Roger Wickins explores the enormous contribution HMS Conway training ships had on Australia and New Zealand maritime trade.
It was very common for a British ship arriving in Australia to have one, two or three ex-Conway’s on board. Many settled in Australia working in the coastal and NZ trade, some joined stevedoring companies or ship and cargo survey companies and others went into harbour and Torres Straits Pilotage. There are probably still about 120 ‘Old Conways’ in Australia and New Zealand.
At the zenith of its world supremacy, the British shipping trade struggled to find enough deck officers to man their ships. With this in mind Liverpool’s Mercantile Marine Service Association placed plans before the Admiralty for a training ship, and a wooden wall, 26-gun frigate HMS Conway was made available in 1859.
She proved to be too small and was twice replaced with larger vessels. The last of the vessels was formerly HMS Nile, laid down in 1839 as a sailing ship but later was one of the first vessels to be fitted with an engine, funnel and retractable screw. She saw service in the Baltic Fleet in 1854. She had a beam of 54ft and was 245ft long.
The idea was that boys should continue their normal education but, in addition, the curriculum extended to include navigation, seamanship, signalling, meteorology, ship construction, engineering, boat sailing, powerboat handling and first aid. A second ship, HMS Worcester was made available in the Thames in 1862 as a similar establishment and lasted till 1962
Entry to the ‘Deck’ department in the British Merchant Navy was as a Cadet or apprentice and after four years sea time the individual was eligible to sit their Second Mate’s ticket. On the Conway the boys did a two-year course, which counted towards a year’s remission of sea time.
For shipping companies that were looking for potential officers as opposed to some who treated apprentices as slave labour, those from cadet ships were the preferred choice.
Initially Conway was moored in the Mersey and then during the war moved to avoid the Blitz to off Bangor in North Wales and subsequently to the Menai Straits off the Marquis of Anglesey’s ancestral home Plas Newydd. The closest village was Llanfair PG the longest named settlement in the British Isles [Llanfairpwiligwyngyligogerychwymdrobwilliantysilioogogogoch]. At the time of the move some of Plas Newydd was used for accommodation and its former stable block became classrooms.
The Ship’s establishment was 300 Cadets. The staff was a mixture of academic teaching staff and officers all ex-RN or MN, many of them formerly Petty Officers. The last lot were a very tough group. I remember clearly the first gym lesson and a cadet having a particularly horrendous accident, which left him writhing on the floor (deck).
“What are you all staring at? The instructor snarled. “You will all get worse than that in the next two years.”
On a lighter tone in the first lesson of Seamanship we were learning basic knots and we were instructed to do a bowline which I thought that I knew and duly presented to a particularly hardened ex-RN PO who had been a prisoner under the Japanese.
“What’s that, son?” he asked.
“A bowline, sir.”
“No, son that is a snowball hitch.”
“Snowball hitch? sir.”
“Yes, son. It will F…ing melt when the sun comes out.”
The Cadets slept in hammocks on the ship and had a lot of boat handling experience transporting others ashore for games and recreation and having to both ‘coal’ and ‘water’ ship.
The tides through the narrow Straits are particularly strong and vicious with the pressure of the Irish Sea and thus boat crews learnt quickly. You could always be sure that someone would notice any miscalculation and comment upon it.
Craft available as well as motorboats included gigs, cutters for both rowing and sailing, and Menai Strait’s onedesign dinghies for racing. One of the joys of a first term Cadet was to go cutter rowing on a wintry Welsh morning.
As a skinny Cadet trying to ‘toss’ a 14ft ash oar without standing up while being cursed by a Cadet Captain was not easy. Then when you got it there a stream of ice cold Straits water ran down the oar, and if you were not smart, up your wrist so that you were soaked under the arms to an extent that it did not dry out till about mid afternoon.
First term Cadets were called ‘New Chums’ and were at everyone’s beck and call. As duty bowman on a powerboat the coxswain would inevitably scream – to the delight of those on board – at a New Chum when you were about 15ft off the wharf or another boat.
“Jump, you lily livered New Chum, you should do it in two.”
In April 1953, Conway ran aground while being towed through the notorious Swellies in the Menai Straits on her way to Liverpool for a refit. A tow cable to one of the two tugs parted and as the tide fell she broke her back on the bank.
Captain Eric Hewitt RNR the Captain Superintendent, who had a distinguished war record, had tried to veto the two tugs commissioned as not being strong enough for the tow, which had only a matter of minutes to pass through the Swellies.
The Board of Management overruled him. At the enquiry he was exonerated from any blame but said often in later years that he felt that he should have resigned when his advice was not accepted.
This resulted in wooden hutted dormitories and a mess room being constructed in the grounds of Plas Newydd. The relevant education department disbanded the ship in 1974 when the demand for deck officers was declining.
Life on Conway was hard, as most things were done at the double.
In a Cadet’s last two terms he could be promoted to a Junior Cadet Captain and possibly to a Senior Cadet Captain with very specific responsibilities.
The Ship’s Company was divided into Divisions and Watches. Each Division was responsible for the cleanliness of an area. Cadet Captains had powers of punishment over their fellow cadets including being able to inflict ‘cuts’ with a teaser.
A teaser was a yard long piece of half-inch rope with an eye splice at one end and six inches of tight whipping at the other. The miscreant had to bend over and the teaser was held above the head of the Cadet Captain with one hand through the eye splice and the other holding the whipped end. It was swung in a downward arc, levelling out just before the Cadet’s backside.
Hence, Conway was possibly the last place in the Royal Navy where the rope’s end was used to inflict punishments. Yes, some sadists did exist though in the main punishments were fair.
When the ship went aground she was the last floating ‘wooden wall’ fighting ship to still be in commission and afloat in the RN and thus her Captain was the last Captain in an 800 year tradition.
The ship produced four VCs and a large number of RN Admirals and her former pupils went into a very wide range of occupations, not just sea-going.
Possibly her two most famous sons are John Masefield the Poet Laureate and Captain Mathew Webb the first person to swim the English Channel.
He subsequently lost his life going over the Niagara Falls in a barrel. And more recently Clive Woodward who coached the successful English Rugby team who defeated Australia to win the World Cup in 2003.
There is a large and very informative site on the web for those interested in further information – hmsconway.org