CAPTAIN TOM WILLIAMS 1823-1899
I came across Captain Thomas Williams when reading the October 1899 edition of the Cambrian News which contained his obituary. What caught my eye was that he was a native of Borth and apparently went to live in Aberystwyth at a “tender age”. The newspaper article listed his many seafaring adventures but gave no details such as ships names etc. It explained how he was known as Tom Williams of the Ruby because for years he commanded the trading sloop Ruby along the Western shores of Wales and the north of England.
At the time of the discovery of this mariner I was stuck in Australia during it's strict international border closures to combat the covid pandemic. However being in touch with researcher John Ellis I mentioned this Borth man and how he should be included on the website. A few days later John sent enough information to justify his being included and also challenged some of the material presented in his obituary.
Thomas Williams was born on the 16th of June 1823, the son of Mariner William Williams born 1794 and his wife Margaret born between 1795 and 1800. Tom was not baptised at St Michael's Llandre until November of that year, probably because it had been postponed until his father returned from sea.
Tom began his career at 9 years of age as a ships boy although he was listed as seaman, on the schooner Aquila, owned by the Daniel family of Pengraig Farm, Borth. This first voyage lasted for a year. By the time he was 12 he was already an experienced seaman, like so many of his contemporaries at Borth. Tom continued as a seaman on the Sloops Dove, Unity, Francis and the Providence. In 1842 he was listed as mate on the smacks Swallow and the Margaret and Mary as well as on the sloop Mermaid... these vessels had Borth connections via their masters or owners. This indicates that the tradition of employing and training local lads to be mariners was long practised by village captains.
From 1845 to 1847 he was noted as a seaman on the schooners Mary and the Maria Anna. The latter sank in 1885 but all the crew survived including Capt. Thomas Davies of Borth. Tom was then mate on the sloop Morning Star, then a stint in this position on the Cork registered schooner Chapston. Tom then returned to the Morning Star on a three month voyage to Oporto... quite a journey for a 38 ton sloop. Tom continued as mate on the sloops Ruby and the Waterloo. From there he returned to command the Ruby from 1849 to 58. This long association earning him the sobriquet “Tom Williams of the Ruby”.
In 1859 Tom was master of the 76 ton schooner Robust registered to the Port of Aberystwyth. This vessel had been built at Miramichi, New Brunswick, Canada in 1837. These Canadian vessels were cheaper to build because of the plentiful pine in that part of the world; but were considered inferior to local more sturdy vessels made of oak. 1859 was an ill-fated year for Mariners as there were to be many casualties amongst ships and men resulting from a terrible storm called the Royal Charter Gale...named after the ship Royal Charter foundered off Anglesea with the loss of 450 lives. Captain Tom Williams was taking a cargo of timber to Liverpool when the violent storm broke out, and whilst sheltering from the massive seas near Pwllelli noticed that other vessels taking the same evasive action were being driven onto the shore. To make matters worse the Robust suddenly lost her anchor as the chain cable snapped and to avoid being beached Captain Williams immediately made out to sea. Despite jettisoning the deck cargo to lighten the vessel the Robust was blown back all the way south to eventually come ashore at Pwll Morgan, New Quay. This event is recorded on page 42 of William Troughton's book Ceredigion Wrecks. Thankfully all the crew rescued.
Up until he became coxwain of the Aberystwyth lifeboat we have no further information; but it is probable that he resumed commanding the Ruby for a further few years. By this time Tom had married Anne James the daughter of Aberystwyth master mariner William James born circa 1795. The couple lived at Aberystwyth from then on in which means he was 24 years of age before leaving Borth...hardly a tender age as mentioned in his obituary. After all he had already been at sea for over 13 years. Tom and Anne had 7 children, Margaret b.1849, William b.1851, Anne b.1856, Elizabeth b.1858, Thomas b.1860, John b.1863 and David b.1865.
From 1876 to 1891 Thomas was coxwain of the Aberystwyth lifeboat and completed many hazardous rescues. Once on a mission to aid the stricken Sarah Ellen of Liverpool which had foundered off Aberystwyth in February 1877 carrying a cargo of guano from Plymouth to Belfast, the lifeboat, then powered by rowers and sail, capsized, but managed to right itself and the shocked crew bravely carried on to save the Sarah Ellen's crew landing them south of the stone pier at Aberystwyth. Sadly the ordeal took the life of crew member John James of Trefechan who died in Tom's arms. Many lives were lost by rescuers, and in this case, leaving a grieving and impoverished family. On another occasion Tom sailed and guided his rowers to rescue the crew of the fully rigged ship Arklow through rough seas on a 7 mile journey to Towyn where the vessel was being smashed in the surf. These and other rescues indicate his peerless and courageous seamanship recognised by the R.N.L.I when he was awarded 20 pounds on his retirement after 15 years of service. One may conjecture that the arrival of the motorised lifeboat precipitated his retirement. The Williams family's contribution to the humanitarian cause did not end with Tom as his son David born 1865 soon became a confident and brave coxwain of the Aberystwyth lifeboat himself. He served for an astonishing 42 years which began when he was 22 years of age. This is still a record as David was, and still is the longest serving helmsman in the history of the R.N.L.I.