• Challenge is Launched

    She was built in 1931 by Alexander Hall & Co Ltd., Aberdeen Yard Number 633.

    Lloyds Register of Shipping (LRS) 54844.

    She was built for the Elliot Steam Tug Co., London, and the second tug to bear the name Challenge in the Elliot fleet, the previous one was built in South Shields in 1884 and was broken up in 1931.

    She is 110ft in length, 26ft 1" in the beam and she draws 12ft 3".

    Her engine is a triple expansion steam engine developing 1150 hp.

    The boiler was originaly built to be fired by coal, but later it was converted to oil firing.

    The Early Years

    Challenge was the last steam tug to serve on the Thames and was based on the Thames for all her working life but her work meant that she steamed as far as Scotland, Holland, Belgium, France and the South Coast of England. Jobs included towing barges of bricks from Holland and Belgium, laden square rigged ships, cargo ships and passenger liners

    At that time in the thirties and forties London Docks were at the hub of the world trade with cargos and passengers coming from and going to all corners of the globe with several large fleets of steam tugs competing to tow and dock the ships. She was often used to take crews to their vessels that had not come up the estuary, often with up to 60 or 70 crew members on board

    Early Memories of Challenge

    Memories of the S.T.Challenge and Cyril Sedge in particular.

    My father, Cyril Alfred SEDGE was bom in Gravesend in 1904, one of the eleven children of Frederick and Maud SEDGE. When Cyril left school he followed his father and grandfather in working on the Thames. He began as a galley boy on a tug, probably the Vanquisher, working his way up the ladder so that in the early 1930s he was employed as fireman on the Challenge.

    My earliest memory of the Challenge is of being rowed out before dawn from the Canal Reach to spend a day on the tug. It was not unusual for family members to spend a day in this fashion. When I was a toddler recovering from whooping cough my mother took me on board for a day so that the sea air would aid my recovery. There were other outings but we had to be very careful and well behaved - a necessary safety precaution especially when a large vessel was being towed- Would it be allowed today? At the tune I. didn't really appreciate the privilege afforded to the families of 'tuggies'. .

    My father taught, himself the accordion and also played the mouth organ so that at-waiting' times he would entertain us until either the tide was right or a vessel appeared needing Challenged services.

    One chorus of a song I remember was

    "Hallelujah I'm a bum

    Hallelujah bum again,

    Hallelujah I'm a bum,

    Now to revive us again"

    One verse went:-

    "I knocked on the door

    And 1 asked for some bread.

    But the lady said 'No, no,

    The baker is dead"

    There were interminable verses, sung by different members of the crew.

    Gravesend Town Regatta was a highlight of the year and a great day out for the family, the 'Prom' providing a marvellous grandstand view of the events taking place on the river. With ships dressed overall, sirens' sounding, cheerful chattering crowds, it was certainly a time to remember. Tug firms' four-oared races in watermens' boats with cox were very. special for all of us 'tuggy' families. The local Reporter newspaper wrote in 1935. "Five crews stripped to the waist, rowed like galley-slaves in this. There was terrific toot tooting from the moored tugs. Record volume of noise in fact." In this particular year the Elliott S.T.Co, came second in the four-oared race, the crew comprising at least two Challenge members - C.Sedge and W. Weeks. The prize for 2nd place was 2.

    It all changed when war came in 1939. I was almost nine years old so I was of an age to notice and remember and it did seem to me that we didn't see as much of Dad as we used to. Then 'Dunkirk' happened. I was not aware at the time what was taking place, only that Dad hadn't been home for days. The carnage and fury of Dunkirk obviously changed Dad's view of keeping the family together, for soon after my younger sister and I were evacuated to Totnes in Devon where we spent a few months before we returned home.

    Because the Challenge was an ocean-going tug crewmembers were classified as belonging to the Merchant Navy. As such they were provided with a Merchant Navy Ration book entitling the owner to extra rations. Dad and the family were registered with Arthur Perrings, a grocer in The Terrace close by The Tavern P.H. Dad's generous sugar ration was more than sufficient for our needs so 'bartler' with neighbours was the order of the day. I remember that our neighbour didn't like cheese so my mother was able to put just that little bit more cheese on the table?

    On 7 September 1940, a sunny summer's day, the sky was filied squadrons of German bombers on their way to the docks and the East End. Challenge was towing a cargo of benzene on the Thames at the time but was unable to detach the tow, as no one would take responsibility for it. Dad said long afterwards that that was the most terrifying time of his war.

    In 1941 I gained a scholarship to the local secondary school but, with money tight, provision of a school uniform and transport to the school posed problems for my parents. Dad saved the day with some salvage money earned (dangerously) when the Challenge pulled a ship off the Goodwill Sands. With this modest windfall I was kitted out and, to my great delight, given a brand new bicycle, my very first bicycle, costing 9. Salvage money, when it came, was always very welcome. Then came the doodlebug period. In July 1944 the Challenge, in company with Vincia. was assisting an American ship. Fort Gibraltar, to her berth in Victoria Dock when a doodlebug crashed into the Dock and exploded just off Challenge's port side. Crew members were badly shaken and Dad, who was in the forward cabin, was thrown down the stairs by the force of the explosion and sustained a slight head injury and concussion.

    After the War coded Dad began to suffer headaches and a rash on his scalp. (Today I supposed we might call it post-traumatic stress.) Then, much to his distress, he was forced to leave the river on medical grounds. He found employment for a short time at a factory alongside the Canal. But then he was able to return to the river when he became engineer on a coastal oil tanker belonging to the Thames Welding Company - - the TW1 based at Greenhithe. While moored there another ship collided with the TW1, which had to be scrapped. Dad then transferred to the Basset Hound based at Purfleet When the Thames Welding Company went out of business my father found employment in boiler house at Purfleet producing steam for cleaning out oil tankers.and petrol tankers. A similar job then followed at Tilbury Docks boiler house where he. spent the rest of his working life. A good life, a good man.

    Joyce Walker

    February 2003

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