Photo:Captain Frank Gilbert at home in his garden

Captain Frank Gilbert at home in his garden

Photo:The wreck of the coaster Taycraig

The wreck of the coaster Taycraig

Photo:In the AFS at the start of WWII

In the AFS at the start of WWII

Photo:The tanker Guidesman

The tanker Guidesman

Photo:Early 1960s, at the West Quay on his NSU 'Quickly' bike

Early 1960s, at the West Quay on his NSU 'Quickly' bike

Photo:At the wheel of the Meeching

At the wheel of the Meeching

Photo:With Captain Bob Domin at Meeching's decommissioning in 2000.

With Captain Bob Domin at Meeching's decommissioning in 2000.

Photo:His 65th Wedding Anniversary, with his wife Ellen

His 65th Wedding Anniversary, with his wife Ellen

All photos: Gilbert Family Collection


By Andy Gilbert

18th March 2014 marks the 10th anniversary of the passing of my father, Captain Frank Gilbert.

He was born in Hayle, in Cornwall on 13th August 1914, and was a very proud Cornishman. However, Newhaven was to become his adopted home after meeting and marrying my mother Ellen Bryce, who was born in the town, in St Lukes Lane, in 1918.

He went to sea at an early age and worked his way up from being a deckhand to an AB, then up through all the ranks including Bosun, Mate and finally Master. His time at sea was spent on coastal ships, cargo vessels at first and later tankers. He was shipwrecked on more than one occasion, and being rescued from the wreck of the coaster Taycraig off Penzance, through an amazing display of skill and bravery by the coxswain and crew of the Penlee Lifeboat, left him with an enduring respect for the RNLI.

At the outbreak of WWII, he was serving with the AFS in Newhaven and, as well as attending blazes, on one winter’s night, he jumped into the icy waters off the North Quay to rescue a drowning soldier. For this he was awarded the Bronze Medal of the Royal Humane Society.

After this, he returned to sea and spent much of the war on coastal tankers, ferrying aviation spirit for the RAF. One night, when entering Shoreham harbour, laden with fuel, the tanker’s anchor chain fouled a wire. He climbed down the anchor chain to free the wire, only to discover that there was mine attached! He very quickly freed the wire and climbed back on board. This incident had to be officially reported and for his actions, a medal was awarded – but it went to the most senior officer on board, the Chief Engineer, who was apparently asleep in his bunk at the time!

In the 1950s, he spent several years with Rowbotham Tankers, as Relief Master. This meant that he would be covering leave and absences for all the Masters in the fleet, and so spent time on many of the company’s vessels. However, he was for a time Master of the Guidesman, a tiny ship by today’s standards, but still the largest vessel ever to use the Exeter Canal. In his last year with Rowbotham his Discharge Book shows him as Master of what was then one of their newest vessels, Quarterman.

He then came ashore to work for British Railways at Newhaven Harbour, and was often in charge of the harbour Watch House on the West Quay. However, it wasn’t long before he joined the crew of the tug Meeching, as temporary Mate and Master in the very early 1960s before being appointed as one of her joint Masters in 1963. He was later appointed as her senior Master and remained with the tug until his retirement in 1979, but even then the call of the sea proved too strong, and he was regularly called out of retirement to cover for the annual leave of his successors. However, at the age of 70, he told them that ‘enough was enough’!

In the late 1960s and early 1970s he served on Newhaven Urban District Council and was one of the people who successfully campaigned for the new swing bridge to have an opening width of 60 feet rather than 45 feet as originally planned, to allow larger ships to reach the North Quay. He was also a governor of Tideway School for some years.

He was very active in his retirement, and worked behind the bar of the Hope Inn for some years, as well as being my unofficial ‘roadie’. He was still helping me shift organs and keyboards around to concerts in his late 70s!

In his later years, he suffered from angina but good treatment for this meant that he didn’t let it stop him from doing anything, and he would regularly walk across from the town to my home in South Heighton, laden with ingredients for the most delicious, and very large, Cornish pasties. While they were cooking, he’d usually be outside tending my garden or doing some decorating if the weather was wet! 

It was just before his 89th birthday that he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given just a few months to live. Typically, he defied the odds and lived for another seven months, as he said he wanted to see my daughter Kerry turn 18. This was to be the last family meal we would share with him.

He passed away on 18th March 2004 at the Martlets Hospice in Hove, surrounded by his entire family - his wife of 67 years Ellen, his three children Barry, Elizabeth and Andrew, his five grandchildren Greg, Julian, Louise, Kerry and Christopher, and his two great-grandchildren Ben and Tom.

At his request, his ashes were scattered at sea in the English Channel.



This page was added by Andy Gilbert on 18/03/2014.
Comments about this page

It was an honour to know your Father and to serve with him as my captain on the Meeching. He was a true Gent and friend.

By Don Waller
On 13/01/2015

I remember both you and your father well Andy. Capt Gilbert was a very much respected seaman and a very nice man too.

By Bill Bushby
On 14/04/2015

Hi Bill, Nice to hear from you.

How many times did we knock on each other's doors to go out and play up in Gibbon Road back then, eh? :)

By Andy Gilbert
On 14/04/2015

Frank Gilbert might have know my father Stan Winter, who was a crew member on the Newhaven Lifeboat around this time.

By John Winter
On 18/05/2018

John, the tug Meeching worked closely with the Newhaven Lifeboat on many occasions so my Dad would have spoken to the Cox and crew members on radio and in person. With the old Lifeboat House being so close to No.5 Stage, the crews would certainly have known each other. 

By Andy Gilbert
On 19/05/2018

Hi Andy, thank you for your reply. I remember the Tug Meeeching moored on the River Wall very well.

By John Winter
On 02/06/2018

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