The thread about the pride of the Granton fishing fleet, the “Netta Croan”, and the heroic rescue of her crew by the Aberdeen lifeboat

Today’s Auction House Artefact is this oil painting by Harry Berry (1905-94) of the rescue of the crew of the Granton trawler Netta Croan by the Aberdeen lifeboat Hilton Briggs in 1974.

The rescue of the Netta Croan by Harry Berry
The rescue of the Netta Croan by Harry Berry

Harry Berry was born in London and joined the Navy aged just 15. He served for 25 years, leaving after WW2, moving to the island of Hoy in the Orkney archipelago and marrying a local lass. He reputedly never crossed the Pentland Firth again for the rest of his 49 years. Berry’s life remained tied to the sea, he worked in Lyness on the salvage of the German High Seas Fleet scuttled in Scapa Flow after WW1, and also as a customs officer. He painted scenes of the sea and ships, and frequently actions of the local lifeboats. There’s a nice write-up of Berry’s life and work here, with lots of photos. His painting of the Netta Croan is a more unusual subject as he generally only painted scenes with an overt Orkney link.

The Netta Croan, registered in Leith as LH100, was built in Aberdeen in 1957 for the Granton trawler firm of Joe Croan Ltd. by John Lewis and Sons. I believe she was named for Joe’s wife, Janet Croan, and she had a sister ship called the Joe Croan built at the same time by John Lewis.

Joe Croan in 1970
Joe Croan in 1970

In 1960, Joe Croan had the Netta Croan with a new system of open-topped plastic boxes for packing and storage of fish, which had been developed by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research at Torry in Aberdeen. This system increased fishroom efficiency and decreased damage to the catch, cutting costs and increasing the sale value of the catch. It became universally adoped in the industry, but it helped the Netta Croan to become a record breaker in the Granton fleet. Under Skipper James Gay Barclay she took in a port record of £5,500 in a single trip in 1965 and won a “Golden Haddock” industry award for highest earning near/middle water trawler in 1966. It was Croan himself who had set up the awards to try and drum up competition in the industry.

Netta Croan after the fire, note the burnt out wheelhouse and scorched paint on the funnel © Aberdeen Archives, Gallery & Museums
Netta Croan after the fire, note the burnt out wheelhouse and scorched paint on the funnel © Aberdeen Archives, Gallery & Museums

On the night of Saturday April 13th 1974, a distress call was received by the Coastguard from the Netta Croan from a position c. 4.5 miles north east of Aberdeen. She was not under control and was on fire. The Aberdeen reserve lifeboat, Hilton Briggs, was dispatched to her aid.

The launch of the Hilton Briggs © RNLI.
The launch of the Hilton Briggs © RNLI.

The Hilton Briggs was beginning to get a bit long in the tooth by this point, built in 1951, she had only a few years service left in her and was relegated to the reserve fleet. She could make at most 9.5 knots and reached Netta Croan in around half an hour. Around 11pm, she found her well ablaze aft, with her crew huddled on the fo’c’sle. Netta Croan was making full speed, also around 9 knots, and was totally out of control and steering erratically. The blaze in her wheelhouse prevented the crew taking control and stopping her. Already in attendance were the oil rig tender Smit Lloyd 47 and a British European Airways S61 Sea King helicopter used for oil rig transfers.

Smit Lloyd 47
Smit Lloyd 47

The helicopter was unable to help as the Netta Croan could not be slowed and kept steady, and the lifeboat was unable to catch the wildly manoeuvring trawler. For a while all they could do is try and keep up and watch. The Coxswain of the lifeboat was Albert Bird, the mechanic was Ian Jack, an Aberdeen harbour pilot. Bird took a chance when the Netta Croan entered a right-hand circle and cut across her path. He handed over to the pilot Jack, who was more experienced in closing moving vessels.

Map sketch of the rescue of the Netta Croan. © RNLI "Lifeboat" magazine
Map sketch of the rescue of the Netta Croan. © RNLI “Lifeboat” magazine

The Coxswain stood at the wheelhouse door where he was between the helmsman and the trawler and guided her skilfully alongside. Within a minute, the lifeboat crew brought all 12 marooned trawlermen across, helped by the overhead searchlight of the BEA helicopter.

Close-up of the Hilton Briggs taking aboard Netta Croan’s crew

The lifeboat beat a hasty retreat as it had put itself in real danger from the fire, and a much larger vessel moving at speed and out of control. Tragically it was found that the crew of Netta Croan was 13, not 12, and a man – Hugh Farrell – had jumped overboard to a raft towed behind the trawler after finding himself cut off on the stern from the others. After a search of the immediate area, the Hilton Briggs returned the casualties to Aberdeen, before returning to the area and searching for a further hour until 3AM.

Netta Croan's crew are brought ashore © RNLI "Lifeboat" magazine
Netta Croan’s crew are brought ashore © RNLI “Lifeboat” magazine

For their service, the Coxswain was awarded the RNLI’s silver medal for gallantry, the Mechanic the bronze medal, and the 3 other crew (George Walker, F. Cruickshank and A. Walker) were awarded certificates of thanks from the Institution inscribed in vellum. The burnt out Netta Croan was eventually brought in to Aberdeen Harbour where she lingered while being stripped of any parts and machinery still of use. She was sold for scrap and towed the same year to Bo’Ness on the Forth for scrapping.

The burnt out Netta Croan awaiting her fate in Aberdeen © Aberdeen Archives, Galley & Museums
The burnt out Netta Croan awaiting her fate in Aberdeen © Aberdeen Archives, Galley & Museums

As the British east coast white fish fleet started to decline, the industry consolidated, Croans had merged with the Granton firm of William Carnie before joining Associated Fisheries of Aberdeen as a subsidiary. Joe Croan was managing director of Croan & Carnie Ltd. but when they were bought by industry giant British United Trawlers of Grimsby in 1970, Croan parted company by mutual consent to work as an independent fishing industry consultant.

Albert Bird, Coxwain of the Aberdeen lifeboat who had saved the crew of the Netta Croan was presented with a memorial plaque for 29 years of service in 1997. He had the distinction of being “probably the only man to have both been saved by a lifeboat and to have commanded one“.

You can read the full account in the RNLI’s online archive copy of the 1974 “Lifeboat” annual magazine here.

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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