Sunday, February 9, 2014

Visitor Ships 3: The Onkers at Surrey Commercial Docks

Short planks being unloaded from an onker
onto a lighter at the Surrey Commercial Docks
In two previous posts I have looked at some of the ships that visited the Surrey Commercial Docks.  The first looked at the Cunard A-Class liners that used Greenland Dock as a base.  The second post looked at the ships shown on a DVD of footage clips of the docks (London's Lost Docks). 

This post looks at onkers, sailing vessels that were still visiting the Surrey Commercial Docks in the late 1930s at a time when steam ships had long taken over the main cargo and passenger routes around the world's oceans.  In the London docks, onkers were the last sailing ships to compete with the reign of steam.  These survivors of the great age of sail were often very old but were used for carrying Balitc short timber, which was neither very valuable, nor particularly perishable and was not time-sensitive.  Sailing vessels were cheaper to run than modern ships and continued to provide income for their owners.  They must have been a splendid and, for many, a nostalgic sight amongst the more conventional steam tramps, cargo cruisers and the superbly elegant Cunard liners at the Surrey Commercial Docks.  

Fred, onker barque. Photograph
by A.G. Linney 1929
"Onker" was a term invented on the Thames and refers not to a type of ship, but to the noise that came from the distinctive sound made by the bilge pumps fitted to some of the old sailing vessels, which made an "onk, onk" noise. The ships themselves were usually, although not always, Scandinavian-operated and were three-masted barques and a few barquetines.  On barques only the fore and mid (main) masts carried square rigging, like tea clippers, but the aft (mizzen) mast was rigged with a mainsail and topsail or similar combination, although with onkers many of the older ships were altered and had rigging that was further reduced.  Other ships had been specially built during and after the First World War and were much smaller, running with considerably reduced crews.

Windmill pumps were common on older sailing vessels.  Ships registered in Scandinavia were required to have windmill pumps if they were reinforced by frapping.  The term frapping describes the process in which ropes or cables were passed around ships' hulls to keep them intact -  a terrifying thought - and such ships were often referred to as floating coffins.  The pumps were driven by wind power and were used to expel water from the old wooden hulls.  As David MacGregor says that "Many were old wooden vessels and leaked abominably, and the windmill saved the crews from continual pumping."  I've tried to find out what the wind pumps looked like, but haven't been able to find a picture, so if you know of one please do let me know.

Alastor by Pelham Jones from Frank C. Bowen's
London Ship Types 1938
According to Frank C. Bowen (London Ship Types 1938), onkers always carried low-value cargo, mainly short pieces of wood that were used to manufacture light, inexpensive furniture and packing cases.   Because it was low-value it was sent on the cheaper services provided by the onkers.  They operated out of minor Baltic ports rarely frequented by steam ships, and provided a living for the ageing vessels, their owners and crews.     In the 1930s, when Bowen was writing, the business still employed a large number of sailing barques, so they were not an uncommon sight along the Thames and in her docks.  As the Surrey Commercial Docks specialized in timber handling, they saw a lot of them. 

David MacGregor says that regular visitors were Prompt, Varma, Fred, Plus, and Shakesepeare, but in Frank Bowen's opinion the best known visitor to the Thames was Alastor, an iron barque build in 1875 in Sunderland for Robert Penney of Shoreham, who had a small cargo fleet.  The pride of his fleet, with a gross tonnage of 874 she was under the same captain for two decades, carrying  cargoes to Australia and New Zealand.  In 1895 she was sold to a Norwegian ship owner, M.F. Stray, and made considerable income for him during the war.  After the war she ran between the West Indies and France and in 1923 was sold to another Norwegian owner who used her to run short lengths of wood between the Baltic and London and Rochester.   The illustration of her above, by Pelham Jones, comes from Bowen's book.

The barque Plus, an onker registered to Finland and wrecked in 1933. 

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