The Channel Squadron at Aberystwyth

We are delighted to present a guest blog by Dr Brian H Davies.

This photograph (ref. GP/1/69) shows a fleet of warships anchored in Cardigan Bay and is one of a collection of photographs of Aberystwyth, mostly promenade views, taken in the 1890s. Other evidence informs us that it must have been taken in 1896, between the 20 and the 23 June, and there are reasons to believe that the view was captured at about noon on Saturday 20 June.

Warships in Cardigan Bay (GP/1/69)

On Friday 26 June 1896 the Prince of Wales was due to be installed as Chancellor of the new federal University of Wales at a ceremony in Aberystwyth, and it was anticipated that at least two Royal Navy warships would be in attendance in the bay for the royal occasion. They were to be detached from the Channel Squadron as it made its way back from Belfast to its base in Portland, Dorset, after a two-month cruise of northern waters. The Squadron had left Portland on 5 May, had visited Glasgow, Oban, Stornoway (Western Isles), Kirkwall (Orkney) and Belfast, and was due back at Portland on 26th June. The ships detached for the Aberystwyth visit would also call at Cardiff and Swansea on their later return to Portland.

Both the Aberystwyth Observer (AO, 25 June 1896) and Cambrian News (CN, 26 June 1896) carried detailed accounts of the events in Aberystwyth, and expressed surprise that it was not just two vessels, but the entire Channel Squadron that appeared in Cardigan Bay on Saturday 20 June, with the exception of some smaller vessels left at Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) for coaling. The AO reported that

On Saturday morning, about half past eleven, in a slight mist, several ships came into sight … with the aid of glasses nine were counted. … They were preceded by the smallest of their number, which seemed to be taking soundings. They came steadily on until people almost feared that they would run on the Castle rocks, but at a signal the anchors of all the vessels went down simultaneously, with a splash. In the meantime, smoke was seen to the north … and then a three-masted steamer came into sight, and in half-an-hour she had anchored with the other vessels.

The ten warships which anchored off the Castle rocks were actually the pride of the Royal Navy; they were all new ships, none more than seven years old. There were two Majestic Class battleships, the Majestic and the Magnificent, both 16,000 tons and each with a crew of 672. The Majestic was the flagship of Vice-Admiral Lord Walter Kerr who commanded the fleet. The four Royal Sovereign Class battleships, each 14,000 tons with a crew of 670, were the Royal Sovereign, the Empress of India, the Repulse and the Resolution. The three cruisers, the Blake, the Hermione and the Bellona (1st, 2nd and 3rd Class cruisers, respectively) were smaller vessels, from 2,000 to 9,000 tons and manned by crews of 170 to 570. The only three-masted vessel was the Bellona, and the photograph shows its arrival later than the rest of the Squadron, at about noon. The Halcyon was a small 1,000-ton torpedo gunboat with a crew of 120 which acted as the tender for the Squadron, fulfilling tasks such as taking depth soundings. There was thus a considerable tonnage of warships anchored off Aberystwyth, and the CN commented that a warship had not ‘been seen in the bay since the days of the Spanish Armada, when a galleon was wrecked on the Causeway’.

On anchoring in the bay, the ships quickly dressed their flags and fired their enormous guns as a salute for the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne on 20 June 1837. Onshore, the Town Council, which was the harbour authority, hurriedly searched for a royal ensign which by the end of the day flew on the Castle tower. In the afternoon, the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and Town Clerk braved a choppy sea to visit the Majestic to pay the town’s respects to the Vice-Admiral. The CN commented that ‘Boarding a man-of-war did not seem as easy to fulfil as their every-day duties’ and according to the AO, ‘they all got a good wetting’. Once the Majestic’s officers understood that it was the Mayor’s party alongside, they were piped aboard with due formality.

Vice-Admiral Lord Walter Kerr regretted that operational matters prevented the officers of the Squadron from accepting the Mayor and Corporation’s invitation to a banquet they were hoping to arrange for the evening of Monday, 22 June. Such operational matters did not prevent groups from the more than 5,000 officers and ratings coming ashore on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, nor did they dampen the hospitality of the Royal Navy in welcoming visits to the ships and tours of their facilities by hundreds of townspeople over the three days. Many of the seamen enjoyed trips inland, Devil’s Bridge being a particular attraction. The Rear-Admiral attended mass at the local Catholic Church on Sunday morning, while on Monday officers of the Repulse and the Royal Sovereign played a cricket match on the College ground, and a band from one of the ships played during the afternoon.

At nightfall on Monday, the whole district was treated to a spectacular display by the Squadron’s searchlights. The CN recorded that ‘So powerful were the rays of the lights that not only the illuminated clouds but the brilliant beams that pierced them could be distinctly seen from Newquay and far away on the countryside. When the lights were turned inland, Plimlymon and the other higher peaks of the range were revealed with marvellous clearness amidst the surrounding gloom’.

Many locals hoped that the whole Squadron would remain for the royal visit on Friday, 26 June, but naval orders required eight of the vessels to leave Aberystwyth at 10 a.m. on Tuesday for return to their Portland base. ‘In consequence the vessels, after starting in two lines, formed into single file, the little Halcyon, the tender of the Squadron, leading (AO)’. The ships ‘steamed grandly away, leaving the Hermione and the Bellona to grace the proceedings on Friday and fire the royal salute (CN)’.

On Friday morning the royal party arrived in Aberystwyth by train from Machynlleth, where they had stayed overnight at Plas Machynlleth, the home of the Dowager Marchioness of Londonderry. The Prince and Princess of Wales, with Princesses Maud and Victoria, travelled from the station in the royal carriage, escorted by mounted cavalry, to the installation pavilion which had been erected in Town Hall Square, at the junction of Portland Street and Queen’s Road. The CN tells us that the colourful scene in the packed pavilion ‘was further heightened by the novel appearance of the officers of the cruisers Hermione and Bellona. … These appeared in naval uniform, resplendent in gold lace. They were accorded a prominent position on the dais’. As the royal party took their seats, ‘the Choir sang ‘The Druids’ Chorus’ which was accentuated by the booming at intervals of the heavy guns on the Hermione and Bellona, firing a royal salute (CN)’. The Prince of Wales was duly installed as Chancellor of the University of Wales and he conferred several honorary degrees, one (DMus) on Alexandra, Princess of Wales, and another (LLD) on Mr W.E. Gladstone, who had served four terms as Prime Minister between 1868 and 1894.

The royal party, the university officials and other guests then went in procession to the College where a company of marines from the Hermione and Bellona formed the guard of honour. ‘The luncheon was laid out in the beautiful and spacious Pier Pavilion, opened that day by the Princess of Wales (CN)’ and afterwards the party processed to the northern end of Victoria Terrace where the newly-built women’s hall of residence was formally opened by Her Royal Highness and named Alexandra Hall.

The royal party later returned to Machynlleth by train for another night at Plas Machynlleth. The next day they returned to London, making a short visit to Cardiff on the Saturday afternoon.  In the meantime, the Royal Navy cruisers left Cardigan Bay for Penarth, where they anchored for the duration of the royal visit to Cardiff. They left Penarth early on Sunday morning, anchoring briefly off the Mumbles so that Swansea could witness their gun salute to mark the anniversary of the Queen’s coronation (28 June 1838). Once this was accomplished, the Hermione and Bellona left Welsh waters to make their way around Land’s End and rejoin the Channel Squadron at its Portland base.

Brian H Davies

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