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Coffin ships

10 March 2008 by stepheng

photo of old, red brick gate posts with a modern green fence between them

The old gateposts of Bellefield

Whenever I see an imposing gateway, vivid pictures of vanished villas and stately residences come into my mind. Liverpool is a city of many mansions to this day, but a large proportion have been demolished by developers hungry for their land. Their gateways often remain, leading to nowhere.

A Victorian gateway stands on the fringes of a private park, the only reminder of a strange deserted house associated with doomed vessels known as coffin ships. This was Bellefield, in West Derby, Liverpool, and the owner who laid it waste was notorious shipowner Edward ‘Bully’ Bates MP. He was among unscrupulous operators who deliberately sent their overloaded coffin ships to sea. They hoped the ships would sink so they could make inflated insurance claims. Bates once lost six ships in a year. 

Reformer Samuel Plimsoll fought a long, bitter battle to outlaw this shameful practice. It resulted in the now-famous Plimsoll Line being introduced on ships’ hulls showing they were not overloaded. This law still applies today.

Bates was called ‘Bully’ for good reason as his brutish behaviour was legendary. He was said to have confronted an idle crew on one of his ships. Such was his commanding personality that he intimidated them with kicks and blows until all, but one, ran away. This was a slightly-built shipwright armed with an axe who prepared to defend himself. Bates discharged all the crew except the shipwright, saying: “I like pluck and do not mind being faced”.

Bates bought Bellefield in 1871 at the height of the coffin ships scandal. He planned a side entrance through the gateway which still stands, blocked by railings, on the edge of Sandfield Park. It was never used because stubborn Bates refused to pay the park dues.

At Merseyside Maritime Museum there is a large commemorative handkerchief depicting Samuel Plimsoll in 1875. As a result of his tireless efforts, a maximum loading line on ships was introduced in 1876. The handkerchief includes a map of Liverpool plus contemporary personalities and scenes of Liverpool.

Three cut-away models illustrate how typical cargoes were stowed on sailing ships. Some commodities such as coal and iron were carried loose in the hold. Sugar, salt and tobacco were shipped in barrels or sacks while cotton was put into bales.

What eventually happened to ‘Bully’ Bates and Bellefield? He was expelled from the Commons for bribing the electorate whereupon Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli rewarded him with a baronetcy. Bates died in 1896, aged 80. Bellefield was pulled down and the land later used as Everton soccer club’s training ground.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

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