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Joseph Fisher & Sons Ltd, Newry were located at the Albert Basin where they had offices and coal yards. Joseph Fisher established a ship broking business in 1852, and in 1867, he invested in ship owning when he purchased shares in three locally owned sailing ships. As a coal importer, Fishers was one of the first local ship owners to invest in steamships with the purchase of the Kilkeel in 1892. Joseph Fisher & Sons Ltd became one of the most significant shipping owners in the Irish Sea, building up an important fleet of steam colliers trading with most of the major ports in Britain and Ireland and the north coast of France. 

The Port of Newry in the 1960s. Timber is pictured here being unloaded from a Scandinavian ship. The port was still busy at this time but the limitations of the Newry Ship Canal meant that larger ships could not come to Newry and the docks closed in 1974. Courtesy of John Matthews
The Port of Newry in the 1960s. Timber is pictured here being unloaded from a Scandinavian ship. The port was still busy at this time but the limitations of the Newry Ship Canal meant that larger ships could not come to Newry and the docks closed in 1974. Courtesy of John Matthews

The company had two distinct naming schemes for their ships, places near Newry and, from 1905 onwards, trees. Names included the Bamboo, Broom, Ebony, Opepe Poplar, Mango and Walnut. 

In the first half of the 20th century goods imported by Fisher boats included coal, maize, flour and general cargo, with coal the most important as it was a primary fuel for local industries and households. Exports were low compared to imports. Goods exported included cattle, timber, potatoes, herrings, Mourne granite and scrap metal. Timber from the Fathom area was also exported to Wales to be used as pit-props in the coal mines.  In the 1960s and 1970s the Walnut belonging to Fishers went as far as Finland to import timber. 

Local men, Barney Duffy, First Mate, and Peter Rice, Able Seaman, pictured on one of Fisher’s colliers c.1952. Courtesy of John McParland
Local men, Barney Duffy, First Mate, and Peter Rice, Able Seaman, pictured on one of Fisher’s colliers c.1952. Courtesy of John McParland

From the mid 1950s onwards, economic conditions became more competitive. The Port of Newry could not accommodate larger vessels and the decision was made to phase out Newry Port. Joseph Fisher and Sons Ltd. was sold to Cawood Holdings in 1966. The ship canal was closed in 1974 and Newry’s trade transferred to the Port of Warrenpoint. Fisher’s premises were demolished in the 1990s and the Quays Shopping Centre built on the site of the old coal yards which served the Albert Basin. 

A crew member working on a boat owned by Joseph Fisher & Sons Ltd, Newry. The long history of shipping and maritime trade in Newry led many young local men to view seafaring as an exciting occupation and a way to see the world.  Courtesy of the McKeown Family and Sean Patterson
A crew member working on a boat owned by Joseph Fisher & Sons Ltd, Newry. The long history of shipping and maritime trade in Newry led many young local men to view seafaring as an exciting occupation and a way to see the world. Courtesy of the McKeown Family and Sean Patterson

The crew on a typical Fisher coal vessel or ‘collier’, consisted of nine or ten men responsible for navigation, keeping watch and maintenance. The Captain or Master was in charge of the ship and accountable if anything went wrong. It was a stressful occupation requiring constant vigilance especially during bad weather when the Captain was continually on the bridge. Some of his duties were delegated to the First or Chief Mate who would have had responsibility for day to day running of the boat. The Chief Engineer maintained the engine assisted by the Firemen who kept the steam up by stoking and tending the boilers. There were also Able Seamen and Ordinary Seamen who carried out general duties assisted by a Deck Boy or Deck Mate. 

The Ebony was typical of the type of cargo steamer or collier to operate out of Newry up until the 1960s. Built in 1947 for the Newry and Kilkeel Steamship Company Ltd (which was owned by Joseph Fisher and Sons Ltd), the Ebony was sold in 1957 as Fishers introduced larger diesel engine vessels. Courtesy of John McParland
The Ebony was typical of the type of cargo steamer or collier to operate out of Newry up until the 1960s. Built in 1947 for the Newry and Kilkeel Steamship Company Ltd (which was owned by Joseph Fisher and Sons Ltd), the Ebony was sold in 1957 as Fishers introduced larger diesel engine vessels. Courtesy of John McParland

Living conditions were very basic. The Captain and First Mate usually had their own accommodation under the bridge, while the Engineer had his own quarters off from the engine room. The rest of the crew lived in the forecastle or foc’scle which was heated with a stove or bogey which often produced fumes and smoke and could not be used in rough weather. The foc’scle contained bunk beds, usually a plank of wood with a mattress. Before the Second World War the crew brought their own bedding on board. The mattress was a sack filled with hay and straw and was known as the ‘donkey’s breakfast’. They also supplied their own cooking utensils, food and weatherproof clothing. The ships were equipped with galleys, but crew members often cooked their own meals on the stove in the foc’scle. The ‘fiddley’, a grating over the boiler, was used for drying clothes. 

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

by Noreen Cunningham

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