“One Year of the Sea! There’s Only One Year of the Sea!”

A version of this post would have been my first of the year, and would have been published some weeks ago, had not more pressing matters intervened.


So it’s 2018, the Wales Year of the Sea. Or so the marketing gurus who came up with the concept tell us. Now, those of us who hold the unfashionable opinion that the sea is actually quite important, and important all the time, might be tempted to respond ‘surely every year should be a year of the sea’, but hey, one Officially Designated Year with Glossy Literature is better than none, and anything that spreads the message is fine in my book. Indeed, only last Saturday, I spoke at an event intended to contribute to that process of message-spreading – a very well attended study day on the maritime history of south Wales, organised by the splendid Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society. This proved to be unexpectedly dramatic, because half way through the final paper of the day, the ground literally shook, the teacups rattled furiously…and, yes, it proved to be that rarest of occurrences, an earthquake in Wales. Those of you in California, Italy, Chile, or other places that get serious, and seriously deadly, earthquakes, may justifiably scoff, But in 1607, the coast of south Wales was inundated by what may have been a full-scale tsunami, and for one brief fleeting moment, some of us wondered if history was about to repeat itself. It didn’t, although apparently, somebody in Swansea did drop a pint glass.

Talking about things that are ‘fine in my book’, though – see what I did there? – I made my own contribution to Wales’s maritime heritage a little while ago in the shape of Britannia’s Dragon: A Naval History of WalesHowever, I realise that there are some of you who still haven’t bought it. This is disappointing, because [a] it means you’re not as enlightened as you could be about, umm, the naval history of Wales, and [b] you haven’t contributed to my royalties, thus enabling me to take a lavish holiday in the sun. To attempt to rectify this situation, I offer the introduction for your delectation, although I’ve omitted the footnotes for the sake of (comparative) brevity. I’ll be returning to the subject of Wales and the sea intermittently during the rest of the year, and then, just to annoy the marketing gurus, I’ll keep on returning to it in 2019, too. And 2020. And …


‘There is no part of the Kingdom that, in proportion to its population, contributes more to the British Navy than Wales. Although we live in the mountains, our mountains are high enough for us to see the sea from almost any part of our little land, and there is the eternal fascination of the sea. It is with the greatest difficulty in the world that farmers can keep their sons from going to sea. They can see the steamers and the sailing ships passing to and fro, and there is for these men the eternal attraction of what is beyond the horizon.’

David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, 1916-22: debate on the closure of Pembroke and Rosyth dockyards, House of Commons, 11 December 1925.


Wales is a maritime nation.

Rivers of Wales (from Wikipedia)

It may not seem so, to those at the heads of the valleys or in the market towns of rural Powys; but nowhere in Wales is more than about thirty miles from the sea or a navigable river, and even in early times, a Welshman in the very middle of his country could probably have reached the ocean’s edge rather more quickly than his contemporary at the equivalent point of England, Scotland or Ireland. In that sense Lloyd George, the ‘Welsh wizard’ (or, to some, the original ‘Welsh windbag’), was very nearly correct in his typically flamboyant comments. True, Wales generally has relatively short rivers, few of them navigable for any distance. But there were exceptions, bringing inland areas within reach of the sea. The country’s only true sea-loch, Milford Haven, once permitted shipping to reach Haverfordwest, deep in the heart of Pembrokeshire. The river Dee was navigable all the way to Chester; the Dyfi to Derwenlas, less than two miles from Machynlleth in Montgomeryshire; the Conwy to Llanrwst and the Mawddach almost to Dolgellau. Trefriw, just five miles or so from the heart of Snowdonia, was once the biggest inland port in Wales. Quite large ships sailed up the Tywi to Carmarthen until as recently as 1938 and up the Teifi to Cardigan until 1957. The Usk was navigable to Newbridge-on-Usk, the Wye to Brockweir easily, to Monmouth for barges, and even to Hereford in certain conditions; the maritime trade of tiny Llandogo, above Tintern, still gives its name to the city of Bristol’s most famous pub. Above all, there is the Severn, Afon Hafren, rising on the slopes of Plynlimon near Llanidloes. Although most of its navigable course flows in England, the hinterland of the Severn’s river ports – Lydney, Bewdley, Bridgnorth and the rest – extended deep into Wales, and the river itself was navigable as far as Welshpool, albeit with some difficulty. Thus the Severn gave Welshmen in even some of the remoter areas a highway by which they could escape to new worlds. When William Owen of Glansevern near Welshpool joined the navy in 1750, he rode to Shrewsbury, then took a wherry to Worcester, then continued overland to join his first ship at Sheerness before embarking on a career that ultimately took him to the East Indies and finally to Canada, where he attempted to create a new Montgomeryshire on the shores of Passamaquoddy Bay, New Brunswick.

The rumbustious and remarkably long-lived 17th century Welsh sailor John Worley, immortalised on the ceiling of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

For those in the littoral, then, the natural viewpoint for many centuries was to look outward, toward Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, Ireland, Ellan Vannin (the Isle of Man) and Scotland, with the sea acting as a unifier and a highway, not as a divider or barrier. Seaborne journeys were often much easier than those on the overland routes between the north and south of Wales, or into the upland moors of the interior – and indeed, the difficulties of land travel have continued to shape and bedevil much of the economy, politics and linguistics of Wales to this day. It is possible to catch a train from Swansea to England’s mightiest dockyard city, Portsmouth, about 170 miles away, and get there four and a half hours later; to get from Swansea to Pwllheli, in the same country and roughly the same distance away, takes seven and a half. Consequently, the Welsh have always used the sea. Welsh mariners even have their own patron saint, Cyric, and it is possible that the legend of ‘Davy Jones’ Locker’ had Welsh origins. But Welshmen’s seafaring exploits were never as substantial as those of their Cornish or Breton cousins. The legend that Madog ap Owain, Prince of Gwynedd, discovered America in about 1170, has long been entirely disproved, although as recently as 1953 a memorial commemorating his ‘landing’ was erected on the shores of Mobile Bay by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Nevertheless, the first major westward voyage of exploration from Bristol, in 1480, was captained by a Thomas Lloyd, and Cabot’s historic voyage to the mouth of the St Lawrence in 1497 was skippered by another Welshman, Edward Griffiths; but there seems to be no foundation in the legend that America was named after Richard ap Meryke or Ameryk, a prominent Welsh merchant of Bristol.  Perhaps more prosaic, but rather more significant, was the discovery in 2002 of the ‘Newport ship’, a large craft dating from the 1460s which seems to have traded between Wales and Portugal. Her discovery served as a timely reminder of the long history and profound importance of Welsh maritime trade.

The memorial to Bartholomew Roberts, ‘Barti Ddu’, at his birthplace, Little Newcastle, Pembrokeshire

Many books and articles have been written about the ports and maritime heritage of Wales, many more about the merchant crews and skippers who sailed trading craft in their own waters or much further afield. It has been suggested that in proportion to size of population, there were probably more Welshmen than Englishmen in the Merchant Navy during Queen Victoria’s reign, while in the first half of the twentieth century the Blue Funnel Line, based at Liverpool, employed so many Welshmen that it was nicknamed ‘the Welsh Navy’. In that sense, again, Lloyd George was undoubtedly right: in many of the non-industrialised areas of the country, like the Llŷn peninsula from which he hailed, the Cardigan Bay coast and parts of Pembrokeshire, the sea was the only viable occupation for many men, both young and old. Many writers have also been drawn to the peculiar fact that relative to the size of the country, Wales produced a disproportionate number of ‘pirates of the Caribbean’, including three of the most famous – or infamous – of them all, Sir Henry Morgan, Howell Davis and ‘Black Bart’ Roberts. Yet the activities of those Welshmen who protected the merchant ships upon which their countrymen sailed, or who sought to end the depredations of the pirates (and Barbary Corsairs, Atlantic slave traders, and so forth), have never been properly recounted.

The ‘naval temple’ on the Kymin, Monmouth

Because Wales is a maritime nation, it follows that it has also always been a naval nation; or at least, one upon which naval warfare has always impacted. This, too, is simple fact. For example, few would deny that seapower was undoubtedly one of the most important factors that ended Welsh independence, first in the thirteenth and later in the fifteenth centuries. The Royal Navy has even shaped the geography of Wales: one town (Pembroke Dock) was created directly by and for it, another (Nelson in the Taff Bargoed valley) was named after its greatest hero, and there was a Naval Colliery, actually a complex of four pits, at Penygraig in the Rhondda. Nearly every Welsh town had pubs called the Trafalgar or the Lord Nelson or the British Tar. Monuments to naval heroes constitute prominent landmarks from the Menai Straits and the Tywi valley to Breidden Hill near Welshpool and the Kymin at Monmouth. But such indisputable facts seem to sit awkwardly with the recent history of the country. Nineteenth and twentieth century Wales became overwhelmingly a socialist nation – with both a small and a large ‘s’ – and, moreover, a nation that developed a powerful pacifist tradition. The strong, undeniable military and naval traditions of Wales co-exist uncomfortably with all of this. Thus in 1982 at least some Welshmen felt deeply troubled when – barely weeks after Wales had declared itself a ‘nuclear free zone’ – HMS Glamorgan flew the ddraig goch alongside her battle ensigns during the war against Argentina, whose armed forces included some of Welsh descent, the heirs of the one and only true Welsh colony.

Acknowledging the fact that Wales has a long and proud naval history is certainly not a glorification of war. Nor does it condone decisions taken and policies followed in the past that are now deemed unacceptable to some modern sensibilities. Rather, it is an attempt to tell a story that has simply never been told in its entirety; indeed, much of it has never been told at all. Despite recent worthy attempts by academic historians to dispel Wales’s ‘amnesia’ about its military and imperial history, the neglect of the naval dimension has remained glaring. For example, an authoritative recent book entitled Wales and War contains precisely one mention of the Royal Navy, and that only in passing. Likewise, an otherwise deeply moving literary anthology on ‘Wales and War in the Twentieth Century’ contains not one poem about the navy – other than a brief section in a longer piece, and that entirely disparaging in tone. But then, arguably it was ever thus. In 1919 a book was published entitled Wales: Its Part in the War, but it contained not a single mention of the thousands of Welshmen who had served at sea.

HMS Pembroke berthed at the former Royal Navy dockyard, Pembroke Dock, to mark the bicentenary of the yard in May 2014. In the foreground is the eastern gun tower built to defend the yard.

This book is an attempt to redress the balance. It tells the story of those Welshmen (and, latterly, women) who served selflessly and courageously in naval forces, firstly of their own land, later those of the union with England and the United Kingdom, as well is in those of other lands, including Australia, Brazil, Chile, India, and above all, both the United and the Confederate States of America. It is the story of the Welsh contribution to the naval struggles against the Spanish Armada, Napoleon and Hitler, as well as those against General Galtieri and Saddam Hussein. It is the story of the ships that bore Welsh names, from the Dragon of 1512 to its namesake HMS Dragon five centuries later, and of the Royal Naval Air Stations on Welsh soil. It is the story of the shore facilities in Wales that supported the Royal Navy, and of the thousands of civilians, men and women alike, who worked within them. Finally, it is the story of the part played by Welsh manpower, resources and enterprise in the achievement of British naval supremacy, which – for good or ill – largely shaped the destiny of the world for the best part of two centuries. Welshmen sailed with Drake, Blake and Nelson, as well as with Cook, Franklin and Scott. The strategy proposed by a Welsh naval officer possibly stopped Napoleon Bonaparte conquering Egypt, and perhaps India thereafter. The decisions taken by a Welshman largely determined the outcome of the Battle of Jutland, the single opportunity for a decisive naval victory during World War One. The last invasion of mainland Britain occurred when French sea power briefly eluded the naval defence of the Welsh coast. Without Welsh-smelted copper, it is debatable whether Nelson would have won at Trafalgar; without Welsh-mined coal, it is arguable whether the Victorian Navy could ever have imposed the Pax Britannica.

That is the story told in this book.

HMS Dragon arrives at Portsmouth for the first time, 31 August 2011, rather flaunting her Welsh credentials









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