Oral history recording of David Carter of Blyth, Northumberland, recalling his experiences as a Foy boatman in Blyth Harbour.
Part 1 – Sinking of the Chipchase
At the time, Dave was working for the Harbour on the dredgers and barges and the floating crane. He could be moved to any job – especially as he been in the merchant navy and was used to shipping. When the Chipchase was called out that day they were two men short – the other man with him also didn’t usually work on the tug. It was called out to put a ship into dry dock.
That wasn’t the Chipchase’s normal job. It was usually used to do different jobs – for example to take the floating crane out of the piers to change the floating bouy – generally doing work in the port, but not shipping. It belonged to the port, not to the tug company. She was used that particular day because the tug company’s tugs were too busy.
While they were putting the ship into the dry dock, the pilot on the ship changed his mind – he could see another ship coming down the river and wanted to get out of the way. He ordered full steam ahead and straighten up and that pulled the tug over.
The reason tugs had to be used was to turn ships around. They did not have bow thrusters then, and only had one engine. If a ship was going up river to Bates’ the tug would take you up to the turning basin, and then you would steam alongside Bates’ – the same if going to Alcan, they had to go up river, turn round and come back down, but there wasn’t enough room for a ship to swing round.
The day the Chipchase sank, you couldn’t have turned a big ship round there – there were ships at North Blyth and at the Wimbourne Quay. The ship they were putting in dry dock was only a small ship, it was a “flat iron” ship – so called because it took coal from the Northeast down to Battersea Power Station and had masts and a bridge that could drop to get under all the bridges.
They were trying to put this one into dry dock when another flat iron ship left the West Staithes and the pilot changed his mind. When he pushed the ship full ahead he managed to sink the tug, because the tug had had to slack the guy rope off in order to swing the ship round.
The tug kept going further and further over and Dave’s workmate asked him “How far can this thing go before it capsizes?”. He replied “Not much further – and by the way, I’m leaving now” and dived off. When he dived off, he nearly dived into the propeller which was coming up out of the water. That tug had two propellers, and he just missed it.
Can’t remember skipper’s name. There was one engineer, the donkeyman (it was a coalburning tug and he filled the coal up for the boilers) two on deck, and the skipper. The skipper was on top of the bridge, not inside the bridge cabin, and he was struggling to hold on.
As soon as he surfaced, he saw it go over and sink. The ship had sunk, and everyone had got off except the engineer who was in the engine room. Then a massive air bubble came out of the engine room and he popped up in the air bubble. He never worked on that tug again. In fact he stopped working for the harbour. Dave swam to across to a ship called the Queensland. They had seen the disaster and put the pilot ladder over for him to climb out.
The foy boatmen who were waiting to moor the ship in the dry dock steamed across and picked up the other lads. All went to hospital for check-ups.
He doesn’t know what was said about the pilot and can’t remember his name. There was no court case – Perhaps if someone had lost their life there would have been.
He wasn’t involved with the raising operation – he was back on the dredgers by then and not long after that he went onto the foy boats.
Dave Carter, Foy Boatman (File 2)
How he became a foy boatman –
Left school and went to South Shields Marine Tech for a year, from 15 to 16. Then sailed away, deep sea, for 3 years before working on small colliers along the coast. Then started for the port of Blyth. While working in the dredging shed, got to know the foy boatmen because their cabin was on the quay beside the lifeboat house and the pilot house, close to the dredging shed. When one of the old foy boatmen was retiring Dave asked if he could replace him and they agreed. Dave bought his boat and started working as a foy boatman in late 1966.
What a foy boat was
The foy boat used to fetch the ship’s ropes from the ship’s fore and aft and run them to the ladders and put them on the bollards on the quay so the ship could heave itself back alongside and get moored.
Why were they called foy boatmen?
Different parts of country have different names. In Blyth, the Tyne, Seaham Harbour, the Tees, etc – all called Foy. He always wanted to find out why, but hasn’t found out yet. In Liverpool they are gig boatmen, and there are different name in Scotland and on the Thames.
Were they self-employed?
Self employed in one sense, but National Insurance was paid by the shipping federation who were classed as the employers. But tax-wise, were self employed. They were in the same union as the dockers .
Good things about the job.
Got to know lots of different people. Still meets people who worked on the ships he moored 40 years ago – they’re all retired now, but they meet up and have a pint.
Rates of pay
The Harbour was very busy when he started, but the rates were very poor. For the smallest ship, the price for mooring was £2. But if they moved that ship from one berth to another, which meant unmooring and remooring, the price would only be 19s 7d for the 2 jobs. Depending on the weather, that might take you an hour and a half.
Weekly earnings – back in the 1960s – would be £13 or 14. When there were strikes, would go as low as £8. From about 1970, they started to earn £20 or more. Got better and better after that, when Alcan started and the paper trade got busy. Coal trade still going, plus timber and cement.
When he started, they were about 18 to 20 foot long. Latest one he got built was steel and 24ft long with 8ft beam.
If you were mooring big ships, there were always at least 2 boatmen in a boat.
One foy boatman had a narrow escape – he was picking up head ropes to run ashore when the man on the ship’s windlass let anchor go, which cut into the side of the foy boat out and sank it. The anchor missed the boatman by inches. He was an old foy boatman called Tony (Tommy? Toy? ) MacGowan. His wife had the Dun Cow pub.
When Dave started there were 16 foymen and everyone had their own boat. Now there are only 4 fulltime boatmen, and they employ outside workers when needed.
If they were really busy with bigger ships (such as colliers) they would need 3 men at each end so they could get 2 more men to come in and assist.
Nowadays the foy boatmen have 2 jobs – as well as the mooring, they take the pilots out to sea to board the ships and pick them up again when they sail. They’ve been doing that for 20 years.
You had to be flexible – you were on call and available 24 hours a day. Ships came any time of the day or night. When he first started he worked 2 days on, 2 days off and in the cabin for 2 days. It was when Chinese takeaways had first started, and he used to get a Chinese supper, and a toastie from the pub during the day.
Still basically one man and a boat. The engines have changed. They used to be petrol, then small diesel engines. Have much bigger engines in the boats now.
His son has his boat now. He started at 18 years old and they worked together. There would be 3 of them working the boat, with one man on holiday, 2 working, so you got your time off. Towards the end, Dave was able to have 16 weeks off in the year.
The rest of the time, he was on call 24 hours a day, whatever the weather. Has seen ice on the river when the wooden boats couldn’t get up the river. In the winter of ’81 to ’82 it was minus 14. And in the winter of ’62 to ’63 it was so cold that the coal was frozen in the wagons and couldn’t be loaded. They were stuck in Blyth for a week till they till they could be defrosted. The only berth that could be work was Bates’s because the coal came straight from the Bates pit on conveyors.
If there was really thick fog, ships couldn’t move, but that was rare.
Gales could lead to serious damage to the quays. There was one container ship coming in, where the skipper didn’t want a pilot – thought he knew all about the river. He hit the quay twice, put holes in the quay, then the wind caught the ship and blew it across to the middle jetty and sank 2 boats, one belonging to the yacht club. Shortly after, ships were made to take pilots.
Blyth can be a difficult harbour to get into if there is an easterly gale, because the east pier doesn’t go south far enough to give you lee way. The east and west piers are in line exactly east and west, and with an east wind the sea is cutting across the harbour bar. There’s no shelter for a ship going into the river. Should have been extended a quarter of a mile southeast.
When the wind is easterly and it gets up – ships roll badly coming over the bar. Entrance isn’t very wide – can easily go astray and hit the pier. Just inside the pier on the west side used to be a light called Peeping Tom. A collier coming in hit Peeping Tom and that was the end of that. There’s another light there now but the timber frame one was never rebuilt.
He didn’t mind what jobs he had – it didn’t really matter – the job was the job, you just got on with it. If you had a good crew that knew exactly what the boatmen were doing it was an easy job, but mostly they just got on with it.
Trade Unions, etc
He used to be friendly with boatmen from around the country – the Tees, the Medway. Used to go down to the Thames for the meetings about the ports and rates of pay. Some ports were better paid, so they kept in touch financially. Dave fell out with his union following a dispute which the Blyth, Tyne and Sunderland men had – there was a meeting, and six months later he heard the Tyne boatmen had got a pay rise six months before. He rang the union to complain about not being notified. The Union office was right besides St James Park – he said “I’ll be there in 30 minutes”. He had to contact all the shipping agents to tell them that the rate should have gone up, but he couldn’t bill them for the work already done. All he wanted from the union was a letter to confirm what he was telling the agents. So he left that union (Transport and General Union) because it was rubbish.
Foy boatmen he worked with
He got on really well with one particular old boatman. “You learned everything from older people”. But young people today “know it all before they’ve even done the job”.
The foy boatmen had various backgrounds – some had been to sea, especially during the War, but some had worked at Blyth all their lives.