Remembering the loss of the Alfred H Read pilot boat, 1917

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The Alfred H. Read pilot boat. From the Norman Morrison Collection, National Museums Liverpool.

Since the Liverpool Pilots Service was created in 1766, the pilots have risked their lives on a daily basis to ensure the safe passage of ships to and from Liverpool.  There are many tales of bravery where a pilot’s actions have saved lives and cargo from disaster.  Unfortunately there are also tales of tragedy, where the Pilot Service laments the loss of one (or many) of their own.  On 28 December 2017, it will be the 100 year anniversary of the worst disaster to befall the Liverpool Pilots.  This was the loss the Alfred H Read pilot boat in 1917. 

Robert Taggart, one of the pilots on the Alfred H. Read. From the Norman Morrison Collection, National Museums Liverpool.

In the First World War, Liverpool was a key strategic port, with hundreds of convoys sailing to and from the city.  This meant the port was targeted by German U-boats, who attacked shipping with torpedoes and by laying mines in the approaches to Liverpool.  The River Mersey was largely blacked out and ships lights and navigational aids much reduced.  So the role of the pilots, already a dangerous one, was made even more perilous with these temporary war time conditions.  They faced death every minute and every hour they were at sea.

The Alfred H Read pilot boat had a duel role during the war. She acted as a pilot boat, but was also used by the Royal Navy Examination Service, screening ships at the Mersey Bar before they were allowed to enter Liverpool waters.  This meant that in addition to her usual contingent of crew and pilots, there were extra wartime crew on board – Marconi wireless operators, Examination Officers and Royal Garrison Artillery army signallers.

Edgar Stephen Freeman, one of the pilots on Alfred H. Read. From the Norman Morrison Collection, National Museums Liverpool.

On the night of 28 December, 1917, the Alfred H Read was on duty at the Mersey Bar. It is likely that most of the pilots on board would have been asleep, awaiting the arrival of inward bound ships. It was a bitterly cold but clear night, with a fresh breeze and choppy sea. At about 3.15am in the night, the ship struck a mine that had been laid by a U-boat.  Pilot boat no.3 Queen Victoria was half a mile away, and her crew heard the huge explosion. The lights of the Alfred H Read had disappeared. The Queen Victoria hastened to her location, but in just a short few minutes, the Alfred H Read had sunk; only the top of her main mast was visible above the waterline.

The Queen Victoria picked up three survivors. These were junior Marconi Radio Officer Edward Becket (who had been in the temporary radio shack on the top deck of the pilot boat) and pilot apprentice (also know as a boathand) John Sweetman. Boathand Alf Davies was picked up but sadly later died.

John Lewis, one of the Masters of the Alfred H. Read. From the Norman Morrison Collection, National Museums Liverpool.

Tragically, everyone else on board lost their lives. Most sources list 39 men. From the pilot service, this included 19 pilots (including the two ships masters), eight boathands, two engineers, three firemen, and the cook. The Royal Navy personnel lost included two Examination Officers, two Signallers, and two Marconi radio operators. It is possible that there was an additional Marconi radio operator on board, which would make 40 lost lives.

The Pilot Service had its own Benevolent fund – for instances where a pilot died in service, so they could provide some money to the pilot’s widow and family. Such a huge disaster like this (The Liverpool Pilots Service suffered the worst wartime losses of any pilot service in the country in the First World War) and the financial implication was such that there was not the funds to cover all those affected. But in a mark of the respect to which the pilot service was held locally, over £5000 pounds (the equivalent of over £200,000 today) was raised from local ship owners which allowed all the families to receive assistance.

The Liverpool Pilots have always remembered this tragedy. There is a memorial to those lost in the offices of the modern day service. This was displayed in the Liverpool Pilots exhibition In safe hands at Merseyside Maritime Museum in 2016-2017. There is also a memorial to the disaster in New Brighton near to Fort Perch Rock.

On 28 December 2017, The Liverpool Pilots community will gather at St James Church, New Brighton at 3pm to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the disaster. The Liverpool Pilots Service invites anyone with a connection to the pilot service, especially any relatives of those lost, to attend.

Part of the 'In Safe Hands' pilots display at the Maritime Museum, which finished earlier this year, featuring the Alfred H Read memorial from the Liverpool Pilots office.

The address of the church is St James Church, Albion Street, New Brighton, CH45 9LF.

It seems apt to finish this blog with the well used passage from ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon:

"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."