The History of Leith

August 19, 2004

The odd looking vessel

FAIRFREE ex HMS Felicity 1946. ex HMCS Coppercliff 1944

Some people may remember, when ships used to ply up and down Leith Harbour, no not the docks, anywhere above the swing bridge, which no longer opens, to the boatyard, which used to be accessed from Ballantyne Place, and could seen from Great Junction Street Bridge, the Leith Shore had its fair share of ships alongside the quays on either side, plus the constant traffic in and out of the East and West Old docks, now filled in.

During the early 1950`s a somewhat odd looking vessel lay alongside opposite the Sailors Home, with the distinctive funnel colours of the then flourishing Leith shipping company, Christian Salveson, this worthy craft had been laid up after spending a period of time as an experimental trawler, though the first part of its working life as a Royal Naval frigate, with origins in Canada, the following narrative gives an insight to an interesting background of a somewhat little known ship to present day people.

Stern Trawling proved to be the effective way forward, offering a greater degree of safety and comfort to the crew, to re-trace the origins of this development we have to go back to a venture which evolved immediately after the end of the 1939 – 1945 war, several enterprising business entrepreneurs had in mind that this type of fishing could be useful, although the early efforts were concentrated on inshore fishing, as carried out in the Firth of Clyde, these venturers acquired an old steam yacht, Oriana – of 172 gross tonnage, built in 1896, owned by the Chairman of the Allan Shipping Line, of Aros House, Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, a vessel requisitioned by the Royal Navy as an Auxiliary Patrol vessel during the 1914/1918 war – Firth of Clyde based, and operated from Campeltown, Rothesay, Ormidale and Gourock, this old vessel had been laid up in a boat yard on the Holy Loch in 1939 and remained untouched until purchased at a cost of £1200 in 1946, altered and used in the Firth of Clyde as an experimental stern trawler trials vessel with the deep counter stern cut away to accommodate the experimental fishing gear, after many trial and error voyages carried out from Ailsa Craig to the Mull of Kintyre, with encouraging results and good catches of fish, these pioneers decided to go for broke, as they say, and looked around for a suitable vessel to purchase and convert into their idea of what was required.

This took place immediately at the end of hostilities, during which time the Royal Navy were disposing ships of all shapes and sizes, within the ‘Craft for Disposal’ lists, the Clyde fishing enthusiasts decided on an ex Algerine Class mine-sweeper, which was lying alongside the quay at Portland Naval Base, still in commission, during 1946, a representative body of the syndicate, Chairman, Accountant and Technical Director (ex RNVR Lt. Commander) travelled by sleeper train from Glasgow to Portland to inspect the vessel in question, HMS FELICITY, these ships were of course being offered by the Admiralty ‘as is – where lies’, in other words, what you see is what you get, with no come back after signing acceptance, our worthy delegation did not waste too much time in deciding that even a ridiculous nominal offer would be more than recoverable if sold on for scrap, and submitted a firm offer of £5000 for the vessel (less all armaments) as she lay alongside , this was accepted by return on condition that the vessel was immediately the responsibility of the purchaser and removed within a very short time, they were allowed ten days and afforded many extras, lots of help from the dockyard maties plus a run crew to the Clyde, the ship duly sailed north without mishap to a local shipyard on the Clyde for conversion.

HMS Felicity – ex HMCS Coppercliff – 1944, had been built in 1944 at Toronto, Canada, and transferred to the Royal Navy up completion in 1944, a 1500 ton Algerine class Mine Sweeper, these ships were 225-ft. in length with a beam of 35-ft and draft of 9-ft. fitted with two reciprocating steam engines of some 2000 h.p. This vessel cost the syndicate £5000 as seen and where lay (Portland Naval Dockyard) representing just over £3 per ton scrap value compared with the £150 plus, per ton for new construction, less armament – market scrap value at that time was £8 per ton for steel, any non-ferrous metal being almost £25 per ton: ex HMS Felicity sailed from Portland to the Firth of Clyde, arriving at the Fairfield Shipyard in Glasgow for the purpose of conversion to a fishing trawler, incorporating a stern chute or ramp similar to that of a Whale Factory Vessel.

Soon after arrival at the shipyard in Glasgow, one boiler, in practically new condition and being surplus to requirements, and also creating further working space below decks, was sold to an Edinburgh brewery for £3000, such materials being almost unobtainable at the time, bringing the cost of the vessel down to £2000, the refrigerating machinery was sold back to the Glasgow manufacturers for £1800 resulting in an overall cost of the Felicity at £200. with the alterations completed in October 1947 the ship was now named FAIRFREE – and flying the Red Ensign, Registered at Glasgow, with the Fishing Number GW19, the name is understood to be loosely based on the fact she had been converted at the Fairfield yard and was obtained (nearly) free.

After preliminary fishing trials off the West Coast of Scotland, with encouraging results and closely observed by other interested like minded business people, s.s. Fairfree was then purchased and taken over by Salvesons of Leith, who operated a large fleet of Whale Factory ships and Whale Catchers in addition to many cargo vessels, this Company changed the Port of Registry to Leith, with a new Fishing Number LH271, and with a local crew operating from Granton and Leith, ultimately serving for over a year on a trial and error basis, testing deck gear, and factory machinery (which created a large number of problems), although in spite of the

technical difficulties the large fish catches were considered to be a good return on the capital outlay.

With further consideration given to the operating costs the steam driven engines were removed, propulsion being replaced with diesel engine power in August 1949, First voyages thereafter were undertaken Faroe Islands, Iceland and to Newfoundland Grand Banks, a round trip of 5000 miles.


Operated originally out of Granton, although eventually moved South to discharge her entire frozen cargo at Grimsby and Immingham, the venture was declared an unqualified success, until laid up at the Shore, Leith Docks in September 1951, the experiment had yielded sufficient information to prompt her owners to design and build a new larger version of some 3500 tons, which was eventually increased to three of these units, respectively named Fairtry I, Fairtry II and Fairtry III. So after initiating what became the fore-runner of deep-sea stern trawling the Fairfree was laid-up at Leith for several years, eventually being quietly towed away to the scrap yard at Inverkeithing, it was sold for £15500, in August 1957, without so much as a brief mention in the local paper, so much for the venturing spirit of the earlier business pioneers who were not afraid to put up their own capital to prove vision of the way ahead, other Companies were not slow in following the lead given by Owners and fishermen from Granton and Leith.


Even these ones have long gone.


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