11. Wrecks on Christmas Day

Wrecks on Christmas Day are somewhat inevitable when the prime ‘wrecking season’ is between October and March in our northern hemisphere. There are numerous instances of such wrecks, so here are a few representative examples – there are far more in our records than I can possibly include here. However, it does show that it is possible to mine the database for the same day regardless of year, as well as a specific date.

Plymouth in particular seemed really rather dangerous on the 25th December in the late 17th century: on 25th December 1675 the George  and Spread Eagle, both from Bordeaux with wine, were lost west of the Citadel, as was a Dutch ship, the St. Job of Naarden. On 25th December 1689 a similar event happened, resulting in the loss of the CenturionHenrietta, Blade of Wheat, Dover Prize, Eendracht  and two unknown French prizes which had been sent into Plymouth. However, accounts are probably skewed by Plymouth’s status as a naval base and importance as a port, making it one of the premier ‘reporting ports’ for the few newspapers at this time.

In 1810 a gale on Christmas Day accounted for five wrecks in various locations, two of them in Liverpool. The wind conditions on that day were reported at Deal as ‘West, blows hard, a tremendous gale in the morning.’ On the same day a year later, the crew of the Giertru Chrestiane from Drammen in Norway were picked up in their boats after striking the Leman and Ower off Norfolk on Christmas Eve.

On 25th December 1814, the Valette schooner went to pieces off Warkworth, Northumberland, with what sounds like a very Dickensian cargo of toys and clocks from Rotterdam. In 1830, the German brig Anna, bound for her home port of Hamburg with coal, came ashore at Mundesley, Norfolk, on Christmas night at 9pm in a ‘strong gale and a very severe frost’.

One hundred years later, the crew of the Norwegian collier Eli,  bound from Blyth for Rouen with coal, had a most un-festive shock when their ship was mined on 25th December 1914 off Scarborough – a reminder that while the Christmas truce was holding across much of the Western Front, mines could strike at random.

Happily all the crew were saved, hopefully to enjoy the remainder of their Christmas!

10. Something with a Christmas flavour

‘Twas the night before Christmas . . .  not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse . . .

We wouldn’t expect to receive newspapers on Christmas Day nowadays, but it was not uncommon in the past for Lloyd’s List to be published on 25th December. I shall focus on 25th December 1753. Two wrecks were reported in this issue in the south-west of England. One was the Union, from Cork for Bristol, on the Bristol Channel coast.

There was also the Jeffrow Edia Maria [sic].  Lloyd’s List reported a ‘Dutch Dogger from Galipoly to Amsterdam lost off the Ram he[. .]’ with the loss of the master and four men. The Sherborne Mercury also said: ‘They write from Plymouth that on the 23rd inst. a Dutch dogger from Gallipoli for Amsterdam is wrecked at Ramhead. The captain and men drowned, and the vessel and cargo lost. The Jeffrow Edia Maria, of and from Amsterdam for Gallipoli, Jacob Sume master, is lost on Ramhead. The master and four men drowned.’

This is a perfect example of the confusion which occurred in contemporary newspapers with information being ‘split down the middle’ between variant accounts, often in the same paragraph as correspondence from different sources arrived to hand. The vessel also turns up in a Dutch paper, where: ‘they write from Ramsey, an Island and Haven in the Irish Sea, that the richly laden merchant vessel the Juffrauw Ida Maria was lost on the cliffs at that harbour with man and mouse’. (The latter is Dutch idiom for ‘with all hands’.)

There are no cliffs at the entrance to Ramsey, Isle of Man, but this description fits the profile of Rame Head, which is near Plymouth. The Dutch version suggests that Lloyd’s List was the medium of transmission, Dutch editors struggling to make sense of the missing letters in Lloyd’s List. They evidently settled on Ramsey rather than Rame Head, but the loss of all hands in that account suggests that the Dutch dogger and the Edia/Ida Maria were one and the same.

9. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers

I discussed the wreck Seynt Cristofre from 1386 with the local HER (Historic Environment Record) officer last week. He kindly supplied me with further information from the Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous, which has enabled me to enhance the record further. It was the final outstanding reference, so it is a very good example of harnessing the work of HER officers.

It is an exceptionally detailed record for a wreck from the Middle Ages, both in terms of containing information from several different sources – as we saw with the ‘tin ship wreck’ a couple of weeks back, three references were exceptional even several centuries later – and in the level of detail concerning the ship and circumstances of loss. The ship’s name, date of loss, manner and location of loss, master, owners, cargo and voyage details are all present. A hit rate of perhaps three of these details would be considered good going for documentary evidence of a medieval wreck, from my point of view. Unusually, the paper trail starts with the wreck event – quite often, the first record commissioning an enquiry or “inquisition” is missing from the surviving documentary evidence, and we pick up the trail some time later, so the name, for example, which might have been present in that first mention, isn’t recoverable.

We do not always get to find out what happened subsequently, since the trail often runs cold due to the lack of extant documents before the matter was concluded. You could say that medieval wrecks are often lost twice over – once in the wrecking process, and again through the haphazard survival (at best) of contemporary records.

Here we have a very specific date of loss – on the eve of All Saints; moreover, since the cargo was carried away on that day, the wreck must have occurred sufficiently early in the day for arrangements to be made to hire the carts by the master, which then seem to have been diverted, embezzled, or what you will! The survival of the crew and quantity of goods carried away suggests a location at some fairly accessible point of the inter-tidal zone – at the least, accessible at low tide. Looking at Admiralty Easytide, high water on that day was just after noon, at 12.08pm, which would appear to lend weight to this suggestion. It would be easy to conjecture that at some time that morning the vessel was lost before the tide reached its height in order for the carts to be hired and the goods taken away before it became dark.

The question was, therefore, whether the peck of pickled peppers was picked by the Prior of Prittlewell, or by Pultere his bailiff on his behalf! Claim and counter-claim ensued as Pultere was accused of embezzling some of the goods and the carters of diverting some of the rest. Mismanagement was clearly seen all around, since the wreck was blamed on the seamen’s ‘carelessness’. This seems a little harsh, given the circumstances of a storm.

William Camden, writing in the 1600s, describes the local topography of Shobery Nesse:

Heere by reason that the bankes on both sides shrinke backe, the Tamis at a huge and wide mouth rowleth into the sea.

[William Camden, Britain, or, a Chorographicall Description of the most flourishing Kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland (London: George Bishop and John Norton, 1610) Copyright 2004 by Dana F. Sutton. This text was transcribed by Professor Sutton, of the University of California, Irvine, from Philemon Holland’s 1610 translation] accessed here.

A Vision of Britain has some nice historical maps – click here for a map of Shoebury: