Stoney Cove Leicester
The Stanegarth was originally built in 1910 as a steam powered tug by Lytham Ship Builders Co. for the Rea Transport Co. Ltd. of Liverpool, that means she is older than The Titanic! In a bizarre twist of fate Stanegarth took longer to sink than the titanic too….
Stanegarth was built as a steam tug, steam power being the marvel of the Victorian age, she carried a small boiler driven steam engine powering her whilst she carried out typical duties of a tug of the day, although the main of her career would be spent towing dredging barges between Sharpness and Purton on the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal. Stanegarth was converted to diesel power, along with the addition of an enclosed wheelhouse, in 1957. Found abandoned at Purton, on the Gloucestershire Sharpness canal at in 1999, Stanegarth was saved from an ignominious fate by Stoney Cove and Diver magazine, in a joint operation which saw her installed over several months into the cove as a diving attraction. Now, whatever your take on inland dive sites and the attractions within, Stanegarth is the largest ship in any dive centre by a long way! Stanegarth can be found on a 190° bearing form the Bus Stop and can also be found on a 220° bearing form the slip way
The Rea family started business as Liverpool coal merchants in 1872 begun by Russell Rea, who later went into partnership with his brother James in 1879. They started “bunkering” coal with a vessel called “Cumbria” and began the Rea Towing Company in 1881, adding the tugs Holmgarth and Aysgarth in 1899 and 1900 respectively, these were quickly followed by the tugs Fallgarth and Edengarth early in the 1900’s (Collard. I: “Mersey Tugs Through Time” Amberley Publishing) which showed the Rea Coal and Rea Towing companies were doing well!
There followed the Rea Transport Company, formed in 1902, to service the steamship trade out of Liverpool docks on the River Mersey. I grew up in Liverpool, as many of you who read this blog will know from the about me page, Rea tugs were a part of my young life, they not only coaled the steamships, but later fueled and maneuvered my Father’s own Blue Funnel ships, along with ships from the Allen line and Glen line and many others I’m sure, in fact the Alfred Holt businesses had shares in the Rea towing and the Rea Transport companies, making it easier, and perhaps cheaper to do business in Vittoria and the other Holt line Liverpool Docks. All the tugs of the various Rea companies were “Garth’s” the Stanegarth being perhaps the 10th tug owned by the Rea family of businesses, brought into service in 1910 to tow coal barges round the docks and the Manchester Ship Canal
Those who worked on and around these little tugs were men of their time, gritty and used to hardships we can only imagine, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times….the heady excitement of the Victorian Empire, Britain ruling the waves and 2/3 of the globe, Brunel and the Great Western Railway, and the Great Eastern, his behemoth ship, the largest moving object on the planet at that time, not 20 years since, a rusting hulk acting as nothing more than a giant advertising bill-board to the people of Liverpool, beached in the Mersey. As the great Eastern lay slowly dying, Britain ran headlong into an arms race with Austro-Hungary and Germany and the outbreak of world war 1, just 4 years following the launch of Stanegarth, and only 2 after the launch and catastrophic loss of the largest ship on earth in that era, the Titanic, another ship who’s home port was Liverpool
How can we mention Stanegarth in the same sentence as the Titanic you might ask, well our little tug wasn’t only towing barges, she was as capable of towing and mooring the great ships as she was the more mundane tasks of a working boat on the Mersey, indeed Stanegarth features in a small way in the lives of other ships far more regal, in March of 1917 the Allen Line Ship RMS Victorian’s Captain’s log reads: 21 March 1917: At Liverpool Lat 53.43, Long -3.01 (In Canada Dock, Liverpool) 6.30am: Tugs “Bison” and “Stanegarth” alongside. 6.40am: Tugs fast, cast off and commenced hauling out into Canada Basin 7.00am: In Canada Basin. 7.15am: Commenced hauling back into Canada Dock 7.50am: All fast in Canada Dock Berth No I am: Harland and Wolf’s men employed on re-armament. Hands painting and cleaning ship. Shore workmen employed in engine-room 11.40am: J Lythgoe (fireman) deserter brought on board by civil police and confined to cells pm: Hands employed painting and various duties 6.00pm: Party of men ashore for entertainment”
Those who worked on Stanegarth speak of the life with warm nostalgia, J.H. Cropper of Wallasey, a fireman with Rea in 1905 (in Collard. I: “Mersey Tugs Through Time” Amberley Publishing) remembers: “….if we were ashore for two nights each week we considered ourselves fortunate. Each member of the crew had also to take a turn watching the tug in the docks during liberty hours. It was seven days a week duty with no stipulated hours and fixed wages” and describing the routine of tug work “Tugs had to be constantly on the alert, sometimes for days before the expected vessel actually arrived. Never the less crews were happy: the spirit was like that of a family….”
My connection with Stanegarth was never one I knew, when I was invited to see her sunk in Stoney cove, on June the 6th in 2000, a couple of days before my 40th birthday. I had no idea Stanegarth had been a Rea ship, nor that she had worked in Liverpool docks. I was honoured to have been invited by Alan, Margaret and Rob to be a member of the enclosure at her sinking, getting a quayside view of the event as Stanegarth gently took on water and eventually slipped below the surface of the cove to become the largest ship in an inland site in the UK. Now I am clear on the term “shipwreck”, the Stanegarth is no wreck, she is a “placed attraction” and if she had been sunk at sea in the same manner I would have absolutely no interest in her. I know that sounds odd as I consider the Stanegarth an important piece of history, with a superb heritage and a huge personal connection, however, I have what friends and divers I have spent time with describe as a “weird”, and if they are being kind, “purist” approach to wrecks…..if it didn’t sink as a result of unforeseen circumstances, in an unintended manner, then whatever it is, it isn’t a wreck…. simple! I love the fact that for years of diving her, and teaching divers on her, I had no idea of the connection to Liverpool and the Blue Funnel line, so prominent in my family history
Stanegarth is important to me for other reasons too, one of my closest friends is interred with her, his ashes forever intertwined with Stanegarth and his presence very much there, with me, every dive I take on her. Stanegarth may not be a “wreck” in the truest sense but she represents something different, an opportunity, in a fairly benign (tideless, currentless, reasonably shallow…etc) environment, to train for some serious wreck diving, and that is priceless. I have taken dozens of students to, and through Stanegarth and they have benefited from her, without knowing a thing of her true history and her past life, from the date 2 years before the launching of the Titanic, to her sinking in Stoney Cove in June of 2000 some 90 years later!
Whatever Stanegarth saw whilst working at the Liverpool Docks, by far the larger part of her life was on the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. Stanegarth was a tough old girl, her steam engine and boiler having been replaced with a more modern and efficient diesel engine in 1957, a full 47 years after her launch in the Ribble estuary, she went on to work right up until the 80’s hauling dredged mud, essential to keeping waterways clear for shipping, from Gloucester to Purton, it isn’t clear exactly when Stanegarth was laid up in Purton, but she was found, abandoned, by Stoney Cove in 1999. The last working photo I have seen puts Stanegarth somewhere around 1985-90, so if we give her the benefit of doubt and say 1990 that means Stanegarth had a working career of 80 years, not half bad for a 1910 Tug….a tough old girl indeed!
So when Stoney Cove decided Stanegarth needed saving and deserved a better end than to just rot away at Purton, they could hardly have anticipated the scale of the enterprise they had taken on. From the off Stanegarth seemed reluctant to take up Stoney’s offer of a new home, it was touch and go for a while as to whether she would get on the transport, the crane brought in to lift her very nearly didn’t…… Stanegarth weighed in teasingly near the crane’s limit and it was only when the fore and aft bulwarks were cut off, that the tug could be lifted and the trip to Stoney Cove began
Those of you who wonder at the deep scars in the tarmac running some 20ft down the road from the middle car-park at Stoney Cove, need look no further than the photo of Stanegarth’s arrival, the truck carrying her grounded the trailer and dug in deep…..I think that is Rob scratching his head over the wisdom of just saying “fcuk it….keep going!” Eventually though, Stanegarth made it to the bottom car-park and was harboured up at the wall of the old shop entrance for further work, cleaning, preparing and removing her engine, and making safe the areas needed before placing her in the cove for the rest of time
I was privileged to be given a set of photos of the progress of Stanegarth, from derelict homeless abandonment into the most popular inland dive site in the UK, I still have them and occasionally look back at the effort the volunteers at the cove put in to make her such an attraction. Looking back, Stanegarth seemed to be by the shop for an eternity, taking up space normally allotted for the various dive-schools and training organisations, mine included. I don’t recall exactly how long it took to make her as safe as Alan and the crew needed before she could be sunk, but I do know that the preparations were meticulous and environmental concerns were paramount to what was done
If it had been me, I’d have left the engine and transmission in place, I always feel she is too “bare” when passing through her, it would have been far more “authentic” to leave the mechanics intact and I was never really sure why Alan and the staff didn’t do that to be honest, I suppose I should have asked…… Sadly Alan passed away in January of 2018, he is missed by all those that knew him, (for my part only in a small way), Alan gave me my first account at Stoney Cove when I started Deep Blue Diving, and it was Alan who allowed me to test the club RIB around the cove one Saturday, after diving had wrapped up for the day, before I bought it. Alan was a lovely chap, never scared of getting his hands dirty and always asking after those who used the cove and those he knew who dived there, it was Alan that started Stoney Cove as a scuba diving venture, and all that was done there, and has been achieved there stands as his legacy, including the Stanegarth!
I have dived Stanegarth hundreds of times, in all seasons and all temperatures, I love coming across her Anchor chain, and following it up to her bow, or watching her loom out of the murky Green waters of the cove as her hull towers over me. It is great to have such a vessel to train on, to take divers into, knowing they are as safe as anyone can be inside a ship’s hull under the water. Stanegarth may have been deemed purposeless by her former employers, but that has not diminished her use as a piece of history, available to a unique set of people who still find her value inestimable! Stanegarth has been filmed and photographed thousands of times, has been lined off and through thousands of times, and she is always my favourite part of the cove, an old friend and the memory of old friends brought back just by being around her
I think it fitting that such a stalwart of the Rea Towing Company of Liverpool has not been allowed to rust away in some forgotten berth, far from her origins, far from her purpose. Far better that Stanegarth sits peacefully under the cove where tens of thousands visit her under the water to train, to photograph, or just to dive her and enjoy. Perhaps some know something of her history, perhaps most do not, just that she is the biggest inland vessel underwater, either way it is wonderful that Stanegarth gets to spend her days at rest, simply there……an underwater tribute to 90 years of history and 80 years of hard work, rewarded in a way, with divers from all over the world coming to see her
Take a Dive with me on Stanegarth……..