No. 96 HMT Resono

Diary of the War No. 17

In the second part of our Christmas double bill, we commemorate a loss on Boxing Day 1915 and finish off with a poem as an extra special feature.

We have looked at fishing vessels in the War Diary before – how, at the outbreak of war, neutral fishing vessels found themselves on an unexpected front line of minefields, how the sailing fishing fleets of Lowestoft were targeted and how they fought back.

In commemorating the loss of HMT Resono 100 years ago, today’s post pays tribute to the efforts of the steam trawling fleets. They saw action principally as minesweepers and patrol vessels, many requisitioned from the beginning of the war. They were eminently suitable to backfill these roles: as smaller ships, they were at less risk of detonating mines, their crews knew the seas intimately, and they needed little modification.

Sweeping was monotonous, deadly, and dangerous, with a high casualty rate: it was inevitable that a number of sweepers and patrol vessels would be lost in the minefields littered around the coastline. On 26th December 1915, Resono, one of the famous Sleight fleet of trawlers operating out of Grimsby, was blown up 2 miles SE of the Sunk Light Vessel in the Thames Estuary.

The Sleight fleet saw distinguished service in both World Wars. Sir George Sleight’s obituary of 1921 states that over 50 of his ships were requisitioned: it also states that he developed from a cockle-gatherer to the owner of the largest steam trawler company in the world. (1) His fleet is readily identifiable among wartime casualty lists by its distinctive house naming scheme: Recepto, Remarko, and Remindo were other First World War losses from the fleet. Many Sleight vessels participated in both wars: Resolvo and Resparko, First World War veterans, were both lost in 1940. Yet others survived two wartime services, including the Revello, built in 1908 and therefore a contemporary of Resono, which was eventually wrecked in 1959.

Black and white photo of steam trawler, with steam coming out of its funnel.
Sleight trawler Revello, which sprang a leak and sank off Kilnsea in 1959, after seeing service in both World Wars. She had been sunk in 1941, but was salvaged a few months later. © Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre. George Scales Maritime Photographs.

To conclude this month’s edition of the War Diary, here is Kipling’s poem Mine Sweepers, also a century old. It was first published as the introduction to an article on the work of the minesweeper-trawlers for the Daily Telegraph, 23rd November 1915: the original can be read here.

Dawn off the Foreland – the young flood making

Jumbled and short and steep –

Black in the hollows and bright where it’s breaking –

Awkward water to sweep.

“Mines reported in the fairway,

“Warn all traffic and detain.

“Sent up Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”

 

Noon off the Foreland – the first ebb making

Lumpy and strong in the bight.

Boom after boom, and the golf-hut shaking

And the jackdaws wild with fright!

“Mines located in the fairway,

“Boats now working up the chain,

“Sweepers – Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”

 

Dusk off the Foreland – the last light going

And the traffic crowding through,

And five damned trawlers with their syreens blowing

Heading the whole review!

“Sweep completed in the fairway.

“No more mines remain.

“Sent back Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”

To borrow a phrase: the poem counted them all out and counted them all back!

(1) The Times, Monday 21 March, 1921, No.42,674, p16.

No. 95 Thomas W Lawson

In the first part of a special Christmas double bill, it is my pleasure to . introduce my guest blogger John Hicks, who, as a descendant of those involved in the rescue, has recently written a book on the wreck of the Thomas W Lawson.

Lawson.jacket
Cover of the book, depicting the largest sailing ship in the world  as a sad wreck among the Isles of Scilly.

He writes:

The Isles of Scilly, off the south-west tip of Great Britain, have been the scene of innumerable wrecks (over 900 have been recorded by name), of which probably the best known are those of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s flagship HMS Association and three other vessels from his homecoming fleet in 1707, with the loss of the Admiral and an estimated 1,400 to 2,000 others, and of the Schiller, a 3,421 ton German transatlantic liner, in 1875, with the loss of most of her crew and passengers, to a total of 335.

The name of the Thomas W Lawson, while not so notorious among the general public, is well known locally, and among many others with an interest in wrecks. Towards sunset on Friday, 13 December 1907 she reached the mouth of  the English Channel after a stormy first transatlantic crossing and with another gale brewing. Thinking themselves well clear of any land, the crew realised, too late, that they were among the rocks and shoals of the islands and hurriedly anchored. She was attended by the St Agnes and St Mary’s lifeboats, but for different reasons each had to return to its station.  In the night there was a violent storm, and by the small hours of the following  morning the Lawson was a wreck.  At daylight a six-oared island gig was launched into a still high sea to search for survivors, and by the end of the day, after three perilous trips among the rocks, had rescued the only three, one of whom died within hours of his injuries.

That brief narrative omits many dramatic, intriguing or disputed details, but in addition to the fascination of the immediate story there are at least three other features of great interest in the vessel and personnel involved.

As to the vessel, she was a seven-masted schooner of 5,218 registered tons, the largest fore-and-aft rigged sailing vessel of all time, at the time of her loss the largest sailing vessel of any rig afloat, and still the largest vessel propelled purely by sail throughout her life which has yet existed. (Click here for some stunning images of the Thomas W Lawson.)

Black and white photograph of five-masted sailing ship aground in shallow water off a rocky coastline in the foreground.
Besides the seven-masted Thomas W Lawson lost off the Isles of Scilly in 1907, there was also the wreck of the five-masted ship Preussen off Kent in 1912, photographed here by a local resident. BB052702 Reproduced by permission of Historic England.

As to the personnel, there was first the man after whom she was named: one of the moving spirits behind her conception and creation and a major participant in her financing and ownership.  Thomas W Lawson was a buccaneering and intensely superstitious Boston stockbroker who started work as a fatherless, penniless boy of 12, made and lost several fortunes, was reputedly worth at his zenith some $30 to $50 million (the equivalent of something like $750 million to $1.25 billion now) but died in poverty.

And finally – there was the tiny, isolated, close-knit island community into which the schooner irrupted.  Of the 17 men from St Agnes who went out in their lifeboat to the Lawson on the 13th or in their gig to search the rocks on the  14th or who (in four cases) were involved in both ventures, all but one were related and 13 bore the same surname.  One of them was aboard her as pilot when she went down, and was drowned.

There have been many accounts of the wreck of the Thomas W Lawson, but it is now the subject of a full-length investigation into all these features and their interrelation.  It is entitled An Absolute Wreck and its author is a great-nephew of the dead pilot and related to all but one of the St Agnes men involved.

Serena adds: the Isles of Scilly gig was an adaptable craft, often a salvage and rescue vessel at need, and involved in other incidents. Wrecks sometimes caused other wrecks of those that went to their aid: we know of two gigs that were lost respectively in a rescue attempt in 1816 and in salvage work in 1839, underlining the courage of those who crewed them.

Publication details of An Absolute Wreck: the loss of the Thomas W Lawson are as follows:

Title:  An Absolute Wreck – the loss of the Thomas W Lawson

Author: John Hicks

Publisher: Scotforth Books, on behalf of the author

ISBN: 978-1-9098 17-25-8

Date: 2015

Price: £15.00, including postage within the UK (in USA $25.00 plus postage from UK)

Obtainable from the author at john.hicks@montagusquare.net