Guest post: The Life and Times of Creteboom, by Richard Lewis - Visit North Mayo

Recently, we were contacted by Richard Lewis, who is writing a book, tentatively entitled ‘The Life and Times of the Crete Fleet’. Richard contacted us in relation to Ballina’s fabled concrete ship, the SS CreteBoom, located on the River Moy between Belleek Woods and the Quay.

The Crete ships were built by John Ver Mehr & Co at their Shoreham on Sea shipyards. Creteboom was one of six Ferro-cement Tugs (they also built six FCBs). Her sister ship, Cretegaff, resides in Carlingford Marina and was salvaged by the Marina owner in 1988 from where she lay in Drogheda for many decades (she arrived there in 1937). Cretegaff serves a useful purpose to this day.

By sharing this piece, Richard is inviting people to share your stories about the Crete Boom. Is there anyone who remembers her arrival in Ballina? As a child, did you climb and play on the ship? Have you got any human interest stories to share?

Thanks to Richard for sharing this with us, and we hope you enjoy reading it.

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Creteboom was built by the John Ver Mehr &Co shipyard at Shoreham-by-Sea and was one of the six concrete ‘Crete Tugs’ and six ‘Crete Barges’ constructed there between 1918 and 1920. Creteboom and her sister, Cretegaff, are the last remaining Crete Tugs built at Shoreham. Remarkably, both have ended up retiring in Ireland.

Shoreham-by-Sea is at the mouth of the River Adur and shipbuilding on the river goes back to at least Saxon times where a large port was established at Steyning , up-river from Shoreham. As the higher reaches of the River Adur silted up, the port moved to the mouth of the river on the coast. The Doomsday Book, completed in 1086 by order of King William the Conqueror, refers to ‘Soresham’ and in Norman times the port expanded as an importer of wine and exporter of wool.

The SS Creteboom - The concrete ship on the River Moy
The SS Crete Boom, Ballina. Photo: © Corin Bishop

By 1346, shipbuilding was a major activity at Shoreham-by-Sea with the port supplying 26 ships to Edward III during ‘The Hundred Years’ War’. However, according to the Sussex Industrial Archaeology Society Journal (Issue 35, 2005) – ‘By the end of the nineteenth century shipbuilding at Shoreham in West Sussex had declined to the point of extinction, leaving only a residual yacht and boat building industry; it appeared at that time very unlikely that substantial shipbuilding would ever resume at the port’.

WWI ship losses, combined with a consequent shortage of steel, led to a British Government funded programme to build 154 concrete Tugs and Barges – now christened ‘The Crete Fleet’ by the author – of which the Shoreham-by-Sea shipbuilding yard of John Ver Mehr & Co were to become beneficiaries, ultimately constructing 6 Crete Tugs and 6 Crete Barges for The Ministry of Shipping as part of the £4 million project, a sum that equates to  £180 million in today’s money.

Creteboom is one of the two Shoreham built concrete tugs that still survives today, Cretegaff is the other. Additionally, Cretehawser that was built at Southwick on the River Wear (Tyne and Wear) by a Swan Hunter subsidiary survives, abandoned on the side of the River Wear very close to where it was built.

The driver for the ‘Crete Fleet’ was a shortage of raw materials to make steel and the scheme conceived in 1917 aimed to import iron ore from Northern Spain using newly built tugs and barges made out of an alternative material, ‘ferro-concrete’. The forerunner of the use of materials and methodologies was the work of Joseph-Louis Lambot who had invented ‘Ferciment’. built a couple of concrete dinghies and secured a patent in 1855 for his methodologies before presenting his invention at the ‘Exposition Universelle’ in Paris in 1855.

Shoreham based John Ver Mehr & Co was one of 21 shipyards selected to receive contracts to build Crete vessels, the programme necessitating the Ministry of Shipping identifying shipyards up and down the country that could undertake the project. Major shipbuilders like Swan Hunter (then Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd), founded The Wear Concrete Building Company in 1918 to take commercial advantage of the Government funded programme. Contracts were signed and work started between late 1917 and early 1918.

Having set about multiple new ship building projects all around the UK, WWI came to an end on 11th November 1918 with the signing of the Armistice. At this point, only one of the Crete vessels was completed and launched, a barge called Creteacre built by the Hamworthy Shipyard in Poole.

From the original contracts for 154 vessels, the British Government cancelled all the contracts for all the tugs and barges that had not yet been started and ultimately 66 vessels were finished being 12 Tugs and 54 Barges. 6 of the tugs and 6 of the barges were built by John Ver Mehr. Creteboom was the first to be finished in November 1919.

Creteboom followed the standard specification of the Crete Tugs and, like her sister Cretegaff, was 125’ long with a beam of 27’6” and a draught of 13’4”. Her Gross Registered Tonnage was 267 tonnes and she was powered by a 750 i.h.p (Indicated Horsepower) triple-expansion steam engine built in Bradford by Newton Bean & Mitchell. The coal bunker capacity to fuel the steam engine was 80 tonnes.

Cretegaff, Carlingford, Co. Louth
The Cretegaff, Carlingford Marina, Co. Louth © Richard Lewis

In the 2005 Sussex Industrial History Journal, it is noted The weight of these tugs was a considerable advantage for it enabled the tug to hang onto its tow even in difficult weather conditions . Towards the stern a powerful towing winch was mounted aft of the concrete deckhouse which also housed the steering engine. The stern post had a forged steel rudder post with a built up stern frame which, apart from the rudder post itself, was encased within the concrete hull. Also encased by the hull were the engine bed frames, and the foc’sle had a turtleback deck which allowed excess water to run off easily whilst protecting the windlass and the anchor from the elements.

In November 1919 on a chilly day, misty day, Creteboom was launched from her slipway at John Ver Mehr’s Shoreham shipyard and once floating, final fitting was to be completed. The Lloyd’s List of British Registered Steam Vessels from 1925 states that Creteboom was ‘completed at Southampton’. Interestingly, the foc’sle was designed and constructed to mount a gun but as WWI had ended before the Creteboom was launched, the gun was never fitted – so that saved them a job.

As can be seen from the ‘hulks’ of the remaining three Crete Tugs, the deckhouse itself was made of concrete. Other equipment such as the Bridge were constructed in wood. Some fittings were made from steel but since the entire concept of Crete ships was to reduce the utilisation of scarce steel , the tug was predominantly  ‘cast in concrete’. I have been aboard Cretegaff, the last surviving floating Crete Tug, to see at first hand her mighty concrete infrastructure essentially intact.

Creteboom was officially registered on the Lloyd’s Register in 1920 with the Registration Number 144653. She was categorised as ‘Experimental’ meaning that she required an annual survey. She was also restricted by virtue of her ‘A1’ classification to the exclusion of certain British coastal routes including the West Coast. Creteboom is believed to have operated in the Baltic and the European coast, initially of course as part of the Admiralty fleet.

In 1922, the British Government sold off what remained of the 66 ‘Crete Fleet’ boats  – 12 Tugs and 54 Barges – to the newly formed Crete Shipping Company of Sunderland . The company was founded by Stelp & Leighton Ltd of London (Co. Reg No. 00163841) a ‘Private Company Limited by Share Capital’ that had been incorporated on 9th February 1920. It is likely that the British Government was so keen to rid itself of the concrete ships that a ‘deal was done’ to sell the vessels off to a single buyer at a ‘job lot’ price.

Creteboom thus joined the largest family of privately owned British concrete ships ever collected together – a veritable armada of concrete boats. Along with the other eleven Crete Tugs, her primary purpose was to carry coal from the North East of England to the South of England and to other areas that her A1 classification allowed. It is said that she travelled to the Baltic but that it was a bit icy for her up there.

The Crete Shipping Company was an entirely speculative venture, one that did not succeed. The company ceased operations in 1924 leaving the remaining vessels – the ones that had not already been lost at sea or scrapped – mothballed on the Tyne. This must have been quite some sight. Stelp & Leighton Ltd  itself is now dissolved but there are records in the National Archives that provide clear evidence that the company existed in 1956 and indeed, Company House records show that the name of the company was changed in 1982 so it must have existed up to that point.

The Creteboom as seen from Belleek Woods

Many of the ‘Crete Fleet’ Tugs and Barges suffered some disastrous fate or other as the list of British Registered Steam Vessels from 1925 lists only Creteboom along with Cretehawser, Cretestem, Cretegaff, Creteblock and Cretemast  as being under the ownership of The Crete Shipping Company. Between 1922 and 1925, six Crete Tugs went missing from the register.  I am researching and piecing together exactly what happened to all of the Crete Fleet and where they are –  but we know exactly where Creteboom lies.

In 1935, Creteboom was sold to the South Stockton Shipbreaking Company on Teeside and her steam engine and boilers plus all other useful equipment and fittings were stripped from her. She would never sail again under her own steam. It is probable that all her components and fittings were repurposed far and wide. It is believed that the internal doors from the Cretegaff are now repurposed as tables at a pub come maritime museum in Wexford! Recycling is not a new idea and there have always been fortunes to be made from ‘scrap’. I hope one day to own some maritime artifact from one of the Crete boats. A steam engine maybe.

The hull was then sold on to the Ballina Harbour Commissioners in County Mayo. Creteboom was towed from Teeside by the tug Pressman and arrived in Ballina on 22nd September 1937. It is reported variously that the intention was to utilise the ship as a ‘River Training Mole’. River Training refers to measures that may be taken to ‘train’ a river so as to improve its flow, mitigate flooding & reduce silting. I have also read that the intent for Creteboom was to act as a sand stop at the mouth of the river but that this idea was met with fierce opposition from the Moy Fishery Company who feared that it would interfere with the run of salmon into the River Moy and hence threatened legal action. Either way, Creteboom unfortunately sprang a leak on her voyage that worsened whilst being maneuvered in to position and hence she had to be abandoned where she lay. Presumably the outbreak of WWII brought a halt to any grand plans and one assumes the arguments that went with them.

In some respects, Creteboom was lucky to be lying in the River Moy. Cretehawser on the other hand was hit by a German bomb whilst moored in South Dock, Sunderland and holed. She was then towed further up the River Wear to the spot where she still lies today. Cretestem, another one of the Crete Tugs moored at South Dock at the same time, was almost completely destroyed by German bombing and ‘her remains’ towed out to sea and dumped. It’s a tough life being a Crete Tug!

It’s not very clear what, if anything,  happened in the life of Creteboom in the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s through to the mid 1970’s. It must have been a peaceful life for Creteboom resting in the River Moy. What seems highly likely is that the primary purpose that the Creteboom has served since 1937 has been as a swimming and diving platform with a Kid’s Extreme Adventure Playground thrown in.  This was certainly true of the ‘The Lady Boyne” in Drogheda.

As a kid, was is there not to like about an abandoned concrete boat sat on the river bank? Obviously, kids don’t readily understand that it is in fact a treasured and rare example of maritime heritage. I would have thought that in the eternal battle between kids and a concrete boat, the concrete boat would generally win hands down.

The refloating of the Crete Boom

Whilst researching Creteboom for my book, I found an article on written by John Healy in 2007 and entitled ‘The men who raised the Creteboom’. It recounts the story of how she was briefly re-floated in 1974.

“One of the more unusual landmarks of the River Moy is the lonely hulk of a concrete boat which has lain beached at Belleek Wood for 30 years. But, in fact, the history of the Creteboom goes back much further than that. Built of ferro concrete, the Creteboom was launched in 1919, too late for the war service which was its original scheduled fate. Instead, it was put into service in the Baltic Sea, plying its trade towing coal barges from the north east of England to Petrogrod and other Baltic parts.

Come 1937, and the Creteboom, together with three other decrepit vessels, was purchased by the Ballina Harbour Commissioners to act as a sand stop at the mouth of the river. But a series of events, including the outbreak of war, prevented the plan from being put into operation. The Creteboom, abandoned and decaying, sank into the Moy waters.

Time marched on, and in 1974 attempts were made – successfully – to raise the hulk from the centre of the river. It was moved to a point near Belleek Woods, on the west bank of the Moy, where it remains beached to this day. And it was that small piece of Moy history which led researcher, Noel O’Neill (now something of an expert on the Creteboom episode) to welcome two men back to the riverbank at Belleek a week ago. Martin Golden of Enniscrone and John Francis Mahon of Skreen recalled how, on a bitter March morning 33 years ago, they had moved the hulk from its graveyard of four decades, re-floated the wreck, and managed to transport it across the river to its resting place at Belleek.

As the two swapped memories of the day and posed for photographs at the request of Noel O’Neill, the topic came around to what might be done to remove the eyesore and even give it another lease of life. Noel O’Neill noted that a sister vessel, the Cretegaff, is anchored at Carlingford Marina in Co Louth, where it has been refurbished and is being used as a lounge and changing rooms for the Marina members. Perhaps with so much talk of the establishment of a marina in the Moy, maybe some imaginative local entrepreneur might convert the Creteboom into something more functional than it is at present.”

Another report on these proceedings is reported on the North Mayo Tourism website  – Visit the SS Creteboom – the fabled concrete ship in Ballina

In the mid 1970’s the River Moy was silting badly and dredging works began. During the operations it was decided that an attempt should be made to move the Creteboom from the centre of the river where it was impeding the flow of water and adding to a build-up of sand.  After an inspection of the vessel by the contractor Mr Mahon, his colleague Mr Martin Golden of Templeboy and the Harbourmaster, Mr Vincent Melvin, it was decided that the tons of mud that had accumulated in the hulk should be cleaned out, together with literally hundreds of eels that had made their homes there.

With the cleaning operation completed, and some repairs carried out to secure the ship,  high tide on the morning of March 16th 1974 was chosen as the best time to go ahead with the task.  At 6.00am working only by the light reflected from a hostel on the east bank,  the vessel was lifted slowly from the mud that had been its bed for so many years and  towed a short distance to where it remains to this day.”

What next for the SS Creteboom?

It was reported in the Sussex Industrial Archaeology Society Journal (Issue 35, 2005) that there was hope that Creteboom could be refloated, brought to Ballina Quay and then be renovated to be used as a maritime museum. That report is now over 15 years ago. Interestingly, the vision of being used a small Maritime Museum is precisely the same vision as Alderman Godfrey of Drogheda had for Cretegaff (known locally as ‘The Lady Boyne’) whilst she lay abandoned at Marsh Road on the riverbank for half a century. Instead, Cretegaff was salvaged in April 1988 to be used for the Carlingford Marina construction project. Cretegaff is a fine example of the ‘art of the possible’. 

Creteboom Ballina concrete ship lit at night in green and red
The Creteboom illuminated at night

Apparently, there was a lot of cleaning out to do and silt to move but the project did not take a huge amount of time. Cretegaff shows the evidence of the repairs to her hull – something akin to a concrete plaster – that were necessary before she could be towed out of the River Boyne into the open sea and along the Louth Coast to her new home in Carlingford. (Tug Salisbury, that undertook the tow, was in the capable hands of Isle of Man based Captain Stephen Carter who himself is now the author of five books of a maritime nature and with whom I have been consulting for expert opinion).

Cretegaff has had several important roles since 1988. Initially she was a breakwater as the Marina walls were constructed. Then she became the Marina clubhouse for more than a decade before settling down to life as a vital part of the jetty infrastructure as she is today and likely for ever.

Creteboom and Cretehawser whilst at least still surviving, are not in quite the same serviceable condition as Cretegaff and might be described by an Estate Agent as ‘requiring a degree of refurbishment’! At the fear of making myself unpopular in some quarters, one might suggest that to repair and re-float the Creteboom is not beyond the wit of man. This is of course an entirely personal opinion but in researching the Cretehawser in Sunderland, I know my views are shared by many there and the Cretehawser was hit by a German bomb and is in far worse condition.

Creteboom is one of only three Crete Tugs that survive today and this makes her an incredibly rare and hugely important example of industrial archaeology and a monument to WW1 invention and ingenuity.

I have yet to visit the Creteboom (due to the current situation) but I understand that it already attracts interest and is a popular tourist attraction. To use a contemporary expression, Creteboom has been ‘Paying it Forward’ for many years. After over 80 years of lying abandoned in the River Moy, surely she deserves a second chance in life?  

I hope to see the salvage of Creteboom in my lifetime.

Richard Lewis, 31st January 2021

Visit to read more about this fascinating concrete fleet.

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