HMS Conway (school ship)
Coordinates: 53°12′14″N 4°13′01″W / 53.204°N 4.217°W
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HMS Conway at Rock Ferry
|Laid down:||October 1827|
|Launched:||28 June 1830|
|Renamed:||HMS Conway, 1876|
|Class and 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)|
|Propulsion:||Sails (and steam, after 1854)|
|Sail plan:||Full rigged ship|
As second rate, 90 guns:
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 down. 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 naval 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 one named Conway. There were to be several Conways over the years, the name being transferred to the new ship each time it was replaced, 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 a small two-decker 92-gun wooden line of battle ship 205 ft (62.5 m) long, 54 ft (16 m) deep, weighing 4,375 long tons and originally equipped with ten 8 inch (200 mm) guns and eighty-two 30-pounders. Launched in 1839, she was entirely made of wood, with a copper sheathed bottom to protect the hull below the waterline. Previously known as Nile, she had survived all sorts of adventures around the world, notably in the Crimean War and allegedly in the American Civil War, before settling down to what should have been a dignified retirement. In 1876 she was renamed Conway and moved to Liverpool.
The ship, already nearly a century old, was refitted in the dry dock at Birkenhead between 1936 and 1938. She was 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). (A short newsreel clip of this event can be downloaded from the British Pathé website: search for "Conway".)
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 Bangor in North Wales. 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", coming up the Menai Strait. She was moored near the pier in Bangor and 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 sank 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 locally as the "Swellies". This area, bounded by the two Menai bridges (the Menai Suspension Bridge and the Britannia Bridge), is notorious for underwater shoals and dangerous, complex tidal currents. 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 successfully moved on 14 April 1949, in spite of what seems to have been a great risk. Conway was the largest ship ever to have passed through the Swellies. Her draft was 22 ft (6.7 m) aft and the clearances were minute, not just underwater but overhead too: just three feet under the Menai Bridge, which is 100 ft (30 m) above high water. "I was glad when it was accomplished," Goddard wrote. "It created a lot of interest amongst the North Wales seafaring fraternity, who had declared the undertaking to be a foolish one." Sadly, history would yet prove them right.
Loss of the ship
By 1953 another refit was due, involving replacing the central heating system and renewing the copper sheathing under the hull. This could not be done locally so the ship would have to be taken back to dry dock in Birkenhead, passing back through the Swellies once more.
On 14 April 1953 the operation took place. The new Captain Superintendent, Captain Hewitt RD RNR was in command, with two local pilots and one from Liverpool, as well as a number of cadets who had volunteered to help. There were two tugs (Dongarth and Minegarth), one to pull from the bow while the other steadied the stern. The timing of the operation was critical. Even at high tide there are still tidal flows in the Swellies that continue for some time; the crucial period of "slack water" is very brief and there was no room for error. As it happened an "unexpectedly strong" current (according to the official report ) was encountered as the ship passed between the two bridges, and the front tug found itself unable to make headway. It was decided to bring the rear tug up to the front to help, leaving the rear of the ship out of control. As well as leaving the ship much less controllable, this lost much valuable time, a serious problem when the "window" during which the passage was possible was already so small.
Sure enough, the stern of the ship started to swing back and forth and she ran aground on some flat rocks known as the Platters, below the Menai Bridge. All attempts to pull her off the rocks failed and when the tide went out, the Conway "broke her back". Firmly wedged on the rocks but no longer supported by water under the stern - the heaviest part - the ship simply snapped under her own weight. At first it was hoped that she could be floated off again at the next high tide, but when inspectors were sent in to assess the damage it was clear she would never sail again. 
From some angles she looked almost sound, but from others one could clearly see the distortion of the line of the hull. The interior inspection showed that the huge main timbers had been shattered, leaving some decks crushed to only four feet high.
The contents of the ship were salvaged but she was written off as a total loss and disowned by the Admiralty, who decided it was up to the local authorities to dispose of the wreck. So Conway simply stayed where she was, slumped over the rocks, a picturesque but tragic sight.
The ship lay forlornly on the banks of the Strait for many few years but was a hazard to shipping. The Caernarvon Harbour Board eventually decided they would have to assume responsibility for her removal. A team was sent in to dismantle the ship. During this process, on 30 October 1956, she somehow caught fire and burned to the waterline. The last vestiges of Conway are still visible at low tide.
Reasons for the loss
There was great controversy over the loss of the ship. Some claimed that the advice of local pilots had been ignored, or that a ship the size of Conway should never have been taken through such a narrow and dangerous passage in the first place. It certainly seems true that two tugs were not enough to keep control of such a large unpowered vessel in the grip of such powerful and unpredictable tidal currents.
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".
The school closed in 1974 after funding from the Government through Cheshire County Council was ceased.
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.
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, to name just a few. The current (2007) President of the Conway Club is Archie Smith.
- 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 voyage
- Conway Merchant Navy Trust