<< back to Maritime History

Ships Passing Through

Ss Afonwen at the Messina Earthquake in 1908

Early on the 28th December 1908, the ss Afonwen, of Cardiff, was lying at her moorings at Messina, Sicily. At 5:22am the area was hit by an earthquake of 7.5 magnitude. The first intimation the Master, Captain William Owen, had of the disaster was when he was woken by the upheaval and commotion of a tidal wave. Dense clouds of dust added to the darkness and confusion. The safety of the ship was the first priority, but once assured of that, the skipper took his crew ashore as dawn broke to give help to the people of the town.

There was much destruction but one particular act of gallantry stood out; a building of five storeys was reached where children were crying out for help at a great height from the ground. The interior of the building had mostly collapsed and one of the outer walls had disappeared; the structure was in a very dangerous condition. Able Seaman Henry Smith and Second Mate James Vivian Reed, swarmed up a rope to rescue the children who had lowered string by means of which a rope was hauled up and made fast. Three more people were then lowered to the ground from an even higher story.

It was a major disaster with an estimated death toll of between 70,000 and 100,000 people. In the aftermath, the Italian Royal family awarded a 'merit medal' to all those who distinguished themselves during and after the catastrophe. For their special gallantry, Able Seaman Henry Smith and Second Mate James Vivian Reed were awarded the Albert Medal by King Edward VII at a ceremony at the palace on the 22nd July 1909 although Henry Smith was away at sea at the time and would receive his medal later.

A second commemorative medal was awarded by Italy in 1910 to everyone who came to the aid of the Italian people during the disaster. In addition to the Albert Medal awarded to seaman Smith and second mate Reed, twenty-five members of the Afonwen's crew were awarded this Commemorative Medal.

         SS Afonwen of Cardiff, taken at Newport Docks.


Built on the Clyde in 1886, the Balclutha, a three-masted, steel-hulled, square-rigger, left Cardiff on her maiden voyage on January 15, 1887, with a twenty-six-man crew. She arrived at her destination of San Francisco one hundred and forty days later to unload her cargo of 2,650 tons of coal. She rounded the Horn many times in her sailing career and like many of her kind, often took almost a year to make the return passage. Such vessels are a tribute to the men who built and sailed them and to the trade that ebbed out of the great coal exporting ports of South Wales. The Balclutha survives, now fully restored and forming the centre piece of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

HMS Flying Fox

The Flying Fox was a Royal Naval Reserve training ship, berthed at Bristol from 1924 until 1972. As a sailing sloop, she had seen service in the First World War as a fleet sweeping vessel and was said to have been the first ship to sink an enemy submarine during the Great War. When the RNVR became shore based in 1972, the Flying Fox was towed across the Bristol Channel and beached on the foreshore at Cardiff Docks where she was broken up.

The Flying Fox on the beach at Cardiff ready for breaking in 1973

Mv Hindlea

The Hindlea was a 400 ton coaster purchased by the Hindlea Shipping Company in 1952. She traded around the coast of Wales and was a frequent visitor to Cardiff. On the 27th October 1959 she was driven ashore onto rocks in a gale at Moelfra on Anglesey, one hundred years and one day after the loss of the Royal Charter which claimed over 400 lives at the same spot. RNLI Coxswain Dick Evans was awarded the first of his two gold medals when he brought his lifeboat alongside the Hindlea time and again to safely rescue all of her crew in atrocious sea conditions.

The ss Hindlea entering the port of Cardiff

The Hindlea wrecked on the rocks at Moelfra

Polly Woodside

When the Polly Woodside ran down the slipway in Belfast in 1885 nobody could foresee that this fine ship would outlive most of her kind and still be proudly displaying the cut of her jib to the rest of the world more than a century later. Rigged as a barque; square rigged on the fore and main masts and fore and aft sails on the mizzen, she was built for a well known ship owner W.J. Woodside and named after his wife. She spent most of her early years carrying coal out to South America and returning with cargoes of nitrates or grain. It was hard and dangerous work; each voyage would take about a year to complete and often involved twice rounding Cape Horn. Her maiden voyage from the ship yard in Belfast was to Newport to load coal for Pasandu in Uruguay. She was a regular visitor to Cardiff and the other coal ports of South Wales and in the late 1890s she embarked upon two long tramping voyages, picking up cargoes as and where she could find them, tramping from port to port, each voyage taking two years or more and circling the globe in the process. Then, sold on and renamed Rona, she eventually came to the end of her working life in 1921 after a grounding at Wellington, New Zealand. She made her last voyage under sail to Sydney and before moving to Melbourne after she had been converted for use as storage hulk. And there she remained except for a period during World War II when she was towed to New Guinea to provide storage for the war effort. Back in Melbourne, she eventually fell into disuse in the 1960s. As the last sailing ship still afloat in Australia, rusty, filthy and dishevelled, she was donated to the National Trust of Australia in 1968. Since then, thanks to a dedicated team of volunteers, she has slowly and surely been reborn as the Polly Woodside of old and now sits beautifully restored, still afloat, in her permanent berth in the Dukes and Orr's Dock close to the centre of Melbourne.

'  The restored Polly Woodside afloat in Melbourne in 2003

The Diary of George Andrews

George Andrews joined the Polly Woodside in New Zealand in 1904 on a fourteen week passage to Britain. At sixteen, he had volunteered for the passage for the experience and he was not to be disappointed! His diary survives and the few extracts included here give a remarkable insight to what it was really like to sail across the oceans on a working ship under sail. It begins as the ship is preparing to leave harbour in New Zealand-

The crew came aboard with plenty of liquor; for an hour every one of them was dead drunk. And it was lively aboard then, quarrelling, fighting and yelling, most of their clothes were soon torn off. There was enough blood about to satisfying anyone for some time…..they turned out quiet enough chaps when sober but some of them are poor sailors and certainly not very elevating characters…. A slow job is raising the anchor, it took all hands excepting the captain, half an hours hard work ….but she is horrible dirty… we have to pig it a bit at mealtimes. All hands say this is the most uncomfortable ship, small, overladen, poor food etc. She is very wet, the deck is about two feet above the waterline and water is running in and out the scupper holes the whole time. The tucker is getter worse and scarcer every day. Salt pork one day salt beef the next…. sea biscuits are supposed to make up the rest.

Later in the voyage on rough seas-

The wind increased to a small gale and ….with wet decks you can't walk about without holding on to something and you can't stand on the lee side. She rolls her lee sail right under and is continuingly shipping sea over the weather side. There is not a dry place on deck and hardly one below. I have often seen four feet of rushing water on the lee deck and tons coming aboard on one sea on the other….. It is no joke going aloft in a gale on a dark night and the crew faced it very pluckily. Of course it is a case of having to but you feel very proud of yourself after it. They serve out a drop of grog… I tried a spoonful once but won't trouble it again….

On sighting another ship-

After chasing her for two days we overhauled a ship one morning …. she was a fine big ship, the Scottish Locks of Liverpool, 2,400 tons, nearly 3 times our size, 120 days out from San Francisco. She rounded 'the Horn' six days before us. We sailed nearly side by side about a quarter of a mile off all day and she looked fine. Just before dark when we saw a sight seldom even seen at sea. The wind increasing she was gradually creeping past us to leeward when they altered their minds and came tearing towards us passing about fifty yards astern. She looked dangerously close. It was about the most impressive sight I have seen. Both of us were doing close on twelve knots and had everything set. We saw a bit of their seamanship too….her flying jib sheets carried away, the sail flapping and making a great noise and flashing fire from the blocks. They soon got it down and stowed, about twenty men going out on the bowsprit.”

The Tug Sea Alarm

Built in 1941 as 'The Empire Ash' the Sea Alarm of Bristol was the last steam driven tug left in the Bristol Channel. Moreover, she was the last ever vessel to take on coal at Barry Docks. In 1973 she was preserved in the old West Dock Basin at Cardiff as an open air display, part of the Welsh Industrial & Maritime Museum. But although the museum had not long been built, it was swept aside as part of the redevelopment of Cardiff Bay. And in a gross act of vandalism, the Sea Alarm was scrapped in 1998, though her main engine was removed and put into store at Nantgarw.

  The tug Sea Alarm at Cardiff- saved before being scrapped

HMS Tiger

The 9.500 ton cruiser HMS Tiger, arrived at Cardiff Docks in 1966 for an official visit. Whilst she was there, on the 21st of October, at the nearby mining village of Aberfan, a massive water-logged section of coal tip slid down the hillside and engulfed the village school with thousands of tons of slurry. 116 children and 28 adults perished. The crew of HMS Tiger were just part of a desperate but increasingly futile search for survivors. The ship's departure led directly to a small niche in history when, during the first week in December off the coast of Gibraltar, she hosted inconclusive talks between Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Ian Smith in an attempt to resolve the crisis of Rhodesian independence. Curiously, work began on building the warship in 1941 but was not completed until 1959. Later in 1966 she was put into reserve and underwent a very expensive refit between 1968 and 1972. She went back into service until 1978 when she was once again put into reserve, being placed on the disposal list a year later and was finally scrapped in Spain in 1986. So, with a life span of forty-five years, HMS Tiger remained in active commission for a mere thirteen years.

       HMS Tiger at Cardiff Docks in 1966