Ships Monthly magazine takes a nostalgic look back at the classic freighters era, and some of the ships that dominated international trade during the decades immediately after WW2.
Back in the classic freighters era, multiple examples of these industrious ships could be spotted all around the UK, but particularly in the major ports of London, Liverpool and Glasgow. Such vessels reached their zenith during the in the years following the Second World War, before containerisation arrived to revolutionise the transportation of freight around the world. The Royal Docks in London had as many as 40 freighters a day at times during the 1950s and ‘60s, which would have been on worldwide cargo services, carrying products such as wool, hides, fruit, meat and timber for the home market.
The freighters usually had accommodation for up to 12 passengers and, before the jet age, for many passage on these ships represented the only way to reach destinations in South America, Africa and the Middle and Far East. Ellerman Lines, for instance, had a fleet of more than 70 ships during the 1960s, Blue Funnel operated over 50 and Blue Star Line had over 40. What’s more, these three are just a handful of the many, well-known British companies operating at that time.
Loading and discharging was often slow away from home ports, with the ships’ derricks working both sides, loading cargo into barges at an anchorage, or on to a small jetty. Loading meat on the Australian coast during the height of the summer could only start after dark, as the hatches were sealed during the day to ensure refrigerated temperatures were maintained.
Cargo was loaded at four or five ports along the coast, and it could be up to five weeks before ships left Australian waters, giving young crew members a way to see the world. British ships were traditionally built in British yards, with companies often giving repeat orders to their preferred builders, such as William Doxford, Armstrong Whitworth, Swan Hunter and Bartram & Sons.
The best-run companies would always take pride in the appearance of their ships, and kept them well maintained so that, when they appeared on sales lists, they were often snapped-up by Greek owners for further service. A well-built and properly-maintained British ship would give service for at least three years with little or no further maintenance and, by limiting the number of crew, the ships became much more profitable to operate.
But with air travel reducing flight times from the 1960s onwards, and containerisation taking over cargo trades in the 1970s, the great freighters disappeared from European waters. They were then only to be found working in the Middle and Far East, where they traded for many years, often under British ownership. So it is now that, rather sadly, the era of the great freighter is long gone.
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