There are a lot of newspaper reports about groundings, collisions and total losses in 19th Century newspapers centred on north and mid Wales. I stumbled across this story about the loss of the Aberdovey-built schooner Frances Poole whilst looking for something else, and it was less the loss of the ship and crew that startled me than the remarkable brevity of the report. The story was published in the 27th March 1869 edition of the Cambrian News. It is a nod at a total loss, and in its very brevity is a comment on how regularly coastal ships foundered with partial or total fatalities. Ship accidents and tragedies were a dreadfully common occurrence.
I went back through various sources to find out more about the ship, her background and her crew. The Frances Poole was built in Aberdovey and her senior officers lived in Aberdovey. There is nothing that particularly stands out about the ship. She was an average cargo carrying ship going about here daily tasks when she fell foul of a gale on the Cornish coastline when she was just 12 years old. A reliable ship that made several voyages to eastern Spain, she was well-built, admired for her speed and generally well thought of.
The John Jones schooner Catherine. Source: Lloyd 1996, volume II
Frances Poole was a, 84-ton schooner built in Aberdovey in 1857 by John Jones. She was 75ft long with a 20ft beam, fitted with the figurehead of a woman. Sadly there is no known picture of her, or of her builder John Jones. The photograph to the left is another John Jones schooner, the Catherine Jones, 76 tons (8 tons lighter than Frances Poole and built 12 years later), but gives an idea of the type of schooners that John Jones built.
John Jones, “Jac y Taeth” was the most prolific of the Aberdovey shipbuilders. He probably settled in Aberdovey in the 1840s, having been born in Llanfihangel-y-Traethau in around 1816, and was accompanied by his wife Catherine with whom he had seven children. Lewis Lloyd suggests that John Jones had probably served an apprenticeship in Porthmadog as a ship carpenter. All his ships were built on the river Dyfi, most at Aberdovey and some at Llyn Bwtri near Pennal and at Derwenlas. He often had more than one vessel on the go at once, and Lloyd says that he laid 16 keels between 1857 and 1864, and some 29 throughout his shipbuilding career, specializing in schooners. Of these the smallest of his schooners was c.45 tons and the largest were Sarah 106 tons and Eliza Jane, 131 tons, which seems to have been converted into a schooner. He also built a small smack, Morben 28 tons, a 209 ton brigantine Rebecca, and the 258 barque Mary Evans, amongst others. He was clearly a man who could put his skills to whatever type of sailing ship was needed, small or large. Two of his sons, Robert and Evan, also entered the business. As shipbuilding declined he seems to have shifted from building ships to repairing them instead, a common solution for former shipbuilders faced with the difficulties of the shipbuilding industry towards the end of the 19th Century.
Frances Poole was registered in Aberystwyth, no.17350. Her managing owner, the agent for the shareholders and responsible for overseeing it as a business venture, was David Jones, resident in Machynlleth. The first shareholders for the ship (listed in Lloyd 1996, p.143) are as follows:
- 16 shares – Griffith Jones, Farmer, County of Merioneth
- 8 shares – Master William Lewis, Master Mariner (no certificate), Aberdovey
- 8 shares – John Lewis, Master Mariner, Aberdovey
- 6 shares – Mary Brees, spinster and shopkeeper (owned shares in a number of ships), Machynlleth
- 4 shares – David Jones, clerk and managing owner of the Frances Poole, Machynlleth
- 4 shares – Edward Morgans, farmer, County Merioneth
- 4 shares – William Jones, coal merchant, Machynlleth
- 4 shares – Robert Williams, grocer, Aberdovey
- 4 shares – John Jones, flour dealer, Machynlleth
- 4 shares – Thomas Edwards, farmer, Cardigan
- 2 shares – Thomas Llywelyn, clerk, Machynlleth
As Lloyd points out, the large number of shareholders from Machynlleth is an indication of how important the commercial ties between Machynlleth and Aberdovey were. It is notable that John Jones, the builder, is not amongst the shareholders. Unlike many shipbuilders, he never owned shares in the ships that he built.
The Frances Poole‘s master since the date of her launch was one of her owners, Captain William Lewis (1827-1863), who was born in Borth in 1827 but had moved to Aberdovey. She was built partly to meet the needs of the slate trade. Slate was an important material in rapidly expanding industrial areas, and neighbouring Tywyn and, further afield, Corris, had an excellent supply. The slate was transported to Aberdovey’s wharf, and was loaded onto small coastal ships, offloaded at suitable ports for carriage inland. Having dropped off her slate, often in London, Frances Poole then loaded cargoes at those ports for other destinations before returning to Aberdovey. When she was unable to source an ongoing cargo, she headed to the next port that offered the best potential for a return cargo, known as being “in ballast.” Although she was initially destined for coast-hugging work, after a decade of coastal work, she began to engage in the Spanish and French trades, suggesting that she was a very robust vessel.
Crew records sourced by Alan Jones (2010, p.52-68) for the year 24th July 1861-17th July 1862 provide a useful insight into the sort of distances that the Frances Poole covered:
- July 1861, Aberdovey to London with slate
- London to St Valery at the mouth of the river Somme, unknown cargo
- In ballast (meaning no cargo loaded) back to Newport
- Newport to Aberdovey, probably with coal
- Aberdovey to London with slate
- London to Penzance, unknown cargo
- Penzance to Newport, in ballast
- Newport to Aberdovey, arriving December 1861
- 11 February 1862, Aberdovey to Bangor
- Bangor to London
- London to Whitehaven
- Whitehaven to Newport by 29th April 1862
- 2nd May 1862, Newport to Aberdovey
- Aberdovey to London
- London to Whitehaven
- Whitehaven to London by 17th July 1862
The crew for these voyages consisted of:
- The Master (no certificate), Captain William Lewis of Borth, resident in Aberdovey
- The Mate, Thomas Jones, age 29, of Borth
- AB (able-bodied) seaman John Davies, age 20, of Aberdovey
- OS (ordinary seaman) John Jenkins, age 21, of Borth
- Ship’s boy Thomas Edwards of Borth, age 16, on his first voyage
The seaside town of Borth was not a trading port in its own right, although it had a long fishing tradition, but it supplied a lot of the Aberdovey trading coasters with crew, and several of the Aberdovey-based Masters came from Borth, much like Captain Williams. Captain Williams sailed with the ship until his death on board at Newport in October 1863 from “a rupture of a blood vessel” at the age of 36.
Captain Williams was replaced the next day by Captain John Evans, aged 43, who held a Certificate of Service (no. C.S. 701507), a native of Bangor but resident in Aberdovey, and the Master of Jane Gwynne (also built by John Jones, and of a similar size). Under Captain Evans, the ship engaged in the Spanish trades, calling at Valencia, Lloret de Mar, Malaga, Tarragona and other ports, sailing mainly from Newcastle. She also visited French ports, including Boulogne, Dunkirk, Dieppe, Quimper and St Valery.
Captain Evans was succeeded by John Williams (no certificate) from Aberdovey, by 1867. From then on here trips were mainly along the British coastline, again, but included at least one visit to St Valery.
Captain John Williams was in turn succeeded as Master by John Morris, aged 35, of Aberdovey in 1868 (no certificate), the same year in which he became managing owner for the Frances Poole. He had formerly sailed on Mountain Maid, and took on William Morris, aged 33, as Mate, also formerly on Mountain Maid. By 1869 he had been replaced by Hugh Pugh of Aberdovey, having previously served on the Mary Jane. A common port of call was Runcorn.
The Frances Poole was still sailing and trading until March 1869. The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard reported on the loss on 27th March 1869 (the short report is shown on the left). Frances Poole had set out from Cork, heading from Liverpool, then Runcorn before heading down to Faversham with a mixed cargo. She was wrecked during a gale against the rocks of “Godvery” (probably Godfrevy) Head near St Ives in Cornwall, with the total loss of the ship, the Master and other unnamed crew members. The captain, John Morris, and crew member Hugh Pugh both came from Aberdovey. The Mate, William Morris, may have been the elder brother of John Morris. The captain’s widow was pregnant with three children. Pugh had worked on the paddle steamer Elizabeth, which provided a ferry service between Aberdovey and Ynyslas when the final leg of the Cambrian Railway was being built to connect Aberdovey, Machynlleth and Aberystwyth. He left a wife and child. Frances Poole was not the only ship wrecked in the area that night, but the other ship’s crew were fortunate enough to survive.
As I said in my introduction, it is the brevity of this report that is so startling, not just because all lives were lost, but because it is clear that this was not an unusual event. Ships and crew were lost on a distressingly regular basis, and rarely merited an in-depth analysis in newspaper reports.
The National Library of Wales
Jones, A. 2010. John Jenkins of Borth – A Welsh Master Mariner’s Story. Maritime Wales/Cymry A’r Mor 31, p.52-68. Available online at: http://www.mywelshancestry.co.uk/John%20Jenkins/John%20Jenkins%20Story.html
Lloyd, L. 1996. A Real Little Seaport. The Port of Aberdyfi and its People 1565-1920. Volume 1. ISBN-10 1874786488
Lloyd, L. 1996. A Real Little Seaport. The Port of Aberdyfi and its People 1565-1920. Volume 2. ISBN-10 1874786496