A NEWPORT man was the sole casualty in a maritime accident off Barry 100 years ago today.

Tom Lewis survived two U-boat sinkings in the First World War in the Mercantile Marine, only to lose his life in a peacetime collision just miles from his home town.

On September 19 1920, a collision occurred in Barry Roads when steamer SS Zelo struck the partly submerged wreck of German vessel SS Merkur.

The Merkur had been sunk earlier that year in a collision with a Spanish steamer. Salvage operations had been halted due to fog.

The Zelo had arrived in the Bristol Channel from from Bilbao with iron ore bound for Cardiff. At 7.30pm, in poor visibility, she hit the partly submerged Merkur and sank in seconds, according to reports.

The crew got clear in time to see her go down. The pilot cutter Fancy arrived to pick up the crew of 26.

At a roll call it was discovered that steward Mr Lewis, 28, was missing. He had last been seen preparing documents for arrival at Cardiff.


His wife, Mary, had travelled from South Shields to Newport to see their families, it being his first voyage into South Wales for several years.

An unidentifiable body was found on Penarth Beach two weeks later. At an inquest, Mrs Lewis gave evidence of identification based on her husband's suit. The coroner returned a verdict of death by drowning.

Legal actions followed to determine responsibility. Claims sought to establish whether the wreck of the Merkur had been adequately lit.

Mr Justice Hill of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court said the wreck was marked with a gas buoy showing a green flashing light and could have been seen in ample time.

Tom Lewis was born in Newport in 1892. In October 1914 he joined the collier SS Porthcawl as a last-minute replacement for the messroom steward.

He spent time taking coal to France and Spain, before joining SS Adamton. In April 1916, on a return voyage in ballast from Scapa Flow, the Adamton was stopped and sunk by a U-boat. The crew made their way by open boat to Tiree, in the Hebrides.

Later, he was aboard the SS Pontypridd when she was mined by a U-boat off Suffolk.

In 1919, he joined the Pelton Steamship Company on Tyneside becoming steward on the recently built SS Zelo.

He had planned to set up a fish and chip shop before fate intervened.

The Merkur salvage operations were abandoned and the wreck site in Barry Roads is still marked by a buoy.