The wreck of the Imperial Prince
Wreck of the Imperial Prince trawler off the coast of Scotland in 1923
by Trevor Locke
On a stormy October night in 1923, a small Scottish trawler was sailing back to her home port when she was blown aground in a storm and heavy fog. The rescue attempt mounted to save her crew led to honours being bestowed by the Prince of Wales on the rescuers one of whom was my father – Leslie James Locke.
In the early morning, of October 19th 1923, a fierce southerly gale struck the coast of Scotland. The steam-powered fishing vessel Imperial Prince (129 tons) was returning to her homeport of Aberdeen when she was overcome by strong winds and high seas and was washed ashore on Black Dog beach off Belhevie, four miles north of Aberdeen. Four lives were lost. The coasts around Aberdeen must have been treacherous because several ships were wrecked there in 1923 alone.
By daybreak, only her bow and stern could be seen above the waves. Imperial Prince was a steam-propelled fishing vessel built and launched in 1899 by J. T. Eltringham & Co. Ltd of South Shields, she weighed 129 Gross Registered Tonnage. Eltringham was an established ship-building company based at South Shields. By the year 1910, the twenty-sixth trawler had been delivered to what had then become the Prince Fishing Company. The shipyard closed in 1922, hit by the recession.
The trawler sank at 5.30 am and her nine crew were left clinging for their lives to the rigging. The lifeboat was called from the fishing village of Newburgh and the big powered lifeboat of the Harbour Commissioners was summoned from Aberdeen; she was equipped with a rocket apparatus and this succeeded in firing a line on to the wrecked trawler and a breeches buoy was established to haul the men ashore. This took a long time in the rough seas and by the time it was ready the trawlermen were so exhausted that they could hardly haul the buoy and one of the crew was drowned in the rescue attempt. The Aberdeen Lifeboat station was one of the earliest in Scotland, being established in 1802 by the Harbour Commissioners. It was the forerunner of the Aberdeen Lifeboat Station run today by the RNLI.
Before the advent of helicopters, if a lifeboat was unable to reach a stricken vessel, the only alternative means of rescue was the rocket-propelled Life-Saving Apparatus (LSA). It was invented by Cornishman Henry Trengrouse (1772 to 1854.) The LSA later became the Breeches Buoy. The apparatus provided a way of getting a line on to a ship. In 1808, Trengrouse designed a device that could deliver the line to the ship by means of a rocket. Once the line was established, a chair could be pulled across the hawser.
Villagers turn out to help
After a determined battle with the elements, the Aberdeen lifeboat was eventually swept ashore. Whilst this was happening, the Newburgh lifeboat was on its way from the fishing village seven miles further along the coast.
In 1828, Newburgh became the first port in Scotland to have a Lifeboat Station, then called the Shipwreck Institution. The RNLI, as the Institution became known, based a lifeboat in Newburgh until 1961 when it moved to Peterhead.
The sea was too rough to launch it and so it had to be dragged along the soft sands by the men, women and children of the village. They reached the stricken trawler at 2 pm, eight hours after she had run aground. Eventually, the Newburgh lifeboat was on its way, with Coxswain John Innes at the helm and his son James Innes amongst the crew. They succeeded in saving two of the trawlermen but a third was washed out of the buoy and drowned. One of the two men they saved was badly injured and the lifeboat crew became exhausted by their struggle with the sea they were forced to return ashore. Coxswain John Innes and his son James were decorated by the Prince of Wales at Mansion House, in London, in 1924.
After a valiant effort, Coxswain Innes was forced to return ashore. The Newburgh rescuers made two further attempts to reach the trawlermen but without success. A motor lifeboat was summoned from Peterhead, twenty-two miles away, up the coast. A message for help was sent to the Commanding Officer of the Royal Naval ships lying off Aberdeen.
Sailors to the rescue – in a fleet of taxis!
Onboard HMS Vampire, off-duty ratings were sprucing themselves up in readiness for a run ashore. One of these was 19-year-old Able Seaman Leslie Locke from Little Ann, near Andover, in Hampshire. On receiving the plea from the rescuers at Black Dog Beach, The commander of the Royal Naval destroyer called for volunteers from the ratings aboard Vampire and another destroyer, HMS Vendetta, lying nearby.
Eleven sailors, led by Petty Officer Essam of the Vampire, volunteered to help with the rescue and were dispatched to Black Dog Beach, in the only means of transport available – a fleet of taxi cabs. The light was beginning to fade as they made their way along the windswept coastal roads to Belhevie. A soon as they arrived, a fourth attempt to reach the trawler began with the navel crew supporting the locals in the Newburgh lifeboat under Coxswain Innes, injured in his previous efforts and Petty Officer Essam.
It was nearly 7 pm and the light had gone. Although the wind had subsided there was a heavy swell breaking over the deck of the Imperial Prince. Her remaining crew had been had by now been clinging to her rigging for thirteen hours. Only her masts and the top of her funnel could be seen above the breaking waves by the light of the moon which had come out through the clearing skies.
After a long hard pull, the rowers in the Newburgh lifeboat got to windward of the wreck and threw a line to her. The boat dropped to the port side of the trawler, where she lay with her stern close in under the foremast. She rose and fell eight feet in the swell as the sailors struggled to take the remaining five trawlermen from the wreck. Eventually, all the crew members were saved and the Newburgh lifeboat set off once more for the safety of the shore. The Peterhead lifeboat arrived at the scene, after struggling for 22 miles against the gale, shortly after the men had been rescued. A total of seven men were saved from the wreck.
Prince rewards bravery
The story of the rescue of the crew of the Imperial Prince was told at the centenary meeting of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, held in London in June 1924. In the presence of His Royal Highness Prince Edward, His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London and many other dignitaries, the Deputy Secretary of the Institution accounted for the rescue of the Imperial Prince and described it as the outstanding service of 1923.
As a result of the gallant efforts of the sailors from Vampire and Vendetta. The Lords of the Admiralty showed their appreciation by promoting Petty Officer Essam in rank and each of the eleven ratings was given six months seniority of service, including Able Seaman Locke. At the centenary ceremony, Prince Edward presented the Institution’s silver medal to Coxswain John Innes and the bronze medal to his son James who was the Bowman. Petty Officer Essam, of HMS Vampire, was also awarded the Institute’s silver medal.
A special letter of thanks was sent to the women of Newburgh for their part in hauling their lifeboat seven miles along the sands. Each of the eleven naval ratings was awarded the RNLI’s certificate of thanks, inscribed on vellum and signed by the Prince of Wales.
Leslie Locke commenced his time in the Royal Navy on 10th January 1922 for a period of 12 years. He served on the Vampire, as a rating from 16th November 1922 to 5th June 1924. He was an ordinary seaman and then an Able Seaman. In February 1924, his naval record was endorsed with ‘awarded six months additional seniority in rating … for advancement purposes for rescue … of trawler Imperial Prince by men of Vampire and Vendetta …’
The Prince of Wales later became King Edward VIII, until his abdication following the constitutional crisis of 1936 when announced his intention of marrying the American divorcee Mrs Simpson.
This article was compiled with the assistance of the rescue records Department of the RNLI in 1992 and drew on records left by the late Leslie Locke.
The centenary meeting, The Lifeboat, June 1924, pp 135 – 159.
The Lifeboat Service in Scotland: Station by Station by Nicholas Leach, 2013, Amberley Publishing.
[This is an amended version of a story I wrote that was published in issue 2 of Family News, June 1992. It was later published on my family tree blog in February 2017]