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  • Writer's picturePaul Whittle


Whilst the Bristol Channel trade was being developed, material was being dredged in Liverpool area by Richard Abel & Sons Ltd of Runcorn & William Cooper & Sons Ltd. of Widnes. In the early days of their involvement in the aggregate dredging trade, these two companies used grab dredgers and suction dredgers with and assortment of tugs, self propelled and dumb barges being integral to their sand dredging operations. Both static (dredging whist at anchor) dredging and trailing (dredging with a suction pipe as the vessel moved slowly over the surface of the sea bed) dredging was undertaken, with static dredging be phased out in later years.

The barges or sand carriers would secure alongside the dredgers and be loaded by the dredger’s grab or hydraulically via a discharge pipe carrying saturated sand from the dredgers hold.

Whilst not dredgers, given the essential roll they played in the Mersey’s aggregate dredging industry, a number of sand carriers / hopper barges and related tugs are included in the account of vessels engaged in the trade in this area of the United Kingdom.

The Cooper dredgers would load off New Brighton, for Pomona dock Manchester, West Bank Dock Widnes, Canning & Albert Docks in Liverpool (the sand silos could be seen from the Mersey), and Warrington at the entrance to the Manchester Ship Canal


William Cooper & Sons purchased the 41metre long steam driven “sand grabber” Grinkle in 1926. In a “great storm” on Friday 17th February 1928 she loaded a cargo of 400tons on Eastham Sands which was largely used by Pilkington Bros. of St Helens in the manufacture of Glass. She was en route to West Bank Dock at Widnes when she foundered off the Oglet where she was found lying on her side partly submerged the following day. Her engine room telegraph was at “Full Speed Ahead” and both her lifeboats were missing, as were all six members of her crew, including her engineer Isaac Rathbone and his 38year old son John. Tragically, 13 years before a daughter of Issac Rathbone perished when the RMS Lusitainia was sunk by a German submarine. Another crew member lost was 49 year old Ashley Yates who had been working on Cooper’s sand vessels for some 13 years. He had previously sailed on the steam flat Sandmail & Severn having left both a week before they were involved in serious accidents. The Sandmail herself was lost with her crew of three on 23rd February 1923 when en route from Brunswick Dock, Liverpool to Widnes with a cargo of sand.


Richard Abel’s purchase of ss Romulus in 1930 from Bristol Sand & Gravel Co. Ltd; Launched on Christmas Eve 1885 at the Beverley yard of Cochrane, Hamilton, Cooper & Schofield as a Hull fishing vessel. She was acquired by Bristol Sand & Gravel in 1921 who converted her to a suction dredger. She was broken up in 1939.


In 1935 R.Abel & Sons purchased the 1879 built 46mtr No1 Hopper from the North Eastern Railway Company of Hull. She was converted to a suction dredger, re-named ss Monsaldale and worked in the Mersey area until broken up at Preston in 1967.

SS Monsaldale

Many of cargoes were for ships’ ballast with the dredged sand also going to builders merchants. The hopper barges would secure alongside the dredgers William Cooper & John Henry Cooper moored in the Mersey which would load them by way of a hydraulic (wet) discharge if it was fine sand or grab if the material was less fine. The hoppers would pump out the water in the cargo thereby leaving the sand cargo dry by the time they arrived alongside at the likes of Pomona Docks up the Manchester Ship Canal.


Tom Kelly’s account of his time on Cooper’s sand carrier 1937 built Elizabeth Cooper, recorded in Euan Corrie’s “Tales from the Old Inland Waterways”, gives an insight into conditions on board in the late 1930’s when Tom was a teenager “….I went to Coopers carrying sand. We heard they wanted men and it was about £4 to £5 a week, which was a small fortune to us! They carried a lot of sand for ballast for ships during the war……Accommodation was that poor. There was a room for the skipper and one for the engineer and mate but all I had was one of those drop-down chairs. There were only four of us, I was deckhand, cabin lad come everything, me cooking, helping down the engine room and all. With there being only one engineer, when he wanted a spell I used to go down and work the engine controls. We were working all the time on that, with the tides. Sometimes I’d get home on a Friday night and then sleep all weekend, only being sixteen or seventeen at the time, and all the hours we worked that was. It’d be late Saturday afternoon before I’d come too, like. My parents made me come off it because of those hours. Billy Cooper he kept men at it, he was a bit greedy with it.”

The 227gt, 100ft long sand carrier / hopper Elizabeth Cooper was launched at Cochrane & Sons Ltd Selby yard on 11th May 1937. In the 1960’s she was in collision with the 1334gt sludge ship Mancunian which caused the death of one of the Elizabeth Cooper’s crew. It’s not known if this collision resulted in the “Lizzie” being scrapped but she was no longer registered in 1965.


On Saturday 28thApril 1883 the coal burning steam hopper No2 was launched at the Port Glasgow yard of Murdoch & Murray. The 461gt 46mtr long iron hulled No 2 was to pass through a number of owners until 1939 when Richard Abel & Sons Ltd acquired her. Re-named ss Bretherdale, as with the Monsadale, she was converted as a suction dredger with a single crane forward for loading barges which were towed out to them by Able’s tugs. Both ships also loaded sand carriers / hoppers hydraulically by the pipe seen in photographs in way of their bridge superstructure pipe.


William Cooper acquired steam driven hopper barge 39 in 1939 lengthened her and converted her to a grab dredger named Alpha. Launched on 7th August 1890 at T.A.Walker’s Sudbrook yard on the banks of the River Severn the 401gt twin screwed hopper barge 39 was lengthened by 6mtrs when converted to a bucket dredger and traded until 20th August 1962 when she arrived at T.W. Ward’s Preston yard where she was broken up.

Other sand carrying hoppers operated by William Cooper included the 291gt steam driven Emily II launched on 26th June 1933 at Cammell Laird’s Birkenhead yard and thought to have been acquired by Coopers in 1937

Tugs operated by R.Abel & Sons included the Warrendale, Firefly, and Dovetail


Hopper Barge “D” was sunk by a WWII mine in 1945 an account of which reads as follows:-

Hopper Barge “D” 262grt owned by William Cooper & Sons Ltd. On the River Mersey loaded with a cargo of sand at the Eastham Channel the barge left her anchorage at 2330hrs on 15th January 1945 and had been heading for the West Bank Dock, Widnes. The barge never arrived. An extensive search was made and wreckage was eventually discovered three days later just over a mile from Eastham pumping chimney. The wreck damage was found to be consistent of that from an external explosion. The Head Dock Gateman at Eastham informed the inquiry that at about midnight on the 15th January he had been awakened by an explosion. The final conclusion was that the barge had been sunk by an external explosion, probably that of a relic of the blitz three years earlier. The explosion theory was later substantiated when the body of the Chief Mate, 48 year old Robert Murray, was found n the foreshore at Speke, opposite the airport on 25th February, 1945 and the Coroner recorded a verdict of “Death from asphyxia, shock and multiple injuries following an external explosion”.

The other crew members who lost their lives that day were boy rating Eric Booth, 16, 40 year old fireman Michael Brennan, 48 year old Captain Richard Lee and Chief Engineer Albert Rowe, 61.


The first Cooper vessel to be named William Cooper was the 409gt Crewe which had been launched at Ferguson Brothers Port Glasgow yard on the 8th September 1909 for the London & Western Railway Company Ltd. With her named changed at acquisition to William Cooper she traded for a further nine years before being broken up at Passage West in 1957.

An unusual member of the UK’s sand dredging fleet was the S. F. Pearce which started life in 1908 as 213gt three masted steel topsail Marie Linnemann at the Kirch-Hammelwarden yard of C.Luhring in Germany. In 1929 she was fitted with an auxiliary engine and employed almost exclusively carrying Cornish clay to London. By 1940 she had been drastically cut down and was requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport and converted to a towing barge on the Mersey named Weser. After the war William Cooper & Sons Ltd acquired her and converted her into a sand carrier / hopper on the River Mersey where this much travelled and battered lady ended her days in the late 1950’s


In 1949 William Cooper acquired the 1893 built twin screw Hopper No 20 and named her Eric Cooper. Launched at the Paisley yard of Fleming & Ferguson on 13th June 1893 for the trustees of the Clyde Navigation she was sold to James dredging, Towage & Transport Co Ltd in 1921 from whom Coopers purchased her.

Eric Cooper


On 10th October 1952 William Cooper purchased, for use as a sand hopper, the ss Barium and re-named her P.M.Cooper. Launched at the South Shields yard of C. Rennoldson & Co on 14th March 1918 for her owner Imperial Chemical Industries (Alkali Division) Ltd, the 601grt P.M. Cooper arrived at Barrow-in-Furness on 2nd August 1960 where she was broken up by T.W.Ward Ltd.



In 1953 the 1877 built hopper barge No 7 was acquired from the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board, converted to a grab dredger and re-named Saxondale. The Renfrewshire built single screwed Saxondale was originally a coal fired vessel but was converted to diesel some years before she arrived at Troon for breaking up on 6th June 1967.


These purchases were quickly followed, on 27th November 1953, by the acquisition of the 1907 built 450grt ss Aquilla, built by Ailsa Shipbuilders of Troon for Zillah Shipping & Carrying Co Ltd. Renamed Alladale and converted to a suction dredger in 1954 she was sold again in 1956 and spent part the last eleven years of her of her life working in the river Wyre for the Fleetwood Sand & Gravel Company. She went for breaking up at Fleetwood in September 1967. This 60 year old lady had a career to be proud of having been requisitioned by the Admiralty for service in both World Wars as a Requisitioned Auxiliary Pennant number Y4.76. The records show that she arrived in Liverpool from Las Palmas on 3rd January 1914 and was requisitioned for services as a Stores Carrier in December the following year. “On 4th November 1919, under the command of Lieutenant Commander H.H.Lowe RNR, she berthed on Corporation Wharf, Plymouth where, between 4th & 14th November, she discharged 47miles 1,585 yards of cable.” ….On 28th November 1919 “ Entered No12 Dry Dock at Smiths Dock (Middlesbrough)… 1st December 1919 a big crane on the dock wall struck and carried away the topmast. The entire crew were discharged.…5th January 1920 hire by the Admiralty ceased…6th January 1920 handed over by Lieutenant Commander Lowe to owner’s representative”. In June 1941 the Aquilla was once again requisitioned and sailed from Hollyhead on 20th October 1942 in convoy HM45 to Milford Haven arriving the next day. It is also recorded that on 2nd January 1944 Leading Hand Edward Cecil Knox was discharged dead. He is remembered with pride on the Liverpool Memorial. The Aquilla was returned to Zillah Shipping in May 1946 which company was acquired by Coast Lines Ltd for £450,00 three years later.

The hopper barge No 4 was launched at the century old Hebburn yard of Robert Stephenson & Co on the 14th April 1904. Purchased by Richard Abel in 1953 and run as a sand carrier under the name Fylingdale. She was never fitted with electric lights and was sold in 1956 to P.Westhead & Co Ltd of Liverpool after her boiler exploded.


Acquired by William Cooper in 1949 twin screw, 953gt steam drivenMary P. Cooper was returning to Manchester fully loaded when, on March 21 1961, she was in collision, 200 yards east of the Northwich Swing Bridge, with the Ireland bound 403gt Foamville. The Mary P Cooper sank within five minutes and it took nearly six weeks to clear her from the canal and she never traded again. She started life as the grab dredger Owenabuee owned by the Cork Harbour Commissioners for whom she was launched at the Paisley yard of Fleming & Ferguson on 25th November 1896.

In 1955 William Cooper purchased the ss Broomfield re-naming her S.E.Cooper and used her as a sand hopper. Launched on 18th November 1937 at Lytham Shipbuilders the S E Cooper traded until she arrived at Silloth on 15th September 1965 where she was broken up by Ardmore Steel of Cumberland Ltd

Charles Hill launched the Norwest on 6th June in 1955 for Norwest Sand & Gravel. The 586grt Norwest was sold to Timac of Calais who renamed her Couesnon in 1977.


In 1956 Richard Abel & Sons acquired the Kinderdijk built 562gt coal burning ss Laga from London, Midland & Scotting Railway Company. With something of the look of a Clyde puffer about her, she was first run as the Lancaster registered ss Lunesdale sand carrier before eventually being converted to a suction dredger. At the age of 67, the Lunesdale arrivedat Troon on 21st February 1968, where she was broken up. This left the Manchester registered Peakdale as the only coal burning ship still working in the Mersey. Two years later the Peakdale’s departure for the breakers at Dalmuir on the Clyde saw the last coal burner depart the river.




The oil burning twin screwed Rossendale joined the Abel fleet of suction dredgers in 1960. Built as a sailing salvage barge in 1926 at Renfrew for James O’Ingram of Southampton who named her James No 83. When purchased by Harris Barges Ltd, a subsidiary of Richard Abel & Sons, her name was changed to Rossendale. Her large sheer-legs forward which had been used in her roll as a salvage vessel were removed the installed hand steering gear, which proved to be totally impracticable for a vessel which needed to regularly transit the Manchester Ship Canal, replaced with a Donkins Hydraulic Steering Engine. Her open wheelhouse was enclosed at a later date. After Hoveringham took over Richard Abel & Sons in 1964, she was converted to a suction dredger using the Monsadale’s dredge gear when that ship was broken up in 1967. She was kept running during her conversion, working the high tides into Widnes whilst mooring on the low tides to allow her conversion to progress. Five years later the Rossendale herself was sent to the breakers.


ROSSENDALE (en route to the breakers ??)


Launched in 1961 for Norwest Sand & Gravel, the 614grt mv Norstar continued to trade in LiverpoolBay until sent to Liverpool breakers in January 2004.



The 508 gt Kinderdijk built ss Princses Juliana was built for owners K.L.Wzn & Co. in 1910 and acquired by the ManchesterShip Canal company three years later. Purchased in 1962 by Richard Abel & Sons Ltd. she was re-named Peakdale and converted to a suction dredger. She was broken up at Dalmuir by W.H.Arnott Young & Co in 1970.


In 1963 a second ship named ss William Cooper, the ex 772grt Foremost 38 which was launched at the Harfleur yard of CH & At. De La Gironde in March 1925. When purchased by Coopers she was owned by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board who had converted her to a store ship in 1941 and to a grab dredger in 1952 having named her Mersey 37 in 1947. She was finally re-named P.M.Cooper in 1964, the year before the third William Cooper was launched in 1965. P.M. Cooper ended her days at Arnott Young’s breaker’s yard at Dalmuir in 1968.


was built for Brunner Mond in 1910. She was sold to Richard Able & Co in 1963 who rename her CALESDALE. She was broken up in 1967 but was she ever a sand dredger??


Hoveringham Gravels Ltd acquire R. Abel & Sons.

With its roots in land based gravel extraction and formed on 3rd September 1939, the very day Britain entered WW2, Hoveringham Gravels Ltd took its name from the company’s base in Hoveringham near Nottingham where Lord (R.A.B.) Butler, then the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge who owned the land the headquarters were built on, opened the building. After the war, the company was purchased by the Hull based gravel merchant Harold Needler who rapidly expanded they company. Hoveringham quarries were established in many parts of the UK and as far afield as Canada. Needler was Chairman of Hull City Football Club for 30 years from 1945 and gave the club £200,000 of Hoveringham shares when he floated the company in the 1960’s

When, in 1982, the Quarry Products Division of Tarmac acquired Hoveringham Gravels the Hoveringham headquarters were no longer need and the mammoth sculpture by Kim James which stood outside the headquarters was donated Nottingham Trent University where it stands outside the Erasmus Darwin science building today.

The logo of a mammoth seen on the funnels of the Hoveringham ships derives from the finding of a large mammoth tusk found in its quarry in 1953. The mammoth’s association with strength and solidarity was seen to be an appropriate image for a company serving the building and construction industry and was duly adopted as the company’s trading symbol in 1958.


William Cooper & Sons last new building was the third William Cooper which Charles Hill launched at their Albion Yard on 27th April 1965. The 553gt purpose built aggregate dredger had a six cylinder Ruston & Hornsby main engine, was 47.85 metres long and traded until 1976 when she was sold to Danish owners Bent R Nielsen who used her as a cutter suction dredger in the Baltic where, off the German coast, she foundered on 16th September 1978


Having acquired R. Abel & Sons of Runcorn two years before, on 11th Hoveringham Gravels Ltd. launched at Appledore on 11th October 1965, the 897grt Hoveringham I. She was their first purpose built aggregate dredger and the first one to use the drag scraper discharge system which was to be widely copied by the industry.

The Hoveringham I was transferred to United Marine Aggregates Ltd in 1987 who renamed her City of Swansea two years later. In 1994 she went aground in the Bristol Channel after which she was declared a total constructive loss and laid up in Cardiff’s Roath Dock with significant hull damage. Renamed her Bowmore, it appears that she was not traded under this name as, after being repaired at Sharpness, she was laid up in Barry. She was sold to Greek owners in 1996. Registered in Piraeus and named Aeolos, she left the Bristol Channel for the last time on 21st October 1996. In April 2009 she was reported as still being in service around the Greek Islands.




Built as the 499grt Carina she was under the Swedish flag named Ribersborg when Hoveringham Gravels acquired her in 1966 and converted her as the Hoveringham II. Five years later, en route Liverpool Bay to Port Penrhyn on 28th January 1971, she developed a leak, capsized and sank off Puffin Island near the Menai Straits where she remains a popular wreck for divers to explore.

HOVERINGHAM 111 (With thanks to John McMinn for confirming this is the Hoveringham 111 and adding that the "Three Sisters" chimneys were raised to the ground in 1993)

An account of the Hoveringham II’s last hours reads thus: When the Hull dredger Hoveringham II fired a distress flare on the morning of January 28th 1971 RNLI’s boat the Field Marshal and Mrs Smuts was launched at 0900hrs. She found the dredger close to Puffin Island and immediately rescued four of her crew who had taken to a liferaft. A line was secure to the dredger and Coxswain Jones began to tow the vessel to shallow water. Suddenly the dredger began to list alarmingly and it became obvious that se was about to capsize. Coxswain Jones slipped the tow line, took the lifeboat straight alongside the dredger and rescued the remaining three members of the crew, landing them all safely at 1130hrs.


The following year Hoveringham Gravels purchased the 1954 Swedish built, 471grt general cargo ship Gaist and converted her to a suction dredger named Hoveringham III. She traded under that name until sold to Pounds Marine Shipping Ltd in 1980 when her name was changed to Sea Skerry. She went to H.G.Pounds breakers yard in Portsmouth in January 1984.

The 1600ton Norleader was launched 23rd February 1967 at Charles Hill’s yard and traded for Holms Sand & Gravel Co. Ltd. On hire to Westminster Gravels when laid up in the Fal river in 1984. Two years later she was sold to the Westminster company, Northwood Fareham Shipping Ltd who traded her until 1999 when S. Twine of Fareham acquired her and changed her name to Sandleader and traded her in the Solent. She ended her days at Viana Do Castelo in 2003. The Norleader’s design, which reportedly included a speed of 18kts, was not trouble free as her 36inch pump was too powerful for the material found in Liverpool Bay and her troublesome hydraulic discharge was eventually replaced with a deck mounted crane



Appledore SB built Hoveringham Gravel’s next ship the 879grt Hoveringham IV which they launched on 6th March 1969. She was to return to the yard in 1973 to be lengthened by nearly 10mtrs giving her a new gross tonnage of 1027. She was renamed City of Bristol by UMD who acquired her in 1990 and who traded her till 1998 when she was sold to Maderia based owners and renamed L Campo. She was wrecked off the coast of Morocco in Decemebr 2008.


The 1020grt Hoveringham V was launched at Appledore three months after her sister ship Hoveringham lV, on 27th June 1969, and was similarly lengthened in 1973. UMD (United Marine Dredging Ltd) acquired her in 1989 and named her City of Southampton before selling her to Bouvier Investments Corporation who named her Leon I in 1997.1998 saw her owned by Kavonissi NE of Greece named Kavonissi. She was named Elefantas when Drachma Shipping Company acquired her in 2004. On 22nd October 1981 the HoveringhamV was the last regularly trading ship to sail from Preston Dock which formally closed on 31st October of that year. The last ship ever to visit the port was reportedly the mv Cape Crest, which called to collect container crane parts for shipment to Greenole, Ireland sometime between the 22nd and 31st of the month




Launched on 14th May 1971, the 1550grt Hoveringham VI was to be Hoveringham Gravels’ last ship. Also built by Appledore SB, she traded in the UMD fleet under the name City of Rochester from 1990 until 1996 when sold to Portuguese owners who based her in Funchal with her new name of Arco.




In 1972 Hoveringham Gravels was the only regular trader into Port Penrhyn at the north east entrance to the Menai Strait.

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