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. 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 HMS 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 run under
a different name, 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 the River Mersey off Rock Ferry.
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). 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.
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 HMS 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. There is still a
plaque on the wall of Mostyn School's Parish from the cadets of the HMS Conway.
|HMS Conway beached in North Wales