In their Quincentenary week we take another look at the work of Trinity House, this time examining lightvessels as warning lights, wreck markers, and wrecks in themselves.
This week in 1736 the Dudgeon lightvessel first went on station, the second lightship after the Nore in the Thames Estuary in 1732. Demand from the east coast coal trade between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and London led to the marking of the Dudgeon, a dangerous shoal off the Norfolk coast.
Such early lightvessels proved their worth both as hazard markers and as reference points for locating wrecks. In 1785 the Mayflower of Scarborough ‘foundered nigh the Dodgen light’ and in 1824 the captain of a passing ship reported that he: ‘in passing the Dudgeon Float . . . bearing about NNW 8 miles, saw a sunken brig, with her royal masts shewing, painted white, and two vanes flying.’ He ‘supposed her to be from the northward, but not a collier.’
Lightvessels in their turn could become wrecks. Moored at their stations, they were prone to becoming casualties of the very same hazards against which they warned other shipping. There were other patterns of loss: the Dudgeon station was among the most unfortunate, with three incidents within 50 years. None were to the shoal itself, despite early concerns about the Dudgeon lightvessel parting her cables three times in two years (1), but to two other major causes of lightvessel loss.
As moored vessels, lightships were equally unable to take steps to avert collision, so the Dudgeon was ‘run down’ in 1898 and again in 1902: 38% of lightvessel wrecks recorded in English waters were lost to collision. Their inability to take evasive action also meant that, when war came, aerial bombardment was also a significant cause of loss, accounting in just two years for 26% of our recorded lightvessel wrecks. The East Dudgeon lightvessel was sunk by air attack in 1940, along with six others in 1940-1. The crew escaped, but were overwhelmed by the elements, with only one survivor.
Strangely enough, given how early lightvessels were wooden ships exhibiting lanterns, we have no recorded lightships wrecked by fire, or are there others of which we are not yet aware?
(1) Light upon the Waters: A History of Trinity House 1514-2014 p87-8