A small 16 page pamphlet exists in several of the Robb family households. An unassuming little document, but packed with hints and tips on how to start up a shipyard against all the odds, as it charts the early development of Robb’s yard, having been written by A. Wilson to celebrate its first 30 years in business.
He points out that the start of the business came when Britain was in the throes of world war, food becoming scarce, the German submarine campaign yet to be subdued and battle-front losses terrible. Yet at that time, Henry Robb chose to start up his own ship-repairing company despite opposition from ‘local interests’, the reluctance of the Government to licence a further such firm and the absence of ready-made premises!
So the firm began, in premises rented from Jas Currie & Co. Ltd., with a staff of six. Shortly after the opening of the company the war ended, but this in itself kept the order book full as ships which had been used by the government were reconditioned and returned to their owners. Thereafter German ships were taken in and adapted to suit British requirements.
As well as repair work, the building of tugs, dredgers, lighters, pontoons and other small craft and “launching” them by heavy crane provided further employment for the yard. Priestman Bros., well known for building grab-dredging cranes began a long-standing connection with Robb’s and ordered many small vessels for dock, harbour and canal dredging, but a bit more of the development of that relationship in my next posting.
The big post-World War I job on which Robb’s felt they “earned their spurs” was on the repair of the T.S.S. Brussels.
T.S.S. Brussels was a twin-screw passenger ferry, built by Gourlay Brothers of Dundee, she was launched 26th March 1902 and completed in May of the same year. She worked the Harwich to Hook of Holland route commanded by Captain Fryatt. Fryatt was twice awarded gold watches: firstly by the Great Eastern Railway for evading a German U-boat on March 3rd 1915 and secondly by the Admiralty when, 25 days later he was ordered to stop by U-33 near the Maas Lightship but chose instead to try to ram it, forcing a crash dive. This second act of bravery was also recognised by the First Officer and Chief Engineer receiving gold watches from the Admiralty.
On 23rd June 1916 she was captured by G101 and G102, German torpedo boats and Fryatt was interned at Zeebrugge where he was arrested on the strength of the engravings on his watches for his previous bravery and was tried and executed on July 27th of the same year.
Subsequently the Brussels was renamed Brugge and used as a depot ship. On 23rd April 1918, in the Zeebrugge Raid, she was torpedoed several times but did not sink, so the Germans scuttled her in October when they evacuated Zeebrugge. The Belgian Government claimed her as a war prize and on 26th April 1920 presented her to the British Government. Three tugs took her from Antwerp to South Shields.
A ship with her history could hardly be consigned to the scrap-heap, so a Lancashire Shipping Company suggested she be restored and converted to run for the cattle trade between Dublin and Lancashire ports. There was considerable doubt as to whether such a damaged vessel with every compartment full of mud, the engine and boiler rooms wrecked by bombs and the upper works a shambles from gun-fire, could be saved. Undaunted, Henry Robb’s workers set to and within a relatively short time “a new Brussels emerged and with her Red Ensign once again proudly fluttering, sailed away to trade in peaceful waters”. After this she was renamed Lady Brussels and served until 1929 when she was scrapped.
Copyright: Ruth Patterson 2010