To help the Belfast Harbour Commissioners come to a decision about buying Cormorant from Dublin, the surveyors they sent down to examine the ship were Messrs James Maxton & Co. Google told me they are still in business and, more in hope than expectation, I sent off an e-mail asking if they have any records of the survey. The reply was swift but disappointing – their offices were destroyed in a WWII blitz. The firm was also tasked to produce ‘an outline specification and drawing of the adaptions which would be necessary to make the vessel suitable for the pilotage service’. The blueprints from which I obtained copies must have been drawn up from those Maxton documents and they are labelled ‘Liffey Dockyard’, where the work was done. Maxtons were also paid ‘200 guineas’ to supervise the work. You may remember the correspondence I found back in October, which debated what allowances the surveyors should receive for travelling from Belfast to Dublin. Those were the Maxton surveyors and they received only ‘normal’ expenses as Dublin was not considered to be ‘abroad’!
Another little nugget from the minutes enabled me to plot the location of the Lady Dixon during her time on station in Belfast Lough. All I knew before my visit was that she was stationed ‘off Carrickfergus’ and to me that meant a few hundred yards from shore, warning ships off the Carrickfergus rocks. The only photo we had of the ship on station was taken in the 1950s by Wil Smith (New Zealand) and showed a rather distant shoreline (Photo).
I thought perhaps the photo had been taken from the Carrickfergus shore. However, in the minutes of June 1942, where the purchase of a lightship was discussed, it was stated that it would be stationed in Belfast Lough ‘mid-way between No1 Buoy, Victoria Channel, and Grey Point’. Well assuming that the location of No1 Buoy has not changed much – 1.5 miles SE of Carrickfergus – and Grey Point is easily found on local maps, it has been possible to estimate (note the word!) where Lady Dixon was moored, and it is right across on the south side of the Lough (Photo), which explains the photo.
All this was of course very exciting (am I turning into a nerd?) but there was more to come.
I continued my trawl through the library of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, having found plenty of interesting nuggets in the early minute books. In September 1943 “The Chairman intimated that, in accordance with the wishes of the Board, he had asked Lady Dixon, D.B.E., J.P., wife of their esteemed colleague, The Rt. Hon. Sir Thomas J. Dixon, Bart., H.M.L., if she would consent to the pilot lightship “Cormorant” (which name the Board desired to alter) being named after her, and that Lady Dixon had kindly consented”. Well that settled my question as to whether the ship was named after Sir Thomas’ wife or mother. It was resolved “That the pilot lightship be named “Lady Dixon”, and that the grateful thanks of the Commissioners be conveyed to Lady Dixon for the honour which she has conferred upon them by allowing the vessel to bear her name”. Isn’t the language lovely? This is of course the period when the Master of the lightship, Mr A.P. Kennedy, did not know what name to write in the headings of his log pages!
Things soon became rather routine and repetitive in the Minutes, as they had in the Log Books and not wishing to take undue advantage of the Commissioners’ generosity, I kept the free photocopying down to a minimum and made extensive notes. These tell me that in January 1955, the ship’s repair bills were mounting – well she was 83 years old by this time. Her regular overhaul cost a total of £1,760 (over £57,000 today) although this did include examination and renewal of her mooring. This did not include ‘repairs to the Aga and Esse cookers, the Pilots’ Mess Room heater, any repairs needed underneath, nor the repairs to the boarding platform damaged on 8 December 1954 in a gale’. The last entry in the last Log Book available was on 14 September 1956, but the Minutes continued and included a commendation from the Commissioners to the pilots and crew of the Lady Dixon for the rescue of three occupants of a small yacht which capsized in Belfast Lough on 7 September 1958. The end was fast approaching, but I will deal with that next time.
The final nugget I found before I left the Commissioners was a big one. There were several photograph albums on the shelves and in one I struck real gold! Up until then, the only photograph we had of Lady Dixon was Wil Smith’s. In one of the albums I found not one, but three photographs of the ship taken on 21 May 1957. Any doubts I may have had about Wil’s photo being of the Lady Dixon were dispelled because the name is clearly visible on two of the photographs and the planking of the ‘boarding platform’ at the stern can be seen. This platform had caused me doubts because it made the stern look very rectangular – not at all like the ship as she is now (and was underneath the platform). (Photos)