Oil crisis: Perranzabuloe Museum badges tell tragic tale of Torrey Canyon

By Ralph Gifford | 08 August 2011
A photo of a board of medals on the wall of a museum
Karin Easton, the Director of Perranzabuloe Museum, takes a look at a poignant set of fire bridgade badges
© Perranzabuloe Museum
The demand for crude oil has been on a steady upward crescendo ever since it was discovered as a valuable source of energy.  This demand, which is only set to increase, has for many countries literally driven them into prosperity and wealth.

Over the decades the number of tankers transporting oil across the earth’s oceans has grown hand-in-hand with the hunger for oil. The vast proportion of tankers make it to their destinations intact, but for the unlucky few who have sailed into difficulty the consequences have proved far greater than a lost ship.

On March 18 1967, such a disaster occurred off the Cornish coast when the Liberian registered tanker the 974-foot Torrey Canyon struck Seven Stones Reef between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly whilst trying to take a short-cut to Milford Haven in Wales.

The ship was carrying 100,000 tons of crude oil which subsequently spilt into the sea creating an oil slick that covered both Cornish and French beaches.

At the time it was the largest and most costly oil spill ever to have taken place anywhere in the world and to this day is remembered by Cornish residents for the environmental mayhem it caused.

The clean- up operation, again the largest and costliest ever to have taken place at the time, was based at Perranporth. Firefighters from across the country were drafted in to help restore the Cornish coastline and the town and its campsites became the temporary home for the crews.

Stillman’s Caravan Site offered the fireman their office and it quickly became the nerve centre for all operations. As a thank you for their hospitality the campsite owners, Sylva and Chris Bebbington were given a collection of badges from the different brigades that helped protect the coastline.

Today these badges can be found in Perranzabuloe Museum in the heart of Perranporth. For the older residents of the town they stand as a reminder of the 1967 disaster.

Linda Higgins, whose mpther and stepfather owned Stillman’s Caravan Site, was just a girl at the time but still remembers the fireman and the oil.

“I remember being told, ‘Of course you can’t see it - we are not looking for the Queen Elizabeth you know,” she says. “That’s my first memory of the Torrey Canyon as we drove down to Land’s End after hearing that a ship had foundered on rocks there. We didn’t know that the Torrey Canyon was a similar size to the Queen Elizabeth or how big an impact this event was going to have on Cornwall.

“The oil slick affected the whole of the North Cornish Coast and beyond. Firefighters from the whole country were drafted in to clean the beaches. Perranporth was chosen as the centre of operations due to its central location, and the fact that the Green Goddess fire engines were based at Perran Sands Holiday Centre.

“I can vividly remember local people walking around Perranporth Promenade at dawn when we knew the oil was due to hit the beach - it was barely light. We watched the thick, glutinous oil slick washing up towards us. You could see the trapped birds fighting for their lives as they desperately tried to escape. We all attempted to help and not many people left without getting covered in oil.

“Since the disaster there has been a lot of controversy about the indiscriminate use of detergents by the fire brigades and the Royal Navy, but they did the best they could with the knowledge they had at the time. Nature fought back and the coastline was restored sufficiently for the summer tourist season to survive.”

The techniques used to “clean” the coast were subject to much scrutiny. The chemicals used were first-generation detergents originally designed to clean surfaces in ships engines rooms. They were designed with no thought of the level of their toxicity and, understandably, there was a lot of anger when people learnt that these chemicals were being used to try and clean the coastline.

On March 28 of that year, Prime Minister Harold Wilson ordered the RAF and Royal Navy to bomb the wreck of the Torrey Canyon in an attempt to try and burn off the oil in the hope it would stop the slick. But large spring tides put the fires out and the RAF and Navy came under a lot of criticism, because 25% of the 42 1,000lb bombs dropped missed the large, stationary target.

Although the damage to the environment and wildlife was huge - 15,000 seabirds alone were killed - the affect the wreck had on international legislation was highly significant. In 1969, the Civil Liability Convention was brought into force, imposing strict liability on ship owners without the need to prove negligence.

It also helped to bring the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships into force. Initially signed in 1973, this did not come into force until 1983, following a new protocol in 1978. Some good did come out of the disaster. Perranzabuloe Museum’s Fire Brigade badges are a small but significant feature.

Although their significance is not initially obvious, the badges hide a story that many people across the country and even the world will remember.
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