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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Jim Coulson and HMTS Iris (2), Alert (2),
Monarch (4), Ocean Layer

Introduction: Jim Coulson served on HMTS Iris (2), Alert (2), Monarch (4), and Ocean Layer in a career spanning 24 years from 1935 to 1959, and was Cable Foreman and Boatswain on the Ocean Layer when it caught fire on 14 June 1959 while laying TAT-2.

Here Jim's daughter Mary shares some of her father's stories, photographs and papers.

--Bill Burns

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 Coulson and crewmates.
Detail of cable equipment

Cable operations on Monarch.
Jim Coulson at center, facing camera

Jim's daughter Mary has fond memories of her father, who always thought of his four girls when he was at sea:

"My dad was very rarely home for Christmas, though when he came home he always brought us lovely presents from far off places he had visited.

"We were very lucky, as we often had things which other children didn't have, such as walking talking dolls, music boxes, grass skirts, and a marmoset monkey called Chico - and who could forget our bikinis from Honolulu!

"He would sing us all the latest songs of the time from America such as the Platters; every time he came home it was party time.

"So who really needed Father Christmas when we had Jim Coulson for a Dad?"

HMTS Iris (2)
Sing Song in Mess-room
Scraper Dooley

Jim Coulson is standing, second from the left.
James Dooley
, playing the violin, was later a well-regarded violin maker. One of Dooley's instruments is known to have been made on board Iris in 1941; this photograph was used in a May 30, 1942 article on the ship in Illustrated magazine, published by Odhams in London.

Foredeck of Iris, cables passing over leads and over the bow

Overhauling gear after cable work is finished.
HMTS Iris, photograph taken for the Illustrated article but not used.

Monarch at anchor, laying the shore end of the 1952 USA - Grand Bahamas (Florida - Settlement Point) cable. Note the cable with the barrel attached coming over the bow sheaves.

Monarch at berth, location unknown

Crossing the Equator ceremonies, believed to be on Monarch

Jim Coulson is is the one with the axe, the
striped trousers, and the white beret (above and below)

More fun at the Equator on Monarch

Observing the splice. Jim Coulson in peaked cap

Splicing cable on Monarch

Monarch landing a shore end, location unknown

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.

C.P. Richards
Senior Surveyor.

Ocean Layer

In December 1959, Jim Coulson received a Christmas card from Charles Calhoun of New Jersey, who had worked with him on Ocean Layer:

Dec 16, 1959

Dear Jim,

Just a note to say Merry Christmas & to thank you for the wonderful job you did in getting the four lifeboats away the night “Ocean Layer” burned.

I do not have the addresses of all of the “Layer” boys, so if you see any of them during the holiday season, please pass my best regards along to them.

Again, thanks for the good seamanship – especially the job done in No. 1 Boat & the return to “Ocean Layer” for those two stragglers the next morning after Flavia took us aboard. I would like to sail with you again sometime.

Best Regards, Charles.

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".

Mary adds:

"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."

Ocean Layer ship's company at Honolulu, Hawaii,
5 August 1957, while laying HAW-1.
Jim Coulson at the far left.

All images copyright © 2011 Mary Coulson

See also the pages for Ocean Layer,
the 1957 San Francisco - Hawaii cable,
Brendan Keane's story, and Ken Guy's story.

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

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