Somewhere on the Anatolian coast in 1998 a cargo ship called the Kaptan Sukru caught fire. The fire was in the engine room; her crew abandoned her and she was left to burn, writes Mary Mills…

I don’t know what happened next although I’ve been trying to find out for a long time. At one time I had an email from an American who was going up the coast to see if she was still there – but I never heard back. There are lots of websites about what happened but they’re all in Turkish, and translations so far have been gibberish – or put up error messages saying they can’t do it – and it’s not OK.

If you look up Kaptan Sukru on the sort of web site which gives detailed descriptions of ships you will see that they say she was built in Greenwich in 1871. One site I found went to some lengths to explain that the date and place were not a misprint. I could have added that not only was that the correct place and date of construction – in fact I could tell them exactly where she was built – but that she was built as something quite revolutionary.

The ferry service across the Bosporus in Istanbul is quite old and very busy.

One of the ships which does the trip today is called Sahilbent, named for a famous predecessor. At one time this was originally a foot ferry but by the mid 19th century there was a need to carry horses, carts, army transports and other vehicles – in particular gun carriages needed to be able to roll on and roll off.

The ferry company was then called Sirket-I-Hayriye and their manager, Huseyin Haki Efendi, made a rough sketch of the sort of craft which he needed. He discussed his plans with Iskender Efendi, who had been an inspector for the Turkish Government and with Mehmed Usta, the Chief Naval Architect at the Haskoy Shipyard. Usta developed the sketches into detailed designs and took them to London.

The Maudslay Son and Field shipyard was on the Greenwich Peninsula riverside – at Bay Wharf, where the new boat yard is now. It was the shipbuilding arm of the famous Lambeth based company founded by Woolwich born Henry Maudslay ‘the father of machine tools’. His sons and grandsons had concentrated on marine steam engines, and then turned to building ships themselves. There is a drawing of the launch of the first ship built there. If you look in the bottom left hand corner of the picture there is a group in oriental dress watching the launch. I guess that is Mehmed Usta and his team.

Maudslay built two ferries from them. The first was ready in 1871. Built for river transport it had to be transported to Turkey under its own steam from London via the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and we understand there were some nasty moments on that trip. In due course she arrived in Istanbul in good order and was named ‘Suhulet’ which means ‘to be easy’.
Suhulet had been designed to carry vehicles and for them to roll on and roll off. We take this method of loading unloading for granted now but Suhelet was the first ro-ro.

When she was put into service the Bosporus boatmen protested because they would lose trade because of her.

They intended to prevent her first voyage from Uskudar to Kabatas but this protest was effectively stopped by the actions of Huseyin Haki Effendi who arranged that the first passengers should be an artillery battery.

The Turkish authorities were very pleased with Suhulet and soon her partner, a second and more powerful double ended ferry arrived. She was called Sahilbent which means ‘linking two shores’ and was named by the Turkish poet, Nakik Kemal.

The years went by. In 1845 the ferry company Sirket-I-Hayriye was taken into state control – nationalised – and became part of the Turkish Maritime Lines. Suhulet was fitted with a diesel engine before 1930 and thus lost her tall funnel.

In 1952 she was given another new engine and some more modifications were made. Six years later, after 86 years of work, she was withdrawn from service and broken up for scrap in 1961.
Sahilbent kept on crossing and re-crossing the Bospherus. She had been first overhauled in 1927 and was eventually taken out of ferry service in 1959 after 87 years of work. She was then sold and from 1967 worked as a cargo ship.

As part of that change she was renamed the ‘Kaptan Sukru’. Around that time a magazine article is said to have named her as the ‘oldest ship still in service in the world – I have never traced that article which was said to be in ‘Time’ magazine. At some point she was fitted with a new engine and still appeared as active in the shipping registers in 1996.

In 1998 a news agency in Anatolia released a story which was later repeated on the Turkish Pilots service web site. This told how a small cargo ship had caught fire offshore in Pazar county Rize Province, and had then ran aground on the Ardasen Coast.

She had left Rize Port with a load of heavy logs to take to a mine at Hopa. The seven member crew were taken off and the ship left to burn.

So and where is she now? Is she a burnt out hulk somewhere on Ardesen coast, or – what is most likely – was she broken up? Or is it just possible that she was refitted and refloated and, is there, somewhere in Turkey, a boat at work which was built 130 years ago in Greenwich? And which was also one of the first two ro ros ever built.

The Greenwich Industrial History Society meets once a month.
All welcome. Please see greenwichindustrialhistory.blogspot.com/ for current news and events.

• 11th June.Tracy Stringfelllow & Charlie MacKeith. Jacobean Vistas and public conveniences, Meeting will be in the Studio not the Bakehouse
• 15th October David Waller. Men of Iron – Maudslay
• 12th November Pieter Van der Merwe A Great Light inthe East (End): Gas and the Royalty Theatre, Stepney’ 1816 This will be held in the Studio not the Bakehouse

Meetings held at 7.30pm at the Old Bakehouse, Bennett Park SE3 (rear of Age Exchange) There is no parking.