Applegarth. Seaforth Radio, 13 January. Following received from British steamer Perthshire (Glasgow for Beira) at 8.13 p.m. GMT: Just sank tug (Applegarth) south of Woodside in River Mersey.

Following received from Coastguard at Formby at 8.30 p.m. GMT: New Brighton life-boat launched to assistance of Perthshire and tug.

Following received from No. 2 Liverpool Pilot boat at 8.41 p.m. GMT: We are proceeding to Woodside Landing Stage.

Following received from Perthshire at 8.55 p.m. GMT: Last position of tug off Cammell Laird’s Basin.

Following received from No. 2 Liverpool Pilot boat at 9.55 p.m. GMT: We are now abandoning our search and returning to our normal duties.

Seaforth Radio, 14 January. Following received from New Brighton lifeboat at 12.19 a.m. GMT: We are returning to station, nothing further we can do.

The loos of the Applegarth, and the seven men aboard her, is remembered around Merseyside to this day. Forty years after it happened, I would allude to the bare, bleached bones of it, and often the person I was talking to would straightaway say the name Applegarth. In the Maritime Museum on the Albert Dock in Liverpool, I read this account of the sinking: ‘During the long history of the Mersey towage service, casualties of a similar nature have occurred from time to rime, but the loss of the Applegarth ranks as one of the worst disasters of its kind on the river and came as a grievous shock to everyone associated with the shipping of the port of Liverpool.’

On 13 January 1960 the 10,496-ton cargo liner Perthshire was putting into port in Birkenhead, a stop on her journey from Glasgow to Beira in Mozambique. It was a cold, cloudy night on the river; one Fleet Street newspaper later talked about a ‘murky darkness’. The river was running at three to four knots. Three tugboats were guiding the Perthshire; her speed was between four and five knots. The lead tug was the 231-ton Applegarth, standing off the liner’s bow. She had a line aboard the Perthshire, ready to tow her.

Then, without warning, the Perthshire was bearing down on the Applegarth fast. On the deck of the liner, the tow-rope went slack around its windlass. The bow of the Perthshire was as high as a house. No one on the liner could see the tug by now. But the crew of the Applegarth must have made out the bulk of the liner behind them and heard her avalanching towards them: at least three of them were on deck. They felt a violent lurch and heard a deafening buckling noise. The Perthshire had rammed the Applegarth, her bow-plating battering the starboard quarter of the tug. The Applegarth listed to port, canting towards the bow of the liner. This was the first collision but not the decisive one. Not everyone aboard the liner even felt the impact.

If it had taken the crew of the tug unawares, they recognised danger now. As the tug scraped down the bow of the Perthshire, the order was given for its engines to go full ahead. It seems the master of the Applegarth intended to slip out from beneath the overhang of the Perthshire’s bow, to outrun the danger. But however fast its engines raced, the tug was sucked back against the liner’s bow as the water beneath the tug rushed to replace the eleven thousand tons displaced by the Perthshire. The acceleration only propelled the tug along the plating of the Perthshire until she was directly in front of the liner. The Perthshire’s bow struck the Applegarth broadside on, tipping her port bulwark under water, where it met the irresistible flow of the river. Men watching from the Applegarth’s sister tugs said she seemed to hang there for two or three seconds, pinioned between the liner and the current.

The Perthshire couldn’t stop. The tug rolled to port, and under the freezing Mersey. The Applegarth was small but she was solid, dense. She had her hatches open – this wasn’t open sea, after all, but the river, barely a hundred yards from a landing stage where office workers caught the ferry to Liverpool every morning – and her companionways, her cabin and her galley filled with water.

By now everyone on the scene, even those on the bridge of the Perthshire, realised that something terrible was happening. They could hear cries from the river. They could see the light of the tug’s wheelhouse, the wrong way up and under water.

The last sight they had of the Applegarth from the liner, she was drifting away upside down on their starboard side. The master of another tug, Throstlegarth, who had been looking on in horror, realised that the Applegarth was now making straight for his boat ‘I swung Throstlegarth hard to starboard,’ he said later, ‘and went full astern to avoid collision with the wreck.’ (In the blunt and practical language of seafaring, the Applegarth had already become a ‘wreck’.) Another skipper, out on the Mersey that night, would later describe looking at the Applegarth from his wheelhouse, looking away, looking back again – and seeing that she’d gone. She sank in ten seconds. All the shipping on the river joined the search for the crew of the tug. Someone spotted what appeared to be a coat in the water: when it was recovered it was found to be the mate, Ernest Perry, drenched in diesel and dead. Four more bodies were discovered in the wreck after it was salvaged a fortnight later. It was May before the two remaining members of the crew were washed up and identified.

This is another version of what happened, from government documents: ‘The cause of this casualty was either an error of judgment on the part of the tug master or the very temporary failure of the tug’s main machinery which caused her to lose speed ... The tragedy has of course been a matter of great public interest in Liverpool but I do not think that a formal inquiry is called for in this case.’

Aunty Hilda, before she went doolally and began putting cotton wool in her ears and powdering her face chalk-white, married a Norwegian who came up the river one day, a man referred to ever after as ‘Captain’. My Dad went spotting mines with the Sea Scouts during the war, and involuntarily helped the Axis powers by putting his boot through the canoe. The family on Merseyside roosted in two hotels which had been knocked through to make one large billet. ‘Seacliff’ and ‘Hazeldene’ were fall, or nearly full, during the years when Dad was spotting mines – full of servicemen, as well as resident guests – and the business was still going into my childhood in the 1960s. Gradually, however, the commercial travellers and retired gentle-folk drifted away, and Aunty Bessie gave up clattering the dinner gong at seven. The hotels became a kibbutz for ageing members of the family.

They lived in New Brighton, across the river from Liverpool. My great uncle, Harry Smith, was on the council. He was the first person to swim in the Guinea Gap baths on the day they were opened. He owned the Rockpoint Hotel and the Sunshine Café on the front, and once went to Leicester on the strength of a tip-off about ex-Naafi kettles. ‘If Harry saw something he wanted on a stall,’ my Aunty June told me, ‘something he thought he could sell, he would buy the lot. The chap would just close up and go home.’ Harry kept suitcases of money under the bed at the kibbutz, and was never at a loss for a Cup Final ticket. He was married to Bessie, who banged the gong for dinner. Stephen Smith, my grandfather, was in on the café venture with his brother and also had shops in New Brighton (hardware, glass). Stephen was a sidesman at the Baptist church. No TV was allowed on Sundays, except for Songs of Praise and the news. He and my grandmother lived in the basement.

The other side of my family, the Fenbys, joined the Smiths through my grandparents’ marriage. As a general rule, they were as diffident as the Smiths were proprietorial. My grandmother was responsible for running the hotel business during the war. She was one of a great litter of children. One of her brothers ran away to Australia as soon as he was old enough: like the rest of the Fenbys, he had suffered at the hands of a drunken father, a tugboat captain from Scotland who had settled by the Mersey. Another brother, George, was a bluff man with a pipe, who lived on the first floor of the kibbutz. He had been married, but his wife had died of cancer. On Sunday evenings, when television was banned in the basement great uncle George would tell my brother and me in his tobaccostained voice that we could watch his set if we liked, while he was out drinking with his masonic cronies. Like his alcoholic father, George was in tugs: he didn’t go out on the river in them but worked from shore, assigning crews to jobs, often using a phone in the snug of a pub. He worked for Rea Towing.

I’ve always had a sense of another, hidden member of the family, a person aunts and uncles spoke about in strained and muted tones. I didn’t ask any questions; I can’t say that I was especially curious, but I also had the feeling that questions would not be welcome. My phantom relation had the status of an imaginary friend, a shadow on the landing.

A short time ago, Aunty June sent me a card with a picture of a ship being towed into port. It’s a reproduction of Idomeneus in the Mersey by Norman Colebourne. The ship, the Idomeneus Ex Laertes, built by Vickers-Armstrong of Newcastle, is mid-river, swinging on the tide and facing Birkenhead docks. In the foreground is a tugboat with a red, white and black funnel; in the middle of the funnel is a black diamond, and in the middle of the diamond, the letter ‘R’, painted white. ‘R’ for Rea: the tug was a Rea boat, the Maplegarth, and she was crossing the bow of the liner, getting ready to tow her.

Inside the card, June had written:

The River Mersey is central to all our lives – where your Dad and I played on the shore as children; crossed over on the ferries for many years and where Rea Towing Company sailed their tugs with all kinds of ships in tow. Your great-grandfather was master of one of Rea’s ocean-going tugs. Your great-uncle Les was Captain of the Applegarth (sister tug of the Maplegarth) which capsized and sank on a cold January night in 1960, drowning all the crew – after making too sharp a turn.

This was the first I knew of the Applegarth (the disaster happened 18 months before I was born). I realised that I hadn’t imagined the phantom. It was Les Fenby. His death had shattered my grandmother, June told me. She went on: ‘Les hadn’t been drinking that night’ – an odd thing to say. June had liked Les, so she wasn’t implying that he had seldom drawn a sober breath at the helm. All the same, I had an impression of my great-uncle as a soused salt, a jolly jack tar. The loss of the Applegarth had just been a balls-up, it seemed.

I was only the latest in a long line of people to slander Les. In time, I found out that the drinking June had mentioned was one of the rumours which swept the river after the loss of the Applegarth, the most damning of which was that Les was responsible: he had made a basic, catastrophic error of seamanship which had cost seven lives, including his own.

Les was born on 19 April 1914. He was still a boy when he went to work on boats. He had been married: he left a widow, whose name was Kath. June had some photographs. In one, Les is wearing a baggy suit, standing in a garden, apparently having just taken a cigarette out of its packet. He looks the sort who would be able to keep his footing on the slicked and rolling deck of a tugboat. June and I thought the picture must have been taken not long before he was killed.

Les was off-duty the night of the 13th. He was telephoned at home in New Brighton and told to come in and cover for the master of the tug, who had called in sick. George was working – he was on the phone in a pub, talking to the crews. It was George who rang Les and told him to take the Applegarth out.

June remembered an anguished night after the news came through – the Applegarth had sunk and the crew was missing. Eight days later, there was a memorial service at St Nick’s, the sailors’ church, even though six of the seven crew remained unaccounted for. Six hundred mourners filled the pews. ‘River-men in overalls and oilskin coats,’ said the Liverpool Echo, ‘stood side by side with grey-suited men from shipping offices.’ On the morning of 27 January George went to Liverpool to identify his brother’s body, which had been in the water for two weeks. Verdicts of death by misadventure were eventually recorded on all the men. During the inquest, the coroner told the master of the Perthshire: ‘I will not ask your opinion of the cause of the accident. That does not affect this court. It may be for another court to decide.’ But Aunty June couldn’t remember another court, or an inquiry of any kind. It just got about that Les Fenby had made a fatal error.

After it was all over, George had married Les’s widow. ‘Kath needed a husband,’ June told me, ‘and she had always liked George: in fact, I think she would have liked to marry George in the first place rather than Les, only George wasn’t so keen on her.’ George was a widower himself. He needed someone to look after him. ‘It was a marriage of convenience,’ June said. ‘It wasn’t unknown in that generation. But I don’t think they were very happy, and they hadn’t been married very long when Kath was killed in a car accident.’ Almost as an afterthought, she said there had been a boy, Les’s son. ‘Malcolm, his name is. When Kath married George, he went to live with them. Her family brought him up, after Kath was killed. He’s still around in New Brighton, as far as I know, but we don’t see him now. I haven’t seen him since George died.’

Tugs were barrelling into Bramley Moore dock, half a dozen of them, one after another, the fleet of Cory Towing of Liverpool returning to port in the early afternoon. Cory’s had taken over Rea’s business. I watched the tugs from the dockside; so did the taxi driver who had brought me down Dock Road (though I had paid him off). You might not think tugs capable of stopping the traffic. They don’t have the overaweing bulk of tankers, or the romance of cruise ships. ‘A tug or two would hurry in noisily,’ Conrad wrote, describing the departure of a clipper from a London dock, ‘hovering round her with an air of fuss and solicitude, and take her out into the river, shepherding her.’ In Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, the tugboat is a grubby symbol of smoke, soot, iron and steam.

The first tug to tie up in Bramley Moore dock was the Norton Cross. Her crew stepped over the gunwales, carrying sports bags. They were going home for their dinners. I asked one of them what they had been doing that morning.

‘Towing a dead ship.’

‘A dead ship?’

‘No engines.’ He pointed upriver. ‘We towed her to Laird’s.’

‘The tug is in at the birth and the death of a ship,’ the official historian of the Alexandra Towing Co., a competitor of Rea’s, has written. ‘It takes charge as soon as the new vessel hits the water, still an inert hulk with no life of its own, and tows it to the fitting-out yard. When the ship has reached the end of its useful life, the tug tows it to the breakers. Nothing else can do the job.’

The master of the Norton Cross was in no hurry to go home to his wife: or perhaps, like George Fenby, a widower twice over, Larry Radford had no wife to go home to. When I found him, I thought better of asking him about his domestic circumstances. His veined face and watery blue eyes spoke of a lifetime on the river. The tug was his home, more than any building on shore. There was a place set for one.

Radford had joined the Rea Towing Company in 1957, at the age of 22. ‘I knew George Fenby,’ he told me. ‘He used to work at the Pacific Buildings, near the Pier Head, when Reas were there. He used to go drinking with the pilots.’

‘What about Les?’

‘I didn’t know Les so well. I remember the accident, of course. The river was in flood. It’s deceptive; it looks docile but it isn’t. The Applegarth came across the freighter – not just in front of her, across.’

‘What happened, do you think?’

‘It was a long time ago. I wasn’t on the river that night.’

‘There wasn’t an inquiry, was there, but people have said Les made an error.’

Radford’s expression was as hard to read as the river.

‘What do you think?’ I said.

‘Yes, there could have been an error,’ he said.

But Uncle Les had had an exemplary career. He had apparently once tied up a barge a little too smartly in Alfred Docks and damaged a stanchion; some rudder gear took a knock a week later, but this was attributed to the actions of a passing trawler, and in any case both accidents happened during the war. A mine once detonated against the starboard quarter of the Aysgarth, Les’s regular command, but you could argue that my father was more culpable than my great-uncle. Les’s performance compared favourably with those of other skippers, including his alcoholic father: George Fenby Sr was always bumping into walls and ramming piles and shattering his propellor on floating timber. In fact, the Applegarth had had a more chequered history than her master. Even before she went into service, she sank – coming out of dry dock in Liverpool in August 1954. No need to ask what superstitious mariners made of a Lazarus boat, a tug which had already been to the bottom. There was an industrial dispute on the tugboats at the time, and James Duncalf, a trimmer, was sacked by Rea Towing over the incident. He was reinstated a month later, and was engineer on the Applegarth the night she sank for a second time.

So what went wrong forty years ago? If it had been possible to try my great-uncle over the disaster, would he have been found guilty? There was no public inquiry but there was a preliminary investigation by the Ministry of Transport. It was carried out by Captain John Hampton, a senior nautical surveyor. He said the cause of the accident could be ascribed to three factors: Applegarth passing her tow rope at a speed which was possibly over the normal; the dropping back of the tugboat onto the liner’s bow; and the attempt to extricate the tug by going ahead across the Perthshire’s bow. The first point is curious since Hampton elsewhere remarks that the tow line had been passed aboard the liner ‘without incident’ and, indeed, ‘successfully’. The speed of the liner appears to be at least as noteworthy as that of the tug. The report states that the Perthshire was probably exceeding the speed referred to by her master and the Mersey pilot in their statements.

As for the attempt to extricate the tug by going across the Perthshire’s bow – Great-Uncle Les’s fateful command to go full ahead – it’s true that the mate of the Perthshire, John Baxter, was unimpressed: ‘after falling back, I assumed the Applegarth would drop further astern to attempt another run, but then I saw her beginning to forge ahead.’ George Cockram, the Mersey pilot, found no fault in Les’s decision. When he felt the initial impact aboard the Perthshire, he ‘still believed at that time that the tug had the sufficient speed to clear us,’ which implies that going forward was a reasonable response. It’s not as if Les could afford to wait for the Perthshire to slow down. Baxter grabbed a telephone to tell the bridge to stop the engines. The inquiry was told that the delay between this command being given and the engines coming to rest would be 20 seconds, twice as long as it took for the Applegarth to go to the bottom of the river.

I caught a ferry from Liverpool Pier Head. It was a cold day and the river was hangover grey. The docks and wharves were showing a light here and there; there’s always a light left on in a ship or a dock. I remembered how I had liked to look down from the deck of a ferry as she tied up, squashing the old lorry tyres fixed to the landing stage. I used to imagine that the gassy wake of the ferry was ginger beer. The ferry passed the spot where the Applegarth went down. It looked close enough to the riverbank to wade ashore, though the mud exposed by the low tide was treacly. Even on this stretch of water, the consistency of quilted kitchen towel, there were eddies, current, shapes.

The quietly-spoken man across the table from me was demonstrating how the Perthshire sank the Applegarth with the aid of a beer mat and a sachet of sugar. ‘They found my father in the wheelhouse and so there was a feeling that he was to blame.’ This was Malcolm Fenby, Les’s son. There was a Malcolm Fenby in the phone book, and I knew him as soon as he walked into the pub. Malcolm was in his forties. He was a computer-programmer, now, but he’d joined the Navy after school. ‘My father wasn’t a heavy drinker. He liked a glass of beer but he didn’t touch the hard stuff, unlike a lot of them on the river in those days.’

‘You know, people say he was responsible for the whole thing.’

‘I don’t think so. He was a good captain.’ Malcolm said that the defunct Rea Towing had given his mother an ex gratia payment of £2000.

‘She wanted to fight but the company wouldn’t back her. They didn’t want to rock the boat – literally. The business was very competitive then and they were afraid of making a fuss with the shipping companies. But if you’d gone round people on the river, they’d all have put money in for it. My father was known and admired.’

I went to St Nick’s, the sailors’ church. There was a book of remembrance in a side chapel. It listed Merseyside sailors lost in the two world wars, and the crew of the bulk carrier Derbyshire, which sank off Japan in 1980. But I could find no entry for tugboat men, no mention of Les Fenby.

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