W H Nevill and the Llanelly Iron Shipping Company


Robert Craig, National Library of Wales journal Vol X/3 Summer 1958.

Extracted onto the pages of GENUKI with the kind permission of the National Library of Wales

This is a complete extract of this article [Gareth Hicks 2003]


In common with other maritime counties in Wales, ship-building was carried on in Carmarthenshire throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 1  Prior to the eighteen-thirties, the centre of such activity had been in the neighbourhood of Carmarthen and Kidwelly, but thereafter the balance shifted eastwards, and, by 1860, almost all the vessels built in the County came from Llanelly shipyards. The change of location was dictated by the supply of shipbuilding materials, and the emergence of Llanelly as the principal port of the County, replacing Carmarthen and Kidwelly, by that time in decline. Until the middle of the nineteenth century Carmarthen had been a substantial town with a good navigable river and a convenient point for the assembly of large quantities of high quality oak timber needed for shipbuilding. By 1860, however, iron was replacing wood for ship construction, and the metal industries of Llanelly attracted to themselves the materials and skills essential for the establishment of such an industry.

The copper-smelting and coal-mining entrepreneur, Richard Janion Nevill had, by the time of his death in 1855, substantial shipping interests, which had developed out of his other activities in the Llanelly area. He had found it desirable to acquire suitable tonnage for three of his important interests: firstly, the coal trade; secondly, the importation of copper and lead ore; and thirdly, the export, both coastwise and foreign, of the products of his smelting works. After his death, his sons, Charles William Nevill, Richard Nevill and William Henry Nevill, continued this policy, and their total investment in shipping between 1814 and 1870 may be estimated as about £86,000. 2

The earliest shipyards at Llanelly were situated on what were known as Llanelly Flats, between the Carmarthenshire Dock and Nevill's Dock; but there is no evidence to suggest that there was a permanent slipway for shipbuilding before 1845, when Edward Watson Jobling sought, and obtained, permission from the Llanelly Harbour Commissioners to build a Patent Slip on a site adjoining the Carmarthenshire Dock. 3  This slipway was capable of taking vessels of up to 500..................

  • 1. We have traced over 300 vessels built in the County between 1750 and 1890.
  • 2. Author's calculation based on a detailed examination of Custom House Registrations at Llanelly Custom House from which have been traced all vessels owned by the Nevill family. The value has been derived from scattered references in N.L.W. Nevill MSS., e.g. 501, 594 and 1772, and through the author's estimates based on market values current at that time. The total, however, excludes vessels owned by the Llanelly Iron Shipping Co., which are considered below. Furthermore, the Nevills were seldom the sole owners of ships, but were generally the principal owners and 'ship's husband'.
  • 3. Llanelly Public Library possess an incomplete Tide Table for the port dated 1849 containing details of the shipyard: the charge for the use of the slipway for repair was 1/2d. per register ton per day.

.................... tons, 1  and Jobling built several vessels, as well as carrying out much repair work. He abandoned shipbuilding at Llanelly in 1852, and the slipway passed to W. H. Nevill. 2

Some further vessels were built on the Patent Slip, including the Paddle Steamer SAMSON of  111 tons, for which the engines were built by W. H. Nevill, 3  but it is not thought that the Nevill family took much part in shipbuilding until 1863.

It was in 1863 that W. H. Nevill commenced building vessels on the site of Joblings Yard, which was greatly extended. Three building berths were provided, and the necessary provision was made for new drawing and sail lofts, machinery for punching, shearing, bending and drilling the iron plates and castings which were all produced at the Old Lodge Ironworks managed by Richard Nevill. The Old Lodge Ironworks provided engines and boilers for the steamships built at the yard, and also anchors and chains. Associated with this enterprise was the formation of the Llanelly Iron Shipping Company, by W. H. Nevill. An account of the activities of this Company, which took all its vessels from the shipyard, and which was a separate entity, follows a description of the vessels built at the yard for other individuals and companies.


The first vessel, which was 220 tons gross, was launched from the yard on 17 July 1863, and named PREMIER by Mrs. W. H. Nevill. Between four and five thousand people were present on this occasion, and there were scenes of considerable excitement as the vessel slid into what a local newspaper described as 'her native element'. This vessel was the first to be owned by the newly formed Iron Shipping Company, and was the second largest vessel built in the town to that year. 4  On the stocks in an adjacent berth was a much larger vessel, the OLIVER CROMWELL, being built for David Jones of Llanelly, which was duly launched in March, 1864, This latter vessel was remarkable for her 'clipper' characteristics, her measurements being: length 153' breadth 25.2' depth 16.3'. The ratio of  'beams to length' considered with her under deck tonnage of 396 tons show that she was comparable with the extreme clipper hull form developed as a consequence of the rivalries in the China Tea Trade. 5  The OLIVER CROMWELL was able to carry 600 tons of cargo, and was built for the copper ore trade, being fitted with a trunk and sister keelsons in the hold for the carriage of this heavy ore. She .............

  • 1. N.L.W. Nevill MSS. 372 and 374: also plan 381.        
  • 2. N.L.W. Nevill MS. 379.
  • 3. This was not the first occasion upon which ship's engines were built and installed by Nevill at Llanelly, since, in 1849, Henry Bath of Swansea built an iron steamer named AUGUSTA for the proprietors of the Spitty Copper Works. She was engined at Llanelly by W. H. Nevill.
  • 4. In 1850, E. W. Jobling had launched a Brig of 224 tons named PANDORA.
  • 5. For a discussion of 'clipper' characteristics see D. R. MacGregor, The Tea Clippers, pp. 82-83. Appendix IV gives a comparative table of coefficients of under deck tonnage for a number of tea clippers.

.................... sailed for Caldera, on the West coast of South America on 20 May 1864, and arrived safely after a stormy passage during which she met with severe weather off Cape Horn, being detained 'some four weeks' : her sailing qualities, however, were described as 'excellent'.' On 11 December of the same year she sailed for Swansea with a full cargo of copper ore, and was never heard of again. It is hard to believe that there were any defects in building since she was built under Lloyd's special survey and was fitted out in an elaborate manner. It may be supposed that ice was encountered off Cape Horn---a hazard which accounted for many vessels trading in those dangerous waters.

The fact that the OLIVER CROMWELL was built so early in the days of the yard for an independent owner, emphasises that it was not the intention of Nevill to run the yard merely to provide the Llanelly Iron Shipping Company with vessels indeed, the outstanding characteristic of his policy was that, whereas most Welsh shipyards satisfied a purely local need, much of the output of this yard was destined for operation by owners from other places.

In September 1864 the ANN was launched for Simon Samuel and others of Llanelly. This ship was a Brig of 271 tons designed for general deepsea trading. Her maiden voyage from Llanelly to Gibraltar took fifteen days, and a return passage from Villa Real to Liverpool was no quicker: she sailed from the former port to Scilly Islands in 15 days, arriving at Liverpool on 9 January 1865 with a cargo of 420 tons of sulphur ore. Unfortunately, having left Liverpool for Malaga with coal she went ashore in a gale near Mizzen Head near Wicklow on February 12. Some rather half-hearted attempts at salvage were made during March while the weather was favourable, but eventually a heavy gale made salvage impossible as the vessel began to break up. The Master attributed the loss to an error in the compass, a fairly common defect in the early days of iron vessels when the effect of an iron hull on compass deviation had yet to be fully comprehended.

All three building berths were occupied at this time: January 1865 saw the launch of the RACHAEL, an Iron Brig of 269 tons gross, for the Llanelly Iron Shipping Company: in August the BETSEY was delivered to Simon Samuel and others, another Brig of about the same tonnage; and, in November, the Iron Shipping Company took their third vessel, the CONCORD. Of these three the BETSEY was the longest lived, surviving until 1903. Initially she was employed almost exclusively in the lead ore trade between Cagliari and Llanelly. Leaving Llanelly with coal (she could carry about 450 tons) she sailed to Cagliari direct or to an Italian port, and loaded home about 430 tons of lead ore. On many occasions she made good passages, as for example in 1871 when she ran from Llanelly to Cagliari in sixteen days. Two seventeen-day passages were recorded in the following year, and one passage of similar duration from Cagliari to Bristol was made in 1877. In the following year, owing to steamer competition, her trading area became more extensive as the search for cargoes became more difficult, and she crossed the Atlantic to bring phosphate rock from South Carolina to London. Later, several voyages were made to Tucacas, Venezuela, to load copper ore for Swansea, and, ...................

  • 1. The Cambrian, 4. 11. 1864.

.................. having been altered to Brigantine rig for greater economy in 1883, she made two passages to Port Nolloth, South Africa, also to load copper ore for Swansea. Thereafter, until her sale abroad, she visited Newfoundland, South America, and did a short spell in the coasting trade as sailing ship freight rates became seriously lowered due to steamship competition. She was sold by the Samuel family in 1894 for £1,050 to C. Renck and registered at Harburg, Germany. On the basis of other comparable building costs at the Llanelly shipyard, it may be surmised that the building price of the BETSEY was about £4500. The BETSEY survived, firstly under the Germans as the HELGA, and later under the Norwegian flag as ASTREA until November, 1903, when she was stranded near Peterhead, Scotland, whilst on a voyage from Christiansund to Fraserburgh.

The year 1866 saw the yard fully occupied with four vessels built and launched. Of these, three were built for the Llanelly Iron Shipping Company: the TOWY, a Barque of 234 tons, the BLONDE, and the BRUNETTE of similar rig and about the same size. The first steamship built in the yard was also launched in 1866 for the Llanelly Steam Navigation Company, which had been formed in 1862 for maintaining the substantial trade between Llanelly and Bristol, both passenger and freight. The new steamship was named CAMBRIA by Mrs. W. H. Nevill at her launch in June. Her engines, built by Richard Nevill gave her a speed of 11 knots, and, besides cargo, she accommodated thirty passengers. The CAMBRIA remained in the trade until 1887, when she was sold to other local owners, thereafter passing to Scottish buyers for trade between Glasgow and the Western Isles for which service she was well adapted with her shallow draught. Her name was altered to INNIEMORE and in 1895 she was sold to French owners for £1,800 and renamed VILLE DE CHERBOURG. She went missing at sea in May, 1903.

A larger steamship was launched in April, 1867 and named LLANELLY for the Llanelly and Liverpool Steam Navigation Company, which had been floated by a number of local merchants for the very large Llanelly-Liverpool trade. C. W. Nevill, who managed the Copper Works, was a prominent member of the management of the Company, and a substantial shareholder. The ship was 304 tons gross, and could carry 350 tons of cargo and a number of passengers. A contemporary detailed description of the LLANELLY, 1  shows that she was elaborately fitted out and built to a standard higher than that required by Lloyd's Rules. She traded almost exclusively to Liverpool, but sometimes deviated to Barrow to load pig iron for Llanelly: it was on a voyage from Barrow to Llanelly in November, 1873 that the vessel was wrecked on the North Bishop Rocks in a thick fog. Her building cost was something over £8,000. 2

In June, 1867, there was launched the schooner NAIAD for C. W. Nevill & Co., for his copper ore trade from Cornish Ports. This vessel of 135 tons was destined to be the last survivor of all the ships built in the shipyard and became very well known in the coasting trade in the course of her very long career. Some deep ....................

  • 1. See The Cambrian, 9. 8. 1867.
  • 2. This figure was quoted at the Court of Inquiry which followed her loss.

...................... sea passages were made, however, notably in 1868 when she made two round trips to the Mediterranean, and in 1870 and 1871 she made two passages to Palermo for fruit and wine. Apart from these ventures, some visits were paid to Bilbao and Huelva, but for the rest she was confined to the coasting trade, mostly in transporting copper ore, first for Nevill and later for the Samuel family who kept her until 1903. In that year she was sold to owners at Watchet, but it was as late as 1931 that she finally ended her career by being wrecked near Looe, Cornwall. 1  In August, 1867, the QUADROON was launched for the Llanelly Iron Shipping Company, and in December of the same year the small schooner, MERLIN, was launched for Captain Simon Samuel, William Thomas & Roger Lester. 2  She was intended for the carriage of tinplate from the Carmarthen Tinplate Works to Liverpool and was employed in this trade until her loss by collision in Holyhead Bay in October, 1875.

The Llanelly Iron Shipbuilding Company took delivery of the Brigantine BURRY in March, 1868, a vessel of 194 tons, and, one year later, the brig LOUISA was launched, the first of two vessels built to the order of Buesnel & Company of Jersey for the Wales to St. Malo coal trade in which this Company had been engaged for some years. This vessel, like her consort, the MARIE ANGE launched in 1870, was about 300 tons gross, and could carry nearly 500 tons of coal. They were possibly the fastest sailing colliers employed in Great Britain, and regularly made the round trip at a speed which would have not disgraced the steamship, from which source severe competition was being felt. Loftily rigged, with superb Islander crews contemptuous of bad weather which kept lesser ships in port, they maintained a remarkable regularity of service. An important factor in their favour was that they were fitted with water ballast tanks, thus obviating much delay in loading and discharging stone ballast or ore on the 'empty' run as was the custom of the trade. 3  The LOUISA went missing on a coal trip from Glasgow to St. Malo in November, 1872, and in 1883 the MARIE ANGE was sold to Liverpool Owners and was intended for the New Zealand and Australian trade. In 1884, however, whilst bound from Newcastle, New South Wales to Port Chalmers, New Zealand, she went missing, wreckage identified as belonging to the vessel being picked up on the New Zealand coast.

  • 1. Her later days are described in Somerset Harbours by Grahame Farr, pp. 131-2. The late Captain Redd, who was for some years her master, was mistaken in believing that she had ever visited New York.
  • 2. Thomas Lester & Co., were operating the Carmarthen Tinplate Works at this time. Cf. E. H. Brooke: Chronology of the Tinplate Works of Great Britain, p. 143.
  • 3. A very large number of vessels, mostly of about 300-450 tons deadweight and Welsh owned, were employed in the coal trade to the French ports from South Wales. Wherever possible, they loaded limestone, lead, zinc or copper ore as ballast on the return trip to Wales which was carried at a nominal freight of 2/- or 3/ - per ton. This was in place of loading the usual stone ballast, which was, of course, quite valueless, and was discharged at the various 'ballast tips' which each port maintained. Vessels of the size indicated above would require about 100 tons of ballast for the homeward trip. Thus owners were enabled to obtain some remuneration for a voyage, which, through unfavourable wind and weather, might occupy ten days or more. Freights on coal to North French ports fluctuated a good deal in the 1870's: 8/- per ton would be a reasonable average during the first part of the decade.

In May, 1869, Simon Goldberg, a prominent Swansea shipowner, ordered what was to be the largest vessel built at the port of Llanelly. Launched in December of that year she was named HINDA, a barque of 476 tons gross, with a cargo capacity of 700 tons. Employed in the copper ore trade to the West Coast of South America, she had a long career, being owned by Goldberg until 1897, a period of twenty seven years. Subsequently she was acquired by Italian owners and renamed GARBO, later ITALIA, until in 1911 she went missing on a voyage from Cagliari to Trieste.

In January, 1871 was launched an iron schooner, the BESS MITCHELL, for Richard Mitchell & Company of Briton Ferry. Of 111 tons, the contract price was £2,015, 1  and, on her sale to Yorkshire owners in 1894, she fetched £950. 2  The BESS MITCHELL survived the first World War and went missing at sea in October, 1921, whilst owned in Guernsey. The Llanelly Iron Shipping Company took the Brigantine CYMRO in 1871, a vessel of 201 tons, designed on the same lines as the BURRY, and in the following year Gordon Ross of Liverpool took delivery of the schooner JOHANNA of 159 tons, 3  designed for the Palermo wine trade, in which she made some good passages. In 1880 this vessel was acquired by E. F. Hickman of London, who altered her rig to Brigantine and employed her in the Spanish and Portugese trades, her name being changed to SOFIA. She was sold to owners at Limerick in 1897 and was finally lost by collision in 1907.

The Governor and Company of Copper Miners in England ordered a small two-masted schooner, named the C.A., which was launched in September, 1872. 4  Of 93 tons gross, she was employed in the copper ore trade from Bilbao to Swansea and Port Talbot until 1878 when she was acquired by E. F. Hickman and joined the SOFIA in the Spanish trade. By 1880 the Llanelly shipyard had changed hands, and it was the new owners of the yard who, in that year, were given the job of lengthening the vessel by seventeen feet and rerigging her as a three-masted schooner, her tonnage being increased to 125 tons. She was also lost by collision with a steamship, in 1894.

Samuel Baker & Company of Liverpool ordered two vessels for their Mexican trade in 1872, and the first was delivered in May, 1873, and named JAMAPA, a barquentine of 202 tons gross. 5

The second vessel was named GRIJALVA, a slightly larger ship of similar rig, measuring 234 tons gross and delivered in 1874. 6  Both vessels were sold to Thomas Harrison and Company of Liverpool in 1876, for their West African trade, ......

  • 1. N.L.W Nevill MSS. LIV.
  • 2. Report in Fairplay.
  • 3. N.L.W. Nevill MSS. LIV: an estimate of building cost is given as £2,615; the proposed price to the Owners being shown as £2,900.
  • 4. ibid. 'Price Quoted £1,970'.
  • 5. ibid. 'cost £4,228'.
  • 6. ibid. 'cost £4,810'.

.................. and both vessels became well-known in that service. 1  JAMAPA was wrecked on the Cape Verdes Islands in August, 1876, and GRIJALVA, having been lengthened in 1881, to give her a tonnage of 308, went missing on a voyage from West Africa in July, 1893

The last vessel built in the yard for the Iron Shipping Company was named GERTRUDE. A Barquentine of 255 tons, she was launched in November, 1874, and was lost in 1878.

The foregoing summarises all the ocean-going vessels built in the yard, to which must be added sundry small harbour craft. At least three small steamships either tugs or small harbour traders were built: two were operating on the Clyde in 1894, and a small tug was afloat until 1911 when she foundered off the Northumberland Coast. A good deal of repair work was undertaken and this no doubt maintained some continuity of employment during periods of relative slackness when new building orders were not forthcoming. The yard was put up for sale in 1874 and at first did not find a buyer. Ultimately, however, a sale was effected to Samuel Brothers of Llanelly who, at the time, were substantial shipowners. They carried on the yard both as builders and ship repairers until nearly the end of the nineteenth century, but the last vessel of any importance, a steamship, was launched in 1884. A feature of the yard whilst under the management of the Samuel family was the virtual rebuilding of three steamships which were acquired after they had been wrecked. They were each repaired temporarily in situ, towed to Llanelly, rebuilt and relaunched. All were owned by the Samuel family and were to enjoy a long life under Llanelly registration. 2  Part of the site of the shipyard is still discernable today, alongside the old Carmarthenshire Dock; but the greatest part was taken over with the establishment of the Welsh Tinplate & Metal Stamping Co., Ltd., in 1897. However, the Carmarthenshire Dock, unused and deserted, stands as a reminder today of a more adventuresome past, and must be the oldest surviving dock in Wales. 3


The shipping trade of Llanelly in the early eighteen sixties was enjoying a period of expansion and notable prosperity. Not since the period 1834 to 1840, when, in some years, Llanelly achieved brief supremacy in South Wales in the oversea coal trade, due to the local acumen in constructing the first floating dock in Wales, had so many ships used the harbour. Over 3,000 vessles each year entered ..............

  • 1. See Basil Lubbock: Last of the Windjammers, Vol. 2. Mr. Lubbock refers to these vessels as 'fast two stickers' incorrectly. They were both fast vessels, but three-masted.
  • 2. The vessels were: 1. GAZELLE, 589 tons, acquired 1884: 2. SPRINBGOK, 823 tons, acquired 1885: and 3, LADY BERTHA, 695 tons, acquired 1889; all survived well into the present century.
  • 3. The Dock was built in the latter half of the eighteenth century.

.................... the port, and, quite apart from an expanding coal trade, there was an upsurge in metallurgical activity with an increase in the importation of copper and lead ore: by the end of the eighteen sixties, Llanelly was receiving more than half of all the lead ore imported into Great Britain. 1  It was natural, therefore, that local shipping enterprise should seek expansion of its activities. By 1870, however, the peak was passed, and the local shipping fraternity, lacking in capital no less than vision, found increasing competition not only from larger 'up channel' ports with their far greater reserves, but from the recession of trade and by the gradual reduction in demand for the special qualities of coal produced locally which was the economic backbone of the area. The Iron Shipbuilding Company commenced operations at very nearly the peak of the boom, and found it increasingly difficult as time went by to compete for orders with other, more famous and already well-established shipyards. The recession was felt equally by all Welsh shipyards, and only in those places capable of producing steamships relatively cheaply was the shipbuilding industry able to maintain the impetus of the previous decade. 2 Several shipyards in Wales, notably at Milford, Newport and Cardiff, 3  had sought to satisfy the demand for steamships, but, generally speaking, they were unable to compete either in quality or economy with the products of the Clyde or North East Coast of England where a long tradition of building technique had established an international reputation. Furthermore, there was lacking in South Wales any great centre of marine engineering, 4   such as existed in the other centres, and, in spite of the success which attended the Old Lodge Ironworks, managed by Richard Nevill, which produced a wide range of machinery, particularly for iron and tinplate mills, only a few sets of marine engines were produced at Llanelly. 5

Another factor militating against the expansion of the local shipbuilding industry was the flood of newly-built vessels continually arriving from British North America for sale in this country 'on speculation'. Constructed mostly in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and in the tonnage range of from 150 to 500 gross, 6  they were built with softwood, often inadequately, and frequently ..................

  • 1.                                               1867          1868         1869          1870
    • Total U.K. Lead Imports   9146        11,882      11,874      12,316
    • Lead Imports Llanelly       4890          7182         7390           6001
    • Source: Mineral Statistics, Parliamentary Papers.
  • 2. The writer's records of shipbuilding at Milford, Swansea, Cardiff and Newport show a similar decline in building activity after 1870: those yards capable of building larger vessels and which were able to survive a reduced building programme, profited by an increase in activity in the 'eighties', but by then the demand was for steamships and after sporadic activity building ceased in South Wales shortly thereafter. At Chepstow a yard kept going until after the first World War: at Swansea, on the other hand, nothing of note was built after 1874.
  • 3. The principal builders were: Milford, T. R. Oswald & Co.: Cardiff, Batchelor Brothers: and Newport, Morley Carney & Co., and the Usk Ship Building Company.
  • 4. At Neath, however, in the eighteen forties, N. Tregelles was responsible for a number of marine engines, the iron vessels being built by the Neath Abbey Iron Company.
  • 5. The last steamship built at Llanelly, by Samuel Brothers in 1884, was engined by Plenty & Son, of Newbury.
  • 6. Later, a Swansea owner experimented with only moderate success with vessels built at Prince Edward Island of up to 1,000 tons.

  .................. required re-bolting and substantial refitting after their Atlantic crossing. Their low cost, however, made them an attractive proposition to the local Welsh owner, and they required little expense to be sent to sea. In a fierce struggle for survival in a market constantly fluctuating and with a most uncertain future it was inevitable that such tonnage should be taken up. The lack of really adequate capital resources among all but a few Welsh shipowners led to a short term view being accepted of the level of profitability. The cost of such vessels in the early eighteen seventies averaged about £10 per ton gross, and the cost of fitting, coppering and making ready for sea might be between £150 and £750. Whereas the expectation of life of the British built sailing vessel was about 15 years, in the case of these softwood ships, 7 years would be a reasonable average. These vessels in the ports of Great Britain, and in South Wales in particular, most effectively competed with the products of the local shipyards. 1

It has not been found possible to gauge accurately the total number of employees in the Nevill shipyard, but in the period 1863 to 1870, it cannot have been fewer than about 200. Key men in the Yard served their apprenticeship in well-known Clyde shipyards, as W. H. Nevill made a point of having his personnel serve in the major shipbuilding centres in order that they might bring to the Welsh Yard the best possible skill and workmanship.

All the ships built in the shipyard were constructed to Lloyd's highest classification, and most were built under Special Survey: many of the vessels were built to a higher standard than that required by the rules. 2 Consequently, it is somewhat surprising that so many of the vessels should have ended their days by being reported 'missing at sea'---a most equivocal end for any ship. The proportion of vessels posted as missing well exceeds the national average, and yet no reason has been found to explain why this should be so. There was no evidence in any one of these losses either of undermanning or overloading and it must be assumed, evidence to the contrary being lacking, that hazards of the sea, such as ice, fog and collision, took their toll to an unusual degree. It is perhaps worth considering that, in cases where unseaworthiness or negligent navigation were suspected following a loss, the Board of Trade were required to hold a Court of Inquiry: yet in the case of the Nevill built vessels which went missing, there was never a Court of Inquiry, so that it appears likely that such losses were considered by the authorities to have occurred as the result of storms or other hazards accepted as of exceptional severity.

  • 1. The following figures show, for the port of Swansea, the number of newly built vessels registered in the years 1870 to 1874, distinguish those of British North American construction from those built in U.K.
    • 1870    18 newly built vessels registered, of which 15 built B.N.A.
    • 1871    18      "            "                   "                       12         "
    • 1872    20      "            "                   "                       12         "
    • 1873    21      "            "                   "                       20         "
    • 1874    37      "            "                   "                       32         "
  • 2. A pencilled note in N.L.W. Nevill MS. LIV concerning the s.s. LLANELLY shows that there was no less than 40 tons excess iron in hull---about one-fifth of her displacement when launched (without engines and boilers).

The efforts of W. H. Nevill to obtain work for the shipyard, particularly from 1870 onwards, when local demand flagged due to the recession in trade, are exemplified by papers among the Nevill MSS. One such bound volume 1  gives details of a large number of quotations given to various owners for vessels ranging in size from 20 ton barges to 1,000 ton sailing and steamships for numerous owners in Liverpool, Cardiff, Newport and other places. The prices quoted seem, on the whole, to compare reasonably well with the cost of building elsewhere at the time, 2  and it is noticeable that W. H. Nevill was prepared to operate the yard on a very limited profit margin in an endeavour to maintain continuity of employment for his workers. It must have been apparent, however, by 1873, that it would be impossible to run the yard on a viable basis in competition with yards elsewhere, and undoubtedly the decision to suspend operations was the correct one. It is perhaps permissible to speculate that, had a very moderate number of orders been forthcoming in the mid-eighteen seventies, the yard might well have survived this difficult period, and have been still active in the present century.


The Llanelly Iron Shipping Company, Ltd. was registered on April 11, 1863, with a capital of £25,000 in shares of £5 each, followed by an increase of capital to £50,000 in March, 1866. Apart from the Nevill family, who had a substantial holding, nearly all the members of the local shipping fraternity held shares in the new Company. By November, 1863, the shareholders included a wide range of professions and trades, and it is perhaps significant that a large number of artisans held shares in the Company. They are variously described as Fitters, Rollermen, Ballers, Puddlers, Hammermen, Shearers and the like, and tend to conform to the general pattern of shipowning in a typical Welsh town of the time, wherein ownership of shipping was widely distributed throughout the community at all levels, and not confined to those directly concerned with maritime commerce The study of ship ownership in Llanelly confirms the pattern common to maritime centres in West Wales, particularly in the areas around Milford, Cardigan and Aberystwyth, where shipping was an integral part of the life of the people: in these places there can have been few families whose lives did not at some point bring them into close contact with ships and the sea. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the farming community in West Wales had a financial interest in ships which ...................

  • 1. N.L.W. Nevill MS. LIV.
  • 2. For example in 1873 W.H. NeviII quoted Messrs. Burgess, Shaddick & Co., Swansea £12,650 to build a barque to carry 1,000 tons, having an estimated register tonnage of 650. By courtesy of Messrs. William Gray & Co. Ltd., of West Hartlepool, the writer has been able to inspect the contract, dated 3 April 1875, for a vessel of almost identical size and specification, destined for the same trade, the copper ore run to the West Coast of South America. This latter vessel, for John Bowen of Swansea, was contracted for at a price of £11,200; so the margin of building costs between the two yards was relatively small.

............... was of the greatest significance and importance; as the nineteenth century proceeded, the tendency was towards a reorientation of ship ownership ---to the newly forming urban and industrial communities. 1

As we have shown, all the vessels owned by the Llanelly Iron Shipping Company were built in the associated  shipyard.The fleet comprised the following vessels in order of launch:

Date of launch


Gross tons

Cargo capacity tons



July 1863





£3,666   2

Jan. 1865





£4,540   2

Nov. 1865





£4,500   2

Apl. 1866





£5,510   3

Sep. 1866





£5,600   3

Nov. 1866





£5,660  3

Aug. 1867





£3,382  4

Mar. 1868





£3,330   3

Sep. 1871





£3,100  5






£4,600   5

The PREMIER commenced trading in September, 1863, with a voyage from Llanelly to Gibraltar with coal, from which port she proceeded to Villa Real and loaded ore for Plymouth. A similar passage was made at the end of the year; this time, however, she carried a cargo of sulphur to London. The next year's work took her to Montreal for wheat, and later back to the Mediterranean trade for further cargoes of sulphur ore for Bristol and Llanelly. Although no fast passages were made, there were no accidents or losses through bad weather, and, by November, 1864, her earnings were sufficient for a dividend of 15% to have been paid on about fifteen month's trading. 6

  • 1. As far as we know, little attention has been paid to the economic aspects of ship ownership in Wales in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Mr. David Thomas in Hen Longau Sir Gaernarfon has ably shown the extent to which shipowning was a feature of the economic life of the county of Caernarvon; and the pattern holds good for the other maritime counties of Wales, which were often without important ports or an industrial hinterland. The port of Aberystwyth, for example, was never important as such, but the extent and value of shipping owned there in the nineteenth century might possibly have been higher per capita than any other maritime county in the British Isles.
  • 2. Cost as shown in balance sheets of Company published in Llanelly Guardian, 1865-6.
  • 3. No figures have been found to show actual cost of these vessels: the figures shown are the author's estimates based on the average cost per ton gross of building in the yard during the period, namely £17 per ton.
  • 4. N.L.W. Nevill MS. LIV: this figure is quoted as the estimated cost of building; the actual cost was almost certainly less.
  • 5. ibid.: actual prices quoted.
  • 6. Report in Llanelly Guardian. For the eight months ending May, 1864 a dividend of 8% was paid, and for the seven months ending November, 1864, 7% was paid. it should perhaps be mentioned at this point that the writer has traced practically every voyage made by all the ships of the Company. In many cases details of cargoes have been traced, together with number of crew, length of voyage, and, frequently, freight rates at which the vessels were fixed. It would be impossible to give all the references involved, but, briefly passage details have been obtained from files of Shipping & Mercantile Gazette and Lloyd's List, many fixtures with freight rates also being quoted therein. Custom House Bills of Entry have been consulted wherever possible to ascertain manning scales and nature of cargo carried. Casualties of a serious nature were described in the shipping newspapers cited above, and other reports were often to be found in the local press. We have also consulted private records of similar vessels trading locally in the period under discussion: these most valuable secondary sources are: 1. an account book kept by Captain Thomas Mendus of Llanelly, who commanded several local vessels in the period 1866 to 1883, which gives details of wages paid, port disbursements, freight rates and victualling expenses and, 2. an account book kept by Mr. David Paton of Llanelly, a shipowner, who kept full receipt and expenditure records of two vessels he owned from 1872 until 1885. There is little published material of a similar nature; but Basil Greenhill in The Merchant Schooners, Vol. 1 (1951), Appendix 1, gives, in extenso, a transcript of the account book of the schooner THETIS of Fowey, covering the years 1873 to 1876, and there are scattered, but useful references in D. W. Morgan's Brief Glory (1948), relating to building costs and profits of Aberdovey vessels.


With the delivery of the RACHAEL, the affairs of the Company began to prosper. In the first eleven months of service, this vessel earned 35% of her initial cost. During this time she was employed in very much the same trade as the PREMIER, except that, in the place of a trip to North America for grain, she brought a similar cargo from the Danube to Marseilles, loading oilcake at that port for London. Early in 1867 she left London for Mauritius, loaded sugar there for Colombo, and returned to London in the rather poor time of 152 days.

The CONCORD, delivered in November 1865, after loading coal to Malta and returning to London with sulphur ore, loaded outwards at Llanelly to the River Plate, returning to Liverpool. The TOWY also started life in the Mediterranean trade, and our estimates indicate that, at this period, all these vessels were earning about 20% per annum, exclusive of depreciation.

The first setback occurred soon after the delivery of the first of the Barques, the BLONDE, which came into service in September 1866. She loaded railway iron at Cardiff for New York and had a boisterous passage of 83 days, encountering head winds and gales of exceptional severity. She arrived at New York with her bulwarks stove in, which necessitated repairs at that port. However, she was fixed to load a cargo of wheat for Sligo, Ireland, and duly sailed on March 11, 1867. Within two or three days of sailing she encountered a storm during which the cargo shifted, and only after prolonged efforts by the Master and crew was the ship righted. On March 18 she was struck by a hurricane and the cargo shifted again, throwing the ship on her beam ends. The main topmast and fore topmast were cut away in an effort to right the ship, but the list steadily increased as more water found itself below to the cargo. On March 21 a much larger vessel stood by to render assistance, but the Master of the BLONDE found the situation rapidly deteriorating, and on the following day he and the crew were successfully transferred to the rescuing vessel, the BLONDE by this time being full of water. Shortly afterwards she sank.

In the meantime, at Llanelly, the sistership of the BLONDE had been launched and named BRUNETTE and despatched on the first of several passages to the west coast of South America. Usually her cargo was coal outwards, loaded either at Llanelly or Swansea, and copper home to Swansea or nitrate to some other port in Great Britain or the Continent. The round trip took between nine and ten months, and the nett earnings of the vessel for the first four years may be estimated at about £1,000 per annum, or about 20%.

The importation of lead ore from Sardinia developed rapidly at Llanelly in the period 1860-1880, 1  and, increasingly, the vessels of the Iron Shipping Company participated in the trade until they held almost a monopoly. The QUADROON, delivered in September 1867 and the BURRY delivered in April 1868, were engaged principally in taking coal and iron to various western Mediterranean ports, returning with lead ore, generally to Llanelly. Undoubtedly, their ability to maintain a fast service was an important factor in their dominance in the trade. All the vessels of the Company were employed in the trade, but it is thought that the smaller vessels, with their quicker turn-round and lower port expenses, were the most profitable. The most remarkable consistency of passage making was achieved by the RACHAEL which established the record for the run of 14 days, 2  and which made several passages in both directions of between 16 and 17 days. These passages were under a master who had a justified reputation for carrying sail, and it is remarkable on examining the records of the various ships, to observe the difference in terms of profitability between vessels commanded by men who were prepared to drive their ships, and those who were content merely to sail comfortably from port to port on a more leisurely schedule. 3

By the time the CYMRO was delivered, in November 1871, the PREMIER, RACHAEL, CONCORD and QUADROON were committed largely to the Cagliari trade, whereas the larger TOWY and BRUNETTE were trading to the River Plate and West Coast of South America. The CYMRO although not sent into the lead ore trade, was on a similar run, bringing zinc ore from Carloforte, first to Glasgow and later to Swansea. She did not survive for long, however, having loaded a cargo of rails at Swansea for Bilbao, she was wrecked on the difficult bar of the latter port in a heavy gale in February 1873. The fortunes of the Company suffered another blow in the autumn of 1876 when the RACHAEL, withdrawn from the Mediterranean, loaded coal at Burry Port for Montreal. She sailed on August 23, was spoken off the Banks of Newfoundland on October 12, and thereafter went missing with her crew of ten hands. No trace of the vessel or wreckage was ever found.

Previously, in January 1875, the last vessel built for the Company, the GERTRUDE, was delivered, and her commissioning coincided with a reduction of freight rates 4; she was successfully traded, however, from 1875 until 1878 in the .........

  • 1. Imports of lead ore (mostly from Sardinia) to Llanelly 1867-1870 see supra page 10. The figures for the subsequent decade were:
    • 1871     7,097 tons  1876    5,797 tons
    • 1872     6,006  "      1877    4,571  "
    • 1873     5,221  "      1878    8,199  "
    • 1874     5,529  "      1879   10,847 "
    • 1875     4,624  "      1880     6,674 "
  • 2. Cagliari to Llanelly, Sept. 29 to Oct. 13 in 1870: some vessels took up to 50 days for a single passage. The first steamships were used on the run in 1877, the average passage being about 13 days.
  • 3. In the case of the BURRY, a change of master brought quicker passages in 1875, the consequence being an estimated £400. additional profit each year, i.e. 22% greater earnings. On the other hand, the master of the BRUNETTE, John Richards, although never a quick passage maker, was able to claim that from 1867 to 1884 whilst under his command the BRUNETTE never lost so much as a sail.
  • 4. G. S. Graham, the 'Ascendancy of the Sailing Ship 1850-1885', Econ. History Review (Second Series), Vol. LX, No. 1, implies a 'Spectactular revival' for sailing ships in 1874. It should be made clear that this applied to large carriers of between 1,000 and 3,000 tons capacity. No corresponding revival benefited the short sea and Mediterranean trades which felt the effect of steamship competition more strongly. A revival trade did occur in 1880-1.

................... lead and ore trade at which time there was a sudden withdrawal from this trade by the Company vessels due to steamship competition. 1 The diminishing demand for sailing vessels in the Mediterranean trade led to a much wider dispersal of the ships, and with it, a marked fall in profits. One of the trades in which Welsh owners engaged their tonnage was the phosphate rock run from South Carolina and Aruba 2  ; the general pattern of the voyages involving the vessels in a coal voyage from Wales to the Madeiras, Cape Verdes or Dakar, thence to South Carolina or Aruba in ballast, and a return to Great Britain with a full cargo. The round trip occupied on average about four months although sometimes faster passages were recorded. 3 Freights homewards were relatively good, 26/6d. per ton being obtained, but the outward coal cargo would only pay 9/- or 10/- per ton. It was on such a voyage in 1878 that the GERTRUDE went missing at sea with her crew of eight. Severe weather was experienced in the Atlantic at the time of the casualty and several local vessels were also lost in the same gale.

The BURRY had been the first of the vessels to venture for phosphate rock in 1876, and she made several successful passages to Beaufort, Coosaw River and Charleston, all in South Carolina. Having returned from one such voyage in 1879, she sailed from Newcastle with a cargo of coal for Catania on July 31. On August 14 a report was received that an unidentified vessel was seen sunk off the North end of the Goodwin Sands. This later proved to be the BURRY, which had apparently been in collision with a large steamship which did not stop, and which was never identified. All the crew of the BURRY were lost without trace. Following the loss of four vessels in six years, with no sign of an improvement in freight rates, and no incentive for the acquisition of new tonnage, the Company elected to reduce its capital to £37,500 in shares of £3 15s. 0d. each.

With an improvement in rates evident in 1880, it might be supposed that the fortunes of the Company would take a turn for the better; but in September of that year the QUADROON went missing on a voyage from Swansea to Huelva, and in the following year a similar fate befell the CONCORD, homeward bound from the Argentine. These losses led the Company to dispose of their first vessel, and the PREMIER was sold to Liverpool buyers in January 1882, having served her owners for nineteen years quite profitably. The two remaining units of the fleet, the barques TOWY and BRUNETTE continued in operation, but with reduced success. The BRUNETTE stayed in the phosphate trade with occasional voyages from the Clyde to Demerara, but she was partially dismasted in 1882, which necessitated extensive repairs. The opportunity was taken to reduce her rig to Barquentine, in order that some economy could be effected in manning. In fact, it enabled the crew to be reduced from twelve to nine, a saving of about £160 each year in running costs. The TOWY was employed in the copper ore trade from Venezuela and Port Nolloth, discharging at Swansea or Liverpool; she also made some phosphate voyages. In 1883 the capital of the Company was again reduced, this time .....

  • 1.The last passage with lead ore was Made by the GERTRUDE in April 1878.
  • 2. See Henry Hughes: Immortal Sails, Chapters 17-18 for a deseription of the participation of Portmadoc ships in this trade.
  • 3.The BRUNETTE in 1883 came home from Carolina to Port Talbot in 22 days.

.................. to £10,000 in shares of £1-5s-0d. each. The two vessels remaining to the Company ventured further from home in face of competition, visiting, among other places, Port Madryn, the Welsh Colony in Patagonia for a cargo of grain, South Africa, Mauritius and India. In 1893 the TOWY was sold to buyers at Port Talbot, and in August of the following year, the BRUNETTE was sold to a Danish Company. With the disposal of their fleet, the Llanelly Iron Shipping Company went into voluntary liquidation in the following month.

The fortunes of the Company followed closely to the pattern of ship ownership elsewhere in South Wales in the period under discussion. There was an innate conservatism on the part of shipowners in West Wales which led them to persist with sailing ships when it became apparent that the sailing ship was becoming an uneconomic proposition. Lack of enterprise was responsible to a far greater extent than lack of capital and as has been pointed out elsewhere in connection with the local tinplate industry 'West Wales was not in any true sense an acquisitive society'. 1 As far as capital was concerned no discernable efforts were made to obtain capital outside the narrow confines of the area; since local finance at this time was adequate to expand the iron and tinplate industry, 2  a relatively modest investment in steamships in the 1880's might have enabled the Company to expand and earn reasonable profits. Only in Cardiff and Newport, with the resources of a large export coal trade was steam shipowning developed noticeably 3 : in the Llanelly area the lack of foresight and enterprise foreshadowed the closure of the port after World War II.

That the Company was well managed, within the somewhat narrow limits imposed by local traditions, cannot be doubted. Unlike so many shipping concerns in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the ships they owned were always well manned and never overloaded. 4  The highest Lloyd's classification under which the ships were built was maintained throughout their lives, and no expense was spared to maintain them in the best possible manner. The masters and crews took a great pride in their craft, and on their return to Llanelly after an arduous voyage the crew would be busily engaged in cleaning and painting until they looked 'like yachts'. 5  It should be remembered that the trades in which they were engaged were the more punishing to the fabric of the ship than any other in the whole course of the century. Cargoes of lead ore, which were regularly carried, and of phosphate rock and copper ore, were calculated to strain the hulls, and, as a consequence, ........

  • 1. W. E. Minchinton: The British Tinplate Industry (1957), p. 106. The whole paragraph from which this quotation is taken is highly relevant; and, basically, the points Mr. Minchinton makes there are directly applicable to local maritime activity.
  • 2. Llanelly shipowners were often involved in the financing and management of tinplate works, notably Burry Tinplate Works, Old Lodge Tinplate Works, and Old Castle Tinplate Works. Cf. E. H. Brooke: Chronology of the Tinplate Works of Great Britain (1944), and Appendix (1949).
  • 3. With the loss of the coal trade since World War II, Cardiff and Newport can claim little shipping as being owned at the ports.
  • 4. Whilst under the British Flag, the BRUNETTE never loaded more than about 540 tons of cargo: after sale to the Danes, she regularly earried over 580 tons.
  • 5. One or two elderly Llanelly men remembered the ships of the Llanelly Iron Shipping Company; they always recalled with pleasure the smart upkeep of these ships.

................ the sails and rigging to an unprecedented degree. The local wooden ships engaged in similar trades were generally strained and leaky beyond repair in about seven years; the high casualty rate of vessels belonging to the Company is not therefore to be wondered at.

Sailing ship ownership at Llanelly did not survive World War I, and by this time the trades engaged in were purely coastal and short sea. A short period of expansion followed the 1918 War, when a number of local companies ran a considerable fleet of steam ships, but the end of the second War saw the fleets sadly depleted, the coal trade abandoned and the harbour neglected. The closure of the port of Llanelly, in 1951, was an end as ignominious as sad for those with memories of more exhiliarating days.#



#Acknowledgements are due to R. C. Jarvis, F.S.A., F.R.Hist.S., Librarian H.M. Customs & Excise, King's Beam House, London, and to Grahame E. Farr, Bristol, for help most generously given. I am also indebted to R. O. Roberts, M.A., Department of Economies, University College of Swansea, for helpful advice in the preparation of this paper.