The Richard Crofts was a Castle class steam trawler built for the Admiralty and launched on 13 June 1918 by Cook Welton & Gemmell of Beverley (Yard No.396). Her steel hull measured 125.5’ x 23.5’ x 12.7’, with tonnage of 290 gross and 126 net. The vessel was powered by a triple expansion steam engine provided by Amos & Smith of Hull. Her naval number was FY3720 and her official number was 143931.
Completed in December 1918 she had been built for war service but never saw action in WW1 and was sold in May 1920 to her first commercial owners the Iago Steam Trawling Company of Milford Haven and registered at London as LO365.
The Richard Crofts was requisitioned for war service in August 1939 by the Royal Navy as a minesweeper, pennant No FY530. At the conclusion of WW2 she was returned to her owner who decided to put her up for sale in 1946. The new owners were Lewis Wilcox and Company of Milford, where she remained until June 1952 with a further sale to Milford Steam Trawlers, her fishing registry moved to Milford Haven as M229.
The Richard Crofts left Milford Haven on Saturday 14 February 1953 under the command of skipper Harry Rich, his crew numbered 11 hands. They headed north for the fishing grounds around the Outer Hebrides where they worked the following week. on the morning of Saturday 20 February sea condition off the west coast were extremely poor, with low visibility and a strong south-westerly gale and heavy seas. Around 06.30 the Richard Crofts ran aground in darkness on the north west coast of the Isle of Coll. The coast here is fringed with reefs and offshore rocks making a very dangerous place to run aground.
The trawler ground to a halt around 500 yards offshore at Cornaig Beg beach and was immediately smashed against the many rocks both above and below waterline. She canted over to port at 45 degrees with bow north east, the crew immediately made preparations to abandon their vessel. The ships boat had been damaged by waves breaking over the wreck, and was jammed against a bulwark. The only other means of escape was a small Carly float which was quickly launched. Five crew jumped aboard, closely followed by another five who were pitched into the maelstrom of water when the trawler began to sink. They held on as the sea took the float away from the wreck but one by one they disappeared as their grip was wrenched free by the strength of the foaming waves, others were thrown out of the float as it pitched in the heavy surf.
The skipper had radioed a distress call immediately on going ashore and Barra lifeboat left Castlebay at 07.45 heading for the west coast of Coll, at this stage they were unsure of the exact location of the casualty. Other vessels including a tug, HMS Relentless made full speed to the area and joined the search, which also included two Shackleton air sea rescue aircraft. The skipper and a fireman, Joe Vliestra had remained aboard but they to eventually had to jump overboard as the vessel foundered. The story of the crews fate is graphically told by the Daily Record in the cutting below, sad to say of the twelve crew only four survived, helped ashore by local crofters, and attended to by the local GP and nurse. As for the eight who perished, two were washed ashore, and six were picked up offshore by the Barra lifeboat. The survivors were taken to Oban as were the deceased.
The Survivors – Reginald Davis (2nd engineer), Joe Vliestra (Fireman), Hayden Jones (Fireman), Tommy Donovan (Deckhand).
The Deceased – Harry Rich (Skipper), Charles Toombs (Chief engineer), Walter Hollowell (Mate), John Owens (Bosun), George Coe (3rd hand), Stan Rees (Cook), John Turrell (Deckhand), Edgar Taylor (Deckhand).
A relief fund was initiated by the local Council and community for the families and dependants of the crew and when closed later that year had raised £5,299.00.
The wreck of the Richard Crofts was found lying around 500 yards offshore, 3 miles 8 cables from the Cairns of Coll light, bearing 240° true. The wreck was submerged and listing to port, heading to sea, with three island rocks to starboard and one to port. The top of her main mast was visible at low water.
The Admiralty chart 2171 shows a stranded wreck symbol (marked position approximate) in position 56° 40.756’N, 06° 31.144’W. Some sources attribute this mark to the wreck of the Saint Brandan lost in 1928 after going ashore on the north end of the Cairns of Coll, later sinking back into deep water. We believe the stranded symbol is an approximate position for the Richard Crofts. It’s highly likely that the actual position is known to islanders and the many expeditions to the island by dive clubs over the years. A search in depths 10-15 metres may illicit some wreckage in position 56° 40.934’N, 06° 31.219’W – yellow dot in graphic below.
We would like to thank Lloyd’s Register Foundation – Heritage & Education Centre for allowing us to reproduce documents from their archive in this article.