History of the incredible hulk

Maritime historian Robb Robinson tracked down the Viola's bell to a farmhouse in Norway.
Maritime historian Robb Robinson tracked down the Viola's bell to a farmhouse in Norway.
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The Viola sank U-boats in the First World War before becoming a whaling ship and today it lies abandoned off South Georgia. Now a Hull historian has written a book charting the story of one of the world’s last surviving steam trawlers. Chris Bond reports.

WHEN the Viola left the Humber estuary a century ago its crew could scarcely have imagined the life this plucky little steam trawler would go on to have.

Maritime historian Robb Robinson tracked down the Viola's bell to a farmhouse in Norway.

Maritime historian Robb Robinson tracked down the Viola's bell to a farmhouse in Norway.

The ship’s remarkable journey took it from the North Sea, where it was engaged in life or death struggles with German U-boats during the First World War, to its days spent as a whaling ship off the coast of Africa.

It survived all the slings and arrows that war and weather could muster and today its rusting hulk lies beached alongside the rotting quays of an abandoned whaling station on a stark, windswept corner of Cumberland Bay on the island of South Georgia.

The ship’s remarkable story could easily have faded from history, but in 2006 the Viola’s original bell was discovered by Dr Robb Robinson on a Norwegian farm. It was bought by Hull Maritime Museum and in 2008 the bell was reunited with the ship for the first time in 80 years.

Robinson, a historian based in the Maritime Historical Studies Centre at the University of Hull, first became interested in the ship’s story 15 years ago while he was researching a book on the English sea fisheries. “The publishers liked photographs with a bit of a story and there was a picture of this ship which they said was the only steam trawler in the world with its steam engines still intact,” he says.

Suitably intrigued, Robinson went away to do some research and dug out the ship’s old records. “I got out the running logs, opened the second page and found out my great-grandfather was a mate on the ship in 1907, and that was it, I was hooked.”

Since then he has painstakingly unpicked the ship’s story. “The more I found out the more remarkable the story of this little ship became, it is a true survivor.”

It’s a story he recounts in his engrossing new book – Viola: The Life and Times of a Hull Steam Trawler – co-written with Ian Hart. “It’s about this ship that went off to war in 1914 with a Hull crew and was involved in sinking two U-boats and never came back,” he says.

“We managed to get in touch with a number of people who had relatives on the ship – both men and women. Which is great because we’ve been able to reunite their stories with this ship.”

The Viola was built in Beverley in 1906 when Edward VII was still on the throne. “It was part of a huge fishing fleet built by Charles Hellyer. He ordered 50 vessels to be built within nine months and this was one of them,” adds Robinson.

The ship was named after a character from Twelfth Night. “Hellyer was a big Shakespeare fan and almost everything he had he named after Shakespearian characters, he even called his son Orlando.”

The Viola became part of Hull’s “boxing fleet”, so-called because the fish was put in boxes and then transferred to fast steam cutters that took it to Billingsgate in London.

The boat continued in this role until the outbreak of war in August 1914. Around 3,000 fishing vessels were requisitioned by the Government, and Hull, Grimsby and Scarborough supplied many of them. Some became minesweepers while others, like the Viola, were used to help take on the dreaded U-boats. “Within a month it had been armed and sent off to war. It spent the first two years patrolling off Shetland under a Hull captain called Charles Allum,” says Robinson.

“The first casualty of the war on the ship was a man called Thomas Craven. He was from Cleckheaton and he drowned in a storm at Lerwick and his grave is one of the first war graves up there.”

In 1916 the Viola was sent to down to Tyneside where it was equipped with bigger guns, hydrophones (used for listening to underwater sound) and depth charges. “It had many encounters with U-boats and was involved in the sinking of two of them,” adds Roninson.

This included sinking a U-boat off the coast of Northumberland with the help of an airship, built near Selby, which is believed to be the first time an airship had helped sink an enemy vessel.

Robinson feels the role of trawlers like the Viola is an often overlooked aspect of the Great War. “When it comes to the war at sea the focus is nearly always on dreadnoughts and Jutland, yet this little ship steamed far more miles on patrol than any dreadnought.”

But these boats and their crews paid a high price and almost half the Hellyer fleet was lost by the end of the war. “The Viola’s sister ship, Antonio, was lost without trace on its second voyage which shows what dangerous work this was,” says Robinson.

But against the odds the Viola survived and in 1920 it was sold to new owners in Norway where it was renamed Kapduen and later converted into a whaling ship.

There was a further name change, this time to Dias, and the vessel was used in whaling expeditions off the west coast of Africa. “In the mid 1920s it was sent down to South Georgia to hunt elephant seals and also to do some exploration work.”

Here it remained but when the Grytviken whaling station was closed in the 1960s, the Viola was laid up along with two other vessels. “It continued to be used right up to that point. But the vessels were too far away to do anything with so they were mothballed and over time they settled in the water and they are still there to this day.”

But, as Robinson points out, there is another twist to the story. “The spark that fired the Falklands War was the arrival of Argentine scrap metal merchants on South Georgia. They were ostensibly there to cut up metal but they raised the Argentine flag and the rest is history,” he says.

“One of the things they were due to do was cut up this ship. So you could argue it’s the only ship that’s seen action in both the Great War and the Falklands War, because when the British marines retook Grytviken and King Edward Point they stormed past this particular ship.”

Robinson is among those who have championed the campaign to bring the Viola back to Yorkshire. He talked about the vessel in a lecture last year in Scotland, which was heard by Sir Menzies Campbell, who has since taken a keen interest, along with fellow MPs Alan Johnson and Graham Stuart.

But what once seemed little more than a pipe dream may actually come true. Earlier this month a survey concluded that the world’s oldest steam trawler was capable of being refloated. Paul Escreet, chairman of SMS Towage in Hull, persuaded four other prominent local firms to underwrite the costs, which they hope to recoup from the Government.

There is now real optimism among campaigners that this historic ship could eventually make the 7,745-mile trip home in time for Hull’s City of Culture celebrations in 2017.

And that would make Robinson a happy man. “There are very few iconic trawlers like this still around and it represents not only the story of Hull’s trawlermen but those all along the coast, and personally I couldn’t imagine anything more spectacular than to see it coming up the Humber in 2017.”

• Viola – The Life and Times of a Hull Steam Trawler, published by Lodestar Books, is out now priced £12.