Laid-up Shipping in the River Blackwater

For many years, views of the River Blackwater in Essex were dominated by laid-up shipping. Some ships came for only a few weeks; others were in the River for years. The River was full in the 1930s as world-recession was biting. After the War, damaged and life-expired ships gathered, awaiting decisions about their future. Local people can still remember the ship with the hole in its side - the SAMLONG. There was also another Liberty Ship, the HELENA MODJESKA which was salved from the Goodwins and lay in the river with her two halves alongside each other.

By the late 1950s the River was again full with over 40 ships. Many were tankers that had just proved to be too small for the changing world and others were war-built standard ships hoping for a change in their fortunes. There were also modern ships visiting the river during seasonal dips in trading or while waiting to be sold for further trading.
One particularly well-remembered vessel was the Shaw Savill liner GOTHIC - she had been used as the Royal Yacht for the 1953-1954 Royal Tour and caused a lot of interest during her stay. The last ship laid-up in the River was the former Radio Caroline ship ROSS REVENGE, which left in 1995 - but returned in 2014 and is still here ...

The ships provided a lot of local employment for the riverside villages. On arrival, both anchors had to be laid out with a swivel so the ship could swing with the tide. Crews had to be taken off the ship. Some vessels kept a skeleton crew on board but most usually had just a watchman on board during their stay. Supplies would be needed on board, On many ships the main engines needed turning over at regular intervals, and with no power on board, a barge would go out with a compressor. In the years after WW2, most of this work was done by Clarke & Carter of West Mersea.

Many ships left the river to be scrapped. A tug would arrive to tow them to their final destination. Equipment might be sold locally before they left and ex-ship's lifeboats would sometimes find a new role around the estuary. Some ships were laid-up under arrest, usually because of the financial failure of the owners.

River Blackwater in 1963 - Ashley Upsher Collection
MICHALAKIS ashore opposite the Esplanade in Mersea - Mersea Museum Collection
The icy River Blackwater in a hard winter - 1963 - Robin Webster NEWCOMBIA - one of many Shell tankers laid up in the River Blackwater in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Photo: Mersea Museum Paul Baker Collection

There was occasionally some excitement. The PORT MELBOURNE was on fire in the River in the 1930s and in 1983 the PROTOKLITOS had a serious engine room fire. Ice formed in the River in cold winter of 1962-63 and the supply boats from Mersea could not get out to the laid-up ships - they had to be supplied by helicopter. The MICHALAKIS broke free, drifted through the other ships, and went ashore on the West Mersea mud opposite the Esplanade.

The ships have gone now and are becoming just a memory for those that worked on them. There are many tales to be told and some that perhaps will have to wait.
If you have some stories or photographs to add to this collection, we would be pleased to hear from you.

The Ships

We are building up a list of ships that have visited the River Blackwater. There are over 400 on the list and it is still growing. It is nice to have photographs of ships in the River, but we do not have many. We do not know some of the dates. More details are always welcome! To view the list of ships, click below.

Click to see List of Ships

Working the Ships

The laid up ships provided a lot of local work for Tollesbury, Mersea and other riverside communities. All the ships had someone on board. In most cases the crew left when the ship arrived in the river and were replaced by a watchman. Conditions on board were often primitive - there was no ship's power and cooking, heating and lighting all had to be done by paraffin or gas. The ship would have a paraffin anchor light at night. For many years there was no radio available on the ship to contact the shore in an emergency, but in later years VHF radio might be available.

Bert Riddle, a watchman on the SAN ELISEO appeared on the BBC Television Programme "What's My Line", where the panel had to guess his job. They failed, and Bert received a certificate to say he had Beaten the Panel.

Ships in the river swung with the tide - on arrival both anchors were laid out and a large swivel was inserted in the chain. The work was done by local people, working from a barge that had been towed out to the ship. It was not an easy job.

When the ship left, the swivel had to be removed and the anchors hove up. It was not unknown for the chain to come up in a tangle and which was difficult to sort out - heavy rusty chain and shackles that had been in place for sometime and were reluctant to come undone. If necessary, the chain would have to be cut and rejoined.

The departure of the PROTOKLITOS became a saga. While she was in the River, the ship had an engineroom fire. As a result, there was no power available and a generator had to be brought out on the barge and connected up. The Spanish tug was already in the river and keen to be on its way complete with tow.
Attempts to heave in the cable soon indicated something was wrong. After labouring for some time, the generator decided enough was enough and gave up. A new bigger generator was obtained - and succeeded in bringing up an anchor with the chain wrapped round it. By the time this was sorted, the tide was making and the tug Captain knew he had to be out of the river at high tide so was getting underway with the barge still alongside.

Tankers laid up in the River in 1960


Haven of Rest by Douglas Gurton.
The first ships in the 1920s and the effect on Tollesbury.

Laid up Shell tankers - 1958 newspaper article

Life on the SUEVIC in the River - 1969

Working as a Watchman in the 1980s

ROCHESTER CASTLE, NAPIER STAR and the cold of 1963

LINERS ON HOLDAY. Their Sylvan Retreat.

Four large Union-Castle liners are lying deserted except for caretakers among the beautiful surroundings of the Blackwater in Essex.
They are the CARISBROOKE CASTLE, COMRIE CASTLE, GORDON CASTLE and LLANSTEPHAN CASTLE, and are anchored about halfway between Mersea and Heybridge, off tollesbury Pier. They are allowed there by permission of the Oyster Fisheries Company, and in this way all the dock dues and other chargse are avoided.
"These ships look decidedly incongruous amid their strange surroundings," said a local resident yesterday, "and they spoil an otherwise charming landscape."
"I was told by an offical of the Union Castle line that it was because of the slackness in the shipping world that these great vessels were sent here, but now that the trade revival has begun we hope their owners will take them away. We shall be delighted to see them go.

From Halifax Evening Courier 5 September 1922, thanks to British Newspaper Archive.


The information here has come from a variety of sources - often photographs and notes kept by local people. Ships arriving or departing from the River would normally be recorded in Lloyd's List at the time.

Laid up ships on the company grounds had to pay compensation to the Tollesbury and Mersea Native Oyster Company and in March 2011 one of their ledgers came to light, listing payments made 1931-1963. It is now in Essex Record Office, Accession No. A13125 and is a significant source of information.
In the years before WW2, the Oyster Company did not just charge 'compensation' for the presence of a vessel on their grounds. They provided most services to the ships - transport, stores, water, men and equipment to fit swivels when mooring. By the 1960s W. Fieldgate and Clarke & Carter were acting as agents for many ships and were organising or providing these services. The entries in the Oyster Company ledger are just for compensation.
Not all ships that are known to have been in the River can be found in the ledger. A number were probably moored outside the Oyster Company's grounds. In the late 1950s, there are payments covering several vessels and not naming them - for Shell tankers in particular.
The one ledger known to exist covers 2 January 1931 to 29 May 1963.
Other records are in Essex Record Office document DF 106/1/10/12 "T&MNOFC Record of Ships Moored on Fishery 1930-33".
W. Fieldgate & Son acted as agents for many of the ships in the river. Their day books and other records are in Essex Record Office, reference C586, and are being reviewed for relevant information.
Jerzy (George) Swieszkowski and the Mid-Essex Branch of World Ship Society have done their own research by working through the Lloyds List of the time, and in September 2020 this information was used to update the online list.
The British Newspaper Archive has a wealth of information, mainly from regional newspapers, and Ian Clarke has spent many hours trawling through their records for details.


Many people have provided information and photographs that have been built into this site. They include:
Dennis Baldwin, Peter Bibby, British Library Board, British Newspaper Archive, David Brown, FotoFlite, Ian Clarke, Malcolm Cranfield, Bill Davis, Phil English, Graham Gould, Ron Green, Guildhall Library, Cedric Gurton, Ted Ingham, Stephan James, Brian Jay, John Jones, Martin Klingsick, Nolan Loveridge, Colin Macintosh, Ralph Merry, Tony Millatt, Peter Newall, Ron Pamment, John Powell, Derek Sands, Tony Smith, George Swieszkowski, Ashley Upsher, Tony Wilding.

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