I began this maritime ‘Diary of the War’ with an entry for August 1914 in the waters off the Northumberland coast. As we approach the centenary of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, we return once more to that stretch of coastline.
From her inception to her service to her demise, HMS Ascotwas entirely a product of the First World War. She was the first of a Racecourse-class of minesweepers built under the Emergency War Programme from 1915 in response to that need for sweepers which, as our August 1914 post demonstrated, was so pressing from the outset of the war, and entered service in January 1916. The Flower-class sweeping and anti-submarine sloops built at this time were also commissioned by the Emergency War Programme, of which HMS President, ex-HMS Saxifrage, moored in London, was one, built at Lobnitz, Renfrew.
The Racecourse-class minesweepers were commissioned from the Ailsa Shipbuilding Company at Troon, who were specialists in constructing paddle steamers for the ferry and excursion steamer markets, which retained a strong preference for paddle steamers, otherwise (with the exception of paddle tugs) largely obsolete in other contexts by the 1870s.
The purpose of the maritime War Diary has not only been to illustrate the underwater cultural heritage of this landscape of war around England’s coastline, but to also to highlight some developments as the war progressed and to demonstrate the diversity of vessel types and nationalities involved.
The commissioning of new paddle steamers to go to war may seem an extraordinary decision, but it fits into this theme. Their typically shallow draught, suitable for river or estuary service, was ideal for minesweeping, and commissioning smaller specialist shipbuilders made full use of Britain’s shipbuilding capacity at need.
In fact, both World Wars saw the use of both purpose-built and requisitioned paddle minesweepers, even if they gained something of a reputation for being ‘wallowy’ and uncomfortable at times. Their use was characteristic of an inventive and flexible approach to adapting shipping to wartime use and conditions, which has also been one of the themes emerging from the War Diary.
On 10 November 1918 HMS Ascot was three days out from Portsmouth for the minesweeping base at Granton, when she was sighted by UB-67 and became the last Royal Navy loss, the last vessel sunk in English waters, and the last vessel sunk by direct enemy action in the First World War anywhere in the world. (The Norwegian Ener was the very last loss of the war at sea on 11 November 1918, sunk by a mine off Fair Isle.) (1)
On 20 November 1918 a press release announced the loss of Ascot:
‘The Secretary of the Admiralty announces that HM paddle minesweeper Ascot was torpedoed and sunk with all hands on the 10th inst. by a German submarine off the North-East Coast of England.
‘Six officers, including two mercantile marine officers, and 47 men, including eight mercantile marine ratings, lost their lives.
‘The next-of-kin have all been informed.’ (2)
Of all the terrible events in the ‘war to end all wars’, few things can have been more unbearably distressing and poignant for families than to hear that their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons had been killed so close to the Armistice. Such tragic losses touched many families, including my own, with one of the more famous examples the war poet Wilfred Owen, killed in action on 4 November 1918.
Her crew are commemorated on the imposing Grade-I listed Commonwealth War Grave memorials at Plymouth and Chatham. The wreck has been identified east of the Farne Islands by her bell and paddle wheels. (3)
The Armistice marked an end to the fighting, but not to the war itself: the final cessation of hostilities came with the Treaty of Versailles between Germany and the Allied Powers, signed on 28 June 1919, along with other separately-negotiated peace treaties. For this reason some war memorials, such as this one at Euston, London, state the dates of the war as 1914-1919, but there were other reasons too. For seamen there was no longer any danger of shellfire, underwater torpedo or aerial attack, but in some respects the war was not yet properly over. Hence the Diary of the War will conclude with a final ‘post-war’ post in December 2018.
Fearless of storm or foe,
Guarding the traffic of the east and west,
Giving with hearts heroic of their best,
The wreck of the London, 1796: what happened next?
Today’s guest blog comes from Abigail Coppins, a historian specialising in the history and heritage of Black prisoners of war of the Napoleonic era: she recently helped to develop the award-winning display at Portchester Castle telling the story of the POWs who ended up there.
Here she sheds new light on the fate of the prisoners of war who escaped alive from the wreck of the London. Abigail writes:
Historical background and legend intertwined:
The stranding of the London, at Rapparee Cove in Devon in October 1796, has become part of local legend and folklore on a coastline which has seen more than its fair share of wrecks, including the 1691 loss of a vessel bound from Cork for Brest with Irish soldiers or ‘rapparees’, of which only six escaped alive from the passengers and crew. Documentary evidence for wrecks in this area before the 17th century has largely not survived, but since that time over 30 vessels have stranded in and near Ilfracombe with its rocky coastline and high cliffs. (1)
The London is often described as a ‘slaver’ carrying a cargo of gold and Caribbean slaves or prisoners to be sold in Bristol. This legend is helped along by the periodic exposure of both coins (one of which is definitively Roman, so clearly antedates the wreck) and human remains at the cove. In 1997 a rescue dig at the cove uncovered more human remains, which were believed to be associated with the passengers and crew of the London.
Their possible identity in the context of a lack of formal burial, consistent with burial practice in cliff locations, has enabled the London to become, perhaps, one of the most controversial wrecks in Britain.
It would be another 12 years following the wreck before the Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1808 compelled the interment of shipwrecked bodies in consecrated ground. Elsewhere in England, other mass graves of shipwreck victims where they were washed up are attested, including crew members from HMS Anson, lost in 1807 in a similarly inaccessible location which prevented rescue: and in Northern Europe such burials also persisted until well into the 19th century. (2) Of course, until there is an analysis and published report on the human remains, their identity will, for now, be a matter of conjecture.
However, there is much more to the story of the London than the human remains possibly from the wreck. This blog will pull together what I have managed to piece together about the London, its passengers and what happened to them.
The French Revolution in the Eastern Caribbean
The story of the London and her passengers begins in the Caribbean. In 1793, when Britain and France went to war, their Caribbean colonies were also caught up in the fighting. In 1794, Victor Hugues, the French-born revolutionary, captured the island of Guadeloupe from Britain and declared an end to slavery on the island. The formerly enslaved plantation workers were enlisted into local regiments as part of a levée en masse, with many of their officers coming from amongst the free-born black and mixed-race population. As free French soldiers, they fought against Britain on islands including St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Martinique and Grenada. The conflicts on these islands are characterised by the coming together of the internal slave rebellions with the political ideology of the French Revolution to form a powerful new force in the fight against slavery in the Caribbean.
As a result, Britain undertook numerous campaigns in the Caribbean to take and re-take various islands, with some islands changing hands several times. The locally enlisted free Black French troops were powerful tools in this military (and ideological) war against Britain and the Black soldiers proved to be formidable opponents.
Despite this, Britain’s campaigns in this part of the Caribbean resulted in the capture of large numbers of free Black French soldiers on islands such as St. Lucia, Grenada, St. Vincent and Martinique. Most of the captured Black soldiers were regarded as French prisoners of war, although there were exceptions. Once captured, these soldiers were placed under guard on military transport ships whilst arrangements were made to send them to the prisoner of war depots in Britain.
Some of the Black prisoners of war are likely to have been from the French garrison at Morne Fortuné, St. Lucia, who had capitulated to the forces led by Sir John Moore on 26th May 1796, under terms that stated ‘The Agent General, the Commander in Chief, and the Forces of the Republic, who have defended the Island ….. shall be treated as Prisoners of War….’ .
The Journey of the London
In July 1796 a convoy of ships, including the London, left the island of St. Kitts and set sail across the Atlantic, escorted by HMS Ganges. The ships were carrying around 3,000 mainly Black French soldiers (prisoners of war) who had been captured on the islands of St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenada. The London was carrying ‘…one Officer, Eight Serjeants, and Eleven Privates of the 66th Regt and 106 French Prisoners (Black)….’. (3)
The convoy arrived off the coast of Ireland in September and then divided. One group of ships set off for Liverpool – probably to offload prisoners at the prisoner of war depot at Liverpool. The rest headed south-east, with most of the convoy arriving at Plymouth and the associated prison (Mill Prison) at the beginning of October. When it was discovered that the prison there was full, the ships sailed on to Portsmouth (Portchester Castle).
It seems likely that as the London was wrecked on the North Devon coast she was sailing directly through the Bristol Channel to an alternative prisoner of war depot in Bristol (Stapleton Prison) when she hit bad weather and was wrecked. Another (unnamed) vessel from the convoy also got into difficulty off the South Wales coast, suggesting that it was possibly also making its way to Bristol.
The wreck at Ilfracombe
On 14th October 1796, a letter informed the War Office that the London had been wrecked at Ilfracombe and that the Surrey Fencibles had been sent from Barnstaple to guard the surviving prisoners. Casualties were estimated at one private and two serjeants of the 66th Regiment and 31 black soldiers (prisoners) dead, plus around 40 of the London’s crew. A contemporary newspaper account read as follows:
‘October 16th: This evening a very melancholy accident happened at Ilfracombe: a ship called the London, from St. Kitts having on board a considerable number of blacks (French prisoners) was driven on the rocks, near the entrance of the pier, by a violent gale of wind, by which about 50 of the prisoners were drowned; those who got on shore exhibited a most wretched spectacle, and the scene was altogether too shocking for description.’ (5)
Thirty of the London’s prisoners, including one woman, were then taken to Stapleton Prison, arriving there in December. The timescale between the wreck and the prisoners’ arrival at Bristol suggests that they may have been held somewhere else before arriving at Bristol. The Stapleton prison register records that these thirty prisoners were captured on Grenada and St. Vincent. Other survivors from the London may have been sent to Mill Prison, or possibly to join the over two thousand Black prisoners of war at Portchester Castle.
Women and capture
The woman from the London was Madame Heaurlaux, wife of Colonel Heaurlaux, commander of Fort Charlotte on St. Vincent. Both she and her husband were sent from Stapleton to Chippenham on ‘parole’. Captured officers were often allowed to live outside prison in specially designated parole towns – there were over sixty in Britain at this time.
The presence of Mme Heaurlaux aboard the London is not unusual. Women often accompanied their husbands on campaign, and sometimes into captivity, and women and children are also recorded on board ships from the rest of the convoy. There were approximately 100 women and children amongst the over 2,000 mainly Black prisoners of war who arrived at Portchester Castle. Portchester’s registers of arrivals record that they were a mix of both Black and European women and children.
At Portchester the women were placed in separate accommodation before being sent to nearby Forton Prison in Gosport. Once there they were given a large room in the prison hospital to live in. Most were soldiers’ wives, following the drum with their husbands and children, and most had been captured on the island of St. Lucia.
Stapleton Prison, Prisoner Exchange and Cartels
The prison register for Stapleton records that all prisoners arriving from the London, both Black and European, were exchanged for captured British soldiers via the ‘cartel’ vessels Nancy and Smallbridge.
Cartel vessels were used to repatriate prisoners of war, and tended to be merchant ships which flew a white flag and a flag of truce. (4) There were regular prisoner exchanges between Britain and France during the French wars. Cartels were also a chance for both France and Britain to do a bit of spying on each other as well!
The first Black prisoner from the London, Timothee, was exchanged to France in October 1797, around the same time that the Black prisoners from Portchester also began to be exchanged. Timothee arrived in France just under a year after he had first arrived at Stapleton Prison, with the rest of the Black prisoners from the London following in January 1798.
Black Caribbean soldiers in France
Once in France, Black soldiers were sent to the French colonial army depots in places such as Brest, before being brought together at Rochefort and the Ile d’Aix. They were eventually consolidated into Le Bataillon des Pionniers Noirs and went on to fight across Europe for France in places such as Italy and Russia.
Some, such as Louis Delgrès (who was imprisoned at Portchester Castle), made it back to the Caribbean and fought in the wars in San Domingue (Haiti) and Guadeloupe. Others may have been recruited from prison into the Royal Navy.
The black prisoners from the London and the other vessels of the Ganges convoy are incredibly important to the history of race and diversity in Britain. They are also internationally significant because of the role they played in the struggle for freedom in the Caribbean. They transformed the political ideals of the French Revolution into an idea of universal rights for all. These were ideas that they fought and died for.
The story of the London and its passengers deserves a new place in our history.
Earlier this year Historic England were contacted by the finders of a diverse assemblage of artefacts from the wreck of a steamer off the coast of Sussex, including a metal plate which was all that was left of a harp, its wooden body and catgut strings having long since disappeared. The identity of the wreck was unknown – and colleagues passed on the enquiry to me to see if I could find a potential match for the site among the records on the Historic England shipwreck database.
On the whole musical instruments are very rarely represented in the documentary record although they turn up occasionally as archaeological finds. Occasionally they are named in the cargo, from the Charles, wrecked in 1675 off the Lizard with unspecified music instruments from Lisbon, to thePreussen(subject of a recent post), which stranded off Dover in 1910 en route from Hamburg to Valparaiso with a cargo which included pianos.
More often we come across references to musical instruments as personal possessions, and not always on board the wrecked vessel either. During the collision of the Belgian steamer Jan Breydel with the Norwegian steamer Salinanear the Goodwin Sands in 1921, the Salina came off worse and sank with loss of life, but those on board the Jan Breydel also feared for their lives. One passenger gave a press interview, saying that: “If our boat had been fifty yards further on, there would have been no interview this morning, for the Salina would have struck just about the point where I was sitting.”
That passenger was the violin virtuoso Jan Kubelik (1880-1940), who also said that his first thought was for his precious Stradivarius, known as the ‘Emperor’ Stradivarius, around which he placed a lifebuoy. (1) That instrument still exists today – so a near-shipwreck was just one of many incidents in its 300-year history. It also reminds us that many high-status instruments have a traceable history. (By contrast, the Wreck of the Week War Diary for June 1918 shows that a young violinist survived, although his violin did not, but as it was not ‘his best’ it was clearly the least of his worries!)
The history of the harp would prove crucial in helping to unlock the possible identity of the ship, together with the context of the cargo. Other finds from the same wreck included a number of ‘teardrop’ or ‘torpedo’ bottles marked “Bradey and Downey, Newry”, “F W Kennedy, Limerick”, and “Bewley, Evans and Company, Mary Street, Dublin”.
The latter were mineral water bottlers and suppliers with a company history which seems to fizzle out around 1863, (2) suggesting a terminus ante quem for the date of loss, and a voyage beginning in or calling at Ireland. Other finds appeared more likely to be of Continental European origin, such as a large blue and white painted earthenware pot, and are as likely to be interpretable as personal household effects as cargo.
Enter the engraved metal plate from the harp. It was still legible, though much corroded, revealing that it was made by Erard, specialists in prestige harps at their London showroom during the 19th century. The firm had been founded in France, but the French Revolution drove Sébastien Erard out of the country, leaving his brother-in-law to carry on the Paris business. The London and Paris branches then came to specialise respectively in harps and pianos.
Each of Erard’s harps sold from the London showroom was individually numbered with a ‘patent number’, the ledgers for which survive at the Royal College of Music Museum and Archives. The patent number on this example was extremely difficult to read after so long in the sea, and was initially interpreted as 6331 or 6339. Harp 6331 was sold to a clergyman in 1871 and returned for repair in 1874: he retired on the grounds of ill-health in 1875 and died in London in 1906, and harp 6339 was sold in 1864. Both of these post-date the apparent cessation of Bewley and Evans’ operations in Dublin by 1863, and there were no obvious wrecks that fitted the criteria in terms of location, date, or origin post-dating 1864.
Further examination of the patent number in a higher-resolution photograph kindly provided by the finders, and comparison with the lettering of other surviving Erard harps in online collections at the V&A and National Trust suggested that the number could well be 5331, which was the suggestion I put forward to the finders. (Figure 3) The numerals are engraved just to the right of the word ‘Patent’, at the point where the plate begins to curve downwards, (Figure 4) so that each numeral is smaller than its predecessors (compare the two 3s). They are set in an ornamental cartouche of engraved curlicues which have provided a matrix for the further pitting of the metal around the digits. The semi-circular feature between the tops of the second ‘3’ and ‘1’ was especially ambiguous.
The record for 5331 also survives in the ledgers, noted as built in 1839 and sold to a Mr S J Pigott of 112 Grafton Street, Dublin, on September 30, 1840. He was very heavily involved in Dublin musical society, with showrooms for the sale or hire of harps and pianos at those exact premises – including Erard harps. (3)
A key selling point highlighted in his advertisements was that the instruments were sourced from London, so clearly regular buying trips were made. It is unclear what happened next in the case of this particular harp: whether it was for sale in his shop following its import from London, or whether it was intended for his personal use. If the former, the customer is also likely to have lived in Ireland; if the latter, it may have either remained within the family or have been sold after his death. This part of the story so far remains untraced.
It seems clear that the harp is likely to have been a personal possession on its final voyage, reinforced by the presence of what are likely to be other domestic effects aboard; that its voyage is likely to have originated in Ireland, given the bottles from Dublin, Limerick and Newry as cargo; that the vessel was a steamer from the site as observed; and that the wreck took place before 1863 as the date by which one of the bottling firms seems to have fizzled out; and somewhere on the coast of Sussex.
The candidate that most closely matches the criteria is the steamer Ondine of Waterford, which sank on 19 February 1860 following a collision off Beachy Head with the schooner Heroine of Bideford. The position of loss as reported does not quite tally with the position of the site as located, but this is not at all uncommon, since wreck remains are often identified some distance from the reported place of loss. This would not, therefore, necessarily exclude the Ondine from consideration, particularly as she otherwise matches the criteria so closely. Additionally, while steamers were common at this date, they had not yet ousted the sailing vessel, which significantly restricted the pool of potential candidates for the wreck site.
Ondine was a regular visitor to London and left Dublin as usual on 15 February with passengers and a general cargo, calling at Falmouth, Plymouth and Southampton en route. Her profile fits well with the finds on site as she was carrying both passengers, providing the context for the movement of personal effects, and cargo, which would fit with the bottles as found. At each port some passengers disembarked and others came on board, so the total number of passengers is difficult to ascertain, but a ‘good many faces’ were looking down at the survivors in one boat as they got away. (4)
It seems that three boats got away, one led by the captain, one the mate, Edward West, and one the second mate, Richard Burke, with a fourth boat being smashed. The captain’s boat was swamped, and all presumably drowned; the mate managed to save 20 persons, who were seen straight away by the Heroine, which picked them up. Of those who got into the third boat with the second mate, only two passengers survived, one of whom, one Marsh, had been on holiday to his wife’s family. His wife and two children got away with him in the same boat, but he suffered the agony of seeing them perish one by one from exposure or drowning, one child in his arms. The mate and the other survivors were very near the end of their resources, with their boat badly damaged and only saved from sinking by its cork lining, when discovered by the Thetis steamer, who sent a boat to pick them up.
One strange circumstance was the presence of an unnamed lady passenger. Richard Burke recalled in his testimony that the captain most particularly adjured him to look after this lady as she got into his boat. Unfortunately, along with the chief stewardess, she was one of the first to perish from his boat. Was, she, perhaps, the harp’s owner?
Further research on the wreck site and in documentary sources will help to confirm whether the wreck is indeed the Ondine, but no other candidates in the historical record appear to fit the archaeological discoveries so well. It’s very common for a maker’s plate to confirm the identity of a wreck, but who would have thought that a maker’s plate for a harp could put a candidate for a wreck’s identity in the frame? There is more research to be done on both the wreck site and in documentary records before this possible identification can be confirmed or discarded in favour of another, but it is a fascinating story that demonstrates the depth of detective work involved in putting a name to a wreck.
With many thanks to Mike and Sue Rountree and to Guy Freeman for sharing their story and photographs of the discovery, and to Dr Anna Maria Barry at the Royal College of Music Museum, who says: ‘The RCM Museum and Library team are delighted to have helped with the identification of this wreck. We are lucky enough to look after the Erard ledgers, and have answered many enquiries about serial numbers – but this is by far the strangest request we’ve had! The story of the shipwrecked harp demonstrates the way in which musical instruments can offer a unique insight into our social history.’ The RCM Museum have also blogged about the wreck: http://www.rcm.ac.uk/about/news/all/2018-05-21museumblogharp.aspx
(1) Shields Daily News, 24 September 1921, No.19,522, p3
(3) Erard harp ledgers, Royal College of Music Museum. Samuel Pigott announced his move to premises at 112 Grafton Street, advertising Erard and other harps and pianos, in the Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent, 4 November 1837, No.1,513, p1. The company continued to sell harps and pianos from the same premises even after Samuel’s death in 1853 (British Newspaper Archive searches). In fact the business continues today as McCullough Pigott in Dublin.
(4) Liverpool Mercury, 23 February 1860, No.3,752, p3
On this blog I’ve occasionally discussed the ‘fog of war’, whereby participants in a military or naval engagement are unable to make clear decisions or correctly identify friend from foe: their minds are clouded by the rapidly evolving situations they find themselves in without necessarily having all appropriate information to hand to make a fully-informed decision. Those decisions may, in turn, be informed by previous war experience, for good or ill.
Sometimes a ‘fog of war’ situation has the misfortune to take place wholly or partially in a physical weather fog, or even to be caused by it – which naturally then exacerbates the consequences of events as they unfold.
On the afternoon of 15 October 1918 the Q-ship Cymric was on patrol in the North Sea off the Northumberland coast, acting on reports that a U-boat was operational in the area. Having already seen and dismissed two friendly submarines, it was apparently a case of ‘third time lucky’ when a submarine with a U-prefix was seen close by.
Cymric fired at short range and continued firing even as members of the submarine’s crew climbed out and tried to make signals by firing rifles or waving a white cloth. All these were interpreted as deceptive or hostile actions, of which Cymric‘s commander and crew had had prior experience, by the very nature of their Q-ship activity, pitting the wits of one side against another. The only course of action open to the submarine was to retreat into a fog bank, which only reinforced the impression of suspicious behaviour.
She was pursued by Cymric, and as they appeared on scene they found survivors coming up alongside their vessel from the submarine, now in a sinking state. As Cymric‘s crew realised the survivors were sporting not German cap tallies, but British ones, their mission turned from war to rescue. However, only 30 men came out alive from HMSM J6, as the mystery submarine proved to be.
It was a case of mistaken identity, stemming from something simple: the crew of J6 were apparently unaware that some debris hanging outside their conning tower mirrored their J prefix, making it look for all the world like a U – which was then fatally misinterpreted by Cymric.
It was a sad example of ‘friendly fire’, made all the sadder by occurring as the long war moved inexorably towards the Armistice just a few weeks later. Ultimately the J6 was forced to contend that day with both a fog of war and a sea fog which hampered visibility. Despite the fact that the Cymric was the author of the J6‘s misfortunes, it is perhaps as well that she did pursue the supposed U-boat into the fog bank, or her victim’s loss might have passed unseen, and it might have been a long time before her crew were picked up, if at all.
The wreck has been located in recent years in the North Sea east of Seahouses: see this BBC report, 2014.
This week my guest blogger is Izzy Daone, Maritime Information Officer at Historic England, who is on her way to pastures new. We wish her well, but in the meantime, here is her blog which demonstrates how wrecks illustrate historic connections between places.
Over to Izzy:
My recent travels to Ukraine and the port of Odessa inspired me to examine records we hold for wrecks within our waters with a connection to the city. Odessa’s port was Russia’s main grain exporting centre during the 19th century. Two particular wrecks caught my attention; the first registered to the port of Odessa and an environmental disaster, and the other a Scottish snow which stranded on her passage from Odessa to Gloucester – a well-known trade route.
We begin with the wreck of the Blesk, a 2026 ton oil tanker which stranded on Greystone Ledge, Devon on the 1st of December 1896. She was a Russian ship, as at this time Odessa belonged to Russia rather than Ukraine, and was owned by the Russia Steam Navigation Trading Company.
On her final voyage, she docked at Istanbul carrying 3180 tons of petroleum and took on coal. She then sailed to Gibraltar where she loaded yet more coal. Poor weather conditions and unfortunate human error bought about her wrecking. In stormy conditions, the master of the ship identified what he thought was a French lighthouse. It was however, not the French lighthouse he believed it to be. It was the Eddystone, a large rock topped with a lighthouse approximately 14 miles south of Plymouth. Adjusting the vessels course to the north, the master continued on what he thought was a safe passage into the North Sea.
It was not to be. She struck the Greystone Ledge, near to Ramillies Hole. The crew fired distress rockets and prepared to abandon ship. Despite the rough seas and freezing temperatures, the crew were reached by lifeboats from Hope Cove and Salcombe. All 43 of the crew were saved.
The morning revealed the first occurrence of oil pollution in South Devon, with much of the vessel’s cargo having spread along the coast. The Blesk disaster is one of the earliest oil tanker environmental incidents on record. Interestingly, newspaper articles contemporary with the event fail to mention the environmental impact of the leaking oil which is in stark contrast to how society would react to a similar incident today.
The second of our Odessa wrecks concerns the wreck of the Caledonia, a Scottish snow which stranded en route from Odessa to Gloucester with a cargo of wheat. There is a long established trade link between Gloucester and Ukraine which grew considerably when the Corn Law was repealed in 1846, allowing more foreign exports and causing the enlargement of the dock area. (1) Indeed, a pub in Tewkesbury is named the ‘Odessa Inn’; the name a possible acknowledgement of this established trade relationship of the 19th century.
The Caledonia had started her journey in Rio de Janeiro and was loaded with coffee, headed for Syria, Smyrna and Constantinople. From here, she docked at Odessa and loaded her cargo of wheat and began her final passage to Gloucester. On the 7th of September 1842 she left Falmouth for the final leg of her journey. She would never reach her destination.
That night a strong north-north-westerly wind caused the Caledonia to strike upon the rocks at Vicarage Cliffs, Morwenstow. All but one of the crew were lost; evidence names survivor to be Edward De Lain. His eight ship-mates were buried in Morwenstow churchyard, marked by the Caledonia’s figurehead. A replica of the figurehead now serves as a grave marker, the original having been moved to the church for safekeeping.
De Lain is said to have believed the ship was unlucky and claims three ill-omens (in the eyes of 19th century sailors) occurred prior to her wrecking; a black bag brought aboard by the cook, a bucket lost overboard and she had set sail from Rio de Janeiro on a Friday. For our records however, the loss of this 200-ton vessel has been attributed to the poor weather conditions she encountered as she sailed toward the Bristol Channel.
Although both of these wrecks tell very different tales, they both serve as a reminder that things we consider recent phenomena – large scale food and oil imports – actually go back a long way and have left their mark on the landscape. The UK still continues to trade with Ukraine today, with operations continuing at the port of Odessa. Data provided by the Government Statistics Agency of Ukraine shows that in 2015 the UK was their 11th biggest trading partner. (2)
(1) ‘Gloucester, 1835-1985: Economic development to 1914’, in A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester, ed. N M Herbert (London, 1988), pp. 170-183. British History Onlinehttp://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/glos/vol4/pp170-183 [accessed 19 September 2018].
This month’s wreck commemorated in the War Diary for September 1918 is one of our occasional features which was not a war loss as such (i.e. not lost to enemy action), though she was lost on war patrol and is an example of a vessel specifically built for the war in large numbers.
She was ML247, one of three very large orders totalling 580 motor launches, placed by the Admiralty with the motor yacht specialist Elco of New Jersey, USA, small and fast, intended for anti-submarine duties.
On 29 September 1918 four motor launches entered St. Ives Bay for shelter during a gale, which then veered to the NNE, increasing to hurricane force. This turned the rocky north Cornwall coast into a lee shore towards which the 86ft long wooden craft were in danger of drifting in high seas. One in particular, ML247, got into difficulties as she developed problems with her engine.
To us today it seems extraordinary that these small wooden craft were equipped for warlike purposes with a 3pdr gun, depth charges – and a petrol engine. (They were no more extraordinary, however, than the contemporary aircraft which flew into battle with fabric coverings over wooden frames.) It was the petrol engine developing 19 knots that gave the motor launches their advantage over the U-boat, the fastest of which could only proceed at 17 knots on the surface and were far less speedy when submerged.
By the time the St. Ives lifeboat reached Clodgy Point, the vessel had struck the rocks and with her petrol engine and depth charges, had blown up on impact with the loss of all but one of her 11 crew. Nevertheless one man was washed up and rescued on the shore by Sgt Henry Escott, who was awarded the RNLI Silver Medal for his rescue, while the lifeboat crew were also rewarded for their gallant if unsuccessful attempt to save life in the teeth of the NNE gale. Two of the lifeboat crew subsequently donated their awards to the Cornwall Branch of the Red Cross. (1)
Among the dead was her commanding officer Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, who had commanded ML286 (which survives to this day in Isleworth, and whose story is told here by Antony Firth of Fjordr Ltd.) A professional artist, he had also served at Gallipoli, and many evocative sketches and paintings by him survive – indeed, I used his paintings to illustrate the War Diary blog of March 1918 on the theme of dazzle camouflage.
He also painted this view depicting a torpedoed steamer ‘off the Longships’, showing a vessel whose dazzle camouflage had apparently done little to protect her. As far as I know, the vessel in the painting has never been identified, probably because of the title. However, the view does not depict the Longships, a group of rocks off Land’s End. The view is instead of Cornwall’s rocky coast opposite the Longships, looking north, suggesting that the vessel was perhaps beached after being torpedoed off the Longships.
The only vessel fulfilling these criteria in 1918 is the SS Beaumaris, which was torpedoed on 7 February 1918 and which was steered for Whitesand Bay, not far from the Longships, in a sinking state, finally being run ashore by the master and wireless operator after everyone else had managed to escape. There is some artistic licence for the purposes of the composition, particularly the distinctive dark rock in the background, but there is no other vessel that matches these criteria. Despite the camouflage, she fits the typical profile of a collier or tramp steamer, which we know was the case with the Beaumaris, operated by the coal shipping firm of Furness, Withy and Co., and carrying coal at the time of loss.
We can therefore be reasonably certain that this is the Beaumaris, with a viewpoint approximating to Sennen Cove lifeboat station. She was largely demolished in situ, but the occasional trace remains even today.
The crew in the ship’s port lifeboat were picked up by a patrol vessel and it is tempting to wonder if Allfree had been involved in their rescue, or whether he had simply seen the vessel while on patrol and come back to have another look. We can imagine that a breezy and chilly spring walk and the resultant painting were pleasant diversions from war patrol.
As part of our occasional summer season (and before the summer comes to a final end) with a leitmotif of German wrecks, I’d like to turn now to the Rickmers Line, which had its origins in the shipbuilding firm founded by Rickmer C Rickmers in 1836. Rickmer Rickmers was born and bred to the sea in Heligoland in 1807, the son of a fisherman and pilot, and learned the trade of ship’s carpenter, which led naturally to the establishment of his shipbuilding interests. In turn this developed by mid-century to a shipowning empire, which specialised in the grain trade – rice from the Far East and wheat from the United States.
Inevitably his ships had to pass through the English Channel as they went to and fro on their oceangoing voyages, with consequent losses. We have records for four Rickmers ships lost within English waters. The earliest wasEtha Rickmers, named after the owner’s wife, lost in September 1870 with all hands on the Goodwin Sands en route from New York, last from Queenstown, with coffee, tobacco, and staves for Rotterdam.
She overtook a ship in the Channel on the 9th, whose master then recognised a ship in distress off the Goodwins on the 10th as the same vessel, as he himself arrived in the Downs. On the 11th she struck and part of the wreckage was described as “an American-built ship of between 700 and 800 tons, painted black and copper fastened, and apparently from two to three years old. The upper portion of the copper was painted green, the lower mast and bowsprit white, the double topsail yards scraped bright and the rigging was of wire.” (1) As descriptions go, this wasn’t a bad one, for the Etha Rickmers was only four years old.
The next loss did not concern the company, as it involved one of their former ships which had, however, retained the name of Ellen Rickmers when sold on in 1875. This ship sank off Plymouth while inbound with a cargo from Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1882.
Two years later, the crew of the Deike Rickmers (named for the owner’s mother) spent what must have been a cheerless and exhausting Christmas Day when their barque stranded and broke her back in snow squalls on the Long Sand off Harwich. They were fortunate because the new lifeboat house at nearby Walton-on-the-Naze had just been commissioned, on the 18th of November 1884. (2)
Thus one of the earliest services of the Walton lifeboat was to attend the Deike Rickmers in the dark of Boxing Day morning, picking the men up at 8am. It took them nearly 12 hours to battle back to shore with all 25 hands from the Deike Rickmers saved. History does not record whether both rescuers and rescued were treated to a slap-up Christmas dinner, but they all surely deserved one!
The final ship of the Rickmers Line lost within English waters was the steel full-rigged ship Erik Rickmers, homeward-bound to Bremerhaven with rice from Bangkok. She struck Scilly Rock in the same dense fog that also led to the loss of the French barque Parame, in October 1899. She remains SE of Scilly Rock, where she struck more than a century ago. It may have been this loss, among other reasons, that prompted the sale of the line’s Far Eastern ships to Norddeutscher Lloyd in 1899. (3)
The history of a German mercantile family can be traced in wrecks around the coast of England.
(1) Liverpool Daily Post, 19 September 1870, No.4,732, p7