Five (-ish) Cableships called Retriever

Five (-ish) Cableships called Retriever

Cableships have had telegraphy-inspired names, such as the Transmitter, the John Pender, the Cable Restorer, the Recorder, and the Cyrus Field.  There was even a ship called The Cable (no, really).  But at times, a cable-ship inherits a name.  One name with more than one ship behind it is Retriever – not the golden kind, but the cable kind.

It is time for some history.

The third Retriever © PK Porthcurno Collection

The first Retriever

The first Retriever was built in 1878 by Cunliffe & Dunlop of Port Glasgow for the West Coast of America Telegraph Company.  For thirty years, it laid cables up and down the west coast of Central and South America.  It was based in Callao, and occasionally had to undertake repairs after they were cut by various revolutionaries (it was somewhat exciting in South America in those days).  It was renamed Clova in 1909 when it was sold to A. Milne Company and embarked on a new career in general cargo.  It was renamed a second time in 1923 when it was sold and became the Maranon.  Thirteen years of further cargo duties came to a sudden end when, in July 1936, the former Retriever lost an argument with the sea and was wrecked.

The second Retriever

The second Retriever was slightly smaller than its predecessor, and its career overlapped that of the first ship, which probably confused a few people (a popular name that Retriever).  It was built in 1879 by another Port Glasgow shipyard, this time Blackwood & Company, for the Eastern Telegraph Company.  The ETC sent it into the Mediterranean where they anticipated a long career of cable repair work in the Aegean Sea.  Unfortunately, Santorin Island had other ideas, and on Saturday 17th May, 1884, the word ‘wrecked’ crept into the ship’s curriculum vitae.  Another ETC cableship, the Volta, salvaged the Retriever’s cable and completed its task.

The third Retriever

The third Retriever was the successor of the first one, being built for the West Coast of America Telegraph Company and based in Callao.  It was built in 1909 by Goole Shipbuilding & Repairing Company, and spent twenty years in the Pacific.  In 1929, it was brought into the fleet of the newly-formed Imperial & International Communications and went on to repair cables in the West Indies, the Mediterranean, and the Red Sea.

Given the fates of the first and second Retrievers, you might be forgiven for believing in the adage of ‘third time lucky’.  Unfortunately, Fate had not heard this adage and dropped the Second World War in the third Retriever’s way.  On Good Friday, 11th April, 1941, it was in Piraeus, Greece, when an air raid began.  A bomb was dropped into the Retriever’s hold, blowing out its bottom and sinking it.  Its captain and ten of its crew were killed.  Videos of the wreck can be seen here and here.

The fourth Retriever © PK Porthcurno Collection

The fourth Retriever

The fourth Retriever was not built as a Retriever, but as the Royal Navy’s Bullfrog.  Built in 1944 by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson, the Bullfrog became the Retriever after the Second World War when it was sold to Cable & Wireless.  It was based in Singapore for much of the 1950s, but was then sold to the Commercial Cable Company in 1961 and renamed Cable Restorer.  It is as the Cable Restorer that this fourth cableship has survived (hooray!).  It is moored at Simon’s Town Maritime Museum at Cape Town.

The fifth Retriever

The cableship formerly known as the Bullfrog and then the Retriever had been sold off by Cable & Wireless to make way for a fifth Retriever.  The largest of the five ships and a revolution in design, it was built in 1961 by Cammell, Laird & Company of Birkenhead.  It was a repair ship and operated for the most part in the Pacific.  The first ship of the Cable & Wireless fleet to be fitted with diesel-electric engines, the fifth Retriever was based in Fiji until 1985 when it was transferred to Singapore.  Ten years later, it was scrapped in India.

Fifth Retriever © PK Porthcurno Collection
Fifth Retriever bridge © PK Porthcurno Collection

A video about the ship can be found here, and two videos dealing with its career in more detail can be found here and here.

So there we have it: five Retrievers

But wait: I did mention it was a popular name.  In 1944, as the Allies fought their way into France, it became necessary to keep the troops supplied with petrol.  The answer was an operation code-named ‘Pluto’, with ships manned by Royal Naval Reservists and members of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.  This used the principles of cable-laying to lay flexible pipes across the English Channel, and one of the ships (a converted French fish-carrier) laid the shore-ends of the Bristol Channel ‘Hais’ pipes. 

The name of this ship?  

HMS Retriever.


Duncan S. Mackenzie, RITTech, AMBCS
Digital Collections Officer, PK Porthcurno

Header image: the fifth Retriever © PK Porthcurno Collection

Five (-ish) Cableships called Retriever
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