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9th October 2020

Ron Wilkinson, former skipper of the Lord Lovat, visited the Maritime Museum to tell us some of the stories behind the bell of the trawler Lord Lovat.

Volunteer Emily Peach explains more.

The bell from the Lord Lovat,
The bell from the Lord Lovat, now part of the Hull Museum’s collections

Would you know what a ship’s bell is used for? Perhaps to mark time, or to call the crew together, or to sound the alarm in a fire? Or is it just for decoration? I had the chance to find out what the bell was used for on Hull’s fishing trawlers, when I saw a bell close up, and met someone who was skipper on the trawler that the bell came from.

I was set an assignment to do an in-depth study of a museum object, as part of a course I am doing. As I have been volunteering for the HYMC project for almost a year, I thought it would be interesting to pick an object from the Maritime Museum, and project staff suggested the bell of the Lord Lovat trawler would be a good choice. When the Maritime Museum reopens after refurbishment, the bell will be displayed in a gallery dedicated to Hull’s trawlers, particularly what could be seen as the ‘golden age’ of the post World War Two period up to the 1970s.

A deck view of the Lord Lovat
A deck view of the Lord Lovat looking aft along the upper boat deck

The Lord Lovat was a sidewinder trawler built in 1951 by Cochrane and Sons (Selby), a large company specialising in trawlers for the Hull and Grimsby fishing fleets. The ship was operated by Lord Line, whose fleet of trawlers were named after lords. The Lord Lovat would have had a twenty-strong crew: skipper, mate, bosun, chief engineer, second engineer, cook, cook’s assistant, with the rest made up of deckhands and ‘deckie-learners’, who were training to be deckhands. The Lord Lovat was scrapped in 1976, but the bell was saved and donated to the museum in 2008.

Ron Wilkinson, the chair and treasurer of STAND (St. Andrews Dock Heritage Park Action Group), worked for 25 years on trawlers, and he was skipper of the Lord Lovat for nine fishing trips, between January 1974 and November 1974. The Lord Lovat was Ron’s first ship as skipper, having taken his mate’s certificate, worked as a mate for a while, and then taken his skipper’s certificate. Ron and I met in the Court Room of the Maritime Museum, where we could get up close to the bell, which museum staff had brought out for us.

Ron Wilkinson pictured with the bell from his first ship as skipper
Ron Wilkinson pictured with the bell from his first ship as skipper

Ron tells us about his first trip as skipper of the Lord Lovat:

“You know, you're always looking round for the man in charge, until you realise it’s you! I must admit I discovered that the minute that we left St Andrews Dock, and you get out into the River Humber and you’re looking to someone else, and in fact you’re the man that makes the decisions. It's a great deal of responsibility. There are lots of things that help you from when you were the mate of a ship, but there are a lot of things that you can't learn and that you’ve just got to pick up as you as you go along.”

So what about the bell? What purpose did it serve on the trawler? Ron tells us about its key role, as a safety signal to prevent collisions in poor visibility conditions, such as fog:

“It’s to do with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. It's an integral part of the sound signals. Because in fog, for a ship at anchor and for a ship aground, there’s a particular signal on this bell. As you probably know, the sound of a bell carries quite a distance. Vessels that are at anchor and that are aground, they're not moving anywhere, they’re fixed, and so as people came towards it, the bell used to sound louder and louder.”

Ron Wilkinson and Emily at the Maritime Museum
Ron Wilkinson and Emily at the Maritime Museum

Ron also talked about the first job of the deckie-learner, after leaving port and setting off along the river, which was to grease up all the brasswork, including the bell, to protect it from damage caused by the Arctic weather conditions and the seawater. On the return journey, as they came back to port, the deckie-learner had to polish the bell and other brasswork back up again, so that they arrived back in port with a clean ship.

Having the ship’s name on them, the bell would sometimes need to be used as a way of identifying a ship when a wreck was recovered. The famous Hull trawler, the Gaul, was lost with all hands in February 1974 (during the period when Ron was a skipper on the Lord Lovat) and when the wreck was rediscovered, the bell was found 280 metres down on the sea bed and brought to the surface in 1998. It is now displayed in the “fishermen’s church”, St John the Baptist, Newington. It has been left unpolished and tarnished, as it was found – quite a contrast to the polished brass of the Lord Lovat bell. The bell of the Gaul has an additional purpose now, to commemorate the lives of the 36 men lost when the trawler sank.

For Ron, it is important that the Maritime Museum displays objects like the Lord Lovat bell, because it represents not only one particular trawler and her crews, but also Hull’s fishing industry in its heyday – an industry that transformed the city. The scrapping of the Lord Lovat in 1976 also helps tell the story of the decline of the industry at that time. Artefacts from the fishing industry, including this bell, help keep alive the memory of those who worked in the industry, and those who lost their lives.