The son of a former skipper of the Viola trawler who missed out on his own nautical career after being sent by an orphanage to work on a farm has died at his home in Hull at the age of 104.
George Eric Tharratt, who was known as Eric, went from farming into pharmaceuticals and spent 46 years with Smith & Nephew. But he never lost his love of the sea and, with his daughter Pat, made the first public donations to the campaign to bring the Viola trawler back to Hull.
He died peacefully at his home in St Nicholas Avenue, Gipsyville, on Tuesday 29 March, less than three months before his 105th birthday.
Pat said: “Although Dad needed a walking aid for the past two years, he was in good health until just a few days before his passing. He had more pastimes than time to pass and he saw so much in his 104 years.”
Eric became one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Viola Trust after meeting Dr Robb Robinson, a maritime historian who established the link between Eric’s father and the Viola, which was built at Beverley shipyard in 1906.
The Viola worked as a trawler until being requisitioned by the Admiralty. She was in the maritime front line throughout the Great War and involved in sinking two U-boats but has yet to return to Hull from that wartime voyage – working around the world as a trawler, a whaler and a sealer.
In 1982 the Viola was one of the vessels targeted by Argentine scrap metal merchants in the landing at South Georgia which sparked the Falklands War. She still sits on the beach at Grytviken 40 years on, and the Trust is pursuing a target of more than £4m to fund her repatriation.
Eric’s father, George William Tharratt, was born at Sunk Island, Holderness, and became skipper of the Viola before the war. When hostilities began he was sent to be skipper of a minesweeper at Newhaven and was awarded the DSC for bravery.
Pat said: “The war ended in November 1918 but British waters were still full of mines and he was in the mine clearance services. It was an incredibly dangerous job and he was one of the last people to be discharged from it. The service removed 60,000 mines. He finished in early 1920 and went back into trawling in Grimsby and then Hull.”
Eric was born in Portsmouth on 16 June 1917. The family moved back north and lived in Hilder Street and then Rutland Street in Grimsby before moving across the Humber. They lived in Hessle and then took a flat above De Boer, a business in Hessle Road described in archives as “butcher and rabbit importer”.
When George died of a stricture in 1928 he was buried in a pauper’s grave. With no welfare state in those days, his widow Ethel said she would have to send four of her five children to Newland Homes, which had been set up to look after the orphans of seafarers.
She wanted to keep Eric at home to earn money but the 11-year-old said he would leave as he would only have to stay at the home for two years, whereas – at a time when rules for the removal of children were very strict and arduous – two-year-old Violet would be there for 12 years.
Pat recalled: “Violet stayed with her mother and Eric, Ken, Dorothy and Len all went to the orphanage, where the children were expected to work. In later years, on our annual visits to the Newland Homes open days, we would skirt the building where Dad had worked in the bakery.”
Eric left Newland Homes at 14 to work on a farm at Thearne which offered bed, board and a small wage. As he reached 18 he asked the farmer to raise his wage to sixpence a week. The farmer agreed but said Eric would have to pay his National Insurance at a ha’penny a week. Eric left the farm to join Smith & Nephew where he stayed for 46 years until retirement.
Interviewed in 2016, Eric said: “I started in the warehouse and finished up manufacturing tablets. I was there until I was 64 but I also had a spell in the army as an instructor sergeant. I was an explosives expert and that’s why I’m deaf in my right ear. I was standing next to a man who was killed by a shell.
“I’d wanted to go into the navy but the people at Newland Homes had to keep me until there was a job and the next one to come up was in farming.”
Eric remembered going to sea with his dad when they lived in Grimsby: “The first time was a two-week fishing trip and the second was on board the Cadella to Ostend to get coal during the general strike in 1926. In those days skippers and chief engineers could take their sons on pleasure trips. I was sea sick at first but OK after the first few days.
“I was delighted when Robb got in touch because my father died a pauper and was treated as a pauper, but he had been a skipper until the last week of his life and that is how he should be remembered. Confirmation of his link with the Viola vindicates that.”
Eric’s wife May died in May 2015 the day before her 96th birthday. They were married four days after VE day and celebrated their platinum anniversary the week before she died.
Pat said: “Dad, on leave for his wedding, was crossing London, fighting through the celebrating crowds and unable to phone Mum to confirm he was en route because all the telephone wires had been ripped out.”
When he was 102 Eric was interviewed by Robb for a podcast by the photojournalist Jerome Whittingham for his Photomoments website.
During the half-hour conversation, Eric tells Robb he had recently been in hospital where a doctor said he had actually been on board the Viola. The doctor had visited Grytviken during his Royal Navy career and was given permission to board the historic trawler because he was from Beverley.
Pat said: “Dad remained fascinated with the Viola and his dream was to be able to go in the wheelhouse where his father captained the ship. It would have meant a great deal to him even though his father was often away fishing for weeks on end and was lost at 60.”
The story of Eric’s link to the Viola emerged when Robb researched the background to the vessel for Viola: The Life and Times of a Hull Steam Trawler, which he co-wrote with Ian Hart in 2014. Pat was contacted by a friend who heard the reference to the name Tharratt in an interview with Phil White on BBC Radio Humberside, and she managed to get in touch with Robb, who then started to fill in the gaps.
Robb said: “I was fascinated by the story and by meeting Eric and Pat because it emphasises the links between the Viola and Hull’s fishing families and maritime heritage. It’s wonderful that not only have they provided me with so much valuable information but they have also made very generous donations to help bring the Viola back.”
Eric was an avid, self-taught gardener and DIY enthusiast who transformed all but one of the homes in which he lived, often helping others to improve their homes. He was fascinated by electronics from an early age and built a radio from bits and pieces he found while still at Newland.
He was also a keen photographer, taking wedding photos, processing and printing them before the advent of amateur colour photography.
Pat said: “When asked to explain his longevity, Dad would reply ‘It was having a good wife’ .”
Paul Escreet, Chair of the Viola Trust, said: “We’re all very sad about Eric’s passing but we have only fond memories of a man who lived a remarkable life until a very good age.
“Eric and Pat were the first people in Hull to donate to the campaign after the Viola Trust was formed – they each donated £500 and the cheques landed on my desk within days of us launching the appeal.
“We’ll always be grateful for their support and we are pleased that we were able to help Eric by providing him with historical facts which changed people’s perceptions about his father and saw him rightly recognised as a seafarer, skipper and decorated veteran of the Great War.”
Eric Tharratt’s funeral will take place at 1pm on Wednesday 13 April at Chanterlands Avenue crematorium in Hull. Pat has requested that donations be made to the Viola Trust in lieu of flowers.