MV Derbyshire – 40 years on

Wednesday 9 September 2020 is the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the MV Derbyshire, with the loss of her 42 crew and 2 wives. MV Derbyshire is the biggest British registered merchant ship ever to have been lost at sea.

Article Featured Image

Sunset from the Derbyshire. Courtesy of Paul Lambert

Thinking back over the 40 years, it seems incredible that so much time has passed. It still feels as though it was only last year, last month, or even last week that the MV Derbyshire was lost after encountering Typhoon Orchard. I can still remember everything that happened when we were first told that Bibby's (the owners of Derbyshire) had lost contact with her - the details are so vivid.

I was only 28 years old when the MV Derbyshire was lost, on 9 September 1980. That day changed my life so much, my brother never came home. It also changed the lives of all the families who had lost their loved ones and life would never be the same.

Peter Lambert

Peter Lambert, Paul's brother, was 19 years old when he was lost. Courtesy of Paul Lambert

People say ‘time is a great healer’, but it’s not. Time may help, but it never heals.

So much has happened over the last 40 years. We held a memorial service every year at Liverpool Parish Church (known as St Nick’s - the Seafarers’ Church). It was a time for the Derbyshire families to meet and keep in touch and St Nick’s always laid on tea and cakes - such an emotional day. After the 25th anniversary we changed to having the memorial service every 5 years.

Campaigning for the truth

The MV Derbyshire campaign was so important to all the families, not only to find out the truth of why she was lost and 44 loved ones never came home, but to enhance the safety of merchant ships.

We found out, through the work and investigation of Captain Dave Ramwell who worked with the families, that between 1972 to 1990, one bulk carrier sank every six weeks with total loss of life. Seafarers were being sent to their deaths and no one cared, nothing was done about this by those who should have been taking care of their seafarers - governments, the shipping industry, the International Maritime Organisation.

We cared and we set about doing something about it.

Derbyshire Families Association members outside Downing Street

Members of the Derbyshire Family Association pictured outside Downing Street on 14 December 1990. The group includes Paul Lambert (on the right), Chairman of the DFA, Eddie Loyden MP (centre with hat) and John Prescott MP, then the Opposition Spokesman for Transport.

After 20 years of campaigning we eventually got a re-opened formal investigation into the cause of the loss of the MV Derbyshire, ordered by the John Prescott, then the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Secretary of State for Transport.

John Prescott (now Lord Prescott) also allowed the Derbyshire families to choose our own legal and technical team of experts so we, at last, would now be on a level playing field with the other interested parties - we did and got the best.

The re-opened inquiry held before High Court Judge Sir Anthony Colman in the High Court completely exonerated the crew of any blame, and complimented them for the safety regime that they put in place around the deck cracking at Frame 65. The failure of the mushroom ventilators on the bow led to water flooding in, leaving MV Derbyshire increasingly vulnerable to a hatch breaking wave - when it came, that was the start of the her sinking.

The story of the Derbyshire Family Association's campaign to discover the truth about the sinking of MV Derbyshire is told in the new Life on Board gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum.

large container ship at sea

MV Derbyshire. Copyright HMSO, reproduced with kind permission

Improvements to ship safety

What about safety? Well, the families, as well as the other parties involved in the inquiry, were invited by the Judge to put forward any recommendations that they believed would make ships safer - we put 25 recommendations forward through our experts.

There were 22 recommendations that came out of the re-opened inquiry to greatly improve ship safety, with 21 being implemented. They included the compulsory fitting of a black box to all merchant ships and higher-grade hatch covers to be fitted to all new bulk carriers built after 2007.

These changes meant we could look to safer ships in the future, to seafarers' lives being saved and families being spared the trauma we had all experienced. If one life has been saved, everything everyone went through would be worth it.

You know, I honestly believe that the MV Derbyshire tried her best to protect her crew. Every time her head would go down into the waves, she would fight to raise her head to try and stay afloat. She would do this time and time again until she was too tired, her bow and Hold No 1 finally so heavy with the sea filling them up that she could not fight anymore and would start to slowly sink beneath the waves, taking all hands with her.

Vital support

I am so grateful to so many friends, experts and everyone who stood by us for many years, there are too many to name. It was only because of their support that we got the truth of why the MV Derbyshire was lost, why 44 loved ones never came home.

Their support and commitment has helped save thousands of seafarers’ lives, we owe them all so much, God bless them all. They have helped the families to get some peace of mind. They showed that support again at the memorial service two years ago, when more than 500 people came together to see the MV Derbyshire memorial be unveiled at St Nick’s. I only wish I could thank them all one by one.

Group photo by the Derbyshire memorial

Unveiling the Derbyshire memorial at St Nick's on 15 September 2018: (from left to right) Paul Lambert MBE, Maria Eagle MP, Captain David Creamer - retired ex-Bibby master, Ronnie Cunningham - Assistant General Secretary of Nautilus International, Lord Prescott. Courtesy of Paul Lambert