When you write a regular blog, you often have to fight the temptation to be controversial. When I wrote for a Brighton based sports magazine for a few years, Sussex Sport, I was actually paid to be controversial. Not Katie Price bat shit crazy controversial, but part of my brief was never to sit on the fence, always pick one side of the debate and to be robust. That was fine and I enjoyed it, but the one thing I told the editor I would never do, was to be controversial for the sake of it.
I nearly was this week.
I generally start thinking about this blog on a Sunday, before I write it the following Friday or Saturday for it’s Saturday morning publication. Usually, there is plenty going on to give me options on what I want to comment about, but by Thursday this week, I had nothing. The muse hadn’t taken me and I had absolutely nothing of any note to talk about. Then I remembered that Wales were travelling to Twickenham to play England. Perfect.
Bizarrely the first thing I decided to do was write a poem, which I popped on Twitter and, fortunately, was very kindly received. I called it the “Welsh of Us” which was a play on words with the “Rest of Us”, meaning everybody in the world, except England of course, wants Wales to win later today. So the obvious next step was to write the usual “As long as we beat the English, we don’t care” piece of angst, supressresion, rivalry and hatred. So I did. And it was rubbish.
That is often the problem when you attempt to force controversy in a written piece, you end up with rubbish. People will see right through it. They will know you are not writing from the heart, they will know that even you, the writer, don’t believe your own words. Yes, I want Wales to beat England today, and beat them well, but am I desperate for it to happen? Not really. Swansea City play Burnley two hours earlier in a match that will go a long way to proving whether Carlos Carvalhal’s influence is due to the short term “new manger bounce” effect, or whether it is a more sustainable, long term effect. Am I desperate for Swansea to win? Yes, 100%, but there’s no controversy in that either, because Burnley are not our rivals, they just happen to be a team in Swansea this weekend who we need to beat, they could be Watford, Brighton, West Brom or Crystal Palace. Teams to beat? Yes. But deadly rivals? No. Controversy? Nope.
So there I was yesterday morning, blogless, with time running out. I needed a change of scenery.
Two weeks ago, I met with a long lost cousin, Clive Newton, my late dad’s first cousin who lives in Fishguard, it was a genuine pleasure to catch up with him after what must have been thirty years. As you can imagine, we chatted about lots of things, and one that surprised me. William Morris.
William Morris was born in Newport, Pembrokeshire in 1872 and he is my great grandfather. Clive is from a different generation to me, and William was his grandfather. Clive had the good fortune to have met William, I sadly never did. But my late dad, Derrick, always told me, growing up, that his grandfather (William) was a Cape Horner. I didn’t really understand what it meant. I knew there was a pub in Port Tennant called the Cape Horner and wondered as a kid why anyone who went there was deemed important, but as I got older, I soon understood.
Cape Horners were rightly revered, and still are today, there’s even an online society where only the elite sailors can join, those who have sailed around Cape Horn, at the tip of South America. Up until the Panama Canal was opened in 1914, the only way that you could sail from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean was around Cape Horn. And it was treacherous. Countless ships and men were lost in these dangerous, deadly waters and many of those were from Swansea. In fact, deaths due to disaster and disease were so rife at the time, that Santiago in Chile became known as the ‘Swansea Graveyard’. But why on earth, in the mid to late 19th century, did so many ships from Swansea make the potentially deadly trip from Swansea around Cape Horn? Simple answer, copper.
Now it would need a whole blog of its own, or two, to explain the historic connections between Swansea and the copper trade, so I’m not going to explain that here. Suffice to say, in the 19th century, Swansea was the world centre of copper production and became known as ‘Copperopolis’. Swansea’s only minor problem as the world leader of this grand trade? They had no copper.
The copper, in ore form, had to be mined elsewhere and shipped back to Swansea to be smelted and turned into the purest of copper ingots. You see, what Swansea did have was coal, lots of it, and much more coal is required than copper ore to make pure copper, so the economic sense was to bring the copper to the coal, not take the coal to the copper. That meant, hundreds of south Walian young men becoming ocean faring seamen, and taking to the copper barques, and sailing to South America or Australia to load their ships with copper ore and bring back to the River Tawe and the copperworks that littered that river’s edges, for the copper to be made. The brave men who manned these barques became known as ‘Cape Horners’ and my great grandfather, William was one of them. But that was just according to my dad. I never had any proof.
Until two weeks ago.
When I met with my cousin Clive, he had some wonderful paperwork that he shared with me, comprising letters and discharge slips relating to William Morris and his seafaring career. The collection was by no means complete, but from it we worked out that he sailed for 11 years, from his first voyage to West Hartlepool as a 19 year old, to his last, when he was 30, when apparently, according to family lore, his future wife Polly, had told him to stop his gallivanting around the world if he wanted her hand in marriage. He did, they married, moved to Fullers Row in Mount Pleasant, and he got a job looking after “lunatics” (official term at the time) in Swansea’s poor house, just around the corner on Mount Pleasant Hill. From the bright open seas to a dark closed ward in one fell swoop. Life wasn’t a bowl of cherries for anyone back then.
Anyway, armed with copies of Clive’s documents, I wanted to find out more, so yesterday afternoon, bereft of ideas for my blog, I went to visit West Glamorgan Archives in Swansea’s Civic Centre, and here, unexpectedly, I was to find the subject for my blog. You see, I had no real idea why I was going to the Archives. I didn’t really know what records they may or may not have had relating to William Morris, I didn’t know if I had to book an appointment, I didn’t know what books or files I would be able to read, I didn’t even know where to sit. I didn’t know much.
I needn’t have worried.
In the intimidating silence, I made my nervous intitial enquiry with the receptionist, who very helpfully confirmed that West Glamorgan Archives do keep records of Swansea registered ships and the seamen who sailed them, and pointed me in the direction of an archivist who might help. She did. Her name was Katy – I think. I’m useless with names and angry with myself for not remembering hers, because Katy, is just about the most helpful public servant I have ever come across. Nothing was too much trouble.
I think she sensed straight away I was a newbie, and I’m sure there would’ve been a temptation from her, on a busy Friday afternoon, to throw out a deep sigh and lament her now having to help and explain everything to an uninitiated buffoon like me. But she didn’t. She took great time and care to listen to my ramblings about William, showed a great and genuine interest in his story, guided me to the books that contain the initial records relating to specific voyages, which then provide an Archives reference to documents held, physically, in the Archives.
Before leaving me to my research, Katy helpfully said “So, if you find there are any documents that we have listed and are of interest to you, let me know and I’ll request them for you.” How kind I thought, and in my state of suspended buffoonery, I pondered how pointless that was because I wouldn’t be able to come back next week or whenever to see them, as I’ll be working in schools. Oh well, I thought, at least I can look at William’s ships and see if the records do exist, before maybe returning another day and ordering them to look at then. So, for the next 25 minutes I spent a happy and rewarding time looking for William’s ships and cross referencing them with the Archive records until I was done.
When finished, out of courtesy, I went back to Katy’s desk to thank her for her help. “Did you find anything?” She asked me cheerily, and I told her that I had. “Great. Do you want to see them?” I responded in the affirmative, but said I didn’t know when I’d be able to come back and look at them. “You can look at them now if you’d like, a request takes about 10 minutes if you’ve got time.”
Ten minutes? Ten minutes! I couldn’t believe it. I agreed straight away. Then, sure enough, in ten minutes, up came the records. Genuine, hand written ship’s captain records of the Swansea ships that my great grandfather, William Morris had sailed on. Not only did they prove he was a Cape Horner, they contained his own signature and handwriting – not copies I should reiterate – actual documents that he would’ve held in his hand 126 years ago, when as a 19 year old, he signed on for his first ever voyage as a seaman from Swansea on the Isabelle.
Now, those of you looking for some sort of Poldark exclusive, of bravery and derring-do, well put it this way, William didn’t have a great start. All couldn’t have gone well. William and his nine crew mates under his captain, Owain Williams, a fearsome and terrifying man (okay, I made that up!), set out from Swansea on 14th June 1891, for the incredibly glamorous location of West Hartlepool. They arrived two weeks later on the 28th. Something must have gone wrong. Because on the 1st of June, Rohan Berg, a Norwegian Able Seaman and his Scottish colleague, Donald Kay, deserted. Two days later, so did William. Unfortunately, we don’t know why. He was by far the youngest of the crew, so maybe he was influenced by the two older men, both in their 30’s, or maybe he just didn’t fancy the trip back to Swansea on an under-manned ship. Or maybe Captain Williams “was a wicked man, who got drunk any time he can”, or maybe William just did a runner feeling that, after his maiden voyage, the sailing life wasn’t for him. We’ll never know. But one thing we do know, is that the sailing life was for him, because he did it for the next 11 years.
I know this for sure, because Katy was able to provide even more genuine, historic records for me to explore after just a further ten minute wait, that help paint the whole picture of William’s seafaring career aboard Swansea registered ships. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I finally found my proof that he was a Cape Horner, and was able to read the registrations of the arrivals of a very significant ship that William manned – over a number of years – the Slieve Roe.
He spent almost two years aboard the Slieve Roe on a single voyage, a ship so important that it was painted at least three times by artists of the day, and the records I read showed that it disembarked in Chile – with William aboard – at the copper ore distributing ports of Carrizal Bujo, Antofagasta and Iquique, along with stops at Cape Town (South Africa), Hamburg and Dunkirk. To have all the original documents laid out in front of me, and to be able to trace the smooth pen lines made by my great grandfather’s own hand, with my own finger was a treat beyond compare. I urge anyone with some information they may have about their forebears, to go to West Glamorgan Archives and check it out. I found it a fantastic and rewarding experience in more ways than one, and that was largely to do with the excellent staff.
It also gave me this week’s blog and showed me that it didn’t need to be controversial or debate fuelled, it just needed to be reflective and grateful. Emotion is emotion whether it is found in anger or in gratefulness. And grateful is the right word, I think. Because yesterday afternoon confirmed to me that I am grateful that in these days of austerity and Carillion and cutbacks beyond compare, we still have at our fingertips – literally – Public Services in this country, also beyond compare. Now I know that family history may not float everyone’s boat – do excuse the pun – but the knowledge that cheerful, helpful, interested and staff of the excellence of Katy and her colleagues exist, to help the likes of me put the end to a family mystery, should be recognised, applauded and treasured. Just like the Archives they control really.
Thank you West Glamorgan Archives for your service, and as I’m sure my great grandfather William Morris would have said as he left the shores of Chile in 1892 for another trip around Cape Horn, “I will definitely be back”.