HMS Conway

images of HMS Conway, both on the Mersey & Menai Straits

First narration written by © Alfie Windsor 1998 (Reprinted with permission)

In the mid 1800s the British merchant fleet had many shortcomings. The Merchant Shipping Acts of 1851 and 1854 were designed to force improvements and control. They required all deep sea vessels to be commanded and officered by experienced, certified individuals who were to sit examinations. Those making a career at sea now had to be trained and educated in academic as well as nautical subjects. The merchant fleet owners, fearing further legislation and government intervention, determined to take the initiative. Ship owners in various main ports of the UK formed Mercantile Marine Service Associations (MMSA). Liverpool was one of the earliest and in 1857 they decided to set up a school ship specifically to train young boys for a life at sea. After much debate they petitioned the Admiralty for a ship to accommodate the school which was to be moored in the Sloyne, off Rock Ferry, on the River Mersey in Liverpool, England. The mooring was approximately a quarter mile ESE of the river end of Rock Ferry Pier. After examining a number of vessels (they very nearly chose HMS Vestal) they accepted a small Jackass Frigate named HMS Conway.

HMS Conway 1859 - 1974

© Alfie Windsor 1998

The Mersey Years 1859 - 1941

5 Feb 1859 Towed by the Virago from Devonport to the Mersey.
9 Feb 1859

Arrived on her mooring in the Mersey. This was off Rock Ferry Pier (between Rock Ferry and New Ferry). The pier and landing stage at Rock Ferry was built in 1899 and in the same year Birkenhead Corporation operated the ferry service at Rock Ferry and New Ferry. The ferry service at Rock Ferry closed in 1939.

1 Aug 1859 The very first cadet to join the ship was Captain Howard Campbell. He was cadet number 8, but actually arrived on board before cadet number 1: Captain Berkeley Collins.
17 Aug 1859

Official opening of the HMS Conway school ship, interestingly the band of HMS Nile played at the opening ceremony as the Nile was in Liverpool at the time on a recruiting visit.

The ship was fitted to accommodate 120 cadets but opened with just 17.

Numbers were limited to 50 for the first six months. Average numbers of cadets built up to around a hundred. Initially many cadets stayed for only a couple of terms - getting the feel of naval life.

It was quickly realized that the ship was too small for the numbers eventually planned. The Admiralty was petitioned again and offered to replace the first HMS Conway with a new vessel - HMS Winchester.

Nov 1861 The Admiralty decided to loan HMS Winchester to the Liverpool MMSA as a replacement for the original ship which was not large enough to accommodate the cadets. The two ships exchanged names so HMS Winchester became the second HMS Conway.
1861 In the 1850s, in order to qualify as a merchant navy officer a four year apprenticeship had to be served at sea. The Liverpool shipping company of Jones, Palmer & Co and others had, at the opening of the school, announced that two or three years on the Conway would be accepted by them as the equivalent of one year at sea, reducing their apprenticeship time. In 1861 the Board Of Trade decided formally that two years spent training at Conway would count as one year served as a cadet at sea. Thus Conway cadets only had to complete three years training at sea instead of the four required for anyone going straight to sea. For this reason Cadets in their last term were called Quarter Boys or QBs. This practice continued for over 100 years until closure in 1974. Cadets received a Conway Passing Out Certificate of Exemption when they left Conway.
4 Feb 1864 Queen Victoria announces the award of annual prizes to cadets to the value of £50, and the instigation of a Queen's Gold Medal.
Jun 1866 HRH The Duke Of Edinburgh presented the prizes.
24 July 1876

The second ship (ex Winchester)  also proved too small and so the Admiralty were approached and they offerred a third ship - HMS Nile as a replacement. The date of her arrival in the Mersey is not clear. Conway 2 (ex Winchester) was taken away to Devonport early in July retaining the HMS Conway name for the time being . The officers and cadets relocated to the Nile.

Permission was eventually granted for the name change from HMS Nile to HMS Conway and on 24th July 1876 Nile was moved to the Great Float (the West Float) Liverpool and formally exchanged names with the second HMS Conway - the school ship's third vessel to bear the name.

After the ceremony she returned to her mooring off Rock Ferry Pier, Cadets lived onboard but used sports facilities ashore. Rock   Ferry playing fields were on Knowlsey Road off New Chester Road. They have now been built over.

The cooking ranges from the Great Eastern, Brunel's famous ship which had been broken up nearby, were installed in the Conway.

1877 Cadets manned the yards when the Shah Of Persia sailed up the Mersey to visit Liverpool.
8 Sep 1881 Cadets provided a guard of honour for HRH the Prince Of Wales , his wife, Princess Alexandra and their children on their visit to Liverpool to open the new Alexandra Dock
1882-4 A number of vessels were moored in line astern in the Sloyne: HMS Defence the Liverpool guardship, HMS Conway, the Akbar (Protestant reformatory ship), Indefatigable and the Clarence (Roman Catholic reformatory ship burnt twice by her boys and replaced!).
1886 116 cadets formed a guard of honour for the visit of Queen Victoria to the Liverpool Exhibition.
16 May 1889 First edition of The Cadet magazine produced.
26 April 1891 A cadet was lost overboard, the first since opening.
28 Feb 1895 The Mersey was frozen from shore to shore.
17 Dec 1895 The ship was docked in Bilston Graving Dock for an overhaul. All her copper was removed. She was scraped, recaulked, refelted and recoppered. Ten tons of copper were used. She was repainted.
28 Jan 1896 Returned to her mooring.
19 Jul 1899 Duke Of York, later King George V attends and presents the King's Gold medal to Cadet Jackson. This was presented to and displayed in Sydney Cathedral, Australia but was stolen in 2000. The King encouraged the cadets to "truthfulness, obedience and zeal".
1890 First Conway - Worcester boat race. They won.
1901-02 Mr H B Steel, Lancashire County Cricket player began to coach the cricket team.
19 Jul 1904 141 cadets formed a guard of honour at Liverpool Town Hall for the visit of King Edward VII to lay the foundation stone for Liverpool Cathedral. The King presented the King's Gold Medal in person.
1904 Six acres of grounds were bought for playing fields.
3 Jun 1905 3 cadets saved a man from attempted suicide in the River Mersey.
1905 The ship's two 10 oared cutters were found to be beyond repair and were cremated in the ship's furnace. Two new 12 oared cutters made of teak in Bombay Dockyard were provided.
1906 The Conway - Worcester boat race was discontinued.
19/20 Jan 1907 SS Arbutus dragged her moorings and collided with the ship, breaking upper gangway and smashing a cutter to bits.
Mar 1907 A cadet left after serving 5 years - the longest stay on record!
Jan 1909 The band was formed when the piping of orders was replaced by more audible bugle calls.
Jul 1910 Old Boys Association formed and renamed the Conway Club on December 13th.
1912 Preparation introduced two evenings a week, with cadet captains taking charge.
11 Jul 1913 HM the King whilst visiting Liverpool went aboard the Mauretania (the wood paneling from her first class dining room is in a wine bar at the foot of Park Street in Bristol). 100 cadets formed a guard of honour on board the liner. The King presented the Gold Medal in person.
1914-1918 Depot Ship Devonport.
Feb 1914 Conway House was opened as a sick bay on the eastern end of the playing fields.
Jan/Feb 1917 The river was almost completely frozen over. The cadets could get out of the Pinnace in the middle of the river and walk about. An instructor fell overboard and died.
Dec 1917 Cadets were granted permission to enroll as Cadets RNR and wear regulation Naval uniform. The same privilege was accorded to Worcester and Pangbourne cadets. The traditional uniform was given up with some regret.
4 Jun 1918 The figurehead, a bust of Lord Horatio Nelson was carried away by the SS Bhamo in a collision with the ship that also carried away the jib-boom. A shortened jib-boom was installed but the figurehead was not replaced for another twenty years.
Jul 1924 HM the King presented the King's Gold Medal in person at the Town Hall.
1925 The 1905 'Bombay' cutters were replaced by a pair of matched fifteen hundredweight, 27 feet ten oared cutters specially built for the ship.
15 May 1925 Miss K Mayo and Miss M Moyca Newell, the founders of the New York Apprentices Club visited the ship.
19 Jul 1927 100 cadets were inspected by HM the King at Liverpool Town Hall. The King presented the King's Gold Medal in person.
4 Nov 1931 The Price Of Wales (later King Edward VIII) visited the ship and presented the King's Gold Medal. Cadets formed a Guard Of Honour on the pier when the Prince re-embarked for Liverpool.
18 July 1934 King George V visited Liverpool to open the new road tunnel. He presented the King's Gold Medal to Cadet H Kirby and spoke to Commander M G Douglas. Acting Captain at the time. The King and Queen then went on to open Birkenhead Library where the majority of the cadets paraded. Finally The King and Queen left from Rock Ferry Station where a guard of 30 cadets was posted.
Sept 1934 'TomÕ Browne was appointed as Headmaster as a result of the shipÕs first Board Of Education inspection. There had not been a head for some years and his mission from the Management Committee was to raise academic standards. This was not to prove easy as many cadets considered 'schoolÕ behind them and had little inclination to academic studies. He stayed for 30 years and made a huge impact. He established a small scince lab on the upper deck, a Library, a gym in the hold, re-arranged the timetable and introduced prep twice a week. The times they were aÕchangin.
April 1935 Air Training was introduced with the theory of flight, airmanship taught on board and 15 hours flying at Hooton Aerodrome. This was sufficient for Cadets to obtain their 'A' private pilot's licence. By the end of the summer term the first cadets had obtained their pilot's licences!

There was a common entrance exam in 1937.

In 1937 it was decided that the ship should have a new figurehead to replace the original one (a bust of Lord Horatio Nelson) which had been carried away on 4 June 1918 by the SS Bhamo. A design consisting of a full figure of Lord Horatio Nelson was chosen. The design and construction were undertaken by Mr. Carter Pearson. He took great pains to ensure authenticity, studying Nelson's actual uniform to match colours and various portraits, including Nelson's death mask, to obtain a true likeness. The figurehead was made from teak as this was considered a more long lasting wood than the yellow pine normally used for ships' figureheads. A sound decision as the figurehead still survives although now at HMS Nelson in Porstmouth (the RN's Courts Martial Centre!). It was not possible to obtain a single block of wood large enough so 3 inch planks were used. It weighs 3.5 tons and stands 13.5 feet high.


Heating and hot water was provided from a coal fired boiler. Hot water was limited to the galley and a weekly bath. If you were a senior it was hot. Coaling party (punishment) had to be second or third user of bath by then usually tepid. New chums cleaned the grime line in the baths. The heating pipes never seemed to be more than warm. Heads were really primitive until the 1938 refit. The galley was also improved in this refit and converted to coke fired. Food was also greatly improved. Teaser was freely wielded. What the politically correct would think now I leave to your imagination.

The ship was moved to Cammell Lairds shipyard, Liverpool for a refit under the sponsorship of Mr L Holt and Alfred Holt & Co. The work was undertaken by Mr Dickie. The total cost was £20,000.

11 Sept. 1938 Alongside Liverpool Pierhead Landing Stage for the masting of the new figurehead by John Masefield OM the Poet Laureate.

We used the Chart House for seamanship lessons, but not frequently. A cadet whilst descending to the deck via the backstay fell on the roof, and was fatally injured some time in the early war years I believe. It was said a broken wire strand pierced his hand and he lost his hold.

In my time there was no nursery table for new chums or any tables on that deck and the Port and Starboard fo'csles had their hammocks stowed in their parts of ship in what from memory we called hammock nettings. No hammocks were stowed in the hold, but there was a stowage in the hold   for our gladstone bags and fresh laundry bags were used for pillows viewing cinema in the hold.

2 May 1939 A celebratory dinner was held at Liverpool Town Hall, hosted by the Lord Mayor.
Pre World War 2 A cutter race took place in London's Royal Docks between Conway, Worcester and General Boths crews. Much to the surprise of the South African organizer it was won by Worcester who still hold the trophy because it was never raced for again.
Sep 1939

Indefatigable cadets came aboard during the summer holidays. They painted out the ships white gun strakes, painted the upper deck battleship gray, fitted concrete bomb protectors to all hatches and skylights, covered the upper deck with sand bags and fitted black out screens to all 130 windows.

The 12 oared cutter, also called the heavy weather cutter was used when the Mersey was too rough for the motor boats.

Oct 1940

Considerable damage was caused to the ship by the SS Hektoria, a 13,000 ton whaling factory ship which had dragged her moorings. Conway was moved into Vittoria Dock, Birkenhead for repairs where, at start of the next term, the cadets all rejoined ship.

There were, at this time, 250 cadets and problems arose. The ConwayÕs sewage disposal was direct from the ship into the river, or dock, where she was moored. To discharge sewage into a fast tidal river was one thing but to discharge the effluent from 250+ people into a dock with no tidal flow is another. Cadets were sent home early!

It has been said that there was no heating in the ship but there was a primitive form of piped hot water central heating. Indeed, such was my executive promise that in my 6th term I became the Working Hand in charge of the Boiler; a position of great power with possibilities for profit. Apart from stoking the thing I could toast (bake, actually) slices of bread by resting them on the inside of the fire door, closing it for a moment, and then opening again - to reveal a golden brown piece of toast (usually smudged with coal dust, but no matter) I charged one old penny per slice! It sys much for the system that I progressed quite rapidly to the higher echelons after that term!


During the Liverpool blitz the situation became extremely unsafe, particularly when the Germans began dropping parachute mines into the Mersey. Small incendiary bombs landed on the ship most nights - the cadets scooped them up with shovels and tossed them into the river! Bombing became more intense and one night a mine was thought to have settled under the ship. The cadets were evacuated ashore and spent the night in Conway House (Sick Bay), the Royal Mersey Yacht Club and Royal Rock Hotel. They then spent two nights at the Mostyn School before being sent home.

Two nights later two mines narrowly missed the ship, one exploded under and sank a nearby vessel, the S.S. Tacoma City. The only people on board the ship were Capt. Goddard, Lt John Brooke Smith, No.1 motor boat's crew, and a steward. Lt Brooke Smith took away No.1 motor boat (Jim Thompson was bowman) and they picked up everyone from the Tacoma City (45 survivors in total). They then proceeded down the river where larger craft which had come off from shore took the survivors off them. The second magnetic mine drifted well up river where it was exploded by a minesweeper after the ship had been completely evacuated.

It was decided to move the ship to a safer anchorage on the Menai Straits.

8 Mar 1941 The ship left Vittoria Dock and, on 9 March, returned to her mooring in the Sloyne by 0945 hours.
May 21 / 22 1941 Moved (under tow by the Langworth and Dongarth) to Glyn Garth Mooring on the Menai Straits, Anglesey.

The above text is written by Alfie Windsor in 1998 and can be found on

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 sunk 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 as the "Swellies". This area, bounded by the two Menai bridges (the Menai Suspension Bridge and Britannia Bridge), is notorious for underwater shoals and dangerous, complex tidal streams as well as a non-tidal current varied by the wind and atmospheric pressure. Captain 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 moved successfully on 13 April 1949, in spite of what was obviously a great risk. Conway remains by far the deepest ship ever to have passed through the Swellies. Her draft was 22 feet (6.71 m) aft and the underwater clearances were marginal. The overhead clearance under Menai Suspension Bridge, which is 100 feet (30.48 m) above high water, was estimated to be three feet, all depending upon the actual height of the tide at the time of passing through. "I was glad when it was accomplished," Captain Goddard wrote. "It created a great deal of interest amongst the North Wales seafaring fraternity who had declared the undertaking to be a foolish one."

Moving into Morpeth Dock for repairs in 1937

In 1938 Unveilling of new figurehead at the Pier Head in 1938

Loss of the ship

The wreck of HMS Conway

This text is taken from an entry in Wikipedia


By 1953 another refit was due. This could not be done locally so the ship had to be taken back to Birkenhead dry dock, passing back through the Swellies once more.  The operation took place on 14 April 1953. There were the same two Liverpool tugs which had shifted her several times before, Dongarth forward and Minegarth aft. The new Captain Superintendent, Captain E Hewitt was in command, with two Trinity House local pilots, Pilot R D Jones (junior) aboard the head tug, Pilot R J Jones (senior) advising Captain Hewitt, with Blue Funnel Liverpool Pilot James Miller overseeing the towage. 

High water at Liverpool that morning was 11:18, at a height of 32'10" and was the highest tide that year. Lavers Almanac quotes high water at Menai Bridge as 28 minutes before high water Liverpool. What is termed 'slack' in the Swellies is actually a brief period of uneasy equilibrium between two opposing flood streams which typically occurs 1 hour 42 minutes before local high water, or at 09:08 on the morning of the move. Owing to the strength of the southwest-going ebb, which runs at 8 knots during a spring tide there is a confused complex tidal flow among the numerous rocks and islets generating many powerful eddies. On a big tide in particular it is vital for an outbound vessel to be through the Swellies before the tide turns against her. It is therefore the local practice to start an outward transit with the last of the northeast-going flood 20 minutes before the 'slack', or at 08:48 on the morning of the move. Captain Hewitt had worked with the Caernarvon harbour master, Captain Rees Thomas, in preparing his plan, and had several times made a passage of the Swellies in the Conway's motor boat, checking his timings at 4 knots (7.4 km/h; 4.6 mph). He also consulted Conway's old log book for the timings of the previous transit, and had planned to arrive at the bridge at 09:20.

The streams in the Menai Strait are affected by winds outside in the Irish Sea. With a strong North or North-westerly wind both the rate and duration of the Southwest-going ebb are increased, and the Southwest-going ebb may begin quarter of an hour earlier. (Admiralty Pilot vol 37; p 315; line21) The 0600 synoptic chart showed a stationary deep depression west of Norway with a secondary Low in the North Sea, and a High steadily closing the west coast of Ireland, which could be expected to result in an increasingly strong NW'ly wind in the Irish Sea. But in the shelter of the Plas Newydd mooring there was no indication of this. At 0800 as the wind was being recorded in Conway's logbook as northerly force 1-2 (2 to 5 knots), only 13 miles away on station off Point Lynas it was being recorded by the Liverpool Pilot boat as NW force 6 (22 - 27 knots) (Subcom p4 line 7) and her noon entry was NW force 7, (28 - 33 knots) (Beaufort wind scale) while during the morning Bidston Observatory was recording gusts up to 49 knots (storm force 10).

The Investigating Subcommittee was later to express its "surprise" that Captain Hewitt had left the Plas Newydd mooring without a weather forecast, and "had no knowledge of the stormy conditions prevailing at sea at the time Conway was to make the passage" since it was local knowledge that in such weather "abnormal conditions might be encountered."  In addition to the tide generated streams in the Menai Strait there is also a non-tidal current, the Southwest Residual a dynamic reaction which directly reflects wind stress in the Irish Sea. Dr Toby J Sherwin, Estuarial research Menai Bridge, referring to a formula in Simpson et al page 252, explained how the North-westerly mean wind speed of 16 meters per second at sea that day would enhance the Residual by 15 cm per second, increasing the strength of the SW-going ebb at Plas Newydd by 3 knots, "And quite obviously by a lot more than this in the narrow sections of the Swellies."

Conway's logbook shows she left the mooring at 0822 and arrived at Britannia Bridge at 0850, which was the locally recommended time for starting the outward transit and Pilot Jones naturally advised keeping her going with the last of the northeast-going flood tide behind her. Instead Capt Hewitt had the ship brought up for half an hour to await his 0920. The severe wind in the Irish Sea caused the stream in the Strait to turn to the westward earlier which eliminated the brief slack water period. Capt F J Durrant, Marine Manages of the towing company, observed "The anticipated ten minute slack water did not materialise. The ebb set in immediately the flood ended at 0920" (Durrant p4 para 1) With the ship far too late and sensitive to the adverse conditions Pilot Jones advised going back, instead the logbook shows Capt.Hewitt passed the ship under Britannia Bridge at 0923 even though the ebb tide was already setting against him which was quite contrary to all local practice.

Only 17 minutes later, "At 0940 ..... the forward tug "Dongarth" was towing at full speed against the tide but making no further progress." By 1010am, 47 minutes after passing under the bridge, the tow was still in much the same position having made good only six tenths of a mile from the bridge, giving the tide another half an hour to develop further, yet it was not until then that Capt. Hewitt had the stern tug slipped and sent forward to assist the head tug, (photo) when "headway became slight but noticeable" By 1020, already a full hour into the ebb, the pilots had worked the ship across the tide and into the eddy which Anglesey Pilot p17 para 106 states forms near the Anglesey shore close westward of the northern pier of the Suspension Bridge, (photo) and intended holding her there in the safety of this until the strength of the tide had abated. Instead, with only 750 feet to go to the bridge, Capt. Hewitt ordered that the ship be put back in the channel and this was done. Almost immediately, at 1030, she was suddenly caught by an eddy of overwhelming strength which drove the ship ashore over The Platters. "This disastrous sheer occurred and was concluded in a matter of seconds" which also shows the position where the ship finished up, which was 'inked in' by Capt Reece-Thomas who was Caernarfon Harbourmaster at the time) Contrasting with the 18 minutes she had taken to complete the inbound transit, the outbound ship had been 1 hour 7 minutes covering the 1200 yards from Britannia Bridge where the pilot had advised going back.

After both tugs on full speed for ten minutes had failed to make any impression they were instructed to stand bye at Menai Bridge Pier for another attempt to re-float her on the evening tide when there would be a better opportunity if the weather at sea moderated. But a third tug, "Grassgarth", sent out at 1430 to assist in towing her off was forced to put back to Liverpool through stress of weather.

While her fore part planted firmly on the shelving shore her stern was floating in 30 feet of water. As the tide fell the stern lost its support (photo) causing the ship to become severely hogged which opened up her seams, and about her midship sections the height between decks was reduced from over 6 feet (1.8 m) to less than 4 feet (1.2 m). (photo) "Conditions on board were very bad with the after end of the ship from the mainmast sagging downwards, and the continuous sound of cracking, twisting, rending timber and rushing water below" (photo) When the next tide made the stern failed to lift and the ship flooded freely through her open seams. Being evident that further attempts to tow the ship off would be to no purpose, the tugs were discharged and left for Liverpool the following morning. Two days after the grounding, in the evening of 16 April 1953, surveyors declared "HMS Conway" a total constructive loss. The ship was not insured.

Had the ship gone through at 0850 with the last of the tide behind her in keeping with local practice, and as Pilot had advised, she would not have encountered the unusually strong contrary ebb tide which quickly overpowered the tugs to result in the loss. Captain Hewitt had his reasons for delaying the ship until 0920, but "Conway" adequately demonstrated that waiting for water in adverse conditions on a big tide was not an option. If it was considered that the ship had insufficient water at 0850, then as Pilot Jones recognised the outward transit was impossible on such a day, but pilot's advice was disregarded.

there are many references and sources listed in the article here:


October 16th 2014. I receieved an email from a lady who owns this cup. It is marked HMS Conway 1901
She (and I) would like to find out its history. Was it awarded to a cadet?