The Forgotten Men of St Finbarr by Brian W Lavery

11th December 2017 // Cultural // Local // Whats On

ON Christmas Day 1966 twelve crew from twenty-five on the Hull super trawler St Finbarr died instantly in a fireball explosion on the Grand Banks. Thirteen survived. At home, a news blackout meant 25 families did not know who was dead or alive.

BRIAN W. LAVERYauthor of The Headscarf Revolutionariesrecalls the disaster – subject of his latest book The Luckiest Thirteen.

THE St Finbarr’s final trip was plagued by bad luck even before she left Hull. She then took fourteen days battling atrocious weather to get to Newfoundland’s Grand Banks – a trip usually done in half that time.

Electrical faults reported from previous trips caused three delays before she could set off from St Andrew’s Dock on November 16, 1966.

Ironically, it was St Andrew’s Day (the patron of fishermen) when she reached the Newfoundland fishing grounds, ready for another record catch.

On her maiden voyage in late 1964, St Finbarr – at a price of half a million pounds, was the most expensive Hull trawler to date – smashed the national record hauling in 488 tons and 17 hundredweight – and had continued to do so since.

Thirteen trips later, on Christmas Day 1966, she had endured thirty-eight days of foul weather, from Yorkshire’s Spurn Point to the Grand Banks.

Skipper Tommy Sawyers, a hard taskmaster, rated as one of the best, still managed to fill the fish holds and the crew looked forward to another bumper round of “film star” wages.

He had pushed his ship and her crew to the limit when fishing was forced to a halt. Nets were damaged and needed repair. Apart from those on watch and working on the nets, Sawyers told his men to go below and rest before the next haul.

The weather worsened – and by around 4am – as it was Christmas Day, Sawyers sent the ship’s mate around the crew to hand out some beer and whisky.

By 7.30am, Sawyers, who had been working for almost eighteen hours, took a panicked call from below decks. As he lifted his radiophone to issue a May Day, the ship’s assistant cook appeared on the bridge shouting, ‘Fire!’ Sawyers managed to get a May Day out.

Hull stern trawler Orsino, commanded by Skipper Eddie Wooldridge had confirmed receipt and was on way from five miles away.

Sawyers had no more time to plan, for a fraction of a second later he was blown out of the wheelhouse window – followed by a fireball.

He landed unconscious on the casing, the melted plastic receiver of his telephone still burning in his hand. When he came to, he knew no-one below could have survived but tried to get back there, only to be driven away by intense heat. On the aft decks, he could see a dozen or so men in various states of undress. He fought to calm his men and decide his next move. The launch of the lifeboat was impossible as the men kept getting electric shocks from it.

Sawyers decided to get the life rafts launched, one on each side. The men were slow and clumsy (a symptom of frostbite) and this, coupled with exhaustion, led to them losing a raft from the starboard side. It was freezing, there were high winds and turbulent seas and there was only one life raft left.

Twelve men managed to get away in that remaining raft – and at 930am, they cast off to drift over to the Orsino. Two men – radio operator Tommy Gray and greaser Harry ‘Curly” Smith – perished trying to board that ship as she was thrown around in the storm.

The skipper, mate Walter Collier and chief engineer Hughie Williams bravely stayed with the St Finbarr and sheltered exhausted in the net loft. An hour later another Hull trawler the Sir Fred Parkes fired a line across with a life raft containing warm clothing but the trio were too weak to pull it aboard.

The Orsino rescue party later got to the St Finbarr, took warm clothing and rescued the trio. Fire still spread through the abandoned ship and there was a constant risk of further explosions.

At about four o’clock, the boarding party returned to the St Finbarr and fixed a towline. Skipper Sawyers and twelve of his crew were now safe. TheOrsino soon began to tow the blazing trawler 240 miles to St Johns, Newfoundland.

IN Hull, there was fear and confusion. Rumours abounded in the pubs and clubs on Hessle Road, the heart of the fishing community. On Christmas evening at the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen in Goulton Street, Rev. David MacMillan was dispatched by the owners to tell the families the limited amount they knew; that there had been explosion and some men may have died. The Mission man and his volunteers were sent to prepare families for anything they might hear on radio or TV later and to urge them not to listen to gossip.

As Christmas fell on a Sunday, there were no newspapers until Wednesday, December 28. This, coupled with the volume of yuletide radio traffic added to the news blackout and led the Daily Express to dub this tragedy, The Quiet Disaster in one of its headlines.

IT was 2am on Boxing Day when Rev. MacMillan got back to Goulton Street only to be sent out again following a call from the owners. This time the Mission man had good news – but for only thirteen families. It was known twelve men had perished and the ship was under tow.

After two days’ battling severe weather and heading to shore at a dead slow pace, the tow line parted from the St Finbarr and she sank rapidly. TheOrsino’s commander Skipper Eddie Wooldridge informed the owners – Hamlings of Hull and Lloyd’s of London – by radio.

THE survivors came home a week or so later. At a press conference in Canada, Skipper Sawyers told how close two men had been to safety before they were lost.

‘Two other men died within feet of safety. They fell back into the water as they tried to get aboard the Orsino. Both died from cold.

‘My God, it was a freezing hell out there.’

Orsino skipper Eddie Wooldridge, whose supreme seamanship saved the men, said, ‘The hull of the St Finbarr was white hot and the bridge a mass of flames, when we took Skipper Sawyers and the mate.

‘The fire swept over the ship in seconds. The rescue of the first part of the crew took three-quarters of an hour, the skipper, mate and chief engineer stayed aboard a further four hours.

‘Conditions were terrible for the rescue. Big seas were running and water froze as it touched. The men’s legs hung in frozen water (in the raft).’

Skipper Wooldridge also spoke of the dying seconds of the ship after a 48-hour stern-first towing effort failed.

‘We towed her for half an hour with her bow under the water, then she went right down and turned to starboard.’

But perhaps the most poignant summary of the disaster came from St Finbarr’s cook, Harry Prince who told reporters, ‘We must be the luckiest thirteen men in the world.’

The Hull stern trawler Orsino alongside the blazing St Finbarr preparing to rescue men who drifted across on a life raft.

A boarding party headed up by Orsino mate Bryan Lee returned to the stricken trawler to rescue the skipper, mate and chief engineer who had stayed with the ship. Lee’s party also attached a towline to the ship.

A YEAR later, a Board of Trade enquiry found that a build-up of explosive gas from melting overloaded wire casings caused the blast that destroyed the St Finbarr.

The 1966 Christmas Day catastrophe was overtaken in the public consciousness a little more than a year later when, in the opening weeks of 1968, three Hull trawlers; The St Romanus, Kingston Peridot and Ross Cleveland sank within three weeks in the “Dark Winter” – killing 58 men and sparking an uprising of Hull fishwives led by Mrs Lillian Bilocca, whose story is told in The Headscarf Revolutionaries (Barbican Press 2015)

The Luckiest Thirteen – by Brian W. Lavery (Barbican Press 2017) – is out now and tells the full story of the St Finbarr disaster (Buy it here). An official launch event will be held at Middleton Hall Theatre, University of Hull, December 15, 7pm.

Tickets are free and available from

FishEye image of Author Brian W Lavery – Photograph courtesy of Jerome Whttingham.