Reviewed by: Steve Cobb
John Henshaw is a retired chartered surveyor, keen yachtsman, an accomplished marine watercolour painter and ship modeller. He is also the author of Town Class Destroyers: A Critical Assessment, Crowood 2018, a study of the 50 obsolete destroyers transferred to the RN under Lend-Lease in 1941. He is also a fine technical draughtsman and uses his skills to full advantage in this book.
Liberty’s Provenance, subtitled The Evolution of the Liberty Ship from its Sunderland Origins, is published in Landscape format, with 21 chapters and seven Appendices in the first 120 pages. It has one purpose, as the subtitle, and the dedication to the memory of Robert Cyril Thompson, CBE (1907-67) indicates, and should the reader forget this, s/he is reminded of it in most chapters! This evolution is traced back to Britain’s Emergency Standard designs of World War One, particularly Types F and F1, the former parented and designed by Joseph L Thompson & Sons of Sunderland. These were 6440 GRT, 440 ft single-screw vessels, capable of 12 knots. Most of these vessels (400+ of all types) were not completed by war’s end, and more were built in the USA, at the behest of the Emergency Fleet Corporation. It sponsored four new shipyards, one of which was at Hog’s Island, on the Delaware River. This became the largest shipyard in the world, assembling ships from prefabricated parts. In the event, far too many were built, and too quickly, ships ill-adapted to civilian use.
With Britain again at war, in 1940, Robert Cyril Thompson led an Admiralty Merchant Shipbuilding Mission to the USA to obtain delivery of 60 tramp cargo vessels, and to place orders for others. He took with him the plans of the Empire Liberty (441 ft x 57ft; 7157 GRT) built in Sunderland and launched in August 1941. Henshaw’s book demonstrates that Empire Liberty was the successor to a whole series of vessels designed and built by Thompsons in Sunderland from the mid-1930s: Embassage (launched 1935) Dorrington Court, (1939), the Empire Wave series (March 1941). Returning from the USA on board the liner Western Prince, Thompson survived her loss 400 miles west of the Orkneys, to U-96. He saved the contract documents! He was awarded the CBE in 1941; joined the RAF, serving in Italy; succeeded his father as Chairman in 1961, and died in 1967.
Empire Liberty’s plans were adapted (e.g. welding rather than riveting; propulsion) as the basis for the Ocean-class built in the USA, of which the first, Ocean Vanguard, was launched in 4 months. One of Henshaw’s diagrams (p60) illustrates the similarities. The former can, therefore, be justly claimed as the forebear of all 2710 Liberty ships built by the US Government between 1942-45, and the Fort, Park and Victory classes built in Canada. For all its interest and worthiness, this is very much a niche book, unlikely to find a place on the wardroom shelf? But perhaps its merit is to remind us of the logistical necessities required to keep the UK supplied in a major war, and to reflect, with Kipling …
“For the bread that you eat and the biscuits you nibble,
The sweets that you suck and the joints that you carve,
They are brought to you daily by all us Big Steamers,
And if anyone hinders our coming, you’ll starve!”
Big Steamers, 1914-18 Collected Poems, (ed. R T Jones) Wordsworth, 2001