History of the SS Folia. A World War 1 Cunard Casualty
By Martin Baillie-Johnston
A question was put to me in April 2008 “Do you want to dive the Folia next Sunday?” “Never heard of it. Where is it?” I replied. “Waterford. You better get your name down quick if you do”. So the following Sunday I drove down to Ardmore, loaded my dive gear and headed out to the wreck of the Folia.” After arriving at the site, I geared up, did my buddy checks and rolled into the water. I began heading down the shot line and at around 35 meters we were on the wreck. We landed amidships which was extensively damaged and an abundance of used artillery shells lay everywhere.
Lloyd Sabaudo Line (1)
Poster from the Lloyd Sabaudo Line (11)
The SS Folia began her life as part of the Lloyd Sabaudo shipping line. Lloyd Sabaudo was an Italian shipping line formed in Turin in 1906. Sailings first began in 1907 with an initial route from Genoa to New York via Naples and Palermo. Lloyd Sabaudo also established a Genoa to Buenos Aires route in 1907. They also moved their head office to Genoa. In 1919 the Lloyd Sabaudo Line added a new route between Italy and Australia and by 1929 the company had also taken financial control of the Cosulich, Lloyd Triestino, Marittima Italiana, and Adria Lines. In 1932 the Lloyd Sabaudo Line was one of a number of shipping lines that were amalgamated into the ITALIA line which still exists to this day.
In 1906 the newly formed Lloyd Sabaudo Line ordered three new ships to be built by James Laing & Co.
James Laing and Co. was originally founded by brothers Philip and John Laing in 1793. In 1818 John left the partnership and Philip Laing opened his own shipyard in Deptford, which was eventually taken over by his son James in 1844. By 1853 James Laing was the first Wear shipbuilder to build an iron steamship, the Amity. Many ironclad steamers constructed around this time went on to see active service in the Crimean War. James Laing and Co continued to flourish and several ships were built including the clipper ship “Torrens”, ‘Torrens’ was one of the fastest ships to sail between London and Port Adelaide, South Australia at that time (1875). It was also the last ship the famous writer Joseph Conrad served on before beginning his writing career. During the First World War James Laing and Co. constructed more tonnage than any other Wear shipbuilding yard. James Laing and Co continued to build ships throughout most of the 20th century the last ship to be launched from the Deptford yard, was the “Mitla” which was launched in 1985.
Starboard View of the SS Principe di Piemonte (10)
The new ships ordered by the Lloyd Sabaudo line were three sister ships called Re d ’Italia, Regina d ‘Italia and the Principe di Piemonte. The ships were identical with the exception of the Principe di Piemonte which had a slightly larger tonnage than the others. The Principe di Piemonte was launched on the 20th January 1907, was 430ft long, with a breadth of 52.7ft and a depth of 25ft. She had a steel hull and two decks which resulted in a tonnage of 6704 gross and was powered by a triple expansion 6 Cylinder engine. Her 4 boilers and twin screws allowed her to travel at 14 knots. In addition she had accommodation for 120 first class passenger and 1900 other class passengers.
All three sister ships served on the North Atlantic New York route. The Principe di Piemonte began her maiden voyage on the 19th of June 1907 when she left Genoa for Naples, Palermo and New York. One of the Principe di Piemonte main roles was bringing passengers to Ellis Island. Over the next seven years, she carried a total of 45,540 passengers in 38 trips to Ellis Island. Tragedy struck the Principe di Piemonte on the 17th of July 1912 whilst en route to New York, a steam pipe connected to one of the boilers burst. The escaping scalding steam killed five men including the First Engineer, Chief of Firemen and three Stokers.
The SS Principe di Piemonte taking on passengers (10A)
Due to declining trade, Lloyd Sabaudo reduced the number of ships running on the North Atlantic New York run from three to two. The Principe di Piemonte was no longer required and sold. Her last voyage was on the 12th December 1913.
The Principe di Piemonte was sold to the Canadian Northern Steamship line between the end of 1913 and early 1914. She was hired to the Uranium Line and renamed the SS Principello. The SS Principello first voyage for the Uranium Line was on Valentine’s Day in 1914. The voyage was from Rotterdam to Halifax and then onto New York. Her last voyage on this route on the 8th of September 1914, encompassed Rotterdam, Halifax, New York, Montreal, and UK. For the last 18 months of her service with the Uranium Line, the Principello sailed on the route from Avonmouth to Halifax and New York. Captain Francis Inch was the captain of the Principello whilst she was in service with the Uranium Line. Captain Inch had been the captain of the ill-fated SS Volturno, (another Uranium Line ship) which caught fire and eventually sank in the North Atlantic in October of 1913 with a substantial loss of life. It appears that he became Captain of the Principello between the time of the Volturnon sinking and the beginning of the First World War.
In 1916 the Cunard Line acquired the Principello and renamed her SS Folia. Captain Inch remained the captain of the ship after the transfer to the Cunard Line. The Folia was operated as a cargo ship between Avonmouth and New York until the morning of March 11th 1917.
Stern Gun on the SS Folia (12)
At 7:15am on the morning of March 11th 1917 the Folia was just off the Irish coast on her way to Bristol when the third officer spotted a submarine periscope 500 feet away. He then spotted two torpedoes approaching the ship. A large explosion occurred on the Folia smashing two of her lifeboats and killing seven of her crew including the second officer. The remaining crew members abandoned the Folia in the remaining four lifeboats as she began to settle.
Whilst the lifeboats were still in the vicinity the submarine, which subsequently turned out to be U-53 surfaced, circled the Folia and then proceed to shell her four times before firing a second torpedo into her.
Captain Finch instructed the lifeboats to be held fast to each other and to steer towards the North West by compass, by 11am captain Finch sighted breakers ahead and instructed the other boats to follow inline. Whilst coming along the edge of the breakers they sighted some smooth water at the base of a cliff where they pulled into shore. The survivors saw a house above them and proceeded to attract the attention of the inhabitants. They had arrived in Ardmore, Youghall, Co. Cork, from here the crew was taken to Dungarvan. It has been documented that the locals of both areas treated the officers and crew of the Folia with the utmost hospitality, supplying them with food, clothes, and accommodation.
Captain Finch returned to sea, retiring in 1929, he died not long after retiring.
Salvage Work (8A)
Salvage work was carried out on the Folia by two salvage vessels. The salvage vessels “Taurus” of Hamburg and the “Twyford” of Southampton were used to recover some of the Folia’s cargo in the summer of 1977. The Taurus was owned by the salvage company Ulrich Harms and the Twyford was at one point owned by the famous salvage company Risdon Beazley. Risdon Beazley and Ulrich Harms did collaborate on some salvage work together, but it is believed that at the time the Folia was being salvaged both the “Taurus” and the “Twyford” were being run by Ulrich Harms.
The Wreck (8B)
The wreck today is visited by many divers on the south-east coast. The wreck is approximately four miles offshore in a depth of between 34m and 40m resting on a sandy bottom. The wreck lies with the stern facing east and the bow facing west, the opposite way to which she was traveling. The majority of the salvage work was carried out at the middle of the wreck and consequently is badly broken up. The bow is intact and a very impressive anchor is still in place in the hawse. The boilers are the highest point of the wreck and are a very focal point of the dive. A stern gun can also be seen on the wreck
Even though the midships of the wreck have been salvaged and collapsed in parts there is still much to see. The masts lie alongside the wreck and there is a field of cast iron shell casing that was being shipped back for reuse in France.
There are brass bars to view as well as cargo that is thought to part of trench building equipment.
Brass Bars buried in the hold of the SS Folia (12A)
1/ Two bronze propellers were salvaged from the Folia by local divers, one of which can be seen on display in Dungarvan.
2/ The submarine (U-53) that sunk the Folia, was commanded by Hans Rose one of the most successful and highly decorated U-Boat commanders of the First World War. In September of 1916 Rose brought the U-53 into Newport, Rhode Island. He docked the U-53 and then invited American naval officers on-board to view the submarine. Rose thought it wise not to delay in Rhode Island too long and soon moved off. The U-53 then proceed to a position two miles from the Lightship Nantucket. At this point, they proceeded to stop approaching allied ships and have the crew abandon them before sinking them. U-53 continued to do this until all of her torpedoes were used. The Americans sent seventeen destroyers to search for survivors and were even present at some of the sinkings. Unfortunately, they were powerless to do anything except taking on survivors, as at this stage of the war America was still a neutral country and the sinking’s occurred in international waters. Ironically U-53 went on to torpedo and sink the USS Jacob Jones, which was the first American destroyer to be lost in during World war one after America entered the war. By the end of the First World War, U-53 had sunk 87 ships during 13 patrols.
Thanks to Ted Finch, Mick O’Rouke, Timmy Carey, Ian Lawler, Cunard Line Archives, Roy Martin, Edward Bourke and Stephen McMullan.
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Copyright of all underwater photographs in this article reside with Mr Tim Carey