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The 'Conway' and North Wales

Picture of HMS Conway

HMS Conway 1941 - 1974

This is a summary of an article written by Gwyn Pari Huws - Sian's father, a graduate of HMS Conway - originally published in Maritime Wales Vol. 1 (1976)

It was in May 1941 that the school-ship HMS Conway, an old wooden battleship built in the 1830s, arrived in the Menai Straits to escape the ferocity of the Liverpool blitz. Helped no doubt by the name, the Conway soon developed very firm associations in both the educational and maritime fields in North Wales, and these continued until the summer of 1974 when the school was finally closed.

The 19th century had seen tremendous expansion in foreign trade and, in consequence, a rapid growth in the numbers and size of deep-sea ships which were carrying increasing numbers of emigrants in addition to valuable cargoes. The greater values at risk and the increasing sophistication of the vessels demanded more advanced skills of those who were to officer and command them. Thus the first Merchant Shipping Act was introduced in 1851, closely followed by another in 1854. Among other matters, these Acts required that deep-sea ships be commanded by certificated personnel who were to be examined for their competence.

Picture of HMS Conway

HMS Conway

As a result, a number of ship-owner associations were formed to provide the necessary training and education, including one in Liverpool. They asked the Admiralty for a suitable ship on which to train, and received an old frigate HMS Conway, which was put into service as a school-ship in 1859.

The original ship proved to be too small and was replaced in 1876 by a larger battleship, built in 1833, which assumed the name HMS Conway. This ship continued to serve in the Mersey as an educational platform until 1941, breeding generations of 'Conway boys'. These young officers were highly regarded, and having spent two years on the ship, the majority joined one of the many great Liverpool companies of that period. As the years went by they were to be found in all the main shipping companies that were developing throughout the Empire.

During this period there were very few links between the Conway and the seafaring fraternity of North Wales: the Conway was a fee-paying establishment, which meant that entry was effectively restricted to those from affluent families. However, things changed as the 20th Century wore on, and more young Welsh seamen became apprentice officers. Then in 1941 the Conway suddenly appeared in the Menai Straits and became a feasible proposition for a fortunate few of those from Wales who had selected the sea as their career.

It was a traumatic change of course for the Conway but the severity of the air raids on Merseyside made it imperative that a safer berth be found, and such a haven was found in the Straits a little west of Bangor Pier, close to the Anglesey shore. The Conway soon became as much a part of the Straits scene as had been the case on the Mersey, and Welsh surnames appeared with increasing frequency amongst the names of the cadets.

When the war came to an end, the ship's future was reviewed and it was recognised that the academic facilities would have to be extended beyond what was possible on board. A supporting shore establishment would be needed, and fortunately one was found at Plas Newydd, the home of the Marquis of Anglesey. Here there was enough room to establish a shore base and there was sufficient water in the Straits adjacent to provide a safe berth for the ship.

After extensive preparations, the ship was towed under the two bridges in April 1949 - the biggest ship ever to have made the passage through the notorious Swellies. Then, four years later, in the Spring of 1953, the old ship was due to be dry-docked and refitted in Birkenhead, and preparations were made to tow through the Straits once again. This time, due to some most unfortunate circumstances, the ship grounded on the Caernarfonshire side in the most critical part of the passage through the Swellies. The efforts to refloat were unsuccessful and the ship became a total loss, to the very great distress of the people of North Wales who had come to think of Conway as their own during the twelve years the ship had lain in the Menai.

Despite the tragedy, Conway the training establishment did not falter, and the school continued and expanded. As the new buildings were commissioned, the school entered what was probably its most successful academic period. Perhaps the peak as a nautical school was reached in the early 60s, after which the proportion of cadets intending a sea career steadily declined until they became a relatively small minority by the early 70s. These changes were the result of changes in both general education and the shipping industry, and the results were inevitable. After a number of delaying actions, the school-ship Conway came to an end in August 1974.


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