The 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 England to the power stations and gas works of the south. These little ships could be seen in all of the northern ports from Goole to Blyth loading up to 2600 tons of coal at the staithes and then sailing in all weather conditions to the many southern ports. Sailing during the Summer months was like a holiday cruise, but Winter sailing could be very uncomfortable and hazardous.


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.


These little 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 East Greenwich. For this reason these vessels were called 'down river' boats.


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.


The ships would arrive in the Thames fully loaded with coal and wait downriver from Tower Bridge, waiting for the tide to ebb and then race upriver whist the bridges were exposed with sufficient headroom for them to pass underneath.

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.


The coastal 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 below Tower Bridge before taking on the mandatory pilot to guide them upriver and under all the other bridges up to their destinations.


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.

The main 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 Hartlepool. The odd journey was made from Goole from where a trip to Shoreham in Sussex would be made delivering to the electric power station there.

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 of England to the southern ports, mostly London.

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.

















SS 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 Hartlepool. It was the month of the year that the wind was invariably off the sea in this area and all who sailed these waters hated February for this very reason. These easterly winds drove the sea towards the coast causing high waves, tossing the ships in all directions. The North Sea could be notoriously rough and unfriendly in the wintertime and this was the present case.


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 Sunderland bridges, the first the railway bridge and the second the road bridge. She sat alongside, tied up to the quay, she looked quite clean and tidy. The watch-aboard crew had obviously been working hard with the cleaning and painting getting the little ship ready for sailing. A bit over 250 feet long, sitting low in the water fully loaded with gas coal she looked smart as ever. Grey smoke, tinged with a touch of black, was issuing from the funnel with little wisps of steam from the whistle valve at the front of the funnel and various places on deck, mainly the aft mooring capstan and windlass engines that had been warmed through prior to sailing. These minor blemishes would need to be fixed if only to keep the Captain from complaining.


The first 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 Thames, probably a few bottles of the local brew secreted in the bottom, although alcohol was banned on board. Next came others, a little better off with cars, being taxied by their families. The Chief Engineer, had arrived early enough to check that all down below was functioning correctly so that there would be no problems with the departure manoeuvres and the trip south. He had visited the ship during its loading time and knew that all was well in the engineroom department, so wasn't too perturbed about the performance of his machinery. He had quickly changed into his working gear and ready to attend the departure procedures.

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.


His family, 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 Whitby, jutting out from the coast of East Yorkshire, then further down the coast coming to Flamborough Head, it would then be in way of the strongest wind and seas.


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.

Looking out over the North Sea, everyone could see the waves capped with 'white horses'. These started to appear when the wind reached about 15 knots. The stronger the wind, the bigger were the horses. Presently they looked like drays that pulled the local brewery carts around the town, great big beasts weighing nearly a ton. The forthcoming trip was going to be rough.


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 North Sea and maintaining a constant gaze seawards and at the compass from the helm position being so tiring.

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 Whitby where the land jutted out, past Scarborough, the famous holiday resort then further south to Flamborough Head, sticking out from the coast of East Yorkshire. Here was the point when the little ship moved out into deeper waters and took some of the heavier force of the easterly winds and accompanying high seas. From here onwards it was going to be very uncomfortable and most of the crew yearned for their beds at home, not this bobbing and corkscrewing bunks of SS Chelsea. In this weather, off duty crew usually lay on their bunks or settees with a book, nowhere else was comfortable, so you may as well lie down in semi-comfort. It had taken roughly nine hours to travel the 90 odd miles from Sunderland to Flamborough, that was nine down and twenty seven to go, soon may they pass.

Still passing southwards would take the ship past the River Humber towards the Lincolnshire Coast where they would see a succession of Light Vessels, all with strange sounding names depicting the area in which they operated, bobbing at anchor, marking the safe sea routes. These small, bright red vessels, with their huge light on the central conning tower, had three watchkeepers on board to tend the lights and signalling gear and these men would always happily converse with passing ships via their signal lamps until the passing ship had passed out of sight. A very lonely job for these poor souls doing a very necessary job. Most of their off duty time was spent reading books or participating in some hobby or other just to fill in their time. The first Light Vessels encountered were the Spurn and Dudgeon, further south of these were Smith?s Knoll, Cross Sand, Shipwash and Sunk. These showed the route past the River Humber, then The Wash between Lincolnshire and Norfolk, further down the coast to Suffolk and Essex until the River Thames would come into view. Entering the Thames the heavy seas calmed a little until under its full protection the water was calm much to the relief of Chelsea?s crew.


The journey 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 Tower Bridge at Limehouse Buoys waiting for the tide to turn to the ebb enabling her to pass easily under the bridges up to Putney. It took about four hours to pass from Dungeness to Limehouse. The watches were doubled up for this passage and the stand-by watch mainly hung over the bulwarks hoping to catch a glance of some passing female who would then become the brunt of ribald remarks. It seemed quite acceptable to shout obscenities to girls when they were out of reach and there was no danger of recriminations from either them or their menfolk. It was really all in good fun, but not for the ears of innocent maidens.


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.


The first bridge was Tower Bridge, an awe inspiring sight to all seafarers and landlubbers alike. The little flattie passed under this bridge with no trouble at all not requiring the road bridge to be raised for her passing, but further upriver it would be a different story. There were seventeen bridges in total to pass under before reaching the discharge berth, past Wandsworth Bridge and just before Putney Railway Bridge, and some of them could be a problem should the tide be high. However, this passage had been undertaken hundreds of times and every bridge and part of the river was well known to all on the bridge so, as usual, no problems to be encountered. Most bridges carried traffic and pedestrians, but some were for railway only. One of them, Hungerford Railway Bridge, leading to Charing Cross also took pedestrians, but no traffic.


There were two gasworks in the discharge area, both on the south side, one at Wandsworth and one near to Putney, the start of the famous Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Chelsea delivered its coal to Putney to the gasworks known as West London Gas Board, the site of its head office location.


So to the passage up the Thames. Everyone called this the London River, never The Thames. No one knew why, it was just so. Once past the famous Tower Bridge, London Bridge hove into sight. Nothing special about this bridge, it was just a concrete bridge spanning between the south road from Guy's Hospital and the north road leading to Monument. Apparently it 'fell down' in the olden days and children still talked of it when playing various games. Not far past this bridge on the south side, and just before reaching Canon Street railway bridge there is a famous prison, known as Clink, probably where the word clink, meaning jail, originated.

Next bridge was Southwark Bridge, then Blackfriars Railway, Blackfriars and Waterloo bridges. After this came Hungerford Railway Bridge, then the very famous Westminster Bridge, guarded at the north end by Bodicea in her chariot, and just next to this bridge, the clock and Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, always an awesome sight.

Further up river came Lambeth and Vauxhall bridges and then a fairly long run up to Grosvenor Bridge. Then came Chelsea Bridge, one everyone hung over the side for seeking for the famous football ground, which was actually quite a distance to the north of the river. To the south of this bridge you could see the huge park, Battersea Park, usually with fairground equipment set up. On the north of this bridge you might just spy the Chelsea Hospital.

Then came the most splendid of them all, apart from Tower Bridge that is, Albert Bridge. This one is the one that is seen in most English films when a fancy bridge is needed for some scene in London. It was decided just after the war that this bridge was to be used for pedestrians only due to the increasing weight of modern traffic. Further along the river you come across Battersea Bridge, then Battersea Railway Bridge. Riding a train travelling north on this line takes you past Chelsea Art College, but, most popular of all, it takes you past Stamford Bridge Football Stadium, the home of Chelsea Football Club. Travelling westwards, the little flattie will go under the last bridge of the passage, Wandsworth Bridge. The gasworks jetty lies past this, close to the next bridge, Putney Railway Bridge and this is the little ship's destination. Safely under all seventeen bridges with its cargo of coal and now for the discharge operation.


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 places. In London there were many sights to be seen and to be visited and the more sober of the crew would take advantage of this free passage to the Capital to go sightseeing. The Captain always warned everyone on board not to overindulge, there was work to do in the morning, so woe betide anyone with a hangover or in no fit state to do his duty. He was not a man to make threats idly, if he gave a warning, it would be carried out, make no mistake, and all on board were well aware.


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.

Everything 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, Wandsworth Bridge, and was crushed by the rising tide.


This, of 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 Charing Cross, Lambeth and Battersea. The worst one was Waterloo Bridge. This had been knocked down and re-built and was officially re-opened in 1945, just after the War. It wasn?t really completed and the centre arches weren't finished for another couple of years and were closed off with wooden shores. That left only the two outside arches open for passing ships. Well on a fast ebb tide you just had to trust to luck to get through. The pilot actually aimed for the buttress and the tide pulled you clear just in time, hair raising to say the least. Walter made this a tale of personal heroism any time he found someone to tell the tale to who hadn't heard it before.


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.


Going 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 North Sea. It was still February with the dreaded easterly wind still blowing creating lots of large white horses on top of the waves. Sweetie-time again, as taking sea sickness pills was called.


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 London discharge port and back to the home port making ready for the next trip. All seemingly similar, but every trip was different in some way or other, new experiences and new problems arising to be resolved.