Captain Ken #14 - Fire on board in Liverpool docks

Captain Ken Owen had a long career at sea which included sailing as master with Overseas Containers Limited (OCL), P&O Containers and P&O Nedlloyd.   Ken is now retired and in 2020 he started writing a monthly article for publication using the pen name 'Captain Ken' in the Mellor Church Outlook magazine.

A number of articles that Ken has written are about his time at sea and he has very kindly agreed that we can share them here.  

In  article number 14 that we have reproduced on the PONLHeritage site,  Captain Owen tells the story of a fire on board a Blue Funnel cargo vessel that was docked in Liverpool in the 1960s.   This article was first published in the church magazine in February 2021.

Following my recent article about the Blue Funnel cargo/passenger liner Pyrrhus and how difficult it was for signallers to recognise the name when signalling with flashing Morse code, I am reminded of a particular incident with the same ship.


I was the Second Mate of her in the mid-sixties, and we arrived home from the Far East, on schedule and into Liverpool. For some reason, our usual berth Gladstone Dock was not available and we were berthed in Huskisson Dock, further south.  The dock was named after William Huskisson, who had been a great financier and MP for Liverpool, but he was most famous of all for being the first human fatal casualty on a railway when he was run over by Stevenson’s Rocket, on the first passenger Liverpool and Manchester Railway.


When the deep sea officers and crew arrived home , a relief coastal crew took over while the ship called at Glasgow, Swansea, Dublin, and Birkenhead, before taking on the passengers and returning to the Far East.


So there I was, happily home again, sitting by a lovely fire, when the television news announcer said ‘The fire on the ship in Huskisson Dock, Liverpool, is still raging.’ Immediately, partly from a sense of duty but also very much because many of my personal effects were still on board, Allwyn and I got in the car and drove straight to Liverpool.

Aerial photograph of Huskisson Dock taken in 1949  (image courtesy of Britain from Above)

When we arrived, the ship’s holds were on fire, and several fire engines were frantically fighting the flames.  The ship had to be abandoned, as she was in danger of capsizing, but fortunately the engineers were able to keep the pumps running to pump out all the water the fire brigade were pumping in and managed to control it.  The following day, I was recalled from leave and appointed with two other second mates to assist the Fire brigade C.I.D, to try and establish the cause of the fire. 

The fire had been in the holds and going through the remains was a real eye-opener to me.   Part of the training of a Merchant Navy officer is the care of all types of cargo - tea, coffee, timber, rubber, palm oil etc.; so imagine my disappointment, to discover that the bulk of our cartoned cargo from Hong Kong, was novelty plastic Squeaky oranges, Corgi the cat key rings, and lady’s Day of the week panties (Mon, Tues Wed, etc)  The container revolution of course has prevented anyone on board knowing what the bulk of the cargo is these days.


Pyrrhus was saved and continued in service for many years, until replaced by container ships.  The Ministry of Transport Surveyor stated that the standard of the Company’s management saved the ship. and he had noted that even the Chairman of the Company, Sir John Nicholson, went down the engine room to give encouragement.


I am quite fascinated with coincidences in history, so quite amazed years later when I read a headline in a re-print of the Liverpool Mercury dated June 1899, 'Cotton fire on Blue Funnel ship Pyrrhus in Toxteth dock, Liverpool.  This was in fact her predecessor.

(This article was first published in the February 2021 edition of the Mellor Church Outlook Magazine).

See also:

For further articles in this series:

Captain Ken Owen's articles are being published on a regular basis here but if you are interested in reading others that he has written which we haven't yet used then please feel free to go to