The RNLI saves lives at sea.

Des O'Prey

Picture of Des O'Prey.

Des was born and grew up in Killough, a small and pretty port on the County Down coast, a few miles north of Newcastle, with a population in 1920 of about 400. The mountains of Mourne can be seen in the distance and the sycamore lined Castle Street is a well-known landmark. Despite the beautiful surroundings, it was a hard knock life. Des’s younger brother died as a baby and his mother, Mary, died when Des was about 10 years old. After losing his mother, Des was probably closest to his grandfather, Daniel O’Prey, who was coxswain of the Killough Lifeboat – a role he held into old age as he refused to hand over the responsibility to anyone else. His brother Bernard was the harbour pilot.

Des left school at the age of 14 and joined one of his grandfather’s two fishing boats the next day. That first night out he fell asleep on deck and his grandfather threw a bucket of cold seawater over him, teaching him the hard way that he had chosen a tough and dangerous career. Over the next few years Des learned the trade of a seaman and the skills of a traditional rigger, either fishing with his grandfather, or serving on trading boats working the coast between England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and later, during the war, on salvage ships working in the coastal waters around Britain.

Des’s life changed dramatically after Ada and young Tony came to stay in the village. Ada had earlier lost her husband, who had been fighting in North Africa, and had relatives in Killough. Straight from London and full of stories about living through the Blitz, she must have caused a bit of a stir in such a sleepy seaside village.

After a while, Des and Ada started courting – walking along the sea wall to Ardglass, or Des taking her in style to the local dancehall on the crossbar of his bike, which had no brakes. He was a seriously good ballroom dancer and they loved the big bands which came to play at the local American base. On February 6th 1945 they were married at St Joseph’s Church. A few years after the war Des, Ada and the children – Tony, Lorraine and Colin - moved to England, and settled in Woolston in Southampton, in order to give the kids a better chance in life. It was there, in the 1950s, that Kevin and Paul were born.

Des worked as bosun on a number of ships, perhaps his favourite being the SS Wrangler, a Mark III Tank Landing Craft converted for salvage work. His biggest job with the Wrangler involved salvaging the famous Pipeline Under the Ocean (PLUTO), which supplied petrol from England to the Allied armies in France in the months following D-Day ( Over 500 miles of pipeline were cased in 8000 tons of expensive lead, which needed to be recovered.

While with the Wrangler he was based for several months at Dungeness, a vast and extraordinary shingle headland adjoining Romney Marsh, and which was the base for working on Pluto. Des was also a skilled explosives handler and spent much of the time alone in an isolated shed specially erected for him to make explosive charges. These were used to break up sunken wrecks (such as the Roseburn, a Canadian steamer sunk off Dungeness by torpedo and gunfire from a German E Boat) which were a hazard to shipping in the English Channel. While at Dungeness he lodged with George Tart, coxswain of the famous Dungeness Lifeboat, and Des followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by joining the crew of the lifeboat for the time he was stationed there.

After Paul was born in 1956 Des changed to shorebased jobs. He worked for many years for the Alexandra Towing Company, operating tugs and tenders in the busy port of Southampton. He studied for and gained a Pilot Licence for Southampton Water. He served on the Romsey and then became Mate and Relief Master of the Flying Breeze, which operated as a tender servicing the great ocean liners that operated out of Southampton. Des would transfer passengers to and from the liners anchored off the Isle of Wight. This was the first or final stage of a glamorous sea voyage for passengers bound for the USA, Australia or round the world cruises. In later years Des worked as a Checker in Southampton Docks, learning to use the first computers in helping to check the millions of tons of cargo brought ashore for the UK market. He retired in 1985, though still continued to work for nearly 20 years more. He had 3 retirement jobs: an examination invigilator at what is now Southampton Solent University, a Master at Arms on the QE2 and other ships, and working voluntarily for the Southampton Maritime Museum, using his traditional (and by now rare) skills of rigging and hand wire-splicing, helping to restore the Calshot, a tug tender built by Thorneycrofts in Woolston in 1929 ( The Curator of the Museum wrote to me after Des died: ‘Des and Eric and Bill were the backbone of our restoration team. Your father was the expert in splicing and I remember he once tried to explain to me the difference between a Glasgow splice and a Liverpool splice.’

Des was a kind, easy-going man with a gentle sense of humour and a soft Irish brogue. He and Ada were happily married for 63 years, until Des died on November 23rd, 2007, at the age of 87. They were devoted to each other and to their 5 children and their partners, as well as to their 10 grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren. Des loved to cook (famous for apple pies and roasts), read (Patrick O’Brien and Alexander Kent) and look after the garden (tomatoes a speciality). He was a great handyman. In his last few years, he and Ada spent many happy hours walking beside the sea at Lee on Solent or Hill Head, just a few minutes from their home in Locks Heath, and reminiscing about the good old days when they first met and walked beside the sea in Killough.


Des on his 80th birthday, with Ada and (most of) the grandchildren at the Red Lion in Southampton
Des on the Calshot, splicing wire (courtesy of Southampton Maritime Museum)

Added by: Paul O'Prey on 16 January 2008.

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Picture of Des O'Prey.
Picture of Des OPrey.

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