The Iron Barque Oliver Cromwell

A photo of an unidentified three masted barque from the early 20th. Centuary. Wikimedia CommonsOn a Wednesday evening, during a heavy snowfall in early March 1864, thousands of people lined both sides of the Carmarthenshire Dock Llanelly to witness the launch of the Oliver Cromwell. To date this was the largest and finest ship ever to be built in Llanelly and after the brig Premier it was only the second ship to have been constructed at the William Henry Nevill Iron Shipbuilding Yard. This copper clipper was an iron barque of 415 tons and the vessel was described as having three masts, one deck and an elliptic stern. It was sculpted with a full man's figurehead on the bow and its ships number was 29407. It was also furnished with splendid passenger accommodation and was equipped with the additional benefit of a fire engine and condenser which was quite unusual at that time.

The honour and privilege of commanding this fine vessel was to fall onto the young shoulders of John Henry Marker junior age 25, of Llanelly. He was from an already established seafaring family as his father before him, Henry Marker, had been captain of the wooden smack Charles during the 1830s. This ship of 51 tons had been built in Llanelly in 1825 in order to carry coal to Cornwall and return to Llanelly Copperworks with copper ore. Three of Henry Marker's sons were eventually to become master mariners on Llanelly ships including John Henry who at the remarkably young age of 24 had attained his extra Master Mariners' Certificate in Liverpool. This was the best professional qualification available and there can be no doubt that he was held in the highest esteem by his employers. The position of mate was to be occupied by Mein Anderson of Leith Scotland age 44, and the second mate was Thomas Morris age 41 from Llanelly as was the majority of the remainder of the crew.

Carmarthenshire Dock February 2010On the 20th May 1864 the Oliver Cromwell was towed out to sea and set her sails for the long maiden voyage to Caldera located on the West Coast of Chile South America. Unfortunately several months later on the 4th November it was reported in the Cambrian Journal that the ship had encountered severe weather off Cape Horn and was undergoing repairs in the Falkland Islands to refit the top mast and gallant royals which had been lost. Thankfully the article closed stating that "all hands were well". Caldera, along with many other Ports of Chile, was a regular call for South Wales copper barques and despite having been somewhat delayed the Oliver Cromwell eventually arrived there, discharged her cargo of what was probably coal, and reloaded with a cargo of copper ore regulus for the return voyage.

It was reported that the ship left Caldera on December 1st 1864 bound for her home port of Llanelly. As time progressed into the New Year and beyond, it was becoming clear that as there had been no contact or sighting, this fine ship was missing without trace. To the despair of the maritime community of Llanelly nothing was ever heard again from the young Master or of the local crew.

Either the Ship had been overwhelmed by heavy seas which had shifted the cargo or it had been sunk after a collision with an iceberg which was often the case in the southern ocean. The Oliver Cromwell was to become just another statistic among the 800 or so vessels that have been estimated lost on one of the world's most treacherous and punishing passages, Cape Horn!

Advertisement in the Cambrian Newspaper April 20th. 1864It must be remembered that while Swansea is renowned for its copper ships and deservedly so, what seems to be less well known is the contribution that the port of Llanelly made to the copper trade and the economic growth of the region during the nineteenth century. The extent and depth of this is evident, as well into the twentieth century there were still living in the vicinity of Llanelly many "Old Cape Horners". We know this as on Saturday the 10th of September 1932, 40 of them held a reunion Dinner at The Thomas Arms Hotel. Llanelli is famous for its tinplate trade, but it must be remembered that even previous to that time there was a flourishing maritime industry in the town operated by families such as Samuels, Charles, Edwards, Edmunds, Markers, Mathias, Bowens and Roberts often spanning three generations. They should not be forgotten.

Cambrian Journal 11 March 1864
Launch of the Iron Barque Oliver Cromwell. - Considerable interest was evinced by the inhabitants of Llanelly on the occasion of the launch of the above noble vessel, on Wednesday evening last. The Carmarthenshire Dock was literally lined both sides with thousands of people of all grades, who were wishful of witnessing the launch of the largest and finest ship ever built at Llanelly. A large number of the members of the Rifle Corps were in attendance, together with their brass and fife bands. The firing of regular volleys from the rifles, the playing of the bands, and the roars of the canon, enlivened the scene considerably. At a quarter to 7 o'clock she started from her blocks with the greatest ease, and took the water most beautifully. After being first sprinkled with a heavy fall of snow, she was christened by Mrs. Jones, wife of the enterprising proprietor, Mr. David Jones, of Ann Street, Llanelly, and was immersed in her native element. She glided into the water "like a thing of life," amongst the cheers and thundering applause of the thousands present. She is the second iron-ship them at William Henry Nevill, Esqrs., Iron Ship-building Yard, and is a complete model. Her measurement is 185 feet keel, 35 feet beam, and 16 feet hold, her length over all being 154 feet. Her estimated burden is 600 tons, and she will probably register from 370 to 880 tons, her builder's measurement being for 440. Mr Henry Marker, junr. Llanelly, has been appointed commander. In the evening the workmen of the building yard and others, to the number of 160, were regaled with an excellent supper at the residence of Mr. David Jones. After supper suitable toasts were proposed and responded to. The introduction of Iron Ship-building to this port has already created a great amount of labour, and the inhabitants generally ought to feel proud of William Henry Nevill, esq., whose exertions have been always to elevate the people of Llanelly in a pecuniary as well as an intellectual point of view. May the career of the Oliver Cromwell be so successful is that of the great warrior after she is called.


Notes and Citations

In Ports such as Caldera many families from South Wales were smelting and refining the copper ore down to regulus. An area of Caldera was known as Landore, and one would have needed to speak Welsh to be understood around the Furnaces there.References taken from The Robin Craig Collection.

While researching this article the writer has found information which seems to suggest that several members of the crew were discharged at Caldera! The reasons for this are unclear, but as adequate replacements would have been difficult to find in Chile, it is likely that homeward bound the ship could have been undermanned and therefore less able to challenge the oncoming storms. Similar situations often occurred on the copper barques returning from Santiago De Cuba when crew died from "Yellow Jack"(yellow fever)

Regulus: The purer or more metallic part of a mineral, which sinks to the bottom of a crucible or furnace and is thereby separated out. Hence: metal separated from a mineral or ore by smelting or reduction, as the first stage of purification. OED

The Oliver Cromwell was engined at the Old Lodge Ironworks