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January 2020 Lecture BRUNEL’S SS GREAT EASTERN


January 2020 lecture.   

‘Brunel’s SS Great Eastern’ Notes from the lecture by Dr Simon Hancock to the Pembrokeshire Historical Society in January 2020

The SS Great Eastern was one of the world’s most famous ships being the third of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s steamships. His earlier ship designs, the Great Western(1837) and the Great Britain (1843) had been successful but both were dwarfed by the sheer scale of the Great Eastern which was originally known as the Leviathan. The ship was 692 feet in length and displaced 22,000 tons and was the biggest ship ever built and only surpassed in the twentieth century. Intended to sail directly to Australia with enough coal for the voyage the ship combined screw propellor, sails (there were six masts and five funnels) and paddle wheels. The ship could carry 4,000 passengers and had a crew of 418. The cost was originally estimated at £500,000 and the keel was laid down in 1854 at the Napier Yard at Milwall and the builder was John Scott Russell. The ship was launched sideways into the Thames but the whole project was bedevilled with financial difficulties. There were three months of inactivity due to funding difficulties. The ship was ready to launch in 1857 but the first attempt in November 1857 was a fiasco. It took nearly three months to launch the ship with numerous accidents and only after employing hydraulic Rams from the Tangye company. The ship was launched on 31 January 1858 and the whole launch coat around another £170,000. The ship was fitted out and the maiden voyage undertaken in 30 August 1859. On 6 September 1859 an explosion threw the no. 1 funnel into the air and caused considerable damage. Six crew members died in the accident.

Although designed to sail for the Far East the Great Eastern was put on the transatlantic route (1860-3) which it was never designed for. The first voyage to New York took place on 17 June 1860 and took around ten days. Several of the voyages made small profits but these were more than wiped out by accidents such as when the ship struck a rock while entering New York in 1862 which cost £70,000.  The ship’s double hull was highly original and saved the vessel.
During winter periods the Great Eastern was laid up at Neyland on a huge gridiron on two occasions (1860-1; 1862) being repaired. By 1864 with mounting debts, the ship’s owners sold the ship for a mere £25,000. The ship was converted into a cable layer and she was employed in helping to lay the Atlantic cable including 2,600 miles of the 1865 cable. Between 1866-74 the Great Eastern laid 30,000 of cable including a stretch from Aden to Bombay in 1869-70. By 1874 even this work was done and with no purpose the ship was sent to Milford Haven in 1874 and was laid up there for 12 years. In 1886 the ship was sold and eventually became a floating advertising hoarding for the firm of  Lewis of Liverpool. The Great Eastern was sold to Henry Bath  and she was scrapped at New Ferry on the River Mersey (1889-90)  and it took more than two years to break her up. Some of the ship’s keel still lie in the foreshore while the top mast stands at the Kp end at Anfield football ground.

The Great Eastern was a ship was ahead of its time. Financial mismanagement and truly desperate bad luck made the ship a white elephant and the stress of the whole project in no small part contributed to Brunel’s untimely death in September 1859.

Barnes Wallis in Wales: Romance, experiment and discovery


Barnes Wallis in Wales: Romance, experiment and discovery

On 4th October 2019, Professor Richard Morris gave an enthralling talk on the great inventor Barnes Wallis. An overview of his career and personal life was followed by a description of his time in Wales and, specifically, Pembrokeshire.

Wallis was born in 1887. Despite his many innovative inventions, he was in many ways a Victorian at heart. He did not go to university but started work at 16 to help support his family after the early death of his father.

His early work included contributions to the design of the first airships built in Britain, including the R100 and ill-fated R101 built between the wars. He moved on to aircraft design. He was closely involved in the development of the Vickers Wellesley, the first aeroplane to fly non-stop from Britain to Australia. Wallis also conceived the geodetic fuselage structure used in the Wellington bomber. The Wellington was the only bomber to serve with the RAF through out the Second World War and more Wellingtons were produced than any other British bomber.

Wallis is best known for designing the “bouncing bombs” used by 617 Squadron to breach the German Moehne and Eder dams. In the 1955 film, The Dambusters, Wallis was played by Michael Redgrave. After the film’s huge success, Wallis apparently altered some of his behaviours to become more like his character in the film. His later war work included designing the first large “earthquake” bombs used to attack underground and/or heavily concreted bunkers. After the War, his mind continued to produce new ideas, the most revolutionary of which were never fully developed. One school of academic thought says he was too far ahead of his time; another says they simply would not have worked.

In 1922, Wallis met Molly Bloxom who was related by marriage to one of his aunts. Molly appears to have been the first woman to arouse Wallis’s interest. She was just 17 and he was 34. Her father refused to allow Wallis to court his daughter because of the age difference. Wallis was, however, allowed to teach Molly algebra by post. They exchanged some 250 letters. On Molly’s 20th birthday Wallis proposed and was accepted. They married in 1925. Their relationship was a long and happy one and they had four children. They corresponded by letter whenever they were apart and Professor Morris used readings from their letters to great effect.

The second strand to the talk was Wallis in Wales. He holidayed regularly at Borth, including for his honeymoon. Some of the early experiments in the development of the “bouncing bomb” were done at a disused reservoir in Wales. It was used to establish how much explosive would be need to breach a dam. These tests showed that much less explosive was required if a bomb could be detonated right against the base of the dam and this led to the “bouncing bomb” concept. Molly Wallis was a witness to some of the testing and wrote a wonderfully indiscrete letter to a friend describing her trip and hinting at the success of the testing.

Wallis developed a smaller variant of his “bouncing bomb”. It was originally conceived as a means of attacking German battleships. The spin imparted to the bomb before its release meant that on hitting a battleship it would run down the hull to the ship’s underside before exploding in the battleship’s weakest spot. Britain’s war planners thought that this bomb, code named Highball, might be used to block the railway tunnels in the Alps cutting off the main supply routes from Germany to her ally Italy. The key question was whether the Highball could be dropped with sufficient accuracy to enter a railway tunnel. The tests were carried out in Pembrokeshire using the Maenclochog tunnel on the Rosebush railway line. Great Western laid on a special train to take Wallis and his team to Wales from London to supervise the tests. The luxurious train carriages and railway attendants were described in detail by Wallis in a letter to his wife. The tests were a success, but the Highball was never used. Wallis put in an expense claim for £4 to cover the cost of celebratory for his team on the return rail journey!

Professor Morris finished his talk with a short film clip taken of a Mosquito bomber and its test bombing runs at the Maenclochog tunnel.



The Pembroke Mint


On 1 March the speaker was the chair of the Pembrokeshire Historical Society, Dr Simon Hancock FSA who spoke on The Pembroke Mint. This was a change to the advertised talk.

Simon Hancock set the scene with a review of the Norman incursions into south west Wales after the death of Rhys ap Tewdwr in 1093 and the founding of Pembroke Castle by Arnulf de Montgomery. In 1102 the Lordship of Pembroke was taken into Royal hands by Henry I (1100-35) and this, coupled with the encouragement of Flemish migration saw considerable economic advances for the Borough of Pembroke.

In 1130 the sheriff of Pembroke named Hait, perhaps a Fleming, listed a return of some £60 into the Exchequer. There was only one denomination at the time so all would have been paid in silver pennies, over 14,000 worth. Around that time a mint was opened at Pembroke with a moneyer named Gillopatric, perhaps an Irishman. He struck some of the later issues of Henry I . The mint signature is rendered as PAIN or PAN. All Pembroke issues are exceedingly rare. From the Pipe Roll there is reference to Gillepatric paying the sum of £2 although he still owed a further £2. Nothing more is known of this enigmatic moneyer. He also struck for King Stephen and very recently a unique Pembroke penny struck for Matilda was unearthed. This reflects the changing political fortunes of The Anarchy which followed the death of Henry I.

Later a second Pembroke moneyer, Walthier or Walter is known. His were part of the so-called ‘Tealby’ coinage. It is thought the Pembroke mint closed in the very early 1160s never to reopen. These wafer thin pieces of silver are a very tangible link with the young borough of Pembroke of the twelfth century. As recent events over the past two years demonstrate our knowledge is far from complete. The discovery of new and occasionally hitherto unrecorded specimens means we will always need to revise our understanding of the chronology of events.

a unique silver penny of Matilda struck at Pembroke by Gillepatric (or Gillopatric) image courtesy of Time Life Auctions.

A unique silver penny of Matilda struck at Pembroke by Gillepatric (or Gillopatric) image courtesy of Time Life Auctions.


First World War Memories – 1st February 2019


Pembrokeshire’s First World War: local memories and family mementos

After a brief introduction by Simon Hancock, four members of the Society each made a presentation on the Great War experiences of their relatives. The presentations covered pre-war life and their ultimate fate.


Anne Eastham spoke about her grandfather, James Hamilton Langdon Yorke, known to his family as Tony. He was born in New Zealand but returned to Pembrokeshire on inheriting the Langton estate from an aunt. Tony joined the Pembroke Yeomanry prior to the war and embarked for service in Egypt in 1916. The Pembroke Yeomanry became part of the 24th Battalion, the Welsh Regiment in 1917. Captain Yorke took part in the fighting that led to the capture of Jerusalem from the Ottoman Turks. He was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When part of the line was driven back by the enemy, he rapidly reorganised the situation with great skill under very heavy shell and machine gun fire. He showed splendid leadership and initiative”. He was killed in action on 27 December 1917 and is buried in Jerusalem War Cemetery. There is a memorial to him in Spittal church.



Lionel Thomas

Lionel Thomas

Harry Boggis-Rolfe talked about Lionel Thomas of Trehale. He enlisted as a cadet on the outbreak of war and was commissioned into the Welsh Regiment from the Artists’ Rifles in 1916. (The Artists’ Rifles was used as an officer training unit during both world wars.) He was posted to France in December 1916. He was killed in action on 20 September 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele) while serving with the Machine Gun Corps. He was just 19 years old. He is buried in the Hooge Crater Cemetery in Belgium. After the war, his family paid for the restoration of St Teilo’s church, Llandeloy in his memory.









Edward Perkins spoke about the Johns family of Manor Owen. Five of their sons served as officers during the war. Owen fought on the Western Front, winning the Military Cross in 1916. He was killed in action on 28 June 1916 while serving with 133rd Trench Mortar Battery, Royal Field Artillery during the preparations for the Battle of the Somme. His brother Herbert also won a MC while serving with the Royal Artillery. One of the four survivors, Mortimer Johns, was deeply affected by his experiences and lived a lonely outdoor existence in a hut after the war. Two of the daughters served as nurses and one met her future husband while serving.







Adrian James talked about his grandfather, Tom James. He was conscripted into the Royal Field Artillery and served as a Gunner on the Western Front during 1917-18. Tom James kept a diary during the war and Adrian illustrated his presentation with extracts from the diary and post cards sent home from Bulford Camp, where Tom trained, and from France. Tom was hospitalised twice, the second time after being wounded in action. Adrian noted that strangely there was no entry in the diary for 11 November 1918, the day the war ended. He recovered from his wounds and went on to serve as part of the British Army of Occupation in Germany after the Armistice. He was demobbed in 1919 and return to Pembroke Dock. He died in 1953.

The Society hopes to publish some of this material in a future copy of the Journal.

Cricket in Pembrokeshire


Cricket in Pembrokeshire

Cricket grew out of a number of rustic ball games played in southern England in the later Middle Ages.  Gradually these morphed into one more or less universal game, with similar rules being observed by cricket players across the south of England.    The Laws of Cricket were first set down in 1744, by which time it had evolved into a thriving sport that chiefly involved the social elite – the landed gentry.    And it was the gentry who introduced the sport of cricket to Wales and indeed to Pembrokeshire.
According to ‘Cricket, a History of its Growth and Development’ (Eyre and Spottiswood, 1970) by Major Rowland Bowen, the first mention of cricket in Wales was at Pembroke in 1763.  The earliest recorded match in Wales took place at Court Henry Down, between Carmarthen and Llandeilo, on August 4th, 1783.  A challenge match, played for 50 guineas a side between: ‘The gentlemen of the east side of the Cothi River and those of the west’ it was arranged by 22-year-old John George Philipps of Cwm Gwili who had learned the game while studying at Westminster School and Oxford.
There is no mention of cricket in Pembrokeshire for the next 50 years, apart from a newspaper reference to the game being played by visitors to Tenby in 1815.  However it seems certain that there must have been games in the county during that period, not least because J G Philipps of Cwmgwili was closely related to the Philippses of Picton Castle. Another member of the Philipps family who made a big contribution to the sport both locally and nationally was John Henry Philipps of Robeston Hall who was educated at Harrow and Oxford.  A talented batsman, he made his first class debut for the MCC in 1830 before returning to Pembrokeshire where he carried on playing cricket, becoming a founder of Haverfordwest Cricket Club.  He was High Sheriff and MP for Pembrokeshire and was President of the MCC in 1870.  By this time he had changed his surname to Scourfield in order to inherit estates at Moat and Williamston House, near Burton, and this led to Williamston becoming one of the bastions of cricket in the county.
By the 1830s, with better local newspaper coverage, we start getting reports of cricket matches in Pembrokeshire.  The Carmarthen Journal for July 1830 refers to a series of three matches between teams of gentlemen from Tenby and Pembroke while at Tenby in August 1835 a two-innings match played between the gentlemen of Tenby and a combined team made up of the gentlemen of Haverfordwest and Pembroke. In the summer of 1835  the Cambrian newspaper noted that ‘Milford Cricket Club hold their meetings on Wednesdays’.  This is arguably the first mention of an actual cricket club in Pembrokeshire.
A match was played at Haverfordwest in September 1837  ‘in the ring of the racecourse on Portfield Common’ between ‘eleven picked men of Pembrokeshire and as many tradesmen of this sporting little town’.  It seems that Haverfordwest Cricket Club was formed the following year, prompted partly by this social inclusion and partly by the Portfield Enclosure Act; there is a note in the Town Council minutes in 1839 to the effect that an area of the Racecourse be kept aside for ‘the purpose of playing cricket’. Finding a pitch was often a problem, there being no village greens in Pembrokeshire.  In May 1845 the Pembrokeshire Herald noted that the members of Pembroke Cricket Club were ‘struggling to find a ground for that delightful game’.   Another of our early clubs was Tenby, mentioned in 1844, while cricket was played in Lamphey in 1844 on a field near Lamphey Court, with the village having formed its own club by 1849.
This was a period when several things happened that had a great influence on the growth and development of cricket.  The first came in 1841 when the military authorities decreed that all barracks should be provided with a cricket ground for the entertainment of officers.  The Defensible Barracks in Pembroke Dock was built soon afterwards, with a beautiful cricket pitch on the Barrack Hill.
Over the years the military presence in the county was to give great impetus to the game.  The garrison in Pembroke Dock provided regular opposition for town and county teams and they revolutionised local cricket in practical ways.  For example the soldiers introduced the new-fangled round-arm bowling action to Pembrokeshire when we were still using the old-fashioned underarm bowling.
The early closing movement of the late 1860s onwards was something else which gave a  great impetus to sport amongst the working classes.  This encouraged shops to close at 1pm on a certain day every week.  In towns where it was adopted, sporting shopworkers suddenly found they had the time to play cricket and football on their half day off.  New midweek clubs were formed such as Haverfordwest Early Closing Association and Fishguard Fridays in order to provide ‘healthful amusement’ for young men on their free half days. The church also played an important part in spreading the gospel of cricket at grass roots level.  This was a time when the notion of Muscular Christianity was taking hold and sport and team games were regarded as promoting Christian virtues and values.  Local schools, notably Haverfordwest Grammar, Milford College and Pembroke Dock Grammar,  all taught the game and would have been nurseries for our local clubs.
Most towns and villages in the south of the county had a team by the 1890s, plus a few north of the  Landsker.  Pembroke Dock was a hothouse of the game with a bewildering number of clubs – not only the local garrison and dockyard teams but also teams centred on local chapels, the Labour club and the Liberal Club.  By now ‘gentry cricket’ was more or less a thing of the past, but many local squires continued to be great patrons of the sport in the county at village club level. In 1903 a  Pembrokeshire County Cricket Club was formed, followed by the formation of the first ever Pembrokeshire Cricket League in 1905.   The eight teams who entered the league in 1905 were Milford Haven, Pembroke, Pembroke Dock, Pembroke Dock Garrison, Pembroke Dock Wesley, Williamston, Neyland and Tenby – a fairly tight geographical spread due to transport difficulties. Not surprisingly it took a long time for cricket in Pembrokeshire to get back on its feet after the devastation of the First World War.  “People are trying to keep the game alive under great difficulties’ reported the local Guardian newspaper in 1920.  There was no formal organisation any more – the league had not resumed – so clubs once again organised their own programme of friendly matches against local rivals.
By one estimate there were thirty cricket clubs in the county by 1930.   Funds and equipment were limited, pitches were often rudimentary and changing facilities at village grounds were often non-existent – that’s if the players had kit to change into in the first place.  A few town teams could boast a permanent pitch, perhaps with a tin hut that doubled as equipment store and changing room. but for other teams, forced to move from farmers’ field to farmers’ field, building any kind of structure wasn’t practicable, so the only changing room was the hedge.
Getting to away matches was also a problem for many village teams.  Players cycled or travelled by pony and trap, while clubs close to the Haven often went by boat, the players taking it in turns to row. By 1936, however, many teams had access to a motor car or charabanc, making evening matches a possibility.  This led to the launch of a new evening cricket competition, a knock-out competition of 22 overs a side, for a silver bowl donated by Mr Bowen-Summers of Milton House. The tournament ran for just three years, with the Second World War more or less putting an end to club cricket in Pembrokeshire for the duration of hostilities. Once again the game took time to find its feet after the war – although, on the plus side, there were now a number of new military establishments  in the county with excellent facilities that they were happy to share, and this helped kick-start the game back into life. And cricket in the county was given its present solid structure with the formation in November 1947 of the Pembroke County Cricket Club which has continued to administer the game for the benefit of all cricketers and cricket clubs in the county.

Keith Johnson