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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Haven of Rest by Douglas Gurton.
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.
Many people have provided information and photographs that have been built
into this site. They include:
Copyright Mersea Island Museum Trust 2020";