using the familiar sine formula, the graph on the Conway site shows the red curve (b) which is the depth over Cheese Rock correctly calculated on the tide at Pwllfanog. This shows the ship would have her 21' 10" draft over the rock 35 minutes before the 'Slack' (0833) and this is confirmed by Caernarfon Harbourmaster Richard Jones' physical measurements taken 22.02.2000 (see his graph) But the blue curve (a) on the Conway graph shows that erroneously working the depth on the tide at Menai Bridge would give the false result that the ship would not have the water over the rock until L.pool -2.00 (0918). So, it being a rising tide, Capt. Hewitt decided he would have to delay the transit by half an hour until 0920, (Subcom p1 line 14 although the aforesaid graphs and measurements show the ship did have the water at 0833.
The streams in the Menai Strait are affected by winds outside in the Irish Sea. With a strong North or North-westerly wind both the rate and duration of the Southwest-going ebb are increased, and the Southwest-going ebb may begin quarter of an hour earlier. (Admiralty Pilot vol 37; p 315; line21) The 0600 synoptic chart showed a stationary deep depression west of Norway with a secondary Low in the North Sea, and a High steadily closing the west coast of Ireland, which could be expected to result in an increasingly strong NW'ly wind in the Irish Sea. But in the shelter of the Plas Newydd mooring there was no indication of this. At 0800 as the wind was being recorded in Conway's logbook as northerly force 1-2 (2 to 5 knots), only 13 miles away on station off Point Lynas it was being recorded by the Liverpool Pilot boat as NW force 6 (22 - 27 knots) (Subcom p4 line 7) and her noon entry was NW force 7, (28 - 33 knots) (Beaufort wind scale) while during the morning Bidston Observatory was recording gusts up to 49 knots (storm force 10).
The Investigating Subcommittee was later to express its "surprise" that Captain Hewitt had left the Plas Newydd mooring without a weather forecast, and "had no knowledge of the stormy conditions prevailing at sea at the time Conway was to make the passage" since it was local knowledge that in such weather "abnormal conditions might be encountered." (Subcom p4 para 5) In addition to the tide generated streams in the Menai Strait there is also a non-tidal current, the Southwest Residual a dynamic reaction which directly reflects wind stress in the Irish Sea. Dr Toby J Sherwin, Estuarial research Menai Bridge, referring to a formula in Simpson et al page 252, explained how the North-westerly mean wind speed of 16 meters per second at sea that day would enhance the Residual by 15 cm per second, increasing the strength of the SW-going ebb at Plas Newydd by 3 knots, "And quite obviously by a lot more than this in the narrow sections of the Swellies." (loss p9 para 2)
Conway's logbook shows she left the mooring at 0822 and arrived at Britannia Bridge at 0850, which was the locally recommended time for starting the outward transit and Pilot Jones naturally advised keeping her going with the last of the northeast-going flood tide behind her. Instead Capt Hewitt had the ship brought up for half an hour to await his 0920. The severe wind in the Irish Sea caused the stream in the Strait to turn to the westward earlier (Anglesey Pilot p17 para 104) which eliminated the brief slack water period. Capt F J Durrant, Marine Manages of the towing company, observed "The anticipated ten minute slack water did not materialise. The ebb set in immediately the flood ended at 0920" (Durrant p4 para 1) With the ship far too late and sensitive to the adverse conditions Pilot Jones advised going back, instead the logbook shows Capt.Hewitt passed the ship under Britannia Bridge at 0923 even though the ebb tide was already setting against him which was quite contrary to all local practice.
Only 17 minutes later, "At 0940 ..... the forward tug "Dongarth" was towing at full speed against the tide but making no further progress." (Durrant p4 para 4) By 1010am, 47 minutes after passing under the bridge, the tow was still in much the same position having made good only six tenths of a mile from the bridge, (Subcom p5 para5) giving the tide another half an hour to develop further, yet it was not until then that Capt. Hewitt had the stern tug slipped and sent forward to assist the head tug, (photo) when "headway became slight but noticeable" (Durrant p5 para 4) By 1020, already a full hour into the ebb, the pilots had worked the ship across the tide and into the eddy which Anglesey Pilot p17 para 106 states forms near the Anglesey shore close westward of the northern pier of the Suspension Bridge, (photo) and intended holding her there in the safety of this until the strength of the tide had abated. Instead, with only 750 feet to go to the bridge, Capt. Hewitt ordered that the ship be put back in the channel and this was done. Almost immediately, at 1030, she was suddenly caught by an eddy of overwhelming strength which drove the ship ashore over The Platters. "This disastrous sheer occurred and was concluded in a matter of seconds" (Durrant p5 para 5) (photo) (see chart which also shows the position where the ship finished up, which was 'inked in' by Capt Reece-Thomas who was Caernarfon Harbourmaster at the time) Contrasting with the 18 minutes she had taken to complete the inbound transit, the outbound ship had been 1 hour 7 minutes covering the 1200 yards from Britannia Bridge where the pilot had advised going back.
After both tugs on full speed for ten minutes had failed to make any impression they were instructed to stand bye at Menai Bridge Pier for another attempt to re-float her on the evening tide when there would be a better opportunity if the weather at sea moderated. (Durrant p6 para 2) But a third tug, "Grassgarth", sent out at 1430 to assist in towing her off was forced to put back to Liverpool through stress of weather. (Durrant p6 para 4)
While her fore part planted firmly on the shelving shore her stern was floating in 30 feet of water. As the tide fell the stern lost its support (photo) causing the ship to become severely hogged which opened up her seams, and about her midship sections the height between decks was reduced from over 6 feet (1.8 m) to less than 4 feet (1.2 m). (photo) "Conditions on board were very bad with the after end of the ship from the mainmast sagging downwards, and the continuous sound of cracking, twisting, rending timber and rushing water below" (photo) (Durrant p6 para 7) When the next tide made the stern failed to lift and the ship flooded freely through her open seams. Being evident that further attempts to tow the ship off would be to no purpose, the tugs were discharged and left for Liverpool the following morning. Two days after the grounding, in the evening of 16 April 1953, surveyors declared "HMS Conway" a total constructive loss. The ship was not insured.
Reasons for the loss
Had the ship gone through at 0850 with the last of the tide behind her in keeping with local practice, and as Pilot had advised, she would not have encountered the unusually strong contrary ebb tide which quickly overpowered the tugs to result in the loss. Captain Hewitt had his reasons for delaying the ship until 0920, but "Conway" adequately demonstrated that waiting for water in adverse conditions on a big tide was not an option. If it was considered that the ship had insufficient water at 0850, then as Pilot Jones recognised the outward transit was impossible on such a day, but pilot's advice was disregarded.
Last years of the school
The school was first rehoused in tents loaned by the British Army. These were quickly replaced by a hutted camp in the grounds of Plas Newydd where it stayed for ten years. All traces of the huts have now gone but modern day visitors to Plas Newydd still use the school's cafeteria. Then new premises were built for it in the grounds of Plas Newydd on the south coast of Anglesey, and thus Conway spent its last twenty years on dry land in what is known as a "stone frigate".
Cadets over the years included:
- Captain Matthew Webb (at Conway 1860–1862), the first man to swim the English Channel from England to France
- John Masefield (1891–94), Poet Laureate 1930–1967
- Lionel "Buster" Crabb (1922–1924), the Royal Navy frogman who disappeared in mysterious circumstances while on a diving mission near a Soviet warship in 1956
- Vice Admiral Sir David Brown (1927–2005) 
- Ian Fraser (1936–38), awarded the Victoria Cross for commanding a midget submarine attack on the Japanese cruiser Takao in Singapore harbour.
- Iain Duncan Smith (1968–1972), leader of the Conservative Party 2001–2003
- Sir Clive Woodward (1969–1974), rugby union player and England coach
- Francis Haffey Brooke-Smith (1934–36), awarded the George Cross for bomb disposal.
- Harold Kyrle Money Bellew (1869), 19th century stage actor
- James Paul Moody (1901,1902), sixth officer on the RMS Titanic
The Conway Club for ex-alumni still thrives, numbering some 1,600 Old Conways. Several affiliated overseas clubs also exist in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA.
- A short newsreel clip of the unveiling of the figurehead can be downloaded from the British Pathé website (search for "Conway").
- Winfield, Rif; Lyon, David (2004). The Sail and Steam Navy List: All the Ships of the Royal Navy 1815–1889. London: Chatham Publishing. ISBN 978-1-86176-032-6. OCLC 52620555.
- Masefield, John (1933). The Conway: From her Foundation to the Present Day. London: William Heinemann Ltd.
- hmsconway.org - A comprehensive account of the life and loss of the ship, with many pictures and personal accounts
- Diagram showing the Conway's last shift
- Conway Merchant Navy Trust
- Tides in the Menai Strait and the Loss of HMS Conway