31 January 2016

The Trevessa Lifeboat at Hove

Judy Middleton 2003 revised 2016

An artistic impression of number one lifeboat at Rodriquez Island .

For some years a lifeboat from the SS Trevessa was displayed at the RNVR site at Hove. It was very famous in its time but is now largely forgotten. However, it is well worth recalling the details.

The ship was built in 1909 at Flensburg, Germany and its original name was Imkenturm. She was a freighter employed in the East India trade and during the Great War she was interned at Sourabaya in the Dutch East Indies. In October 1920 she was sold for £86,000 to the Hain Steamship Company of St Ives, Cornwall. The company then spent an additional £36,000 on having her re-conditioned and British-built wooden lifeboats replaced the German-built steel ones. She was re-named Trevessa and two of the company’s other steamers were called Trevean and Tregenna.

The last voyage of the Trevessa took place in 1923 and there were 44 officers and men aboard her. It seems some of the crew had grave forebodings about the fate of the ship and sailors were known to be superstitious. For instance, the behaviour of two ship’s cats unnerved them. One ship’s cat deserted in New Zealand and the crew adopted another one at Port Pirie where the ship was loaded with concentrates. But this cat too decided not to sail with them. There were further misgivings when the captain disposed of two kittens out of a batch of six black ones.

 Photograph courtesy of the National Library of Australia  (see citation below in 'sources')
SS Trevessa

The Trevessa foundered on 4 June 1923. She was eleven days out of Freemantle bound for Antwerp when a wireless message was despatched saying the vessel was foundering. The Trevean and Tregenna spent two days patrolling the Indian Ocean in the area from whence the message was despatched. Although they spotted some wreckage, there was no sign of lifeboats.

Meanwhile, the Trevessa’s crew were fortunate in having a captain with previous experience of taking to the lifeboats. While serving as First Officer during the Great War, he had been torpedoed twice within sixteen hours and spent nine and a half days in an open boat.

Captain Cecil Foster, who hailed from Barry, knew how to ration water and condensed milk as well as such strategies as sucking buttons or pieces of coal to keep the mouth moist. The daily ration was one cigarette tin of water, two cigarette tins of condensed milk and one ship’s biscuit. The compasses proved useless and the steering was done with the aid of sun and stars. The Times (28 June 1923) wrote ‘the voyage in so small a craft is one of the most remarkable that has been made for many years’.

The Captain had 21 men in the number one boat; they were composed of six Englishmen, three Irish, two Scots, two Welsh, two Burmese, two Arabs, two Portuguese West Africans and one Indian.

The Chief Engineer’s boat, number three, had 24 men. The remaining boat was picked up, capsized and empty. Two men died from the number one boat and three men died from the number three boat. Some of the foreign crew took advantage of calm weather to slip over the side and have a wash whilst clinging to the lifelines. There was a popular misconception that sharks did not attack Asians so readily as they would attack Europeans.

Number one boat covered 1,556 miles to Rodriguez in 22 days and 19 hours. Number three boat travelled 1,747 miles to Souillac, Southern Mauritius in 24 days and 20 hours.

Map courtesy of the National Library of Australia  (see citation below in 'sources')
The dotted lines show approximately the route taken by number one boat to Rodriquez Island and that by number three boat to Mauritius 

First Officer Stewart Smith was in charge of number three boat and rations consisted of two tablespoons of water and half of a ship’s biscuit every 24 hours. After fifteen days the drinking water was finished and for the following fourteen days the men existed on rainwater caught in their cupped hands.

The Trevessa’s cook, Stanley Allchin, was on number three boat. He had survived being twice torpedoed in the Great War but the privation of his final voyage proved too much for his constitution and he died a few days after reaching land. Altogether eleven men died.

Most of the survivors arrived home aboard RMS Goorkha. On arrival at Gravesend they found all vessels bedecked with flags and sirens hooting. One of the survivors remarked to his ship-mates that there must be some big event going on in London, not realising that all the fuss was a welcome home for them.

Captain Foster, writing in 1924, recorded that the Anglo-Ceylon Estates Company Ltd. of Mauritius purchased the number one lifeboat. The company brought it back to England where it was set up in the grounds of the Ceylon Court of the British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley in 1926.

The Lifeboat at Hove

 copyright © J.Middleton
This wonderful old postcard shows the Coastguard Station / RNVR Depot and it is a part of Hove seafront that 
has changed out of all recognition.

How the number one lifeboat ended up at Hove is something of a mystery. It may be significant that in 1926 the Imperial Institute presented Hove with the Jaipur Gateway and the Baroda Pigeon House, which had been exhibited in London in 1886, and were re-erected in the grounds of Hove Museum. Perhaps a similar situation happened with the Trevessa’s lifeboat. No connection has been established between crew-members and Hove.

The number one lifeboat was set up at the Lifeguard Station / RNVR quarters on a site belonging to the Admiralty on Hove seafront. Ken Lane, one-time manager of Combridges Secondhand Bookshop 70 Church Road, Hove, remembered as a boy seeing the white-painted lifeboat set up on a plinth inside the grounds, which was not accessible to the general public. George Ellis, who attended St Nicolas Church, Portslade, regularly, also remembered seeing the lifeboat. Indeed it was his interest in wanting to know its history that sparked this investigation. 

The lifeboat survived at Hove until the Second World War but it disappeared when the RNVR site and the adjacent swimming baths were requisitioned to become an important training ‘stone frigate’ known as HMS King Alfred.

  copyright © J.Middleton
This view of the Hove Battery at the RNVR Depot was posted in 1927.

A Manuscript

On 27 May 1990 Phillips put an anonymous account written by one of the Trevessa’s survivors up for auction at Bristol; Captain Foster’s widow had typed up the manuscript. A bidding war then ensued between Nino Spiteri from Barr, Glamorgan, and Alain de Froberville from Mauritius. The latter gentleman secured the item with a bid of £2,400.

Phillips’ book consultant, Mrs G.M. Atkins, thought that the Third Officer might have written the account. But Dr Patrick Flynn did not agree because the author was one the weakest survivors and had to be taken to hospital. The Captain, Chief Engineer, Third Officer and Third Engineer did not require hospital treatment. But Wireless Operator Donald Lamont was so weak he had to be helped to sit upright and he certainly spent time in hospital. Another pointer to Lamont being the author was that he wrote an article in the Marconi Mariner (September / October 1948) in which he used the word ‘masticate’ and in the manuscript the following appeared.

‘It took an hour to eat a morsel of biscuit, our mouths being that devoid of saliva that the biscuit after mastication was like dry flour and blew out of our mouths like dust.’

Donald Lamont’s niece shared Dr Flynn’s opinion because she recognised the florid, poetic prose typical of his style of writing. 

One last footnote reported by Dr Flynn was that from 1924 to 1961 the Royal Naval Hong Kong Yacht Club competed for the Trevessa Cup, a solid silver model of the number one lifeboat.


Correspondence about the Trevessa lifeboat with Dr P.T.G Flynn Cphys FInstP
Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade
Foster, Cecil 1700 Miles in Open Boats (1924, reprinted 1952)
Recollections of George Ellis and Ken Lane
The Times 9 June 1923 / 28 June 1923 / 16 May 1996
Photograph of SS Trevessa:- THE STEAMER TREVESSA. (1923, June 16). Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 - 1954), p. 33. Retrieved November 23, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article89248559
Map:- SUMATRA FOUNDERS (1923, July 7). Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 - 1954), p. 5. Retrieved November 23, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article223350740
Copyright © J.Middleton 2016
page layout by D.Sharp