Barry Merchant Seamen

- History and Tribute -

Contents- About- Articles- Ships- Seamen.

( This is a copy of the flyer handed out at the 2007 High Street Festival in Barry. Much of the information and ideas appear elsewhere on this site. )



1881 Barry is the smallest village in South Glamorgan.
1884 Work starts on Barry docks.
1989 - July 18 @10:30 a.m. …SS Arno first ship to enter Barry dock.
11:30 a.m. Coal is being loaded on the SS Ravenshoe.
1913 Barry is recognized as largest coal exporting port in the world.
1939-1945 – Barry ships lose more men at sea than any other port.
1977 – Last coal cargo leaves Barry.
2007…Barry people have forgotten their past.


Tuesday Sept. 3rd 1939 Second World War begins.
Unarmed liner Athenia is sunk – 'Battle of the Atlantic' commences.
Sept. 1939 to June 1940 - nothing happens on the battlefields of Europe.
We call it the 'Phoney War' - the Germans call it the 'Sitzkrieg' – the 'Sitting War'.
At sea, however, there was never a 'Phoney War' - Merchant ships are lost at the rate of 2 per day.
June, 1940 – Germans sweep through France and Norway. They now have the ports - Lorient in France and Bergen in Norway - from which to flood the Atlantic with U-boat wolf-packs, and the Channel with bombers and E-boats.
Merchant ship losses increase further.


Churchill considers the possibility of surrender as cargoes of Oil and Iron-ore fall by half and cover less than two-thirds of our consumption and delegations are sent to USA and Canada pleading for help. It gets worse - between October 17th and 19th, U-boats sink 36 ships from two convoys: SC7 and HX 79 (see separate chart and story). Details of the ship losses are kept from the public. No wonder, though, that later Churchill had this to say -

"The only thing that really frightened me during the Second World War was the U-boat peril; the 'Battle of the Atlantic' was the dominating factor throughout the War. Never, for one moment, could we forget that everything happening elsewhere – on land, at sea or in the air – depended on the outcome of that battle".

This is where Barry comes in. If The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor throughout the War, and if in that battle Barry lost a greater proportion of its men than any other port then, in a very real sense, Barry is a unique place.


It all started because of Welsh coal; as their ships carried that coal to ports all over the world, the ship-owners and seamen of South Wales created the wealth of South Wales. The ships were often locally owned by small groups of businessmen. They had to be cheap, so they were small. And under-powered. Equipped to the lowest permitted standards, the food and accommodation was dreadful. Even then, the ships made a bare living carrying a deadweight cargo of coal out and, usually, a deadweight cargo of iron-ore back. Even in peace-time, in bad weather, many such ships were overwhelmed by the heavy seas and lost or wrecked. In two World Wars the menace of U-boats and mines was added to the dangers already facing the small, deeply loaded vessels. In WW2, they also faced destruction by aircraft. They had little defence against attack; the few guns provided were from the First World War and even the Boer war!

If torpedoed, most ships sank. A small ship carrying a deadweight cargo sank like a stone - often in seconds. On deck, the sailors, on look-out or at the wheel, dressed for the weather conditions and had some chance of survival. The firemen, shovelling coal into the boiler fires down-below, in the bowels of the ship, had next to no chance. 20 feet below the water-line; if they were not killed in the explosion they had the problem of getting out. If they were able to scramble up 30 feet of steel ladders and stumble out into the freezing cold of the North Atlantic… well - they were dressed in dungarees and a singlet! The crew of such ships, homeward-bound, would pray for a cargo of pit-props. The coal mines needed a steady supply of pit-props and, with timber in the holds, torpedoed, bombed or mined; a ship had a slightly better chance of survival.


In the Second World War, together with the other South Wales ports, the part that Barry played was vital. As a port built solely for coal, 75% of Barry seamen would naturally tend to go to sea 'down-below' – as Firemen, Trimmers, Greasers or Donkeymen. This last helps explain why…

"During WW2, Barry lost a greater number of men, per head of population, than any other port in Britain."

Every mother who lost a son on land, on sea or in the air, mourned a hero.

I am asking is that the citizens of Barry should appreciate what its own heroes achieved in World War Two, should insist that their remaining Merchant Navy veterans have a special place in the Memorial services which commemorate WW2. Instead the M.N. men are usually in civvies and kept at the back. The reasons are simple. In WW2, the men of the Merchant Navy wore no uniform and, lets face it, they never have marched very well! On a ship there was little time or space to learn how to march - and no bands to help keep them 'in step' anyway! More importantly, the Merchant Navy has no 'hierarchy' - there are no Admirals, Generals and Air Vice-Marshals in Barry. This means that on ceremonial occasions there is no-one to meet the Queen or other dignitaries. There are very few veterans left and the merchant Navy has no young 'cadet corps' to march - and no uniformed 'Officers' to take a salute. There is the further problem that nobody ever saluted anyway!

What's more, other ports have ways of remembering their seamen. They have Maritime Museums and marine activity in their docklands. Barry has nothing which visibly reflects either the excellence of the port's service to the trade of Great Britain, or the sacrifices made by its seamen throughout a unique maritime history. All that remains are the silent, almost empty docks. For a fraction of the cost of the excellent Barry Island Railway heritage, a living docklands museum could be produced - perhaps in the abandoned Pump-house. Local school trips would provide future generations with a visual representation, in context, of how and why Barry came to exist. How it came to be unique. Why can we not celebrate being the largest coal exporting port in the world?


I am not originally from Barry – I sailed out of Liverpool throughout the War. But a glance at the record of ships and men lost from Barry tells me all I need to know about what went on in this town during the Second World War. A veteran tells me,

'From my house, in Station Street, I count 8 houses from which men were lost in the Second World War'.

I have provided some details of the debt that the people of Britain owe to its Merchant Navy. The town of Barry should ensure that debt is honoured.

David Simpson
August 2007