While Porthcawl Dock brought many jobs and livelihoods to the local area, there was also a darker side. There were many shipwrecks at sea but we examined one of the most infamous tragedies, the SS Samtampa, a liberty ship which was built by the New England Shipbuilding Corporation in Portland, Maine in 1943.

Liberty ships were based on a simple design produced by British shipbuilder J L Thompson & Sons of Sunderland. The design, adapted to conform to US regulations and to make them cheaper and easier to build, began to symbolize the USA’s wartime industrial output. Eighteen American shipyards produced 2,751 ships between 1941 and 1945. In a speech made on 27 September 1941, President Franklin D Roosevelt said that these new ships would bring liberty to Europe, which led to name ‘liberty ship’ coming into popular use.

The ship was originally named Peleg Wadsworth after an American officer from American Revolutionary War. Peleg Wadsworth (1748-1829) was an aide to General Artemas Ward and General John Thomas. He became the Adjutant General of Massachusetts in 1778, and a presidential elector and a member of the Massachusetts Senate from 1793-1807.

At time of the tragedy on 23 April 1947, the ship was owned by owned by the Crown as represented by the Minister of Transport, and managed by Houlder Bros & Co Ltd., London, EC3. The steamship was on passage from Middlesbrough to Newport under the command of captain H Neale Sherwell. In fog in the Bristol Channel, the Samtampa developed an engine fault. Captain Sherwell anchored in Swansea Bay whilst the problem was explored, despite a near gale blowing. Around 4.40pm the starboard anchor chain parted and 10 minutes later the port one gave way. Within 20 minutes, the ship had driven ashore on the rocks near Sker Point.

The Mumbles lifeboat Edward, Prince of Wales was launched at 6:10pm under the command of coxswain William Gammon. At the same time, the Porthcawl Coastguards attempted to pass a line to the ship from the shore but the winds had increased to in excess of 100mph which made this impossible. Within two hours, the Samtampa was a total wreck and had broken into three pieces. None of the crew of 39 were saved. What happened to the Mumbles lifeboat is also uncertain, but it was found smashed and upside down further along the beach the following morning. All 8 lifeboatmen were lost.

The crew of the Samtampa were buried at Porthcawl. The crew of the lifeboat were buried at the Mumbles. A memorial to the crew of the Samtampa and the Mumbles lifeboat was unveiled at the final resting place of the lifeboat in 1992.

This is part of a series of posts by Experience Porthcawl on the History of Porthcawl.

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