Life at Sea

Wales’ territorial sea stretches 12 nautical miles from the coastline and is extremely rich in wildlife. But these seas – which are almost double the size of Wales – are also rich in their history and legends. By now, those lovely summer holiday walks on the beach seem like a distant memory, but thinking back, how many of us were aware that we were probably quite close to one of the 300 or so shipwrecks that have been found across Wales’ coastline?

Over the centuries, the sea has provided living for a great number of generations in Wales, from the Llŷn Peninsula fishermen to the merchant seamen of Bute Docks, Cardiff, and has played an important role in both the two world wars and in the development of Welsh industry. The sea has also been a rich melting pot of diverse cultures drawing in individuals from all walks of life from across the world to make their home here in Wales. One such man was was John Davis Freeman who came to Cardiff in 1915 and served on merchant ships during and after the war.

His British Merchant Seaman Card was one of the items contributed to the Llongau-U-Boats Project 1914-1918: Commemoration of the War at Sea Project, a joint initiative between the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical monuments of Wales, Bangor University and the Society for Maritime Archaeology. To date, this project has contributed well over 800 items, stories and collections on the People’s Collection Wales website, and you can read about their project on their account profile:

One of the many collections created by the Llongau-U-Boats project is a small collection about Cardiff’s merchant fleet and the coal trade, and you can read more here about Cardiff Docks and the ships transporting coal and other goods all over the world. At least 200 of these vessels are said to have been sunk around the British coast – the majority as a result of U-boat attacks.

One such vessel was the SS CAMBANK, pictured below – a 3,111 metric ton Cardiff Steamship which was torpedoed on 20 February 1915 off Trwyn Eilian, Anglesey on 20 February 1915. The CAMBANK was on its way from Huelca in Spain to Garston, Merseyside, with a valuable cargo of copper when a U-boat suddenly appeared and without warning sent a torpedo towards the ship. She began to sink immediately.

At the beginning of September, the U-Boat Project’s Legacy Workshop was held in Menai Bridge, at Bangor University’s Applied Marine Sciences Centre on Anglesey where there were contributions from various speakers – among them was keynote speaker Julie Satchell from the Maritime Archaeology Trust who gave a talk on the ‘Forgotten shipwrecks of the First World War and a UK perspective on Commemorative Marine Archaeological Projects’. According to Julie, this project ensured that there was a better understanding of archaeology on the seabed from a heritage point of view, enabling project officers to identify those themes that needed more research in the future. She stressed that a wealth of thematic studies was possible, including the relationship between ships and Welsh coal mines – for example, the way in which these vessels and Welsh coal played a part in the British Empire.

Another speaker who held a session at the workshop was Mike Roberts from the Centre for Applied Ocean Science at Bangor University, who gave a session exploring the interactions of First World War wreck sites with their seabed environments, and methods of marine survey and 3D digital representations. Mike talked about the importance of the research that was possible with new technologies, because in twenty, thirty and another forty years, these shipwrecks will have disappeared from the bottom of the sea. The Centre has undertaken a project to secure an all-out sonar imagery of some wrecks and one of these items will be featured on the People's collection, the multi-beam sonar image of the CAMBANK that sank off Trwyn Eilian, Anglesey:

"It is therefore important to develop and nurture opportunities to work together and develop projects with others before the wrecks deteriorate and disappear," explains Mike Roberts. "The U-boats project has been a rich source of stories from a history and heritage perspective, but our shipwrecks hold so much more information than this of course from a scientific perspective; here at the Wales Marine Centre we have been looking at life at the bottom of the sea and what grows on the shipwrecks and have studied the chemical reaction between the shipwrecks and ecological life. We have also been looking at the shipwrecks from an archaeological point of view and those legal considerations associated with the discovery and material saved from the sea bed. Following on from this there are also moral questions about taking samples and how to remove material.

"In trying to make sense of what we see at the bottom of the sea we must take into account the 70 years of marine processes that have happened – the impact of tides and the flow of water – and also the fact that you cannot ensure that the seabed can be restored to its former state, once you have interfered with it."

The U-boat project is now in its final months and by now there are a number of community stories from the project's community partners added to their website:
A number of these were also shared on the People’s Collection Wales website, such as the 'Faces of the Sea 1914-1918' collection which presents portraits of women and men whose lives were affected by the war at sea in Welsh waters around the world. Here are two favourite item from that collection, the first, a photograph of William Landon Davies, a sailor in the Royal Navy in the First World War:

The other is a photograph of Gustav Pritshow and his family. Gustav was a merchant seaman who married a local woman, Ann Williams from Morfa Nefyn:

For many families in Wales, and for numerous decades, the sea not only provided subsistence, but was also a way of life. An important aspect of the Moroedd Byw/ Living Seas Wales project whose interesting items on the marine history of Wales have been shared on our website is the collection of childhood memories and stories about the sea that have been passed on from one generation to the next. The Moroedd Byw/ Living Seas project is presented by the North Wales Wildlife Trust and the South and West Wales Wildlife Trust, and they have recently added an item about a fisherman on Anglesey creating a willow lobster pot – a traditional craft which is slowly disappearing:

This project also collects comments from people about how the seas have changed during their lifetime. The artist and historian from Amlwch, Peter Williams has contributed more than one item about his fishing family’s history on Anglesey. Here is a photograph of his family in one of their boats off the coast of Amlwch:

There is also a great story by Peter Williams about his family taking part in the Herring Run at Amlwch Port in the middle of the last century:
"I'm sure that it was a fascinating time ... I remember my grandmother saying that they used to get a half penny for every herring, so if you were to catch thousands of them then it would probably have been good money ...
"All the locals were involved, the fishermen and the wives. The wives, once they had the fish, would gut them, clean them and then they would cask them. And they’d have these great big blocks of salt, and knives, and they would just chop the salt and scatter. Then you would put a layer in the cask and then some more salt (‘cos salt is a preservative), and then they would build up until the cask would be full, and they would put a lid on it and then seal it so that no juices would run out, you know, and they would take them to the local station where the train would eventually take them to places like London and they would be served up as bloaters ..."

If you have a story to tell, why not visit the Moroedd Byw/ Living Seas website to share your experience

Keep a look out for more items which will be added to the Moroedd Byw/ Living Seas account in the following months. We can also look forward to exhibitions from the Llongau-U-Boats project at Tenby Museum and Colwyn Bay and finally, also, at the Pierhead building in Cardiff, where the contributions of U-boats partners in Butetown will be shown during December.


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