Delivering the goods

A Near Miss: GLENLEE and the German Navy off South America at Coronel

Throughout the First World War a large number of large sailing ships continued to ply their trade across the oceans of the world. One such vessel was GLENLEE, known at the time as ISLAMOUNT. She was a three-masted bulk carrying barque; she was nearly 250ft long, weighed over 1,600 tons, and her masts stood over 100ft tall. She had a full set of sails, amounting to some 25,000 square feet of sail in all.

At the start of the war GLENLEE was six months into the thirteenth of her voyages, which frequently lasted more than two years. She had departed from Antwerp on 20 February 1914, and sailed up the English Channel under tow as far as Dungeness. After an uneventful crossing of the Atlantic she arrived in Buenos Aires on 28 April 1914, 67 days later.

GLENLEE left Buenos Aires on 31 May 1914 after taking on provisions; she passed round the southern-most tip of South America at Cape Horn, crossed the Southern Pacific Ocean and arrived at Newcastle, New South Wales two months later on 31 July 1914, four days before Britain and her colonies declared war on Germany.

The captain, Richard Owens, now found himself and his ship in a war zone patrolled by units of the German Navy, who were intent on hunting down and either capturing or destroying enemy merchant vessels. GLENLEE remained in port in Australia for several months; she finally left Newcastle with a cargo of coal destined for South America in October 1914, crossed the Pacific from west to east, and headed for Talcohuano in Concepcion Bay, Chile.

The crew were oblivious of the fact that the German East Coast Pacific Squadron, under the command of Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf Von Spee, was at large somewhere in the vastness of the ocean. That force, consisting two armoured cruisers, SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU and four light cruisers EMDEN, NURNBERG, LEIPZIG and DRESDEN, had already shelled Tahiti, and one of the cruisers had put in at Honolulu in Hawaii.

GLENLEE’s cargo of coal would have been extremely valuable to Von Spee, and the ship would have been a very tempting target for him. Fortunately for GLENLEE the German Squadron was otherwise engaged. On 1 November 1914, whilst GLENLEE was still at sea in the area, it engaged the British South Atlantic Squadron, under Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, off Coronel, some 20 km south of Talcahuano.  At the Battle of Coronel the British armoured cruisers GOOD HOPE and MONMOUTH were both sunk with all hands, but the light cruiser GLASGOW and the armed merchant cruiser OTRANTO both managed to escape under cover of darkness.  

GLENLEE finally arriving in Talcahuano in Chile on 27 November 1914 after 58 days at sea. British agents there were extremely relieved at her safe arrival. They reported the arrival to the owners, adding ‘All’s well’.  

GLENLEE remained in port at Talcahuano until it was safe to sail. Von Spee first headed for Valparaiso, after which his whereabouts were unknown. His force was next seen on 6 December 1914 as it sailed out of the Magellan Straits on its way to the Falklands. Here it met up with a British Squadron under Admiral Doveton Sturdee, sent by the Admiralty to avenge the loss of Cradick’s Squadron. At the Battle of the Falklands the German force was decimated by the battle cruisers INVINCIBLE and INFLEXIBLE.   

 SCHARNHORST AND GNEISENAU were both sunk, as were NURNBERG and LEIPZIG. However the light cruisers EMDEN and DRESDEN both managed to escape, and presented a continuing threat in the region. GLENLEE headed gingerly north along the Chilean coast, arrriving at Tocopilla on 26 January 1915. She remained there for nearly two months before setting off with a cargo of nitrates destined for Port Natal (now Durban) in South Africa. 

 The Great War took a heavy toll on Britain’s merchant fleet, although sailing vessels fared better than most. A total of 2,749 ships, amounting to 7.75 million tons, were lost at a cost of 14,287 lives. Surprisingly, only 42 of these vessels, totally 79,892 tons, were deep water sailing ships. Most were the victim of U-boat attacks, some were sunk by torpedo, others by gunfire or explosive charge. 

 GLENLEE, a three-masted barque, was originally built in 1896 by Rodger & Co. of Port Glasgow for Sterling & Co., also of Glasgow. She passed to the Islamount Sailing Company Ltd. of Dundee in 1898, then to the Flint Castle Shipping Company Ltd. of Liverpool in 1905.

 She was typical of the last epoch of sailing ships which sailed the world as ocean-going bulk carriers in the 19th and early 20th century. Over the 10-year period between 1882 and 1891 some 271 barques and full-rigged ships were built on the Clyde alone. Most were still in service at the start of the First World War. In 1915 she was under the direction of the Shipping Controller in London, but laid up between 1918 and 1920.


Where is she now?

 GLENLEE is now a floating museum, part of Riverside Museum and the Tall Ship, located at 100 Pointhouse Place, Glasgow G3 8RS. It is open March toOctober 10am to 5pm daily, an November to February11am to 4pm daily.


 Castle, C. and MacDonald, I. (2005). Glenlee: The Life and Times of a Clyde-Built Cape Horner. Glasgow: Brown, Son and Ferguson, Ltd.

Mason, C.M. (1995). Five Thousand Days: The Voyages of the Clyde-Built Barque Glenlee under the Red Ensign 1897 to 1919.

Watson, H.R. Islamount and the James Paterson, Sea Breezes, April 1936.

The National Archives, BT 110/334/12: Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Transcripts and Transactions, Series IV, Closed Registries. UNITED KINGDOM PORTS. Ship Islamount, official number: 102574. When built: 1896. Registry closed: 1919

The National Archives, BT 165/172; Ship's name Islamount. Official Number 102574. Date of Voyage 03 November 1904 - 23 August 1905

The National Archives, BT 165/275: Ship's name Islamount. Official Number 102574. Date of Voyage 31 October 1905 - 19 April 1907

The National Archives, BT 165/119: Ship’s name Islamount. Official Number 102574. Date of Voyage 4 December 1902 - 16 August 1904

Cornwall Record Office: .Ship’s log book Islamount.X1045/31, 14 Nov 1918-25 Jan 1919; X1045/32, 26 Jan 1919-5 Mar 1919; X1045/33, 6 Mar 1919-24 Apr 1919; X1045/34 25 Apr 1919-16 Jun 1919; X1045/35, 17 Jun 1919-18 Jul 1919; X1045/36, 19 Jul 1919-9 Oct 1919.