Monday 5 December 2011

A voyage in a collier

One of the most dangerous - and largely ignored - industries was that of the collier ships which brought the coal from north east England down to the Thames.  This was a massive industry and its history would take many volumes. In the 19th and 20th centuries part of the trade was coal coming in to the various London gas works. Gas companies had their own collier fleets - with boats undertaking a rapid shuttle service down the perilous and treacherous east coast from Tyne and Wear ports down to London, and back.

The various gas company house magazine published regular accounts from young men who had cadged a voyage on a collier - and returned to write up their experiences.  The account below, from the South Metropolitan Gas's Copartnership Journal  in the early 1900s.  The author clearly had a pleasant trip - not always the case, the east coast could  be a terrifying place!!


 'I ain't no sailor bold, and I never was upon the sea' .  I can no longer sing this with truth. I am one of those newspaper fellows  …. who was tremendously rocked in the cradle of the deep off the Yorkshire coast.

It was suggested that we should take a trip, a free trip. As a newspaperman I accepted the offer, and did not flinch.  I made the stipulation, however; that I must be back within a week and when we left Greenwich our destination was South Shields.

It was three o'clock in this afternoon of August 22 that we went Deptford Pier, and there was shown our vessel, the Canto. 'This is Captain Kennett,' said the old foreman of the wharf, 'and these are the two gentlemen who are anxious to accompany you back to South Shields.' We shook hands and I shall never forget the grip of the captain's, hand shake and within the space of half an hour we were at the Naval College, Greenwich. We made the acquaintance of other members of the crew - as well the pilot, who was generally admitted to be ‘one of the best' on the river. We were privileged to go on the foc'astle, and I heard the pilot say once that ‘that was a near squeak’ and he told the captain of a barge what he thought of him.

We soon got to Gravesend, where our pilot left us. The evening shades were closing when we got to Southend, with information as to how, amid  the multitude of  light vessels, a route  could be safely navigated.

Again ascending the bridge, I was in time to join my friend in witnessing the lights of Clacton, Walton on the Naze, and to see the huge passenger vessels leave Harwich for Rotterdam, Hamburg, and Antwerp. The mate then suggested forty winks - and these were about all we had that night.

Come out, you fellows, if you want to see the sun come out of the ocean,' said Talbot, the mate when we were just off Yarmouth.  That was breakfast the first morning aboard.  We were passing Cromer and on our way to the Wash a breeze rose up, and for a long period we had had plenty of knocking about.  No more need be said, with the exception that it was a little rough.

I thoroughly enjoyed  the next hours, for the most part out of sight of land, the going in to Flamborough Head, where the sea has formed caves; on to Filey, Scarborough, Whitby, Middlesborough - which is always full of smoke - thence on to Sunderland.

It had been my first experience of seeing whales, but at the mouth of the Tees they were rising and 'blowing' around us in all directions. 

 It was nearly eleven o'clock when we got alongside Tyne dock, but still Captain Kennett had to pay his men, who were all anxious to get home to their wives and families living in or around Shields. 

The next day my companion and myself went to Newcastle by train. We spent an enjoyable day in that city, returning to Tyne dock about six o'clock, only to find our good ship away from her berth. Captain Kennet had, however, told us that this might be so, and reminded us that the funnel was streaked red and black.  I spotted her a long way out in the dock, alongside other vessels nearly half a mile away. Alongside the quay was a brigantine with firs, and I told one of the crew our trouble. 'Canto ahoy!' shouted he, and immediately one of the crew poked his face over the side of the ship and spotted us. He got into a boat and came to the quayside and we had to climb up a ladder with bars of iron let into the side of the quay, sloped inwards.  How I got down that ladder I know not.

We left Shields just before nine o'clock on Thursday night, and we were on tide at Deptford at half-past seven o'clock on Saturday morning, having made two very quick journeys. We had a rough journey all the way back - off Yarmouth, where we witnessed the London boat going into the Yar. The sea broke right over us and water came into our cabin, and once or twice it came down in such torrents and made such a row - but Captain Kennet assured us that it was nothing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Re. David Dawson's piece -

There are 2 more barge grids in Woolwich; one behind the Coal Pier in very good condition, and one hidden on the path from the Arsenal to Thamesmead, on which the Ordnance barges Gog and Magog would be loaded at low tide with guns too massive to crane, for proofing at Shoeburyness. Little remains of the latter but the timber posts and some fascinating iron fittings - it would be nice to see it cleared and recorded before it goes for ever.