Caernarfon Ddoe/Caernarfon's Yesterdays header


It was in the year 1843 that Humphrey Owen, Rhyddgaer, built a new 69 tonne schooner for 6 Caernarfon residents. The names of the owners were: John Owen, Ty Coch (his son), William Thomas, Owen Edwards, Nehemiah Bracegirdle, John Jones and David Davies. Humphrey Owen's name had not previously been associated with ship building, but the name of this schooner was to become very well known in Caernarfon and she was the only ship to be launched in the town in that year. It is not known who chose the name nor for what reason, but to us, today, it is strange, to say the least,
The Napoleon
The Napoleon
that the name of Britain's former arch enemy, 'Napoleon,' should have been decided upon, especially as it was less than 30 years after the bloody Battle of Waterloo. Be that as it may, Caernarfon people came to associate the name of the schooner with the second name on the list of owners, i.e. William Thomas; he was the Napoleon's first Master and his family name was to become synonymous with that of the schooner for many decades during the 19th century.

Launching day was a day of celebration in the Port of Caernarfon at that time and it was customary for the builder to treat his workers to a feast at one of the town's hotels, but not until after a clergyman or minister had been invited on board the new vessel to conduct a service, and it was no less a person than the poet and hymnist, The Rev. William Williams (Caledfryn) (1801 - 1869), who had that honour at the launching of the 'Napoleon.' He preached a sermon in Welsh and after blessing the ship, he read out a stanza which he had composed especially for the event. A free translation reads as follows:

Let not a wave scowl angrily beneath her - nor
Lightening or whirlwind smite her;
The moon and the stars, when crossing the sea,
May they be gentle towards her.

A stanza worthy of the occasion, and one which expresses the thoughts of all sailors and their loved ones. In a word, a prayer and a wish that the elements be kind towards the ship and her crew and keep them free of the perils of the sea. The 'Napoleon' was a Coaster, but that did not mean that she could avoid the lash of the wind and an angry sea, as was proved on many occasions.

Her first Master was William Thomas (1815 - 1874), a native of Llanbedrog in Llŷn, and according to Lloyds Register of 1852, he was, by then, also the main owner of the 'Napoleon,' and between 1855 and 1860 he became owner and Master of the schooner 'Don Quixote' which was lost in April 1860. It is believed that it was during this period that he handed over control of the 'Napoleon' to his brother Captain Griffith Thomas (1822 - 1905), and following the loss of the 'Don Quixote' William Thomas bought a 120 tonne schooner, which was built in Bridport Harbour, Dorset, and named her 'Eleanor Thomas,' which was his wife's name.

He remained as Master of the 'Eleanor Thomas' from 1860 to 1872, when he handed over his responsibilities to his eldest son William Robert Thomas, then aged 27. His reason for retiring early appears to have been due to ill-health, for he died on June 19th 1874, aged 59, and although his wife and seven of his children had been buried at Llanbeblig Cemetery, he was buried in his native parish of Llanbedrog.

He was survived by his daughter Margaret Ann, aged 32, his sons William Robert, aged 29, and David Charles, aged 15. In his Will, dated February 8th 1873, his wish was that his effects be distributed between the three, i.e. 3 properties in Caernarfon, one in the parish of Llanbedrog, the two schooners 'Eleanor Thomas' and 'Napoleon,' together with all monies due to him. Even though he had nominated his brother Griffith to act as executor, he had not included him as a beneficiary, but in a Codicil dated May 5th 1874 he bequeathed a quarter share in the 'Napoleon' to him, and a quarter share to each of his three children, on condition that Griffith Thomas become responsible for a quarter share of the pending cost of repairs to the 'Napoleon.'

It is not known what arrangement Griffith came to with his brother's children, but it was his name that was appended on all documents as being owner of the 'Napoleon' from 1874 to 1891, when the name of his youngest son, Robert Henry Thomas (1869 - 1961) appeared. R. H. Thomas, Castle House, was a successful Caernarfon grocer who had bought the business from a well respected townsman, J.R. Pritchard, in 1892.

In retrospect, it can hardly be said that the 'Napoleon' nor her crew had a trouble free career, as was the wish of the poet 'Caledfryn' in his stanza of 1843. One example of this is what happened on a voyage from London to Portsmouth in 1872. The 'Napoleon' was off Margate and in a strong wind at 3 p.m. on November 15th two men went to fine the boom, when the jib boom carried away and the two men were thrown overboard. It would have been impossible to save them due to the rough sea rendering the ship out of control. The Crew List records their names as follows:

NameAgeWhere bornJoined shipRankCause of Death
William Williams35PwllheliOct. 12. CaernarfonA.B.Drowned Nov. 15.
Hugh Roberts36Beaumaris*Oct.12. CaernarfonA.B.Drowned Nov. 15.

*According to the report in the Caernarfon & Denbigh Herald, November 23rd 1872, his home address at the time of the accident was Red Wharf Bay, Anglesey.

Having arrived at Portsmouth and with the 'Napoleon's' crew being short staffed, Captain Thomas took on two local men on November 21st and the Crew List for that voyage shows that the schooner did not return to Caernarfon until January 1st 1873. The sailor's lot is both dangerous and uncertain, and the danger is not always confined to when the
The Napoleon
The Napoleon
ship is at sea. Accidents can occur in the comparative safety of the harbour, as in the case of the death of a member of the crew on August 13th 1888. The Mate, John Owen, aged 50, was from Nefyn and here is a copy of Captain Thomas's report in the log book of the 'Napoleon:' "I hereby certify that John Owen was working on board as a Mate during the vessel's stay in port at Caernarfon and fell overboard and was drowned."

Towards the end of the century there was less and less call for slates, and it was realized that it was cheaper to transport them by rail rather than by ship. They dropped in price and quarrymen were paid less for producing, which resulted in them going on strike. This had an adverse affect on the port and on the ships of Caernarfon, many of which were laid up for long periods. It is more than likely that this is what happened to the 'Napoleon' as there is no record of her having left port after the year 1891. Her owner, at that time, was the son of the Captain, Robert Henry Thomas, 1 Clarke Terrace, and his address was changed to Castle House, 18, High Street, Caernarfon, from 1892 onwards.

In a book called 'The Record of Caernarfon Built Ships,' which is kept at the Gwynedd Archives, Caernarfon, the fate of the 'Napoleon' is stated as follows:

Registered 'de nova' 27.10.1902. Liverpool. Converted to steamer.

Neither the Merseyside Maritime Museum nor the Liverpool Central Libraries were able to supply additional information regarding the 'Napoleon' after she left Caernarfon. However, in an article written by the columnist T.J. in the September 26th 1924 edition of the Caernarfon & Denbigh Herald, it was recorded that the schooner had been "fitted out as a steam hulk to convey cargoes about the Mersey. She was accidentally set on fire and destroyed."

An unexpected end to a Caernarfon built vessel that had faced the perils of the sea for half a century and had been laid up for a decade on the shore of the river Seiont. One can but wonder what the reaction of the poet 'Caledfryn' might have been had he been alive then.

© T. M. Hughes 2011