Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Tag Archives: Ships

  • Policing South Wales Docks by Viv Head

    Bute Dock Police Naval Style Cutlass. (Policing South Wales Docks, Amberley Publishing)

    During the Nineteenth Century, South Wales exploded into industrial activity; previously peaceful valleys were turned on their head. Iron masters built their furnaces, coal owners sank their pits, the railways arrived and great docks were built all along the coast; at Newport, Cardiff, Penarth, Barry, Port Talbot and Swansea. South Wales became the crucible of the Industrial Revolution.

    Men arrived from all over the country, eager to be part of these great mechanical workings. Seamen of every nationality came on ships ready to carry these fruits of industrial labour to all corners of the world. The docks became a land of opportunity; peaceful coastal communities were turned into overcrowded towns and cities. Disease, prostitution, violence and dishonesty were everywhere.

    Alexandra Railway & Dock Police in 1921. (Policing South Wales Docks, Amberley Publishing)

    Into this mix of blood, sweat and coal dust came the dock police, charged with keeping a lid on rough communities bent on self-intent. Crime and murderous violence were rife; it took a breed of hard men to step in and take control. The docks were a dark and treacherous place; PC John Foulkes served at Swansea Docks during the latter part of 1890.  One morning when he had not returned to the police station at the end of his night duty, a search was made and his body was found in the water by a fellow officer. There were no witnesses and no evidence of foul play. Cause of death was found to be drowning. So at some point in the night, he had stumbled and lost his footing, or perhaps simply lost his way, or perhaps had challenged someone and ended up in the water. Nobody knows – he was simply doing his job when, alone and in the dark, he had been overtaken by death. Neither was John Foulkes the only one, at least three other officers drowned on duty. The docks could be a fearsome lonely place sometimes.

    Each of the ports employed their own police forces. Over time they amalgamated to join into a single force, the British Transport Police. Then in the mid-1980s came privatisation and containerisation; it was perceived that the police had done their job and were no longer needed. So, in 1985, the last dock policeman switched off the light, locked the police station door, got into his car and drove away. Men, and they were almost entirely men, who had sort to preserve the peace 24 hours a day, seven days a week for almost 130 years. Men dedicated to looking after the lives of others, who occasionally gave their own lives to the cause; men who worked twelve hours a day without a single day off throughout the years of the Great War. Men who did the dirty work that others turned away from.

    Policing South Wales Docks provides an illustrated insight into some of the darker and lighter moments of the dock coppers’ working lives. They weren’t always angels themselves but they do deserve to be remembered. In the 1970s I was privileged to serve at Cardiff Docks for seven years before my police career took me elsewhere. It was an experience unlike any other and I recall it often.

    Viv Head's new book Policing South Wales Docks is available for purchase now.

  • Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History by Carol McNeill

    The three-masted Lord Gambier, built in Newcastle, was one of the Kirkcaldy whaling ships. (c. Kirkcaldy Galleries, Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History, Amberley Publishing)

    Kirkcaldy harbour has a long and fascinating history, and as a local history researcher and author I’m surprised at myself for taking so long to start tracing its background!

    Its recorded history goes all the way back to the 16th century when James V of Scotland sailed from Kirkcaldy to France with seven ships to collect his French teenage bride, Madeleine de Valois, in 1536. It was also the last place that the Marquis of Montrose saw before he was taken to Edinburgh to be executed for treason in 1650.

    Kirkcaldy captains and seafarers led adventurous and dangerous lives; it seemed to be all in a day’s work to sail to the continent and indeed as far as Russia on trade missions.

    Elise Schulte was one of the huge ships to transport grain in the 1950s to what was then Hutchison's flour mill. (c.Tom Mutch, Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History, Amberley Publishing)

    There was also a whaling fleet of several ships which sailed to the Arctic for the lucrative trade in whale oil and meat: an uncomfortable period to read about now but it was of its time, and has to be recorded. It was also a dangerous business for the captains and crew, when the whaling ships became stuck in the polar ice for weeks on end until the spring came. With the extreme conditions and rations fast running out, there was a high mortality rate and no opportunity even to bury the men whose bodies could only be placed overboard on the thick ice.

    But there were easier aspects to research; in particular, the grand houses belonging to ships’ captains and owners which overlooked the harbour – three of which have escaped the developers and have been restored to their former glory with intricate panelling and plasterwork revealed.

    Nairn's canvas factory was built right opposite the harbour. (c. Kirkcaldy Galleries, Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History, Amberley Publishing)

    I had a tremendous stroke of good fortune and unlooked for assistance in writing this book, when I was handed the copy of a memoir with first hand reminiscences of life at Kirkcaldy harbour in the early 18th century. It contained interviews with ship owners and captains and included actual eye witness accounts of John Paul Jones’ American ships threatening Kirkcaldy: The ships were so close to the shore that we could see they were Dutch built, and that those on board were wearing red shirts.  The local minister prayed for the wind to change direction; it did, and the ships were blown off course and away from Fife.  It also recorded the time when a local ship sailed to Russia, probably for the flax trade, which was a fairly regular occurrence. On this occasion however, the captain was met on the quayside and told that since he had left his home port, their two countries were at war, and he and his crew were put under house arrest. The captain had been prepared to give the Russian officers some liquor which he had brought specially from Scotland: but when he was met with this news, he promptly asked the officers for his bottles back!

    Now the only ships which come into our harbour are the long low grain ships servicing the huge flour mill; if it weren’t for that very welcome commerce, no doubt the harbour would now have been completely shut down and remain just a fond memory.

    Carol McNeill's new book Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History is available for purchase now.

  • British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years by John Megoran

    Monarch at Weymouth, 1960. (British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years, Amberley Publishing)

    Looking back on my life I was so incredibly lucky to have grown up as a boy in Weymouth in the 1950s and 1960s at a time when the harbour there was such an epicentre of paddle steamer activity. Not only did the Consul, Embassy and Monarch lay up there each winter but they were subsequently joined by the Princess Elizabeth and visitors like the Bristol Queen and Sandown which came for work on their engines and boilers undertaken by paddle steamer operator Cosens and Company of Weymouth.

    A young Tony McGinnity bought the Consul in Weymouth after she had been withdrawn in 1962 and after that failed he set himself up as a ship broker handling the sales of pretty much all the UK paddle steamers withdrawn in the 1960s through his office at 11 Custom House Quay, Weymouth.

     

     

    Consul sailing up Weymouth Harbour, 1958. (British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years, Amberley Publishing)

    In the summer we went for trips aboard them to Lulworth Cove, Portland Bill, the Shambles Lightship, Swanage, Bournemouth and Totland Bay, Isle of Wight which to my young eyes seemed as far away as the moon. I was so taken with them that I even built a paddle steamer replica in our back garden.

    Then each September, just as a new school year started, Consul, Embassy and Monarch retreated to lay up in Weymouth Harbour. The boilers were blown down making the steamers float higher in the water exposing a skirt of green weed which soon dried out and changed colour to white. Hats were put on the funnels to stop the rain going down. The brass was coated in a film of grease and carefully bandaged with strips of tarpaulin to keep it from the elements. The buoyant apparatus were stacked on deck and covered to protect them from the worst of winter storms.

     

    Embassy at Bournemouth. (British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years, Amberley Publishing)

    There the steamers slumbered until the awakening dawn of spring brought out the workforce from the yard. Maybe a little bit of decking needed renewing like on the Consul in 1962. The Monarch had a new inner funnel fitted in 1959 and the Embassy had a new front fitted to her wheelhouse in 1964.

    Then the fitters started work on the engines and boilers. Painters came aboard to start to transform the ships before they went off to the slipway or dry-dock for Board of Trade survey and underwater anti-fouling painting. Consul was small enough to be hauled out on Cosens own Weymouth slipway but the other paddlers had to go to Portland, Poole or Southampton instead. When they came back ready for their new summer seasons how fresh, shiny and new they looked.

     

     

    Monarch at Weymouth, 1961, awaiting a tow to the scrapyard. (British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years, Amberley Publishing)

    All this was part of my daily childhood life. My cycle route to school took me past the harbour and the paddle steamers. I would stop and gawp, watching everything going on. Occasionally in the darkest depths of winter, and when there was nobody about, I would sneak aboard. Consul was always locked up but Embassy and Monarch had open access to their alleyways. Embassy had a cover over her engine room skylight so her machinery was always cloaked in darkness but not so on the Monarch. No cover there and what a winter joy it was to stand there looking at her engine bathed in sunlight from the skylight above and to try hard to figure out how it all worked.

    It seemed to my young eyes then that these paddle steamers had been there for ever and would be there for ever more. It therefore came as a huge shock and deep personal outrage for me to read in the Dorset Echo in November 1960 that the Monarch was to be withdrawn. I just could not believe then that such a wicked thing could happen.

    But happen it did. In March 1961 Monarch was towed away to be scrapped in Cork and I shed a tear. My grandmother, who knew Cosens general manager Don Brookes, heard of this and came round to our house the following week clutching a brown paper parcel tied up with string. When I opened it, what joy! Inside was the name pennant and house flag of Monarch.

    So the 1960s wore on with one paddle steamer after another being withdrawn. Glen Gower, Glen Usk, Whippingham, Compton Castle, Totnes Castle, Alumchine, Medway Queen, Sandown, Kingswear Castle, Talisman, Bristol Queen and Cardiff Queen, the list of withdrawals just went on and on.

     

    The author in Kingswear Castle's wheelhouse. (British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years, Amberley Publishing)

    It was though tempered with little bursts of optimism these recommissions were all short lived. Freshwater was bought for further service on the Sussex Coast in 1960 and from Bournemouth but that lasted for only two seasons. Consul was bought by Tony McGinnity but again only lasted for just two years. Princess Elizabeth enjoyed six golden summers in private ownership, three of then running from Weymouth when I really got to know her. Through that I was lucky enough to be invited for part of the delivery voyage of the Jeanie Deans south from the Clyde to London and again for her first few trips on the Thames of what turned out to be a very short career as the Queen of the South.

    In April 1967 I went aboard the Embassy for the last time just before she too was towed away to be scrapped and it was then that the penny finally dropped. Paddle steamers were on the way out and rather than finding a career aboard them as I had hoped, I would have to look elsewhere to make a living.

    Looking back I can hardly believe my luck that in the end, and by a rather circuitous route, I did become a paddle steamer captain and was able to spend thirty years of my adult life running the paddle steamer Kingswear Castle on the Medway and Thames. But that is another story told in another book.

    John Megoran's new book British Paddle Steamers The Twilight Years is available for purchase now.

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