The steel steam trawler Leicester City was launched from the South Bank yard of Smith’s Dock Co Ltd., Middlesbrough (Yard No 978) on 22nd November 1934. She measured 157.0′ x 26.7′ x 12.3′ and her tonnage was 422 gross tons, 161 net tons. She was powered by a triple expansion steam engine by Smith’s Dock Co Ltd delivering 126 net horse power.
She was built on the order of the Consolidated Fishing Co Ltd., Grimsby and operated for this company out of Grimsby (GY106) for her entire career except when she was requisitioned by the Admiralty for war service as an anti-submarine vessel during World War Two. During the winter of 1952/3 her engines were converted to run on diesel oil.
Returning from a successful fishing trip to Iceland the Leicester City approached the Orkneys on 22nd March 1953. She was under the command of Osmund Johansen who had a crew of seventeen men aboard. Her usual skipper Bill Hardie, a Royal Navy reservist, had been called to Portsmouth. Johansen, suffering from a bad attack of gout, had gone below leaving instructions with the men on the watch to call him as they approached the entrance to the Pentland Firth. The radar on the vessel was malfunctioning and then, as they moved slowly through the darkness, they were enveloped in a dense fog. The men on the bridge became increasingly nervous but it was only when the depth soundings suddenly showed a shallowing seabed with only 5 fathoms of water that they called the skipper to the bridge. Johansen immediately ordered engines into full reverse but it was too late. She struck unseen rocks and immediately took on an alarming list to starboard. Johansen sent out a distress call but incorrectly believed they were ashore on the north Caithness shore west of Holburn Head so the first lifeboat launched to their aid was from Thurso. He subsequently recognised his error and radioed further that they were ashore on Orkney somewhere south of Marwick Head. The Stromness lifeboat was then launched to look for the stranded fishing vessel.
Ashore on Hoy two local women, Mrs Mary Ritch and her sister Bella, were returning to their farm at Breabister after visiting friends on the island and were walking from their car to the farmhouse when they heard a bell ringing continuously and noticed the lights of the Leicester City through the gloom of the night and the fog. They immediately recognised that a vessel was in distress ashore and they started to make their was down to the shoreline.
Aboard the trawler Johansen, fearing that she might capsize completely at any moment, ordered the life rafts lowered and instructed the crew to abandon ship. He did not realise they were close to the shore and in little immediate danger. Unfortunately this proved to be a fateful decision. The vessel’s rafts were launched but in the poor visibility and swell proved to be less than effective in saving lives. The two lifeboats arrived on the scene and searched the area for survivors or bodies. The Stromness lifeboat recovered one raft with four men aboard and took the men to Stromness. Unfortunately one of the men died on the journey back to Stromness. Hearing that there was at least one other raft with maybe ten crewmen aboard they returned to the scene and continued to search. The Thurso lifeboat only discovered and upturned raft and a single floating body. By the time the Ritch sisters, and shortly after their brother Charlie, reached the shore near the wreck some of the men who had succumbed were being washed ashore but others managed to reach the shore and were taken to the farm to be revived. Seven of the crew died that night from exposure and cold as they struggled through the surf to reach the shore. It appears that the larger raft with ten crewmen aboard had capsized in the swell leaving the crew to struggle to the shore in the freezing water.
The Leicester City became a total wreck. It is not known if any salvage was carried out on the wreck or if any wreckage remains at the site where she went ashore which is in approximate position 58° 56.107’N, 003° 21.042’W 200 metres from the Taing of Selwick, Hoy. An initial salvage attempt was made in late March but this was delayed by week long north westerly gales and by 4 April the attempt was abandoned due to cost. See newspaper cutting below for more information.