Monday, 14 August 2017

The sinking of the SS Neptun, Part 1

On the 3 November 1937 the Humber Conservancy Board (HCB) was brought before the Admiralty Court charged with negligence in undertaking its duties as a buoyage and beaconage authority. How had the HCB come to find itself in this situation?

The answer to this question can be found amongst the records of the Engineer’s Office, which maintained files on wrecks within the Board’s jurisdiction; the Board had been empowered to remove obstructions to navigation by the Humber Conservancy Act, 1899.

The previous year on 27 June, the SS Neptun, a Danish vessel owned by J. Lauritzen, was proceeding from Goole to Kiel with a cargo of coke breeze. The vessel was under the command of Captain Metsen, and Humber pilot John William Fielder was on board.

The Neptun was sailing without the benefit of the high tide, but using information obtained from the tide gauge at Whitgift, the pilot calculated that it would be safe to proceed if thirteen feet was to subsequently register at Blacktoff. As the only suitable stopping place between Goole and Hull was the moorings at Blacktoff, the Neptun would be committed to her voyage once she passed this point. The tide board at Blacktoff showed thirteen feet, and following the pilot’s advice the Master opted to proceed. It was a decision that would have serious consequences.

It was whilst navigating through the Whitton Channel that the Neptun met with disaster. At 2:20pm, shortly after passing the Middle Whitton Lightship, the ship quietly grounded. Efforts were made by the crew to free the vessel, but even attempting to utilise the wash of two passing steamships could not free her. By the time tugs had arrived at the scene the tide had fallen further, and they could not get close enough to assist.

The crew of the Neptun remained optimistic, and no danger was anticipated; it was fully expected that the vessel would float clear once the tide began to rise. This optimism would prove ill-founded, as the falling tide placed further strain on the ship. Around 6:15pm a series of loud bangs was heard as the Neptun began to split amidship. Water immediately flooded the hold, stokehold, and engine room. It was at this point the Captain gave orders to abandon ship.

The evacuation of the ship was an orderly affair, and the crew had plenty of time to collect personal belongings. The crew of fifteen, and the wives’ of the Captain and the Steward, were safely excavated to the Middle Whitton Lightship where they remained until they could be brought to Hull. By 9:30pm the Neptun was completely abandoned.


Illustration of the Lower Whitton Lightship. The Middle and Lower Whitton lightships
(Lv. 9 and Lv.10) were sister ships of identical design.
The Hull Daily Mail reported two days later that the crew had been in good spirits during the evacuation, ‘[the crew] had with them their mandolin and ukulele, and were singing and playing. The pilot said that he had never seen so lighthearted a ship wrecked crew’. The Cook however lamented all the overtime recently spent by the crew re-painting the vessel…only for her to become ‘food for the fishes’.

The Neptun’s masts and funnel remained visible during all states of the tide, but her hull was submerged during high water; it had become a hazard to navigation. The HCB acted quickly, moving the Middle and Lower Whitton lightships in order to mark a navigable channel clear of the wreck. Two green lights were placed on the vessel to mark her at night, and mariners were warned that only two feet of water could be expected during low ordinary spring tides in the Whitton Channel. The Lincoln and Hull Water Transport Company were subsequently employed for the sum of £1600 to disperse the wreck.


The HCB’s system of wreck marking.

Thankfully no lives were lost. However, the story does not end here. On 8 October 1936 the HCB was informed that the ship owners considered the Board responsible for their loss, and that they would pursue a claim for compensation.


Was the HCB held responsible for the sinking of the SS Neptun? This cannot be answered here, and so will need to wait for another post.

To be continued!

Robert Astin, Project Archivist

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