The Spanish Dove, for Irenee Lowe

From the life of George Lowe, as told by Irenee Lowe

By Craig Britton

Born in East London in 1914, George Lowe was a shipwright almost all his life. He lived in Plaistow with his wife and son, also named George, and worked primarily for ship-building giant Harland and Wolff, most famous for building the Titanic, in the now almost non-existent North Woolwich docks. As a shipwright he was tasked with the construction and repair of all kinds of boats. At the age of 14, he began his career with a five-year apprenticeship at Limehouse docks. He was a stern man, a man whose career path had made him authoritarian in leadership both at work and at home. A man who hardened during the long and stressful years of the Second World War. At the high point of his 44-year career he was the Head Shipwright. Men would queue up at the docks and George decided who did and didn’t get to work for the day.

However, it wasn’t until 1982, at the age of 68 after retiring, that he owned his own boat: the 25ft-long Spanish Dove. A ship he rebuilt from scratch, buying the shell, replacing the bad wood (a common job in George’s trade), strengthening it, restoring the paint work and carving her name on the side. George was always a solitary man, who never really needed anyone else, and had no problem working on the boat alone. When his wife died of lung cancer two years after he took on the Spanish Dove, George started working even more frequently on the boat.

The Spanish Dove was a motor cruiser, but despite being built as a workman’s boat, it was never used for such a purpose; it was used mostly to travel along Barking Creek, and occasionally for George’s holidays sailing around the coast of East Anglia with his friends in his retirement. They were a group of five, mostly George’s son’s drinking friends in their 40s. George and his friend Tom, also in his 70s, were the only men on the boat who had worked on the docks.  The others included a carpenter and a tax inspector. They would spend their time on the Spanish Dove fishing and visiting coastal towns.

Sometimes George’s natural need to lead the crew led to tension between him and his friends, even while on their trips to the coast. Working on the docks in George’s time, particularly during the war and its recovery, required militaristic discipline. George’s son remembers his father rarely being at home. Always gone before he had woken up and back late at night. Order was his way of life, and this sometimes led to strange rules. This was particularly true with cleanliness, which George held in high regard, and on his boat this was upheld to an even higher degree. The boat’s newly furbished and fitted toilet was out of bounds. No one could use it, not a single member of the crew, even George himself. Not even the possibility of a single speck of bacteria entering that room was allowed. These are the lengths George went to in keeping his boat clean.

Naturally, this would lead to problems and disagreements on board, and at some point while sailing off the coast, someone would need to use the toilet. And that day came in the summer of 1986, four years after George had renovated his boat, when the crew had docked the boat at Walton-on-the-Naze pier, opposite the flashy King’s Hotel in Essex. Of course, you would probably think a group of men sailing on a boat would just pee off the side if they needed to, but what if you didn’t need a pee? What if you needed something… a bit bigger? This summer’s day in 1986 was no different from any other, and George again said no. But he did provide the man with a plastic bin bag (he always kept them for this purpose) in which to do his business, and when the deed was done the men used a pole fitted with a hook – the type usually used to close out-of-reach windows – and flung the bag out to sea. Sorted. Job done.

Well, job done until the floating bag carried by the waves started drifting towards the beach. The crew panicked. The last thing they wanted was to be caught littering, or someone, maybe a child, finding the contents of the bag. So George and one of the crew jumped into the small rowing boat attached to the Spanish Dove, to collect the bag and stop it reaching the shore.

The coast guard had spotted the bag being shot off the boat from the pier and this roused his suspicions. Were they littering? And before the crew knew it, boats and sirens surrounded them. Coast guard, police and customs officers. The police suspected something far more sinister than littering. The crew’s behaviour was too suspicious. These men could be drug smugglers. “What was thrown over?” they asked. Perhaps they were trying to deliver drugs to someone on the shore. This sparked what the newspapers called a ‘drugs alert’. The police and customs officers searched the Spanish Dove top to bottom. Another police boat was sent out to recover the bag. The officers weren’t sure if they believed what they were told. George’s restrictions on the toilet just didn’t seem plausible.

The whole crew was held, including 72-year-old George. They found nothing. Of course, the boat was clean and so were the men. They were still taken to the police station and questioned for a few hours. But, eventually, the police did recover that bag, though they probably wished they hadn’t. Apologises went both ways, with the police not charging George – probably because of his age.

The men were released and, for a brief moment, George got his 15 minutes of fame. He found it hilarious. The story was told all around the working men’s club near Canning Town, which has now been replaced with flats. They all found it hilarious, too, that an elderly man was accused of being a drug smuggler over a flying bag of faeces. George was contacted by local East End and national newspapers that had heard the legend and found it unbelievably funny, and so the story was printed. The East Anglian Daily Times found it especially amusing, and interviewed George over the phone, saying he was a very likeable man. The story became their headline news.

Despite all the hilarity, the papers were still pretty cautious to print what was actually found in the bag, with the East Anglian Daily Times quoting George calling it “rubbish”. Another article ended: “The alert ended when the bag was found… filled with the contents of the cruiser’s lavatory.”

Sadly, in George’s later years he developed Alzheimer’s and became less able to take care of himself. Irenee Lowe, who provided the story on behalf of her father-in-law, commented on how the massive decline in the 1990s of day centres for elderly persons led to a lack of care available, causing her husband (George’s son George) to retire early from lorry driving for Citroën in his mid 50s to look after him full time. Indeed, the social infrastructure has most definitely declined in Canning Town since the 1990s. I interviewed Irenee at Canning Town Library, which has had to double up as a community centre since the closure of many community centres and libraries in 2010.

In 2014 George passed away at the age of 99, a few months shy of 100. No one is sure of the whereabouts of the Spanish Dove, which disappeared from Barking Creek in roughly 1992. George never visited his boat again in his twilight years, let alone set foot on it. His son George would often talk to him about the past, to try and get his memory back. Occasionally, George would ask his father if he wanted to go on the boat, hoping his passion for boats would bring some memory back. But he always refused, and his body language projected unexplained fear and concern. Some say it was stolen, others think George gave it away, but due to his condition he could never remember to whom, or when.

But George held on to the newspaper clippings from his 15 minutes of fame, and his story will live on through his family, and through writing.

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