Monday, October 16, 2017

The Inner Isles Mail Part 3 - Questions in the House

Part 2 here.

After the First World War (I don't know the exact year: I've seen 1920 but also suggestions it was earlier), the mail routes from Oban to the islands were rearranged.

The Oban, Tobermory, Coll, Tiree and Bunessan run was abandoned and Coll & Tiree were added to the calls of the Castlebay & Lochboisdale steamer. The latter left Oban on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and now terminated at Lochboisdale and returned to Oban the following day via the same calls instead of continuing to Lochmaddy and Dunvegan and returning via Pooltiel, Bracadale (on the west coast of Skye) and the Small Isles: it was, in effect, a return to the pattern between 1886 and 1891. (North Uist and the Small Isles would henceforth be served by the Harris steamer which was also relocated from Portree to Mallaig and Kyle while calls on the west coast of Skye were abandoned.)

The Cygnet (II) at Oban - scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 2nd ed. credited to McIsaac & Riddle

The vessel employed on the Oban - Lochboisdale service - now known as "the Inner Isles Mail" - was the Cygnet (II) pictured above. She was a near sister of her immediate predecessor on the run, the Plover (III), which now operated "the Outer Isles Mail" from Mallaig and Kyle to Harris, Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale and the Small Isles. It's the angled derrick aft of the foremast visible in the pictures above and below which distinguishes the Cygnet from the Plover (whose derrick was attached to the foremast as you can see here):-

The Cygnet (II) approaching Gott Bay Pier, Tiree
The Cygnet came in for a fair bit of stick in the 1920s with questions even being asked in the House of Commons about her suitability: this one in 1925 is revealing:-

Mr Westwood [MP for Peebles] asked the Secretary for Scotland if he is aware of the primitive accommodation provided for passengers on the Royal Mail Steamship "Cygnet"; that there is only sheltered accommodation for about one dozen persons; and that passengers crossing from the mainland to the island of Barra are exposed to winds, waves, and rain; and, in view of the subsidy of £14,000 provided in the Scottish Estimates for the Hebridean steamer service, what action does he propose taking with a view to having this out-of-date canal boat service replaced by a suitable passenger service?

The Secretary for Scotland (Sir John Gilmour): I am informed that this vessel holds a passenger certificate issued by the Board of Trade, 66 first-class and 91 third-class passengers. Of this number the first-class passengers all have sheltered accommodation and shelter is available for 24 of the third-class passengers. I am informed that the owners are taking steps to improve the sheltered accommodation for third-class passengers. My right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General and I are at present examining generally the question of the Hebridean steamer services, including representations which have been made as to the vessels employed. 

Westwood's reference to the Cygnet being a "canal boat" shows he had been misinformed: it was the Cygnet (I) (1848-82) which had been designed to be able to pass through the Crinan Canal. In fact, in another parliamentary intervention (here), the MP even gets the canal wrong, referring to the Cygnet (II) having been built for service on the Forth & Clyde canal: she hadn't been built for any canal which all just goes to show there's nothing new about politicians pontificating about things they don't really know much about!

The Cygnet (II) at Oban

The mail contract was due for renewal in 1928 and the Government secured agreement from MacBrayne's to build two new ships, one for the Stornoway Mail service and the other for the Outer Isles Mail. The incumbent vessel on the latter route, the Plover (III), would replace the Cygnet on the Inner Isles Mail: despite the two being quasi-sisters, this was thought to be an improvement, perhaps because, unlike the Plover, the Cygnet had been built primarily as a cargo steamer and only adapted for passenger use after the War. In the longer term, MacBrayne's undertook to build a new ship for the Inner Isles Mail if they obtained the next mail contract in five years time. But if the Government was satisfied with that, Parliament wasn't: the House of Commons refused to ratify the contract and remitted the issue to a Select Committee to report (read the debate here).  The picture below is of the Plover so if she was considered an improvement on the Cygnet, it's perhaps understandable why she came in for such criticism!

On board the Plover (III) - I have it recorded I found this photo on Shipsnostalgia but can't now find it there to link a proper credit: if anyone recognises the picture as their's, please let me know so I can give due accreditation or remove it if preferred.

Meanwhile, MacBrayne's intimated their intention to withdraw their services altogether from 31 October 1928 so the Select Committee brokered a deal whereby MacBrayne's would (in effect) be taken over and recapitalised by a joint venture between the LMS Railway Company and Coast Lines Ltd, one of Britain's biggest coastal shipping companies. A revised mail contract was drawn up (although by now, "mail contract" was little more than a fig leaf for public subsidy for what would nowadays be called "lifeline services") providing for a new ship for the Inner Isles Mail as well as the Outer Isles and Stornoway and this was approved by Parliament (although not until after a division on an amendment concerning the size and speed of the proposed Stornoway steamer: read the full debate here).

The ships built for the Outer and Inner Isles Mail services were the identical twin sisters Lochmor and Lochearn respectively which entered service in 1930.

The Lochearn at Castlebay - from 1929 to (I think) 1932 MacBrayne's ships bore a grey hull as seen here.

The characteristically starchy description of the Lochearn and her sister by Duckworth & Langmuir in "West Highland Steamers" is worth quoting in full:-

The two ships were built at Ardrossan, and in profile are different from anything we have dealt with so far. With straight stems, exceptionally ugly cruiser sterns, two masts, and single funnels, the vessels were quite imposing; but the tout ensemble is not pleasing, largely on account of the insufficient rake of masts and funnels and the form of the latter. Viewed from forward the ships look well; but as broadside and aft views are obtained, their aspect becomes progressively worse, until when seen from aft they are definitely ugly. This was rarely the case with the old ships. We have heard statements to the effect that the Lochearn and Lochmor are like a pair of models bought at a toy shop, and this is frankly not far from the truth with respect to their external appearance! The best way of making it impossible to ascertain what a ship looks like in the water is to go on board, and this is what the vast majority of passengers do because it is of interest only to a very few individuals of odd habits - like ourselves - to know how the vessel appears!

Having arrived on board a whole host of pleasant surprises is at hand - particularly if the traveller retains vivid memories of the older ships on the route - because without fear of contradiction it can truthfully be stated that the passenger accommodation in both classes, bearing in mind the size of the vessels, is very good.

Within the limits of a little over 500 tons a total of 400 passengers could be carried. This was the extreme permissible figure and of course berthing facilities for such a number are not possible. The first-class cabins provided are on two decks, and were very well laid out with really comfortable bunks, reading lamps, and both hot and cold running water. For a passage of one or at most two nights on board nothing more could be desired. We refrain deliberately from employing that overwrought and much abused word "luxury". It has been boiled to rags, and now means in travel literature anything or nothing.

The public rooms comprise a dining room with separate small tables, a lounge, and a smoking room, all tastefully and comfortably furnished. All this accommodation is amidships and was repeated on a plainer scale for third-class passengers aft. The latter accommodation is perhaps the more striking of the two as far as comparison with the old ships is concerned. All the sanitary arrangements and equipment are excellent. Another important and highly necessary feature is the provision of ample covered-in deck space, again for both classes of traveller. In these two ships passengers who have not already made their acquaintance will find a revelation awaiting them in travel to and from the Hebrides.

* * *

The Lochearn and the Lochmor are very difficult to tell apart except that the Lochearn's funnel was slightly taller. Both ships had their funnels shortened early in their careers - more than once, I think - but the Lochearn's remained taller each time. In the picture below of the two at Lochboisdale, the Lochearn is lying outside (on the right):-

Next episode here.

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