The Steamship Somorrostro

On the 21st of October 1880, it was reported in the Llanelly Guardian that the Steamship Somorrostro was long overdue from a voyage between Bilbao and Cardiff and was feared lost in the Bay of Biscay during a violent hurricane which blew there about the second day after the ship left her port of departure. Indeed this was later confirmed when the steamer Rochefort eventually reported that she had been lying to at the height of the hurricane and witnessed the lights of the Somorrostro disappear. The Somorrostro had also been lying to, in order to ride out the storm. The ship had been laden with a heavy cargo of iron ore and had therefore foundered with all on board. The tragedy of the loss is reflected in the brief statement in the column of The South Wales Press of the same date.

The Somorrostro was a 735 tonne iron steamship built in Sunderland for the specific purpose of exporting coal and importing iron ore from Bilbao in Northern Spain to her home port of Cardiff. Her official No. was 68143 and she was owned by John H Wilson of 9 Mount Stuart Square, Cardiff. The Master of the ship was John Morgan of Seaside, Llanelly, who had previously been Master on the Llanelli built brigantine Clara Novello. Among the 15 hands on board was the ship's Lamp Trimmer John Davies, also of Seaside and also a former Bosun on the Clara Novello. The fact that they were neighbours on St Davids Street and had sailed together, strongly suggests that after being offered the opportunity by his former Master, John Davies had agreed to follow John Morgan onto his new command where better pay and conditions awaited them. For them, the prospects of a regular run on a 'state of the art' steamship would be far more agreeable than tramping around the world looking for cargo on a worn out sailing ship, which would best be left to the adventures of younger men. The steam ships on regular runs were often called Weekly Boats.

From around the 1860s onwards, steam was beginning to eclipse sail in the registry of new tonnage, and the better paid Masters were to be found on steamships where they were able to demonstrate their new skills on steam and navigation which had probably been obtained in the form of an Extra Masters Certificate. Until the steam engine became more reliable, many ships were hybrids in that they were also masted and schooner rigged.

Of course there were other ships' captains who were more than happy to remain on their sailing ships where they did not have to devolve power to the upstart engineering officers. These traditionalists often resented the Men of Iron and Steel and an example can be found in Joseph Conrad's novel "The Shadow Line". Joseph Conrad himself sometimes sailed from Cardiff and Penarth with cargoes of coal.

In addition to the 15 hands on board the Somorrostro, there was also the daughter of the Mate and a young solicitor, who was returning home after conducting some business in Bilbao. When these disasters occurred at sea there were many women and children who were left un-provided for, and in response to this, often prominent people of the town affected would set up a committee in order to alleviate the distress caused. This would usually be in the form of fund raising concerts. When the SS Fawn was wrecked off Anglesey on the 14th December 1886 there were concerts held at the Athenaeum, Llanelly. The SS Fawn was a steamship built at Llanelly by Samuel Brothers and was the first to be made of steel. The disaster left 11 widows and 37 children to mourn their loss. The Captain of the SS Fawn was one David Edmunds Junior and he would undoubtedly have learned his trade on the sailing ships of Llanelli and Burry Port. The experience gained in setting up these committees would no doubt bode well for the future when the enactment of the McKinley Tariff of 1890 in America resulted in many hundreds of tinplate workers being thrown out of work!

Central to the theme of this article is the transition from sail to steam, and the fact that many mariners would not so easily have expected the loss of life which occurred on the seemingly more robust and resilient steel and iron ships. Indeed there are many incidents of metal ships having sliced straight through wooden Ships and blaming the accident on fog or bad weather, yet there are countless occasions of these wooden sailing ships lasting sixty or seventy years. Of course many owners hung onto their ships through continued maintenance as they were much cheaper to run worldwide as there was no need to stop on a regular basis to refuel. By the turn of the century, the port of Llanelli had seen hundreds upon hundreds of sailing ships using the dock facilities with many of these having been built in the town!

Amongst the Robin Craig Collection is an important document entitled The Fleet Lists which shows the extraordinary amount of ships that were either owned or managed by Llanelli companies or families and their agents:-

  • The Bevan Shipbuilding Family 8 Ships
  • Pembrey Iron and Coal Co 5 Ships
  • The Brabyn Shipbuilding Family 17 Ships
  • Jeremiah Forsdike 3 Ships
  • William Bowen Snr and Jnr. 30 Ships
  • Coombs 2 Ships
  • Jeremiah Gurnett 3 Ships
  • Morris Bankers 7 Ships
  • David Paton 8 Ships
  • John Powell 16 Ships
  • Neville 46 Ships
  • Thomas Roberts 18 Ships
  • David Rees 4 Ships
  • Samuels 47 Ships
  • Hatchways and Perkins 5 ships
  • David Jones 7 Ships
  • Thomas Jones 4 Ships
  • Townsend Kirkwood 5 Ships
  • Morgan Lewis (Cmn) 9 Ships
  • Lewis Family Timber merchants 22 Ships
  • William Thomas Lewis 7 Ships
  • William Mathias 4 Ships
  • Llanelly Iron Shipbuilding Co 10 Ships
  • Luckraft 4 Ships
  • Marker Family 12 Ships
  • Thomas Howells 10 Ships
  • John Hughes 9 Ships

The vast majority of the above would have been sailing ships in the form of barques, schooners, brigs or brigantines, predominantly made of wood, but also of iron. Although the main shareholders would have been those above, many other shares were owned by all levels of society in Llanelli. For this reason, when a ship was lost, it had a major effect, not just on the owners, but also on the town itself! Much of the wheeling and dealing in transferring ownership of vessels would often have been carried out in the inns and taverns of Seaside such as The Cornish Arms, where often the landlord would have been a former ship's captain. It is difficult now in 2015, to appreciate the scale of the maritime industry in Llanelli judging by the landscape of the area as there was no North Dock at that time.

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Notes and Citations

1) The Western Mail 25 October 1880
2) The Western Mail 31 December 1880
3) The South Wales Press 21October 1880
4) The SS Somorrostro was built in 1873 and named after the iron ore mines to be found in the hills above Bilbao.
5) A Lamp Trimmer was a specialist position on board a ship due to the importance of keeping the ships navigation lights burning bright and visible at night, and because of the fire hazards and risks, especially on the wooden sail ships. The position became so entrenched into maritime tradition that electricians were called Lamp Trimmers or Lampies long after oil lamps had been replaced.
6) The John Davies in this article was the great great grandfather of the writer.
7) It was only Samuel Brothers who invested in steam in Llanelly during the 19th century.
8) My thanks to the following for their assistance, Lyn John for finding the SS Somorrostro Crew List. Caru James of Llanelli Reference Library for various documents and newspaper images.