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the history of the puffer - page 4

Although the puffer WW2 derivative, the VIC, is the genre's best known war veteran, several of them served with the admiralty on victualling duties around the Scottish Coast and as far afield as Scapa Flow during the first world war. Four of them Kaffir, Zulu, Basuto and Arab crossed the Irish Sea in the ownership of John Kelly Ltd  to work on their coaling and victualling contracts for naval vessels based there, mainly in Lough Swilly. All four eventually returned to the Clyde.  Perhaps their experience of these puffers led the government to think of them when the need arose again in 1939? Who knows. (An excellent history of the Kelly fleet is told by Bill Harvey in his book "Kelly's Navy"  ISBN: 9992903300008, published by The World Ship Society)

The puffer design remained relatively unchanged until the dark days of World War 2. In 1941 the British Government established a Ministry of War Transport (MOWT) by amalgamating the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Shipping. It was given the remit of procuring the shipping resources necessary to serve the nation at war. One of these requirements was for Victualing Inshore Craft (VICs) to transport a variety of cargoes, including fuel, ammunition and food, to ships at anchor in and around our ports, and between coastal locations. The MOWT had to look no further than the Clyde puffers for an unsophisticated design that could be built quickly and cheaply and so the first batch of 64 VICs ordered in 1941 were of a design identical to the immediate pre-war puffers Lascar and Anzac built by Scotts at Bowling for J & J Hay.  Crinan Boatyard in Argyll have copies of the original plans for Anzac and Lascar and have noted during their rebuild of VIC27 that she conforms almost 100% with them.  It is interesting to note that, although diesel engines had started to become the norm for ships of this size, the VICs were powered by the same twin cylinder compound steam engines as the puffers because the simplicity of the design enabled them to be manufactured in relatively low technology factories, leaving the scarcer high technology facilities free to devote their resources to the much more complex internal combustion engines. Later deliveries of VICs were of a changed design, somewhat longer that the canal-limited size of their predecessors, welded instead of riveted, and with some of the last built being diesel powered.

When the war ended, the need for the fleet of VICs diminished and by 1947 many were starting to be disposed of by the MOWT. At what look like bargain prices of between £3,000 and £4,000 each it is not surprising that many entered the merchant fleets of countries around the world, from the UK to the Mediterranean, Africa and the Far East. Our main interest here of course is those which came to the Clyde, around 20 it is believed, and these are all included in the “Puffer” index of this site.

Post-war the puffers continued to be the mainstay of bulk cargo transport to the Islands of the Clyde and Hebrides. Over the space of the next almost fifty years many of the steam-powered craft were re-engined with diesels, giving greatly improved operating economy and much better accommodation for their crews. Larger vessels were also introduced, culminating in 1975 when Glenlight acquired four 400 ton vessels. With MacGregor hatches and travelling gantry cranes these ships were a far cry from the traditional puffer but even they could not hold back the relentless progress of the car ferries being introduced by the state-owned and subsidised ferry company Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac), The puffer owners and their crews were united in the belief that they were being killed off by the state subsidy to CalMac in which they didn't share but their protests fell on deaf ears and sadly in December 1994 the last remaining vessels in the Glenlight fleet were tied up and their crews laid off for the final time. An era had ended.

One final note: as I compiled this history, one of the things that quickly became apparent was the number of these little ships which were lost, and in many cases their crews with them. If you have ever been on a 66 foot steam puffer you will have probably been as shocked as I was at the conditions the men lived in. If you add the risk and the conditions together you have to believe that it was indeed a rare breed of men who went to sea in them and provided the lifeline to the islands.

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