River Mersey rescue – SS Bannprince

It’s two years this month since I started to write my weekly blog about Cheekpoint and the Waterford harbour area. In that time I’ve written many varied accounts of growing up, the fishing, the sea and the history and heritage we have in abundance. Most of my favourite pieces are stories that took months to research and write and today I wanted to republish one that didn’t get a large audience but which was special to me. On Saturday night, 12th Nov 1955 my Father, Bob Doherty and two others from Cheekpoint, my Uncle John and Jimmy (O’Dea) Doherty, were departing Liverpool as seamen aboard the MV Ocean Coast in dense fog.  The ship was carrying general cargo and bound for Falmouth.  The three were just out of their teens, but already seasoned sailors.
 
The first official communication on the night was at 22:10 when the Ocean Coast sent out the following message “Queens Channel, Q15 Buoy, River Mersey. There has been a collision between two unknown ships. I am anchored and sending a lifeboat over. Strong ebb tide running. One of the ships in the collision has sunk”
 
 
My fathers ship, MV Ocean Coast, was a twin screw motor cargo vessel 250 ft in length and a 38ft beam and 1,790 tons dead weight. She was built for short sea route trips by Leith shipyard for the Coast Lines shipping company and was launched on 31st July 1935.  During the war years she had served as a supply vessel to Gibraltar and North Africa.  She also played her part in the D Day landings servicing Omaha beach carrying petrol. My father was in short pants at that stage, snaring rabbits to supplement the meager supplies at home in the village, and dreaming of going to sea like his father.
MV Ocean Coast

The collision, it would subsequently emerge, was between a fully laden Swedish motor oil tanker SS Juno and the SS Bannprince which was operated by S William Coe of Liverpool.  The Bannprince was crewed by Northern Ireland men and had been built in 1933 in Glasgow.  She was 165ft 5″ long with a beam of 27ft 2″ and a deadweight of 716 tons.

SS Bannprince

Like the Ocean Coast, the Bannprince had served with a volunteer crew during the war.  She helped to evacuate 337,130 Allied troops from Dunkirk between May and June 1940, following this she was taken over for “Unspecified special government services” and was one of the first ships to land at Sword beach during the D Day landings with much needed medical supplies.

 
The Bannprince was outward bound that fateful night, fully laden with coal for Colerain in NI. The first the crew knew of difficulties was when the ships horn sounded three shrill blasts moments before there was an almighty crash and the ship healed over.  She would sink in ten minutes and most of the crew of 9 had no time to get a life jacket.  Her lifeboats were submerged. In the freezing Mersey the crew did what they could to stay together and help those that couldn’t swim into life jackets found floating or other debris that would sustain them. The Juno was entering the Mersey and heading for the Liverpool docks.
Motor Tanker WWII era

It was almost an hour between collision and the calls from the lifeboat of the Ocean Coast were heard in the water.  At this point most of the sailors were close to exhaustion and had drifted apart.  The boat my father and Jimmy O Dea was in rescued six and a lifeboat from a sister ship Southern Coast picked up the remaining 3 men including the captain and the only crew man to lose his life, second engineer James Ferris of Limavady, Derry.

 
The Certificate my father received in 1957
They put the six survivors aboard the New Brighton lifeboat and returned to the Ocean Coast to continue their voyage.  On the 3rd April 1957 my father along with 5 other crew men (including Jimmy) received a certificate from the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society in recognition of their efforts.  The Captain received a silver cigarette box and the chief officer a parchment.
 
The Ocean Coast continued to give service into the 1960’s when she seems to have been sold for scrap,  The Bannprince was risen from the Mersey as she was a hazard to shipping and was sold for scrap to a Dutch shipyard.  The Juno, which was only lightly damaged, returned to work. but I couldn’t source any further information about her.
 
My father went to sea as a teenager like so many other men of his generation.  Himself, Jimmy and Uncle John are now gone to their rest, and with them their best stories.  He never actually spoke at home of this rescue and it took a bit of time to actually research it. But then again, it was just after the horrors of the second world war, and events like this were trivial in comparison. Jimmy O’Dea did have a yarn about it however.
 
According to his telling when they approached the men in the water my father, who was an excellent swimmer, had to jump overboard to help some of the weakened men out of the water. Jimmy O Dea and the other rescuers were returning to their ship, when they noticed my father wasn’t aboard. They turned back, rowing now with a vengeance only to find my father swinging off a buoy shouting “where the hell were ye then ship mates???”  Fact or fiction we’ll never know, but my Father would have loved it, the bigger the laugh the better, even at his own expense.
This is an excerpt from my new Book. The cover includes the blending of two images, the building of Dunmore East pier and the city dredger, Portlairge from an original image by Jonathan Allen.
New Book Out Now

16 Replies to “River Mersey rescue – SS Bannprince”

  1. My Uncle, Alun Evans, (1923 -2001) a North Walian, was a crew member on the MV Ocean Coast at the time. He also manned the lifeboat and was awarded the same certificate – only snag was they inscribed his name as "Arthur". I still have his framed certificate.

  2. Hi Philip, there were two other Doherty's on the Ocean Coast my uncle John and a cousin James. Apparently there was a typo on James' cert too which led to some confusion. Thanks for commenting, much appreciated. Andrew

    1. Instinct I would say Kev, but still brave to do, and risky. They could have been run down in the dark by another ship or rescue craft. They always made light of such things of course. Thanks as always for taking the time to comment

  3. Hi Andrew, I wonder if the Juno was one of the Bristol Steam Navigation Company ships that sailed out of Bristol and Waterford. They were named after Greek gods; others from memory being Apollo, Kato, Dido, Hero. My father was Master with them in the 60’s and I have childhood memories of being on board prior to sailing. They had an office on the wharf roughly opposite the Ulster Bank. The Juno I believe met her end in the Bay of Biscay in later years.

    1. Hi Sean, thanks for the comment. I spotted a few photos of the coaster named Juno on Ships Nostalgia site previously but from what details I could garner, these all appeared to be of a later date that 1955. I found one similar to what you are describing, but I think she was built in the early 1960s. I really apprecite you taking the time to comment however.

  4. Great to have such stories on record so that future generations can look back at family histories.

  5. I was eleven at the time in Waterloo half mile from the Mersey my father and uncle were on ship repair at the time I’m sure it would have been the topic of conversation at work

    1. I have no doubt about that Michael, It was widely covered in the newspapers at the time. Thanks for the comment.

  6. My Grandad Ron Jones was one of the men that was rescued from the SS Bann Prince that night. He carried on working on ships until 1958. He sadly passed away April 2006. Very grateful of your father and the rest of the crew that rescued him as otherwise I would never have met him. My Dad Alan Jones also went to sea. Thank you

  7. My late father Ron Jones was a crew member on SS Bannprince. Was in engine room at time of collision, was lucky to get out, no life jacet and was picked up by Ocean coast life boat.
    I remember it well i was 13 at the time,R U C officer came on sunday morning with the news
    No info of survivors,it was two days before we knew he was ok and in hospital.
    He continued going to sea until1959.
    I also went to sea.

  8. Forgot to say ever grateful to crew Oean Coast and others for their bravery very difficult conditions
    Thank you.

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