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Tollesbury’s SS Politician helped inspire Ealing comedy

DOWN the centuries the River Blackwater has been host to a variety of vessels – some of them fishing, or transporting goods to and from Maldon.

In more recent times, it has been a focus for leisure, whether enjoyed by owners of private boats, or by tourists on pleasure trips.

Not many realise, however, that for more than 50 years the Blackwater served a secondary purpose – as the location of a sort of ships’ ‘graveyard’.

During times of economic downturn, shipping companies suffer just as much as other industries. A temporary solution was (and to a certain extent still is) to ‘mothball’ vessels, pending re-commissioning, disposal by sale, or even scrapping.

An ideal safe haven was deemed to be our own river – particularly that stretch between the Nass and Thirstlet Creek – centering off the old Crab and Winkle railway line pier, at Tollesbury.

The first of these ‘ghost ships’ arrived in June 1922 and was quickly joined by others, large and small.

Their names, periods of stay and their subsequent fate, are recorded in the official records. Of all of them, the one that intrigues me the most is the 7,899-ton cargo ship London Merchant (official number 147482).

Built on the Tees by the Furness Shipbuilding Company, she was laid down on the September 19, 1920, as the SS Canadian, but was launched as the SS London Merchant on November 15, 1921.

Maldon and Burnham Standard:

The ‘ship’s graveyard’ seen from the pier

Completed in May 1923 for the Neptune Steam Navigation Company, of London, for the next seven years she worked as a general cargo carrier.

Depressed times led to her being taken out of service and she arrived off Tollesbury Pier on April 4, 1930, where she became a familiar sight for the next five years.

It seemed to the locals that the London Merchant and her skeleton crew would remain there for ever, moored until being consigned to a watery grave.

However, on May 28, 1935, she was acquired by new owners the Charente SS Company, a subsidiary line of Thomas and James Harrison, of Liverpool.

They renamed her yet again – this time SS Politician, which (if you pardon the pun) might ring a bit of a bell?

The Politician set sail from Tollesbury, bound for Liverpool on June 14, 1935, never to return to her temporary Blackwater home.

SS Politician started working again, plying the sea routes off Africa, but with the outbreak of war, Harrisons put the Politician at the disposal of the Admiralty.

Cargo ships were seen as legitimate targets by U-boats, but the Politician regularly steamed across the Atlantic, from Liverpool or Manchester to New Orleans and the West Indies, and managed to avoid trouble.

Then in 1941 her luck ran out.

She set sail from Liverpool on February 3, destined for Kingston, Jamaica, and New Orleans and carrying a very diverse cargo of cotton goods, general merchandise, military equipment, Jamaican bank notes and … 22,000 cases (that’s 264,000 bottles) of Scotch whisky!

So now does the name Politician ring a bell?

The Admiralty instructed skipper Captain Beaconsfield Worthington to take a circuitous route as far north and west as possible to remain in protected waters, before making a speedy dash for the Americas.

All started well enough until, during the morning of February 5, passing through unfamiliar, rough seas, she struck some rocks off Roshinish Point, on the Island of Eriskay, in the Hebrides.

The subsequent attempts at salvage (particularly of the whisky) by official agents and, unofficially, by the islanders, has become the stuff of Ealing comedy legend.

Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 book Whisky Galore was made into a film of the same name the following year.

The principal player was the SS Politician, renamed as the fictitious SS Cabinet Minister.

As funny as the film is, the true story of the attempts at salvage is tinged with bitterness, including prosecutions and imprisonment of some of the locals.

An excellent study of the facts is Roger Hutchinson’s Polly (Mainstream Publishing 1990).

The Politician was refloated, beached and partially broken up where she lay.

Maldon and Burnham Standard:

Roger Hutchinson’s 1990 book Polly

The forward section was cut free and towed away for scrap. The aft section was also salvaged in parts, but after cutting down to sea level, any further salvage attempts were finally abandoned in July 1944.

Of the 264,000 bottles of whisky, over 24,000 remained unaccounted for. They still occasionally turn up under the floors of crofts, buried in gardens and raised from all that is left of the wreck.

When they do, they sell for substantial amounts of money, but wouldn’t it be great to acquire one and put it on display somewhere in Tollesbury where the ‘whisky ship’ spent five quiet years.

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