Port Elizabeth of Yore: John Pyott and the Saga of the SS Newton

This blog deals with the ill-considered decision by John Pyott to acquire a steam vessel. He might have made a success of his biscuit making business, but shipping was to be his nemesis. This story is based on the excellent biography of John Pyott by Mrs. J.S. Bennie

Main picture: John Pyott

On the 7th June, 1902, John Pyott acquired a steam screw ship from James Mudie, Secretary of Pyott Limited, for the sum of £2 650. The number of shares sold in this transaction was sixty-four. The ship was built in 1902 in Porsgrund, Norway. Her gross tonnage was 73,54 tons and from mast to bowsprit her length was 80ft. She was 17ft. in breadth, of a steel framework, round stern and schooner rigged. Her official number was 115.057 and she was registered in Port Elizabeth. She had one compound engine. There does not appear to be any record of her cargo although that she was used to convey oak sleepers for a prospective railway from a forest which Pyott owned in Romania. The ‘Newton’ was never made to pay her way. On the one hand the coastal trade of the Colony was completely ignored. Small steamers had to pay full customs duties for the coal they required and the provisions they consumed while foreign steamers competing against them were permitted to obtain their coal and other supplies in bonds. In most countries coastal shipping was considered an industry to be protected but in South Africa at that time the reverse was the case.

Maintenance costs too were particularly high. By 1905 the ’Newton’ was costing quite a large sum of money and after Mangolds, in Baakens Street had effected a number of repairs Pyott eventually sent it to East London to be looked at by Mackenzie Bros. who were Iron Founders, Blacksmiths, Builders and Contractors. Mr. N. Toenissen was the appointed agent. In answer to a request from Mr Toennissen for money for the vessel’s repair John Pyott wrote: “I am in receipt of your letter of the 21st instant and note that on examination of the vessel on the slip you find that there is more to do than you anticipated at first. I leave the matter entirely in your hands to have the ship made seaworthy at the least possible expense.”

Pyott obviously hoped to make some money from the ‘Newton’ in a salvage venture off East London. The ship ‘Ashmount’ was in difficulties and her cargo were to be salvaged.

A Mr Gowan in a vessel called ‘Clara’ had made an attempt to reach the ‘Ashmont’ but had been unsuccessful. Pyott was hopeful that Toennissen would find a means of being successful and this would help the ‘Newton’ to pay her way. He did point out that the vessel was only insured while she lay in the river at East London and that if Toennissen wished to take her outside the harbour other arrangements would have to be made. Captain Olsen was obviously in charge of the ship at this time for Pyott agreed to pay his wages to the end of April after which time Toennissen would have to decide whether he would be kept on or not. Mr William Gowan, who had charge of the ‘Clara’ offered to buy the ‘Newton’ in August 1905. Pyott agreed to sell for £1 750 subject to an inspection.

However, this must have come to nothing as the ‘Newton’ was in Mr. Toennissen’s hands again in September of that year. He in turn was finding the ship a millstone around his neck and stated ‘the further I go the further in debt I get.’ There were two offers to hire at this time but neither was prepared to pay the insurance premium.

Later in September, Mascotte Fisheries Ltd., Durban, offered to charter the ‘Newton’ and John Pyott made enquiries of the Bank of Africa as to the Fisheries financial position.

However, the vessel continued to cause problems for obviously the charterers were not satisfied with the conditions of the ship. Mr Toennissen in reply to Mr Robert Trott of Mascotte Fisheries Ltd. wrote as follows:  “I was not a little surprised to learn of the leakage through the stern gland. It does seem strange that I should have had the boat for 4 or 5 months without noticing the leakage whatsoever. The gland was packed in East London by Mackenzie Bros., when a new propeller flange was put in, and Mr Atkins, the foreman, was himself present. Any repair to the bush or gland is in my opinion out of the question here. All that might have been necessary would have been to tighten the gland. That some water might have come through the pumps, either salt water or fresh, I shall not dispute on account of your engineer’s lack of knowledge of the engine. It has always been the same trouble when a new engineer took charge until he found out the different connections. Had you kept the old engineer on board until you reached Durban as I suggested your man could have known all about it, and all this trouble would have been avoided? You have probably heard from Mackenzie‘s people I spared no time and expense to be sure and deliver the boat in absolute first class order, which I have no doubt you will find when your engineer first is thoroughly acquainted with it. As regards sharing expense I shall leave that to Mr Pyott, but you will remember I was three quarters of a ton of coal short, besides I had just put on board 1 C/S engine oil, 5 galls. Cylinder Oil and nearly a case of Paraffin Oil which should have been paid for as well as an Ice Box I had bought from Mr Austin, so if we cry quits I think you will be very fairly compensated.

On the 23rd October, 1905 Pyott was again in communication with Robert Trott as to the condition of the ‘Newton’. Pyott verified that it had been delivered in good condition and said that if they i.e. Mascotte Fisheries, wished to be released from their charter they were to inform him by letter as he was unable to come to Durban personally for a considerable time.

The next reference to the ship is a letter to Messrs. W Storm & Sons of the Point Durban intimating that they should try to dispose or the ‘Newton’ to their mutual advantage. Pyott pointed out that he had an offer from Johannesburg to hire her but that he was not prepared to do this. She was for sale and lying in the care of Messrs Storm & Co. in Durban. Mr Toennissen had asked that the engine be kept well-greased and the decks as far as possible be kept protected from the sun. ‘As practical men you will understand what is required.

At length they found someone interested in the ship and she was sold to Charles George Smith and Joseph Ellis Brown merchants of Durban by Bill of Sale on the 30th April, 1906. The ship was registered at 10 a.m. on the 15th June, 1906 and transferred to the Port of Durban, Natal on the 16th June 1906.

In a letter to Messrs Storm and Sons, John Pyott on the 24th February, 1908, replied that he was pleased to note that the ’Newton’ was still being employed in the fishing trade and that he trusted ‘that the buyer has been able to make some profitable use of her, as I never could’.

So ended his sortie into ship ownership.

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