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Everyone is aware of the famous merchant convoys which plied the Atlantic during World War II at the mercy of enemy attack and heavy seas. Less attention has been given, however, to coastal shipping around the ports of the British Isles which was often exposed to similar threats. While the majority of coastal ships in the Irish Sea continued their trade without major adversity, others were not so fortunate. The Dundalk-based boat, the SS Margaret Lockington, which was a frequent visitor to Newry, sustained an aerial attack while sailing from Swansea to Dundalk in October 1941. The Lockington survived as did the SS Karri, owned by Joseph Fisher & Sons in Newry, which hit a mine in the Mersey in January 1941.

The SS Privet which was completed on Clydebank in October 1936. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
The SS Privet which was completed on Clydebank in October 1936. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

In spite of these near misses, Fisher’s lost five of its merchant fleet during the war years. The SS Agba sank in a collision with a Dutch cargo ship in the Firth of Clyde in October 1940 and, in October 1942, the SS Popular was wrecked off the coast of Cumbria. In 1940, the SS Glendun, one of the boats originally owned by the Antrim Iron Ore Company which Fisher’s acquired in 1929, was wrecked on the coast of the Isle of Man.  

However, it is the loss of the SS Privet in December 1940 and of the SS Walnut in October in 1941 which have been given greater space in the annals of the maritime history of Newry. Both these boats disappeared with no survivors and, although it is not known whether these losses were the result of enemy action or bad weather, the names of the crews of both ships are listed on the Merchant Marine War Memorial at Tower Hill in London.

Memorial plaque in St. Mary’s Old Cemetery to James Carr, who was a Fireman on the Privet. From Custom House Avenue in Newry, Carr, at twenty-three years of age, was one of the younger members of the crew. Courtesy of Helena Carr
A Memorial plaque in St. Mary’s Old Cemetery to James Carr, who was a Fireman on the Privet. From Custom House Avenue in Newry, Carr, at twenty-three years of age, was one of the younger members of the crew. Courtesy of Helena Carr

This weekend, 5/6 December, is the eightieth anniversary of the loss of the SS Privet while en route from Birkenhead to Belfast with a cargo of coal. The Privet was built on Clydebank and was completed in October 1936. Later that month she came into the ownership of the Newry and Kilkeel Steamship Co. Ltd (Joseph Fisher & Sons Ltd) and traded as one of the company’s coal boats in the Irish Sea.

The Privet was carrying nine crew when she left Birkenhead and the profile of the crew illustrates how many those who worked on Fisher boats were not only from Newry but from the ports with which the boats traded. The Captain, Samuel Edward Parry, and his wife at Annalong, near Kilkeel but he was originally from Connah’s Quay in Flintshire in north Wales, not far from Birkenhead. The Chief Engineer, William Hilditch, was from Carrickfergus in county Antrim while the family of Second Engineer, Joseph Barrett, lived in Waterford. Newry was the home town of the Ship’s Mate, David Burns, and of James Carr, Fireman. The parents of Lawrence Murphy, Seaman, lived at Cloughoge and the home of Patrick McVeigh, the Lamp Trimmer, was in Lower Fathom, both townlands on the outskirts of Newry. Henry Clawson, the other Fireman, came from Carrickfergus and John Hearn, the Deck Boy, who at twenty years of age was the youngest member of the crew, was from Ringsend in the port area of Dublin. 

On display in Newry and Mourne Museum, this flag is an example of those flown from the coal boats owned by Joseph Fisher and Sons in the 1940s. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
On display in Newry and Mourne Museum, this flag is an example of those flown from the coal boats owned by Joseph Fisher and Sons in the 1940s. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

The Privet was a relatively new ship when she disappeared and the cause of her loss is still a matter for speculation, be it enemy action or bad weather. Another factor was that safe navigation around the Irish Sea coasts was compromised by the ‘black out’ imposed on lighthouses and other navigation lights. There has also been conjecture that wartime protective measures on coal boats owned by Fisher’s may have affected their stability at sea. However, the hazards posed to coastal shipping during World War II did not daunt many men from Newry and the other ports in the Irish Sea from pursuing a life at sea. 

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

By Ken Abraham


 

Postcard showing coal boats owned by Joseph Fisher & Sons in the Albert Basin at Newry in the years before World War II. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Postcard showing coal boats owned by Joseph Fisher & Sons in the Albert Basin at Newry in the years before World War II. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Newry Maritime Association Tribute

Next weekend Newry Maritime Association will commemorate the loss of SS Privet and remember the souls lost in this tragedy.

On Saturday 5 December at 1pm they will lay a Wreath (Fisher Flag) and conduct a short prayer service at Victoria Lock.

There will then be a Plaque unveiling at 2pm at Crilly Sweets, Flagstaff Road and on Sunday 6th December at St. Marys Cemetery a plinth in memory of Jimmy Carr will be laid on the Carr family grave.

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