Dispatch 2008


Plaque at Purton​


Now if there ever was a case for spot listing within the Purton Hulks collection, the Dispatch latterly renamed the New Dispatch surely must fit the bill. Now sadly a charred shell of her former splender, the once magnificent Dispatch hails from the wild waters of Caledonia and a time long since forgotten.

Hewed of Scottish pine baulks cut from surrounding forests and floated raft like to the mouth of the Spey to Kingston, these sad remains are all that exist of the once mighty Geddie ship building empire based on the rugged east coast.

Conceived in 1888 of necessity for use in the distant Newfoundland fish trade this sturdy little cross braced schooner epitomises a nation’s steadfast vision of ingenuity and displays both gusto and several unique shipbuilding techniques which in there own way were to revolutionise the way timber vessel were to be built.

Sadly however this wave of innovation was to be short lived, for even as her elm keel was being laid, technology had given way to steam and thus consigned sail to the maritime history book. To this end it is now known that the Dispatch was the penultimate sailing ship to be launch from the Geddie slips which fell silent soon after.

Following a long and chequered career only to be hauled up far from home on the Severn foreshore in 1961, the Dispatch represents a last lint to the nations resolve and Victorian engineering prowess, as she is known to exhibit the only examples of Jonathon Fells patented movable iron knees which remain in the British Isles to date. Read more.

Furthermore and upon closure inspection of the many remaining images that exist of her under way, she exhibits an extremely rare example of a British registered topsail schooner utilising the French Roller Reefing design ‘Hunier à rouleau’ which enabled her to set her top’s ails from the deck and thus removing the need to go aloft.

Finally national research is currently ongoing into her ornately carved female figurehead (now held in a private Severnside collection further to its removal from the vessel c.1936) as purportedly carved by the Gloucester man John Leatherton, who it is said went on to have a hand in the 1922 work on the figure head for the Cutty Sark.

And there she remains sitting high and dry free from all bar the highest of tides, a reminder of mans triumph over natures will – awaiting protection or awaiting destruction.3

LPB Identification
No. 31
DRM Identification
No. Ref. E
AJP Identification
No. 34
Source (CG)(DMc)(HCJ)(JG)(ER)(CL)(DJW)
Name P.o.R Description Dates

Dispatch / New Dispatch

Inverness 4/94

Gloucester 1/39

2 masted wood Schooner


1888 – 1939 (8 month build)
record closed 25th 10 1939

1939 – 1961
Name changed 31st July 1940

Official No. 95741 Code MGQK
Builders Garmouth James & John Geddie, Kingston on Spey
Dimensions Length 90.1 ft Breath 21.5ft Depths 10.35ft

Tonnage – (1888) Gross 120 ton Net 100 ton B.D 119
Gross 129 ton

Engines By H.P. None
Beached date Autumn 1961
Beached by Capt Frank Savage, Dick Woodward, Bunny Hunt, Bob Green, Bill Deacon

1 dk.(1889) cf.salted.ptIB.nklsn89 drp90
Coastwise Sail p.14 – Brief history
The Times 4th March 1932: Sr Dispatch, light, Tralee – Gloster; picked up 100m W of Fastnet by trawler Pointz Castle (qv), helpless in gale & towed into Castletown, Berehaven, bn 3rd August 1933 The topsail schooner Dispatch ran from Gloucester to Cork in 13 days
May 1958 Laid up in canal Sharpness

First Owners J Mill Banff 1889 (W Marr 88 – 88)

Frances J.G Crossfield, Barrow (92) (C Johnson 89 – 89
Donald McLeman, Avock, Co.Ross (08) (93 19)
William Jenkins, Swansea (10)(19)
George A Watkins (19 30 35)
G.T. Beard (29) Ltd., Gloucester 1935
John K Cooke (40 47 62 63)

Historic overview
From Spey to Severn: The Life and Death of the Dispatch Extract from a piece by Chris Hood

What do a few rotting remains of an old ship sunk deep into the silt near the mouth of the river Severn in Gloucestershire have to do with a quiet residential village some six hundred miles or so to the north, at the mouth of the river Spey in Moray, Scotland?

Plenty, if you only know where to look and can trace the links, because those bones on Severn shore are the remains of the Dispatch, a 119 ton topsail schooner built at Kingston-on-Spey in 1888 and almost the last of more than 800 sizeable ships built there in the nineteenth century. And the story of how the link was made and what happened to the ship – both in myth and fact – from the time of its launch in Moray to its final resting place in Gloucestershire is an intriguing one.

The detective story begins with Paul Barnett, an ex-merchantman, now maritime historian settled in Gloucester. For many years Paul has been fascinated by the so called Purton Hulks, a ships graveyard containing the remains of over eighty vessels beached there to consolidate the adjacent bank of the Gloucester-Sharpness ship canal against the scouring of the tide in the Severn Estuary. Among the relicts were noticed the remains of massive planking reinforced by diagonal iron banding, a wooden frame reinforced by iron, and special adjustable Fells Patent iron, such that the hull could be braced under load, making it immensely strong.

Built on Speyside by James Geddie Jr, and the last ship rigged by Alec Irving, who was the foreman and manager of the Carny sail and ropework. Alec Irving rigged every ship that sailed out of the Kingston yards for nearly forty years and his name was on all their sails, so that although he never left Scotland, his name was known throughout the world. The wooden 100 ton topsail schooner had been a mainstay of the country’s transport system before it was revolutionized by railways and such boats were built in huge numbers all around the coasts of Britain and across the world.

That said the Spey shipbuilding trade was to be eventually eclipsed in the latter part of the 19th century. Firstly the railways took over much of the bulk transport and the 1870s saw the cost of building iron and steel ships plummet as a result of the Bessemer process. This in turn resulted in the flight of trade to Clyde and Tyne who were proficient in that method of ship construction. As a result the 1880s saw many of the Spey shipyard workers relocate to the booming yards of Clydeside or leaving Scotland altogether for Canada or South Africa.

Undeterred both of Alec Irving’s son and son-in-law became apprentices and trained as shipwrights in the Kingston yards. Once completed however both sought fortunes elsewhere with one moving to work on Clydeside and the other left the town as a ship’s carpenter on a barque. Indeed research has now shown that almost the entire Geddies clan eventually emigrated to South Africa upon the completion of the Dispatch. Fortunately however and due to his mature years unable to retrain, Alec Irving took to travelling around the ports of the Moray Firth selling his ropes.

Today nothing remains for the casual observer of the seven shipyards where so many ships were built, the steam sawmills, the rope walk, the many sheds and all the paraphernalia of shipbuilding at Kingston. The yard where Dispatch was built is now a car park, the place where the timber was stored is now a golf course, a reed bed has almost obscured the slipway down which Dispatch slid, bow first as was the Spey way. Even the rope walk where Alec Irving made his ropes and sails is now a bus stop, a road and a jumble of modern houses.

In the beginning it is believed that Dispatch made her maiden voyage to Morocco, probably with salted fish from Newfoundland, and spent the first period of her working life running across the Atlantic with salt fish from the Grand Banks in Newfoundland, renowned as the greatest fishery in the world (Sea Breezes IV (NS) p. 120) . Business was brisk and for many years, up to the end of World War I, she remained in the ownership of McLeman who hailed from the little port of Avoch in the Black Isle. It is in fact known that the family had a great pride and affection for the sturdy ship and commissioned a fine oil-painting of her which was handed down thought the generations where it was recently seen in the ownership of Mrs. Mackintosh, the second owner’s daughter, at her family home, still in Avoch.

1918 saw the Dispatch leave her base in Inverness and pass into the hands of welsh owner W.A Jenkins who retained her original Inverness registry whilst employing the little lady to transport Swansea coal. Research has also shown that she may also have worked for a short time shipping slates around the country from Porthmadoc during the inter-war housing boom.

The 1930s proved to be lean times for Dispatch and indeed saw the end of the line for the British sailing merchant ship. Since 1919 she had been in the employ of Saul based owner and coal merchant George A. Watkins who put the sturdy vessel to work within the aggregate industry carrying everything from Lydney coal to Chepstow lime stone for bank protection.

Furthermore whilst at Kew, Hugh Conway Jones the Gloucester author kindly noted that he found documents relating to the schooner Dispatch of Inverness in the charge of a Capaint Evans at Gloucester Dock several times during 1932, each time loading 190 tons salt for an Irish port.

Why Gloucester? Well it was one of the countries last refuge for many a tied old vessel in part due to the sheltered waters of the Sharpness to Gloucester Canal and partly due to it being one of the few places in Britain where affordable insurance (provided by local farmers) could be cheaply obtained for old ladies like Dispatch.

Still this decade saw her shrug off two major collisions and live through a hurricane in the Atlantic in 1934. That said her crew faired less better as they were found almost starved to death due to being in out in the open sea without supplies for some five weeks.

1935 saw confusion reign, however what is known that the Dispatch was laid up as a grain hulk in Avonmouth Dock upon the sudden death of her former owner W A Watkins, only to be purchased by Gloucester Lighterman George Thomas Beard who had her shipped to his yard at Hempstead Bridge on the Sharpness to Gloucester Canal. Some time thereafter he had her cut down by Victor Gower and reregistered on 31st July 1940 having her name officially changed to the New Dispatch and her port of registry became Gloucester.

Both Lloyds Registry and the Mercantile Navy List appear to support this however it remains a mystery as to when the Dispatch actually died and when the New Dispatch was eventually born. What is known however is that almost fifty years after Alec Irving originally rigged her, Dispatch was refitted, stripped of her figurehead, masts and sails, and reborn as the towed barge New Dispatch carrying grain and general cargo in the treacherous seas and fast running tides of the Bristol channel. Indeed, during World War II, she was carrying munitions and other goods from Bristol to Gloucester, under serious risk of enemy attack – a very different fate from that of being a coal hulk in some backwater.

And so she continued as New Dispatch until after more than twenty years work as a dumb barge and seventy years after she was built, she was laid up at the little port of Sharpness in May 1958, tied up and forgotten as a floating platform.

Once again speculation reigns but it is believed that the New Dispatch was eventually towed into the River Severn some time in 1961 and run ashore to stabilize the river bank along with the other Purton Hulks for it was here she was once again recognised and recorded by the young David Wheeler. Ssadly her final days were not to be at peace as she has at no less than 7 times come to the attention of arsonist and vandals who with boots and hammers, fire and saws attempted to erase this grand old lady forever. This has culminated in the total destruction of her bow and stern sections through fire in August 19th 1984.

An ignominious end for a tall ship perhaps, and a far cry from the wild Atlantic seas she had sailed in her days of glory. Still, the memories remain among the dwindling band who once sailed in her, her photograph (taken off Par Sands in Cornwall) still hangs on the wall of the butt-and-ben house in Kingston where Alec Irving’s daughter and son-in-law ended her days, she is immortalized in at least two oil paintings, and once again is becoming recognized as a ship of great interest to maritime historians.

Dispatch’ winch is in the car park of the North Devon Maritime Museum in Appledore, Devon, her figurehead is proudly cared for by the descendants of a former shipwright and no doubt other parts of her are still around somewhere. And what remains of her hull, albeit damaged by vandals and decorated by dogs, is still helping to hold back the ceaseless scour of Severn’s tide to protect the ship canal where she sailed at the end of her days.

So a story that started on the banks of Spey in 1888 has not quite ended yet, and thus the Dispatch remains in gainful employment “still doing useful work even today”, as Paul correctly reminds us.

Dispatch’ builder Jame Geddie by his Great Great Grandson John Wallon
James Geddie and Family, circa 1860
Geddie Descendant John Wallen. The past reunited 14th April 2006 (John Wallen)

My great-great grandfather Alexander Irving or Irvine, rope and sail maker, Kingston-on-Spey was born in Leith and was the son of a master sail maker. His older brother John Irving was also a master sail maker, who had his own firm in Kingston for a time but later worked in Macduff along the coast from Kingston until his death in 1873.

Alexander Irving (known as Alec) was born about 1816 and died in Kingston in 1891. He was the foreman for the sail making business established in Kingston as an outpost of the Alexander Carny rope and sail making firm in Macduff, but after the Carny firm went out of business (during the 1870s I think) he took over the Kingston rope walk for himself.

He married twice, had ten children and my grandparents said he was one of the ‘characters’ of the shipbuilding village. A hard-working, tobacco-chewing man, he rigged all the ships in the Kingston yards from the 1850s to his death in 1891 and his name was on their sails. When the shipbuilding business died away, he did not sit down to moan (no dole in those days, or old-age pensions either) but went travelling along the coast to places where he could sell his ropes.

Extract from Ships and Ships Modelling of July 1936 vol 5 no 59
Schooners of the Severn Seas John Anderson

Sturdy little schooner of all kinds are still to be found in scores all round the stormy shores of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and in some places a sailing vessel is the only means of communication between the innumerable small townships.  A considerable number of trim little two masters are constantly engaged in the dory fishing on the grand banks and along the bleak coasts of Labrador, and, though many have bee equipped with auxiliary power, the majority of these craft still rely entirely on the wind and sail for propulsion.  These ships breed a fine class of sturdy seamen who have few equals for seamanship and hardiness.

Historic images
Dispatch 1932

In full sail Par Sands 1932 The Captain Hugh Shaw Collection

Dispatch 1958

Cut down to form the New Dispatch 1958 The Graham Farr Collection (103/5

Dispatch 1967

One the bank in happier times 26th February 1967 The Norman Andrews Collection (LC67-8)

Dispatch 1956

The Dispatch (rear) afloat in the old arm 26th August 1956 prior to being beached courtesy of Mike Nash

Recent images
Dispatch 2004

One of only 13 Fells Patent knees known to exist 12th April 2004. The L. P. Barnett Collection

Dispatch 2008

And the destruction goes on unabated 30th March 2008 The L. P. Barnett Collection

Dispatch 2002

A close up of Dispatch cross bracing 12th August 2002. The L. P. Barnett Collection

Dispatch figurehead 1934

The man as attached in c.1934 Gloucester Docks The Graham Farr Collection

Dispatch figurehead 2003

The lady 28th June 2003 The L. P. Barnett Collection

Dispatch figurehead 1956

Figurehead in the garden of Capt Dangerfield, Arlingham, Gloucestershire 9th June 1951 The Graham Farr Collection

Dispatch figurehead

Lochranza Castles Figurehead The Graham Farr Figurehead Collection

Extract from Ships and Ship Models January 1939 vol 8 no 89

Sail topics John Anderson
The Irish Schooner Lochranza Castle stranded in the Mersey

Extract from Ships and Ship Models April 1939 vol 8 no 92

Our coasting schooner today John Anderson
The Irish coaster Lochranza Castle foundered in a gale off the Mersey

Lloyds Register

Last Lloyds entry as Dispatch 1935/36 via G. T .Beard (1929) Ltd, marked NOW A LIGHTER

Dispatch Lloyds registry entries … read more

Mercantile Register
Name New Dispatch 95741 Gloucester Inverness 1888 1953 Registry John Cooke
Dispatch ancillary information

February 1934: Dispatch took 16 days from Gloucester to Youghal
June 1934: Dispatch made passage of 28 days from Gloucester to Waterford
November 1934: Hammered by gales and headwinds, Dispatch crawled into Tralee harbour actually 50 days out from Sharpness
November 1935: The topsail Schooners Dispatch and C & F Nurse have been cut down to towing barges at Sharpness
1935 Seen as a storage hulk at Avonmouth
1953 Graham Farr via Robin Craig registered extant
21st September 1957 Not located at Purton in Rob Schopland
New Dispatch arrivals at the Port of Gloucester D2460/4/5/1 – 4
Gloucester Records Office Crew lists Glos RO D3080 from 1880s

Gloucester Records Office Crew lists Glos RO D3080 from 1880s
Vessel Name & No. First registered Tonnage First mention Last mention comments
Name of Ship Port No & Year Official No Remarks Closed
Dispatch 1-1939 95741 R4/85 Registered anew as New Dispatch
New Dispatch

Jonathon Fells knee inventor
Alexander Irving original Rigger
John Leatherton figurehead carver
George Watkins first Gloucester owner
George Thomas Beard Gloucester owner
Ben Cooke last Gloucester owner
Captain Sam Watkins former skipper & owner
The Harper family – Saul owners
Captain Frank Evans 1932 skipper
Victor Gower Gloucester shipwright
Captain Wilks former skipper
Captain Bourne former skipper
Captain Maule former skipper
Captain Sharp former skipper
Captain Clements former skipper
Captain Brennan former skipper
Captain Rolls former skipper
Captain Rowles former skipper
Captain Tonks former skipper
Captain Mayo former skipper
Captain Haywood former skipper
Captain Collier former skipper
Captain Beard former skipper
Captain Pinkerton former skipper
Captain Pinkney former skipper
Captain Manley former skipper
Tom Dangerfield former crew
Capt. Frank Savage – beaching tug Primrose Skipper
Dick Woodward – beaching bank party
Bill Deacon – beaching bank party
Bunny Hunt – beaching crew
Bob Green – beaching helmsmen

Analogue transcripts.

Skipper of Dredger No 4 Date of Interview 01.07.03
Eric identified this vessel by name and recalls that she and the schooner Earl Cairns were once owned and operated by Captain Sam Watkins of Arlingham. He further advised that he repainted the unnamed figurehead which had been rescued from the bonfire by Victor Gower at the time of the Dispatch’s conversion by Ben Cooke to the towed barge and renamed New Dispatch.

As a renowned painter Eric was also commissioned to paint a pier head painting of the Dispatch which is currently held in a private Severnside collection.

John Anderson

Author of Coastwise Sail
Mr Anderson regales that the two masted topsail schooner Dispatch was originally registered and owned at Inverness as a Moray Firth Schooner. Furthermore he states that in 1934 the Dispatch spent 32 days beating against gale whilst trading between Tralee Ireland and Gloucester, a journey which under normal conditions would ordinarily take less take less than a week. That said she was rescued and eventually towed to Appledore where on route was allegedly struck by the steamer ???? and her ornate figurehead was carried away, only to be recovered and reattached. Finally Mr Anderson advises that the Dispatch was cut down to form the towed lighter New Dispatch in or around 1935

Mike Ayland

The Grandson of Capt. Hugh Shaw. Date of interview 26th June 2003
Mike identified this vessel as being on the foreshore at Purton and states she was locally owned and operated by Saul men including Tom Dangerfield. Furthermore John Gower the village carpenter is the son of G.T Beards former ship write Victor Gower who played an active role in the de-rig of the former schooner Dispatch to form the dumb barge New Dispatch.

David MacGregor

Author. Date of interviews 20th March 2003 & 10th July 2003
David identified the New Dispatch as being the former schooner Dispatch.
Upon further questioning it is difficult to determine exactly when David revisited the site however it is know that, he was accompanied by Colin Green. It was at this visited that with the help of Colin Green that he recovered and subsequently stored a Fells Patent Knee from the remains of the New Dispatch.

That said David went to some lengths to outline various construction techniques as utilised by her shipwright the following is a direct transcript of that conversation:-

The construction of the Dispatch by David R MacGregor
David advised that the Dispatches diagonal iron brace/strapping were countersunk and flush with the frames in order to provide strength and a flat surface, therefore promoting the stream line dynamics of the outer hull. This in turn increased strength would have been a pre amble to obtaining a higher specified rating within Lloyds Register and thus was ordinarily requested/applied to a vessel of known proportions or of greater length/breadth. Furthermore David states that in his opinion the Dispatches construction had been altered post launch as a result of her revised manifest from general cargo to bulk stone or coal and not as a result of her proportions or insurance requirements.

Furthermore her construction was unique as her iron knees which connected the deck beams to the side of the hull were not of a standard type normally associated with a vessel of her type i.e. a schooner. Indeed David advised that they were patented adjustable Anon Cullen Fell knees of Cumberland, which encompassed a threaded bar that would allow tensing to take place and thus further streamline/trim the vessel.

North Devon Maritime Museum

New Dispatch, ex Dispatch – we do have a photograph of this one with a note to say it was at
one time owned by Captain Watkins of Gloucester. It was sold on his death in 1935 and became a storage hulk at Avonmouth.

The National Waterway Museum Photos

54.1496 Dispatch loading salt at Gloucester Docks

A J Parker

PURTON: KEY TO PLAN OF BOAT REMAINS Reference A. J. Parker (1998)
34. New Dispatch, ex Dispatch (1888) (1952 photo): not Pioneer or Europa (Green).
Possible schooner (AJP in SMR484)

John Perkins

Lighterman on the Gloucester to Sharpness Canal and River Severn. First interview 26.06.03
John identified the New Dispatch by name and stated she was once a topsail schooner which during a major storm in 1934 ran out in to the North Atlantic to avoid destruction.

Scottish National Records Office

Bon Accord Slate Merchants Co. Ltd a builders merchants (GB/NNAF/B15759)

1870 -1889 company records exist via records ref (s) 3050, NRA catalogue no NRA 25422 at National Registry of Aberdeen addressed to Tessa Spencer HM General Register House, Edinburgh EHI3YY Scot 01315351344 or enquiries@nas.gov.uk

David Wheeler

Recorded New Dispatch afloat as a hulk with a concrete lighter opposite the Vindicatrix in 1959 photo. First physical description as on the bank in the autumn of 1961 and further noted …Wooden boxed counter (? Schooner)…in June 1965 survey

Further David Wheeler correspondence
James Mills bought Dispatch from Caledonian Bank re bankruptcies. Dispatch was indeed sold by the Caledonian Bank to pay off some of James Geddie’s debts and overdraft. She was sold by them in 1889 to a Captain and Mrs Whyte for £1310.

The Lloyds Register Return of Shipping Totally lost, Condemned etc for the period 1.1.35 – 31.3.35 under secgtion II (d) refers to the Dispatch ‘converted to a lighter’. We could find no further mention of Dispatch or New Dispatch in the Register, but as you had already found out, she appears in the Mercantile Navy List as a barge from 1947 to 1973 ( the last edition kept at Falmouth) which as we know was long after she was hauled onto the bank. That I was told was quite common – the entries go on being repeated until someone takes the trouble to stop them.

Phase one report