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Turret Age

It is generally accepted that the 1890’s saw the design of the merchant ‘windjammer’ reach the very peak of its development and effi ciency. What is perhaps less appreciated is that the commercial steamship from its earliest form had, by that time, been traversing the oceans for some 60 years. The then hitherto ineffi cient steam engine and its gathering pace of development from the slow adoption of the two cylinder compound to the 1880’s introduced triple expansion steam engine required such vessels to make regular bunker port calls to refuel with preferably ‘best Welsh steam coal’ and which almost perversely, had been delivered by those elegant sailing vessels and which over time the more utilitarian and much scorned by the sailing ship men ‘steam kettles’ were progressively replacing.

A decade earlier, UK shipbuilders had experienced empty ways, introspectively driving them to consideration of the future and ponder the nature and design of vessels needed. Low costs of construction and economy of operation were key requirements and to achieve such prerequisites, a degree of experimentation and associated risk was inevitable. It was during this time that a Minnesotan shipmaster, Captain Alexander MacDougall had perfected and patented a radically designed cargo vessel, termed ‘The Whaleback’ which took the form of a somewhat flattened cigar-like hull form featuring a sheerless much cambered upper deck, faired into radius plated sides. With steel plate hatch covers bolted down flush with the weather deck, whose line was broken only by a series of vertically set cylindrical steel ‘turrets’ to support superstructure, mast houses, winches and other appendages, a sealed vessel resulted, capable of shedding the very worst of seas with minimised damage to turret mounted equipment. A prototype barge and later steam powered versions for Great Lakes operation were followed during 1890 by construction of the larger ‘whaleback’ deep sea steamer Charles W Wetmore. This vessel later visited Liverpool and was duly opened for the inspection of interested parties. Suitably impressed, Liverpool shipowners William Johnston & Co (later to become the Furness Withy Group company, the Johnston Warren Line) placed an order just at a time when the yard had completed its last sailing vessel, for such a cargo ship to be built under licence by Wm. Doxford & Sons at their Pallion, Sunderland yard and completed during 1892 as the 2,140 grt Sagamore for Belgian flag operation. (The vessel continued trading from 1911 onwards for Italian owners and flag until 4th May 1917 when sunk by German U-boat whilst on voyage from Genoa to the South Wales port of Barry).

Design definition
During construction of this vessel, Doxford’s Chief Draughtsman, Arthur Haver, became evermore concerned regarding the watertight integrity of the whaleback’s hull, in the event of hatch coaming damage whilst working cargo. As a result, he developed his own hull design, duly patented by his employer, setting a continuous fore and aft 5 foot high trunk amidships extending for the full length between incorporated fo’c’sle and poop, effectively replacing the original Whaleback’s series of individual small turrets above the maindeck and for approximately half the maximum beam of the ship. By obstruction of the elongated now so called ‘turret’ itself at this level (referred as ‘harbour deck’ level aboard such vessels) improved seaworthiness could be achieved whilst obviating the possibility of structural damage by heavy seas to cargo hatches and other equipment at this deck level.

Design acceptance and marketability
The market, on the part of both shipowner and seafarer was sceptical of this seemingly radical design and orders were not initially forthcoming. In addition, insurance underwriters and the Lloyds Classification Society remained resistant to it. Such was the builder’s belief in the design however, that it created a number of marketing initiatives including offering attractive credit terms for early customers, part exchange arrangements, speculatively building a prototype vessel by way of a demonstrator, completed during January 1893 and the creation and part financing of a special service company to operate her - The Turret Steamship Company Ltd, in conjunction with Petersen, Tate & Co., (Managers). She was the first of the design ordered for the company and named Turret – a 1,970 grt/ 3,200 dwt aft engined example and offered for sale at a price below that of her build cost. For the duration of her maiden voyage she remained uninsured, with corresponding risks being absorbed jointly by both Doxfords and the Turret Company, but following the voyage during which she had encountered severe weather, her Master’s voyage report and port arrival inspection clearly indicated nil damage. Thus the French Bureau Veritas classed the vessel and underwriters’ objections were withdrawn (Lloyds had remained reluctant to classify a vessel with such a low freeboard, without first reducing its deadweight capacity). A flow of orders was not forthcoming until a further three marginally larger engines aft examples – Turret Age, Turret Bay & Turret Bell, each of circa 2,200 tons (gross) were constructed between 1893 – 95 and at which time led to the Hartlepool tramp operator G. Horsley & Son placing an initial order for two units rising later to a total of 8 (the first of midships engined versions) and the London based Angier Line for four.

The Angier Company actively promoted the design and following an arrangement with Clan Line Steamers whereby the third and fourth units of circa 3,440 grt under construction for the Angier fleet, were acquired under two year charter via Doxfords for the purposes of trialling the design, whereupon their Glasgow based owners Cayzer Irvine & Company promptly placed an initial order with Doxford for four somewhat larger two deck versions at just over 4,800 grt for delivery by 1898, plus a further two units of similar size constructed by special arrangement with Doxfords (possibly due, it is thought, to Sir Charles Cayzer’s position as the then standing MP for Barrow) at the Vickers Sons & Maxim yard there, in which Doxford held a 50% interest and delivered during 1898 and 1899. The Company took ownership of the two originally chartered vessels but sold them out of the fleet by late 1898 and later took delivery of further two decked and one three decked example to a total of 30 midships engined units of varying tonnages, with all but the last eight units of the fleet displaying what could only be described as a ‘nominal’ poop, but incorporating additional deck housing mounted at the after end on the turret deck. Their last ‘Turret’ was delivered during November 1907. In such event they became the largest single operator of the marque and by virtue of their perceived confidence in the design on the part of other shipowners both British and foreign, were persuaded to invest in this radical design for a variety of roles, from coaster and short sea trader, deep sea tramp, ore carrier to liner.

Doxfords constructed a total of 176 examples at their Pallion Yard at Sunderland with a further 3 built under licence at Swan Hunter’s at Wallsend, 1 at Hawthorn Leslie’s Hebburn Yard and as referenced earlier, 2 at Vickers & Maxims at Barrow. Overall lengths varied from 195 to 455.4 feet, maximum beam from 31 to 62 feet with moulded depth ranging from 12.5 to 30.2 feet. As built, propulsion machinery for all but one Turret consisted of a triple expansion steam engine with nominal horsepower ranging from 175 to 436, fed by steam at circa 160lb per sq. in. and upwards, from two single ended boilers to produce service speeds ranging from 8 – 11 knots. A two cylinder 75 NHP compound engine was installed in the smallest of all Turrets – the 690grt coaster Turrethill. All vessels constructed at the Pallion yard were supplied with engines of Doxford construction, who also supplied such machinery for two of the three Swan Hunter built examples and NE Marine Engineering of Newcastle, the third. Richardsons of Hartlepool supplied the machinery for the single Turret built by Hawthorn Leslie at Hebburn. The two Clan Line vessels built at Barrow as referenced earlier, were furnished with engines by their builder.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - March 2017 Issue
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