Rockabill & Tuskar; The last of the Clyde

To generations of locals, the Clyde boats were a byword for employment, trade, emigration, and holidays and the final two that were often referred to at home were the Rockabill and the Tuskar.  Two very different ships, two different personalities but two ships that were part of the very fabric of a maritime port like Waterford.

The Clyde boats of my parents’ generation of course represented the last of the ships and a fine coasting tradition that spanned well over 100 years.  The Clyde Shipping company started out life, unsurprisingly I guess given the name, in Glasgow on the banks of the River Clyde in 1815. As the company prospered it entered the Irish market in 1856, initially to Cork but quickly to other ports such as Waterford.  It was a stalwart of the Irish goods trade, particularly in the South East, and Waterford as a result of its location was a pivotal hub. In 1912, the company further strengthened this link when it bought the rival Waterford Steamship Company.[i]

The old Clyde Shipping Co Offices
The old Clyde Shipping Co Offices, Waterford Quay

Down the years there have been many notable ships, none more so than the Coningbeg and Formby But two that are equally deserving of mention are the Rockabill and the Tuskar

The Rockabill(1931) was named like all the Clyde ships after 1860, for lighthouses (or lightships) around the coast of Ireland and the British Isles. She was built by D&W Henderson & Co on the Clyde.  Her maiden voyage took her from Liverpool to Waterford on the 5th of February 1931.  She was primarily a cattle and cargo-carrying ship but she had accommodation for 12 first-class passengers on the starboard side (I have read this was on the port side too however)of her upper deck and steerage passengers too.  Meals were provided but were not included in the cost, which was said to be very appealing to passengers, especially on rough crossings![ii]

Rockabill at Waterford. 29/10/1954 Shortall CQ.47. Andy Kelly Collection

She departed from Waterford quays between Reginald Tower and the Clock Tower and dropped cattle to the Wirral shore of the Mersey and later dropped her passengers to the West Waterloo Dock (east side)[iii]

Sailings continued during WWII until she was requisitioned for war duties in Liverpool on the 15th Sept 1943.   Sailings continued with relief ships on the route including the Skerries.  She finally returned to the route on the 4th of May 1946 (at which point the Skerries was sold).[iv] 

After the war, her routine was set at a fairly leisurely pace.  Her twenty-hour (approx)  trip commenced on a Saturday from Liverpool arriving at Waterford on Sunday.  She left again on Tuesday arriving in Liverpool on Wednesday morning.  Sailing times were set to suit the tidal conditions. A cabin berth was £3 10s single or £6 return. Steerage was £2 single fare (Not many traveling in steerage would have the luxury of returning after all) Children between 1-14 were charged half fare.[v]

Some described the Rockabill as an unlucky ship and several accidents/incidents were recorded about her, perhaps because she lacked the power required in strong tidal conditions.  There’s a locally famous image of her across Redmond’s Bridge in Waterford on 15th December 1956 after she drifted into the bridge while turning.  Luckily both the bridge and the vessel survived the incident as she floated away on the ebbing tide. Another incident occurred on 1st June 1942 – three miles east of Hook – when she ran aground but was fortunately towed to safety by the coaster Mayflower[vi]

The Rockabill against Redmond Bridge, Waterford. (L.M. 035 05) Andy Kelly Collection.

My aunt Margaret told me once that she first emigrated to Liverpool aboard the Rockabill in the 1950s, extended members of the Doherty’s were fairly well established in the port at that stage, I imagine my father probably took the same route when he first went to sea on the Coast Line ships from that port too. As far as I can recall my grandfather sailed on her.

Rockabill last sailed into the port of Waterford in April 1962.  The Waterford News & Star of Friday 6th April[vii] recorded the event on the front page with a photo and headline ”Today a 31-year-old connection will be severed” and went on to outline her role in the port and the technical difficulties that hastened her demise.  Her final journey out the harbour brought her to Cork and the breakers yard of Haulbowline Industries Ltd.  It was a historic journey and worthy of recording.  She was the final steamer (coal burner) of the Clyde fleet and had proudly borne this mantel since 1953.  I’m guessing as such she was our last coastal trading steamer and so ended a chapter of our maritime history that started with the first steamers that operated such as the Mail Packet ships at Dunmore East (the early 1820s) or the Nora Creina in 1826.

Liam Jacques recently passed on to me this toast holder from the Rockabill. His dad Cha was steward on the vessel and took it as a memento from her last voyage before going to the breakers
The company stamp and flag on the toast holder

Her replacement was a few months in coming on duty and when she did she was for a very different function. The Tuskar (1962) was built by Chas. Connell & Co as a motor vessel of 1,115 tons, launched on the 18th of April 1962.  She was designed to carry cargo and containers however and her maiden voyage to Waterford was not until the 26th June 1962 (the MV Sanda covered the route at this time).  She worked the route until the 10th December 1968 before being sold to a Yugoslav company and renamed the Brioni.  She would be broken up in 1988.[viii]

Tuskar crew at Waterford. Any help identifying the men is appreciated. Martin Tracey 1st man on the left, Tommy Connors is the second from the left, Des Hutchinson 6th from the left, and Tommy Cleere 7th. Davy Fardey 3rd from right. Photo courtesy of Demma Hutchinson (son of Des)

I suppose the reason that she was known so well to me was that my father sailed on her, for a time in 1968 after the new job he had come home to on the building of Great Island Power station was complete.  But maybe it’s also because, as was often the habit with the Clyde, there was more than one vessel to have the name.

Although there were five ships that shared the name, the first I have information on is Tuskar (1890) which acted more in a relief capacity on the Waterford route from what I have read, and was lost on the West Coast of Ireland during WWI. Tuskar (1920) was specifically built to accommodate the trade on the Waterford run and first sailed the route on the 1st of September 1920.  She worked alongside the Rockabill for a time but after import duties started to take a toll on the company’s business she was sold to Swedish owners in 1937.  She would later be seized by Nazi Germany and her ultimate fate was to be sunk off the Greek coast in 1944.[ix]

SS Tuskar (1920) leaving Waterford. Andy Kelly Collection

The arrival of the MV Tuskar into Waterford was covered in many of the national papers of the time and according to the Cork Examiner[x] she arrived in Waterford on Monday 25th June.  On Tuesday a reception was held aboard and she was shown off to an invited audience. (although Des Griffin of the Waterford Maritime History Facebook page told me recently that although he was only a child he was able to go aboard and explore the ship from stem to stern) The guests included the following dignitaries: “Councillor John Griffen,  Mayor; Mr. Sean Gillen, City Manager; Mr. F. Cassin. Chairman of the Harbour Board; Mr. P. Breen, President, Chamber of Commerce, were received on board yesterday. The attendance also included Captain Chestnut, Mr. William Logan, and Mr. A. Cuthbert. Glasgow, managing director and director of the company respectively, and Mr. W. D Sterling, a local manager.”

The article went on the describe the ship as a ; “1,597-ton vessel… a 15-ton and three five-ton cranes…equipped for the container traffic with accommodation for 450 cattle and a refrigerated hold for 100 tons of frozen cargo. Her speed is 14 knots.”  She departed on Wednesday with a general freight cargo and what was to be her mainstay on the route 370 cattle and 40 horses.

Her career was short-lived and there is little of the drama or excitement that would be connected to her forbearers.  The one tragedy with which she is associated in the papers was the drowning of a 16-year-old apprentice at the L&N of Broad Street as it then was.  James Hanrahan of Morrison’s Road was lost down the side of the Tuskar when she berthed at the Clyde wharf in June 1966.  James was apparently cycling along the quay with his fishing rod when the bike swerved and James was thrown over the handlebars.  James’ body was later recovered by the Portlairge in September.

MV Tuskar, photo courtesy of Frank Cheevers

In 1967 she was reported as carrying up to 1000 live pigs, the largest consignment to leave the port since WWII, accumulated due to a bacon strike[xi].  While in 1968 the Munster Express[xii] carried a photo of a powdered milk shipment being loaded aboard, paid for by the Cork Rotary Club, and bound for Liverpool and hence India to assist in famine relief.

But in December of 1968, the newspapers both national and local carried the story of the sale of the ship.  A company spokesman explained in the Irish Independent[xiii] that the sale was partly due to government policy to slaughter and process animals in Ireland.  Perhaps not surprisingly the Munster Express[xiv] was more concerned about the impact on jobs the route closure heralded and more generally in the position of the Port of Waterford in the overall scheme of maritime affairs in Ireland.

The sale of Tuskar was only another step in the sad decline of a once vital employer in the city of Waterford and her environs and although the company offices would remain open for another few years the writing was on the wall.  Today all that remains are the iconic offices on Customs House Quay, the sculpture to honour the crews of the Coningbeg and Formby, and the fading memories of those that were lucky enough to see them sail into port. 

I’d like to thank Demma Hutchinson and Mark Fenton who helped me with this piece, both their dads also sailed on the Tuskar.  If anyone has any memories to share of the crew or as passengers  I would be delighted to receive them for addition to this piece.


Sources used includes:

McElwee. R.  The Last Voyage of the Waterford Steamers.

[McRonald. M.  The Irish Boats. Vol II Liverpool to Cork and Waterford.  2006. Tempus. Stroud. Gloucestershire. Pp130-137

Waterford’s greatest maritime tragedy

Next weekend in Waterford we will remember our greatest maritime tragedy when, within two days in December 1917, Clyde Shipping’s SS Formby and SS Coningbeg were sunk by a U Boat. Of the 83 souls who perished 67 were from the city, the harbour and hinterland. It commences on Friday 15th Dec with an official opening by the Mayor at City Hall followed by a series of talks and continues on Saturday 16th with a number of events including an ecumenical service in Christchurch and a wreath laying ceremony.

The first to be lost was the SS Formby. She was built by Caledon SB. & Eng. Co. Ltd., Dundee in 1914 and was considered the flagship of the Clyde shipping company. She was 270 feet long, 1283 tons and had a top speed of 14.5 knots. Although primarily a cattle transport vessel she could accommodate 39 first class and 45 steerage passengers.  
Photo of a ghostlike SS Formby
via Shaun McGuire who had it from a daughter of Thomas Coffey

The SS Coningbeg was originally SS Clodagh built for the Waterford Steamship company by Ailsa shipbuilders in Troon, Scotland, August 1903. When the company was sold to the Clyde in 1912 she was renamed. In 1913 she underwent a total refit. She was also 270 feet long, 1278 tons and capable of a top speed of 16.5 knots, and could carry up to 600 head of cattle and 86 first class and 74 steerage passengers. 

SS Coningbeg by AH Poole (Poole WP 2167, NLI)
At 11am on Saturday 15th December the SS Formby slipped her moorings and travelled out the Mersey and into the Irish sea. Aboard were 37 crew and 2 passengers. She was due into Waterford the following morning, but when she did not arrive there was only minor concern. As Saturday had progressed a storm of sleet and snow had developed and had become a gale overnight, causing widespread damage. In Waterford it was presumed the Formby was sheltering and would be in to port later on Sunday. Having sat out the storm in Liverpool, the Coningbeg set sail on Monday 17th December at 1pm with a crew of 40 and 4 passengers. Neither ship sailed into Waterford port again. 

Family, relatives, neighbours and friends gathered at the Clyde company offices for any scrap of news. Over Christmas the vigil continued but on Thursday 27th December the company felt obliged to write to each family confirming everyone’s worst fears, that they could no longer hold any hopes for their loved ones return.
I wrote in detail about the incidents previously and I had a tremendous response from family members. A sample included Rose Egan who’s great granddad John Sullivan, a winchman on SS Coningbeg. After the trauma of the Sullivan family’s loss, John’s son William was killed in France three months later in March 1918. Neil White’s relative James Manning was lost aboard the SS Formby and he sent on a song he wrote about the incident. Shaun McGuire(1) sent on this information and photo (below) Thomas Coffey’s wife Mary (nee McGuire) and the two children she was left with when he was lost on the SS Formby. Mary died in 1950, her son Thomas in 1990 and her daughter also named Mary but known as May Walsh (nee Coffey) of Ballytruckle died in 2005. 
The Coffey family courtesy of Shaun McGuire
This is only a small sample of the responses last year, but I think they highlight the tremendous loss, the depth of feeling and the residual memories of this tragedy that has never been truly forgotten in our city and harbour area. 

The sailors are remembered with this significant and poignant memorial, situated on the quay of Waterford (above) which lists all the names and was unveiled by the then president of Ireland Mary Robinson in February 1997. But as I said at the start, next weekend they will be remembered in a more personal way in a series of events aimed at bringing the families together and offering a public opportunity to remember and acknowledge their lives, their work and the impact of the incidents. Full details here and a facebook event page here hosted by Waterford City & County Archive.  My own highlights I think will be the free guided tour of memorabilia in the Bishops palace commencing on Friday at 4pm and a series of talks on Friday night in the Large Room of City Hall with speakers including Julian Walton, Ray McGrath, Richard McElwee and Des Griffin.

(1) Shaun regularly remembers Waterford’s War Dead on facebook.

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