William Redvers Forster

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.

ICI COASTERS AT 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.

JOSEPH FREDERICK TERRETTA & THE COASTERS AT WAR

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.

THE SINKING OF SS CALCIUM
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.

HMS DASHER
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”.

THE NORMANDY LANDINGS
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.

AFTER THE WAR

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.

FORTY YEARS AT SEA: A VOYAGE WITH MY FATHER

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.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

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: http://www.blackpoolgazette.co.uk/blackpoolnews/Heroism-and-tragedy-in-tales.4515550.jp?articlepage=2

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

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