23. Dunking the Witches

I promised you more on ‘unbooked passengers’ last week, and if you were anticipating stowaways, that’s a story for another day. Today’s wreck in 1667  is included more for the completeness of the record (because it appears in shipwreck lists elsewhere) rather than bearing any very close relationship to reality. It is certainly a very good candidate for the strangest wreck record I have ever come across: the letter in which it appears, although one of the State Papers (1) appears to be relaying little more than local gossip and is somewhat garbled.

The sequence of events appears to be as follows: the correspondent wrote from Harwich, ‘They tell a strange story at Ipswich of one of their ships that was lost in the late storms’. Two Ipswich ships met one another at sea, suggesting that they were crossing one another,  perhaps northbound and southbound respectively in the North Sea (possibly colliers). Instead of exchanging news, ‘speaking’ as it was called at the time, the crew of the first ship gave their love to all their friends and relations at home, as they had given themselves up for lost.

On being asked why this was so, ‘the first ship replied that they had long laboured to free their maintop, where sat a couple of witches, but by all that they could do, could not remove nor get them down, and so they were lost people.’

At least one passenger had taken ship on this vessel, having previously been on board a ship lost at Scarborough Roads (so he might have been a nervous passenger anyway) but interpreting the place of loss as between Scarborough and Ipswich begs more questions than it answers.

The request to ‘send their love’ suggests the doomed vessel was outbound from Ipswich: for this to be a plausible request the second vessel taking the message home must have been inbound to Ipswich. Yet the passenger had lost his ship in Scarborough Roads, so it seems strange that he was apparently outward-bound from Ipswich.

Possibly, instead, the two ships had crossed north of Scarborough, and the second vessel was homeward-bound from somewhere like Newcastle: the place of loss would then have been further north, between Scarborough and Newcastle. This conjecture, however, is simply based on the prevalence of the collier trade on the east coast in the 1600s, and recorded, for example, by Defoe.

This isn’t the strangest thing about the supposed wreck, though. This is a unique – in English waters anyway – example of a ship being said to be lost to witchcraft. Some of those on board survived, since the supposed witches were then clapped into jail. Possibly they were arrested simply because they survived their dunking in the sea – after all, witches were supposed to be guilty if they floated, and innocent if they sank! This was rather hard on all the innocent people who suffered under the notorious 17th century Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, who, of course, was active in northern Essex in the 1640s. One wonders whether this ‘wreck’ is a legacy of Hopkins’ reign of terror.

Update 14.02.2014: While running a query today I came across another wreck with a tinge of the supernatural which I just had to add to the blog. The events a hundred years later seem to be real enough, and there is nothing unusual in a ship being cast ashore ‘in the late storm’ in 1766 on an area of the coastline that was fairly well-known for wrecks. Something was clearly preying on the master’s mind, and he (or, as the original source implies, if you read it carefully, his ship, which gives the story an even greater supernatural tinge!) decided to lay the blame for the wreck at the feet of a supernatural ‘woman’ who ‘belonged to the merchants of Hull’, to which port he was bound.

‘Newcastle, Sept. 27 . . . We are informed that the sloop William and Ann, of Port Seaton, James Scott, master, from Hull for Leith, with bale goods, which has been drove ashore at Blyth, in the late storm, went [sic] on the 11th inst. to one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the county of Northumberland, and made the following deposition, that on Monday the 8th, being about 10 leagues from the land, he went into the cabbin, where he found a woman standing; and on enquiry how she came there, she said she came out of the hold, and belonged to the merchants of Hull: on which he offered to lay hold of her, when she vanished. He then came on deck, where he saw a man come out of a block, and another on the mast, with feet as big as hogsheads, blowing the sails, and legions of the devils floating about the ship, who carried her over an exceeding high rock, where she was wrecked, and the crew with difficulty saved. Quere, if the ship was insured?’ (2)

Rather than a supernatural apparition, it seems likely to be a psychological manifestation of some concerns about his reception on arrival at Hull.  The newspapers may have had something of this nature on their minds: by ostensibly asking if the ship was insured against supernatural peril, might they have been poking a bit of fun at the owners and gently hinting at insurance fraud and a guilty conscience?

(1) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, 1667-8, 2 November 1667, No.27

(2) Newcastle Courant, 27th September 1766, No.4,697, p2

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