A Detective Story

The Flying-P liners

Over the summer there will be a few wreck features with a German theme, inspired by my recent holidays on Germany’s northern seaboard with its strong maritime heritage – a shared history across the North Sea.

Not long ago a colleague in the Historic England Archives showed me a set of recently-acquired negatives, depicting a wrecked sailing vessel against some white cliffs with a very tiny lighthouse visible in the far distance. Those details, and a possible date of circa 1900 on technical grounds, were all we had to go on. No proper location, no real date, no identity for the vessel, no name for the photographer – and white cliffs aren’t unique to Dover.

Off I went to inspect the negatives on a lightbox, prepared for a patient elimination of white cliff and lighthouse combinations to identify the location, before then narrowing it down to a specific ship – but the ship herself proved to be extremely obliging and we struck lucky virtually at once.

At first glance the words ‘possible Flying-P liner’ came to mind, as she was clearly a very large vessel of steel-hulled construction – not unique to the ‘Flying-Ps’, which were, however, among the most celebrated sailing vessels of their day, the ‘windjammers’.

These windjammers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries made use of contemporary iron and steel technology to develop large cargo-carrying sailing ships which were predominantly or wholly square-rigged to take full advantage of the wind. Hence not only the collective name ‘windjammer’, but also the ‘Flying’ Reederei F Laeisz fleet, whose ships all began with ‘P’. The windjammers arguably extended the sailing vessel era until well into the 20th century, although, even as they were being developed from the 1880s onwards, steam had already overtaken sail as the principal means of propulsion.

Then I counted the masts in the negatives – five – and with that the ship yielded her secrets.  Those white cliffs were indeed at Dover and the ship was indeed a ‘Flying-P’, the Preussen, the only five-masted full-rigged ship ever built. (1) She broke tow following a collision and stranded in Fan Bay, Dover, on 6 November 1910, en route from Hamburg on a typical windjammer run to Valparaiso, Chile, with a cargo which included pianos.

Historic B&W photo of shipwreck against cliffs, seen from seaward, sea filling the lower third of the image.
Wreck of the Preussen, Fan Bay, Dover. From this angle the masts seem to tower above the cliffs – a dramatic shot that suggests a photographer with an eye for composition.

So who was the photographer? Someone with the skills to take a photograph at sea from a moving object, namely another vessel. The image, sea conditions, the wreck itself, and the cliffs are all clearly defined, demonstrating continuing interest in the deteriorating condition of the vessel after the wreck event.

Compare this view of the same shipwreck immediately after she struck, by local resident and female photographer, Annette Evelyn Darwall, which was already in the Historic England collection. This, too, is a skilled photograph, including a section of cliff at left foreground for a sense of place and sense of scale which makes us realise that the viewpoint is everything.

B&W photograph of shipwreck of five-masted vessel seen from cliffs above, the tide receding away from the dark rocky shore to left.
The Preussen aground at low tide, seen from the cliffs above, photographed shortly after the wreck event in November 1910.

Returning to our ‘unknown’ collection, a further extraordinary photograph demonstrates the technical competence of our mystery photographer, in turn showing how photography advanced the recording of shipwrecks.

Traditional shipwreck paintings were largely creations after the event. During the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century Willem van de Velde the Elder would sketch ships lost in action from his position aboard a galliot embedded in the Dutch fleet, but these scenes would later be formally worked up onto canvas. Paintings of tragic wreck events such as the Raft of the Medusa (Théodore Géricault, 1819, Louvre, Paris) or Disaster at Sea (Turner, c.1835, Tate, London) are highly-emotive reconstructions based on survivors’ accounts. In all of these paintings we are looking towards the shipwreck, though some artists concentrated on scenes of pathos within as passengers awaited their fate (Wreck of the Halsewell, Thomas Stothard, 1786, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich) but again these were retrospective ‘artists’ impressions’ based on first-hand accounts.

Photographers such as Frank Meadow Sutcliffe at Whitby or Gibsons of Scilly exploited the dramatic possibilities of artistic composition, placing the shipwreck firmly in its context as an alteration to the natural landscape, often broadside on, with the power of the waves captured naturalistically in real time.

Photographers soon began to record other aspects of shipwrecks such as daytrippers’ visits (in one Gibson photo of 1895 we’re looking at sightseers in Cornwall looking at a wreck from much the same sort of clifftop viewpoint that attracted Annette Evelyn Darwall to photograph the Preussen near Dover). It then became possible to record rescue in real time. Yet these photographs still frame shipwrecks in a landscape context, albeit as temporary alterations to the local environment (and all the more attractive as a subject for that reason).

The early years of the 20th century changed all that. It became possible to record shipwrecks from new perspectives as they were actually happening, which would come to the fore just before and during the First World War – from other vessels in company (HMHS Anglia post, 1915), or aerial photographs from the then new-fangled aircraft, or from within the wreck itself (Ballarat post, 1915).

As our mystery photographer demonstrates, it was also possible for an intrepid visitor to climb aboard a wreck and illustrate the wrecking process from within.

B&W photo of shipwreck showing amidships structure and masts to left, deck awash with water from the sea to the right, cliffs in background.
View looking astern on board the Preussen, awash amidships, c.1910. Note the sharpness and technical competence of the image aboard an unstable platform being pounded by the sea.

There seems to have been quite a trade in postcards of the event, not surprising at a time when wreck sites could become temporary seaside attractions. A quick Google gave me three possible photographers’ names so once more I prepared to research them, and once more the first hit seems to have been the correct one. A postcard from amidships in the opposite direction looking south towards the bows suggested the same photographer, named on the front as ‘Russell Jewry, Photo. Deal.’

I felt sure then that we had our man – the same modus operandi, and as a commercial photographer he would have had access to up-to-date professional equipment to stabilise his camera on board the wreck, and as a local man someone with the contacts to obtain access.

It’s likely that he was able to board her in conjunction with a survey or assessment visit, such as one noted in Lloyd’s List from 9 November, with a German lighter due in to begin offloading the cargo that afternoon.  Further reports showed that the vessel continued to deteriorate following winter gales in December, finally breaking in two in January, while the salvagers themselves ran the risk of wreck. It looks as if the photographs were taken in winter conditions, probably in early December – so Russell Jewry took significant risks to obtain a commercial scoop. (2)

If only all archive mysteries were as easy as this! What a pleasure though to go from a completely unidentified image to one with a location, a subject, a photographer, and a date in one go!

To this day tall ships remain tourist attractions, and even at the time the windjammers were something of an anachronism. As we’ve shown in the War Diary, sailing ship numbers were drastically reduced during the First World War, and by the 1930s, even at the height of the long-distance grain races on which they remained commercially viable, they were positively old-fashioned and somewhat under-resourced – even before this time books had been written on the ‘last of the windjammers’! Aboard the Winterhude in 1934, an English sailor recorded that his ship was circled in mid-Atlantic by an American liner which diverted out of her course to allow her passengers to take in the sight, something of a novelty in its turn for the captain of the Winterhude! (3)

The Preussen‘s fellow Flying-P, Pamir, passed through many adventures, including two World Wars and changes of ownership. Before the Second World War she was owned by Finn Gustav Erikson of Mariehamn, who bought up many of these old sailing barques. In Wellington, New Zealand, in 1941, however, she was seized by the New Zealand government as a prize of war, and sailed under their flag for the duration.

Post-war she was something of a celebrity as one of the very last of the commercial sailing vessels. Her return to London in 1947 excited considerable interest, sailing back to New Zealand in 1948, when she was formally rendered back to Erikson. Later the same year she left once more for Australia to pick up grain in what was billed as the last grain race from Australia to England, together with her ‘sister’, Passat. Their final landfall in England in 1949 again made headline news. (4) Sadly, Pamir would founder at sea in mid-Atlantic in 1957. Following the loss of Pamir, Passat was taken out of service, but survives today as a museum ship at Travemünde, Germany.

B&W photo of a dockside receding to show dockside cranes. To left a tall ship whose masts reach above the dock cranes.
Pamir in 1947-8 at Royal Victoria Dock, London. The neighbouring cranes give a sense of scale. Photographer: S W Rawlings

Whether as shipwrecks in 1910, a sight worth a diversion in mid-Atlantic in the 1930s, or as museum ships today, these grandes dames of the sea have always commanded attention, and never more so than in 1910 for a Deal photographer prepared to take risks for an outstanding shot.

Modern colour photograph of four-masted museum ship with four bare masts and a crane beyond at left, against a grey sky.
Passat as a museum ship at Priwall, Germany, June 2018, seen from the Travemuende bank. By coincidence, this tourist photograph echoes the crane in the Pamir shot (1947) and the slightly deceptive sense of scale of the Preussen against Dover’s White Cliffs in 1910! Photograph courtesy of Andrew Wyngaard.

 

(1) Other five-masted vessels and above were available, so to speak, but they were never as common as three- and four-masted vessels, and seem to have been particularly in vogue around the early years of the 20th century. Wreck of the Week has previously covered the unique 7-masted Thomas W Lawson (1902-1907), lost off the Isles of Scilly. One of Preussen’s ‘Flying-P’ precursors was the five-masted barque Potosi (1894-1925). TheFrance II (1911-1922), and R C Rickmers (1906-1917) were also five-masted barques built with auxiliary engines, while there were a number of American five-masted schooners such as the wooden-hulled Paul Palmer (1902-1913) and Prescott Palmer (1911-1914). The SS Great Britain steamer (1843), is now displayed as originally fitted out, with six masts, one square-rigged, the others rigged fore-and-aft, but she was the reverse of the France II and R C Rickmers, with sail auxiliary to steam.

(2) Lloyd’s List 9 November 1910, No.22,815, p9, and 19 December 1910, No.22,849, p9; Dundee Evening Telegraph, 12 January 1911, No.10,593, p1, and Dover Express, 13 January 1911, No.2,741, p5

(3) Geoffrey Sykes Robertshaw, Before the Mast: in the Grain Races of the 1930s, Blue Elvan Books, Truro, 2008. For further reading on the windjammers: Basil Lubbock, The Last of the Windjammers, Brown, Son & Ferguson, Glasgow, 2 vols., 1927-1929; Eric Newby, Learning the Ropes, John Murray, London, 1999

(4) See, for example, the eager reporting of Pamir’s arrival in London in time for Christmas, December 1947, Western Morning News, 22 December 1947, No.27,430,  footage of the then Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh visiting the Pamir in London in March 1948, and on the vessels’ return in 1949, Hull Daily Mail, 1 October 1949, No.19,926, p3; North Devon Journal, 6 October 1949, No.6,705, p7.

 

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