Memories Of Lill Tove/MV Chica 1894 - 2003
SOME MEMORIES OF HQMS/MV CHICA – 27th June 2009
Thomas Henry Barlow (Harry to some of his close family and friends), the last Master of Chica died in 2001 and was my then Father-in-Law.
The MV Chica started its life in Norway in 1894 with the name ‘Flora’ but I have little first hand information about her early history other than she was commandeered by The Germans in 1940 and renamed, ‘Bjorg Haukaas’. In 1965 she was renamed the ‘Lill Tove’ and after being bought by the ‘Straight Shipping Company’ in Gibraltar in 1977 was renamed CHICA in 1981.
Chica is now in a very sorry and neglected state lying on her side close to Dutton Lock on the Weaver Navigation in Cheshire where the lock keepers have had the opportunity to regale many a story about her history and demise to the delight of visitors and passing craft over the last 16 years since she floundered in 1993. Within days, the knowledge of a sunken vessel got around the villains of the area and she was comprehensively ransacked of any valuables, even the life raft it seems has a value on the black market, and subsequently abandoned and left to rot. She can be easily spotted on Google Earth at 53 degrees 17.3 minutes North and 2 degrees 37.2 minutes West.
I seem to remember that when the Straight Shipping Company acquired the Lill Tove it was plying the Mediterranean out of Valletta in Malta, presumably between Valletta and Gibraltar and places in between. There was rumour that she was registered in Malta but the documentary evidence does not support this. This would have been about 1977. The following is a copy of what I believe to be a telegram dated December 1974 confirming a lease agreement between the then Norwegian owners and a the Europe Shipping Company Limited three years before the Straight Shipping Company bought the boat:
“Between Europe Shipping Co Limited Gibraltar
C/O Huysmans and Holland and Elias Ledang Norway
1.Europe Shipping Company Limited lend/lease Lill Tove from 1st of desember 1974
2.Rent is 10% of net income,and shall be paided on" external account"
3.The ship is chartered by Europe Shipping Company Limited
C/O Huysmans and Holland
Namsos 4th of desember 1974”
There were a small number of associates of Barlow, all of whom were characters in their own right. There was a certain 'Captain' John Holland around at that time. I never met Holland.
Captain Huysmans, of airline not nautical fame, was yet another jovial gentleman, I met him once and he really was of great cheer and lived up to his reputation of there never being a dull moment when he was around. It was recanted to me by Tom, whether correct or not I would not know, that he was an ex Sabena Airlines Captain with an colourful background and one who frequently enjoyed a good alcoholic infusion.
On a number of occasions I had the very great pleasure of meeting David Finch, also at one time an associate of Huysmans and Holland. David really was an extraordinary chap who lived in Preston, Lancashire and who claimed to be of true Gypsy birth boasting that he never had a National Insurance Number. I am a Chartered Accountant, born of cynicism in these matters, but actually believe this may well have been true. David was very good company indeed but sadly is also no longer with us. Exactly what Finch had to do with the Chica I don't know but he and Tom were for the most part good friends as well as business colleagues in other areas.
Malcolm Gillespie was the name of his 'Chief Engineer' and he may still be around somewhere in the Liverpool area. As far as I could tell Malcolm was no more an engineering officer in the Mercantile Marine than was Tom a Captain, this being a self appointment I recall or, possibly, technically an appointment by the ships Gibraltarian owners, Straight Shipping which ‘Captain’ Tom appeared indirectly to have an interest. Malcolm was though, like Tom, a likeable fellow and willing to do his ‘Masters’ bidding. He was also the brother of Tom's long standing business partner Francis (Frank) Gillespie. It was Frank who went to live in Gibraltar and then across the boarder in Spain and married 'Betty', a formidable lady who was, I believe, previously married to the owner of the ‘Gibraltar English Fish and Chip Shop’ in Irish Town.
The 'Catering Officer' (a.k.a. Steward or even sometimes 'The Purser') was a 'Curly' Watts. I Don't know any more about Curly but I heard he was always good for an extraordinarily well executed fry-up and purveyor of champagne cocktails and pink gins.
I believe Tom was a Liverpudlian by birth and I recall him as being involved, long before I knew him, as a Shipping Clerk with the Booth Line in Liverpool. He served briefly during the WW2 in the RAF and whilst I believe trained as a navigator in Canada he appeared to have avoided flying any combat missions. He also claimed to have been on Mountbatten’s staff in the Far East but I have never been entirely sure of that. He subsequently had a short but successful career in Insurance before branching out in a myriad of commercial adventures in the Offshore Financial Services Industry mainly in the Isle of Man and Gibraltar and later ‘on board’ HQMS Chica as he referred to her. Tom, had a pleasant eccentric manner manifesting itself in his cavalier flag flying exercises onboard Chica promoting the other love in his life, the masonic fraternity where he was a very highly regarded and well published member and attained a level of seniority Internationally within that organisation achieved by very few indeed. The Chica was often seen decked out in masonic regalia.
Tom was not a Lawyer, although some referred to him as have being possibly so, not a notion that Barlow was likely to extinguish, but a Commercial Accountant with the correctly used designation of FSCA. He was in fact a Fellow of the Society of Company and Commercial Accountants, an accounting society originating in 1929 so he could at least legitimately call himself an accountant even if nobody had heard of the body to which he belonged. Tom later in life referred to himself as a ‘Consultant Wreck Master’, perhaps a disguised reference to the plight of the Chica, a ship he once loved.
It is a great shame that there has been so much apparent interest in Chica now Tom is dead as I fear that his stories, like Davey Jones, will be lost forever in his locker. I am sure that at some time I did in fact see the Ships Log. I recall it was a hand written masterpiece contained in one of those old fashioned very thick 'ledger' type of books with a swirly pattern on the cover. The log appears to be long gone more is the pity as it would undoubtedly form the basis of a fascinating maritime adventure I am certain worthy of an excellent Pinewood Studios cinematograph.
I am also sure that any records relating to the last owners, Straight Shipping Limited of Gibraltar, will have long since vanished. A historic search at Gibraltar Companies House for Straight Shipping revealed a tangled web of a corporate shareholding structure which appeared to inconclusively chase its own tail. The Company was struck off the Gibraltar Companies Registry many years ago. The only other records at the Registry were the annual returns but no financial accounts, not that they would ever have been likely to disclose any purposeful information as is quite common in Gibraltar. Gibraltar in years past, unlike now, appears to have been particularly lax when it came to the filing of accounts.
I have recollections of the Chica and some of the escapades that she got up to, but they are only my recollections. For sure though Chica did spend some time berthed in Gibraltar and there is legend about her leaving Gibraltar rather quickly under the threat of arrest. She did ply some trade down the coast of Africa, notably around Casablanca and Angola (The Huysmans connection). There are stories of Chica laying up off the African coast in International waters adjacent to Angola rendezvousing with a sea plane piloted by, yes you've got it, Captain Huysmans, with the intention of transhipping cargoes of Coca-Cola, never guns as has been mooted elsewhere, to be flown into Angola to supply the government troops during the Angolan civil war without supplies of which the Government troops were reported to have been on the brink of mutiny.
There are other stories, and I believe these to be at least in spirit true, of Chica being boarded by the Spanish Coast Guard when within Spanish territorial waters, probably Tom's reference to Chica being a 'Barberry Coast Blockade Runner' and Cap'n Barlow putting out a distress call urgently requesting the intervention of Her Majesties Royal Navy from Gibraltar, doubtless all to no avail. There was the occasion at around the same time when Chica was caught in a violent storm and ran onto a sandbank close to shore somewhere south of Spain and West of Gibraltar. Not stuck for long but more of the stern coming down rather hard on the sea bed and which cause some damage to the rear end of the boat through which water leaked and probably continued to do so up until the day she sank on the River Weaver. This I think was the beginning of the story of water leaking into Chica and as I recall the damage was never properly sorted out.
After leaving Gibraltar Chica was laid up for a couple of years, I can't remember exactly how long, inland from Porto in Portugal. I was told it was at Vila Real but that is a long way inland. It must have been closer to the sea but I certainly call to mind Vila Real being raised in conversation on numerous occasions. It was moored against a landing stage and was troubled by the ever present ingress of water into the hull particularly so after a boat went past at relative speed the wash caused Chica to break her moorings inflicting yet further damage. This I am reasonably sure is when Captain Tom and his merry Chief Engineer lashed together a wind charged battery operated bilge pump which ultimately failed on that calm, balmy and fateful day on the River Weaver many years later in 1993.
Also whilst in Portugal Chica eventually underwent some substantial work to the planking of her double skinned hull. It seemed that a combination the warm waters of the Mediterranean and being laid up in equally warm inland waters of Portugal led to some form of water borne worm attacking the old oak timbers. The repairs seemed to go on for absolutely ages, quite possibly resulting from a usual lack of funds.
From Porto she came north to colder waters, first Mostyn Dock in North Wales and then the River Mersey before moving into the Manchester Ship Canal (Weston Point Docks) and ultimately the River Weaver. This would have been I guess sometime in the early/mid 1980's. It must have been before Voyage No. 50, to my knowledge the only remaining scanned excerpt of the ships log, when Cap'n Tom 'circumnavigated the tall ships and HMS Britannia three times' whilst they were anchored in the Mersey celebrating the Queens Silver Jubilee.
Tom was a very private person in his business life and lived in Goostrey in Cheshire before moving to Chester. I was married to his daughter for 31 years until 2006, a wonderful kind lady and mother of my three boys whom I love very much. It is such a shame these days that divorce is found to be so plentiful.
I remember Tom not wanting to pay pilotage charges and particularly berthing fees at Weston Point, believing, as Tom often did, and frequently when all others thought otherwise, that for some reason he was not obliged to do so. The Manchester Ship Canal, ‘The Big Ditch’ as it has often been referred, was not a compulsory pilotage up to, I think, the early 1990's when it became compulsory. I believe there was a ‘Master's Exemption’ after it became compulsory but I don't believe that Captain Tom was granted that status – he wasn’t! I only have an inkling about the MSC because my Father was a Marine Pilot there from 1953 to 1988.
Tom's original plan was to run his great leisure cruise service from Weston Point Docks into the Manchester Ship Canal, the Mersey and the Weaver Navigation towards Northwich and I remember he got a huge enjoyment out of the small share of the Cheshire leisure industry he managed to corner, frequently entertaining at the Captain’s table as I know only Tom could. In his later years together with his passion for masonry the Chica was a major part of his life.
There have been suggestions that Chica was once a part of the Liverpool Bay Fishing Fleet but this is completely false. The following is an extract of an email I received in January 2008 from the Son of the Norwegian owner in the Mid 1970’s which also gives a good indication of her life both pre and post WW2.
“I can confirm, that this vessel called Chica is the same vessel that my father sold to Mr John Holland in Gibraltar as LILL TOVE.
Vessels like this ,were build to freight salt fish from Northern Norway (Lofoten and Finnmark area) back to Southern Norway.(Bergen /Trondheim) This special trade started several hundred years ago, and continued almost until WWII.
After WW2, many of these vessels were rebuild, with new rig, and they were eq. with a semi diesel. When my father sold Lill Tove she had a two cylinder Wickmann 120 HP diesel.
Older ex sail ships got a new trade after WW2. They brought logs and all kinds of general cargo from south to northern Norway, to rebuild the country because all houses and infrastructure were burned down and destroyed early in 1945 by the Nazis. Due to shortage of tonnage, vessels like Chica continued in these trade up to early 70’s. Lill Tove was not in trade when my father bought her from Agnar Sevaldsen but her hull was in excellent condition due to salt fish trade.
In the 1880/1890 Norwegian bought vessels from England, and we called them English cutter, but those vessels have another shape and design, and must not be compared with vessels like Lill Tove.
Boats like MV Chica/Lill Tove is special designed for salt and stockfish trade.
We were told that MV Chica were sunk many years ago, so it was a great surprise to see pictures of her. Lill Tove is a Norwegian maiden(girls) name. My oldest daughter is named after the vessel, and as I as know previous owner, his daughter is also called Lill Tove.
Best regards from
Also thinking back to when the Lill Tove was in the Mediterranean and Gibraltar and later renamed as the ‘Chica’ I am absolutely certain that there was no connection with Mersey fishing. I can be sure of this from 1977 when Straight Shipping became the owners right up to 1993 when she floundered - no Mersey or Mostyn fish.
There is also a mystery surrounding an inscription ‘Liverpool’ welded on the stern of Chica and also the supposed registration notation ‘LL20’ similarly welded on the bow. This as far as I am able to ascertain is also completely false and yet another figment of the good Captain’s vibrant imagination. There is no designation of LL20 at the Liverpool Registry and there is absolutely no record of the Chica or Lill Tove or by any other name registered as a vessel of this description in Liverpool or at Lloyds, in fact she didn’t appear to be registered anywhere! My thanks to the Liverpool Maritime Museum and their researchers for that information.
There is other ‘folklore’ concerning the Chica which is worthy of note. With Tom Barlow’s interested in the Financial Services industry, colloquially known as the ‘tax avoidance’ Chica has been linked to being a floating companies registration facility, operating in International waters, a bit like a Cayman Islands but with an inflatable life raft, the home of a private banking institution and, best of all it is reputed as having had its own currency known as the ‘Chical’ with a fixed exchange rate to Sterling at 1 Chical:£10 Sterling much to the consternation of both HM Treasury and The Bank of England.
Closer to British waters, Western Point on the Manchester Ship Canal to be more precise, there is an unsubstantiated rumour that Chica at one time paid an active part in civilisations oldest profession. I am certain though that Chica never officially attracted Weston Point ladies of the night but with the newly appointed luxury cabin accommodation, if the rumour was indeed true, she was merely the victim of ‘opportunists’. In fact I do remember chatting to Tom over dinner one light hearted evening that a good way to make money would be to open an offshore casino with attendant hostesses but Tom was always very upright when it came to such things and apart from having a good laugh would never have seriously considered the option.
Tom Barlow was a proud man, very proud of his boat and enjoyed to the full entertaining his guests aboard. Tom's widow, Muriel is, as far as I am aware, still alive, now living in Gibraltar and of advancing years.
Andy Coles 27th June 2009
I have loads of photos of the Chica and other snippets including a scanned copy of Journey No.50 from the ships log. This is a real hoot but is about 5Mb long so difficult to post here.
Anybody interested can have the information and photos but i will need to email direct so will need an email address
It has taken me a while to get around to reducing the file size of Voyage No.50 of the Chica. To my knowledge this is all that remains of the Ships Log. The only Log I have ever seen was that relating to the time when Strait Shipping Company of Gibraltar were the ships owners. The chances are that the original of the Log which was a leather bound tome about 1 1/2 inches thick has long since gone. Cap'n Barlow's ageing Widow had the original Log after Barlow's death but several years ago she moved to Gibraltar and the chances are it has long since disappeared.
This is a great pity as it would have made fascinating reading stem to stern and might have formed the basis of a light hearted novel as it will have recorded in similar detail and style Chica’s many adventures. Indeed it may well have thrown more light on her colourful past including episodes of being boarded by the Spanish Coastguard, grounding on a sandbank near Gibraltar, her exploits down the coast of Africa adjacent to Angola to rendezvous with a sea plane to tranship Coca Cola to the Angolan rebels during that countries civil war, to leaving Gibraltar in short time being under threat of arrest by the Gib authorities to her time in Vila Real in Portugal right up to when she came to the UK, initially Mostyn then Liverpool and the Manchester Ship Canal before her final trade in human cargo (usually all appointed as ships officers or lower crew members) in a niche market within the Cheshire leisure industry.
After Chica floundered in 1993 the good Captain morphed into a 'Consultant Wreck Master', a role which he assumed for his many and exhaustive negotiations with the BRB who were anxious at the time to contact the ships owners with a view to its removal from the bottom at Dutton locks on the River Weaver. It transpired that the BRB were unsuccessful in their endeavours and as the cost of salvage was estimated, I believe, to be approaching a six figure sum Chica remains at Dutton as a monument to all those fortunate enough to have had the pleasure of sailing in her.
Also attached is a copy of the marketing brochure for Chica during the swansong of her life as a pleasure craft of distinction with occasional passengers, one of whom I recall was an African Bishop who was also a member of the Masonic fraternity whose flags were often flown by Chica.
Interesting stuff and you know the real shame in all this and the mystery surrounding her sinking on the River Weaver is that she joined Davey Jones just one year short of her century.
I have a photo of her (recently scanned by John Slavin) of the Chica at Irlam locks on the Manchester ship canal. I'll try and dig it out.
Hi Andy My name is Carl Leckey I was the lockkeeper at Dutton. Tom and I became good friends in fact I piloted the Chica up the Weaver on her first trip. There are so many stories to tell of the Chica and the bold Captain I could fill a book. I did entertain visitors with some outlandish stories about the Chica's history particularly school trips. On those occasion I would climb aboard and haul the Skull and Crossbones up the mast. . Tom's orders when he arrived at Dutton to moor overnight on one of his Weaver cruises for the benefit of the passengers. "Lock Master would you join up for cocktails this evening? Dress formal of course." I would go aboard in number one rig and regale the passengers with more outlandish stories. I left Dutton about two years ago after forty years. Great days great memories
Carl Leckey. MBE. Author
I have witnessed the demise of the mv Chica at Dutton Locks over several years, and taken quite a few photos during that time too. I cannot however, find a photo anywhere of her in her heyday. Has anyone a photo about anywhere that can be posted here? I have come across one on a heritage site but it's download is not permitted due to copyright. It would just complete the collection of images I have , because it looks as though this vessel is now in such a sorry state (Feb 2012) it will not be around for much longer!
Photos of Chica in her Heyday
Not been on the site for a while so please forgive delay in replying.
I also would like to see pictures of Chica in better times. I know that there have been at least some (not many because Tom didn't aspire to being a 2nd David Bailey) pictures of Chica which would have gone back to the mid/late 1970's when my father-in law first had an interest in her. Regrettably in 2006 his daughter decided she had had enough of living with me so any chance I have of locating any that may have survived is sub-zero.
Knowing the extent of the 'clear out' following Barlows death in 2001 I think it is unlikely that any have survived (unless I have the odd one burried somewhere in my own photo archives) and this fate also, I believe, befell the ships log, more is the pity. I have posted the log of one of the voyages on here which gives a classic example of the antics of the 'Captain' and the ship and would have given a clearer picture of other events in Chica's life. There is at least one thing of which we can be certain and that is that when Barlow was on board the log, which was written in his hand, was full of his descriptive version of events as indeed you can see from the Voyage no.50 extract.
If I do come across an earlier photo I will post on here but, apart from the River Weaver Brochure, the earliest actual photograph I have of Chica which was taken by Tom in 1993 shortly after Chica capsized - the beginning of the end so to speak.
Thanks for the reply. I have the download of the Weaver cruise brochure that shows Chica in better days, but, as you say, it would be nice to see more photos of her in her working life. I see Chica regularly on my walks by the Weaver, and still creates a topic of conversation between visiting boat owners, cyclists and walkers. There used to be a notice of it's history on a board there, but that's long gone. The deck structure is now very rotten, it looks as if it will slide into the water in the not too distant future, and Chica will be no more. A sad end to a craft with a colourful and interesting history.
(this photo was taken Sept.2012)
MV Chica - Flora
My great great grandfather Augustinus Sjøflot built a ship named Flora, 73 ft (later to be MV Chica) at the bay of our farm Sjøflot, in Surnadal, Norway. I thought it may interest you. Is this really the same ship? I certainly enjoyed reading all the stories on this forum about the ship. My photo of Flora is from her early years in Surnadal and Kristiansund. Augustinus also built the house which we still live in at the farm Sjøflot today!
Anne Lise Wullum
M.V. Chica on the River Weaver
Thanks for responding. I am not sure that this is the same craft, but it looks similar. Did the Flora have an engine? The Chica hull and keel was built for an engine, with a prop shaft, and there are apparently no indications that it was ever just a sailing craft. The last time I saw the Chica was November 2018, sliding further into the water. I will be sailing past her again in a weeks time, so hopefully will take another photo. Very nice to receive your comments and photos, very much appreciated.
M.V.Chica November 2018
Almost certainly is the same vessel, thank you for the much appreciated information. This is the Chica in November 2018, I hope to get a later photograph soon. A sad end to a boat with an amazing history.
M.V. Chica near Dutton Locks 26 September 2019
This latest picture of Chica near Dutton Locks on the Weaver 26 September 2019
Oh no....thank you for sharing the sad photo with me! I am not sure when the engine was installed in Flora. She was built at our farm by the fjord. She must have been quite impressive in her original design. If she could tell her stories...!
All the best,
Anne Lise With Wullum
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