Swansea and Port Talbot Docks History

Port Talbot Wrecks

ss Brodland

On the 20th January 1913, whilst being towed from Port Talbot Docks in heavy seas and a fierce gale by the tug ‘Emily Charlotte’, the towrope parted due to a sudden squall and the Blue Star liner ss Brodland was driven ashore near the North Pier at Aberavon. She was carrying 2,500 tons of Welsh coal bound for Puntas Arenas in southern Chile.

All 42 crewmen were brought safely ashore by the local Life Saving Apparatus team under the command of Capt. Humphrey Jones, as conditions were such that it was impossible to launch the lifeboat. The rescue of the crew took three hours, and hundreds of workmen raced to the beach to give assistance. Included in the crew was one local man, F L James of Tydraw Street, Port Talbot, who was the ship’s carpenter, and the last man to be brought ashore was the master of the vessel, Capt. Vernon A Scott.

Registered as a Refrigerated Cargo Liner, the ‘Brodland’ was built by Craig, Taylor & Co. of Stockton on Tees, and completed in July 1891. Launched originally as the ‘Highland Mary’ for the Highland Mary Steamship Co. Ltd., she was later transferred to the Nelson Line (Liverpool) Ltd in 1900. Finally, in 1912, she was bought by the Brodland Steamship Co. Ltd. (managers – Blue Star Line) and renamed the ‘Brodland’. After the grounding she was broken up and sold for scrap, and her anchor can still be seen on display outside the Lifeboat Station on Aberavon Beach.

The vessel’s dimensions were:- 310’ length, 41.2’ beam, 17.8’ draft, 2,989 tons GRT and 1,949 tons NRT.

Tug Emily Charlotte

ss Christina

Entering Port Talbot Docks on the evening of the 31st of January 1903 in a strong westerly gale, the Waterford steamer ‘Christina’ ran aground on Aberavon sands. Fortunately, the ship grounded on an even keel on firm sand which dried out at low water, so the crew were in no immediate danger and were able to walk ashore as the tide fell. The next day the Harbour Master at Port Talbot telegraphed the Mumbles coastguard station to inform them of the incident, and the lifeboat 'James Stevens No. 12' was launched around mid-afternoon to stand by as the vessel was refloated on the evening tide.

Arriving at Port Talbot and finding the s.s. ‘Christina’ still high and dry on the sands, the lifeboat crew decided to put into the river at Aberavon to shelter from the gale-force winds. However, as they crossed the bar, disaster struck and the lifeboat capsized in heavy seas. Being a self-righting craft she soon regained an even keel, but was then hit by another huge wave and capsized once again. Ten of the crew were thrown into the water, and the four men left aboard managed to scramble from the lifeboat onto the large blocks at the base of the breakwater. Sadly, six of the fourteen crew members lost their lives in this tragic incident, including the coxswain of the lifeboat, Thomas Rogers.

ss Ethelwalda

Whilst entering Port Talbot Docks on the 30th October 1911 with a cargo of pit-props, the s.s. ‘Ethelwalda’ sank after coming into contact with the North Breakwater.

The ‘Ethelwalda’ was built by John Readhead & Sons of South Shields in 1890, and was owned by the Whitby-based J H Harrowing Steamship Company. The vessel’s registered tonnage details were as follows:- 3,725 dwt. 2,431 grt. 1,566 nrt.

The Amazon

On the morning of September 1st 1908 the four-masted barque Amazon, bound for Iquique in Chile with 2,000 tons of Welsh coal, was towed from Port Talbot Docks to Mumbles Head where the order was given to drop anchor due to a rising south-westerly wind. The intensity of the gale increased overnight and, by the following morning, it was so severe that the ship’s anchors started to drag and she was soon being buffeted helplessly across the bay.

Finally driven ashore onto the Margam Sands by the raging storm, the Amazon was quickly broken up by the pounding waves and, despite the heroic efforts of the Port Talbot L.S.A. rescue team, only eight men out of a crew of 28 made it ashore alive. The ship’s master, Captain Arthur Garrick of Penarth, was one of the twenty men who lost their lives in this tragic incident. Fourteen of the bodies were never recovered. The Amazon was built in 1886 by Barclay Curle & Co. Ltd. of Glasgow. She was 286 feet in length, with a displacement of 2,062 tons.

The remains of the Amazon in 2011 Photo: Gareth James

Above are photos of the ship's bell and compass in a purpose made wooden cabinet. The Amazon's bell and compass were given to Francis George Knott who was Secretary to the Port Talbot Pilotage Authority and are now in the ownership of his daughter, living in Tasmania.

ss Trafalgar

The s.s. Trafalgar ran aground off the North Pier at Aberavon Beach in the early 1900’s, shortly after the ‘Amazon’ disaster. All the crew were rescued and the vessel was later refloated.

Built in 1904 by William Hamilton & Co. of Glasgow, the Trafalgar was owned by the Glasgow Shipowners Company (Glen & Co.). She was later destroyed by fire off Bombay in 1910, inward from Calcutta with a cargo of coal. The Trafalgar had a length of 380.6’, a 41.1’ beam, and a GRT of 4,478 tons.

HMS Sylph

On Saturday 22nd January 1927 HMS Sylph, an ‘R' Class destroyer built in Govan by Harland & Wolff in 1917, set off from Devonport towed by the tug ‘Warrior’, destined for Cashmore’s ship breaking yard in Newport. Stormy weather forced the ships to shelter in Plymouth Roads on the Sunday, and the voyage recommenced the following day. Weather conditions remained foul however and, off the Pendeen Light, the towrope parted and the destroyer went adrift with her crew of four ex-navel men aboard. Another rope was passed to the ‘Sylph’, but that also parted, and the destroyer drifted up channel abreast of Lundy, where the tug managed to get yet another rope across. Off Bull Point the towrope parted again leaving the ‘Sylph’ to the mercy of the wind and seas.

Finally, on Thursday 27th January, after fears of grounding on Oxwich Point, the destroyer managed to drop anchor in Oxwich Bay and the ‘Warrior’ went into Swansea for supplies. Returning that night another attempt was made to reach Newport, but the towrope parted off Port Talbot and, in the early hours of Friday morning, the destroyer begin to drift ashore in the raging gale. The tug stood by to render assistance but, with no towropes remaining, the Captain could only try to get the crew off the destroyer. Several times he ranged alongside the ‘Sylph’ but was unable to maintain the ‘Warrior’s position due to the heavy seas. Both vessels were now perilously close to the beach, and the tug was forced to sheer off to avoid going ashore.

As soon as it became apparent that the ‘Sylph’ would run aground, the Port Talbot rocket life-saving apparatus team was ordered out to assist. Driven by the gale-force wind, the destroyer finally pitched ashore on Aberavon sands about a mile and a half from the North Pier. When the LAS team arrived at the scene, two rockets were fired but the wind was too strong and they were swept away. The team managed to get a line aboard the ‘Sylph’ once the tide had receded but, in the mean time, one of the crew had got over the side and half swam half scrambled ashore. The remaining three crew members were rescued a little later. A letter of thanks was sent to the Port Talbot LAS team who had worked waist deep in the stormy sea throughout this rescue.

HMS ‘Sylph’s displacement was 975 tons. She was never refloated after the above incident, and was broken up for scrap on Aberavon Beach.

ss Saxilby

On 15th November 1933 the s.s. ‘Saxilby’, bound for Port Talbot with a cargo of iron ore from Wabana, Canada, foundered in a North Atlantic gale some 400 miles west of the coast of Ireland. A distress signal was picked up in position 51’ 50N 19’ 15W and several ships went to her assistance, but sadly no trace of the ship or any of her crew was ever found.

However, legend has it that a member of the Saxilby’s crew, Port Talbot born Joe O’Kane, wrote a goodbye note to his brother, sister and fiancee telling them that the ship was sinking, and that he had sealed the letter in a watertight container and thrown it overboard. Amazingly, almost three years later, the container is said to have been washed up on the beach at Aberavon, less than a mile from Joe’s family home.

The ‘Saxilby’ (3,630 grt) was built in 1914 by Ropner & Son, Stockton, for R. Ropner & Co. Registered in 1916 with Sir R. Ropner & Co. Ltd., and registered in 1919 with Ropner Shipping Co. Ltd. for R. Ropner & Co.

Thanks for the above information to Billy McGee, and taken from his book "Ropner's Navy".

Further confirmation of this strange and unusual tale can be seen in the following extract from the ‘Milwaukee Journal’ dated April 1947:-

In November 1933 the West Hartlepool steamer s.s. Saxilby, bound from Newfoundland to Port Talbot with a cargo of iron ore, disappeared in a gale 400 miles west of Ireland. Nothing was heard for two and a half years. Then on April the 26th 1936, because it sounded different from all the other tins he had kicked that morning, a beach idler opened a cocoa tin brought to his feet by the waves. It contained a hastily scribed note:- 'ss Saxilby sinking somewhere off the Irish coast. Love to my sisters, brothers and Dinah. Joe O’Kane.' Strangely these last words from a doomed sailor were delivered to his home town, Aberavon – almost to the doorstep of the persons to whom they were addressed”

ss Stalheim

Pictured above is the s.s. ‘Stalheim’, built in Fredrikstad, Norway, in 1936. On the 31st July 1940 she departed Port Talbot Docks for Cardiff loaded with 1,876 tons of anthracite but, shortly after leaving the dock entrance, she struck a magnetic mine. The ship is reported to have burnt fiercely after the explosion and to have sunk in less than three minutes.

Five crewmen who were in the engine room at the time of the explosion were killed and, apart from three men who were fortunate enough to escape unharmed, the remaining 13 of the 21 man crew were all seriously injured, as was the local pilot, Capt. H. A. Gunn.

The Mumbles Lifeboat was called to muster, but stood down when it became known that an RAF rescue launch had picked up the surviving members of the crew. One of the men who died, Albin Andersen, is buried at Goytre Cemetery on the outskirts of Port Talbot. The wreck of the ‘Stalheim’, which is indicated by a marker buoy, lies shore-side of the Port Talbot Harbour entrance channel. 

The Mumbles Lifeboat was called to muster, but stood down when it became known that an RAF rescue launch had picked up the surviving members of the crew. One of the men who died, Albin Andersen, is buried at Goytre Cemetery on the outskirts of Port Talbot. The wreck of the ‘Stalheim’, which is indicated by a marker buoy, lies shore-side of the Port Talbot Harbour entrance channel. 

mv Cabenda

Photo: Richard Jones

ss Fort Medine


Pictured above is the s.s. ‘Fort Medine’ sailing under her previous name of the s.s. ‘Bradford City’. On the 20th February 1941, nearing the end of a voyage from Canada with 7,000 tons of iron ore for the steelworks at Port Talbot, the ‘Fort Medine’ struck a mine off Swansea Docks, broke in two and sank. . Being a hazard to shipping, the wreck was partially broken up for scrap, but was never totally removed. Louis Rabour, 33 year old Master of the 'Fort Medine', was seriously injured in the incident and died two days later.

Built by Craig, Taylor & Co. of Stockton on Tees, the ship was launched in1918 as the ‘War Fox II’, completed 1919 as the ‘Bradford City’, and renamed ‘Fort Medine’ in 1929. Her dimensions were:- length 400’, beam 52.3’, and GRT 5,261 tons

On the 28th February 1941, on a voyage from Shoreham to Briton Ferry with a cargo of scrap, the coaster m.v. ‘Cabenda’ struck a mine in Swansea Bay and sank approximately 2.5 nautical miles off Port Talbot. Chief Engineer James Winning, born in Barrow in Furness , was the only one of a crew of twelve to lose his life in this incident, and he lies buried in Morriston Cemetery. The minesweeper Perdant picked up eleven of the crew and transferred them to the Mumbles Lifeboat 'Edward, Prince of Wales'

The ‘Cabenda’ was built in 1936 by the Goole Shipbuilding & Repairing Co. Ltd., and she was owned by T. E. Evans & Co. Ltd. of London. Her dimensions were:- length 183.6’, beam 27.1’, GRT 534 tons and NRT 274 tons.

To this day the wreck of the ‘Cabenda’ remains a potential hazard to ships entering Port Talbot Tidal Harbour, and its location is marked by a Cardinal buoy.

mv Madjoe

On the 4th November 1941 the ‘Madjoe’, a Dutch coaster under the command of Capt. J. Oorburg, was leaving Port Talbot Docks for Sharpness with a cargo of coal. She was almost clear of the outer channel buoy when she hit a mine and sank. The crew of four men and two gunners were lost in the incident, along with the local pilot, Capt. George Fairweather.

The ‘Madjoe’ was built in 1936 by J. J. Pattje & Zn. of Waterhuizen, Gronigen, for Jan Bakker, Veendam. Her dimensions were:- length 35.38 metres, beam 6.65 metres, GRT 229 tons, NRT 124 tons, and DWT 255 tons.

The chart above shows the position of the wrecks of the Cabenda, the Madjoe and the Stalheim
Tug Warrior

The Warrior was built in South Shields in 1895 and was scrapped in 1930. She was owned by John Page & Co of London. Gross tonnage 129 tons 106' in length, 98 nhp, 700 ihp In 1895 delivered to Elliott Steam & Tug Company. ( Dick & Page Tugs ) London. Assisted in the passenger rescue at the sinking of the Lusitania. She was one of the first vessels to reach the torpedoed Liner, saving 74 lives. Served during WW1 under the Royal Navy.

The Canadian frigate Chebogue

The frigate ‘Chebogue’ of the Royal Canadian Navy was part of a westbound Atlantic convoy escort when, on the 4th October 1944, she broke off to attack an enemy submarine (U-1227) and was, in turn, hit by one of the U-Boat’s torpedoes. After taking off all casualties and leaving 42 men aboard, she was towed to Mumbles by the tug ‘Earner’, arriving there on the 11th Oct 1944

Later that same day, whilst she was anchored off Mumbles Head, a severe south-westerly gale blew up, accompanied by squalls of hail and heavy breaking seas. At around 5.00 p.m. the ‘Chebogue’ started to drag her anchors and was eventually blown across the bay to Port Talbot, where her stern went aground on a sandbar. The Mumbles Lifeboat was called out, and arrived at the scene at around 7.45 p.m.

In total darkness and in foul weather conditions, the lifeboat had to run alongside the stricken vessel twelve times to rescue the crew, as the frigate’s bows were ranging heavily in the stormy seas. In the few seconds that the lifeboat was able to stay alongside, the men jumped onto her a few at a time and, amazingly, all but three landed safely. One fell and broke a leg, one fell between the two vessels and was pulled aboard by the coxswain, and another landed on top of the coxswain, bruising him badly against the wheel.

The frigate ‘Chebogue’ had been launched in August 1943 and commissioned in February 1944, but was never repaired after the above incident and was decommissioned in September 1945. The submarine U-1227 escaped its encounter with the ‘Chebogue’, and also survived three further attacks that same year. She was finally damaged by British night-time carpet bombing in April 1945, taken out of service, and scuttled the following month.

The damaged frigate Chebogue in Port Talbot Dock


The U-1227 was a Type IXC/40 submarine commanded by Oberleutnant Friedrich Altmeier. Built by Deutsche Werft AG of Hamburg (o/n 390) and commissioned in December 1943, she had an overall length of 252 feet, a surface speed of 19 knots (7.3 knots submerged), and carried 22 torpedoes and 44 mines. The ‘Cheboque’ was her only success in sixteen months of active service. She had a range of 13,850 miles cruising on the surface at 10 knots, 128 miles submerged at 2 knots and 63 miles submerged at 4 knots.

Michel Swenden

Pictured above is the Dutch coaster ‘Michel Swenden’, driven ashore alongside the North Pier, Aberavon, on the morning of Saturday, 2nd February 1957. Several efforts to refloat the vessel that evening and the following day were thwarted due to the tow-ropes parting on each occasion. However, on the p.m. high tide of Monday, 4th May she was successfully towed clear of the sands and put into Port Talbot Dry Dock for inspection.