S.V. Lawhill: A Dundonian ‘Windjammer’

side view

On Wednesday 24th August 1892 a brand-new ship slid effortlessly down the slip-ways of the ‘Caledon Shipbuilding and Engineering Co.’ yard of Messrs. W.B. Thompson & Co, Dundee (around 250 yds. From HMS Unicorn’s present berth). Her build designation was ‘steel sailer no.112’. She was a steel hulled, four masted barque and named Lawhill – after the 571 ft. hill which dominates Dundee’s skyline.

She was of 6,400 tonnes displacement, 382 ft (116.4m) in length overall, 45ft (13.7m) on the beam, a draught of 24.4 ft (7.4.m) and rigged in the ‘bald headed‘ style – in layman’s terms five square sails each on her three foremost masts and all rising to the same height, giving a total sail area of 43,060 sq.ft (4000.00 sq.m) which afforded her and her 25 – 30 man crew a top speed of around 17 knots (31 km/h).     

Although built for the jute trade – bringing raw jute from the Indian sub-continent to Dundee for processing in the city’s many jute mills, S.V. (Sailing Vessel) Lawhill made just two passages carrying jute before switching to the transport of coal & kerosene to the far east as steam propulsion had made the transport of jute under sail uneconomical.

On 31st August 1899, Lawhill was sold to the ‘Anglo American’ oil company and command was given to Captain John C.B. Jarvis of Dundee – inventor of the eponymous brace winch. At the point of sale, she was able to boast load capacities of 4,474 tonnes of coal, 22,888 balls of jute, or 118,500 cases of oil.

front view

After a rather uneventful 11 years under the stewardship of ‘Anglo American’, the ship was sold on to ‘George Windram & Co. Ltd’ of Liverpool on 13th February 1911 for £5000, an indifferent career ensued until she was purchased by August Troberg of Finland in July 1914 who paid 215,000 Finnish marks, around £8,500 for her. All voyages under Troberg ownership – carrying grain from Australia were profitable and trouble-free, earning the ship the sobriquet ‘Lucky Lawhill’.

By 1917 however, intensive U-boat activity made any sea voyage potentially hazardous so when she sailed into Brest to discharge her cargo of wheat in May that year French authorities immediately impounded her for her own safety.       

Whilst still impounded Troberg sold Lawhill in October 1917 to his cousin, the famous Finnish shipping magnate Gustaf Erikson for a reported 2.5 million Finnish marks, around £77,000! Unfortunately for Erikson on 7th March 1918 – before he could ready her for sea and secure a cargo, Finland became an ally of Germany and his new acquisition was officially requisitioned by France. Finally, after Armistice and much haggling, Lawhill was released to Erikson’s custody on 8th January 1919.

So it was that Lawhill returned to her regular duties – runs to Australia, returning with cargoes of wheat under Captain Karl Reuben De Cloux, but on 1st October 1932 a calamity occurred, whilst sailing through the Kattegat (waters between Denmark and South-Eastern tip of Sweden) when she rammed and sank the Polish steamer SS Niemen (3,107 tonnes).

The final stage of Lawhill’s active life was under South African auspices. on August 21st, 1941, she was in East London (South Africa) with a cargo of Jarrah railway sleepers when Finland was invaded by Russia – thereby making Finland part of the Axis Alliance and consequently Lawhill was again an enemy vessel. She was subsequently formally confiscated by the South African government in April 1942 as a ‘prize of war’ and utilised by the S.A. railways and harbour administration for various duties during the war. She remained in the South African government’s hands until 1946 when she was sold by the custodian of enemy property to a syndicate of South African businessmen for £9000.

After a period of mixed fortunes, she was sold for the penultimate time in September 1948 to a Portuguese owner – Mario De Silva of Lourengo Marques (Mozambique). However, on closer inspection her condition was found to be much worse than could be determined with a quick survey and repairs were thought to be beyond the means of her new custodians.

The decrepit old ship was then towed upriver to the confluence of the Tembe, Umbeluzi, and Matola rivers to become a complete derelict. The now sadly rotten hulk was finally purchased by Joaquim Fernandez Coelho for scrap in 1959 and broken up where she had lain for the last 11 years, the final destination of her parts being Kobe, Japan. An ignominious, inglorious end for the last working windjammer built in Britain.       

Written by Justin Dempster