Viola-Dias, War, Distant Waters and the Hull Fishing Industry in Both World Wars

Deep in the South Atlantic at the deserted whaling station of Grytviken in South Georgia lies one of Hull’s most famous steam trawlers. The Viola was launched in 1906 and is today the oldest surviving steam trawler in the world with its steam engines still intact. On 4th September, 1914, just a few weeks after the start of the First World War this little ship and its crew of Hull trawlermen sailed off to play their part defending the sea lanes around Britain from enemy attack. Over ninety years later, it has yet to return to its home port from that voyage.

A classic photograph of Viola/Dias and Albatross lying semi-submerged at Grytviken ©2002

The Viola was launched at Cooke, Welton and Gemmell’s shipyard on the banks of the River Hull at Beverley for the Hellyer Steam Fishing Company in 1906. The vessel was then floated down the river to Hull where it was fitted with steam engines built by the famous firm of Amos & Smith. The trawler was 108 feet long and 174 gross registered tonnage. Like most of the Hellyer fleet of the time she was built with an open bridge abaft (behind) the funnel. Almost every vessel Charles Hellyer built was named after a Shakespearian character: He was very keen on Shakespeare and even named one of his sons Orlando.

By the early 1900s the Hellyer family were probably the biggest trawler owning firm in Hull, if not the world. Like a number of other Hull trawling pioneers, the Hellyer family had come to Hull from the south coast. Robert Hellyer had moved to Hull from Brixham in the 1850s and by the end of the 1870s he and his sons owned many sailing trawlers, known as smacks. During the 1880s Robert and his son Charles began replacing their old sail powered smacks with steam trawlers and reorganised their company affairs to make the most of the new business trends.

In those days a number of Hull firms worked their trawlers in what were known as North Sea boxing fleets. These were large fleets of trawlers which trawled intensively on the main North Sea fishing grounds. Each day the boxes of the fish that they caught were transferred to fast steam cutters and taken to market in Billingsgate. The steam trawlers often stayed on the grounds for over five weeks and only returned to Hull when their fuel and food supplies ran low. As some trawlers left the grounds to return to port, they were replaced by other vessels returning refuelled and replenished. There were always trawlers on the grounds so the fleets remained at sea for years, regardless of weather or season. The most difficult job was transferring the fish from trawler to cutter by open boat in all sorts of weather. It was a job which simply had to be done because of the trawler could not transfer its fish whilst fresh the trawler would not earn money for the owners or crew. Such work in such harsh conditions made Hull trawlermen some of the finest seamen in the world: they were much sought after by the likes of Shackleton and later the Admiralty.

In the early twentieth century, the Red Cross, Gamecock and Great Northern boxing fleets already worked out of Hull but in 1905 Charles Hellyer decided to build a completely boxing fleet of his own from scratch. His plan was staggeringly ambitious by contemporary standards and involved the construction of nearly fifty trawlers as well as five steam cutters to carry the fish to port. The whole enterprise was reported to have required an investment of some £320,000, probably a world record for the fishing industry at that time.

Viola started her fishing career in March 1906 and for the next few years was part of the Hellyer Boxing fleet. She and her crews were worked hard. The average length of the Viola’s fishing trips in 1907/8 was 37 days and she was regularly at sea for more than 310 days a year. The fleet worked well out in the North Sea and each trawler transferred its fish on a daily basis to fast steam cutters that ran the catches into London’s Billingsgate Market. A significant part of London’s fish supply came from the Hellyer fleet.

The Great War broke out in August 1914 and the Viola, like many other Hull trawlers, was requisitioned by the Admiralty. She was armed with a 3 pounder gun and sailed off to war the following month. Her skipper for much of most of the war years was Charles Allum whose home was down Rosamond Street in Hull and most of her first crew also sailed out of the port the youngest, Charles Turner of St Andrew’s Street, Hull, was only 15 years old. For more than two years the Viola was based at Shetland and spent a lot of time patrolling between Muckle Flugga and Fair Isle looking for U-boats and escorting vessels. Day after day and week after week she followed a relentless patrol of these northern waters. She was in action against at least one U-boat and on another occasion one of her crew, Thomas Craven, was drowned in Lerwick Harbour. Charles Allum’s wife, .Mary, also followed him up to Lerwick with the family but tragically died there in September 1916. What immediately happened to the Allum children is unsure for a little while later, Charles Allum and the Viola were transferred to the River Tyne. Left in a strange place without mother or father around must have been traumatic in the extreme. What is clear, however, is that Charles and his family had been reunited by 1918 when he remarried in North Shields.

Later in the war, the Viola was armed with a bigger gun, a twelve pounder. Depth charges were deployed for the first time during this war and Viola was among the first to use these. She was also one of the earliest vessels to be fitted with hydrophones, an early electronic listening device. She was certainly in the thick of the action in the later stages of the war. In 1917 she opened fire on a U-boat attacking a merchant ship off the Farne Islands and drove it off after an exchange of fire and was also involved in the rescue of the crew of a French coal barge, the Cognac, which was being driven ashore at Scarborough in a fierce storm. Her skipper, Charles Allum, was mentioned in despatches for these events that year.

Charles Allum took charge of another vessel in January 1918 but the Viola remained on the maritime front line and on the 13th August 1918 the vessel, together with the armed trawlers John Gilman and John Brooker, played a major role in sinking the UB-30 off Whitby, this submarine had already sent at least 17 allied merchant ships to the bottom. The following month she also appears to have been involved with a number or armed trawlers, destroyers and an airship, R27, in the destruction of the Ub-115 off the Northumberland coast. This action is believed to have been the first to have involved the use of an airship in the destruction of a submarine and the Ub-115 was probably the last U-boat sunk in conflict in the North Sea during the Great War.

Hull trawlermen and their vessels played a crucial and often underrated part in both world wars, often at a high cost. During the Great War at least fifteen vessels from the Hellyer fleet were lost to enemy action whilst fishing or on war service. With some many gone, Hellyers decided to sell off the remainder and concentrate on working the distant water grounds off Iceland and the like.

Viola was decommissioned by the Admiralty in 1919, sold to Norway and renamed Kapduen. She was one of the first Norwegian trawlers but a few years later she was converted for whaling and a new bridge was fitted forward of the funnel. In the years that followed she made two major whaling trips down the coast of Africa as part of a larger fleet but these were not a real commercial success and the former trawler, by now named Dias, was laid up in Sandesfjord in Norway.

Things looked a little bleak for the vessel for a while but in 1927 she was sold to Compania Argentina de Pesca Sociedad Anonima, known as Pesca for short. Pesca operated from Grytviken in South Georgia and required a vessel for sealing. The old trawler voyaged down to Grytviken that year to take up her duties. Henceforward, the vessel was used for taking Elephant Seals. This activity was very carefully regulated by the Falkland Islands Government and is one of the few examples of sustainable hunting of sea mammals – in contrast to whaling. The island was split into divisions, one area of which was rested each year. Only adult bulls could be taken and a close season was introduced. As a result, the elephant seal stocks around South Georgia remained viable throughout the whole period they were exploited.

Because of her cargo carrying capacity, Dias was in demand to support expeditions both to South Georgia and the South Atlantic. These included the relief of the Argentine meteorological station at Laurie Island. The round trip from South Georgia to the South Orkneys took around twelve days but depended on ice conditions. On at least one occasion, an earlier attempt by another ship to relieve the weather station had failed but the ex trawler was called in and succeeded in getting through. In some years she would sail to Buenos Aries to take on board expedition personnel.

Dias also assisted in various expeditions to South Georgia. One of the earliest was the Kohl- Larsen Expedition of 1928/9 which took the first cinematographic film of the island. Others included the British South Georgia Expedition under the leadership of the climber George Sutton, biological work carried out by the Falkland Islands Government, the Bird Island Expedition of 1958 and topographical surveys carried out by Duncan Carse, he was an actor as well as explorer and had for a time played the part of Dick Barton, Special Agent, in the successful BBC radio programme of that name. The ex-trawler’s use for such work over many decades must make her one of the longest serving vessels to be involved in South Atlantic expeditions. Many of these were filmed. Around the time of the Kohl-Larsen expedition her then Swedish skipper, Johan Johannesson, located a forgotten harbour bay whilst on a sealing expedition to the inhospitable south west coast; here he found the remains of an old sealing camp. The bay was subsequently named Dias Cove.

In the 1950s her old steam engines were converted to burn oil instead of coal. In 1964/5 the whaling station of Grytviken was closed and Dias, together with the other surviving vessels Petrel and Albatross, was mothballed and laid up. A caretaker looked after them until 1970. During the 1970s, the vessels, settled in the water under the weight of accumulated winter snow. The ex-trawler, although laid up, had an unwitting role in the Falklands War. During the Falklands War, South Georgia was, of course, briefly occupied by Argentina until British forces re-took the island in an action which involved the disabling of the Argentine submarine, Santa Fe, near Grytviken. As a former requisitioned minesweeper/patrol vessel Dias ex-Viola must be virtually the only vessel to have ‘seen action’ in both the Great War and the Falklands War.

The old trawler and two Norwegian steamships, the Petrel and Albatros, lay in the bay, largely abandoned until the early 2000s. The furnace oil leaking from all three vessels threatened to cause problems, some was removed in 2003 but further work was commissioned by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands for the next Austral summer. At the end of January 2004 Dias was floated for the first time in years, along with Albatros which lay alongside her. Afterwards, a channel was dug into the shore in front of where they had lain and both vessels were floated in. A couple of years later, the Viola’s original bell was discovered in Norway, purchased and brought back to Hull. Since then it has been loaned to the museum at Grytviken and reunited with the ship for probably the first time in more than eighty years.

Thus, this most famous of trawlers has been saved from immediate loss but its long term preservation is yet unclear. This unique survivor is a tangible reminder of the role that Hull fishermen and their families played in both twentieth century world wars. Lying on the beach at Grytviken the ex-Hull trawler attracts an increasing amount of interest as its story has become more widely known and as the number of cruise ships and tourists visiting the island during the Austral summer has increased. Its current berth in Cumberland Bay beneath towering snow covered peaks and ice cold seas is a long way in every sense from its birth place at Grovehill, Beverley on the banks of the River Hull.

Ringing out for Remembrance – A ceremony on the former Hull trawler
Source: BBC Humberside

Viola, commemorated the hundreds of fishermen who lost their lives in the two world wars
Source: BBC Humberside

Select Bibliography

Ian B. Hart, Pesca: A History of the Pioneer Modern Whaling Company in the Antarctic (UK: Aiden Ellis, 2001)

Robb Robinson and Ian B. Hart, ‘Viola/Dias: The Working Life and Contexts of the Steam Trawler/Whaler and Sealer’ in Mariner’s Mirror, (August 2003)

Michael Thompson, Dave Newton, Richard Robinson & Tony Lofthouse, Cook, Welton & Gemmell (UK: Hutton Press, 1999)

On-line References

www.viola-dias.org