James Conboy: Remembering the Workers of Lyness

In Refuelling the Royal Navy: Worthington-Simpson Pumps, we wrote about the massive engineering that went into the construction of The Pump Room at Lyness Naval Station. It should be remember that whilst we are in awe of the remaining buildings and what they contain, that there were industrial accidents in the rush to improve the facilities at the base after World War 1.

This image at the entrance to the Scapa Flow Museum exhibition space gives some idea of what the base was like when it was completed.

An image of Lyness today  overlaid with an image of what it was like when the base was completed including the 4 oil tanks

Although there is only one oil tank left standing, there were originally 4. Some readers might remember when you could go into the oil tank where there was a short film show and some of the large exhibits. Unfortunately it remains closed up and looks like it could definitely do with some TLC.

Our story today concerns the building of the oil tanks. Sir William Arrol & Co. were awarded the contract by the Admiralty to build the massive oil tanks at Lyness where oil would be stored.

On Sunday 25th of April, 1937, James Conboy was killed when he fell from the top of one of the oil tanks. A jury led inquiry was held to establish how James Conboy had died and if anyone was to blame. The inquiry was held in Kirkwall Sheriff Court before a jury of 7 men.

The Manager at Lyness for Arrols was Wilson Thomas Ellis who had been there since June 1936 to oversee the construction of the oil tanks. There were many men employed but James Conboy had only been working there for 3 days as an ‘erector’s help’ before the fatal accident occurred.

Ellis told the inquiry that:

” On Sunday morning, 25th April, he [Conboy] had been working on the top of an oil tank along with his brother and another man, Patrick Adair. They were engaged in piece work. Deceased’s brother John Conboy, and Adair, had been screwing up purlings. Deceased had been following them up, painting the purlings – in other words, painting the framework at the top of the tank.”

The distance from the top of the tank to the ground below was 54 feet. To paint the purlings Conboy used a long handled brush and a set of 2 planks.

” To support him while he was painting, the deceased used 2 short planks ( just 7 feet each) laid across the purlings, each of which was 3 feet apart. Each plank could safely span two purlings and overlap a third. The workman had to be very careful, however, to see that the planks were bearing on one another properly. As he progressed with his work, deceased had to shift the planks accordingly.”

According to Ellis, Conboy had not done so. As he stepped from one plank to the other, it tipped and Conboy fell to his death to the bottom of the tank. Ellis had not been at the scene of the accident and was recounting what he had been told by the foreman.

The floor of the tank was of steel plates and as he fell one of the 7 ft planks fell with Conboy.

Other witnesses came forward to give evidence that using two planks was an appropriate method in this kind of work. James Conboy’s brother, who had been working only 15 feet away from him at the time, explained that his brother was used to working at ‘considerable’ heights. Conboy had been a shipwright with John Brown & Co, the Clydebank ship builders.

Tragically the planks James had been using were supplied to him by his brother John. John went on to say that the system used at Lyness was the same one used all over. Although The Board of Trade provided advice that 3 planks should be used when painting.

One man who was working 35ft up fixing staging brackets on the inside of the tank was Andrew MacLennan. He was with another man Robert Norquoy, from Flotta, when they witnessed James Conboy falling and described it in detail.

“He would have fallen eight or nine feet when he saw him first. He had struck the bottom of the main truss in his fall and had revolved in the air before striking the bottom of the tank with his face. His legs had come down across part of a 12 inch pipe that was lying on the floor of the tank….He had seen no sign of life in Conboy after he had struck the plates. He never made a movement. ”

James Conboy had severe head injuries, a crushed skull, and was bleeding from the ears. A police officer at the scene later, Constable Thomas Mainland, described what he saw, ‘the man’s face had been absolutely smashed flat’.

The verdict was that:

James Conboy, 15 George Street Paisley, tank erecting labourer, in the employ of Sir William Arrol & Coy, died on the 25th of April 1937, at Lyness, with multiple fractures of the skull as the result of an accident, when he fell from the top of a tank, on which he was working, a distance of over 50 feet, and that there was no person to whose fault or negligence the accident was attributable.

on of the oil tanks at Scapa Flow Lyness Naval Base
A view of one of the oil tanks taken in 2017 before the museum was refurbished

Fiona Grahame

(Reference: The Orkney Herald 19th May 1937)

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