Lost at sea

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

A sailor’s life – 66. The Clam, a moment in history

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clam shell tanker helderline

The Clam, fourth of the 'shell' tankers

“The old Clam is up to her tricks again: early this week she decided to take a sudden list, after standing perfectly upright for over two months. We had to chop through a foot of frozen snow and ice to get to the tank lids and then we had to use a crowbar to get them open. She was not leaking, so I do not know the cause of her latest crankiness.”
Bert Sivell, officer-in-charge Shell depot ships Pyrula and Clam, New York, January 1925

In the winter of 1925, the East River in New York froze, trapping the ferries. One morning Bert Sivell found he could almost walk from his home on the former passenger liner Pyrula at Stapleton NJ to his support tanker, the 3,500 ton Clam, across the ice that stretched half a mile into the bay.

ice breakers new jersey ferry 1925

Ice breakers in the Hudson, New Jersey, winter 1925

The steam was off, there was no oil cargo aboard either vessel, and no ships calling for bunkers. The Anglo-Saxon Petroleum company (fleet arm of the 1907 merger of Royal Dutch Petroleum with the “Shell” Transport & Trading co.) was shedding its old tankers and both vessels were up for sale – for £25,000.

Pyrula was just an old passenger steamer, converted to an oil tanker by the Admiralty during the first war when she had seen action as a dummy warship, but Clam – though older – was a pioneer: a bit of Shell history.

The Clam was a proper oil tanker, purpose-built to carry lamp oil in bulk a decade before the word “tanker” was even invented, in the days before ordinary householders could dream of electric lighting and when gasoline was still a worthless byproduct being run off into rivers from Pennsylvania to Azerbaijan.

Launched in 1893, the Clam was older than her newly-wed young officer-in-charge, and older even than the old square-rigged sailing ship in which he had served his sea apprenticeship.

She was the last of the very first “Shell” tankers; the fourth of four sister ships designed in secret in 1892 to challenge the monopoly of American oil and its “Octopus Standard Oil by carrying Russian kerosene in bulk to the burgeoning markets of the East through the Suez Canal.

Standard Oil Octopus Puck magazine 1904

The "Octopus" Standard Oil, Puck magazine centrefold 1904

Murex, Conch, Turbo and Clam were a sideline to the rice and case oil business of a self-made British family, the Samuel brothers; a bow drawn at venture, rather like the workshop Samuel senior had founded, sticking exotic shells on tricket boxes for the booming Victorian seaside souvenir trade.

They were not the first purpose-built bulk oil tankers* – a distinction that belongs to either the Belgian Vaderland (1872), the Swedish Zoroaster (1878) or the German Gluckauf (1886), depending on your definition – but they had reinforced bulkheads up, down and across creating multiple separate tanks; cofferdam “buffers” fore and aft, isolating the fiery boiler room and coal bunkers; and expansion tanks to contain the expanding cargo in hot weather and prevent it shrinking and lurching in cold. They had water ballast tanks, to empty in case of grounding;  electric fans to expel explosive gas vapours; integral pumps; and steam pipes for cleaning between wet and dry cargoes (!) – for purpose-built or not, the Samuels could undercut the competition if their oil tankers carried a cargo of tea back.

Marcus Samuel

Marcus Samuel, founder of the "Shell" Transport & Trading co.

The ships were leak-proof, collision-proof and as far as possible fire-proof, and in August 1892 Murex made history as the first bulk oil carrier ever to pass through “the ditch” and into the Red Sea, bound for Thailand. She carried with her a little murex shell, presented to the master by Marcus Samuel from his own collection.

The Samuels were not Rockefellers. They were Whitechapel Jewish importers of rice and grain, semi-precious stones and shells, but they had inherited a network of trading agents across the far east and together they set up a syndicate to build onshore storage tanks that eventually stretched from Shanghai to Batavia (Jakarta), and from Bombay to Kobe. They worked in secret, because the ruthless Standard Oil had ways of seeing off competition – until it was finally forcefully broken up by US anti-trust laws in 1911.

Gradually, the eponymous rusty blue-green of Devoe’s Brilliant case oil tins – which had built itself into the very fabric of villages across the East as raw materials for everything from roofing tin to toys – gave way to shiny red ones, manufactured on the spot, and in 1897 the Samuel brothers struck oil of their own, in eastern Borneo, north of an unspoiled little fishing village called Balik Papan – (now an oil city of half a million souls.)

Shelsley Walsh Hill climb 7 June 1913

Shell oils advert for the Shelsley Walsh Hill climb 7 June 1913. Sir Marcus swiftly allied his products with pioneering motoring and aviation attempts

The following year, when the “Shell” syndicate began converting its tank steamers to burn its own thick fuel oil, Clam was first.

By 1925 only the Clam was left. Conch was wrecked off Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in 1903; Turbo went down in the North Sea in 1908;  Murex was torpedoed outside Port Said in 1916. But the Clam – requistioned by the Admiralty for service as RN oiler No. 58 and torpedoed in the Irish Sea by UB64 – limped into port and returned to work.

By 1925, there had been a hundred and twenty-seven “shell” tankers, including Murex (2), Conch (2) and Turbo (2). Marcus had been knighted for services to the Admiralty, and then raised to the peerage as Lord Bearsted. The “Shell” syndicate had merged with the Royal Dutch and oil was big business from Indonesia to Venezuela, producing all manner of oils, thick and thin, including the once despised gasoline and new aviation fuel.

The Clam was an antique – old and cranky, flip-flopping at her moorings in the ice and fog off New York, minded by a young officer-in-charge apparently whiling away his time with prize crosswords and letters to his wife far away in the UK, and a young engineer juggling three girlfriends. (“… He met them at a dance hall he goes to. He takes them all out on different nights and has been buying them presents too. I think they are soaking him good…”)

America was still supposed to be “dry” and at Christmas the manager of the Asiatic Petroleum co. [Shell’s management arm] had brought them a basket of fruit and some cigars, which Bert shared with his last few Chinese sailors. “Their forecastle will be all right tonight with cigar smoke and opium,” he commented. He saw in the New Year out at the moorings with Clam, listening to all the ships around him rattling their whistles. (“Not a sound from Pyrula, not even the bell.”)

Model T Advertisement

The automobile for the masses, assembled in 20 minutes in 1925

Up in New York, the Ford Motor company was pulling crowds with a two week exhibition at its showroom on 54th and Broadway, where you could watch twenty-five workers assemble a motorcar they themselves could afford to buy – start to finish in 20 minutes flat.

Bert joined the gawpers. “They build them on a moving conveyor,” he wrote. “The men never move from their positions but just do their bit to each machine as it comes to them. Finally the machine rests on its own wheels and they start the engine and drive it away. It really is a wonderful piece of organisation.”

The (free) show included entry to a prize draw to win your own car. Bert managed three trips, and three entries to the draw. He was already scouring the local paper his parents sent him for a house with a garage. “I made up my mind some time ago that I would have a car during the first leave after I go master.” That would be 1928, by his calculation.

Although he had passed his master’s ticket in 1919, promotion in the “Shell” depended on seniority. Every company man kept a jealous eye on the men above and below him on The List, and the only bearable part of the drudgery and boredom of minding Pyrula and Clam that final year was the fact that it all counted. “The old idea about sea experience is dead in this era of steamships,” he grumbled, ungratefully.

Yoeng's chinese restaurant

Yoeng's Chinese restaurant, New York - offered diners jazz music and dancing

Once a week he left the pier and caught a vaudeville show off Broadway. “There’s a new idea at the Liberty now,” he wrote in January. “On Monday and Tuesday there is no vaudeville, but two pictures (movies) instead, admission 25c and 35c. Wednesday night is Opportunity night when the local talent give the vaudeville and prizes are awarded by the audience’s applause. We get the two pictures as well, admission 40c over all. Some of the local talent is terrible.”

Once a week he lunched at Yeong’s Chinese restaurant, where he would listen to the jazz bands and watch the dancing, wandering back to Pier 14 via the bookshop on the eighth floor of Wanamaker’s in Washington Square.

The American Sugar refining company turned up in February, looking for a Cuban depot ship “if the price was right”, followed in March by two more Italian gents (“because they gave me a cigar”) and a firm of Danish ship breakers. Both made offers and both sought Bert’s services as master to sail and tow both vessels back to Europe. But the Anglo-Saxon said no.

Shell poster 1928

Shell poster 1928

It said no again when a German shipbreaking firm in Hamburg bid £23,500. (“As luck would have it we were both in our overalls and pretty black. I have all the boats turned inside out and Andrew has part of the main engines adrift ready to go to sea, so we had quite a decent show for him.”)

By now six of the war generation tankers had been sold that Bert knew of: Caprella (ex War Gurkha), Conia (War Rajput), Melona (Elmleaf), Prygona (Aspenleaf), Strombus (RN oiler 4) and Cardium. Bigger ships were on the stocks. Bert boxed up four years of clutter and destroyed all Ena’s early letters, ready to go home. And nothing.

The baby was born in March, but in April he was still showing prospective buyers around Pyrula and Clam, without success. “It is pretty evident now that the ASP have abandoned the idea of selling these ships for operating tonnage and they are now looking for the best price for junk.”

The Clam was eventually sold to Petrolifera Esercizi Marittima of Venice in 1926 and renamed Antares. The following year Shell launched a 7,400 ton Clam (2). Pyrula was moved to Curacao, still as a depot ship, and scrapped in 1933. Antares/Clam outlasted them all. She finally ended her long career after she was torpedoed by the Italian submarine Alagi in 1942. She was refloated but scrapped the following year.

By then, Bert was dead. He never did get his motorcar.

Read on: Maybe baby
Previously: Homeric and the Raifuku Maru

* In 1861 the first recorded ship to carry (US) oil in bulk, the tiny two-masted sailing ship Elizabeth Watts, sailed for England with a drunken, crimped crew – no sober volunteers having been found willing to risk their lives with such a hazardous cargo.


5 Responses

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  1. What a truly remarkable effort. You are to be congratulated on both your research and its presentation. I await the next chapter with eager anticipation.

    David clement

    June 7, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    • Dear Mr Clement,
      Thank you for your response! I’m flattered. Do you happen to have sea/Shell/oil tanker links yourself?

      Jay Sivell

      June 8, 2011 at 12:44 pm

  2. Dear Jay
    I wonder if you recall interviews you had with my father Capt Harold Barnet-Lamb and my mother Mira? I was a few momements ago going through some papers and came across your letter of 14 December 1998. So I turned on the computer to find you.
    I well remember his talking about his chats to you all those years ago. At this late stage I am anxious to discover all I can and I believe the book you wrote about Captain Sivell would be of great interest to me. What please is its title?
    Many thanks
    John Barnet-Lamb

    John Barnet-Lamb

    August 23, 2011 at 1:36 pm

  3. as I am a retired seagoing Marine Engineer (2nd Class) I am very interested in these to N’ fro xchanges between seagoing personnel. at present reading 3rd book of the War of 1812 Trilogy .

    lindo rodgers

    December 26, 2011 at 3:20 am

  4. I have an account of the SS Clam grounding off the coast of Algeria whilst in the command of Capt. Thomas Black. See below.


    S/S Clam dated 15 May 1899

    Ras Afia Light bare about SSW 18 miles. The weather being fine and clear sky occasionally cloudy with a light westerly wind. 11:30 pm I left the bridge in charge of 3’d Officer, the steamer course being S82 E by compass, or N84 E True allowing 14 Westerly Error. On leaving the bridge I told 3 Mate to tell the 2 Mate if he should happen to see the land before he saw Bougarone St to have her out at once and call me after writing up the night order book 11:50 pm informed 3 Mate I was going below. On the 16th about 1:30 am I woke up by hearing the ship struck heavily and made sure it was a collision immediately rushed on deck and found the ship had run ashore and had not quite stopped her way but in a few seconds she was fast and striking heavily and grinding on the rocks. The engines were not even stopped when I got on deck on arrival on bridge ship head by Compass was ENE we at once sounded the ship found 16ft in fore hold and No 5 No 4 and 3 we had ballast in and found they were running out from the starboard side which proved they were holed also No 2 on starboard side was filling up. No 1 was making no water and Engineer reported she was not making water in the engine room. At once made distress signals which was answered by a steamer in the offing. All boats was swung out and ready to lower. On daylight coming on I sent the 1 Mate away in a boat for assistance. A very heavy swell was on and ship sticking so heavily that I was afraid she would break in two. The S/S Waterloo sent her boat alongside which took part of the crew off and with our own boats as well as a French steamer called the Carmain eventually saved all hands. There not being the slightest hope of saving the steamer and no chance of getting ashore on account of heavy swell dashing on the rocks for any assistance if it come on to blow and the sea to rise there would be no chance of saving life there was two things I thought of. The first that I could do no good by stopping, and the other if I could get communicating there might be a chance of saving the steamer with salvage assistance. The Waterloo was bound to Hull, I consulted with her Captain found the S/S Clam was ashore about 5 miles to the West of Bougaroni. The Waterloo would not reach Bougaroni before dark and it being a small place I thought I should not be able to get much assistance there at night and would get to Algiers at daylight so I asked the Captain to land us there. Distance from Bengut to Cape Bougaroni 126 miles and she would be about 20 miles from Bougaroni when I went below. The first thing I done (sic) on getting ashore at Algiers was to send a wire to the owners as follows “The ship is wrecked at 5 miles West of Bougaroni the holds are full of water all hands saved wiring later further particular.” I then went to Lloyds Agent and on entering his office he informed me he had wired the owners and had telegraphed to salvage boats at Marseilles and Gibraltar. I then went to the Consul made deposition had given full particulars of the Clam to Lloyds, the tanks that was full and Ct at the same time said unless the weather lvas exceptionally fine they would never get her off but a great deal could be saved from her. I called again at Lloyds in the afternoon to see if there was any news and found none on the 18th, I wired to owners as follows: “Heard through Lloyds salvage boat arranged from Marseilles, do you require any of us to stay here?” During the day heard through Worms who had received telegram from owners that underwriter requested self and Chief Engineer to remain at Algiers until further notice to render such assistance as we could to salvage operations. I told Lloyds Agent this and was informed by him that he had telegraphed to the steamer Denmark to call here on his way to pick us up. During this time two small steamers left here for the wreck unknown to me, but I believe Lloyds knew about it, at the same time he said that he had wired to his sub/Agent in Philipdeville and guards were put on the steamer, and that nothing would be disturbed, nor anyone allowed on board as a strict watch was kept on her. On getting this news I was more easy. On the 19th called at Lloyds several times, on the 20th we were told that the Denmark was not going to call at Algiers, and as there was no chance of getting to the wreck by land in reasonable time, Lloyds wrote a letter, supposed to be written by me, saying as we were detained at Underwriter’s request to assist salvors it was time some means was made to take us there. This letter I signed as I quite approved of it, then he ordered the Engineer and self to be ready to leave Algiers. This was Saturday 20th, and we left at 7:30 pm. Arrived at the Clam about 2pm Sunday 21st. The Denmark was laying alongside the other French steamers at anchor, a little way off. On getting on board found the divers at work under the ship’s bottom and one putting on a patch in No 4 tank starboard side. By this time No 4 was nearly pumped out and hoses were on board from the Denmark. I went in the Saloon found she had been properly pilfered, all locks busted and everything worth was gone. The Cabin being in a beast of a mess, empty bottles in dozens laying about, not a single knife or fork to be seen. I then had a look over the ship and saw that everything movable had disappeared, even the Compass was taken off the Bridge. I may mention that I found a good deal of the stores gone and should say about half of them was gone having a look around. Lloyds told me to tell the Engineer to take charge of the Engine Room, he himself acting as captain and kept me as a …..boy, but during the afternoon he insisted on me signing an agreement that he made between the French people interested, that they agreed to assist the Denmark in salvaging on the principle of no cure no pay, and that it was to be settled by Arbitrators in London. At one time it was settled to let things be until daylight, but as night was drawing the swell began to rise quickly and it was decided to try without loosing any time No 1 was filled up and the two French steamers made fast aft. Towing commenced, her stem shifted into deeper water and the steamer was nearly; borne at about midnight. The Denmark was rolling heavily and bumping against shipside, and as soon as possible after getting her hoses back, she hove up her anchor and passed a towing line on the Clam, with the assistance of the Carmain Charles, as well 4 steamers were towing for a considerable time before she made a move, but as the rollers came in it assisted very much. The Clam engines were set at full speed astern, and by degrees she floated at 1:45 am on the 22nd.

    Passed at Liverpool 12 March 1875 No of Certificate 07066

    Joined the Clam as Second Officer later end of February 1893 got command

    28 June 1895 Died 12 August 1903 age 53

    Bob Skipworth

    January 29, 2017 at 8:46 pm

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