ON THE WATERFRONT: Fishy business at Southwick
On Friday, May 5, 1933, two ships slipped quietly from the Wear bringing closure to a two-year shipbuilding saga.
Destined for Fécamp in Normandy, France, the motor fishing vessels Le Jacques-Coeur and Le Duguay-Trouin were said to be the largest trawlers in the world.
Originally built for Portuguese owners and launched in 1931, orders for the two ships had thrown a lifeline to the struggling Southwick shipyard of Robert Thompson and Sons Ltd as the unparalleled slump in the Wear’s shipbuilding industry began to bite.
Launched as Corte Real on April 2, 1931, Le Jacques-Coeur and sister ship Le Duguay-Trouin, launched as Descobridor on May 2 the same year, had been built for Lisbon-based fisheries company Balcalhau de Portugal.
There had been no hint of problems to come, the captain of Descobridor even being present at the launching ceremony. As the ships completed final fitting out, crews were engaged but all was not well.
Behind the scenes, Thompsons were encountering difficulties with the owners but kept these quiet as attempts were made to resolve the issue.
However, in November, 1931, it was announced that Balcalhau de Portugal had defaulted on payment, leaving both trawlers on the hands of the builders, who stood to lose some £96,000 (over £5.6 million in today’s money).
Besides their role as trawlers, these vessels were actually early fish factory ships. At 1,168 gross registered tons with an overall length of 229 feet, they represented a major development in deep-sea trawler construction.
Fitted with Atlas seven-cylinder diesel engines, the ships were capable of remaining at sea for up to five months at a time. Key features of their design were the up-to-date plant installed to extract cod liver and fish oils, together with electrically driven deck gear and auxiliary machinery.
Negotiations to secure alternative buyers soon fell through while the ground-breaking pair remained idle at Southwick Buoys.
“There can be very few fishery firms in the world which will need such huge and costly trawlers as these,” lamented a Thompson’s spokesman.
Ultimately, they were purchased at a knock down price by the French fishing concern La Morue Français of Paris.
With empty order books, Robert Thompson and Sons closed down in April, 1932, having been purchased by National Shipbuilders Security Ltd - a company established to reduce shipbuilding capacity by buying up redundant yards.
Thompson’s continued with ship repair at Bridge Dock, but went into voluntary liquidation in 1933 after the death of managing director Errol Hay Thompson.
Le Jacques-Coeur was seized by the German Navy in 1939, being lost to enemy action during 1943. Le Duguay-Trouin survived until 1976 when she was scrapped in Greece, having been renamed Posidon in 1964.