Portwey - The History of a West Country Steam Tug

The history of Portwey, this survivor from a bygone age, is fascinating as well intriguing.

It all began in the 1870`s with a very big change happening in Dartmouth, Devon - the establishment of the coal bunkering industry. As steam powered ships obtained better and improved reliability they could travel to further destinations, however the downside factor was the amount of coal these vessels could carry in their bunkers. With this limitation on capacity the ships had to replenish their supply of coal en route or ‘top up’ at the start or finish of their voyage at convenient ports. These were known as bunkering stations and this is what Dartmouth became.

The main factors for a good coaling port or bunkering station were a wide and deep harbour with easy access, low harbour charges, and good sea conditions. Dartmouth had such facilities once redevelopment had taken place in 1866.

In 1876 a local coal merchant George. H Collins, who was the agent for Powell-Duffryn Coal Company in Dartmouth, started to supply coal to the Castle Line vessels who topped up their bunkers before they set off for the Cape in South Africa. Before this he had supplied house coal to the Dartmouth and Totnes area. In 1878 Collins published a booklet entitled `Dartmouth – A Coaling Station’ outlining the benefits of the harbour as a bunkering station. Trade was slow to start with one or two ships each week but within a few years 80% of coal imports to Dartmouth were for the bunkering trade. Other companies also started to enter the trade such as Hingston & Co. and Fox & Sons of Plymouth. Then in 1907 another company was set up called the Dartmouth Coaling Co.

By 1886 Hingston & Co had left the trade due to falling sales and it became apparent that the business was migrating over to the coaling station at Portland in Dorset. The harbour at Portland started construction in 1849, was completed in 1872 and was one of the biggest man-made harbours in the world. The work was carried by the Admiralty to provide facilities for the Royal Navy plus other merchant ships who wanted to utilise them. With this Collins moved most of his business from Dartmouth to Portland in 1886. With the decline of the bunkering business in Dartmouth the businessmen got concerned and setup their own company called the Channel Coaling Company. They purchased the old hulks (I will explain about hulks later) from Hingston & Co and were soon up and running and handling 8.000 tonnes of coal a year and out stripped George H. Collins.

At Portland Harbour the coaling facilities had been integrated into the design of the inner breakwater. However, a new coaling pier was constructed between 1890 and 1896 with facilities being added up to 1906.

In 1901 Dartmouth started to lose out to Portland & Weymouth where more coaling stations were being developed and ships were getting larger. Dartmouth’s harbour could not handle these larger vessels but Portland and Weymouth could. This is probably when the Portland & Weymouth Coaling Company came into operation or maybe sooner-we are not sure but this would have been along with George H. Collins. The advancement of marine engineering meant that double and triple expansion engines were increasingly being fitted into merchant ships, cutting coal consumption per ton/mile. Additionally the use of oil fired boilers and later the installation of diesel engines would affect the bunkering trade.

Big changes came to the industry between 1911 - 1912. Charles Edward Evans came to Cardiff in 1879 to work for Messrs T. Beynon & Co Ltd, a local ship-broking and coal-exporting company. In 1890 he set up his own company Charles E. Evans Co., which was reconstituted as Evans & Reid Ltd in 1901. The main business was exporting coal and importing pit props for the mining industry. Between 1900 and 1920 Charles Edward Evans had built up widespread business interests through his holding company Evans & Reid Investment Co. Ltd and its subsidiary companies Evans & Reid Coaling Co Ltd, Evans & Reid Pit Props Ltd and others. Between 1911 and 1912 he purchased the Portland & Weymouth Coaling Co, Channel Coaling Co, Dartmouth Coaling Co and George H. Collins & Co Ltd.

The Portland & Weymouth Coaling Co placed an order with shipbuilders Harland & Wolff on the 10th November 1926 for a twin screw steam tug - this was going to be Portwey with the name Portwey being derived from name of the two towns Portland and Weymouth. Harland & Wolff Ltd had started in 1861 with the partnership of Edward Harland & Gustav Wolff in Belfast, Northern Ireland. They were very forward thinking shipbuilders and redefined design and engineering with the development of their ocean liners, setting the standard for other shipbuilders to follow. Of course they were famous for building the Olympic, Titanic and Britannic however, Portwey would not be built in Belfast but on the river Clyde at Govan near Glasgow. In 1911 Harland & Wolff acquired the Govan yard sites and developed them.

The hull was laid in slip 1 with the material used being steel and then the main construction commenced with two double expansion engines being fitted and also a Scotch Marine boiler. The contract for the engines and boiler construction was given to D.W. Henderson Co, Ltd. Engineering & Boilermaker of Glasgow, another Harland & Wolff subsidiary. The two double engines work at 75 psi. The boiler is 10 feet 6 inches in diameter and 11 feet in length and holds 182 steam tubes with two 4 feet wide by 6 feet long twin furnaces and it works up to 140 psi. The bunkers that are one each side hold 15 tonnes of coal each. She was also fitted with an auxiliary pump to intake and discharge water which made her a very good salvage vessel.

When completed Portwey was launched from slip 3 on the 10th August 1927. She was 80 feet in length, with an 18 feet beam, a 9 feet draft and gross tonnage of 94 tonnes. Portwey’s sea trials took place in the February of 1928 but did not go well; her two 5 foot 6 inch diameter 6 foot 6 inch pitch propellers were unsatisfactory because the required knots (speed) could not be obtained and the pulling specifications could not be met. They were changed for two bigger propellers that were 5 feet 10 inches in diameter with a 7 foot 8 inch pitch, the performance was much improved. At the time a two engine design was unusual for a small tug but Portland & Weymouth Coaling Company wanted her to be as manoeuvrable as possible so she could move large barges about in the restricted waters of Portland Harbour and Weymouth, plus she had to deliver coal up very narrow channels to the small communities in the Portland and Weymouth area. On the 24 April 1928 Portwey set sail from Govan and arrived in Portland on 28th April 1928 to start her working life. On the 2nd May the Dorset Echo ran an article of the arrival of Portwey. Her ship number was 786G and the registering number was 124533.

Her working routine was to take the coal barges from the quayside to the hulks which would then be “topped-up” (a hulk is an old vessel that has been decommissioned and all items and decks removed until just the hull is left) then the large ships could be replenished from there. She would also take coal to the isolated communities of Portland and to Weymouth as well Of course being a salvage tug Portwey would also go out and assist vessels in distress, a task that she undertook on more than one occasion. She also conveyed the pilots out to the bigger vessels.

Because of the depression years, in 1938 or maybe a bit earlier some of the bunker business started to dry up, so the Portland & Weymouth Coaling Co Ltd sold Portwey to H.G Collins & Co Ltd of Dartmouth but she also worked for the Channel Coaling Co (those companies were still subsidiaries of Evans & Reid) doing the same work that she did before around the harbour, but on occasions working over to the quay at Kingswear where the Great Western Railway would bring coal by rail to be unloaded into barges that Portwey would take away again for the bunkering trade.

In 1942 the Second World War was in full swing and Portwey was then placed on Admiralty service and seconded from her civil owners. She was still based in Dartmouth and employed in harbour service and towage to ports in the vicinity of Dartmouth but came under the naval control of Plymouth Command.

In April 1944 Portwey was sent to Teignmouth to lay moorings in the harbour. Also in April 1944 Portwey rescued damaged US vessels from the Slapton Sands disaster. The US forces had been practising D-Day landing exercises on the sandy beaches of south Devon. The Germans found out about the exercises and a force of torpedo boats were sent over and decimated the Americans. On 26th April Portwey helped to tow damaged LST 289 (that was part of operation Tiger) into Dartmouth. In October 1944 Portwey was leased to the US Naval command in Dartmouth.

In 1945 Portwey was given back to her civil owners, now the Channel Coaling Co Ltd. Her duties were again being used as a harbour tug at Dartmouth, plus taking supplies and drinking water out to other vessels and continuing to ferry Channel pilots out to the large ships.

On 9th May 1947 a large fire broke out at the Queen`s Hotel Dartmouth. The fire services turned up in minutes but they had trouble getting enough water through their hoses as the joins leaked. Portwey was berthed on the south embankment; soon her large pump was in use with hoses connected and pumping 81.000 gallons of water onto the fire. She can pump 17,900 gallons of water an hour.

On the 25th January 1949 the Portland & Weymouth Coaling Co. Ltd filed for liquidation under the Companies Act of 1948, bringing to an end Portwey`s first owners.

On the 9th October 1951 Portwey was sold by G.H. Collins Ltd to the Falmouth Dock & Engineering Co. Ltd and transferred to them on the 24th December 1951.

In 1952 Portwey was used to move various barges and a floating steam crane called Mixtow about Falmouth harbour. She was also used to tow an oil tank barge named Shell Mex out to tanker ships to pump out their oil so they could be cleaned and repaired. In addition she was used for moving a 50 ton floating crane Titania and an Admiralty Floating Dock No.5 to wherever they were required. About this time she was upgraded by having a steam operated steering engine fitted, so now Portwey had power steering, where before it had been chains and linkages to the rudder that were manual operated by the Skipper. Of course these were still retained in case of an emergency if the steam steering engine failed.

In July/August of 1959 Portwey was sent to work on the construction of a new lifeboat station for the Lizard in Kilcobben Cove with the contractor firm of Conialys.

In 1965 the tug St Mawes towed Portwey to Holyhead, North Wales to assist the dredger Briton with dredging for the construction of a new car ferry terminal at Admiralty Pier. She would also assist the ferry Normannia alongside the pier in breezy conditions. By this time Portwey had been in non-stop service for about 38 years, except of course for the two weeks a year she was dry-docked for routine maintenance.

By 1967 the sun was setting for coal powered vessels and diesel was the now the main power source. Portwey was laid up by her owners in Falmouth Harbour ready to be sold to a new owner, or for scrapping. However, this is not the end of the story. Richard Dobson who was the Assistant Harbour Master at Dartmouth found out about Portwey and purchased her for the price of a new Rover car (as stated by our Chief Engineer Chris Nursey) for preservation. She came back to the River Dart and was based at Stoke Gabriel near Totnes as that was near Richard`s home. He then went about restoring in her to operational condition and over the years she did a number of events and trips in the area.

By the 1980s Richard and his friends realised they did not have the resources to maintain and restore Portwey. So The Maritime Trust in Greenwich was contacted and an agreement made that they would accept her for their collection consisting of 17 other vessels. Portwey left Dartmouth on the 28th May 1982 for the 270 mile trip to London. There were stop overs at Weymouth, Portsmouth, Newhaven, Dover and Sheerness for coal and supply replenishment and then to London. Our Chairman Stephen Page was one of the crew on this epic voyage.

On the 7th June 1982 Richard Dobson handed over Portwey to The Maritime Trust and she was then moved to St Katherine`s Dock with a new support group called the Friends of Portwey set up for the vessel to look after her.

In the mid-1990s things were not going so well for The Maritime Trust which was suffering from financial issues and having trouble guaranteeing long term funding for the approximately 20 historic vessels in its collection, including Portwey and the Cutty Sark. The possibility that the fleet would have to be sold loomed large. On the 1st September 1994 the Friends of Portwey become a charitable trust called The Steam Tug Portwey Association and in July 1995 a long term charter was set up with The Maritime Trust so that the Association could raise funds and recruit members to keep Portwey operational.

In 1999 The Maritime Trust sold its entire historic vessels collection except for the Cutty Sark. The Association had to take on complete responsibility for the management and preservation of Portwey. In April 2000 The Steam Tug Portwey Trust Ltd, a company limited by guarantee was set up and the charitable status was transferred from the Association to the new Trust on the 2nd June 2000 and they then purchased Portwey from The Maritime Trust.

For the last twenty one years the Trust has operated and maintained Portwey, so trips can be undertaken up and down the Thames from her base at West India Dock. So, why not come on a trip back in time with us - just check the Portwey events page on our website www.stportwey.co.uk for dates, how to book and further information on the vessel or becoming a member of the trust. Alternatively please write to The Steam Tug Portwey Trust Ltd, 4 Almond Avenue, Wickford, Essex. SS12 0BN.

Portwey is now 93 years of age and still steaming and still going strong.

My thanks go to Chris Nursey, Jill Nursey, Steve Page and Barry Smith of The Steam Tug Portwey Trust Ltd for their assistance with the article and photographs.


Stephen Loeber

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