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George Pottie, Superintending Engineer


George Pottie
The writer's great-grandfather, George Pottie, was a Scot, born in 1849 and raised in the village of Markinch in Fife. His father, also named George, was a farm laborer and my grandfather evidently referred to his Scottish relatives half-jokingly but very fondly as 'a bunch of peasants.'

Following James Watt’s development of the steam engine in Glasgow during the 1760s Scots developed a remarkable affinity with steam engines. Scottish steamship engineers became almost ubiquitous in the nineteenth century (a cliché deliberately echoed in the 1960s TV series Star Trek's engineer Scotty). George, his brother John, and John's son were just three of these countless Victorian steamship engineers from Scotland. George was more successful than most of them — but I still know almost nothing about his career.

Talking with his daughters I learned that he had worked in the South China Sea. One of them gave me a sword she said he had carried as a defense against pirates there — a claim I took with a large pinch of salt until I learned that pirates really were a genuine concern in those waters at that time — and still are! George’s presence in the Far East is confirmed by a document found in his desk in the 1970s — a summons served in Canton in August, 1874 to answer a charge of assault and battery — an incident previously unknown to the family! The summons identifies him as the second engineer of a vessel named Ning po.

According to the engraved inscription on a retirement gift, George began working for the Atlantic Transport Line in 1883. In that year the line expanded from one to three ships, and he was therefore possibly engaged as an engineer for either the Sussex or the Suffolk, both of which were acquired in that year. Since there are no family stories about him surviving a shipwreck he had presumably moved to another vessel before these ships were lost in 1885 and 1886 respectively. His career clearly prospered as the line grew and by the time he retired he had been Superintending Engineer for the entire fleet for some years. He was certainly Superintending Engineer for Williams, Torrey & Feild at the time of the Mohegan disaster of 1898 for he is recorded as such in the Times giving evidence at the inquiry to the effect that the ship's boiler repairs had been carried out "under witnesses supervision and to his entire satisfaction."

I recall being told that George had been woken by a premonition of disaster only to find in the morning that a ship had indeed come to grief. But I don't know if this incident related to the wreck of the Mohegan in 1898 or the grounding of the Minnehaha in 1910.

In 1885 George married and began to raise a family. The first of his seven children was born in 1886 and the last (my grandfather) in 1899. He settled in a house near the railway station in Ilford, Essex, a choice no doubt entirely associated with his appointment to a desk job at the company headquarters in the City of London. Ilford was then a rapidly growing suburb and an ideal choice because it had a good railway service into the City and also, in an entirely different direction, down to the docks at Tilbury from which the Atlantic Transport Line’s ships sailed.

The company seems to have been good at retaining staff for many years and George retired in 1912 after nearly 30 years of service. To mark the event colleagues from "the Deck Department" at the Atlantic Transport Line (those under the Engineering and Marine Superintendents) presented him with a large and handsome cedar-lined sterling silver cigar box engraved with the company flag, their signatures, and the dates 1883 - 1912. George enjoyed cigars, and the generosity of this very appropriate gift probably reflected both his senior position within the company and the length of his service. He continued to live in Ilford until his death in 1931. Among the items of his in my care is a letter from the engineer of the Mohegan (3,213 KB PDF file) written the evening before her wreck in October 1898, a copy of George's typed notes on the salvage of the Minnehaha (292 KB PDF file) in 1910, and a silver medal commemorating the fitting out of the Maine as a hospital ship for the Boer war.

 

The silver cigar box presented to Geroge on his retirement in 1912
The engraved lid of the sterling silver cigar box given to George on his retirement in 1912 by colleagues in "the Deck Department"
(Private collection, photo: Don Mayston)

 

For more information ...

Kinghorn "The Atlantic Transport Line 1881 - 1931" McFarland, 2011

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In his 1892 book, The Atlantic Ferry: Its Ships, Men, and Working, Arthur J. Maginnis outlined the responsibilities of the Engineering Superintendent of a transatlantic steamship line:

Turing now to the other great section, the "outside", like the "Inside" section, is conducted under the head or chief, with the other partners or managers acting in conjunction with the heads of engineering, sailing, and victualling departments, which are actually engaged in working the steamers.

The most important is naturally the engineering department, which embraces almost innumerable divisions, for all of which the Superintending Engineer is responsible. It is this department upon which, when a new steamer is about to be taken over from the builder, devolves the duty of arranging the engineering staff on board the vessel. This class ranges from the sailing chief engineer, down to the boiler-makers, greasers, firemen, and trimmers and amounts now-a-days to a small army of 220 men in all.

A very important duty is the up-keep and maintenance of the whole machinery of the vessel, not only in the engine department, which alone accounts for upwards of fifty different engines, besides the main engines, but also the auxiliary apparatus scattered throughout the vessel, such as windlasses, steering gear, and others, and the various parts of the hull and deck which are subject to wear and tear. To these requirements must be added the incessant wants of the passenger department, in the way of re-arrangement and extension of saloon and emigrant accommodation, the supply and overhauling of the extensive fittings of the culinary and pantry branches, with the numberless minor but important requirements of a floating hotel.

To effectually fulfill these multifarious duties the Superintending Engineer has in his charge extensive repairing works, in which are located the various machines and tools required to carry out the work of the different branches of manufacture and repair. Engineering, forging, smithing, brass and lead founding, boiler-making, and general iron and steel work, plumbing, whitesmith's and tinsmiths work, brass finishing, painting, carpentry and joinery, pattern making, boat building, sawing, leather working, laundry work, upholstery, electrical engineering, rigging, sail making, electro-plating, and other kindred matters, are all placed under responsible foremen, who again, in most cases, have charge of a considerable staff to carry out the work on board when the vessels are in port. In the works extensive stores, containing all the necessary articles constantly in requirement by the different departments, so that the vessels may be completely overhauled and outfitted by the line's own establishment and staff.

In the engineering department the work, athough altogether out of the public eye, is much more extensive. As soon as the engines are stopped, the large staff is started to wipe down the machinery, blow down the boilers, and otherwise let off steam, and generally prepare the whole for inspection and overhauling.

Maginnis described the crew of an ocean greyound in 1891, including the engineering department:

The staff under the chief engineer numbers 234 as follows:— 1 senior second engineer, 1 second engineer, 2 thirds, 2 fourths, 2 assistant-seconds, 2 assistant-thirds, 2 assistant-fourths, 2 fifths, 2 sixths, and 2 sevenths, making 19 engineers altogether; but in addition come 3 boiler-makers, 6 electricians, 3 refrigerating engineers, making no less than 31 highly-trained officers; 2 winch men, 3 store-keepers, 36 greasers, 12 leading-firemen, 90 firemen, and 60 trimmers or coal-passers.

This immense staff is arranged in three watches of four hours each, as follows:— 6 engineers and 1 boiler-maker with 9 greasers for the propelling machinery, 2 electricians with 2 greasers, 1 refrigerating engineer with 1 greaser, 4 leading firemen, 30 firemen, 20 trimmers, and 1 store-keeper.

In 1891 Scribner's Magazine described the work done by her engineers when a ship reached port:

The simpler portion of this is done at once, and when the chief engineer's "indent" has been through the hands of the Superintending Engineer, the important or heavy work is proceeded with; both the sea-going and shore staff working conjointly, as the former are altogether responsible for the proper overhauling and adjustment of the moving parts, so as to insure good working at sea. The boilers after being cleared of the enormous quantity of ashes, soot, and rubbish, always consequent on such a large number of furnaces, are carefully cleared out; if necessary the inside is scaled, and the whole throroughly overhauled by the ship's boiler-makers and the shore staff under an experienced foreman, and also under the keen supervision of the chief and second engineers, who are throroughly alive to the fact that good work in port means less trouble at sea.

In addition to this work there is also the overhauling of the machinery in the other parts of the vessel, and the sundry repairs required in the other departments, which can only be effected by skilled mechanics.

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For more information ...

Kinghorn "The Atlantic Transport Line 1881 - 1931" McFarland, 2011

Home   |    History   |   Ships   |   Miscellanea   |   Search


© 2005 - 2013, Jonathan Kinghorn, all rights reserved

This Site and all its Contents are intended solely for non-commercial use. You may download or copy the Contents and other downloadable materials displayed on the Site for your personal use only. No right, title or interest in any downloaded materials or software is transferred to you as a result of any such downloading or copying. You may not reproduce (except as noted above), publish, transmit, distribute, display, modify, create derivative works from, sell or participate in any sale of or exploit in any way, in whole or in part, any of the Contents, the Site or any related software.