The Connemara/Retriever Disaster of 1916

This post is one of a continuing series to showcase some of the special objects we have in Holyhead Maritime Museum’s collection.

Our museum is no different to many other maritime museum in that we have on display many models of ships, past and present. Among our collection is a large scale model of ‘SS Connemara’, a ship built by William Denny and Brothers at Dumbarton in 1896. This model has come to represent a tragic story of loss at sea.

The model of ‘SS Connemara’ at the museum

At 8:00pm on the 3rd November 1916, the ‘SS Connemara’, a twin-screw mail packet steamer, owned by the LNWR company, left her berth at Greenore in Ireland and started her daily run to Holyhead in Wales. Her crew of 32 were mostly from Holyhead and on that journey, she carried 51 passengers and a general cargo including livestock.

Captain Doeg on the bridge of the ‘Connemara’ knew of the south-westerly gale blowing in the Irish Sea, and that he must take particular care navigating the narrow exit from Carlingford Lough, whilst showing only limited lights in case of U-boat attack. He was also aware of the 8-knot ebb tide, but as he approached the Haulbowline lighthouse he did not know that the ‘Retriever’ – a three-masted, steel-screwed coaster with a crew of 9 – was about to enter the lough bound for Newry, having sailed from Garston on the Mersey and heavily laden with coal.

‘SS Connemara’ on passage across the Irish Sea

Unfortunately the cargo of coal had shifted as the ‘Retriever’ made for her home port and the ship experienced extreme difficulties maintaining her course in the heavy seas. The lighthouse keeper at Haulbowline noticed that the ‘Retriever’ was not in her allotted shipping lane and he fired a warning rocket, but to no avail. The ebbing tide and the gale force wind forced the ‘Retriever’s’ bow to turn and she struck the ‘Connemara’ amidships on her port side. Water poured in and the boilers of the mail packet steamer exploded. The vessel sank almost immediately and the ‘Retriever’, badly damaged, floundered some minutes later.

Name plate from ‘SS Connemara’ kindly donated by our friends at the Greenore Maritime Museum

There was only one survivor (a crewman from the ‘Retriever’) and over 90 people, crew and passengers from both ships, lost their lives, including 26 from Holyhead. A subsequent Board of Trade inquiry judged this to be a tragic accident and that no blame could be apportioned, but the terrible tragedy added to the grief of so many families already trying to cope with the horrors of the Great War.

This sad episode exemplifies the dangers ever-present when ships are at sea, but also highlights the clearly defined trade routes of the north Irish Sea – the Mersey ports, the Irish ports of Greenore and Newry, and the Welsh port of Holyhead – all playing crucial roles during this time in history.

Contributed by Dr. Gareth Huws.

© Holyhead Maritime Museum

This series of posts is to showcase items from the museum’s collection and to support the ‘Ports, Past and Present’ project that features and promotes five ports of the Irish Sea connecting Wales with Ireland – Rosslare, Dublin Port, Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke. More information here –

RNLI Gold Medal Rescue

This post is one of a continuing series to showcase some of the special objects we have in the museum’s collection. The Gold Medal we feature was awarded over a hundred years ago to William Owen, Coxswain of the Holyhead Lifeboat. It is a story of absolute bravery in the face of a raging sea to save the crew of 9 on the little steamer, ‘SS Harold’. It is also the story of the RNLI’s first steam driven lifeboat.

‘The Duke of Northumberland’ lifeboat was revolutionary in that she used water jets instead of propellers. Water was drawn in through the forward section of hull and forced out at great pressure through the vents in the side of the boat. This made it a lot more maneuverable than other lifeboats. Not having a propeller she was also less likely to become tangled in ships rigging. She was built in 1886 and first went into service at Harwich in September 1890. The lifeboat’s first period at Holyhead was from 1892 to 1893 and she returned to service in the port in 1897.

William Owen and his Gold Medal displayed at Holyhead Maritime Museum

In late February 1908, the steam vessel ‘Harold’ was carrying china clay from Teignmouth to Liverpool. In foul weather her engines broke down and becoming unmanageable she anchored between the south and north stacks off Holyhead, but she started drifting and became dangerously close to rocks between the two headlands.

The ‘Duke of Northumberland’ at Mackensie Pier, Holyhead in the early 1900’s.

At 2pm on February 22, 1908 ‘The Duke of Northumberland’ was called upon to give assistance and was launched into very rough seas. In gale force winds which were near hurricane force she took two hours to reach the ill-fated Liverpool steamer. Despite mountainous seas, the able work of the coxswain maneuvered the lifeboat near enough to the ‘Harold’ to enable six men to be taken off the stricken vessel by line. The last three men were able to jump aboard the rescuer. All the crew were saved but the ‘Harold’ foundered the next day.

Coxswain William Owen with his crew at the Lifeboat Station after the award of their medals

Due to his skill and courage during the rescue, Coxswain William Owen was presented with the RNLI’s Gold Medal and the rest of the crew (including Owen’s son) were presented with Silver Medals. This is one of four Gold Medals awarded to the Holyhead Lifeboat Station. Coxswain Owen had previously been awarded the Institute’s Silver Medal and the Silver Medal of the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society for the rescue of three of the crew of the ‘Tenby Castle’ in December 1889.

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William Owen was presented with his Gold Medal by the Prince of Wales at Marlborough House, London on Monday 4 May 1908.

William Owen served as Coxswain from 1899 to 1915. He was also a Trinity House Pilot for 45 years. His obituary on his death in 1921 described him with these words, ‘He was as fearless as a lion, and was ever in the midst of the perils which beset the vast deep’.

Contributed by Aled L Jones.

© Holyhead Maritime Museum

The photograph of the ‘Duke of Northumberland’ is from The original source is unknown.

The account of the presentation of the Gold Medal to William Owen is from The Cardiff Times of 9 May 1908 – The National Library of Wales.

This series of posts is to showcase items from the museum’s collection and to support the ‘Ports, Past and Present’ project that features and promotes five ports of the Irish Sea connecting Wales with Ireland – Rosslare, Dublin Port, Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke. More information here –



The Dutch Poniard

This is a story of two separate wartime friendships that developed into romance but sadly never had the opportunity to blossom fully. It is the story of three young people at the time of war. It is the story of Evelyn, now aged 106.

The item in our collection and linked to the story is a Midshipman’s Poniard, given to junior officers in the Royal Netherlands Navy on their ‘passing out’ as officers. It is worn mainly on ceremonial occasions.


Following the invasion of the Netherlands by German forces in 1940, a number of vessels of the Dutch navy ended up at Holyhead. Initially, the Dutch mariners were looked upon by the local population with a degree of wariness. It wasn’t long before their fears were allayed, with families welcoming them into both their hearts and homes.

HNLMS Medusa (1911) – Hydra Class Minelayer stationed at Holyhead during WW2

One such Holyhead family befriended a young Dutch student who had travelled to Holyhead from Manchester to join the Royal Netherlands Navy. Han Jordaan became a regular visitor to their house and began dating Evelyn, one of the daughters. Sadly the romance was short lived as Han was seconded to the S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive) before being parachuted into German occupied Amsterdam.

Jordaan was betrayed to the Gestapo after only five weeks.  After aggressive interrogation he was forced to transmit misinformation to his handler in the UK. However, using a special word he was able to alert his handler that his position had been compromised. Sadly Jordaan did not survive the war and died in a concentration camp three weeks before the cessation of hostilities.

Evelyn’s wartime story however did not end there. Several months later she met and fell in love with another Dutch mariner, Jan Christiaan van Aller. He had enrolled as a cadet in the Royal Netherlands Navy in 1939. On his passing out he was presented with his ceremonial poniard or dagger. Following further officer training at Falmouth, Van Aller was posted to Holyhead.

It was at a dance at the Station Hotel that the couple first met and soon became quite close.  At some point in time he transferred to the Marine corps and in January 1942 was promoted to the rank of Sub Lieutenant.

Once again Evelyn’s dreams were shattered when a month later he was posted to Jakarta in the Dutch East Indies. Before departing, the couple vowed they would write to each other and when the war was over he would return.  As a token of his feelings he gave Evelyn his poniard.

In February 1942 Singapore fell to the Japanese and his ship, SS Mentor, was diverted to Suriname in Dutch Guyana. As to where Van Aller ended his war years is unclear. However, due to the fact that the letters suddenly stopped arriving, Evelyn assumed he had been killed. She frequently reflected on ‘what might have been’ before she met her future husband George, whom she married in 1946.

In 2014, Evelyn donated the poniard to the Maritime Museum, a treasured reminder of a typical wartime romance that was not meant to be.

Two memorials to the presence of the Dutch Navy at Holyhead during WW2

Contributed by Peter Scott Roberts and Graham Van Weert from conversations with Evelyn and her family.

© Holyhead Maritime Museum

The image of HNLMS Medusa is from Wikimedia Commons. Original source – Mark, C. Schepen van de Koninklijke Marine in W.O. II Alkmaar: De Alk bv, 1997

This series of posts is to showcase items from the museum’s collection and to support the ‘Ports, Past and Present’ project that features and promotes five ports of the Irish Sea connecting Wales with Ireland – Rosslare, Dublin Port, Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke. More information here –


The Privateer’s Cannons

Holyhead Maritime Museum’s unique collection of historical artifacts help tell the story of the towns maritime heritage. Located outside the museum are two 18th Century ship’s cannon. The following is their story ……

The Irish sea had been plagued by pirates from the withdrawal of the Roman  legions from Britain in the fourth century.  Turkish, Moroccan, Irish, Viking, Spanish and French were among some of the vessels that plundered ships in these waters.  The following account illustrates how vulnerable and unprotected the town was three centuries ago from such threats.

One Saturday in the year 1710, a vessel flying English colours, sailed into Holyhead Bay, firing her guns to indicate that she was in distress.  In response, Maurice Owen, the local customs official, launched the Queen’s revenue cutter and proceeded to the vessel to investigate. Once aboard Owen quickly realised that they had been duped, for the ship was the French privateer ‘Fox’, with a crew of over 150 men and heavily armed.  After being stripped and interrogated about the town’s defences, the cutter’s crew were taken hostage and held to ransom.  The ‘Fox’ then proceeded to anchor off Borthwen Beach, close to Church Bay.

One of the two 18th Century Cannons on display outside the Holyhead Maritime Museum

However, as if by divine intervention, a ferocious storm blew up, de-masting  the vessel, forcing her to jettison 14 of her large cannon to allow her to become more maneuverable.  This proved to be futile and despite firing her remaining smaller guns in distress, the town’s people, out of fear, chose not to come to their aid.  She was eventually driven on rocks somewhere between Borthwen and Penrhos point.  On the Sunday morning, seven boats took off the 150 pirates and released Maurice Owen.  Twenty of the pirates were sent to Dublin aboard the packet boat ‘James’ for trial.

The cannons remained on the seabed for over one hundred years before they were rediscovered by divers carrying out work for the construction of the Admiralty Pier. They were then stored until George IV visited Holyhead in 1821 and despite being heavily corroded were used to fire the royal salute. They were later relocated to the newly built Market building sometime in the late 1850’s until the Town Council took them into storage in the 1940’s. They were eventually presented to the Holyhead Maritime Museum for display in 1986.

Contributed by Peter Scott Roberts.

© Holyhead Maritime Museum

This series of posts is to support the ‘Ports, Past and Present’ project that features and promotes five ports of the Irish Sea connecting Wales with Ireland – Rosslare, Dublin Port, Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke. More information here –


Thomas Lawrence Williams – Holyhead Mariner

This story is one of more recent times. It has been written by Billy Kynaston Williams in memory of his father. It includes details of an tragic event at sea during the Norwegian Campaign of WW2, 80 years ago, which resulted in his father ending up as a Prisoner of War. It is also essentially a love story.

Thomas Lawrence Williams (1915 – 1990)

With the commemorations of VE Day, having just past, I thought I would share this short piece summarising my father’s war experiences, particularly as the 8th June will be the 80th anniversary of him becoming a prisoner of war in Germany.

He was a merchant seaman in the employ of the Orient Steam Navigation Company Ltd, having joined after completing his course at the National Sea Training School at Gravesend.

Despite the imminent threat of war in 1939, it started as a good year for him, because it was the year he married my Mother, Enid Catherine Kynaston, in Holyhead. He was then employed as an assistant steward on the company’s RMS Orford, a 20,000-ton liner providing mail, cargo, and passenger services to Fremantle and Sydney, Australia – sailing via Gibraltar, the Mediterranean, Suez Canal, and Colombo.

By 1940 he had been transferred to the company’s RMS Orama, which had been requisitioned by the Admiralty and refitted as an auxiliary armed troop transport, becoming the HMAV Orama. His wartime role on the ship, probably among many others, was as a member of a gun crew manning one of the ship’s newly installed anti-aircraft guns.

In 1940 the Orama was engaged in the Narvik campaign transporting the British Expeditionary Force to Norway. This proved to be a disastrous campaign for Britain and resulted in a number of significant naval casualties including the sinking of the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, two destroyers, HMS Ardent and HMS Acasta, a Norwegian oil tanker and, of course, the Orama.

SS Orama
RMS Orama

On 8 June 1940, 300 miles west of Narvik, they encountered the German fleet comprising the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper with other lighter vessels. The Orama was sunk by a combination of gunfire from the Admiral Hipper and a torpedo from the destroyer Z 10 – nineteen men were killed and 280 became prisoners, including my dad. Thankfully the Orama was not carrying troops at the time.

The images above show the Orama listing after the engagement with the Admiral Hipper and finally sinking. The survivors were picked up by the German Navy and were transported to Trondheim in Norway, and then to Oslo in cattle trucks. From there they embarked onto a small coaster for their transfer to Germany. On arrival they were moved, again in cattle trucks, to Stalag XIIIA in Wolfsburg in Bavaria arriving sometime in late June 1940.

The telegram below was received by my grandparents following the sinking (curiously not sent to my Mother).

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Thankfully my Dad survived the sinking and his subsequent incarceration relatively unharmed. It was not until later it was learnt that he had been injured whilst evacuating onto the Orama’s lifeboat when a crew member fell on him injuring his leg quite badly. Later, whilst in the PoW camp, he suffered at least one recurrence of Malaria, first contracted during his earlier voyages to the tropics.

What communication there was from him seemed to indicate, not surprisingly, that he was getting by. One that was sent to my paternal grandparents at Christmas 1941 is shown below.

PoW Xmas card from Dad

His PoW record card shown below was obtained when inmates ransacked the camp’s offices following its liberation by the allies. The photo of him bears witness to the hardships that he and all PoWs suffered during this period.


Somehow a few photos did emerge from his time as a PoW, such as the one shown below with my Dad in the front row, third from right. (His record card and other photos from this period have been donated to the Holyhead Maritime Museum).

Dad POW group 4
Prisoners of War at Stalag XIIIA. Lawrence Williams is in the front row, third from the right

The POW camp was eventually liberated in April 1945. Repatriation from there involved being flown home, probably from Brussels, in a Dakota and arriving somewhere in southern England on 5 May 1945, before finally arriving home in Holyhead two days later.

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The group photo below was taken immediately after the war and includes other Holyheadians who were also unfortunate in being prisoners of war. Included in the photo is my Mother – front row, first right who worked as a secretary for the British Red Cross.

Mam and Dad post war
Fortunately for me, liberation allowed him and my mother to immediately start a family, but around about the time when the photograph below was taken, Mam had developed MS and finally succumbed to the disease at Easter 1960, aged 43.

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After the war Dad joined the British Transport Commission’s (later British Rail) cross-channel ferries from Holyhead to Ireland, serving principally on the MV Hibernia until his first retirement at the age of about 58. He then bought a sweet shop and tobacconist in Thomas Street, Holyhead (the Ten-o-Clock Shop), successfully running that, with his second wife, until finally retiring in about 1980 and then moving to live in Trearddur Bay. Dad passed away in December 1990.

Billy Kynaston Williams

June 2020

We are very grateful to Billy for writing up his father’s so well illustrated story and allowing it to be published here. It is important that his story, and others like it, should not fade into the forgotten pages of history.