The History of Leith

August 19, 2004

To the Steamie or Steam Ships I have known

Where the Flying Fishes play.

Around about the same period, give or take six months or so, in between real sea-time voyages I used to enjoy similar short encounters on various craft which were counted home jobs but quickly had to fore-go them purely because they could and did not count as sea time for the purpose of sitting the Board of Trade exams for ‘tickets’:

Linked to some of these worthy old steam jobs were equally handy (cash in hand) day jobs, or tide work, in addition to having made my acquaintance with the local tugs as a passenger in earlier years I aspired to getting the occasional said day/tide work, most of the steam tugs were well known to me although a new comer on the scene shortly after the war was a very powerful looking ex Admiralty coastwise tug, named E.Nicholson, ex Empire Ben, one of six built at Gainsborough in 1943 by J. Watson, 113-ft in length with a beam of 26-ft and 242 tons, specifically built to tow large units of the Mulberry harbour for ‘D’ day invasion, plenty of power but found to be rather large for working in the confines of Leith docks, it was sold to Australia in 1951, r.n. Victor; two very old ladies still working in Leith up until about late 1940’s, Flying Fish and Gunnet, paddle wheel tugs dating from the late nineteenth century, Flying Fish, the older of this pair, had quite an interesting background since being built in 1882 by J. T. Eltringham at South Shields, for a Sunderland Owner, of 151 tons with independent clutches on the paddle drives, which allowed them to virtually turn in their own length, a luxury not enjoyed or permitted on passenger paddle ships, because of safety regulations.

‘Flying Fish’ had been purchased by a Trawler Owner in Leith, Thomas Devlin, converted to operate a beam trawl and Registered as a fishing trawler, LH99 in 1894, requisitioned some twenty years later by the Admiralty during the 14/18 war to serve with mine sweepers, and thereafter sold to the Leith Salvage and Towage Company in 1919, where it remained as a harbour docking tug, including unbroken service during the period of war hostilities 1939/1945, ultimately sold in 1947 to Middlesborough, working in the same roll until sold for scrap in August 1951, quite a tribute to the builders. ‘Gunnet’ (named after a rocky ledge in the Leith roadstead), ex Sir Joseph Pease 1933, 180 tons, by contrast did not come on the scene until 1896 from the Tyne yard of J.P.Renoldson, similar to the Flying Fish in many respects except for a small wheelhouse, with a brass telegraph for port and starboard paddles, whereas the Flying Fish had a system of knockers or bells the skipper used, the engine control platform being at deck level right under the bridge floor, which of course extended between the two paddle boxes, being in the exalted position of rope hauler/tea maker – all crew on these small work vessels seem to perpetually consume vast amounts of tea – just come when we need you, was an interesting (historically) experience, when running at full speed, which was surprisingly good, there was a strange sensation of the whole ship surging, just to stand on the aft deck you could feel the to and fro movement whilst listening to the beat of the big steel piston rods effortlessly turning the paddles, but with no future for an adventurous ladder climbing hopeful, the job horizon is further scanned.

Paper chase.

Being a glutton for punishment during another short stay at home another ‘come and help us out’ (for cash) call came, shortly after my venture on the tugs, this time in the form of a very short sea trader, the Elizabeth Bromley, a small one hatch coaster, some would have described as a large version of a ‘Clyde Puffer’, built at Hull 1913, a very conventional steam small dry cargo vessel, open bridge, with tiny canvas wind dodgers, above a small deck house aft, boiler room with side pocket coal bunkers on forward side of triple expansion engine, and usual pokey accommodation right aft with a tiny separate cabin, with a brass label above the door, ‘Certified for Master’, over all, this little workhorse, past its sell by date but quite functional for the trade being carried out, namely a feeder of Esparto grass from the larger Forth ports to the private quayside berth, belonging to the Paper making factory at Inverkeithing, often with a return cargo of print paper rolls, the bales of grass were easily stowed but paper, because of weight and shape did not allow for too many to be carried.

My main contribution in being offered the (yet again) casual labour being youthful muscle power, the four man crew were all quite elderly due to general immediate post-war shortage of seafarers, the old cook come deckhand was ready to brew up anytime, just to get off the deck – its me roo’matics – so I managed to rid myself of such ‘tea’ chores, there was not much time wasted in loading with dockside cranes and piece work dock labour but discharge with our steam driven single derrick it took for ever, or so it seemed, that was when I realised where the muscle power was required; with a top speed of eight knots, with the tide and a following wind, progress could be described as leisurely, on rare occasions, with ‘overtime’, the opportunity arose to venture further afield, Bo’ness, Grangemouth and even Dundee; having managed to stabilise depleted finances my feet were again itching to get back deep sea and sunshine.


A good number of years ago, in fact over fifty, I became involved with a small steam driven harbour grab dredger called the Rockchime, which belonged to the Port Authority of Granton Harbour, a commercial/fishing/leisure harbour located a few miles to the west side of the main Firth of Forth port of Leith, this little ship had been built in Holland during 1929, weighing some 141 gross tons, with a crew comprising of the Master (Peter King – known to all as ‘Skip’), Chief Engineer/Grab crane driver, Mate/deck-hand/cook, and occasional spare hand, to be deployed as and where required (mostly in the galley).

Shortly after the war finished in 1945 my travels had taken me on several far flung voyages, some of them quite scary for an up and coming merchant navy deck officer, in between trips or obligatory visits to the Nautical College, I was still drawn to the shipping scene, a relatively short walk from home, apart from close family ties with the maritime industry I knew many of the men involved ashore and afloat, those afloat seemed to have a stronger magnet, such as the afore mentioned ‘Skip’, who was forever bemoaning the fact that he could never anyone to fill the ‘spare-hand’ berth on his vessel, due mainly to the fact that it was a casual labour berth, he used to quickly add, ‘mind you its a real easy wee number as long as you can make a pot o’ tea, help wi’ the ropes, and do a bit o’ steerin’ when we go to sea (to dump spoil), but never ever a mention of remuneration, oh well ma budget is no over generous but you would not loose out.

This, dear reader, was the type of conversation raised after being invited aboard to partake of a mug of tea, what was not realised or appreciated by mine hosts that, I too was experiencing personal budgetary difficulties, such as being bereft of immediate financial ability or capital to enjoy a bit of company within the flourishing local refreshment establishments, the only tick allowed came from the large pub wall clock.

Well, I might be able to help out for a few days but have to say if I get a call from the Shipping Office I have to go immediately, at which point I am invited to stay for a second mug of tea, with a tin of biscuits suddenly appearing to whet the appetites of visitors – me thinks the subtitles of being shanghaied had progressed from the days of sail: Ok so it suited me to turn to on board at eight o’clock the next morning and be introduced to the finer points of Harbour Dredging, first, get the kettle on for tea, the problems – only experienced on board – of dredging the allocated areas were spelt out to justify why we could not start right away, ‘Skip’ is up at the Office to find out which ships will move and those to remain where we need to dredge, and another thing the Chief chimes in with, we will need to top up with fresh water for the boiler, at least another hour, or so, in the meantime the Mate says, come wi’ me an ah’ll show you around the ship, (all 125-ft of it), the steel hull is of riveted construction with lap and butt plates at strategically placed points, all very technical says he, from the bluff bow, on deck, there is little to record other than having a small anchor windlass with two warping barrels, quite essential for manoeuvring the boat into tight corners, the mooring bollards appear to be rather outsized but am soon told that they have to be large to counteract the pull of the grab when dredging; a small focsle come store for all sorts of gear is separated from the main ‘dredge spoil’ hold with a watertight bulkhead.

The hold runs aft to another bulkhead at the forward side of the coal bunker, and is extended out the ships side, above the hold level with the hatch coaming, some three feet above the main steel deck, a steel wire mesh grating is placed to catch any large items such as large boulders, old prams and even the lost anchor, this being necessary to prevent such rubbish from getting into the hold and perhaps fouling up the opening bottom doors when the spoil is eventually discharged. A secondary finer meshed grating is placed nearby, I am told this is the coal catcher, ?, well when we have dig out the coaling berths, an area served by three giant steam cranes to load coal onto trawlers, most of the ten ton wagon load cascades on to the trawler deck but inevitably some falls over the side, every now and then, particularly when the Chief needs coal for his bunkers, we have to dig out these berths, Rockchime seldom has to go under the ‘pay as you load’ coaling hoist, harbour management, don’t want to know, ‘Skip’ has his budget, we leave him to get on with day to day running.

Above the deckhouse structure is a comfortable wheelhouse, with few refinements, large steering wheel, overhead compass, brass engine room telegraph, steam whistle lanyard and the proverbial shelf for tea mugs, this had been originally designated for chart work but the absence of such items it was ideally suited for other important working tools. Immediately beneath the wheelhouse at the fore-end of the engine/boiler room casing was the Captains cabin, !, rather small but enough to contain a bunk with drawers under, a small settee with folding shelf, as the crew got home every night such accommodation was only used to store working gear, moving aft within the deck house a small cross alleyway gave access to the boiler stokehold or engine room control platform, as there were many hours of non-dredging much time became devoted to care maintenance with much spit and polish, the smell of hot oil and steam permeated in this area and made it feel quite cosy, a small galley with combined saloon at the aft end completed the layout, on top of this being a rather grand funnel with a smoke cowl atop which gave the appearance of being much more powerful than reflected in the full speed (with good coal) of eight knots, to round off the funnel there was a huge brass steam whistle which would have done credit to any ocean liner, a deep sonorous sound alerted all around that Rockchime was underway, much to the disgust of the Chief who always complained about the huge loss of steam every time ‘Skip’ pulled the whistle lanyard. A couple of tall ventilators above the stokehold, then the engine room skylight just forward of the wooden lifeboat slung under a pair of radial davits, a set of davits were fitted either side although only one boat was carried. Right at the stern there was a steam capstan used for warping, which almost sums up our worthy little craft.

To the outsider our little dredger did not seem to have much of a pattern, digging holes being the general onlookers attitude, not many people were all that interested in the day to day repetitive work carried out with hardly any fuss yet it played an important part in keeping a constant depth of water alongside the all important commercial quays in this tidal port, Granton harbour is situated about two miles west of Leith Docks on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth which forms part of the north boundary of the City of Edinburgh. The land and foreshore in that area were part of the estates belonging to the Duke of Buccleuch. The industrial revolution created many changes, one of which was passenger transportation by land and sea, ships had been fitted with steam powered engines since the first paddle wheel boats, Charlotte Dundas and Comet, plied on the Firth of Clyde, progression to steam railway trains as recorded in great detail elsewhere followed rapidly over each decade, during such a time of transport evolution ships were well to the fore in responding to public demand, paddle driven ships were built specifically to meet increasing need for relatively short direct sea crossings which saved travellers many miles by road, at a relatively slow pace, usually in discomfort – not to mention the high cost – and so it came to our background port of Granton when a thriving ferry service was established between the Edinburgh north shore and the Kingdom of Fife.

A suitable landing point, known as the ‘Chain Pier’, though somewhat exposed to north or easterly strong winds, had been constructed at Newhaven a short distance from the fishing harbour used by the sailing packets voyaging as far as Aberdeen in suitable weather, at about the same time a new railway spur was opened from Edinburgh Waverley to Trinity, to connect with the paddle ferry across the Forth. Expansion of the railway soon spread to the new Granton harbour, which had been constructed by consortium with main intention of starting a safe and sheltered ferry service to Burntisland on the Fife shore. Granton prospered even further with the arrival of steam driven fishing trawlers, which continued to operate with fluctuating success for the ensuing hundred years.

As built, Granton harbour had a stone middle pier, with ferry terminal slipways either side, east and west, a long stone breakwater to the east and a larger pier on the west side provided adequate shelter from all directions except North; originally the rail link consisted of steam driven vessels which wagons were driven on board, secured, then pulled off at the other side – noted elsewhere as the first known roll on roll off service, Paddle Ship Balbirnie, built at Leith 1861, of 533 tons burthen, the worlds first rail roll-on/roll-off ferry, such rapid development of the Granton ferry soon saw the closure of the Chain Pier, which itself was destroyed during a severe storm a few years later.

Continuing the daily routine of filling the hold with mud spoil was rather monotonous except from having to move the boat every half hour or so, apart from making endless mugs of tea – a commodity that was still very much rationed at that time, although we, as crew of a merchant vessel (?) were entitled to seafarers ration books, which provided an allowance of at least six or seven times the quantity given to the civilian population. As the mud filled the hold it became apparent that water covered the surface and when nearing the top overflowed directly overboard via large drain channels, only when the mud could be seen it became time to rig the powerful deckwash hoses and give the whole ship a good scrub, perhaps not a very glamorous trade to be in but the crew were rightly proud of their charge and where possible kept it spick and span, some days when getting almost carried away with skooshing the mud away ‘Skip’ would quietly say, that will do cos there’s a good sea running out side and it will make a better job than the hose.

The voyage out to the dumping ground, just north and west of a lighthouse on a rocky reef on the southern edge of the main deep water channel, called the Oxcar, was all of ten miles, there and back, phew, this run to the spoil ground took about an hour (dinnae ye hurry chief, conserve oor’ coal !), upon arrival in the deep water channel the Mate, upon a silent hand raised signal from ‘Skip’, would activate the release mechanism to open the bottom doors, the muddy contents were instantly emptied to be quickly dispersed in a strong tideway, the ship at the same moment popped up like a cork, rolling slightly which helped to scour the hold prior to the Mate closing the bottom doors with an audible clunk, ‘Skip’ then brought Rockchime round for a leisurely return to harbour, I having been quickly delegated to take over the steering to allow ‘Skip’ to write up his daily log, and change into shore going togs, the inward trip was usually lively being light ship, in a loaded condition it was very stable.

During such mammoth voyages the chief usually took the opportunity to clean out the boiler fires and bank them up ready for next day, except at the week-end when the fires were drawn to allow further maintenance, by and large it was a fairly simple straight forward job but soon became tedious to a young lad keen to get on and up the promotional ladder, to earn a bit more, so the time came to move on, being interested in ships of all kinds I have to say that I did enjoy my sojourn on the Rockchime, and retained the friendship with ‘Skip’ ( mind, if you’re ever in need of a job just say the word – never a mention of remuneration) and his crew.

On to greater things.

The war clouds may have been cleared but there was little sunshine with my following ship, after a quick visit to the Office, where the offer of a junior navigating officer position is eagerly accepted, I am instructed to report on board s.s. Baron Stranraer which I found in Glasgow awaiting sailing orders, after locating this ship lying at the Renfrew Dock having recently unloaded a cargo of phosphates I struggled up the gangway with my usual sea-going luggage (each time it seemed to grow), usual reception, not a soul to be found, I dumped my gear in the saloon and had a wander around, obviously not a new ship, the s.s. Baron Stranraer was in fact a product of the Ardrossan Shipyard in 1929, 3668 tons, nothing out of the ordinary tramp steamer for such vintage.

Amongst the various returning crew members, who seemed totally indifferent to me being there, came the Chief Mate, a pleasant fellow from Hull, put your gear in the Third’s (Third Mate) cabin – though you will be signed on as Fourth, orders from the Marine Superintendent, a disappointment as my pay would be lower than expected, but in no position to argue said ok, so where are we for this trip, North Africa !, Freetown !, or perhaps Caribbean, nothing exciting says the Mate, just down to the Tail of the Bank – off Greenock – to anchor and await orders, I then learned that the Master and Chief Engineer had left the ship, together with most of the deck, engine and galley crowd, although we did have a gang of shore riggers to help, rumours flew around as to what was happening until orders for steam next morning are given; a couple of black funnel Steele & Bennie tugs belching even blacker acrid smoke were in attendance whilst our depleted deck contingent singled up, with the Mate seemingly being every where at once, Pilot on board, tugs made fast then let go, a few toots and whistles then on our way down the mighty river Clyde, a call from the bridge to take the wheel, Pilot and Mate quietly chatting I ventured to ask if I would be required on deck to let go one the tugs, no says the Mate the tugs are coming all the way to our anchorage, being very light ship more than half the propeller was out of the water, I began to understand why, the tugs had the situation well under control.

This area was fairly new to me and became more intriguing when we turned into what I learned later as the Kyles of Bute, very deep water but also quite narrow and over shadowed by the mountainous terrain of Argyll, yet again another sharp turn to yet what seemed an even narrower strip of water, a deep water anchorage, Loch Striven, at which point I am told by the Mate to go and supervise the anchor windlass, normally looked after by the ships carpenter, who also having been paid off the task fell to me, however the shore rigging crew were well versed with such work and under the directions of the Pilot both anchors duly laid out with extra long scope, then heavy wires and chains attached to a huge mooring buoy aft, when all this had been well and truly secured, Pilot and shore gang departed on one of the tugs, Mr. Mate announced stand down.

Sitting in the saloon having a scratch meal, just three of us, Mate, Third Engineer and myself, I am told the ship has been laid up pending disposal, our skeleton crew to keep a watching brief, everything was being closed down and our hardest chore was in checking moorings and anchors, apart from the fierce gusts of wind that swept down from the mountains on either side there did not seem much chance of us moving, there were many other redundant naval and merchant ships similarly moored in the Loch but we did not have any contact, the only liberty concession was on a Saturday to collect fresh stores from the nearest town, Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, the MFV was handy but rather slow, spending half our ‘run ashore’ time getting there and back, although the Mate, bless him, he left us do our own thing, did have a lot of trips ashore to phone the Office !.

After a while such a berth soon became very tedious and was not helping me with getting in that all important sea-time, so after requesting a foreign going trip landed up on a fairly new (war built) ship at Liverpool bound for Casablanca, which further extended my ventures, at least I had my own cabin and did not have to make the tea, and the precious sea time started to pile up.


Some Text