Sailing Fleet article

 

“ How a young Scottish entrepreneur built up the largest fleet of British flagged sailing ships”.

Andrew Weir, the great shipping entrepreneur, was born in April  1865.   He later became Lord Inverforth,  and among many other achievements, he created the largest sailing ship fleet under the red ensign.  His great adventure started in 1888 with a small purchased three-masted vessel, the Willowbank. Soon, Andrew Weir  added both second hand and new buildings and evidently he was  a man in a hurry.    The start was made in the tramping trades where ready cargoes were available.   Some might say that good fortune smiled on the new owner, getting ten years valuable trading out of that first all-important purchase.  Eventually,  some forty-five vessels made-up the fleet, and these beautiful three and four-masted ships roamed the seas from 1885 to 1915.  During WW1 the company also managed ships for the Admiralty, which some observers count towards a bigger total.    The graceful ships that made up the fleet led a life that was fraught with danger however, so much so that the chances of a long career also carried rather long odds. What follows describes some of the tragedy.

The Willowbank had been named the ‘ Ambrose’ at launch, but in 1884 a company called J.F.Gibb gave her the ‘ Willowbank’ name.   She was small by the standard of later additions at only 882 tons gross but she played a crucial role in that all-important start-up.   Fate determined she should be sunk off Portland in a collision in 1895.  Another old vessel, the Anne Main which was even smaller at 156ft length was purchased in 1886, and she also gave ten years service before being wrecked at Goto Island, Japan.  By this time around thirty-five other vessels, both new and second hand had been added to the fleet, or traded.   It was a fortuitous start built upon those first successful purchases.

 The suffix ‘bank’ then continued for over 100 years through sail, steam, and motor, there being a total of five ships bearing that first lucky name.   The last vessel ever built for the Bank Line repeated the name, and was launched by Smith’s Dock, Middlesborough in 1980.

The first purpose built three-masted sailing ship joined the fleet in 1886 and she was named the ‘ Thornliebank’. Russell and Company in Port Glasgow were entrusted with the order.  They went on to build many more for this owner.   Thornliebank burned out in 1891 and ended her short life as a storage hulk in Fremantle, W. Australia.

1888 saw two more vessels purchased, called the Francis Thorpe and the Abeona. They were both unfortunately wrecked after two years service.  A vessel called ‘ Pomona’ had three short years in the fleet from 1889 to 1892 before being abandoned at sea shortly after leaving London with a general cargo.

Then came a rapid spate of new orders.  The fast growth of the fleet was breathtaking. In all eighteen new vessels joined the fleet and in order they were:  Hawthornbank, Hazelbank, Elmbank, and Comliebank in 1889/90.     1891/2 saw eight new vessels named Thistlebank, Gowanbank, Ashbank, Beechbank, Fernbank, Oakbank, Cedarbank, and Olivebank built by A. McMillan & Sons.  They were all four-masted vessels. A year later came  six new buildings  named Levernbank, Laurelbank, Castlebank, Heathbank, Falklandbank, and Springbank.  This latter order from Russell and Company, in Port Glasgow, was called the Levernbank class after the lead ship, and they were also big  four-masted vessels with dimensions of 282.9 x 43 x 24.4 and 2,400 tons gross.   

Of the above, the Hawthornbank served for a remarkable twenty-one years and was eventually torpedoed and lost in 1917 when under the Norwegian flag.

The Gowanbank was abandoned off Cape Horn in 1896.

The Fernbank was wrecked in the Mozambique Channel after ten years in service.

The smart new Hazelbank was also unlucky, as on the 25th October 1980 she was lost on the Goodwin Sands whilst on a voyage from Port Townsend to Hull carrying a cargo of wheat. She had been in service less than twelve months.

 The Elmbank was lost when in January 1894 when being being towed from Le Havre to Greenock, she broke adrift from her tug and was wrecked on the South part of the Isle of Arran, near Bennan Head. The master’s wife and children were fortunately taken off by a tug before the ship was wrecked on the shore.

Oakbank was another casualty.  In 1900, while on a voyage from Callao to Iquique, she was wrecked on Serrano Island near Iquique.

The Comliebank was one of the few fortunate ships and lasted twenty-three years in the fleet, only to be lost in the Atlantic six years later under the Norwegian flag.  Thistlebank also went twenty-three years with the Weir fleet, and was torpedoed in 1915 when under Norwegian Ownership.

 Only the Beechbank made it to the breakers yard, but she had suffered a severe dismasting in 1916 during a gale, and managed to make refuge in Lerwick harbour.

Such was the ambition of Andrew Weir that second hand vessels continued to be purchased even in the middle of a big building programme.  Vessels named, Sardhana, Dunbritton, River Falloch, and Trongate were all acquired.   The Dunbritton foundered in the North Sea in 1906, mainly from having slack rigging, and an official enquiry at the time stated: “ The abandonment of the sailing ship “ Dunbritton” was not caused by the wrongful act or default of the master and chief officer, or of either of them. No blame attaches to Mr Andrew Weir, the managing owner. “   It goes on to blame the stowage of the cargo, and the foreman rigger, who failed to see the rigging was “ properly set up and taut”. He was fined £25 accordingly.     The other vessels were either sold off or went to the breakers.

The four-masted ships, ‘ Trafalgar’ and ‘Mennock’  joined the Weir fleet in 1893 . Trafalgar had been built in 1877 and was a fairly big ship at 271.5 ft long and 1768 tons gross.   After  eleven years valuable service she was wrecked after rounding the Horn, West to East on a voyage from Sydney with wheat, bound for Falmouth for orders. She had been in trouble before as stated in a report:   “During a voyage from Batavia to Melbourne in December 1893, the master and all the officers died, presumably of Java fever. Command was taken over by the senior apprentice, William Shotton (18 years), who navigated the ship all the way from Batavia to Melbourne.

Mennock was hulked after sixteen years service, but new owners re-rigged her and gave her the romantic name of Don Agusto. After a further seven years at sea she was also wrecked.

Only a handful of the full fleet of forty-seven vessels had an uneventful fate.   In the first fifteen years of trading, there were thirty sailing vessels and eleven steamers listed, but it must have been hard to accept the setbacks when smart new ships were lost. Building up a fleet in the days of sail was truly a battle against the elements, and to a certain extent ‘Lady Luck’ played a big part.

A closer look at the individual losses reveals some heart-rending stories, not least about the vessels that sailed and disappeared, never to be heard or seen again. The three-masted Falklandbank, built in 1894 by Mackie and Thomson, Glasgow, for example, disappeared at sea with all hands in December 1907.  She was loaded with coal in Port Talbot and bound round the Horn for Valparaiso.   The Loch Eck, purchased in 1894, stranded at Valparaiso within the year.   1895 two more vessels, the Isle of Arran and the Colessie joined the fleet, the latter ship being wrecked 6 years later.

The Ashbank, Laurelbank, Castlebank, and Heathbank mentioned earlier simply disappeared for good without any news of the ship, cargo, or crew.   It was agony for the family and friends of the crew ashore, made worse by not knowing the circumstances, and the long drawn out realisation as time passed with no news, that they were gone forever.      Other ships in the fleet with none ‘bank’ names that disappeared were the David Morgan, the Perseverance, the Glenbreck, and the Ellisland.   The Cedarbank also suffered this fate later when with new owners.   Pomona and Sardhana were abandoned, as was the Allegiance.  Others were wrecked.  The wrecked vessels each had a story to tell, which at least met the need for news of those waiting on shore,  albeit tragic news.  

The three-masted Thornliebank, built in 1896, was the second vessel with this name and also the last purpose built sailing vessel. She came to sudden grief after a long voyage from Chile when she hit the notorious Crim rocks in the Isles of Scilly.  The enquiry criticised the master.    He had not had a firm position for several days due to inclement weather, and what finally did for him and the ship was the Bishop Rock light characteristics which had been changed but crucially not registered on board.  The actual words of the Court of Enquiry judge were: “  Apart from the master’s omission to obtain a line of soundings, and his failure to identify the Bishop Rock Light, and the siren of the Round Island, the vessel was navigated with proper and seamanlike care.  The court finds that the loss of the ‘Thornliebank’ was due to the default of the master in not making himself acquainted with the changes in the seamarks at the Scilly Isles”.  

Although it was the tramping trades that gave young Mr Weir the way into the ship owning business, he soon created some regular trades.  Over time they became established liner routes.    It became a highly successful pattern, and it was reinforced at every opportunity.  The big fleet of vessels remained available on the open market for tramping, giving a high degree of flexibility and It was a successful formula.  In 1905 he settled on a new name for his fleet, the ‘Bank Line’ and this became world renowned and synonymous as a ‘no frills’ global service in both tramping and liner services.  For mariners, it was never a so-called ‘ prestige’ company, but many liked the varied and regular work that the growing fleet offered.  To achieve his aims, the owner built up a comprehensive network of agents and subsidiaries around the world, many of whom he partnered with in business, and many of whom became long-standing personal friends.       It was another success story, and it ran for many years from the beginning in 1885 to the time when rampant containerisation arrived in force.   When this happened, the regular trades that had formed the backbone of the modern service were gradually eroded by the growing container consortia and the concept of ‘hub’ ports and feeder services that evolved.  Today,  it can  be seen how the company desperately formed innovative services in the 1980s and 90s in an effort to find stability, but all to no avail.        Within the company itself, tragedy struck as the owning family suffered early deaths in the 1980s, and the interest and drive for shipping waned and then morphed into other non shipping activities.   

At the start, Andrew Weir went about his business quietly, content to trade and provide the best service possible to shippers worldwide.  Virtually unknown to the general public,  the nearest to global recognition of Bank Line occurred on the rare occasions that an incident hit the headlines.        Of the ships that made up the sailing fleet, the Olivebank was the most famous, as she was occasionally in the news, usually for being late, and she was to end her days under another well-known Finnish owner, Gustav Erikson.  With this owner some smart passages were made. Reams have been written about her longevity and ability to turn up when lost, but the end of her days came when she was ignominiously mined in the North Sea in 1942.     A few survivors clung to a spar protruding from the water, but the master and many others on board drowned. It was a sad end for a ship that had stretched the imagination of maritime folk, especially, the young. 

In the sailing ship age, longevity was down to a combination of factors, not unlike life itself.    Careful management, good masters, and a liberal helping of good fortune were essential ingredients.  Disaster at sea was a real possibility, and looking back it is clear that certain routes and particular cargoes flagged up danger.       A cursory examination of sailing ship records would show that coal from Newcastle, N.S.W. Australia was always a high-risk cargo due to fire from spontaneous combustion.  Careful stowage was also needed to avoid the danger of this cargo shifting in adverse weather.   The Bank Line had vessels lost on this route,  and the Castlebank  and Ellisland both suffered this particular fate.  The Gowanbank also met her end with a coal cargo, but loaded in Barry, S.Wales.  The following is a true account of the unwelcome experience of a coal cargo loaded in Newcastle and a subsequent fire:

“The beautiful Barque Cedarbank  was a sistership of the famous Olivebank, built at the same yard.   Her tonnage was 2825 gross, and 2649 net.  On her maiden voyage, in June 1892, she loaded coal at Newcastle for San Francisco.  Her cargo was 4,400 tons.   She sailed at the beginning of March, but shortly after sailing she lost part of her masts off of the Australian coast after being caught in a cyclone.    The cyclone caused much damage on the Australian coast, and the Cedarbank had to return to Sydney for repairs, sailing again at the end of April.   Outside of the harbour, the winds were mainly SE’ly, and it was decided to take advantage and sail the northerly route across the Pacific.   After 45 days at sea, strong fumes were then detected coming out of the ventilators, and later some hatches were taken off to allow painting of the coamings, when smoke was seen trickling up through the coal cargo.   The temperature was taken by lowering a thermometer down inside the masts, and as a result, it was decided to fight the fire at number 2 hatch first.       The coal was stowed right up into the hatch square, and about 250 tons was dumped overboard so as to make a space, and to get near the seat of the fire.   After three or four days, the men were overcome by fumes, so the pumps were started and water played over the coal until there was about 30 inches in the bilges where it was pumped out and recycled back onto the cargo.   This was kept going for several days, until just after 12 midnight one night, and ten days after the fire was first noticed there was an explosion.   This was in the fore end of number 2 hatch, and whilst a man was down below spraying water around.   The flames burst up through the coal and blue flames continued to cover the coal”.     The account continues and to a successful conclusion, as the Cedarbank made port safely after a long struggle.

   The saying, ‘ prudent mariner’ was never more relevant than when it was applied to a sailing ship master. His was  both a skill and a talent, enhanced with a sixth sense, one that enabled a few masters to live to old age, and to bring their crews home safely.   They needed to avoid disaster on a regular basis.    Appointing a trustworthy master was one of the trickiest decisions an owner had to make.  Nothing was guaranteed however, and the loss of the big beautiful German five-masted sailing vessel, the ‘Preussen’ captained by one of the most seasoned and skilled captains in the famous Laeisz fleet is a prime example where luck ran out. She was lost in the channel in a collision with a railway steamer and grounded at Beachy Head in adverse winds.  With hindsight, a wrong judgement over the position at a crucial time by the master meant the loss of this beautiful ship.    It is fascinating reading and heartrending in cold print, but the company did keep faith in him and he went on to successfully command other vessels.

   Sailing the big unwieldy ships, bereft of engines, and subject to current, tide, and fickle winds, meant that vigilance was constantly needed.   The ships were happiest out on the oceans with plenty of sea room but were helpless without tug assistance close to port.  The master alone regularly had to make crucial decisions that often meant life or death, and this could be a daily occurrence unless some relief was obtained in long periods of steady winds, as in the trades.   It was a guessing game to some extent betting on wind and weather in the immediate future, but years of experience and local knowledge determined whether sail should be set or shortened.     This was harder than it sounds because owners kept the pressure on to make fast passages which could not be achieved by regularly shortening sail unnecessarily, and an over-cautious master was unpopular and could lose his job.    In anything but steady winds, there was a constant need to be weighing up the amount of canvas aloft, and no master got it right 100% of the time.  No office job even remotely compares!

What of the crews?    They were a mixture of hard-bitten sailing men who were wild ashore, but good at sea, and crucially good aloft in times of need.  They were able to operate in all ocean conditions, often with howling gales plus the misery of the wet and cold.  Young, idealistic men made up the balance of able bodied hands,  but they often became disillusioned, and it was very common, even normal, for men to run away in foreign ports, quite regularly and at the first opportunity.  There was a common saying in the Forecastle – 

  ” Anybody who goes to sea from choice, would go to hell for a pastime!”  

Apprentices were a useful addition to the sailing vessels and were more idealistic and reliable than the hardbitten seamen.   Over the whole of the lifetime of Andrew Weir and the Bank Line, thousands of apprentices served their time afloat in sail, and later in steam and motor vessels.

Out of the grand total of sailing ships owned, twenty-six only were purpose-built, and the rest purchased, including a couple, Poseidon and Marion Frazer that were bought to serve as storage hulks at the Chilean  loading ports.  Some were in and out of the fleet only a short time.  It is clear that the owner proved to be very astute in the sale and purchase of ships in addition to his other considerable skills.  Sizes ranged, but the  4 vessels of the Levenbank class were some of the biggest. 

In 1896 the first steamer Duneric was built.  Thereafter the fleet had a steadily growing proportion of steam vessels, and in 1912 the last sailing vessel Philadelphia joined the fleet. She served for three years before being sold on to the Norwegians.   

So ended a remarkable story that has passed into the Maritime history books alongside other famous fleets.  The sailing era with all the beauty and romanticism it possessed was still a tough trade, and it was a tough life for those motivated enough to crew the ships.   They will long be remembered, as will Andrew Weir and the Bank Line sailing fleet that flew the flag so proudly for Britain.    

Alan Rawlinson – author of “ Any Budding Sailors?”

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