Finished With Engines – SS Tilapa

Built in 1928 by Cammell Laird at Birkenhead, The SS Tilapa was famous for carrying the first cargo of bananas (with ten million on board) to the UK after World War 2, arriving at Avonmouth on December 30th 1945. Pathe News carried the story in thousands of cinemas all over the world. Children eating the first fruits on arrival had to be shown how to peel a banana and that you did not eat the skin! (Many a Banana came out of the dock gate that day under the Dockers shirt)

The SS Tilapa was also involved in the Battle of the Atlantic being part of the convoys. She was in Convoy HX 188 and departed Halifax on May 3-1942 and arrived Liverpool on the 15th (Arnold Hague’s “The Allied Convoy System” says with 28 ships). She was the Commodore’s vessel for Convoy HX188. Commodore was Captain W E B Magee DSO. RN.

The ships left in the following order (according to the diary): At 11:05 the British freighter Tilapa went out (Flagship), followed at 11:10 by the British Catapult freighter Empire Rainbow (LUM on Hurricane), then with a few minutes between each ship these went out: Empire Moonbeam (2 bombers on deck), Gdynia, Cymbula, Cairnesk, Gallia, Ocean Valour  (2 bombers on deck), Sourabaya (whale oil     factory. Tanks and crated aircraft), Kollbjørg,  Empire Jet, Ville de Tamatave, Charles F. Meyer, Norvik, Belgian Gulf, Emma Bakke, Emile Francqui, Jamaica Planter (2 open decks [short]), British Zeal, Modavia, Beaverhill (airmen on decks),  Tai Shan, Empire Explorer, Norefjord, Ulysses, Ocean Justice, Ocean Peace, Fort Nipigon (at 1:05).

Fyffes Line was the name given to the fleet of passenger-carrying banana boats owned and operated by the UK banana importer Elders & Fyffes Limited.

With the formation of Elders & Fyffes Ltd in 1901 it was necessary to procure suitable ships on which to transport their bananas from the West Indies to the UK. Therefore, in 1902 when the Furness Line was anxious to sell three steamships each of 2,875 gross register tons (GRT), the new company raised the necessary funds to buy them. Named Appomattox, Chickahominy and Greenbriar, they were all refitted in Newcastle upon Tyne and a special cooling system installed to keep the fruit firm in the crossing. The first of these entered service later the same year as a banana boat and a fourth vessel, the Oracabessa, was also added to the fleet.

In 1904, three purpose built banana boats were ordered, each of 3,760 GRT. In 1910 the    company came under the control of the United Fruit Company but retained its identity. The new ships also carried a small number of  passengers in relative comfort, especially when compared to the Royal Mail steamers of that era. As such they have been acknowledged as   playing a significant part in bringing the first tourists to Jamaica. By the start of World War I, the Fyffes fleet had grown to 18 ships, but almost all were then requisitioned by the UK Government for war work. In the next four years ten ships were sunk by torpedoes or mines. The company recovered quickly and less than five years after the war had achieved an even stronger position than it occupied in 1914. Then major problems arose; the 1923 dock strike and the Great Depression in the United Kingdom, a series of floods and hurricanes in Jamaica and the Spanish Civil War all produced their own difficulties. By 1938 the Fyffes fleet which had numbered 36 ships in 1932 was down to 21.

By September 1939 there had been 56 ships which had flown the Fyffes flag in the previous 38 years. In the next six years of World War II, 14 ships were lost at sea. In November 1940 the UK Government imposed a total ban on the import of bananas,  having decided that the only fruit that could be imported for the duration of the war was oranges. This ban continued until 30 December 1945 when the SS Tilapa, flying the Fyffes Line flag, arrived in the UK with the first cargo of bananas to be seen for over five years.


On the trip from Garston to Preston she beat her trial speed by two knots. At the time of this photo her   engines were stopped and never turned again. Finished with engines really did mean finished with engines !

S/S Tilapa, ended her life at T.W. Wards Ship breakers, Preston 1959.


Compiled by Chris Mills for the Ribble Steam Railway Journal, The Ribble Pilot