Somerset, England - 8th August 2006
SS San Valerio - The first 93 years
In August 2005, whilst surfing the Marine and Maritime listings on the internet auction site eBay, we spotted a ship's teak wheelhouse for sale. Now, a year later, we have the wheelhouse sited in a concrete berth in our garden; we've also researched the ship's history and this is her story.
Part 1 - The Early Years, 1913-1953
Our Wheelhouse started life aboard the K Class steam tanker SS San Valerio, built by Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company Ltd, Newcastle in 1913, building No. 830 and Lloyds' register No. 34452. She was originally owned by the Eagle Oil Company Ltd and was registered in London. The San Valerio was 420 feet long with a beam of 54 feet, she drew 32 feet and 4 inches, and was constructed on a web frame with two steel decks. She weighed 6433 tons and her radio call sign was JDBS.
During WWI she sailed on convoys bringing much needed crude and white oil to this country. In 1936 she was sold to the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company Ltd (subsequently Shell Tankers) as an oil service hulk stationed in Dakar, Senegal and later in the Gareloch. In 1942 she was required for war work again, sailed to Scotland and was refitted in Holy Lock, before returning to convoy duties.
In January 1946 she was re-named Kuphus with Lloyds' registration number 77304. In researching this article, we discovered a message posted on the web by Mr. James Telfer-Smith who actually served on the Kuphus in the late 1940's. He responded in depth to our enquiries about any memories he had of the ship as well as providing a treasure trove of contemporary photographs and a wonderful watercolour painting by his own hand!
"Jim T-S" first boarded the SS Kuphus on the Clyde as a relief engineer around 1946. She had just returned from an Atlantic crossing and her crew were anxious to get home. Jim went to the engine room with the second mate to check all was ok. They turned the engines over, tried the reversing gear and placed the engines on "standby" ready for the next voyage which was to Henderson's Yard in Partick. While at the yard, her wartime guns were removed, her hull was inspected and she was repainted to ensure she was "shipshape and Bristol fashion" for her new post war owners. Jim told us that he had only once visited the bridge and having viewed the pictures of our wheelhouse, he said it reminded him of the chart room. From what he can remember, you entered it from the aft deck on the starboard side and it was adjacent to the radio room. This led into the steering room and the captain had a private rest room on the port side.
Jim was subsequently posted to another vessel, the MV Clam which was his first diesel engine ship and his following posting was to the TES Theliconus. His third trip was to refuel the "hulks" used as bunker ships at Gibraltar and here he was reunited with the Kuphus, which had been sold to the Shell Company of Gibraltar Ltd in November 1947. While alongside, Jim as an ex-crew member, was invited on board and met with the Spanish crew and their families who had been with the Hulks from the time of the Spanish Civil War. They had been on the wrong side and in order to lose their identities, had tossed their papers overboard and were effectively marooned as stateless people. Jim and his shipmates were able to trade gin, brandy and enamel buckets full of Chianti, all for the price of a carton of Lucky Strike cigarettes. They were then royally entertained with an impromptu flamenco thrown in, no charge, by the Spanish ladies! Jim left the Kuphus for the last time with an abiding memory that they were nice, decent people who suffered through being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He still has a photograph taken as he left the ship of three crew members singing with gusto the "Internationalle".
Jim was a marine engineer from 1942; his last ship was the TES Tectus. He finally signed off and hung up his sea boots for the last time in Sydney, New South Wales in 1956.
The Kuphus was by now beginning to show her age after 40 years service and two World Wars; she was declared obsolete by her owners and arrived on the 30th May, 1953 at North Dock, Sunderland to be broken up by Youngs & Dorkings. Rumour has it that when she was reduced to scrap, a secret compartment was found and this was packed with German WWII guns and other munitions; this mystery is so far unsubstantiated or resolved.
To read Part 2 of this feature "San Valerio - From Ship to Shore!" click