Information reproduced from the book “Mersey Rovers”, by kind permission of Roy Fenton. Transcribed by Annette Reynolds


This is the major example of a business running coasters which was not primarily in shipping. Although United Alkali had its offices in Liverpool, its coasters were less familiar in the Mersey than in North Wales or Lancashire ports and harbours. However, its river craft certainly were familiar on local waterways, although they are beyond the scope of this work.

United Alkali Co. Ltd. Was an amalgamation of most of the British companies which were making alkali by the Leblanc process. A short digression into industrial chemistry is necessary at this point to explain why the company was formed.

Chemically, alkali is sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. It is widely used in industry, particularly in the production of soap, textiles, paper and glass. There are some natural sources, including burning kelp to obtain an ash which yields sodium hydroxide or burning wood to give potash which provides potassium hydroxide, but in quality and quantity these could not keep pace with the needs of an industry.

In 1789 the Frenchman Nicholas Leblanc devised an industrial method which involved heating salt (sodium chloride) with sulphuric acid to produce sodium sulphate (known as salt cake, and used as such in glass making) and hydrogen chloride. The salt cake was then roasted with coal or coke and limestone (calcium carbonate) to produce black ash. Amongst other largely useless and noxious products, black ash contained sodium carbonate, which was obtained by dissolving the ash in hot water and allowing the sodium carbonate to crystallise out – the resulting product being referred to as soda ash. Sodium carbonate was useful in its own right – as washing soda, for instance – but could be turned into sodium hydroxide by treating it with lime (calcium hydroxide). Sodium hydroxide, or caustic soda, is the strongest alkali and is the basis of soap making.

Works using the Leblanc process were established in the United Kingdom at Newcastle, at Glasgow by Charles Tennant (an associate of William Sloan, later to become a shipowner), and at Liverpool by James Muspratt in 1823. Liverpool was chosen for the first large-scale application of the process as being close to sources of salt, coal and limestone and to the Lancashire textile industry.
But the Leblanc process had serious disadvantages. The hydrogen chloride formed in the first stage of the process was actually emitted into the atmosphere where it was rained out as hydrochloric acid. This acid rain caused enormous damage to plants, farm animals and people. The major waste product from the second stage, calcium sulphide, was solid and could be tipped, but reacted with rain water to produce the toxic and nasally offensive gas hydrogen sulphide which smells of rotten eggs. Pressure from those concerned about Liverpool’s environment led Muspratts to move their works to Newton-le-Willows and Widnes. Worse, at least from the manufacturer’s viewpoint, the sulphur tied up in the waste calcium sulphide was potentially valuable.

Recognising the wastefulness of the Leblanc process, there was a search for a better method of producing alkali, and by the 1870s the Belgian Solvay brothers had perfected the ammonia-soda process. Sodium chloride was reacted with lime (calcium hydroxide) to give sodium hydroxide and calcium chloride. The latter was the only waste product, and was harmless. In the UK Ludwig Mond acquired the rights to Solvay’s process and in partnership with John Brunner established a works at Winnington near Northwich in 1873. Exploiting the new process, and investing heavily in research and development, Brunner, Mond and Co. Ltd. Succeeded brilliantly in competing with the Leblanc manufacturers and captured a large share of the market.

By 1889, almost a third of the UK’s 700,000 tons of soda was produced by the ammonia-soda process. With trade depressed in the late 1880s, the response of the 40 major Leblanc manufacturers was to amalgamate to form the United Alkali Co. Ltd. Formed in February 1891, its aim was to rationalise production to leave a few, efficient works, and to adopt new technology not just for soda production but for the growing variety of other chemicals which were valuable by-products of the Leblanc process. Many old Leblanc works were closed, including Muspratt’s and several at Runcorn and Widnes.
Amongst the new plants developed by United Alkali was the Fleetwood Ammonia Soda Works, which began production in 1893 at Burn Naze on the River Wyre near Fleetwood. Salt had been discovered here about twenty years earlier and was exploited by the Fleetwood Salt Co. This new salt field was seen by the alkali industry as a way of breaking the virtual monopoly of the Salt Union in the Cheshire salt field.
The Solvay process was adopted at the Fleetwood works – in direct competition with Brunner, Mond – and by 1911 it was producing 100,000 tons of soda each year.

With the chemistry lesson over it is time to return to maritime history. The United Alkali Co. Ltd. Acquired its first steam coaster, the aptly-named SODIUM, in 1892 – probably with the business of its former owner Wilton Allhusen. This little steamer was sold in 1906. The company had many other craft, however, including sailing flats, lighters, steam barges and at least one early motor vessel which were used on the waterways connecting with the Mersey. These little craft ventured from the Mersey as far as the Deeside ports and North Wales for limestone and ran between Chester Basin at Liverpool and Fleetwood. However, it was not until the First World War that the United Alkali Co. Ltd. Became serious owners of coasters.

In 1917 and 1918 they took delivery of two medium-sized and two large steamers, the LITHIUM and HELIUM of 135 feet, and the BARIUM and CALCIUM of 180 feet. The latter pair were not only unusually large, but also had distinctive goalpost foremasts at a time when these were rare on coasters. Another atypical feature was that for at least part of their careers the hulls of these coasters were painted grey.

The ships were built to carry limestone from quarries at Llanddulas on the North Wales coast – especially Raynes’ Quarry – to the alkali works at Burn Naze. A jetty had been built contemporaneously with the soda works, and the company originally relied on other owner’s ships: those of Zillah and Kennaugh are reported to have been employed carrying limestone. The decision by United Alkali to buy its own ships in 1917 must have reflected the difficulty of fixing ships at a reasonable price when freight rates were inflated by the war.

A further 180-foot steamer, the SODIUM, was delivered in 1923 by Rennoldsons who had built three of the earlier ships, but was distinguished by a conventional pole fore mast. Rennoldson also built a much smaller steamer, the INDIUM of 110 feet, and her size suggests she was built for trading on the Upper Mersey and the Weaver, although she also served Burn Naze. Reflecting the expansion of United Alkali fleet, the facilities at Burn Naze had been extended in 1924 when a southern arm had been added to the works’ jetty.

The United Alkali Co. Ltd. Was the largest manufacturing concern in the United Kingdom, and at its formation had been the world’s largest chemical company, but it was hardly the most efficient. The result of a defensive merger of companies whose fortunes were declining, it relied on old and inefficient processes, and had loaded itself with much obsolete plant charged at high prices. The board members, too, were ageing and the company was not adept at the up and coming arts of selling and marketing its goods. In a rather gruesome way, it was spared by the First World War, as one of the products which was in demand was chlorine gas for use on the battlefields.

Once peace returned, and the subsequent depression, the United Alkali’s deficiencies became obvious. It could not compete with Brunner, Mond on price for soda ash, but had the important advantage of producing chlorine which the Solvay process could not. However, from the 1890s the process of electrolysis of brine was slowly developed. By passing an electric current through salt in solution it was possible to make both sodium hydroxide and chlorine, and this marked the beginning of the end for the Leblanc process. The United Alkali Company became an “industrial pauper”.

Events in the wider chemical industry were to bring an answer to United Alkali’s woes. In November 1925, several large German chemical and dyestuffs companies merged to form IG Farbenindustrie, partly as a reaction to difficulties imposed on German industry by the Treaty of Versailles. Only in the USA was the chemical industry organised on such a scale. The industrial and technological might of IG Farben persuaded – or perhaps frightened – the major British chemical companies to come together in a merger. The moving spirits were the cash-rich Nobel Industries Ltd. And the technically competent Brunner, Mond; their heads concluded an agreement whilst returning from the USA on the AQUITANIA in October 1926.

United Alkali Company were dragged in rather reluctantly, whilst the British government agreed to the inclusion of the British Dyestuffs Corporation Ltd. Which they partly controlled. These were the four largest companies in the British chemical industry and, on the basis that the British Empire was to be their major field of operations, chose the title Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. Two other components of ICI are worth recording for their Merseyside connections, both being included because Brunner, Mond held a financial stake: Castner-Kellner who in 1897 had begun producing sodium hydroxide electrolytically at Weston Point, and the Salt Union Ltd. – result of a disastrous merger of most British salt producers in 1888 – which became a wholly-owned subsidiary of ICI in 1937.

To return from global industrial politics to coasters, what change did the merger bring? Outwardly, there was only a new funnel incorporating ICI’s enduring roundel, and even this may not have been applied immediately as not until August 1932 were the ships officially transferred to the ownership of Imperial Chemicals Industries (General Chemicals) Ltd. In April 1935 the owning division became the Alkali Division. Amalgamation also brought the coasters to the Mersey and Weaver, where they occasionally served Wallerscote and Winnington works, but essentially they continued carrying limestone to the River Wyre, a routine broken only by cargoes of finished products to other ports, including Glasgow, Bristol, Dublin, Belfast and Liverpool. A round trip from North Wales to Fleetwood could be accomplished in 24 hours, and to encourage the crew a bonus was paid if 28 trips were completed in a month.

Not even the outbreak of war made much difference to the coasters’ typical routine of plodding back and forth between Fleetwood and the quarry at Llanddulas. Degaussing gear was fitted as some protection against magnetic mines and a Lewis gun gave at least psychological support in the not-unlikely event of air attack. It was a mine, possibly of the contact variety, which caused the company’s first loss. CALCIUM left Fleetwood about 9.15pm on the evening of Sunday 29th December 1940, sailing for Llanddulas at about six knots. At 4.30am when she was off the Welsh Coast there was an explosion beneath the stokehold, stopping the engines and extinguishing the lights. Escaping steam enveloped the ship and made it impossible to see anything in the stokehold, where fireman James Morris was the only member of the crew not accounted for. As the CALCIUM settled by the stern the master and chief engineer went below, found his body and brought it up on deck. They also discovered that the explosion had blown the donkey engine across the engine room. The SODIUM had sailed in company with the CALCIUM and on hearing the explosion she came to her sister’s assistance. The eight surviving members of the crew and the body of the fireman were taken onto the SODIUM and she attempted to tow the CALCIUM. However, the disabled ship was sinking, and she went down at about 8.20am off the Little Orme.

Although Captain Atkinson of the CALCIUM claimed that his degaussing gear was switched on and in working order, a naval report disputed that the CALCIUM was fitted with degaussing gear, and also maintained that she was not using a channel that had been checked for mines. The latter is probably correct: channels to small ports would not have been swept frequently. Captain Atkinson and the chief engineer were awarded George Medals for their attempted rescue of the fireman.

As a replacement for CALCIUM, ICI acquired it’s first sea-going motor vessel, the eccentrically-named JOLLY DAYS, a name which much have caused her crew both amusement and embarrassment. Wartime strengthening of the fleet also involved the purchase of the BEESTON and WESTON on the break-up of Richard Clark’s fleet, and – much more notably – the arrival of a new motor coaster, CERIUM. That ICI were allowed to build a coaster for themselves when shipbuilding was strictly controlled speaks of the importance of the chemical industry to modern warfare. Amongst the companies in this book, CERIUM had another claim to fame: she was the first motor vessel built by a Merseyside-based owner for the coastal bulk trades, although Coast Lines Ltd. Had considerable experience with motor ships in the short-sea liner trade. In the use of oil-engines, local owners were lagging well behind London and Glasgow owners, the latter including William Robertson who was in the same trades as the Mersey companies. The usual reason given for shunning oil engines was their unreliability, but by 1943 the Dutch had over twenty years successful experience with German and Dutch-built engines, and British manufacturers were also building thoroughly reliable units.

Despite the importance of the ICI coasters’ work, several took part in the all-out effort of Operation Neptune, the naval part of the invasion of Normandy. WESTON and BEESTON were involved, the latter not returning. JOLLY DAYS also had an adventurous time. She was damaged by fire in Liverpool’s Alexandra Dock during the heavy bombing the port received on 7/8th May 1941: the night Brocklebank’s MALAKAND (7,649/1919) and her cargo of ammunition blew up. Later in the war, JOLLY DAYS sighted a ditched seaplane in what was suspected to be a minefield. The JOLLY DAYS approached and all the seamen manned her boat and rescued the survivors.
Although remaining on the ship, the captain received an award in the form of an MBE. LITHIUM took part in a far more spectacular rescue, when she witnessed an aircraft carrier explode: this was presumably the escort carrier HMS DASHER which blew up and sank on the Clyde on the 27th March 1943. The LITHIUM rescued some 60 of the crew, the only survivors of a major but little-publicised naval disaster.

After the war, ICI gradually disposed of its older steamers, and slowly added further motorships. The practice of naming them after elements continued with THORIUM of 1947 and CALCIUM of 1959, but an exception was made in the case of POLYTHENE of 1949. The discovery of polyethylene – a name contracted to polythene – in the 1930s was ICI’s largest contribution to the plastics industry. This discovery was made at the Alkali Division’s Winnington Works, and was made possible only by a group of scientists working out-of-ours as laboratory management had banned high-pressure experiments because they were inclined to result in explosions. Alkali Division guarded their new, world-beating product very closely and refused to allow other, better qualified divisions to become involved. Was the decision to use the name on one of the Division’s ships a piece of one-upmanship? The name polythene was not a trade mark, or its use on a ship would not have been sanctioned by the company.

Apart from the loss of CALCIUM during the war, the fleet went about it’s business with a few untoward incidents. The major peacetime accident occurred on 11th January 1951 when the THORIUM capsized two miles off Fleetwood when inward bound with limestone. Somewhat surprisingly for a relatively new vessel, the cause was found to be water entering through cracks in her deck. After the THORIUM’S cargo was transferred to barges she was salvaged in May 1951 and repaired at Ardrossan, not returning to service until September 1952.

By 1957, only three vessels were based at Fleetwood. THORIUM was normally used to carry limestone; SODIUM carried finished product mostly to Glasgow but also to Dublin, Belfast and Irvine; and CERIUM ran with both as supply and demand dictated. On delivery, CALCIUM went into the limestone trade and allowed the last of the steamers, SODIUM, to be retired after over 35 years creditable service. THORIUM took the steamer’s place carrying finished product. Even with this reduced fleet there were occasional slack period at Fleetwood when ships were chartered out. For instance, CERIUM ran between the UK and Scandinavia during the summer of 1960. Her predecessor SODIUM had been on charter to the Belfast Steamship Co. Ltd. For two months in 1949.

ICI’s works at Winnington on the River Weaver received its limestone by rail from Derbyshire, but did use coasters to export its finished product. The vessels used out of Fleetwood were too large to navigate the Weaver, and smaller vessels were bought or built; the JOLLY DAYS which was succeeded by POLYTHENE. The latter also helped out occasionally on the Fleetwood limestone run.

Supply of limestone to Fleetwood ceased in 1964 when the Burn Naze factory closed and the jetty was demolished. The CALCIUM, CERIUM & THORIUM were soon sold, leaving only the POLYTHENE trading out of the Weaver, and she too was sold in 1972 although she retained her name until lost in 1979.

The coasters represent only a small proportion of the total watercraft fleets of either United Alkali or ICI. The former had a number of smaller vessels, operating on the Mersey and its connecting waterways and elsewhere. Brunner, Mond – United Alkali’s competitor until the two merged in 1932 – also had a considerable river and estuarine fleet, which passed into ICI ownership, although they continued to be referred to as “Brunners” until they ceased trading in 1980. Acquisition of the Salt Union brought further river craft into the empire, and the Nobel Division and it predecessors have a long tradition of owning coasters to move explosives, although these were based on the Firth of Clyde.

Read / Leave a Comment

Information courtesy of Bill Caplin’s daughter, Mrs Smith


SODIUM (ON 147225) From 3.11.41
BARIUM (ON 140577) From 8.2.42
LITHIUM (ON 137540) From 17.4.42
HELIUM (ON 137548) From 14.8.42
SS WESTON (ON 143670) From 27.5.45

Last entry is on signing off from SS BARIUM on 6.12.51

Bill Caplin’s daughter, Mrs Smith insisted that he also was on THORIUM and the Captain was a Jim Humphries (also skipper on HELIUM). It’s possible that they did not include details of all the sailings since the voyages were so short so, perhaps, he would have been 2nd Engineer under William Redvers Forster on THORIUM in 1947.

She said that on one occasion one of the ships took gun cotton to Dunkirk during the war.

Her father left ICI in 1951 when the crew refused to go to sea without a day at home with their families between voyages. He spoke to management in the ICI Office on their behalf and they told him he either took the ship to sea or left the company. He left ICI and lost his pension.

He was qualified as 2nd Engineer but often served as Chief but at the end all they would give him was the job of fireman and being small, only 5´ 2″, he found this too hard.

Click to enlage images

Bill Caplin

Bill Caplin

Bill Caplin

Bill Caplin

Bill Caplin's Certificate

Bill Caplin's Certificate

Read / Leave a Comment

Information courtesy of Bill Forster

My father, William Redvers Forster (1900-75), spent forty years as a marine engineer in the Merchant Navy but only once served on a coaster, when he went back to sea after the war. On the 25 March 1947 he joined ICI’s Alkali Division as Chief Engineer on MV THORIUM, the latest addition to a small fleet of grey painted coasters which brought limestone from Llanddulas (between Abergele and Colwyn in North Wales) to the ICI Hillhouse plant in Fleetwood.


Welsh limestone and salt brine from Fleetwood’s salt deposits were the raw materials for manufacturing soda ash. The coastal trade between the limestone quarries of North Wales and the Fleetwood factory of the United Alkali Co. (from 1926, ICI) dates back to at least 1907 when a company history included a photograph of the ship Hermann at the “rock salt jetty” in Fleetwood and also mentioned a Burn Naze Jetty that was exempt from dock dues.

By the 1920s the United Alkali Company had six small grey painted steamers: the INDIUM, the HELIUM and LITHIUM (both built in 1917), CALCIUM and BARIUM (1918), and the SODIUM (1923), the last of the steamers. The SS WESTON and BEESTON retained their names when they were bought from the Overton Shipping Co. Ltd of Liverpool in 1942. The coasters had a crew of eight: the captain, mate, an OS (ordinary seaman), three AB (able bodied seaman) and two engineers. There was no cook, they had to prepare their own food.

A private jetty had been built in 1923 at Burn Naze on the River Wyre where the coasters could berth at high tide. The jetty was T-shaped with room for four small coasters. If the coasters were on the “stone run” they left Fleetwood at high tide for the six hour passage to Llanddulas and then waited for the next high tide before berthing to load their cargo of 700 tons of limestone from Raynes quarry at Llysfaen. The stone was brought to the jetty in tipper wagons on rails which made a terrible noise as it was tipped into the single large hold but this was later changed to a conveyor belt. The coasters had to load and be away within two hours or would run aground. Six hours later they would be back in Fleetwood waiting for the next high tide to go upriver and berth at Burn Naze. The round trip took 26 hours and they made eighteen trips a month.

When not on the stone run they took soda ash or Calcium flake from Burn Naze to Glasgow, Belfast and Dublin. These longer trips took a week and they often went direct to Llanddulas for a cargo of stone before returning to Fleetwood.


Captain Cross was Senior Master of the small fleet of ICI coasters in the 1920s, followed by Captains Green, Houghton, Albert Burrows and J. R. (“Johnnie”) Atkinson but the best known was the last, Captain Joseph Fredrick Terretta (1900-90), who retired in 1962 after 42 years on the coasters.

Joseph was born in Runcorn but the Terretta family came from Naples around 1810. His father, William Harrison Terretta, was Master of the SS Sutton, one of three small coasters owned by the Overton Steamship Company of Liverpool. It’s two sister ships, SS Weston and SS Beeston, later became part of the ICI coaster fleet. Joseph went to sea on his father’s ships when he was fourteen and was on them throughout the First World War before joining the ICI coasters at Fleetwood. In 1925 the Sutton left Aberyswyth for Antwerp with a cargo of lead and zinc concentrate. Captain Terretta’s wife and daughter were passengers, his second son was Mate and his son in law Chief Engineer. The cargo shifted in heavy seas and the Sutton foundered in Cardigan Bay with the loss of all hands. This terrible family tragedy left the eldest son, Joseph Frederick, as head of the family with five orphaned brothers and sisters.

On 30 December 1940 SS Calcium (built 1918) struck an acoustic mine whilst en route to Llandulas and sank. Most of the crew were rescued by its sister ship, SS Sodium, under Captain J. F. Terretta but James Morris, the stoker, was killed. Captain J. R. Atkinson and Chief Bramley of the Calcium were awarded the George Medal for attempting his rescue and recovering the body.

On 27 March 1943 the aircraft carrier HMS Dasher exploded in the Clyde estuary and 379 crew members died when escaping aviation fuel ignited and the sea caught fire. The SS Lithium under Captain Joseph F. Terretta was nearby and went upwind from the survivors struggling in the water and allowed his small coaster to drift towards them whilst the crew threw overboard anything which would float and hauled the survivors aboard. He repeated this manoeuvre several times and rescued sixty. The crew of the Lithium were told not to talk about the disaster. Captain Terretta had to explain why he was late arriving at Llandulas but he never told his own daughters, who still live in Cleveleys. The astonishing story of the disaster and the rescue was told by John Steele in his book, “They Were Never Told. The Tragedy of HMS Dasher”.

SS Weston and SS Beeston, sister ships of the Sutton, were requisitioned by the Admiralty and were part of the armada of small merchant ships which took supplies to the Normandy beaches after D-Day in June 1944. Captain Joseph F. Terretta was Master of SS Weston. He nearly lost the Weston on one trip to the beaches but over the next three months made 52 supply missions, moving east from Southampton to Newhaven, Dover and the Thames estuary as the invasion advanced. He became so exhausted that he had to go into hospital in Belgium to recover and when he returned his son, Frederick Terretta, home on leave from the Royal Navy, thought “Dad looked so ill I wouldn’t have known him”. He told his son that the Weston “got home on two or three gallons of red lead to hold it together”. Captain Terretta was honoured by the Prince Regent of Belgium by being named a Knight of the Order of Prince Leopold II.

Captain Terretta’s son, Frederick, photographed on SS Sodium in 1926, made many trips with his father on the coasters and had a distinguished wartime career in the Royal Navy. His grandson, Joseph Bottomley, became the third generation of the Terretta family to obtain a BOT Certificate as Master but spent most of his career lecturing at Fleetwood Nautical College.


The old steamers were replaced by motor vessels. MV Cerium built by the Goole Shipping Co. in 1944 and MV Thorium built at Burntisland on the Firth of Forth in 1947, replaced SS Indium, Barium, Helium, Weston and Beeston and Lithium leaving SS Sodium, built 1923 at South Shields, as the only coal fired steamer.

In January 1951 Thorium ran aground on Lighthouse Bank and on the next high tide was swept over the bar where it rolled on its side and filled with water. A film of its salvage with air inflated “camels” can be seen on the web site of the Blackpool Gazette. In 1964 it ran aground again, on Knott Spit. Billy ‘Gish’ (Grisenthwaite), the Chief Engineer, said “We had a bad leak at the stern-end, water was pumped out and quick drying cement used to fill the engine room bilge; it was pretty hair-raising”. After six days it was re-floated and repaired.

MV Calcium, at 800 GRT the largest as well as the newest of the coasters, joined the fleet in 1959 but the ICI Alkali Division closed its plant at Burn Naze in 1964 and the coasters were sent to the ICI soda ash plant at Winnington on the River Weaver (Calcium and Sodium) or chartered and sold (Thorium and Cerium). The Cerium was later sank as a dive attraction in the Portland Island Marine Park near Vancouver, British Columbia.

The trade bringing limestone from North Wales to Fleetwood which began in the nineteenth century came to an end but many of the seamen who sailed on the coasters live on and their memories made this exhibition possible.


My interest in the ICI coasters stemmed from research into the life of my father, William Redvers Forster (1900-75). After commissioning in the RAF as an Observer Gunner on anti-submarine patrols in seaplanes in Orkney he completed an apprenticeship as a fitter at Wallsend on Tyne and went to sea in 1921 as a junior engineer with Eagle Oil and later as Chief Engineer on “tramps” and oil tankers. He was commissioned in both wars, serving as Lt(E) on HMS Venomous in World War II. After the war he returned to sea in March 1947 as Chief Engineer on MV Thorium, the only time he was on coasters.

MV Thorium was a new ship of 604 GRT and 189 foot in length when my father joined as “Chief” in March 1947 under Captain J. R. (“Johnnie”) Atkinson, the senior captain of the ICI fleet and wartime winner of the George Medal. The Crew List for Thorium in the National Archives gave my father’s name and that of his fellow crew members. Captain Atkinson and most of his crew are dead but the 2nd Engineer, C. McDonald, plus two deck hands, Large and Richardson, may still be alive and I would love to hear from them.

His wife and three sons were living near Stockport and he probably stayed in “digs” at Burn Naze or Thornton Cleveleys. Perhaps somebody remembers him? If you do please do get in touch with me by phone or e-mail.

After six months he left ICI and went back on the foreign trade which took him to sea for up to eighteen months at a time. When the ICI Alkali Division closed its works at Burn Naze my father’s old ship, MV Thorium, was sold to a Turkish shipping company, renamed Deniz 4 and sank in the Black Sea in 2002 when its cargo shifted in heavy weather – the crew were saved.

Welsh limestone and salt brine from Fleetwood’s salt deposits were the principal raw materials for the manufacture of soda ash at ICI’s Hillhouse plant and there was a private jetty at Burn Naze on the River Wyre where the coasters could unload at high tide. If the coasters were on the “stone run” they would leave Burn Naze at high tide for the six hour passage to Llanddulas and then wait for the next high tide before berthing to load their cargo of 700 tons of limestone from Raynes quarry at Llysfaen. The coasters had to load and be away within two hours or would run aground. Six hours later they would be back in Fleetwood waiting at the old Isle of Man berth in Fleetwood for the next high tide to go upriver and unload at Burn Naze. The round trip took 26 hours and they made eighteen trips a month. The crew rarely had a day at home with their families but received extra pay for Saturdays and Sundays at sea.

When not on the stone run they took soda ash or Calcium flake from the Hillhouse to Glasgow (Princes Dock), Irvine and, occasionally, to Belfast and Dublin. These longer trips would take about a week and on the return trip they often went direct to Llanddulas for a cargo of stone before returning to Fleetwood.

William Caplin joined the coasters in 1941 and served on SS Sodium (Official Number 147225), BARIUM (ON 140577), LITHIUM (ON 137540), HELIUM (ON 137548), WESTON and BEESTON, all of them steamers, during the war years. On one occasion a coaster carried a cargo of gun cotton to Dunkirk. He had a 2nd Engineers Certificate from the Engineers Committee of the Fleetwood Steam Trawlers Mutual Insurance Association but sometimes served as Chief Engineer on the ICI coasters. He also served on MV THORIUM. The skipper, Jimmy Humphreys, taught himself to read and write after leaving school, gained a Master’s Certificate and joined ICI on the coasters.

The THORIUM was a new ship built at Burntisland on the Firth of Forth by the Burntisland Shipbuilding Co. Ltd. in 1947 and was 189 foot long and 604 GRT. MV CERIUM, slightly smaller at 174 foot and 532 GRT, was built at Goole in 1943 (and was later sank as a dive attraction in a marine park off Portland Island, near Vancouver). These new motor vessels probably replaced BARIUM, LITHIUM and HELIUM leaving SS SODIUM, built in 1923 at South Shields, as the only coal fired steamer. Their crews of eight consisted of the captain, mate, an OS (ordinary seaman), three AB (able bodied seaman) and two engineers. There was no cook, they had to bring and prepare their own food.

MV CALCIUM joined the fleet in 1959 but within a few years the ICI Alkali Division closed its plant at Hillhouse (the Nobel and Plastics Divisions remained) and the ships were either sent to the ICI soda ash plant at Winnington on the River Weaver in Cheshire (CALCIUM and SODIUM) or chartered and then sold (THORIUM and CERIUM). The coastal trade bringing limestone from North Wales to Fleetwood which dates back at least a hundred years finally came to an end.


Many of those who worked on the coasters are still living in Fleetwood today and this display would not have been possible without their assistance.

We would particularly like to mention:

Billy Grisenthwaite, universally known as Billy “Gish” who was engineer on all the coasters between 1955 and the1960ies.

Ian Rae who joined the ICI coasters as 2nd Engineer of the Thorium in 1951 and told me about the sinking of the Cerium near Vancouver.

Ian Woods, a crew member of MV Thorium, who sent scans of the splendid photographs of it aground on Knott Spit in 1964.

Leo Johnson, for two years an OS (Ordinary Seaman) on the old steamer, SS Sodium, MV Thorium and MV Calcium from 1959.

Reginald Hull who worked on Cerium, Thorium and Calcium as OS and AB

And also thank:

Frederick Terretta and his wife Trudie and his sister, Margaret Bottomley, for information about their father, Captain Joseph Frederick Terretta. Fred married Trudie Barnes, secretary to the “ships’ husband” in the office of the ICI Alkali Division, worked for ICI all his life and lives in Hertfordshire.

Mrs Smith for information about her father, Bill Caplin, 2nd Engineer (and occasionally “Chief”) on the coasters, between 1941-51, including the Normandy run, and for lending photographs and family documents for scanning.

Graham McIver who provided a film of the salvage of the Thorium in 1951 which can be seen at:

Don Sutton, a former employee at ICI Alkali works

John and Noreen Steele who researched, wrote and published “They Were Never Told. The Tragedy of HMS Dasher”.

Danny O’Neil, the former Public Relations Officer at ICI, who supplied many of the photographs and conceived, planned and organised this display.

Fleetwood Reference Library for their help in researching the early history of the ICI Alkali Division and its fleet of coasters and for hosting this exhibition.

Bill Forster May 2008

Read / Leave a Comment

The River Wyre was used for trading by coastal vessels before the 1600s. Traders established a presence at Poulton-le-Fylde with vessels unloading at Skippool (Ship Pool). Poulton was a sub-port under Lancaster and had a Custom House prior to 1708 whilst Wardleys, across the river, had a wharf and warehouse, built in 1741, for trade with Barbados. Into Poulton would pour timber from Russia and the Americas, nitrates from Africa and wines, tea and tobacco. Flax imports fed the sailcloth industries at Poulton and Kirkham.

Most of the Poulton trade would have been coastal with sailing flats, sloops and ketches ranging up and down the West Coast to ports such as Liverpool, Lancaster and Whitehaven.

As new harbour facilities were built at Fleetwood, in the 1800s, much of this trade was transferred to the new port, thanks largely to the rail link provided by the Preston and Wyre Railway which opened in 1840. This connected to other rail systems allowing goods to be quickly transported all over Lancashire to fuel its expanding industries.

Until the opening of the enclosed dock, in 1877, Fleetwood’s riverside quays handled an increasing overseas and coastal trade. The Belfast steamers were built for the transportation of cargo as well as passengers. Other steamers would transport slate from Wales, clay from Cornwall and iron from Scotland, Furness and Cumbria. The export trade saw an increasing amount of coal beginning to flow across the Irish Sea to Ireland.

The opening of the dock in 1877 saw a marked increase in trade, although the export trade failed to expand to the same degree as the import trade.
Because the railway owned the port facilities, charges for goods carried over the rail network were relatively low and this gave the port an added advantage until the opening of Preston Dock and the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894 caused the port’s import/export trade to go into steep decline at the same time that the fishing industry began to take off.

One type of vessel that was commonly found was the sailing “flat”. These were flat bottomed barges designed to trade the tidal creeks along the coast. They would bring their cargo in and wait until low water when they would sit on the hard sandbanks and offload their goods directly into horse drawn carts. Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood was known to have owned ten of these vessels.

Up river, at Burn Naze, a private jetty had been built to serve the United Alkali Company works. Limestone was brought to the works from Welsh quarries whilst soda ash, salt and alkaline products were exported from there by coastal vessels bearing names such as Calcium, Cerium, Thorium and Sodium.

In later years a variety of cargos were carried by steam and motor powered coastal vessels including paraffin wax, sulphur, carbide, fruit, butter and vegetables. On their outward voyages the coasters were often ballasted but have carried glass, chemicals, cars, steelwork and scrap metal. Fuel for the trawlers was brought by small coastal tankers like Onward Progress, Onward Pioneer, Onward Mariner and Onward Enterprise, bringing oil from Heysham and Stanlow.

Read / Leave a Comment

This site will cover all aspects of Fleetwood’s Maritime History that are not covered by The Bosun’s Watch and Fleetwood Motor Trawler sites. These deal exclusively with the fishing industry.

Almost from the time that it was built, Fleetwood was noted for its fishing industry. But what is rarely publicised is the rest of its rich and varied maritime heritage

Quite apart from fishing, Fleetwood was at the forefront of trade with other nations and had a thriving boat-building industry with Armour’s and Gibson’s yards turning out many fine vessels. One of them, MAUNA LOA, is still operational today.

Steamers plied their trade to the Isle of Man and Belfast and many trading vessels docked from all over the world.

To keep these vessels operational and the port capable of servicing them, many ancillary industries sprang up around them. Shipwrights, painters, plumbers, tinsmiths, riggers, sailmakers, electricians, braiders and many, many more came and are now no more.

Who now remembers Teon Beltworks, Joe Littler’s blacksmiths, Gourocks, Coal Salt, Massey’s Seamens Outfitters, Fleetwood Trawlers Supplies, Fleetwood Box Pool, Lister auto trucks, the smoke house, the dock clog maker, Isaac Spencer’s for what they really were, or remember the trawlers offices, Marr, Boston, Wyre, Iago with the crews assembling for their “settling” complete with a bass of fish? How many are left that called into one of the dock cafes for a doorstep of toast dripping with real butter and a pot of sweet, strong tea?

Who remembers the dock gates and the dock gate cafe, the compass adjusters and much more?

While there is a (much deserved) monument to the fishermen on the seafront, not much is mentioned about the rest of our heritage. This site intends to address that.

It is right and proper that the town moves on and develops in the wake of the collapse of the fishing industry (and Fleetwood has seen many industries collapse in its short life) but it is not right that any aspect of it should be forgotten. All that is left now is the seafront monument and a “Heritage Trawler” that is gradually being squeezed out of its berth. There is a wealth of history out there from Bold Hesketh’s Rossall fleet to today’s ferries and this needs to be recorded.

Any personal recollections and/or photographs are very welcome.

Read / Leave a Comment