Two strange stories of cranes that toppled into Birkenhead docks

When Harry Pleavin uploaded some of his father’s photos to local interest group ‘Birkenhead Memories‘, little did he know the response he’d get.

The photos show a crane that had toppled over and fallen into Morpeth Dock, between Birkenhead and Wallasey in the 1990s.

A member of Suzanne Dodd’s family worked on the docks at the time, so she was able to provide some interesting insight into how the crane came to fall into the dock.

“There were two Grayston White and Sparrow cranes, working together, lifting a wooden greenheart gate that had been removed from the Egerton/ Morpeth passage.”, she said.

The crane, part submerged in Morpeth Dock.

“Unfortunately as the lift started a wire strap pulled through the rotten timber and all the weight went on one crane and it toppled into Morpeth Dock, the driver managed to jump from the control cab.”, she continued.

On what ‘greenheart’ wood is, Suzanne explained, “Years ago the lock gates were made of a heavy wood called greenheart, it being unusual that it didn’t float.

“I think it came from South America. Over the years when they were replaced by steel gates, no one wanted them. It was very expensive to buy new, but the chain on a chainsaw would need sharpening after one cut, the wood was that hard.”

The operation to pull the toppled crane out of the dock.

Barry Roberts used to work for construction company, ‘Birse’, who were the main contractor removing the old Greenheart dock gates. “I think the two cranes were absolutely brand new and this was their first-ever lift.”, he said.

“It was a tandem lift with each crane taking one side of the gate each. When one side of the gate collapsed it created an imbalance with one of the cranes taking a much heavier load.

“Obviously the gate weighed too much for the remaining crane and into the dock it went. I remember the site agent, a guy from Manchester, telling me that he was sat in his office having a cup of tea when the General Foreman came running in and said ‘Gaffa, you’re not going to believe this!!!!!’

This story of the crane falling into the dock brought back other memories, this time of a failed attempt to launch a concrete yacht into the nearby Alfred Dock in 1977.

Recalling the concrete yacht saga, Brian Downing said, “My wife worked at PL Transtore down by the four bridges. One Saturday morning she was working the weighbridge when one of the drivers came running up yelling ‘Call the police, call the fire brigade, there’s a boat in the dock!’

The story that unfolded was of a teacher in Moreton who built the yacht in his back yard. He knew nothing about boats but decided a ferroconcrete hull was the way to go.

Brian continued, “When he finished it he called a hauling company to get it down to the docks and launch it with a crane. The hauling company looked at it and asked what it weighed.

He had no idea. He’d built it in the back garden so it would have to be lifted over the house to load it onto a flatbed. It was going to cost a fortune. He decided he could do better. He found a crane operator who would do it for cash on the way to another job.

“The thing went OK until they got to the dock wall alongside PL Transtore. For some reason, the crane driver set up with the legs of the jacks short on the dock side.”, Brian continued.

“When he lifted the boat and swung it around the whole lot, boat, crane, driver and boat owner tipped into the dock. The owner was on the deck of the boat and broke his pelvis.”

Luckily, a man called John Moffat was at hand, “I’m the exceedingly brave chap who went into the dock to save him!”, he said jokingly. A contemporary news story mentions that the yacht builder’s brother-in-law also jumped into the dock to help. “I only stopped to watch because I knew the driver of the low loader wagon that had brought it to the dockside.

“The reason it went wrong, was the fact that the crane driver had positioned the stabilizing legs over the concrete slabs that cover the service trench that run alongside the dock, so when he swung the jib out, it put the weight on the slabs which collapsed, and that was that.” Splash!

Brian Dowling continued the story, “They had no permission to launch the boat, plus it was in the lock for the docks and a ship was expected on the high tide.

“He called a crane company as an emergency and they sent a bigger crane to pull everything out. The boat sat on the quay wall for some time.

“Somebody told me years later the guy built another one, launched it successfully and sailed off, never to be seen again. Makes for a great story working in a shipyard.”, he concluded.

Thanks to the members of Birkenhead Memories for allowing me to use their photographs and recollections. All images: Harry Pleavin.