The end of an era
May I say how honoured I am to have been invited to be the guest editor for this edition of this highly respected and prestigious magazine.
It is a daunting responsibility to be taking over the watch, albeit temporarily, from the late Captain Andrew Douglas and Captain Hamish Ross, both much missed and irreplaceable former colleagues and friends. But I will endeavour to maintain a ‘steady as she goes’ course.
I was most interested to read in the press recently that in early May this year, the UK went a full week without using coal to generate electricity for the first time since 1882, when the first coal-fired power station, generating electricity, opened at Holborn Viaduct, in London. It resonated with me because when I started my sea-going career, over 50 years ago, in 1965, as deck boy in the motor coaster Ben Varrey, belonging to the Ramsey Steamship Company, or ‘Ben-boats’ as they were affectionately known locally in the Isle of Man, coal was still by far the most widely used fuel for power generation, both domestically and industrially in the UK. The company was formed in 1913, and its main objective was to own ships to import coal for its principal founder, John Thomas Kee, a former foreign-going master mariner, who had set up a coal merchant’s business in Ramsey, on the islands northeast coast. It was well timed, as it coincided with the same year that coal output in Britain peaked at 287 million tons.
Even though the demand for coal had started to decline by the time I began my career, it was still very much the principal cargo carried, not only by the vessels which were owned and operated by the Ramsey Steamship Company, but by the many vessels belonging to other several well-known and well-established coasting companies throughout the British Isles. Trading up, down, and across the Irish Sea, alone, particularly between the UK and ports throughout Ireland, there were the vessels of John Kelly Ltd, of Belfast, which had been shipping coal into their home port since the middle of the nineteenth century. Other vessels, I recall, belonged to companies such as the Glasgow firm of J & A Gardner, Fishers of Newry, and S. William Coe Company, of Liverpool, to name but a few.
But the second half of the twentieth century would see a rapid decline in the use of and demand for coal, when nuclear power, natural gas, liquid fuel and eventually several forms of renewable energy would take preference as the fuel of choice. As a consequence of these changes and the advent of other transportation methods such as containerisation and roll-on/roll-off, well before the end of the last century, and continuing into this one, collier fleet sizes had sadly reduced, with vessels being sold and companies merging or ceasing trading, including my own former company.
Coal-fired power stations still play a small part in the UK’s energy system, but only as a backup during periods of high demand. In the current climate, both politically and environmentally, coupled with real concern for the changes to it, it is fully understandable why fossil fuel such as coal is no longer acceptable as a primary source of power generation. However, the newspaper article was an evocative reminder of times past and the important contribution coal made to the wealth of the nation when it was at the heart of British industry. The same would apply to the companies and their vessels, large and small, which plied the seas transporting it. But even more importantly, it led me to think of those many thousands of fine seafarers, who through fair weather and foul, war and peace, helped to keep the ‘wheels of industry turning’ and the ‘home fires burning’ for well over 100 years.
PETER CORRIN, EDITOR