A Tale of Two Billyboys

The Swan and the York Merchant

It is my pleasure once more to welcome Jordan Havell for a third blog on his local heritage.

Here he focuses on two Humber billyboys which were lost on routine voyages which ended disastrously on the Lincolnshire coast. Jordan has been honing his research skills in going back to original newspapers on the British Newspaper Archive and trying to trace the history of the ships involved through the Guildhall Library, two of the most important sources of information for any shipwreck historian.

He has helped identify one vessel – the York Merchant – and discovered another – the Swan – and seems to have caught the research bug!  So I would like to thank Jordan very much for passing this information on to us. Potentially one or the other of these two vessels, or perhaps another one that we haven’t yet discovered more about, might tell us where fragments of wreckage recently washed up near Jordan could have come from.

Over to Jordan:

My blog this time relates to the Swan billyboy that was lost at Huttoft on 17th Oct 1869.

I had asked about another vessel – a billyboy that had been listed in Historic England records as a wreck 05.11.1858 carrying shingle. I have now, with the help of The Guildhall, London, been able to name that wreck as the York Merchant of Yarmouth. She was lost along with 3 crew and 3 passengers. The story is told in varying newspapers: the Stamford Mercury, 12 Nov 1858; Leeds Times, 13 Nov 1858; Morning Advertiser 16 Nov 1858, as well as the Dundee Courier Weds 17 Nov 1858 and The Bucks Herald Sat 20 Nov 1858.

There were similarities between the two vessels (the York Merchant and the Swan). Both the vessels had been classified as billyboys. Both had set sail for Gainsborough, Lincolnshire – one carrying wheat, and the other carrying shingle. Both had been hit by severe weather and had both been carrying the family of the masters aboard – sadly in the case of the York Merchant it is known there were fatalities.

I was finding pieces of stranded wood on my local beach over recent weeks. I got in touch with Serena Cant at Historic England as we had been in contact before. She, along with Andy Sherman of Museum of London Archaeology, looked at my photos etc. Andy said the some of the pieces may have come from a billyboy ship.

This, in turn, relit my interest in shipwreck history. We started visiting the library locally and the RNLI records to see if any of these vessels had been wrecked in this area. We found the Swan – a record from a book called Mablethorpe and North Lincolnshire Lifeboats. The vessel had been en route from Boston to Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, when she was caught in a violent gale. She was made of wood and was carrying a cargo of wheat believed to be about 200 quarters, of which only 14 was saved. We found reports in various newspapers in The British Newspaper Archive including the Lincolnshire Chronicle and Manchester Courier, as well as the Hull and Eastern Counties Herald that confirmed the story.

The Master is named as Mr John Would. The owners are named as Nicholson and Burkitt of Retford. The crew is listed as 2, and 3 passengers were aboard at the time. They were saved by the National Lifeboat called the Birmingham. A quote taken from the Mablethorpe and North East Lincolnshire Lifeboats reads: “The only other effective service by the Birmingham Number 1 came on Oct 17th 1869, when she rescued the master, his wife and 2 children plus a man and a boy from the billyboy Swan of Hull.”

The saved master and crew were taken to the Jolly Bacchus – which we now know as the Bacchus Hotel – owned at the time by Mr Simons, from one of the newspaper stories of the time. One of the newspaper quotes read ‘the boat (referring to the lifeboat) was happily the means of saving the shipwrecked persons’. An interesting point was that the cost of this lifeboat when built was £190, the funds having been raised in Birmingham, hence its name.

The Lloyd’s Agent was named as Mr Bradshaw.

I have been in contact with the Guildhall Library in London. They have tried to help me find a record for the Swan. The nearest they could find was Swan of Hull, official number 26882, 37 tons, owned by Henry Robinson, 21 Waverley Street, Hull. There were 3 other vessels called Swan, but all appear to be from Goole, so am I assuming that this one above may be the one.

***********************************************************************************

Jordan’s post brings out some interesting history. As his last paragraph shows, it can be very difficult to trace small ships in the registers: we can eliminate some, but we can’t always be sure that what is left is the ship we are after. Even experienced researchers like me – and I have been doing this for over 20 years – can come up against a brick wall, but that’s part of what makes it so fascinating.

We can also see that similar ships shared a similar fate on the same stretch of coastline just a few years apart, so this is the type of wreck that could be said to be fairly characteristic of the east coast – you won’t find Humber billyboys on the west coast or Mersey flats on the east coast, because they were generally short-range coasting vessels (though some ships do turn up wrecked in odd places, having been sold out of their local area). The fact that one of the billyboys is called the York Merchant demonstrates that it was intended to serve Yorkshire and to be capable of travelling upriver as well as sailing coastwise.

Another similarity is that on board both vessels the master’s wife and family travelled with him, which shines a light on the role of women on board ships in Victorian Britain. We don’t often read much about this – it’s an under-represented area of history – so well done to Jordan for finding out more.

We also see the importance of community – the local community rallied round and put the shipwreck victims up at the nearby inn. Finally, it is interesting to see that people from the wider community, from inland Birmingham in fact, cared enough to raise money for a lifeboat at Sutton, following the terrible storms of a few years previously.

Here’s some interesting pictures of billyboys – one of 1875 from the Yorkshire Waterways Museum, Goole, showing wheat being unloaded from a billyboy whose voyage was more successful than the Swan, also laden with wheat. Here is another from Goole Museum, painted before 1910, of the Masterman

Just like Jordan, I’ve been following all sorts of clues. If Jordan hadn’t written this article, I wouldn’t have been looking for billyboy images to illustrate it with. When I found the Masterman, I realised that she, too, was a wreck which we hadn’t yet recorded. Like the Swan, she was wrecked with her master’s wife and children, who died, like those on board the York Merchant. So thank you again Jordan – because of you I too have found a new wreck for the records!

 

 

Diary of the War: May 1917

The Gena

In the second instalment of our double bill covering 30 April and 1 May 1917 we take a look at the Gena, sunk on 1 May. On the face of it, Gena was fairly typical in both vessel type and location of loss, a collier sunk in the North Sea while steaming south with her cargo from Tyneside.

Yet there are two things which are very unusual about this particular wreck site. The first is that the position of loss is very precisely specified in relation to a relatively small and impermanent seamark.

She sank “¾ mile S by W ½W of ‘A’ War Channel Buoy, Southwold”. (1)

Unsurprisingly, with this level of detail, the wreck site has a secure history of recording that goes back to the date of loss. (2) It also gives some clue to the location of one of the buoys marking out the East Coast War Channels, or safe swept channels, that kept the shipping lanes open and (relatively) free of mines, swept largely by minesweeper-trawlers such as the Arfon whose loss on 30 April 1917 was commemorated in yesterday’s post.

These War Channels have been the subject of recent investigations on behalf of Historic England  (2014) by Antony Firth (Fjordr), illustrated with maps and charts showing the extent of the War Channels. One unofficial chart marking the buoys further north up the East Coast is known to have been used by an airman providing cover for North Sea shipping (Fig. 7 in report).

If aircraft could provide cover for shipping, tracking U-boats and indeed collaborating with patrol vessels to destroy enemy craft, it followed that ships were also vulnerable to attack from the air. The Gena was the first ship within English territorial waters to be sunk by aircraft, torpedoed from the air by two Hansa-Brandenburg GW seaplanes of Torpedostaffel II, operating out of Zeebrugge. This was not the first aerial attack on merchant shipping by aircraft, but it was one of the first to successfully sink a ship.

So unusual was it that Lloyd’s struggled to fit it into an appropriate category in their ‘ledger’ of war losses. In the “How Sunk” column, the standard abbreviations S (sunk by submarine) and M (mine) were clearly inappropriate, and even this distinction was outdated, since ships had been sunk by mines laid by U-boats since 1915, so arguably fitted both categories (see earlier post on minelaying submarines, introduced in 1915). The only other category available was C (cruiser or raider), which was still inadequate, but it seems that a new category was not considered necessary, and ‘raider’ was at least appropriate in intent, if not in ‘vessel type’ as such. A marginal annotation clarified matters: “German seaplane”. (3)

The Gena was an armed merchant, however, and her attackers did not have it all their own way. Sunk by the planes, her gunner nevertheless managed to down Hansa-Brandenburg 703, whose two crew were rescued to become prisoners of war. (4) An interesting photo gallery of the Hansa-Brandenburg GW can be found here, including stablemate 700, a view of the torpedo loading bay, and film stills of the aircraft landing on the water.

The course of the war at sea was changing: terror could strike from above as well as below, and aircraft though slow, unreliable, and terrifying to fly by modern standards, were proving to be amphibious and adaptable. Finally, the increasing presence of aircraft at sea meant that wrecks at sea were no longer necessarily ‘shipwrecks’, although, on this occasion, the aircraft was also picked up for examination: (see previous double bill on Zeppelin wrecks from February 1916 and March 1916).

The whole incident was recognised at the time as ‘a new phase of warfare’  and a ‘noteworthy development of aerial craft’ (5) so that, unusually for the time, the Admiralty released details of the ‘duel’, in part because there was some propaganda value in demonstrating that the Gena had not gone down without a fight.

(1) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p127

(2) United Kingdom Hydrographic Office record no. 10320

(3) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p127

(4) for example: http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?/topic/241938-naval-historynet-bvlas-errata/

(5) Yarmouth Independent, Saturday 5 May 1917, No.4,529, p1