8. The Great Storm

Man Friday

With the stormy weather continuing until earlier this week, giving rise to the usual media reports wondering whether it is unprecedented/is evidence of global warming, maritime archaeology does indeed give us a perspective that reassures us storms in late November are by no means unusual.

The ultimate example is, of course, the Great Storm of 1703, 309 years ago. Many readers familiar with maritime archaeology will know the three certainly-identified Designated Wrecks arising out of the storm, the Northumberland, Restoration, and Stirling Castle and another Designated Wreck which may be the remains of a fourth, the Resolution. The havoc wrought by similar storms during the same period in other years is also well documented.

However, today I’d like to draw attention to a documented wreck event arising from the storm, a little ship laden with tin.  She was driven helplessly before the wind out of Falmouth and scudded along all the way to the Isle of Wight in 8 hours.

This was remarkable enough in itself. What was more remarkable was that such a small vessel, which would otherwise have been overlooked in contemporary records on both social and economic grounds, should survive at all in the documentary record. Even more remarkably, she was included in three separate reports collated and published by a young journalist struggling to make his name in a ground-breaking work of early journalism, The Storm, 1704. One surviving report from this period per wreck is often about as good as it gets.

Was it a question of ‘never letting the facts get in the way of a good story’? I had my doubts as to the time frame, since in the text the repetition of ‘next morning’ (Freudian slips, or careless editing?) suggested two consecutive mornings, rather than 8 hours; perhaps a period of 30 hours. When I initially blogged this story, a modern-day sailor got in touch to say that he felt that in 8 hours the vessel would have been making an extraordinary number of knots, but over 30 hours a more credible number of knots and a sailing speed fast enough to have caused comment at the time would be plausible. So we have arrived at a similar conclusion from forensic examination of language and a hands-on sailing perspective!

This little wreck, however, also illustrates how specialist knowledge can lift a documented wreck off the page into the realms of archaeological potential. I have not only the modern sailor to thank, but a diver who used his local knowledge to suggest an excellent location for the wreck in Freshwater Bay which fulfilled all the criteria as described in the original sources.

This ground-breaking work was eclipsed at a later date by another, one of the earliest examples of the novel form. The journalist was, of course, Daniel Defoe, and his novel, also centred on a shipwreck event – Robinson Crusoe. It is fascinating to speculate how much he gathered from the accounts of the 1703 storm, and other stories he must have heard, for, of course, Robinson Crusoe was based on a real-life castaway, Alexander Selkirk.

7. Water, Water, Everywhere

Things are a little bit different this week with severe flooding having affected my railway line, preventing me from reaching my office, so trains under water naturally sprang to mind.

Click on the wreck’s name to access the PastScape record – as ever, click on More Information and Sources to read the full story.

Today’s wreck contained five locos. The St. Chamond was torpedoed in 1918 while moving locos as deck cargo, consigned to France for the war effort. Wrecks such as these form part of a landscape of war, destined for another landscape of war, where British industrial output directly affected the French landscape. The British required coordinated transport between the ports and the Western Front for men and munitions, and of course, a rapid reverse flow as casualties were cleared and sent back home for recuperation, my own grandfather among them. Some of these ambulance trains were actually built at the Swindon Works, part of which is now the EH Swindon office. (Follow this link for history on the Swindon army base; Chiseldon Camp)

Here are some fabulous Futurist images by Gino Severini of trains speeding into or out of Paris during WWI:

Suburban Train Arriving in Paris, 1915

Armored Train in Action, 1915

Train de Blessés, 1915

Such wrecks, containing rolling stock and other items, such as railway sleepers, are fairly common, and illustrate the export of British railway engineering worldwide from the early days of the industry. The latest wreck containing rolling stock, as far as I know, may be that of the Fort Massac in 1946. I came across a reference to a Darlington loco consigned for South Africa lost in the Thames Estuary in the latest issue of my husband’s Railway Magazine. It just goes to show that you can find wreck information in the unlikeliest of places, buried deep among accounts of terrestrial infrastructure! The un-named wreck in the article fits the profile of the Fort Massac in date and place of loss, and the fact that the vessel was outward-bound from Middlesborough. I have found no reference, though, to the loco in either the UKHO or in the contemporary Times report.

6. Ever wondered why a Russian ship doesn’t have a Russian name?

– or, don’t expect a Cyrillic nameboard to turn up!

Recent update work has included adding documentary evidence to both sites and casualties resulting from the Great Storm which took place 18-20 November 1893. One is the “Russian” casualty Venscapen but why does it matter that she wasn’t Russian?

Getting it right enhances retrievability of vessel name and nationality and allows the vessel to be traced through documentary sources.

It was a dark and stormy night, as Snoopy might have said: all too frequently, the nameboard wasn’t visible, was lost, or not legible; the survivors couldn’t speak English; they passed on their ship’s name to their rescuers, fishermen with strong regional accents; by the time it reached the Lloyd’s agent it was hopelessly garbled.

It’s also true that the English coastline was so frequently strewn with wrecks that foreign ships lost here were of relatively little interest to the English press. Conversely, they made big news back home. These days with online digitization, such resources are easy to find and use.

One of the great strengths of the database is that it permits profiling of wrecks against each other – it could be as simple as spellings, or as complex as statistics for particular areas, cargoes or vessel types. I had a theory based on previous experience . . .

My first port of call was the Finnish National Newspaper Library. An excellent high-res digitization with an English interface, it permits fuzzy searches, a great help with phonetic spellings: Venscapen brought back the correct spelling Vånskapen, a Swedish-language name with a Swedish master’s name (Johansson). Curiouser and curiouser. Definitely not Russian . . .

Reading Finnish printed in black-letter Gothic is quite a challenge: 2nd column on the newspaper page.

Like many “Russian” barques of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, she was registered in Ahvenamaa, or the Aaland Islands, part of Finland. In 1893, Finland’s mercantile classes were Swedish (Aaland remains Swedish-speaking today) but Finland was also a Grand Duchy of Russia, hence the “Russian” nationality. This vessel is therefore now indexed by her nationality as expressed at the time, and her current nationality – as well as the right spelling!

The exceptionally interesting Aaland ships cornered the market in the last of the sailing barques, which by the 1930s were only economical on very long-distance routes where bunker coal was unavailable. They thus specialised in the Chilean nitrate trade and the Grain Race to Australia. Herzogin Cecilie was one of the last Aalanders, but EH also holds pictures of others in their very final days after the Second World War, including Pamir.

5. Our Four-Legged Friends

Today’s records are in a slightly lighter vein . . .

Dogs may not be able to talk, but sometimes they can bear witness to a wreck, as in this case when a dog arrived home at St. Ives, the first indication that anything was amiss with the Charles, lost off Portreath.

Another dog was also a sole survivor of the steamer Prince, wrecked in 1876 off the Tyne.

Though several other records also report the sole survivor as being canine, more happily, the crew of the Reaper of Guernsey were taken off by breeches buoy in 1881, also off the Tyne, including a somewhat vocal animal: ‘Above the shouts of the men could be distinctly heard the yells of a fine terrier dog’ reported a local newspaper. When the Wandsworth  also struck the Tyne in 1897 another dog, also rescued by breeches buoy, ‘gave token of being exceedingly thankful for its rescue’.

Somewhat more famous was Monte, the St. Bernard plucked to safety by the greatest lifeboatman of all time, Cox’n Henry Blogg, from the Monte Nevoso aground on Haisbro’ Sand in 1932. Monte is the star of the RNLI Henry Blogg museum for their younger visitors.

Dogs sometimes became rescuers rather than rescuees. The ‘sagacious canine perseverance’ of one Newfoundland who doggedly (sorry . . . ) swam ashore with a lead line resulted in a successful rescue operation from the Durham Packet off Cley-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, in 1815. The breed became famous for its lifesaving capabilities and instincts and a number of other wrecks have similar tales of heroic Newfoundlands attached. No wonder Lord Byron’s Newfoundland was aptly named Boatswain.

4. What links hospital ships, women’s rights, and the Titanic?

I can’t promise that every wreck will be topical – after all, in the northern hemisphere the prime ‘wrecking season’ is between October and March, and I also want to make the selection fairly random! However, this week features the Rohilla, a hospital ship which struck the coast of Whitby on 30 October 1914, i.e. 98 years ago this week.

Rohilla is one of a number of hospital ships which were lost during World War I, but she is the only one who is almost certainly not a war loss (the initial cause of loss was thought to be a mine explosion).

Of course, the cause of women’s rights was greatly advanced by the shipboard nurses who faced danger on the high seas, as well as the other women who stepped into wartime roles. One nurse on board Rohilla had had previous experience at sea as a stewardess, when she was rescued from the most famous wreck of all time, so our topicality extends to this year’s centenary of the loss of the Titanic.

For more on Rohilla, please see ‘one I made earlier‘:  including a link to genuine amateur footage of the rescue operation, redistributed by Pathé.

Rohilla was not the only wreck to carry a Titanic survivor who also survived a second wreck. Another wreck was HMS Falcon, in 1918: which was commanded by Charles Lightoller, the senior surviving officer on board the Titanic – again, he survived. As you can see, we try and tell a story and make links to events and people of cultural and historic interest to contribute to scholarship and drive public engagement with heritage. Charles Lightoller is also entered as a Person of Historic Interest, so all monuments linked to a particular person can be searched for.

If you know of any more Titanic survivors on other wrecks, please let me know – and I can update our records.