Stephen Smith

Applegarth. Seaforth Radio, 13 January. Following received from British steamer Perthshire (Glasgow for Beira) at 8.13 p.m. GMT: Just sank tug (Applegarth) south of Woodside in River Mersey.

Following received from Coastguard at Formby at 8.30 p.m. GMT: New Brighton life-boat launched to assistance of Perthshire and tug.

Following received from No. 2 Liverpool Pilot boat at 8.41 p.m. GMT: We are proceeding to Woodside Landing Stage.

Following received from Perthshire at 8.55 p.m. GMT: Last position of tug off Cammell Laird’s Basin.

Following received from No. 2 Liverpool Pilot boat at 9.55 p.m. GMT: We are now abandoning our search and returning to our normal duties.

Seaforth Radio, 14 January. Following received from New Brighton lifeboat at 12.19 a.m. GMT: We are returning to station, nothing further we can do.

The loos of the Applegarth, and the seven men aboard her, is remembered around Merseyside to this day. Forty years after it happened, I would allude to the bare, bleached bones of it, and often the person I was talking to would straightaway say the name Applegarth. In the Maritime Museum on the Albert Dock in Liverpool, I read this account of the sinking: ‘During the long history of the Mersey towage service, casualties of a similar nature have occurred from time to rime, but the loss of the Applegarth ranks as one of the worst disasters of its kind on the river and came as a grievous shock to everyone associated with the shipping of the port of Liverpool.’

On 13 January 1960 the 10,496-ton cargo liner Perthshire was putting into port in Birkenhead, a stop on her journey from Glasgow to Beira in Mozambique. It was a cold, cloudy night on the river; one Fleet Street newspaper later talked about a ‘murky darkness’. The river was running at three to four knots. Three tugboats were guiding the Perthshire; her speed was between four and five knots. The lead tug was the 231-ton Applegarth, standing off the liner’s bow. She had a line aboard the Perthshire, ready to tow her.

Then, without warning, the Perthshire was bearing down on the Applegarth fast. On the deck of the liner, the tow-rope went slack around its windlass. The bow of the Perthshire was as high as a house. No one on the liner could see the tug by now. But the crew of the Applegarth must have made out the bulk of the liner behind them and heard her avalanching towards them: at least three of them were on deck. They felt a violent lurch and heard a deafening buckling noise. The Perthshire had rammed the Applegarth, her bow-plating battering the starboard quarter of the tug. The Applegarth listed to port, canting towards the bow of the liner. This was the first collision but not the decisive one. Not everyone aboard the liner even felt the impact.

If it had taken the crew of the tug unawares, they recognised danger now. As the tug scraped down the bow of the Perthshire, the order was given for its engines to go full ahead. It seems the master of the Applegarth intended to slip out from beneath the overhang of the Perthshire’s bow, to outrun the danger. But however fast its engines raced, the tug was sucked back against the liner’s bow as the water beneath the tug rushed to replace the eleven thousand tons displaced by the Perthshire. The acceleration only propelled the tug along the plating of the Perthshire until she was directly in front of the liner. The Perthshire’s bow struck the Applegarth broadside on, tipping her port bulwark under water, where it met the irresistible flow of the river. Men watching from the Applegarth’s sister tugs said she seemed to hang there for two or three seconds, pinioned between the liner and the current.

The Perthshire couldn’t stop. The tug rolled to port, and under the freezing Mersey. The Applegarth was small but she was solid, dense. She had her hatches open – this wasn’t open sea, after all, but the river, barely a hundred yards from a landing stage where office workers caught the ferry to Liverpool every morning – and her companionways, her cabin and her galley filled with water.

By now everyone on the scene, even those on the bridge of the Perthshire, realised that something terrible was happening. They could hear cries from the river. They could see the light of the tug’s wheelhouse, the wrong way up and under water.

The last sight they had of the Applegarth from the liner, she was drifting away upside down on their starboard side. The master of another tug, Throstlegarth, who had been looking on in horror, realised that the Applegarth was now making straight for his boat ‘I swung Throstlegarth hard to starboard,’ he said later, ‘and went full astern to avoid collision with the wreck.’ (In the blunt and practical language of seafaring, the Applegarth had already become a ‘wreck’.) Another skipper, out on the Mersey that night, would later describe looking at the Applegarth from his wheelhouse, looking away, looking back again – and seeing that she’d gone. She sank in ten seconds. All the shipping on the river joined the search for the crew of the tug. Someone spotted what appeared to be a coat in the water: when it was recovered it was found to be the mate, Ernest Perry, drenched in diesel and dead. Four more bodies were discovered in the wreck after it was salvaged a fortnight later. It was May before the two remaining members of the crew were washed up and identified.

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