When ‘Derby County’ ruled the waves - a long-forgotten story from Derbyshire’s maritime heritage
PUBLISHED: 00:00 24 November 2016
Any claim that Derbyshire has genuine maritime affinities could easily attract scepticism - but Peter Seddon trawls the archives to land a long-forgotten story from Britain’s maritime heritage
As a proud ‘island nation’ Britain enjoys a seafaring heritage that fills endless volumes. But any claim that Derbyshire has genuine maritime affinities could easily attract scepticism. Yet in fact the county dubbed ‘furthest from the sea’ harbours a good many nautical links.
Some are readily apparent. Heroic yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur undeniably ruled the waves – yet was born in Whatstandwell on the banks of the lazily-flowing Derwent. A century earlier the Liberal MP for Derby Samuel Plimsoll (1824-98) left his indelible mark on shipping history – the introduction of his famous ‘Plimsoll Line’ in 1876 regulated what weight a vessel could legally carry. But other links are less obvious – not least the maritime credentials of Derby County.
The narrative begins in the early 1930s when Derby County was one of the First Division’s most stylish football clubs. Renowned internationals like Sammy Crooks, Tommy Cooper, Jack Barker, Jack Bowers, Dally Duncan and Hughie Gallacher made them a great side to watch.
As such it was both a surprise and disappointment that ‘The Rams’ won no trophies in this pre-war heyday. But the club was otherwise honoured in the most singular fashion. On the opening day of the 1933-34 football season a steam-powered trawler named ‘Derby County’ made its maiden voyage.
The idea of naming a fishing fleet after successful football teams belonged to John Marsden, later knighted for his services to the shipping industry. In 1901 Marsden joined the ailing board of a Grimsby-based trawler company, changed its name to Consolidated Fisheries Ltd, and set about a major expansion. By the 1930s they had a fleet of nearly 150 trawlers landing regular catches at Grimsby and Lowestoft in the days when the British fishing industry truly flourished.
Marsden was acutely aware that competition was extremely intense. So in July 1933 the experienced campaigner used football as a means of sparking friendly rivalry between the trawler skippers. His novel idea was to run a League Table based on each trawler’s total catch for the season. Only the top-flight clubs – those playing in the then First Division – were initially honoured. The mighty ‘Arsenal’ was first into operation on 3rd August 1933, quickly followed by ‘Aston Villa’ and then ‘Derby County’ – a great testimony to the Derbyshire club’s elevated status at that time.
The ‘Derby County’ was built in Middlesbrough by the Smiths Dock Company Ltd at a cost of £19,864. She was registered as GY 514 on 29th July 1933, completed on 15th August, trialled on the River Tees the following day, and successfully delivered to Grimsby on the evening of Tuesday 22nd August 1933.
Weighing 399 tons, measuring 155 feet in length, and powered by steam, ‘Derby County’ was no ‘Queen Mary’, but a trim little vessel with dogged character all the same. She took up a berth at Taylor’s Wharf in Grimsby’s Royal Dock ready for fitting out ahead of her maiden voyage to Iceland. On went huge steel bobbins for hauling in the nets, the latest Marconi Marine wireless equipment, and finally 240 tons of coal.
The boat was launched on Saturday 26th August 1933 – opening day of the football season. Alas Derby County’s team failed to give the vessel a winning send-off – ‘The Rams’ lost 3-1 at Middlesbrough as ‘Derby County’ took to the water officially for the first time further down the coast.
Perhaps the ’Boro defeat was an omen, for ‘Derby County’ experienced teething troubles right from the start. Only ten days into her maiden trip, Skipper Fuller reported problems with the winching equipment. This restricted him to fishing in shallow waters. Nevertheless the maiden catch was still better than that of ‘Arsenal’ – when ‘Derby County’ landed her haul at Grimsby on Wednesday 13th September, 1,250 boxes of fish netted £1,086 13s 6d. Like as not, some of it ended up in Derbyshire households for a Friday fish supper.
But a loss of form and a run of bad luck soon followed. On her second outing ‘Derby County’ was forced to take refuge in Iceland after a suction pump failed. And worse was to come. On Saturday 16th December 1933, as Derby County beat Sheffield United 5-1 at the Baseball Ground, the club’s namesake was arrested by an Icelandic Coastguard vessel for ‘illegal fishing’. She was ignominiously escorted into port, where the Icelandic court fined Skipper Fuller the substantial sum of 18,500 Kroner (£850). All of his catch and fishing gear was confiscated.
‘Derby County’ duly slipped a place in the ‘fish league’ and chugged forlornly back to Grimsby for a full overhaul. Despite their best efforts the gallant crew finished a disappointing mid-table in their opening season – surely victims of the ‘Hand of Cod’. Nor did Sammy Crooks and crew manage to land the big one. Derby County finished fourth in the First Division as Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal won the 1933-34 Football League Championship. Despite the problems suffered by ‘Derby County’, the football fleet was a resounding success which attracted great public interest. By the time the last vessel (‘Blackburn Rovers II’) was launched in 1962, no fewer than 39 trawlers had borne the name of 29 different English League teams. In addition, a number of Scottish teams were honoured, and in 1961 ‘Real Madrid’ became the first and only overseas side to make genuine waves in Grimsby.
As for Derby County’s rivals, it would be remiss not to report that ‘Notts Forest’ endured a rather stormy passage. The vessel was caught in severe gales, provoked a strike, was banned from Icelandic waters, suffered a mutiny, and spent an inordinate amount of time languishing in dry-dock. As any Skipper might say – ‘that’s fishing Brian’.
Even the name caused a rumpus – when the ‘Notts Forest’ was launched in 1960 the club chairman complained to Consolidated Fisheries that ‘our abbreviated title is incorrect…it should be ‘Nottm Forest’.
The protest went unheeded. Meanwhile ‘Derby County’ carried on fishing, doggedly taking ‘one catch at a time’ and ‘not getting carried away’ until the outbreak of war rudely interrupted its established routine. In August 1939 the Admiralty acquired the vessel for £22,518, equipped it with a single 4-inch gun, and put it into war service as an ASW class trawler (Anti-Submarine Warfare). It was re-registered as FY 171 and took the title ‘HMT Derby County’ (Her Majesty’s Trawler).
‘Derby County’ had an eventful if not particularly heroic war, but she certainly fared better than ‘Aston Villa’ which went down after a robust encounter with the Germans. The nearest ‘Derby County’ came to a rousing victory was on Friday 15th December 1939. On patrol in the British Channel, she and ‘York City’ detected the presence of a German U-boat and launched a joint attack with depth charges. Regrettably none found the target – who said ‘sounds familiar’?
Once the war ended, both football and fishing picked up the threads. In March 1946 Derby County clinched a place in the historic first post-war Cup Final – while ‘Derby County’ was bought by the Hull Ice Company and returned to fishing duties under the new number GY 194.
At Wembley Stadium on 27th April 1946 Derby famously beat Charlton Athletic 4-1 to lift the FA Cup for the first and only time. The stirring victory brought unprecedented fame to the football club at a time when the whole nation craved heroes. Seemingly the publicity value of that triumph was just too good to miss, for Consolidated Fisheries quickly decided they wanted ‘Derby County’ returned to the fleet. The company bought her back in November 1946 for £20,380 – a sum £516 higher than the vessel had cost to build. Arguably the Rams’ triumph at Wembley had kicked the customary ‘depreciation’ into touch.
The vessel continued its topsy-turvy journey, veering from ‘full steam ahead’ to ‘troubled waters’ with alarming regularity. In February 1950 she steadfastly joined the British destroyer ‘HMS Welcome’ in searching for a lost Norwegian vessel, but just two months later she was in the news for the wrong reasons as her skipper Mr T S Jacobsen collapsed and died on the return journey from the Icelandic fishing grounds.
By the early 1960s it seemed the glory days were over. And not just for the boat. In June 1963 – with ‘The Rams’ aimlessly adrift in the Division Two doldrums – fire broke out aboard the ageing trawler. She was saved and gamely carried on – but eight months later came the final journey.
Belgium provided the last resting place. ‘Derby County’ was scrapped there in February 1964 – a sad end to a real character. Over 50 years later only the football club bears the illustrious name. As befits the Rams’ eventful history the onward voyage will be dogged by stormy days. All the club’s seasoned travellers know that ‘sinking feeling’ – but the good ship Derby County will continue full steam ahead. And it will not go down!