PROLOGUE, THE EARLY 1950's
days of the flat topped and shallow draughted ships known as 'flattie' colliers
have now passed into history, but the North Sea was once the main route of
these small workhorses carrying coal from the rich and abundant coalfields of
the north of
The flatties were exactly that, flat ships with a tiny wheelhouse and accommodation house, built so that they could pass under all of the Thames bridges between Tower Bridge and Wandsworth Bridge, passing under seventeen bridges in total. The later motor ships tended to be custom built with a small funnel and wheelhouse and some of the steamships were also built that way. Other, earlier built steamships, had higher funnels but were made so that they could swing down on a pivot enabling them to pass under the bridges. Similarly, the masts were made collapsible for the same reason.
During loading and unloading operations the ships become filthy with the coal dust flying around. Once these operations had finished it was the job of the crew to hose down the decks and all outside areas back to their normal clean appearance. The accommodation doors would be battened down to keep out the dust, but it seemed to get everywhere. It was a big job keeping these little ships clean.
The accommodation was very sparse, although every crew member would have his own cabin. Each cabin had similar furnishings, but the higher the rank the better the furniture. The Captain with the best and so on down the line to the lowest rating. There would be a bed, or bunk as they are called, a settee, or day bed, a desk, chair, couple of book shelves and a wardrobe. That was it. The Captain may have other little embellishments, but, mainly this was the norm for this type of ship. There was very rarely a sink in any cabin and all personnel used communal bathrooms with showers and toilets.
flatties were commonly known as 'up river' boats as they went all the way up
the River Thames. The larger colliers
couldn't pass under the bridges and so discharged their coal at places such as
Many of these little flatties went to Chelsea and Battersea to the Power Stations and North Thames Gasworks whilst others went all the way up to Wandsworth delivering coal to the South Eastern Gasworks there. This was about the furthest upriver that these small ships went to deliver their cargoes of coal. During high tide there wasn't sufficient head clearance for these ships to pass underneath the bridges so it was a race to utilise the low tide and ebb tide periods to make their passage.
would arrive in the Thames fully loaded with coal and wait downriver from
It was the same after discharging their cargo. They would lie on the hard river bed at low water and, the instant they were afloat on the making flood tide, they would race downriver under all the bridges so as to be clear of the bridges before full high tide when they were once again impassable. Once clear they would then head down the River Thames and be once again on passage back to their home port to make ready for the next trip.
trade was completely different from deep sea trade. The ship Captains of both were scornful of
each other for different reasons. The
deep sea personnel would call these little coasters 'rowing boats' or 'coal
buckets' while the coastal skippers would be derisive of these so-called seamen
for calling on pilots the moment land was sighted. Coastal skippers would have been confident to
enter any port themselves but were forced by regulations to take on pilots. In the home port of the River Tyne, most of
the flattie captains did their own pilotage, a skill they were very proud of
and made it well known. In the River
Thames they could pilot their vessels all the way up to Limehouse Buoys, just
The coastal trade was almost a family business as nearly everyone knew all the ships on the same coastal route and long lasting friendships grew and stayed for life instead of the deep sea personnel who would immediately forget their shipmates the moment they paid off their last ship.
Holidays were always a bone of contention between the deep sea personnel and coastal sea personnel.
Deep sea personnel always seemed to be granted far more home leave than their coastal trade equivalents. The main difference was that on coastal trade, there was a far better chance of getting home between trips whereas on deep sea ships you virtually never got home except on proper awarded leave.
Then there was the contentious 'Sundays at Sea'. You were awarded an extra day for every one accrued. On the coast there was the chance that many Sundays were spent in port, but not your own, so it was of little help. Whereas deep sea, most Sundays were spent at sea, so these counted up for leave.
Proper leave was very slowly accrued on the coast and the men were lucky to have a couple of weeks per year holiday. So coastal seamen just had to select a company whose ships spent an appreciable amount of time at their home port enabling them to work the watch-on-board and watch-ashore system. This system worked where half of the crew stayed on board and attended to the loading whilst the other half went home for the whole period. The next trip the watches changed over letting the first crew have a spell at home and the other watch then looked after the loading work. This system worked very well and everyone was very contented with the arrangement. That way the men could at least have some time at home. Working this way, they would just take a couple of weeks holiday during the summer months each year and hope that they'd get home regularly otherwise. If you didn't have a home port, then you just spent a lot of time away from home without very much regular leave. A very hard time for coastal trade seamen.
The coal staithes that these flatties loaded at were all very similar types, extremely dirty, strewn with coal dust, fitted mostly with rails on which the coal wagons ran, tipping their loads onto the drops with chutes leading over the holds of the ships to pour in the coal.
staithes that the flattie in this story ran to were Wearmouth Staithes in
Sunderland, various ones in the Tyne, like Harton, Howdon and Wallsend, also
down the coast to Seaham and
The names of the staithes came from the coal field from which the coal originated. The coal would be loaded into wagons at the field pit head and these run down to the river for loading onto the ships. For example Harton staithes was the staith on the river from which the coal came from Harton, a distance of around 3 miles away.
This period then was an era for the coastal trade and in particular the heyday of the little colliers known as the flatties.
This story is
fictitious and has been put together as a series of short stories, all excerpts
from a typical British home trading collier running the route from north east
The place names are real apart from the gasworks in Putney. There is no gasworks there. Most of the events are real and have been taken from actual happenings during the life of the author, but partly embellished to make the story more interesting. Almost all of the characters in the story have been taken from people the author has known or met, not necessarily during his time on the flatties.
Captain Walter is partly real, has been embellished to a large extent, and is a composite of different captains with whom the author was acquainted. These captains have all but disappeared now, but in the time of the story, most of them were of similar breed, the total master in complete charge of their vessel whose word was law. Walter in this story was a hard man on board, as all old fashioned Captains needed to be, but, away from the job, had a good sense of humour, and had a big heart when he chose to show it.
D.B. July 2006.
Chelsea, the tiny 'flattie' collier, was due to sail in half an hour, at
1700 hours, and she was lying, fully loaded with gas coal, pointing towards the
twin piers of Sunderland at the mouth of the River Wear and looking out towards
the heaving North Sea. It was a cold,
bleak day in February and the wind had recently turned easterly, the dreaded
direction to the North East Coast sailors, who made up the full ship?s
complement, every one of them natives of an area between Blyth and
The watch-ashore crew were returning to the ship in various modes of transport. The faces of the returning crew were far different from when they had left the ship a few days earlier to go home for their short spell. It would be a couple of weeks before their turn came around again so it was a somewhat doleful crew that returned to the vessel. The Captain and the Chief Engineer weren't included in the 'watch on board' and 'watch ashore' system and went home on every occasion, but officially these two made themselves available for any contingency that might arise. Also they had to attend the head office occasionally, oversee various purchases, the overhaul of ship?s equipment, collection of spare parts and so forth, but, all in all, they were a privileged pair.
The road leading to the ship?s berth at Wearmouth was just a dirt track once the main roads were left behind. This was strewn with puddles of slush from the recent snow and rain soaking through to the returning men's feet and leaving them so cold and miserable. Leaving their warm homes, or pub as the case may be, the returning sailors trudged unhappily along this dirty track, dragging their heels unwillingly towards their place of work. They could well see that the trip southwards was going to be a hard one with the wind blowing and the seas heaving, but that was their lot, so just get on with it.
The ship hove
in sight as the crew trudged slowly towards it.
Lying alongside Wearmouth Staithes, just up river from the two
procession heading towards the ship was the lower ranks trudging unwillingly
along the jetty holding their little bags containing whatever few goodies they
had brought with them for the short trip south to the
Other cars quickly arrived with the other officers. The largest and most splendid of these was the gleaming new pale blue latest version of the Ford range, at the wheel, the wife of the Captain. He had to have the largest and best looking car. No one would dare to out-do him on this. They would never live it down. It pulled to a halt with a loud skidding of the tyres on the loose gravel alongside the berth, making certain that all the crew had seen the car. The Captain, dressed in his shore side 'mufti' and carrying a very official looking brief case, exited his car and gazed at the ship with a perfected stern look on his face, slowly checking it from stem to stern before going on board, hoping to find something to complain about to the First Mate. Purposely ignoring everyone, he slowly checked along the ship side, first looking at the moorings to see that they were neatly in place and then the draughts and load line mark, ensuring that his ship was exactly down to this mark. Anything less and the ship wouldn't be sufficiently loaded, anything more and the wrath of the British Government would be on his back. His proud boast was that he?d never overloaded any of his ships. The Mate in charge of the loading would never, ever, live it down if he did. The Captain however would always check this point himself as he never trusted anyone in any aspect of his ship. The watch on board crew also had the standard job of checking the topsides and bulwarks paintwork for any signs of rust or damage and they had scraped and painted any blemishes they'd found. The Captain scrupulously checked these. Woe betide the crew had he found any slipshod work. He was secretly terrified of slip ups. He was the most senior captain in the company and knew that all the others in the fleet watched him very carefully waiting for him to fall. This caused him many a sleepless night and it was the reason he was so hard on his fellow officers and crew, he just couldn't be seen to be anything less than perfect.
It had been the First Mate?s watch on board and was his responsibility for loading the cargo, two thousand six hundred tons of gas coal into the two holds, and he had taken great pains to ensure that there was nothing to complain about, as the whole of the voyage would be full of the Captain?s degrading remarks telling him how to load a ship correctly.
The Captain, fortunately, found nothing to cause his displeasure and he continued up the gangway to make ready for the sailing. The rest of the crew followed, dumping their bags in their cabins and got changed for their duties. The ship would sail very soon and there was lots for all to do once she was under way.
The Captain went into his cabin, removed his shoreside clothes and commenced fitting himself out in his proper clothes, his full dress uniform, his doeskin one resplendent with his four gold braided bands at his cuffs, his wartime medal insignia on his chest and his cap on his head. His cap was regaled with gold laurel leaves indicating that he was Commodore of the Fleet, the company's top captain. Checking his appearance in his full length mirror, the only one on board, he finally satisfied himself that he looked splendid and left for the bridge. The first thing he did was to ring the Chief Engineer to receive a report on the condition of the machinery. He always demanded to know if there was the slightest problem in the engineroom. He knew almost nothing of the workings of the engines and was terrified of anything going wrong with their performance. The Chief always made sure that all was shipshape long before the vessel was due to sail and could truthfully state that all was well so no problems on that front. Satisfied, the Captain prepared for the off.
So, the ship was ready for sailing with the Captain, Walter Walton, in charge of the entire operation, but, to his chagrin, under the watchful eye of the local pilot. He knew the river as well as his own street, but was forced on this river to call for a pilot to guide him into and out of the river. The ship?s crew called him Captain Walter, but only behind his back. He ran a tight ship and didn't allow any familiarity in his presence. Everyone was called by their job title, Mr. Mate, Chief, Second, Bosun, Steward, and so on, while he was Captain, or Sir, everything proper and shipshape.
that is his wife and younger son, were watching the departure from the berth
and he always did his best to impress them.
His full dress uniform impressed everyone, he thought. It may be considered by some as excessive,
dressing up fully for a small coastal coal carrying vessel, but to Walter this
was the only time he got to dress up and he took advantage of it. There were two teams of seamen attending to
the casting off duties, one forward and one aft. The Mate was in charge on the forecastle and
the Second Mate on the stern. Captain
Walter gave the crisp instruction over the loud hailer to cast off forward and
aft. Standing in the centre of the
bridge he gave snappy orders to the helmsman where to steer and handled the
telegraph himself for engine manoeuvres and his ship was slowly nursed off the
jetty and was soon heading down river on the short trip to the bar, where the
river met the sea. Waving goodbye to his
wife and son, but still with his perfected stern look on his face, he took the
ship downstream. The easterly wind was
blowing quite hard and the closer the ship came to the piers the rolling became
progressively more severe, until at the bar it was corkscrewing violently. Passing through the piers they dropped off
the pilot and then Captain Walter had the telegraph signal the engine full
speed ahead and full away and set the course southwards. The stand by crew could now stand down and
standard sea watches set. The ship would
hug the coast for some of the way until they were past
It was now quite dark, the sun having set, and the black clouds lurking ominously above them indicating the worst of weather ahead. This little ship wasn?t fond of rough seas and let everyone on board know by loudly groaning and leaping around like a dog with fleas.
After clearing the River Wear piers, and satisfied with his performance, Captain Walter then left the bridge in charge of the Second Mate and went below to his cabin and changed into his battledress uniform, not so splendid as his dress uniform, but still with epaulettes of four gold stripes on his shoulders and medal insignia on his chest, to show all who was the highest rank.
These small ships were manned with the minimum of crew and, for deck officers, this meant the Captain, the First and Second Mates. Captains never take a specific watch having to be available at any time for anything out of the ordinary, so this meant that the two mates were on four hour watches, that is four hours on duty and four hours off duty. This makes for very difficult sleep patterns, grabbing a few hours between watches so the deck officers would grab two or three hours sleep about three times each day. On some coastal ships the two mates may work six hour shifts which is a little better for sleeping times, but very tiring. Generally it was felt that four hour watches was better for clearer heads.
On each sea watch there were two AB's on
duty. Dependent upon weather conditions
these would be stationed one at the helm and the other, either on stand by or,
if in fog or bad visibility, he would be on look out forward or on the upper
bridge deck. This changed every two
hours when the two would change places.
This was necessary due to it often being so cold on look out in the
At the helm position, the helmsman needed to keep a keen eye on the magnetic compass that was located on the deck above the bridge. He viewed the compass via a periscope mirror immediately in front of him.
Down the engine room, the Chief Engineer took a watch together with the Second and Third Engineers so their turns of duty were four hours on and eight hours off, a cushy number according to the Deck Officers. However, the Deck Officers worked in a comfortable environment, a climate controlled bridge, clean and silent. Admittedly the climate control was either a hot water radiator or the windows open depending upon the outside temperature, but it was more comfortable than the engine room. Also they could see how the sea was running and be able to prepare themselves for the heavy rolling of the ship. Down the engine room it was a different story, deafeningly noisy, dirty, hot and smelling of steam and oil, and, most of all, very uncomfortable. In rough seas the engineering staff couldn't see which from which direction the waves and the next heavy roll was coming and would be hanging onto whatever they could to prevent being dashed against the moving machinery.
In steamships it was the duty of the watchkeeping engineers to check every moving part of all the machinery to ensure that there were no hot spots. To the uninitiated it was horrifying to see an engineer with his whole arm inside the small clearance between the web of the crankshaft and the huge rotating bottom end bearing, catching the bearing as it came around feeling for its temperature. This took a lot of practice and not just a little courage. For this act, anyone wearing rings or any jewellery would not last very long, so these were banned in the engineroom. Many is the time a young, newly appointed engineer would be ordered out of the engine room to remove such adornments, with his ears burning to the threats of what would happen should he enter the engine room dressed in such apparel.
So this was the scene as the SS Chelsea journeyed south, bound for the River Thames and the gasworks berth, a voyage it had undertaken on hundreds of occasions during its long life.
Journeying southwards things settled down to standard routine with everyone knowing what to do and going about their duties. In the engine room the main engine had attained full speed and the temperatures were settling to within their expected range. The generator and pumps were all running peacefully. The two main boilers were up to pressure and firing correctly. The job of the fireman was much easier these days, the boilers being heated using fuel oil. In the past the hardest job on board was that of the fireman in the stokehold, shovelling coal into the furnaces at a constant rate to maintain the correct head of steam. Now all they had to do was to fiddle with a little valve to increase the feed of the fuel oil; a doddle. They now had plenty of time to make tea for the watchkeepers.
The other rating in the engineroom was the donkeyman. This name derived from the days when he would tend the small donkey boiler to feed the auxiliary machinery and heating systems. Now with excess steam from the main boilers, the auxiliary boiler was little used, mostly now only in port, and his main job was oiling all the running machinery and pumping out the bilge water. Every hour, on the hour, he would fill up his oil can and go on his circuit around the engine room squirting a jet into each lubricating oil box on the main engine, each with their cotton wicks protruding and running to the oil cups of the bearings. These men often fancied themselves as marksmen and would often be called Wild Bill or some other such term of endearment.
In charge of each engineering watch would be a senior engineer. The Chief Engineer always took the eight to twelve watch, the Second took the four to eight and the Third would be on the twelve to four. This way the Chief always had a full night in his bed and was around all day, but the other two would have to split their sleeping times into two visits.
So now, with the ship heaving in the rough seas, the voyage southwards was under way with the estimated time of arrival at the mouth of the River Thames some thirty six hours away.
The Second Mate took the first bridge watch letting the First Mate take to his bunk as he had been on duty all of the watch on board period and deserved a little rest. However the Mate would be called at midnight and all things would be normal. The journey was uneventful other than very uncomfortable with some of the watch ashore men becoming sea sick. It was almost impossible to gain your 'sea legs' in this type of circumstances, spending so little time at sea. When sailing deep sea, it may take a day or so after joining a ship to overcome the feeling of sea sickness, but, once past, it rarely returned during the term of duty no matter what the weather conditions. On the coast it was a different matter spending so much time ashore made seamen more accustomed to dry land than at sea. Some people never got over the feeling of sea sickness and put up with it as it was their job. When the days of anti-seasickness tablets arrived there was a great cheer from many coastal sailors, even though they may not have admitted to this. Many were the Captains who kept a small white box of pills inside their safe for such a time.
So SS Chelsea
travelled southwards keeping fairly close to the coastline, but within the
usual shipping lanes. The trip from
Sunderland took them past Seaham and Hartlepool, two regular home loading
ports, then past the River Tees and along the coast to
southwards would take the ship past the River Humber towards the
was considered a fairly uneventful one apart from the uncomfortable heaving,
and the ship proceeded up the River Thames more or less on time and, as usual,
was to wait downriver from
After waiting at the buoys for an hour or so, the company pilot boarded and took his position on the bridge with the Captain, officer of the watch and the helmsman. The lookouts were posted and then it was time for the trip upriver under the bridges. The mast and funnel fastenings were checked to ensure that they would swing down freely before departure. It wouldn't do to discover that one of these was stuck just before arriving at the first bridge. All being well, 'stand by' was rung on the telegraph and away went the little ship up river.
The doubled up watches continued the whole passage up river with each taking turns to gaze at the bridges and the people passing over them. It was difficult to know who was the more interested, the people on the bridges overhead looking down on the ship or the crew on the ship looking up at them. The crew were forever on the watch for girls on the bridges to pass the time of day with. You never knew your luck, one of them might just call back in the same manner.
two gasworks in the discharge area, both on the south side, one at Wandsworth
and one near to Putney, the start of the famous
So to the
passage up the
river came Lambeth and Vauxhall bridges and then a fairly long run up to
Then came the
most splendid of them all, apart from
Arriving alongside the dirty blackened jetty of the gasworks, the ship was swiftly tied up alongside. As unloading wouldn't be commenced until the following morning, there was nothing for the crew to do on board, so a mass exodus to the pubs was the norm of the day. Anyone not on duty during the river passage was already washed, shaved and changed and had jumped ashore before the ship was fully moored. The rest would follow in a leisurely fashion, but most with the same final destination, the nearest pub.
With the boilers never being fully shut down and needed for instant duty, a fireman was always on watch and could only go ashore at the end of his shift. The boilers powered the generators providing electricity for the ship's operation and lights. Same with the duty engineer. He would have little to do as the main engines were shut down, but the generators and pumps were running so needed tending. Also this quiet period would be the time for some maintenance to the main and auxiliary machinery. There was always something that needed attending to.
So most of
the ship's crew would be ashore
in the local hostelries, maybe the local dance halls and other reputable
Next day at six o'clock, most of the crew were at their posts making ready for the unloading, all under the watchful eye and guidance of the Bosun, the boss of the deck crew. The hatch covers were first opened gaining access to the coal inside the holds. The holds were made weathertight using wooden planks fitting neatly inside the hatch coamings. These were covered by large tarpaulins, pulled taut and held in position using wooden wedges against steel bars and then the whole lot was locked with steel cross bars and ropes. So the first job of the crew was to remove all these fastenings, and once this was done the job of removing all the coal could begin. This was carried out by the shore workers using large mechanical grabs raised and lowered on a type of slewing jib crane. The grabs looked like giant metal mouths crashing down on top of the coal cargo wide open. The first raising of the jib would close the mouth around a full grab-load of coal and then the jib would be raised, slewed and the mouth re-opened over the coal pile ashore and the coal dropped. The sequence would continue until all the coal was removed from the ship's holds. When most of the coal was removed and the crane driver was unable to grab any further loads himself, the stevedores would then climb down into the ship?s hold and shovel the coal into heaps when the crane could again be used.
The unloading of the coal completed, the holds swept clean, the hatches battened down securely all ready for the voyage north. The ship now sat on the hard sand alongside the jetty at low tide awaiting the flooding of the tide. The crew could relax for a short period until action time once again.
worked around the tide. It took most of
the day to remove the two thousand six hundred tons of coal. When this coincided with low tide, the ship
would be sitting on the hard sandbank.
Once the coal was removed fully it would be a wait for the flooding of
the tide, as when this happened the ship would float and that was the moment
that the return journey had to start. It
was a race to get the ship downriver through all the seventeen bridges before
the tide was full, making it impossible to pass under the bridges. It had happened on a few occasions to other
ships that on departing the berth some problem or other occurred during the
un-berthing manoeuvre and the ship became stuck under the first bridge,
course, had never happened to any of Captain Walter's ships and he would pour scorn on those to
which it had happened whatever the circumstances. 'I
remember the time ....', he
would start, and, with a groan, those nearest him would have to listen to his
tales of his heroism, against those of the less fortunate. He often told stories of river passages
during the War. Some of the bridges had
been demolished and had to be re-built but this wasn't carried out until after
the War. In the meantime, 'temporary'
bridges were erected and mostly proved a hazard to the river boats. These were
So with the pilot on board for the passage between Putney and Limehouse, and everything tested satisfactorily, the trip home northwards began.
On the return voyage it was generally a race to make the tide at the home port. It made the difference between a night spent at anchor against one in one's own bed. Woe betide any engineer who caused a delay the return trip when Captain Walter wanted to get home for the shore leave. It was a cardinal sin. Never mind the weather, the ship never was allowed to slow down on the way home and it was always plumb in the middle of the gateway of the piers in any weather conditions.
Captain Walter, as usual, had set a time for arriving at the home port north and the Chief Engineer had to adjust the engine speed to ensure this was adhered to. The first part of the trip was usually at breakneck speed so as to have something in hand should the weather cause a delay later on.
downstream was a repeat of the upstream passage, under all the bridges of the
Thames and the journey was always very smooth and pleasant down to Isles of
Grain and Sheppey to the reaches of the
The trip north was similar to that when travelling south, the routine operation of everything running smoothly. The engine speed was set so as to arrive an hour early than necessary and the rhythm of the engine was hypnotic and musical, but rather loud.
The ballast trip north generally took around 28 hours as opposed to the loaded trip south with the ship being higher in the water and lighter and it skimmed along taking all on board homewards.
This then was
a typical round trip from the northern loading port, to a