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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Local History






John Harker was born in Arkengarthdale, North Yorkshire in 1846. The son of a small farmer who was also the village overseer of the poor, he was orphaned at the age of 8 years. Starting his working life on a neighbourhood farm, he moved shortly after to Bradford where he worked for some time on the railway and in the mills.

Around 1868 at the age of twenty-one he went to work for Stainsby and Walsh at Bolton Woods in Bradford. He came to Knottingley when Stainsby and Lyon established the chemical works here in 1877, one of the co-founders being John George Lyon. John Harker was made foreman, then in 1893 when the firm became a limited company, he became a shareholder and was appointed as a Director.

Mr Lyon gave him the privilege of operating the lighterage side for Stainsby and Lyon, and this was carried out with five barges towed along the canals by horse, then later by steam tug. He was a prominent member of the community, being elected as a councillor on the Urban District Council, later serving as Chairman.

After his death in 1911 the business was continued by his son James W. Harker and his son in law James William Kipping; who had married John Harker’s daughter Isabella. Kipping started his working life as a junior clerk with Stainsby and Lyon, and his father William Kipping was the local police sergeant born in Eton. Family stories say he ran away when he couldn’t get along with his stepmother.

Crude tar was brought from gas works at Bradford, York and other towns to Knottingley in open barges. Here the tar was refined and Pitch was then exported via Goole to Northern France and Belgium. Oil was exported in barrels via the port of Hull. In 1918 Stainsby and Lyon purchased the Harker/Kipping business and formed a company under the title ‘John Harker Ltd’ with Kipping as general manager.

After the coal strikes of 1921 and 1926, industrialists sought an alternative fuel to coal, and this proved to be oil. As the demand for oil increased so did the need for its transportation and Kipping did a lot of the pioneer work for Harkers’ in the carrying of bulk liquid by water transport. Other pioneers in this field were Cory and Whitaker. A variety of different products were carried including Motor Spirit, Kerosene, Vaporising Oil, Benzyl, Creosote, Gas Tar, Crude Tar, Molasses and Crude Petroleum.

In 1926 Gas Companies and Tar Distillers joined together to form the Yorkshire Tar Distillers (Y.T.D.). This left Stainsby and Lyon in a better position to concentrate on the carrying business. Up to this time ships had been built at the yards of Dunstan’s of Thorne and Watson’s of Gainsborough.  Stainsby and Lyon took over the site of the former shipyards of William Worfolk and Robert Garlick where they commenced building vessels after recruiting people such as Elijah Thirkettle, Mr Potts and Mr Jordan from other yards. The first motor vessel built in Knottingley, launched November 1929, and capable of carrying 150 tons was appropriately named ‘William Kipping.’  Shipbuilding continued here for the next 50 years with the last vessel ‘Conveyor’, built for Allanstone Supplies of Hull, being launched 10 October 1979.

By the mid 1930s the company had continued to expand and now operated some 30 vessels. In 1936 a new holding company was formed, incorporated under the title ‘Lyon and Lyon.’ The former Stainsby and Lyon went into liquidation with shareholders receiving cash in addition to shares in the new company.  The name of John Harker was retained for the shipyard and barges. ‘Bertha H’ of 100 tons had been built by Dunstan’s at Thorne in 1932 and about 9.30 a.m on 9 September 1934 she was being towed up from Saltend to Colwick Park, Nottingham laden with petrol. Passing under the Gainsborough railway bridge she grazed along the stone buttress, ‘started’ some rivets and the vessel caught fire. Being cast off the tow she drifted on the flood tide up the River Trent. With the fire out of control the crew jumped overboard; the mate William Major reached the bank safely but the Captain Ted Newall was drowned. It took the combined efforts of several fire brigades to quench the flames with the fire burning until about 6 o’clock that evening, by which time the burning barge was floating back on the ebb tide towards Gainsborough. Some 30 tons of petrol was lost and the barge was brought back to Knottingley where it was virtually rebuilt.

In the late 1930s there was a severe drought, and this coupled with neap tides meant vessels were unable to navigate the River Trent to Nottingham for a period of five weeks. As a consequence some 5,000 tons, or one and a half million gallons of motor spirit and other petroleum products were pumped from vessels below Cromwell Lock to vessels above the lock, so in this way the city of Nottingham was kept supplied with petrol.

In 1939 the Gloucester Shipyard Ltd was established, being formed jointly by John Harker Ltd, who managed, and the Severn & Canal Carrying Company. It was intended to carry out repairs to the fleet owned by each company. With Harker’s expertise in building and repair it meant that vessels didn’t have to return to Knottingley for repair, and repair work was no longer done under contract. In May 1947 it became apparent that the Severn Carrying Company would be nationalised, so Lyon & Lyon bought their shares in the Gloucester shipyard, thereby making it a wholly owned subsidiary of Lyon & Lyon.

During the war, vessels were requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport and engaged in active service. ‘Constance H’ served as an oiler in the Scapa Flow and narrowly escaped destruction when the ‘Royal Oak’ was sunk. She had been built in 1930 and was originally intended to carry motor spirit for Messrs Calvert from Coryton in the Thames estuary to Leeds. She was fitted with a 3 cylinder 150 HP Widdop engine and conducted her trials in the Humber off Hull. In 1937 a Crossley 220BHP engine was installed together with a Cochrane donkey boiler to enable the vessel to carry heavy oils that needed to be kept at heated temperature, and she carried creosote from Knottingley and Stourton to Billingham on Tees. In 1938 she made history by being the first sea-going vessel to navigate up the River Nene to Peterborough. She was loaded at the Town Dock Quay with a cargo of creosote delivered by road by Harold Wood’s Transport of Cleckheaton and the cargo was destined for Ghent. This voyage made more history than money as on the way down the vessel was neaped, waiting for water near Guyhurn Bridge for almost 2 weeks. After the war she traded between Hull and Kings Lynn then later on Manchester Ship Canal before being sold in 1948 to the General Steam Navigation Company when she was renamed ‘Robin Redbreast’.

‘Margery H’ was captured by the enemy and at the end of hostilities she was spotted by a member of the Lyon family at a port in either France or Belgium. The vessel was recovered and after repair it was fitted with a brass plate commemorating this event. Flying the Blue Ensign ‘Beldale H’ spent most of the war years in the Humber and her work was commended on several occasions by the Naval Authorities. She had been built in Holland in 1937 by De Groot & Van Vliet and was purchased by the newly formed John Harker (Coasters) Ltd. From being purchased until the outbreak of war she carried creosote between London, Goole and Southampton to Billingham on Tees. After the war she went back to the Tar/Creosote trade, then in 1946 she was the first allied tank vessel to reach the port of Le Legue in France. In 1948 she was sold to C. Rowbotham & Sons who operated a fleet of coastal tankers out of London and was renamed ‘Helmsman’. Christopher Rowbotham the founder of this company was another native of Knottingley.

During the war the company built Motor Landing Craft for the Admiralty and Refuelling Launches for the Royal Air Force (these were used in refuelling sea planes). In 1943 the Ministry of War ordered two sister ships ‘Empire Rancher’ and ‘Empire Reacher’ for taking coal from the South Wales ports of Newport, Swansea and Cardiff to the Power Station at Gloucester. They cost around £22,500 and were managed and operated from the Gloucester office.

‘Empire Rancher’ was a self-trimming collier carrying 420 tons, fitted with a Crossley 250 BHP engine and steamed at 8 knots on about two and a half tons of gas oil per day (600/700 gallons). She carried a crew of eight and also went down to the channel ports of Bideford and Appledore. Richard Dustan of Thorne also built four similar type vessels from the Harker plans.

In order to supplement facilities at Gloucester another wholly owned subsidiary of Lyon & Lyon was formed in 1946, the Sharpness Shipyard Ltd. Land and buildings at the entrance to Sharpness Lock was rented from the Dock Company and the shipyard commenced repair work towards the end of 1946. Building of new vessels was not undertaken here until 1950.

Harker’s fleet began to grow after the war, and operations were carried out in all the main estuaries around our coast: Tyne, Humber, Thames, Severn and Mersey. Again a shortage of coal dictated a change to oil and in the summer of 1946 the Petroleum Board made urgent representations for John Harker’s to undertake the lighterage of a considerable tonnage of fuel oil from the Stanlow complex on the Manchester Ship canal to the ICI works at Winnington.

Harker’s purchased four dry cargo boats from Messrs John Summers which had been built in 1920 by John Critchon & Co at Saltney, Chester, for the sum of £9,250. They were converted to tank barges by Messrs William Cubbin of Birkenhead and named: ‘Swindale H’, ‘Stockdale H’, ‘Staindale H’, and ‘Swaledale H’. These vessels operated for the next 20 years when three were scrapped and the other one sold. Operations were controlled from an office in Runcorn and Harker’s involvement in the Mersey had started around 1930 with a barge ‘Tony’ built by Richard Dunstan in 1925. By 1966 they had 13 motor barges operating in the Mersey, including ‘Silverdale H’ built in 1964 and of 550 tons it was the largest vessel built by Harker’s at that time.

A bunkering service for Shell Mex operated in the Tyne estuary initially with ‘Southdale H’ followed by ‘Tynedale H’, ‘Teasdale H’ and ‘Newdale H.’ In 1967 ‘Grovedale H’ of 600 tons went there, and then in 1972 the last and biggest Harker vessel built, the ‘Borrowdale H’ at 640 tons, joined the fleet.

The naming of ships followed a pattern of naming them after family members or people connected with the company, but by the mid 1930s they were quickly running out of names. A competition was held amongst the employees for suggestions as to how the ships could be named., and the winner was a young lady typist who suggested they should be named after the Dales with a suffix H. Perhaps it was because John Harker had been born in Arkengarthdale that this suggestion proved a popular choice. The first Dale barge was ‘Darleydale H’ built in 1937, at that time she was the largest vessel of her type, capable of carrying 280 tons, undergoing trials in the River Humber. She was designed for service in the Severn estuary between Avonmouth and Worcester working with dumb barge ‘Arkendale H’ that had been built at Richards Ironworks in Lowestoft. In 1948 ‘Darleydale’ was cut in two at the Gloucester Shipyard and a 20 foot midships section inserted thereby increasing her capacity by about 70 tons, and taking around 4 months to complete. At the same time ‘Arkendale’ was lengthened and converted to a self propelled vessel by having a 150BHP Crossley engine fitted.

On 21 December 1958 ‘Darleydale’ struck the Haw Bridge near Stourport on the Severn and tragically the skipper Stanley Edwards was killed by falling girders and masonry as he dashed out of the wheelhouse.

By the late 1940s all available space was required for building new vessels, and the more vessels operating meant more survey and repair work needed to be carried out. So, in 1947 work commenced on constructing a slipway on the canal bank opposite the shipyard, known as ‘Point End.’ This slipway, designed by Elijah Thirkettle had six cradles which were electrically winded, and after completion allowed a vessel to be slipped in 11 minutes, and could accommodate two vessels. Modifications designed by Mr Thirkettle and Mr Grainger in 1948 allowed for three vessels to be slipped at the same time.

Petrol boats did not have funnels in order to avoid any sparks igniting fumes from the tanks, so the exhaust had to go out through the stern of the vessel. Vessels carrying heavy fuel oil and known as ‘Black Oilers’ had funnels acting as the flue from the main engine, auxiliaries and boilers. The hold on these vessels was smaller as heavy oils did not require the same amount of space for the same tonnage as light oils.

‘Martindale H’ launched 16 September 1948 was one of eight sister ships built for the Leeds trade and for bunkering trawlers in the ports of Hull, Grimsby and Immingham. She had a capacity of 240 tons and was propelled by a Blackstone engine developing 120BHP. In January 1951 en route from Saltend she effected the successful rescue of the crew of a sinking trawler. The contract for Shell-Mex BP Company involved loading approximately 180 tons of heavy fuel oil at Saltend Jetty then delivering and emptying their bunkers into the trawler, the pumping operation taking 2/3 hours. Oil had to be kept at a temperature of 90 degrees so the tanks were coiled and heated from the boilers. ‘Northdale H’ launched 10 January 1950 by Mrs Foster the wife of Mr A.J. Foster, manager of Supplies and transportation at Shell Mex BP, London was fitted with a VHF radio to a shore station to enable a more efficient operation. She was also fitted out to carry a limited amount of gas oil bunkers that could be metered out to the trawlers for use in their auxiliaries.

The 1950s heralded a real upsurge in demand and construction was at its peak during this decade. In fact six vessels were built for Harkers at the yard of Cook Welton and Gemmell in Beverley. Around 100 tankers were being operated, so together with crews, approx 100 men in the yard and staff at regional offices, Harker’s had become a major employer.

Children were taken on local school outings to witness the launchings, and the lads especially made sure they were in a position to get a good soaking when the vessel hit the water. It was also a tradition at a launch ceremony for a member of the clergy to be present to bless the ship. A presentation was made to whoever launched the vessel, probably a cigarette case bearing the Harker house flag, and a child of one of the employees was usually chosen to present flowers to the ladies.

It is difficult to accept that such a prominent company within our town, at one time employing some 500/600 people countrywide should no longer have a place in our industrial society. But such are the advancements made that nowadays even large tankers can discharge cargo offshore through pipelines without even entering port.

Ron Gosney

Also by Ron Gosney:

Captain George Colverson
Christopher Rowbotham & Sons
Disasters at Sea


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