Origins of the VICs

Vic 56 is technically a steam coasting lighter or a "puffer". She is one of the 98 Victualling Inshore Craft built to the orders of the ministry of war transport between 1941 and 1945, which were a part of the enormous Government wartime ship-building programme. A programme in which, in addition to the more famous warships, built thousands of merchant ships of every size down to small coastal traders and tugs (Empire and TID classes.)

The first series of VIC craft were based on a classic Scottish puffer design, of the general type that had carried cargo throughout the Western Isles, and often further, since the later 19th century (the term "puffer" derived from the earliest puffers, used on canals, which had no condensers and exhausted steam to the atmosphere as a railway or traction engine does). The first series of VIC craft had a length of 66ft, a 100 ton cargo capacity, a funnel in front of the wheelhouse, a simple 5-tube boiler, engine controls in the wheelhouse and cramped accommodation for 3 or 4 crew.

The second series of VICs had a length of 85ft, a cargo capacity of 120 tons, a more efficient Cochrane multi-tube boiler, generous (by contemporary standards) accommodation for 6 crew, including a galley, but lacked the sheer and rounded hull of the earlier type in favour of the hard chines and rectangular form of other wartime craft. There were no engine controls in the wheelhouse, and many have commented on the difficulty of handling the larger type.

The VICs were remarkable for the use of steam propulsion at a time when the diesel engine had already become standard for craft of this size. The reason was simply to use existing skills and capacity among steam engine builders at a time when other parts of the war effort placed intense pressure on the diesel engine builders. The ships were mainly built at small yards, nearly all in England (1 was built in Scotland at Kirkintilloch) 40 by Dunstons of Thorne, 25 by Isaac Pimblott of Northwitch, and the rest in small numbers around the country. VIC 56 was one of two built by Pollocks of Faversham. (Four were ordered but two were later cancelled and the half finished hulls became motor barges for the London and Rochester Trading Company.)

VICs in use

VICs were used in every area of the war where naval supply services were required. Some where shipped (as deck cargo) to overseas bases such as Malta, and 9 of the smaller type, built with diesel engines, were sent to the far east as small tankers. There had been extensive use of puffers in naval supply work in World War 1 and the VICs continued this at all the well known naval bases and particularly in Scotland (Scapa Flow, Rosyth and the Clyde).

During the war some VICs were already being operated in the "puffer" trades in western Scotland and after the war many more were sold to the puffer companies for this purpose. Others were sold further afield. The VIC 62 was, until recently, employed in dredging seaweed in the Fal estuary in Cornwall, while others have operated in the coastal trades of Sicily, Norway and Ireland. Present day survivors in Scotland include the "Marsa", now at Bowling, and the "Spartan", now preserved at the Scottish Maritime Museum at Irvine. The other large VIC built at Faversham, VIC 57, became "Arran Monarch" trading to and from the island of that name, before moving to the Bristol Channel to carry coal from South Wales to Watchet and her hull is still in existence in North Devon. All these craft had their steam engines removed and diesels were installed to save fuel costs and reduce the number of crew required.

Elsewhere many other VICs remained in Admiralty service, usually among the flotilla of Port Auxiliary Service craft. In southern England a number of VICs could be seen at Deptford Victualling yard on the Thames, and the Royal Dockyards at sheerness, Chatham and Portsmouth. One was attached to HMS Vernon for mine warfare exercises and some, such as VIC 56, were classified as Naval Armament Vessels for the carriage of ammunition. The VIC 27 (since preserved as the "Auld Reekie") was used as a water carrier at Rosyth. By 1878 the need for economy and the decline in the size and shape of the Royal Navy had greatly reduced the Port Auxiliary service fleets and only 2 VICs survived in naval service at Rosyth dockyard. These were the VIC 56 and VIC 65, the latter a water carrier used to supply distilled water to boilers of warships under refit. Among her last duties was to act as a test for the new ship lift designed to allow warships to be lifted on a carriage and then be refitted in sheds on shore. (VIC 65 was subsequently scrapped at Inverkeithing).

VIC 56 - History

After launching at Faversham in 1945, VIC 56 was sailed north after only a day of trials. Like many of the other VICs she had, when built, and open navigating platform (the wheelhouse was added later by the Admiralty). The boiler was of a convertible coal/oil design and, presumably in view of coal shortages, she and the VIC 57 were completed as oil burners, and so the VIC 56 remained until 1980. The early use of VIC 56 is unclear; she was given a loadline certificate by Lloyds (not necessary for naval vessels), allowing her to trade around the British Isles, except for the west coast of Ireland. By 1947 she was allocated to the Victualling Store Officer, Rosyth and so began a 30 year life spent almost entirely in the Firth of Forth, taking stores and ammunition between Rosyth and Crombie, and on occasion to Leith and Port Edgar, and also to Bandeath near Stirling.

Every class of naval vessel was stored or de-stored by VIC 56. Examples from surviving logs include the aircraft carriers "Ark Royal" and "Hermes", torpedoes from the submarine "Tireless", destroyers "Battleaxe" and "Delight", frigates such as "Leander", "Lock Killisport", "Keppel", "Ghurka", "Zulu" and "Whitby". VIC 56 was frequently used to store minesweepers at Port Edgar and on one occasion to act as a minelayer for exercise purposes. VIC 56 was one of a number of similar craft at Rosyth and on one occasion towed VIC 76 and VIC 99. At other times she was herself towed (ie not in steam) by one of the dockyard tugs, TIDs 164 or 165, or the paddle tug "Director".

The most celebrated task allotted to VIC 56 was a voyage in April 1961 to the island of South Rona with construction materials to establish a base to monitor exercises. The voyage was via the Caledonian Canal and the RN base at Loch Ewe where a sectioned hut and jeep were loaded on the hatch covers and a naval party taken onboard to help with the exercise, which was successfully completed in spite of the difficult navigational conditions.

VIC 56's long survival at Rosyth must be partly due to her suitability, as an oil burner, for carrying ammunition. In her last years, her main role was to act as occasional relief vessel for larger motor ammunition ships such as "Catapult", "Flintlock" and "Mortar". Her last recorded naval steaming was on 10 February 1975. She was then laid up and in due course put up for disposal in September 1978 and bought for preservation.

After a number of trial steamings and lengthy preparations with assistance from the enthusiasts preserving VIC 32 and the Liverpool steam tug "Kerne". VIC 56 left Rosyth under her own steam on 12 April 1979 and reached Grimsby on 18 April after calls at Sunderland and Whitby. Leaving Grimsby on 19 May and after further stages to Wells and Yarmouth she reached a new berth at Rotherhithe on the Thames. The next berth was slightly downstream, at Trinity House Buoy Wharf, near the East India dock. In the Autumn of 2005 a decision was made to move to a berth that would be less affected by the wash of passing vessels, due to damage caused to the bottom by pounding, and the VIC 56 moved to a berth at Chatham Historic Dockyard.

An early decision was taken to convert to coal firing in view of her expensive oil consumption of 23 gallons per hour at 4.5 knots (diesel oil was used as VIC 56 was never equipped with coils or pumps to burn heavier oil). The only other major change was to remove the 2 ton capacity steel cargo derrick and to fit a wooden one which could be used to lower a boat by hand. Otherwise VIC 56 remains in substance and internally as she did when operated by the Port Auxiliary Service.

Particular features

Wheelhouse:

There are no modern navigational aids, apart form the VHF radio which is essential on the Thames. VIC 56 never posessed radar or an echo sounder. When built the helmsman's position had no weather protection.

Engine Room:

The compound steam engine is to the same design as that used on the other VICs. The exhaust steam is cooled in the seawater fed condenser and returned to the boiler and the pumps which effect this are driven off the main engine. There is also a Worthington-Simpson general service pump and a Frank Pearn banjo-type auxiliary boiler feed pump. At one time the engine room also included an oil fired cast iron boiler to supply the central heating system (to avoid using the coal stoves when carrying ammunition).

There has never been provision for electricity generation on board. The electric lighting system was installed for use with a shore supply when the vessel returned to its normal overnight berth.

Galley:

The original stove burned diesel at the time of acquisition, but later boiler waste. Due to damage to the rear plate, it was replaced with a similar stove, which is also operated on boiler waste. This is a generous galley for a ship of this size; the small VICs had only a stove in the fo'c's'le.

Fo'c's'le:

Accommodation for 3 seamen and a stoker. The mock wood graining is original. Underneath is the 30 ton water ballast tank which also supplies the boiler feed and domestic tanks. Above is the steam windlass for use in cargo handling and in raising and lowering one of the 4 cwt anchors.

After Cabin:

Accomodation for the acting skipper (in PAS days someone of the rank of mate) and engineer (the mechanician who was not necessarily a DOT certificated engineer, although VIC 56 was very lucky to have a qualified engineer Mr R E Drury in charge for much of her working life at Rosyth), the furniture and fittings are original.

Hold:

Cargo capacity 120 tons.