History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
and HMTS Iris (2), Alert (2),
James R. Coulson, born and raised in the town of Blyth, Northumberland, entered the cable service at the age of 19 in 1935, sailing on the GPO cableships Iris (2), Alert (2), Monarch (4), and finally Ocean Layer. After the 1959 fire on Ocean Layer, which led to the ship's being scrapped, Jim retired from the sea.
Jim's daughter Mary has fond memories of her father, who always thought of his four girls when he was at sea:
In 1959 Jim was Cable Foreman and Boatswain on the Ocean Layer, one of 92 crewmen rescued by a German ship when Ocean Layer caught fire at sea in June of that year. A week after the fire, Jim gave testimony to the official enquiry:
In the matter concerming the fire which occurred on the Cable Ship Ocean Layer on 14.6.59, I James Robert Coulson do declare as follows:
I am 43 years of age and have been a merchant seaman for about 24 years. I was cable foreman and boatswain on the Ocean Layer. On 14.6.59 I turned in at about 9.00 p.m. and went to sleep. At about 11.20 I was wakened by the assistant cable foreman who informed me that there was a fire in the firemens quarters. I went to the after end of the ship via the port alleyway on the main deck, on which my cabin was situated on the starboard side forward.
There were signs of smoke in the alleyway but this was not dense until I reached the cross alleyway opposite the seamens mess.
I proceeded aft and thence to the upper deck where I found one fire hose had been rigged. I then supervised the rigging of a further two hoses with a view to getting down in smoke helmets to the seat of the fire. When the hydrant valves were opened no water came so I checked the water line master valves and found them open. I then went aft and tried to start the emergency fire pump. This would not start. At no time did I see any water on the hoses. I now reported to the Chief Officer fire was out of control.
I then went to help prepare the lifeboats for launching and shortly afterwards was instructed to return to my fire station. It was evident that nothing could be done regarding the fire.
From now onwards I was engaged at the boat stations until the ship was abandoned.
This statement had been read over to me and is true to the best of my knowledge and belief.
J. R. Coulson.
Sworn at Falmouth this 20th day of June 1959 before me, and read over to deponent before he signed.
In December 1959, Jim Coulson received a Christmas card from Charles Calhoun of New Jersey, who had worked with him on Ocean Layer:
Jim Coulson did not go back to sea after the Ocean Layer fire, and was discharged from the service on 20 August 1959. His Seaman's Record Book, shown here, notes: "Official Replacement, original lost in shipwreck".
"I can still remember my mother waiting for my father's letters. She hated him being on the Atlantic Ocean. When we came home from school she would read us his letters, then we used to wait for the telegram to say he would be coming home.
"My parents had four daughters, no sons. He was just a special dad, leaving us with loads of very happy memories."
All images copyright © 2011 Mary Coulson
CS Ocean Layer's captain at the time of the loss of the ship, Anthony Ross, was interviewed in 1991 about his career in the cable service and provided many additional details on the fire. The interview is available as a PDF document at at the Arambec Research website.
Last revised: 26 May, 2016