Monday, 19 December 2011

Tramp Steamers

SS Harmodious by John Gardner

Dirty British coaster 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, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays. 
(John Masefield, 1902) 
The tramp steamers are mostly no longer around, at least in British waters, but in their day they encapsulated a type of romance of the sea that led countless youngsters to seek adventure, see the world (or maybe just a wee bit of it) and generally escape from the threatened drudgery of work in an office or factory. The reality was a life of extreme boredom seasoned with occasional terrifying incidents, and an ever-present risk of injury or death. Despite or maybe because of these conditions lifelong friendships were formed among the seamen and many developed loyalties to the company under whose flag they sailed, despite the eccentricities of penny-pinching managements.

An old friend, who did his time in the immediate post-War period, recalls going off duty with the ship steaming into the teeth of a Mediterranean gale and returning on deck eight hours later to find that she was now several miles behind where she had been when he went off.

And, trawling online in the course of my researches I found this quote from a Scottish old-timer,
“joined the Blairspey on Saturday 14th July 1956 as a catering boy at Northfleet Paper Mills, done three trips in her, to Seven Isles in Canada, loading pulp. Most of the deck cargo was washed overboard on the trip home. I can’t be quite sure but I think it was either the Queen Mary, or the Queen Elizabeth, passed us three times on the last outward trip that I made in her with a message, ‘Keep Going Blairspey You Will Make It’. That last trip the outward voyage was rough as the best she could do was two knots backwards…..”
I’m sorry he hid behind an online alias, as I would like to thank him for his contribution.

The late Nineteenth century and the first half of the Twentieth were amazingly profitable times for those adventurous enough to become involved in shipping, provided of course you stayed off the actual ships and confined your efforts to buying them, dealing in them or just managing them. The Blairspey was part of the Blair line founded by George Nisbet, with whom I share an affinity, as he was the first owner of Stroma and I am the ?th.

The story of the Nisbets is very typical of many of the period and illustrates the great social mobility that resulted from the rapid development of Glasgow as a major industrial centre. Around 1843 John Nisbet and his wife Patricia left Ireland and came to Glasgow, where he established himself as a baker in Bridgeton. His son James followed him in the trade and moved into Tradeston, then a mixed area of factories and housing, to a flat in Gloucester Street, where as it happens my ancestors also lived at the same time. James and his wife Ann had about eleven children, of whom George was one of the youngest, born in 1876.

Our next sign of George is in the 1901 Census, where we find that he is now a ship broker, aged 25, the owner of a substantial house in Maxwell Road, Pollokshields, living there with his now widowed mother, four brothers and sisters and some domestic servants.

In 1905 George Nisbet and John Calder went into partnership and bought a second hand tramp steamer, the Greatham, joined in 1907 by the Etona and in 1909 by the Benedick. At the end of April 1913 the partnership dissolved and George continued on his own, operating as an owner and broker under the names Clydesdale Navigation Company Limited and George Nisbet & Co Limited, by which time the ships were being given "Blair" names.

George Nisbet was a fairly active buyer and seller of ships during the First World War, a period when losses were extreme and prices escalated, luckily managing to sell most of his ships before they were torpedoed. At the end of the war he owned only one ship, the first Blairmore, which he sold in 1919. He then took a few years out before going on a massive buying spree from 1922 with Blairadam, Blairbeg, Blairlogie, Blairholm and Blaircree, then commissioning his first new-build, the ill-fated Blairgowrie, followed by many others and an occasional second-hand purchase. 

The loss of the Blairgowrie in February 1935 must have been a shattering blow to the reputation of the company, who were extremely lucky to have the Board of Trade find that "no wrongful act or default" was shown. The report is available online and I warn readers that it is one of the saddest and most distressing things I have read in a long while,
Report of the Board of Trade Inquiry 
By the start of the Second World War the fleet comprised nine ships, which went into war service and to which the government added another eight for the company to manage, eleven of the total being lost. George Nisbet himself died during the war and  the company was run thereafter by Douglas R Nisbet, who eventually sold the fleet and wound up the companies in 1961.

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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water