The Brigantine Clara Novello

A watercolour of the Brigantine Clara Novello of Llanelly 1860Llanelli has a rich maritime history, and for the best part of the 19th century the towns several docks and shipbuilding yards were a hive of activity. This was particularly the case with Neville's Iron Shipbuilding Yard which was laid out alongside the Carmarthenshire Dock (the North Dock was not built until 1903) but also was the case of the Bevan Brothers shipyard, located at an area known as "The Flats" midway between the old Pemberton Dock and the Copperworks Dock probably near to what used to be known as The Old Ballast Tip. The brothers father had been a shipbuilder at Lawrenny Pembrokshire, before setting up his Shipyard at Llanelli in 1844, and it was here that the Clara Novello was built in 1858.

The Clara Novello was a wood brigantine of 159 tons. She was described as having 2 masts, 1 deck and with a square stern. Her ships number was 25597.The bow was finished with a woman's figurehead. The Ship was registered in Llanelly and named after the celebrated soprano Clara Anastasia Novello (1818 – 1908) which was quite appropriate in that she would be commemorated in Wales the land of song. We know that the ship was named after her and not her daughter, Clara Novello Davies, as she was not born until 1861. Clara Novello Davies was of course the mother of Ivor Novello the famous actor and composer.

It seems that no sooner had the Clara Novello been finished, than the brothers began work on the construction of the Hetty Ellen. This brig would eventually become famous after she was chartered to carry Mrs Livingstone along with supplies and the disassembled river steamer Lady Nyassa from the Clyde to the Zambezi river to assist with the exploits of one David Livingstone. As the Hetty Ellen was of the same description as the Clara Novello, it is likely that the Clara Novello was constructed using English oak and with a deck of yellow pine. It would have been part iron bolted. The brigantine Clara Novello is of particular interest to the writer of this article as his ancestors William Marker (Master 1864) Robert Marker (AB 1884) and his great great grandfather John Davies (bosun 1876) all sailed on the Ship.

John Davies Drowned Bay of Biscay 1877Mac Lucas & Co., Vaughan Street, Llanelly (reverse of photo)The ship's early voyages would have been quite mundane in that she would usually just be sailing between Llanelly and the northern French ports with cargoes of coal, and also occasionally of iron ore as she would have visited Santander. In her early life she was owned on a sixty-fourth share basis by C. W. Neville (Shipbuilder 36/64th) William Davies (Master Mariner 16/64th) William Samuel (Master Mariner 12/64th) and John Powell (Smith 4/64th) all of which were from Llanelly. However, later in her life, following numerous different transactions, the ship would eventually land under the ownership of the shipbroker Aaron Stone in 1876. This change of ownership would transform the life of the ship in that she would be introduced to a much wider form of global trading.

Aaron Stone was able to achieve this by laying out substantial funds for the 20 year old brigantine to undergo a complete renovation and for the hull to be sheathed in copper. This gave the ship a new lease of life and soon she would be setting out on a series of voyages that were to take her to such far flung locations as Brazil, the West Indies, Cuba, the USA and North Africa. During the Clara Novello's eventful life she would carry a wide variety of cargoes that would include coal, copper ore, granite, iron ore, sacks of flour, wheat, beans, sugar, cocoa, coconuts and even guano which she was carrying on her final voyage! The Ship made many good sailing times on many occasions and these would include Rio De Janero (47 Days) and Llanelly to Madeira (11 Days). We must remind ourselves of course that these ships were using the ultimate in green technology that being the power of the wind!

The life of a sailing ship of this period was fraught with danger! They were always at risk of being overwhelmed by stormy seas or of being driven onto a rocky shoreline and many of them were simply "run down " by the much larger and powerful steel or iron ships that were often driven by steam. On February 13th 1871, Captain Morgan of the Clara Novello reported that a few days earlier they had shipped through heavy seas off St Govans that had carried away the two life boats off the deck and had also taken away the gangway, bulwarks and two stanchions. Later the following week one of the boats was washed ashore on Saint Govans Head. Later that year, while sailing the short voyage between Llanelly and Briton Ferry, the ship ran aground in gale force winds and had to be towed off the sandbanks by the Llanelly steam tug Samson. Often, when a situation such as this occurred the crew would have to jettison part of the cargo in order to lighten the vessel sufficiently to be re floated. This would have been exhausting work often undertaken in the most appalling weather conditions.

In 1874 The Clara Novello was involved in a collision with the brigantine Pride, off New Brighton, and in 1883 after encountering heavy weather the ship had to put into Gibraltar for repairs after having had the bulwarks stove in. The following year again she had to put into Milford Haven after the ship suffered storm damage while carrying slate on a voyage between Porthmadog and Hamburg. Worse was to follow, as during April 1888, while on a voyage carrying guano the Clara Novello sprang a leak and sank in deep water out from Portland Bill. Fortunately the Master along with the six crew were rescued by the fishing vessel Alfred and landed ashore safely at Cherbourg. For this act, the following month the captain of the Alfred was presented with a "Binocular Glass" by the Board of Trade in recognition of his services. His name was Captain Paul Gilbert.

Judging by the Standards of the day, the Clara Novello can be said to have had a long and eventful life. Robin Craig in an essay about the Hetty Ellen describes that ship as having had a long life. If this is the case then the Clara Novello must be spoken of as having had a very long life, as she lasted a full ten years longer than the Hetty Ellen. Incredibly, this puts into perspective the longevity of that extraordinary ship the Naiad. This was an iron schooner built by the Lanelly Iron Shipbuilding Company in 1867 and survived until 1931 despite having had to endure the hardships of the Great War, during which she was armed with a Hotchkiss gun on her deck. When you consider that a large proportion of ships only lasted between one and five years, and a good example of this was the Lanelly built iron barque Oliver Cromwell, which disappeared without trace in 1865 on her first voyage, then the ships mentioned in this history file deserve worthy mention indeed. They must be looked upon as being a tribute to the Llanelly men who built them and sailed on them.

Certificate of Discharge John Davies 1869

Certificate of Discharge (reverse) John Davies 1869



The Hetty Ellen was Lost with all hands on November 28th 1881 while on a voyage from Prince Edward Island Canada and the UK.

The Naiad was lost in March 1931 after having been driven onto rocks near Looe harbour Cornwall. The ship was abandoned as a total wreck.

The Blanche was wrecked on rocks near the River Loire and the crew were rescued and landed safely at St. Nazaire. 17th May 1880.

The Oliver Cromwell was lost with all hands presumably off Cape Horn after having picked up a cargo of Copper Ore from Caldera Chile.

This "Copper Clipper” was homeward bound on her first voyage 1865.

References taken from various sources within the Robin Craig collection.