Ship Ahoy! Voyage into yesteryear

SHIP AHOY! Yes, in the true spirit of a column named Through the Porthole, we are afloat again - figuratively speaking - as the result of readers contacting the Mercury with information about items raised here in recent weeks.

SHIP AHOY! Yes, in the true spirit of a column named Through the Porthole, we are afloat again - figuratively speaking - as the result of readers contacting the Mercury with information about items raised here in recent weeks.

Last month, I wrote about activities in the port of Great Yarmouth down the decades, and Stan Cox, of Westerley Way, Caister, was particularly interested in one of the photographs illustrating the feature. That showed the tanker Midhurst sailing down-river after discharging a cargo of oil at the South Denes power station, and it recalled for him the years he spent as third engineer on another in the same fleet that also delivered fuel to help it generate electricity to feed into the National Grid.

His ship was the Stansted - named not after the airport in Essex but a small town in Sussex, a pattern in line with other vessels in the Stephenson Clarke Shipping fleet that were also regular visitors to Yarmouth like the Midhurst, Petworth and Friston, for example. The ship owner had an office on South Quay.

The Stansted collected the oil at Thameshaven to ferry it to our power station that operated from 1958 until 1985; the building, including its 360ft chimney that was the tallest structure in Norfolk, was demolished between 1992 and 1997, explosives being used on the main brickwork. A smaller replacement occupies part of the site.

Mr Cox joined the Stansted when she was newly launched on Tyneside. Apart from bringing oil to Yarmouth, she also bunkered cruise ships in the Thames and sailed to Ireland with fuel.

The longest voyage he made was before he joined the Stansted. He was serving on another tanker, the British Gunner, at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956 when Egypt nationalised the vital canal. The action provoked a military response from Britain and France because the canal was a vital shortcut saving thousands of sea miles and was busily used by vessels ferrying oil from the petroleum-rich nations to Europe.

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The British Gunner sailed from Falmouth to Italy via France, and was in the last-but-one convoy to pass through the canal before it was closed. She carried cargoes between various ports around the world before the canal reopened, and she was in the second convoy to sail through it, back into the Mediterranean and then home.

“I was away for nine months, then had six weeks' leave,” says Stan, who worked at the Bird's Eye frozen foods plant on South Denes after his five years on the Stansted.

His recollection of sailing up to the South Denes power station to replenish its fuel stocks reminded me of a story circulating about the time of a national coal miners' strike, perhaps in the 1970s. According to the tale, a team of union pickets blockaded the gates to stop supplies getting in and thus cause electricity generation to stop, all contributing towards nationwide problems.

But allegedly, nobody told the pickets that the power station's fuel supplies did not arrive in road tankers but were delivered by ships like the Stansted that berthed at the quayside some distance away and pumped the oil by underground pipe direct into the place.

Another seaborne topic arose from the death of 90-year-old Bob Tuttle, of Fritton, a long-retired clerk to Yarmouth magistrates. It concerned the Latona, the Cantley-built 39ft boat he jointly owned with friends from the mid-1960s.

In 1965 - with Bob at the helm - and 1975 (when she belonged to Yarmouthian Michael Moore) the Latona proudly sailed by invitation to the French port of Dunkirk to participate in reunion of the huge fleet of small craft that crossed the Channel in 1940 to rescue 381,000 Allied troops

from the beaches before the advancing German army over-ran them.

But when the golden jubilee of Dunkirk was celebrated in 1990, the Latona was not on the invitation list because it had been discovered that she had never been part of that evacuation fleet. The Latona that did take part in the momentous Dunkirk rescue was another smaller Latona - with no Yarmouth connection - that was unable to join the 1990 commemoration because she was being renovated.

Naturally, that news was a bitter pill for Mr Tuttle to swallow, for he had believed that the “Dunkirk 1940” plaque presented to him on the 1965 voyage and affixed to Latona's wheelhouse was akin to a badge of courage.

That Through the Porthole persuaded a Yarmouth Grammar School contemporary of mine from 60 years ago, Michael Harvey, to report that his father, Alfred, owned the Latona in the early 1950s, before Mr Tuttle acquired her. He sent me several photographs, one showing her without a wheelhouse which must have been added after Alfred Harvey sold her.

The late Alfred William Harvey, who lived on Caister Road, was a well-known businessman in the Yarmouth area, and served as a Conservative on the borough council for many years, being honoured to be elected mayor in 1971. His family business was the Olivette chain of several wool and needlecraft shops in Yarmouth, Gorleston, Cobholm and Caister. All have now closed.

He used the Latona mainly to indulge in his passion for sea angling with his chums off Yarmouth, and he was so proficient at the sport that he was twice selected for the England team, an accomplishment that delighted him.

His son Michael, who lives in Gorleston, writes: “If I could find the time, I could research his diaries and find out more about his ownership of the boat which, as a teenager, he would pay me to clean! I had many trips on it.”

Another reader to contact me was Caister resident Mrs Pat Munday, of Weston Rise, who had read my article on “whoosh” tubes, like the mile-plus one carrying thousands of telegrams and cables between the head post office in Regent Street and its Fishwharf office during the autumn herring seasons.

I wrote that I remembered one of Yarmouth's department stores having a compressed air tube system for sending payment and change between counter and accounts office and speculated that it might have been

Arnolds, at the King Street-Regent Street corner, before it changed its name in 1972 to Debenhams that had owned it for 36 years; the store closed in 1985.

“Once more you have stirred memories of my past life!,” she writes. “I worked for a short time in the dress department of Arnolds from September 1950 to June 1951 when my mother died, and they certainly did have the tube method of payment while I was there.

“Most customers paid by cash in those days (no credit cards and very few cheques). There were, of course, some of the 'posher' customers who had accounts

with the store but even these had to be recorded via the tube link.

“As a very junior sales person it was only when the store was really busy that I got to do any selling; mostly I had the job of packing the items that had been purchased and keeping the department clean and tidy.

“Those were the days!”