Monday 11 March 2013

The gas works shipping department

The following article comes from the South Metropolitan Gas Company's Co-partnership Journal and was written in June 1929.
A few points -
-   when this article was written East Greenwich Gas Works, was of course a world leader in gas-works terms and would of course be receiving regular shipments of coal to their jetty (now more or less the QE jetty where the river boats call).  However in 1929, the West Greenwich Works (the riverside off Norway Street) would have been a very recent memory. Two Woolwich Works and the Eltham Works would also be remembered. The Roan Street holder site and a number of small manufacturing sites would still be at work.
- please note very carefully the paragraph about the number of boats lost during the Great War.  The article doesn't mention that one of them was brand new, torpedoed on her maiden voyage, through what the company considered to be incompetance by the Navy.  It also doesn't mention that these sailors, who navigated the treacherous north east coast on a daily basis, would have been given a white feather in local pubs because they were not in the forces.
- the final paragraph is about co-partnership. I'm happy to explain about that - but if you insist I will print the WHOLE of my M.Phil Thesis here - so watch out!
- remember too that the collier fleet was coming up the Thames until the early 1980s  - they went because the gas works closed, and then the mines closed, and London industry collapsed - and the boats kept going to the last.
- I will try to load up the pictures. Blogger hates them

" Quinquereme of Nineveh from distant Ophir

Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,

•With a cargo of ivory and apes and peacocks,

Sandalwood, cedar wood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the isthmus,

Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,

With a cargo of diamonds, emeralds, amethysts,

Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British steamer with a salt caked smoke-stack,

Butting through the channel in the mad March days,

With a cargo of Tyne coal, road rails, pig lead,

Firewood, ironware, and cheap tin trays."


There Masefield conjures up visions, the actualities of which were centuries apart in time, and, so he would have you believe, poles asunder aesthetically. Undoubtedly, he visualises most vividly that "dirty British steamer . . . with a cargo of Tyne coal," and one can imagine the curl of his lip as he wrote it. But whilst his description of the general trader is most apposite, we would almost suggest that had he been acquainted with any of the Company's steamers, English poetry might have been the poorer by that delightful verse, for we take a peculiar pride in that we are" reproached" not infrequently by our shipping acquaintances that our ships are" not colliers." "we have no doubt that could the men who manned that quinquereme of Nineveh be resurrected to do a voyage" in, say, the Redriff, they would prefer her modern comfort to any hypothetical romance which may have attached to their former craft-not that the two are incompatible, for romance brought the Redriff to London just as surely as it "brought up the 9.15." One need only glance at the accompanying illustrations and compare an old collier brig with one of our own steamers to appreciate the truth of this; and the accommodation provided for the men, and various other features, are additional evidence that so far as is possible the conditions under which our marine personnel live and carry out their duties are ideal. Certainly, in comparison with the average pre-War collier, they are “not colliers."

And truly the conditions under which the men work need to be ideal, for" butting" down the coast" in the mad March days" is no pleasure trip. On one occasion during the past winter one of the Company's steamers arrived in the Tyne white from stem to stern with ice, and the pilot cutter twice signalled for her name, being unable to believe the first time that it was one of our vessels from 'the south; her anchors were frozen in their hawse-pipes, and she had to manoeuvre in the river until they could be freed. This is not an isolated case, and is cited merely because it is typical of the sort of thing which may be expected in the North Sea during the bad weather in the winter months. The kind of gale described so graphically by St. Paul is the average weekly experience of the North Sea sailor.

Now a heavy sea breaking over a ship's forecastle may make an excellent photograph for the morning newspaper, but it hardly makes the forecastle the most ideal (albeit the usual) part of the ship for the crew's accommodation, and it was because the Company realised this that when, during the War, they decided to purchase four new steamers then in course of construction, they instituted many new departures from the current practice, not the least important of which was the construction of the men's accommodation amidships. All the vessels which have been acquired subsequently have been so arranged, and in 1922 the s.s. Effra (which had, until then, her accommodation in the poop) underwent extensive reconstruction to bring her into line with the rest of the fleet.

The Company's first venture as ship-owners was in 1915 when, owing to the Admiralty requirements, the shortage of tonnage became very acute, and the Board, therefore, decided to acquire and run their own fleet. Hitherto, the coal supplies had been conveyed in chartered vessels. As a commencement, four second hand steamers were purchased, to which others (both new and second-hand) were added later in order to increase the fleet and also to replace the ten steamers lost by enemy action. A generation is arising which has no vivid memories of the War, and it may be fitting to recall that during that period thirty-two men sacrificed their lives in the performance of what they regarded as their everyday duty, a duty so prosaic as the supply of raw material to our Works, and yet, withal, a duty as hazardous as any undertaken by those serving in the official Forces.

At the Armistice only three of the steamers acquired during the War remained: the Effra, the old Redriff and the Lambeth, and the two latter have since been replaced by more modern steamers. The Company's fleet at the present day consists of

s.s. Effra purchased March, 1915
            s.s. Catford built July,1919
            s.s. Old Charlton built  Dec.,1919
            s.s. Brockley built Sept., 1920
            s.s. Camberwell built August, 1924
            s.s. Redriff  built August, 1925
            s.s. Brixton  built August, 1927.

Each of these steamers carries a cargo of approximately 2,200 tons, and makes, on an average, sixty round trips in the year, steaming in that time some 38,000 miles, or, to put it more picturesquely, one-and-a-half times round the globe.
A further innovation, so far as steamers of our class are concerned, was made by the Company in 1927, when each ship was fitted with two extra water-tight bulkheads. The usual practice is for such ships to have only four, one between the fore-peak and the fore-hold, a second between the fore-hold and the engine-room, a third between the engine-room and the after-hold, and a fourth between the after-hold and the deep tank at the stern of the vessel.

These. of course, divide the ship into so many water-tight compartments, and when it is borne in mind that the two holds comprise the greater portion of the ship, it will be seen that should a vessel be holed by collision in either of the holds, the risk of foundering is very great. It will be obvious, therefore, that this risk will be considerably minimised by the fitting of additional water-tight bulkheads, one dividing the fore-hold into two separate compartments, and another similarly dividing the after-hold.
The great advantage of these extra bulkheads was demonstrated recently when the s.s. Catford was run into whilst at anchor in the Thames Estuary in foggy weather, as a result of which she was badly holed in No. 3 hold. A photograph of the damage is shown, which conveys at once an idea of the danger under which ships ply in enclosed waters. Collisions at sea are comparatively infrequent, by far the greater number taking place in river estuaries and when entering or leaving harbour, and, as is well known, the most difficult river to navigate is the Thames.

Doubtless most of our readers think of the Company's steamers as being limited to plying between London and the north-east coast, but-it should not be overlooked that they are equipped to perform service abroad, and the wisdom of this policy was more than justified during the disastrous coal stoppage in 1926 when our steamers regularly ran to the Continent, going not only to Rotterdam and Hamburg, but as far afield as Stettin, in order that coal supplies might be fully maintained.
No article on the Company's ships could possibly be regarded as complete without reference to the inception of Copartnership, and the application of its principles to the marine personnel. At the commencement it met with a very mixed reception, a large proportion of the crews regarding the idea with more than a little suspicion. This may seem strange to those who have been brought up in the Copartnership tradition, but it is readily understood by those who are acquainted with the roving, independent spirit of the average seaman. Gradually, however, the inherent virtue of the principle made its own appeal, and its success may be gauged by the fact that whereas in 1920 there were 264 changes in the personnel, these have become steadily less each year until in 1928 there were only 27. The ships may therefore be regarded as being manned by a permanent personnel, a state of affairs which is distinctly unusual in the shipping world and one which is to the mutual benefit of the men themselves and the Company

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