Notes from Bob Carr — August 1994
A total of 2,751 Liberty Ships were built in the United States during the Second World War. Pre-fabricated and mass produced at a time of emergency conditions at sea in order to satisfy an extreme shortage of ships this is the greatest number of identical vessels ever constructed — 'built by the mile and cut off by the yard'. Eighteen shipyards built the Liberty design and about one third of the workforce were women. Now only one Liberty ship survives in original unmodified condition in working order and that is the SS Jeremiah O'Brien which visited London and lay in the Upper Pool alongside HMS Belfast over a long weekend centred on 18/19 June this year.
The ship is the only operational survivor of the more than 4,000 vessels which participated in the 1944 D-Day landings and she had paid a visit to the Normandy beaches for 6 June. For several days this superb time-capsule merchant ship was open to the public and it was possible to explore a good deal of the interior and talk to the crew many of whom were quite elderly Americans. A tremendous amount of Liberty-ship experience was on hand.
Despite being an exceptionally utilitarian ship one was struck by the quality of the woodwork (all original) and the amount and quality of brass fittings (eg on the bridge). The standard of design was very good. Accommodation even for lowly members of the crew was excellent, especialy compared with previous British facilities, and it was possible to look into most cabins and see how the present occupants were coping. The galley was providing food at regular intervals throughout the stay in London and observing the American style of eating was an added interest. There were lots of jars of various relishes and sauces set out on the mess tables. Food was said to be very good. Visitors with their own Liberty ship experiences to recount were constantly dropping by.
For most industrial archaeologists the Mecca would have been the engine room, simply stuffed with reciprocating steam plant of many kinds, all superbly restored and, of course, working. On deck there are numerous steam winches fed by steam lines. Built oil-fired (the US had plenty of oil unlike the UK) the two boilers (one in steam throughout the London visit in case the ship had to be moved) supply steam for propulsion to a classic triple expansion engine by the General Machinery Corporation, Hamilton, Ohio, engine number 7242 dated 5.7.43 (presumably 7 May!). Cylinder dimensions are 24½, 37 and 70 inches diameter by 48 inches stroke and 2,500hp is generated at 76rpm. Speed is about 11 knots.
The Jeremiah O'Brien is 7,176 tons gross and was built in 56 days by the New England Shipbuilding Company at Westyard, South Portland, Maine and launched on 19th June 1943. The keel was laid 5.6.43 (6th May) and the hull is of course welded. Depth markings are in feet and while in London this year being lightly loaded she was drawing about 11½ feet at the bow and about 18 feet at the stern.
After this years London visit the ship left for France with the tide around mid-day on Wednesday 22 June and following visits to Cherbourg, Rouen and Le Havre will sail home to San Francisco. She is unlikely to return to Europe again. Based on a British design which was being built in this country towards the end of last century it might be worth going to San Francisco to see her and perhaps even sail on her as one GLIAS member already has. Bob Carr
The Belfast Box
The term Belfast Truss will be well known to most readers (GLIAS Newsletter April 1990). A Belfast Box is a term used by Royal Mail to describe a special street mail collecting box which has only a very narrow slit through which just a letter may be inserted (and not a packet). Sometimes traditional pillar-boxes are modified in this way. At least two examples of Belfast Boxes may be found in the King's Cross area and there are a number of others throughout London. Royal Mail say these boxes are installed in areas with problems. Bob Carr
Richmond ice rink
In West London Mr Richard Meacock has been vigorously campaigning for a new ice rink to replace that at Richmond demolished in May 1992 (GLIAS Newsletter February 1994). The campaign has recently become linked with the fate of Kingston power station with a proposal to adapt this building to accommodate an ice rink. Kingston Power Station Preservation Trust members have reportedly expressed enthusiasm at the idea of 'skating surrounded by turbines'. Former gas works land in Skerne Road may also be involved in the proposed redevelopment schemes. However, Mr Meacock is strongly opposed to a new ice rink in Kingston and insists it must be built in Richmond.
The old Richmond ice rink was on the site of the former Pelabon Works which during the First World War supported an exiled colony of about 6,000 Belgians. Latter-day commentators have asked where all the Belgians slept. One can get some idea of how things were from the book H G Wells wrote at the time; Mr Britling Sees It Through. (Wells started writing this book in the winter of 1915 and it was published in October 1916). See book 2, chapter 2, Taking Part, section 8: -
At the start of the Great War people were very keen to do something but there was not much they could usefully do. When Belgian refugees arrived in the South East there was something like competition as to who could take a Belgian as a guest. Incidentally Mr Britling (a self portrait) acquired a Mr Van der Pant from Antwerp who had kept the dynamos at the Antwerp power station running, up until the German bombardment had 'shattered his wires'. (Wells had quite an obsession with dynamos).The answer seems to be that the Belgians simply stayed with English families. In 1915 the average house was large compared with present dwellings. Bob Carr
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© GLIAS, 1994