Tuesday, March 1, 2016

1936 Stolen Trawler

Girl Pat was a small fishing trawler based at the Lincolnshire port of Grimsby that caused a media sensation when its captain took it on an unauthorised transatlantic voyage in 1936. The escapade ended in Georgetown, British Guiana, with the arrest of the trawler's captain, George "Dod" Orsborne, and his brother. The pair were later imprisoned for the theft of the vessel.

                                     Girl Pat photographed by the Grimsby Telegraph c. 1945

Built in 1935, Girl Pat was the property of the Marstrand Fishing Company of Grimsby. On 1 April 1936, Orsborne, with a crew of four and his brother James as a supernumerary, took the vessel out on what the owners authorised as a routine North Sea fishing trip of two to three weeks' duration. After leaving port, Orsborne informed the crew that they were going on an extended cruise in more southerly waters. Nothing more was heard of them until mid-May, when the owners, who had by then assumed the vessel lost, received invoices relating to its repair and reprovisioning in the northern Spanish port of Corcubión. Subsequent sightings placed her in the Savage Islands, at Dakar in Senegal, and Îles du Salut off the coast of French Guiana in South America. The captain's main means of navigation during a voyage of more than 6,000 nautical miles (11,000 km) was a sixpenny school atlas and a compass. At one point Girl Pat was reported wrecked in the Bahamas, with all hands lost. After the vessel's capture and detention following a chase outside Georgetown on 19 June, Orsborne and his crew were hailed as heroes by much of the world's press.

In court in October 1936, charged with the theft of the vessel, Orsborne based his defence on a claim that the owners had instructed him to get rid of the ship as part of a scheme to obtain its insurance value. This was dismissed by the court. Years later, in his memoirs, Orsborne told a different, uncorroborated story: in absconding Girl Pat he had been carrying out a mission on behalf of British Naval Intelligence, connected with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. After his release from prison, Orsborne took part in further maritime adventures and served in the navy in the Second World War. He died in 1957.

In Georgetown Girl Pat was acquired by new owners who returned her to Britain, where she was displayed as a tourist attraction in several resorts. She was sold to the Port of London Authority for use as a wreck-marking vessel and, after being requisitioned by the Royal Navy during the war, was returned to the authority in 1945. There is no public record of her subsequent career.

Orsborne Biography

George Black Orsborne was born George Black on 4 July 1902, in the small north Scottish coastal town of Buckie. He assumed the Orsborne name when his widowed mother remarried and moved the family to Aberdeen, where George, nicknamed "Dod", spent his formative years. When he was 14, Orsborne lied about his age and enlisted as a Boy Seaman in the Royal Navy; in his memoirs he wrote: "I never did have an adolescence". He served in the Dover Patrol, and was wounded during the 1918 Zeebrugge Raid. After leaving the Navy in December 1919 and working ashore for a brief period, he was persuaded by a former captain of the Cutty Sark, Captain Wilkins, to go back to sea. He joined the merchant navy, sailing mainly in small ships based in Liverpool.

At 21 he passed his master's ticket examinations and took over his first command, a Grimsby trawler. During the following ten years, Orsborne said his career included "a bit of everything—rum-running, whaling, deep-sea trawling in the Arctic". In November 1935, back in Grimsby, he became skipper of the former seine fishing boat Gipsy Love, which its owners, the Marstrand Fishing Company, had converted into a trawler.

Capture, Detention and Arrest

On the evening of 18 June 1936 the British steamer Arakaka had spotted a small ship a few miles outside Georgetown, and radioed this information to the shore. An unarmed police launch left Georgetown to investigate; as they approached, the crew of the as yet unidentified vessel became hostile. They denied that she was Girl Pat and threatened violence should officers attempt to board her. The launch retreated to Georgetown, where the police were armed and authorised to seize the suspect vessel. They returned early the following morning to find that their quarry was departing. A two-hour chase ensued, which The Hull Daily Mail glamorised as a sporting contest: "Like some coursing greyhound the faster Government ship stuck to the tail of the fleeing suspect which, harelike, doubled back on her course to dodge her pursuer". According to the British Daily Worker, the chase "[outdid] the most spectacular efforts of film directors". Finally, while manoeuvring at close quarters, the vessels collided. The stern of the suspect boat was severely damaged, whereupon she surrendered and was taken in tow. The name displayed on the vessel's hull was "Kia-ora", but Stephens quickly admitted to their captors that the ship was Girl Pat.

With Girl Pat secured and under guard in Georgetown harbour, the Orsborne brothers, Harris, and Stephens were taken to police headquarters in the City Hall. The police issued a statement that the four were there "at their own request. They are under no form of detention". In London, officials struggled to establish the exact legal position, and issued confusing statements.

Meanwhile, Orsborne and his companions were widely hailed as heroes. The German newspaper Hamburger Fremdenblatt asked: "Is this not a bit of British tradition, to do the unconventional out of love for adventure, if great personal risks, audacity and romance are connected therewith?". A man from the town of Hull thought the adventure demonstrated "the spirit of Drake", and called for a public subscription to meet the crew's debts and expenses. An alternative view, expressed in the Hull Daily Mail, was to question whether the men should be regarded so favourably, or merely as "men who have run away with someone else's property".

Once released by the police, Harris and Stephens returned immediately to England, where they arrived on 13 July. The Orsborne brothers waited in Georgetown for their position to be clarified; George Orsborne told the press he was anxious to return home where, he insisted, many job offers were open to him. On 27 June, following further discussions in London, the brothers were arrested on a warrant issued under the Fugitive Offenders Act, and brought before the Georgetown magistrates, where they were charged with the theft of Girl Pat.

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