Ellen "the Misses" Edwards (neé Francis)


"Yr athrowes enwog mewn morwriaeth"
- Y Genedl

Ellen Francis was born in Amlwch in 1810, and went on to become an 'outstanding teacher of navigation', establishing her own school of navigation in Caernarfon. She  trained more than 1000 mariners over 60 years, at a time when navigation skills were generally 'a knack ... acquired by practice and by tradition'. Her story is central to the developing of  shipping across the world - including of the products of the North Wales quarries. It  illustrates too, the Non-Conformist vs Anglican sectarian rivalry (confounded with continued colonial attitude from England) of the time, and of the roles of women in sea-faring communities:

"Women played a much larger part in the commercial and religious life of their communities than did their counterparts in the inland communities; they were also obliged to bear the special anxieties and sudden bereavements which were essential features of seafaring during the great age of sailing vessels. In some respects, at least, they were like women caught up in a war, a war against the elements (in the main) which was virtually continuous and continuously costly in terms of human life".

As soon as Ellen arrived in Caernarfon from Amlwch in the 1830s, she joined the Caersalem Baptist Chapel, and remained a staunch Non-Conformist throughout her life. Some early reports of Ellen's work, including the Royal Commision on Education in Wales in 1947, reflect the sectarian rivalry of the time. The report in 1947, based on evidence from two Anglican Educators (when Ellen was only in her 30s) said slightingly:

"All the navigation which has been learned here as a science has been taught by an old woman of Caernarfon".

Ellen had learned her navigation teaching skills from her father, master mariner Captain William Francis. As a 'Master of a Coaster' wrote of Ellen in 1847, in response to the critical Education Report:

"Is she not the daughter of that respectable old master mariner, Mr Willam Frances of Amlwch, who in zeal for his country left the sea and established a school in Amlwch, to teach navigation? Has he not taught his daughter Ellen, who has a talent to impart the same with great dexterity? What can women not do if they like? The best navigators in London are taught by a sailor's wife on Tower Hill".

At the time, 250 ships were involved in the export of slate from Caernarfon, and nearly 3000 coasting and overseas vessels cleared the Port every year. Ship building was flourising, importing North American timber, and businesses such as rope manufacture, foundry, ship broking, master mariners, carpentry, joinery, smithys and sailing crews doubled Caernarfon's population to nearly 10,000 people. Conditions were cramped and public houses, brothels, drunkenness, petty crime and poor living conditions were rife. And thousands were emigrating to North America and Australia.


Skilled shipping was a vital part of the quarrying industry, and for safe passage of passengers. But provision for the teaching of navigation (as for other vocational skills) was 'woefully inadequate' in Gwynedd, as it was in Wales and England at the time.  No municipal authorities contributed towards the building of 'a mariner school' at Caernarfon, despite the acknowledged need and importance - perhaps because shipping interests of Wales were mainly Nonconformists and 'self made men'. It was into this context that Ellen stepped in, and did the job herself.

At some point in the 1830s, as well as establishing her navigation school,  Ellen married Captain Owen Edwards (his boat was "Snowdon Lassie"), who was about 10 years her junior. It was unusual at the time, for married women to continue to work once married.

Fortunately, for the young mariners of Gwynedd, the "Misses", as she was then known, was 'allowed' to carry on with her important work, and was 'an inspired teacher'. This was increasingly acknowledged during the 1850s, 60s and 70s, by the Marine Boards of England, Scotland and Ireland that examined and awarded certificates of competency to Gwynedd seamen. Wales, considered 'little more than a geographic expression' , was not given a Marine Board of its own, which meant Ellen's pupils (between 30 and 60 a year) had to travel to Liverpool and Dublin to qualify. 

In 1853, a report in the Herald said:

"[list of names and qualifications]... were prepared for examination in navigation by Mrs Ellen Edwards, of Carnarvon. This clever woman, highly accomplished in the theory of navigation, has instructed several young seamen out of this port and neighbourhood, who are now in command of several large vessels. We may also state that all her pupils, who have passed their examination at the Dublin and Liverpool boards are, with one or two exceptions, offficers in the merchant service"

And in 1863, a Dublin correspondent wrote:

"No less than fifty Welsh mariners have passed their examination as masters and mates in Dublin since the first day of January 1863, and that to the satisfaction of the examiners, who are as competenet as any in the United Kingdom. Perhaps sixty years ago, there were not fifty masters in Wales that knew the art of navigation"

The list of her pupils is impressive, and includes: Captain Thomas Williams, marine superintendent of the Black Line; commanders of the clipper ships Lightening,  City of Sydney, City of Melbourne; Captain John Pritchard of the first steamship Mauretania, Captain Robert Thomas who commanded the ship Merioneth on record-breaking runs to and from San Francisco in the 1880s.

At some point in this story, in the 30s, Ellen had also had a daughter. She was also called Ellen, and she went on to marry John Evans, son of Captain Evan Evans of the schooner Deva, in 1853. Ellen Evans took over her mother's business in the late 1870s.

In 1860, "The Misses" lost her husband, January 22, 1860, when his vessel, the smack St Patrick, ran aground on Colwyn beach. He was washed overboard. The Herald report said:

"Deceased was much respected; his wife, Mrs Edwards, has for a long time kept a school of navigation, and taught the cunning craft to nearly every master mariner of the port"

Ellen received a pension of £6 10s from the charitable funds of the Shipwrecked Mariner's Society. This was to be her only pension, despite many calls - and applications to government - for her to receive a pension in light of 'outstanding services of this woman'. She did, however, receive £75 in 1881 from the Royal Bounty Fund 'through the good offices of Sir Llewelyn Turner in recognition of her long and meritorious services'.

She died in her home on Tithebarn Street, Caernafon on November 24 1889, aged 79 years, a home she shared with her daughter. Her remains were interred at Llanbeblig:

"The funeral was a remarkable one, the cortége consisting of a large number of master-mariners, mates, seamen, and nearly all the naval reserve now on duty in the town. The coffin was wrapped in a union jack and literally covered in wreaths sent by admiring friends and old pupils who regarded "the Misses", as she was generally known among them, with affection and gratitude"
- the Caernarfon and Denbigh Herald

With thanks to Glenys Davies for the story