Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

A sailor’s life – 44. Goodbye, Monkbarns

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Monkbarns' last reported anchorage - as coal hulk off Corcubión, northern Spain

Monkbarns' last reported anchorage - off Corcubión, northern Spain. View of the bay: Museo Maritimo Seno de Corcubion

In 1954 a nosy British steam ship apprentice spotted the name “Monkbarns” in rusty raised letters on an old coal hulk in Corcubión, in northern Spain, and clambered aboard.

There wasn’t much left of Charles W. Corsar’s fine teak fittings, the old seaman recalled years later, in response to an appeal in Sea Breezes. Where the saloon had been aft, there was just a stripped out space with a few doors and an old cast-iron stove in the corner. The tall masts were long gone, chopped down to stumps in 1927 when the old sailing ship was sold for £2,500 to Bruun & Von der Lippé of Tønsberg, Norway, for one of their several whaling stations in Galicia. He did not have time to see if the little flying horse figurehead was still there before he was chased back to work by a harassed mate, (“though perhaps I visited the cabin in which your grandfather had lived,” he wrote).


By June 1919, when Monkbarns docked back in Cork with a cargo of South African maize, she had been away from Europe for nearly two and half years. The war was over, and she had survived – unlike 263 other British merchant sailing ships. John Stewart’s fleet had numbered ten fine ships in 1914. By 1919 Monkbarns was one of four left.

That summer, Captain James Donaldson “swallowed the anchor” and retired from the sea. The 24-year-old Mate, who had first set foot aboard Monkbarns in Hamburg as a callow apprentice of sixteen, was also leaving the ship: bound for his parents’ home on the Isle of Wight and the daily commute to college in Southampton, to sit his exams and (he hoped) graduate to Master.

Bert Sivell had served Donaldson as man and boy for eight years, through war and storms and even mutiny, but the old Scot – never effusive – wrote only: “This is to certify that Mr Hubert S. Sivell was promoted 1st Mate of the above named ship at Melbourne, about beginning of March 1918, to about beginning of June 1919. During that time we had a crew of the most difficult men to work. They started insubordination before leaving Hobson’s Bay, continued and was so bad that the ship had to put into Rio damaged for want of men to work the yards etc. and continued right on to end of voyage. But through it all Mr Sivell was attentive, obedient, and strictly sober.”

And that was that.

Captain Donaldson was seventy, and had been at sea since he was fourteen. He retired to Australia, where he and the patient wife his apprentices never mentioned eventually settled in Bunbury near the eldest of their five children. Captain James Donaldson jnr was appointed pilot to the burgeoning timber port there in 1921, and was to rise to harbour master in a long and successful career ashore. In 1925 old man Donaldson’s details appear on a manifest for the White Star liner Medic arriving at Southampton, England, but his name is struck out. His great grandson believes he died in Scotland. Elizabeth King Donaldson continued to appear on the census for Bunbury with her son’s family until 1931, when she would have been 77.

Monkbarns on the Charlton Buoys

Monkbarns on the Charlton buoys - from collection of the National Maritime Museum, London

Monkbarns’ last master, Captain William Davies of Nefyn, north-west Wales, died of stomach cancer in Rio on March 29, 1926, during a final and ultimately fruitless attempt to make the old ship pay. During the slump of 1921 she had spent 16 rather jolly months laid up in Bruges, with regular visits from the captain’s family and only old Henry Robertson, the sailmaker, for crew – “Sails” declaiming Scott’s epic Marmion to himself as he stitched away in his sail locker, or rattled pots in the galley. But Captain Davies didn’t survive the last voyage and the ship was brought home by the Mate, his nephew Richard Davies.

When Monkbarns finally moored at Charlton buoys on 10th July, hungry and a month overdue, to a chorus of whistles from the steamers she passed on her way up the Thames, even the Times wrote up her arrival as “a picture out of the romantic past”. But despite three years and four months away, the voyage had been so unprofitable that the remaining partner of John Stewart & Co decided he could no longer keep the vessel on.

On March 5, 1927, Monkbarns left the UK on her very last passage, bound for Corcubión, Spain, with a consignment of Welsh coal – supposedly for the Norwegian-run whale boilers of the Compañía Ballenera Española.

Records show the Norwegians caught 242 whales off Spain that year – producing 7,000 barrels of oil. But already the great teeming canyons beneath the Bay of Biscay and the straits of Gibraltar were being hunted to extinction. Too many licences had been granted. They had averaged 35,000 barrels in each of the previous four years. Now fossil oil was on the march.

The Norwegians say Svend Foyn Bruun & Anton von der Lippe shut down what they called their operation in Corcubión in 1927 and decamped to Newfoundland, taking their boilers with them. But Spanish records do not show there was ever a whaling station in Corcubión, just a coking plant: the Compañía General de Carbones.

Street art in a derelict former whaling factory in Galicia - photo by Peri from ekosystem.com

Street art in a derelict former whaling factory in Galicia, awaiting demolition for a shopping mall - photo by Peri from ekosystem.com

There were whalers further along the beach at Caneliñas – but not until 1928, the year John Stewart & Co sent their last ship, William Mitchell – the very the last remaining British-registered commercial full rigged ship – to the breaker’s yards. (Garthpool, the other contender for “last British-flagged sailing ship” was in fact registered to Montreal when she was wrecked off Cape Verde in 1929, although confusingly she still flew the Red Ensign…)

Grimy, rusting, forgotten, somehow Monkbarns hung on. She is not listed among the known coal hulks of the Compañía General de Carbones anchored in the bay at Corcubión at that time (Burdeos, Mayagüez, Maria Luisa, and Sorrento) yet when the whaling station at Caneliñas reopened in 1952, she was evidently still there. Reduced to coaling weather-bound steamers, but still afloat according to that nosy British apprentice.

By then, both Bert Sivell and Captain James Donaldson were long dead. Monkbarns had outlived them both.

Read on: Boy’s own story
Previously: Man overboard – the death of Laurence O’Keeffe


3 Responses

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  1. Word comes from Spain: Cristina Alejandro of the
    Museo Marítimo Seno de Corcubión reports that there is in fact no record of Monkbarns among the list of coal hulks working for the carbide factory at Corcubion, and the whaling factory at Canelinas was still being built in 1927.
    There was however a “floating coal deposit in the estuary in the 1950s, a big ship, but nobody remembers her name…” Runners have gone out.
    Come in please Norway.

    Jay Sivell

    October 12, 2010 at 12:57 pm

  2. […] next: Goodbye, Monkbarns Previously: […]

  3. I have interviewed three sailors from Monkbarns last voyages in the ’20s. Dudley Turner, Harry Fountain and Lionel Walker. There are 8 pages devoted to this in my book ‘Windjammers The Final Story’. The book is still available. http://www.robertcarter.com.au
    Robert Carter OAM Sydney Australia

    Robert Carter

    August 23, 2011 at 11:20 pm

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