1960: Four died as navy liberty boat collided with ferry in harbour

Evening News staff photographers photo of the Gosport ferry with the stricken craft (right) alongside.
Evening News staff photographers photo of the Gosport ferry with the stricken craft (right) alongside.
Funnells horse-drawn wagonettes outside Clarence Pier, Southsea, in the early 2000s.

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Iwonder if there are any readers who witnessed an incident in May 1960 when the Isle of Wight ferry MV Brading collided with a navy liberty boat, an incident which claimed four lives?

The liberty boat was crossing Portsmouth Harbour from HMS Dolphin, Gosport, to HMS Vernon (now Gunwharf Quays)at 5.45pm on (ominously) Friday, May 13.

The MV Brading leaving Portsmouth Harbour for Ryde. Where the crew member is in blue shirt in the bows is where Mike was at the time of the collision.

The MV Brading leaving Portsmouth Harbour for Ryde. Where the crew member is in blue shirt in the bows is where Mike was at the time of the collision.

It was fully loaded with an estimated 35 people plus the crew. There were some naval personnel on board, but most were civilian workers on their way home.

The skipper of the liberty boat, Walter Anderson of Drayton Road, North End, told a reporter he was trying to avoid a yacht which was preparing to go about. He tried to keep clear but the next thing he knew Brading’s bow was looming down on him followed by almighty crash.

The liberty boat’s stern was almost severed from the for’ard part but remained afloat.

On board Brading was 17-year-old Mike Nolan, now of Wymering but at the time living with his parents in Rose Lane off Broad Street, Old Portsmouth.

Mike Nolan

Mike Nolan

Mike was in the bows acting as look-out. He told me: ‘At that time it was still a regulation that there had to be a look-out in the bows of ships.

‘We left Portsmouth Harbour for Ryde and made our way towards the harbour mouth. There was a strong tide flowing outward from the harbour.

‘I was keeping a sharp eye as we were travelling at quite a rate with the tide when I saw the liberty boat ahead of us.

‘I turned and called to the captain on the bridge. I can remember seeing him talking to two other crew members and was not paying attention. I waved my arms and screamed at him ‘stop the boat, stop the boat’ but it was pointless.

‘At the last second he saw me waving and put the telegraph into reverse but it was all far too late.

‘I went back to my position and looked over the bow just as we hit the boat. Most of the passengers had run forward and many had leapt into the water.

‘I saw one man on the deck in front of me drop to his knees and then we hit him and he disappeared from view. It still affects me to this day.’

The 837-ton, 48ft wide ferry hit the liberty boat almost but not quite cutting her in half.

Because of the speed and the tide the liberty boat was pushed as far as the Round Tower before it was released from the bows of Brading.

The noise from the collision echoed across the harbour and within minutes rescue boats from HMS Vernon and HMS Dolphin were alongside picking up survivors. A nearby ocean-racing yacht changed course to help.

The Gosport ferry, Ferry Princess, had just tied up at Gosport. The skipper was F Barker and the mate G Dine.

Mr Dine told the Evening News that as soon as they heard the crash they headed towards the incident. ‘By the time we arrived most of those who were in the water had been rescued. We managed to get a line to the liberty boat and we kept her jogging along as we did not know how serious the damage was.’

Submariner David Holbrook, from HMS Dolphin, told a reporter: ‘I was port side amidships. Somebody joked ‘‘He’d better step on it’’ when we saw the steamer coming. Then it was on us. I managed to hold on and pulled two chaps from the water.’

Mike adds: ‘We stopped of course, but were told to continue our journey to Ryde. On our return the captain was taken off duty but no one else.’

An inquest was held in the Guildhall where it was felt there was a 60-40 blame, the captain of Brading coming off better.

In all there were four deaths – two drownings and two people who were never found.

Mike continued working on the boats for another eight years but shift work did not suit a young married man so he changed jobs.