The fuel that powered town’s harbour

Bailey 2012
Bailey 2012

LOOKING at the first picture is like traveling back more than 85 years.

Newhaven was an interesting place to live, perhaps more so for boys as, for instance, in this view looking north from the harbour coal wharf, or today’s Bickerstaffs Fishery.

When one looks at the harbour bank there, when the tide is down a little, the dismantled foundations of the busy wharf can be seen. This comprised the gathering centre for imported nuggets to keep our channel ferries making their daily crossings. Without coal there would be no movement. There were two steam grab cranes and great heaps of coal all over this wooden flat.

Several large flat barges were kept in the area near the cranes. Enough coal would be put in and then with a team of ‘coalees’ the little tug would take the unit along to a ferry yet to depart.

The coalees would fill a sack of coal, walk a wooden staircase to the deck of the barge, where there would be another set of wide wooden steps which led to a doorway in the hull of the ferry, then along a passage to tip his coal down a chute into the bunkers of the ship.

A team of coalees or coolies had to do this for two ferries every day. After world war two, oil replaced coal and the operation moved down towards the lifeboat area. Moored there was a ‘dumb lighter’ or a tanker with no means of propulsion. Nearby on the shore was a large tank, like a gas holder. Into this was pumped fuel oil from tanker trucks brought there by the little tank engine Fenchurch (still on the Bluebell Railway).

Required oil was pumped from the tank across the road to the little oil tanker, the Nitrogen. As this had no engine, a tug would take it to the Channel Steamer and into that was pumped enough fuel for it to make at least two crossings. I have only assumed that all this palaver was for safety’s sake, to keep bulk handling of the oil far away from the main workings of the harbour and the public.

On the town side of the coal wharf was a sheet loft, a tall massive black corrugated shed where tarpaulin covers for railway trucks were made, repaired or re-gooed and hung to dry. This was a hive of activity little doubt for a lot of thirsty workers. Today, the situation is completely reversed.

Returning to the picture of the 1920s, the distant steamer emitting smoke at the top of North Quay would be discharging its cargo of coal from the north into rail wagons for Eastbourne Gas Works.

The head-on vessel is a salvage tug of the Maritime Salvors which after the First World War was based near to the Lifeboat Station. Sunken vessels from that war were still plentiful and two ex-American repair ships had been taken over – forming Maritime Salvors.

The tug was named Refloater. Hanging in our museum is a flag painted lid to a sea apprentice’s sea chest, made by him for the last trip to Australia by the famous Cutty Sark. The return cargo was wool and then the vessel was sold. Later he and his family settled here in time to find the Maritime Salvors an interesting group. One son was a student teacher at the boys’ school in my time. He served in the Navy in the second world war and carried on as a fine and popular man, a teacher well remembered.

Picture 2. Yes, that’s how the previous swing bridge worked. The tackle apart from the wooden poles, can be seen in the museum, with much more. The large building above the bridge in picture one was Stricklands Granary, destroyed by fire early in the last war, not by enemy action. There were many comments of rats on fire diving into North Quay waters.