History: The curse of the Consolation

Charlie Simpson tells the strange and sorry saga of the steam drifter Consolation, which sank in Lerwick harbour one hundred years ago.

A century ago, the humble herring was kingpin of the Shetland economy. Boats by the hundred and workers by the thousand came north each summer season to augment local efforts. Hundreds of thousands of barrels of salted herrings were produced, and were exported to feed millions of people in northern Europe, from Hamburg to Moscow and beyond. Shetland’s production peaked in 1905, when over a million barrels were cured.

Herring brought prosperity to Shetland, but the trade was a high-risk investment for all concerned – the fishermen who owned the vast fleet of drifters, the shore workers, the businessmen who owned the curing firms or shares in boats.

New technology, in the form of the steam-powered herring drifter, came increasingly to Shetland waters after 1900. Much of the 1905 herring landed in Shetland was caught by these new-fangled vessels – fast, independent of the winds, able to go long distances offshore to find the shoals. Technology never comes cheap though, for the steam drifter was a big capital investment and expensive to operate. Most Shetland investors preferred the sailboat, at a quarter of the steam drifter’s price, but some were tempted, and the first locally owned steam drifters arrived in Shetland in time for the 1907 season.

In the fickle way of all fisheries, that season’s yield was only half that of 1905. Three local drifters went south in September to the East Anglian fishery, which was no more successful than the Shetland fishery. They returned in December to be laid up in Lerwick until the following spring.

Just before Christmas, 1907, there began the bizarre saga of the sorrowful demise of one of them, the steam drifter Consolation, LK 486, belonging to John Mair & Company, fishcurers.

The Consolation was a historic vessel, for she was the very first English steam drifter, built in Lowestoft in 1897. In appearance she was simply a sailing smack with a funnel; 72 feet overall, two-masted with full sailing rig, steered by a tiller. Below decks were an upright boiler and a little two-cylinder steam engine. The Consolation’s success as a fishing vessel set off such an investment explosion that by 1903 Lowestoft had 100 steam drifters registered.

In 1907, the 10-year-old Consolation, by that time fitted with steering wheel and wheelhouse, was underpowered and obsolescent by the standards of the day. By then a new drifter cost £4000. I’m sure John Mair and his son Joe didn’t pay anything near that much to bring the vessel to Shetland.

On 21st December 1907 The Shetland Times reported under the headline “Steam drifter gutted by fire: mysterious affair at Garthspool dock”.

The Consolation
had been laid up alongside Mair’s other drifter the Content, snugged down for the winter. “In the early hours of Tuesday morning John Sales, skipper of the line boat Bee, was rousing out his crew to go fishing when he observed a fire on the ships. Thinking perhaps that men were working aboard he paid no heed, but on returning with his crew they realised the fire, on the Consolation, had increased. With assistance from nearby residents and lots of buckets the fire was extinguished, but not before the interior of the Consolation from the engine-room aft had been completely gutted. Everything inflammable was completely destroyed, while the engines were also damaged by fire and water. How the fire commenced remains a mystery, but it is thought it had begun in the cabin and gradually spread”.

The Consolation was insured, and her insurers decided to have her repaired in Aberdeen, causing “considerable disappointment among the local carpenters that they did not have a chance to offer for the repairs.” A crew was sent north to take her away, and she left for Aberdeen on 24th January 1908, as the Times again reported.

“On Wednesday morning an attempt was made to reach Aberdeen, but the heavy sea outside was too much for the vessel in her crippled condition to proceed on the voyage. Therefore, she put back to Lerwick and further repairs were attended to. On Friday the weather was fine, and another start was made for Aberdeen. She had not proceeded far when her engine broke down, but the engineers were able to put matters right. Then the vessel sprang a leak. The steam pumps were got under way and wrought all well for a time, then suddenly gave way. The crew had to turn to with buckets, and bail. The wind and sea had increased from the south, and the engine stopped again off Sumburgh Head. It was decided to make for Lerwick under sail, where the vessel came to anchor without further mishap, the crew bailing all the time. In Lerwick the crew decided to throw up the job and go home, but agreed first to sail the Consolation around to the docks. The run north was speedily accomplished in a full westerly gale, and when in the vicinity of Loofa Baa the vessel was put in stays. While in this position one of the crew, George Tidder, was struck by the mainsheet and knocked overboard”.

Unable to grasp a rope thrown to him, Tidder sank before two men in the ship’s boat could reach him. The boat’s crew had a narrow escape from drowning themselves, being completely exhausted by the time they managed to row back to the anchored Consolation. This disaster delayed the Aberdeen crew’s return home, for they had to appear at a Fatal Accident Inquiry at Lerwick Sheriff Court on 11th February, when the jury returned a verdict of accidental death on poor George Tidder.

Meantime, the insurers were still endeavouring to get the Consolation to Aberdeen. They engaged the Aberdeen harbour tug Granite City to do the job – rather unwisely, as it turned out. The passage north in winter was a tall order for a little paddle steamer built in 1883, most probably the very last visit to Shetland by such a vessel.

According to The Shetland Times of 15th February “All went well until Fair Isle was reached at two o’clock on Friday afternoon, when the north-west wind increased to hurricane force. The little tug floundered along in the heavy sea until her starboard paddle broke down, it being almost completely wrecked . . .”

The Fraserburgh trawler Crimond came upon the tug and took her in tow northwards. After the rope broke for the third time the two vessels lost sight of each other, leaving the Granite City drifting. At daybreak Sumburgh Head was in sight and looming nearer in the strong tide. A sail was set but blew away instantly. As a last resort the engine was started, and mercifully the wrecked paddle-wheel turned without damaging the hull. Slowly the Granite City came clear of Sumburgh Head and made north, arriving in Lerwick at 4pm on Saturday.

“It can be well understood that the crew were thankful when Lerwick was reached. Captain Mutch declared to our representative that he had never had such an experience in all his life. Temporary repairs are being carried out; the starboard paddle-box was badly smashed, but the most serious part of the damage is to the paddle itself. The Granite City will leave for Aberdeen in a few days, but her owners have now decided not to take the steam drifter Consolation south . . .”

Meantime the faithful insurers chartered a more suitable vessel, the drifter Roslin, for the towing job a week later. Again the Times reported misfortune.

“At 11 on Sunday morning the two steamers set off for the south, the Roslin towing the Consolation with a four-man crew aboard. The day was fine; all went well until between five and six o’clock, south of Sumburgh Head, when the Consolation signalled that she was sinking. Her crew abandoned her in the small boat, and the Roslin slipped her tow-rope. However, the Consolation did not sink immediately, so the tow rope was re-connected and the waterlogged vessel hauled back north. Lerwick was reached at midnight, and with two men back aboard to steer, the Consolation was taken to the station at Holmsgarth belonging to her owners. The vessel is now lying on the beach, and what will ultimately be done with her is not known. During the week a number of men have been working at the Consolation, pumping the water out of her, and on Thursday she was refloated.”

On Tuesday the following week there was more trouble, reported under the heading “The Unfortunate Consolation”.

“The Lerwick steam drifter Consolation has added another misfortune to her already famous ‘career’. After having sunk at Holmsgarth, she was refloated and anchored off Messrs. J. Mair’s station. There was no one on board, and on Tuesday morning it was discovered that the Consolation had, during the night, broke from her moorings and driven to the pier at Mr. J. Brown’s curing station. The Consolation was undamaged, and was berthed at the station when discovered.”

The Granite City survived the return passage to Aberdeen, but was so badly strained that she sank in dock there on 2nd March. It’s little wonder a couple of weeks passed without anything happening, because it must have become increasingly difficult for the insurers to find anybody in Aberdeen willing to fetch the Consolation south.

Eventually another towage charter was arranged, and on Monday 21st March the vessel was brought to Albert Wharf and loaded with 160 empty steel paraffin casks in the hold, engine room and after cabin to ensure she stayed afloat. During this process, someone let a cask roll out of control down Mounthooly Street, and it smashed through the plate-glass window of the North of Scotland Bank’s premises (now the optician’s shop). This misanter apart, all seemed well, and “It was firmly believed that on this occasion the Consolation would reach Aberdeen”, but fate ordained otherwise.

The Consolation, with some of her crew, her owner and an insurance agent aboard, was sailed out into the harbour and anchored off the Fish Market. The men came ashore for the night, shortly after six o’clock. What happened next was related in The Shetland Times of 28th March.

“About 10.30 p.m. William Coull, a carpenter from Aberdeen presently engaged at the Consolation, observed that fire had broken out aboard. The vessel was boarded by Coull, Lerwick’s chief constable and firemaster David Emslie, and others just before 11 o’clock, and by that time the fire had got a good hold of the foc’sle. The strong wind fanned the fire, and gradually it sought its way aft . . . The reflection of the fire in the sky drew many people to the pier. From quite a wide distance the reflection was seen, and speculation was rife as to where the seat of the fire was. It was after midnight the mainmast crashed overboard. The bursting of an occasional barrel told the crowd that the fire had got well into the hold, and when the mast went over the side the Consolation was burning fiercely from the engine room right forward. A rarer sight could hardly have been wished for. The night was very dark and enhanced the appearance of the burning drifter as she lay at her anchor off in the harbour . . . After two o’clock the wheelhouse became ablaze, the after decks and bulwarks following. . . great masses of flame shot up as high as the mizzen mast. As the flammable material became exhausted the fire died down, and by daylight there was nothing left floating but part of the charred hull, the funnel, and the engine.

“In the forenoon Captain Allison the harbourmaster ordered the Consolation to be cut adrift from her anchor with the intention of putting her ashore. This done the Consolation, however, soon turned broadside to the wind, canted over, and sank. Thus ended the now notorious career of the Lerwick steam drifter Consolation.

Was it really the end? Apart from mention in Harbour Trust debates over who should remove the wreck, the Consolation disappears from press reports of 1908. And yet, some suspicion remained. The procurator fiscal took statements from 10 of the parties involved in the Consolation’s last hours, among them the skipper, Robert Mail, who explained how he had brought aboard a two-gallon can of paraffin for the ship’s lamps. Before leaving the vessel at anchor he had tried to light a riding light, which had refused to work properly, and he had left the paraffin can in the wheelhouse aft of the funnel. David Emslie stated that he had been informed of the paraffin can by William Coull the carpenter, yet when they boarded the Consolation, the paraffin can was not in the wheelhouse. The chief constable continued: “I am convinced the fire was the result of incendiarism and that the fire had been set going by someone going on board after the crew had left, that the drum of paraffin had been removed from the wheelhouse and emptied about the fore cabin before applying the fire.”

Despite the chief’s opinions, the fiscal took no further action, and nobody was charged or prosecuted. All in all, 1908 wasn’t John and Joe Mair’s finest year in business, for one night in September their station building at Holmsgarth burnt down. The fire consumed 11 gutters’ huts, 1000 empty herring barrels and half the corn crop in an adjacent field, while “the books and bicycle belonging to Mr. Joseph Mair were all destroyed.”


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