“Oh What a Life”

A Presentation by T.A.S.C. Member Tom Purvis (Tyne Pilot Retired)

Tom shares with us his research into the remarkable life of Thomas William Colville who lived in South Shields

It’s all in the language!

By TASC Member Tom Purvis (River Tyne Pilot Retired)

Talking with Tom Purvis the other day, he remarked on how seeing his father’s photograph on our website, reminded him of the following story…

He was piloting a small naval vessel up to Newcastle quay, and, as is the ‘Navy Way’ they always berth head-out, ready for a quick get-away. A Tug was ordered to help swing the sweeper and tow up stern-first from the swinging area at Tyne Main. It was common practice (and still is) for the commander to have ‘His Pilot’ (usually a junior officer) control the vessel. However, normally when a tug is involved-and especially when towing stern first, for the river pilot to take over.

But in this case the Captain asked my father if his pilot could carry on. As they approached the berth the officer shouted to the tug ‘Varst tow tug’ the accent not being native to the North East Coast! The Captain was none too pleased when the tug appeared to ignore his command. Father stepped in and shouted ‘Eeasy Ower Jimmy’ To which the tug quickly responded. You can imagine the look of disbelief on the officer’s face! …He had assumed that the crew on the tug spoke English!….wrong!!


By TASC Member Tom Purvis (River Tyne Pilot Retired)

Around October 1938, my Father, (also Thomas Hall Purvis) one of the youngest First Class pilots at that time, boarded the ‘Kungsholm‘, one of Swedish America lines largest passenger ships.

Passenger Vessel Kungsholm
Passenger Vessel Kungsholm

Being full of trepidation of the task in front of him, he put the vessel to anchor and a few hours later entered on the early morning tide. It was a dark October morning, and whilst concentrating very hard and aware of this particularly high profile job, he noticed out of the corner of his eye an extremely attractive young blonde girl, obviously Swedish!

In a fleeting moment he did question who she was as passengers weren’t allowed on the bridge, he perhaps assumed she was the Captain’s daughter. After making fast and being able to relax he had a chat to the ‘blonde’, found her delightful and very easy to talk to.

As was customary in those days, the Captain invited my father to his cabin for a drink.  “Are you aware pilot, who that young lady on the bridge was?

The Young Greta Garbo
The Young Greta Garbo

Father was now expecting a “Keep your hands off my daughter” speech! But the answer was….Greta Garbo!!  Word got out and he was asked to take part in the equivalent of ‘In Town Tonight’ a well-known radio program of its time. I have a copy of the script and a note of his fee of 2 guineas (two pound two shillings)

I’ve attached a treasured photo of my Father boarding a British tanker. At the time he was almost 70 years old (they were forced to retire in those days at 70, this broke his heart) In fact within 6months of retirement he had a major heart attack and died when only 75!

Pilot Thomas Hall Purvis
Thomas Hall Purvis


A Christmas Surprise

By TASC Member Tom Purvis (River Tyne Pilot Retired)

One Christmas I was on-call pilot till 9am Christmas day. Checking with the office before I turned-in. was told “all quiet- nothing doing” So off to bed and looking forward to a good night’s sleep and a work-free Christmas day.

About 3am, the phone’ rang and the voice on the other end said “This is not a wind-up, there’s a Danish coaster off the piers. The Master has informed Tyne Harbour that the cook has stabbed one of the sailors and he is lying dead on the boat deck: The police will be at the Pilot jetty in half an hour, can you be there and bring the ship  into the Tyne Commissioners quay ?”

Once I realised I was awake and not dreaming! I got dressed, and proceeded to the jetty. There waiting, were 6 PC’s all armed and wearing body armour. As we got alongside the ship we were advised that the Master had locked himself in the bridge. The sergeant said she would board first secure the scene and told me to wait. Quickly I was told that the scene was secure, the cook was sitting very calmly in the mess. “But come up to the bridge on the port side because the sailor is lying under the starboard lifeboat and the deck is swimming in blood!” 

The master was in no fit state to do anything and I took the controls and got the vessel into the river and alongside the quay moved here. Not a lot of conversation and all I could do was get my bill signed and make my way ashore. Yes you guessed we were starboard side alongside and I forgot about the blood!!

Eventually, at home, we sat down to Christmas dinner and deciding that this year we would have roast beef I made sure it was well-done.!!

Anything Can Happen At Sea!

By TASC Member Tom Purvis (River Tyne Pilot Retired)

In February 1966, I was 4th mate on the Mobil Transporter (yes Mobil Oil carried 4 mates??). She was a 35,000 ton crude oil carrier and we were to discharge at a SPM (that’s single point mooring) off Fiumicino, the port for Rome. The SPM is a dolphin construction with a roller fairlead to which you make fast with 3 bites of rope from the foc’sle head. Critically this meant 2 of the bites were on the same set of bollards. A floating pipeline ran from the SPM and attached as normal to the manifold.

We had just completed discharge, totally empty with the forefoot clear of the water, when we felt the full force of the mistral blowing at force 8-10. So rapid was the blow we never had time to ballast and the order was given to let go immediately. In the panic the 2nd mate on the foc’sle let go the single rope on its own bollard which meant letting go the second rope which put all the weight onto one rope.

These were ployprop ropes which gave no warning of parting unlike a sisal type rope which starts to shred before parting. You guessed the rope parted and completely severed the Serang’s leg above the knee. However although you get no warning with a polyprop as they expand they generate enormous heat and a top class hospital doctor could not have done a better job, virtually no blood or tearing of the flesh.

Chaos followed including the emergency helicopter’s winch jamming, which meant it had to return to base to free same!! Eventually we cleared the berth got some ballast in and proceeded on our way. The 2nd mate was now on the bridge and a full blow by blow account of the disaster was recalled, the ‘old man’ turned to him and said what happened to the Serang’s leg…..”Well, it was no use to him anymore so I threw it over the side!!

An immediate cable was sent to the coastguard…..“If anyone reports finding a leg on the beach, it’s OK, we know who it belongs to!”