HMS Conway - Click here to return to the menu HMS Conway 1859 - 1974

© Alfie Windsor 1998
HMS Conway - Click here to return to the menu

The Closing


In 1951 Blue Funnel told the MMSA that Conway's educational standards were slipping and that Blu Flu had “reached the limit of taking Conway’s lame ducks; it was giving Conway a bad reputation in the company and with the Board of Trade”. Capt Hewitt's and Headmaster TEWB Browne’s response was talks with Worcester and Pangbourne about amalgamating the three establishments, starting with greater collaboration including standard exams, a combined Passing Out Certificate and an A Level course. Nothing came of these plans but they led to Conway introducing the three year course in 1952. At the same time the industry was pushing to replace traditional courses with a one year course post GCE O levels so the split between Conway’s / Worcester's training and industry needs became set in stone. 

From the late 50’s new methods of entry to cadet apprenticeships emerged which negated the need for pre-sea training. Conway management was well aware of the trends but did nothing. Intake numbers began to fall and shipping companies started turning away from Conway’s product, she was not producing what they wanted. Committee members were all deeply involved in shipping and so could judge the value of Conway's training first hand. Sir John Nicholson reflected the views of many in a 1958  letter to Captain Hewitt observing that shipping company entrants direct from grammar schools were often of a better (educational) calibre than Conway boys. He proposed again that academic education should be left to ordinary schools and that boys attend Conway only after GCE O Level for a purely technical, one year course. Capt H refused and the Mgt Committee did not force the issue. In 1959 the Ministries of Transport and Education organised a conference
on sea training and remission for the heads of leading nautical schools. It bluntly restated the industry and government position: a one year post GCE course was needed, not pre-sea training. The Marine Society fell into line but Conway, Worcester and Pangbourne declined. In 1968 The Dept of Education told Conway exactly the same thing but now as an ultimatum - stop pre-sea training and become to a specialist technical 6th form college, or close. Hewitt was forced out and Conway fell into line but 10 years too late. In fact TEWB had first mooted exactly this proposal to Capt H in 1947 before he took command and they disagreed monumentally. Indeed Eric made it a condition of his employment that existing pre-sea training would continue unchanged.

By the mid 60s Worcester and Pangbourne were in the same boat, falling numbers, losing money and not providing what the industry wanted. They took different paths to redemption:

•    Worcester made an aggressive move to capture greater ‘market share’ by amalgamation and expansion. In 1968 they merged with the King Edward VII Nautical College as the Merchant Navy College at Greenhithe. Later they swallowed up South London College and
Sir John Cass College's Department of Navigation. Their syllabus was extended to include engineering, radio and second Mate and Home Trade Certificate courses. In 1974 when Conway was nearing her end, Worcester’s strategy seemed to be succeeding as a huge complex of new buildings were constructed at Ingress Abbey on the Thames. Despite the College’s success, funding problems arising from Mrs Thatcher’s abolition of the Inner London Education Authority in 1989, forced the college to close.

•    Pangbourne was set up and run by the Devitt family primarily as a source of cadets for their shipping company Devitt & Moore. The Honourable Company of Master Mariners established strong links with Pangbourne and did consider taking it over at one stage. In the 1930s
Pangbourne was granted a defaced blue ensign but as it was always a shore based establishment it never became HMS or TS, only “Nautical College”.  They chose a dramatically different course in the mid 60s deciding to become a fully-fledged “ordinary” public school. Conway had considered this route but feared they would be forced to give up ”HMS”, naval uniforms and the ensign. Pangbourne was allowed to retain them all. Pangbourne survived although nautical aspects of training have been shed it is the only school in the world allowed to wear the RNR cadet uniform, and with a blue ensign as the school's flag.

By 1966 it was clear that the MMSA could no longer sustain Conway’s losses so closure was likely. Liverpool and Cheshire Education Authorities were approached but neither had the means to take Conway on. The Dept of Education & Science (DES) became involved and on 5th Feb 1968 it published an agreed three part rescue package:

1.      Conway would become a Voluntary Aided School (VAS) and so qualify for gvt grants and help. £20K was handed over immediately. As soon as possible it would become solely a 6th Form College reflecting the turn away from traditional courses.

2.      The British Shipping Federation (BSF) would take ownership of Conway (correctly the Conway Cadet School Ltd) from the MMSA and become responsible for its overall management and funding They immediately injected £250K to fund work to comply with minimum VAS standards.

3.      Cheshire Education Authority (CEA) would “maintain the school” i.e. run it day to day specifically delivering education, employing all the staff and covering most maintenance, i.e. they picked up most operating costs.

It is important to understand that the BSF then owned Conway (including the New Block)  and that Cheshire simply operated it under licence. This all sounds very good but the BSF but were also funding developments costing £500,000 for the new National Sea Training School at Gravesend, so were determined to contain Conway’s costs wherever possible. The whole deal nearly fell apart just before Vesting Day when Cheshire identified a further £30K of mandatory funding needs which neither they nor the BSF had. A back door deal was done with the Conway Club to massage the £40K they had donated for the new chapel.

From 68 to 74 two key assumptions underpinned Conway’s viability:
1.      To achieve necessary numbers cadets would have to be recruited from all over the UK and abroad.

2.      The ‘home’ education authority would pay to Cheshire the fees of boys attending Conway whilst parents paid their boarding fees of £270pa.
Although there was very strong continued demand for places on courses Cheshire had to comply with the DES ruling of becoming a 6th Form College and abandoning the three year course. Numbers fell dramatically. In 1970 Maggie became Secretary of State for Education and cut councils' education budgets by £200m, refocusing funding priorities on nursery and primary schools. With budgets squeezed and priorities set, ‘home’ education authorities started to refuse to pay Cheshire for their boys to go to Conway. In 1969 59 boys were refused places because their education authority would not pay their fees. In 1971 58 more were similarly refused. At 25% or so of total numbers this was Conway's death knell.

The school lost money every year under the BSF/CEA. With more Councils refusing to fund Cheshire, numbers fell and losses became unsustainable. Despite negotiations with the DES they would not budge on the funding rules. “We" see that as short-sighted, but
the industry was telling the DES that Conway was not meeting its needs so the DES saw Conway’s training as outdated and increasingly irrelevant. In 1974 Cheshire announced it could take no more losses, could no longer fund day to day operating costs and had to pull out. The school's huge continuing losses and clear funding challenges meant the BSF had no chance of finding a replacement Education Authority. The BSF had no funds or alternative strategy and was anyway more focussed on their National Sea Training School. There was a debate in Parliament, the Conway Club considered taking the school on but all came to naught and Conway paid off.

Conclusion? Cheshire’s decision to stop losing money and pull out of the deal with the BSF was the trigger for closure. Could the BSF’s custodianship be blamed? Probably not. They were sold a pup in 1968 - while it seemed to be breathing Conway was actually dead. Arguably the pass was sold way back in the late 50’s when Capt Hewitt and the MMSA refused to listen to the Headmaster who correctly predicted the future and had good plans to realign Conway with what the industry was asking for. There were some hideously bruising encounters with the mariner telling the academic to get back in his box.

The aftermath?  The BSF sold the buildings etc., creating a very good pot of training money. Conway’s legal entity remained in being, effectively Conway never closed down, it just stopped actual training for a while. The BSF took stock of industry trends and then restarted Conway training as the Conway MN Trust with several OCs on the management team. That continues today and  a “new” Conway cadet was recently voted UK Cadet of the Year. Cheshire bought the New Block for a relative song, acquired all the leases on the dock, Kelvin Block etc. and created the Conway Centre, now the UK’s leading outdoor educational centre. I suspect they spotted that opportunity when first approached in 1966.

The Closure Announcement

"The announcement that the Conway was to close came in the Summer term of 1972. Basil Lord, the headmaster, with some education bigwigs from Cheshire County Council, called us all in to the Mess Hall and announced that the school was to close in the Summer of 1974. The shock and disappointment were immense, and I still remember the reaction of loyal and dedicated teachers, including Mr. Kingsford (history) Mr. Robinson (Geography, and the reason and inspiration that I went on to get an Honours degree in Geography/Geology). Mr. Woolley (physics) and Mr. Kirkham (English, went on to Head of Department in Newport, Gwent), Mr. Fozard (Fozzie, Spanish) and Mr. Howard Davidson (Seamanship) and the officers Dhobi Clarke, BooBoo Davison (Fxl) and Brooke-Smith, who had given so much of their lives to the old wooden mother. They showed immense dignity and strength to all the cadets, even though they had just been told they had lost their jobs and unique way of life. Many would not work again.  It must have been a double blow for Brookie and Kingsford. Both had been at Conway when the ship was nearly lost during the wartime bombing of Liverpool during the blitz, when the ship was lost in the Swellies in 1953, through the recovery in the wooden huts and then the false dawn building of the New Block, closely followed by a change from naval command to civilian, and then the end of the ownership by the MMSA (the ship's founders).


The cadets entering the 5th or O level year, could not therefore stay on until 1975 to complete their A levels as planned and we had to find alternative education. This is when the link to Kelly College came about. They offered us places at their school in Tavistock, Devon, so that we could complete our education. I am not sure if anyone joined Kelly College (I went for an interview but found it very uninspiring after the Conway)."


"You will no doubt remember Maggie was education minister at the time the closure of the old ship was announced/decided. From what I remember from the speech Basil Lord gave on the messdeck when the news broke, central government withdrew funding/subsidies from Cheshire council in respect of Conway. Together with my parents, I attended a couple of Conway parent meetings which were convened shortly afterward and as I recollect this was reinforced as the  principal reason for the Conway's demise."


"The stated problem at the time with the grant system was that the local authority at the cadets' home address was supposed to pay Cheshire for the education fees. Many of the loony left councils, and maybe a few of Maggie's as well didn't pay up, leaving Cheshire out of pocket. Although we were all bitterly disappointed and surprised at the announcement of the closure, we did at least have enough notice to complete our 'O' level or 'A' level courses. A few cadets joined the following year, but were aware that they would not complete their education at Conway. The last year was rather poignant as half of the dorms on each floor were shut, with more than enough bed space in the remaining side (port, I think)."

"After that the masters and officers kept up the academic standards very well despite their imminent redundancies, and many showed a more humane and supportive side that they had done previously. Their trips to various hostelries increased, but then who could blame them! Discipline remained high and I remember coming back from Bangor on a Saturday night 30 minutes late, due to the Crossville bus breaking down outside Llanfairpwll, having had 3 pints after an away match at Rydal - Basil Lord, wrote to our parents and put us on watch, looking over the playing fields (Why?) for the last 4 Saturdays and Sundays of term. The BBC came to film the school before it closed etc., and I remember we all went sailing and rowing in a force 5-6. All capsized and I think the RAF Valley rescue helicopter was called. Not the best advertisement for a naval establishment!"
Attempts To Save Conway

A group of parents joined together and tried to save Conway. A meeting of parents was held in the Summer of 1972, and about 40 parents attended a church hall meeting in Stafford. A working party was formed to fight the closure. Letters were sent to all the Council Education Departments and Shipping Companies. The response was apathetic at best, as the accountants had already moved into the shipping companies, in the first of what was to prove many cutbacks for the UK merchant fleet.

The Conway Club sought legal advice on the decision and also explored in considerable detail whether the Club could take over ownership and running of the school. There were not sufficient funds to make this practicable.

Closure - 12th July 1974                  Photos click here

Times change, empires fade, priorities alter and Britain's reliance on a strong merchant marine declined rapidly. The demand for men faded, the ship sadly closed her doors and paid off in 1974.The laying up of colours of HMS Conway took place in Liverpool Cathedral, on 12th July 1974. After the solemnities, another Conway ensign was lowered from the mast of the Royal Iris while the bugler played "Last Post".

One Liverpool newspaper reported that sirens had been sounded on our behalf by ships up and down the River Mersey. Old Conways had lunch on board the Royal Iris in Canada Dock, eventually evading Liverpool's licensing laws by setting sail.

Some of the 1970s Old Conways met again that evening at the Missions to Seamen, before continuing to a well-known discotheque in the City, deep in the bowels of the Earth, they gave a rousing rendering of the "Conway Song"  at 1:30 in the morning.

"I can't remember whether we were bussed to Liverpool for the laying up of the colours, or whether we finished the term at the school and made our way there with our parents. In any event, there was a grand, but sad, ceremony in the Anglican Cathedral, then lunch on the Royal Iris tied up at one of the piers, then we went home. And that was it."

Carry on.

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