The Duchess was a rear engined coastal steamship built by Charles Rennoldson & Company of South Shields (Yard No.211) and launched in February 1924 for her new owners J Hay & Son of Renfield Street, Glasgow. Her steel hull had dimensions of 195.1’ x 30.3’ x 12.1’ with tonnage of 798 gross and 355 net. The coaster was powered by a triple expansion steam engine of 137 nhp manufactured by William Beardmore of Coatbridge. The vessels official number was 147885.
On the evening of 11 November 1940, two vessels approached the body of water known as the Little Minch off the north west coast of Skye. From the south, the coaster The Duchess was heading north to then passage south down the North Sea coast for London with a general cargo including maize and sugar. From the north, the London registered steamship Trefusis (5299t) was heading south for Oban with an unspecified cargo, both vessels were travelling at around 9 knots.
It was later found that only one of the vessels was displaying lights which turned out to be the main cause of what was about to unfold. As the two vessels neared they were on slightly crossing courses, the Trefusis seeing the Duchess off her port bow altered course to starboard, The Duchess only seeing the Trefusis at the last minute turned to port. By this stage a collision was inevitable, the Trefusis crashed into the small coaster, which sank quickly taking with her all her crew bar the steward who was picked up by the Trefusis.
In January 1943, the owners of The Duchess took out an action in the High Court in London against the owners of the Trefusis, the Hain Steamship Company of London, claiming them responsible for the loss of their vessel. In his judgement, Mr Justice Bucknill apportioned blame of two-thirds Trefusis and one-third The Duchess. This seems unfair as the Trefusis was running without lights. However the judgement was based on the fact that both vessels did not reduce speed and both altered course, which could be forgiven as the collision was almost inevitable. Sourcing the court transcript would probably make interesting reading.
So why was the Trefusis transiting the Minch with no lights? Well the only reason we can find related to her forming part of Convoy HX-84, famously known for the heroic actions of HMS Jervis Bay in defending the convoy against attack from the German raider Admiral Sheer. The convoy left Halifax on 28 October and was spotted by the Admiral Sheer on 5 November. The Admiral Sheer was immediately engaged by the Jervis Bay who attacked the German raider allowing time for the convoy of 38 vessels to disperse. Tragically the Jervis Bay was out gunned and was eventually sunk but the fight allowed time for all but 6 merchantmen to make UK ports safely.
The convoy transit time was estimated at 10-11 days from Halifax to the UK dependant on weather, so it is likely that the Trefusis was inward bound to Oban and running dark having been part of the original convoy.
The wreck of The Duchess will probably lie in deep water off the north coast of Skye, in the main shipping channel. We have assigned a notional position near the turning point for the channel off Waternish Point. The newspaper cutting below gives a bit more background to the story of Convoy HX-84.